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"… whether Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, the present, or the future— all things are yours, but you are Christ's…" (I Cor 3)

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My review of “Free to Love” by Jamal Jivanjee

In my circles, there has been some stir lately over a book, “Free to Love,” by a Facebook friend of mine, Jamal Jivanjee.   I didn’t really know much about this book until another friend of mine, Keith Giles, wrote a scathing review of it, which prompted me to hit up Jamal on instant messaging to ask him some concerned questions – questions which really in my mind were not about his book at all, but just about his own heart and life and what his book said about his marriage – that it had ended.

See, I’ve never met Brandie Jivanjee nor spoken to her, but I knew that such a person existed from having been FB friends with Jamal for so long, and finding out that Jamal had gotten divorced via a scathing book review was somewhat shocking.   Honestly my initial reaction was to feel that I had been a lousy friend to not know this had happened to Jamal and Brandie, that I hadn’t been reading his page often enough or something to be there in even a small way for this huge trouble in their lives, and all what was generated in me was foremost an empathetic concern – a desire to help, if help at all was still possible.   Writing to Jamal however I was met only with defensive irritation and relative coldness – I suppose this was perhaps justly an instance of me feeling my friendship with Jamal was more real to me than maybe he felt it was to him – and he told me he wouldn’t talk to me at all about this aspect of his life until and unless I bought and read a copy of his book.

The iciness was surprising to me, particularly since I knew the book had something to do with the importance of valuing relationships and friendships in the body of Christ (I knew it also had something to do with cross-gender friendships.)  More often than not I have been surprised by people whose message is about love or togetherness who put up walls when their message seems to suggest that walls should come down when relationship is at hand.   I know it was a sensitive issue, however.   My protest was that I didn’t really care about the book, that I cared about him – but he insisted my concern was only because of Keith’s review and therefore that he wasn’t interesting in talking, and that instead I should buy his book.

I did know his advertising efforts – including posting an advertisement for the book on my personal page immediately after our conversation – seemed fairly zealous, to the point of being impersonal.  (I mean, he knew I was concerned and then posted an advertisement to my wall?)   And Keith, who had written a negative review of the book somewhat reluctantly and apologetically, is an incredibly welcoming person whose household had once treated me with the kindness of Christ in a very dark hour of my life.  In a few days after Keith’s review, one of Jamal’s friends had lifted a quote from Keith’s review about the book being “dangerous” and was proudly flaunting it on Jamal’s advertisements on his page.

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Jamal in my initial conversation meanwhile insisted that Keith was out to malign him – and when I asked what possible motive Keith would have for such a thing, he replied that “Keith feels he is acting in good faith as all folks do when reacting to having their paradigms challenged.”   Ok, this answer could have some merit (although again, I didn’t care about the book, I only wanted to talk to my friend Jamal about what was going on in his life) but then, another friend of mine, Dan Brennan, an author whose book on male-female friendships in the body of Christ I had once recommended to Jamal (did I help create a monster in so-doing?), wrote that he could not recommend Jamal’s book either.

If anyone I know has embraced a “new paradigm” when it comes to the importance of cross-gender friendships in the body of Christ – friendships that challenge many people’s expectations of what is appropriate between men and women outside of the marriage covenant – it would be Dan Brennan.    (Dan’s writing style would appeal largely to progressive Christians, while my friend Joshua Jones has also written what I have heard is a fairly brilliant book about cross-gender friendship as well from an evangelical standpoint, although I have yet to read it.)

Thus, a very long preface to why I am writing a review of a book I really wasn’t initially concerned with in all this but which evolved into a thing I was sort of forced to read.   And since I have read this book now, and as a moderator of a discussion group where Jamal has been wanting to advertise and embrace controversy about his book, this thing seems to have been placed into my lap whether I wanted it to be or not, so it seems I need to at this point write a review as well.

SO HERE’S MY ACTUAL REVIEW:

Firstly, I’ll say that Jamal is an excellent writer.   The book is an easy read, flows along smoothly, and warmly dialogues with the audience.  Jamal and I both agree on many things – we have both sought after a true experience of organic church (house church) and ultimately had some disillusioning experiences there – while retaining a passion for true relationship in the body of Christ.   Jamal clearly has a passion for the body of Christ to function like a family – for people to experience the kind of relationships that Christ died and rose again to make possible among His people.

But while the book promotes the value of cross-gender friendships, which I can cheer and appreciate, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to talking about how one spouse can be weighed down with insecurities and thus keep the other spouse from really walking out a life that God wants for them in this realm of oneness with God and others (what Jamal refers to as a “divided marriage”) – and the book hints, sometimes small, sometimes large, of “marriage idolatry” in most chapters.  Jamal expresses concern that the institution of marriage seems to be the only relationship that many Christians seem to prioritize and that often other relationships are only viewed in light of how dangerous they may be to the intimacy between a husband and wife.

As someone passionate about the need for the body of Christ to learn to embrace the beauty of friendship between the sexes, both as Biblically valid and incredibly valuable to the body of Christ as a whole, I am still greatly concerned at Jamal’s tone.  The problem here I feel is in the distinction of approaching this topic as “both-and” vs. “either-or.”   When reading Jamal, I start to perceive that for him, the beauty of cross-gendered friendship is an either-or thing; either one values relationships with the body of Christ, OR one values relationship with a spouse.   Jamal leans heavy on verses and arguments that minimize the marriage relationship to create his paradigm.  I think that is the overwhelming error in his work, as I think the proper order and balance is one of “both-and”; holding one’s spouse in high priority AND, while honoring and valuing them all along the way, also learning how to have healthy, devoted, and wholesome friendships with both sexes in the body of Christ.

The Book I Wish Jamal Had Written

Despite this, Jamal does make some good points about various spiritual things related to the body of Christ and the innocence and value that cross-gender relationships can have, ideas which many in his circle might not have been ready for [according to Jamal’s presentation of things.]   Jamal’s book is rare in that it is one of a very small corpus of reading material on the topic of opposite-sex friendships in the Kingdom, and he tackles the even more rare question of how to view and relate to a spouse who has a different viewpoint not just on that topic, but on kingdom pursuits in a more general sense (in what he terms a “divided” marriage.)   But I have to say that the book Jamal has written on this topic still isn’t the book I’d be hoping to read to gain wisdom about these things.

He does a good job of showing what healthy non-marital relationships can look like without becoming sexual.   But, rather than reading about how living out the new paradigm of inter-relational oneness in the body of Christ even cost the author his marriage (and the subtle but palpable suggestions that the author is copacetic if costs you your marriage too, because as Jamal reminds us, “Jesus came to bring a sword” into families), I would rather read the book that might have been written about how Jamal and Brandie walked through a difficult time where Jamal had one idea of how to live out these things while Brandie had quite another, and how they learned to appreciate each others’ differing attachment needs both learning to respect each other’s callings, insecurities, giftings and weaknesses.

I wish I could read how they pressed through, humbling themselves to each other, and learned to love one another through the difficult process of hearing God in the midst of their various convictions and concerns to break through as One.  But I, and the others alternatively critical of or lauding his book, did not get to read that story, because Jamal and Brandie for one reason or another didn’t get to finish creating it together, but instead ended up divorced.   One might suspect from how the book handles issues of disagreement between spouses, that Jamal might have not fully engaged that process, perhaps feeling that investing too much into that process would have been “marriage idolatry” when there were other relationships for him to invest in as well.  (Jamal also comes down pretty hard on “needy” spouses, and along the way makes me wonder if he has ever read about adult attachment theory or knows how his own attachment style might influence his preferences in what he views as too “needy” in a spouse.)

