Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Darling you gotta
let me know

Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I'll be here 'til the end of time
So you got to let know
Should I stay or should I go?

Always tease tease tease
You're happy when I'm on my knees
One day is fine, next is black
So if you want me off your back
Well come on and let me know

Should I stay or should I go?
This indecision’s bugging me
If you don’t want me, set me free
Exactly who’m I’m supposed to be

Don’t know which clothes even fit me
Come on and let me know

Should I cool it or should I blow?

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
An' if I stay it will be double

So come on and let me know
The Clash
This is part one of a two part article.  Actually, this is almost more of a journal entry (a very long journal entry).  I'm going to bare some very deep things here in hopes they resonate with some of you. (Good thing nobody actually reads this blog, huh?).

The catalyst that converted this from thoughts that have been bouncing around into my head into an actual article was a recent discussion with one of my dearest Universalist friends.  Rhonda challenged me concerning remaining an active member of my church.  I think the reasons for her challenges were numerous (and we'll get into the gory details later).  The point was that she brought back to mind some things that have been bouncing around in my head for a long time and particularly since I fully embraced Universalism over a year ago now.  Some say that Universalists aren't "true Christians".  So, am I a true Christian anymore?  If I'm not, should I be playing church?

As I was pondering this, this old song from the Clash came to mind. "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"
It's been stuck in my head for about a week now.  And, if you're old enough to remember it and you're not careful, it's probably going to get stuck in yours.  The lyrics pretty accurately sum up what I've been feeling about the church for a while and maybe even about Christianity.  One day it's fine, the next it's black.  If I go there will be trouble.  If I stay it will be double. 

Some Background

I should let you that in many ways I am a black and white thinker.  I tend to take the smallest thing that has gone wrong and turn it into something major.  If I have a toothache, surely I will need a root canal. If I have a headache, it must be a stroke.  But, when it comes to understanding that no relationship in this world will ever be perfect, I think I've got a pretty good handle on that.  My wife and I have a fantastic relationship. It's not perfect and that's fine.  We work at it and make it better day-by-day (been doing that for 15 years now).  That's what marriage is all about.  My best friend and I have a
great relationship.  It's not perfect.  But, I still talk to him and I don't go out and look for a new best friend that will be 100% compatible with me.  That guy doesn't exist.  Honestly, I'm not even 100% compatible with myself. There are things about me that I really just don't like.   I can't chuck in the relationship with myself.  So, what can I expect from relationships with others other than something at least a little less than perfect?  Many Christians seem to apply an impossible standard to "church shopping".  They expect the fallible members of the church to behave as if each of them is Jesus
Christ himself.  They want perfect doctrine (perfect from their POV that is).  If things aren't perfect, they move on to the next church or declare the entire system corrupt and drop out.  Among the Universalists I hang out with on-line, many of them are "unchurched".  They have dropped out of churches because they can't find one that meets their standards.  This is not a criticism.  It's simply an

Christian Universalists seem to have a difficult time finding a place to fit in.  I dropped out of church for several years (beginning about 25 years ago).  I just lost the motivation to go.  I couldn't see what good attending church was doing for me or what the church was doing to contribute to anyone other than the people sitting in the pews every week.  So, if I preferred to play golf on a Sunday morning. That's what I did.  For me, that was the best decision at the time and I have no regrets about what I did.  When I did return to the church, it was with a new attitude.  I first came back because I hoped maybe I could (in some small way) make a difference there.  Then, when I moved to Cincinnati almost 9 years ago, I found the Vineyard and church became a whole new things for me.  The church I attend is a dynamic, joyful and highly impactful place.  Even though thousands of people attend (probably in the 10,000 range, I'm guessing), I actually am on a first name basis with the Senior Pastor and know several of the pastors on staff.  If they are not sincere about their mission to make Cincinnati a better
place, to serve God and their love for Jesus, they collectively and individually deserve an Oscar.  I know many people are skeptical about paid ministers and I've seen my share of phonies and share some of that skepticism. But, because there are a lot of not-so-great and even downright crooked ministers doesn't mean none of them are sincere.  The Vineyard is a "community church" which really didn't mean much to me until recently when someone pointed out that a lot of what we do could be handled in a community center.  I always thought of VCC (Vineyard Community Church) as just our name.  But, the church has so many outreaches and provides so many services to the surrounding community that it really does function as a "community center".  I'll name just a few to give you an idea:  Hispanic Outreach Ministry, Divorce Support Groups, Sexual Addiction Groups, BiPolar Parents Support, Mercy Works (give away food, clothing, etc.), Job Counseling, providing facilities for meetings for local non-profits, Premarital Counseling, etc., etc., etc.  When I give my money to the Vineyard, I really feel like I'm giving money to a good cause, not just so that we can build a bigger building or pay the pastors more money.  I feel truly blessed to have found such a place. I like being a part of that.

