I read Sara Carson’s article “Why I No longer Believe in Church,” (via progressivechristianity.org) and at first I was totally with her. Carson describes an experience with an overzealous pastor planning worship, and wonders how often the Church gets in its own way. “When we’re looking to connect with the divine, to find a safe space to explore our relationship with God, with truth, with faith, could there be any greater barrier to doing so than to have to first get past a deeply flawed, sometimes hurtful gatekeeper?” she asks.
And I completely agree. So much harm can be done by people simply trying to do their best. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. It’s one of the reasons that in my own tradition (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), we have groups of people whose job it is to connect with potential pastors and help determine if they are a good fit for being actual pastors. Theoretically, this helps weed out the people who are doing it for the wrong reasons, people who have personality issues or baggage that prevents them from being effective pastors.
Sadly, this is not always how it works in practice. In reality, these candidacy committees, as we call them, are sometimes more rubber-stamp committees. Sometimes, they are themselves overzealous and overbearing in their “help” to the point that they present an obstacle to perfectly good candidates for ministry. This is, of course, as Carson says, the story of humanity: “We are all terrible in one way or another.”
This is where I diverge from Carson’s line of thought. Where she sees the reason the Church has become irrelevant, I see the reason we need the Church more than ever. We are all terrible in one way or another. The theological word for that is “sin.” In order to make the Church the kind of place that is always safe and warm and welcoming, we would need gatekeepers on it to kick out all the bossy pastors, all the self-righteous pietists, all the cults of personality and the spouters of misguided cliches. That Church exists, but it’s empty; none of us can get in. The Church we have is messy, broken, often unsafe, cold and distant, and discouraging. In short, the Church is, in Carson’s own words, “the story of humanity.”
However, instead of being the reason God doesn’t care about the Church, the reason it is useless to God, this is exactly the reason God formed the Church, why it is important. What I have a hard time believing is that Carson might think the Church was ever any different in that regard than it is today. True, it used to have a much better public face: one of caring for the sick and needy, the orphan and the widow, and that is largely overlooked now. However, Carson herself misses one crucial point: it is mostly because of the Church (and other divinely inspired groups and people of faith) that those sorts of needs are addressed by society at all. It was not that long ago that these pursuits were completely within the realm of the Church, and nearly every social service organization can trace its lineage back to the Church. In spite of how terrible the Church can be, that is something major and tangible that God has accomplished through it.
St. Paul writes “we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The treasure he of which he writes is the gospel, and the clay jars are people, but also the Church.” As stupid as it is, the story of God relayed in Christianity is one of the Omnipotent God of Creation stooping down to get God’s hands dirty digging in the mud, using a broken and fallen humanity to save a broken and fallen humanity. The Master of the Universe prefers to work in clay.
The very reason the Church is its own worst enemy is the same reason God uses it. If there can be no redemption for the Church, formed around Jesus Christ and ostensibly with the purpose of living according to God’s will, then there will never be any glimmer of a hope of redemption for the rest of the world. Like Carson, I also believe God can and does work outside the Church, and outside of faith in general. I also believe that God is present in “friends and my loved ones, in music and movies and people and life.” However, to believe that this is enough is to claim the treasure is ours, not God’s. We begin to think that the good in the world is our own, that we just need to try harder to access it. That’s secular humanism, and the problem is that it ignores the reality stated by Carson out the outset: the story of humanity is that we are all terrible in one way or another.
I have trouble saying that God “needs” anyone, but I do absolutely believe that, for whatever reason, God has chosen to work through the Church. God has chosen to work through Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and many other faith communities. It doesn’t make any sense, because people are as much the problem as the solution; and yet, this is how God keeps electing to be at work in the world. God chooses people rather than magical fountains of healing water or rain that purifies our hearts or plants that can cure violence.
Carson asks a very good question, though; one the Church needs to ask itself: What is the point of a Church in this century? The things the Church used to be known for–caring for the sick and feeding the hungry, among others–are being done more and more by secular organizations. What sets the Church apart from these organizations is the gospel–the proclamation of God’s saving love that intends to establish God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth. The Church is as bad at living that out as anyone else because the Church is made up of humans. But, if God’s kingdom is established, so will it be.
