My first reaction when reading Cooper’s post was, “He doesn’t get it.”
Either that or something about the weaponization of evangelical language, specifically “apostasy.” I could do some fancy Greek work or google work to tell you that “apostasy” means “falling away” and find all the uses in the Bible, but I’m not at work right now, and that’s not what I want to talk about anyway.
What I want to talk about is this thing where people walk away from a toxic faith (“Hey! Did you hear David Schell said all faith is toxic?!” -No, it’s like toxic masculinity – some pieces associated with it are toxic, some aren’t-)
I want to talk about how people walk away from toxic faith, by which I mean a brand of faith that harms people. I want to talk about how people question their faith, or elements of their faith that many deem “central” even though they aren’t in our oldest creeds, and they’re immediately branded as heretics, or apostates, or Presbyterians, whichever is worse.
I was sick last Sunday, so I didn’t get to preach the sermon I had prepared. I’d been meaning to post it because I don’t think I will be in the same place next time the lectionary gives us this passage again. Also, this sermon is adapted for my blog’s audience and format, so it’s not verbatim what I would’ve preached.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
John 20:19-20, New Revised Standard Version
When Jesus walks into that room, he proclaims peace to them, then shows the disciples his hands and his side.
He doesn’t show them his correct doctrine. He doesn’t rattle off all the correct theological checkboxes, or recite political or theological shibboleths.
He shows them his wounds.
He authenticates, demonstrates that he is who he says he is, by showing his disciples the wounds he received in his self-sacrifice in which he gave himself for the sake of the world.
Contrast that with the characters referred to by John as “the Jews,” specifically, the sect of the Jewish people who convinced Pilate to have him executed.
Tangent: Don’t even with that whole “the Jews killed Jesus” nonsense. It was the Romans, and people who want to kill the Jews “for killing Jesus” they’re just siding with the devil who inspired those who killed Jesus.
I see “the Jews” in this story as a stand-in for those who know they are right so thoroughly that it doesn’t matter who they hurt so long as their view of rightness is upheld.
The disciples are in the upper room behind a locked door “for fear of the Jews.” For fear of those people who knew Jesus was wrong and they were right, and had Jesus killed for it. Those people who don’t hesitate to cause harm in the name of rightness.
When they show wounds as signs of their piety, the wounds are on someone else’s body.
You can spot them a mile away. In the Bible, lepers have to shout “unclean!’ about themselves when someone gets close to them. These folks shout “unclean” about you.
The door is locked to them. Locked against them. Locked for fear of them.
But Jesus just “came and stood among them.” Because the locks on the doors weren’t for him.
How many people in our culture today love Jesus, but don’t like the church? How many people have the doors of their hearts locked against the church because the church, at least many branches of it, has proven itself to be those who do harm in the name of rightness, rather than those who bear the wounds of love? (Research from Barna and Pew show: A lot).
We’re called to follow Jesus, the one who authenticated by showing his wounds. So where are the wounds of the church?
The 20th century missionary Amy Carmichael wrote a poem asking in the title, “Hast thou no scar?”
Hast thou no scar? No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand? I hear thee sung as mighty in the land, I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star, Hast thou no scar?
Hast thou no wound? Yet, I was wounded by the archers, spent. Leaned me against the tree to die, and rent By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned: Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar? Yet as the Master shall the servant be, And pierced are the feet that follow Me; But thine are whole. Can he have followed far Who has no wound nor scar?
The church today is very good with its theology. My tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has a book of eleven confessions of faith. (They’re pretty great).
But where are the scars of the church?
When the world looks at the church of Jesus Christ, will they see our Very Correct Theology, our correct theological checkboxes, our rightness enforced by political power… or will they see our scars, the scars we received bearing our cross alongside our Lord, for the love of the world?
I’ve been following closely (probably too closely) the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference about human sexuality for the past few days. I went in with low expectations, and came out sadder.
One of the less-appreciated casualties of recent debates about sexuality, and of debates within the Christian church in general, has been the beauty and sanctity of the word “love.”
