Monday, June 28, 2021

Why I Love Church

I came home from worship on Sunday morning, and the first thing I said to my wife was: “I love church!” It is true. I love church. I look forward to worship all week long, every week. A lot of my clergy colleagues do not love church any longer.

I don’t blame them. Churches can do serious harm to people … especially clergy. Clergy burnout is at an all-time high. It has gotten worse during the pandemic. Many pastors cite divisive politics and conspiracy theories as precipitating factors leading to their exit from the pulpit. Partisan politics is functioning as a rival religion within many congregations.

Church can be toxic to both clergy and laypeople. No one knows that better than I. About a dozen years ago a denominational executive told me that he thought I was suffering from PTSD caused by clergy abuse! Not abuse by clergy, but abuse of clergy … by churches. He was not a professional therapist, so his diagnosis was not official. But as a longtime “pastor to pastors” he had seen enough abused clergy to know the signs.

Psychological suffering caused by churches is epidemic. It is known as toxic religion. That is why so many people have rejected “organized religion” and the “institutional church.” Toxic Christianity is usually the phenomenon of authoritarian structures – sectarian cults, fundamentalist, evangelical, and Roman Catholic churches. The Southern Baptist Convention is in the midst of an abuse scandal now, just like the Roman Catholic Church has been in recent decades. But clergy abuse can happen in any type of congregation.

Somehow I survived, I healed, and I still love church. I persevered... or rather perseverance happened. It was not my doing; it was grace. I never stopped loving church, even when a particular congregation and denomination was not healthy for me. By the grace of God I now love church more than ever. Why do I love church so much?

I love the music. Congregational singing touches my soul. I love good preaching. On the other hand, there is nothing that will propel me to the exit faster than hypocritical or judgmental preaching. For me preaching needs to be honest, biblical and prophetic. The preacher does not have to be a master orator, but his/her words need to come from a place of authenticity and be transparent to the biblical text and the Spirit.

I love church fellowship. Some people are able to thrive with private spirituality alone. These are the “spiritual but not religious” folks. Not me. There is something that happens in me during communal worship that does not happen in private prayer or meditation.

I love church because it is holy space. It is a time and place set aside for nothing but God. A Sabbath. There are very few such times and places in our culture these days. The world encroaches on sacred time and space, and fills them with noise, technology and entertainment.

In worship the universe opens to the Sacred. The veil of the temporal and physical world drops away and reveals the Kingdom of God, which is always present just beneath the surface. The heart opens into eternity. I cease to be, and God is.

This is not due to any particular liturgical design. It is not a psychological gimmick crafted by skillful worship planning. In fact, if I sense that the worship leaders are manipulating the congregations’ emotions, it will send me out the door faster than a bad sermon. Sacred Space is something that is equally present at all times and places. Yet for some reason it is revealed to me – in me – most readily on Sunday morning in church.

Heaven comes to the earth. The heavens open, and the Spirit descends … or perhaps the Spirit ascends from the depths of the soul. Ultimately the spiritual geography of inner and outer is the same. The Spirit takes control. No special effects. I am not a Pentecostal or holy-roller. Just Holy Presence.

I am no longer present, but the Spirit is present in and through me. Like John the Revelator, a door opens to heaven and a voice says, “Come up here,” and I do. I spend an hour – and an eternity - in the Presence of the Divine.

Most of all I love worship because I love God … with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. The personal God. The God beyond the Personal God. God in Christ. God in others. The Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. The Ground of Being. Being Itself. 

Words cannot describe the Divine I know in worship. This is the Eternal God. The God I knew before birth. The God I know now and forever. The God of perfect love. That is why I love church.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

It’s Okay

I haven’t watched “America’s Got Talent” in years. But the pastor mentioned the television show in his sermon last Sunday. He spoke of an extraordinary woman who sang on the show the night before.  She is Jane Marczewski from Zanesville, Ohio, who sang her original song “It’s OK.” So I went online to see why she had impressed him so much. If you have not seen her performance I invite you to do so here.

She is a thirty year old singer-songwriter who goes by the stage name Nightbirde. She has had cancer three times in her brief life, and it has recently returned to reside in her lungs, spine and liver. She has only a 2% chance of survival. But she says, “2% is not zero percent. 2% is something.” On top of all this, her husband left her.

She is an articulate person of deep honest faith. In her March 9 blog post entitled “God Is on the Bathroom Floor” she sounds like a modern day Job. She writes of her prayer life:

I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands. Sometimes I use my key under the mat to let myself in. Other times, I sulk outside until He opens the door to me Himself.

I have called Him a cheat and a liar, and I meant it. I have told Him I wanted to die, and I meant it. Tears have become the only prayer I know. Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset. Call me bitter if you want to—that’s fair.

Count me among the angry, the cynical, the offended, the hardened. But count me also among the friends of God. For I have seen Him in rare form. I have felt His exhale, laid in His shadow, squinted to read the message He wrote for me in the grout: “I’m sad too.”

Wow! Out of this ordeal has come a song that says “it’s okay.” She said to the audience, “It’s important that everyone knows I’m so much more than the bad things that happen to me.”  She added, “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.” Her song’s refrain says: “It’s ok if you’re lost. We’re all a little lost, and it’s alright. It's ok, it's ok, it's ok, it's ok.”

