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Who’s outside your pastor’s comfort zone?

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A big challenge in my spiritual journey lately has been responding to fellow believers, leaders especially, who seem to have sold out to a gospel of comfort.

When a relative, formerly a pastor and missionary, came down with a degenerative disease, he noticed himself losing friends. Fellow church members, leaders, choir members, and others, stepped out of his life one by one.

When his family asked the church for help, a pastor told them that people quite simply weren’t comfortable around this man anymore.

Apparently the pastor didn’t consider this a contradiction of the gospel he preached from the pulpit.

The sick man’s family then asked if they could present the situation to the congregation, as they’d seen someone do at another church. This way, they hoped, one or two church members might step forward as ‘volunteer friends.’ But the leadership told them this was impossible.

“You’ve got to understand our culture,” one staffer told them. “You just can’t do that here.”

In short, the retired pastor/missionary had outlived his usefulness and his welcome in the church. Even the pastors didn’t want to see him, ignoring the family’s request for the occasional drop-in visit.

His family was expected to accept his loneliness, that their church family wouldn’t be involved in his life any longer. Except at the funeral, perhaps.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me… (Matthew 25:34-36)

When it comes to reaching outside our comfort zone to love a neighbour, we’ve cultivated a subtle disconnect between theology and everyday life.

Many Christians would agree in principle with Jesus’ parables like the good Samaritan, or the passage about the goats and the sheep. We know these stories from Sunday school, and pastors also preach them from time to time.

Knowing them is good. But living them is another thing entirely.

Too many of us are like that pastor defending ‘personal comfort’ as a reasonable excuse not to visit someone in need of a friend. Except, we wouldn’t be quite as blunt about it. Not out loud, anyway.

I know what some of you reading this might say, that people aren’t perfect and that we can depend on God’s comfort when others let us down. And you’d be right.

But this doesn’t mean we need to let sin, especially a ‘respectable sin‘ like the idol of personal comfort, go unchallenged in our lives or our churches–especially in church leadership.

We need to examine our hearts, and we need to invite our pastors to do the same. We need to see how far we’ve let our culture’s gods–happiness, leisure, comfort–become our own gods. We need to release our white-knuckled grip on those idols and, instead, find our comfort in Jesus Christ.

And then, if the Spirit is alive in us at all, we need to see growth.

We also need pastors who don’t make excuses for sin. Ones who don’t limit their teaching to “platitudes, subtle hints, or over-principlized ‘sermonettes,'” as Byron Forrest Yawn writes in his book, What Every Man Wishes His Father Had Told Him:

[Pastors] must put their proverbial finger in men’s faces and tell them exactly … how they’ve wasted years of spiritual opportunity. Not with belittling harshness, but with frustrated optimism. (p. 164)

In other words, we need real leaders, ones who’ll teach us how to put our faith into action when it’s UNcomfortable. We need our leaders to model this in their own lives, and we need them to expect us to follow suit.

And in doing so, we’ll discover a secret: Serving others brings surprisingly more fulfillment than anything we’ll find inside our comfort zone.

What’s your take on this? And how have your leaders handled the ‘gospel of comfort’ in your church?

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Bittersweet by Shaua Niequist

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Bittersweet: Thoughts on change, grace, and learning the hard way by Shauna Niequist was really quite moving. It’s a series of semi-autobiographical/motivational chapters that touch on pain and the beauty we can find in it. Shauna is quite the artist, I found, given the way she takes experiences of brokenness that are common to many of us, sketching in honest detail why they hurt us so much, and then lingering on the way pain and death intertwine with beauty and new life. Imagine a painting of a flower pot that’s been knocked over by some kind of turbulence, and is now laying on its side amidst scattered shards and soil. Looking more closely, you notice that the flower has managed to take root and even flourish where it had spilled onto the ground. That’s pretty much how this book has impacted me.

Shauna has an honest, down-to-earth way of sharing her own stories about heartache, loss, and troubles that resonate with many of us. There’s lots to relate to in this book: The pain of losing a child, the sorrow of losing a grandparent, the difficuly of keeping a marriage healthy during hard times, the loneliness one feels when friends and acquaintances remain silent and distant during your time of grief. But there’s plenty of fun and light-hearted stuff in here too: Shauna draws the reader in with meaningful, well-written stories, and unique insights on the joys of cooking, traveling, weddings, and quality time with friends and family.

It’s definitely a book for women, as it deals a lot with issues around motherhood, female friendships, and “crying in the bathroom.” However, some of the chapters are great for men too. I’ve had moments where I just *had* to show my brother, my husband, and my uncle a chapter or two. And once they start the first few sentences they’re usually hooked until the end. Of course, the point isn’t that they got hooked on the chapters, but that the book has an enjoyable way of revealing truths about common life stages and experiences that stay with the reader long after the book has been shelved.

One of my favourite chapters is called “Things I don’t do” about having boundaries on our personal time, and getting a healthier perspective on our priorities in life. It’s one thing for me to describe this chapter to you, though, and quite another to read it. I’ll post excerpts of Shauna’s book here on my blog in the near future to show you what I mean about her refreshing insights and writing style.

If I had one concern, it would be her take on theology and her critique of theologians. She’s a pastor’s kid, as am I, so I would have expected her to have a more nuanced and sophisticated view of the Gospel and the people who teach it to us. Her perspective sounds a lot like the disdain for theology I heard from members of a former church I attended, and I’m concerned that a growing number of Christians–who are understandably disillusioned with dogmatic, fundamentalist-style Christianity–are throwing out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to regarding God’s Word and the people He has gifted as teachers with value and respect. This chapter appears near the end of the book, so it didn’t affect my experience of the rest of her thoughts, which was good. I’ll post more about this in the future as well. But this is the only reason I can’t give the book a perfect rating, as much as I would have liked to.

