Religious Cult(ure), Pt 3: Romans 3 – 6

The Nature of Righteousness.  

“Someone might argue, ‘If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?’”
Romans 3:7 (NIV)

This is the third and final part of a three-part entry, told intermittently throughout the course of the past year. It refers to a renowned church leader named Frank who ended up committing evil against our community. I recommend reading part one and part two before diving in.

Frank did not contest the charges set out against him – the evidence had piled up so high and so fast, we could imagine him thinking: what was the point? It was strange, seeing the mug shot of our charismatic leader, the favorite of all the kids throughout the years, now plastered on the internet paired with graphic descriptions of his crimes. The experience felt like a personal 9/11 – one of those world-flipping scenarios, but on a much smaller scale. But still, it seemed as though a layer of paint had been stripped on the walls of my childhood, and some ugly varnish was all that was left behind. I knew Frank to be good, and it turned out he was a menacing evil. How do you live in such raucous uncertainty?

The news reports were blunt – a little too much so. It was enough to hear personal accounts from friends and family, recounting what they thought happened in general terms, and now here we had some journalist spelling everything out in clinical language. The evil became palpable in such a vicious way. Suddenly, it felt immediate – the locations were divulged, and the details provided the entire context. The victims, although nameless in identification, were obvious in description. It felt too heavy. Nothing like this was ever remotely imaginable.

There were a handful of victims – I personally knew two. Both remained devout in their faith. Both spoke out openly about the experience. They gave speeches. They spouted their belief in God as a binding factor, something that held them together during the “tough time.”

I didn’t get it.

God does not promise utmost protection for His followers. He warned that he would open Paul up to martyrdom with regards to his actions, and we all saw what happened to Jesus at the height of his ministry. The Bible is clear: Christians will face persecution at a continual pace. We may have eternal safety, but the temporal is not guaranteed.

As Paul says:

“…We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (5:3-4) 

How do you look in the face of such insurmountable evil and determine that, “well, at least there was some good that came out of it”?

With a tremendous amount of faith.

Religious Cult(ure) Pt 2: Luke 18:15 – 19, Mark 11

Palm Sunday (again). Jesus Flips Tables (again). Jesus Curses the Fig Tree (again).

“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.”
Mark 11:23 (NIV)

This is the second part of a two-part entry, posted way back months ago when I first began writing this blog. It referred to a charismatic leader named Frank who I begged to let me into his small group at church. I recommend quickly jogging your memory by giving it a scan.

The fire crackled surreptitiously between us – just a little pop, pop, pop every few seconds – barely noticeable. It turned out that Frank, everyone’s favorite leader, had snuck a few Pop Rocks into the bed of the fire, just to give it that extra nuance, just to make it memorable. He had let us stay up past curfew, even taking some of the boys for a quick dip in the river, and now we were drying off around the fire sharing stories. He had a singular manner of speaking – a low timbre mixed with a raspy lisp – like an adult pretending to be a child. That lowered our guard. His body may have been big, but he was one of us. He got us. He had let us stay up late, after all.

He told a story.

He spent his childhood working through the Scouts and recalled an Eagle Scout “test” that was required of him. He had to venture into the woods for two days and one night alone with only a matchbook and a knife, nothing else. As he described it, it was a way to test out all of their survival skills, how to forage for food and build a shelter and fire from nada. As night fell, Frank exhausted his matches trying to build a fire but failed to spark anything. Cold set in, and without food or water, he laid down on the ground to shiver himself to sleep, afraid of how he would fare without any protection from wildlife and fire to keep him warm. So he prayed – hard. He told Jesus that he needed help – that he knew he would not survive the night without it. With all of his might, he believed he would be delivered.

Then, he heard footsteps coming from far away. Frightened, he looked up to the sight of a seemingly floating lantern headed towards him. Eventually with closer proximity, a figure appeared around it. A man, non-descript in nature (normal clothes, normal appearance) stopped just before him. He looked at the mound of sticks the young Frank had built in anticipation of the fire. Then, from behind his back, he produced a silver Zippo lighter, held it beneath the wood, and lit it up.

And then without a word, he turned around and walked away.

We sat in awe of this story. Frank did not need to explain it, and we did not ask for any more exegesis on the event. It was clear. Frank had met an angel, who helped him in his time of need. And the lesson had been imparted – if you believe, God will help you in a very literal way.

This story resonated through our small group, well beyond the weekend trip to camp. The pastors took notice of how inspired we felt by it, and invited Frank to deliver the same story, sermon-style, in front of the high school congregation. The mythology grew.

The rumors began before I left high school, but I never thought anything of it. Frank was happily married, but had no kids… but having no kids is not proof of anything. Maybe it is proof of infertility or a lack of will. But it does not suggest anything nefarious, and to imply anything would have been met with scorn.

They arrested him in a sting operation. The police had had their eye on him after a number of male students came forward.

I got the call from my mother, then a call from an old friend, then a call from my sister, then a call from my old pastor. They all wanted to know what I knew. They wanted to know if I had ever noticed anything strange about Frank, if I ever saw anything.

I knew nothing of value. Except that I was never involved, thank God.

I don’t know if the story he told us was true – about the mysterious angel and the fire. He did a string of horrible things, and so that calls into question everything – why wouldn’t it?

But it was upsetting to all of us to know that faith does not equal anything literal. Angels do not drop out of the sky – I have never heard of a story that could convince me otherwise. And those we trust will fail us.

