Spirituality

The Fake Church v. the Real Church

Imposter illustration, Scott Maxwell / LuMaxArt / Shutterstock.com
Imposter illustration, Scott Maxwell / LuMaxArt / Shutterstock.com

The “secular world” has liars and thieves, adulterers, cheaters, and hypocrites. It’s a place full of child molesters, domestic abusers, and addicts. Where loneliness is rampant, mental illness is on the rise, and individuals routinely try to numb their pain via drugs, alcohol, and sex. Divorce is everywhere, pornography infects the minds of millions, and infidelity occurs on a regular basis.

The church often presents itself as an alternative to the “real world,” a place where these things don’t exist.

Many churches refuse to admit that these problems are affecting them. In reality, there is little statistical difference between Christians and non-Christians relating to these issues. Christians don’t receive a special pass that protects them from experiencing mental illness, suffering, struggling with addiction, abusing other people, being abused, or failing.

Our faith in Christ gives us hope and strength and courage, but it doesn’t erase reality, and it isn’t meant to create a flawless utopia where we can escape from the world’s problems. But many churches attempt to do just that — trying to create the perception of perfection.

In some church communities, there is the appearance that porn, sexual abuse, and rampant sin don’t exist. Even non-sinful things (mental illness, poverty, etc.) are treated as stigmas that are intentionally shunned. This is often misinterpreted as holiness — it’s not.

The Church of the Long Haul

WHICH SCRIPTURES WILL our biases tempt us to sidestep this month? Perhaps 2 Timothy? Not usually the favorite of radicals. Whether actually written by Paul just before his death or worked up later by followers, the letter has a certain poignancy, suggesting the waning of Christianity’s pioneer phase. The church is in for the long haul. Its faith needs to find forms that can be transmitted across generations. It needs patient leadership that will be consistent in the face of inauthentic mutations of the gospel, religious imposters, and the distraction of futile controversies—hence the emphasis on sound teaching, the internalized treasure of the creed.

Let’s honor this recognition within scripture itself that the gospel needs institutions. The church must even risk banality in some of its teaching practices. A great interpreter of the Christian mystical tradition, Friedrich von Hügel, invites us to respect the way radical teachings have to be given forms that can be handled by regular folks, not geniuses. “Is there not a pathetic instruction in watching the insertion of the copper alloy into the pure gold ... that is, a metal sufficiently resistant to the clumsy handling of the multitude to be able to persist in the transmission of a value, and indeed a precise value, even though it be not the highest. There is surely a pathos here most thoroughly characteristic of the abiding limitations and homely needs of our poor humanity.”

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest, author, preacher, and retreat leader.

[ October 6 ]
Faith Increased, Faith Infectious
Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 37:1-9; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

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13 Questions All Christians Eventually Ask Themselves

Photo of a woman with question mark sign, Aaron Amat / Shutterstock.com
Photo of a woman with question mark sign, Aaron Amat / Shutterstock.com

During the Christian spiritual journey, followers of Christ are forced to eventually face some basic faith-related questions. Here are a few of the most common ones:

1) What is salvation? 

What does salvation really mean? When does it happen and is it permanent? Do you choose your own salvation or is it predestined? Is everyone saved or just a select few? 

The idea of salvation is extremely complex, and our concept of it directly influences how we live, evangelize, and interact with the people around us. 

The Post-Cynical Christian

Woman with cynical and happy emotion, Fotovika / Shutterstock.com
Woman with cynical and happy emotion, Fotovika / Shutterstock.com

Skepticism is a good and healthy thing, I told every audience. Be skeptical and ask the hard, tough questions about our institutions — especially Washington and Wall Street. But cynicism is a spiritually dangerous thing because it is a buffer against personal commitment. Becoming so cynical that we don’t believe any change is possible allows us to step back, protect ourselves, grab for more security, and avoid taking any risks. If things can’t change, why should I be the one to show courage, take chances, and make strong personal commitments? I see people asking that question all the time.

But personal commitment is all that has ever changed the world, transformed human lives, and altered history. And if our cynicism prevents us from making courageous and committed personal choices and decisions, the hope for change will fade. Along the way, I got to thinking how the powers that be are the ones causing us to be so cynical. Maybe that is part of their plan — to actually cause and create more cynicism in order to prevent the kind of personal commitments that would threaten them with change.

And this is where faith comes in.

