Handshakes: At many of the churches I visit, the service is stopped partway through and the congregants encouraged to shake hands. I don’t understand the point. It’s certainly not to socialize. The music plays too loud for us to hear each other, the event is over too quickly, and before I can even exchange names with anyone they are either moving on to the next person or else the next person has interrupted us first. Do they have to make quota? There is no meaningful social interaction whatsoever. It’s just an awkward way to spread germs. There is a lot of forced, false intimacy in churches in general. In some places, they hold hands during prayer and the pastors have gigantic, creepy smiles all the time. Why not be genuine?
Close Your Eyes: At many of the churches I visit, during the closing prayer the pastor tells us to close our eyes. This is of course the last thing I want to do when being told to do it – especially when surrounded by strange people. I don’t consider it any of his business what I do with my own body. Then he invites those who have made a commitment to Jesus to raise their hands, reminding them that no one is going to see them. If the point of closing eyes is not to put anyone on the spot, why make them raise their hands at all? If the point of raising hands is to take a public stand, don’t they want to be seen?
Loud Music: At many churches the music is far too loud to be healthy. The bass vibrates my insides and makes me feel sick. It reflects off the walls in cacophony and makes me feel trapped. It’s very uncomfortable. I don’t even like any of the music they play anyways. I am told that singing along expresses gratitude to God, but how can that be? You can’t tell me that over a hundred people just happened to start singing the same song at the same time out of genuine gratitude by chance! Clearly it has more to do with conformity. I’ve always thought of such things as a little creepy.
Stand Up: I can hike all day, but standing in one place is extremely uncomfortable and tiring. We are expected to stand during scripture recitation and during the music portion – sometimes for fifteen minutes or longer. What is the purpose of standing?
Bad Hours: What sane person wants to be out of bed Sunday morning? This doesn’t work for a lot of people. Some churches also have services Saturday or Sunday night, but why not on weekday afternoons? There are a lot of people that work late Saturday night and sleep in Sunday morning. When can they go? Why don’t churches hold services on different days from each other so people can visit multiple churches and make friends in all of them?
Simple Sermons: Sermons are almost always very simple. The same basic point is dragged out and repeated in different ways, but the larger context is left out, its importance is never explained, evidence is never given, and the exceptions go unmentioned. What is taught is very basic and I’m sure is old news for most of the people in the room. I have always been incredibly bored.
Sin Management: Rather than focus on the greatness of God and his current activities, churches seem to be focused on what I and my father call sin management. They give advice on how we can trick our darker selves to avoid sinning and build up our self-control. They constantly lecture on the dangers of sin and how to tell right from wrong. Knowing that I am dead to the law and that there is no good thing in me, I let God take care of my sin problem and instead focus on the good news. This is hard to do when I am continually reminded of the bad.
What I Love About Church: Some churches have coffee, donuts, and little libraries – and some have quite interesting architecture. They usually have ministries to join, if they fit you. Sometimes I can also find people to talk about God-stuff with, so church isn’t all bad. I’m just not sure that donuts are a good enough reason to get out of bed.
What do you love/hate about church?
In addition to fiction and non-fiction books featuring the natural world, Hal Borland once wrote columns for newspapers and magazines. Then in 1967, he compiled many of his old columns into a book, Hill Country Harvest. In it are 136 anecdotes about life on his small farm. He covers science, childhood memories, holiday traditions, etymology, farming, weather, differences in cultural attitudes of the city and the country, and most of all his encounters with the plants and animals of north-western Connecticut. He observes the interactions of birds and squirrels at his feeder, the behavior of swallows nesting in his garage, and the trends in plant life from year to year. His stories remind me of those found in Country Magazine.
I can’t quite pin down why I like the book. Hal is not particularly eloquent. His descriptions are not especially vivid, nor do they capture a slice of life that inspires my nostalgia. He has no detectible sense of humor. His anecdotes are not particularly insightful, unusual, or exciting. They are so simple as to be almost boring, but something keeps them just above that line.
I think what caught my imagination was the idea that if he can be successful with such a venture, so can I. Hal reminds me a lot of myself. He has taken a relatively normal life and picked out the best parts, ordering them like a sequence of adventures. Thinking about my time in Rhode Island so far, I realize I definitely have enough material to start a similar book. I am going to start keeping a journal. I might have a relatively normal life, but it is real, and nothing about me can ever be boring. I’m my own favorite subject.
