Sunday mornings have become a sort of ritual for my baby daughter and I.
Most other days of the week, she wakes up between 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning. My wife will feed her then try to coax her back to sleep as I roll over and over in an effort to convince myself I’m not really awake. Lately, Adelaide will fall back to sleep, at least most of the time, which is good for Julia, too. But eventually, I will glance over at the clock some five or ten minutes before the alarm should sound, 5:45, then shut it off, roll out of bed and get ready for work.
But Sundays are different.
On Sunday, after Adelaide eats in the morning I’ll often take her into the living room with me and let Julia get another hour or two of sleep while the baby and I sit in the living room watching televangelists. The greatest part is that she is the happiest thing in the world when she first wakes up, so the morning is full of her cooing and giggling noises, which makes the early hour seem less of a challenge. Plus, nothing beats baby giggles as contrast to a good, old fashioned fire and brimstone sermon on the tube. A good time is had by all.
Now, let’s go back a few years, really lay the foundation for this comparison today.
I remember in my parent’s house, growing up, if the TV was on Sunday morning, it was probably on Charles Stanley. And I like the guy, for the most part. I never paid a ton of attention to him back then, but the snippets I did tune in to never struck me as anything weird or out of whack. He seemed like a normal guy. He was never yelling, never trying to scare people or pass judgement. I saw him as a wisened philosoph, though I probably wouldn’t have phrased it like that at ten to twelve years old.
But then we’d go to church, and it was anybody’s guess how the sermon would go.
Depending on what time of life I go back to, what city we were in, what kind of church we were at, I might hear a message that seemed to fly in the face of common sense, or I might hear a message that seemed too watered down for me to make heads or tails of. And of course, anything and everything in between; good, bad or ugly.
Creepy pastors, smiley pastors, quiet pastors, beady-eyed pastors whole looked like caricatures of themselves; we ran the gamut over the years. And their sermons complimented or contrasted their personality differences. I noticed those contrasts, the differences in how each person came across, how they read the Bible, but again, at that age, it was my understanding and my vocabulary that lacked the depth necessary to explain those observations.
But this morning ritual with Adelaide has brought these contrasts to a very interesting head.
The main four televangelists we end up channel surfing around any given Sunday are Joel Olsteen, John Hagee, Kenneth Copeland and good old Charles Stanley. I’ve seen it happen many times, these guys will be discussing very similar topics and purveying drastically different messages, and all of it based on the same Bible. One morning sticks out in my mind in particular.
First, Copeland was talking about money. No surprise there, he has sort of a prosperity bent to most of his career. I’m not making a judgement call here, just stating a fact. But, this time he was talking about financial adversity, so I stayed tuned in. It was probably only a couple months ago now, right after the first round of government bailouts are getting talked about, banks are going under, and this was his good, Biblical advice in tough financial times.
He went back to a time in his career (well, ministry, whatever) when he was preaching every day, working really hard to become established as a speaker, but then he felt prompted to make the move to radio as well. However, he was unsure he could afford it. My mind pictures him living in hotels, driving a crappy car that someone gave him, wearing the same suit gig after gig. Basically the same deal as a lot of my college friends who went into evangelism right after school.
So he essentially says no to God, he just doesn’t have that much faith, unless God can convince him it’s the right move. Long story short, Jimmy Swaggart calls up and offers to set him up, out of the blue, of course, on some radio shows. God told him to call, he says, so Copeland agrees. And here is where it got … weird for me.
He retells how he went from making $300,000 a year to $400,000 a month during this transition, thanks to finally obeying God’s command to go into radio.
Wait, what? He’s telling me about financial adversity? About a time in his life when he only scraped by on $300,000 a year? And then he was “finally” blessed when he “finally” obeyed God and went on the radio as well?
I had to click away. I mean, I make less than 10% of that a year and I’m pretty darn happy where I am. More money would be okay, but I’m not hurting, either.
Anyway, as I clicked around, the other guys were hitting the topic as well. Hagee was talking about Financial Armageddon in a multi-part series (isn’t the world always ending for him?), Stanley was talking about God’s provision and blessing in hard times (very down to earth and pragmatic), and Olsteen is smiling and blinking an awful lot about… well, about something to do with finances, anyway.
