Life As Gift, Live As Gift

Sometimes, when you least expect it, grace breaks in.

Sunday night was the Four Churches concert that our church participates in each fall. Having finished my small handbell contribution (we accompanied the first hymn), I sat down to enjoy the rest of the concert. As I looked around the beautiful sanctuary of Church of the Advent, the music and the moment swept over me, and I realized how blessed it is to just be alive.

To be alive: To be able to appreciate art, and architecture, and music. To have a relationship with another human being. To sit in the presence of the One, and sense the love and life and light that flows toward us and around us in a never-ending river of grace. And to be able to sense all this, even faintly, and to marvel at it all.

Life is a gift. Even at its lowest moments, life is a gift. May we all live each day as the gift it is.

The Incarnation — A Fake-Out?

We’re working through Brian McClaren’s book Everything Must Change at church on Sunday nights, and it’s been a good study of a challenging book. (There are still some weeks to go — come join us.) Today’s section contained a point that really helped crystalize a thought for me, and challenged me as well. Here’s the gist of it.

How do you reconcile a First Coming of good news, of love and acceptance, with a Second Coming of retribution and destruction? Does God finally give up on reaching people through love, and resort to violence and imperial force? If in the end, love doesn’t work, and God through Jesus kills everyone who disagrees, then was the Incarnation just a big fake-out — a feint, if you will, in the ongoing God-human relationship, like a parry in warfare, or a false-flag operation?

McClaren sort of mentions this issue in passing, as if he is going to return to it later. (I haven’t finished the book; don’t know if he does.) It is part of the larger theme he is pursuing, that Jesus came to introduce a new narrative that is neither Imperial nor Counter-Imperial — the way of the Kingdom, the way of love. But still, it struck me as I read it, and it helped me to realize why the “Left Behind” books have always bothered me.

I think, if we are to believe in God, then we almost by definition must believe that God ultimately triumphs. (I realize that’s not completely true; there are some that believe in God that also believe God ultimately fails. I’m not there.) So, if God ultimately triumphs, what does that mean? What sort of triumph is Godly enough, in your estimation?

The “Left Behind” view is that God, in the end, conquers all, including those who oppose him, and destroys anyone standing in his way. There is certainly Biblical basis for this view, much of it in the Revelation of John. McClaren posits, though, that this is actually a defeat for God, in that the way of love fails, finally.

How much more of a triumph would it be, in McClaren’s view, if God’s love is ultimately victorious in all cases? Is that not the more compelling victory for the One who came in love?

I’m still working this out in my own mind. For one thing, I’m not sure how free will fits in with the second scenario. If everyone is ultimately drawn to God, and to adopt the way of love, by the power of the love of God, does that make a mockery of free will?

But one thing is clear to me — the triumphalism of the Church of the Left Behind is, in many cases, simply the need of humans to be more right than their neighbors, and even perhaps to rejoice that the ones who don’t agree with them “get it in the end.” And that, one can say with certainty, is not the point of the Good News.

(More on this, and on the book, as we work through it.) 

I’m Getting Tired of … Religion

You know, I’m really getting tired of religion.

I don’t mean spirituality, necessarily, and I certainly don’t mean the practice of Christlikeness. But I surely do mean the earthly-focused, useless, institutional, powerless, unexamined fabric of delusions and rituals that pass for Christianity in many churches and places.

If we go to church most Sundays, we feel like we’re on the right path. If we go to Sunday School too, or serve on a committee, or sing in the choir, then we are even more certain that our Christianity has a solid footing. And if we actually practice tithing, or go to prayer meeting, then we are looked up to as a “mature” or “serious” Christian.

While each of these actvities may — I say “may” — indicate a growing follower of Christ, if you tell me that such things necessarily indicate someone who is moving far down the path of Christ-following, my first reaction is Bullshit.

We need to read the Gospels again. We need to again see the people who followed Jesus — the losers, the immoral, the broken, the seekers — and the people who attacked Jesus — the religious, the successful, the powerful, the winners. We have created churches, and denominations, and a religion for the winners, and we have taken out any intimation that being a Christian may take you from winning to losing.

Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look around. What type of students are often guest speakers in our churches? Star athletes. What churches get all the attention? The ones that are growing the most numerically. What pastors get the important speaking invitations, the chance to lead workshops? The pastors of those growing churches.

Just once I’d like to see Brother Jones of First Sap Hollow Baptist asked to deliver the convention sermon, simply because he is a man of God who has served where God put him and done it with both faithfulness and Christlikeness. Just once I’d like to see a church featured in a Christian publication not because it is growing in numbers, but because it is growing in service or Christlikeness. Instead, we focus on who is barking loudest about the latest leading sin, or who is denouncing whom in which pulpit.

Many years ago, an author wrote a popular book called “How to Be a Christian Without Being Religious.” We need a follow-up book on being religious without being Christian.

Have a Very Merry, Horribly Conflicted Christmas

(Cross-posted at DailyKos and at Street Prophets)

I have always loved Christmas: the decorations, the special services at church, the parties, the time off. When I was young, the gifts were part of the attraction, but over time getting gifts has become much less important than giving them.