Love is a great word, maybe the best word. It tells us about God’s intentions for us, and for the world. We use it to describe romantic emotions we can barely contain or even describe. “Love” describes how parents feel about tiny humans we’ve created.
But in more recent debates about human sexuality, or theological doctrinal debates in the church, it’s come to mean something else.
It’s gotten so bad that in a note I made to myself when I was serving as a chaplain in a hospital, I didn’t say “love people.” I said, “Give a shit,” because “love people” has too much baggage for me.
“Give a shit” means that the person lying in that hospital bed means something to me; they’re not just another body in a room, filling out the time until I can go home. Or, as my CPE supervisor put it, “I care about what happens to you.”
And maybe that’s what love used to mean, but it doesn’t feel like that any more when it extends past my wife and kid and a few close friends.
“Love,” that beautiful, wonderful word, has come to mean “meanness.”
How did this happen? Through the addition of one word: “Tough.”
As some of you may know, I am signed up for a cool program that gives me free books in exchange for my honest review. Free books make me happy, but I’ve been pretty busy lately, what with getting ordained and starting a job as a full-time pastor.
But when Mike Morrell sent me an email about Brother John, promising, “This book can be read in a single sitting, and is suitable for readers of all ages – including kids,” I thought I’d request it. A few days later, it showed up in the mail.
First off, the paintings were lovely. Just beautiful. I would keep it for the illustrations alone.
However, I should’ve understood that the book was suitable for readers of all ages, including kids. Non-reading kids wouldn’t enjoy it as much, or at least nine-month-olds like mine. My kid wanted to chew on it. Ah well. Such is life.
When I opened the book, the first thing I saw was an endorsement by Rick Warren. This made me a little anxious because I read The Purpose-Driven Life in my early 20s and got very little out of it, least of all a purpose-driven life. It wasn’t until years later that I felt out a sense of calling.
In fact, I wrote a blog post called “The Purpose-Driven Boatwright” about how the Bible says Noah lived for 480 years before he “found his purpose” building an ark, and then lived for another 350 after the flood. I wrote another post in which I contested the idea that everyone has a specific, knowable purpose, suggesting that purpose is a pipe dream.
I am not the “purpose-driven life” target audience.
So I rolled my eyes a little when I read the first words of the introduction. Between Rick Warren’s endorsement, and learning that this was an essay first submitted to a “Power of Purpose Essay Contest,” I was not warming to the book. But I stumbled on anyway, hoping the rest of it might be better.
As I read the first page, I realized my nine-month-old’s attention span for the lovely painting was not going to survive the long block of text on the opposite page. But I carried on, in places wondering where exactly all this was going, if anywhere.
Then August started talking about Brother John, on page 20. (The previous pages weren’t bad; they just… weren’t all that compelling yet, aside from the images).
By page 26, I began recognizing myself in August’s anxieties. A few pages later I had lost track of my boredom and become fully engrossed in what I was reading.
I can’t tell you what happened in those pages, or even find a single salient quote that would explain what happened there. The best way I can explain it is the old maxim that you read some books, and other books read you. Brother John read me.
I think it was maybe a book less about “purpose” than integrity – integration, loving from deep within your heart, as a blessing I like says.
Maybe purpose doesn’t mean having a specific, knowable thing that you’re supposed to do. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if I misread Warren all those years ago in hoping he would tell me what my career should be.
Maybe purpose isn’t an outer sign flashing arrows where you should go, but an inward sense of who you are and are called to be that builds over time and acts as a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.” Maybe it’s a bunch of different things aligning.
Maybe purpose is when you don’t even need that voice because you feel the assurance in your bones. Maybe purpose and calling go together, and maybe calling is just that slow realization that you’ve always wanted to do this and you don’t suck at it. (Which may have been delayed by my understanding of what it means to be “called” in my particular calling).
I liked Brother John and when I went back and skimmed it again so I could write this review it still grabbed me, in ways that I still can’t put into words. It moved me. Not all books do. Thumbs up.
If you want a copy for yourself, you’ll have to pay for it, probably. You can do that by following my Amazon affiliate link: https://amzn.to/2Lp9Fxr
Content warning: This Psalm is about people killing babies, and I am going to talk about that a lot.
