Resigned to a Powerless Christianity?


I talked with fellow believers a few days back after hearing a message about forgiveness. The topic is a standard in Christian circles, but the speaker was well known, so I thought we might hear something new.

The speaker talked about the power of forgiving another person and how freeing that is to the soul. No arguments from me.

But I think that people today don’t need to hear more messages about forgiving individuals. I think many of us realize that we are dust and so are the people who oppose us. How can we be mad at other people then?

When I look around America today, I don’t see people who are mad at individuals. I see people who are mad at systems.

A system is hard to define. It’s more than just a mass of people. It’s a way of doing things. It’s the collective processes that lead to a result, often which is unintended, which in turn causes anger. And sometimes those systems possess an almost palpable malevolence.

Americans today are mad about out-of-control health care systems. I know I certainly am. My health insurance company sent me a note a couple weeks ago saying they will be raising my premium 30 percent March 1. They raised it 30 percent back in September.

Yet to whom should I direct my anger for this? At motorcyclists who don’t wear helmets and don’t have insurance so that my rates go up to compensate their lack of payment to hospitals when they sustain a costly head injury? Or should I blame doctors who order round after round of tests just to ensure they account for that one percent chance at catching a rare disease and thus avoid the inevitable malpractice lawsuit? Should I blame Congress for not removing state-imposed protections for insurance companies, thus preserving high premiums due to a lack of open, national competition?

If I don’t know at whom I should be angry, how do I know to whom I should offer my forgiveness?

Aren’t we all more likely to feel anger at entrenched systems we seem to have no ability to change? Doesn’t that define the corporate anger Americans are feeling right now toward Wall Street, Capitol Hill, and the world at large?

I brought this up with these other Christians. I asked them how we can forgive systems. And if that’s what many people are angry at, why aren’t Christian leaders addressing that anger—and the subsequent means by which we can forgive nameless, faceless systems?

The answer, I was told, is found in the classic “Serenity Prayer” of President Obama’s favorite theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

I want to focus primarily on the first section of that prayer.

My issue with American Christianity today is that you and I have somehow taken that idea of acceptance and “gigantified” the bucket containing “the things I cannot change.” In short, our “wisdom to know the difference” between the alterable and inalterable is hopelessly broken.

I’ve had some very sad conversations with young, 5-point Calvinists in the last few years. I’ve never met people so resigned to “fate.” Their concept of God’s sovereignty has gone so far off the deep end that they see no reason to ever wrestle in prayer for anything that seems unchangeable. In truth, they are nothing more than nihilists. I have no idea what they must think of Abraham’s pleading before God in Genesis 18 for the sake of Sodom. They resign themselves to think that God has set the top in motion and nothing can be done to alter its course. They are like the unbelieving leaders in John who asked,

“Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
—John 9:19b

How indeed.

But it’s not only the young Calvinists who seemed resigned that nothing can be done. It’s us other Christians too involved in our own lives to lift a finger to make a difference. Our inaction in the face of evil systems will cry out against us come Judgment Day because we loved our own lives too much to become martyrs for some “unchangeable” cause.

Folks, where is the Christian battle?

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
—Ephesians 6:12

Look, you and I can’t change our chronological age, our ancestry, the era into which we were born, and a few things like that.  But nearly everything else is up for grabs. Ours is not a calling to serenity but to go out there and fight systems, no matter how innocuous they may seem.

And we can do it too:

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
—2 Corinthians 10:4

So how is it that so many Christians just roll over and play dead?

If Christians in Rome didn’t fight the prevailing evil Roman system of leaving the old, infirm, and sick to die, how would the Church have grown so rapidly?

If Martin Luther didn’t pound his worthy complaint to the door of the monolithic Roman Catholic ChurchSword-wielding soldier, where would the Church universal be today?

If William Wilberforce rolled over and relented to the seemingly unchangeable slave trade in England, where would our world be today?

If Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t stand up for the cause of civil rights in the face of catcalls, baseball bats, and the ever-present threat of a noose on a tree limb, where would American society be today?

And that list can go on and on.

