Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Rapture: The Biggest Sham Going in American Christianity

We humans really seem to want to know the future, especially when it comes to the end of the world.

On my sabbatical this summer, I visited Delphi in central Greece.  It was an ancient religious site known for having an oracle who could provide information (for the right price) to those seeking to know the future.  It was probably originally dedicated to the Greek goddess Gaia ('Mother Earth"), but around 800 B.C.E. became a religious site dedicated to Apollo.  Wealthy travelers from around the known world journeyed to Delphi to offer extravagant treasures to the oracle in exchange for her oracles.  Large treasuries were built around the site to hold all the riches.  Delphi became so popular and so rich, it hosted the Pythian Games, similar to the ancient Olympic games.  

The Oracle of Delphi was a young girl, probably in her teens, cared for by the priests of Apollo.  Our guide showed us how a stream had flowed under the temple, most likely carrying noxious vapors from deep in the earth.  The priests essentially got the Oracle high on the fumes so she would make her pronouncements.  Since the words of the Oracle didn't make any sense, the priests would interpret them--again for a hefty donation.  The site was left to ruin once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the Christian rulers developed their own ways of receiving treasure.

It seems a part of human nature to want to know the future, to somehow control it and bend fate to our own ends.  Throughout human history, people have paid everyone from carnival fortune tellers to televangelists to cult leaders promising to know the secrets of the future.  Probably the biggest sham of all going now in America is taught every week at thousands of churches across America: the Rapture.

If you grew up Catholic, mainline Protestant or another faith background other than Evangelical Christian, then you may have no clue about the Rapture.  When you do find out what it involves, you may scoff, but trust me, belief in the Rapture is driving everything from New York Times best-selling books to survival gear to the foreign policy of the United States.

In its most basic form, the Rapture entails a belief that near the end of the world, Christ will snatch up to heaven all true Christians.  Following that "Rapture" there will be seven years of "Tribulation" where those who remain on earth will be under control of Satan and the Antichrist.  The humans who were not raptured can convert to Christianity during this time.  After those seven years of "Tribulation" Satan and the Antichrist will get sent to hell and any humans who did not become "true" Christians will be sent to hell for eternity too.

You may have heard of the best-selling books in the Left Behind series, which spawned board games, children's books, and a series of bad movies starring Kirk Cameron--yes, that Kirk Cameron from the late 80's and early 90's TV show Growing Pains.  Just like the priests of Apollo in ancient Delphi, the Left Behind series made millionaires out of its authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins who interpret the obscure "oracles" of Bible prophecy.  Jenkins writes the prose, but LaHaye is the "scholar" of prophecy.  Tim LaHaye and his wife Beverly have been long-time leaders in the Religious Right, especially the so-called "purity movement" which stresses women being submissive to their husbands, women's worth being found only in their ability to reproduce, and absolutely no-premarital sex, especially the responsibility of girls since they have the power to tempt good boys with their feminine wiles.  It seems proponents of the Rapture always also are proponents of a patriarchal understanding of gender and sexuality.

The major problem with the Rapture is that it's not biblical.  If one opens up their Bible, you won't find the Rapture anywhere in it.  Instead, the Rapture has to be created by cutting and pasting particular verses from Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, some apocalyptic sayings of Jesus in the Gospels and generous slices of the book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation.  It's a pastiche of Bible verses taken out of their original contexts to create a false doctrine that has dreadful real world consequences.

Lutheran New Testament scholar Barbara R. Rossing has this to say about the really bad theology of the Rapture:

"The Rapture is a racket. Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God's vision for the world. In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus' blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. In place of Revelation's vision of the Lamb's vulnerable self-giving love, the Rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the Lamb. This theology is not biblical. We are not Raptured off the earth, nor is God. No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus. God created the world. God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind."
Millions of Evangelical Christians are taught each Sunday that the Rapture is the only true understanding of the future.  Yet, the Rapture was only created less than 200 years ago by an Anglo-Irish preacher named John Nelson Darby.  Darby didn't gain too wide of a following in his lifetime, but a con-artist named Cyrus Scofield took Darby's thought and included it in a special edition of the King James Bible.  The Scofield Reference Bible contained notes and cross references to explain Darby's thoughts about the Rapture along with other fundamentalist beliefs such as a literal six-day Creation and that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C.E.  It offered a "scientific" text to refute the popular writings of scholars like Charles Darwin.  In events like the Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, TN the Scofield Reference Bible was brought out as evidence to refute the falsehoods of modernity.  It's popularity spread across the nation and it remains one of the best-selling books in U.S. history.