I can empathize with Jamal’s concern in the book that a husband who simply acts as a martyr and  “dies to self” to serve his spouse’s insecurities may not be walking out the life he is called to – but then again, I’m not sure there are only two choices here – be a doormat for another person’s neediness/fear/insecurity, or resolutely ignore/demean their desire for security or intimacy or attention to walk out a “higher calling.”   Jamal is willing to concede that marriage is about meeting each other’s sexual needs, but does not seem to extrapolate from that that emotional needs should be concerned with nor met as well.  Jamal never does say exactly what the opposite of giving into a spouse’s emotional neediness looks like in his mind, other than that a spouse shouldn’t need to pander to such things.  (I consider the Apostle Paul said sexual needs could be unmet for short times of prayer and fasting but only by mutual consent – as at least a little hint that a wife’s thoughts and feelings and “needs” do indeed count, even when contrasted with spiritual endeavors.)

But it seems to me that a Savior, embraced by two believers, should be able to see them through these things and often when He does so, often the person who thinks or feels they’ve got the higher road doesn’t always have it as much as they thought they did.  This is part of iron-sharpening-iron methinks – that, and that for the most part, when Jesus said a sword would divide families over Him, that he was talking about what would happen when one spouse was a believer and the other a nonbeliever.   While that sword can still show up in a marriage to a small degree where a believer has a different sense of how to run after the Kingdom than the other, between believers it seems that there is less room to not work that sort of thing out over time.   After all, the same Bible Jamal avidly quotes about marriage not being the be-all of existence surely has a few things to say about God’s feelings on the demise of a marriage, right?

“Marriage Idolatry?”

Could we flip the table and say that while marriage idolatry – whatever that truly is – is indeed misguided, that there are other forms of relationship idolatry that one could sanction with spiritual argument and fall into as well?   After all, while there are plenty of things written in the Bible about the woefulness of broken relationships in the body of Christ, none are quite so loud and dramatic as the woefulness ascribed to divorce.  Why is that particular woe so pronounced scripturally if, as Jamal says, no priority is given to marriage over other relationships?  Is a spouse just a sexual outlet and a venue for reproduction, while everyone else in the body of Christ is where real Kingdom relationship is centered?  Jamal doesn’t say this exactly, but his presentation of this is so bad this reader was given the impression that this is a definite possibility.

It seems to me to be all in the framing of it.   It reminds me of a conversation I recently had with some well-meaning folks in ministry who were talking about their relationship with their children, when I asked if their children were excited about being part of their ministry and, they replied, “When we were children, our parents always put us first.  But we realized that that is not what it means to be kingdom oriented, so we are following God and expecting our children to come second to that.”   Regrettably, I have seen many parents with this attitude that is sadly considered “spiritual” in some circles raise kids that don’t grow up to share their passion for the Kingdom, or even believe in God.

I contrast that with some other amazing missionary friends of mine, who have uprooted their lives and done many things that traditional thinkers might not have thought were good for their children – but these parents have never said anything along the lines of “we put God, not our children first, when we make decisions.”  Instead, as a family, they have patiently and creatively cultivated a deep love in their kids for the things they are passionate about, vision-casting together, and have treated their kids as deeply integrated members of ministry team since they were little, developing a true oneness of purpose in their family – and their kids from a very young age have learned to worship with them, pray for, and receive words from the Lord for the people they all minister to.   Even now, the dad often quotes from his 7-year-old’s journal the prophetic realizations she is having about God and their ministry as a family, and how much he learns from his children as they learn from him.

Similar to the child-rearing example above: Do we have to frame things in such a way to say that loving a spouse above all others is the enemy of close relationships with those others?    After all, if love for a spouse has no priority, then why IS sex reserved for marriage, anyway?  Is it just some arbitrary moral duty be exclusive in one’s sexuality and the sharing of their body, or does any form of exclusive love have something to do with it?  Husbands are specifically exhorted to love their wives three times in the New Testament, and despite verses that Jamal quotes about marriage, the body of Christ in all its intimate oneness of fervent devoted relationships is still instructed to hold out a place of honor for marriage.

(I would also add that women were not as highly honored from my vantage point in most of the polygamous examples of the Old Testament as they later were in the more monogamous  New Testament – and onward beyond the New Testament.  The flavor given to the marital relationship in a culture has some parallel to the value and place given to women in a society in general – something Jamal doesn’t tackle at all in his thinking.  However this may be one reason why Moses and Jesus’s feelings on divorce were so highly divergent.  Along this line, an obsession with verses that highlight a lesser view of marriage such as “let those who are married be as though they were not” may be comparable to someone who prefers to emphasize verses about women being silent over those where women had a powerful leading role in speaking.)

If Jamal is right about anything, he is right that marriage isn’t everything – married or single, we are created for more.   But if Jamal is wrong about something, it is in the way that seems to want to get to the “more” by making marriage – and by extension, one’s spouse – a less honorable, less valuable thing than the place God gives them.

It is in this vein that I agree with Keith Giles’ assessment that the book is dangerous – but not in the “good-dangerous” type of way that Jamal wanted to spin it, promoting his writing as that of just some really “spiritual badass”, one who has taken the veritable “red pill that only the fearless dare to take.”

It is dangerous because it seems to promote pursuing spirituality without empathy nor patience for one’s spouse if they have different perspectives or viewpoints or needs than you, and in all the verses that Jamal quotes that are harsh on marriage, I would wish to include the one that speaks to husbands who consider their wives to be lacking something compared to themselves, to live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.”  (1 Peter 3:7) 


Living the “Dream”

Instead, he shares stories of women who were showing some sort of Jamal-identified spiritual weakness (needing financial security, needing spousal attention, etc) in a way that invites husbands to dismiss them as mere impediments to the grand call on their lives.  I’ve sadly seen this in action before: it is the same reasoning I heard from the prosperity-wealth-preaching friend of mine as to why he needed to buy a Hummer while his family was impoverished and his wife was mortified – to prove that he was learning to live in God’s provision and not her concerns about financial security.   It is similar to the argument I just heard yesterday from one of my non-believing best friend’s husbands about why he needs to be free to spend all night away from her every day of the week to smoke pot with his buddies, claiming she is being “controlling” by wanting time with him herself (although he did invite her to come smoke with him, but she doesn’t want to.)   I’m sure Jamal will protest that he’s not advocating lavish spending nor drug abusing, but the same glorification of the dismissal of one’s wife’s concerns and needs are present in this book as in my other experiences of those who turn a selfish and sometimes spiritualized deaf ear to the emotional concerns and pain of their spouse.

And while emotional neediness or spiritual weakness can be found in men as well, Jamal never shares a story of a husband holding his wife back from pursuing a greater calling, thus making me wonder if ultimately the real genre this book belongs to is the unfortunate category of “a cold-hearted book written by a hyperspiritual spouse parsing out why he was right and his wife was wrong” about the ideas that led to the dissolution of their marriage.

We do not know what Brandie truly asked for or thought because he does not tell us,  but we do know in this book that he leaves little room for a spouse who is not tracking completely with their spouse’s desire for opposite sex friendships (or ministry, or travel, or other various lifestyle decisions) to be given much consideration or weight.  (Moreover, he never remotely suggests that one way an opposite-sex friend helps keep a friendship pure is by standing resolutely for the health of their friend’s marital relationship.)  Positively, he does say that even in a divided marriage, where one person is pursuing “the Kingdom” in Jamal-terms and the other isn’t, that the Kingdom spouse still should love the other and not walk away.