I think that if the Church is going to remain viable as an expression of God’s work in the future, it needs to return to this core truth. It needs to give up on the idea of being the center of the culture that it once was and focus on giving more gifts to the world around it. The Church was given the ministry of caring for the sick, the poor, and the outcast. That gift it has passed on to the culture. What other treasures does it have in this clay jar that can be shared? What about justice? Equality? Unity that encompasses differences, community that is big enough and strong enough to contain dissenting views spirited debate and yet remain together? These are gifts God has given us as the Church that we have neglected for too long. This new horizon for the Church is an opportunity for us to rediscover them and nurture them so that we can pass them on, just like we passed on hospitals and social workers and foreign aid organizations.
It’s no coincidence that these things spring from the Church or other faith entities like it. Where we are all terrible in one way or another, God is constantly working to make us better, to use us to help complete the work of creation. The Church shares the story of a God who is fundamentally a God of wholeness and relationship; a God who chooses to die rather than leave us behind as we work together for God’s envisioned existence of peace and justice for all. Just because we don’t get it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
For years, I held the “traditional” Christian view that the body is a vessel for the soul, a bag of meat and bones that, when worn out, was discarded and composted while the soul, the true self, flew away to its everlasting home in heaven. I know many people (in fact most of the people I know) who still hold this belief dearly. For them, it is a source of hope, a reminder that this earthly existence with all its frailties and faults cannot hold a candle to the existence to come in heaven.
When I was in seminary, studying the creeds, one of my professors referred to this belief as “the most persistent heresy in the Church today.” In spite of the fact that most Christians hold some form of the belief that on death souls separate from bodies and leave to reside in heaven, in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds that we confess in worship, we say the opposite. “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” they say.
I learned that bodily resurrection is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote about “spiritual bodies,” in 1 Corinthians. The “rapture” language in 1 Thessalonians is not an image of the faithful being whisked away from earth, but rather running out to the porch to greet the returning Lord; the unspoken assumption is that they would then return to earth with him. The ancient Hebrews believed that the self and the body were inseparable, almost one in the same. Whether an ancient Hebrew believed in the resurrection or not, she believed that when a person died, they went to Sheol, a place kind of like Hades in Greek mythology, where everybody went when they died. In our bibles, Sheol is often translated “the grave,” or “the pit,” and that’s about what it was: a hole in the ground where people waited, separated from everything and everyone they loved. Those who believed in the resurrection thought that when it occurred, Sheol would open up and all its inhabitants would live again, walking around, breathing and eating just like they always did.
This was earth-shaking for me. All of a sudden, reading scripture with an ear to what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom of God was different. Understanding God’s work as an investment in this world rather than an insurance policy against it changed not only my belief about what happens when we die, but my beliefs about what happens while we live.
On Memorial Day, I am reminded of one particular implication of this new worldview. I read this article today about WWII cemeteries in Europe that really drove it home.
In John’s gospel, when Lazarus dies, Jesus goes to Bethany to see his sisters, Mary and Martha. When Martha comes out to meet Jesus, he tells her “Whoever believes in me, though they die, will live; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” This is patently false: people–Christians and non–die all the time. However, looking at it from a Jewish perspective makes me understand it differently.
For ancient Jews, eternal life was achieved through offspring. Descendants were a mark you left on the world, a way for your self to be perpetuated forever, because even though you may be dead, you are still in relationship with people who are alive in the world. What Jesus is saying to Martha is that even people who are dead are a part of our community. Even the dead are still in relationship with us. The common connection we have is not our ancestry, but Jesus himself. Whether we live or die, he says, we are in relationship with him, and he is forever.
I learned a beautiful illustration of this in church architecture. In many old Norwegian American churches (perhaps others, but the Norwegians specifically), the altar is against the wall. It is surrounded by a semi-circular altar rail at which communicants kneel to receive the Eucharist. The idea behind the shape of the rail is that the other half of the semi-circle is completed, unseen, on the far side of the wall. On the far side of the wall against which the altar stands is (or at least used to be) the cemetery. It was a reminder that when we come together around the altar for Holy Communion, we gather in an unbroken circle with all those in our community, both living and dead, as we await the resurrection.
The article about the American cemeteries in Europe reminded me of this. On Memorial Day, we remember those who gave their lives in service to their country, and even in service to those of other countries. Their sacrifice means that our world looks different, thanks to them. In a very real way, they are still with us; they are still a living part of our communities.
