Tag Archives: church

Tradition in the church and the military

9 Nov

It hit me in church today, the parallels between the church and the military. I sat in my preferred spot in the middle of the congregation, looking at the pews in neat rows before me, each exactly like the one I was sitting in, like the ones behind me. The pastor stood elevated at the pulpit near the alter, a large cross hanging on the wall behind her.

Although the reasons for these features are easily overlooked today, each originally served a mundane purpose. Early Christians met in secret, persecuted by Gentiles and Jews alike. With the conversion of Constantine a few centuries later, being a Christian became politically correct. Large public churches were built and seats, when present, were for the well to do and connected. Commoners stood in the back. The cross became a recognized icon of the church used both as a reminder for individuals in their faith and a symbol of the fearsome power of church authority. Without modern sound systems, an elevated pulpit made it easier for the leader to project his voice so that all could hear. The alter is a throwback to the ancient temple directed by God under the old covenant for animal sacrifice, a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for us all. Everything in the built church was designed for unity of purpose and reinforcement of order and discipline.

A military ceremony has many of the same characteristics. Soldiers stand in formation, the rank and file dress right, dress. The flags to which each swears an oath are prominently displayed front and center. The commander has his designated spot and responsibilities, but he, and only he in this instance, is free to move as he will. The structure is based on the old, force-concentrating block formation, which itself was based on the older Roman phalanx. It is intended to enforce uniformity, it makes inspection easy, reinforces the commander’s authority, and encourages allegiance to the symbols of the organization. While it would be a disastrous tactic to use in modern warfare, it’s great for broadcasting announcements… sort of. It also looks good and inspires awe in, even fear of, the powerful authority it represents.

But it’s a terrible way to train. It hides a lot of flaws and the realities of the preparedness of any particular individual. Having been the commander at the front at times, I can tell you it also serves to mask a lot of his self doubt and frailty. He is merely a man (or woman) after all.

In order to be effective, a modern Army trains in smaller, less formal units. Soldiers get to know each other well, and whether they like each other or not, they learn to depend on one another. Although some classroom work is done, it is held to a minimum in order to maximize hands on learning, i.e., actual performance of the skills needed to succeed in battle. Leaders lead by example, with small unit leaders employing the “do as I do” model. High level commanders lead in less direct ways and assign unit responsibilities in ‘operations orders’, the two most important parts of which are the mission and intent. If all else is lost, these two bits of information (mission: what is to be done, and intent: to what end) enable any soldier to act independently – not just the commander – and even carry the unit to victory though he be the lone survivor.

The stress of battle will expose a lot of human weakness. It can break even the strongest of hearts and especially in direct face-to-face combat, survival often comes down to luck and the will of an individual to fight to the end. The soldier needs to be able to think and act on his own, in accordance with the intent, and without detailed guidance.

When an army is actively engaged in war, ceremony is put on hold to focus on the real life conflict at hand. Commanders rely on the discipline instilled in easier times, trusting in the abilities and judgment of his soldiers and for them to act appropriately as the situation changes.

As every veteran knows, it is this struggle to make sense of the chaos that matters most, for there is no real victor in war and every battle eventually leads to another. The warrior also knows that fear comes to all, the difference being in how we face it. Conflict is a fact of mankind, and life goes on.

But every once in a while, during a pause, we regroup to hold formation, conduct inspection, pass out medals, and remember the fallen. The weary soldier complies out of respect for his brothers and tradition. He goes through the motions and listens to the lies about heroics that never really happen the way they’re reported. He salutes the flag, pays honors as required, and hails the others. But he knows there are no real heroes and the only thing that matters is what you do – what he has been through, along with his brothers – not the words or niceties. Those personal experiences are what he feels in his heart, clings to in formation, and carries with him into the next battle.

The formality may be a man-made construction with its oddities and nuance and archaic parts. But the soldier is real and basic, as is what he goes through. The soldier’s struggle in combat is not unlike the Christian’s life in a secular world. Both are trying to stay focused on the higher intent while continuing to fight against all odds. Each is, like Adam was, created in the dirt, and breathed to life by God.

I hear from friends who are still in uniform that the armed services are in crisis. I hear the same thing about the church. Tradition is nice when it still has meaning, but maybe it’s time both institutions remember where they came from, why they exist, and focus once again on the most important things that make them what they are.

Matthew 22:36-40

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Hard knock life

2 Nov

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Most often the problem is not that life is too hard, but that our heads are.

