Category: christianity

Why I Need Church

First Christian Church of St. Paul.
First Christian Church of St. Paul.

I’ve been reading all the post that have been written in the wake of the recent survey by Pew Research on religion in America.  While all sectors of Christianity have fallen, the mainline churches have again, had a steep decline.

Around the same time, there has been some talk about ecclesiology or the study of the church.  What is our theology of church? Why does church matter?

To put a more blunt question: why do I go to church?

Of course I could be a smartass and say “because I’m the pastor,” but I want to give a real answer.  Why do I go to church?  Why do I need church?

I need church because it has and continues to save my life.

When I was in my tween years (we didn’t call it tween way back in 1981), I remember going to the weekly Awana meeting and memorizing verses.  I also went to a Christian elementary school where we had to memorize passages as well. It was around this time that I remember learning the Romans Road, a number of verses in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that centered around salvation.  There was one particular verse that I tended to cling on to; Romans 5:8.  I can still remember it: “But God commendeth his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

I don’t think the people who taught me to memorize this verse knew it come in handy a decade later when I came to terms with my sexuality.  While it took a while to accept myself, I never thought God hated me.  I knew I was loved by God no matter what.  I could only learn that in church, not on a mountain.

I need church because I need to hear God speaking in the sermon and in the songs sung.  Yes, I know God can speak in nature and we should be attentive to this.  But it is in church that I hear God.  It might be through the pastor’s sermon.  Or maybe it was the hymn of the day.  At some point, I hear God.  God of course, can be heard anywhere, but it is at this particular place that I expect to hear God.  Maybe they are words of assurance or a word to get up off my behind, but this is the place where I have the clearest reception.

I need church to learn that life isn’t about me.  The danger of 21st century living is that it is centered around one person: Me.  Our daily lives are all about having the best post or tweet- or having the best car or house.  But it is at church, we learn about a man named Jesus that gave up his own life for others.  I learn that I am to go and do likewise, to live for others.  Yes, you don’t need to go to church to feed the poor.  But it is only church where the sacraments and my life intersect.  It’s where I’m called to be like Jesus, who lived for others.

I need to church to remind me that this isn’t all there is.  The big temptation in life is to believe that there is nothing beyond this reality.  No heaven or hell. No God or Jesus. No miracles.  The world tells me this world is all there is.  It tells me to be merry, because this is all we have.  But church reminds me that there are things in creation that we can’t explain.  It tells me that there is something more to this life than making money.  It asks me to believe that some hippie guy from Galilee was really the son of God, the one that gave us all freedom through his life, death and resurrection. It tells me that water, bread and wine mean more than just water, bread and wine.  It reminds me that one day I will be resurrected just like Jesus.  The world says this is all there is.  The church tells me no, there is more, so much more.

I need church to tell me that the church is made up of all kinds of people.  When I was an Associate Pastor, I remember dealing with Ernie, an elderly man that is mentally impaired.  Ernie had no “inside voice” so he will speak up during Sunday worship and he can sometimes bug you to no end.  But he also has a wonderful smile and laugh.  Ernie reminds me that he is a child of God.  He reminds me that the church is made up of all kinds of people, some you like and some not so much.  But in church I can’t self-select and pretend that the kingdom of God isn’t not for them.  No, we end up with people we can’t stand, but God reminds us they are children of God as well. In a society where we can create a world via social media where everyone agrees with me and look like me, church is one of the few places where you have to you are forced to learn that they uptight Republican from the burbs or the granola Democrat from the city are our brothers and sisters.

 

Finally, I need church because I’m a sinner.  I know that word isn’t very trendy these days.  But the reality is, I am a sinner.  I make mistakes.  Church is like an AA meeting in reminding me that all is not well with me.  I need Jesus. I need my sisters and brothers in Christ to help me become more Christlike.  Church is a place where I can’t pretend everything is okay, because it’s not.  It’s a place where there is love and grace, but it is also a place that pushes me to be a better person, not because that’s what I need to do, but out of love for Christ has done for me.

 

So there you have it.  I don’t know if it’s be best list, but that’s why I need church.  Church matters.

God Is A Concept.

johnlennonWhen I was in journalism class in high school, I remember seeing a poster in the teacher’s classroom that caught my attention.  It was one of those posters that shows something like a big sky or the stars at night.  At the bottom of the poster were these words: “God Is A Concept.”

I really didn’t know what it meant.  I originally thought it was nice to talk about  God.  I remember talking to the teacher about it and while I can’t remember the words she said, the point was made that we didn’t have the same view of God.  God wasn’t as much of a person in her view, but an idea.