But at least we haven’t given up looking.

Religious Cult(ure): Genesis 16 – 18:15

Barren. Jealous Sarai. Hagar Flees. The Promise of Ishmael. The First Commandment. Abram to Abraham (Sarai to Sarah). The Promise of Isaac. Further Disbelief. Three Visitors.

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.”

Genesis 17:9 (NIV)

Abram's Counsel to Sarai by James Tissot

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai by
James Tissot

I was attracted to Mr. Frank, but there was nothing sexual about it. For instance, I liked it when he dropped “Mr.” from his title, a sure way to gain the respect of a middle school student. Also, he said that Jesus was a “pal” of his, and when he prayed, he talked like one of us. Forget upward held palms and messianic imagery. Frank sat cross-legged and gestured while he prayed. Also, his height: I was tall for my age, and he was average, which put us on the same level. I just liked looking my mentors eye-to-eye. My parents hated his behavior – leaders pretending to be one of the guys – and they immediately grew suspicious. Adults were adults after all, and those that acted like kids must have had a screw loose or some questionable ulterior motives. Frank was already the most sought after leader at my church, but it wasn’t for any of these details. It was his culture.

Stories of Frank’s small group activities were infamous around the church, and for good reason. While most leaders provided the requisite fellowship with Bible studies and brownies, Frank went completely above and beyond. He didn’t check out when the cars pulled out the parking lot; instead, he integrated his “guys” into his day-to-day life. They e-mailed prayer requests next to funny videos. He would text them just to check in, as if they were adult friends of his. He even made house calls for Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. His shenanigans reached max during overnight trips: camps, retreats, leadership seminars. On an eleventh grade mission’s trip to Russia, for instance, he and his guys snuck into a community center after hours and went skinny dipping. That was absolutely crazy, and it made all the outside guys jealous. What camaraderie, and it even came with meaningful Christian fellowship. He made his guys be the example at youth church services: sitting in the front, brewing ice tea, folding up chairs at the end. And if he needed to talk to you about something serious – a pornography addiction or too many curse words – he did it over coffee, and he didn’t tell your parents. The culture of Frank was both accepting and demanding, and I wanted in.

And after years of waiting, I finally got the call. It was Frank. My leader’s law firm was relocating states away and so the church was shuffling up the groups and the leaders. Would I want to be a part of his group? Heck yes! Great, he would pick me up Saturday. We were going to go see Meet the Parents.

I was in.

It took 17 chapters of Genesis and thousands of years in order for God to lay down his first explicit rule (on paper, at least), and at first, it seems alarmingly inconsequential. In order for men to show God their dedication, they must be circumcised, preferably by their eighth day. The terms of this covenant are both clear and serious. “Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh,” God warns, “will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” What was so wrong with the way that God designed the human body that now it must be altered? The short (and only) answer is absolutely nothing. This is a symbolical action, even arguably arbitrary, one that is meant to show dedication to God through sacrifice. Perhaps even more significantly, it shows intent and a willingness to do anything that the Lord requires.

But it is not all threatening, as God also promises spoils to those that follow: a piece of the bloodline that will end up populating the entire Gaza Strip; kingships, lands, and peoples; fruitful legacies and power. These are pretty alluring rewards for a simple act of obedience, but in reality, God gives a much more lasting and encompassing gift. He provides Abraham and his descendants culture. Suddenly, they are distinguished both physically and spiritually. They are the chosen ones. And they know it.

Sacrifice must be paired with tangible benefits, or else it risks becoming fear-based and in my view, inherently abusive. A benignly founded fellowship can quickly devolve into a cult of personality when fear mongering takes control – when the threat of retribution inspires the sacrifice rather than a personal enhancement. This seems obvious from the outside – an impartial observer can easily spot the nefarious facets of a group when removed from the emotional atmosphere that surrounds those inside. However, to those within the confines of the group’s reach, reward and punishment get confused and feeling takes over. Ultimately, it feels good to be a part of a culture, and history tells us that humans will endure massive misconduct to remain a part of one. I remember the vast majority of the fellowships at my church having an obvious focus on genuine worship, study, and friendship. But something always felt off about Frank’s group – like rather than each individual adding to a cohesive unit, it seemed like everyone just conformed to being like Frank. But it looked like a blast, so I wanted to be a part of it. Everyone wants to be part of the club. It is just our nature. I imagine Abraham as a happy follower of God – he was chosen after all.

And so was I.

My mother called me last summer while I was traveling cross-country with an old friend Cate. We had just reached the giant cracker that is Nebraska when the call came through. She asked our whereabouts and where we were headed next – the cracker state and who knows. I asked about her and Dad, but she changed the subject immediately.

Do you remember Mr. Frank from church? She asked.
Sure, of course, I said.
What do you remember about him?
I listed some memories: the retreats, the dares, the camaraderie, the culture.
Why? I asked.
Nothing, we can talk when your trip is over.

The curt nature of the conversation disturbed me. My mother’s language was typically a fountain of adjectives and hyperboles; there was nothing concise about her. She excused herself and hung up. Cate asked what that was about. I said my mother was asking questions about an old leader of mine, Frank. She remembered him from the ski retreat back in eighth grade. Fun guy, young, charismatic, right? I said that’s the guy. Why was she asking about him?

I had absolutely no idea.