"For me, this strikes particularly close to home...my grandmother faces dementia. As of this past week she has suffered an infection that now clouds her mind even more, and causes her fits of paranoia...My family joins the countless strangers on the street that have loved ones facing the same disease and struggle."
As the Church dwindles within the American psyche and society becomes deeply aware of global responsibility, it is high time the Church change. Yet, this change must reach beyond educational literature or worship style, but into a new transformational way of existing, engaging, and being in the world.
My statement that the "Church dwindles" might be too generous, and perhaps should be stated as "dying." That too has enough presumptions that people would either decry and moan its death, or celebrate that it is finally on its way out. Quite frankly, both are short-sided presuppositions that miss the larger conversation. First, churches have to move to a more universal word that moves away from misconceptions about a building, to an understanding of people. Perhaps, here, we would be well-served to use "congregation." Not only does this refocus communities of faith upon people, but draws a deeper connection to other communities of faith.
This vision includes an interfaith vision, one that not only creates an awareness of religious pluralism, but one that instills an interfaith vision within congregations. No longer will the solitude existence of a "church" be possible. Sure, conservative voices have and will remain mildly strong, and the point is not to squelch them. Rather, liberal and conservative voices must come together in honest conversation that excludes personal opinion over engaging conversation.
Traditional models attempt to match up conceptions of God. This point remains one of the most difficult tasks and greatest hindrances of the transformation of religious dialogue in America. We have attempted to place conceptions of God in conversation with each other first. More productive would be to retain conversations of what all religions have in common: humans. Religions, regardless of how spiritual one conceives it, depend upon humans to sustain them, if not forward them. Our discussion concerning interfaith dialogue ought first be human, then theological.
My Christian siblings might say Christianity in America needs the interdenominational dialogue first. How can we talk with other religions if we cannot have honest dialogue with our own denominations? A sincere question, and one that necessitates a response. The answer, however, will not place one over the other, but recognize the mutual self-interest. Christians must work with denominations and other religions at the same time. On one hand they are able to make progress with each other, whilst removing focus on themselves. Simple fact is this: the conceitedness of Christianity in America that once was its greatest asset, has now become its greatest liability.
This thought is ongoing, and it is here that I announce the formation of a new non-profit that is centered around focusing on the education and development of congregations with an interfaith, interdenominational, and justice-oriented identity. There remain many details to nail down, and much funding to secure. It is time to stop talking about the future of the church, and start bringing it into existence. Dream alongside me, dream in your communities, and together we can build an understanding of faith that is not comprehensive, but not short-sided; inclusive, but not without conviction.
Dream alongside me, dream alongside humanity.
Yesterday, I sat, watching Barack Obama give the sermon, er, speech of his life. I felt transformed, renewed, and refreshed after his words concluded. Across the country words of support poured in, and people became changed. Indeed, he rose above the petty blame-game and united people.
After the speech many news outlets invited pundits on to argue about the speech. I did not watch. I simply turned on CSPAN and watched him as he moved through the arena, shaking hands and speaking with people. He was a pastor yesterday evening.
Our society has these so called "religious wars" fought by people want to put "God back in America." Yes, these are the same folks that sing "God Bless America (and nowhere else)". I suppose I wouldn't mind, at least not as much, if these same folks weren't running for political office. These same folks have little to no understanding of the history of religious freedom in America. I know this because if they did they wouldn't be fighting to put "God back in America."
Though, as someone theologically educated and ordained, I do wonder where God went. I've asked this question time and time again, but I've never been able to find out. Perhaps God went off into the next Galaxy to chill out, or play hopscotch. Theology aside, religion and politics are simply too cozy these days. But, I digress.
I could expound upon Roger Williams and his fight for religious liberty, or the Pilgrims fight for religious liberty, or that many Baptists throughout history have fought and continue to fight for religious liberty. I could write about how Religious Liberty within the Constitution is a remarkable right, and that many who want to squelch religious liberty are indebted to Religious Liberty.
