Like Dung on a Diamond

Warning: The following blog will be a little religious rambling…

I like to think of myself as a student of culture – mostly religious culture – well, mostly Christian culture – because that’s the world I live in. As a student of Christian culture, I’m noticing two interesting shifts.

One of the shifts getting a decent amount of attention within the Christian subculture is deconstruction. Depending on your particular theological perspective, deconstruction is either seen as a positive or negative practice.

From the negative point of view, folks view deconstruction as trading in Christian moral values for secular ideals. In other words, you can’t be involved in deconstruction and be a good Christian. This point of view is built on the foundation of absolute truth – and unchecked authority of fallible human leaders. Questions, doubts and searching for answers outside the approved platforms is seen as a threat to the institution.

From the positive point of view, folks view deconstruction as peeling away those unhelpful things that have been added to the Gospel message of Jesus. Folks find themselves questioning things that have been sold as “absolute truth.” They find themselves questioning the unchecked authority of their leaders. They find themselves questioning, doubting and searching for answers that lead them to resources outside the approved platforms.

I, for one, benefited from deconstruction over 25 years ago. Through a series of questions, doubts and searching for answers, I discovered that the heart of Jesus and the foundation of His message is simple…Love.

To get to that point, I had to weed through a lot of the legalistic values that were drilled into my understanding of faithful religious practice…”don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do, and don’t dance.” While these rules made us well-behaved Christians, they really missed the heart of Jesus – and took some great interpretive liberties with Scripture. You see, I found myself in a spot where the messages I was hearing conflicted with the message of Jesus I was discovering in the Bible.

The process of deconstruction was very lonely. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my questions and doubts because everyone around me seemed so certain. I didn’t talk about some of conflicts I saw between the Bible and the religious practice of the American Church because everyone seemed to just buy into it. I felt like there was something wrong with me.

Then, in the late nineties, I attended a conference and heard Brian McLaren address some of the very questions, doubts and conflicts I was wrestling with. I felt a certain freedom and immediate community with others who were attempting to scale back a great deal of the unnecessary baggage that had been imposed on Christianity. A couple of years later, I sat in a hotel suite with Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Andrew Jones (we were in a suite because the convention center for the conference was maxed out on space…the whole experience was a trip…as Doug Pagitt gave his seminar while relaxing on a king-size bed), and found more kindred spirits. At last, I felt the freedom and permission to pursue Jesus without all of the strings attached.

Today, many evangelicals are working their way through the process of deconstruction. The last 5-8 years, especially within American evangelical Christianity, have revealed the unhealthy joining of political platforms and religion. Many devoted evangelical leaders have convinced their followers that allegiance to a particular political party trumps all other allegiances (including, but not limited to, Jesus).

Pair this with the moral failure of far too many evangelical “celebrity pastors” (which, that whole concept is problematic), the narrow focus on “absolute truth” (which is defined by fallible humans), and the desire to hold positions of power (and control), the movement has unintentionally created the perfect platform for deconstruction.

And, that just scratches the surface of the deep dive many deconstructionists are taking.

There’s a metaphorical story that is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and has been retold by countless theologians and missiologists, that compares the Gospel to a diamond on a dung hill. So, the diamond sits on top of the dung hill and begins rolling down. Eventually, there’s more dung than diamond. But, underneath all the filth of the dung, there’s still a diamond. At some point, someone comes along and cleans the dung off the diamond and discovers something beautiful.

Deconstruction should not be feared. Deconstruction is the practice of cleaning the dung off the diamond. Through deconstruction, people are able to get back to the heart of the Gospel and discover that so much of what we’ve added to our religious practice has been more harmful and hurtful than helpful. When the excess is removed, something beautiful can be rediscovered.

The other shift is in response to deconstruction. As American evangelical leaders see folks rejecting what they have created, as they see folks questioning their system, as they see increasing numbers of folks walking away from the faith, they have doubled down.

Rather than using this rise in deconstruction as an opportunity for inward reflection and institutional evaluation and renewal, far too many are simply adding to the legalistic expectations of their folks. They are calling for stronger ties to political platforms, as they believe the long-term sustainability of their institution is directly tied to the success of their preferred political party. In many ways, they are attempting to smear more dung onto the diamond.

