Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The "Self-Liquidation" of Religion

"Religion will all but vanish eventually from nine Western-style democracies, a team of mathematicians predict in a new paper based on census data stretching back 100 years. It won't die out completely, but "religion will be driven toward extinction" in countries including Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands, they say.  The mathematicians say it will also wither away in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland....Peter Berger, a former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, once said that, "People will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere."
He said Protestantism "has reached the strange state of self-liquidation," that Catholicism was in severe crisis, and anticipated that "religions are likely to survive in small enclaves and pockets" in the United States.
He made those predictions in February 1968."  (Richard Allen Greene, CNN Wire, March 23, 2011)

This article really caught my eye.  It raises the question, "Why are people moving away from "faith systems", otherwise known as religions? 

It is because the ideology is antiquated?  Because the idea of a God no longer seems acceptable?  Because the teachings of faith systems such as Christianity no longer seem to have anything to say to contemporary society?

I would suggest it is "none of the above". Perhaps the real issue is that faith systems have become, for a variety of reasons, either irrelevant or actually "negative" in terms of their impact on the world around them.  A faith system that supports the status quo, when the status quo is destructive and immoral is a system from which people should move away.  So when the "Christian Church" becomes (in some of its forms) the Republican Party at prayer, and that party supports legislation that steals from the poor and gives to the rich, then that religion is one that has become negative. I can easily be an equal opportunity blogger here because it is clear that the Republicans do not have a monopoly on morally questionable legislation.

But I think it is more the church's unwillingness to stand up and be counted that is the biggest issues facing the church.  Right now in America we are rolling into a "me first" and "screw the poor" culture.  We are getting to the point where money and power are more important than people.  We are losing our moral compass.  What is the church doing about that?  Pretty much nothing.  It has lost its voice.  Indeed many of the biggest churches claiming to be Christian have jumped on the band wagon and preach a gospel of abundance and wealth.  Believe in God, do the right things, and God will heap blessings on you!  The poor? Oh, they must have "defective faith."  Not!

I believe the church needs to find its voice.  In Nazi Germany the church lost its voice.  Only a few people like Bonhoeffer dared speak up.  They made a difference.  The words of Bonhoeffer are still read and relevant.  In South Africa the church found its voice on apartheid.  It made a difference.  The church in America needs to find its voice.  It needs to look past moral issues such as homosexuality and abortion, which are profound moral issues indeed (and profoundly complex in many ways) to broader and deeper moral questions such as "what does it mean to be the church in a world of greed, in a world where the gap between the 'have and have nots' is growing exponentially?"

Does the church have the faith to speak out in a political climate that is patently non-Christian? Does it have the courage to say that people who talk about being pro-life and about supporting morality are actually being immoral as they throw the poor and needy and ill "under the bus" because it benefits them monetarily?

I don't have any great answers.  But I think this is an important question.  Do we want to be relevant or not?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Reframing the issue

Not too long ago a woman named Kelley McDaniel of Portland, Maine decide to speak on the proposed Governor’s budget for that state.  She's a part-time librarian at King Middle School – and she provided a very teachable moment, in all of 3 minutes

She talked about how the state budget in Maine (in a way similar to that in Wisconsin) contains $200 million in tax cuts -- including an expansion of the estate-tax exemption from $1 million to $2 million -- that largely would benefit Mainers who aren't exactly scraping to get by. 

Observed McDaniel, "I don't understand the rationale for this proposal."  She said she doesn't buy the idea that the tax cuts, putting significantly more money back into the pockets (or portfolios) of Maine's wealthy, will stimulate the economy.  Citing reports from the Congressional Budget Office, McDaniel said "the best way to stimulate the economy is to give modest increases to the poor. Wealthy people tend to hold on to their money, while poor people tend to spend it as they get it."

Then McDaniel, as those experts might say, "re-framed the issue."

"I don't think it's a moral decision, because taking money from people who don't have much money and giving it to people who have more money than the people you took it from seems, well, greedy," she said. "Greed is frowned upon in every major world religion -- and I don't think agnostics and atheists look too kindly upon it, either."

In other words stealing from the poor to give to the rich is a moral no-brainer.  Except for many of those who now hold political power.

I am reminded of the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the New Testament.  There are many ways to look at this miracle.  But at least one important way is to recognize the miracle that happened when many people, miles from the nearest grocery store, were motivated to let go of their tightly held food, and share it with others.  It was at the very least a miracle of generosity.  But the bottom line was this.  When everyone share what they had, there was enough for everyone.

We aren’t broke in American, but we do have a distribution problem.  A distribution problem that is being legislated into greater intensity in the name of economic necessity and fiscal responsibility.  I am sorry. That is so much…….. ok this is a public forum so I will refrain. 

What is needed is for people to take the words, and ministry, of Jesus seriously.  We are not measured one author noted, by what we give, but by what we keep.  If the story of the loaves and fishes were told today in American what might it look like?  Many people looking around for food and finding none, while a few people sit high on the hill hugging their collected food to themselves.

