Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Trump and the evangelicals

The rise of Donald Trump as a likely Republican presidential candidate has been mystifying to me as well as others who I have talked to. His rise in the polls no matter what he says or does defies common sense. As Trump says he could probably shoot someone in broad daylight and still maintain his support. Trump has demeaned or insulted Mexicans, Muslims, women, disabled people, war heroes and that's a short list. Yet, his popularity is soaring. What is especially hard to figure is the enthusiasm of evangelical Christians for his candidacy. Trump is an unlikely champion of the evangelical cause. Three times divorced, a Presbyterian who has never confessed his sins to God (he has none to confess), a tough and pragmatic businessman who has admitted to being greedy, Trump does not fit the evangelical mold at all. His profanity at one time might have excluded him but he can call for a beat down of protestors at his rallies and people cheer. There seems to be no stopping him.

He was in South Carolina over the weekend which is fertile ground for evangelicals. One was asked why he was supporting Trump who is not a traditional evangelical. We are not electing a pastor he said but a president and he speaks for my values. That may be the way a lot of evangelicals are thinking. They want someone who is an outsider and who will stand up to the big challenges America faces in the world. If we are going to be great again we need someone tough like Trump appears to be. The compassionate conservative of the Bush era is long gone. We want muscular Christianity or at least someone who projects strength even if he does not believe just like us.

Trump is taking advantage of the evangelical drift in recent years from faith to feeling. Our faith has become so subjective what matters is a personal religious experience (accepting Jesus as my savior) without much accountability to a confession of faith or a community of believers. Who does Trump answer to? Who functions as his community of discernment? He is not part of the Republican party or a convinced and active member of any church. What matters for his supporters is that he says he is a Christian which can mean whatever any one wants it to mean. Now, it seems to mean more about one's political views than theological views. Who even needs theology when what matters is what is on our hearts. The same heart, Jeremiah the prophet said in the Bible,  that is not very trustworthy.

Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God not just a religion of the heart. He is sovereign over business, politics, all of life 24/7. It is impossible to keep him in an inner box where we go for inspiration but in the real world we need to go with what works. There is this Gnostic thing at work in  many parts of the Church today that wants Jesus on our own terms but not as he showed himself to be. We want our personal, private Jesus but in no way do we want to "apprentice ourselves to his way of doing things" (David Dark's words in  The Gospel According to America by David Dark). His way is the way of the cross - a term not heard often on the campaign trail as candidates go after the evangelical vote.

When Pope Francis stood on the Mexican side of the US - Mex border he talked about how he could not understand how a Christian could close his or her eyes to the suffering masses of people on the side of the border he was standing on. And do nothing but build better and bigger walls. Some people said he was talking about Trump although he did not mention him by name. He might not even know who Donald Trump is but he knows who a Christian is.

Friday, February 19, 2016

David Dark's book of light

"Poetry doesn't need self expression. The self has been expressed. You're standing in it." That's a quote from  Mary Karr. David Dark, in a new book, Life's Too Short To Pretend You Are Not Religious, says it sums up his book. Dark has other phrases that sum up his book too. Like: Be Specific. And, the world is never generic; it is one's own world. And here is one borrowed from Wendell Berry: "the context of love is the world". The world you live in. All love is local. Love is not abstract. If it does not take on flesh and blood it is "delusional".

If you substitute faith for poetry in the Karr quote you get what Dark is saying. Our faith shows, all the time; our religion, or our values, are often "glaringly, sometimes crushingly obvious." It shows in who you are in life and love. It matters where you are and how you live there. Your religion is how you choose to live in the sacred place you find yourself.

All people are religious. Christians are religious. But, somewhere we got off track so it seems like we think that what we believe/what we say/what we profess is what makes us a Christian. How did that happen? (Thus, we have self confessed Christians supporting torture, carpet bombing, keeping the strangers and aliens, i.e, Mexicans, Muslims, etc,  out of our country). We have drawn up a list of what Christians do and don't do (don't do is a much longer list). So, we can tell the difference between the nons and born agains. Dark, in his books, wants Christians to be very clear about what is a Christian. What do you and I mean when we define ourselves that way.

