Tag Archives: fear

Harry Potter and the Church Part II

By Eugene C. Scott

It’s true, like the old bumper sticker said, that “God Doesn’t Make Junk.” But after 50 plus years of watching the people around me and daily looking in the mirror, it’s plain God certainly created his share of peculiar, screwy, and eccentric people.

I think that’s one of the reasons I liked J. K Rowling’s main setting for the Harry Potter stories, “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.” I felt right at home. Rowling peopled and staffed her school with bizarre and broken people.

Outwardly handsome and cool but secretly unsure of himself, Gilderoy Lockhart, one of the many Defense Against the Dark Arts professors, was a fraud.

And let’s not forget half-giant game keeper and failed wizard Hagrid or the sadistic janitor Argus Filch.

Many of the students too are screwy. Luna Lovegood is loony, marching to a drum that may not even exist. Even the trio of Harry, Hermione and Ron are a bit odd.

These people are largely dismissed by the “main stream” wizarding community but not by their Head Master equally strange Albus Dumbledore.

In this Hogwarts reminds me of the church. After 30 some years involvement in the church, it occurs to me God too has peopled his community with peculiar, screwy, unconventional and downright broken people, myself not being the exception.

Luna Lovegood would not have been friendless in most churches I’ve served.

Dr. Bob was a retired PhD in one church I pastored who truly believed he had evidence of extraterrestrials having come to earth. During a Sunday school class I taught, a man asked to do an announcement advocating adopting orphaned baby Chinese girls. He proceeded to put on a Chinese Queue and sing the Elvis song “My Little Teddy Bear.”

I won’t name the broken, bleeding, angry, confused and disillusioned.

Rowling lends humor to her increasingly dark stories through fleshing out these eccentric characters. God, however, seems to attract them. As popular as Jesus is today, he hung out with a pretty unpopular, scraggly group back in the First Century.

I feel at home, just like when I read Harry Potter, then when I read of these early peculiar, broken students in Christ’s school of life, or look around me in today’s church. You’ve met them too–or are one.

The wonderful thing is God created such eccentrics and loves us despite our brokenness and he wants them/us to people his spiritual community called the church.

This is where I find the pervasive philosophy in the modern church focusing on bright-shiny people false. Years ago I had a college professor who taught that because we were followers of Christ, we should be the best of the best, with the whitest smiles, nicest clothes, best grades. “God,” he said quoting the bumper sticker, “doesn’t make junk.” I bought it until I looked in the Bible or in the mirror again.

Not that I equate, as he seemed to, offbeat, broken people with junk. God made no one expendable. Jesus died for every Lockhart and Lovegood among us.

But, somehow, despite the church’s ability to be filled with outcasts and Jesus’ willingness to embrace them, this is not the demographic the church focuses on nor the image we portray. To our shame.

When was the last time you saw a pastor preach or teach from a wheel chair? Or have any kind of visible disability? I recently attended a huge church planter’s conference where all of the speakers I heard were cool looking and pastored mega-churches. There was not a halting, unsure Harry Potter among them.

Or closer to home, when was the last time you shied away from the Luna Lovegood or Gilderoy Lockhart in your life or church?

You see, what I believe Rowling knows is that we’re all Lovegoods and Lockharts. We just don’t want anyone else to know it. So, we think surrounding ourselves with the cool and the smart and the successful will make it so for us too. What we often don’t see is that they too are not really bright-shiny either.

But God knows our fears and failures and forgives them. God knows too our eccentricities and revels in them.

This is where Hogwarts reminds me more of the church than the church does sometimes.

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Surprised by Joy

One night this past summer, much like most nights, I laid in bed and instead of sleep, I found emptiness to be my embrace. As I stared at the popcorn texture on the ceiling of my bedroom, I wondered how I ever ended up in this place. I didn’t mean my apartment but in the state of emptiness that I now felt consumed by.

Michala, Mary Grace, and I had recently visited my childhood home of Pawleys Island, SC. While we stuffed ourselves on ribs and boiled peanuts, our sense of awe was also filled with the breath-taking beauty of the South Carolina lowcountry. Some folks think us South Carolinians are arrogant (and they are probably right) but it is hard not to have a pride of life living in a place with such a sense of mystique.