New & Noteworthy

A Terrible Thing to Waste
Many U.S. children living in poverty are further penalized by struggling public schools. Nicole Baker Fulgham, former vice president of faith community relations at Teach for America, offers passionate, practical solutions in Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids. Brazos Press

Holy Disruption
The documentary Bidder 70 tells the story of a different kind of civil disobedience: Tim DeChristopher helped save 22,000 acres of Utah wilderness by outbidding industry figures at a disputed Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction, with no intention of paying or drilling. www.bidder70film.com

Soulful Justice
In Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action, author Mae Elise Cannon profiles how the activism of seven Christian leaders was shaped by their practice of specific spiritual disciplines and offers ways to apply those disciplines in our own lives. IVP Books

Prophetic Good News
Pastor and anti-poverty worker George S. Johnson’s self-published anthology, Courage to Think Differently, testifies to, as Walter Brueggemann writes in the preface, “an awareness that the gospel pertains to every public question among us.” Includes essays by Frances Moore Lappé, Shane Claiborne, Elsa Tamez, and many more. www.adventurepublications.net

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Marks

St. Francis of Assisi statue in Mexico, PerseoMedusa / Shutterstock.com
St. Francis of Assisi statue in Mexico, PerseoMedusa / Shutterstock.com

Editors Note: The following poem by Trevor Scott Barton was written while he was living in Africa and reading The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi.

Holding you in the palm of my hand
I see your tiny feet and hope you'll live and walk these stony paths
To the pump to get water.
Blessing you in your meekness and gentleness,
You are Jesus to me today.

Hashtag Christianity

Social media illustration, Qiun / Shutterstock.com
Social media illustration, Qiun / Shutterstock.com

I have multiple online identities, the result of subconsciously trying to be a better version of myself — a better follower of Christ. But these various personalities that I portray among social media sites are fabrications. Here are a few examples why:

The single verse I post on Twitter is the only Scripture I read all day — even though my Facebook profile claims that the Bible is one of my favorite books.

C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Donald Miller, and Francine Rivers are also listed, but only to prove my Evangelical IQ.  

I’m #prayingforSandyHook and #prayingforBoston and #prayingforOklahoma, but I rarely pray.

I repost memes about global poverty, loving the poor, reconciliation and promoting peace, but I spend all of my spare time watching Netflix. ...

My Messy Faith

mixed media religious images, Gordan / Shutterstock.com
mixed media religious images, Gordan / Shutterstock.com

The more I study theology and the more I take Jesus' teachings seriously, the more messy my life becomes. 

I was raised to believe that Christianity is about going to church on Sundays, not saying bad words, trying to be good, and having all the right beliefs (and knowing who doesn't have the right beliefs). Within this framework, Christianity is very neat and proper. One dresses in such a way that conforms to modesty (no tattoos and piercings, thank you); one uses coined phrases to know who's really in or out (we say 'blessed' not 'lucky'); one never touches a cigarette or consumes alcohol (because that's what makes us 'not of this world' right?); and one makes sure to only hang out with those who have the same beliefs (for having different beliefs or opinions is clearly a sign of waywardness). This was my world all the way into my 20s. 

Then something happened. Or, in actuality, many things happened. I am unable to pinpoint one thing that upended my world. It was a bunch of little and big things that projected me onto a path of radical living, and I give the credit to the Holy Spirit (and to my husband, but that's another story). 

As a result of those many little and big things, I began to see the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament in new light. Passages I had heard all my life took on a whole new and radically different meaning. Beliefs I had taken on without thinking came crashing down, as I began to hold them in view of Christ's teachings. It was then I started to discover how far off my thinking, and thus my life orientation, was. 

Boston Marathon’s Holy Ground and Sacred Bonds

Photo courtesy Daniel Burke
Daniel Burke (second from left) with his wife and family after the Marine Corp Marathon in 2007. Photo courtesy Daniel Burke

When it comes to running, America often looks like a country divided between apostles and apostates.

For true believers like Olympian Ryan Hall, marathons assume an almost-biblical importance.

“I have heard stories and had personal experiences in my own running when I felt very strongly that God was involved,” Hall, an evangelical Christian, has said.

Other Americans — athletic atheists, you might call them — roll their eyes and see marathons as a painful waste of a perfectly nice day.

In the Church of Running, I sit somewhere in the back pew.

Desmond Tutu Wins $1.7 Million 2013 Templeton Prize

RNS photo courtesy Templeton Prize / Michael Culme Seymour
RNS photo courtesy Templeton Prize / Michael Culme Seymour

Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his battle against apartheid, has won the 2013 Templeton Prize, which is billed as the most significant award in the field of spirituality and religion.

Tutu, who has not been afraid in recent years to criticize leaders in his country and across Africa for humanitarian and political shortfalls, was cited for his work in advancing the cause of peace and the spiritual principles of forgiveness.

“By embracing such universal concepts of the image of God within each person, Desmond Tutu also demonstrates how the innate humanity within each of us is intrinsically tied to the humanity between all peoples,” Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr., the president and chairman of the John Templeton Foundation, said in a video statement released Thursday announcing the $1.7 million award.

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