But I voice my concerns because Jamal, by writing that the ideas of this book were hard won at the cost of his marriage, implies whether he intends to or not that Brandie must have been a very worldly woman for his marriage to have ended over the things in this book – he the wise and spiritual one compared to her more petty or earthly values whatever they may have been, and leaves no room for her to have any legitimate concerns or voice in any of this.  There is no category in Jamal’s description of divided marriages where both spouses are getting some things right spiritually while both are also having blind spots where they both need to learn from each other – it’s just a totally “one is on target, and one is not,” sort of thing.

It also seems inappropriate to me that in the midst of whatever heartache and disaster Brandie and he have gone through in this, is now something that Jamal hopes to use to bolster his own name and ministry by writing a best-seller about the ideas that were destructive to his marriage.  As nice as Jamal is, truly there seems to be something narcissistic or even abusive about that.   Indeed, almost every chapter of this book on friendship and “oneness” has some mention of how marriage can be improperly viewed and become an impediment to a truly loving life in the Kingdom of Oneness, but sadly there is no “oneness” of which Jamal is so fond of speaking remaining for Jamal and Brandie to share in together.

broken-heart-1207383_1280So that’s where I will leave this.   If you want a copy of this book, contact me on FB and I might be able to find someone who will pass along one that has already been read, so that you don’t have to drive up ratings on something nor provide blood money to a book birthed from a couple’s divorce.

I hope and pray that my words might in any way help any and all that are involved to find a way towards restoring this marriage, rebuilt on better principles than the dogmatism in this book (and anything outside this book) which led to its demise.  I do hope, that now that this thing has been brought out onto a larger stage than the original circle of friends and loved ones who were unfortunately not able to help Jamal and Brandi avoid this outcome, that in my idealized hope for them they would be able to find fresh resources, skilled counselors, and impartial help to come to a place of restoration.   It is in that hope, as well as a concern for others influenced by some of Jamal’s ideas, that I write this post with as much care and diligence as I am able.

Civilized God vs. Natural God

So, I had this friend who was really struggling in his life and was taking steps towards God, and one late night while he and a friend were praying together in my community’s prayer room, he decided that the most authentic thing he could to get real with God was to strip naked and pray his heart out in his birthday suit.   florence-1060040_640Actually I don’t know exactly what he was doing, because I wasn’t there – but it was at an hour of the night when the likelihood of anyone walking in on this…event?…was extremely low (though admittedly not altogether without risk) and thankfully no one did – but his prayer partner thought it made a good enough story that he told a few folks, who told others, who told others, who told others who….eventually told me.

Except by the time it got back to me, it was from someone who wasn’t part of our community, and, the story had taken on a very twisted and shameful tone to it, and had unfortunately come to be used as an example of all that was wrong in our group.   Oy.  And now I’ve blogged about it – double oy.   Realistically, a community’s shared prayer space probably isn’t the best place to fulfill one’s urges to strip naked before God, unless the shared space is a Jewish Mikvah, in which case it is somehow totally sanctioned and even required – but then again, those spaces are not co-ed.

skydiving-270148_640Anyway, I don’t actually know how it played out intra-communally on our turf, whether or not any leaders actually said anything or cared about the fact that this had happened in our prayer room, but, whether it is to our collective shame or our collective honor, or neither, my guess is that not many people in our group cared terribly much, beyond it being a great story of, “You’ll never guess what so and so did!”   The group in that season had a culture of encouraging each other to take risks and make both big achievements and big mistakes, and so my guess is for most it would have been a “no harm, no foul” sort of situation.   Maybe.   (For all I know, everyone might have been horrified.)

But to those who heard about it outside our group and did not have those sensibilities, this was an indictment of monumental proportions.   As our group had other rumored indictments (both true and false), this one just seemed to corroborate with those.  But this is the thing – I think the shock and horror factor of this story would still have been there for most people in our neighborhood even if it included the fictitious detail that the door had been locked and no females could ever had accidentally entered, and all windows were covered, and the male prayer partner had waited outside so no accusations of anything could be made.

statue-5998_640Even with all those safeguards in place, the idea that someone had prayed naked in our community prayer room would have been just as offensive in any regard; of that I’m pretty sure.  And I don’t think the offense was merely about nakedness per se – I don’t think the story would have quite been the same if the story had been that this individual had been walking to the prayer room in the rain and got absolutely drenched, and for some reason couldn’t change in the restroom but asked his prayer partner to wait outside and guard the door while he quickly changed into dry clothes he had in his knapsack and then they went on to spend the rest of the night, fully clothed, praying the way they would be expected to do.

Now, there are all sorts of reasons for this.   I’m not going to dissect all of them, nor seek to justify nor condemn what my friend did.  But there is one specific aspect of this that I want to talk about, and it has to do with the messy confluence of a “Civilized God” with a “Natural God” construct.

What do I mean by a “Civilized God?”   When people form communities, and set apart buildings (such as our prayer room) for the worship of God, and have agreed upon procedures for worshipping that God, they are to some degree or another embracing a Civilized God.  Screenshot 2016-02-01 at 5.44.08 AMThat is to say, they believe that God receives and desires to be worshipped in the context of the social phenomenon we call civilization with all that it entails, and that He is happy to be in some way, a participant in the things of civilization.   What aspects of our civilized social life we outfit His worship with is debatable – but when we produce worship music with state of the art music studios and electric instruments, we have nodded to a Civilized God.  If the music is done with a carefully practiced choir, wearing choir robes, we sing that song to a Civilized God.   When we read the book of Revelation and see things like angels that write (invented by civilization) on scrolls (again, civilization) and play harps (civilization yet again) and blow trumpets (yep – civilization), we may be so civilized ourselves that we don’t even notice the interjection of the human inventions of civilization (don’t forget swords, horsemanship, herbal medicine, and thrones) into the allegorical description of the spiritual realm, but again, we’ve embraced a very Civilized Kingdom of God.   Revelation in fact culminates with the arrival of an amazing – wait for it – CITY. And nothing says civilization better than C.I.T.Y., even if it is a city of God.

the-substance-990771_640But that’s not the only view that people have of God – there is also the “Natural God” mindset.   After all, my friend had some instinct from somewhere, that to really have nothing between him and God, he needed to get all the vestiges of civilization off of his person – which of course, meant his clothing. He’s not alone – many, many people have sought God by heading to the wilderness, or a high mountain somewhere, so it could be just them and God away from any and all signs of humanity and its designs.

Screenshot 2016-02-01 at 5.51.26 AMAdam and Eve seemed to be this way – the closest they got to being civilized was taming a garden.    Moses at some point in his life was one of these folks – He met God on a high mountain and had communion with a very uncivilized, Natural God meeting, in the form of a burning bush.   John the Baptist, filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb, also had a thing going with the Wild and Natural understanding of God, wearing camel skins and eating wild stuff and living far away from the temple worship of his father’s house – instead making the great outdoors his temple.

So you see, when my friend got naked in a prayer room, he was putting two things together that normally just don’t really belong together – the raw, natural, “nothing-but-a-man-and-his-God” sort of worship, mixed with the civilized, industrious, “a community of people got together” and pooled their resources to do something which will be a place in a town for townspeople to meet with God together.

And which God is God, really?