Located a few miles north of Pawleys is an old plantation that has been reinvented as an enormous sculpture garden called Brookgreen Gardens. Leaving Mary Grace with her Papa Johnny, Michala and I set out to continue our gluttonous consumption of beauty, and we were not disappointed. Brookgreen is larger than life, spanning 9,000 acres and several miles of coast upon the Waccamaw River. Michala and I forgot about the 90 plus degree weather coupled with an almost surreal level of humidity as we walked beneath the limbs of 300 year-old, moss draped live oak trees. We felt like kids again in this wonderful place, as if we had walked through a wardrobe to get to this Narnia.

Yet the one thing that most struck me, seared my soul even, was the sculpture entitled “Frog Baby” (pictured above, click to enlarge). In this artist’s depiction of young boy’s reaction after he has snared two frogs, the frog baby gazes heavenward with a smile that leaves the viewer both inwardly renewed and yet haunted to the core. Most of the people in our group produced similar outward reaction, that of laughter mixed with a hint of scoff. Yet the boy’s face has not failed to leave me alone in the time since we met. In fact it is more of a haunting than anything, the way it stays with me.

I have been left to ponder why would this expression of sheer joy would be so haunting.

I saw that same face again later upon my daughter. As we were preparing for church one morning, I took it upon my self to dance with Mary Grace. I dipped and dunked as she held on to me, curious as to what brought on such silliness and then I spun her around. At first her face only knew shock, but that was quickly wiped away by joy, leaving me looking into the smile of the frog baby.

The feeling I felt at that moment can best be described as mourning. I saw a ghost of myself reflected in her pure joy. That afternoon, I weaped, thankful for my daughter’s innocence but also despairing the death of my childhood. After choosing to follow Jesus just over 5 years prior, I was told that one of the core markings of His followers would be joy, and yet not only did joy seem like a distant memory, I feared I would never again taste its sweetness.

Not content to accept my joyless fate, I began to ask myself and God some hard questions. What is Joy? Where does Joy come from? How can I be happy in the midst of so much suffering in the world? Will I ever feel Joy again? And to my surprise, I began to find answers and even a bit of joy as well. The next four Mondays, I will be exploring the questions I asked and the answers I found. Join me in asking the hard questions for which only silence in the presence of God can bring relief. Join me in the joy of discovering ourselves surprised at just how good the answers and our God can be.

Michael is a student at Denver Seminary. His wife Michala, is the Director of Children’s Ministry at The Neighborhood Church.

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Can Life’s Problems Be Solved by Slogans?

By Eugene C. Scott

We are enamored with slogans. If it can’t be said in three to seven words, seems it ain’t worth saying. Take for example the saying, “Everything happens for a reason.” This saying is usually uttered during some disappointing or tragic event. But what does it mean? Are hard things easier if they have a reason?

Similar is “If God closes a door, God usually opens a window.” When I hear that phrase, I always check to see if I’m on the ground floor. Both phrases are rather deterministic, a kind of shrug of the shoulders at fate or God, whichever you happen to believe is master of the cosmos. It’s not as if either saying can change anything.

Another slogan that leaves me wanting is “Leave No Trace.” I understand the sentiment. I do! I am a conservationist. What the sloganeers are trying to communicate in a pithy, memorable way is not to pick flora, kill fauna, autograph trees, dig holes, throw rocks, toss trash, trash talk, cause erosion, burn down forests, start avalanches, or produce global warming while on an afternoon hike. These are good things not to do.

And placing all of the necessary restrictions on one sign would be ridiculous, unless you live in Boulder, CO where the above sentence qualifies as a slogan. But three words simply cannot adequately sum up the importance of good stewardship of our world, especially in the wild. Reducing the concept of conservation to a slogan may actually diminish the message. Another problem with the “Leave No Trace” slogan is it is impossible. Simply observing something may actually leave a trace.