I thought about that as I read David Watson’s recent blog post.  Watson is a Methodist minister in charge of United Seminary in Ohio.  In this blog post he talks about the “starting point” for mainline churches and theologians.  The starting point or organizing principle is the nature of evil or more to the point our response to evil.  Watson writes:

Much mainline Christian theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a response to the problem of evil. For liberal Christian theologians of the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust made any strong notion of divine action unbelievable. Unlike evangelical cessationists, who believe that miracles ceased after the biblical period, liberal theologians, who were extremely influential in mainline Protestant schools of theology, simply held that these so-called “miracles” never took place. They were the product of an ancient worldview, one that modern people could no longer hold credible.

The result was that mainline Protestants ceased believing in any kind of divine action:

One result of this liberal theological position has been that mainline Protestants have by and large ceased to expect any significant type of divine action. If someone in our churches received a world of prophecy that he or she wished to share with the congregation, would we receive this as legitimate? Would we take the time to test the prophecy against scripture and discern its truthfulness within our ongoing life together? Would we let the person speak at all? Or, as another example, when we pray for healing, are we taking a shot in the dark when all other hope is lost, or do we pray with the expectation that God will show up? Another example may hit closer to home: when we receive the Eucharist, do we believe that we are changed in that moment, that we have really and truly received the spiritual presence of Christ into our bodies and that the work of sanctification is taking place within us?

For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.

God is a concept.  It’s funny, as much as I don’t want to believe this way, the fact is it has seeped into my way of thinking.  When you pray for a sick friend, you don’t pray believe healing just might happen, instead we pray for “spiritual healing.”  We don’t talk about any kind of afterlife and tell ourselves that we have to focus on this life more than the life to come.  But deep down, we really don’t believe there is a life to come.  We feel leery about the whole Jesus dying a bloody death at least as a way to bring salvation for the world.  We love to ask questions, which is a good thing, but behind our seeking is the feeling that all of this is not real, that it doesn’t really have any impact in changing us and our world.

As Watson notes, God and Jesus or the idea of God and Jesus gives weight to our beliefs in social justice and inclusion, but God in no way makes a difference in our lives.

Watson notes that the result is that many mainline churches aren’t exciting places.  More to the point, Watson says what is missing in so many of our churches and in the lives of those who sit in its pews is…joy.

The thing is, if you believe in a God that “woke me up this morning, started me on my way” then you are going to be joyful even when times aren’t so good.

About a month ago, I went to the funeral of member of the congregation.  The service was held at the senior living facility where he had spent the last five years of his life.  I only met this man a few times, but he was the most joyous 102-year-old I ever met.  I wish I had a chance to get to know him better.  During the service in the chapel, the Episcopal priest noted that this man saw his Christian life as joyful.  The priest was surprised to hear this.  As I thought about her reaction more and more, I was a bit surprised at her response.  Even I’ve read Paul’s letter to the Phillipians which is a letter of joy even in the darkest times.  How could a pastor NOT know about the joy that the Christian life brings?

Like David Watson, I don’t want to minimize the role of evil in our lives and in the world.  Mainline Protestants do well in pointing out that life can be hard.  We can do well in saying that all is not right with the world.  There is evil out there.  There are men knocking their wives unconscious.  There are parents discipling their children to the point of severe injuries on the child’s body.  There are police who are so scared they use full force on black men and boys.  There are priests who abuse their office and inflict unspeakable crimes on children.  Yes, there is evil.  But God is also present.  God hasn’t given up on creation.  God has already overcome the world.  THAT should bring people joy; a joy that endures even in the midst of suffering.

I’m not leaving the mainline church.  I couldn’t go back to my evangelical beginnings even if I wanted to.  I bear no ill will to my evangelical sisters and brothers, it’s just that my views have changed.  But even though I am not in that camp anymore, there is much to learn from my former home, one of which is to believe in God that is present and alive, one that is most definitely not a concept.

I think it’s way past time for some sort of revivial in liberal Christianity.  We need to pray and believe that God is active in our churches, in our lives and in the world.

I believe it’s in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that someone says “Aslan is on the move.”  Aslan, the God-figure in the novel is making himself known again in the land of Narnia.

“Aslan is on the move.”  It’s time we believe that again.

 

Repost: I Miss the Old Mel White

The following is a post from June of 2012.

