Sunday, September 26, 2010

On the Challenges of the Church--Continued

The devotion book we were given is entitled, 40 Day Spiritual Journey to a More Generous Life. The cover lets me know that it is a bestseller, of 400,000 copies plus translations in 40+ foreign languages.

During the last part of church, I decided to open the book and thumb through it. Bad move. I began to read the daily lesson titles, and I was immediately turned off. Some of these topics include:
  • The LORD watches your giving
  • Even the poor are to give to God from what they have
  • Set up a plan to faithfully give 10% OR MORE of your financial resources to the Lord's work (emphasis theirs)
  • Don't live for this life, but for your heavenly home
  • Women play a significant part in giving to God's work
  • God will reward you for your faithful generosity and diligent labors
  • Your giving in this life will have an impact on your experiences in eternity
This is just a sampling of the daily topics. So many things rub me the wrong way about this. I don't know where to begin.

Let's start with the need to point out that women play a role in God's work. As a feminist Christian and a feminist theologian, I, obviously, whole-heartedly agree. However, the fact that this needed to be highlighted in a chapter made it sound more like, "even women play a significant part in giving to God's work." Also, that this was one day out of 40 made me think that the other 39 were all about men. Maybe that's not the case, but that token chapter made me sick.

The chapters about giving in this life will impact experiences in eternity and God rewarding you for your generosity border dangerously on prosperity gospel. A quote by Sir John Templeton states, "...I always saw greater prosperity and happiness among those families who tithed than those who didn't." This basically says tithe and you will have more prosperity.

Another statement that troubled me was that giving 10% or more of your income will "ensure you of treasure in heaven." What?! Is this saying that this will buy your spot into heaven? Or is it saying your spot in heaven will be better if you give; better than those who do not give? This whole notion that giving or tithing will guarantee treasure in heaven puzzles me. Is God's grace not enough?

One thing that really frustrates me about this book is that it is all about money. At our church, we talk about being stewards of and giving of our time, talent, and treasures. Yet, this book is all about treasures, and in that context, it says that even the poor are expected to give from what they have to God. Also, it says that you are only poor when you want more than what you have. Really? That might be true for middle-class U.S. Americans, but tell that to a family living well below the poverty line within the United States, or tell that to people living within poverty-stricken nations of the third world. I think it is safe to bet that for a single-mother who works two jobs to keep the lights on, heat on, some food on the table, and a roof over her children's heads--and still at times comes up short--it isn't her wants that is making her poor.

The book is so out of touch with reality. It is filled with the message of give and you shall receive, and likely you will receive even more. However, I've seen so many people who have given with that expectation and have ended up disappointed. I've seen people give their 10% to the church, when even with that 10% they would not have had enough or have had barely enough to pay their bills, and when due dates come around, they don't get that "extra blessing" they were promised, and they are left unsure what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.

Perhaps I need to be more constructive, rather than critical, regarding giving to God. What does a healthy understanding and a life-giving theology of stewardship look like? I'd love to hear your suggestions in the comment section, as well as your thoughts on this book. As for my own constructive thoughts, I'll save that for another post.

On the Challenges of the Church

My church is entering a time where we are beginning to build an addition to our existing facility. To prepare for this period, we have been asked to participate in a couple of different studies.

The first study is on the biblical book of Nehemiah. We are encouraged, as well, to participate in a small group study of a study guide to accompany weekly sermons. My small group has been unable to find a time that works for everyone, and thus, I have the guide but have done nothing with it.

As part of this study, we were challenged to attend church each week for the next 70 days, bring our Bibles to church, etc. Seeing as I am nowhere near a perfect attendance award at church, that 70-day challenge of weekly church attendance was daunting, and I already failed. In week two.

And bringing our Bibles to church? It's been a while since I have attended a church in which people brought their personal Bibles to the service. I mean, why should I when the words to the scriptural text are on the big screen for me? Back in the day, I took my Bible to church and even had a fancy-schmancy cover in which to carry it. Now? My favorite Bible--my Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha--has been in my garage since I moved. In June 2009.

However, that challenge and my lack of commitment to it is really about my shortcomings. Yet, this second challenge? I'd like to think its problems are bigger than my inadequacies.

I was confused when we were issued a 40-day challenge to read this devotional, because we are still in the midst of the 70-day Nehemiah study. Then, I realized I was expected to multi-task. Lovely.

I received my family's devotional book, and I was hopeful that this would be a way for hubs and I to settle down, focus on something, and grow together, as well. Yet, when I opened it, I immediately knew otherwise...To be continued.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My Perfect Church

No church is perfect; I know that. As I tell the students in my theology class, the church is referred to as the body of Christ. The body of Christ was broken, and even when raised from the dead, the body of Christ still bore the wounds--the marks of brokenness. Yet, even knowing that the church will always be imperfect, I was dreaming up, this morning what my perfect church would look like.

