When Religion Becomes Poison

Christ and The Pharisees

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If a mega-church pastor falls, a lot of people go down with him…

I have a friend named Aaron who used to intern at one of the biggest mega-churches that ever existed in the country.  It was in Colorado.  He was a really fired up dude in those days.  In fact, I knew him from High School.  He was actually one kid who probably burned himself out even more than me.  I remember when he had his turn-around though, and freaked everyone out.

I was at a party one night, all tripped out and hipped out on scary drugs.  Aaron came up to me with two bottles of beer in both of his hands, double-fisting them and gorking em’ down.  He started to preach to me that he had tripped out so hard that he had experienced what hell is like, and that I should turn from all my evil and to Jesus to get set free.  He admitted to me that he still had a problem with partying (obviously), but he was on his way out of it.  He really flipped me out and disturbed me, and I definitely thought that he was a little hypocritical for drinking while saying that stuff.  But later on he really cleaned up, and invited me to one of the few church services I had been to at that time.

I remember walking in to that service stoned out of my mind, and I left feeling totally evil and guilty.  But it was people like Aaron that planted seeds in me that eventually made me want to leave the desperate, depressed life I was leading, and take Jesus seriously.

Aaron ended up working at this huge mega-church in Colorado, and they treated him like garbage from the get-go.  I guess they had this weird hierarchy where one had to work their way up from entry level to senior leader.  You would start as a “Freshman”, then move to Sophomore, Junior, then Senior…  Aaron came in at first, and worked his way up in the hierarchy.  He started to become convinced of a lot of things in scripture about helping the poor.  So he would take kids in the youth group to go and feed the homeless out on the streets.  He began questioning the way this place was run.  Not only that, but he started to open his mouth publicly about his discontent based on knowledge of the Scriptures.

They had a “meeting” with Aaron eventually, because they were tired of him.  And they told him that he could still work there, but he’d have to shut his mouth, go back to being below a “Freshman”, not get paid, and work his way up, or just quit.  He felt convinced that it was right to stay, and that Jesus had said for us to be servants and slaves to all.  So he stuck around and got treated like rat dung.  Eventually he was so bitter, that he just split, and pretty much left with his middle finger up in their face.

Now that probably doesn’t sound right, but they somewhat deserved it for how they took advantage of him, and what would you do in his position?  Jesus said that we’re supposed to love our enemies, but there’s no guarantee of how easy that will be.  Jesus also definitely laid out the Pharisees– the religious hypocrites of His day.  He didn’t do it with a middle finger in their face, yes, but He definitely didn’t take it easy on them!  I perceive that Jesus laid out the Pharisees because He longed for them to know His Father God.  He just knew their hearts and how stubborn they were.  Dealing with enemies is never easy, but like Jesus, we’re all commanded to love even those we hate, don’t like and are afraid of.

So let’s return to the story about Aaron.  The pastor of that “corporation” Aaron was working at was found to be secretly blowing meth and having sex with male prostitutes in secret.  The funny thing was, he was one of the biggest advocates for the Republican Right’s condemnation of homosexual marriage!

Aaron is wrestling again with what it means to truly follow Jesus.  He could potentially be in a better place than he’s ever been spiritually.  When we’re down and out, that’s when God really shows up, and we’re reminded that we have an eternal home through Jesus.  This place… this life… like the wild musician Keith Green says “Is like a garbage dump compared to what heaven will be like, man.”

Places like the corporate church that Aaron worked at love to poop people out like a bad meal, in favor of programs and a corporate agenda.  Look what can happen!  The leaders can end up leading a fake, hypocritical, phony life!  Many suffer as a result.  I think Jesus said that people like these would receive “greater condemnation” for what they’ve done (Luke 12:47-48), and how they’ve perverted and destroyed the gospel in favor of greed, religiosity and hypocrisy. (Matthew 23)

Chicago Streets

Sarah and I have been hanging in Chicago over Thanksgiving.  Had a good time seeing the Chicago Thanksgiving parade (obviously not as heavy as the one in New York, but pretty nice- I was just happy to see a Scooby Doo float).