Whatever it means, it means, at least, that we can't do it on our own. We have this myth of the self -made man or woman. Work hard and hard work pays off (and if it doesn't you aren't working hard enough). Dark says, it's like our national motto is, "Hurry up, and matter." We say we believe in grace but live by anti-grace. He quotes George Monbiot in the Guardian, "if wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire"

What is your litmus test for faithfulness? We all have one? Is it what we say we believe about God, or eternal life, or Jesus, or the gifts of the Spirit, or alcohol, or who should be allowed the legal right to marry or, on and on, we could go. So many ways to divide ourselves. Which is why Vincent Harding (and David Dark) say, "love trumps doctrine every time." It's about the way we live. How we treat our neighbors, especially the vulnerable. That is true religion not trying to convince people of hard to prove things.

True religion is not hard to find. If you look for it, it can be seen in many mundane tasks people do for each other all day long. When most people see it they know it by heart.

Try this on for size: "If my religion is my relationship with the world, good religion would be the work of growing, developing, deepening consciousness, not closed, not shut, settled, rigid, or done for, but one of ever unfolding receptivity and, if you like, continual repentance, a continual turning away from all of my not quite worthy of life commitments, a way of taking responsibility for what I do."Bad religion begins with a denial of relationship, any practice that divides us from others. James, the brother of Jesus said something about that.

They will know us by our love, John said in one of his letters, and he did not say by our doctrinal statement (our doctrine is Jesus is Lord, he did say). People take time. Love has a face. Reach out and touch someone. Get out of your comfort zone, live your religion, don't just talk about it and hang out in a church building with others you think believe like you do (they may not you never know).

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Rich Man and St Peter

(This story is a product of imagination. Any similarity to known historical figures is probably intentional)

Imagine: A very rich man dies and when he gets to the gates of heaven, Peter asks him, why he is there. The rich man looks confused as if everyone knew why he was sent there. "To make it great", he said. "To make it greater than it has ever been", he was almost shouting. "No one will even remember how it was before I got here because it will be so great", he continued. And he would have gone on had not Peter raised his hand to stop him. "It's already great here," Peter said, rather amused by this rich man. "What makes you think we need you here to make it greater?", Peter asked the rich man who was not smiling. "Everyone - every place needs me, the rich man stated, I have made everything I have ever touched greater." "How about an example", Peter asked reaching for his cell phone. "I've built great towers" (we know how God feels about towers is what Peter thinks to himself). "I have built great entertainment centers" (the thought of the golden calf flits through Peter's mind). "I have been a great tv star (Peter looks again for he doesn't remember this man on Touched By An Angel). "Ok, Peter says, but what good have you done specifically?" "I've told you, I have done great things and you will see even greater things when I get done!" Peter's thoughts had gone to something Jesus said to Nathaniel about seeing greater things. There seemed to be a disconnect here. "There is a difference between great things and good things," Peter pointed out. "No doubt you have done some good things no one knows about?" Peter said questioningly. "I doubt it, the rich man said, I am a reality tv star." Peter was itching to look at the text that had come in a moment ago so trying to bring this conversation to some conclusion he brought up fruits.
What fruits has your life born?
I've made life better for people.
In what ways?
I've improved the real estate on earth. I've built walls to keep people safe. I've kept undesirables away. Don't you know great crowds come to hear me speak all the time. I must have done something right. All those people can't be wrong.
Peter finally looked at his text. It was from the Greatest Who is the Servant of All. Looking up at the rich man Peter said, "ok, you can come in but you have to wait in that room over there with the "P" on it. There is some reading you need to do. Dante is a good place to start. Then, there is some kitchen work that needs to be done. This may take awhile.
"And what if I don't want to do that," the rich man said, walking away.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Simon and the woman

I think it could have been a setup. The Pharisees had tried to trap Jesus before. Simon, the Pharisee (Luke 7), invited Jesus to dinner with some of his Pharisee friends. He had already sent out one of his Pharisee assistants to pick up a woman of the street and bring her to his house. After Jesus arrived and the meal had begun, the women had been instructed to enter the dining room of the Simon's home - how else to explain her entrance into an unauthorized domain? She was a sinner, an outsider, and surely a fish out of water in a leading Pharisee's home. And so the trap was sprung. As she anoints Jesus feet which were not washed beforehand, and kisses them when Jesus had received no kiss of hospitality, and anoints his feet with expensive oil since no one has seen fit to anoint his head with fragrant oil - Simon and the others wait to see his reaction.