There’s a lot that happens to me that doesn’t quite rise to the level of what I normally put on the blog, such as the time I saw the rabbits in the yard, the rainbow at sunset, the hummingbird, the deer, the woodchuck, the Baltimore oriole in the lilac tree, or my take on all the local coffee shops around here. These will go in a book.
There is an idea out there that the morality of an action is based less on the action’s results than it is on the motives of the actor. We do not blame people for accidents. In Christian circles, it is often said that sin isn’t what you’ve done; it’s the state of your heart. It is also said that God wants a “cheerful giver” and we should not donate or tithe out of guilt or to try to earn God’s favor. When we pray, we are told that praying with the wrong motives will leave our prayers unanswered.
The problem with this thinking is that it opens us up to accusation from others and ourselves. No matter how noble one’s cause, if they become aware of any potential benefit to themselves whatsoever, that benefit immediately becomes one of their motives. It is impossible for it to be otherwise. Then that little nagging voice inside says, “You know the real reason you did that good deed; you aren’t selfless at all.”
Since there is virtually always a way for an action to benefit us in some small way (even if for no other reason than to make us feel good about ourselves), we will always beat ourselves up and live in guilt. I don’t think this is what God wants.
Just because you may do the right things for the wrong reasons, it is no reason to stop doing the right things. It isn’t just about us. Just because you may pray for something with the wrong motives, it is no reason to stop praying. Just do it.
Is it wrong to punish those truly guilty just because we might be doing it in revenge? Is it wrong to enjoy art and support the artists just because it has elements in it we find erotic? Is it wrong to give to the poor just because we make a show out of it to glorify ourselves?
There is no way to control our motives anyways; only God can change the heart. Trust him to take care of it. In the meantime, never tire of doing right. God can use even our impure motives to accomplish his will.
I was recently asked “when” I became a Christian and if I had a specific date my new life began. I did not and neither do many people, yet there are those that seem to doubt whether one is a true Christian if they cannot point to a conversion moment in their lives. The way I see it, there are a series of stages of ongoing growth that people enter. At every point, one might assume they are finished, but there always seems to be more to learn.
Stage One: In elementary school I was an atheist. My Sunday School teachers were nice people, but terribly uneducated in science. Over the years in spite of them, I learned enough science to gradually accept that miracles were possible and that the existence of God was probable. My change of mind was gradual and I wavered back and forth for a while, so I have no specific date to point to when I converted. Finally, by junior high school I came to think of myself as “saved” because I believed God existed. I had no idea there was anything more to Christianity than that. This was the first stage.
Stage Two: For a long time, religion remained purely an academic exercise. I didn’t see how it related to my everyday life. It was only after I graduated high school that I became interested in actively seeking out God’s will. I believed I finally understood what God wants from us. This was the second stage.
Stage Three: Even then, I was seeking out God’s will as a means to an end. I was using him as a tool to get my needs met. I assumed that was all he wanted from me. Only in my late twenties did I form the attachment such that I knew I could never be satisfied without him. This was the third stage.
Stage Four: Even then, I still believed that there were other things I could never be satisfied without in addition to God – certain unfulfilled dreams and unmet needs I had. Over the next two years, I let go of these things and discovered that God alone is sufficient. I even let go of my personality. This was the fourth stage.
I’m still learning just how to apply my knowledge in novel circumstances, but I haven’t reached a fifth stage yet, assuming one even exists. In looking back over my growth, I can see now that there has always been a guiding drive present that I have come to associate with the idea of God living inside me. This force existed in me even when I was an atheist, pushing me to learn more truth. There is no specific event in which God came to live in me after I had chosen him. He was already there. Because of this, I have trouble separating people into “believers” and “unbelievers.” We are all partial believers at different stages along our common walk. Having so recently been at lower stages myself, I understand that those still at these lower stages are unaware that there is more to learn. I want to guide them, not judge them.