We saw “The Social Network”- a great little flick about the notorious facebook- a modern addictive social networking engine of which I am currently attached to like heroin.

When we went in to get the tickets on Thanksgiving night for the movie.  An older homeless dude came in to the building and asking for a buck to get a burger.  Normally in these situations I’d walk with the guy down to McD’s and buy him whatever he wants, maybe say a prayer with him, maybe eat a burger with him and be on our way.

But this guy said something that tore my heart out.  “It’s Thanksgiving man, and I’m just really hungry.”

Me and Sarah had to get to the movie, and the next McD’s was 6 blocks away.  I gave the guy $5, and before I could catch his name he took off.

I know a lot of people would say not to do this.  Maybe the kat was gonna spend it on crack or booze- he definitely smelled like bourbon.  But I realized in that moment what a good friend of mine Duane Crabbs- who lives and does ministry in the hood in Akron- told me.  It’s not my responsibility where the dude spent the $5.  But I should do all I can to try and help and love people the way Jesus would.

And man- going into that film- spending $22 so we could sit in a cushy seat in the city to watch it really broke me.  Even as I’m writing this a famous song “There’s no place like home for the holidays” plays over the loudspeaker at the Lavazza coffee shop on Ohio Street in downtown Chicago.  I realize this guy may have taken that $5 and bought a burger, or maybe a little bottle of cheap rot gut whiskey.  He may have spent his Thanksgiving on the cold, 22 degree streets of Chicago, passed out, with his only warmth from the liquor flowing through his veins.

May the warmth of Jesus warm all our hearts this season.  And think about who you can help in your life- maybe not just a $5 bill and goodbye.  Maybe inviting someone with no cash over for dinner- maybe mentoring an urban youth, maybe sending money to help build a well across the seas, or sitting with an elderly person who is lonely just to listen.  It’s these things that are a true overflowing of the way of Jesus and His gospel.

 

Childhood Friends and the Pursuits of a Restless Spirit

It must be the fact that I’m edging on the age of 30.  I haven’t experienced nostalgia to the extent that I have this year as of yet.  I’m finding this real fulfillment in reconnecting with friends that I haven’t spoken to in more than ten to twenty years.  Maybe it’s because I’m reminding myself of my roots.  Maybe I’m simply remembering who I am.  Does anyone relate to this?

I recently connected with an old friend.  The first kat I ever played music with.  We started a band when we were about eleven and called it “The Babies”.  Later on it morphed into “Joker’s Wild”, and had many different random members.  So by the time I was a teenager I was finding my identity as a musician, artist and writer.

I didn’t realize how vital that friendship was until I reconnected with this dude.  We hadn’t spoken in about sixteen years.  But I found that he was still playing some really great music.  I myself make a somewhat meager yet livable salary as a musician as well.  It made me look at most people my age and realize that they had taken a job for reasons of money.  But not so with my old friend and I.  We were both continuing to follow a dream we dreamed up in sixth grade.

So of course I had to write a song for this friend, in the midst of a realization of why I am who I am- and to never give up on pursuing a dream so deeply ingrained.

I made a video for the song as well.  It’s called “266 West Streetsboro Street”- my old address in those days:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpyquRc8Bz0

Plastic Spirituality

A can of U.S. Cola in the West Bank in the Mid...

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The church is in a really weird place right now.  We’ve officially had 30 years of a short lived phenomenon- where entertainment value has been lifted up in church, and honesty diminished.  This movement has been called the “seeker sensitive” movement.  Willow Creek Community Church recently conducted a major survey that shows heavy involvement in “seeker sensitive” programs and activities contributed to church growth, but did not translate into spiritual growth and maturity. Church leaders have stood up and admitted, “We made a mistake.” (taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_Growth) This movement seems to have produced three groups of “Christians” in America;

1. The group that holds on tightly to the “slickness”, “entertainment value”, and “marketing potential” of the church in America.  Within this group are often individuals that work for and in the church, and have convinced themselves that they’re reaching out to people outside of the church and doing God’s work.  But the funny thing is- they often don’t have any friends that believe differently than they.  They don’t often reach out to the poor or cynic, but likely the “comfortable American”.  They seem to think that they’re doing their job of reaching out to the world by putting together slick, entertaining worship services on Sunday.  But may often spend the rest of their time holed up in an office or doing family activities.

