Commonsense Christianity

Commonsense Christianity

How Many Friends Do You Have?

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Be honest with me now: in a group setting, how free do you feel to TRULY be yourself? Eyrie, original oil painting by Steve Henderson. Licensed, open edition print at Great Big Canvas.

In the highly controlled, conformist society into which I was born (the United States), how successful — and normal — you are depends on certain factors, many of which have to do with participating in groups.

Indeed, one of the key arguments that homeschoolers — who have a reputation for being radically different and independent — use to prove to the outside world that their children are normal is the number of social interactions each of those children is in. The nameless faces of conventional experts list  3.2 or so as a healthy baseline number, and it looks something like this:

1) church youth group (1 point)

2) 4-H (1 point)

3) soccer (1.2 points — we always give extra for team sports and athletics)

More Is Better

This, we understand, represents the shy child, because a more “normal” one would have twice, or three times, the number of activities. The nameless faces do not list a maximum number of groups for optimum mental and social health because, in our society, you can’t belong to too many groups.

“We need to be with people,” we’re told. “Hermits are mental aberrations, and no society can thrive when its people are isolating themselves.”

(When you’re a Christian, you phrase it this way: “The Bible tells us to ‘forsake not the assembling of one another,’ so we need to attend church, and small groups, EVERY week. Skipping is a sign of sin and disinterest in God.”)

Incidentally, qualified group activities do not include informal play time with neighbors and friends, nor do they allot importance to interaction with family members. This latter, actually, could be totally absent, and the child’s life — as long as it included the requisite 3.2 qualified group activities — still qualifies as normal.

Why are we so afraid of being alone? Gathering Thoughts, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; open edition licensed print at Great Big Canvas.

We Don’t Grow out of This

As children grow up into adults, the group memberships change, but the requirement that they exist does not: you’ll still go to church, but instead of youth group you’ll graduate into Young Singles for Christ, then Newly Married, or Older Singles for Christ, or Widowed and Divorced Christians for Christ — there’s a notch, er niche, for all of us). You can still be in 4-H, only now as a “leader,”  or you can be a follower in any number of community service organizations.

As with children, informal interaction with friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family doesn’t really count, especially at church, where fellowship — unless it is organized and directed — is censured. So is studying the Bible, intensively, outside of a small group or free from a guide. I mean, left to your own devices — and Christ’s leading — who can say what you’ll start to believe?

How about . . . the truth?

Group Think

While it’s good to have people in your life — especially ones who love and care about you like . . . family and friends — limiting interaction with them to primarily group settings fosters an under confidence in the value of your own thoughts, beliefs, questions, desires, dreams, and goals. In a group setting, everything you contribute is vetted through the group filter, and team-talk aside, every group has a dominant voice, promulgated through its leader. When you wrap your entire existence around belonging to groups, you may count yourself as having a lot of friends (the real ones are the ones who stick around when you leave the group), but what you definitely don’t have is a lot of say. One quickly learns when to speak, and how, and rare is the group that truly encourages every member to think, speak, and act independently.

This is bad enough in 4-H, when we’re discussing the butter/shortening ratio of the ultimate chocolate chip cookie, but when it comes to our spiritual existence, and our relationship with God, vetting everything through a group produces a sense of conformity that prevents people from asking the big questions, like,

“Why do I pray and pray and pray and never seem to get an answer to my prayers?”

“How could God possibly send people who have never heard about Him to hell for not hearing about Him?”

“If Christ has forgiven all my sins, and God tosses them as far as east is to west, then why does He punish me for skipping Sunday School?”

Talk to Christ Directly

In a group setting, you’ll get a specific parcel of answers for these, most of which lay the blame for even daring to ask the question on you. Pull away from the group, however, and ask Christ directly.

(Yes, that’s right: you can talk to God directly. As a former Catholic, this was an epiphany for me, until it dawned on me that too many Protestants, while they don’t have priests, have pastors that function as priests.)

You want people in your life? There are 7 billion of them on this planet, and many of them you can get to know outside of a group setting. Start with the people in your household, and work out from there. Take a walk with someone. Invite another to tea at your house. Put together dinner with a neighboring family.

You’ll learn, and impact, far more from intimate interaction then you will from a month of Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday meetings.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I’m trying to find the seekers — people who look, really look, at what God is saying in the Bible, and say to Him back:

“Is this stuff true? Really true? Because if it is, then I WANT it. Not the substitute that people shove in my face, but the real thing.”