For those evangelicals deconstructing, here’s a suggestion from an old dude who began his season of deconstruction over 25 years ago…find a mainline congregation in your neighborhood. Listen, I know that mainliners have been viewed as “wishy washy” Christians, but let this be a place of healing and hope.

You see, while the style of worship will most likely be incredibly different than what you are used to (because, let’s be honest, if there’s one thing the evangelicals do well, it’s offering excellent contemporary worship), the theology, doctrine and commitment to both personal holiness and social justice will be refreshing. The commitment to creating a safe and welcoming place for all people will be refreshing. A focus on love and grace over legalism will be refreshing.

I believe there is hope to be found in Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox and Mainline churches (and any other churches I failed to mention).

I believe God can and does use all kinds of Christian churches (conservative, moderate and progressive) to reach people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But, I just want to be sure that those going through a season of deconstruction know that there are safe and welcoming places for you. Much of what I hear my friends deconstructing their faith say they are looking for can be found in existing congregations. You aren’t alone. You don’t have to start from scratch. Having a supportive community around you while you go through this journey is important. There’s nothing wrong with questions and doubts…that’s often how we grow.

There’s nothing wrong with getting the dung off the diamond.

The Asterisk Christian

Growing up, my parents, teachers, school administrators, pastors, coaches, and generally anyone in a position of leadership, authority or influence taught me that “honesty is the best policy.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that for far too many, “honesty” has numerous interpretations and definitions. For many, whether in the Church, the political or business sphere, a commitment to honesty should probably come with an asterisk (*).

“The whole truth and nothing but the truth,” seems to be lacking in our world today. We tell the parts of the truth that we are comfortable telling. We tell the parts of the truth that won’t convict us. We tell the parts of the truth that make us look like the hero…or the victim when that may be advantageous.

We hear leaders, in the Church, in business and politics boldly proclaim, “I didn’t do it.” Then, when it is revealed that they did do it, the defense is, “Well, I did it. But, no one was injured and it wasn’t illegal.” Then, when it is revealed that someone was injured and it was illegal, the defense is, “Well, sure that person was injured and it was illegal, but ‘so-and-so’ did it too!”

As followers in the way of Jesus, I believe an essential characteristic should be a commitment to telling the truth. Being upfront, honest and leading with integrity should be a “no brainer.” However, it’s not always the case.

One of the ways I’ve seen this played out in the Church is the “old bait and switch.”

We present an image of welcome, inclusion and hospitality, but…

And, whatever follows the “but” is generally going to be less than welcoming, inclusive or hospitable.

So, I think churches should just be honest and start adding some asterisks to various statements.

All are welcome.*

We love you.*

Everyone has a place at our table.*

Because, let’s be honest for a moment, so many pastors and congregations proclaim, “all are welcome.” However, do we truly mean “all?” Do we mean the person who we just spent 30-minutes preaching a sermon condemning their lifestyle? Do we mean the person we just avoided in the parking lot because of their outward appearance? Do we mean the person who votes differently than we do? Do we mean the person who makes us uncomfortable? Do we mean the young teenage parents who came looking for assistance?

You see, if we were simply honest and utilized the power of the asterisk, we could eliminate some confusion.

I had a friend who was really engaged in a “hip and trendy” congregation. The music was awesome. The messages were inspiring. But, as my friend started getting more involved, he also started digging deeper. As he began to ask questions and read through the hard to find statements of belief, he discovered that what was being presented on Sunday morning wasn’t quite consistent with the foundational beliefs of the church.

But, he still enjoyed the fellowship of the community. He still enjoyed the music. He still found the messages inspirational. But, he couldn’t shake the whole idea that something was being pulled over on him. He shared with me, “I mean, I started to discover that the messages were inspiring, yet the pastors were saying a lot without saying anything at all. They never just came right out and said, ‘this is what we believe.’ Things were always a little wishy-washy and the leaders were non-committal when asked direct questions. I just wish they would be honest.”

