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Category: Sunday Morning

Depravity

02

My friends generally fall into two categories of thinking when it comes to questions of human nature:

1) People are basically good; 2) People are basically bad.

My Christian friends mostly fall into the latter category. They use a phrase – total depravity – as though it’s a kind of non-negotiable fact of life.

Or, sometimes, they talk about how everything they do is “like filthy rags.” I can’t help but think that filthy rags generally weren’t born that way. They get filthy from making other things clean. Which, I’ve come to learn, isn’t considered a helpful response.

We’re all evil on the inside.

Dark. Desperate. Depraved.

What a way to live.

Once, in a course on philosophy, the professor asked us if we thought human nature was good or evil. I raised my hand. I said it was good. The instructor, a Christian, asked how I reconciled my answer with scripture. I quoted Genesis 1:27. The easiest way to argue with that verse is to lay the blame for evil on the nature of God. Said instructor didn’t take the bait. He smiled. And he called on someone else.

Later, in a Sunday school class, I handed out blank pieces of paper and asked participants to write down one way in which they look like Jesus on the inside. I gave them five minutes of thinking time. To come up with just one thing. Lots of blank sheets of paper. And blank stares. I got an email from one class member. She suggested that Christians aren’t used to “thinking of something positive to say about themselves.”

Human survival requires both charity and social reciprocity.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust.

And we’re starving.

Because total depravity isn’t sustainable. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and share from our gifts. Because belief in total depravity interferes with our ability to recognize and accept others’ gifts. It’s killing the work and witness of the Church. It’s killing the Church.

It’s killing us.

A friend asked me what happened. “Church used to be fun,” she said. And we didn’t get a chance to finish the conversation, but when we do, I think I know what to say.

Filthy rags can be overwhelmed by shame, paralyzed by questions of how and why and what if I’d only. But filthy rags – used to do what rags are made to do – get good things done. Which is good.

But in the Church, it appears that we’ve plowed fields and planted them with self-doubt. Distrust. Disgust. And we’re starving.

Rubber Bands

02

For hundreds of years, churches have been like rubber bands. Their focus has been on getting as many people as possible inside the circle (of tradition, of polity, of community, of doctrine). The bands only stretch so far, however, making it inevitable that a point will come at which some people will get squeezed out unless the old band is replaced with something newer, larger and less restrictive in each of the senses listed above.

This model isn’t working the way it used to. Southern Baptists—the nation’s largest protestant denomination—reported in April 2008 that new baptisms were down to the lowest level since 1987 and that membership had dropped by about 40,000 people that year. These numbers are generally in line with downward trends among all mainline protestant denominations.

How should Christians respond? Maybe it’s time to reconsider the model. Who says the world should be knocking on our door (let alone sitting in our pews)? After all, Jesus didn’t tell his followers to sit in an upstairs room—door locked—counting down the days to His return. He sent them out to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Who says the world should be knocking on our door (let alone sitting in our pews)?

Zombies

16

It can be awkward to enter a religious community that’s not your own. Especially when the people do things that you don’t do at home.

At my first Catholic mass, for instance, I didn’t know how to “pass the peace,” and I couldn’t figure out the patterns of posture – when to stand, when to kneel, when to sit. On my first visit to a Russian Orthodox church, an old woman had to push me out of the way of the priest and censer. My first experience in a Presbyterian service involved communion, and I’d never previously heard it described as a service of reconciliation. In my first Nazarene service, there was a corporate reading of scripture. What I remember most is that the people sounded like zombies.

A piece I recently read on prayer in the Greco-Roman world explores an ancient influence on prayer in the church. And I recognize in the discussion of prayer in “fictional literary contexts” an echo of my own experiences with prayer in literature, experiences that account for my reflection that the Nazarenes “sounded like zombies.” I think of the witches in Macbeth: “double, double, toil and trouble.” I also think of the Harry Potter series, the Earthsea Trilogy, The Odyssey (and others).

What I hadn’t previously realized is that if art imitates life (as well as the reverse) then these chants, spells, and prayers reveal something of both how we pray and why. It’s a revelation that’s somewhat painful. Am I praising God, after all, or simply looking to control the Creator? My motives aren’t pure: after all, there is this idea within me that I bring something to God with an expectation that God might give me something in return. Even when the only things I bring are an attitude of humility and a contrite heart, I expect – and sometimes demand – that God answer.

Richard Foster challenges my expectations with a section in his book on prayer, “The Most Complete Prayer.” He implies that the heart of Christian prayer is nothing more nor less than an experience of the flesh and blood of Jesus, an experience of what it means to be one in Christ, an experience of one-ness. This word from Foster helps me to know that there’s no harm in spoken, corporate prayer (and probably lots of good). But I still think we sound like zombies.

Am I praising God, after all, or simply looking to control the Creator?

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