The Bible paints a picture of….
cairn-678422_640– A God who prohibits the use of tools in building him an altar – prefering instead a pile of wild rocks.
– A God who mixed up human languages because the people tried to use their know-how and social organizations to get closer to him
– A God who tells the man who wants to build him a temple, “Heaven is my throne, and Earth is my footstool….where is the house you would build for me?”
– A God who tells a man he is talking to to “take off your shoes….”
– A God who said that people who would consecrate themselves to Him must leave their hair to grow without styling or cutting it, and who may not eat grapes (a heavily cultivated crop.)
– A God who tells a man to lay on his side, outside, for a year, and eat food cooked over animal dung.
– A God who drives people like John the Baptist, Jesus, and Philip out into the wilderness.
– A God who overcomes a king with His Spirit, which leaves him laying naked in a ditch, prophesying.
– A God who is worshiped by a man who takes off everything but an ephod (and no one really knows what an ephod is, so I could imagine it is hardly worth mentioning) and dances wildly before Him.
– A God who does “not accept praise from man.”
dandelion-411756_640– A God who considers a babbling baby’s vocalizations to be “perfect praise.”

– A God whose express image, his very Son, had, “nowhere to lay his head.”
– A God whose Son went to a mountainside regularly to pray.
– A God who desired His Sacrifice to be made “outside the camp.”
– A God who provides for disciples who have been sent out to minister, taking nothing with themselves.
– A God whose Spirit births people of which one cannot pin down their origin or destinations, like the wind
– A God whose Son called his own body, “God’s temple.”
– A God who clothes the lilies of the field with more glory than any king ever had.
– A God of whom it was said, “The Most High does not live in houses made with human hands.”
– A God who met Paul when he conferred with no humans but spent three years in the desert of Arabia.
– A God who thinks has no regard for the fame and honor of this world, but regards as precious what the world rejects.
– A God whose Son Himself was rejected by society.
– A God who is building a “spiritual house” of people.

But, the Bible also talks about a God who is also the one who is…

jerusalem-108851_640– A God who gave the Israelites a code of laws to keep.
– A God who set up a priesthood caste with clear ritual requirements of record keeping, administration, times and dates, special foods and rites to be performed.
– A God who gave extremely specific instructions about the cloth and measurements and objects used for his tabernacle.
– A God who authorized fine craftsmanship in the building of ritual objects for his worship.
– A God who punished people like Korah who worshipped him in nonprescribed ways
– A God who spoke to kings and rulers about the events of their kingdoms, and gave them military and strategic advice on the affairs of their domains.
– A God who showed kings dreams about the rise and fall of their civilizations and others, so that the kings established mandatory worship of God in their realms.
– A God who filled an illustrious and expensive temple with His presence in honor of its ritual dedication.
– A God who was worshipped with harps and cymbals by priests working in carefully prescribed shifts.
– A God worshipped by highly structured acrostic poetry.
– A God who has angelic armies that have order and rank.
– A God that speaks metaphorically about piercing his daughters’ ears and adorning them with fine jewelry and rich linens.
– A God whose Son shows a preference at a very young age for hanging out in the temple, even calling it His Father’s house.
– A God whose Son expressed extremely strict ideas about the institution of marriage.
– A God that honors his servants in a far-off country that engage in ritualized prayer three times a day.
– A God whose Son shows some preference for Jewish nationalism, calling a Gentile woman a dog.
Screenshot 2016-02-01 at 5.54.31 AM– A God whose Son found refuge at His friend Lazarus’s house.
– A God whose Son went to the cultivated garden of Gethsemane to pray.
– A God whose Son teachings his disciples a prescriptive form of prayer, saying, “Our Father…”
– A God whose Son sings a hymn and performs a ritual passover meal, even instituting a new ritual along the way.
– A God whose Son weeps over a city, mourning that the systems and people running that city did not accept His visitation.
– A God whose Son tells his followers to hole themselves up in a room for weeks on end, practicing the discipline of prayer.
– A God whose followers came together regularly on the first day of the week.
– A God whose leaders came up with prescribed guidelines for choosing leaders, and appointed them.
– A God whose leaders issued decrees for ostracizing group members from the tribe who had disagreeable behavior.
– A God whose leaders carefully taught from written scripture truths about Him and His Son, and urged other leaders to “devote themselves to the public reading of scripture” and exhortation and teaching.

Ok.   Whew.    Where does this leave us?

Screenshot 2016-02-01 at 5.56.28 AM

We have a Natural God with no accouterments – the kind one looks for on a mountain.     We have a very Civilized God with a whole structured way of relating to him in society – the kind of God one looks for in a place like Jerusalem – where the Jews had their temple, and where the early church began.  (Yeah, I know – these two concepts play together about as well as a naked man trying to pray in a community prayer room.)

So which God will we worship, and how will we worship Him?   Will we embrace the Wild God, the unstructured, uncivilized God – or will we embrace the God of human institution, the civilized God of religion?   Will we go to the mountaintop to meet with Him or to the place of ritual and artistry and organization and form?

Where’s the living water?  What will we use to draw it up out of the well – our “natural God” tools or our “Civilized God” tools?  How will we drink?

Jesus weighs in, “Believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.   But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.  (John 4:23-24, ESV)


Is that an answer?   Not until it becomes real to you and me as we actually find out what it means for us for in our own experience, not as a doctrine or a theory about the “right” way to do things, but in the desperate try-almost-anything hardcore search to find Him and find how to relate to Him – not until it becomes a place you truly have met with and worshiped God.  And this is the important one – not until you and I, both alone and corporately, find a way to go back and get with Him over, and over and over again, does it mean much either; because let’s face it, a chance encounter with Him doesn’t mean we’ve learned how to drink that water from the well – it just means we had a happy accident.   Although I’d venture that when we start having regular, frequent, happy accidents, we’re heading in a good direction.

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But we’re looking for that stability of real communion with Him, and we can, and should…journey to the mountain, journey to the valley, go to the city, and go to the town – worship in silence, and worship with lots of noise – worship with ritual, and worship freestyle – worship with others, and worship alone – sing old songs, sing new songs, pray in tongues and pray in English, draw a picture and dance a dance and reach for Him with our focus and thoughts and hearts – or toss it all out if the only thing that’s giving you or I anything is something not even named here.  But that pursuit must be deliberate and ongoing – it must be given time, energy, and push some other things aside.  Its not a works thing, but a laying hold of the One who has laid hold of us, thing.   And if we don’t seek, we’ll almost never find.

And please, I’ve really had to learn the hard way – it’s really important sometimes to forget anything about the “right” or “wrong” way to do church.  “Natural God” complexes and “Civilization God” complexes are alive and well in our pursuit of fellowship, unfortunately – but really the main issue is Jesus.   Are you finding Him when you’re with your church?  Put your doctrines and church theories aside – your organic church ideas or your tradition ideas or your social issue concerns or Holy Mother church ideas – for Christ’s sake I beg you, put it all aside.    That stuff tripped me up for way too many years of my life, and I don’t want it to get you too.

cathedral-569340_640Despite how much that church you’re at is doing everything wrong in your eyes, are you growing in Him there, or do you at least see potential for that?  If yes, don’t let anything tear you away from there.   But if not, move on – even if the church you’re part of is doing everything “right” and it’s the kind of church you’ve always been looking for or always gone to that has the right teaching and way of doing things – you have no time for that, find Jesus for real or at least find people as intent on real communion with Him as you are, who agree with you on perhaps nothing at all other than they want to know and pursue Him too, whether in the Natural God place or the Civilized God place or neither.   The less answers any of us have, the better, really…  And find, my friend, in the midst of all that, as all of it fades away, where you’ve seen and tasted and experienced a communion with Christ, no matter whether it looked wild and natural or civilized and structured.    Find in it all, despite it all – find the One who has truly made “all things yours.”

Selah.  Amen.

(PS – I usually hyperlink everything I say referencing a Bible verse to a Bible verse program online, but no one ever clicks on those links. So, if you want to know where I pulled something from the Bible, drop me a comment and I’ll let you know.   Otherwise, on this post, it would just take hours to insert links that no one ever uses.)

