Thursday, June 16, 2011

Too Good To Be Made Up

Recently, I've been reading and watching material on the clandestine activities around and after World War II, specifically A Man Called Intrepid and The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Intrepid was a man named Bill Stephenson, a Canadian airman who, like many involved in covert operations, was omni-talented --a walking treasurehouse of knowledge and intellect who existed in the small and probably-illegal group around Winston Churchill when he was Vice Lord of the Admiralty and then Prime Minister. Oppenheimer was the man behind the bomb who, though no-one could ever prove his disloyalty even after extensive wiretapping and bugging, had early communist associations, and was finally broken when his security clearance was revoked.

Many lessons could be learned from the lives of both men, but the chief lesson I take from both stories is that the truth is often stranger and more interesting than fiction. Fiction always has an artificial ring to it, at least in my ears. I love fiction, but it is not hard to tell that it is fiction, even if there are no fantastic events in the narrative.

Ian Fleming, spy himself and creator of James Bond said of Bill Stephenson, "James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is ... William Stephenson." The events of Stephenson's life, and those of other WWII spies, show us that the truth is stranger than fiction, and more compelling too.

I think about this in regards to the great unfolding story of Scripture --it is simply too good to be made up. It has a lovely internal consistency that spans thousands of years, multiple cultures and authors. It centers on one singular, unique man. Its beginning is the beginning of the world and its end is the end of the world. Its middle is the middle of time --the time from which all other times are dated. It begins with one man and extends to the ends of the earth and ultimately fills the whole cosmos. It describes the world as it is: beautiful and orderly, but horribly broken. It describes us as we are --beings capable of mighty acts of creativity, but horrifically bent towards sin and self --this odd amalgam of great intellect and debased behavior. Oppenheimer himself was a living display of this: an intensely vain and difficult man, a profligate life, an enormous intellect combined with incredible naivete and knowledge that could ultimately end life on the planet. And, it holds out hope --it simply must be true. Humans are creatures imbued with hope --no matter how life is, our default setting is to long for something better. The truth is --something better is out there --a world infinitely better than this: beautiful and not at all broken. And it holds out for us the possibility of being who we were created to be: good, intelligent, lovers of beauty and compassion.

For that to happen, what is broken needs to be fixed. The wrong needs to be judged and destroyed. This happened at the cross, though the fullness of that reality waits the dawning of a new day. I, for one, cannot wait till the wrong in me is finally destroyed, and the wrong in the world is, too.

Friday, June 10, 2011

You Like Me, You Really Like Me....Or Do You?

One of my friends and mentors suggested that the title was hardly scintillating, so I thought i'd give it another go....

I've been thinking about this lately, an observable phenomenon that helps us understand the ability of churches (or any conglomeration of hominids) to incorporate individuals, and bring them in to the circle of love.

I am talking about churches, but the principles really apply across the board to groups of human kinship, and can just as easily apply to circles of friends. This is theoretical, but I hope not boring.

Jesus tells us "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Golden Rule. Simple? yes. Difficult? yes. Let's see how.

A group may perceive itself to be friendly and welcoming, but the members of any group are in the worst position to evaluate themselves. The real judge of inclusion is the outsider who is coming in to the group. Sometimes, we set a relatively low bar for ourselves --as long as we allow someone in, we are fulfilling the law of love.

Many churches are very good at welcoming visitors, speaking with various levels of acceptance to newcomers --from at least acknowledging their existence (sadly lacking in many churches) to genuine and sincere questions about the visitor himself (better than simple acknowledgement).

The real test comes in inclusion. Many churches miss this. Inclusion goes beyond simple and even sincere interest. It involves relational depth, by which I mean something quite different than what is often meant in our age in which catharsis is practically elevated to an element of worship. Many churches see themselves as inclusive communities because they sincerely care about those who come in. This is a necessary thing, of course, but it isn't true community.

The inner sanctum of relational depth involves far more. Many churches sincerely want new people, and sincerely welcome them, but find new members drifting away after short periods of time. This can even be seen among various teams and groups within a church --always on the hunt for new blood. New members come in for a time, then fade out.

Many reasons for this, of course. One of the chief reasons I observe is investment. If a group shows itself, either by hostility or simple neglect, to be hostile to the contributions, ideas and thoughts of a new member, that member will quickly grow discouraged and leave. He senses that his acceptance is conditional upon his conforming to established ways of thinking and doing. Now, some of this is required in order to belong to a group. There has to be some sense of identity and his ideas have to be somewhat congruent with the group. The Founding Fathers should not have listened to a Communist (okay, I know, totally mixing my historic periods but I'm tired and sitting in the airport) merely because his ideas were new. He needs to go along a bit, to build some credibility. At the same time, he needs to be let in. Perhaps the Lord is using the new blood to bring in some new ideas, and try some new ways. This can be threatening to the existing power structure, even though their opposition is largely subconscious --simple resistance to the new.

Persons and their ideas are not easily separable. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Wouldn't you want your ideas heard? Wouldn't you want to contribute? If you were encouraged to participate in something new, and were trying to find your footing, would you not want to be valued and accepted?

Value leads to investment, investment leads to security. If we are valued, we invest in a community. If we invest in a community, our joy grows there. If we want our churches to be happy places of kingdom service --true families-- we need to work towards full inclusion of outsiders, and work very hard against being friendly, but ultimately closed, clubs. Cliques, you are officially on notice.

The second random thought is this: inclusion in a group means being given the benefit of the doubt, not being viewed with suspicion. It means that, when you fail and put your foot in your mouth, it's not really noticed because there is underlying love for you as a person. We often think we are inclusive, but we have made full inclusion contingent upon a person's acting and speaking in a particular way --embracing certain perspectives and avoiding others. We have a built in subconscious radar for this sort of thing. People sense very quickly whether or not they truly belong, or whether the "love" they are offered is conditioned on them meeting certain preconditions. When they mess up, or when they say something impolitic, is grace extended, understanding and acceptance, or are they jumped on with both feet.

When you are not given the benefit of the doubt, when you are judged, and when your words are used against you as some estimation of what is true in your heart, you become alienated, and you begin to look for groups where you might fit better.

This is most painful to observe in the church, and very painful to experience yourself, trust me. We all want to fit --most of us are still teenagers at heart, feeling the pain of rejection acutely whether or not we give voice to it. I find it is a reason many churches, even those who attract a visitor stream, fail to grow --we don't easily open the circle of our community, our entrenched identity and values are too fragile. We are sinful, prideful, and insecure. Me included. Lord help me not to be guilty of that which I so clearly see in others.