Church & Frenemies

Mars Hill Reflection 4

WEEK 4

Maybe you are too – but I’m getting a little tired of Mark Driscoll. It has been a great prompt for conversation and writing about the church in context, culture, and gender, but unless the final two episodes bring something new to the table, this will be my last related post, and I promise to barely talk about him.

(Even the podcast itself, with 2 episodes remaining, seems to be losing steam, rambling on for nearly half an hour about Bobby Knight).

I’ve been weaving my own story throughout and wanted to use the podcast to reflect on one last topic: fear and enemies, and making friends with both.

THE NEED FOR ENEMIES

Let’s start with this assertion: Most groups need an enemy to unite around.  In other words, it takes a them to form a we. How do we know who “we” are unless we can define who “we aren’t” – and who we aren’t, is them. And the sure way to fire up a base is to find yourselves jointly under attack: think of the States | United during WWII, or the proliferation of American flags flying after 9/11.

I’m speaking descriptively here, not prescriptively. I don’t want to have enemies, and if I do I don’t want to love them. Jesus’ words, “Love your enemy” seems a practical – if roundabout – way of saying, “don’t have enemies”; how long could I love my enemy and still call them that?

If you don’t resonate with the word enemy, then consider who in the world today is most likely to ruin “your way of life?” I walked into a restaurant yesterday with two TV’s on the wall: one tuned to CNN and the other to Fox News. Both had headlines splashed across the screen about the other party. “It’s all about them,” it seemed to say, “and if we don’t act now, they will take over our country; look, they already are.”

Let’s consider a couple of perceived enemies you might be facing.

ENEMY ONE: THE WORLD

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast presents a fearless pastor Mark Driscoll yelling his way into building an empire. But it also reveals clear signs that he was afraid. To wit: the way he silenced dissenters, fired elders, and threw people under his bus – like a medieval king killing even his own children for fear of losing his throne.

But fears don’t just come from within the kingdom, as we can see across many movements today. And like any group, the evangelical church seems to increasingly fear external culture. I gradually became aware of this snowballing fear as my own independent church moved, alongside Driscoll’s and many in America, from the freewheeling 90’s to the polarized decades of the new millennium. (To be clear, this fear of culture is nothing new, but I’ll spare you the Moral Majority recap) Host Mike Cosper articulates this feeling so well:

“There’s a … powerful sense of fear at work.  The message is that the world is dangerous, and it wants to rob you of meaning, of relationships, of family, and of legacy.  Other churches, you’re told are a mess too, because maybe they believe the wrong things… so you join the community because of the sense of safety and certainty that it offers.  This place has the answers and it’s fighting the good fight.”

I felt that too: the open windows I’d found in my own local church of the late nineties would later seem to be battening down. My free-wheeling, don’t-take-yourself-seriously church had grown, now to multiple services, a campus to maintain, doctrines to mind, and a world to be afraid of. “Getting it right” and protecting our beliefs seemed of utmost importance. When we prayed for “bible-believing churches” in town, it sometimes seemed some Christian churches weren’t quite orthodox enough to be included in that prayer. Jesus’ words to give a “cup of cold water in my name” seemed less about the generosity of a cup of water, and overly focused on “in my name” gospel sharing.

When I imagine it from the view of a pastor trying to hold everything together – all the internal changes and growth, and now external pressures that seem to challenge the way we’ve always thought, combined with a conviction that God would call a pastor to account for the doctrinal purity of the flock – it’s overwhelming. Fear, pushback, and burnout would be at the forefront.

But I wasn’t the pastor, and I was at a different stage of life: one of widening still, exploration, and learning about the world. With travel and reading and friends and the internet itself: I felt like I was in college again, realizing that my “normal” wasn’t the norm. More shocking perhaps, was learning that people outside my bubble – the “thems” – weren’t as I’d been told. The idea that people of other religions were without hope, purpose, or love no longer rang true. It confused my sense of “Us versus Them” to find such meaning – and such love – outside the walls of the church.

It can be quite disorienting when you first befriend your perceived enemy.

There’s more to that story, but to the point here: my fear of the world outside the church was being relieved just as the fear inside my church seemed to get louder.

If much of my identity is formed in opposition to something, losing fear of that opponent brings a deep level of questions. And now, four years on from leaving that church, listening to this podcast describing a fear-based, “Us vs. Them” mentality happening in a totally different church a thousand miles away, I feel, in short, not alone. What I had perceived to be a local affair was part of a movement in time – one that would play its way into not only churches but also politics across the country.