The belief in the Rapture--that the earth is headed for a cataclysmic end as a part of God's fore-ordained plan is behind Evangelical Christianity's opposition to fighting climate change.  (Why care for the earth if it's all going up in a fireball any day now?)  It's behind Evangelical Christianity's support for the modern state of Israel, even if that means the oppression of fellow Christians in Palestine.  (Their reading of Revelation says that the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 is a fulfillment of prophecy, because Israel is mentioned in their end-times scenario.  Oh--and all the Jews will either convert to Christianity or be sent to hell after the Tribulation!)  The belief in the Rapture is also why so many Evangelical Christians grow up traumatized.

Imagine being taught from birth that at any moment Christ could Rapture all true Christians up to heaven and if you aren't one of them, then you will experience seven years of hell on earth under the rule of Satan and the Antichrist.  Take a quick search of the internet for "rapture trauma" or "rapture anxiety" and you will find tales of people with psychological issues because they grew up fearing the would be "left behind."  Barbara R. Rossing tells the story in her book The Rapture Exposed of when one of her students came and told her about his ongoing anxiety and depression.  He had traced it to coming home as a child to find his mother, who was usually there waiting for him, not at home.  Raised on the Rapture, he immediately assumed his mother had been raptured and he was left alone to face the Tribulation.  He continues to suffer from issues associated with abandonment, shame and fear.  

Religious abuse is a real thing.  How we talk about God, the future and the worth of each person matters not just for the future of our planet but also for the psychological well-being of people all around us every day.

This Sunday I will preach a sermon titled "The Rapture is Bull Crap."  It's not just an explanation of a popular Christian belief that is just plain awful, but it will be a discussion of what kind of God are we worshiping anyway?  If the God Christians claim loves everyone is going to leave those of us behind who haven't said the magic words of prayer or done enough good deeds to suffer in some kind of mixture of Mad Max and the Saw movies, then is that God really loving?  I'd say that kind of God isn't worth worshiping.  That kind of God isn't the one I have come to know as demonstrated in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  That kind of God offers no hope for our future, only salvation for a few and destruction for everyone and everything else.

I believe in a God who doesn't leave anyone behind and who journeys with us into the future.  The God I believe in is with us all the way and invites us into creating a new and better world.  I don't need to spend my money trying to predict the future; all I need to do is trust that my loving God, as demonstrated in Jesus Christ, will never leave me or you or any of us.

Beginning last Sunday, Bethany and I are preachingt a sermon series for progressive Christians on the Book of Revelation.  If you weren't able to join us in person, check out the KCUCC Facebook page for videos of any sermons you missed.
  • Last Sunday I talked about Revelation as a refutation of "empire, both the Roman Empire and the ways our nation functions as an empire today.  
  • On October 13, I'll preach about the modern belief in "The Rapture" (that Jesus will come and take up to heaven all the good Christians as in The Left Behind series books) is really not biblical at all.  
  • On October 20, I'll share about Christ's letters to the Seven Churches in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, and imagine what a letter from Jesus to contemporary American Christians might be like.  
  • Finally, on October 27, Bethany will preach on how the message of Revelation does not promote the idea of letting our current world burn, but rather calls us to care for God's creation.  
Grace and Peace,


Saturday, October 5, 2019

Thoughts About the Book of Revelation (for Progressive Christians)

Here's a couple of pictures taken on the Greek Island of Patmos.

Prior to visiting Patmos on my sabbatical this summer, I didn't get what the big deal was with the Greek islands.  Now I get it; they are pretty incredible--at least the one I got to see.  I didn't visit any of the big tourist islands featured on travel web sites, which was fine by me.  Patmos only has about 3000 residents, and while cruise ships do disembark tourists there, it manages to hold onto a simple yet charming vibe.  I was only able to stay there for about 24 hours, but it felt like an escape from the cacophony of the rest of the world.

Patmos is a strange place to receive a vision about the end of the world, but the island's modern economy is based around tourism, largely driven by its only real claim to fame as the site where John received his vision of the Apocalypse, or as we English speakers call it, Revelation, the final book of the Christian Bible.  Today you can walk up the ridge from the bay to the Monastery of St. John the Theologian and visit the Cave of the Apocalypse where tradition says John had the revelation. The cave is a lovely place, as religious sites go, but I kept looking out the windows at the vistas of the island and sea around it.  I'm not sure what Patmos was like 1900 years ago, but 21st century Patmos is so quaint that nobody on it should be thinking about a cataclysm.   Yet, John, did have a vision or revelation and western civilization hasn't been the same since.

