Part 1: Out of Place
Part 2: Believing the Right Things
Last time I checked, I was human. I am made of skin, bones, water, and muscle (and a little more fat than I’d care to admit). Air fills my lungs. Blood pumps through my veins. Innumerable synapses allow me to process thought.
Chances are (if you’re reading this) you are human like me. You’re probably taller than me. Possibly better looking. But we are all human beings.
I am a lot of things. I am a husband. A father. A son. A friend. A geek. A fan of music, arts, and culture.
But there is one thing I am not. I’m not perfect.
We as humans like to think we are – as if perfection is an obtainable objective. Most rappers say they’re the best rapper alive. If you look at the top professional athletes, they will tell you that they’re the best; Shaquille O'Neal even has his own TV show where he attempts to prove he is the best at everything. Pharmaceutical commercials try to sell the idea that your sex life, your emotional well-being, your physical health are all imperfect without their medications.
Our culture tells us that perfection is possible, and often demands it.
A few years ago, I went to a business seminar to listen to a writer speak – one of the authors of Egonomics. He talked about ego as a vital asset and that success is a healthy balance between ego and humility. Not enough ego and we’re weak. Too much and we’re a pompous fool. Yet to be successful, he said, you have to be a little full of yourself.
I find it funny that the English word “I” translates to “Εγώ” (pronounced ‘ego’) in the ancient Greek language. I am my ego.
There is a fatal flaw in the employment of ego and perfection. Being the best, or at least better than everyone else.
It doesn’t work.
Success only happens if we’re better. Life tells us that we must be the best if we want to succeed. Anything else is failure.
But we’re not perfect. We all make mistakes. There will always be someone bigger, better, stronger, faster, cooler, or smarter. We will never measure up. Even if (for a moment) we were to reach some flash of perfection, that moment is fleeting. Someone will outdo us.
If I have to be better than you to succeed, then you have to be better than me in order to see any sense of achievement. We’re not friends, we’re competitors.
And the prize is hollow. It is too lofty or too abstract. Excellence is possible, yet overlooked in pursuit of an illusion. The trouble is that we believe a lie. We believe that perfection is a short term goal – that the shiny pinnacle of flawlessness can be ours tomorrow. It is a life time pursuit; the apostle Paul said it best when he compared life to running a race. In Philippians, he stressed the point that he had not yet obtained the prize and that he was pressing on to that goal.
We’re not done yet; if we’re placing bets that we can finish early, we are setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment.
That is a tragic way to go through life.
It is also a horrible way to approach church.
This American attitude of one-upmanship has permeated the religious community. It’s as if becoming a Christian is some sort of competition to be fought and won.
And it’s not just a conflict of the faithful versus the pagans. Too often it is one church against another.
We have taken our differences of opinion and turned them into weapons of war. When one combatant begins to trash the other, this supposedly safe place – this sacred house of worship – looks more like a battleground to outsiders.
This is supposed to be a family of believers, not a mêlée. Whatever happened to unity in essentials and liberty in nonessentials?
Does it really matter which church has the biggest congregation? Or the hippest programs? Or the most relevant sermons? Or the most outreach opportunities? Or the most metrosexual worship leader? I tire of hearing people tell me why their pastor, or their praise music, or their church is better than another.
A coworker once asked me if I went to church. I told her yes. She was quiet for a while, probably worried that she would offend me.
Then she said, “I went to church once. It sounded like a sales pitch.”
Jesus isn’t a commodity. Neither is the church. If you have to sell it, you’re doing something wrong.
Selling God, fighting over God, trying to make your denomination better than the others. It all makes us sound like a herd of squabbling idiots.
Once someone steps past those hurdles, walks through the doors of their chosen church, the expectation of perfection continues. You need to dress under ambiguous guidelines. You must learn to speak Christianese. Your actions must be governed by a code of conduct with written and unwritten rules.
And we as Christians say we accept people where they’re at and encourage growth, but too often those that don’t measure up to our expectations are looked at as undeserving of the love that God has given to the rest of us.
If they overcome the lofty expectations and endure the judgments, the modern church has created even more barriers to welcoming those that most need God.
Perhaps you’ve noticed it. The masses fill the pews. They sing songs. A basket is passed around then a sharp dressed man stands up front and talks. He sounds like he knows what he talks about. He’s the pastor – he’s the expert. If you look around you can see it on the faces of the crowd. It’s as if people entered the building, took their assigned seat, and opened up their craniums for the pastor to dump the word of God into their consciousness.
There’s no intellectual processing. The sermon is taken at face value.
Granted this is not a wholesale affliction and I hate to paint with such a broad brush. There are many people who digest and apply what they hear at church, but there is another population that uses church as the one time a week where they can go and feel holy. It’s the only place they hear or read scripture. They don’t think about whether or not they’re getting sound teaching. It’s nothing more than a massive intake of data before continuing life with the same operating standards. The difference between the two groups is obvious. And it is staggering.
It makes strangers feel like questions are not allowed. Even for people like me who have grown up in the church, there is an overwhelming sense that tough questions are verboten and that certain subjects are taboo. It is too easy to get the impression that doubt is a sign of weakness.
But I say that doubt is essential for faith. Doubt leads to honest questions. To question is to understand. Understanding leads to faith. Faith and understanding are the foundations of belief.
Belief needs both elements. Pure understanding ignores the divine. It precludes wonder and awe. Faith without understanding is naïveté and overlooks the biblical call to reason together.
We were never meant to have the Bible dumped on us. We should never just listen to someone talk about it. Biblical study was intended to be a group effort. We are supposed to explorer it, discuss it, and question the parts that don’t make sense. Humans learn better when we learn together.
I could study alone as much as I want, but what if I’m wrong? I could just listen to a pastor, but what if he’s wrong? Discussion brings clarity.
I say this because I realize that I am not perfect. Because I’m not perfect, I accept that my understanding of God is incomplete. If I’m not faultless, it is safe to assume that those around me are also fallible. After all, we’re only human.
And so are the strangers who come to visit.
We might have a good idea what everything means. But we can’t know it all. That’s why we must press on to the goal ahead. That makes the competition and the fighting irrelevant. That makes the demands for instant perfection unreasonable. That makes the expectations for visitors and newcomers a bit silly.
This is a race, not a war. We’re all in this together with imperfect understanding. If you want to obtain perfection, you need to be in it for the long haul.
The prize is ours when the race ends. But I am not yet done.