Confessions of an (almost) Pharisee

Full disclosure: I am a sinner.  Sin is anything we think, say, or do that does not glorify God.  All have sinned by the default of being human, as 1 John 1: 8 and 10 describe: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us…If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and His word is not in us.”  A multitude of sins can stain our lives and hearts, and sometimes a common theme can describe our personal sins.  It might be Anger, Deceit, Violence, Materialism, Conceit…or Legalism.  Ashamedly, I admit so many of my sins have fallen under the last category.

In the Christian sphere, Legalists tend to stress strict adherence to God’s laws.  They hope obedience to a set of rules will grant them salvation, and they look down on people that do not follow the rules as they do (1).  In the Bible, a group of people called “Pharisees” believed both God’s Law (Torah) and Oral Law were strict codes to be kept by God’s people.  (A great video explaining what the Sadducees and Pharisees believed is below.)  The Pharisees did not like Jesus’ new message, and they were constantly looking for ways to thwart people from hearing His Word.  But Jesus often called them out for this, as in Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

 

Recently, I have realized that I have acted too much like these people who were so bent on following God’s law and the laws developed by men.  When I grew up in the front pew and attended Sunday School, AWANA, Vacation Bible School, and Bible camp, in addition to having Christian parents, my absorbent brain was quickly and incessantly filled with knowledge of God and the Bible.  However, I became too caught up in the verses describing what I should  not do rather than what I should do.  My personality that strove for high achievement in school and activities did not help me be the most patient or loving person, either.  During my last years of undergraduate school and time as a graduate student, I became so preoccupied with making grades and doing things “right” that I avoided people and situations that I considered unhelpful for reaching my earthly goals.  Too often I looked around at the “sinners” around me and shuddered.  Why should I have allowed them into my life?  They did not go to church, they did not use time or money wisely, they did not…  My criticisms went on and on.  I justified my actions with 1 Corinthians 15:33: “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character’.”  But while this single pithy saying defended my choices, Jesus’ entire life contested them  I was, essentially, a Pharisee: shunning the people that did not live up to my Christian “ideals.”

Jesus was criticized by the legalists of His time when He associated with people who were banned from the society of “godly” people.  Yet he gathered them to His side.  He talked with them, listened to them, had meals with them.  On one occasion described in Matthew 9:10-12, Jesus was hanging out at the home of Matthew, a tax collector – a member of special class of sinners – having a meal with other tax collectors and sinners.  Some Pharisees on the scene, shocked and appalled at this, asked Jesus’ disciples why He dared to be seen with these people.  In response, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  The sins of the people were known and obvious to Jesus, but He still chose to be near them.  A good doctor is not afraid of disease, and he must get close enough to see, touch, and hear his patient to prescribe treatment.  But the good doctor also knows how to avoid getting the disease so he can keep on caring for his patients.

 

Fear of earthly failure inspired my dark moments of pride and lack of love.  Rather than trusting God to protect me from worldly influences while reaching out to others, I instead focused on myself and how well I was following my religion.  I now painfully regret the moments lost when I could have shared the love of God with others.  I gave up potential friendships and the chance to tell others about Jesus because of my legalistic ways.  During my transient life as a student, I had the this mentality: “I just need to focus on my work for two years and then I’ll move on.  There’s no point in making relationships that will be broken sooner than later.”  I thank God that, after six months at my current job, my boss pointed out my less than sociable ways.  I admit it: I cried.  I realized I was not acting like a true Christian – someone Jesus would want to claim as a friend.  Since then, I have made more efforts to be inclusive, patient, and loving.  True, I still have said or done the wrong thing at times, but I have more often chosen to say and do what God what want.  And, wonderfully, despite my spotted past, Jesus still wants me to be His friend!  Even though we are all sinners, “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  Jesus will have anyone with a sincere heart – tax collectors, Pharisees, and front pew kids who know a little too much for their own good.

Photo credit: http://cedricstudio.com/tag/jesus/

  1. https://carm.org/what-is-legalism
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Prayer, Praise…and Potluck

Changing churches is tough.  Sadly, conflict within churches made this front pew kid sit in a lot of different front pews throughout childhood.  (It’s terrible when Christians don’t act like Christians, but that’s for another post.)  I worshiped God in the auditoriums of mega-churches and the living rooms of home churches.  My family even helped start a new church, but then we moved to another state and began the search yet again.  Again, we went through the awkward first few Sundays trying to remember the names of the people we met last week, sizing up the offered ministries,  hoping the church is a good fit because the people are just so darn nice to us, we’d feel rude not to come back.  Thankfully, I was never embittered by any church I attended, and choosing a church to attend was a first priority when I moved around as an adult.  Choosing to leave each one was difficult, mostly when it meant leaving behind people who had welcomed and invested their interest in me.  But even when a person leaves a church, they never leave the Church.

