Friday, December 28, 2007

The Devil is in the Details

Note: My wife, Catherine, posted this article on her blog about a year ago, but I thought it might be interesting to post it again for anyone who hasn't read it. Most people who have read this article agreed with it overwhelmingly, but I have received some criticism as well (interestingly, most of the criticism was regarding a matter of detail, which made me wonder if they understood what I was really trying to say in the first place). As always, I make no claims to being "right"; these are just some thoughts that I've had on this particular subject. Whether you agree with me or not isn't the point; the fact that you thought about it one way or the other is.

From the book "Finding Liberty".

As I would suspect is the case throughout all of America, churches here in Casey County, KY have an alarming lack of youth showing up on Sunday mornings. In the fall of 2006, a group of musicians attempted to counter that trend by sponsoring a Christian rock concert here in our little corner of the world. It was meant as a bridge, a means of reaching out to the youth of our area and connecting with them at the place where they happen to be.

The next week, a scathing letter to the editor appeared in our local paper denouncing the event, saying that there is nothing “Christian” about rock music and that it is instead an instrument of the devil. The writer went on to condemn long hair also; saying that Christian men wear their hair short and neatly trimmed.

This letter touched off a minor firestorm, and letters quickly dominated the editor’s page as people voiced their opinions on the topic and argued their case for or against. A scripture was fired off across the bow. A broadside of other scriptures were shot back. The vast majority of letters were written in a kind, loving way, but many were much more opinionated and damning.

This went on for 2 months.

All of the people who sounded off their opinions in this little episode were Christians, none of whom were willing to budge from their own predetermined personal convictions, and who, if anything, now cling to them even more tightly than before.

The question I have is not whether you think Christian rock is right or wrong, or whether Christian men should have short hair. The question is this: In what way did all of these Christians move God’s kingdom forward by publicly bickering & squabbling amongst themselves - because that was certainly how it appeared - on the pages of a newspaper read by hundreds of people, many of whom are not Christians?

Because if I’m a non-Christian reading those letters week after week, I’ve got to be thinking to myself something along the lines of, “Are you kidding me? These are the people who say I’m lost? These are the people who tell me how wonderful it is to be a Christian because of all of the love that Jesus Christ has brought into their lives? These are the people who say I’m wrong and they’re right? That they know the one true God? They can’t even agree on something as insignificant as the length of your hair!”

The sad part is, they would be wholly justified in thinking those thoughts. I mean, why would anyone want to be a part of a group like that, especially when there are plenty of ready alternatives that are so much more appealing.

A year or so ago a very devout Christian woman saw a teenage girl at the mall walking with her mother. The girl was dressed, as dozens of other girls walking around the mall that day were, in the current fashion of the day; a “Britney Spears” ensemble of blue jeans, t-shirt, and bare mid-rift. The exception was that the shirt that this particular girl was wearing also had the letters “WWJD?” emblazoned on the front.

The Christian woman was offended, and proceeded to walk over to the girl and denounce her publicly - in front of her mother, in front of everyone - for not being dressed as a proper Christian should be.

Since this story was related to me, I’ve often wondered what became of that young girl. A young girl at a very impressionable stage in her life. A time when, consciously or not, she is choosing role models and mentors to guide her, making decisions that, unbeknownst to her, will affect the entire course that her life will take, and in the process, forming for herself a set of opinions and beliefs that she will carry with her for years to come.

However “wrong” this young girl may or may not have been in her “Christian attire”, at least she wasn’t afraid to associate herself with the name “Jesus”. How many teenage girls have the guts to do even that? And if she maybe wasn’t a “proper” Christian, at least she had a foot on the right path; a path that over time would have eventually made her realize all by herself that, among other things, perhaps her attire was not appropriate. I have to wonder if Christ is still a part of her life now, or if He instead is closed away forever behind a door that was slammed shut in a shopping mall.

There’s a saying I read once that states, “Don’t speak unless you can improve the silence.” Was the silence improved here?

