Posts Tagged With: forgiveness

Atheist Churches: A Viable Option for Many

I’ve long been a proponent of the benefits of a church community. Nowhere else can you receive identity, support, encouragement, and companionship on the journey of life. Those who gather in the name of Jesus, regardless of belief about him, are influenced by him. Therefore, I’ve said and written, as we follow him and are changed by him, we reflect the kingdom forgiveness, grace, compassion, and justice he brought into this world.

So we teach/learn, pray, sing, hang out, and serve–all in the name of Christ. We’ve got the corner on that stuff. These activities reflect our Christianity and discipleship to a world that needs to see it, hear it, experience it. Recognizing this, we can be somewhat comfortable in our attempts to follow Jesus into the world. Our identity as Christians is clarified, honed,  and practiced “in church,” and then lived “in the world.”

All this unique to us, the church.

Until now. A recent movement with its genesis in the UK is Atheist Mega-churches. These weekly gatherings are gaining ground in the US, and provide a communal, supportive, beneficial gathering with music, inspiring speakers, and more. All without God or religion. And it seems to be catching on.

And I wonder, for many of today’s church-goers, if this could be just what we’re looking for. All the benefits of church and religion without all the problematic things like “Jesus” getting in the way. No, I’m serious about this.

Let’s face it, the biggest problem for the church is Jesus. Not only are there all the difficult demands like “love your enemies,” and “give to everyone who asks,” which most Christians conveniently opt out of, but there’s the whole divinity/resurrection thing. Not to mention bloody internal battles about such basics as baptism, Holy Communion, the Bible, worship, and ordination.

Many Christians, with nowhere else to go, endure the difficulties of arguing about Jesus and church doctrine. They put up with the inconvenience of feeling guilty about not being generous enough, holding grudges against evil-doers, questioning their faith, and inadequate biblical interpretation. They also are forced to put up with hypocricy, self-righteousness, and power struggles that pervade the local church. All this for the sake of being part of a church community. Apparently, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages for many, as churches continue to permeate the American landscape.

The atheists have provided a solution for many. Individual beliefs don’t matter, doctrine doesn’t enter in, and there are no difficult mandates regarding accountability of behavior. If you are confused about whether the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus, represents the presence of Christ, or somewhere in between, the atheist churches welcome you. If you disagree about your church’s stand on homosexuality, the atheist churches probably don’t care. If Jesus’ concern for the poor and the marginalized cause you too much discomfort, the atheist churches aren’t likely to hold you to an impossible standard of generosity.

So I say, go get ’em, atheists! For all those in Christian churches who have difficulty with Jesus, thank you for providing us with a community, a sense of unemcumbered belonging, and freedom to feel like church without the difficulties. You are the new American Civil Religion, where we can maintain our individual preferences without having to be challenged by a mysterious higher authority. You allow us to make sense of the world on our own terms without concern over ancient doctrine or empty faith practices. We can follow our own agendas, free from guilt, compromise, or accountability. Community without the cross. Encouragement without the need for forgiveness. An inspiring presentation without preaching. Great music without praise.

I’m not kidding when I say it sounds like what many current church-goers are wanting. Thank you, atheist churches, for giving us a viable community experience with the ability to opt out of Jesus–and all the messiness and conflict he brings. There are days when I’d think about being part of you, when being a Christian is just too hard. There are days when I doubt, when I am helpless, when I am frustrated, when I am in dire need of forgiveness. You provide a way out: by side-stepping all that religious piety.

Perhaps I might join you one day. But for now, I guess I’ll stick with the hope recorded by a line of people seeking meaning and purpose for thousands of years. I’ll endure the mystery of contemplating something that is outside my ability to understand. I’ll trust in some mysterious author of ultimate goodness, who steps into my life and my world with mercy and unconditional love. I’ll face the presence of evil with the hope that it is not the final word for the world. I’ll take the grace that comes in the experience of deep-down, soul-wrenching forgiveness. And I’ll do it all as part of a messy, broken, hypocritical, sometimes judgmental community that doesn’t always represent Jesus very well. I guess, when I’m honest with myself, I fit there better.

Categories: american christianity, Institutional Church, missional church, religious, spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Boston: Don’t Talk of Forgiveness

Like everyone else in the country, I’m angry, confused, sad, frustrated, and grieving. The evil revealed in Boston this week cuts deeply. I was born in Boston and have family there. I’ve been in contact with several of them and they are overwhelmed in the throes of this tragedy.

How many other parts of the U.S. have undergone similar experiences? I live in the Denver metropolitan area, and know this terror and anger firsthand. April 20, 1999 is forever etched in our hearts as we went through the shock of a massacre at Columbine High School—the same school district where my children were enrolled then. Then less than a year ago—July 20, 2012—a deranged young man enters a movie theater in another nearby suburb of Denver and opens fire, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Oh, yes, the emotions are powerful.

Inevitably, religious zealots appear on this Boston scene of horror and chaos. Some come with further hatred, but they are more readily dismissed. More difficult are the naïve religious zealots who talk of forgiveness. Really? Forgiveness for brutally killing 8-year-old Martin Richard who was guilty only of eating an ice-cream cone and watching the marathon with his family. Forgiveness for murdering Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old mathematics and statistics graduate student from China? Forgiveness for cruelly slaying Krystle Campbell, who was planning to celebrate her 30th birthday with her family in a couple of weeks? Forgiveness for the countless injuries—both physical and emotional? Forgiveness for callously hurling so many into the depths of fear, grief, and turmoil? Forgiveness for changing the lives of those who lost limbs, who were first to respond and help, who lived in abject terror as their city was locked down in martial law until a semblance of order could be restored?

