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28 September 2018

I am not the baseline. (Neither are you.)

Which, as a follower of Jesus, I’m not allowed to presume. He should be our baseline.

Whenever I have God-experiences, ranging from when he tells me stuff during prayer time, to watching him cure the sick, my usual response is humility. ’Cause it’s God, you know. Even though Christians who live a life of faith oughta see miracles on a regular basis, and oughta have the Holy Spirit empower us to do all sorts of supernatural things, I can’t imagine growing indifferent or jaded to the fact God’s doing stuff. He’s still awesome, and it’s incredibly gracious of him to include and involve us in everything he’s doing.

Fells this way to me, anyway.

To others… well yeah, their bad behavior and bad fruit kinda indicate they do take God’s presence and power for granted. I’m thinking in certain pastors and Christian ministers in particular; some I know personally. They tend to be unkind, judgmental, fearful, and ungracious. Their financial practices are suspect at best, conniving at worst. I needn’t get into the awful ways they mutilate the scriptures to suit themselves. I’ll just say their response to God is far from humble: If anything, they act as if why wouldn’t God endorse them. They remind me of the spoiled kids of rich people; trust fund babies who were born on third base and act as if they hit a triple. In this case their father is God, whom they totally take for granted. Humility never occurs to them.

I very seldom dwell on these guys; I have better things to do. But I know they exist.

Maybe it’s because I seldom dwell on these guys that I found myself very nearly saying in a bible study, “When we experience God like that, our usual response is humility…” I had to back up and correct myself: My usual response is humility. Plenty of other Christians I know, likewise have a good sense of our relationship with God, and likewise respond with humility. But yeah, there are Christian jerks out there who won’t respond with humility, who figure God had better come through for them. I can’t relate, but I can’t go around talking about my experience as if it’s the norm. I have no proof of that.

And this, folks, is how we’re supposed to do theology: Don’t go round declaring our experiences, our norms, our preferences, are true for everyone. Unless we’ve done a scientific study or have a properly-interpreted passage of scripture to back us up, we’ve no leg to stand on. We’re claiming a subjective experience is universal. And this is precisely the reason so many people automatically doubt “absolute truths”: Far too often, it turns out they’re not absolute. They’re just the old prejudices of lazy lecturers.

But there are a lot of lazy lecturers out there. Because people like to imagine they’re normal. They don’t wanna be unusual; they fear being weird; they don’t wanna stand out from the crowd. What they think and like is what everybody thinks and likes. Or what everybody oughta think and like. Their worldview oughta be everyone’s worldview. They are normal; anyone who thinks differently is not normal.

Presuming you’re the baseline.

It just so happens sometimes everyone thinks differently.

Give you an example. I was at a men’s breakfast at my church when the new associate pastor decided he was gonna break the ice with a joke. Turned out to be one that really slammed homosexuals. “Hey,” I objected, “that’s not cool.” And my willingness to say something got all the other men in the room to object to the unkindness and cruelty of the joke. (After all, what if we brought a gay friend to the breakfast in the hopes of leading him to Jesus, and this joke utterly alienated him?) Which outraged the pastor: He assumed church would be the one place he could say all the anti-gay stuff he couldn’t in his day job… and here we were telling him he had to be kind all the time. You know, be like Jesus, and not be a dick.

Oh, this is hardly the only situation I’ve been in where people were startled to discover they’re the odd person out. Happens quite a lot. Like the outspoken atheist who found out everyone else at the dinner party believed in God; like the Dodgers fan who discovered everyone else at work was an A’s fan; like the kid who discovered nobody else in the youth group played video games. When people find out they’re unique, they usually freak: They’re all alone.

Me, I was one of those child prodigies who frequently wound up the only kid in a roomful of adults. I got used to it. Being the oddball doesn’t bother me whatsoever. Frequently I have fun with it. But it really bothers a lot of people. They desperately want to be “normal”—and if they’re not, it’s sort of an automatic psychological defense mechanism to declare, “No you’re the freaks; this situation is just a rare anomaly.” (And sometimes, “And I gotta get out of here!” They’re just that uncomfortable.)

This discomfort is the basis of peer pressure. Kids, when they’ve never been taught to be comfortable being themselves, really wanna fit in with their peers, and do whatever the group’s doing. I used this tendency to my advantage to get students to behave themselves: Arrange the classroom so it looked, to troublemakers, like everyone else was doing their work. Most of the time it worked. Works on adults too; they’d much rather conform than stand out.

Which is why it’s so very hard to get Christians to stand out when we really need ’em to.

But what’ll happen is people will try to find their comfort zone—and it’s usually surrounded by other people who are just like them. Who think like them, like what they like, share preferences and values and prejudices and politics. Who can function as an echo chamber, and now all of them will get the idea everybody thinks like they do—because everybody they know thinks like they do. Or they think everybody they know thinks like they do. Some of ’em are stifling what they really think in order to fit in. Sometimes these real thoughts show up in polls, and surprise everyone. And sometimes they don’t.

In any event, we shouldn’t presume we’re “normal” just because we’re just like everyone else. Sometimes we’re not like everyone else. And that doesn’t automatically make the other folks weird or wrong.

But it always make us weird and wrong when we dismiss those other people, and try to promote our preferences with no thought for their preferences. You do know we’re taught to be better than that in the bible:

Romans 14.5-13 KWL
5 One distinguishes a holy day from an ordinary day; one determines every day equal.
Each to their own. Make up your own mind!
6 One who thinks a day should be celebrated, thinks so for the Master’s sake.
Those who eat meat, eat for the Master’s sake: They give thanks to God.
Those who don’t eat meat, don’t eat meat and give thanks to God.
7 None of us lives for ourselves, dies for ourselves:
8 We live for the Master when we live; we die for the Master when we die.
So, both when we live and when we die, we’re of the Master.
9 This is why Christ died and lived: He can be Master over the dead and living.
10 Why criticize your fellow Christian? Why ridicule your fellow Christian?
Everyone will stand at God’s judgment, 11 for it’s written,
“I live,” says the Lord, “so every knee will bend to me.
Every tongue will acknowledge God.” Is 45.23
12 So each of us will give a word about ourselves to God.
13 So we ought no longer criticize one another. Instead, criticize this more:
Putting an obstacle or offenses before fellow Christians.

Different is fine.

Christians are free to disagree about a whole lot of things. We don’t have to function in lockstep. My church prefers one style of music; your church prefers another; one isn’t holier than the other, for we’re all singing to Jesus. My church holds certain beliefs about holy communion; your church holds others; the important thing is we obey Jesus and do it, so we both do it. My church’s way isn’t “normal” and yours “weird”; my church’s way isn’t “orthodox” and yours “heretic.” We’re just different. Different is fine.

Yeah, there are a certain differences which aren’t fine. The creeds spell out the ones which aren’t obvious sins. The problem is too many people are willing to turn these differences into make-or-break issues, and act as if God’s gonna kick everybody out of heaven but them. It never occurs to them maybe God likes our differences and diversity. Or that God’s fine with our differences of opinion—they don’t affect him any, and sometimes they actually get people to follow him better.

The problem is when we presume we’re right, when we should be aware we’re totally not. When we presume we’re normal, but there really is no “normal.” Worse, when we use these preferences and prejudices to drive other people away from Jesus. That’s when our differences quit being interesting and turn into sins. That’s what we need to resist most.

We need to be humble, presume nothing, study the scriptures, and love our neighbors. Theology done any other way is always gonna go wrong.