Some Christians believe that the reason for our problems is because our kids aren't allowed to pray in school, or that the local city hall refused to display a nativity scene in its town square, or that we say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. They look at the occupant of the White House and decry the "secular" world we live in.
Other Christians feel that the reason for our troubles lies in the fact that we don't take the Bible literally. For them the inerrancy of scripture is sacrosanct and cannot be debated. If the Bible says the world and everything in it was created in six days, then so be it. To even suggest otherwise is blasphemy.
But I believe such Christians are guilty of missing the forest for the trees. They look outward instead of inward for their validation. If someone wishes them a Happy Holidays instead of a Merry Christmas, or if they don't see that nativity scene in their town square, they get insulted. They have permitted their faith to be defined by the world, so logically, when the world lets them down it only confirms their view that this secular society is persecuting them and their values.
When they hear scientists talk about a 13 billion year old universe, they get their dander up and frantically search through their Bibles, in an attempt to "prove" to themselves, and anyone else who will listen, that those scientists are wrong. They will cherry pick those passages in the Bible that advance their argument and flatly reject any evidence that contradicts it. For, sadly, if every syllable in the Bible cannot be reconciled, then everything they know is false and meaningless. Augustine called out such thinking fifteen hundred years ago as "reckless" and "utterly foolish."
I do not think this is how God intended his children to live. I think we were called for a better purpose than analyzing scripture to death or overreacting to a harmless greeting. Don't get me wrong, scripture IS important, but so is context. I tend to think of the Bible as an instruction manual for how I should live my life rather than an history or archaeology book.
To accept a world that isn't six thousand years old is not an anathema to my faith. Just the opposite. I am in awe of a God who brought this wondrous thing we call a universe into being 13 billion years ago, and I've always thought it rather sad that those same Christians believe in an omnipotent and eternal God somehow being consigned to a six thousand year-old window. What kind of God that powerful would allow himself to be restricted to such a narrow time frame? No God that I know of, I can assure you.
And now I realize that even I am getting caught up in this minutia. It's amazing how easy it is to get sidetracked and how tragic the consequences can be for those not in the faith. Because, in the end, our petty squabbles and differences aren't limited to our own private Idaho. They spill out into the streets for all the world to see. I can only imagine what goes on in the minds of those people when they hear us bicker. How many have heard our foolishness and run for the hills thinking we were nuts?
I guess that's what Augustine was referring to when he wrote, "to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil." His warning could not be clearer. What we do and say can have tragic consequences for those not yet in the Kingdom. Like it or not, we ARE responsible for the image of Christianity we project onto the world, and we will be held accountable for those who, through our negligence, have rejected that image. We must always remember we are Christ's ambassadors to the saved and unsaved. Jesus did not come just for the Jews but for the Gentiles, as well.
Does that mean we should never disagree? Certainly not. We should always bring to light those things which trouble us and can become impediments to our walk. But we must accept that some disagreements may never be reconciled fully. I will never be able to persuade those who cling to a six thousand year old universe that I am right and they are wrong, anymore than they will be able to convince me that all scripture should be taken literally. In this instance, we shall have to agree to disagree.
The real question that should concern us is how do we advance the Kingdom to those who are not yet in it? If we are, as a church I once attended says, "disciples making disciples," how do we make them?
Funny you should ask, because I have a few ideas that I think would be helpful, some of which I've taken from my experience as a salesperson.
Put down the Bible and open up your arms. Seriously, no one is going to get "saved" through your extensive knowledge of scripture. If you really want to get their attention, invite them in. Nothing says you care better than a hearty handshake or hug.
Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth. Sometimes people just need to be listened to. How can you minister to someone when you don't even know what's wrong with them? Ever heard of the phrase "Silence is Golden?" More Christians should practice it.
Don't be judgmental. Imagine for a moment you walked into a car dealership looking for a car and the salesman asked you what care you currently drive and when you told him, he said, "Oh that car is a pile of junk. You should buy one of ours." How fast would you run out of that dealership? I'd say pretty fast. Sadly, many Christians do this same thing in church. They're so determined to turn someone that, without quite realizing it, they proceed to put down the other person's beliefs. Belittling someone is a sure-fire way to ensure that person never comes back again.
Be empathetic, not sympathetic. Not everyone took the yellow brick road to Oz. Some endured tremendous hardships. Some came from abusive families where their views of religion were deeply distorted. Imagine growing up in a family where you were dragged off to church every Sunday and your father beat your mother in front of you every day. How excited would you be about going to church? Even better, how angry would you be at God for letting that happen? These people don't need your sympathy; they need your empathy. There's a difference.
Take the bumper stickers off your car. I'm serious. Every time I see one of those "Keep Christ in Christmas" bumper stickers, I say, "You wanna keep Christ in Christmas? First keep him in your heart." For if Christ is truly in your heart, it really won't matter if others don't keep him in Christmas. When someone wishes you a happy holidays, don't correct them. Just say thanks, you too. Your world won't come to an end.
Be generous, kind and patient. I can't think of any better way to reflect Christ's love than those three words. They defined his entire ministry and they are at the core of who we should be as a Church. Give freely to those in need, be kind to those who despise you and show patience to those who test that patience. None of us know how to do this. Fortunately, we worship a savior who does. He can teach us how if we let him.
Put your money where your mouth is. Here, the epistle of James is quite specific. "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead."
Leave your politics at the front door. We are a diverse body in so many ways, but none more so than our political leanings. Some of us are conservative, others progressive, while others are somewhere in between. We all have strong opinions and all of us are certainly entitled to them. But they have no business in the pulpit.
Relax, God's in charge. Too many Christians have the cart before the horse. They assume they are responsible for someone else's salvation. They forget that they're the messenger; Jesus is the message. It is my fervent belief that God desires all of his children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and, as the author Rob Bell says, God always gets what God wants. He will never give up on us. Never!
Well, that's all I got for now. I'm sure I'll think of more later. The point is that I think we have a responsibility to show the world what we're for. Sadly, we've done a much better job of telling people what we're against.
The point is we will never be perfect. As believers, we know that. But that is no excuse for conduct unbecoming a Christian. If we must disagree then we owe it to ourselves and those around us to do so in manner that builds rather than destroys. The enemy loves a good food fight and we have been all too willing of late to oblige him.