Among the many beautiful paintings on the walls of the chapel connected to the Cave of the Apocalypse  is this one of John receiving  his vision.  As with a lot of Greek Orthodox religious sites, no photography was allowed inside.    I purchased this icon of it at the monastery gift shop.
The book of Revelation--note there is no "S" at the end of the title!--is titled in Greek "Apokalypsis".  Although the modern English word "apocalypse" has come to mean a world-ending cataclysm (e.g. "zombie apocalypse"), the Greek word means only "revelation".  There's very little certain about John's Revelation; even the identity of John is debatable.  Christian tradition says that the John who had the revelation was John, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, but the writing itself makes no such claim.  Most scholars today, believe John of Patmos and John the apostle were not the same person.  Who was John of Patmos?  As with so many things about Revelation, anybody who says they know for sure shouldn't be trusted.

If you grew up Catholic or Mainline Protestant, you may have little experience with Revelation.  I grew up Southern Baptist, so my childhood and teen years were filled with it.  My father might have been a Southern Baptist minister, but he was a moderate educated one.  He steered me away from the popular books of the time that claimed to know the date of the end of the world, such as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth.  I can recall sharing with him some wild interpretation of Revelation I had read somewhere and having him patiently explain how the symbolism of Revelation had more to do with the first century Roman Empire than it did a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  I recall being disappointed that I didn't have the secret to understanding the end of the world.  In spite of my father's tame interpretations of Revelation, I couldn't help but be exposed to all kinds of fanciful theories about the identity of the Antichrist (Mikhail Gorbachev? Ronald Reagan?), the "mark of the beast" (ATM codes? Social Security Numbers?) and depictions of Jesus as a blood-soaked warrior riding to the Battle of Armageddon.  Sunday School classes, church camps and zealous revival preachers all offered me tantalizing images of the end times.  It was like a Christian science fiction novel, except I believed it was real.

As I grew older, I majored in religion in college, went to seminary and spent three years in a New Testament Ph.D. program before leaving to become a pastor.  Along the way my theology changed and so did my opinion of the Book of Revelation.  I grew to dislike its violent imagery, often sexist depictions of women, and portrayal of Jesus not as a non-violent embodiment of love but a merciless warrior who cuts down God's enemies.  I wondered why Revelation was even in the Bible?  I learned that I'm in good company.  In the early centuries of the church many Christians did not consider Revelation to be scripture and it was a controversial decision to allow it into the Bible at all.  During the Protestant Reformation, no less than Martin Luther wanted to cut it from the canon.  Given the amount of trouble Revelation has caused from crusaders using it to justify massacres in the Middle Ages to complicating American Middle East policy today, I still find sympathy with Christians who would rather ignore the last book of the Bible.

Over the years, I've found that most of the time when I have a problem with something in the Bible, it's not the actual scripture itself I don't like but rather the popular interpretation of that scripture.  The same is true for Revelation.  When understood in its own historical context, a time when Christians felt under attack by a society and government hostile to their view of reality, (whether John of Patmos and his audience were actually persecuted or just felt that way is something scholars debate today) rather than as a road map to an immanent end of time, this obscure piece of writing has gems of wisdom to offer us.

In recent decades, scholars have come to understand the imagery of John's Revelation as referring to the Roman Empire.  Specifically John's vision offers a counter-narrative to the idea ever-present in his time that Caesar, emperor of the Roman Empire, was not just a god but THE God.  Everything in culture from coins to art to civic ceremonies emphasized the worldview that Caesar stood above all.  John's Revelation declares that God is over all and God is creating a new world based on righteousness and equality rather than on exploitation and greed.  Many scholars have said Revelation pits Christ against empire.

Mennonite Bible scholar, J. Nelson Kraybill, says this about empires, ancient and contemporary:

"Empires seduce and intimidate because they are beautiful and powerful. They also generate rituals, symbols, and icons that reinforce their aura of legitimacy. Rituals and symbols of empire, such as coins, flags, patriotic events, and national heroes, become so pervasive in the culture that they unconsciously shape our attitudes and actions. Christian worship of God and the Lamb is essential to counter the spirit of violence, greed, and arrogance that undergirds empire. Worship reminds us that our allegiance is to the global reign of God, not primarily to nation, ethnic group, or class."

I began to take note of these more recent interpretations of Revelation in the early 2000's when during the George W. Bush presidency the United States launched two simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In a time when those who questioned the validity of going to war were called unpatriotic, if not traitors, I heard echoes of Roman authorities disparaging the early Christians' pacifism.  As evidence mounted that our government had instigated a horrifying regime of torture and its defenders justified it on the grounds of national security, I heard echoes of Roman governors use of violence to enforce the Pax Romana or "Roman Peace".  

The echoes of Revelation's rejection of the world most understood in its day continue to strike a chord in me when I struggle to move against the tide of our culture today.  As our nation continues to make both income inequality and climate change worse around the globe, I have grown to long for the new world being created by God.  Like John's audience, I feel like this vision of a world where balance with nature is restored and all are welcome in God's kin-dom can be pretty hard to believe in.  Yet, when I'm looking for hope I begin to see the appeal of John's Revelation not only as a refutation of the Roman Empire of his day but also a rejection of the American Empire of our day.