The reality is, try as we might, life’s complexities can’t be summed up in a sound bite. And the more often we try to jam the mysteries of life into small spaces the more often we lose the gist of the problem we’re trying to capsulize and possibly the gist of life itself. When slogans don’t solve anything, people may simply despair trying.

For that matter the two phrases “Leave No Trace” and “Everything Happens for a Reason” contradict one another. Genetically and theologically we are built to leave a trace. Humans are consumed with finding a purpose in positive and negative events and also with leaving our mark on the world. Life would truly be meaningless if each of us left no trace.

Besides no saying can save the planet. Worse yet an easy slogan may even let us off hook for the hard, complicated, and sometimes, contradictory work God has for us in being stewards of this great planet. Further no slogan can explain the death of a child or onset of a disease. Nor can it deflect the pain.

What if what God has for us is not escaping from trouble through a small window but living in a world without doors or windows or walls that leaves us vulnerable to God’s very presence, completely understood or not? Biblical sufferer Job could have summed up his suffering by saying, “stuff happens.” Instead Job asked God hard questions and waited for even harder answers.

Neither of which could be reduced to a slogan.

Condensed life, like condensed milk, needs something added in order to make it palatable. In a culture where fast food is the norm we also want fast answers. But fast doesn’t always equal good. Life, with its recipe of trouble and triumph mixed with pain and promise, is too rich to be reduced to a slogan. In the end bumper sticker theology or philosophy fail us. God especially can’t be summed up in a slogan.

God told Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” At no time is the truth of that claim more obvious than when we are being insulted by the latest catch phrase or slogan reducing life’s mystery and problems to its least common denominator much less minimizing God’s grand creation to a sound bite.

Eugene is co-pastor of  The Neighborhood Church.

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How to Know if You’re a Control Freak

By Eugene C. Scott

Several thousand years ago dung beetles enjoyed god-like status. They earned this high honor by toiling day-long collecting balls of dung between their tiny horns and rolling them across the hot desert floor. Some observant Egyptian noticed this little rolling ball of dung resembled the sun’s movement. Soon the belief was born that the sun was moved across the desert sky by a huge, invisible dung beetle.

The Egyptians–and most other ancient peoples–considered the powerful, life-giving forces, such as the sun, water, fire, fertility, in nature gods–or, at least, directly controlled by a god such as a dung beetle. Thus they developed religious and sacrificial systems that they hoped would please these capricious gods. In Egypt essential crops flourished or failed based on the Nile River.  If the gods were angry it might flood and wash all their food away. Or dry up. If the gods were pleased, the Nile might over-flow its banks just enough to water even the most distant fields.

These ancient religious systems became what people turned to when life got difficult.

But it did little good. Unfortunately, still children died, crops still failed, life–like the Nile–still ebbed and flowed seemingly without respect to religious sacrifices.

Today scientists laugh at such superstitious beliefs. We know the sun is not the god Re but a star, not pushed across the sky, but a point earth orbits. Science replaced superstition. We watch the weather patterns explained and pin-pointed on the nightly news. Science has given us cloud seeding, en-vitro fertilization, the cure for polio, and brilliant inventions and technologies by the thousands. When life gets hard we have doctors, pharmaceuticals, technologies, and governments we can turn to.

A phrase from my childhood embodies this faith in science most of our world holds. “If they can put a man on the moon, they ought to be able to __________(fill in the blank).”

Unfortunately, children still die, crops still fail, tornadoes devastate, new diseases spring to life and confound and kill us while paying little homage to our scientific advancements and prowess.

Christians call such total dependence on science foolish. Christians believe there is one God who created all these things science has discovered and mastered. In line with this belief we have designed sophisticated worship liturgies that give people access to deeper meaning and connection with God. Theologians have developed systematic theologies that attempt to answer the big questions about life and God. Gifted preachers lay out the five keys to life with purpose. The promise is that when life gets hard these liturgies, systems and practices including prayer and other spiritual disciplines bring Christians healing and wholeness.

Unfortunately children still die, crops fail . . . .

