(Please be sure to read all the way through this update, to find important prayer praises & requests, and announcements, including Hispanic Evangelism this coming week, and a Halloween alternative activity taking place at our sister church in Orange.)
Anaheim SDA Church
Mid-week Pastor’s Update
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9
If you know me very well, you know I am a BIG fan of memes. My fascination probably started as a kid with those 1-panel “Far Side” comics: such wry humor, making you think and realize the absurdity of an aspect of life, in a single frame! Then, in high-school government class, I learned that single-panel political cartoons had been around for decades if not centuries.
I ingest a healthy diet of memes on almost a daily basis. Sometimes I go searching for memes on certain topics, other times they just show-up in my social media feed. Most are funny, some are thought-provoking and stimulating, but then there is a third minority category that I dislike: memes that bother me, and give me a sickening feeling in my stomach.
I had a huge one of those come across my feed earlier this week, of all places, in an Adventst Pastors’ group. There is plenty of fun and also serious discussion that goes on there, but we also sometimes post & discuss difficult and painful things, because it is of course important to know what the outside world is thinking & saying about Christianity & matters of faith and the church.
The following meme had behind it a picture of a denim-clad kid crying in a corner (like the one shown above). This text was in bold, white letters. The following emphasis points are from the meme itself:
“The entire basis of Christianity is that you are BROKEN, WEAK, sinful, and inherently bad. It then tells you that only Jesus, through the Church, can fix you. You are nothing without them. THIS IS ABUSE.”
This accusation stopped me in my tracks. It made me feel equal parts maddened, offended, and sickened. It made me pause for a minute and say “Can this be true? Does the church serve to perpetuate spiritual abuse rather than spiritual healing & help?”. I’ve long heard accusations that institutional religion is primarily a means of controlling people and getting their money, but this meme struck me differently. It was, I don’t know, more accusatory of Christianity and church being toxic and destructive to the individual soul, rather than to the broader society as a whole.
And I knew that having hundreds of thousands of people see this accusation come across their feeds would be instantly harmful to faith and church affiliation, because, in a way, it can partly match with a superficial understanding people have in society of what Christianity and church are and do. While doing that, it obviously highlights the negative, while pointing out none of the positive.
The comments posted in our group below it showed a variety of offense vs. admission that this is how we’re perceived. And I thought “How did our public perception get this way?”
After chewing on this for a bit, and settling my emotions, I thought of what I’d like to say to the person that wrote this.
First of all, I thought, I would want to listen: I would want to hear what motivated the person who created this to do so. Rather than go on my first assumption that they were just trying to twist the narrative & purpose of Christianity to appear destructive, I would want to know: were they somehow hurt by the church themselves?
Jesus reserved his probably most forceful and shocking words to people who hurt little ones (and I believe this includes spiritually, within the church or faith context) “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck, and they were thrown into the sea.” Matthew 18:6, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2.
A pretty well-known, simple, but profound phrase says “hurt people hurt people”, and I wonder if that’s what’s happening here. Someone was wrongly treated by the church or someone in a church, and they’ve decided to spew venom at the whole concept of Christianity because of it.
And then, after listening and helping them know they’ve been heard & understood, I’d gently ask them about some of their presuppositions. Is it really the church, externally, which tells people they’re bad? Or do our own consciences tell us that? Does the face in the mirror tell us that? Does the daily news on TV or the internet tell us that? If the similar accusation were made “Doctors tell you that you’re sick and that only they can cure you”, is it them who made you sick? Is to make someone aware of something distinctly different than causing it? And I hope they’d concede the point on that one.
I suppose it could also be that they want to ascribe to the feeling that humanity is generally good, rather than bad. And we, of course, want to feel like generally a good person. Largely, though, we do that by comparing ourselves with others: we soothe our consciences by thinking of criminals, the homeless, or drug addicts, what have you, and think “I’m better than most”. Christianity should drive us away from such thinking, but I don’t know how much it does in practice. What other contrast do secular people have to feel good about themselves, though? I don’t know. I can’t get into the heads of other people, whether Christian or atheist.
And in response to the 2nd half of the meme, I do believe that only Jesus can “fix” us, but is access to Jesus exclusively through the church? I wondered if this person knows of the historical and theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, because, yes, in the sacramental/Catholic model, the church does distribute grace as it provides the sacraments (including forgiveness being based on confessing one’s sins to a priest), but in Protestantism, the religious institution is secondary to the direct communication line between the individual and God: both in God communicating to us through His Word, and in us praying to Him in open and honest sharing of our feelings, needs, and hopes. Yes, these things are done and facilitated at church, but by no means are they the only place where they happen! Jesus himself said the most important place where communication with God takes place is in the private prayer time, the closet prayers, mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:6. And of course, hearing a sermon once a week is no substitute for daily feeding on God’s word in personal study/devotional time.
And thirdly I would ask the person: Does the priest or pastor who oversees the church not themself need the same benefit that the members do? The forgiveness and acceptance of God? The need to be educated & corrected on their own daily walk? The accusation that church leaders more-or-less say “you must bow before me/my authority to have access to Jesus and His salvation” is hugely problematic. I have had numerous occasions in sermon preparation times where I’ve changed the pronoun direction from “you” to “we/I”. Not “YOU need to get right with the Lord/obtain His forgiveness/get on a right path with Him”, but “WE/I” do!
So, I just left this meme feeling hurt and discouraged, because obviously I couldn’t actually reach the person who created this meme, to hopefully come to a more balanced understanding with them. And I couldn’t and can’t reach the probably hundreds of thousands of people who have seen/will see this meme online. The damage is done. And what can I really do to improve it?
Well, I tell you what I can do, what we can do as a local church community: we can do our very best, prayerfully, intentionally, to make sure the narrative and accusations described in this meme are NOT in the subtext of things we say and do. Jesus is a compassionate Savior! And he came to all humanity, to heal and help, and ultimately save. He doesn’t condemn us (John 3:17), we are naturally condemned to the grave by the ‘natural’ order of things in this world. Even atheists have to agree with that. And the church, in its right posture before people, doesn’t tower over the masses to demand obeisance toward it: rather, it itself strives to be the bride that Christ deserves (Ephesians 5:27). The church doesn’t stand in the place of God to the world, the church stands in the place before God of the ones needing help & purification from our heavenly fiancé! And we weekly (and personally daily) ask him to wash us and make us white as snow before him (Isaiah 1:18).
So: the light of such accusations makes me re-realize just how important our daily witness is to others. We of course have no idea what kinds of feelings & possible resentments people around us have to matters of faith, Jesus, and the church. But let us intentionally make sure all conversations are sprinkled with kindness, love, encouragement, and helpfulness. That when people who know us come across such an accusation, they say “No! That doesn’t match my experience with authentic Chrstians: whoever said this is off in their assessment.”
It is still with a burden in my heart over this that I wish you and your loved ones a good rest of the week, covered by God’s loving grace. May we be a light amidst the darkness!
Pastor Mark Tatum