Thursday, May 29, 2008

I Reject the Church of the Angry God

I have been on a journey the past few years that has resulted in the wholesale rejection of almost everything I grew up believing. I guess this post is the first time I have come out and said with clarity that I AM FREE! Like many of my readers, I grew up in a traditional, conservative Church of Christ. I reject that view of God, I reject that interpretation of the Bible, I reject all of their code words, I reject almost every point of doctrine, and I especially reject the blatantly dishonest mental gymnastics you have to go through to believe some of the most hurtful and nonsensical tests of "faithfulness." Larry James feels the same way, and because he says it better than I have, here is an article he wrote called, "The Church of the Angry God."

"It occurs to me that I haven't spent much time unpacking my theological roots, at least not in any systematic manner, at least not lately since I've moved in such a radically different direction over the past several years. For sure, I have spent many hours dislodging many specifics of the legalistic heritage I inherited from my West Texas farm family.

The strange, almost exotic emphasis on things like how to sing in church, the frequency of the Eucharistic celebration, the mode and meaning of baptism, the organizational details and glossary of the local church, the danger of being too cooperative with other congregations, the hard sell of a denomination that claimed it was non-denominational are all part of the list that goes on and on. And, when you stop to think it through, it includes some other really important matters - things like how to view women, how to treat members of other races, ethnic groups, and nations, the politics of war and peace, social justice and the poor - big ticket issues at home and around the world.

The truth is, I may have spent too much time on these issues in an attempt, both to make peace with my rather bizarre religious heritage and, at the same time, to reform it in some meaningful manner. Most likely, I could have avoided wasting so much time had I stepped back earlier for a longer, more comprehensive view of the theological system passed along to me from childhood. I also realize that to some extent, everyone could find such an exercise profitable. And, I expect almost everyone will find some aspects of their “theological inheritance” wanting.

But, I have mine with which to deal. I grew up in a church that was basically kind, welcoming and friendly - at least, that is how it seemed to me as a child. I later realized that this warmth was not necessarily shared automatically outside the church family. I also came to understand that, for the most part, the members of the church of my childhood were incredibly conservative socially and politically. In fact, many were extreme in their political and social worldview. If you are interested, I have stories! In reflecting on my positive feelings about the warmth of the church, I have come to realize that this was likely true because of the gracious soul of one minister in particular who shaped the spirit of the congregation for over a generation, even though he served for a relatively short tenure.

Back to the longer theological view - it is clear to me now that the community of faith of my childhood envisioned God to be fundamentally an angry deity. A God of judgment, punishment and severe actions was the God we attempted to satisfy on Sundays - morning and night, and then again at mid-week prayers and Bible study. Our concern for the details of salvation, church polity, worship style and religious exercises could all be traced back to this notion that God was a God who was defined and best understood as a deity seated on a throne of harsh judgment. Everything had to be just right or the God we served was bound to make it right at our eternal expense. From an early age I read, studied and memorized the details of the mighty acts of this avenging God. In an interesting twist of theological gymnastics, we spent a great deal of time reading the judgments and punishments of this God as revealed in the Hebrew Bible. At times, His judgments wiped out whole nations. At other times, His wrath focused on individuals or small groups who were somehow out of step with His law - the rules that could not be violated without great personal loss. Then, when we turned to deciding how to measure our faithfulness and acceptability as a church, we focused solely on the New Testament, with an emphasis on Acts of the Apostles as we searched for a “safe pattern” for our community. Ironically, we spent very little time focused on Jesus. We knew all about hell and eternal damnation - down to the sounds, smells and feelings. At one time or another, we all felt as if we were bound for the fire, only to be snatched out of the pit of suffering by completing a series of steps on our way to salvation. We learned quickly that salvation also involved “being faithful unto death” - a feat no one seemed sure how to accomplish. As a result, we threw ourselves into religious observances lined out by a clear pattern that had to be followed if we expected to reach the realms of eternal life. Our religion was defined almost completely by judgment - its single most important organizing paradigm.