Depending on your perspective and belief system you may read the three world views above and sing that sweet song from the children’s show “Sesame Street,” “One of These Things is Not Like the Other?” And each–superstitious, scientific, or spiritual–is a very different way to understand and live in the world.

But they also each have a foundational similarity. Control. Or more accurately a desire to control. The ancient Egyptians lived in a dangerous, unpredictable world. Any thing that promised even a modicum of control over that world was welcome. And their superstitious practices fit the rhythm of the seasons of life just often enough to hold out the promise of control over the mighty Nile like a carrot on a stick.

Science too, especially in its naive early days, flat-out promised to wrest control from nature and lay it in our hands. And the promise has often been fulfilled. At least tentatively. Antibiotics, heat and air-conditioning, cell-phones, air travel all put us above and beyond nature. But just as often, or more so, science has not fulfilled its promise of control. We did put a man on the moon but we often cannot fill in the blank that would give us the cure to this or that disease or the answer to so many questions. Never-the-less, most of us believed and still may.

Christian spirituality also often degenerates into attempts to control God and his world. Systematic theology unwittingly promises that if we understand God we may know how to get him to do our bidding, purpose driven lives are lives we can likewise understand and control, prayers of Jabez seem to bind God to expand our borders, and five keys to a happy life, word of faith theology, pocketbooks of God’s promises, frenzied scripture memory programs all–even, like science, though they contain some truth–appeal to our deep desire to live in a world we can keep under control.

The truth is from ancient Egypt to modern science to today’s  Christian spirituality we are control freaks.

But superstitious behavior nor mighty dams nor words of faith will tame the Nile much less God.

“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” wrote King Solomon. By this the great king did not mean that the pursuit of knowledge scientific or spiritual is vanity. But trying to use that information to gain control over things, people, and especially God is foolish.

Fear grows in neat garden rows fertilized with the promise of control. What if I lose control? is the weedy question that grows here. And it strangles faith. Because faith flourishes in the open fields littered with rocks and pot holes and dung. In this field faith is not the thing we use to control God and life but the thing we use to believe God is good and loves us in a life that sometimes is not under control and is not going the way we expected.

How do you know if you’re a control freak. Pinch yourself. Are you human?

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Harry Potter and the Kingdom of God

By Eugene C. Scott

Poor Harry. His parents were mysteriously murdered; now he lives in a nondescript time and place in England with the Dursleys, his dreary, selfish, muggle (non-magic) aunt and uncle and piggish cousin; he is confined–most of the time–to his bedroom, the closet under the stairs; and he doesn’t know who he really is, that he can do magic or that he is the most anticipated, celebrated wizard in all of wizarding history. Such is Harry Potter’s small life and world. In literary terms this is the setting, the mileu where certain things can and cannot happen, for Harry’s story.

Worse Harry has no notion such a wonderful place as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, such a powerful, compassionate man as Albus Dumbledore even exist. Harry’s never played Quidditch; never flown on a broom and never met Hermione or Ron. He has no idea who he is.

But then Harry boards a train bound for Hogwarts and his world expands, both his problems and potential deepen.

Poor us. Though the settings for our stories may be less novel and romantic, more realistic than Harry’s, they are often no less tragic. We live in a mysteriously broken world within the confines of our own broom closets. Our jobs appear dreary; our marriages, families, and friendships imperfect. Just like Harry cannot practice magic much less grow into who he was born to be living at Number 4, Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, UK, we seem unable to grow into who we were born to be in our earth-bound addresses. We too seem to not realize who we really are–the delight of God’s heart, created in his image–or that a wonderful place called heaven on earth or that a powerful, compassionate God even exist. This we believe to be the setting for our stories.

This dusty enslaving setting is just the one Jesus first strode into.  Bruce Cockburn wrote a song about what that day could have been like.

“The only sign you gave of who you were

When you first came walking down the road,

Was the way the dust motes danced around

Your feet in a cloud of gold

But everything you see’s not the way it seems —

Tears can sing and joy shed tears.

You can take the wisdom of this world

And give it to the ones who think it all ends here.”

“Change your lives. The kingdom of God is here,” Jesus said.