ENEMY ZERO: THE BODY

If the enemy outside came on late, the very first enemy I became aware of as a Christian youth was myself. The “flesh” it was often called after the King James bible, which was used to warn against some of the seven deadly sins: sloth, gluttony, and all manner of sexual lust. It turns out that all three were of particular interest to teenage boys, and the teenage boy that lives on inside men. The solution, to quote Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon, is to “Shut it down!”

If I could get past the flesh part of myself, another part of myself known as the “heart” was waiting to be smothered. This emotional storehouse came with its own old testament warning label, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Surely the four remaining deadly sins – greed, wrath, envy, and the heavyweight pride – are not formed in the mind, but are, at this very moment, gleefully bouncing around inside my heart like a team of professional wrestlers.

And with the flesh’s attraction to the hedonistic neon-lit city, and the heart loosening the reigns into the wild west, just think what could happen if you listened to both?

Of course, only a fool would bet against the truth in either warning. Surely an unbridled lust leads to problems, no matter your religion. And the heart often needs a cooling off period before making big purchases, so to speak.

But the problem is, the body and heart are also part of our path to joy, connection, and (gulp!) God. If we close them off completely because of the potential danger, we also lose their potential gifts. This may be why the writer of Proverbs says to, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”

I’m convinced that a major part of the journey of maturing is learning when, and when not, to listen to my heart, or my body, or my mind (Despite post-Enlightenment inclinations, the mind is not the unbiased perfect child its made out to be). Two examples:

1. if I listened only to my heart, you would know me as a much stingier person. I’m not generous by nature and have held back far too often. And as I’ve matured through this beautiful friendship called marriage, I’ve learned to ignore my own, and instead trust my partner’s heart when it comes to gift giving. “What would she do?” is an excellent question to ask when faced with giving some of my time or money away.

2. I am naturally empathetic, and I’ve learned to trust my first instinct when faced with someone in pain. I often have to override my reserved self-conscious mind to do it, but when I trust my heart to show and share emotion, I usually do so without regret.

There are similar examples for listening to my body, for instance: when to push myself to go the extra mile, and when to stop and rest, knowing I cannot do everything.

The brilliant mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”  But have you read his very next sentence? “We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

Many of us are learning that a reconnection with our bodies and hearts not only brings health, but enables us to “know” more fully. And knowing God goes far beyond agreeing to a list of doctrinal statements. If the reason of the mind were all that’s required, why would have music? Wouldn’t it be easier, as I wondered one day after self-consciously crying at a concert, to just have someone read out the song lyrics instead of adding all that melody and moving instrumentation?

FRENEMIES

I’ve been writing about enemies here – and how the ones we perceive, we can eventually befriend. I understand that not everyone in the world can write so freely because their enemies may be actual, militant, armed enemies. (Which shines light on the dissonance of having grown up in a powerful and largely Christian country, inside a church that still insists on viewing itself as a victim.)

“Love your enemies” is a simple but difficult calling, one that I have moved towards, but cannot claim to have fully lived. Even if we struggle through change, given our human psychology, aren’t we more likely to just switch enemies? Haven’t I been using Driscoll for weeks now as a kind of “enemy” to prove the points I am championing?

But being aware of this tendency helps – and learning to see the friend in the enemy. This lets me value my heart, body, and mind, without being ruled by any individual one. And if I’m in a particular faith, I also don’t have to approach outsiders with fear, or draw the curtains when the silhouettes of change appear in the windows.

I can listen and learn, reason and feel, trust God and trust myself.

♦ weekendswell ♦


More on Mars Hill from weekendswell:

Reflection 1: After Mars Hill: Church & Context

Reflection 2: After Mars Hill: Church & Culture

Reflection 3: After Mars Hill: Church & Gender

Reflection 4: After Mars Hill, Step 4: Frenemies

Podcast:  The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

Want something different? See a favorite from last year: Serenity Now: A prayer for parents

Featured image: the imposing (or is it friendly?) Fremont bridge in Seattle, by weekendswell

6 Replies to “Church & Frenemies”

  1. Dan thank you for sharing your past church experience as amplified by your reading of the Driscoll story. I’m personally watching the death of a couple of churches myself that we have been involved with and some at a distance but are dying all the same. It shouldn’t really surprise us though. As I read the challenges several churches John the Apostle wrote to in Rev. 2-3, I’ve thought how they could not have been more than 30 or 40 years old. Different issues, but issues none the less. God sure took a huge risk with His reputation entrusting these things to us frail and fickle humans. Dad

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    1. This is a great insight – that the churches John writes to in Revelation are about 30-40 years old. And John’s criticisms (a Christian should call them ‘admonishments’) shine a light on the kinds of problems churches face at that age – perhaps as generational leadership shifts. Let’s keep exploring this…

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