Sunday, July 6, 2008

Intro to Christianity

Most churches offer some kind of “Welcome to the faith” booklet/pamphlet/course for new converts. While these tend to cover a lot of important issues and address a lot of the questions a new believer may have, I can’t help but feel like they overlook some other, very important ones. It may very well just be me, but looking back there are several things I wish someone told me when I was new to the faith. Ever so often on – in real life and online discussions – you run into some young (in the faith, not necessarily age) Christians and the way they talk and behave reminds me a of Labradors. See Labradors are full of love and good intentions but when they aren’t properly house trained they tend to show their love and good intentions in a way that leaves vases broken and muddy paw prints on expensive fabrics. A loving Labrador can leave a lot of destruction it its wake and will never realize it – after all, they are full of only the best intentions and really mean to do no harm. Young Christians can be like that too. Now I don’t expect my version of the “Welcome to the faith” pamphlet will ever catch on, but never the less, here is what I wish I was told when I was new to Christianity

Get to know your roots

The sad truth about Christianity is that it has become divorced from its Jewish roots to a large extent. It is vitally important to remember that at its very core, Christianity is Jewish. After all, we serve a Jewish God, we follow a Jewish Rabbi and His teachings as well as the teachings of his Jewish disciples. We read from a Jewish book written by Jews (with Luke as the sole exception) first and foremost for Jews (again with a few exceptions, but that is what they are: the exception not the rule). Therefore it is impossible to truly make sense of Christianity and the Bible separated from its Jewish roots. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened in the church – we lost touch. This has caused us to come to some very strange (and dare I say wacky?) conclusions in the modern church based on verses of Scripture that we failed to comprehend because we failed to read them in their proper Jewish context. If you are serious about your faith, take the time and learn more about the Jewish roots of Christianity. There are plenty of good books on the subject ranging from the very scholarly to works written with the layman in mind. Read one – you will be richer for it!

Christianity is not cool

Coolness – we don’t all have it but most of us want it. Naturally there is therefore a movement in the church to draw more people – especially young people – by attempting to make Christianity “cool”. While there is nothing wrong about wanting to make the faith as attractive as possible to as many people as possible you have to accept the fact that by its very definition, Christianity is not now, was not ever and will never ever be “cool”. See, at its heart Christianity is the opposite of cool. Christianity is (or should be at least) about including the outcasts, the ugly, the marginalized and the forgotten – in other words, the uncool. Face it, including the “uncool” will never be “cool”. So by all means, relax the dress code and make the church music more contemporary. Just don’t forget to make room for those who don’t dress, act or talk the way you do – they matter to God, they should matter to you.

Be merciful

Right, so you are full of fire and the zeal for the Lord fills you. You have turned your back on sin and you want everyone else to do the same. That’s awesome. But please, in all your fiery zeal, don’t forget to add generous amounts of mercy. Never ever forget what Jesus taught about throwing stones (Hint: John 8). Memorize and continually meditate on Matthew 7:1-2 "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." Seriously,I cannot adequately stress how important this is! No matter how you feel right now, you are not perfect. Everyone messes up at some point and you are no exception. One day you too will fall on your ass, the only question is how hard and how publicly. Having a little mercy on the imperfect people around you now makes the difference between people running to help you up or pointing and laughing at you when you make a mistake.

Being an ambassador for Christ is really unfair

I’m not sure if anyone warned you about this, but being a Christian sucks sometimes! From the moment people know you are a Christian, your life will be under the microscope. You (yes poor little imperfect, mistake-prone you) will be held to an impossibly high standard and there will be many people just waiting for you to slip up. You see, Paul wasn’t kidding when he talked about Christians being ambassadors – now that you are a Christian you represent something far bigger than yourself. Just by looking at you, some people will make conclusions about the Church, about Christianity and about God Himself. Your screw-up could negatively influence the way someone thinks about all Christianity - how is that for a pleasant thought? Now you may think that this is an impossible burden to bear and you would be right. What's more is that it's most certainly an unfair one – especially for someone new to the faith. Unfortunately for you this burden is not one that's going to disappear any time soon. Sorry. So on that note, if you are really struggling with some kind of sin, maybe you should consider not advertising your faith just yet. It’s just much easier to deal with something when you don’t have a whole crowd of people rooting for you to fail. As you may have realised by now a lot of people really are rooting for you to fail, it's almost as if they need you to fail. But unfortunately hiding is not always an option. Best advice I can give you is not to go at it alone – independence is foolishness, you need the support of the community of believers, use it. No one enjoys being in an unfair system but unfortunately that system is not about to change. Good luck, you’re going to need it!