I just can’t wrap my head around it some days, and with Adelaide giggling in my lap, I flip from one guy to the next, wondering what their Bibles have in common.
I’ll be honest, I have a sort of bias toward Stanley. Of the four, he seems to be the most sensible guy, the most in tune with the central theme of the Bible the way I tend to read it, and the least emotional, flamboyant or inflammatory. Plus, he’s sort of part of my childhood, so I’m used to him. But this is only in my opinion, so while I would love to just toss the other guys, the outliers, out of the mix completely, I can’t help but think back to many of the church experiences I had when I was a kid. I know where these guys come from, each of them, I’ve been to the sort of churches that turn these guys out en mass. I also realize that Stanley probably seems watered down to a person who expects a fire and brimstone sort of urgency in a message.
* * *
And there’s the rub. This is all just my perception. My take. My perspective based on my personal experiences, tastes, and dozens of influences, many of which I may not even be aware of. I go to a church where I feel comfortable, a church that has drastic differences with many of the churches I grew up in. And the pastors of all those churches from my past, I guarantee if they were all in the same room they would disagree on many of these topics and how to Biblically interpret and respond to them. And I would disagree with many of them, too.
That one Sunday morning, with Adelaide on my lap I was being told to expect the end of the world, or to trust God and obey his commands in quiet confidence, or to tell God what I need him to do for me and know that he’s promised to bless every last Christian abundantly above and beyond our wildest expectations. And sorry, but those ideas are not mutually compatible. Someone’s got to be right, but more someones, then, have got to be wrong, at least on some level.
So where does this leave me? I like how Tony (adhunt) recently characterized his place in Christendom, the Whatever-I-am-now category. Trouble is, this feels so subjective, so dependent on my mood, feelings and experiences. I want something authoritative and genuine and stable and constant, but as my life changes and my family grows and I get older, my ‘taste’ in church and my ‘understanding’ of the Bible invariably dictates what sort of church environment I’m comfortable in, which invariably changes how the Bible is taught to me, which invariably changes how I read the Bible. It’s a vicious cycle. And even if I find a place where I fit, what happens when life takes you somewhere else? Try moving to a different state and duplicating your church environment (if you’re not Catholic, that is, they’re pretty consistent, right?). Even if you stick with the same denomination, like we did growing up, the different varieties are numerous.
I always believed these differences were like personal tastes, so that people, who are all different, can find environments where they are each comfortable and worship the same God. And I still see that as valid, to a degree. But I also see that those differences often boil down to personal taste, to pastoral leanings and how each pastor, church or denomination interprets the same Bible.
If it feels like I’m floundering, it’s because I am.
I wonder if it’s even possible to establish a consistent way to read the Bible these days, when life will be constantly changing and through it our circumstances and, often as a result, church affiliation.
And if this is possible, what’s the standard? The typical ‘Use God’s word as a measure’ rule doesn’t seem to apply here, because it’s not a question of morals or judgement, it’s a question of how to interpret God’s word in the first place. You can’t measure a ruler with a ruler, it is itself. So what is the measure?
And I wonder because I have a daughter who will be learning all of this the same way I did. When my place in life changes, how consistent can (or should) my wife and I try to be when it comes to church environment? On the one hand, I’d love to think my daughter might have a chance to be more grounded in one tradition and style of church than I was, but on the other hand I think my diverse experiences have been invaluable in shaping me into who I am today. As conflicted as I often feel, I also feel like I can see more of ‘the box’ than some people who’ve done it one way their entire life.
So I’m stuck. It’s like I can see the problems with all the various ways to read scripture and apply it to one’s life, since there are eventually conflicts with these interpretations, but I can’t seem to establish a way outside of my own subjective and changing tastes to establish the best possible route.
Go ahead, quote a scripture, tell me how your way is the way to go. Then someone else can quote a different scripture to say you’re wrong, or misinformed, or a little off target. Then someone else can grab another passage or two, and say the two of you are close, but over here or there is the right path. And it goes on and on and on…
And I wonder, after a while, are we even reading the same book?