Psalm 137 is one of my favorite psalms in the whole Bible. This is unusual, I think, because unlike most people’s favorite psalms, 137 ends with a wish for the death of the children of the psalmist’s enemies:
[God] bless those who take your babies
and shatter them against the rock.
I like it partly because of the impossible challenge it poses to the silliness of “taking the Bible literally,” but since I wrote a paper on it for an exegesis class in seminary, I came to love it even more. (A version of that paper is attached for your reading pleasure; a synopsis follows).
In Christiamericanity, there’s a strong emphasis on only focusing on the positive. One of the most popular Christian music stations, K-Love, has “Positive and Encouraging” as its tagline. It seems like the writers of most Christian songs, even those that start sad and depressing, feel morally obligated to end on a high note.
Psalm 137 doesn’t do that.
Psalm 137 starts sad, gets more depressing, and centers with commitment to never forget the sad thing that happened. Then, where a modern Christian song would start blathering about how Jesus is going to make everything okay, Psalm 137 gets angry. It ends with a middle finger to the people responsible: “I hope somebody rips your children from your arms and kills them.”
I love that.
I love that because precisely as inspired scripture it kiboshes the idea that there’s only a certain range of emotion the people of God are allowed to feel. It crushes the nonsense that in every situation Christians are supposed to be Pollyanna and feel like everything’s fine within a ridiculously short period of time.
A friend of mine shared a link from Crossway titled “The Dying Away of Cultural Christianity.” In it, the author proposed (as evangelical authors so often do) that the rise of the Nones* happened because the Nones weren’t real Christians to begin with. Nope, they were just members of that boogeyman religion Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
They weren’t really Christians; they just faking it, because of Reasons. Maybe because Christian = American, or something. It couldn’t have anything to do with the actual reasons people who left Christianity said they left. (Click the “actual reasons” link; that’s Pew’s research on reasons why they left).
Reasons like learning about evolution and realizing it wasn’t compatible with the faith they had been taught, because they (like me) were taught that if Genesis 1-3 aren’t literal history the way we think of history now, we can’t possibly believe in the resurrection.
It couldn’t have anything to do with “Christians doing unchristian things,” like the 81% of evangelicals (the ones who voted) voting for a serial liar and self-bragged sexual assaulter. It couldn’t be because evangelicals are the group least likely to believe the United States has an obligation to accept refugees. Continue reading →
I’ve been following the stories about ICE lately, separating parents from children, and recently in the city where I live, an unarmed Black teenager was shot by a police officer.
There have been the usual displays of awfulness from Christians trying to put the teenager on trial after the fact, and of course the general remarks that “If they didn’t want to be separated from their children, they shouldn’t have crossed the border illegally.”
Pause for a minute.
Since when was failure to follow instructions from a police officer a capital crime, punishable by death?
Since when was having your children ripped from your arms a reasonable consequence for crossing a national border illegally?
As I thought about this, it occurred to me that these defenses sounded familiar. They were essentially,
You didn’t obey, therefore you deserve whatever punishment you get.
I think this idea comes straight from hell.
Literally. For two reasons:
Getting used to hell has made us comfortable with draconian punishments, like eternal torment for finite sins.
Defending the doctrine has trained us to justify draconian punishments as appropriate.
Following are a few examples of ways people try to defend hell, and their parallels as defenses of the US’s evil actions against people who are either caught here illegally or caught trying to enter illegally.
“They chose it.”
This is popular. Hell isn’t so bad, and also the people who are there, are there because they didn’t want to be with God.
In the same way, being separated from your kids isn’t so bad – after all, we do it to other kinds of criminals (as if this was a defense!), and the people who are there, are there because they tried to cross the border illegally. Continue reading →
I’m here because I read the most recent iteration of the nonsensical triumphalist “growth=orthodoxy” blog post. Mark Tooley at Juicy Ecumenism wrote this screed against a post by Roger Wolsey. Wolsey’s post was titled “It’s Time for Progressive Christianity.”