It’s as if he said, Get aboard the Hogwarts Express. There is more to this world than you can see or know. I am here to show you you are loved beyond your wildest imaginations.

You can live by faith not fear.

Live as if heaven is here and now, not just a place to go after you die.

Wholeness and healing too can begin here.

Forgiveness, purpose, truth, and life are in My hand. Take them. Live them.

In My world–My kingdom–your problems and pain will serve a purpose–My transformation of this drear world.  Your potential is as deep and wide and long as My love.

Cockburn calls this kind of life “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws.”

Yet we sit in our room beneath the stairs and wish.

The thing we love about Harry Potter is he is immature, unsure of himself, a boy of little faith, so to speak. Again, like us. This does not stop him, however, from reaching out and recklessly grasping for the richer life that is offered him. No matter how impossible it seems. It need not stop us either.

The difference is that what Jesus offers is not magic or a sweet piece of fiction. It is the way the truth and the life. The setting for our stories is more, better than we think. It is a vivid life lived with God beginning here and now.

“Change your lives. The kingdom of God is here.”

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Is God Safe?

By Michael Gallup

Every Sunday night I meet with a bunch of losers and rejects and it is beautiful. Each week I hear stories of alcoholic fathers, failed marriages, premature family deaths, depression, suicide, abandonment, and so on. Each of us has deep wounds and have grown tired of easy answers to our tough questions. But in our woundedness we have found a safe place to land, to crash together and in this safety a desire to let others find safety amongst us has taken seed. So we wonder together what it means to be a “safe” place.

At the heart of this question lies a hunger inside everyone of us for safety and security. Yet this hunger is often malnourished by the fast food of safety. We run from our problems, insulating ourselves from the world’s brokenness and especially our own. We take control into our own hands and believe ourselves capable of protecting ourselves. We move to the suburbs, get life insurance, and create a systemized theology that tames our God and puts him into a nice, neat box that we can control. Yet even when we have mastered our lives, we still deep-down lack a true feeling of safety.

But what does it really mean to be safe? If we are to be safe, mustn’t we be safe like God is safe? The bible speaks of God as our fortress, our shepherd. Jesus promised his follows peace and joy, telling them his burden was light. But the scriptures also teach us that the fear of God is the first step in wisdom, that we should be terrified at the thought of falling into his hands. Jesus teaches his followers that if they want to be his disciples they must pick up their cross, in other words, they will die if they follow him. And God tells Moses, his friend, that no one can see Him and live. Can we truly find refuge, safety in the presence of a God who will kill us? I think so.

The safety of God is something all together different from what our American Dream teach us. If we truly seek refuge in him, than we will find safety from our greatest foe: ourselves. It is only in the death of ourselves that we can truly be safe and truly live. It is only when God defeats us that we can have any victory. Safety is not the avoidance of trouble, pain, and death but the facing of it. Safety is the facing of it with the God who is scarier than all our fears. It is in the dying that we come to life. In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the kids are asking about Aslan, the Christ-like lion who rules the land of Narnia. Rightfully so, they are a bit worried about fraternizing with a lion and ask if he is safe. To which Mr. Beaver replies, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

And so we find ourselves seeking safety in a very unsafe God. If we fall into his hands, we will surely die but by God, that’s the very thing we need. Following God, truly embracing His Kingdom call to walk in his resurrection life, means that success, happiness, and confidence will no longer nurse our infantile understandings of life. It is only in God’s defeat of us that we realize that blessing is not something we can grasp or win by talent, force or will but is only available through a gift. It is only in helplessness, when we let go of control, that we will find ourselves in the secure arms of the Father and know that they are good. He is the King, I tell you.

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Skittish Trout and the Organized Church

By Eugene C. Scott

It was just a wide spot in the stream where the mountain valley flattened out to pool and drink the icy water. Tall, snow-covered peaks reflected in its placid surface. Narrow shadows hung suspended in its middle: Brook trout facing upstream and feeding on anything drifting through their territory. I had to crawl through the grass as I approached the pool so as not to send the trout flying for cover in the undercut banks. Even then, the shadow of my fly rod arching across the water panicked them. Skittish trout, they’re called. So attuned to hawks and fishermen and other predators are they, that any movement from above is perceived as a threat. And rightly so.