Here's what I came up with:

  • A church that finds its identity in worshipping the triune God, but maintains a respect for other religions and their beliefs and practices.
  • Weekly observance of communion, the Lord's Supper, the eucharist--whatever you want to call it. The church community coming together to eat the bread and drink the wine is a profound image of what it means to be the church, together.
  • Inclusive language, for God and for humanity. That is not to say traditional trinitarian language cannot be used--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, I'd like the church to be creative in its images of God, including the vast array of images presented in the Bible. Language for humanity should always be inclusive. Women should not have to find themselves in the language of he, brothers, sons, etc.
  • An emphasis on social justice and on the material needs of people in the community and throughout the world. This would be coupled with a recognized sense of responsibility, including an awareness of the impact our lifestyle choices have on the environment.
  • Honoring the calls of all who feel led to ministry. All people should be welcomed to explore their calling into ministry, including LGBT people and women. This should not be on paper only, but should be reflected in the life and ministry of the church.
  • Preaching from the lectionary. Sermon series are kind of (okay--really!) cheesy, in my opinion. The lectionary allows broader attention to be given to scripture, and it connects Christians around the world, thereby opening the walls of the church to a larger context.
  • Traditional, spirited worship. I used to be all for praise and worship choruses and contemporary worship. However, lately, I've been calling most of these songs, "Jesus is my boyfriend" music. If you heard it on the radio, you would think some teeny-bopper was crooning for their most recent obsession. The hymns and liturgy of the church have been around for hundreds of years. Why do we think we can do it so much better? In an attempt to be relevant, why not change the arrangement of the song? Traditional worship music need not feel like a funeral, with an organ droning in the background. This is what I mean by spirited--that people are engaged and, dare I say, enjoying it.
  • A community. Ideally, the church would be multi-generational and have people who are similar in age and lifestyle to me. This makes it easier to form communal bonds. My current church is my community; my small group is not only my community, they are my friends. Honestly, they are some of my only friends. Therefore, I want a church to be a community, out of which relationships are built and friendships are formed.
This is what I came up with. I've surely missed something, and upon mention I might say, "Oh yes! That too!"

So, I ask you to dream with me. What is your idea of the perfect church? Feel free leave your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

My Name is Heather and I am Hopelessly Trinitarian

My name is Heather and I am hopelessly trinitarian. My dissertation is on the doctrine of the Trinity. Three is my "lucky" number. I like things in sets of three--candles, vases, even the scrapers used to clean my dishes. As the Schoolhouse Rock song says, "Three is a magic number."

And while I am a trinitarian--and unapologetically so--there have been many times that I have gotten so fed up with the rigidness of traditional Christian denominations that I have been "tempted" by Unitarian Universalism. What? The very name of the church suggests that it is not trinitarian but, rather, unitarian. Right. However, there is also a radical openness to difference of beliefs and difference of paths within the UU that has appealed to me. So, surely, my trinitarian beliefs would be accepted, too. Thus, the appeal.

Until today.

Before I go on, I want to issue a disclaimer that I am not denouncing Unitarian Universalism; that would be exercising the same rigidity with which I have grown tired. I have at least one dear friend who is UU and he has found a home in that church. For that, I am so happy.

Today, while perusing Craigslist ads, I came across an ad for a Religious Education Director at the local Unitarian Universalist Church. It caught my eye. So, I visited the congregation's website and tried to familiarize myself--as much as possible--with the church. I read some of their newsletters, checked out some of their links, etc. The section regarding their beliefs stated they were not creedal and, paraphrased, that no one belief was to be pushed as correct belief. Instead, mutual respect was expected as people explore the path to Truth together. Okay--sounds good (minus this idea of truth with a capital T, with which I struggle, but that's a whole different post).

As I looked around, though, there was very little (if any) mention of "the Divine." There was no mention of God--however you interpret the word. There was talk about love and light. One adult religious education course was about composting. This didn't seem to me--from the admittedly limited glimpse into the life of their congregation--that there was emphasis on the journey for truth/Truth. Composting is great; caring for the environment is vital. Yet, in what way does this fall under "religious education"? It seemed that the language was so vague as to not offend and as to not seem as if certain beliefs were being pushed onto others that I had to ask myself how, then, were people being helped in the formation of their beliefs? How were they being encouraged to journey toward truth/Truth? How were people learning to articulate their spirituality when spirituality seemed to be such a hands-off topic?