This is what the kingdom of God is: it is relationship that is stronger than death, it is love that binds us together across space and time through the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. It is the promise that no matter what happens now, whether we live or die, we are one in him, and we are never separated, never isolated from those whom we love. In addition, it is also the hope that one day, when the time is right, the graves will open and the entire community will be together again, in the flesh, and we will be whole again. Because that’s what God does: God works to make us whole.
I used to think that if Jesus knew that he was going to rise up from death, that it meant is act of love unto death was less meaningful. After all, if he knew that he would just get back up again, it meant that his death would be a temporary inconvenience. Like going to the dentist to have teeth pulled, it would have been frightening and painful and you don’t want to do it, but ultimately, you know it needs to be done, so you knuckle down and get it over with.
This is the kind of death that Christ seems to expect in Mark. Of all the gospels, Mark’s Jesus is the most human. He is scared, he is reluctant, and he is desperately looking for a way out. It is Mark who puts the words in Jesus’ mouth, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mk 14.36) Matthew and Luke also record these words, but they soften them; in Mark, you get the full force of a man pleading with God to find another way.
For Jesus to give up his life in this way, imagining that he is facing his final end (at least until the Day of the Lord when all would be resurrected) gives the sacrifice so much more weight. He is literally giving up everything for us, out of obedience to God’s will. He is laying it down and consigning himself to his fate.
John sees things differently. John’s Jesus is much more in control, more cool and collected. He answers his critics and stands before Pilate’s interrogation with the same cool ease that he has while sharing a cup of water with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. In John, Jesus knows what’s coming and he’s making sure all goes according to plan.
If he knew what lay ahead, was the sacrifice really that worthwhile? Was the love quite so strong? Or was he simply following the script, “ho-hum, another day at the office”?
This year, our congregations have been following the Narrative Lectionary for our bible readings in worship. Instead of skipping around each week like we do in the Revised Common Lectionary, the Narrative takes us in order through one gospel between Christmas and Easter. So, I’ve been reading and writing a lot on John this year. For Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent, the prescribed reading was from John 10, where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. He announces to the disciples, the Pharisees, and whoever else was there, “… I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18) He clearly knows that he is going to die, and that he is going to get back up again, Chumbawamba style.
As I’ve been studying John this year, I’ve come to a new way of thinking. Rather than understanding this as a sort of ‘lesser’ sacrifice, it’s actually much greater. Part if this is in how we think of Jesus’ death saving us at all.
Most Christians, whether they know it or not, understand Jesus’ death in terms of what scholars call the “Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement,” which is a fancy way of saying that we sin and deserve death, Jesus is sinless but took our punishment anyway. Ispo facto hocus pocus we live forever and God no longer has to punish us. In these terms, Jesus’ act for us is a sacrifice; he gives his life in place of ours, and absorbs God’s anger for us, even though he doesn’t deserve it. It’s valuable because of the magnitude of what Jesus gives up for us—his innocence, his good-standing with God, and even his life. A sacrifice is more valuable if it hurts more, and Jesus hurt the worst; and all for us.
However, John does not see things this way. Jesus’ death does not save us because of what Jesus gave up. Yes, Jesus gave up a lot for us, but the value is not in how much he hurt, but in what he did. What he did was show us God’s will; namely, that sinners not be punished as they deserve, because our whole understanding of justice is broken. Case in point: even though Pilate KNOWS that Jesus is innocent, he has him crucified anyway. Instead, Jesus—God’s word made flesh—shows us that God chooses life; and he shows this by walking out of the grave.
In John’s worldview, what Jesus gave is actually more valuable than what Mark’s Jesus gave, simply because in John, Jesus knew the abundance he had. In Mark, Jesus has one life to live and gives it at great cost for us. In John, Jesus comes to prove how much life there really is in God, because he needs to show us that we can have that same abundance. Whereas Mark’s Jesus is like the widow who gave her last to coins in offering to God, John’s Jesus owns the mint, and he’s come to show us that money does grow on trees.
The whole point of John’s gospel is that Jesus came “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) His death is meant to show us that death is nothing to be afraid of: you get knocked down, you get up again ‘cuz nothing’s going to keep you down. Jesus didn’t die in our place and for our sin; he died to show us that death and sin have nothing on God, so why worry? That abundance is the key to understanding Jesus death.