I recently read an interview with Rev. Mel White. Most of you know him as someone who grew up as an evangelical, was a ghostwriter for many big evangelical stars and then came out as gay. I remember hearing about him in the mid-to-late 90s and back then he was kind of the SpongeBob Squarepants of the gay community. I mean that SpongeBob thing as a compliment, because he just seemed so darned positive, when it seems like most gay men were known for snark and bitterness. He was kind of a breath of fresh air to me and I was amazed and applauded his attempts to meet and even persuade his some of the people he used to work for. Yes, it might have been hopeless, but there was something wonderful about how he really tried to do that whole “love your enemies” thing that Jesus talked about.

This leads me back to the article I read. The positive Mel White of old is long gone. What’s left is a man that’s pretty pissed off at the church and when I say church, I mean the whole church. White is angry not just at evangelicals, but also more mainline denominations that either still haven’t voted in favor of equality (like the United Methodists) and those that have recently allowed for non-celibate gays to become ordained (like the Lutherans and the Presbyterians):

For example, in the United Methodist Book of Discipline homosexual behavior is labeled, “incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Methodists—with their misleading logo, “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors”—have voted against us for approximately 40 years and yet they are the largest and most progressive of the mainline churches. Changing the basic statement of the mainline churches from anti to pro has been the activist’s primary goal for decades with very little to show for it…

After debating the issue for almost half a century in recent years the Lutherans and the Presbyterians have finally voted to ordain lesbians and gays, but the United Methodists still refuse to ordain us. In fact, they still have on their books that local clergy can even deny membership to gay and lesbian Christians…

Again, after at least a decade of futile debate, the ELCA (Lutherans) voted to ordain and marry us, while the Presbyterians and United Methodists continue to deny us the rites of marriage. Even the liberal Episcopal Church is losing local congregations because this most progressive of the mainline denominations appointed an openly gay bishop.

On one level, I can understand his frustration. Many Methodists are upset that even a measure stating they agree to disagree failed, and rightfully so. Living in Minnesota, I know a lot of Lutherans and I know a lot of them either had to live in the closet or face ecclesiastical courts before the ban on gay clergy was lifted.

But the fact is, whether we like it or not, change like this moves slowly. Always does. It moves slowly in society and it moves slowly in the church. It takes a while for people to change their mind or see another way of looking at things. That’s frustrating, but I’ve come to learn that justice comes in its time and till then all you can do is press on making the case for change.

Another thing we have to do is love our enemies. Some times we can love them close and maybe even be friends. Sometimes you gotta love them from afar. White used to at least try, but it seems like these days, he’s just sticking to those who agree with him:

Christian fundamentalists, like fundamentalist Jews or Muslims, read their “holy books” literally. For fundamentalist Christians the Bible is clear: homosexuality is a sin. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Trying to build bridges with fundamentalists is a game I’ve played—a war I’ve fought—for 20 years and I’ve lost almost every battle.

Fundamentalists don’t listen to facts let alone to personal experience. What the Bible says to a fundamentalist Christian parent is more significant, has more weight, than what they see in the lives of their own children. I have stopped even trying to build bridges with fundamentalists. When one of them asks me, “Have you read Leviticus 20?” (a verse when taken literally demands that men who sleep with men should be killed) I reply, “You’ve confused me with someone who cares about what you think of Leviticus 20.”

Evangelicals see salvation as an act of faith, a very personal encounter between the believer and his/her God. The more historic churches see salvation as a sacramental act, through receiving the Eucharist. Most fundamentalists are evangelical but all evangelicals are not fundamentalists. There are many examples of progressive, even open and affirming evangelicals and we should go on trying to build bridges with every progressive evangelical we encounter.

And, needless to say, we should go on trying to build bridges with the liberal or progressive churches but if the label can be trusted, if a church or denomination is correctly described as “liberal” or “progressive” they are already working with us. Unfortunately, we continue to call the historic mainline churches “liberal” and “progressive” when on our issue they are neither.


Okay, but we aren’t really building bridges if we build them with people who already agree with us. It’s not bridge building; it’s building an echo chamber.

I don’t think trying to reach fundamentalists/social conservatives is a waste of time. Maybe I’m an idiot, but I have tried to reach out to social conservatives. Some folks aren’t ever going to listen to me and I tend to “love them from afar.” But others, I do try to sit and listen to them and have them listen to me. I don’t expect to change their minds; I leave that up to God. And I truly believe that God is powerful enough to change minds. But that’s not my end goal- my goal is to love them as God loves them even if I disagree with it. That’s not a waste of time to me- it’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about.