2. There is an increasing population of people in their 20’s and 30’s that grew up in this “seeker-sensitive” movement of churches.  I know a good amount of people that were either forced to go to an evangelical, Catholic, or Protestant church as a kid, and simply got turned off.  I know a real good amount of people that went to a mega church of some sort and amidst all the flash and glam of programming and spectacle, still went into adulthood void of the desire and calling to follow Jesus with their entire lives.

3.  The group I find myself in- young maniacs who love Jesus but are often weirded out by the church.  I think we see that we’re going through a major shift- where discipleship and reckless faith in following Jesus is being raised up and the consumerism of the church in the past 30 years is being rejected.  We’re a group that is either going to try and change the church as it is, start new churches, or hopefully if all goes well, both…

It seems clear to me that the type of life that Jesus called us to is one where we “take up our cross daily”, and “die to ourselves”.  The Kingdom of Heaven is described in the Bible as a buried treasure that a person sold everything they had to obtain.  It seems that the life Jesus calls us to is one of reckless abandonment.  In America, we’ve reduced faith in Jesus to a shallow cultural phenomenon.  We’ve made it accessible for our culture, but haven’t accurately communicated what a high cost it is to actually live out the life of faith described in scripture.  That may be why we still have a society that is utterly confused about what the scriptures are really saying, because they’ve had their understanding colored by really strange religiosity.

Barna conducted some great research that shows us that many people in America even consider themselves to be followers of and believers in Jesus.  But some are turned off by the religious institutions we have.  Others in America call themselves Christian but it seems only to be a cultural label- and this group is actually in the majority.  I encourage you to check this article out:

http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/362-millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain?q=young+christians

So what should we do about it?  Is it really possible to both believe in Jesus as the once for all sacrifice for our sins, and also follow and live out the radical teachings that he purported?  Or should we just continue to Americanize Christian religion and make it accessible enough for our society to get into?

May I add that when we’re people of grace, we will befriend anyone from any walk of life, and invite them to experience the gospel and the Kingdom of God.  I’m talking about the way a follower of Jesus should live here.

Master of Puppets?

Master of Puppets

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I love retro rock.  It’s funny to me that not only the great music of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and other 60’s & 70’s acts are considered “classic rock”.  But now, 80’s bands like Metallica, the Police, U2, and Iron Maiden also fit this category.  I’m even more shocked and astounded that bands like Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden are being shifted to this genre.  But hey- I’m almost 30 years old now so I guess this is the progression of “coming of age”.

One of my various jobs is teaching guitar to young teenage dudes who want to learn a lot of the same music I did at their age.  A great song with myriad killer riffs that I often teach is “Master of Puppets” by Metallica.  But I’m always baffled by the heavy lyrics and end up having a conversation with any student I teach this student to.  We ask questions such as, “What do you think this song is about?”

Here’s the lyrics:

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End of passion play, crumbling away
I’m your source of self-destruction
Veins that pump with fear, sucking darkest clear
Leading on your deaths construction
Taste me you will see
More is all you need
Dedicated to
How I’m killing you

Come crawling faster
Obey your Master
Your life burns faster
Obey your Master
Master

Master of Puppets I’m pulling your strings
Twisting your mind, smashing your dreams
Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing
Just call my name, ’cause I’ll hear you scream
Master
Master
Just call my name, ’cause I’ll hear you scream
Master
Master

Needlework the way, never you betray
Life of death becoming clearer
Pain monopoly, ritual misery
Chop your breakfast on a mirror
Taste me you will see
More is all you need
Dedicated to
How I’m killing you

Master, Master, where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?
Master, Master, you promised only lies
Laughter, laughter, all I hear or see is laughter
Laughter, laughter, laughing at my cries
Fix me!