That’s what I’m looking for, and bit by bit, I’m finding it.

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Jesus Isn’t All You Need — He’s All You’ve GOT

posted by Carolyn Henderson

To navigate the waters of life, you need a boat, and sometimes, it seems like a small boat, indeed. But it floats. Shore Leave, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed open edition print at Great Big Canvas.

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re in a social situation, somebody asks you how you’re doing, and since the most significant event in your life lately has been the loss of your job, or the diagnosis of a serious disease, or your teenager’s totaling the car but mercifully walking away unscathed, you mention this.

And the person listening leans forward, touches your arm, and says,

“Jesus is all you need. Excuse me while I go refresh my lemonade.”

You’re Not Helping

No offense, mind you, but quite frankly, telling me that Jesus is all I need — when what I really need right now is a means to pay the electric bill, or a doctor who will actually listen to me and answer my questions, or a working car — just doesn’t cut it. I know you mean well, but in five words, not taking account the part about the lemonade, you’ve managed to

1) underplay the suffering I’m going through,

2) subtly admonish me for my lack of faith,

3) leave me standing, in the middle of the room, feeling like an idiot.

Theoretically, I know that Jesus is all I need. Theoretically, that’s what you know too, because if you knew any more, or had any actual experience of Jesus meeting your needs when you were up against the Red Sea with no boat, you would have foregone the lemonade and stayed to talk.

Glib Lip-Speak

“Jesus is all we need,” in addition to being a church chorus that sounds like a dirge, is one of those pat answers Christians feel obliged to throw out when they don’t know the response to someone’s question, or are faced with another person’s sad story and don’t know what to say. It’s so much easier to comment, “Jesus is all you need,” and then leave.

As a child of God, what I need is patience, love, strength, guidance, teaching, compassion, direction and care from Someone bigger, stronger, and far more capable than I. Into the Surf, original painting by Steve Henderson, sold; licensed open edition print at Great Big Canvas.

“God is in control.”

“I’ll pray for you.”

“The Lord is so good.”

We don’t always have to say anything — Job, in his sufferings, would probably have appreciated less advice than silence, and sometimes, silence is all we have. It is golden, especially when accompanied by concern, sympathy, caring, prayer, and a genuine desire to do anything in our power to help the situation.

Honesty Works

Other times, honesty on our part, in response to honesty on another person’s part, is oddly encouraging:

“I really don’t know what to say. This is a difficult situation, and I’m not God. But I will pray for you, and I’m starting right now.” When a person is desperate, sad, discouraged, and dancing with despair, knowing that someone cares enough to pray for them — and really do it — is something to grab onto, because by this time, one realizes that it’s not so much that Jesus is all you need, but that

Jesus is all you’ve got.

Both sentences say the same thing, but in a different way, with the first implying that you don’t have enough faith to believe, and the second baldly stating a fact that you can’t do anything about. But you don’t have to, because Jesus being all you’ve got really isn’t such a bad situation. Think of it:

I Can’t Do Anything, but God Can

He is “able to to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,” (Ephesians 3: 20); He meets all our needs according to his glorious riches (Philippians 4: 20); and His plans for our life are good ones, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29: 11)

When you consider the double fact of His being compassionate, gracious, faithful, and loving (Deuteronomy 34: 6) and our being the beloved children of God (1 John 3: 1), then Jesus being all we’ve got truly is enough, and if we have difficulty understanding, accepting, or believing this, that’s okay.

Our gracious Father is patient and wise, more than willing to take the time to walk beside us, carry us when necessary, and teach us Who He is and how much He loves us. He wants us to want Him, to turn to Him first and always, and this generally doesn’t happen until we realize that there is no other alternative.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I explore the concept of actually living the stuff we so glibly say. It’s not easy when you take God at His word and tell Him, “Yes. This is what I want. It looks impossible, and I’ve only heard of the Red Sea being parted once. But you’re the same God, you love your people, and I’m one of your people.”

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Christianity, and the Problem of Hell

posted by Carolyn Henderson

Most of us have an easier time accepting the goodness of Santa Claus than we do the goodness of God — if the former has this whole naughty and nice thing down fair and square, then surely, somehow, God does as well? Little Angel Bright by Steve Henderson, original oil painting, signed limited edition print, and open edition poster.