 

A Defense of Church Consumerism

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“Church Consumerism” is a term roughly defined as “shopping for a church family similar to how consumers shop for things in the open market.”

About a week ago I posted a blog post about how there is a lot of rhetoric that keeps people in bad churches, and keeps them from feeling freedom to look for a new one.  After I posted that post, someone on FB replied simply that he “didn’t like the defense of church consumerism” in the post.  Now, there are a variety of things that the term “church consumerism” evokes in peoples’ minds – for instance, going to a church just to take and not to invest anything of yourself or give anything is one thing that that term could mean – and I would agree that that is a very poor approach to church involvement.  But unfortunately, usually when I hear the term used it seems people are denouncing that churchgoers would dare be choosy enough to “find a church that meets your needs and best suits you before deciding to invest yourself there,” as if looking for a healthy and vibrant church experience is in and of itself too selfish to be spiritual.

That really got me thinking – I really don’t believe that I *had* defended church consumerism in that post, at least not directly.   But now that the idea was mentioned, I just couldn’t resist.   Ergo, I shall now begin this post as an all-out “Defense of Church Consumerism” – at least according to the latter definition of it in the above paragraph.   Why?  Because the meme that “picking a church that is spiritually beneficial to you – (ala, church consumerism) – is an awful, nonspiritual, wrong, detrimental thing which has no place in the life of a true disciple of Jesus who loves God and His people,” just seems like it needs to be dealt with.

If you’ve been living under a rock somewhere (a pleasant rock, mind you – I mean no disrespect to anyone who has found a nice, mossy, warm rock to live under) you may not have heard the term “Church Consumerism” and been exposed to the revulsion and fear that such a term is meant to evoke in your soul.   But for the rest of us, sans-rock, we have undoubtedly heard or read the term flung about as something heinous, evil – a vile thing to be avoided at all costs.   And that is because, sadly to say, I believe the term functions unfortunately as propaganda: the assumption being that any person with true spiritual principles at work in their unselfish soul would instantly recognize that “Consumerism” of almost any sort is a deadly thing to true Kingdom virtues, echoing with the tainted colors of such things as greed, materialism, self-centered decision making, and even *gasp*…capitalism.   It is, certainly nothing that anyone who follows Jesus should embrace as spiritually positive, no less to put it in the same phrase as the word “Church” which evokes the concept of community, a place to be poured out for and with others, a place to encounter Someone who so deeply transcends anything marketable, and a place of relationship with people.

Is there any room to be “consumeristic” in the face of such values as relationship and being part of a corporate expression of Christ on Earth, or in the face of something as ancient and holy as “the church?”  Without any further explanation, the person who merely mentions “Church Consumerism” has already made his or her point, simply by using that ugly second C word and pairing it up with “Church.”   Woe is us if we dare to have whatever internal value “Church Consumerism” could represent – that would make us one of “those” kinds of people, and we don’t want to be like “that!”

Except, this just isn’t right…on quite a few levels.   So let’s explore this negative presupposition for its assumptions and overlooked blind spots, starting with a look at “consumerism” from a spiritual angle.  For one thing, perhaps you’ve noticed that the moment I switched from pairing “consumerism” with the word “church,” to instead subtly pairing it with the word “spiritual” – it doesn’t sound quite AS bad: “Spiritual Consumerism.”   Still not a great term, but somehow a tad bit more in the realm of plausibly useful, viable, valid as an idea.   If you’re not agreeing that far with me yet though, hey, it’s ok.  Let’s just keep going.

If “spiritual consumerism” was indeed ok, or even sanctioned by God and the Scriptures, would that mean anything to the bigger discussion of “church consumerism?”  Of course church consumerism and spiritual consumerism are not completely the same thing, but are they related enough as to have a bearing on one another?    We’ll figure that out as we look at it.   For one – let’s define what we mean by “consumerism” – simply put, it has to do with making purchases or investments based on what one finds most valuable.   You are a consumer because you have the ability to buy things, and to make choices about what you will buy.  ConsumerISM has to do with being discriminating – choosy – about what you are purchasing, trying to get the best value for your money. Is this bad?

Here’s some verses where Jesus seems to encourage us to be wise “spiritual” consumers –

“I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  (Revelation 3:18)

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)

 

I don’t want to belabor this to the point of ridiculousness – but I hope that it is obvious that at least the concept of being a wise consumer is present in these verses- particularly towards spiritual things – and is not in and of itself unspiritual.

So what then about “church” consumerism?

Part of the issue at the onset is confusing who we ARE as an expression of the Church with the various groups in a town that have their own structure, way of meeting, programs, and formats.   We all know that the Church isn’t about a program, and that we are the church – but when you pick a “church” to go to, you are picking a certain type of program, a certain way that people will get together every week to do things – during a Sunday service, for the most part, the show will go on much the same way whether the congregation shows up or not.

So, unfortunately if we put idealism aside –  when we talk about picking a church, realistically we’re talking about picking a format – a program, in which you get to have spiritual and social interactions that even allow you to experience being the church to any degree – and every church differs in what degree that occurs.  The bate-and-switch of this unfortunately in many cases, church is PACKAGED as a product – much like a private school is a product, or concert tickets are a product.    The program is designed a certain way for certain people’s sensibilities in the church – and those folks wouldn’t think of going anywhere else.  (Very few churches are just simple expressions of family and community walking together in Christ)  But then, even though churches are designed the way a product is – people are told they do wrong to be consumers and choose which one to go to.   There is something wrong in that logic.

Specifically, is it right to encourage people to berate themselves for looking for and going to a church that provides them with a sense of…
…community?  
…edifying relationships with others?  
…opportunities to serve and use one’s giftings?

…leadership dynamics that are healthy and safe (rather than unhealthy and destructive?) …opportunities to gather where one is gaining experience with interacting with the Lord corporately, getting to know Him and His presence better?

People are in all different stages of maturity.  Spiritual maturity is represented allegorically as corresponding to stages of human lifespan maturity, so with that in mind, it is worth considering that as a human infant, one needs to be fed.   To tell an infant that he or she needs to feed his or her siblings and stop crying that no one is feeing him/her would be labeled as child abuse and that infant would probably be removed from the home, along with all of his or her siblings – as the state is a “consumer” to a small degree, making decisions about what homes are or are not appropriate for children.

Likewise, people who want people who were just recently born again and are therefore infants in spiritual things to “feed themselves on Christ and stop looking for the church to feed you” have a screw loose – or two.   Yes, even a newborn follower of Jesus can be carried by the Lord if all others abandon him/her, but do we really want to suggest that this is the way the Lord wants infants to get their start in His kingdom?   If someone isn’t “getting fed” by their church (whether by leadership or in their friendships in the congregation) and there is another church up the street that is doing a great job feeding new believers, why on earth would we be so brutish as to tell an infant that he/she needs to subsist on scraps and feed others?  After all, there is a difference between telling someone “go feed yourself” and actually teaching people how to feed themselves on the Lord – (which in the Kingdom, usually means learning how to eat corporately as well.)

But that isn’t even the main point.  Most people reading this are not going to be spiritual newbies.  You’ve been around, you’ve grown, you know a thing or two and hopefully you even know Him.   So here’s something to consider then: when we tell people that they don’t have a right to feel they want or need anything from their church, but their job is to suck it all up and be there to only to give – I believe we are actually encouraging them to have the very attitude that Paul tells the Corinthians is a wrong attitude to have: to say of the members of the body, “I have no need of you.”  Or rather, we’re encouraging people to say, “I have need of being in this church with you, even though I don’t need to receive anything from the body by being here.”