The focus now is not on how much Jesus hurt for us, or on how much we have to hurt for him. It’s not about how crappy we are and how little we deserve and how magnanimous God is to give us this stay of execution because Jesus took the bullet for us. Now, the focus is on how much God loves us and has always loved us to send us the very source of all life and offer us a direct connection to that source.
That’s why I think differently these days about Jesus’ death. It isn’t valuable because of how much he gave up, but because of how much more he has to offer. It’s also a reminder that eternal life isn’t just for the Day of the Lord when everyone gets resurrected, it’s a state of being in the here and now; it’s nirvana, enlightenment. It’s understanding how we’re all connected and reveling in the love of God that saturates everything. When your eyes are open to that, death and sin and just about everything else seem pretty tiny. I get knocked down, and I get up again, because thanks to the abundance of God’s love, nothing’s gonna keep me down.
(Thanks, Johnny boy!)
Last night we observed Ash Wednesday with a ritual called “the imposition of ashes.” It’s called an “imposition,” I assume, because ashes are being put (“imposed”) on a person, rather than a person putting them on him- or herself.
And yet, the name of the ritual is strangely, ironically appropriate. It is an imposition to have ashes placed on us by another person. It is a violation of our personal space. It is an action that we will, at some point, have to remedy by washing our foreheads. The imposition of ashes is meant to remind us of our own mortality and stand as an act of repentance; it is a sign of our vulnerability.
What is truly incredible about it is that it is itself an act of vulnerability. In a culture that is so sensitive about personal contact between strangers and so deeply aware of our own appearance, people somehow are able to come forward and allow a pastor (sometimes a stranger, sometimes not) to mar their appearance. It’s a small act, true, but it is an act which requires us to voluntarily allow somebody else to invade our personal space, mess up our hair, touch us skin-to-skin and rub dirt onto an area that many of us spend a great deal of effort to keep clean and tidy.
As I stood at the front of the chancel last night, smearing ashes onto face after face, I thought of the blemishes that people were presenting to me: wrinkles and age spots, acne and receding hair lines. These people were inviting me to muss up their bangs and touch them where they may not have been touched by another person (aside from this ritual) since their mother last checked them for a fever (which, for many of these folks, has been decades).
I watched the faces parading up to me, one after another, some young and smooth, some worn with age and weathered by the elements, and I became acutely aware of just how much trust these people had in me to bare their foreheads to me to besmirch with ashes. I became aware of just how holy those few moments in time were.
I have grown up in a world where, whether I was always aware of it or not, personal contact has been limited. My family was always very physically affectionate, but outside of my family, touching is simply something we don’t do. I’ve shaken many, many hands, but any time I reach out to touch a shoulder or an elbow, I must think of whether it is appropriate. I am uncomfortable when my leg presses against another’s while sitting on a bench or a bus. I may occasionally pat a man on the back, but never a woman. As a pastor, I more than some others need to be very aware of these boundaries of touch.
And yet, in this moment, on a Wednesday night, people lined up and approached me with the expectation that I would touch them in a very visible, very sensitive place; that I would intentionally put my skin against theirs and leave a visible mark. How often does this happen outside of the Church?
Last night, a couple dozen people allowed me to impose upon them a sign of mortality and penitence. I would not have been expected or even allowed to do this if not for my position as their pastor, and if I tried to do the same to any of them when I ran into them in the grocery store or at a council meeting, they would likely pull back in surprise and confusion. All this is to say that the intimacy and the trust that existed in that moment is not lost on me, and that I am grateful that I have been called to be the person who is allowed into these moments with people. Its one of those small moments where God suddenly becomes a tangible presence, something that can be experienced with the senses rather than simply with the mind or heart.
The imposition of may seem like a silly practice to some or an undue display of piety to others, but to me, it is a moment of holiness, a moment when I may reach out and touch God, and when others may feel God touching them.
A thought occurred to me today while reading a wonderful blog post about God’s love, and following a continuing discussion with one of my cousins over the nature of hell.
We were discussing (basically) whether hell is eternal or temporal; that is, whether it exists as a place (physical, metaphysical, or otherwise) or an experience (metaphorical) in this life. My cousin asks me at one point, “If there is no hell, what is the reason for repentance?”