I have a friend who calls herself a skittish trout. She grew up in a guilt-based, authoritarian religion and church. Any question, doubt, comment, or difficulty she had with her childhood faith and church was met with anger and derision. Intellectual abuse, she called it. Not that she didn’t have faith, she just wondered. As soon as she was old enough, she fled organized religion. And today anytime even a shadow of that old-time religion falls across her life she flies for the safety of the cutbank, peering out, yet still wondering.

In the process of starting a church, I’ve discovered large pools of skittish trout. Unfortunately, stories similar to my friend’s abound. Church splits, pastoral infidelity and dishonesty, harsh judgementalism, cold cliquishness, unbending dogma, rampant self-righteousness, cookie cutter lifestyles and answers, authoritarian leadership, political partisanship, powerless people, and ample—but common—human failings in what is supposed a divine institution are just a few of the shadows that the church and her people cast across the pool of modern life.

Almost all of us have, or have heard, a similar story. The scars and their impact vary. I started following Christ at age fifteen and began looking for a church to attend. Even I knew that was the way of things, but I was naive about the dress code. My hair flowed below my shoulders and my jeans were ratty. It was the 1970s. At the end of the sermon, I tramped forward in response to the “altar call.” I knelt to pray and a pastor (At least I think he was a pastor. To me he looked, acted, and smelled like one) approached and asked me if I wanted to become a Christian.

I proudly told him how just days earlier I had become a Christian at a church camp. He frowned at me and shook his head.

“You need to get your hair cut before you can become a Christian, son,” he said as if this truth saddened him deeply.

I was young and stupid and argued with him. “Jesus had long hair. Haven’t you seen those pictures of him?”

Not impressed with my theological acumen he simply offered, “I have a pair of scissors in the back. I can get them, cut your hair, and then you can pray and become a Christian.”

I decided to look for another church.

Since then I have been in three churches where the pastors have had affairs, and within most of the churches I have been a part, have seen and heard things that come straight from the gates of hell not the streets of heaven, and have made my own sad mistakes as a person and a pastor (proving the adage that if I find the perfect church I had better not join it because I’ll ruin it).

Two things:

One, apparently not being a skittish trout but maybe a stupid one, I have yet to fly for the cutbank and hide. Sometimes I feel like a singed moth circling the flame. I’m not sure why I don’t fly. Probably because God keeps blocking the escape route. Probably also because with each scar the church and I have left on one another, there are equal—and more—marks of grace and life this crazy body called the church has bestowed on me. That she has allowed me to seek my calling and share my thoughts, ideas, and life through her may be the least of them. And when I parade before my eyes the faces of friends I have made, and how they have enriched my life, in this human/divine community, I am humbled and grateful.

Two, dealing with people’s souls is dangerous and delicate. So too, I’ve discovered, is this starting and being a church, and mysterious. We’re not selling widgets or snake oil. We’re attempting to touch God and, through rugged and calloused human hands, places in ourselves God hid in our deepest reaches, places we’ve hidden even from ourselves.

Hanging out a sign reading, “Got God?” does not do anyone, especially the Creator of our souls, justice. This, sharing our souls, spiritual journeys, and lives, is not marketing. It cannot be shrink wrapped into some tidy package. It’s messy, alive, sensitive, unpredictable, sometimes ugly, often beautiful. Tread softly.

I wish finding God and ourselves and living in a Christ community with truth and grace could be written up in a book or produced in a program or bulleted in a three point outline, or contained in a church building (and sometimes God even works through these things). But alas we and God and life are deeper and messier than that.

And none of this is new. Even the first two humans hid from God after they discovered their bare, naked distance from and need for Him. We have been flying from God ever since. Skittish trout indeed. Fear not, however, God is no predator, but is a patient, persistent angler.

Eugene C. Scott writes the Wednesday Neighborhood Cafe blog.  If you’re reading this on Facebook and you’d like to join the conversation, click here. www.bibleconversation.com. Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO

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