Religion

The Trouble with Being Salt and Light

Hands streteched toward lights, pukach / Shutterstock.com

Hands streteched toward lights, pukach / Shutterstock.com

There was a time when calling someone “salt of the earth” was a compliment. It suggested a strong work ethic, moral integrity, and someone whose priorities were in proper order. Today, it seems like more of an insult than anything else.

When surveyed about what they wanted to be when they grow up, the most common response from a cohort of school-age children was “famous.” The response revealed nothing about personal passion or ambition, let alone anything about a greater need to be addressed within the larger community. It points to the fact that one of the most revered qualities in our culture is to be known. What you’re known for is less important than simply having people know who you are.

It would be easy to speak critically of a younger group of people who seem to be losing their orientation to a greater social moral compass, but this is a bellwether for where we seem to be headed. Shine brightly, get noticed and make a place for yourself.

But the thing is, the kind of light Jesus talked about is different.

Perception Is Reality

'Love' written on window in the rain, Wolf__ / Shutterstock.com

'Love' written on window in the rain, Wolf__ / Shutterstock.com

Let’s face it: we are an opinionated society.

We have entire television channels and radio stations dedicated to the propagation of one particular way of thinking. Some people like this channel because they are “more liberal” while others like this channel because they are “more conservative” and the rest of the world falls into the trap that we can be objective (read: ‘fair and balanced’).

We seek out opinions from everything from a new toaster to the new medical center in the area. We want to know people’s experiences about something before we waste our time, money and energy on a futile venture. If a product on Amazon has too many “one-star” reviews I am not going to purchase it. If my friends or family members have a bad experience at a restaurant or store then I will think twice about going there myself.

Sharing our opinions or perceptions is never easy. They can be met with great disdain or hostility. ESPN prides itself on these conflicts. Its marketing plan is to put four talking, opinionated heads in a room and ask a question that none of them can agree on like “Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?” or “Is Tom Brady overrated?”

Some of the greatest conflicts in the world’s history have been over difference of opinion. Governments have been shut down over difference of opinion. Trying to “change” someone’s opinion is hard if not impossible; for some people the “damage” is done and there is no turning back.

The church is not immune to this to this.

The Power of None

Empty seats, LU HUANFENG / Shutterstock.com

Empty seats, LU HUANFENG / Shutterstock.com

A couple years ago, a survey found that one in five Americans don’t identify with any religion. For Americans under 30, the number was far higher – more like one third. This report is being cited constantly throughout the religious-nonprofit world. In many quarters, there seems to be a deep sense of shock at the decline in religious membership.

Me? I’m not surprised at all. What does surprise me is our failure to see that affiliation with a traditional, God-centered religion is no longer the primary way that many Americans express their deeply rooted need for faith. We humans are relentlessly religious animals, and post-modern America is no exception. We’re just embracing a different kind of faith.

David Brooks and Religious Hostility: Tasting Goodness

Boundary illustration, Bohbeh/ Shutterstock.com

Boundary illustration, Bohbeh/ Shutterstock.com

In his New York Times column, Alone, Yet Not Alone,” David Brooks laments the “strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.” Even more disturbing for Brooks is that in his experience, the opinion of young people is too often justified. He observes that religious believers can be “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” and “out of touch,” and he wonders why that’s so. Brooks, who is Jewish, knows that the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who calls us toward a radical love that includes our enemies. As evidence of the core of orthodox belief, he offers two giants of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Augustine, who give testimony to lives of compassion and love inspired by devotion to the biblical God. Lives that tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty as essential components rather than disqualifiers of faith.

So what gives? Why do religious believers spend so much energy reinforcing their (our – I’m one of those orthodox believers) borders, building thicker and higher dividing walls designed to keep out the underserving, the sinners whom not even God can love? Just who is kept out varies widely, but it seems religious people are utterly convinced that they are on the inside with God. No doubt about it. Musing on this sad fact, Brooks comments:

There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.

Brooks is on to something here – there is something rooted in our “human makeup” that the Scriptures fervently oppose, but it is not legalism per se.

Breaking Out

Chick breaking out of a shell, S-F / Shutterstock.com

Chick breaking out of a shell, S-F / Shutterstock.com

Have you ever watched a chick break out of its shell?

My first experience with hatching was at the poultry barn at the Indiana State Fair. The building is the temporary home for hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons each summer. And they make quite a ruckus. There’s a constant din of crowing and honking and cooing and whatever other adjectives you care to apply. Colorful feathers drift through the air.

As you walk through the front door, there’s a protected case for baby birds that have just hatched. And there’s an incubator full of eggs that are slowly being pecked and pushed apart by the little ones inside.

If you have some time, you can stand and watch a miracle unfold, peck by peck.

It takes hours for the chick to work its way out of the shell, sometimes an entire day. A 4-H volunteer sits by the incubator and records each chick’s progress during the exhausting escape from the shell into the greater world.

The chick has spent its entire life in its protective shell. But now, the nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will die.

Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?

When Christians Love Theology More Than People

Holding hands, Mats Bergström / Shutterstock.com

Holding hands, Mats Bergström / Shutterstock.com

Beyond the realm of churches, religious blogs, and bible colleges, nobody really cares about theology. What does matter is the way you treat other people.

Within Christendom, we’re often taught the exact opposite: that doctrines, traditions, theologies, and distinct beliefs are the only things that do matter. It’s what separates churches, denominations, theologians, and those who are “saved” and “unsaved.”

Historically, Christians have been tempted to categorize the Bible into numerous sets of beliefs that are either inspired or heretical, good or bad, right or wrong — with no room for doubt or questioning or uncertainty.

It’s easy to get caught up in theorizing about God, but within our everyday lives reality is what matters most to the people around us. Theorizing only becomes important once it becomes relevant and practical and applicable to our lives.

When I'm sick, and you bring me a meal, I don't care whether you're a Calvinist or Arminian

Wanted: A New Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom

RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with Suzan Johnson. RNS photo courtesy of U.S. State Department

WASHINGTON — It’s been three months since the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook resigned as the State Department’s religious freedom watchdog, and those who decry religious persecution in Syria, Sudan, and elsewhere are wondering how long it’s going to take the White House to name a new ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

Many in the field hope it’s someone with a more diplomatic background than Johnson Cook, a former Clinton administration official and popular Baptist minister whose international experience was mostly acquired on the job.

The other factor: the more than two years it took for the Obama administration to choose Johnson Cook and to get her confirmed by the Senate.

“A continued vacancy will confirm the suspicion that already exists among foreign governments, persecutors, victims and American diplomats that the issue is not a priority,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

The White House has been tight-lipped about the timeline for a decision, as well as about any candidates it may be considering for the position, which Congress created in 1998 to highlight and alleviate religious persecution worldwide.

Here’s a short list of five names swirling around Foggy Bottom, culled from experts who work in the field and were asked who they see as likely to be under consideration, or as particularly qualified for the job.

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