The Church (the collection of Christ’s followers) is more powerful than a church (a building where people gather to worship).  Though separated by physical distance or personal preferences, all Christians share salvation through Jesus.  This is a powerful, uniting force, and, amazingly, makes extremely different people do incredibly similar things.  Acts 2:42 describes the activities of members of the early church as such: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  I’m not a scholar on First Century Church Life, so I don’t know what exactly happened when the earliest Christians worshiped.  But the basics of worship – learning about Jesus’ message, spending time together and caring for each other, sharing meals, and reaching God through prayer and praise – well, they haven’t changed much over 2,000 years.  Despite the differences among Christian denominations (the “top 35” by membership size are described here), all Christians are equally valued by God and have Christ within them. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  Salvation unites men and women,  princes and paupers, Alaskans and Australians.

I’m a relative newcomer at my current church.  It is the home church of my fiance, and his family is deeply rooted there.  On this past Sunday the church celebrated its 125th Anniversary.  It was indeed a special Sunday with the presence of former pastors and congregants as well as other unique touches, but the songs we sang, the fellowship we shared, and the prayers we lifted were all meant to honor God and bind us closer together.  Chosen verses for the occasion included Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Let us not give up meeting together…but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Besides the chance to worship God, the point of church is to support the Church.  We pray for each other, we praise God together, and we potluck like nobody’s business.  (We were instructed to break bread together, right?)

The uniting bond of salvation among Christians has always given me courage to try a new church as I’ve felt led.  It’s a supernatural feat for this introvert to enter a building full of smiling, handshaking strangers.  How can this be?  Well, just like the Powdermilk Biscuits mentioned on A Prairie Home Companion,  the Bible in my arms and the Holy Spirit inside me “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

 

Photo credit: http://www.penwag.org/december-potluck-challenges-revealed-and-super-stash-sale/

Why I Chose and Choose Christ.

compass11Being a former child, I can confidently say that during childhood, whatever happens within your home, among your family, and in your community, is regarded as “normal.”  It is what it is, and other families do likewise.  For me, normalcy included my older brother, my happily married parents, and, like many other front pew kids, church on Sundays and Wednesdays.  One fact was as taken as much for granted as the other…as was my Christian faith for a time.  During the earliest Sunday mornings of my life, I was surrounded by women modestly sporting Laura Ashley dresses and cross necklaces, as well as nursery wall murals of African animals marching two by two into Noah’s ark.  After graduating from nursery, I sat in a plastic chair and learned the classic Bible stories (Adam and Eve,  David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, Queen Esther, Jesus and His Miracles, etc.) while wielding crayons and safety scissors. I definitely did not toddle out of Children’s Church voicing interest in exploring Islam or Rastafarianism.  Christianity was it.

But at a certain age, the existence of deviations from normal dawned on me.  I begin to wonder, to question, to doubt, and to look at other lives different from mine.  I saw other children did not have just one brother – perhaps they had younger twin sisters, a much older stepbrother, or no siblings at all.  I realized some parents were divorced, remarried, or still married…but far from happily.  And I learned that some children – or whole families – did not go to church…not even on Easter!  

And then I learned that while some people did not go to church, some people did not believe in God, or they believed in a different “god.”  This was horrifying.  What would stop people from yearning for God, who “makes me lie down in green pastures, [and] leads me beside quiet waters” (Psalm 23:2)?  Why wouldn’t people run to Jesus, who told the oppressed, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28)?  Why would people not desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit which bears “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)?

And why would I yearn, why would I run, why would I desire?  Because this front pew kid was blessed to learn early in life that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23), but “…because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (Ephesians 2:4-5).  Humans could not make it through one generation without sinning; they could not even make it through two generations without murdering each other!  Sacrifices were demanded of God’s people to cover their sins until Jesus came as the final sacrifice.  He died for the Roman guards standing by the cross, for His followers crying in agony, for this front pew kid, for kids who don’t even know what a “pew” is.  

I remember when I first chose Christ.  I had (and still have) a rampant imagination, and I guess it saved me.  I was about five years old, sitting in the bathtub, watching water pour from the spout, when I suddenly thought, “What if the tub gets too full and I drown?”  (I must have recently learned about death by drowning.)  Afraid for my soul, I clasped my hands, bowed my head, and prayed a five-year-old version of the Sinner’s Prayer, basically, “Jesus, if I die, I want to be with you.  You are God and I love you.”  This simple and earnest prayer was all I needed, since receiving the blessing of salvation is simple: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).  

Such a start – a confession to God inspired by impressions – is common among front pew kids.  We say a prayer at a young age that connects us with Christ, and then, as life gets more real, and decisions become more difficult than which flavor of ice cream to have for dessert, our connection to Christ can fray.  Unfortunately, earthly solutions to earthly problems yield earthly results.  Choosing to honor God can be inconvenient, uncomfortable, or unpopular.  After all, Jesus said, “…whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  A cross was not a flimsy balsa wood contraption.  It was heavy and rough, and liable to give splinters, scrapes and sore shoulders.  But Jesus also said, “…everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).  Inconvenience, discomfort, and unpopularity, and splinters, scrapes, and sore shoulders are truly worth the shelter of the house built on the rock.  And that is why I shoulder my cross, why I continue to choose Christ.

I thank God that normalcy in my childhood included teachings about Him from infancy.  I thank God I realized I needed Him from an early age.  And I thank God that He still loves me when I mess up when I decide not to follow Him.  I thank Him for His arms that are always willing to embrace me when I choose to embrace Him, and for His arms that help hold up the cross I bear.