I think that that Christian woman - as well as all of the people who weighed in with their letters to the editor regarding the concert - were well meaning. I’m sure they had good intentions. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and if the end result is that a couple miles of interstate was constructed in that direction because of these incidents, does anything change just because “we didn’t mean for that to happen”?

We talk a lot about the evil that Satan does in the world, but I’m not so sure Satan is really that busy anymore. I see him more like a Maytag repairman; highly skilled in his art, but not a whole lot to do at the moment. All of us Christians seem to be doing a pretty good job of doing his work for him. Fussing, arguing, judging, and rebuking amongst ourselves. Apparently not content with just keeping non-believers away from God, we take it a step further and slice our fellow Christians to ribbons before throwing the unsightly trash of their being out of our self-righteous front door.

And for what? Oh, that’s the kicker! For a detail. A detail that we can’t even prove is correct, that doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with anything, but one which we have decided to embrace and defend at all costs. We’ve all heard the old saying, “can’t see the forest for the trees”, and that’s what these individual details are; separate and distinct trees that are part of a much larger whole. But in our obsession over one or two of these details that we feel so strongly about, we will blindly exalt and protect them, and all the while remain blissfully ignorant of the rest of the forest, even as it burns to the ground around us.

That may seem a little harsh. I mean, we’re only talking about 2 small instances here, and we are only human after all. We know we will stumble and fall sometimes. But surely we – Christians – do much more good than bad. In the larger scheme of things, these incidents themselves are merely a couple of minor “details” aren’t they? Is it possible that I’m simply making a mountain out of a molehill?

Maybe. Each molehill by itself is certainly rather small, but what happens when you pile them all together? Because there sure are a lot of them:
How to conduct Baptisms, the rapture, alcohol consumption, head coverings, modest dresses for women, what music to listen to, hair length, body piercings/tattoos, what foods we’re supposed to eat, church attendance, anointing with oil, what day is the real Sabbath, speaking in tongues, attire at church, predestination, working on Sunday, laying on of hands . . . folks, I’m just getting started. Pick your poison, identify your detail, and I guarantee you’ll find Christians somewhere fighting about it with other Christians.

Note that I’m not saying we should relax what we believe in, or water down our faith so that it “feels good” to everybody. I’ll talk about that later. But for now, just realize the damage that we do to ourselves – and everyone else – when we allow these individual details to become more important than the larger whole that they are a part of.

United we stand, divided we fall.

You can say whatever you want about the Catholic church, but like it or hate it, one thing is for sure; for the first 1500 years after Christ’s death & resurrection, if you were a Christian, you were a Catholic.Note 1 In other words, regardless of what differences of opinion Christians in the Catholic church had with each other, regardless of whether or not the hierarchy of the church was corrupt from power and money, at least all of the Christians in the world were on the same team. But from the moment Martin Luther posted his 95 thesis’ on the church door, we have allowed our differences of opinion and our varying interpretations of the same book to divide us further and further upon ourselves.

I’m not saying that Luther was wrong for doing what he did; far from it. But have things gotten any better since the reformation? It’s not as simple as saying “Catholic” and “Protestant”, because there isn’t just “one” protestant church. You’ve got the Methodists, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, and the Episcopalians. Then there’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Church of Christ. And don’t forget the Quakers, the Puritans, the Shakers, and the Amish. That’s about all, right? Doesn’t seem too bad.

But you already know that’s not even close. Although that’s 13 separate denominations right there, there are plenty more where they came from. And once you get a complete list (if you can), take a closer look at each one. Just in the classification of “Baptist” churches you have Southern Baptist, American Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Full Gospel Baptist, Separate Baptist, Independent Baptist, and so on. Push on to the Presbyterians and you’ll see there isn’t just one of those either. Ditto for the Lutherans. Ditto for the Methodists. And don’t even bother to try to get a headcount of all of the “non-denominational” churches out there. You’ll hurt yourself.

How many protestant denominations are there? I have no idea. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 35 to 23,000 (yes, that was 23 thousand). I don’t think anybody really knows. Just throw a dart; you’re bound to hit something.