…Peace. 😉

Skipping church to get right with God

29 Sep

Three days in the dirt and grime. I hadn’t expected it to take so long, but it was cleansing both for the garage and for me. The garage part, at least, is finally finished.
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The family and I skipped church on Sunday to take a much needed pause. In the afternoon the wife and kids met friends at a farm, and I got some quality time alone to continue cleaning the garage and reflect on things. Old music reminded me of a former lover I was once head over heels for. Our paths diverged, but our time together was a true blessing and she is a wonderful person. We stay in touch via shared posts and an occassional brief personal message on social media. She is now married to a good man, they are happy, and have a lovely family. Thinking of her, I realized I wasn’t reminiscing about us, but appreciating what a good person she is and how happy I am that she and her family are happy. That is a true Christian woman. She brought me closer to God and helped me become a better person both then… and now.

So the most important thing I did this weekend by skipping church and Sunday school was to get closer to God. It isn’t supposed to work that way, is it?
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When we first joined our current congregation we felt welcome and gradually at home. Attending services was uplifting and the extended coffee hour that served as adult Sunday school led to some great discussions. But lately church has become more aggravating than inspiring. Internal congregational politics and showmanship have been growing over the course of this year (or perhaps I’m just more sensitive to it now). In addition, the strongest voice of reason in the group recently moved away. And with that, more divisive personalities have siezed the opportunity to push their own agendas.

I admit I have not handled the situation well, and have become increasingly frustrated in much the same way that I am with more overt politics. After a long discussion with my wife, we decided to skip this past Sunday altogether. She also suggested that if Sunday school is bothering me so much, but I still like to hear the sermons, maybe we could just go to worship service and skip Sunday school like many other parishioners do. It sounded like a plan.

I’ve never been particularly religious, but have been more and less active in the various congregations I’ve been a part of over the years. (I used to move a lot, mostly due to the Army.) If I felt I was spiritually growing with a particular group, I stuck with it. If not, I would let go and simply read, pray, and study on my own.
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Either way, two ideas have always stuck with me concerning church-going. The first a friend of a friend posted eloquently on Facebook last week. As she wrote, “remember it was the religious people who were the real enemies of Christ.” I’ve never liked the idea of the Pharisees or their modern inculcation in the Christian church. (Remember Jesus was a simple Jew.) I have much more respect for someone whose faith I can see in their eyes and feel in their heart, than I do for a scriptural scholar or simply a licensed minister. I’ve had the privilege of befriending several very devout and genuinely loving chaplains. I’ve also had the misfortune of meeting some very self-righteous career-oriented ones on their own power and ego trips. Preaching afterall can be a lucrative profession for money and/or prestige. Although many ordained ministers make little to no money at all, it begs the question of each whether one is doing it simply as a vocation or truly for the love of God.

The second idea is one expressed in various ways throughout the Old Testament and which Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians: “cast out the wicked from among you.” Now, to be sure, many have used this passage as justification for exclusivity and judgmental divisiveness in the church, but as with many teachings its real meaning has been twisted. On one level it does mean to separate oneself from those who would lead you astray. On a deeper level, however, it means to separate out the evil in oneself. So on one hand, skipping church did help put distance between me and those who would use the church for political activist means. It alleviated the accompanying frustration and allowed for a more relaxing Sunday afternoon. But one of the hardest things to do is to recognize and face the corruption of evil in one’s own heart. By skipping church, I reflected more on how I contributed to the growing tension in the congregational body. It helped me see myself and my antagonists for the simple, flawed, very human creatures we are. Coming from a fairly large family, I learned quickly that you can love some people dearly up close, some others are much easier to love from afar. So it is in the church and with the greater family of Man. By separating myself from certain people, I could better appreciate them as human beings and more easily recognize and drive out the evil from my own heart.
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We’ll see what the wife and I decide to do on Sunday. I did miss hearing the sermon, and so listened to it last night before going to sleep. (The church webmaster records it and posts it to the web.) It was interesting and I could recognize select voices responding to the pastor, but it wasn’t the same as being there in person. Maybe we’ll do as my lady suggests and just go for the service next Sunday, then come back later (after Sunday school) to pick up the kids. We’ll see.