Do you ever notice that?  The same folks that will tell you how important it is that you are part of a church because you NEED the body of Christ and the body needs you, will tell you it’s wrong for you to expect to get anything from the body of Christ – that you need to go to Jesus for your needs, not the church and not other people.   Huh?  Isn’t there a contradiction here somewhere?

And yes, it seems spiritual and self-sacrificing to tell people to come to church to give and not to get, and yes, we want to equip people to be mature and strong “givers” of the Lord and His spiritual bounty to others.   But do we want to puff them up with pride by suggesting to them that they don’t NEED to be receiving anything at all from the church they are participating with, that having an “I have no need of you – because I’m a hand and my only role is to give to you” attitude is the right one.  It’s not.    Furthermore, we have no business encouraging people to be “givers” if we aren’t edifying and equipping them to be powerful, spirit-led, effective givers – and giving them authority in a church to do that type of giving.

So here is the question:  If you aren’t getting what you need as a hand, or an eye, or a foot, from the body you are gathering with – do you believe that the type of giftings that you can offer will equip the church you are gathering with to become the sort of group that WILL be able to give you what you need?  If not, you probably are not being a wise spiritual consumer.   Staying in a group in order to “give” of yourself, if the opportunities to give really aren’t there – while at the same time you are dying of need – is not being a wise consumer.  The first rule of being a rescuer is that you have to make sure that you can safely do so (in other words, you don’t jump into a swimming pool to rescue a victim of electrocution until/unless you can first turn the power off – otherwise you have no chance of saving them and sacrifice yourself to no avail.)

It’s ok to let bad churches die.   They need to.   Jesus goes into his vineyard and prunes branches that aren’t bearing fruit – this isn’t because he doesn’t care about people, rather, it’s because he does.   If you have a platform and the mix of relationships and giftings necessary to really turn a lifeless church around – then go for it.   But if you’re just staying somewhere because you’re afraid to go somewhere that actually meets your needs and wants lest you be a “consumer” – please rethink that.

I believe that healthy and strong leaders will actually encourage people to be savvy church consumers – because humble and mature leaders are ready to have everyone leave them and their group if their people would be better served somewhere else and if another leader or group in their town has a better handle on the Kingdom of God.   Good leaders are looking out for YOU, not for how many people they can get to resign themselves to feeling stuck being part of their group.

Jesus is worth being a consumer (or any other pejorative someone might throw at you ) about – and if you aren’t continually growing in Jesus with a church, there is no point to being there.  The body of Christ is the one and only place on this planet where everything is supposed to be about people growing in Jesus and being one in Him together – it’s not wrong to want the reality of that as your goal for your church experience.  “Go where you are getting fed, and have opportunities to grow in your giftings” is just good spiritual advice – if everyone followed that, we’d have vibrant and strong congregations all over the place – because as people get built up into the Lord and equipped in using their giftings, the entire church grows and edifies itself as it is meant to:

“…. grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”  Ephesians 4:15-16

Therefore, “church consumerism” in the body of Christ is to some degree our friend – it is one way the Lord weeds out groups that don’t function adequately AS the church, and strengths congregations that are doing great things in how they relate to Christ together.  And this is how it’s meant to be.  And congregations and leaders that have themselves been bad consumers of spiritual riches, will end up experiencing this downfall:

Take the money from this servant, and give it to the one with the ten bags of silver. To those who use well what they are given, even more will be given, and they will have an abundance. But from those who do nothing, even what little they have will be taken away.”

And that’s not because He’s mean.  It’s because He’s good.

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Worship: Edification and Distraction

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Long ago, when I first gave my heart to Jesus, I spent time sojourning in some churches that were rather restrained in outward or individual emotional displays during worship.    It was a really big deal if someone lifted a hand up, or even two hands, during the worship time: enough to provoke entire late night conversations among the youth group (which I was part of at the time).   Questions abounded: “Why would anyone do this?   Was their hand like some sort of God antennae?   Were they feeling something at that moment that the rest of us weren’t privy to, that resulted in the hand being raised?   What was all that about?”   But the biggest question that would eventually emerge in these conversations was this one:  Was this person’s outward display of worship creating a distraction for the rest of the congregation?

Over the years, I moved on to other settings, other churches – churches where raising a hand to the Lord was not only understood as normal, but was also considered quite a mild and, even at times, “overly restrained” expression of worship (and/or praise.)  In these churches, there was a much more full-bodied concept of how one expressed praise – instead of the tongue being the only part of one’s body that moved during singing, people were allowed to AND encouraged to use whatever bodily posture most expressed their heart in the moment.   So, I’ve been to churches where people were on their faces, on their knees, or twirling about in wild expressive dance complete with streamers and flags in their hands.   And in these churches, the concept of distraction is almost completely foreign.  Instead, the overriding concern that the people in those congregations often have is a concern for freedom – is the worship “free enough?”   The belief in these settings is that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” and in the most direct and momentary sense, this means that to them, freedom of congregational expression is paramount – in order that the Lord’s Spirit might be given room to “do what He wants to do.”

Additionally, there is also a concept in the “worship-freedom” loving churches, that the Lord’s worship and praise ought to be extravagant – that people lavishing expressions of unbridled emotion and awe and love and whatever else towards the Lord in a corporate setting, with no concern for how others might view those personal expressions of love and praise, is something honoring to the Lord, something of which He is worthy.   Thus worshipping in this manner is not something done just for one’s own emotional satisfaction, but is regarded instead as a personal offering of eschewing one’s regard for their own appearance, dignity, etiquette and personal composure, to instead bring a gift of wholehearted, expressive, and whole-bodied praise towards God.

I have to admit that over the years I’ve definitely become more partial towards the latter paradigm of group worship than the former.   From this vantage point, what in my early years was once considered a potential “distraction” -seeing someone else express individual worship and praise in a unique, creative, and less-conformist-to-everyone-else way,  is no longer something that I see as a distraction.   In the mindset of the “freedom” concept of worship, a brother or sister’s creative worship expression, which I once viewed as a distraction stealing my attention from focusing on God, is something I instead now consider to be mutual “edification” – something that helps me see God even better.

Seeing a fellow worshiper be demonstrative in how they worship or pray to me now is a chance to see their faith being expressed, which in turn is something which bolsters my own faith and experience of meeting with God.   But it took a change in my mindset for me to be able to view someone else’s spiritual expression as something that I could receive as a beneficial aspect of Christ being made known to me through His people.   I now see this as the living faith in one person’s heart being made known to mine; and then in turn, my own worship being made known to those worshiping with me as well, creating a mutually reinforcing dynamic.  On a human, sociological, natural level this is psychologically supportive of one another’s faith expressions, but on a deeper, more supernatural level, also is an arena where the Spirit of God is able to express His own nature corporately, through the weak yet creative expressions of His people who are passing expressed faith back and forth to one another in their full-bodied signals to Him and to one another.

But it did take a shift in mindset – if worship is about me and God being alone, and undistracted, to have this inner exchange of prayer, worship, honor, love, repentance, etc., then the question becomes: “Why gather together with other believers for worship at all?”  If worship is a private thing, where I shouldn’t notice your worship and you shouldn’t notice mine, then why do we bother coming TOGETHER to do it?   God *can* be encountered out in the woods, or on the seashore, or on my bed or in my living room, or alone in my car – so why not just let that be sufficient?