Why so many? They’re all worshipping the same God, aren’t they? They all use the same Bible, don’t they? Yes, and yes. The divisions come from disagreement, and the disagreements are all on varying details. Details of method. Details of style. Details of interpretation.

Who’s to say who is right and who is wrong? After all, do any of us actually have the ability to see into the mind of God? To say for sure that “This is what God meant. Everybody else is wrong”. As with any argument, it soon degenerates into being more about who is right than what is right. Winner take all.

Details have not just divided the Christian church, but have splintered it into hundreds - possibly even thousands - of disconnected fragments. Was this done for God’s sake or mankind’s? Whose kingdom did this fragmentation of the Christian church serve better, God’s or Satan’s? And does it make any difference whether that’s what we intended to do or not?

I go back to what that young girl in the mall had on her shirt; a catch-phrase that was pretty popular a few years ago. WWJD?: What would Jesus do? It’s a shame that this little question came and went as little more than a fad, because it’s a powerful question, one that we would all do better for remembering and continuously asking ourselves.

What would Jesus do?

Details? I don’t think Jesus cared a whole lot about details. You can see His disdain for meaningless details throughout the gospels: Not enough loaves and fishes to feed the multitude? So what. A minor detail. Too late to heal the little girl because she’s already dead? Don’t worry about it. Want to get baptized but can’t because you’re already hanging on a cross? “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

True, Jesus was detailed about some things. His entry into Jerusalem, for instance, was very specific regarding his mode of transport and his lodging. I don’t know the significance of why He was so specific in that case, but I know He had his reasons, and in some way those details served His purpose. And that’s where I think the difference lies; do the details that we embrace serve His purpose, or ours? Are we so focused on the details themselves that we are completely missing the spirit behind them? Have the details become more important to us than God Himself?

Jesus’ run-ins with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes are very interesting. These were all people who knew the details of the law, and they held themselves in very high regard. Like vultures they would hover around Jesus, just waiting for Him to slip up so that they could pounce:

Eating with tax collectors and sinners! (Matt 9:11)
Not fasting! (Matt 9:14)
Working on the Sabbath! (Matt 12:2)
Not washing His hands before He eats! (Matt 15:2)
And so on, and so on.

Every confrontation between Jesus and these men was a matter of some detail. When you think about it, Jesus was really quite the maverick. He was constantly crossing over these lines in the sand - these details - and stepping on the toes of those who held them so dear. And I think in His actions He makes it quite clear that it’s not the details that matter, but the heart behind them.

Jesus warns us in several of the gospels to beware “the yeast of the Pharisees”, and He makes it quite clear how He feels about the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes in Matthew 23, the entire chapter of which is devoted to them, albeit probably not in the manner they would have preferred.

“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from men; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” - Matt 23:13

But I think we’re making a big mistake if we think that Jesus is simply talking to a bunch of men who all died 2,000 years ago. He’s talking to us, because every one of us has the potential to become a Pharisee just as soon as we allow the focus of our hearts & minds to slip away from the righteousness of God and become instead centered on the righteousness of ourselves, a condition which quickly leads us to begin judging others on matters of detail. And when our hearts & minds shift away from the Lord, like Peter we suddenly find ourselves sinking into the waves.

I look at Christianity as a mountain to climb. On the mountain are all of those who have accepted Christ as their personal savior. Some have been climbing that mountain for a long time, others have just begun. Some move more quickly up the slopes, while others have a more difficult time. But while we may all be scattered across the face of that mountain, and though some of us have made higher ground, we all have one thing in common: we are all trying to reach the top.

The interesting thing is that none of us can reach the top on our own. In the end, the summit can only be reached through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. What is important is not where we are on that mountain, but that we are on the mountain. Because as long as we are, it makes no difference to what heights we might ascend to as Christians in this life; as long as we are on that mountain - anywhere on it - the hand of the Savior can ultimately reach down to us and pull us to the top when we expire from this earth.