What purity is really about

I’m willing to bet that you are serious about being pure and holy in every area of your life. You are probably working very hard right now to be holy in word, deed and especially sexuality. Odds are you are at the same time encouraging others to do the same and thereby annoying the living crap out of the people around you in the process. (You may not have realized this yet but trust me on this) Problem is that purity and holiness is not about having a list of “Don’ts” and feeling guilty for not measuring up to it (or for that matter making others feel guilty for not measuring up). Let me tell you what holiness is like. Have you ever been in the company of a really stylish person? How did that make you feel? In my experience being around someone truly stylish didn’t make me feel bad, it made me want to be stylish too. That is what holiness is all about, living in a way that makes others want to be better too. Or as a wise vampire* once put it, “Live as though the world was what it should be to show it what it can be”

Careful what you swallow in church

I’m guessing your pastor/reverend/priest/bishop is a really good, honest person who knows his stuff. I'm not for a moment suggesting that he isn't all that and more, but that doesn’t mean you should unquestioningly accept everything he tells you. Preachers are people and people are just plain wrong sometimes. Furthermore there is a disturbing trend in the Christian church to pass on hearsay as if it was truth. People hear something from someone they trust and believe in and they repeat it as Gospel truth – even though it may be a complete and utter falsehood. Please understand, I'm not suggesting people are repeating lies because they want to deceive you but rather because they are themselves deceived. They may have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t make them right. So take advantage of the fact that you live in the information age and do the one thing Christians are notoriously bad at – check your facts before you repeat them. Who knows, you may find they aren’t facts at all! On the other hand, if they are facts and you are challenged on them you would be better equipped to state your case. See? Checking your facts is a win-win! Bottom line is that double checking what you hear from the pulpit is not rebellious or sinful, in fact its recommended in Scripture – just look at the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:11. On the other hand, blindly following a charismatic leader is the reason we have sayings like “don’t drink the Kool-aid”.

On taking offense

By now, your spiritual leader would probably have given you quite the laundry list of things to “work on”. Chances are good however that there is one vital omission there – offense. Christians just seem to love getting offended and they take offense at every turn. Big mistake! See the moment you take offense you are effectively disarmed and rendered useless. By now, pretty much all non-believers know this and employ it regularly as a Christian deterrent. It’s extremely effective, I’ll give them that! Don’t make it so easy, don't be so easy to get rid of! Work hard at not getting offended. Some Christians treat taking offense as a holy calling – they seem to think that being offended because someone said or did something inappropriate makes God feel better about it. I could be wrong here, but I doubt it. Seriously, don’t be mad at the darkness for being dark, rather ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be. You know that non-Christians don’t believe as you do so of course they are probably going to end up saying or doing things that you may find “offensive” - why are you expecting them not to exactly? So rather expect to be offended but don’t allow it make you useless.

On giving offense

Like I said in the previous point, there are multitudes of Christians out there who enjoy nothing more than being offended. So here is another hard truth about the Christian life – at some point in time you are probably going to end up offending someone. It may be your hair, your clothes or something you said. Nine times out of ten it is going to be something utterly trivial. Nine times out of ten it’s not even going to be something you did wrong (as in morally, ethically or Biblically wrong). Unfortunately it is still going to happen and there isn’t much you can do about it. Make peace with it, you will never be able to please everyone. Unfortunately I can’t really give you advice here other than to tell you to expect it to happen at some point. When it does happen, check to make sure it isn’t that one time out of ten that you actually did something wrong. If it is, be humble enough to admit your error and try to fix it. If its not, don’t let unfair criticism bring you down. Oh and good luck with that last part by the way!


“Turn or Burn” is a terrible way to win converts

So you have found salvation and are now burning to fulfill the Great Commission and get the rest of the world saved as well? That’s awesome! But please, I’m begging you, when sharing your faith, please don’t use the old “turn or burn” line. I know it is incredibly effective, but it is effective in winning souls in the same way that violence and intimidation are an effective way for dictators to “win” elections. People shouldn’t be Christians because they are afraid of going to hell. Honestly, if you don’t get why that's wrong, you probably shouldn’t be evangelizing in the first place…


R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Aretha Franklin famously sang “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me” but I’m sure that you have already decided what it means to you. The real question is: do you know what it means to other people? Most Christians are aware of the fact that the Bible teaches that you will reap what you sow. However they don’t seem to realize that this verse wasn’t talking about how God will make you fabulously rich if you give money to the church – instead it truly applies to all areas of your life. Christians are quick to cry “persecution” or “war against Christianity” whenever someone treats them and their beliefs badly. Amazingly however, these very same people have no qualms about treating other people and their beliefs just as badly! So please try to always remember this principle under every circumstance - you reap what you sow. If you are belligerent, condescending and disrespectful to others, don’t cry “persecution” when they return the favour. Unfortunately its a sad fact that a great number of Christians are apparently completely blind to this fact. The simple fact is that the way you relate to people is of paramount importance – it doesn’t necessarily matter that you have “the Truth, the Life and the Way” on your side because no one listens to a word you say when you are coming across like a complete tool. No one responds well to being talked down to. No one. Also, try to keep in mind that “non-Christian” isn’t the same as “total moron” – people can tell when the only reason you are “building a relationship” with them is to "win them" and they probably won’t respond well to that. I sincerely hope that this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but conditional friendship and acceptance is easy to spot and is very unappealing. See it's easy to use rethoric like "People are made in the Image of God and are precious" at pro-life rallies, its harder to actually apply that in day to day living. See if you truly believe that people are precious you should always treat them that way whether they are responsive to the Gospel or not. At no point can "nonbeliever" mean that a person has no intrinsic value and worth. Let people be worthy of your time and friendship because they are people in the image of God and for no other reason.