Some things still bother me. I feel the purpose of the church is to bring people closer to each other and to God. If it doesn’t do that, it has no reason to exist. I question a church body that searches for another role, or longs to put itself ‘on the map’ in the community, the larger corporate organization, or the world. It also bothers me that I no longer feel welcome by certain members of the congregation. My wife is a very good person, the kind who when you look into her eyes you feel as if you’re looking deep into her soul. It isn’t just me, others have said the same thing about her. Even she has said that the few people in this congregation who aggravate me have always given her an uneasy feeling too, and struck her as cold or insincere from the start. Looking into their eyes I see only darkness and pride and bitterness, the empty heart of a Pharisee. But when I step away from them and my own burning pride, I see a person afraid and in pain, struggling to make sense of a confusing world. I feel the kind of genuine sympathy I think Christ would feel…but I’m not Christ-like enough to feel that up close. So like I said, when it comes to attending next Sunday’s service, we’ll see.
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Thus begins shemitah and the latest leg of my spiritual journey. For most people it might seem strange that skipping church could bring one closer to God, but it helped me, at least temporarily. I’m still not very religious and don’t see that changing. But it would be nice to feel a sense of community with fellow believers. There are some really good people in that church, quiet, who don’t say much, but sincerely believe. I missed seeing them on Sunday. I just don’t want tension between me and others make the sincere ones uncomfortable. Like I said, it is hardest to see the evil in our own hearts, and maybe – likely – I’m the one who’s screwed up, at least in part. Anyway…

What do I believe? Well, that is another story – one that cannot be found in doctrine, observation, science, or even scripture alone. I think God is an all-encompassing living Being, both us of It/Him and Him/It of us. He/It must be felt to connect with, not studied, but whether felt or not, He is still always there. He/It is the all-knowing, unknowable Existence of the universe, the One and only Truth of all. But no words can describe it. And none of us holds exclusive rights to it or has perfect knowledge of it. Right or wrong, life and this year of getting closer to God have begun. So far it’s off to a great start, as time marches on we’ll see how it goes. Peace.
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A simple carpenter

1 May

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Before you write this off as a “religion” post, read it to the end. The facts presented are corraborated by both contemporary writings and independent, secular modern research. The opinions are mine and clearly stated. Believe what you will in life. Make your own assessment. Ideas gather steam for a lot of reasons, some good, some bad. Many because they try to capture, however imperfectly, the essence of conclusions a lot of separate people have come to independently. Some, however egregious, gain popularity simply because they already have a following. I try to look beyond all that and consider facts validated by a variety of people across distance and time and by my own experience. Having been misled and lied to so many times by others and my ego, my most trusted source for truth is my own heart.

My advice to you is to look into your heart, past emotion or old hurts, past what you want or think, to what feels morally right. Sometimes you’ll find things in yourself that are hard to face. In the end you’ll be better off if you face them anyway and never let anyone else dictate what you believe.

Although considered fairly well educated in a variety of topics, I don’t know much and there is very little I am sure of. Anyone who knows me can tell I have ‘a problem with authority’. Though not a criminal, I’ve committed acts most world religions consider wrong, and have been told by at least one irate chaplain that I am not a Christian. Yet the one defining constant in my life, the thing that has pulled me through, has been an undying faith in a steadfast all encompassing and loving existence I call God. Chances are you don’t know what I mean by that, but you don’t have to.

Here is why I call myself a Christian, and not very religious.

Jesus did not call the masses, form a belief system, or glorify himself. He called individuals, made sense of ancient teachings, and glorified God. His only authority was his own, derived directly from his heavenly Father.

He told simple stories that were abundant with wisdom. He challenged established beliefs. He was outrageously politically incorrect, and confounded popularly accepted, self appointed experts with his superior understanding of their chosen fields.

Born poor but not destitute, he was raised a trained craftsman. By all accounts he was unassuming and unemployed when he rose to moderate fame as one voice in a cacophony of prophesy. Prosecuted and sentenced to death by a corrupt government on false charges brought by his own people, he forgave his persecutors. And in the end he gave up his life and everything else for his fellow man.

This plain speaking carpenter left us with numerous lessons that he personally delivered in sound bites that are still relevant today. He was in many ways the quintessential human being. Many believe he was the very manifestation or embodiment of God in mortal form. He became the most famous person who ever lived and the center of the world’s largest religion.

Jesus demonstrated the way to an every day, everlasting peace. He spoke the truth. He radiated light onto age old mysteries that had been passed down from the ancients. Although a modest soul, his love and energy were so great that many still feel his direct personal influence in their lives today. I do, for one.

The truth in his teachings apply to everyone: religionists, spiritualists, and atheists alike. How then, I often ask myself, did we ever get the message he delivered so screwed up? I don’t think I’ll ever understand, but I still have my faith.

Peace.
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