Monday, June 30, 2008

No Place For Boys

This is going to be something of a more personal post than any other, and one in which I can't help but leave myself open to some criticism. Nevertheless, taking a deep breath, I plunge in with an illustration; several, actually.

My family was at church this last Sunday, previewing worship clips the church will use in this summer's Vacation Bible School. There were two clips, bouncy melodies about worshiping and praising God--not what I'd call memorable, but after two or three nights I'd probably catch on to them. The singers were a kids' ensemble, and a minute into the second clip something struck me: There are no boys. The ensemble members are all girls.

Okay, no big deal. Typically, more girls than boys go to church. Why not? After all, there are more girls than boys in the US now anyway. I myself am the one boy of three children; I have one son out of four children; our best friends have three girls and no boys; my wife grew up with one brother and one sister. Girls outnumber boys in my world now.

But I watched this video and wondered: What is my son going to take from this? That church is for smiling, perky, bouncy girls and not much of a place for rowdy, roaring, rough-and-tumble boys? After all, when you get down to it, the whole church service tends to be something women relate to better than men. There's not a lot of action; the typical evangelical service is usually a monologue, a shortened and less-formal version of a college lecture. At least Jesus told stories--some of them quite violent, all of them fitting into the real world.

About a year ago I came across a book with the intriguing title Why Men Hate Going to Church.
Gotta love the cover:
Why Men Hate Going to Church

Murrow's book stirred some controversy, but I found myself with him far more often than against him. I want my son, and the troubled young men I'm coming across, to know that there is a place for them in the church. I want them to know that church isn't a Girls Only (or Mostly) hide-out that neuters any male who comes into its doors. And unfortunately a lot of men are beginning to think that way.

This is strange, when you realize that the main point of the New Testament is that a new kingdom has invaded the world. A mighty Sovereign has claimed the world as His and is taking it through warfare. Granted, it's a new kind of warfare; no one in the new kingdom is ever told to wield a sword against other men. Still, it's warfare. It calls for men to be disciplined and committed to our Captain. It calls for us to endure hardship not just with patience but with exuberant praise. It calls for us to leave the places where we feel safe and to batter down the gates of Satan's own stronghold. It calls for us to take a sword against demons, wield a shield against burning darts flung from Hell itself. This is a gospel for men.

Men want to be challenged. Men want leaders who will stop pampering them and who will tell them: "Be on guard. Be strong. Play the man. Hold your place in the line of battle, and don't back down." Most of all, men in the thick of battle need to be told over and over: "The battle is not your own. Your God has won the victory." We need to hear it again and again because the real battle isn't the romantic thing we thought it would be. People get weary in the front lines. People get wounded. People back down in fear.

God has won the victory. That's the key message that leads us to victory in every part of the Christian life. It leads us to holiness, to worship, to service. It leads us to overcome the enemy in our communities, our families, ourselves. God has won the victory. So we fight on.

In a sense, yes, the church really isn't a place for boys. It's a place for men. And a place where boys can be turned into men.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Cookie-Cutter Fallout

Last night, I ran into a friend I'd not seen in several years. The last I knew, he was doing well and had recently married. Three years later, the picture has changed.

My friend has Asperger's syndrome, something we know a bit about because our youngest daughter has it also. Asperger's is on the autism scale and those who deal with it are, to put it bluntly, socially clueless. These people have limited (sometimes very limited) capability for social interaction. They are not stupid; my friend is much smarter than I. They just do not get the nonverbal aspects of communication--the facial clues, body language, emotional clues we all pick up on. They prefer to be alone; my wife has read that Asperger syndrome is the one disability that goes away when the person is by himself.

My friend also spent several years in a church that left a bad mark on him. It was a Calvinist congregation and its members were all, it seems, cut from the same cloth. I say this because both of these factors (the Calvinist doctrine and the conformity) hurt my friend. He doesn't play life safe; he's a born adventurer. The folks at his church just didn't get him, didn't know how to relate to him or how to accept him for what he was. And he, with some serious issues that he faced again and again, began to wonder if he were one of the damned, one of those outside the elect. No atonement for him, it seems.

You have to understand something about my friend: I would entrust my life to him. I don't say that lightly. I would put my life in his hands knowing full well that he would guard it as best he could. I don't understand everything about him but I know that he is honest with me and has let me see things in him that few, if any, others have seen. You can't have that kind of openness with someone else and not love that person.

I wish I were better at accepting people as they are. I wish I loved each one I met perfectly, even when that one is not like me--even when that one is a reprehensible flagrant sinner. That's how Jesus loved; that was one of the things he was criticized for. In the case of my friend, I've been able to do this where others haven't. I wish they saw him for what he is and not for what they want him to be.

Why has Christianity come to mean conformity to someone other than Christ? Why do we think He is so small that I and I alone express Him, and all that is not like me is not like Him?

Many wounded believers I've met have felt that pressure to conform to a certain image of faith. I've done it too. I remember the time 20 years ago when, while cleaning a church with some friends, I plopped in a Petra cassette. The pastor came out of his office and politely let me know that I couldn't put that cassette in the church's tape deck. I never let him know about my Rez Band tapes. . . and I guarded parts of my personality from him. I didn't feel free to let him know that Fahrenheit 451, for example, was one of my favorite books; that I re-read The Lord of the Rings about every 18 months and was interested in philosophy and hated fishing (back then, that is). I reflected back for him the image of himself that he wanted to see in me. That was safe. That won approval and the chance to minister in his church.

I can't help but wonder about the ways I try to force people into my own mold. What I long for is a place where I can be free to express who I am, grow into maturity, and love without holding back. But am I as willing to give that as I am longing to get it?