Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Relevance and Reverence

Is it okay to be posting memes like this? Is this making a mockery of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross? Or is someone attempting to take the story of Jesus' death and resurrection and making it understandable to today's culture? I don't know the intention of whoever made this meme, but I can say one thing: I find it hilarious. Not because I think that a person being crucified is a laughing matter. In spite of the shame and rejection Jesus experienced on the cross, he rose up victorious, conquering death. Of all the things this could have Jesus say, a "nah bro" seems to hit the mark.

So, is this just irreverence, or does it say something more? And if it is irreverent, what does God think about it? Or is this meme something that's relevant to us today? I use this meme as an example of a greater phenomenon in our society. People are getting tired of imposed reverence without relevance. By that I mean that there seems to be a stigma about the church that it just propagates worship and submission to God (and Jesus, of course) without thinking. But if there isn't some relevance to what the church is doing in its worship services and in its messages to people, then it might as well be another brainwashing camp as many other things in the world are.

Ever seen the movie Jesus Camp (2006)? This movie approaches this question quite well -- and makes the evangelical movement look pretty bad in the process. In a gist, the movie highlights several "youth camps" that focus on spiritual training to help teens and tweens become dedicated to God. But it's really a masquerade where these vulnerable kids are being indoctrinated into something else. The sad thing is that these kids are genuinely longing to become closer to God and to faithfully follow him. They're brimming with potential and you can see the start of some amazing things about their character. But instead of being taught something relevant -- and, in particular, true -- their spiritual leaders are drawing them away from God and toward some superficial hyper-moral conservative activism. You could even say "legalism."

I've talked to friends from different countries who have expressed their frustrations with what they've seen in the Catholic/evangelical/fill-in-the-blank church. Many think that Jesus was a pretty incredible guy, but their church experiences have left them in an agnostic uncertainty about what God thinks of them and how (seldom) involved they think God is in their lives. Their main complaint: these churches are teaching/imposing dogma and forbidding them to question the status quo.

But if you look carefully in the Bible, you don't see that message being propagated. For example, Acts 17:11 says good things about some Jews who critically tested what they heard: "Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." What does this mean? These people didn't just accept whatever was spoon-fed to them. They fought with it. What does this mean for you? You should wrestle with what you hear. You don't have to accept everything you hear at face value. You don't always have to walk on eggshells, worrying about being irreverent -- or letting others bully you into that. That's why there's a whole section of the bible called "wisdom literature" (we'll take a look at some of this later).

Sometimes you have to walk on the edge of irreverence to get to the relevance. Churches can't pretend that everything is squeaky clean and smooth. Life is hard. Faith is hard work. But if you test your faith and test what you hear, it should come back as true. God can take the heat. If anything, he appreciates honesty. And if you believe if God is omniscient (sees everything), then you know that he knows what you're thinking anyway.

This is a message that I've been saying for a long time -- particularly when I was actively involved in youth ministry. The only way to understand God is to ask him questions. And if the church wants to be relevant to the needs of society, it needs to suck up some of the irreverence and create a safe space for people to learn and explore. Note my tone here: I'm saying this to highlight my point.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Take off the Training Wheels!

So after my last misadventure with road cycling, I got a bit reflective. For me, wearing cycling shoes with clipless pedals is like taking the training wheels off your bike all over again. For a road cyclist, this is a necessary transition to allow them to ride faster, more efficiently, and also look like they belong to the sport. It's part of a growing process.

But pretty much anyone that made this transition can tell you funny stories about their first falls. Some even put their friends' experiences on YouTube for the world to laugh at. What makes them funny is that each situation looks easily avoidable. It's not like they're accomplishing much when they fall.

Now let's get metaphorical.  Taking off training wheels isn't easy. It's risky. But it's a necessary process to be mature in cycling. Kids can't stay on training wheels forever. In many areas of life, we have our training wheels. It's no different for Christians. Let's look at a few examples of training wheels in the Christian life.

Sunday school. Churches teach children at young ages important things about the Bible through programs like Sunday school: stories like Noah, Moses, or Jesus, and do a pretty good job of explaining the importance of things like Easter. Young Christians are taught how to steer and ride their way through early life by listening to the teaching of their elders. But the things you learn in Sunday school are not enough to get you through any obstacle. The purpose is to provide young Christians with a basic understanding of the Bible and what it means to be a Christian -- and most importantly, to point them to the scriptures to learn for themselves. Teachings similar to these will only get you so far in life - and certainly not through the hardest parts.