Actually, this turned out to be very convenient for us. As most of us moved up into the middle class, we found that our religious system allowed us to escape the hard realities of the real world. We found it easy to ignore the American Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, poverty, injustice, racism, and countless other matters of here-and-now social importance. After all, we were faithful to the precise pattern we had learned in church and we were on the road to heaven, away from hell. We even sang with gusto that “this world is not my home, I'm just a passing through!” The paradigm of judgment insured our complete irrelevance as a people in and to our community. It is this perspective defined by judgment that I have spent the last 30 years or more casting aside."

AMEN brother!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Question to Ponder

I have been asked to speak at a summer series in the Dallas area this July. My assigned topic is: "The Problem of Suffering: Reading Job." I pleaded for another topic. But since "The Allegory of Light and Darkness in John's Gospel" was taken, I accepted. Most of the time, however, I try to avoid this topic because my thoughts are out of step with mainstream Evangelical Christianity. So, here's the scenario: Two people of roughly the same age are lying in side by side hospital rooms. Both are dying of the same illness. Both people have devout family members praying over them. One person makes a recovery while the other dies. Why? Did God only hear one plea and reject the other? Did they have secret sin their lives? Did they pray hard enough? Was their faith strong enough? What's going on here? Think about it, and let me know what you think.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Ten Questions You Need to Ask Before Marriage

I am not an expert on marriage. A list of my faults could fill a book. However, the most enjoyable part of my ministry has always been weddings. Last weekend I was privileged to perform a beautiful lakeside wedding. I have gone to some incredible places and met some interesting people. I don't do as much official "counseling" with couples as some other ministers do. What I have is a list of ten questions that I ask them to answer with brutal honesty. If you are already married, this may be a very scary moment for you, but go ahead - and be honest!

Ten Questions If You're Thinking of Marrying

1. Is the person your best friend or at least becoming so?
It is easy to get excited about a new person. But if you cannot say that the person you are considering marrying has become or is becoming your best friend, you need to figure out why before you decide to marry. This is probably the single most overlooked question among couples. Many people cannot answer this in the affirmative. But you have to answer it. Over time, friendship is the greatest bond between a couple. If the person you marry does not become your best friend, you will either seek someone who will be or simply drift apart. What is a best friend? Someone you tell just about everything to, someone you want to be with as much as possible, and someone you need. One of the most devastating ideas is that depending on another person is a sign of weakness. The opposite is true. The inability to need is a sign of weakness - you are afraid to relinquish power or afraid to be hurt.

2. Do you enjoy each other?
This sounds trite, but enjoying each other (aside from physical intimacy) may actually be the single most important characteristic of a happy marriage.

3. Is there chemistry between the two of you?
As essential as being best friends and enjoying each other are, there should be a vibrant physical component to your relationship. Dating for marriage is not an interview for a strictly platonic best friend. If there is insufficient physical attraction after all other criteria are met and time has passed, you may be in the tragic position of having to end a relationship with a great man or woman.

4. Does the person have at least one very close friend of the same sex?
It is a bad sign if the person you are thinking of marrying does not have good friends of the same sex. Something is very wrong. A woman who cannot hold female friends and a man who cannot hold male friends have issues that will probably sink your marriage.

5. How does the person treat others?
It should go without saying that if the person is not kind to you, quit while you can. But it is far from sufficient that the person you are considering marrying treats you kindly. Watch how they treat waiters, employees, family members, and anyone else they come into contact with. How the person treats others now is how this person will treat you later.

6. What problems do the two of you have now?
Whatever problems you have before the wedding day, you will have during your marriage. Do not think that marrying will solve any problem you have with the person. You have three choices: Make peace with the problem, see if it can be solved before deciding to marry, or don't marry the person. It is imperative that you be ruthlessly honest with yourself. And that is very hard. Nothing is easier than denying problems when you are in love.

7. How often do you fight?
It is normal for couples to fight, but it is a bad sign if you are doing so frequently while dating. That should be the easiest time to get along - no children together, no joint financial problems, and the excitement of a new person. If you fight, do you quickly make up? Does he/she hear your side? Do you apologize after a fight? And most important, do you fight over the same issues with no resolution? Also, Do you miss the person when you are not together?