One of the main things I’ve loved about Christmas through the years is the event it celebrates. For a long time the wonder of it was both the foundation under everything else and a patina of joy on everything else.

The last few years, though, have shaken my attraction to Christmas and clouded the joy of the season. The self-congratulatory certainty of the religious right, combined with their politics of hate and their one-inch-deep theology, have almost driven me to despair. The current grace-less-ness of many Christians, who take offense at “happy holidays” but are more than willing to offend others, just makes me wonder why we persist in majoring on the minors. And if I see another Santa as part of a nativity scene, I think I’ll scream.

In the midst of my ennui, there are two things that draw me back, that begin to restore the joy of the season: the church I attend, and music.

The church is an amazing place: a mixture of challenge and acceptance, of God-talk and people-care, of moving worship and fun times, of a gentle but persistent focus on God in Christ AND what does that mean for each of us. It is the most emotionally healthy church I’ve ever been a part of, and also the most spiritually challenging.

And then there is the music. Somehow music gets past the oxidation of daily life, and begins to restore the patina of joy. It can be sacred — almost any of Rutter’s music, an anthem at church, even the Messiah — or not-so-sacred, such as the December album of George Winston or the Mannheim Steamroller pieces. I listen to the Mannheim “Silent Night” and the cool wind of a Bethlehem hillside brushes my face, and I imagine myself standing at a slight distance, looking down on a just-born baby and pondering the meaning of all I have seen and heard. And Christmas comes again.

When I was a child Christmas was both innocent and magical. Now that I am older it has lost its innocence. My wish for all this year, and every year, is not to regain the innocence of our childhood Christmases; it is instead that in the midst of our all-too-familiar weariness with both the world and with religion, we can somehow rediscover the magic, the wonder, the possibilities of that night. To paraphrase our pastor’s standard benediction — Now we leave this form of Christmas, to resume the Christmas that is our very lives. Go in peace and be Christmas for each other and for all you meet.

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Pastor Speaks Out on Walmart

(cross-posted at Daily Kos)

Our church, and our pastor, are serious about two things: inviting people into the love and acceptance of God, and confronting injustice as the opportunity presents itself.

So when Dr. Joseph Phelps of Highland Baptist in Louisville was contacted by the WakeUpWalmart folks and asked to do a short commercial, he stepped out of his comfort zone and stepped up to the plate.

Our church has a long history of caring for the less fortunate as part of our mission. Recently the work of social justice has begun to become a part of that mission: part of the ministry is caring for the individual, and part is trying to change the systems that help create the problems.

Still, anyone familiar with the church would realize that doing an ad for WakeUpWalmart was outside what we had been doing. Not that it is completely out of character — far from it — it’s just a little more “out there” than our normal modus operandi.

Joe Phelps has a pastor’s heart, a tremendous one. Occasionally, he also puts on the prophet’s mantle. He’s not egotistical about it, like some; neither is he aggressive about it, like others. But when he feels called to speak out, he does so. And in 30 seconds, he cuts to the heart of the issue for those of us who call ourselves Christians.

Here’s the money quote:

As we celebrate Christmas, search your heart — If these are Walmart’s values, would Jesus shop at Walmart? Should you?

You can view the video here: Video at WUWM.

Here’s the church website: Highland Baptist.

Update: Pastor Shares Statement on Why
I just discovered that Joe also put a statment up on the church web site, explaining why he decided to accept the invitation to do the ad. You can read it here.

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A Few Quick Links for Christians

It’s almost Sunday, and time for a few links for fellow Christians to check out…

  • Faithful Progressive, a new (to me) blog that looks promising
  • Christian Alliance for Progress, a new site (and organization?) subtitled “The Movement to Reclaim Christianity and Transform American Politics.” I’m still checking them out, so haven’t signed on yet, but if any of you know more, please comment.
  • And of course, there’s always the Sojourners web site, an excellent organization and site.

Ethics versus Morals

As we prepare for the inauguration and reflect on recent and current events, we may find benefit in the comparison of ethics versus morals.

Morals, according to the dictionary, is “concerned with the judgment of the goodness or badness of human action.” And when it comes to judgment, the current crop of Bushites certainly excel, especially in the sexual arena. Their judgment is clear: abortion is immoral, homosexuality is immoral, gay marriage is immoral. Stating these judgments loud and often was their path to power. And, it worked.

Ethics, on the other hand, is “a set of principles of right conduct.” Again, the actions of this administration and its supporters are clear. Torture — not immoral, must be okay. Rape of the environment — not immoral, must be okay. Corporate and personal greed — not immoral, must be okay. Revealing the identity of an undercover CIA agent to get back at her husband — not immoral, must be okay. Telling lies about opponents in order to get elected — not immoral, must be okay. Lying to go to war — not immoral, must be okay.

Obviously, the Bush team, and many of their supporters, see no connection between morals and ethics. You could say they have morals without ethics. They can judge others, they can hold others up to the moral mirror, but when they themselves look in the same mirror, all they see is their own unseeing eyes.