Faith: Since having faith is central to every religion, having a proper understanding of the definition of faith should also be important to define “when” one joins a new religion. When I first accepted Jesus, I still thought of faith as nothing more than a belief driven by the evidence and easily lost by new evidence or clever arguments. Was I not yet a Christian? Others accepted me as such.
Later, I understood faith to be a choice to trust and not falter in belief every time some new challenge arose, but to stay the course unless it became clear I had been wrong. Was I a Christian then?
Even then, I still tried to measure my faith to ensure it was growing. Now I understand that faith grows on its own anyway and cannot be hurried. Since tiny amounts of faith will eventually grow into mountains worth, all levels of faith are equal in their final outcomes. Measuring faith is counter-productive.
Sin: Sin, too, has stages of knowledge. The Jews believed that one had to keep the Mosaic Law to keep on God’s good side. As 21st century gentiles, we know this isn’t true, but many of us still try to follow the dictates of our respective denominations. Even those that understand it isn’t the role of our clergy to make rules for us still try to live up to the standards of our culture and feel bad when we fail. In my case, I rejected being ruled by anyone but myself – but I failed even at following my own rules! Even when “by faith alone” is the only standard, we all fall short of perfection even in faith! It was only recently that I understood what Jesus meant when he said he came to fulfill the law.
Don’t worry about messing up; you (or God) can always fix things later! I wonder just how much God plans ahead and how much he makes it up as he goes. Of course, this is assuming linear time; there might not be a difference in reality. If it is true that God makes a lot up as he goes, it is misguided to try to seek out God’s will for our lives. We’ll find out soon enough. All we need to know is that he loves us and is working to make things better. If there is no plan, it cannot be a sin to violate the plan!
Religion: Even the way I eliminated other religions was gradual, and in a sense I never fully eliminated all of them. My belief is based more on my personal experience and reason rather than ancient text I can never be absolutely sure the source of. Christianity is mostly just the “language” I use to explain my spiritual state to others, since it is the religion I am most familiar with. I have every reason to think that God can reach anybody through whatever belief system they happen to have, and when this happens their beliefs change. None of us know everything, and all the major world religions have some wisdom in them. I’m not saying all religions are true – quite the opposite. I’m saying all religions (including Christianity) are incomplete without a connection to God, but we all have this connection already – and God is working in everyone to strengthen this connection without myself even having to do anything to convert all these people!
In conclusion, I suppose maybe I was “saved” when I was conceived (sometime in 1981). When did you become a Christian?
One thing I have observed in life is that Christians are very quick to alienate those they claim to want to reach over subtle, arcane points of theology instead of trying to find common ground. This needs to stop.
I grew up going to church every Sunday. I prayed every night. I read the Bible. I believed for most of my life that God created the universe, that Jesus died for my sins, and that the Holy Spirit lived in me and guided my actions. I believed that Jesus was himself God. I even believed in some of the more controversial parts of the bible such as a literal seven-day creation week and the virgin birth. Imagine my shock when in my thirties I woke up one morning to read online that I had been living a lie all those years; I had never been a Christian because I didn’t believe in the trinity!
I was always aware that God’s tripartite nature was a common belief, but not that the debate had been settled, and certainly not that it was important. When I was young I always had the sense that it was something debated by theology nerds but incomprehensible to normal people. I was never sure whether I believed it myself because I did not know what it was. How could I know whether I believed in the trinity when I didn’t even know what “trinity” meant? Over the years I have heard no fewer than twelve different explanations of the nature of the trinity, all of them incompatible with each other, and by far the most common explanation I hear is: “Well, no one understands the trinity, but we know it’s true because the Bible tells us.”
Really? Actually the word “trinity” is nowhere in the Bible and the only hint we have of its existence (that I am aware of) is that the early Christians were told to go out and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is very flimsy circumstantial evidence to say the least. Just because three of God’s manifestations are listed does not mean those are the only three he has. I can think of seven just off the top of my head: in the beginning speaking the world into existence, in the pillar of smoke that let the Israelites through the desert during the day, in the pillar of fire that led the Israelites around the desert at night, in the Ark of the Covenant, in Elijah’s still small voice, in Jesus, and in the bright light on the road to Damascus. That’s seven forms. Why is he not a septnity? What do those seven lampstands in Revelations really represent?