I can understand some of the bitterness found in White and in many of my fellow gay folk. When you live in fear that people don’t like you or worse, it’s easy to have a chip on your shoulder and ready to do battle.

Maybe I’m a coward, but I also think that as a Christian, I have to learn how to also learn to love others- even others that might hate and revile me. The Old Mel White had that Christ-like love that allowed him to meet with Jerry Falwell in the long-shot hope that Falwell might repent. It was a foolish and extravagant love that I was amazed to see.

The New Mel White is not so foolish. Some would say he has the righteous anger that Jesus had turning over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. I would agree we need that passion at times. But we also need that crazy, stupid love that White showed towards his enemies as well, and I think the world is poorer for losing that Mel White.

Why I Like Lillian Daniel.

I really like Lillian Daniel.  Really.

Why, you ask?  Because in 2011 she said something that many mainline Christians have been thinking, but were too afraid to say outloud.   In 2011 Daniel wrote an article with the very provocative title: “Spiritual, But Not Religious?  Please Stop Boring Me.”  If you think this was a rant, well, you’re right.  Daniel basically tore into those folks that have been called “Spiritual But Not Religious” or SBNR.  The article went viral and it’s easy to see why.  Here’s what she said reflecting on a visit with a gentleman on an airplane:

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

After this article and a longer one written for the Christian Century, Daniel wrote an entire book on the subject which just came out: When ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Is Not Enough.”  Her article last year drew some criticism from younger pastors such as Adam Copeland.  Now that the book is out, we are hearing more criticism, this time from Presbyterian minister Landon Whittsit.  He thinks Daniel is just being mean to the SBNRs and only focusing on Church Folk:

Does she truly believe that an SBNR/None is going to read her book? I would be surprised if she did. I doubt that those who are (in her words) “shunning faith” are going to be bothered to obtain a copy. And even if the marketing machine gets the book some press in the media, what does she expect the net result to be? That they will see the error of their ways and come running home to Mother Church? I think not.

I contend that she wrote this book for Church Folk. And, in so doing, she is giving a wink and a nod to those who Tripp Hudgins eloquently calls “religionists.” While ostensibly calling the bluff of the SBNRs/Nones, she is actually shaming the very people she is purporting to want to help.

And this is where my beef with Rev. Daniel truly lies: She is shaming the very people that would benefit from what the Church has to offer. It is one thing to preach this to your own people, whom you know and trust and who know and trust you. It is entirely another thing to go on a media spree of mean.

Whittsit says that Daniel has the SBNRs all wrong and links to an SBNR to prove his point.  Actually, I think he proves Daniel’s point much better, but here is what Rachelle Mee Chapman says about her task in life:

After spending tens of thousands of dollars getting a master’s degree in Theology. After fighting to get ordained as a woman. After 30+ years in the church, and 15 years serving at one particular, belov-ed church. After all of this, I said goodbye to ordained ministry.

The practices of my youth stopped working for me. My beliefs had sprung links. The religion I once wore as my most prized possession started to pinch around the middle. It was sad, and I felt lost.

Magpie Girl helped me find my way. While I was living in Copenhagen, eight black magpies nested on the rooftops outside my studio window. The cawed and they cried. They were bright eyed. They were not silent. “Eight for a wish…” says the old nursery rhyme, eight for a wish. And I was wishing. For a new way. For a new home. For a new tribe.

I gather the people who are creating a new way, and I give them a place to call home.

Listen friends, what I want to tell you is this:

  • I believe you can write your own creed.

  • I believe that art + spirituality are good bedfellows.

  • I believe the institution doesn’t get to call the shots.

  • I believe you deserve a spirituality that fits. One that is authentic to who you are today, rooted in the best parts of your heritage, and creative enough to grow with you.

  • I believe you don’t have to bite your tongue, my bright-eyed magpie, because you have a voice. (And the world needs you to sing from the rooftops.)

Okay.

There is so much wrong with this that I don’t know where to begin.  I could probably write a series of posts on this, but I will leave it at this: what I read seemed to be proof of Daniel’s criticism, that some of these SBNRs are repackaging hyperindividualism as some kind of grand mysterious faith.  No, it’s not.  You just went to the WalMart of spirituality and borrowed from a few different faiths (the parts that make sense to you, of course) and then made it sound like it was all your own doing.  Please.