Tooley rejects much of what Wolsey says, and on some counts I agree, but as he’s describing the “death” of protestant liberalism, he describes John Shelby Spong’s diocese losing half its members while he was bishop because Spong wanted to save the faith for some. (I have at least one friend for whom Spong did save the faith.) Then Tooley describes the Jesus seminar, like Spong’s earlier seminars, as having been attended mostly by old people.
He says postmodern progressive Christians are unlikely to gain many converts. This is probably true because we’re not as obsessed with evangelism now that we stopped believing anyone who doesn’t agree with us about everything and pray the right prayer is going to hell.
Mark Tooley doesn’t mention that, because it goes against the narrative.
The narrative, of course, is that progressive churches are dying out, and this is a sign of God’s judgment. Progressive Christianity is dying out, because it doesn’t have the light of God in it.
This ignores the counter-reality that the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most conservative (“orthodox”?) Protestant denominations there is, is also in decline, because Christianity is in decline. Continue reading →
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
I Kings 19:9b-10, emphasis mine.
Yesterday two of my friends shared stories on Facebook about conservatives feeling oppressed by liberals. The first was this post by Dennis Prager, titled “Fear of the Left: The Most Powerful Force in America Today.” The second was titled “‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Dialogue’“. Both argued that powerful liberals were oppressing conservatives in various ways.
In the comment section of the latter, someone pointed out that liberal Christians are (improbably) persecuting conservative Christians, ostensibly because when conservative churches leave the Episcopal Church for the ACNA, they lose their properties (which is a real thing).
And which is also a weird thing.
Because in my narratives, liberals aren’t mean, powerful oppressors. We’re scrappy heroes just trying to get the church to accept us as we are. My most popular blog post of all time was about what it’s like being an outsider now in the churches I grew up in.
It was a sad post to write, but it also felt really vindicating and righteous, and a lot of people read it and thought, “Yes! This is my life! This guy gets it.”
So when I saw those posts from my friends, I was really confused. The lone person or small group standing up for truth amid a group of powerful elites in a world gone mad was my narrative, not theirs!
As it turned out, we were both laying claim to the same thing: Nothing less than
A couple Sundays ago, I preached a sermon on the ten commandments. When I got to the second commandment, I asked, “Anybody tempted to carve an image of God and worship it?” No one was, so I moved on.
But as I was driving to church the next week, I was wrestling with doubt, as I often do, and this commandment popped into my head again.
What if the god I don’t believe in is a graven image? Something I made a long time ago in my heart and in my head so when I visited it or prayed to it, I felt better, but now I’ve grown out of it?
That’s the problem with graven images: They’re static. They don’t change.
We think God looks like a bull, but then Moses comes down with the ten commandments…
God doesn’t change either, of course, but our understanding of God changes.
We think God wants sacrifices, but God lets us know better.
We think God is obsessed with rules, but Jesus comes and reveals God to us.
We think God loves us and hates them, but God turns out to care for everyone.
We think God looks like a bull, or a white dude with a beard, or an angry man in the sky. We make our pictures of God, but God keeps breaking them, smashing them to pieces. That’s what happens when you try to lay down metal on top of something that’s alive.
But the elephant moves. The elephant is alive. And they haven’t seen all there is to see of it.
God is alive. God moves. And we have not seen all there is to see of God.
Maybe that’s why the second commandment said not to make images. Maybe it was about not locking God down, because when you lock God down in one image, what happens when you hit a spiritual growth spurt and all of a sudden you outgrow that god?
The name of the Israelite God in Hebrew, of course, is “I AM,” or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE,” which is a really great way of saying, “Your image is invalid.”
Which isn’t to say we can’t know anything about God.
It isn’t to say when God found us and we felt God with us, that wasn’t actually God.
It’s just to say that when we felt God’s presence with us back then, the image we carved of God based on what we thought we knew might turn out to be a little… off.
Or a lot off.
So break your graven images,
crush them into powder.
Fall in love with God
Realize what you don’t know
Hold tight to what you do.
And follow along with this
one who loves you
Who will be