There's another way to read the Book of Revelation besides as a bloody cataclysm where God delights in the earth's destruction at some not too distant future date.  We can read it as an invitation to work for a better world here and now.  We can see in it an expression of hope for a better world by the oppressed in every time.  We can hold fast to its declaration that no human ruler, president or dictator has the final word on the fate of our world, but rather that power  only belongs to God.  

Beginning Sunday, October 6, Rev. Bethany Meier and I will present a sermon series for progressive Christians on the Book of Revelation.  
  • This Sunday I will talk about Revelation as a refutation of "empire, both the Roman Empire and the ways our nation functions as an empire today.  
  • On October 13, I'll preach about the modern belief in "The Rapture" (that Jesus will come and take up to heaven all the good Christians as in The Left Behind series books) is really not biblical at all.  
  • On October 20, I'll share about Christ's letters to the Seven Churches in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, and imagine what a letter from Jesus to contemporary American Christians might be like.  
  • Finally, on October 27, Bethany will preach on how the message of Revelation does not promote the idea of letting our current world burn, but rather calls us to care for God's creation.  
I hope you will make a point of joining us and determine for yourself whether the problems you may have with Revelation really aren't with the book itself but with the lousy ways it has been interpreted.  (Our services are live streamed on our church's Facebook page, and if you're reading this post sometime after October 2019, you can still find videos of the sermons there as well.)
Grace and Peace,


Friday, September 27, 2019

Thoughts About the Sacredness of Art in Times of Corruption and Absurdity

During my sabbatical this summer, I spent a little time in Santa Fe, NM before I made my way eventually for a spiritual retreat at Ghost Ranch, NM.  Thanks to one of my favorite web sites, Atlas Obscura, which points visitors to wacky and often profound sites around the globe, I came across Ethyl.  

Ethyl is a piece of public art on the campus of Santa Fe Community College.  This artwork is a life-size blue whale made entirely out of hand-recycled plastic.  Here is the intention behind Ethyl from the SFCC web site:

"The 82-foot life-sized sculpture of a blue whale is made of hand-recycled plastic trash to bring awareness to the ever-growing urgency of the negative impact plastics have on our environment. Ethyl is not just a work of art; she is a message: plastic is destroying our oceans. She is a presence, inspiring us to do better. To think more environmentally. To be more proactive. She represents a call to action to champion using alternatives to plastic that don't destroy our planet."

Ethyl is rather shocking to look at, because she is an 82-foot long whale laying in the middle of the desert!  The thought of a whale so far from water and the suffering and death of such a noble creature is alarming.  Alarmed is what so many of us around the world feel today at the utter inaction of world leaders in the face of the devastating effects of climate change.  In a time when a sixteen year-old Swedish girl seems to be the only sane person at the United Nations regarding climate change, and at the same time her outcry is cruelly mocked by those in power, art may be the only way to express the absurdity of our world situation.  Mere words are not enough.

There is a sacredness to artistic work, because it requires awe in order to create it and appreciate it.  Brother Thomas said, "Skill and art are not the same thing, and the only real measure of art is astonishment."   Art can pull our gaze away from selfishness, greed and short-sighted gain earned at the cost of future generations so prevalent right now.  I think it is fair to say that when religion is done right, it serves the same purpose, causing us to experience what is greater, more loving and more gracious than we imagine.  In our time, when corruption in government and business are on flagrant display and those who benefit from it face no accountability, rather than giving into despair art (and religion done well) can instead provide us with astonishment.  In turn, that sense of awe can provoke us to act for a better world, in spite of the odds stacked against such an outcome.  In Christian terms, awe of God's glory enables us to realize God is on the side of those who work for justice and peace in the world.

Scripture gives us plenty of examples of how art produces awe.  The prophets of Israel who were so concerned with justice in their society can perhaps best be understood as performance artists.  Isaiah walked around the country nude for three years to warn his people of coming destruction (they didn't listen).  Ezekiel baked bread, covered it dung and then ate it to show his people their failures to follow God's decrees (they didn't listen).  Most of all the prophets wrote poetry and most likely performed it publicly to jerk their audiences' attentions away from their own selfishness and toward awe in the face of God's glory.  