I don’t get why some pastors are so enthralled with the SBNRs.  I’m all for engaging those who are seeking something larger them themselves, but I am not interested or willing to engage someone who is only interested in their own words.  In a post from 2011, I share my own frustrations with SBNRs:

In my encounters with folk, I’ve met people who will tell me their interest in church.  They might include that they have been excluded for some reason, more often than not, sexual orientation.  They seem interested in being part of this faith community or at least a faith community.  But when it comes down to it, they never delve any further and seldom come back.  In my earlier days I might think this was the soley the congregation’s fault, but now I think some people are just lazy when it comes to faith.  I’m more than willing to present a tolerant and inclusive faith.  As a gay man, I want to show that yes, we are part of the church and that we are loved by God.  But I am not interested in playing games or in trying to make the church fit someone’s shallow faith.  Following Jesus is a challenge and not for the faint of heart.

On the other side, I’ve met people in church who are not perfect, whose lives are falling apart and who come and encounter Jesus and be the church.  They may not have all the answers, but they have a sturdy faith.

As a pastor, I want to be open to those who are interested in following Christ.  Christ did welcome all, but he had no patience for excuses.  When a potential follower wanted to follow Christ, but said he would come after he buried his father, Jesus told him to let the dead bury their own dead.  Not nice, but Jesus was serious.  He didn’t have time for niceties.

This has probably made me sound like the most bigoted pastor around and that’s not my intent.  I want to welcome all as Christ did, but I don’t have time for games anymore.  I’m too old for that.

I get that God can be found in places other than the church.  I get that the church has done some terrible things.  I get all that.  But God can also be found in a church.  God can be found in the imperfect people who make up that church and who care for each other and those outside of the walls of the church because they learned about how Jesus cared for others.  I see God in those same people when tragedy strikes.  When a wife dies in a car accident.  When they get a diagnosis of cancer.  When their month old baby dies.  I see their faith in action in those dark times and I can tell you it ain’t no faith in sunsets.

For some strange reason, Jesus entrusted the church to people.  He entrusted it to us.  As flawed and even hurtful as the church can be, it can also be a place of warmth and healing.  We see God at work in and through these fragile, broken people, the ones that have a faith that is ancient and able to withstand the storms of life.

As I said in 2011, I want to present those who have felt left out by the church with the love of Jesus.  What I won’t do is tolerate those who are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t think straight.

And if someone starts talking about seeing God in sunsets in the airplane seat next to me, I’m asking to be moved.

Paul Ryan and Christian Discernment

Now that Paul Ryan has been selected as the GOP Vice Presidential candidate, I’ve noticed an awful lot of talk about the Wisconsin Congressman from liberal Protestants, most of it not positive.  I’ve already stated that I think Ryan’s budget was a good start in thinking about balancing the federal budget, but I tend to disagree with others on the center-right that Ryan’s budget is the end all and be all.  But I also disagree with the center-left that is making Ryan out to be the devil himself.

I wish we could have a reasoned debate about the role of government and how Christians can best respond to issues like poverty.  As Christians, we have differing opinions on how to deal with poverty.  We can be faithful Christians and have different ideas on how to carry out God’s justice.  We can disagree without resorting to painting the other side as evil.

I’m reposting a blog post I wrote about Paul Ryan earlier this year.  I would love it if we could talk about public policy without being mean about it, but that’s not gonna happen.

There’s been a lot of talk lately, criticism really, about the budget released by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan. I wrote on my political blog about a year ago that I thought it wasn’t a perfect budget and even had some problems with it, but that it was a good start by the GOP. Then as now, there has been a cascade of criticism from folks about how the Ryan plan “radical” and some even questioning Ryan’s faith. What has bothered a lot of folks is that Ryan said that his Catholic faith helped shaped his budget. Here’s what he said earlier this month:

…Ryan made a moral case for his budget, saying that the government shouldn’t be responsible for lifting its citizens out of poverty — rather, that it’s the obligation of the citizens themselves to be society’s caretakers.

“Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good, by not having Big Government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities,” Ryan said.

“Those principles are very, very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty, out into a life of independence.” …

Presbyterian blogger Michael Kruse is half joking when he responds to the article:

So is it possible that people from different political vantage points who genuinely care about poverty might come to dramatically different conclusions about the moral thing to do? Nah. I’m going with one side or the other has to be Satan incarnate while the other is Mother Teresa. 😉

Obviously the answer to Kruse’s question is, no, people of faith can only have one viewpoint on how to deal with poverty. Columnist Dana Milbank takes Ryan to task and lauds the Catholic bishops and theologians who have spoken out against Ryan:

There is something un-Christian about the Gospel According to Paul Ryan. So, at least, says Ryan’s Catholic Church.