Forgiveness? You’ve gotta be kidding. How can anyone realistically talk about forgiving that which is unforgiveable?

Which poses a bit of a dilemma for those of us in the church. Forgiveness is, in fact, the very cornerstone of our faith. It is our foundation, our identity; the core characteristic of the God that Jesus came to reveal in our broken world. We talk about the cross of Christ as the height of God’s commitment to forgiving the world. Granted, some talk about God’s forgiveness being conditional, based on one’s act of repentance and/or making a declaration of Jesus as savior. My “brand” of Christianity isn’t among those, however. I have preached with enthusiasm and vehemence that God’s forgiveness—like God’s love—is unconditional. It is simply who God is.

Now I, and others like me, have to again reconcile what we’ve been proclaiming with the reality of Boston. I find it less-than-compassionate to impose in Boston the extra burden of attempting forgiveness when the rawness of this tragedy still pains wounded hearts and limbs. So what can I say to those who take Christian faith seriously and—on top of everything else—now experience some sense of guilt for an inability to forgive the evil perpetrators of this horror?

Right now I say, “Don’t worry about it. God understands. God is as angry and as pained as you are. God is walking in the midst of the agony and the devastation with you. God holds you as you get through today.” I believe that is the Godliest thing to say and to do. Hold and comfort and walk with those who are hurting and trying to make any sense of what their lives now are. As long as it takes. With whatever it takes. Boston, we walk with you in your pain and in your grief.

And someday we’ll also walk with you in the difficult journey of forgiveness. Before you quit reading, it’s relevant to say that we’ve been misinformed about forgiveness. It doesn’t mean we pretend all’s well. It doesn’t mean we forget what has happened. It doesn’t mean we ignore the hurt and the grief and the loss we’ve experienced. The surviving perpetrator will never be our friend. We can feel angry, and in fact ought to. We can seek justice, and in fact ought to. Forgiveness doesn’t negate that, nor should it cause us to feel guilty for experiencing anger and justice. But it does mean that there is more than those feelings.

Forgiveness begins by recognizing that what has happened cannot be changed. There are those who’ve died, who’ve lost limbs, who have suffered loss. That is real. That is permanent. It is now part of our future from this day forward. Yes, anger is a necessary part of coming to terms with all that. Working to ensure those responsible are kept apart from society while attempting to keep such atrocities from happening again is what responsible people do. But nothing we do will ever change what happened this week in Boston.

I believe the hardest part of forgiveness (and the part that makes it divine—and therefore foreign to us) is the acceptance that God still loves those we hate. It is recognizing that the image of God is still in the other who has shown everything contrary to God in our midst. Those responsible for all this pain and terror in Boston were created by a God of love and life. That is hard to swallow. Accepting that is also not immediate. It is also not within our ability to choose. It is God’s work within us; and like so many things God does, it can take a long time.

I don’t think it’s helpful to be in a hurry to get there. God will work in us according to our own journey. That’s up to God. Where we fail isn’t in being angry or seeking justice and safety, it’s in clinging to our anger once God begins that work of moving us past it. Though the loss is permanent, the anger is not. Forgiveness means that we allow God to do what God does. It is God’s work in us; we do a disservice to those in Boston by suggesting they try to drum it up from within themselves.

Categories: Church in Context, faith practices, missional church, religious | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Church: The Practice Field for Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a nice word, isn’t it? It brings up images of reconciliation, restored relationships, people getting along, and everyone being nice. If only it was that easy. Forgiveness is, quite honestly, hard work. It doesn’t always happen quickly, nor does it always happen easily. It takes a desire to get better at it. It is anything but natural for us sinful human beings. And yet it is crucial for relationships as well as a witness about the nature of the God who is committed to forgiving us. We can continue to grow in our ability to forgive. It takes practice. The church is precisely the place to do so. The church, you see, is the practice field for forgiveness.

Forgive me (haha!) for using a sports metaphor here, but I believe it makes a good point. Using American football as a “for instance,” there is the practice field, and then there is the separate, official game field. The practice field gets used to hone skills, learn plays, and repeat them until they are automatic. This practice field is where you make mistakes, try again, and work at each skill until you get them all right. Then you take those refined skills to the official field and see how well you do in the real situation of a game against another team that will test how well you’ve practiced your skills. Then you’re back the next week at the practice field honing, refining, and practicing your skills even further.

Forgiveness is one of the skills that we work on as disciples of Jesus. We do so because it’s central to our life in Christ. We do so because it is the foundation of our relationship with God. We do so because forgiveness is the nature of God who created us, gives us life, and who holds us in constant forgiveness. To understand anything about God—to have anything to do with love—we have to understand something about forgiveness.

So we work at it. Within the community of the church we can practice, hone, refine, and learn the ways of forgiveness. Here in the family of faith we make our mistakes, we try again, and we work at forgiveness of each other. As we try this skill out in the world around us, the official game field, we have our forgiveness skills tested. Sometimes we find that it’s harder than we thought. So we come back, again and again, to the church. For it is here, on the practice field, that we hear, learn, experience, try, and grow in our practice of forgiveness. Here forgiveness is granted to us over and over. And here we get to try it out on each other and see how it works.

Even on the practice field forgiveness can be difficult. It is still hard work. But the crucified and risen Christ who lives in and among us accomplishes it. Through Christ forgiveness is the nature of the church.

The next posting on this site will provide some practice skills we can work at to hone our forgiveness.

Categories: religious, spiritual disciplines, spirituality | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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