Why So Many “Dones” And “Nones”?

As I came out of the bookstore, I had one thought in mind, “I wish I was dead!” The thought of death was the most soothing thought I had had since I’d started college.

The year was 1971 and after two semesters of college, it was obvious that getting a degree in civil engineering, something that had brought me to the US, was not going to be that easy.

In two semesters, I’d gotten nothing but lousy grades, which had made me quite ashamed of being the failure that I’d become. But even more painful was letting down my parents, who had made a great sacrifice to get their oldest to America. So, not being able to live up to a standard that my Iranian culture had set before me, my next step was committing suicide. But that day, as I came out of the school’s bookstore something happened that gave me a glimmer of hope.

As I stepped out the door, with the weight of the whole world on my shoulders and my head bowed down, the guy coming towards me was dancing and scat singing. As he got next to me, he looked me in the eyes and asked, “How are you?”

imageedit_2_2122402828Never being one who hides his emotions, but at the same time not expecting anything, I said, “I’m not doing well.”

What happened next, as simple as it might sound to some of my readers, was something that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

The man stopped dead in his track and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?” A stranger, a man I didn’t know stopped and offered to help me. I needed that so much. I deeply wanted to know that someone cared about this worthless failure of a man.

I don’t remember what happened next. I might have said, “No, thanks! And went on my way” But I still remember that act of kindness, and try to implement it in my Christian walk whenever I can.

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I’m invited to fill in for my friend who is an adjunct professor at a Bible college. As it is my habit, I show up early. Because it was lunchtime, I sit on the retaining wall next to the entrance to the refectory (Whatever happened to the dining hall?). I want to see how the students react towards a stranger who is much older than they are and seems not to belong to their school.

As these Bible college students, our future Christian leaders, begin to pass by me, I stare at them in hope of,

  1. Out of respect for an elder, they would greet me, and
  2. At least by smiling at me, acknowledge me as a man who is made in the image of the God that they would be studying right after lunch.

Out of about 100 students who pass me by, only a few of them acknowledge my being and give me a hurried glance. That breaks my heart. Don’t they realize that I might desperately be in need of a smile, a “how are you?” an affirmation that I am still a human being made in the image of God?

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A day doesn’t go by that I don’t come across of an article about the “Dones” (The believers who’ve left the church) and the “Nones” (The nominal Christians who’ve left the church), lamenting the fact that church attendance is drastically dropping in the US.

Many of these articles sound like Chicken Little running around and screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling. People are leaving the church. What can we do to bring them back? Maybe if the church offers better programs, then people will stay and the ’Dones’ will come back and the “Nones’ will be attracted to the church.” But very few talk about why these people have left and why the Millennials are not going to church.

The issue isn’t having better programs. The issue isn’t having strobe lights and fog machines or having the music so loud that you need to hand out earplugs to the parishioners as they enter the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. I personally have no problems with any of that. But that will not solve some of the much deeper issues the church needs to face and resolve.

To think that better programs will solve the crisis the church is facing is like the old joke about a man who had 3 ugly daughters (Upon reading the word “ugly”, I wonder how many of my young readers needed to retreat to their safe spaces while clinging to their teddy bears?). One day as he’s walking on the beach, the man comes across a bottle and when he opens it a genie pops out.

“For freeing me from this prison, I’ll grant you a wish. What is it that you want?” said the genie.

Showing genie a map, the man said, “ I love Hawaii, but it’s quite expensive to travel there several times a year. I want a bridge over the ocean that will directly connect LA to Hawaii.”

The genie looked at the map and said, “I’m just a genie, not God. What you’re asking is out of my hands. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Yes! I wish for my daughters to be married. Can you find them husbands?” pleaded the man.

“Do you have a picture of them?”

So, the man excitedly pulled a photo out of his wallet and showed it to the genie upon looking at it, the genie said, “Let me see the map again!”

There’s a broken bridge between the church and the people. Until we rebuild that bridge; until we learn to smile at the old man sitting on the retaining wall rather than being too busy parsing Hebrew and Greek words for our next Sunday sermon on how to love people, until we learn our neighbor’s name who’s lived next to us for several years, until we acknowledge the fact that we’re all made in the image of God and should be treated as such, and until the church learns to love for no reason, but to obey Christ’s commandment, she will continue to be as unattractive as the above three daughters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Us Against Them!

“I am sick and tired of being called derogatory names,” bemoaned my friend. 
“Just because I believe in traditional marriage, that doesn’t make me a homophobe. If  I say I am against killing the unborn, that doesn’t mean I am against women exercising their rights. I have no problem with immigrants. For God’s sake, I am an immigrant myself. However, I am against illegal immigration. Why should that make me a xenophobe? I am NOT a racist when I talk about the absence of fathers in the black community. Don’t these people realize that all this name-calling prevents us from having civil conversations that may result in solving some of these issues?” 
His woes reminded me of what we, the followers of Christ, for years, have done to ourselves, and those outside the church. 
If you attended a white evangelical church, you had to be a Republican. No Democrat could survive the criticism in those churches. On the other hand, in a black church, you were an Uncle Tom if you were a Republican. Today, this attitude is fiercer than ever before. I have Christian friends who have cut off relationships with other Christians purely for political reasons. 
The sins of the church toward “outsiders” are many. Once a year, my friend, Pastor Phil, sets up a tent in a public place and uses it as a confessional booth. Inside the tent he dresses up as a monk and when people walk in to confess, he is the one who confesses the sins of the church to them. I am no Phil, so I limit my confession of the churches’ sin to only one example. 
For years, the church singled out the gay community and pounded on them. We would more readily accept a supposed repented murderer to our fellowship than a Christian gay man/woman who has spent a lifetime serving God with all sincerity while struggling with his/her sexuality. We’d be more willing to listen to any sexual struggles a heterosexual might have with his/her sins, but hardly ever willing to hear of the struggles of a gay man or woman. 
And by doing so, we have created a culture of “US” (the righteous Christians) against “THEM” (those who don’t agree with us, the righteous Christians. 
The fact that those who are in Christ are called righteous is a biblical reality (2 Cor. 5:21). However, according to Jesus, the righteous person is poor, humiliated, desperate, hungry, thirsty, persecuted and… (Matthew 5:1-12)  But, even more important, this righteousness or rightness with God isn’t the result of some personal achievement.  As Tugwell says, 