Most people, Christians or not, don’t like to talk about hell. Many seekers abhor the subject because they ask, quite logically,

“How can a God who professes to be loving, kind, faithful, and merciful toss anyone into hell? I mean, I’m a lowly worm of a human being, and I would never reject one of my children to the point of condemning them to death.”

This is a logical statement — soundly based upon a sense of justice and fairness that mirrors those attributes in God.

The standard Christian response, at least the one I’ve been slapped with, is,

“God’s ways are not our ways! You are a SINNER and in your disobedience and immorality you are UNABLE to see that God is loving and gracious, and if you do not submit to Him, you DESERVE eternal damnation!”

I’m in; You’re not

Too often, there’s a disturbingly smug sense of glee or satisfaction on the part of the speaker who knows, because he has properly recited the Four Spiritual Laws (many people do this repeatedly over their lifetimes to insure that they’ve got it right and won’t, by  inadvertence, be eternally damned), that HE’S going to heaven, even if YOU — and millions and millions of  corrupt, depraved, nameless and wicked people — are not.

It’s when you put faces on these people, and give them families, and jobs, and emotions, and settle them in an area where the name Jesus is completely inaccessible, or damage them by people who have literally spit the name of Jesus in their face, that the questions arise.

“They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life,” (Matthew 25: 46) you are then told. “See? There’s a HELL for unbelievers! It doesn’t MATTER if they can’t hear the story of Jesus. God is fair and just and this is how He does it.”

Read More Than One Verse

If you back up a few verses, however, to 31 onward, and read, you will not see any mention of “accepting Jesus” as you will injunctions to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, protect the sojourner, clothe the naked — in essence, take care of the Least of These.

The Least of These were very important to Jesus; we can hardly go wrong in paying attention to them in our search for truth. Seaside Story, original painting by Steve Henderson, sold; licensed open edition print at Great Big Canvas.

This isn’t universalism; it’s simply reading the passage and not inserting statements that aren’t there. The difference between the sheep and the goats is how they treated the least of these. So maybe our next question should be, “Who are the least of these, and where are they in my life?”

Revelations 21: 8  consigns the “cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars,” to the fiery place of burning sulfur, and while it’s popular to single out the “unbelieving” and the “sexually immoral,” very few of us can stand up and say that we’ve never been cowardly, never lied, never worshiped money and position at the expense of God.

Justice, and Mercy

This is where Jesus comes in: He offers to take the punishment we deserve because, frankly, doing wrong does deserve punishment. If someone stole our car and bashed it into a wall, we wouldn’t expect him to walk off without paying. We would expect justice, but for justice to work, it is tempered by mercy, an exceedingly difficult combination for us to comprehend. We deserve punishment, but we need mercy.

God holds the balance of both, and while, in 2,000 years, we’ve never come up with a good answer to, “How can a loving God send people to hell?” we might consider setting the question, and the issue of hell, aside while we focus on God’s goodness, mercy, love, faithfulness, grace, and beauty. There is no evil in God, so however He does what He does, it is fair and right and just and good, and the reason the hell question bothers us is because the interpretations we are given destabilize our sense of God’s goodness.

Ignorance of God’s Understanding

Josh McDowell, in his most excellent book, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (ISBN 978-0-7852-4219-2, page 408), quotes the 19th century poet and literary critic Samuel Coleridge:

“When we meet an apparent error in a good author, we are to presume ourselves ignorant of his understanding, until we are certain that we understand his ignorance.”

In terms of God, this means that, when we encounter disturbing sections or concepts in the Bible that seem to refute God’s inherent goodness and grace, we don’t

1) immediately assume that God’s not such a Great Guy after all

or

2) toss out the disturbing sections because they must surely be symbolic, wrong, or mis-written by a human being.

Rather, we accept that we have a conundrum — and as I mentioned, many of these conundrums have been with us for thousands of years — that’s beyond our understanding right now. Let it go, ask God for wisdom, and move on — never losing sight of the critical point of God’s perfection, power, grace, mercy, judgment, wisdom, and love.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I write about the things many of us think and wonder about, but generally avoid mentioning because someone, somewhere, will attack us for asking.

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The Audacity of Despair

posted by Carolyn Henderson

We live in a fallen world, which means that it is beautiful yet deadly, and getting through life alone is not an option for success. The Land of Chief Joseph, original oil painting by Steve Henderson.