It all seems so silly. God has not only been referred to as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but also as the way, the truth, the life, the word, the prince of peace, the son of man, the son of God, the lamb, the lion, the alpha, the omega, the I Am, Yahweh, Elohim, Jehovah, Jesus, Yeshuah, and even the “unknown God” (Acts 17:23). God has not only taken the role of heavenly father, but is also referred to in the Bible as the bridegroom of Israel and the head of the church body. He is even called a vine while we are the branches! Why do we only consider three manifestations? Doesn’t it make more sense to say there is only one God who takes on as many roles as he wishes?
Isn’t it overreach to declare others not to be true Christians just because they might be wrong about one or more points of theology? Don’t we still worship the same God? The same might be said about Jews or Muslims. They claim to worship the God of Abraham. They might call him by a different name and have some ideas about him that I don’t agree with, but how can I know for sure it isn’t the same God? Only God knows the heart.
This is how this debate started. To show love and solidarity with Muslims as they are abused both by the extremists within their own religion and those in the west who cannot tell a good Muslim from a bad Muslim, a professor at a Christian college a few years ago opined that we all worshipped the same God – not an uncommon opinion. Not only did the college fire her, but they went on to say that Muslims certainly do not worship the same God because they don’t believe in the trinity and anybody who doesn’t believe in the trinity doesn’t worship the same God either. I was quite surprised.
Whatever the theological truth might be, this rhetoric is dangerous for two reasons: It alienates the Muslims that we should be trying to reach and it alienates other Christians who could help us reach them. In any case, I know Jesus personally and I know he accepts me, so I don’t care what others say. I still can’t believe somebody got fired over this.
Question: When did belief in the trinity become so important?
I recently read The Lost City Of The Monkey God by Douglas Preston, the account of his 2015 visit to the newly discovered (2012) ruins in the mountains of Honduras. Very little is known of the city at this time except that it is not Mayan and was probably abandoned shortly after the Spanish landed. It is believed that not one human had been there in five hundred years.
It had long been rumored that structures existed in the area, remains of a city abandoned when the people lost favor with the gods. The place was believed cursed, and that anyone who set foot there would either be bitten by a snake or contract some horrible disease. Over the years, a small number of people would claim to have seen white stone structures filled with statues of monkeys. The lost city was either called “the white city” or “the city of the monkey god.” In reality, there were likely many real cities being conflated with each other and exaggerated into legend. There were even some tales later shown to be hoaxes.
The dense vegetation, rough mountain terrain, jaguars, and most of all the numerous venomous snakes prevented many expeditions from confirming these stories. Government permitting processes, drug traffickers, and hurricanes stopped others. Finally, in 2012 a LIDAR-equipped airplane was flown over the area. Enough lasers penetrated the gaps between the leaves in order to form a topographic map showing unnatural shapes. This is how they discovered not one, but two cities. The 2015 visit confirmed the LIDAR readings. There were stone structures, including much use of quartz (making it a “white city”), although most of it seemed to be earthen mounds and terraces now so overgrown with vegetation that they could be easily missed for what they are.
Almost nothing else is known. The book dives into a little bit of speculation at the end about religious practices and the connections between various people groups in the area, but it is very speculative. More study is needed.
The Sea Of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick is the true story of incompetence, jealousy, ego, needless conflict, revenge, and abuse of power for personal gain. Either the leader of the six-ship American expedition Ex Ex in 1838 Charles Wilkes was the worst manager in history or his officers were the most petty and intractable members of the navy ever – or maybe it was both. In spite of Wilke’s often misguided orders and abrasive personality, the crew miraculously escaped death several times, succeeded in charting the Fiji Islands, the coast of the Oregon Territory, and confirmed the continental size of land south of sixty degrees latitude, naming it Antarctica. Wilkes and four of his officers returned home to courts martials. All were found guilty of some charges and acquitted of others. All held grudges against each other the rest of their lives. It was very nearly forgotten what they had accomplished together.
The Sea Of Glory is a microcosm of human society. We have poisoned our seas, fought wars of global scale, exterminated entire races, protected slavery, twisted justice, outlawed speaking the truth, and cheated each other our dues at every socioeconomic stratum. I’ve worked with terrible managers who couldn’t give good instructions and terrible employees who couldn’t follow good instructions. It is truly a wonder we haven’t gone extinct a dozen times over, let alone that anything gets accomplished. Yet in the past few thousand years, we have eradicated polio, created the internet, and put a man on the moon.