Time and time again we find ourselves bickering about religion, or using God as an excuse to make offensive and ignorant remarks. Getting rid of religion simply isn't going to happen anytime soon, and I don't think it has to happen. Simply seems to me that people of faith would have more respect for their God than to use it/him/her as a pawn in the political chess game. Maybe I'm wrong. Seems to me that those caring so much about America would respect the Constitution, let alone America's citizens.
Life is complicated. This grand experiment we call democracy is complicated. It takes more than trite statements about God or catchy slogans to make it work. Democracy requires listening, not yelling. Democracy requires us to see that we are many things, not just a static identities.
At the end of the day all of us in this grand experiment posses different views, different thoughts, and different lives. Yet, we share a common humanity. If people want to put God back in America they should stop legislating the Bible, and start living love. Go ahead, try to put the 10 Commandments in the statehouse or courthouse, but people have duped themselves into thinking Divine Law can be contained within 10 Commandments. They have duped themselves into thinking that forcing the issue of the 10 commandments will affect change. People [specifically the far-right] have become obsessed with legislating morality because they have forgotten a call to love.
They should probably try to live the 10 Commandments rather than display them. If they want to quote, "Thou Shall Not Kill," if they must speak for Divine Vengeance, execute the systems of oppression that are fertile ground for supplying death-row cell blocks. If they want to honor their fathers and mothers, they must engage the ancestral bastion of racial segregation we call, “Sunday Morning.” If they want to preach, “Thou shall not covet,” they must preach against the materialism that consumes voraciously and cyclically intoxicates our communities. If they want God back in America, they should probably look into the mirror.
As long as religion is used as a tool to manipulate and divide, as a wedge, as long as religion ignores love, I thank God for a Godless Society.
Pastors often ask me about the future of the church. They wonder how they can make their churches can "make it". The following is my response:
"Well let me ask, do you want to know how to 'make it' – or do you want to know how your church can make it?"
The pastor usually looking at me quizzically, "What do you mean?"
"Do you want to make it? 'Cause, fact is, if you want your congregation to make it, you probably won't. It's an unfortunate fact, but an honest reality. Your church is probably 'funded' by that 'old money' – and yes, I mean that in the most literal way possible. Your offering plate gets filled with $2-dollar bills, because the people putting them in the offering plate think their novel. Not only are they giving money, but collectible money!
If you want your church to make it, if you want a congregation to survive, don't do anything different. Keep being relevant to those in the 1950s. And, no, I don't mean throwing guitars, drums, and lights up on stage. That's pretty shallow, if you're not willing to do the work to understand worship. If you don't understand that worship should make us relevant to God, it doesn't matter if you have U2 leading worship. You have to ask if what you're doing Sunday after Sunday is actually an experience that invites people on a deeper journey of faith. This doesn't mean becoming sacramental (not a bad thing), but it means understanding your journey of faith. Sacraments aren't a bad idea. They bring deeper meaning and understanding into the life of the church – there's a reason they've survived AND thrived for so long.
Yet, no matter how much you change the worship or how "progressive" or "cool" your worship is, if you don't change the way you 'do life' nothing will happen. No growth. No hope. You fail to be the body of Christ in the world. Lift your head, oh pitiful one. Change is difficult, and it takes money. So, yes, you're going to make some old white hairs/no hairs mad. Take a class in non-profits, or find a lawyer that wants to get rid of their guilt, and find out how to form one. Go after grant money. Evolve the church from a place where people only come to worship, to place where all people come to have their lives transformed.
So, the question remains: do you want to survive, or your church survive? Do you want to thrive and your church thrive? If so, start with worship. Find out what it means to enter into communion. Find out what it means to become relevant to God and to community. Will you get fired? Maybe. Yet, you have to ask if entering the ministry was a question of job security. Look into yourself. Do you call yourself a pastor or a prophet?
This isn't a liberal or a conservative idea. I'm not asking for an ascent to a way of thought. I'm simply asking for you to find the courage to live in the light of love – to live in the divine light of charity. You have the ability to work with God, for Christ.