A church can say they are non-creedal, in that they don't ascribe to the traditional, historical creeds of the Christian church. They can say that they don't push beliefs onto others. Yet, when it comes down to it--all churches, religious groups, etc. do maintain a certain framework of beliefs. This church had seven principles to which they adhere. And while I agree with all seven of their principles, I have trouble believing that they would be respectful and affirming of me if I said, "You know what? I really don't think peace, liberty, and justice for all. That's my belief. You have to respect and honor it." Likewise, I think their response should be to stand up against those who are against peace, liberty, and justice for all. It just makes the whole open/accepting thing a little messier.

I would love to find a church where, collectively, we can say we believe certain things without judgment or exclusion of those who don't. I want to be open and accepting of people from all faiths and non-faiths, but I also want to be able to live out my faith without fear that I am offending others, while those others are able to live out their faith without fear of offending me or anyone else.

My name is Heather and I'm hopelessly Trinitarian.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Reflections on Easter

As we enter Holy Week, I thought I would post something I wrote during Easter 2007. Some of my views have been clarified, a bit, since, but some I still struggle with. I think the reason I don't struggle quite as much is because I removed myself from the toxic church services I had attended, in the past, for Easter. Easter 2006 was the last time I stepped foot in a Nazarene church. This post was my anticipation of Easter, with the memory of the year prior still in my mind.

I hear people say "Happy Easter," and it bugs me. I asked my husband, "What's so happy about Easter?" Oh yeah...the resurrection. Yet, it seems that while Easter is all about the resurrection, we spend so much time dwelling on the crucifixion.

For those of you who have seen the Passion of the Christ, about an hour and a half or so were spent on the scourging of Jesus. Something like ten seconds were given to the resurrection. Church Easter plays (at least the ones I have seen) make the crucifixion the climax, and the resurrection is more of an addendum.

As a feminist theologian, I cannot help but deal with the meaning of the crucifixion. Was it an atoning sacrifice, foreordained from the beginning of time? Or was it the natural result of living a subversive lifestyle--questioning the powers that be? I am more drawn to the latter. A quote by Nancy Bedford, in one of my classes, was something to this effect: Jesus died the death of a terrorist. If you are on the side of the government, you are a solider. If you go against the government, you are a terrorist. I found this rather profound, particularly in light of the current U.S. situation.

Funny how churches spend so much time on Easter (particularly the crucifixion), but spend so little time looking at the life lived by Jesus--the people he hung out with, the sermons he preached, etc. How different would churches be if these things were given attention and taken seriously?

Last year, Easter was very painful for me. I had just studied atonement theories pretty extensively, and I saw validity in the critique of many feminist theologians. We are obsessed with the blood and violence of the cross; we are obsessed with sacrifice. All too often, these values of sacrifice, denial, and even violence are passed on as virtuous--particularly to women.

I expressed this concern--about how Easter is so bloody--to my mother. Her reply was, "Well, it's an historical event; it really happened." True. (or at least I believe it to be) Yet, I also reminded her that the way Jesus died was not special. It was the way they killed criminals during that day. (see above, as to why Jesus was viewed a criminal) Thus, it wasn't like they made the point to beat Jesus extra hard. It's just the way things were done. Seriously, if we think Jesus died an unjust death--died for doing nothing--isn't it likely that a lot of other people died unjust deaths, too? Isn't it possible that the men on the crosses next to Jesus were also unjustly killed?

So, what does this all mean? For me, the event of the cross cannot be singled out or be given more meaning than the other events in the life of Jesus. It doesn't make sense if you don't look at the entire life and ministry of Jesus to see
why Jesus was such a threat to the governing structure. The life of Jesus has just as much (or more) meaning than the event of the cross.

Yet, it still remains that Jesus was crucified. However, Jesus was also resurrected--raised from the dead. Here, I side with the
Christus Victor view of the atonement. This view stresses that in the death of Jesus, Jesus was sort of a trickster--making the powers of death and injustice think that they had won. Jesus did not retaliate--hurl insults, lash out violently, etc. However, in the resurrection, Jesus gives us hope that death and injustice will ultimately not prevail; they are not the final word.

I think one of the basic elements of human existence is suffering*. We all suffer, to varying degrees, no doubt. However, I find it strangely comforting that God, in the incarnation, chose to become human and therefore experienced suffering.

The message of the resurrection--one of hope, justice, and peace--is one that especially speaks to the situation the United States is in. It also speaks to those worldwide who are victims of governmental injustice (by the U.S. and others), economic injustice, and social injustice. May we not give undue attention to the cross this Easter, but rather embrace the hope of the resurrection.

(After writing this, it feels like an Easter sermon. Oddly, I'm not sure how this would be received at the churches in which I have been a part. But it's this message that gets me excited.)

