Tuesday, July 3, 2012

on being a Christian

Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone), by Sebastiano Conca

Well, I suppose almost everyone -- in my corner of the world at least -- is aware by now of the scandal currently rocking a certain local non-denominational church. Its founding pastor and several other key members have been charged with alleged misuse of church funds amounting to millions of dollars, a substantial part of which allegedly financing the pastor's wife's secular music career.

The court case is ongoing, and I certainly don't want to add to the virulent condemnation that's circulating. But it would be dishonest of me to say that I've not had my own... um... thoughts on the subject. Well, alright, the fact is, I feel... aggravated... when things like this happen. We're supposed to be
Christians -- you know, salt of the earth, light of the world, and all that.

Goodness knows I have no right to judge anyone; indeed, Scripture rightly tells us to "be merciful (sympathetic, tender, responsive, and compassionate) even as your Father is [all these]. Judge not [neither pronouncing judgment nor subjecting to censure], and you will not be judged; do not condemn and pronounce guilty, and you will not be condemned and pronounced guilty".

As Christians, we are called to be witnesses for Christ, and I believe the cogency of our witness is shown in how we live our lives. The apostle Paul writes that in everything Christians do, "you may show yourselves to be blameless and guileless, innocent and uncontaminated, children of God without blemish (faultless, unrebukable) in the midst of a crooked and wicked generation [spiritually perverted and perverse], among whom you are seen as bright lights (stars or beacons shining out clearly) in the [dark] world".

Over a year ago, I shared my thoughts on being effective Christian witnesses. "I'm not so sure about just going up to random people and launching into a whole spiel about how great Christianity is and why you need to be good and save your soul," I'd written. "Honestly, I really think people who aren't seeking God just won't want to stop and listen to you.

"BUT, they might stop and watch you, and they'll see if you live a holy life, if you really are a witness for Christ, if you actually walk the walk...

"Matthew 7:16 says 'You will fully recognise them by their fruits'. Do people recognise us Christians by our fruits, the way we live? Sadly, I don't think that's always so. I think it would be so much better to do as St. Francis of Assisi said:
Preach the gospel always -- if necessary use words" (the entire post is here).

Then horribly, when the news first broke, a friend sent me a video of the pastor's sermon from some years back. "You've got to have an outward lifestyle that matches what you believe and teach others", he said. "Don't just talk the talk, walk the walk! In other words, don't just go around [saying,] 'Hallelujah, I know who I am, I know my authority in Christ...' but now, live it out -- hunger and thirst for righteousness. Don't just go to church [saying] 'I'm a Christian' and then cheat in your taxes, commit adultery, cheat your business partners, lie...".

My agnostic friend had sent it to me with all the sardonicism one can capture in the single word of his email title: "Hm". Well yeah! HM!!! I was hm-ing as much as the next non-Christian sneering at another apparent instance of Christian failure -- the misuse of funds is right up there with other vile "activities" like sexual abuse and hate groups.
I don't wonder that author Anne Rice described Christians as being, among other things, "deservedly infamous" (she had actually become a Christian after being an atheist for much of her adult life).

After publicly "quitting" Christianity on Facebook, she wrote there, "My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following his followers.

"Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become".

Well, when scandals like this happen, it's almost a given that any Christian with non-Christian friends is going to feel at least a little backlash. For example, my agnostic cousin was quick to ask how I knew what my own church does with my tithes. I replied that the church does have a full statement of accounts, independently audited and freely available for members to review. He said they could be doctored. Well, fine then, what else can I say?! The fact remains I am tithing in good faith; our church supports itself and I am happy to contribute to its missions and outreach programs that aid the poor and needy.

The public failings of individual Christians often give rise to the censure of Christians and Christianity as a whole. So today I get sent this long article which first touches on the scandal, then goes on to disparage the crazy Christians who contributed to it, which then leads to an entire denunciation of crazy Christians who do and say crazy things that put off their non-Christian friends. Things like, "You'll go to hell because you're not a Christian", or "If you love me, you'd become a Christian".