Thus says God, the Lord,
    who created the heavens and stretched them out,
    who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
    and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
    I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,[a]
    a light to the nations,
    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
    from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
    my glory I give to no other,
    nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
    and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
    I tell you of them.
--Isaiah 42:5-9

Walter Brueggemann (who just happens to be part of the United Church of Christ) writes that prophets (and I would add artists) exist to offer an alternative reality to what he calls "royal consciousness>  Royal consciousness, the worldview of the powerful elite, was marked by three characteristics:
--"an economics of affluence in which we are so well off that pain is not noticed and we can eat our way around it;"
--"a politics of oppression in which the cries of the marginal are not heard or are dismissed as noises of kooks and traitors;"
--a religion of immanence and accessibility, in which God is so present to us that {God's] abrasiveness, [God's] absence, [God's] banishment are not noticed. . ."
(The Prophetic Imagination p. 41)

Despite our stereotypes of the prophets as offering only doom and gloom, they offered what Brueggeman called "the language of amazement."  He writes:

"It is a language that engages the community in new discernments and celebrations just when it had nearly given up and had nothing to celebrate."
(The Prophetic Imagination p. 69)

To hear an interview with Brueggemann on this subject, click here.

A world where those in power (and those of us in the middle class too) are not in touch with our own pain, much less the pain of the world; where those in power (and some of us) are removed from the cries of the oppressed; and where for those in power (and some of us) God is nothing more than a means to political power is an ugly world.  Prophets command our attention and invite us to see a different world.  So do artists.

James Baldwin said of the United States, 

"We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World. But the price of this is a long look backward when we came and an unflinching assessment of the record. For an artist, the record of that journey is most clearly revealed in the personalities of the people the journey produced. Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with [their] society is a lover's war, and [they do], at [their] best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to [their-self] and, with that revelation, to make freedom real."

Artists' pain often comes from broken hearts and the best of them somehow convey their love for their subjects in spite of their pain.  As we face this absurd time in our nation's history and indeed in the history of our planet, the pain is great, but we are invited along with artists and prophets to reveal our love in spite of the pain it costs.

Michel Foucault wrote, "From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art."  Without wanting to diminish the power of human agency that the French philosopher speaks of, I would offer that from a Christian perspective, we can say God creates us as a work of art and our task is to join in the divine artist's work.  Doing so necessarily involves pain when we discover the ways injustice tarnishes the Artist's work, but as we see in Christ, love is never ultimately overshadowed by pain.

William Sloane Coffin, a prophet of the 20th century who was the minister at Riverside Church in NYC and chaplain at Yale, repeatedly called his work for social justice "A Lover's Quarrel With America."  I think Baldwin and Sloane Coffin are correct in that we are called to struggle in love with our absurdly corrupt culture.  If we are to be co-artists with God, we have no choice.

During my sabbatical, my friend Sterling and I were privileged to have a wonderful guide showing us around western Turkey.  One afternoon he took us to an artist workshop where traditional Turkish rugs were made by hand.  Today, most Turkish rugs are made via machine, and we discovered why when we learned the painstaking work that goes into making them.

The lousy camera on my IPhone 5 (don't judge me) cannot do justice to the amazing colors and designs of these masterworks of art!  Also, my bank account cannot do justice to their price tags, but for handmade works of art which are passed from generation to generation I believe the prices were reasonable.

The head of the workshop graciously educated us on the art of weaving Turkish rugs by hand.  We were able to observe some of the weavers tying by hand the tiny dyed silk threads one knot at a time over and over again.  Thousands upon thousands of tiny knots go into even the smallest rugs--the more knots per inch the more a rug is worth.  We saw rugs the size of bath mats which were worth more than rugs covering large rooms, because the sheer quantity of knots had taken weavers years upon years to complete the work.

The head of the workshop explained to us how the whole process of making a rug begins with a silk worm larva which spins a cocoon out of silk that it makes from its own saliva.

Fragile threads of silk are spun from the cocoons into spools.  Then they are dyed and the weaving begins.  

As I said, most Turkish rugs are today made with machines, and the weaving of them is a dying art.  I felt deeply humbled as I saw each rug rolled out on the floor before me.  Every one of the rugs was the result of a years-long process of exhausting labor.  Each one was stunning in its beauty.

Seeing such masterworks and understanding the effort it took to make them was a religious experience for me.  Their beauty brought tears to my eyes  Since I'm a minister, I couldn't help but draw parallels between the astonishing effort it took the weavers to make these works of art and God's artistry in making all that we experience.  

Our trip to Turkey occurred just days before an election was to take place for the mayor of Istanbul, Turkey's largest city.  Everywhere we went Turkish people were focused on this election, because whoever was elected mayor of Istanbul would likely become a future president of the country.  Also, everywhere we went Turkish people would tell us about the corruption of their current president, Recep Erdogan.  We heard tales of Erdogan using the power of his office to silence political rivals, attack the free press and enrich his own family (sound familiar?).  In the days we were in Turkey, there was an air of hope for a better future intermingled with the pain of living under a corrupt regime.