It’s interesting that in any other group of people – doctors, lawyers, athletes, soldiers, etc. – we inherently know that there are wide variations of skill and ability within those groups. I’ve personally known salesmen who were so good they could literally sell you your own shirt and make you think you got a great deal. I’ve also known others who couldn’t give away a glass of water to a man dying of thirst. Yet they both wore the badge of “Salesman”. In any group of like minded people, due to knowledge, experience, ethic, mental comprehension – whatever - some are simply better than others.

But have you noticed that that reasoning doesn’t seem to apply to those who put on the badge of “Christian”. As soon as someone becomes a Christian, they are immediately held to the same standard by which all other Christians are measured. It’s bad enough that secular society holds us in that regard, but to make matters worse, we do the same thing with each other.

The problem is that we are all at different levels in our climb up that mountain. Those on the lower slopes need help – not animosity – from those who are higher up. The climb is tough enough as it is without all of us shooting arrows at each other, targeting, judging, & rebuking those who have not reached the point where we happen to be, or maybe more appropriately, where we think we happen to be. The first thing we as Christians need to do is to encourage those who are on the beginner slopes to keep climbing, not give them a reason to turn around and give up.

Once we’ve got that taken care of, the second thing we need to do is to get the attention of those who are not yet on the mountain at all, and give them a good reason to want to check it out.

Because stretching out below the foot of the mountain are the flat plains of secular living. Lots of people on those plains, and it’s pretty easy living there – no mountains to climb, no standards to uphold, no boring accountability to worry about – and there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Neon lights, parties, raucous laughter; drugs, booze, sex, & money flow like a never-ending river.

Some of the folks on the plains are firmly rooted; they’re staying put. But there are scores more who are asking themselves questions. They’re very busy there, they’re having loads of fun, but they feel hollow and unfulfilled. They often look over at this mountain and see all of these people climbing it. Why? Sure seems like a lot of work. They get curious and walk over to it’s base. What will they see? Will they be greeted with a smiling face and a wave? Will someone say to them, “Hi there! Join us, won’t you? I know it looks hard, but you’ll never regret it. C’mon! We’ll help you!” Or will someone look down on them from the heights of self righteousness and say “Get away! You’re filthy and you’re dirty and you reek. I know what you’ve been doing! We don’t want your kind here.”

Last Sunday in church there was a young boy – probably 10 or 11 – who was sitting in the pew in front of me. I’d never seen him before and he was sitting there by himself. He had an earring in his ear and a definite look of attitude on his face. His behavior was atrocious; wiggling & squirming, putting his feet up on the pew in front of him, laying down, kicking the hymnals back and forth in their holder. Not only was he not listening to a word being said, but he was disturbing others around him, distracting us from focusing on the sermon.

In all honesty, I didn’t like the boy. I wanted to give him a good smack upside his head and tell him to put his feet on the floor, sit still, and show a little respect to God in His own house.

But in a moment of restraint that is unfortunately all too rare in my life, I actually stopped and thought about the situation before I acted. I told my inner Pharisee to just shut up for a minute and let me figure out what I should do. I wanted this young boy to behave, yes, but that’s only what I wanted, and I wasn’t even sure if I could say or do anything to accomplish that end. More importantly, I started to think about what God wanted for this boy.

True, his behavior was deplorable, he wasn’t listening to a thing being said, and he was annoying those around him. But he was in church. He was in church because our Youth Minister had somehow convinced him to come, and had taken the time to go pick him up and bring him. So what if he didn’t know how to act in church; so what if he didn’t know or care what it was all about. He had probably never even been to church before. But he was there now. He was at the foot of the mountain. Was I willing to take the chance of breaking God’s tenuous hold of this young boy and send him away from the mountain before he could even find out what it was all about simply because he was annoying me?

