It is good to be back after a very long hiatus. First it was computer problems, and then it was graduation crunch-time that kept me from posting anything whatsoever on this blog. However, finally, after another move, I’ve got my computer up and running and my schedule under control: So I’m back to the routine of Sunday posts.
One of the joys and struggles of the semi-nomadic life my career imposes upon me is the task of continually searching for a church to attend in each new city I move to. It gives me the opportunity to gauge what is going on in American Christian circles, and think about the effects Christians are having on culture. This Sunday I decided to visit the local Methodist church, simply to see first hand what goes on inside a local congregation of the second-largest Protestant denomination in the U.S.
The service got off to a rather uncertain start as I found myself reciting the following call to worship with the rest of the congregation:
Leader: God whispers your name. Come and Worship.
People: All of us. The proud and the strong, the lost and the searching, the joyous and the sad.
Leader: From a whisper to a shout: Come and worship.
People: All of us. Word-arrangers and finger-painters, rope-jumpers and slow-walkers, belly-laughers and soul-singers.
Leader: Here in this place, the light is shining, joy is brimming and God is beckoning. Come and Worship.
We ended the service with an affirmation of faith that left me wondering just what I was really claiming to have faith in:
I believe in God, who places joy in our souls, dancing in our toes and songs in our hearts. I believe God wanted gladness to flow like a river and created a bountiful earth with plenty for all to share. I believe in Jesus, who turned water into wine, partied with outcasts and sinners, and touched the broken so they could leap and dance. I believe Jesus opened the doors and set an extra place so we could feast. I believe in the Holy Spirit, who prompts us to smile, who sends us invitation to come and dine, who nudges us to openness and tenderness. I believe the Spirit is present every time we gather to break bread and is always urging us to live joyfully and walk hopefully. Forever, I will live in the embrace of God and be a witness to resurrection joy.
The call to worship at the beginning of the service had me raising my eyebrows in puzzlement, and the affirmation of faith at the end knitting them in frustration. The poetical call to worship was fairly benign, happily free from any constricting dogma or doctrine. It was hard to know exactly what was meant by this poem, the meaning of which would be found in the context of the worship service. Was the joy and love expressed in the poem based on sound Biblical doctrine, or was it a christened version of secular thought? Would the joy and light which were being proclaimed prove to be that true Light which is the Life of the world, or simply Death dressed up in Sunday clothes? It was the sermon itself that interpretted the poem.
The subject of the sermon was peace. The text, Ephesians 2: 11–22. Paul reminds the church at Ephesus that it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that Jews and Gentile believers are united in one body that has, through one Spirit, access to the Father. By the work of Jesus, peace has been between two groups who were at one time at odds with each other. This work of Jesus, His sacrificial death, we are told, is given as a gracious gift to be received by faith.
Somehow the pastor was able to take this clear teaching on the unity of the Church, unity through the same faith in the same God, and turn it into a moral obligation for all men to live at peace with each other–regardless of culture, race, or yes, even religion.
And what was the peace that the Rev. Margie Van Oostrum preached? It was the acceptance of, and mutually overlooking of, differences based upon the fundamental similarities of all mankind–the universal brotherhood of man, if you will. It was a peace gained not by resolution of hotly disputed issues; rather, it was a happy coexistence of any and all ideas together, coexisting because all men would have learned to see that their similarities are much more fundamental, important, and lasting than their differences. In fact, their differences were really only illusions. To modify a common platitude: “Difference is only skin deep, but similarity runs all the way through.”
Now, leaving aside her questionable exegesis of Ephesians, I’d like to explore her equally questionable idea of peace. She is not the first to champion such a notion of peace; it is the general dogma of many liberally-minded and left-leaning educators, celebrities and politicians. And it is this notion of peace that currently is crippling the “peace process” in the Middle East, and tying the hands of those who would bring a true and lasting peace to their communities, nation, and world.
Peace, when defined as “the resulting relationship between men once they have learned to overlook their differences in ideology and practice”, necessarily neuters all ideology and practice of power, relevance, and truth. It does this by claiming that all ideas and practices, even contradictory ideas or practices, are equally valid ways of understanding the world and acting out that understanding; and that neither should be allowed to impinge upon the other. It is the denial that ideas have consequences. Rather than examine the claims of competing ideologies and seek to know the truth, this peace denies that truth is relevant, content to offer men the sickly sweet aroma of absolute freedom of expression–absolute only because all expressions are meaningless and thus cannot create conflict with the freely expressed of ideas and actions of others.
Such an understanding of peace will never make sense of Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Christianity, Islam, or Judaism and the proponents of these groups, nations, and ideologies. The peace offered by the liberal crowd will always be rejected by those who think their ideology and practice are valuable, meaningful, and true. It will be rejected by the common man the whole world over who would rather fight and die for what he believes to be true, than to live under the fantastical illusion of freedom that denies him the right to follow where his head and heart lead him.
The skewed and deficient view of peace preached by the Rev. Van Oostrum was ironically derived from a very different view of the world. A careful reading (or even a simply honest and literal one) of Ephesians 2 will make it very clear that the peace Paul had in mind was a peace that was possible only because the historical actions of Jesus mattered: His death and resurrection were meaningful events that made true peace possible because they united separate groups into one people with one faith and one God. These separate groups, Jew and Gentile, could be at peace with one another because they were at peace with God, with the same God.
The peace offered in Ephesians is not a peace that neuters, but a peace that unites and empowers Christians to seek true peace and harmony by taking very seriously the claims and counter-claims of those opposed to the teachings of Christ. Peace will come when false ideologies and practices are done away with, and men are united together in the truth. There is a lot of work to be done by all men in this pursuit of truth; however, it is through the truth that men will be set free, not through the denial of it. However, somewhere along the line, Christians like the Rev. Van Oostrum lost sight of the importance of truth in the pursuit of harmony. They saw peace being preached by Christ, and exchanged His peace with the secular notion of the same. They thought they were doing the world and Christianity a favor. If Christianity was teaching the same thing as the secular mind, then the two could be at peace with one another–freeing Christians to continue their task of evangelism and discipleship unhindered by a hostile foe. However, the acceptance of the secular notion of peace, neutered the rest of the Christian message, making the evangelist and disciple quite irrelevant.
At the end of the serivice, I realized that if the words of the pastor were correct, by inviting “word-arrangers and finger-painters” to worship God, we were inviting the world to a meaningless and worthless gathering; a gathering whose only value was in the happy feelings it might engender between participants at the price of robbing them from any substantial reason to paint, write, belly-laugh, or sing. The context explained what was meant by an affirmatin of belief in the God who wants “gladness to flow like a river”, in the Son who came so that men could “leap and dance”, in the Spirit who came so that we could smile. We were not invited to worship the one True and Living God, we did not affirm a faith in the Creator of Reality who freed us to live as humans were intended to and ought to live; instead, we came to participate in the ultimately meaningless actions and ideological expressions of a segment of humanity that were no different than the actions and ideas of every other human on this planet–regardless of culture, race, or religion. We came to surrender our liberty for a dream, to sleep and slumber in peace so that we might never wake and walk in the Truth.