Clichés. Did God "place something on your heart" to say or do recently? Are you going through some hard times? Didn't you know that "God will never give you more than you can handle?" And that "Everything happens for a reason." Some people like to call things like these "Christianese." It's like another language. If you "aren't saved", then you're probably confused by some of this. Clichés are memorable. But they also lose their meaning from overuse (read also "over abuse"). Sometimes they are offered to people in need at exactly the wrong time. For example, if someone experiences death in their family or another terrible life-changing situation, simply saying that everything happens for a reason is enough to make someone walk away from God forever. Are you prepared to offer a theodicy that will ease their suffering? And are you ready to clean up the mess when it fails to ease their pain?

Other times the clichés you've come to know and love are completely wrong. Did Jesus or his disciples really say that money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10)? Or does Paul, Peter, and the other apostles really teach that God will never give you more hardships than you can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13)? The reality in the Bible is that people suffer often. They are often placed in circumstances that would be impossible for them to overcome -- without God stepping in himself to fix things. Not only that, simply saying that someone can bear with their sufferings robs them of their grieving process and their plea for help.

Do you really want to tackle these kinds of mountains with training wheels on?

Cliques. One of the best encouragements as a Christian is to have a family. Not just a blood-related family, but an entire community that can support you. This is both biblical and true by experience. You can have meaningful communities that can challenge you to work beyond Sunday school teachings and cliché remarks. This can be the next step in training, if we want to keep the cycling analogy. This is like riding with others: sometimes with training wheels, and other times you're just training with the pros. This reminds me of my experience at Houghton College. I grew in faith and experience there, but also I have to wonder: what were the challenges I had to overcome in my Christian bubble, compared with the struggles going on in the real world? Am I really in touch with everyone else out there when I'm in my Christian cliques?

Training in Christian cliques is like training on the same course over and over again. Sure, you get good experience -- and you even start learning when to anticipate that sharp turn or that difficult road you're heading on. And likewise, you know how to deal with those situations. But following the same course over and over again is...boring. The purpose of training is not to be perfect on a single course, but rather, to take the training off the well-known paths and into the unknown. Training is meant to prepare you for unexpected roads and intense situations. Training is supposed to teach you how to respond to those situations. While I could stay in that clique and go through life in security, I wasn't meant to do that. Some of the most exciting and challenging experiences are when we're outside of our cliques and doing things that no one would expect us to do. For example, leaving everything and moving to Europe.

That being said, training wheels aren't a bad thing. Training through elders, learning encouraging (and true) words and proverbs, and spending time in Christian communities is certainly not a waste of time. But keep in mind that these things aren't meant to be everything we live for. If it is, we'll find our Christian lives unfulfilling. We're meant to take off the training wheels and experience things beyond our areas of control. It's challenging, but it's exciting. Training wheels can't take that kind of stress -- they were never meant to in the first place. And without them, we'll fall sometimes and we'll get beat up a bit, but that's part of the process of building character. Nobody looks up to a cyclist that wears training wheels; nor would they look up to a Christian who's afraid to shed unnecessary layers of security.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Time to move on

There comes a time to move on. It seems that this moment is drawing close for Jenn and I. Effective mid-May, 2013, we will depart from Trento, Italy to explore the frontiers of Washington. We don't know exactly what this means for us, but we know that we are to depart soon and spend part of our lives in this area.

Redmond, we are coming. For those of you remaining in Trento, you still have some time to spend with us. Stay tuned for more updates.

Important update: For those of you still reading, I thought it might be a good idea to provide you with a little more information. In the United States, there are important times of the year to tell people important information. On the other hand, there are days where it's not as good to share. For example, today is April 1, 2013. The day after Easter. It also happens to be another special day on our calendar: April Fools' Day. Said another way: there is a chance that someone fooled you today. That someone being me.

I know, shame, shame. So now to divulge the entire truth. Jenn and I are going to the Seattle/Redmond region, effective mid-May. Just not permanently. I was offered an excellent internship opportunity with Microsoft Research, working on speech translation. I will be working with a team of excellent researchers who do high quality work -- both in terms of production software and research publications. I am excited to have the opportunity to learn from them and also to (hopefully) contribute to the research success of the team and to have some fresh inspiration for my thesis!

The internship will last for twelve weeks. In other words, approximately three months. So don't worry, Trento: we'll be back in early autumn. That being said, we will still miss you during this time and we hope to spend time with all of you before we go! We still have a month and a half.

To the Americans out there (including one especially important American living in Italy), sorry for any heartbreak or shock I might have delivered. Jenn didn't like my prank idea, so she's let me know how terrible I am for tricking you.

More information will come about the internship soon.

(By the way, the map above is a special April Fools' Google Map. Who knew that there was buried treasure in Seattle?)