Hell is worth all that, natural habitat
Just a rhyme without a reason
Neverending maze, Drift on numbered days
Now your life is out of season
I will occupy
I will help you die
I will run through you
Now I rule you too

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Now it’s pretty obvious that these lyrics are about drug addiction.  It’s especially obvious to me because I identify with the pain described here being an ex-burn out myself.  Now I never got hooked on coke or smack, but I definitely woke up everyday in a cycle of “pain monopoly” and “ritual misery”- a religious practice of having to be high all the time.

In that sense I understand what a “Master of Puppets” can be.  An outside force that’s “twisting your mind and smashing your dreams”.  It’s really anything that can be placed on a fictional altar and depended upon… worshipped…  But really in the midst of the adoration it’s completely killing and destroying everything one holds dear- relationships, true joys, passions, and more.

Now I really believe that due in part to poor religious upbringings, or just misconceptions altogether, that people believe God to be a “Master of Puppets”.

I was having a conversation about this with an old friend Dani- an urban kid who I used to be somewhat of a mentor to at First Glance urban youth center (http://www.firstglance.org).  He’s definitely not a follower of Jesus, but has more of a Buddhist bent mixed with a lot of science and philosophy.  He’s definitely a smart kat too.

His main argument was a strong one.  “If God knew when He created the universe and human beings that it would get all screwed up, then why would He have done it in the first place?”  Dani understood the biblical concept of God being “outside of time” and “in control of everything”.  But he made a strong point that I think a lot of people could relate with.  “If God knew that I was going to blow my brains out in 5 seconds- and He would know because He supposedly knows all that’s to happen in our sphere of time- then why wouldn’t He intervene and stop this and other bad things from happening?”

My answer was simply that this would make God unloving to “force” obedience on people.  The biblical view of God is more of a loving Father, who has offered us peace and relationship with Him through Jesus.  The theme is weaved in from the beginning:  God offered perfection in Eden to Adam and Eve, and they didn’t want it- but instead wanted a hit from that knowledge tree- which they knew would make them have greater understanding.  When they hit that tree it gave them the knowledge, and there was no turning back.  But even after God still offered His love and relationship with them and all their offspring.

God continues to give this free offer, and has all throughout history.  So much so that He decided to send His Son down from heaven to feel all the pain and disgraces of humanity and die a shameful death along with criminals.  By this He could only sympathize with us more.  He doesn’t desire to be a “Master of Puppets”- He desires us to love Him.

It wouldn’t be loving for me to force love on anyone.  It wouldn’t be loving for me to force someone to believe what I believe and know to be true.  Though I desire to persuade friends and show grace so that people might see Jesus.  I know that ultimately God draws people to Himself because He is irresistible, amazing and real.

So Dani and I’s conversation ended.  We hadn’t come to agreement.  But he paid me a great compliment; “You know what I love about you, Ben?  We can disagree even about what we believe, and at the end we’re still friends.”  I replied; “Yeah Dani, and I love you bro.”  I gave him a hug and said further, “And see, that’s real love- that I don’t want to force it on you, I just want you to know it’s there!”

The only true “Master of Puppets” is the devil.  God is a loving Father who desires relationship with any who’d be willing to come to Him.  If you’ve been forcefully spoon fed a devilish view of God purported by some plastic version of Christian religion I’m sorry.  I urge you to please divorce yourself from all those misnomers and hypocrisies, and read the Bible with a clean open mind to get the view of who Jesus really is.

Revolting Magnetic Repulsion!!!

Isn’t it true that when you try to push two magnets together that they actually “repel” each other?  No matter how hard you try, you just can’t stick em’ together.  They just blow each other away and won’t get close.  It’s almost like they’re in a fight, and they hate each other.

That’s how it often feels when we strive for unity in the Body of Christ.

It’s interesting to think about the history of the Church.  It started as this group of ragtag disciples that were risking their lives to stand up for Jesus, getting killed and socially shunned for their faith by the Roman and Jewish elites of their day, and meeting secretly in houses to worship the God of Heaven.  (There are plenty of house church movements in the Middle East and Asia today that do the same thing, because their governments threaten the very existence of Christians).