So What's the Problem?

I've found this great place to attend; no more than attend- belong (as much as I've ever belonged anywhere). So, why the "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" drama?  I'm having trouble figuring out how to explain this.  While I do believe that in any relationship there will never be perfect compatibility, there does come a time when the two parties are better off going their separate ways. Irreconcilable differences do happen.  The trick is knowing when the relationship is salvageable and when it's time to part company.  Memories of the good times aren't enough to continue a relationship indefinitely.  If the two parties have grown far enough apart and are growing farther apart, reality should be faced.

So, where does the relationship between Christianity and Brian stand?  Where does the relationship between the church and Brian stand?

These are the questions I'm wrestling with.  And while the questions might be related, they are
certainly not one in the same.  Leaving the church does not mean turning my back on Christianity or (as some would have me believe on God).  One can leave the church without leaving God and I believe one can even have a relationship with God without being in the Christian box.

The "church" and Brian

Let's address the issues between the "church" and me.  The problem is growing incompabilities with some church "doctrines".  Most prevalent is universalism versus Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT).  Honestly, ECT is not talked about much at our church.  I don't know if that's done purposely to dodge a
potentially explosive issue or if it's just not foremost in most people's minds.  I once heard that our Founding Pastor might be a universalist (which I am repeating, but with the caveat that this is completely unsubstantiated). Even if that were true, for a pastor to admit that in most church climates is tantamount to professional suicide. See my article on Carlton Pearson (a fellow heretic).  So, if it is true, I wouldn't blame him for playing it close to the vest.  The problem is I don't know how the leadership of our church feels about this extremely (I'd even call it critical) doctrine.  If you believe in
a God who can Eternally and Consciously Torment people, you have a vastly different view of God from the loving Creator I have come to know.  This view will impact how you view other people, how you view yourself and; ultimately people will act like the god they serve.  Also, as a lay member doing ministry at the church, I don't know how much to say or not to say about how I feel about this.  When, I'm teaching, I can and do preach the party line. But, it creates an uncomfortable dynamic wondering
how various people would react if they knew about my not so secret "secret".  I have shared my views with members of the staff in person and in writing. I'm not completely hiding in the closet.   But, I
don't feel like I can completely be myself either.

Once you embrace Universalism, it's like opening Pandora's box. This is one of those cases where the slippery slope argument applies (I reluctantly admit).  You have to face some pretty scary facts.  1.) You can't read everything in our (poor) translations of the Bible literally and know exactly what was meant.  There was an agenda at play when many words were translated (words like eternal and hell).  2.) The church has changed its position on things over the millenia. What we are taught is infallible, unchanging true doctrine wasn't the prevailing doctrine say 1500 years ago. 3.) What you've been taught about the purpose of Jesus' death might have to be rethought.  Did Jesus come to die to save us from Eternal Conscious Torment?  How does God get around the fact that not everyone will have heard of or accepted Jesus in this life?  4.) If you're a Christian Universalist, you might rethink the necessity or validity of trying to recruit people from other faiths/traditions into  your particular understanding of Jesus.

Another major change for me, not directly related to Universalism is my view of "original sin" and how God views us.  Basically, I was taught that we are "evil" to the core.  Because of Adam's original
sin, we are born opposed to God and headed (suppsedly deservedly so) straight for Hell.  I've addressed this other places. So, I won't rehash the whole thing here.  But, suffice it to say I can't buy into this anymore.  I find this whole doctrine deplorable and destructive.  I love going to church on Sunday mornings and worshipping with others, singing songs to God and listening to the message. But, I'm conflicted.  Some of the songs can be "salvaged" in my mind because they express even deeper truths than perhaps even the authors realized. I'll sing them with gusto knowing I interpret
them completely differently than the guy next to me.  But, many are simply incompatible with my
new found beliefs.  The same can be said for the sermons.  I find the vast majority uplifting and even enlightening. But, parts of them make me want to run from the room screaming (or at least stick my
fingers in my ears).  Then, there is the issue of my children and what they're being taught.  I want them to be educated in "the faith".  But, I'm concerned about toxic lessons like the one referred to in my post  "Original Sin- My Fault or God's?" .  My youngest came home with another just last week about how just a little sin pollutes.  Sure, that's true.  But, a lesson like that taught to a six year old can screw
her up for life (I speak from personal experience).  I discussed this with my wife this past weekend.  She says it's our responsibility to straighten the kids out on the wrong stuff they are taught.  But, should we be sending them to learn lessons that we then have to correct?