Yet, in spite of their disheartening political times, the weavers of the rugs continued their work.  They continued to produce works which inspire awe and point to a greater reality.  They also point to a different future, because they will outlast the corruption of the days in which they were made.  

Like those master weavers, God seeks to create art which interrupts the fear and pain of these days.  We are called to be co-artists, co-creators with God to not only craft ourselves but the world around us.  The innumerable threads which form our lives are each individually tied by God's hands and ours.  The beauty of God's artwork enables us to hold onto love in the midst of the pain we experience over the corruption and absurdity of these days.

Frederick Buechner writes, "If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in."  It is through the frame of love that God sees you and God invites each of us to look through that same frame at the world around us.

Know you are a work of art which is still being created, woven into a larger fabric which makes up our world.  You may be helpless to overcome the pain of our world or your particular place in it, but together with God you are far from helpless.  Dare to enter into a lover's quarrel with this world and our nation.  With God's help love is worth the pain.

Grace and Peace,


Saturday, September 21, 2019

Thoughts About the Wave of Liberals Leaving Organized Religion

This week I had lunch with another progressive UCC minister where we commiserated the latest news from FiveThirtyEight's polling work.  Each of us had seen the piece "The Christian Right Is Helping Drive Liberals Away From Religion."  It's not a new claim for the Religious Right to declare liberals are godless; fundamentalists have been saying so since before the Scopes Monkey Trial.  It's also not a new thing for people to be turned off from Christianity due to the Religious Right; I've encountered such folks my whole life.  What is different is the sheer number of people leaving organized religion.  New research says the more politically and socially liberal you are then the less likely you are to be religious.  That would seem to be bad news for a church like ours (or maybe not).

I found myself thinking, "Why can't conservative Christians be the ones to leave the faith?"  One might think that a public Christianity that supports the politics of ripping children from the arms of their parents to impose a horrific immigration policy would cause some who have been raised to take the Bible literally to question whether such actions align with the teachings of Jesus.  One might think that those who take the Bible literally might remember its admonitions against corruption, fleecing the poor, adultery, lying and sexual assault.  Of course, churches that align with the Religious Right have always been selective in their biblical interpretation as well as whom they believe it condemns.  

What is unclear from the FiveThirtyEight article and the research it reports is whether progressives are leaving liberal churches or conservative ones.  It could be that the last few years have been the final straw for liberal churchgoers who have been gritting their teeth for a long time when they attend their conservative churches.  Also, it appears, evengelicalism's hypocrisy is too much for the latest generation raised in its churches.  In the last few years there has been a movement of millennials calling themselves "exvangelical," because they have rejected their evangelical upbringing.  Although some have found their way to more progressive religious contexts, it's fair to say many have waved goodbye to Christianity altogether, at least in any organized sense.   

However much liberals are leaving conservative churches, I feel sure it's happening among liberal churches like ours too.  Let's face it, who among us hasn't thought about turning our backs on Christianity out of disgust over the homophobia, Islamophobia, immigrant bashing, misogyny and more justified by the public faces of American Christianity in the last few years.  Disgust is an appropriate response I believe, so it can be hard to remember such folks only represent some Christians rather than all.  The projected numbers for the future of progressive Christians is bleak indeed, but then it has been my entire career in ministry.  The only difference now is the pace it is happening.      

Although it is tempting to think liberal churches like ours do not have a future, I think a little perspective in order.  Using Christianity to promote political leaders who accumulate wealth and power by oppressing the weakest in their culture is not a new phenomenon.  Ever since Christianity became popular enough for leaders to use it for political gain, the religion has been used for such.  Christianity is far from unique in this regard; religion and politics were mixed up long before Jesus showed up.  

When I was on sabbatical this summer, I visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.  Inside this massive cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum are massive mosaics depicting Christ hanging out with the emperor and his wife.  The one pictured above shows the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomochos and his wife Zoe.  This 11th century mosaic depicts the rulers giving the money to build the cathedral.  Jesus isn't hanging out with sinners and tax collectors, rather he is dressed like an emperor hanging out with the earthly emperor, who is depicted only slightly smaller in power and status than Christ himself!  It is the nature of the powerful to gather around them whomever makes them appear more powerful.

Yet, throughout Christianity's history, God has raised up believers who took seriously the Apostle Paul's words, "

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death-
    even death on a cross.
They took seriously Jesus' words that God wants people to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, care for the sick and visit the prisoner.  They understood that Jesus Christ did not come to accumulate power but to give it up in order to benefit those without it.  They understood the words of Torah, prophets, Jesus and his followers who warned against the emptiness of pursuing earthly riches and power for one's own sake.  If we choose to do likewise as we work towards a society that benefits all people, not just the rich and powerful, then we stand among a long line of voices doing the same.  We should not fear God will stop doing so after our time is past.