But, eh, not everybody is cut out for this kind of work? Or are they? Your answer will tell you a lot."
I've heard people all my life tell me that I need Jesus. I have heard old men, and young women tell me that Jesus is the way to go. I walk into the Church, and see a man hanging on a cross. Or, maybe I see a painting on the wall with a beard I know I'll never be able to grow. I hear about the Jesus of revolution, but I've never known revolution. Jesus was immaculately conceived, but I wasn't even naturally conceived. Suffice to say, I can't find my Jesus.
I read about a Jesus' birth, a few events about his childhood, and then the story picks up in ministry - three years later, he's dead.
I'd like to know what went through his mind, his heart, and his body. I'd like to know what he wondered about, what he cared about, how it all worked out. How did he argue with his family? How did he live day-to-day. I'm not concerned about the divinity, but the humanity of Jesus. My Jesus doesn't wander around in heaven playing croquet. My Jesus doesn't wonder about the intentionality of walking from Judea to Jerusalem, but wonders what the Jordan River will feel like when the Baptist dunks him.
My Jesus isn't afraid to meet the powers that be, but doesn't use violence, only love. Yes, he will toss some tables, but that's in the Temple. I think Jesus recognized that political power mixed with religious piety trumps empire everyday. For violence only begets violence. Jesus knew it's not what God is doing in the world that hurts people, its what we do with God in the world that hurts people. My Jesus makes a way in the middle of suffering to utter profound theological statements, but care enough to make sure his mother is comforted.
But that Jesus doesn't show up day to day, doesn't show up in the coursework, the classes, the prayers. I wonder why? I wonder why we are hesitant to push the brim of humanity we find in Jesus. I wonder why we can't find a Jesus that asks the deeper questions, not of the political regime, but of the religious regime. Often times we are so focused on telling other people about Jesus we forget what Jesus is telling us. The Gospel of Matthew spends an entire chapter on the dangers of religion, the dangers of piety.
Does our piety cloud our judgment so much that we cannot see Jesus beckoning us forward, out of the pew, and into the streets? Jesus will look different depending upon social class, geographical location, and life experience. But, that doesn't mean we can't listen to what Jesus tells us now. That doesn't mean that we can't be transformed. Different "Jesus" doesn't mean that our work in this world must end, but that we must be opened up to what that Jesus is saying.
Tell Jesus who you think he is, and I guarantee you, he'll deconstruct it.
Tell Jesus what you think she does, and I guarantee you she'll re-imagine it.
Tell the world what Jesus is, and I guarantee the world will refocus it.
My Jesus hasn't shown up yet. Maybe my Jesus will. Maybe my Jesus isn't mine at all, but ours. Maybe still, Jesus isn't what we think Jesus is. Perhaps, Jesus is the voice of the Imam, the voice of the Buddhist, or the voice of the Atheist. Maybe. We must look. We must seek. You will find Jesus where you least expect it, in the place you least imagined, in the face you reluctantly engaged.
My Jesus can't be found. In all I do, no matter what I say, Jesus shows up. It's just a matter of where I'm looking, to whom I'm listening, and where I'm walking.
This past Sunday I witnessed something that would make a Baptist cry: a baptism. What would make a Baptist weep is the means of baptism: the Episcopalian kind. Yes, well, my baptist sensitivities were placed on high-alert. I had never seen 'one' before, you know, the kind where they pour the water, then placed water on the forehead, three times, all the while there's that LONG responsive reading. In other words, not my kind of baptism.
I like baptism, it's symbolic nature, and how if you ask someone what they think about baptism, you can probably figure out their tradition. Yet, I'm a Baptist worshiping in an Episcopal church. Thankfully, it's not the type of liturgy that's so high that you can't breathe. Seems, to me, the right mix of high and low. I could, at this juncture, delve into the importance of understanding worship and liturgy. But, I won't, because I figure you're here, you care.