Recently, the Norwegian Artist convinced me to watch the kind of movie that I — and he incidentally — hate:

Pure naturalism, in which the story starts out mildly bad and goes downhill from there. Any hope that the character encounters is a forlorn one, and the end, inevitably, is death and despair.

“It’s like real life,” proponents says. “Because real life sucks. There is no hope.” (Interestingly, many prominent propounders of this philosophy enjoy material comforts beyond what many of us — who childishly cling to hope in a God who cares about us — could even imagine.)

All Is Lost.

The Sundance Kid, Older

That’s the name of the movie, a 2013 flick starring Robert Redford. In retrospect, the Norwegian and I realize it was baldly literal, but initially we thought we had found a classic adventure story, man versus nature and all that, with grit and determination and pluck and vigor and valor.

Critics hailed it as a masterpiece of artistic expression, in which the main character, Redford (the only character, actually, unless you count the yacht and the life raft; no soccer ball) wakes up, in the middle of nowhere, with a damaged boat. That’s the optimum optimism of the movie.

Of course he encounters storms, which destroy the boat, downgrading him to the life raft and a spiraling series of increasingly bad situations — life, without hope, is the basis behind naturalism — and eventual death. Or not.

On a sunny day, in an intact boat, the sea — and life — seem pretty grand. But storms arise, and our boat and acumen are not enough to conquer them. Golden Sea, original oil painting by Steve Henderson; licensed open edition print at Great Big Canvas.

In what the creators propound as ingenious cleverness that comes across as trite, the ending scene shows Redford drowning, then swimming to the surface where a disembodied hand reaches out to clasp his own — reminiscent of Frodo grabbing Sam’s wrist in the final scene of the Fellowship of the Ring.

Yaaaaawwwwwwnnnn

“Was he rescued? Or was he not?” is the burning question. Ho hum. According to our sagacious critics, pessimists (which they also refer to as realists), say no. Optimists (um . . . non-realists?) say yes. Religious people (idiots, is the working term) simplistically see the main character — who throughout 100-plus minutes of discouragement, despondency, and desperation never once calls out to God, even to damn Him — SAVED at the end and on His way to Jesus in the sky.

Oh, gosh that’s sweet. After 106 minutes of following this man in intricate detail, down to seeing him spit, we don’t know if he lives or dies at the end. And frankly, I don’t care.

It’s all summed up in one of the few lines in the movie, words the protagonist writes in a note and stuffs in a glass mason jar that he tosses into the sea:

“I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn’t.”

That’s spot on, you know, but the conclusions drawn divaricate.

Long Life, Short Life — They All End

I can’t help but think that Redford, in agreeing to play the part — and with his career and his clout he doesn’t have to take anything that comes along — obliquely agrees with his character’s words: it’s not enough to be powerful and rich and well known and, at one time, the kind of guy that every man envied and too many women threw themselves in front of. And maybe, at 77, that’s starting to dawn on him.

King Solomon, who like Robert Redford was rich and famous and sought after, handsome in his youth and a playboy of the old, old days, came to realize that it’s all

“Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 12: 8)

The money, the fame, the accolades, the golden statues, the worship, the girls, the life of stuff and things that many people dream about but will never achieve, satisfying themselves, instead, with a dog and a yard and a hammock. Ordinary people, ridiculed by the financial and artistic elite, often learn that life is more than money and the power money buys because we never have enough, and many of us, to get through the day and the stress and the uncertainty, turn to God as the only way to survive. We KNOW we’re not enough.

Blessed by Being Ordinary

And ultimately, perhaps we’re the blessed ones, because we’re not fooled for 10, 20, 30, 40 years — if we live to be 106 we are still “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4: 14) — by corruptible pleasures into thinking that our good times will never end.

But, when we ordinary people realize this, we don’t have the means to widely infect others with our despair, camouflaging it as “art,” beauty,” “wisdom,” and “perception.”

If you’re seeking those four elements, along with hope, truth, and love, look far, far away from Hollywood.

Thank You

Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I seek to separate culture from Christ. Saturated by media and media influence — which pervades our government, schools, workplaces, and churches — we can easily be misled into following the wrong path, and calling it truth.

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Money, Power, Fame and Name

And speaking of money, and how ordinary people live on a set, limited amount of it, I wrote a book called Live Happily on Less that encourages you on how to do just that.  (“But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” 1 Timothy 6: 8)

 

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