I think the reality is, as I’ve written before: we need both.   We need to experience God in our closets, alone, or at the seashore, alone.   We each NEED to have a unique connection to our Creator that doesn’t depend on man.   But we just can’t pass over the fact that if we believe the New Testament scriptures (and I’m writing mostly to Christians here as I write this) that the overwhelming testimony of that scripture is that God Himself is really into this concept, of believers in Jesus sharing a corporate experience of Christ – what is called being the “body of Christ” together.  Being the body can be a simply static concept: we are the body of Christ whether we get together or not – but this concept can be realized as also an experience-able concept, something which if when we get together and have some idea what we’re doing to gather “in the name of Christ” together moves from being a mere doctrine into a functional reality.

The mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (the “you” in that verse being a plural you) is that there are new facets to knowing Christ, and to worshiping Him, or gathering with Him, that really can only be realized when we do this in conjunction with one another, functioning no longer just as individuals alone, but individuals in connection with one another, experiencing the dynamic that results from each person’s faith expressions feeding into the others’.   This is why so many people will share that something unique occurs when they worship with corporately – that they have an experience with the Spirit of God that is unique and cherished apart from what they have with Him while they are by themselves.   And it has something to do with each of us bringing something of our own heart with God to each other, where the whole of the corporate expression becomes greater than the sum of its own individual expressive parts.

It’s like what you see when a flock of birds fly overhead – a bird flying is just a bird, which is a marvelous thing.   But when hundreds of birds come together and each of them does its own little flying part, suddenly a whole new structure of expression is seen in the sky, as the flock moves in a way that creates new shapes, new forms, and new expressions of movement that any individual bird could never demonstrate to an observer.   When you’re *in* that flock of birds, you can undoubtedly see some angle on this unique thing that is happening even while you are in it – and, you get a chance to see where your own little part becomes an expression of something so much greater than yourself – it gives new dimensions to your own experience of being a bird, to fly along with the others.

This post is not meant, however, as some sort of “you need to go to church” sermon, as it may be tasting right now to some of my readers.   Church can be valuable to the degree that it truly gives you a chance to experience being part of the body of Christ with others.   Or, it can itself unfortunately at times be the single most distracting element that believers experience to truly being the body of Christ with one another – it depends on the church, its way of being, its beliefs, its leadership and its format of meeting.   Church is simply a scaffold, a structure, for people to be in spiritual life with one another.   And a structure can be something that living things thrive on – and build life on, like a coral reef growing on the structure of a sunken ship or stone outcrops, or a tomato plant being helped along with a stake for it to grow around.  Or structure can be something averse to life, something which destroys it – like putting a Walmart building and parking lot into a former wetland area.   Some of my readers would find their spiritual life greatly enhanced by leaving their church, and others need to find one.    I’m not making any statement about your own situation in regards to that, because how could I even begin to know?

But my goal here in this post is simply to point out: that there has long been this tension in the body of Christ between knowing what constitutes a corporate “distraction” from Christ for one another, and what actually constitutes a valuable opportunity to edify one another’s faith by each member of the body bringing their own expression of knowing Him to the corporate table.   And I think that we can meaningfully distract one another right into loving Him more, as we offer our own distracting expressions of knowing Him and loving Him to one another.

Death and grieving… post #1

10466782_685859048116775_1470332350_nThere is a Scripture that says “We do not mourn as those who have no hope.” There is something about the hope that Christians express in the face of the death of a friend or loved one, that is unique and expresses the heart of our faith in Christ. But I am becoming suspicious, after attending funerals of two of my friends’ mothers, that we in American charismatic Christianity may have inadvertantly developed a culture when it comes to our death rituals, that has the appearance of presenting hope, but unfortunately is more truthfully an expression of our unwillingness to feel pain, or to grieve, to mourn, and to acknowledge with appropriate gravity than reality of many facets of what death really is.

Today we buried my friend Stephen’s mother Audrey (who was also something of a friend to me.)  I really appreciated how this funeral was conducted compared to other funerals that I have been to – most notably that Audrey’s coffin was not left by the graveside, but instead had already been lowered into the grave, and a pile of dirt and two shovels were at the graveside instead.  There came a point during the funeral when those in attendance were invited to place dirt on top of Audrey’s body (hidden by her wicker coffin) to signify dust returning to dust.  (Other funerals I have been at in my life have not allow people to experience the reality of burial with that degree of tangible rawness – for instance when my own step-father died when I was a teen, I was surprised to discover that we as family members would not be permitted to witness the actual burial.)

But Audrey’s funeral was refreshingly different on that level.  When it was my turn to shovel, and as I was tossing dirt on the wicker, I thought about a moment I had shared with Audrey when I first met her and with her permission had laid hands on her in prayer.  I thought about how the same physical body that I touched and prayed for now lay in the wicker coffin that I was shoveling dirt onto and in my mind there was this juxtaposition between touching her while she was alive, and now touching her with shovelfuls of dirt in her death.  As I held the memory in my heart of the brief relationship over a handful of occasions that she and I had had together, a deep place in my soul felt both the connection to her of one-to-one relationship, and the loss of her life here in this realm.  So in what was a very real moment for me, I spoke towards her body between shovelfuls, and said from that place in my soul, “Goodbye Audrey.”

It was all very vivid and very real. But somewhat predictably, someone immediately countered me and said somewhat gleefully, “Audrey would say, ‘I’m not here!'”  For me at that moment, it was so incongruent with what I was expressing, that I searched for some reply that would allow me to have that moment of goodbye in peace.   What came to mind in that moment, in that setting, was to share with the sister who had gently rebuked me, “In Jewish tradition, there is a belief that the spirit stays with the body for seven days after death.”   I can’t say i honestly was thinking of that idea when I shared my goodbye towards Audrey’s body, but at that moment I wanted to have the freedom to say goodbye without being silenced, and I knew Stephen would find what I had said to be worth consideration and contemplation (as I found myself doing also, after I said it,) because he’s just that kind of person.   The reality is that as much as we have hope and confidence in Christ after death, I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on explaining what actually transpires in the mystical connection between body, soul, and spirit, and what the medically indefinable point of total death really is.  So it seemed legitimate to toss into the mix the Jewish take on it.

But the reality for me was much more about how my charismatic brothers and sisters seem to often want to rush right over any grieving process, and straight into pearly gates and streets of gold and lots of dancing.   This is not an isolated incident, and I bear no malice for the woman who reminded me that Audrey has gone somewhere else, but it really felt like yet another time of many times I have experienced, that funerals have become a little bit too artificially happy in our this time and day among Christians.

Later on, I was with my friend Stephen as he ran into a neighbor on his street. The neighbor took a moment to express some condolences, yet the neighbor seemed strangely cheerful and even glib to me as he ran through a litany of phrases about how Audrey was out of pain now and was in a better place. I’m sure he meant well but I also got the distinct impression that it might have also been the easiest way to keep the conversation short, simple, and upbeat. I could be wrong but it seems to me that Audrey wasn’t really suffering a whole lot of pain until the very end of her life – not enough that I think it really justified the idea of being comforted to know that “at least she’s not in any pain now.” She did leave this planet praising the Lord cheerfully herself, and I’m glad to know that, and I know that she is happily praising the Lord in even better ways now, because that’s what her spirit was about in life, and I’m sure it is what her spirit is still about, even more so departed from this life.

To be sure, for someone who loved and longed for the Lord’s presence, death represents a promised transition into some realm in which we can be confident that the departed person has new and expanded, unfettered and direct, undistracted clear and incredibly tangible encounter, spirit to Spirit, with the most magnificent, wonderous and beautiful Being in all multitudes of universes. This is pretty dang cool, no matter how wonderful or terrible that experience for any particular person might be.