Now, to give some grace, I’m sure they weren’t intentionally being dishonest. They just knew what subjects to avoid. And, to be honest, I’ve been guilty of the exact same thing. I’ve played the, “you need to pray about this and come to your own conclusion” card. I’ve used the non-committal tactic of saying, “well, some people believe this about that,” without revealing what I or my denomination believe about this or that.

My friend shared that the leaders in the church would proclaim, “All are welcome,” but then had a very strong statement on traditional marriage. So, would members of the LGBT community feel welcome if they knew the church leaders didn’t recognize the validity of their relationship? That’s a really difficult one that we are navigating in the United Methodist Church right now. If we say “all people are of sacred worth,” but then follow that statement with clarifications…do we really believe “all people are of sacred worth?”

As another example, my friends church would proclaim, “Everyone has a seat at the table,” but then had a very clear statement limiting the role of women in ministry. So, you are welcome to participate. You can sit next to your husband. But, please, know your role. Hmm…

I believe that asterisk Christianity limits our capacity to love as Jesus calls us to love. While I believe the use of an asterisk could be helpful in communicating what a church really believes, I am one who believes the Church should be looking for ways to erase our asterisks…we should be looking for ways to eliminate our “buts…”

In the continued spirit of honesty, every church, even my church…perfect as it may be…has asterisks and “buts.” We all have to do the deep dive to determine what our asterisks and “buts” happen to be. Then, we need to submit and surrender our asterisks and “buts” to God.

People will argue and say, “We need to show tough love. Those asterisks and ‘buts’ are there for a reason. We have to be strong in our message against sin. We have to be faithful to my preferred interpretation of God’s Word.”

The reality is, we use our asterisks and “buts” as a tool to exclude and divide. We use our asterisks and “buts” as a way to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

I would suggest that maybe we should be committed to following in the way of Jesus. He was never one to pull the old bait and switch. Jesus was someone who followed the wisdom my grandmother has often shared, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

If we compare Jesus to asterisk Christianity…who did Jesus exclude? Who did he include? Who was he harsh with? Who was he gentle with?

Asterisk Christians tend to be harsh with those Jesus showed compassion, patience, grace, mercy and love.

Asterisk Christians tend to be gentle with those Jesus was harsh and critical.

Jesus was direct and a bit harsh with the law and order crowd. His “woe to you statements” were directed at the religious elite. When he said “your hearts are far,” he was addressing those who were most interested in keeping up appearances. He pointed out to the pious religious that they were misguided, they were missing the point, they were out of line. He called them out for imposing legalistic rules and regulations they weren’t willing to follow.

Yes, he addressed sin…but, he did so with love, grace, gentleness and inclusion. Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well was controversial- his disciples were confused and maybe a bit offended when they found him talking to her. When Jesus ate with tax collectors and notorious sinners, it drove the religious crowd nuts. But, he approached those who needed him most with gentleness, love and grace. This, and not the legalistic judgment of the religious elite, is what led to transformation.

These days, asterisk Christian’s are too concerned about not offending those Jesus offended. As a result, we’ve focused on offending those Jesus offered love, grace, peace and comfort. We aren’t bold in prophetic words because it might disrupt the status quo. We don’t address institutional sin because it might negatively impact the offering. So, we direct our attention to “those people” because it’s safe.

We talk about LGBT issues, but are quiet when it comes to adultery and divorce. We talk about abortion, but are quiet about capital punishment and war. We talk about family values, but ignore the care of our creation. We talk about school curriculum and book bans, but are silent about providing food, shelter and affordable healthcare.

Asterisk Christians are too often focused on comfort and the status quo…that reflects very little of the risk-taking nature of the kind of faith Jesus demonstrated. He called us to shoulder our cross…but we’re too busy focusing on the plank in our neighbors eyes.

Maybe the first steps to removing our asterisks involve a radical commitment to loving God, loving our neighbors and even loving our enemies?

I know I have plenty of asterisks and “buts.” But, I plan on doing the hard work of submitting and surrendering those asterisks and “buts” so I can love others well.