Then came the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was a pagan, and had this dream during his time as a war general.  In it he had a vision of the sun, with a big cross above it.  So Constantine decided to have a “Chi Ro” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chi_Ro put on all his shields in the next battle he fought (technically not fully a cross- thanks for the research from Steve Motich!).  He thought it was a sign from the Sun God Apollo, oddly merged with the symbol of Christianity.  At that time the Romans were still killing and hating on Christians.  But Constantine won the battle, and decided to pay homage by making Christianity the national religion of Rome.  Oddly, everything shifted, and pagans began to be more socially chastised than Christians, though Constantine never officially persecuted pagans.  After that came many years of ugliness in the history of the church; crusades, corrupt papal authority, and far more atrocious behavior in the name of Christ.

But one great thing was going on before the revolutionary Reformation movement started by dudes like John Hus and Martin Luther:  There was ONE UNIVERSAL CHURCH!  Granted, it was a corrupt, government centered tyrannical authority at times, but there weren’t as many distinct factions.  Luther’s Reformation and translation of the Bible into common German language based on the Greek and Hebrew texts (instead of the Latin, which contained some bogus translations favoring the corrupt papal system of the time), spawned a huge movement.  People could read and interpret the scriptures for themselves!  But what inevitably happened?  People decided to create a billion different sects of Christianity, based on both huge and little differences in theology.  It was like a whole other tower of Babel, but this time the Church was scattered into different “sects” instead of people being scattered because of language.  But we do think we all speak different “lingo” in our little “sects”, don’t we?

It’s no surprise.  There are a lot of proclaimed “Christians” that I don’t agree with, because maybe they think that Jesus was some kind of ethereal deity, or that all religions are the same, or that we can be perfect just like Jesus was, or whatever else.  But there are some things that we should be able to agree on.

How about this as a general doctrine:  We believe that Jesus was the Son of God, born of the virgin Mary, fully God and fully human at the same time, was crucified, died, was buried, and on the third day rose again.  We believe that those who believe in Him and His Father and surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit who speaks on their behalf, are called to obey Him and die daily to follow Him and His Father’s perfect Word.

There are no other deeply specific credentials for not being a “heretic” than that.  Sure, we’re allowed to have our disagreements about some things.  The ordination of women is a hot one that lots of people disagree on, and I’ve got my views on what I believe the scriptures say.  Baptism is another one.  Some disagreements are cultural, like:  Do we play organ music, contemporary acoustic stuff, or alternative grunge rock?  (Now, I like the raunchy rock stuff, but I appreciate old hymns and even some contemporary Christian tunes).  Some arguments are heavier, like what does it mean to speak in tongues?  What’s the tension between freewill and predestination?  Etc., etc., the list goes on and on.

I could go on and on too.  However, a lot of the reasons we divide are totally human.  I’m looking in my phone book right now, and I counted 40 different listings for church denominations.  I don’t even live in that big of a city, I actually live in kind of a large college town.  But right in between Christmas Trees and Cigar and Tobacco Retailers- there’s the church listings:  40 different denominations.  There’s even like four different brands of some denominations:  Baptist, Free Will Baptist, Independent Baptist, Southern Baptist, Church of God, Church of God- Anderson, Indiana, Church of God- Cleveland Tennessee, Church of God in Christ.  MAN!  The list goes on and on!

I’m not saying that some of these factions aren’t necessary.  But do you know how much mudslinging is going on between these denominations?  We’re like a bunch of corrupt politicians!  We all think that we’re a part of the best “sect”, don’t we?  But do we ever dialogue to see what we have in common?  What if we even had the most perfect theology?  If we were closer to “perfect theology”, then I think we’d be willing to love and speak the truth to anyone, and the people who were false about their faith in Jesus wouldn’t want anything to do with us, simply because of our conviction and love.

Stifling Katy Perry’s Creative Freedom

Katy Perry performing at Clutch Cargo's and Mi...