What have you accomplished?
So many people seem to assume that something labeled “natural” must always be better than something artificial, especially when it comes to food and medicine. However, we should know that this is not always true. Floods, lightning, blizzards, rattlesnakes, and smallpox are all natural. Boats, lightning rods, combustion-heated homes, antivenin, and vaccines are not – or are they? What does it even mean to be natural?
Natural is a very relative term. Left to their own devices, dirt, air, and water just make mud. It takes the intervention of living cells to build ferns, trees, spiders, and sparrows out of them. Yet, life is considered no more artificial than non-living matter. Honey is considered natural, but nectar doesn’t turn into honey on its own. Bees collect it in their stomachs, spit it up, evaporate the water, and store it in wax cells. Humans come along later and remove the wax. Honey doesn’t naturally come in squeezable bottles! Is anything in the process to make honey really any less of an artificial process than the way that humans use corn to make high-fructose corn syrup?
Tools are generally considered artificial, but isn’t it natural for humans to make and use tools? All people groups use some tools and would not likely survive long without them. Some animals even use tools. Orangutans use twigs to pick seeds out of pods and dolphins use sponges to protect their beaks when sifting through sand.
Homes are generally considered artificial, but isn’t it natural to build shelter? Animals build burrows, nests, or hives of wax or paper. Humans use wood, metal, and drywall. What’s the difference?
Is agriculture natural? Left to themselves, edible plants do not grow all together in one accessible place, but as with tool-making and home-making, humans naturally use their ingenuity to harness nature to make their lives easier. The same could be said about breeding strains of plants or animals to have desirable traits. There is nothing unnatural about pollination or mating; humans just tilt the scales of these natural processes to benefit themselves.
The same could be said about genetically-modified organisms. There is nothing unnatural about DNA expression – DNA is a naturally-occurring compound – humans just select for the genes they want. Creating pest-resistant crops through genetic manipulation is just using nature to fight nature.
Even when humans create brand-new compounds that have never before existed, all they are doing is rearranging the elements nature has provided them into new configurations. According to mainstream thinking, there was a time billions of years ago that free oxygen was new on Earth; it was a waste product of photosynthesis toxic to most life at the time.
Even when humans do create brand-new elements (like plutonium), all they are doing is moving pre-existing protons and neutrons around. If one day humans create new forms of matter, such as gluon balls or strange matter, all they will be doing is reconfiguring the pre-existing quantum fields that underlie all of reality. Natural is relative.
Is death natural? Everything dies, but generally not without a fight. It is only natural to avoid natural death. Neither humans nor reindeer willingly surrender to the wolves – even though predation is one of the most natural things there is. Humans will go to especially extreme lengths to avoid death, including feeding tubes, artificial hearts, blood transfusions, chemotherapy, radiation, and lots of surgery – but are any of these procedures unnatural? Isn’t it only natural to want to escape death by making an artificial heart out of natural substances by artificial means? Can it be natural to be unnatural? What does “natural” even mean in this context?
Is homosexuality natural? One could certainly make a legitimate case that it is an artificial perversion of natural reproductive behavior, but one could also make the case that it is a natural strategy to curb overpopulation occasionally practiced across the animal kingdom. Can it be natural to be unnatural? One could also make the case that homosexuality is a disorder like Alzheimer’s, and no one ever suggests that Alzheimer’s is unnatural.
Is abortion natural? One could certainly make a legitimate case that it is an artificial perversion of natural reproductive behavior, but one could also make the case that it is a natural strategy to curb overpopulation. Tasmanian devil mothers have been known to eat their excess children and some sharks eat their siblings while still in the womb. Can it be natural to be unnatural?
Is warfare natural? One could certainly make a legitimate case that it goes against the natural drive to cooperate with members of the same species in order to better compete with rival species, but one could also argue that it is only natural to want to defend one’s kin. Chimpanzees fight all the time. Ants are among the most brutal to their own kind. Can it be natural to be unnatural?