When the baptism occurred I admired the act, the words, the community. Yet, it didn't hold the same evocative power. I was instantly transported back in time, watching people being (un)mercifully plunged under the water, prayed to God that they didn't inhale – a drowning by the Holy Spirit, what a shame. In any case, I loved the symbol, the meaning, and the general aura of immersion. For me, well, wading in the water means going deeper.
I sat through the baptism, and I wasn't offended. Growing up, when a new minister would baptize somebody, he (I say he because that's all I knew a minister to be when I was younger) would catch hell, and some people literally through the condemnation to hell at him. I never really knew the difference - you go down, come up, your sopping wet, and your changed. Or, well, you're starting to change. The belief in baptism has different incarnations and displays itself differently.
In the moment of the baptism, facing all my memories and baptist sensitivities, I imagined what it would be like to have a congregation filled with different denominations. It would be an 'ecumenical-mixer' if you will. Represented would be different denominations, and the tradition would be a multiplicity of tradition. How it all works out, well, I don't quite know. I'm unsure of the specifics, but I know that congregation would appeal to me, speak to me, and challenge me. Sure, the larger Body of Christ represents this every Sunday, but could we not have an international Body of Christ too? And, no, I don't want a non-denominational church - I think it was Dr. King who said, "If you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything."
Yet, if you're a non-denominational person, that's fine, but know you're actually not. Your own non-denominational aspect is a denomination - kind of circular reasoning. Developing a tradition is important for traditions allow us to speak to the past, act now, and listen to the future. Yep, if you don't want a name, you probably shouldn't have done the whole 'walking the aisle' thing. But, I digress.
I don't want just one tradition, I want many. Better yet, I need many. I need to hear the mystery of faith from my Anglican siblings, as well as the sacrament of the word from my Baptist siblings, and everything in between. Worship is an act of transformation, and when we are not presented with the entirety of the conversation our transformation lacks. I don't know how this all works out, practically speaking. Is it a Utopian idea? Some might say, "Yes. Of course." But, I'd like to believe that one day, this will become a reality. Maybe I'll be an old crusty corpse when it happens. Whether it happens in ten years or 100, I'll keep working toward unity in faith. I have not a timid spirit, but a courage-filled hope that we, all of us, Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Non-Denominational, and God can enter a room and be transformed.
What's a Church? A building? Or, people? Community in the Sanctuary? Or, a Sanctuary in the Community? Music courtesy of Daniel Bailey at www.danielbaileymusic.com
This post has roots in an article written by Brian McLaren: Post-Colonial Theology
Today was Monday, which meant Theology. I study theology under E. Frank Tupper, an ambitious, understanding, and learned soul. Today's lecture centered liberation theology. Tupper, an older white male, admitted his own racism. Tupper stated, "Racism isn't out of me. I'll have to die before it's out of me...I've been taught to be a racist, and you have too." This came only after I piped my hand up and asked, "Why do we have specialized theologies? Why do we have to have qualifiers like liberation, feminist, ecological? If we do that why don't we call the dominant, historical theology, 'white privileged theology?' After a long pause, he looked at me, and said, "Because you have to get a job."
I appreciate Frank's honesty, which is always reliable. Frank doesn't pretend or lie to make someone feel better. He shoots it straight. In this moment he recognized his own privilege. He recognized his own role in within theological racism. Yet, he doesn't write a 'racist' theology. He doesn't practice bigotry. Yet, the participation within the larger system makes him complicit.
Today, we also had the good fortune of hosting Dr. Marcus Borg - if you've never seen him, he looks like the old Obi Wan Kenobi. We had a community lunch, at which most of the Divinity School attended. It was wonderful to hear him answer our questions, our concerns, as those engaged in theological education. I appreciate this, as there exist many theologians who are too steeped in the academy to remember conversation with those that practice their ideas.