In the end, I did nothing. Despite it all, he was at church. Let him come back to church again. And again. Let him realize that church is not a bad place, that the people he sees here will not judge him or hold him to a standard he isn’t ready for. And after he’s been there a few times and starts to feel a little more comfortable, maybe someone comes up to him and says something like, “You know young man, it’s great to see you here. We love that we get to spend some time with you. Could I ask you a favor, though? I’ve noticed that during the church service you sometimes put your feet up on the pew in front of you. There are some folks here who get a little distracted by that. Do you think maybe you could help them out and just kind of keep your feet on the floor? That would be so great of you if you could do that. I really appreciate it.”

And with a few kind words, a lesson is learned and a young boy takes another step toward the mountain.

I wonder what would have been different if that person who wrote the condemning letter about the Christian rock concert had said instead, “I just wanted to say “thank you” to all the men and women who took the time to reach out to the youth of our community and hold the Christian rock concert. I don’t care for rock music or long hair myself, but it was refreshing to see that someone cared enough to actually do something to fight for these young people. Your efforts have inspired me to get off of my behind and do something myself! Would anyone like to help me?”

I think the enemy just blinked.

I wonder what would have been different if the Christian woman in the mall had checked her desire to berate that young girl and instead said something along the lines of “Young lady, I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you for not being afraid to associate yourself with Jesus Christ. You don’t know it, but your actions are making other young women look at you and wonder what it is you know that they don’t. I wish you all the best in your walk as a Christian. Please don’t ever give up!”

Oh, my. I do believe Satan just sat up and dropped the remote control.

* * *
Author’s Note: Several weeks after I wrote this, that young boy I mentioned earlier accepted Christ as his Savior and was baptized. While I did nothing myself to help bring that about, you have no idea the relief that I feel for not doing anything that might have prevented it from happening. I had an opportunity to finally speak with him a short time later; he seemed surprised that everyone knew his name. I said, “Why shouldn’t everyone know your name? You are important.” No big shakes, I know, but how much better for him to hear that instead of the “Shut up and sit still!” that I might have said earlier.

Note 1: An earlier division in 1054 had already split the Catholic church into “Eastern Orthodox” and “Roman”, but the real free-for-all didn’t start until 1517. I am also not considering the many unorthodox sects (Gnostics, Ebionites, etc.) that existed during those times.


Anonymous said...

This is an interesting essay on an important topic. While I was raised to dress respectfully in a church I think if we are to reach the young masses we need to be more tolerant. What i find particularly amusing is the "long hair" argument! Especially when Jesus is portrayed throughout the history of art with long flowing hair and a beard... And it's not the garments it's the heart and soul inside.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Mr. Blaine, Is everything alright? I just tried to log on to your wife's Xanga blog, MrsCatherine, but it seems to either be offline (or server down). I also just tried visiting the Making It Home Magazine website, and for some reason, it is no longer online either (only shows a Verizon page). I pray everything is o.k., and that those sites will be back online soon. Please let us all know through your own blog what has happened, and if all is well with your family, and when (or if) both the blog and magazine website will be back online. Thank you for checking. Surely many who have been reading her blog regularly and now cannot log on would really appreciate it (probably some are a bit concerned, like me). Thanks again, and may God bless your family this New Year in Christ Jesus.

Rebecca said...

Thank you! I LOVE this article.

Blaine Staat said...

Dear anonymous, yes, everthing is just fine. We took the MIH site down because of the cost to keep it up month after month. Cat's blog had a technical difficulty but is back up and running. Thank you for your concern. So interesting to have people that you don't even know caring about you! A wonderful thing.
- Blaine

Anonymous said...

I recently read your wonderful book and really enjoyed this essay. I read it at the same time the MIH yahoo group was discussing different opinions on hair length, dress, and other things. I wanted to suggest this article for all to read. Actually if I were teaching a Christianity 101 course- (for those truly wanting to be Christians ) your book would be required reading. If only we would realize that the devil is behind all the division and judging and the world is watching and Jesus is coming.... Melody

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sending me the link! I e-mailed it to my sister, whom I am referring to your site.

(I'm also excited to see that Mrs.Catherine's blog is back up!!)

God bless you and your family,