People generally understand that words such as tall, fast, hot, and important refer to relative values. What is rarer are those who understand that words such as authority, miraculous, and natural are. They think someone is either in charge or not. They think an event is either a miracle or not. They think something is either natural or not.
Natural is a very relative term.
It is a sad thing when an entire species goes extinct. I love life. I love observing all the myriad ways that organisms adapt to their ecological niches – all the variety of form and function. I like to think of things growing and competing and even evolving. In every battle, some win and some lose, but to think that one type might never be seen again is horrible. All potential for the future and the unbroken chain to the past is then gone.
It is hard to get worked up over the death of one creature. To protect the gazelle is to starve the cheetah and to protect the pig is to rob me of my culinary artistic expression in making BLTs – but for all pigs or all gazelles to die would be a terrible thing.
Humans are different. One squished ant is just protein, but to lose just one human is to lose an entire race. Each of us is unique – with unique dreams, creativity, talents, struggles, triumphs, and failures. Each of us contains the seeds of whole worlds within us worth millions of species. Murder is genocide.
One thing I’ve observed in life is that people are quick to place blame. They forget that some things are just accidents or bad luck. In their zeal for justice, they will assign responsibility to people who are completely innocent. Even in cases wherein the accused were in fact a cause of the misfortune, objections that there was no reason for them to have known or acted differently fall on deaf ears. Honest mistakes are not allowed.
I once received a ball as a present and promptly brought it outside to play. My friend and I took turns kicking it up the driveway and letting it roll back down. We had little control over its exact arc, but no reason to be concerned of where it might fall. After a while, my friend kicked the ball and it landed just the right way on the top of a barbed-wire fence, where it deflated and hung. It was an obvious accident that could just as easily have been made by me and I knew that balls kept in the safety of my closet are no fun at all. I was more amused by the event than anything. However, in my experience most people in my position would have blamed my friend. Most people in my friend’s position would have blamed the one who put up the fence. Those with the means to do so might have sued.
Sometimes there is also some human negligence involved. I loaned my bicycle to a different friend of mine who rode it around the corner where he collided with another friend of mine on his bike. One of the gears bent and my bike never worked after that. It was clear he was not as careful as he could have been, but how careful should he have been and what percentage of the blame was really his? If he had immediately come to a complete stop upon seeing my other friend, he likely could have avoided the accident, but there was no way to know for certain that he couldn’t dodge or that the other couldn’t dodge (they both dodged in the same direction – into each other) and he had only a fraction of a second to decide. Who among us hasn’t made mistakes of this nature? How many times have I been distracted by a bird or bug and taken my eyes off the road for a second, but nothing happened because no one else was around? Stopping our bike or car every time there is the slightest question of safety would mean we would never drive anywhere at all. Merging into traffic would be very much impossible. There is a such thing as being too careful.
In any case, some of the blame was also on the one my friend collided with. Neither of them were as careful as they could have been going around that corner. Some of the blame could also be placed on the manufacturer. The gear should not have bent like that in such a low-speed collision (they were both going just over walking speed). I’ve had my bike fall over before at similar speeds and nothing happened, but this one time something did. Sometimes it’s just bad luck.
As children, it seems we understand this. We can tell the difference between accidents and genuine malice. Sometime along the way to adulthood, we learn that we can hire a lawyer to trick a judge/jury and win a lot of money. It’s like the lottery! To protect themselves, companies print warning labels that make us laugh. Some make us sign waivers we worry will protect them from even legitimate grievances. Restaurants salt steps that aren’t even icy and put up signs to warn of puddles. I’ve always thought that anyone unable to see the puddle is likely to also be unable to see the sign. They could trip over it. Among my peers it was considered proof that all adults were crazy.
Property owners become very protective of their borders. One guy in the neighborhood was terrified that children playing in his yard might get hurt and their parents sue, yet he had rented out the downstairs apartment to a family with children. What was he thinking? The church next door was terrified that some of their shrubbery might be damaged and also attempted to crack down on play – even though many of their members were children. Where were we supposed to play? In the middle of the street?
There is no life worth living that is safe. The only life free of change is called death. Everybody has different levels of tolerance and I do not wish to impose my way of life on anybody; I just wish they would stop imposing on me.
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.