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I LOVE music.

I’ve been writing songs since I was ten years old.  My Dad was in a rock band in the seventies called “Pyramid”.  They had a keyboardist named Gary Jones, a white guy with a huge afro who used to put Christmas lights in his hair during shows.  One time there was a short in the electrical circuit during a Pyramid show, and Jones’s afro caught on fire!  The band Pyramid lasted for probably about 6 or 7 years, most of which my Dad probably did not remember very much.  My Dad violently quit the rock n’ roll scene, slamming his guitar on the ground right in the middle of a gig in downtown Cleveland, Ohio.  He then worked as a roofer, laying down roof shanks on hot days all over Cleveland, keeping himself going with hardcore seventies stimulants (some of you could guess what I’m talking about…) and butter pecan ice cream.  Some years later, he ran into my Mom on Coventry Road in Cleveland, a place where all the hippies used to hang out, and any of them left still do.  He asked her on a date, and she gave him a bunk phone number.  Still, he chased her down eventually, and they got hitched in a wild seventies way (non-traditional), and years later in 1981, they had me.

So by 1991 I was ten years old, and my Dad was trying to convince me to play guitar.  It wasn’t hard for him to convince me, because I loved Aerosmith, AC/DC, the Doors and Led Zeppelin at the time.  So I got one for Christmas, and immediately, my Dad started to teach me songs to play.  He even helped me write my first song, “Misty Windows”, about a crush I had on a girl in elementary school.  Looking back, I realize how silly that song was, but it was the beginning of a long line of songs I’d write.

Writing music helped me get through puberty.  It somewhat led me into the party scene because so many of my favorite artists were drug-heads.  Later on, it eventually pushed me out of the party scene when I realized that a lot of my favorite artists had died by choking on their own vomit!  It helped me deal with break-ups in the romantic whirlwind of High-School.  Ultimately it was a medium that the Creator of the Universe was using all along to speak core truths into my life to lead me to the cross of Jesus Christ.  I had no idea that God was speaking to me all along through my expression in music, but He was.  When I listen back to some of my old pre-Jesus recordings, I even realize that God was speaking to me through many of the lyrics that I had written.

Do we listen for lyrics that are crying out for God’s help on “secular” radio, or do we just think that all music that isn’t worship music is obviously inspired by the devil?

I just read a bio on Katy Perry at Wikipedia, and it says that She grew up listening to gospel music and was not allowed to listen to what her mother called “secular music”.  Perry also attended Christian schools and camps.  There’s nothing wrong with Christian music, schools and camps.  But it’s interesting when parents’ feel they have to immerse their kids in Christian subculture as an act of “protecting them from the world”.  Really, parents should be protecting their kids from the messages that they’re being bombarded with daily.  This would mean that parents would have to do the tough job of teaching their kids to discern the truth, and analyze the song lyrics, TV shows and magazines that are popular today.  I’ll use Katy Perry as an example, she was merely a Christian because it’s all that she knew growing up.  Her parents were in ministry and it seems that they wanted to protect her from the world outside of the church.  We look at where she’s at now and see that as soon as she tasted the world outside of Christian culture, she just threw herself in head first.  I’m not saying that she would have done anything else if given the chance.  It seems that she was over-sheltered and never given the chance to discern God’s truth in a wild world.  I also know this is the case with many of our youth growing up in the church today.  Parents’ are doing their kids a disservice by not teaching them to interact with their culture biblically.  One can never know if their kids will grow up to be faithful followers of Jesus, but parents can do all they can to help them in a world where it’s tough.

I think that people are crying out to God in all kinds of music, as well as other mediums in our culture.  It shows the spiritual state of where people are at with Him.  I know that because I’ve experienced it myself.  I was certainly caught up in a lot of garbage that came out in artistic expression.  But at times it’s as if God was revealing that one day he would call me to Himself.  We should listen to the radio, watch TV, watch movies, and listen for moments where people are searching for God.  We should also have a firmly grounded foundation in scripture that gives us the strength to process things that could potentially confuse our faith.