…the trouble with their (Pharisees) outstanding righteousness was that, all too easily, it could be viewed precisely measured, so that at the certain point, you could say that you had now achieved it. This meant that it could all too easily come adrift from its original inspiration in devotion to God and become self-sufficient.
It is against this self-achieved and measurable righteousness that Jesus speaks of.  The self-righteousness that proudly stands up and proclaims, “God, I thank you that I am not like those people…” Luke 18:12—The kind of self-righteousness that sets US against THEM.  
Let there be no misunderstanding. I strongly believe in right vs. wrong. Unlike some who accuse others of intolerance because the so called, “intolerant” happens to distinguish between good and evil, I believe in being objective distinguishing between right and wrong. However, my objectiveness and effort in doing right doesn’t make me MORE righteous. As I remember, Jesus said something like, after doing all that we should have done and refrained from all that we should have refrained from, we’re still useless servants. What conveys the above humble attitude must be the way we communicate what we believe.
For example, I believe the definition of marriage should be reserved for a union between a man and a woman. Putting the Bible aside, this has been a universal truth that every society, culture and ethnicity has believed and practiced since the beginning of time.  In an ideal world, my definition of marriage should not set me against those who don’t agree with me, but we don’t live in that world yet. Because of what I just said, the reality is that many will call me names like homophobe, xenophobe, racist and… That I can’t help, but the way I react to those who don’t agree with me is something I CAN control.  And this is where I’ve so often come short forgetting that ultimately, as a follower of Christ, my goal must be winning people’s hearts and souls and not an argument. 
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It’s a day before the election in California. The fate of Prop 8  (The proposition against same sex marriage) is going to be decided tomorrow. As I’m opening my living room windows facing the street, I notice my neighbor, Ted, walking his dog. Ted and Eric (not their real names) are our gay neighbors whom we’ve know for the last 24 years. They’ve been together longer than many Christian couples I know.  We have been to each other’s homes for dinner many times and have a good relationship.
“Hey Ted, I just wanted you to know how I’m going to vote on Prop 8 tomorrow,” I screamed out of the window.
If you know me, you know that I’m one of the most transparent people you ever come across—and sometimes to a fault. And this was one of those times. In my way of thinking, I wanted my neighbor, the person I have know for a few years now, love and have a very high respect for to know where I stood. This was my way of saying, 
“Thank you for accepting me as a friend even though we don’t agree on this subject.”
Ted laughed and says something like, “Shah, we all know how you’re going to vote.” And walked away.

About a year later, as Karen and I sitting in Ted and Eric’s living room waiting for dinner to be served, Eric, Ted’s partner, very sternly faced me and with tears in his eyes said, 
“What do you have against me marrying this man that I love so much?”
The question completely catches me by surprise. I’m blindsided and was at loss for words. His crying makes me cry.  I’m suddenly faced with the fact that my statement of a year ago, how be it, coming from a very innocent and pure motive, has hurt people I care for.  It’s very easy to disagree with nameless or faceless “Them” out there, but it is a whole different world when those “Them” are your friends. 
“I have nothing against you getting married. My opposition is to changing the definition of marriage,“ I respond
“What do you mean, “ he demands while crying.
“By changing the definition, we’re opening the Pandora’s box which will come back to haunt us.”
“No! It won’t.”
As much as I care for this couple (and they know it), and as much as I do not want to see my friends hurt or upset by/with me, I have to stand up for my convections/values. And so does he, for that matter. 
We go on crying and arguing. 
At the end, we come to the conclusion that we’re not about to change each other’s mind, so with my wife and Eric watching us rather uncomfortably, we hugged and sat down to eat dinner. I love Ted and Eric not because they agree or disagree with me, but because they’re my friends made in God’s image.
A few years later, when Prop 8 is overturned by the Supreme Court, as much as I disagree with the decision, I text Ted with one word, “Congratulation!”
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I’ll leave you with these words,
To the Christian community, expressing God’s love towards those with whom we disagree should not be confused with agreement with their point of view. While we should hold firm to our Judeo-Christian principles, we must continue to love because Christ commanded us to do so.
To the gay community, please don’t reject me because I am willing to tolerate you, but not celebrate you. As much as I detest using the word, “tolerate” within the context of this article (It sounds like painfully putting up with something or someone, which is not my intention at all) I am using it because, strangely enough, it is a very acceptable word within the gay community. I may disagree with your point of view, but I am NOT against you as a person.
And this, my friends, is the key to a civil discourse.