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody this month, Ryan, the author of the House Republican budget endorsed by Mitt Romney, said his program was crafted “using my Catholic faith” as inspiration. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not about to bless that claim.

A week after Ryan’s boast, the bishops sent letters to Congress saying that the Ryan budget, passed by the House, “fails to meet” the moral criteria of the Church, namely its view that any budget should help “the least of these” as the Christian Bible requires: the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the jobless. “A just spending bill cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons,” the bishops wrote.

In fact, Ryan would cut spending on the least of these by about $5 trillion over 10 years — from Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and the like — and then turn around and award some $4 trillion in tax cuts to the most of these. To their credit, Catholic leaders were not about to let Ryan claim to be serving God when in fact he was serving mammon.

“Your budget,” a group of Jesuit scholars and other Georgetown University faculty members wrote to Ryan last week, “appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love.”

What bothers folk is that Ryan uses his Catholic faith as reason for his budget. Frankly, I don’t see anything heretical about that arguement. Just as say, someone like Congressman John Lewis is grounded in his Baptist faith. It is possible to be people of faith and yet come to different conclusions on issues. That doesn’t mean that I love his budget wholesale. But I do think its important to give people the benefit of the doubt and trust that two people from the same faith can come from different conclusions on the same issue. It’s one thing to think his budget has issues and needs refinement, it’s another to basically slam him for coming to different way of seeing things from how you see them.

What bothers me about the criticism against Ryan is the assumption that to governmental support to care for the poor is supported in the Bible. The thing is, the Bible talks a lot about caring for the poor, but it never says how to do that. For some, caring for the poor means giving to local and international charities. For others, it means creating government programs. I’m not arguing that we should never use government to help the poor, but I am saying that the call to aid the least of these with government help is not supported in Scripture. God doesn’t tell us how to care for the poor, but demands that we get it done.

Which gets me back to Michael Kruse’s “joke.” The bile that has risen against the Ryan budget makes me think that debate even among Christians on public policy is becoming increasingly impossible. If we can’t debate the merits and demerits of this budget without delving into demonization, then what can we discuss?

(I need to add that conservatives are not better when it comes to debate and discernment either.)

What I long for is finding ways that people of faith can come and debate an issue and be open to where the Spirit of God leads instead of immediately pointing fingers, hiding behind the Bible and condemning others that don’t agree with them. I wish we’d stop seeing ourselves as Mother Teresas and the other side as Satan incarnate. I long for the time when the people of God are more willing to discern than to demonize.

Jesus is a Cat Person

One of the more common understandings of Christianity that I’ve found in Mainline churches is that God is all about love. 

I struggle with that belief.  I know that God is a loving God, and as expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we get to see a God that really did love those that one might think were unloveable.  As a gay man, I understand how faith has been used to kick people out of church and how important it is to see a God that cares for us no matter who we are.

It’s become fixed in our culture that God all about love and nothing else.  We focus on the stories that talks about God loving sinners, like the parable of the Prodigal Son.  We want God to be the Big Daddy that loves us no matter what we do.

But there’s something about that which bothers me.  It’s not that none of this is true- it is.  But I always feel that what we are getting in Mainline and probably other parts of Christianity in America is only part of a picture of God, a part that we agree with.  I feel that we tend to ignore or explain away the other half that is not so nice to see.  We are as good with cherry-picking Scripture as our more conservative sisters and brothers are.

Alan Bevere has a great post up today that explains how people tend to pull Jesus out of the context that’s found in the Bible and reimagine him to suit our own purposes.  Here’s a sample:

Now before I get all the comments and emails reminding me of how much Jesus and the New Testament writers mention love, let me respond by saying that I know such is the case. I am not exactly ignorant when it comes to Scripture. The problem is that the modern tendency to dehistoricize and detheologize Jesus and his ministry into principles and concepts robs us of the context which makes the biblical notion of love intelligible. Without it we lose what it truly means for Jesus to tell his followers to love one another. The great sacrifice of cross and the wonderful victory of resurrection by which Christian love is understood is replaced by the modern romanticism of love as primarily a feeling, as the justification for behavior without consequences, and living a life devoid of transformation. We move from Jesus’ statement that no greater love can be displayed in laying down one’s life to it doesn’t matter how we behave because God loves us no matter what.