Unfortunately, what the non-Christian hearer -- even the one who claims to have read the Bible -- doesn't get, is that these are simply imperfect humans with an imperfect notion of Christianity, who oftentimes didn't even become Christians for the right reasons. They haven't truly sought or experienced God, haven't really taken the time to get to know Him and His Word. And it does take time -- years and years really, perhaps a whole lifetime.

With such an incomplete grasp of Christianity -- especially if they're young -- how can one expect them to be convincing witnesses, to effectively represent the faith in their everyday lives? And so they put off their non-Christian friends with immature, sometimes even inane, words and behaviour (I have never forgotten the Christian girl who told my cousin in college that she didn't believe in dinosaurs because they're not in the Bible).

The fact is, if Christians really lived the Christian life as Christ defined it -- as actual disciples -- our lives in and of themselves would be compelling enough. "A new command I give you," Jesus said. "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34).

Or as the apostle John wrote, "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love" (
1 John 4:7-8).

I am reminded of a wonderful series of sermons delivered by Pastor Andy Stanley aptly entitled Christian. In elaborating on Jesus' "new command" to his early disciples, "[Jesus said], 'I want you to create a community of people that are defined and characterised by that kind of unconditional, generous, compassionate, ridiculous, who-would-do-that kind of love. I want people on the outside to come to the edge, unafraid that you're going to ask them to do something, that you're going to drag them in, that you're going to accuse them of something.

"I want them to be able to look at your community and say, 'Look at how the men treat the women. Look at how the women treat the men. Look at how they treat widows. Look at how they treat sick people. Look at how they even honour children... Look at how they love each other.

"Can you imagine what would happen in our families, in our nation? What would it look like in your world to love people the way that Jesus loves you... Imagine what would happen if we just got this one thing right. [People would look at us and say,] 'I'm not sure I believe, but I'd like to be a part of that', and 'I don't feel coerced; I feel drawn'" (listen to this excellent sermon here).

If censorious non-Christians, who in their youth, or arrogance, or both, were surrounded by Christians whose lives were truly defined by love, who loved not "[merely] in theory or in speech but in deed and in truth (in practice and in sincerity)", I wonder if they would still spout their sarcastic, irreverent questions and cynical, scornful observations.

I don't think you become a Christian because all your profound questions -- "If God is all powerful, why is there suffering?" -- get answered to your satisfaction; or because of what you think having divine connections can do for you; or even because you're afraid to go to hell.

I think you become a Christian because you realise that love and service are what define real life, and a blessed life. The revelation of God, I believe, comes with time and experience; the more you seek God, the more His goodness and faithfulness become apparent in your life.

Well, in the immediate hm-ing that followed the news, I realised that part of the reason there were people who simply presumed the pastor guilty, was the fact that his wife's secular music career was very... well... secular (I mean, it's hard to see her shaking her booty to such intriguing lyrics as "Mix da china wine with di dutty wine", and not... wonder). But I felt very convicted for thinking even vaguely judgmentally, and went to church the following morning with a troubled heart.

And my pastor spoke directly to me without even realising it: "When a brother is down, pray for God's mercy on him. If there's one thing this has shown us, it's that we must pursue more godliness and righteousness in our lives. This has shown us the importance of living godly lives, and always seeking God first. But don't cast the first stone".


Brooke said...

Wow! Preach it sister! I love this posy. Amen and Amen. May our lives produce the kind of fruit that entices others! To Him be the glory.

Beth said...

That was a truly inspired post, Janice. Thank you. And Amen.

Unknown said...

Wow, well thought out post. I especially liked the quote you shared by St. Francis of Assisi. Ultimately we are saved by grace, sinners in need of a savior. We're not any more righteous than the next person apart from Christ. But it is hurtful to the church and non-believers when a leader fails.


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