Actually read your Bible (No really!)

I know, by now you’ve been told a million times to read your Bible. However, allow me to clarify, I don’t mean that you should read John 3:16 or Psalm 23, I mean you should read the whole thing, starting in Genesis and ending with Revelations. I know it seems terribly intimidating and those genealogies can be boring as hell but trust me, it can be done and you can do it. Reading the whole Bible can be hard work but it really is worth it. Here are just some of the many benefits you will get from reading it all:

  • It will keep you from embarrassing yourself by making broad, sweeping statements like “there are no contradictions in the Bible” or “Every verse of the Bible is literal” or anything else that will prove to anyone listening that you have never actually read the Bible. There are contradictions and that is why we have the field of Apologetics – to explain these away and to convince people that God isn’t as bad as He seems sometimes. Not every doctrine we have is clearly spelled out, not everything is clear cut, not everything is literal. That’s why we have Theology – to try to puzzle it all out and make sense of the difficult parts. It is also why we have so many denominations, all insisting that they have it right… (By saying that it is not all literal I'm by no means trying to discredit the Bible, for something can be true without being literal. Truths are greater than facts sometimes. If you don't understand that statement go read some poetry until you do. In fact go read some poetry anyway, a substantial part of the Bible is poetry and you will never understand the Bible until you understand poetry. )
  • If you read the whole Bible and not just the selected favourite verses, you will run across some very real people having some very real struggles – maybe even struggles you are familiar with! It’s very encouraging, because this is a reminder that God doesn’t only work with those who have it all together and have it all sorted out. God works with real people, people who don’t know all the answers, people like you.
  • You will find (to your shock even) that the people in the Bible were very honest with God – especially when they were angry. David, Job and others didn’t put up a false front when talking to God. Learning to be honest with God (especially honestly angry or honestly doubtful) is the most freeing thing that could happen to your faith.
  • It will help you to have realistic expectations. Contrary to what the nice preacher man on TV might have told you, not every one of God’s children ended up rich, healthy, happy and trouble free - and neither will you. Life can be hard, it can be unfair and it can be downright cruel. The worst part is that sometimes the best of people are the hardest hit. Name it and claim it all you want, bad things will happen, you won’t always get what you want and you will not always be blessed and prosperous beyond your wildest dreams. Trust me, if you need a reality check, stop reading the “happy” verses and read the whole book.



*The quote was taken from the TV series “Angel” episode nr 67 “Deep Down”. The full quote is: “Nothing in the world is the way it ought to be. - It's harsh, and cruel. - But that's why there's us. Champions. It doesn't matter where we come from, what we've done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be.” I love this quote.

4 comments:

RandomSue said...

I relate to so much of this. Thanks for writing it. It needed to be said.
I was brought up with lots of American church tradition that was being taught from the pulpit as if it were Gospel truth.
I finally have a pastor that isn't afraid to ask questions. He digs into our Jewish roots. He puts the scriptures in their proper context and they come to life in a whole new way! He is even so bold as to trust and encourage us to do this for ourselves. Curious.

TPluckyT said...

Good thoughts Eugene. This post reminded me of something our pastor recently posted on his blog . . . http://scoey-d.blogspot.com/2008/07/thoughts-from-peterson.html

(From his blog) This is a quote from Eugene Peterson - "Repentance, dying to self, submission—these are not very attractive hooks to draw people into the (Christian) faith.

I think the minute you put the issue that way you're in trouble. Because then we join the consumer world, and everything then becomes product designed to give you something. We don't need something more. We don't need something better. We're after life. We're learning how to live.

I think people are fed up with consumer approaches, even though they're addicted to them. But if we cast the evangel in terms of benefits, we're setting people up for disappointment. We're telling them lies.

This is not the way our Scriptures are written. This is not the way Jesus came among us. It's not the way Paul preached. Where do we get all this stuff? We have a textbook. We have these Scriptures and most of the time they're saying, "You're going the wrong way. Turn around. The culture is poisoning."

Do we realize how almost exactly the Baal culture of Canaan is reproduced in American church culture? Baal religion is about what makes you feel good. Baal worship is a total immersion in what I can get out of it. And of course, it was incredibly successful. The Baal priests could gather crowds that outnumbered followers of Yahweh 20 to 1. There was sex, there was excitement, there was music, there was ecstasy, there was dance. "We got girls over here, friends. We got statues, girls, and festivals." This was great stuff. And what did the Hebrews have to offer in response? The Word…"

GumbyTheCat said...

Eugene, this is such a good post. It should not only be required reading for Christian "newbies", but it should also be a required "refresher course" for those fundamentalist Christians who think they have all the answers, and mock and condemn those who do not believe exactly as they do - even other Christians.

Tania said...

Great post! I wish I had known these things at the start of my walk with God. I used to be one of those who patronised non-believers and Christians who were not as "churchly" as myself. I am ashamed of that! Fortunately God has taught me so much about following Jesus. Don Miller in "Searching for God knows what" provides his thoughts on the person Jesus was - it made me realise how much I want to be like Jesus: kind, loving, giving and non-judgemental.