It doesn’t take a profound thinker to know that the primary motivation for this dehistorizing and detheologizing of Jesus is to domesticate his life and work into something more palatable to modern sensibilities. The Jesus who comes to us from the pages of the New Testament demands too much from us. Moreover, in our modern cosmological reductionist assumptions, we simply cannot have a Jesus running around doing miraculous things. So in Bishop Spong and John Crossan fashion we first demythologize Jesus and then we remythologize him after our own image and our own expectations. Jesus now becomes safe to follow. Yes, Jesus is still presented as a radical, but he is a domesticated revolutionary. He is one who looks like a hippie from the 1960s or a political activist whose methods of power and coercion look no different from the politics of the nations.
But a domesticated revolutionary will not bring about serious change; he will just reinforce the agendas of those who are frankly doing nothing more than using Jesus as a prop to get what they want. Jesus was crucified because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world that could not and will not be displayed in the politics of the current age. Jesus was not killed for promoting right-wing violence on behalf of the state, and he was not crucified for advocating a progressive social agenda. Jesus was crucified because he presented a serious threat to the status quo in all forms; and it will not do just to present his life and ministry as supporting any modern political and social agenda. And those Christians who attempt to do so are domesticating Jesus into doing their bidding.

We all want a Jesus that is more to our own liking.  That was what Andrew Sullivan was getting at in his essay last week.  So, we do just what Thomas Jefferson did, just without the scissors; taking out bits and pieces that don’t fit our own agenda and come up with a Jesus we can stomach.

But I don’t think we are supposed to be comfortable with Jesus.  I think Jesus is supposed to make us uncomfortable in how he lived his life and in what he did.  I think more and more we have to live with this Jesus that we don’t want to hang out with and be open to how we will change in meeting with Jesus and not try to make Jesus fit our own life.

I’ve said before that there is a reason why C.S. Lewis portrayed Aslan, his God-figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, as a Lion- a wild creature that can’t be easily tamed.

We all want Jesus to be like a dog, someone that’s lovable and faithful to us and is always there when we need them.  They expect nothing more than love from us. 

But Jesus is more like a cat; pushy, demanding, intrusive and is sometimes just a jerk.  But there are also times when Jesus can cuddle up to us and just be present at the end of nice day. 

Mr. Beaver in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, says this when asked about Aslan the Lion: he is good, but he isn’t safe. 

Jesus is a cat; and cats are never safe. 

Autism and Grace

Rod Dreher, who has a son who is also autistic, wrote a post called the “Gift of Autism,” and he said he wrote that title with some trepidation.

As someone who is autistic, I can understand that.  I know the common thing among those of us who are autistic is to talk about how wonderful being autistic can be and how we are just different and all.  I get that and understand it to a point.

That said, autism can also be a pain in the ass.

It’s not easy being around someone who is autistic.  It’s not easy for the person, for their loved ones or their co-workers.  It can be a chore.

For me, this means that I make a lot more mistakes in my daily life than those that aren’t autistic.  And I have to spend a lot more time trying to rectify those mistakes.  The worse thing about it?  Most of the time I don’t know that I’m pissing people off by not doing something or not asking something.  I come off as an uncaring ass even when I don’t mean to be.

But being autistic has made me more aware of the need for grace, the need to learn to love others even as they make mistakes.  I’m not always good at being patient, though reminding myself how I can be makes me remember that I need a lot of grace from others and so do those others.

Being a person with autism means you are going to make mistakes.  There is no way around that.  I can’t pretend I have my crap together because I don’t.  It’s all out there.  I can’t hide.

As humans, we pretend that we do have it all together.  Grace is supposed to remind us that we aren’t all that and a bag of chips.  But we find ways of hiding, of telling ourselves how great we are and basically telling ourselves and each other we don’t need God. 

And yet, God loves us. God gives us a second chance.  Just like so many friends, employers and loved ones give me a second chance.  It’s a chance to try again, to know that you are loved for who you are, but also loved with a love that makes you want to get right and be better, not so that you can be loved, but because you are loved.

So, yeah, autism can be a gift- not in the sense that it’s wonderful, but in the sense of letting me know that I am human after all.

And I am still loved by God.

The Problems With Following Jesus

I finally finished reading Andrew Sullivan’s Holy Week essay on Christianity in Crisis.  There’s a lot of think about in this article, so I have a list of what questions came to mind as a read this.