8. Do you share values?
Opposites attract in the very beginning. Likes stay together for the long term. The more you share, especially values, the better your chances of a good marriage. For example, if you think television watching is a form of self abuse and your prospective spouse loves watching for hours a day, you may have a big problem. Likewise if you have opposing political and social views to which you are passionately committed.

9. Is the person unhappy?
The importance of marrying an essentially happy person cannot be exaggerated. If you are basically happy, do not think for a moment that you can make an unhappy person happy by marrying him or her. On the contrary, the ability of the unhappy to make the happy unhappy is far greater than the ability of the happy to make the unhappy happy.

10. What do people you respect think of the person you're considering marrying?
Young people are certain they know better than anyone else in the world what is good for them. So a lack of enthusiasm for the person you are considering for marriage on the part of family or friends may mean little or nothing. But if objections come, let’s say, from a parent you respect for reasons that are not easily dismissed, and if others you respect are unenthusiastic as well, you should take their objections seriously.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Thanks for the Concern

After that last post I have received several calls and emails asking if I'm okay. I really appreciate the concern and prayers. This has been a tough week - for a lot of reasons. Sometimes things just pile up, and you feel like you can't handle it all. That's where I am. So, here are some thoughts that may clarify my last post.

I am not going through a massive crisis at the Kaufman Church - I am just reminded from time to time of how much hurt and frustration I went though during my last few months at the last church I preached. Yesterday was one of those days that triggered some tender memories and emotions. I was having a bit of a pity party.

The past year has been FULL of change and turmoil for Holly and I. We are still trying to sort our way through a lot of stuff and find a settled routine.

I was trying to show that church can also be a place of lament and sorrow. It is very dangerous and shallow to think of church as a place of constant joy and happiness ALL the time.

Ministers are sometimes put on a pedestal, but we are humans too!! Many days I feel like Moses when he said to God, "please give someone else this job. I can't do it. They won't listen to me!" I sometimes have weak faith. I always wonder if I'm the right person doing the right thing. I think that kind of doubt is healthy for a minister.

So, thank you again to all those who "talked me off the ledge!" I'll be okay.

Ministry is Grief

Without getting into too many specifics, this has been a hard week for me. Personal and professional concerns have weighed down on me. Sometimes I feel like I'm barely holding on while a swirling tornado rips apart everything I have spent my life building. (I watched "Twister" last week - it makes sense to me!) Some days the line between reality and nightmare is blurred. One of the best books I've read on ministry ("When the People say No") begins this way:

"To be a minister is to know the most searing grief and abandonment, daily and profoundly. To be a minister is to take as partners in solemn covenant those who are sure to renege. To be a minister is to commit, unavoidably, energy and passion, self and soul, to a people, to a vision of who they are born to be, to their readiness to share and live into that vision. To be a minister is to make that all-out commitment to a people who cannot possibly sustain it. That is the nature of ministry. The minister is called by their need, by their fundamental inability to be who they are born to be, by their fundamental inability to share and live into that vision in which the minister invests all. To be a minister, then, is to be forsaken, regularly and utterly, by those on whose partnership one most relies for identity, meaning, and selfhood. The minister's call is rebuffed and repudiated and grieved for, over and over again. For the minister is called by their need, by their fundamental inability to live into the vision and the compact into which the minister must live so totally. Ministry is called forth and occasioned by such grief and the emptiness of being nobody."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Something to Think About

A couple of weeks ago I received one those emails that church people love to forward - you know, the one about how Barack Hussein Obama is really a covert Muslim, that he is constantly in communication with his militant cousin in Kenya, and that, if he assumes office, he will unleash a pseudo jihad/race war in the United States. Conservative political commentators aren't so bold, but their constant use of the name "Hussein" suggests an ominous Muslim threat - as does this picture which was flashed on TV as to suggest Obama being initiated into Al Quaeda. I've also heard it touted that our enemies (Islamists) consider him "their candidate." I think this is complete nonsense. Here's why:

Because of his father's status as a Muslim, Barack Obama was born a Muslim under Muslim law. His mother's Christian status is without consequence. It makes things worse for him - being half Muslim/half Christian; half black/half white is abominable to Muslims. Islamic law regards conversion from Islam as a crime/sin worse than murder. Anyone who converts from Islam to another religion is to be executed (preferably beheaded by a cleric). It's open season on that person's life. That person is not to be protected or sheltered, and anyone who kills them cannot be prosecuted. If Barack Obama becomes the U.S. President he will be hated in the Islamic world ten times more than Bush is hated, because he is a Muslim who converted to Christianity. Their candidate? I think not!