I raised my hand. I was the second one to be called on. The question? The exact question I had asked Frank Tupper one hour before. Borg looked at me. I looked at Borg. I anticipated his response. After all, here was a white man, in the academy, that has written books on Jesus and influenced much of 'liberal theology' - what would he say? Well, he found the question interesting, and said he had never thought of that before. He thought it a novel idea, and though we should start calling mainstream theology, "white-male-patriarchal theology." At this, he laughed, and the audience laughed - a nervous laughter. The answer I wanted never came. Nothing even close to Frank Tupper's sentiment was expressed. There existed no recognition of privilege in his own work.
The question remained in the air, and my colleagues and I would later discuss the dropped question. Those colleagues, white and people of color, wondered aloud how he could not recognize his own privilege. I enjoy much of Borg's work, and some of his writing has influenced my own theological belief. My experience within theology has been for some time now, in a word, awkward. I like theology. I like liberation theology. But, for me to espouse a liberation theology is beyond my grasp. As a white male, it's not my place to call on a liberation theology, as we know it. My theology, that which comprises most mainline churches, has been procured and propagated with white privilege.
We need in our theology start calling theology what it is. Many Christian traditions have theologies that have incited fighting and violence, but we don't speak of that. The theological tradition I grew out of speaks to white privilege. Some theologians say that white, male theologians need a liberation from privilege. While this is a nice sentiment, it's not enough to simply write differently. Theology is not only the activity of the mind, but the activity of the heart in the mind. Our experience and our activity as people of faith flows from the investigation of God. When theologians pen a manuscript, they influence ministers, professors, and laity to act and live a certain way. Our theology, then, must not simply take place in the pen or mind, but in our activity.
To engage the privilege that characterizes theology, it means understanding history. It means that when a white male teaches liberation theology, they recognize their own complicity in the need for the qualifier 'liberation.' No, they are not guilty of bigotry and hate. But, the system they propagate will continue, and it will continue to divide until we get honest with ourselves. It's no wonder then that MLK said, "Sunday is the most segregated day of the week." Our theology, that which is given to ministers to use, is divided among race lines. Our theology has created a divide between our collective humanity. Racism never shows such an ugly face as when it is illuminated before God.
White people and white males cannot think themselves guilty, or active agents in advancing white privilege. It is not enough to think that creating classes with the words 'liberation,' 'feminist,' or 'queer' alone will solve the problem. It takes a mindset to dig deep within our past, and say honest truths. It takes courage to flip tables. However, if flipping tables and revealing history occurs only with white hands, privilege will continue. White people cannot be those making the space or framing the questions. White people cannot jump into the theological world of people of color and demand to know what white privilege has done to them. White people, need to listen.
As a white person myself it has meant listening to those 'specialized' theologies. In those stories, I begin to learn exactly what my mainstream white theology has created. As I listen to the stories of people of color, I learn more and more about my role in society, and in the church. Yes, creating multi-racial churches is necessary for the church of the future. But, multi-racial only works when white privilege is called out by name, and that means calling out our theologies too.
Privilege is powerful. As a white male I can persist through the rest of my life without ever engaging it – the systems are built for it. Yet, I profess a God that loves all. I believe in the Christ - love, par excellence. If that's even a part of my theology, I have to reckon with my knapsack of privilege. If somebody believes in the "inerrant Word of God," they have to reckon with what does it mean to read that 'God is love,' yet remain ignorant to privilege. The Church is a body - but one part of that body has controlled the entire movement. We wonder why the American church falters. Could it be that because of privilege we haven't seen the destructive forces? Could it be that by recognizing privilege we, white people, could stop controlling the movement?
When I go to Church many people wonder about the future of the church. They are scared that it will die out. It surely will if we do not engage this centuries-long system of white privilege. We have a choice to make. If people honestly care about the church, about the body, about the future, they will engage the white, male privilege at work. The future is indeed bleak, but, with each other, for our common humanity, we can make a choice to rethink our world and make it as God intended. This is the work of Grace: the space to engage the haunting past, and force of courage to meet the hopeful future.