  • We really can’t know Jesus without the church.  Sullivan seems to think there is the pure Jesus out there that is not corrupted by politics. But as Joel Miller notes, Jesus never wrote anything, unlike say, Mohammed did.  The whole life of Jesus has been mediated others.  There can’t be a pure Jesus not diluted by the church because everything we know about Jesus is through other people, those who were close to him and those who learned about him decades after he walked the earth. Here’s what Miller writes:
  • It’s a trendy thing to say, but how do we know what Jesus asks of us? Unlike Muhammad or L. Ron Hubbard, Jesus didn’t scratch out a word of Scripture. We only know what Jesus said because his followers wrote things down. These followers and their community — that is to say, the church — then curated that message. That means we have to understand Jesus’ words in a matrix that includes the thoughts and writings of the early church: its bishops, priests, poets, monks, theologians, and artists. Divorcing Jesus from the church is conceptually impossible.

     It is trendy to say we can get to Jesus without the messiness of the church, but you just can’t understand who Jesus is without the writings and traditions of the church. That leads me to the next point:
     

  • The problem with church is that it’s filled with humans.  I know Sullivan is upset at how his own Catholic Church failed to protect children from abusive priests.  I get that.  When people abuse their power or try to bar people from coming  to God’s table, it reflects badly on the church.  Sadly, the church is filled with people who did not stand for justice and righteousness, but either stood aside or actively participated in evil.  The church is filled with weak willed, obstinate people.  But for some odd reason, Jesus entrusted his mission to a group of people who more often that not did not understand Jesus and sometimes got it terribly wrong.  The church is made up of fallible beings, and that’s kinda how Jesus intended it to be.  I’m not saying we should take a pass on things that go wrong in church.  What I am saying is that this thing called Christianity is made up of folks who sometimes fuck up.  An institution made up of humans is going to make mistakes, BIG mistakes.  But somehow, God still works through this fallible gathering and people are able to feed the poor, free the slaves and stand for righteousness.  
  • Jesus gets me.  Now, I tend to agree more with Sullivan on stuff than disagree with him, but I find it odd that Jesus seems to agree with everything that he happens to like or dislike.  I don’t know if we do this on purpose or not, but more often than note we tend to fashion a Jesus that is basically us, but way cooler.  Maybe it’s just me, but the Jesus I read in Scripture was one that was hard to follow.  He was always asking us to do stuff (like giving up everything we own, dissing our families) that we don’t always have the balls to do.  Why do we make Jesus a cheerleader for our own politics?  Why can’t we allow the Jesus we encounter to bother us and shake us up instead of domesticating him to our ideology?
  • We can’t follow Jesus.  Yes, Jesus does ask us to follow him.  And I believe we have to.  But we shouldn’t trick ourselves into thinking its easy or that we won’t be driven off the past by our own wants and passions.  The reason we talk about the cross and the empty tomb this week is because we are reminded that we can’t follow Jesus on our own.  We follow Jesus only through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Let’s look at Sullivan’s (or Thomas Jefferson’s) list that describes Jesus:

 What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.

Hmmm…love your enemy? Yeah, that’s a piece of cake. Give up material wealth? Listen, I have issues giving up my iPad and I doubt Sullivan is going to go all Mother Teresa on us. Love God? Maybe. Give up power over others? Yeah, got that. Maybe I’m weak, but I think I could fail each and every item on this list. I can’t do it. Sullivan can’t do it. No one can. That’s why we need grace. This is not to say we shouldn’t try. But following Jesus is hard. It. Is. Not. Practical. (When the hell was loving our enemy ever practical?)

There’s a lot more I can talk about concerning this and maybe I will say more later.  But that’s what’s on my mind re: Sullivan.

Planned Parenthod vs. Susan G. Komen: Same S*%!, Different Day

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the whole Komen controversy because its been done ad nausem.  But I do have one question: where should the Church be in all this?

The whole mess concerning the two groups was one more annoying incident in the culture wars.  Each side, including many a Christian, took their usual sides in this forever battle.  We slunged mud at the other side with equal ferocity, all in the name of being on the side of right, of course.

But how should followers of Jesus respond?  How do we handle issues in ways that aren’t aping what we seeing the wider culture?  Why are we so quick to turn even an issue that everyone agrees is a major problem: breast cancer, into war of words?  Why are people so willing to paint everything as black and white and not try to see another viewpoint or veiwpoints?

What is sorely missing in the life of the church today, no matter what side you are on, is how to think theologically and engage culture.  What we tend to do is hold on to our positions, convinced they are God’s instead of sitting down and trying to discern things.  Instead of trying to find God’s will, we have already decided we know God’s will and need to tell those other guy how stupid and evil they are.

The Church, liberal and conservatives, have acted like asses in the last few days.  When it comes to showing a “more excellent way” of being in the world.  We fall short.

Epic. Fail.