What this means is that those of us who believe social justice, racial equality, LGBTQ inclusion and economic fairness are compelled by the gospel of Christ, need to focus on being faithful to what God asks us to do in our time rather than worrying about church attendance numbers or the latest polling.  There's too much good to do right now to waste time wringing our hands.  We're only guaranteed right now, so while we are here, let's commit ourselves to demonstrating the kind of love and justice Jesus lived out in every way we can.  We may not get sensational headlines like the Franklin Grahams and the Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s of the world, but Jesus promises we will make an eternal significance through our love that will last long after these guys are a distant memory.

Grace and Peace,


Friday, September 15, 2017

A UCC Church Got Upset Its Pastor Talked About Racism

Rev. Robert Wright Lee, IV is a United Church of Christ minister fresh out of Duke Divinity School who until this week served a UCC congregation in Winston-Salem, NC as his first pastorate.  He made headlines a few weeks ago when he, an indirect descendant of General Robert E. Lee (he is the great-great-great-great nephew of the Confederate general), stated to multiple news outlets that he felt Confederate statues, including ones of his ancestor, should be removed.  He told NPR his rationale for removing monuments of his ancestor was because "We have made an idol of Robert Edward Lee. We have made him an idol of white supremacy. We have made him an idol of nationalism and of bigotry and of hate and of racism. And that's unacceptable. And not only as a person of goodwill but as for me as a Christian, I can no longer sit by and allow my family's name to be used as hate-filled speech."  Not everyone in the Lee family shared his views, and it turns out neither did many in his church.

The breaking point seems to have occurred when Lee spoke during the annual MTV Video Awards ceremony last weekend.  He introduced the mother of Heather Hyer, the activist killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville when he drove his car into a crowd of people protesting white supremacists.  In his remarks, Lee said, "My name is Robert Lee IV, I'm a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville, We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin.  Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God's call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on.  We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women's March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs."  This was apparently too much for his church.

In his public statement on resigning from his congregation, Lee wrote, "A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up Black Lives Matter movement, the Women' s March, and Heather Heyer as examples of racial justice work.  I want to stress that there were many in the congregation who supported my right to free speech, yet were uncomfortable with the attention the church was receiving. The church's reaction was deeply hurtful to me."  Lee expressed regret that his statements upset church members and gratitutde for their impact upon him during his first pastorate after seminary.  Yet, when there was discussion of the congregation voting on whether or not to keep him as pastor following his wordsat the ceremony, Lee chose to tender his resignation.

This story grieves me, because in the United Church of Christ I have found a denomination committed to being an inclusive church that struggles to overcome white supremacy.  I'm used to seeing headlines about UCC churches that make me proud, such as ones where UCC churches welcome LGBTQIA people, protest racism, advocate for the poor and oppressed, and involve themselves in interfaith work.  Yet, I know well that our denomination is one that prizes the freedom of the individual and the freedom of the local congregation.  Just because the national setting of the United Church of Christ has taken a position does not mean a local congregation or members of those congregations have done the same.  Just because one UCC church has taken a stand on racism or voted to be Open and Affirming of LGBTQ people does not mean every other UCC congregation has done so.  I prize that freedom and it is a huge part of why I am in the UCC, so I support that freedom for others in the UCC, even if I think they have fundamentally misunderstood what Christianity is supposed to be about.

I grieve that this particular UCC congregation chose to react with fear and yes, racism, to their pastor's prophetic words.  (It makes me thankful to serve CCCUCC where my own efforts to be prophetic have always been supported, even by members who do not always agree with me.)  I wonder why this particular church reacted as it did?  As far as I could find, it has made no public statement regarding its pastor's very public resignation.  Conflicts are always more complex than one party's view on them; there is always another side to the story.  I can imagine dynamics where a young minister is thrust into the national spotlight at a controversial moment in our culture and that young minister fails to realize that his congregation is unprepared to wrestle with questions of white privilege, racism and the role of a pastor in private, much less in public.  Even so, I've experienced too much racism in churches to excuse this church's reaction.

I grew up in churches belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention.  Southern Baptists originated, because Baptists from the north opposed slaveholders becoming missionaries to Africa.  Southern Baptists had no such qualms.  Through the Jim Crow era, Southern Baptists were often the most vocal proponents for segregation based upon scurilous interpretations of the Bible.  Despite some noteable exceptions, the denomination continues into the present time unable to unequivocally stand against racism.  As the son of a Southern Baptist minister, who raised me on stories of his own attempts to integrate white churches and the backlash that inevitably followed, I know all the white code for not wanting "those people" around.  

