A species of writer’s block perched on my shoulder for recent weeks.
It nattered, “You make a fine sermon to the choir. But have you noticed that many people just don’t care? Some people regard your supposed insights as an assault. And you need a haircut.”
At the barbershop, I recalled the ebb and flow of a long-ago conversation....
I was driving the team back from a University competition. In the darkness behind me, a sophomore confidently pronounced, “Of course, there are no absolutes.”
I observed, “That sentence, ‘there are no absolutes,’ itself is an absolute.”
“Ah, ok,“ he amended. “Ok, there is one absolute, and that is, there are no other absolutes!”
The other students in the van pounced on this clumsier claim. They were mostly engineers. Of course they sided for absolutes in mathematics and science. Everywhere, said one, the sum of the squares of the shorter sides of a right triangle equals the square of the longer side. Yeah, said another, except in the land of Oz.
People do believe that great unyielding truths exist. The problem is that, having faced a tangle of mistakes and deceptions, many people have given up the hard work of finding the truth, or even the most reliable explanation. They are skeptical if not scornful of someone who claims outside the hard sciences to have captured a real live truth.
A weighty question arose: Is it not a truth, that there’s more than one way to skin a cat?
For several miles the engineers tried to count the ways: Knives of course. Compressed air. Explosives. Ultrasound. Centrifuge. Liquid nitrogen. One boy recommended marketing. What, marketing? we all exclaimed. He said, “Just tell the cat, all the cool cats are being skinned, you should be too.” I loved those outside-the-box thinkers.
When we move from mathematics and physics to how to scramble eggs, people see around them lots of ways to reach any given goal. This is often what people mean when they say, there are no absolutes: they mean there is no one best way.
“There's more than one way” becomes a tested truth, a primary truth. If someone claims a unique path, that claimant obviously is blind to the facts of life; at least naive, if not a crackpot.
As we bumped over the potholed Bagnell Dam Bridge, I asked whether the methods used to make the bridge made any difference, so long as the bridge worked. One student replied, “Sure. Whatever.”
Some people simply shrug off talk about what God has done with the constant drizzle of other advertising. They carry an umbrella called, “Whatever.”
But one engineer would not let that apathy pass. He excitedly admonished, A bridge might look ok now, but it could fall! You can't tell by looking! You can’t see inside the concrete! You’ve gotta use good materials from the beginning! You’ve gotta use good methods! You’ve gotta check each part as it goes in!
This is the engineer I want for my bridge, for my pacemaker, for my society.
I stopped the van at a McDonald’s. One of the students discovered a Christian tract at his table. He said, “I hate it when people try to convert me. It’s like I am some country to be conquered.”
These words stuck with me. His intractability was not about truth or falseness. It was about power.
Similarly, a few weeks ago a person requested my help but then said, “Wait. I don’t want this if you are trying to convert me.”
As many of you know, I do not wear a “God’s Gym” t-shirt or other assertive marks. I had said only, “How can I help?” I don't smell godly. Indeed, conversion has never been a primary motive for me. That's not necessarily a good thing, but it's a fact. I would welcome a response, “Oh, thanks! By the way, what must I do to be saved?” But I’ve never been this-for-that in giving. I give freely, because I have received freely.
So I said, “No strings attached! God has been good to me.”
I don't want to get praise that should go to God. Jesus is quite clear about this. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” But I haven't found a guaranteed way to direct praise to God.
In this case, mentioning God provoked a storm. “You are trying to convert me! Don’t talk to me about God!”
So this wimpy unintentional evangelist retreated. I plead, “OK, look at it this way. This is the right thing to do.”
"Hmf. Ok, just as long as you're not trying to convert me."
I would have counted this a weird incident, but I've found other people throw up such barricades at the teeniest hint of God-talk. Please use the comments below to tell me if this is a trend you've seen, or if this is just me. How might I do better?
Granted, people have reasons to expect from Christians manipulation and exploitation. Y’know, the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, Indian reservations, televangelists. Christian authors promote friendship evangelism, lifestyle evangelism, and worship evangelism. I know a youth worker who dreams of making a YouTube video that will go viral. We should not be surprised that people view Christians as using friendship, benevolence, and entertainment to gain some kind of dominance. Who wants to be a scalp on some congregation’s wall, a notch on someone's gospel gun?
Again, the touchiness is rarely about truth, but about power. Many people hold as dearest their ability to chose. Some pundits call this a post modern attitude. However, the worship of choice has been around a long time and holds genuinely heroic honors. Prisoners of war, when all property and freedom has been stripped from them, have clung to this one point of control. “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.” wrote concentration camp survivor Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.
I have discovered that people are willing to hear an interesting story. They don't want my viewpoints, they don't want my conclusions, they don't want my judgments, but they will hear a story. Whatever conclusions they draw, these will be their conclusions, conclusions they own.
The last of the students returned to his dormitory, I drove the van back to the University lot. The team had performed well on the field. We had another trophy for the school.
Did I mention this was a collegiate computer programming team?
My arrival disturbed a mockingbird. It ran through a few other birds’ calls before croaking its own harsh remonstrance.
Last week I had a stimulating email conversation with a visitor to the Surge Community Church, who observed,
I notice you guys gave no info about your history or denominational affiliation--
and I can appreciate why that might be part of your outreach strategy.
It’s flattering that someone thinks we have a strategy! I replied:
As to history, around 1832 some Christians weary of divisions chose to do something unusual: not fight, but unite. They hijacked the radically ordinary name, “Christians” that other groups had left behind. A preacher proposed this defining slogan, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, no law but love, no name but the divine.” A few minutes later, he recognized to his horror that his slogan violated itself. But the damage was done, and an undenomination had formed. Today, tenuously affiliated by a fuzzy set of Bible colleges, benevolence, mission, and parachurch ventures, autonomous congregations have enough beliefs and practices in common to be almost predictable. Addressing a 1974 meeting of Christian Church leaders, Baptist humorist Grady Nutt joked, “There’s one thing worser’n bein’ a denomination; that’s bein’ a denomination and not knowin’ it!”
The Bible Answer Man and his colleagues offer an independent critique of "The Churches of Christ, the Christian Churches, the Disciples of Christ". The CRI analysis hedges, “Because the COC and the NACC value the autonomy of the local church so highly, there is a great deal of diversity in the teaching of the individual churches, and generalizations, though valid and helpful to a point, may not apply in certain cases.” Amen, brother. We don't need no stinkin' badges. Lacking a governing body beyond the individual congregation, people who meet the Biblical qualifications for elders (such as in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) lead the local group.
I have visited energetic Christian groups in urban China and the mountains of Thailand who after decades of isolation and persecution had beliefs and practices spookily like these.
Denominations tend to form by fission. Undenominations tend to form by fusion, as is the case with the Surge Community Church. The fallout involves some infusion and confusion.
People often say, “I believe in spirituality and God. I'm just not into organized religion.” I reply, “Cool! We're about as unorganized as you'll find!”
At The Surge we love doing things together... that includes writing a blog! Here are a few of our main contributing authors:
Our fearless leader, Dwaine is the lead pastor at The Surge. His experience in counter terrorism with the CIA prepared him for ministry and he likes dogs and babies even more than E does.
E (short for Eric Reiss) is the Wingman at The Surge and likes dogs, music, Mexican food, his wife Karen and his little girl Evangeline... not necessarily in that order.