So the hungry go hungry.  The well fed become bloated and obese.    And the hoarded food?  I suspect it rots!

It is time to re frame the issue.  We don’t have an economic problem.  We have a heart problem. A spirit problem.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Beautiful Wretched

What is a Christian? Is a Christian a person who has got their stuff together?
Are they one who has things figured out?  In Romans 7 Paul makes it pretty clear that a Christian doesn’t have it all together.

“14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Does that sound like Paul had it all together?  No.  It is an odd thing about the gospel.  It gives us two messages at the same time.   Always two messages.  One message?  We are wretched!  The other message?  We are wonderful and beautiful.

I like the way one writer put it.  “The gospel is good news for sick people and is disturbing for those who think they’ve got it all together.  Some of us have been told our whole lives that we are wretched, but the gospel reminds us that we are beautiful.  Others of us have been told our whole lives that we are beautiful, but he gospel reminds us that we are also wretched.   THE CHURCH IS A PLACE WHERE WE CAN STAND UP AND SAY WE ARE WRETCHED, AND EVERYONE WILL NOD AND AGREE AND REMIND US THAT WE ARE ALSO BEAUTIFUL.”

What a paradox! 
This is part of why faith is so interesting, so challenging.  Wretched, beautiful.  Beautiful, wretched. 

We are constantly fighting this dichotomy   Constantly.  We are good.  We are not so good.  We are the empowered people of God.  We are powerless over so many things that make us wretched.  It is the way it is.  And because it is the way it is, we have to join Paul in his lament  “wretched person that I am”
And we have to join Paul in his celebration  “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

This is not something we do well in the church.  We don’t know what to do with weakness.  With failure.  With the dark side of our souls.  And so our tendency is do one of two things.  We either try to deny that this dark side even exists, or we allow it to define us, we allow it to control us, we let it beat us up!

What happens when we can’t accept, so to speak, this side of ourselves?  What happens is that we have to pretend and hide.  We sit in the pews and pray.  Pray that no one sees as we really are!  Pray that no one really can see the ooze and slime and old decay at the center of our being.  We sit, oh so carefully.  And we talk, oh so carefully.  And we act, oh so carefully.  And somewhere in the process we get lost.  We become unreal… We hope we are fooling people.  Perhaps we are fooling each other.  But we aren’t fooling the world around us.  This is why people so frequently look at Christians and call them hypocrites. 

Paul points us to another way.  He says we need to build our community around a common sense of wretchedness.  But a common sense of wretchedness that is framed by a common sense of how much we are loved and valued by God.  Make no mistake about it, they both have to be there!

I’ve met a lot of Christians who say “If people knew about all of my struggles and weaknesses they would never want to be a Christian.  I think the opposite is true.  If people really knew what idiots we are, in all our brokenness and vulnerability, they would know that this thing called Christianity is for them too.  Remember Jesus’ words?  It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:12-13).

Would being real hurt the church?  I suspect it would not.  I think the world would be willing to listen to a church on its knees, a church that doesn’t pretend to be perfect or to have all the answers.  When we are always trying to be perfect,  be strong, when we are constantly fighting for respect, we are isolated, perhaps alone.  It is lonely because people can’t be real with masks.  They can’t love a fa├žade.

The church should not be a place full of lonely people.  t should be a place where very real people sit next to very real people.  And we can dare to be that way!  Why?  Remember Paul’s words?  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!

We can dare to be real, because of Christ, who rescues us from ourselves.  Who sets us free to be who we are!  Who we are, with all our imperfections.  Who sets us free to be seen…. And – to see!
We are back again to grace.  There is, that word again.  Grace…. the transforming, scandalous, amazing, forgiving love of God. 

When we accept who we are, and do so in the context of grace, the context of God’s love and acceptance, that allows us to be free -  free to be our whole selves.   The good, the bad and the ugly.  We can be ourselves knowing that God accepts that whole person, and loves that whole person, and wants to move that very real person forward with his power and his love.

Shane Claiborne talks about a talk he once had with an old hippie friend who, he says “loves Jesus and smokes a lot of weed”.  He and the friends often end up in friendly debates about faith and the Bible.  One day he said to Shane, “Jesus never talked to a prostitute”  Shane immediately went on the offensive.  “Sure he did” and got ready to spar.  But then his friend looked him in the eye and said “Listen, Jesus never talked to a prostitute because he didn’t see a prostitute.  He just saw a child of God he was madly in love with.”

When we see ourselves a new way, we can see others a new way.  When we love ourselves as we are, we can love others as they are, and know that they, like we, are a project   A person under construction.  A person loved and forgiven by God. 

And then - we can truly be the church
We can be the place where people can stand up and say
I am wretched,
I need help
I am hurting
I am lost

And where everyone will nod, and agree, knowing they are in the same condition, and then remind the other, and themselves, that they are also wonderful - that they are loved and forgiven.  And then . . we will all be free, and we will be able to say with Paul:  What a wretched person I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!