Rob Bell ran afoul of this same sort of discussion with his own community some years ago when he published “Love Wins.” He was declared a heretic by his Evangelical community for denying the existence of an eternal hell where people are punished for their sins for all eternity. The argument of his critics was basically the same: if there is no punishment, why do we bother with this? The implication then, intended or no, is that without fear of punishment, we don’t really need God.
That’s not the way I see it. I see God and God’s entrance into the world in the person of Jesus Christ as a way to save us not from punishment threatened by God, but as a way to save us from the hopelessness and the carelessness of our own human situation. The world is a cruel place, and we are cruel to each other, and not always intentionally. God offers us a way out of the cycle of violence, frustration, hopelessness and fear. That way out is love.
My experience of God has been primarily an experience of love, but there are others for whom that is not the case. There are many people who have left the Church and/or their faith in God because of this idea of hell: that God loves us, unless we don’t meet a certain standard; in which case God gives you up to fry forever. I think that is why we have seen a renewal in recent years of people like Bell rebelling against the concept of hell.
The thought I had was this: it seems that there are two kinds of motivation for following God. First, there is motivation by fear of punishment. Some people see the need for us to be confronted with our own hopelessness before we can recognize our need for God, not unlike an alcoholic who must first admit her powerlessness to her addiction before being able to move forward. Then, there is motivation by love. This is the approach that says you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. People who have already experienced the worst the world has to offer find more enrichment in the idea that there is actually a God out there who cares deeply about them than in the idea that the Divine Bean Counter has it in for them.
Both motivations are valid, I think, and both necessary together. Martin Luther would have described this as Law and Gospel: our need to both be convicted of our sin and, at the same time, accepted by God’s love. So, this is an old concept. I think what draws us apart on this debate is our constant need to boil things down to a single point. Too many of us on both sides want to reduce God’s work to either Law or Gospel, when in reality it is both. However, whether the Law side or the Gospel side—the repentance and fear or the love and acceptance—speaks more to a person really depends upon their own experience.
This is why I still follow in Luther’s footsteps. He made a lot of mistakes, and he was wrong about a lot of things, but I think he had this one pegged. There will always be both people who won’t find any use for God until they are confronted with their own hopelessness, and there will always be people who will never accept a God who threatens them with punishment for not believing or doing the right thing. Nevertheless, I still believe, from my reading of scripture, that God’s primary, overarching characteristic is love, and that the punishment we have to fear is not God’s, but the misery we find simply in living life on this earth.
I began this blog back in ’06 when I started seminary and wanted to keep in touch with people from college. Back then, I had several people who followed it somewhat regularly, and I posted somewhat regularly. Since that time, Facebook has become huge and this is now how most of my friends and I keep “in touch” (though, this is a relative term, with Facebook).
In any case, as I migrated to Facebook and had less to write about, I slowly abandoned this blog. Over the time I had it, I mixed personal updates with random thoughts about theology and life. I really enjoyed having a place to post some of those thoughts, and as I am now becoming a more avid reader of different theology blogs, I am thinking it would be nice to have a place to discuss and develop some of those thoughts, as well.
So, I’ve decided to undertake some work and rebrand this blog. It will still be primarily personal in nature, but rather than writing about myself, I want to focus more on writing about thoughts and discussions that interest me. My interests being what they are, I expect this will primarily be theology. I considered simply using my professional blog (where I post sermons), but I hope to be a little freer, perhaps a little more controversial here, and I don’t necessarily want that connected (directly) with my office. As a pastor, I work with people for whom controversy may not always be appreciated.
On that note, I was quite amused to discover today that though this blog has been dormant for a number of years by this point, it still gets a fair amount of traffic, and the vast majority of that traffic is from people searching “chemistry pick-up lines” and “dirty organic chemistry jokes” and the like. Since I am a softie, I do not wish to deprive these seekers of their destination, so the Chemistry Pick-Up Lines page will stay. Perhaps it will even grow if anybody gives me any suggestions (wink-wink). It may also be a little because I’m flattered by the traffic. Maybe.
So, some things will be changing around here, but hopefully for the better. Welcome newcomers, and if there are any of you old hangers-on left by now, thanks for sticking with me.