 

Photo credit: http://byfieldparish.org/?page_id=2

Front Pew Kid All Grown Up

All front pew kids, put your hands up.

If you don’t know what a front pew kid is, then you are not one.  Front pew kids are the sons and daughters of pastors, praise leaders, teachers, missionaries, elders, deacons, women’s committee directors, etc.  Essentially, if your parent/s help “run” church on Sunday mornings (or Saturdays, if that was your thing), you are a front pew kid.  If you no  longer attend youth group and actually have some responsibility in this world, you are a front pew kid all grown up.

I was a front pew kid.  Before I was a stowaway aboard the S.S. Mother, my dad played in the church praise band, and he still does to this day.  Piano, guitar, drums, bass – he can play them all.  He has used his God-given talent to help stir the hearts and souls of churchgoers through the universal language of music, and I am awed by all the time and energy he has put into serving the Lord this way.   My family changed churches every few years as I grew up, and as we felt comfortable enough to volunteer at each one, my dad committed himself to the praise team.  For easier and faster access to the stage, I have always known my dad to sit at the edge of the pew (or row of chairs) near the front of the church.  Being a tightly knit family unit, we always sat together in church, and so, as soon as I graduated from nursery, I became a front pew kid.

Church attendance was expected.  I did not rebel against this; it was just part of life’s rhythm.  On the off chance we did not attend church, I felt a strange nagging, a lack of purpose.  Wearing pajamas until 10 AM on a Sunday, a habit for probably much of the U.S. population, was so…abnormal.  “Normal” was hauling a drum set, keyboards, and speakers in my family’s van to our church’s temporary building every Sunday.  We would set up all the instruments and audio equipment, worship God, listen to the sermon, and then tear it down and pack it up.  I was a roadie by age 10.

I grew up with other front pew kids.  Every Sunday, the pastor and other praise team members brought their rather sleepy-eyed children to learn about God and make friends with “good” kids.  As I grew, I noticed that, since our parents were literally front and center, since we came to church despite threatening blizzards or tempting sunshine, since we could recite all 66 books of the Bible, older people assumed we were “good” kids.  Many people who knew about our consistent whereabouts on Sunday morning assumed that a Christian life had just seeped into us via osmosis, what with the endless hours of sermons and praise songs we had been exposed to since we could understand flannel graphs.  And so, like good little sponges, we would always face any devilish temptation with the thoughtful consideration of “What would Jesus do?”, know exactly what Jesus would do, do it, and, thereby, avoid all sin.

Maturation of Christian faith is not that simple.  Yes, I am so thankful that my parents were involved in church so I grew up knowing godly people and learning about God and His salvation He offers through Jesus.  But choosing to follow God – to obey Him – did not become as natural and automatic a thing as setting up a hi-hat and ride cymbal early on a Sunday morning did.  Sometimes going to church feels like an involuntary routine – a necessity – rather than an exciting  experience  to fellowship with other Christians and worship God.  I, along with many other front pew kids, did not come from a home in which God was an option or even forbidden.  His existence was taken as fact.  I was so surrounded by Bible verses, crosses, Michael W. Smith songs, and people speaking “Christianese”, that in this rose garden of my childhood the beauty of the roses was often lost on me.  As I grew older, though, and was torn from the garden to wander through deserts, I remembered the beauty of the blooms and the sweetness of their scents.  I realized that flowers – the blessings of life and hope of salvation – found in the desert were to be cherished and treasured, and shared with other wanderers in the wasteland.  Still, on one day I might spot the smallest blossom, hold it close, and smile about it for hours, while at another time I might stomp through an oasis, kicking the heads off orchids, not caring about the Gardener who grows them.

So it is for this front pew kid, all grown up.  My mother no longer sings me to sleep with “The Old Rugged Cross.”  I must choose to listen to it on my own rather than to a scintillating song with lyrics that do not honor God.  Front pew kids grow up with the best seats in the house to hear and see what God has done, but this does not guarantee a close adult relationship with God.  They accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior…or they don’t.  They go to church after leaving home…or they don’t.  They remember the words of their teachers and pastors and parents…or they don’t.  We cannot trade in the gold stars on our Sunday School attendance chart for a ticket to Heaven.

I am writing this for several reasons.  I want to hear from other grown up front pew kids.  We have taken different paths, and I am interested in their stories.  I also am writing this to prove the existence of Millennial Christians.  I was born in 1990, smack dab in the middle of the Millennial generation (1980-2000).  My views do not match many generalized notions of Millennial views mostly due to my faith.  I am also writing merely for the pleasure of writing and the challenge to voice my ideas politely and intelligently.  My high school band teacher used to say it does not take talent to play loud and fast; it takes talent to play softly and slowly.  So instead of through ranting and virtual Bible-thumping, I aim to deliver insights without giving the reader a headache.

Opinions and viewpoints will not come from a seminary graduate.  They will merely come from a front pew kid all grown up, still remembering (or not) what her Sunday school teacher taught or what she learned from VeggieTales, and still wondering, “What would Jesus do?”