That is what we discover when we are honest with life. We cannot understand the injustices and inequities of life, especially suffering, evil and death. But it’s okay. There is no way to understand the ultimate mystery we call God. Religion – including my own Christian religion – is nothing more than a clumsy attempt to articulate the Inexpressible.

Many religious people insist they know the answers. They have it all figured out. It is in their books and organized into doctrines and creeds. They come knocking on your door with pamphlets that outline the path to heaven. Nightbirde tried that. She is a graduate of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Then life happened, and God showed up.

It is not clear to me if she still considers herself a Christian. At the very least her faith is deeply informed by Scripture.  But hers is not the faith that goes by the name of Christianity these days, the religion that expresses itself more in power politics than the power of love. This is a faith discovered on the bathroom floor. As she says, “If you can’t see God, look lower.” 

She knows a wholeness (holiness) that comes from a place of brokenness. It is only by traveling through the “not-ok” that one glimpses the Whole (Holy) and sees that it is all okay. That is the true meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Rethinking Gun Control

I became a pacifist in 1968 as a result of reading the Sermon on the Mount. Naively I thought Jesus meant what he said. I took Jesus at his word and did not understand why all Christians were not pacifists. My ethical stance was sincere enough to convince a draft board to issue me Conscientious Objector status in 1971. 

My youthful idealism moderated over the years as I came face to face with the horror of gun violence, especially the mass murder of three children in our church in Massachusetts. I knew immediately that if I had been present at the crime I would have done anything to stop the murder, including killing the shooter or die trying. While preparing the funeral for those children, I realized I was not the pacifist I thought I was.

Consequently I reread 20th century Christian theologians’ response to Fascism. I pondered anew Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian Realism. I came to understood why Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to become part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. I embraced Just War theory. Yet I have always refused to explain away Jesus’ nonviolent ethic of the Sermon on the Mount with clever hermeneutics. I live in the tension between the words of Jesus and trying to stop evil.

In a similar fashion I have long advocated gun control. Not the banishment of all firearms but careful regulation of them. I learned to handle a firearm when I was ten years old, and I was a riflery instructor during my teen years at a summer camp in New Hampshire.  I know how to use a gun. It was only a few years ago that I was deer-hunting in Pennsylvania.

I am a supporter of the second amendment. But I do not think that the second amendment was intended to allow mass murderers access to semi-automatic weapons so they could kill children more efficiently. I also believe that followers of Christ are called to a higher standard than the US Constitution – namely the New Testament teachings of Jesus.

I relate this personal history to explain why after more than fifty years I am reconsidering my position on gun control. The reason is the dramatic rise of anti-democracy forces that are gaining power in our country. They are threatening these United States of America and our freedoms.

The January 6 attack on Congress was a tipping point for me. I suddenly realized that the forces of tyranny could overthrow our democracy. We had a president who tried to overturn a legal election. He continues to speak against the legitimacy of our elections and courts. His followers are undermining voting rights in several states. At a QAnon convention over Memorial Day weekend they talked about a military coup to reinstate the former president.

It doesn’t help that I am presently watching the Hulu television series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place in New England. It feels eerily prophetic. The fictional conservative Christian nation of Gilead was formed through orchestrated attacks on Congress, the White House and the Courts. In the light of the recent attack on the capitol, with participants calling for the execution of the Vice President and Speaker of the House, the Republic of Gilead does not seem so fictional.  

For that reason I am reconsidering my stance on gun control. The Religious Right is well armed. They are strong advocates for the second amendment, interpreted to mean unfettered access to firearms. As much as I disagree with their politics, I am starting to agree that the rest of us need access to all types of firearms to protect ourselves from them!

If Christian Nationalism gains power, it is only a matter of time until they deny their enemies access to firearms in the name of “law and order” and national security. Those who seek to preserve freedom will need to be just as well armed. That does not mean I am buying an assault weapon anytime soon. I would not know how to use one anyway. But I am sure there are a lot of people who believe in our democratic form of government who do know how to use them.

Our nation is at a crossroads. Anti-democratic authoritarians could take over my country, just like they are taking over my party. If that happens, ordinary Americans will need to defend themselves against them. More importantly we will need to defend those who cannot defend themselves. True Christianity is more about defending others than self-defense. It is loving one’s neighbor as oneself, including neighbors who have been declared “sinners” by the culture warriors. Jesus, after all, embraced sinners.

I pray that the current situation does not degenerate into armed conflict. We need to do everything we can do to prevent that from happening. But it is certainly possible. It was not that long ago that regional differences in our country erupted into Civil War. It could happen again, especially if voting rights are denied and elections are overturned or rigged. That seems to be the present political strategy of the anti-democracy movement.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Advocates for freedom and human rights for all people need to be prepared. If history has taught us anything, it is that we cannot be na├»ve about people’s willingness to lie and cheat and commit atrocities in the name of God and country. The debate about gun legislation is no longer just about stopping crime or mass shootings. It is about preventing our country from falling into the hands of domestic terrorists. May God help us.