What will Jesus do? This sinner is hopelessly out of place. She is touching him, kissing him and wasting precious oil on his feet which are dirty and stink.  She is a law breaker breaking laws. She is way out of the realm of social acceptability. There are so many reasons why she is the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perfect trap.

Good time for a story. Two debtors one who owed a great deal and one who owed a much smaller amount. Neither could pay off the debt so the creditor cancels both debts small and large. It was possible but not likely. Hypothetically, which one would love the creditor more? Love? Strong word. Feel grateful to, or further indebted to, or just basically wondering how lucky could he be, all of the above more likely. Simon knows he has lost, see the sneer, and hear the sarcasm in his voice, well I suppose the one for whom the greater debt was canceled. (This was not a hard question.) The woman who was the trap was paid for her performance, perhaps. Or, she was performing because of a threat of a harsher punishment if she did not. She was surprised to learn her great debt had been canceled, even forgiven. She had touched and been touched by God in human flesh. In a place where she was more out of place than a sanctuary. She was a sinner who was used to being used by men even the religious. Here she was welcomed by true religion, her debt forgiven while Simon and friends were adding to theirs.

I can't say for sure if it happened just like this but it's plausible, isn't it. And the punchline is the same.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Ash Wednesday

Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. The pastor said those words as she smudged a cross with ashes on my forehead. We went out for a burger afterwards. We talked over whether to go into the restaurant showing our ashes or not. We felt like it was a unnecessary display of piety so we wiped them off. Not well enough, the person taking our order noticed, Ash Wednesday huh, she nodded knowingly. Pushing back her hair she showed us the remnants of her ashes. Later that night on the news I saw Jeb Bush sporting his ashes. For political gain, I judged. The people at our Ash Wednesday service, our server, Jeb Bush, we are all dust and to dust we will return. What difference does that make about how we treat each other now?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Christian leaders

Christian leadership carries with it impossible expectations. It has been said that St Paul, if he was applying for a church leadership position today, would not qualify. He had a past that was intellectually solid but decidedly unfriendly toward Christians. He had some kind of speech or hearing impediment, a temper, probably unmarried, and appeared rather broken and battered. He was not your typical candidate for a prestigious Southern Baptist Church pastorate.

Christian leaders are usually placed on a high and visible platform and when they fall, they fall hard and in full public view. What do we look for in our leaders? What do we expect? Whether we know it or not, our expectations derive from an obscure text in an obscure book of the Bible. I refer to Leviticus chapter 21 which describes the qualifications for a priest of Israel.  It's hard to believe they found anyone to take the job. The priest's wife had to be pretty darn near perfect, too. No blemishes! is what the text says. No one who was blind, lame, or of bruised body or limbs. No one who stood out for any physical deformity. No one who had acne or crushed testicles (ouch!).

Jewish and Christian interpreters mostly spiritualized these qualifications for leaders. They became symbols of moral qualities. The blemishes were vices such as pride, ignorance, spiritual laziness or lust. The virtues God was looking for in a priest who shaped Israel's life (and the church's in a Christian sense) were purity and goodness and holiness. That which is from God should be exemplified in his leaders.

Interestingly, Jesus who is our high priest according to Hebrews, was not unblemished in the Levitical sense as he gave his life in the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. He had been beaten, bruised, and broken. He was a fulfillment of the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 52-53 who was hardly unblemished either.

Christian leadership needs to be framed more by the Suffering Servant and the Suffering Life of Jesus than a spiritualized reading of Leviticus 21. Rather than seeking unblemished leaders (who don't really exist anyway) the church needs leaders who have or are suffering themselves. Following Jesus, the Christian leader is the "least and last of all" Ephraim Radner writes,"God comes to the deformed, assumes their distinctive agony, whether moral or physical, and drawing them with him to his goal, transforms them." Our holiness is not our holiness but the result of God's coming near to us in the Body of Christ. Hallowed be Thy Name, not our name. We are a kingdom of priests, fallen priests, who bear the marks of Jesus as the marks of holiness.