Although I can only speculate, I expect some members of that North Carolina UCC congregation watched and read media outlets that painted Black Lives Matters protestors as terrorists and the originators of the Women's March as "feminazis."  I suspect some of them bought the argument that counter protesters in Charlottesville were just as violent as the white supremacists.  I feel pretty sure, however, that those voices were in the minority.  

I suspect most church members were upset by their pastor's public stances simply because he violated an unwritten rule in white America against talking about racism.  His public stances were simply too controversial and upsetting.  Their church is probably small enough that everyone knows and cares for everyone else.  Such conflict is just too painful in such a small system.  I bet most members just wished their pastor would shut up and quit causing trouble.  I believe white people will go to almost any length to absolve themselves of white supremacy.  Anyone who does otherwise offends all who reject such a conversation.

Rocking the boat is upsetting and painful, so those who do so must pay the price.  I seem to have read in the Bible about somebody who upset the status quo and paid a price for it.  I feel sure it was somebody important and that person called out sanctimonious religious folks whose religion oppressed others.  What was that person's name again?

I have been party to so many conspiracies of cordiality.  Considering the fact that the founder of our religion was put to death for causing too much trouble, it is odd that churches are usually the last place where painful topics get addressed.  The result of keeping everything polite is that people get ground down under a weak theology that passively endorses oppression by never talking about it.  Thus there are Christians who believe their churches and communities contain no gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people.  Thus, there are churches full of white people who never think to ask why nobody with brown skin ever walks through their church doors?  Thus there are churches who proclaim that poor people lack faith or are just lazy.  The church becomes a means to oppress others rather than a place to liberate and transform all comers.

I can't say for sure that this particular UCC church in North Carolina fits this description, but I'm pretty sure it does.  I believe that for one simple reason--every church fits this description to one degree or another.  There is no perfect church full of perfect people.  All of them, including ours, is full of humans who would rather do anything besides face their own complicity in the systems of injustice that rule in our culture.  I'm human too and I feel the same way.

So, when I consider this particular UCC church in North Carolina and I begin to feel superior to them, I find myself looking in the mirror and asking about our church and my leadership of it.  In what ways does our church refuse to face up to controversial issues?  At first glance, one might say that we are not afraid of any issue given the diversity of belief within our church and its commitment to social justice issues.  Yet, I can't help but wonder if our ability to talk about controversial issues is only confined to those issues which remain abstract.  It's alright to talk about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, economic injustice, peace and justice when we speak about the injustice of others, but how much harder is it when we must make a decision about how we will live together in Christian community as a church?  I believe it is much harder.

We are a relatively small congregation in which most people know one another.  When one person within the body gets upset, we all feel it.  When one person gets mad and leaves the church, their absence is felt for a long time.  That is painful.  Both prior to my arrival here almost five years ago and since, this congregation has known folks who have left and we have grieved their leave taking.  Yet, in almost all cases, I believe we have become a healthier congregation for having borne that pain.  Experiencing such pain is no fun, and given that most of us have plenty of pain in our own lives, we don't come to church for an extra helping of it.  Yet, there is no real community--no real relationship--that exists without pain.  To love is to risk pain.  To be a part of a Christian community is supposed to involve a heck of a lot of love.  

The words of Rev. Robert Wright Lee, IV echo in my mind re: how statues of his ancestor have become idols.  UCC theologian Walter Brueggemann writes that idolatry is "the treatment of some things with absoluteness even when they are not that important and do not deserve to be worshiped."  Are those statues whose supporters claim exist only to commemorate history worth the misery and pain they cause African Americans to this day?  At what cost do those statues remain in places of honor?  They are absolutized to the point that the cause they represent and the pain they enshrine are ignored.

If we say that we are a church that seeks to welcome all and promotes the concept of a God that accepts all people, in what ways do we live together that reveal the opposite to be true?  Are there things in the life of our church that we invest with "absoluteness": and prioritize above our stated values of welcoming all and working for social justice?  In what ways are we a part of a conspiracy of cordiality which silences the voices of hurting people?  In what ways have we chosen the false peace of refusing to wrestle with  ways our congregation is complicit in the ills of our culture?  As much as I wish to think otherwise, I suspect I'm not as far as I wish from that UCC church in North Carolina or for that matter the protesters who believe the men who fought to maintain the enslavement of other human beings deserve places of honor in our public squares.  

I want to do better as a Christian, a minister and a church.  Do You?

Grace and Peace,


P.S.--If reading my words isn't enough for you and you wish to wrestle with the concept of "whiteness," I encourage you to read the latest essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Perhaps no writer has shaped my understanding of white privilege more than Coates.  This particular essay counters the idea that the 2016 presidential election was about anything besides race.