I addressed the good things about the church I attend.  It really is a great place.  I can't imagine a much better Christian church.  If they preached Universalism, that'd go a long way toward making it a better place for me.  But, we can't have everything. So, how much is enough? What incompatibilities are intolerable?  In part 2 of this article, I'll introduce you to my friend Rhonda.  Rhonda and I were discussing this inertia we often feel that keeps us from moving forward.  We talked about the "voices" from our past that whisper (or scream) danger as we think about exploring new territory.  One thing that cults are very good at is warning the people they pull in about the dissension they'll hear from people outside the cult.  They tell you that everyone else is trying to mislead you and not to fall for the
tricks of Satan.  This is a very effective strategy for keeping people in the fold.  Even as I feel the call within my spirit to break free of some of the things I was taught, the "voices" shout "Danger Will Robinson!".  So, I wrestle with which voices are mine, which are those of the authority figures from my past and which are "Satan" luring me down the path to destruction.  Meditation helps sort the whole thing out as I try to still all of the voices and hear the still small one (actually silent) that is deep within.  But, I can tell you, the "voices" don't like it.  They don't like it at all and they fight tooth and
nail to maintain control.  

Christianity and Brian

The issues with Christianity are similar to, but not identical to the issues with the church.  While I can no longer accept "traditional" Christianity, my studies of Bible and church history have both given me hope that I can remain a Christian and, at the same time, made me wonder if I should.  The good news is the "original" Christianity has been corrupted.  So, not everything the church teaches today is necessarily "authentic" Christianity.  The Bible has been translated absolutely horribly.  Learning the original meanings of words and learning to read the Bible in historical-social context has made it much more palatable and, more importantly, believable to me.  The more I hear about the true meanings of
Jesus' teachings, the more impressed I am with Him.  But, the bad news is Christianity has been corrupted.  Yes, you read that right.  I said the good news and the bad news are one in the same.  The fact that Christianity has been corrupted make me wonder if it's really the "true faith".  I was reading another blogger's post the other day where he referenced a quote by C.S. Lewis, my favorite Christian apologist.  Lewis said all other religions are either previews of Christianity or perversions of Christianity (not a statement I would necessarily agree with).  But, as I pondered this, I thought
"Maybe Christianity is a perversion of Jesus' religion."  After all, I do not believe that Jesus' mission here on Earth was to establish a new religion.  Jesus was a Jew.

So, what can I salvage out of this perverted Christian faith?  Is my faith similar enough to Christianity to continue to use the label?  Many would say not.  I am exploring other faiths/philosophies and have found an amazing amount of similarities in some and some things in other faiths that I think Christianity has failed to adequately address.  I am particularly intrigued by Buddhism and find the Buddha's teachings (many of them anyway) to be remarkably similar to Jesus'.  I have found great wisdom in the Tao Te Ching.  And meditation (Contemplative Prayer or Centering Prayer) has been a life-saver for me.

The "Voices"

Before you get too worried, I'm not talking about literal voices in my head.  But, the "voices" are all of those "shoulds" from parents, teachers, pastors, etc. in the past.  Some of us internalize them better than others; leading to a situation where we can barely separate their voices from our own.  Honestly, this is the case with me.  So, moving forward can be particularly difficult for me.  Adding to those voices are other more recent or even current voices (from other people who would like to influence me).  Those voices tell me to chuck the whole thing. If "they" told you one thing (or many things) that are wrong, everything they told  you must be wrong.  They would like me to toss out the baby with the bath water, the bath tub, the bath room and the whole house. 

This is not an all-or-nothing proposition, in my mind.  It would be just as wrong for me to chuck everything I've been taught, ignore thousands of years of history, wisdom and tradition and try to build my own thing from scratch as it would be to uncritically accept the whole thing.  So, again, the key to me is to try to still all of the voices and listen to the Voice within.

Losing My Religion

Yes, the bottom line is I am losing my religion (another song that keeps looping in my head).  The religion of my youth is quickly fading into the past which brings a verse to mind.  This is from the Young's Literal Translation which l like best for this verse:

What's bizarre (actually, I think it's just God working or synchronicity or whatever you want to call it) is that as this article has been formulating in my mind over the past weeks, as always, my reading (books, blogs, etc.) and everything seems to be converging on one thought. God deals with each of us uniquely.  I must personally seek and find Him, not follow someone else's impression of Him.  From Henri Nouwen's Reaching Out, to Finding Jesus, Discovering Self  (two books which I'm reading in
parallel) to even a line from the sermon Sunday morning (If you were made free, by your death
with Christ, from the rules of the world, why do you put yourselves under the authority of orders? (Colossians 2:20)
, everything has been telling me to stop looking for God in a box, stop looking for
formulas and find my own Path.

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