So I give it four out of five stars. If you can find a copy, I definitely recommend reading it at least once. As for me, I’ll be re-reading Bittersweet many times over.

A special request: I’d be Shauna’s first customer if she were to publish her tips on dining and entertaining, along with recipes for the many fabulous dishes she describes in Bittersweet. They all sounded so delectably irresistible!

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I want to express my sincere thanks to Zondervan for the opportunity to review Bittersweet. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Zondervan in exchange for writing a review, and I was free to express my honest impressions of the book, whether positive or negative.

If you’re interested in signing up to receive review copies from Zondervan, visit http://zondervan.typepad.com/zondervan!

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Follow the Leader

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Revised August 13, 2013

Are Christians inherently good at heart? Are we stable enough to resist intense pressure to act against our conscience, even the pressure to harm a fellow human being?

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram, a Yale researcher whose family had survived the Holocaust, wanted to know why the German people–ordinary citizens–willingly submitted to Hitler’s leadership and supported policies that brought untold suffering.

What Milgram found was downright terrifying.

His famous study, known as the Milgram Experiment, revealed that the average person, even though we might have misgivings, will end up bowing to an authority figure to the point of harming (even killing) someone else.

In a similar experiment by British researchers, volunteers delivered what they thought were lethal electric shocks to a fellow volunteer, and they did so despite it being against their better judgment.

This clip comes from a documentary about the British experiment:

So how does this study affect Christians?

We believe that God, in His grace, gives us the moral strength to follow Jesus and walk in obedience to Him. Furthermore, while many of us haven’t been tested, we also believe He can help us withstand pressure to act against our conscience. And theologically, we’d be right to believe this.

The Milgram experiment, however, pulls back the curtain on a particularly dark and vulnerable place in the human heart. As the study shows, when exposed to intimidation from an authority figure, the majority of us are too easily bent away from everything we know to be right and decent.

Neither Milgram’s study, nor the British study, show us specifically how Christians would respond under these conditions, and whether we’d make different choices when compared to unbelievers. But we don’t have to look far for examples of our vulnerability to authoritative influence.

Take, for example, the problem of sexual abuse in evangelical missions. Several well-known Christian denominations and missions agencies have faced accusations of cover-ups related to sexual abuse of missionary kids by adult missionaries in positions of trust. A common thread among these stories is that leaders shamed and intimidated the MKs, their missionary parents, and other mission employees out of reporting the abuse. The abusers, and their supporters, often warned that to question their authority was to question God himself.

This twisted and toxic use of spiritual authority has, time and again, helped keep horrific abuse under wraps in various evangelical Christian denominations, missions, and institutions. It’s a major reason many alleged abusers have lived protected, comfortably unaccountable lives for years after the alleged incidents.

While many of us don’t structure our evangelical churches as strict authoritarian hierarchies, we’re still generally taught to respect our elders and other authority figures. In and of itself, this is a biblical principle, yet Milgram’s experiment and the example of abuse in missions show us how easily such authority can be misused.

It’s worth taking a moment to examine the role of power and influence in our Christian communities. How willingly do we heed the advice of spiritual leaders at our church, Christian employer, or Christian school? Are we free to raise concerns about their teachings and policies, or to disagree with their choices? Are we ever frowned upon, shamed, or even disciplined for speaking up?

Let’s take another look at why the research participants carried on with the experiment in spite of their misgivings. As a scientist in the video explains,

The influence is ideological. It’s about what they believe science to be. Science is a positive product, it produces beneficial findings and knowledge for society that are helpful to society, so that sense of science is providing some kind of system for good.

When we substitute ‘science’ with ‘faith’ in the above quote, it sheds light on the reason Christians might be especially vulnerable to the phenomenon discovered in Milgram’s study.

Think about it this way: Our lives are fundamentally determined by our belief in the truth of the Christian worldview. We share in the Church’s central mission and believe it to be a “system for good.” We place ourselves under the teaching and influence of specific churches, institutions and leaders, those with whom we’ve built community, history, and relationships over the years. We trust them implicitly. Is it any wonder we’re vulnerable to manipulation from spiritual authorities–even to the unthinkable extreme of violating our conscience?

Are Christians inherently good at heart? Perhaps. Do we try to love our neighbours and generally wish them well? Absolutely.

But are we stable enough to resist intense pressure to act against our conscience, even if our actions might cause someone harm? Not often enough, I’m afraid.

So what are we supposed to do about this? Well, a few ideas come to mind for starters, which I’ll follow up with new posts in the coming months.

1) If a spiritual leader casts doubt on a matter of conscience, look to Scripture for guidance. If you don’t know the Bible deeply, now’s as good a time as any to start studying. Read widely. Read different viewpoints. Talk with believers inside and outside of your community/institution to gain context on the issues at hand.

2) Be open with your spiritual leaders about your concerns, graciously of course. If you feel like you’re talking to a brick wall or an angry pit bull, that’ll probably raise a red flag. If you repeatedly feel this way, it may be time for change.

3) Keep your relationship with God strong. It’s truly a blessing that His authority trumps anyone else who tries to speak on His behalf.

Your turn: How can we tell the difference between healthy and manipulative use of spiritual authority?

How do we equip ourselves and each other to resist pressure tactics from spiritual leaders, especially when the manipulation is subtle and cloaked in Biblical language, when it seems contrary to God’s word and yet comes from someone we’ve always trusted implicitly?

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