But – here’s the rub – this is not the side of death that funerals happen on.  A funeral is quite a different story entirely.  While we can envision (barely, and I mean barely) what a departed person may now be experiencing or enjoying, this is not the side of death that the living are privy to fully know about and see. For the living, these things exist only as a “hope,” thus the verse that, “We do not mourn as those who have no hope.”  Hanging on to hope is a good thing! But while funerals may rightly be tinged with hope, funerals are – or should be in some form or fashion – a time to mourn.  On our side of death-the side where someone’s heart has stopped beating, and decisions have had to be made about harsh realities like burial, or cremation, there are even harsher realities that funerals are meant to be a time to honor, with appropriate weight – things like the end of a legacy, the value of the person in our lives, and ultimately, the loss of that person from our lives.

We do ourselves and others such a disservice if we so lightly gloss over larger themes that mean more to those of us still on this side of death in our rush to sweep away every negative or painful emotion with our religious (and dare I say, sometimes callous) script of protective and artificial rejoicing.


matt.agnello / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

 It is not time to overbearingly rush right into platitudes with words like, “She’s in a better place,” or, “At least there’s no more pain or suffering,” or, “She’s dancing with Jesus now.” If these words are being said in an honest and a truthful effort to bring comfort and encouragement to a grieving family member or friend, that is one thing – but if these words are being said to preempt having to be serious and sober about someone’s pain and feeling of loss, or to simply make sure that nothing uncomfortable or disconcerting about the passing of another person gets any airtime, as I am perhaps erroneously becoming more and more convinced is the default, then we have turned the verse, “We do not mourn as those who have no hope,” into another idea altogether: “We do not mourn at all.”

Realistically, I am sure that for anyone who was deeply attached or connected to the departed person, no matter what words of victorious assurance or vicarious rejoicing that he or she might share with others at a funeral or upon sharing the news about the departure of their loved one with others, the reality will be that that person will still grieve to one extent or another.  (This is, I guess, unless we have somehow learned a little too well how to have so many “boundaries” in our relationships with others that we have stayed happily unattached to anyone, ever, and loss really is a foreign concept to us.  That’s a subject for a different blog post I think – LOL)
But I guess I wonder: have we created a culture where among believers it is not really safe to mourn, even at a funeral? Have we relegated mourning to be something that should occur “out of view,” only after the official and public funeral and/or announcements have occurred, instead of something which is viewed as an appropriate thing to share with others particularly during funerals, the very sacred communal  formality that was originally designed to bring people together to grieve and face the uncomfortable realities of human mortality, as community?

But more and more, our community has made grief unnacceptable; before funerals, it has become standard to collectively pray and focus on the possibility of the dead person being raised and not needing to be buried.   While praying for a resurrection certainly has some degree of validity, I wonder how much we have codified Christian conversation after a death in this way, to avoid beginning the process of grieving and facing loss?    And then, at the funeral, when talk of resurrection in the here and now subsides, we move straight to rejoicing – perhaps at least in our talk of raising someone from the dead at least we were able to admit we didn’t like the fact that they were dead.   But now that the deceased person is still a corpse, we have to move past our even subtle expressions of wishing the person was still with us, and go straight to expressions of joy to drown even that out entirely.

At the very least, I do think we are too quick to shut down (whether it is eagerness to comfort, or our own uncomfortableness with loss, pain, and mortality) those who do express thoughts and feelings that align with loss after someone has died. This is a travesty, because deep and painful emotions are not our enemies – they are part of the richness and fullness of our hearts and of what it means to love, to be alive, and to be aware. Death, however, is spoken of as “an enemy” in the New Testament (1 Cor 15).   Shall we not share emotions that represent it as such?   I think that we need to rethink our “religious death script” to include feeling these emotions deeply, and being able to relate to others who have these emotions and thoughts in their hearts. “Mourn with those who mourn,” I believe needs again to become a verse that we treasure in community, even as we treasure every verse promising hope, resurrection, and communion with the Lord after earthly death.

Reflections on community

Fifteen years ago God birthed in my heart a desire for community….  and I went on a search.  I wanted to find a community that was calling me, or that I was being called to, or that I could at least join in good conscience feeling that I was getting involved in something I could relate to and that would embrace me as well. 

 I wasn’t really looking for a Sunday morning service deal – I was looking for believers who either lived together or almost lived together.  I used to say, “When I graduate college I’m going to join a christian commune.”  This might strike fear into the hearts of those for whom “commune” somehow conjours up Jim Jones or some other cultic picture, but for me, I figured since Jim Jones was dead and gone that he couldn’t be messing up all the good and decent communes out there at present…

And there is an old adage, “If you find the perfect church, don’t join it, because then it won’t be perfect any more.”  I found an amazing group of people after a decade of searching, and felt in my spirit the liberty and invitation to become part of them.  I did – I joined and gave my heart to them, and had a season in my life that I count as a precious gift from God.  But a year or so after I joined, they disbanded.   Was it the fault of the old adage about the perfect church being ruined by your presence?  I say that altogether in jest…  but the fact is that my community is scattered and gone, although forever in my heart and the hearts of those who I shared that experience with.

After Gemeinshaft scattered, I went on my search again.  And here is what I found –

I found a lot of “christian peacemaking communities.”  These communities exist to “create peace and end war.”  This is good.  I applaud them for their efforts.  The problem is, that I’m just not very highly dedicated to that topic.  I mean, I like peace…but the theme of war and peace doesn’t resound with me on a totally deep level.  It’s something I might donate to, or help out with here and there, but not something that I really feel called to give my whole life to pursuing.  And, doctrinally, I’m not really a believer that it is always wrong for a government to use military action.  Regrettable?  Yes.  Overused?  Definitely.  But just…not really my area of passion.  Perhaps I need to revisit this, and essentially repent. I dunno. 

But at any rate, that makes it hard for me to decide to join one of these groups….even though I’m a hippy at heart in many other ways (organic, environmental, free thinking, etc…) 

On the other hand, you have the monastic groups.  And I’ll break these in to two categories:

1) Charismatic monasticism (generally NOT called this) represented by places such as the International House of Prayer

2) New Monasticism.

Generally, the charismatic groups do not seem to actually live in community.  They tend to still live very individualistic lifestyles, except to come together regularly for extended periods of prayer.  And then, even then, it is more like a performance thing than a community thing – with a stage, and spectators.   I love the idea of praying 24/7.  But doing so in such a performance rather than organic way bugs me. 

It also gets old.  I can only pray in a room so long before I am dying to bust out of the room and tell someone about Jesus.  And these groups don’t usually have much of a grid for doing things like that together.  So I don’t think I’d fit.  Unless I live on donations and get them to send me off with YWAM or some other missionary organization.  I can’t see myself doing that.

On the other hand, there are the New Monastic communities.  These guys believe in “living it” as a community.  Reaching the poor, the hungry, the needy, the destitute.  There is no stage, performance, or spectators.  Life is together – life is happily messy, people rubbing each other the wrong way and learnign to work it out and so forth.  But here’s where I don’t mesh – I don’t relate to God through ritual.  And these communities readily embrace christian rituals, christian meditation, and tend to disregard or reject most forms of charismatic practice.  I really want to participate in charismatic gifts with any community I would be part of, and I just can’t see rituals fitting in real well with my spiritual practice, simply because I don’t seem to meet with the Lord in most rituals or liturgies.  It just doesn’t work for me..whereas singing in the spirit or praying in tongues, especially with others, is awesome. 

So how do I reconcile all these things? *sigh*  I wish I had a community.  I need to find my destiny, and I truly do believe that will only be walking side by side with others in Him.

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