When I hear Christians telling me nothing can be done, the simple answer is that they don’t want to be bothered. They won’t put in the time, energy, prayer, and faith to help make change happen. They don’t want their status and incomes threatened by standing up against tough, systemic opponents.

Increasingly, resignation seems to be the state of much of the Church in America. Doesn’t matter that the Bible repeatedly says that all things are possible with God. We keep thinking that some things are beyond His ability to change.

As for me, I contend that such a god is not the God of the Bible.

Christian, the Enemy is at the gate. Don’t resign your commission by resigning yourself to the way things are. Stand up and make a difference.

Dropping Our Stones


One of the goals I have for Cerulean Sanctum is to carve out a godly middle ground on the issues that face the American Church while at the same time never backing down from what needs to be said. Despite the fact that I work hard to find a more godly response to those issues, I’ve had a few people label me an angry young man.

We Americans have always held the angry young man in esteem, especially when that angry young man dispenses his brand of angry young man justice on despicable villains. On the other hand, there’s something about being an angry old man that unnerves us. We have an equation worked out in our heads that looks something like this:

Young + Angry = Hero

Old + Angry = Crank

Watch this play out in public and you soon learn that you’re given a pass till about age 35, then you start sliding into crankhood. That age didn’t escape the notice of the founders of this country, either. No one can occupy the highest office in the land until 35.

I believe the founders understood a deep truth that plays out in the eighth chapter of John:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

—John 8:3-11

My revelation in understanding this passage came when I understood the second half of this snippet:

…they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones…

To me, that’s one of the greatest strings of 11 words ever committed to print.

Do we understand the profundity of John’s Spirit-inspired words here?

When you’re an angry young man, your blood boils at the thought of a good stoning. Finding the perfect rock, heavy, jagged even. You feel the adrenaline enliven your muscles, engorging them with blood. The smell of sweat. Loud roars from angry men shouting for justice. The adultress’s vile perfume stinging your nose. The thought that you can get in the first throw. Wham!  A head shot! That perfect throw that smashes her skull and caves in her head. Your throw. Your death strike against sin.

Can you see it? Can you taste how bad you want it to play out in life as it does in your mind’s eye?

But when you’re an older man, it should be different.

Should be.

Vasiliy Polenov-- detail from 'Christ and Woman Taken in Adultery'You look around and see an old friend standing off to the side, his grip on his stone not so tight. The light had been dim, but you thought you saw him come out of her place a month ago, though you told yourself otherwise. He casts a downturned glance your way because you know, and he knows, too. And what of your own struggles? Who knows about your private sin, your little dalliance from years ago, and how you thanked God every day that you weren’t found out? Though in the end, who can hide anything from God? It should be you in that circle with that woman, shouldn’t it? In fact, it could be every man standing around that woman, stone in hand. All of you, ready to have your teeth shattered, your bones broken. Every last one of you. Buried under a pile of well-deserved stones. Because you had it coming as much as that woman before you now.

One of the greatest self-deceptions the devil throws at us is that our sin is somehow not as bad as their sin, no matter who “they” might be. I wonder how many of us who should know better still cling to that angry young man we should’ve put to death a long, long time ago as part of our maturity in Christ. As much as we talk about grace, too few of us actually dispense it. There is nothing sadder under the sun than an old man, stone still in hand, ready to throw it at whomever he classifies as deserving of it’s granite sting.

It amazes and saddens me that so many Christians out there who should know better can’t drop their stone. They’ve got to hurl it at all cost. And they do so because they have no concept of grace or of their own sin. They live an unexamined life that focuses on everyone else’s failures and none of their own.

Tim Keller and David Powlison wrote eloquently on one way in which we can learn to drop the stone. I would encourage everyone to read it here,  bloggers especially.

The old adage goes “There’s no fool like an old fool.” God help us if Christian maturity doesn’t lead us beyond the angry young man stage and into the wisdom of dropping our stones.

A Clay-Footed People


In my Dad’s childhood days in Price Hill, a tough neighborhood in Cincinnati, he lived next door to the Roses. Like the neighborhood, his neighbors were a gritty sort of people. In a wager over a pair of steel-toed boots, that neighbor boy shot my Dad in the foot with a .22 rifle. Fortunately for Dad, the steel in the toe of his boot caved but didn’t allow the bullet to pass through. They built things better back then, I think.

