discipleship

Turning off Sarah McLachlan

By Lisa McDowell

I can hear the song from the kitchen and I begin shading my eyes to search for the remote. My full intention is to change the channel without seeing the television screen. As soon as the words start, I’m at a place of guilt and sorrow. “In the arms of the angel…” It used to be one of my favorite songs, long before it became the ASPCA’s theme.  It used to be a reminder from my teenage years of a movie starring a young Nicholas Cage and a very popular Meg Ryan. But now, it is caged dogs and sad-faced puppies, and I don’t like it. The first thing I do when I hear the song is turn the channel because I cannot bear to watch.  

As I sat in church last week, listening to my husband deliver a really good and necessary sermon on Jesus’ teachings and how we can’t just ignore the ones we don’t like, it hit me: I do this all the time! It’s the Sarah McLachlan Effect in my spiritual life. When I don’t like something, just turn the channel, just shut it off, ignore it. Sure there are millions of abandoned pups out there, but I don’t want that image to ruin my nice, ordinary life. Then the even more poignant thought, “Sure Jesus told the young rich man to sell all of his riches and then he could enter the kingdom of Heaven, but I really like my stuff” <she quickly turns the Bible page>.  

This isn’t a new way to view our faith. All of us latch on to our favorite scripture and ignore the things that don’t align with our own thoughts and desires. But the difference between the hard scripture passages and the ASPCA commercials is that the commercials affect me. I encourage and support adoption of sheltered pets. If I knew I could give a needy animal or two proper attention (because let’s be honest, two small children, a full-time job and an active church life doesn’t leave time for much) I would be the crazy dog lady in a heartbeat. Yet, I don’t allow the scriptures to have the effect that the commercials have. 

Maybe it’s because the Christian culture avoids these scriptures and the teachings that are hard to explain. Go read Luke 18:18. Okay, I’ll make it easier on you: 

18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’[a]21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

It’s really hard to explain away Jesus’ words, although I’d prefer to do just that. How about Matthew 5:38-42?

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

So basically Jesus is saying to not ignore that man or woman on the corner holding a sign even though I wonder what they are going to do with the money or food I give them. Jesus is asking for a lot. He wants disciples to leave their families, “let the dead bury the dead”, and deny even ourselves. I’ve been turning pages in the Bible over and over and it gets hard to ignore all of these commands from Jesus. I want to turn away from this Bible overload, so I usually shut the Bible and tune into social media or trash TV. There’s a relief in that act because it usually affirms that I’m not as bad as I was starting to feel!  

But when I realize that my fulfillment doesn’t come from my ability to numb my brain with useless information and far-from-reality TV, the sway to watch the sad commercial in its totality arises, the desire to read into the words of Jesus pervades. Because the real reality is, the ASPCA is showing us the worst-case scenarios, they are playing on our heartstrings because really great things can come for both participants in the adoption process. The same is true for us Bible-readers and Christ-followers. Jesus was commanding us to get rid of the fringe, the things we hold so dear that we cannot open our hands or arms to anything else. He doesn’t want the sad commercial to be the end of the story, because the reality is that when the dearest and most-treasured thing is no longer firmly in our grasp, we are open to more grace, bigger blessings, and others entering into our embrace. That’s hard to fathom, just like the commercial is hard to watch.  

This realization that I am ignoring some pretty clear commands of Jesus is not easy to swallow, but I am always up for a good challenge, and I have seen my faith grow when I truly incorporate Jesus and his teachings into my life. That being said, I will not promise that I will make eye contact with my television the next time Sarah’s beautiful voice graces my ears, but I will make a pact to stop skipping over the hard parts of the Bible that I don’t like, or understand, or want to live out. I know my faith journey has to have an upward climb at some point and the aches and pains of growth come in passages like those shared above. I know that my greatest challenge day in and day out is to not tune out the words of my Savior and my God. I like to think that changing the channel prevents a change in me, and that’s just not okay anymore.  

Slow Down, and read Slow Church

By Rev. Mindi

My small local clergy group was taking suggestions for new books to read, and me with my smart phone and sometimes smart mouth decided to search right then and there for a new book rather than taking a month to go do research. In my Amazon recommendations popped up Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison. I really didn’t know much about it but that it was a brand new book, and that the book has a Twitter account that followed me, so I followed back.  It was really by chance and Amazon’s logarithms that I began reading this book.

But I’m so glad I did. Smith and Pattison are not pastors, not professional church leaders, but were inspired by the Slow Food movement to think about church life as an alternative to the “McDonaldization of Society” as George Ritzer coined it. (I read The McDonaldization of Society back in college and still have the book on my shelf—it was a profound wake-up call to the capitalist production machine that our society functions by: the idea that we have to make more stuff and make it faster, and that even our self-worth has come to depend upon it).  Slow Church looks at how church, just like the rest of the institutions of our society, have bought into the hyper-fast production-based model. “Decades, if not centuries, of taking shortcuts have repelled many people from the faith and diminished the quality of our life together” (117). We have tried to short-circuit discipleship and evangelism.

You might think at first that this is a book for a more conservative or evangelical audience, not for a mainline congregation—but we have done the same thing in the mainline church. Maybe we haven’t watered down the Bible to a tract that fits in the size of a business card, but we have (often) failed to do a good job of teaching our children and youth what it means to believe in and follow Jesus, what it means to be part of the church, how to participate in the kingdom of God.

Furthermore, we have failed to connect with the greater community, and that is the key of Slow Church—a reminder for us to slow down and reconnect with God, others and nature. “The ‘ecology’ of Slow Church is embedded in the interconnectedness of creation and God’s reconciliation of all things” (90).

Mainliners don’t differ much from our evangelical or fundamentalist kin in that we also water-down and short circuit the uncomfortable parts of our faith. We don’t do mourning well. Where our evangelical and fundamentalist kin will jump to “there’s one more angel in Heaven,” and lots of celebration that a loved one is now with the Lord, we do the same: we water-down the grieving process and try to jump into getting over death, rather than struggling with the suffering. Slow Church looks at the way our society as a whole has tried to just overcome suffering rather than the “willingness to enter into the pain of others” (83). If we are going to be committed in community to one another, we also need to be willing to suffer together as well as rejoice. This is what it means in particular to be part of Christian community: that we do not suffer alone.

Slow Church is about digging deep and being engaged and committed to the process of God-growth in us and around us. This commitment happens with God and with each other and with the greater community. Slow Church goes back to the roots of our faith in Scripture—Sabbath practice, discernment, community—and asks how we can re-engage with our roots and develop long-term, lasting foundations.

My major critique of this work is that  while my experience resonates with the book's view of church and society, I wonder if similar parallels would be drawn by my colleagues of color and different church cultures. I often err on the side of viewing US culture as homogeneous when it never has been; even critiquing the McDonalidzation of our US culture comes through a white lens, as the McDonalidzation was a white creation to begin with. Just some food for thought.

I highly recommend Slow Church. It is not often that I read a book that I say, “Yes, Yes!” out loud while reading it. I often highlight while I read; this time, I made notes as to what parts to quote for my next board meeting when we talk about stewardship. Each chapter has good discussion questions at the end for small groups or churches. The authors also have a blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slowchurch/ and are active on Twitter and Facebook.