*I should clarify that suffering seems to be an unavoidable part of human life, as a result of the sinful world in which we live. It should not, however, be a goal of life--something we seek out or feel makes life more virtuous.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Community and Communion

I have written, more than once, about how important community is to me. In spite of any criticism I have regarding my church congregation, I have tried to re-emphasize that it is my community. My small group is my community. For so long, my life lacked any sort of community, so I especially treasure the community I have now.

Another thing I appreciate about my congregation is the weekly observance of Communion. I'm not particularly sacramental, in that I don't find a mysterious, spiritual meaning in the "sacraments." However, I love taking Communion each week. Growing up, Communion was only observed, at most, once per quarter.

The way we take Communion at my current church is also special, to me. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, Communion was only observed, at most, once per quarter--four times per year. It was administered to us, as we sat in our pew and passed a silver tray of wafers and individual cups (that look oddly similar to mini shot glasses). It was such a passive process.

College was the first time I experienced Communion by intinction. I recall being moved as I watched nearly a thousand members of my university community stand up, walk to the servers, and partake of the elements. The visibility of the community was overwhelming, to me, at that time.

This is the same way we observe Communion at my local church, and I love it. I love witnessing each person going forward, holding out their hands to receive the bread, and dipping it into the wine. I love watching some make the sign of the cross. I love the active role of Communion, where people get up, move, and take the body and blood of Jesus.

I view Communion as the "common meal." As everyone gets up and goes forward, they are eating the meal, to which they have been invited. The invitation is open--no special rules. You must only come and eat.

There are images throughout the Bible where people are eating together. It was a social activity; it was an activity that showed friendship and hospitality as well. I appreciate how the congregation, the Body of Christ, gets up and moves as we all come to eat, together. I love the sense of community I feel when I see all off the people coming forward, and the inclusion I feel when I hold out my hands, and am given "the body of our Lord Jesus Christ" and then"the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ."

I am not a pro on eucharistic theology--whether or not, or how, Christ's real presence is in the Communion elements. However, what I do know is that the community is seen and strengthened when taking the common meal, the Lord's Supper, Communion.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Debriefing on Church

Church should not cause me more anxiety. I went to church today, since I hadn't been since before Christmas. And I left discouraged, frustrated, and sad.

Problems with the national church body?

I was impressed that our pastor actually mentioned what's going on in Haiti. He even fit in pictures of televangelists (including Pat Robertson) to show who is *not* necessarily a "super fan" of Jesus. (our sermon series is about being an "over the top fan.") Heck, I was even impressed that he gave information about Lutheran disaster relief, as sometimes we have been directed to some other Christian non-profit. Yet, when giving information about Lutheran disaster relief he said, "For as many problems as our national church body has, this is something they do really well." No denomination is perfect; I get that. But to publicly call out the denomination (when no praise is ever offered), rubbed me the wrong way. And at that point, it was hard for me to really engage what was going on. I just kind of checked out.

Is God's grace really enough?
We sang a worship song that said, "Remember your people, remember your children, remember your promise, oh God. Your grace is enough...your grace is enough for me." During the line of remember your people, remember your children, all I could think of was the pictures I have seen of Haiti and the faces behind the tragedy. I sang those words as a prayer for these people. But is God's grace really enough? That sounds like such a privileged theology. Grace doesn't feed people, heal their wounds, or provide them with clean drinking water. I don't have the whole theodicy question answered, but rather than celebrating God's grace, right now I am clinging to the hope that God is with the victims and is suffering with them.

Other thoughts
I am starting to wonder why my church is Lutheran. Why stay Lutheran when there is little involvement in the denomination, and the only sign of being Lutheran is the words Lutheran ELCA on the sign out front? I am not saying they should leave the denomination over some petty difference. If they left the ELCA, I would likely find a new church. But what are the reasons for their association with the ELCA? What are the benefits? As much as I would like to say denominations don't matter; they do. That isn't to say that salvation is exclusive to certain denominations. It's not. However, denominations allow a group of churches to accomplish so much more; to organize and cooperate with one another. Why does my church choose to associate with the ELCA when a lot of people probably couldn't tell you what ELCA stands for, when the churchwide assembly was, who the presiding bishop is, and what Lutheran theology is. I know, not everyone will be a Lutheran expert. But why does my church choose to say associated with the ELCA rather than, say, the Willow Creek Association? I don't know.

This has made me feel so discouraged. I have, for some time, looked online for other Lutheran churches in the area. The number of ELCA churches seem few. Up here, LCMS and WELS seem more widespread. Plus, leaving scares me. I have a small group that has become my community and my friends. If it is not close, it's harder to make myself go. And it's easy to get lost in the search and just give up.

I know this post isn't highly theological or academic. But what it is, is real. I needed to sort of debrief on my experience at church, this morning, in hopes that maybe it would ease my anxieties, quell my anger, and calm me down.