That boy went on to become quite a football player in his day, but that wasn’t the sport that earned him the moniker “Charlie Hustle.” Yeah, that Rose—Pete.

Despite the fact that he could have done my father a serious injury all those years ago, Pete Rose was my boyhood idol. I had posters of him all over my room. He epitomized a hero through his work ethic and lived up to his nickname. He was one of those granite-jawed, working-class, westside Cincinnatians, people who could wither you with a gaze, but who were the choice picks if you needed to storm the gates of Hell.

When Rose nearly killed Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse in that infamous final play of the 1970 All-Star game (in Cincinnati, BTW), I was watching the game and just went wild. My hero scored the winning run. Didn’t matter that Fosse was never the same after that play. Rose did what Rose had to do. That was Rose. He played the game hard. That’s what made him the all-time hit leader, nearly saw him catch Joe Dimaggio’s consecutive hitting streak record, and gives him the near mythic quality he enjoys in Cincinnati.

Now if only there wasn’t that betting on baseball thing.

I say that because Rose’s betting on baseball pretty much ended whatever hero-worship he enjoyed from me. That was the first in a series of “welcome to reality, naif” disappointments with that saw the young adult me pretty much abandon the whole idea of finding heroes in celebrities of any kind.

A recently deceased Christian rock musician is garnering a bit more attention because of a scandal. It’s a bad scandal, though, in a way, it should surprise only those people with a whacked-out worldview. I suspect, though, that the people with that worldview would not be the ones you would first consider to be  out-of-step.

And that’s the point of this post. I write this because I see a fundamental flaw in reasoning among many American Christians today.

An old saying that makes some of us sigh goes like this: “Only Christians bury their wounded.” In too many cases, that’s true. Someone screws up and they’re as good as dead in the midst of too many church bodies, ESPECIALLY if the screwup is a pastor.

I have a theory about this. As much as most Christians adamantly say they believe that all people are sinners, they just as adamantly don’t practice that belief. Too many of us practice the faith as if everyone were born good, as if original sin never existed.

What else explains the utter shock, the profound horror, when Elder Joe Smith winds up in a sordid affair? Oh, how the tongues wag and the old ladies fan themselves hoping to stave off an attack of the vapors! Well, maybe 'feet IN clay' if not 'feet OF clay'Everyone just dies and goes into convulsions. Our church splits, people leave, and in many cases, Elder Joe Smith crawls off to die somewhere—or at least that’s what a good chunk of us wishes he would do.

And why do we believe that? Because no matter what creedal confession rolls off our lips, we simply don’t believe that people are sinners.

The odd thing about this is that worldly people aren’t shocked when sinners act like sinners. We Christians, though, stuck as we are on the foundational lie of the innate goodness of other Christian people, go belly up like a lake full of dynamited fish when yet another Christian stalwart proves spectacularly that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

One of the most well known pastors/authors out there today, a man respected throughout the Godblogosphere, revered almost—I know people who know him well. I’ve heard the stories. They’d cause a few of his fanclub to spontaneously combust, I suspect.  But you know what? His issues are no worse than yours or mine.

I’ve got to believe that nothing would profoundly change the focus, direction, praxis, and reflection of each Christian in this country than to stop asking the question, “How is it that good Christians can do bad things?” and start asking, “How is it that any of us can do even one good thing?” If that latter question ever caught on, we’d stop propping up Christian heroes who inevitably fail (and then suffer our public savaging) and start acting like humble servants who know our place. We would comprehend and embrace that each of us, should we stray from grace for even a moment, would be capable of the most vile evils. We’re lying to ourselves if we practice Christianity otherwise.

If 45 years of living has taught me anything, it’s that there’s not a person out there who doesn’t have feet of clay. I know I do. (Heck, I aspire to clay feet at this point in life!) Why should I expect otherwise in other people?

Isn’t it about time we Christians stopped spending all our free time attempting to hide our clay feet, started living under grace, and actually extended genuine forgiveness to others?