Archive for August, 2006

Without God, does church still matter? (8-26-06)

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

Without God, does church still matter?


I enjoy the company of atheists and agnostics. Some of my best friends are agnostics.

What’s more curious is that they enjoy my company. As a self-proclaimed churchy guy, you might think they would find me annoying in my faith. However, I spend more time talking about what I believe with those who don’t claim a faith than I do with those who identify themselves as Christians.

Sometimes I feel like these friends of mine are intrigued by what I get out of being a part of church. Our move halfway across the country to start a new ministry in our living room made no sense to them. I’ll be the first to admit it doesn’t make sense; after all, faith itself doesn’t find it’s foundation in logic. It’s faith, after all.

Trying to explain what keeps me committed to church is hard sometimes. I, like many people, have been hurt both by individuals within church, as well as the systems that drive them. But I wouldn’t walk away because of this any more than I think divorce is a reasonable response to a family argument.

Church is flawed because we humans are a part of it. This is not a condemnation of our job as church members, but rather an acknowledgement that we bring all of our baggage with us to church. Sometimes, we screw it up. But sometimes, we get it right.

For me, the first need that church fulfills is worship. This time that is set aside every week helps renew me, and puts my own life – including my own seemingly big problems – in perspective. It helps me remember what really matters, and gives me time to reorient myself toward those efforts that give me life, rather than take it away from me.

The question inevitably arises from my friends about how I would feel if I suddenly realized that there was no God. Am I sure, they ask, that my prayers are not simply mental exercises? How would my church be different if I knew that the Almighty didn’t exist?

Fortunately, church offers more than insight into scripture, time for worship and prayer. At its best, church serves the world of which it is a part. It is an extended family to which we can return that celebrates and mourns with us. It opens itself up as a united but diverse body, breaking itself open and giving itself away to those in need, without fear of not having enough.

Sure, church gets caught up in membership drives, capital campaigns, and novel programs. It also has at its core the most fundamentally redeeming characteristics of humankind: love, compassion, service and humility.

God is at the essence of our individual and collective nature, but these characteristics also serve practical purposes. We’re not the fastest or strongest species on the planet, and so it’s from our social systems that we find our strength. Church helps provide this community for which we long.

At its worst, however, church forgets its obligation to the world around it, and even to the faithful within its walls. It becomes so intent on building itself up that the humble beginnings of our church at Pentecost are forgotten. It becomes an institution rather than a movement. In these moments, the church is no more about God than any other local service organization.

Can the church do good work without God? Yes. Can we serve the community simply as a practical exercise? Sure. But every time we fall into the pattern of placing ourselves, or that which we have accomplished, at the center, rather than keeping our focus on something greater, we risk fulfilling the question, “What would the church be without God?”

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Thursday, August 24th, 2006

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Freedom in Spontaneous Generosity – Chieftain Column 8-19-06

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

There’s freedom in spontaneous generosity

I was taking my son, Mattias, to the train depot recently as a reward for good behavior. Of all the places in the world, he is obsessed with the depot downtown. I hardly discourage him, partly because I love trains as well, and also because it’s free and still makes him happy. Talk about a win-win.

On our way down the street, I was approached by a man asking for some money. I told him I couldn’t help him out because I was out of money. I was out of cash, but I had my check card with me, and we stood less than a hundred yards from a place where I could have easily bought him lunch.

Having grown up in a big city, I experienced requests like these a dozen times a day or more, to the point that I became somewhat inured. I followed in others’ footsteps who assured me the money would only buy drugs or alcohol. This could easily be remedied by buying the person food, but this takes time.

Time being an equally precious commodity, we’re often as reticent to part with it as we are with our money. We especially don’t care to spend time with someone that might smell bad or make us a little uncomfortable. So it’s easier to tell a white lie about our lack of funds, or convince ourselves we’re just too busy.

Generosity is a curious thing. There’s this basic gut-level part of us that hesitates to let go of what we have, and seeks to horde as much as possible to allay the fear that we’ll run out of – well, anything. We can always come up with excuses for why we don’t have enough, and why someone else wouldn’t use our resources as well as we would. When it comes down to it, the motive is protecting our own: a very natural but very un-Christian thing way to think.

We had a car wash and barbecue at our church recently, where we cleaned cars and fed guests from off the street for free. Many tried to pay us, but we simply wanted to do it as a service to the community. By people’s expressions, you’d have thought we were roasting their household pets on the grill, rather than burgers and hot dogs.

“So, what’s the catch?” said one woman.

“What’s wrong with that?” asked another, not quite able to articulate her confusion.

Some in the church were hesitant to pass up a fundraising opportunity, which is understandable since we’re a relatively small and new church. But the more cars we washed and the more food we gave away, the more excited we all got. We’d clap and wave our hands in the air like idiots when someone would pull in the parking lot for a free wash. We got sunburned, wet and filthy, but everyone left excited about the work we’d done.

I learned something that afternoon. I discovered that generosity as a regular discipline, such as tithing, is not enough. There’s a gift to be found in spontaneous generosity, letting loose of something you never intended giving away, just at the moment someone asks for it.

We can’t control what’s done with our resources once we give them away, but in that vulnerability, there is freedom. For one moment, we’re focused not on what we have and how to keep it, but rather on the unexpected joy of being free of our own wants.

As we walked away from the man begging for lunch money, my two-year-old son looked up at me with the trust that only a child can muster and asked, “Daddy, what did that man want?”

I lied and said I didn’t know, to embarrassed to tell him that the man only wanted something to eat. If I had, the next question would have been, “Why?” and I just wasn’t ready to try to answer that.

Welcome to my Blogspace

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I’ve been posting for several months at MySpace, and may continue to do so, but my hope is to focus more here on my own site ( and my blog. I look forward to your thoughts, questions and comments, and I hope you will enjoy the posts I share. As always, I welcome ideas for future columns, blogs or even books. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think!