Friday, May 09, 2008

Some Irreverent Political Observations

Since this blog is a tribute to the greatest American - Thomas Jefferson - it is also a place for political discourse. I have three blunt, brutally honest, irreverent, and incendiary observations. This is just one man's opinion, so take it or leave it.

1. The Reverent Jeremiah Wright controversy has backfired on Hillary Clinton and the right-wing buffoons on talk radio. These are people who do not know the first thing about liberation theology or prophetic proclamation. These things are too complicated for their simplistic way of thinking. Their attack on Rev. Wright has been taken as an attack on the black church itself, which is why 91% of African Americans who voted in the Democratic Primary in North Carolina favored Obama over Clinton. I hope people will now stop saying that race has nothing to do with this election, or that as a society we're past that. Race has everything to do with this election!

2. I hold several things against George W. Bush, least of all the fact that he can't say "nuclear." He is responsible for the greatest military blunder of the past 150 years. Saddam may have been brutal, but he was never a real threat to the U.S. and he kept Iran at bay. Every reason we were given for war has turned out to be false. The ruling Shiites in Iraq now have close ties with Iran, and Iran feeds the Hezbollah terrorist machine in Syria. The political alignment of Syria, Iran, and Iraq means the resurgence of a greater Persia, which is our real enemy, not Saddam! Of course, the fact that most Americans can't tell the difference between a Persian and an Arab, or a Shiite and a Sunni means that we aren't fit to impose a foolish foreign policy in that part of the world anyway. In the meantime we get meaningless platitudes like, "We're fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here," or, "We're establishing a beach-head of democracy in that part of the world." Until Sunnis and Shiites agree that it's not the 7th century anymore they're not ready for democracy, and our young men and women should not be dying "over there" in the same kind of meaningless and unending struggle that ended the Roman and British Empires.

PLUS, George Bush has given us massive deficits and a trade imbalance which has weakened the Dollar. This means we are fighting a war on borrowed money, which further devalues the Dollar. Since oil is traded on the commodities market in U.S. Dollars, I think you'll get a feel for my argument next time you fill up your car at 3.55 per gallon! We're way past traditional supply and demand market forces here. The market is being manipulated by oil companies who are in collusion with one another (for example, Exxon-Mobil testified before Congress that they will not increase output until 2012. Why should they? They are the most profitable company in human history!) Their greed is eroding our entire economy like acid, and George Bush, along with Dick Cheney, who rode into office as the most energy-savvy administration ever, has done NOTHING. In fact, one could argue they are also in collusion with oil companies. The only people on the planet right now who seem to be enjoying the waning days of this administration are their oil buddies in Houston and West Texas. And finally, the requirement that 10% of fuel in the U.S. be ethanol is the dumbest idea in the history of dumb ideas! Oil is for fuel, corn is for eating - it's simple!!! The U.S. is the biggest producer of corn in the world. Corn is the staple food of people everywhere! But, so that American soccer moms can have a clean conscience while driving their flexfuel Suburbans around town, the price of food has doubled in the rest of the world. People are starving!!! This is one reason why so many people in the world hate us right now, and on this point, they are right!

3. I am really confused by conservatives who love George Bush, but hate John McCain. McCain is Bush in a different suit. Their policies and positions are IDENTICAL – except for one thing – McCain is fiscally more restrained than Bush, which means he is more conservative. Can someone please explain to me why conservatives flock to Bush’s side, but run from McCain? Until I get a good explanation, I’ll just assume they simply echo what they hear on the radio.

But, like I said, these thoughts are just one man’s opinion. Take it or leave it.