Friday, May 20, 2011

The Rapture And Why Nothing We Do Will Ever Be Enough

A little back story. I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene. There was talk about rapture. We were shown the film "A Thief in The Night" in youth group. When I was a child, and I could not find my mother, I would call out her name. She thought I had attachment issues and called me her "shadow;" I thought the "rapture" happened and I had been "left behind." I would lay in bed at nights, replaying the entire day in my head, praying for forgiveness for any and every sin I may have committed, fearing that I may have missed something that, again, would leave me "left behind." Growing up, the idea of the rapture brought fear, nothing but fear.

Flash forward to today. I don't subscribe to rapture theology; I find it unbiblical and without basis in theological and ecclesial tradition. However, with tomorrow being the day a small group of people are declaring "Judgment Day," there is a small part of me that is still fearful and anxious.

Brad asked me, hypothetically, why I would be left behind if such thing existed. I responded, "I cuss too much." When I say it aloud, I realize how ridiculous it sounds. However, consider this: growing up I was told, by a youth pastor, that if I were in a car, about to crash, and my final word was "shit," I would "go to hell." In that moment, I would lose all grace and salvation that had been offered to me in Christ Jesus. Brad responded in disbelief. His upbringing was different. He did not hear of "the rapture" until he reached high school, and salvation wasn't something dependent on doing the right things or not doing the wrong things. Then, I thought about it more, and I said, "I don't love people enough. I don't go to church enough. I don't...enough."

The more I think about it, the more I realize that nothing I do will ever be enough. I could do every act of piety imaginable, yet, I would still be in need of grace--the grace that is given freely to me (to all of us!) in Jesus.

When I think about it like this, much of the anxiety fades. I still don't buy into "rapture theology" or the idea that tomorrow, May 21, 2011, is going to be any different than any other day. However, when I recognize that the pressure is not on me, but is fully dependent on the grace of God, I have an eschatological vision that is not dreadful or full of doom. I have hope.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Christians and Osama Bin Laden

This note is mainly for Christians. If you do not identify yourself as a Christian, this note is not specifically for you. You are welcomed to read it, but the thoughts and questions that are running through my mind are particular to my identity as a Christian, a Christian theologian even.

When I first heard the news that President Obama was going to be announcing that Osama Bin Laden had been killed--that he was dead--I felt like crying. I'm almost ashamed to say that my tears would have been tears of joy; Osama Bin Laden is the closest thing to evil incarnate in my lifetime, thus far. I felt relief that he was no longer living and would no longer be able to kill others or influence others to kill others.

Yet, as I watched the footage of US Americans cheering in the streets, waving flags, and chanting U-S-A, my feelings suddenly turned. Something was not right. These images were reminiscent of 9/11, yet with a twist. People were celebrating in the streets the death of a person, something that would have been (and has been) considered vile and inhumane if the tables were turned.

What should the response of Christians be? Depending where you look, you will find very different answers. Some Christians are celebrating the death of Bin Laden, along with a large majority of US Americans. Other Christians are denouncing the death of Bin Laden, emphasizing that death does not equal justice. Other Christians are somewhere in the middle, feeling conflicted, uncertain, and cautious to react. This is the camp in which I find myself.

When I look toward Christian scripture (aka the Bible), I find the following verses:

"Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the Lord will see it and be displeased and turn away his anger from them." (Proverbs 24:17-18)

"For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live." (Ezekiel 18:32)

"Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:11)

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:17-21)

"‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer...‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:38, 43-48)

These seem exceedingly clear to me that my response should not be to rejoice and to celebrate in the death of Osama Bin Laden. As a Christian, I am called to love. So, while I am grieve the lives lost at the hands of Bin Laden, I also grieve the loss of the life of one who never knew faith, hope, and love.

Was it wrong of the government and/or military to kill Bin Laden? I honestly do not know, and I think it is okay for me to sit with some uncertainty about it. Ultimately, the decision was not mine to make. If it were, I can't say I would have done it, but I can't say I would NOT have done it, either. I am reminded of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, who signed on to a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. He did not think that, in doing so, he was doing what was good or righteous; he recognized the evil in his own actions, as well. However, he believed his actions were a necessary evil to stop one who had already killed millions. (The plot of Bonhoeffer and his cohorts ultimately failed)

Reinhold Niebuhr is the original author of the serenity prayer. The original text of the first stanza is as follows: 

God, give us grace to accept with serenity 
the things that cannot be changed, 
Courage to change the things 
which should be changed, 
and the Wisdom to distinguish 
the one from the other.
What has been done cannot be changed. However, how I react--how we react--to it can be changed.

God grant me the grace, not to celebrate or rejoice in death, but the courage to examine the evil within me and the world around me, so that your light will prevail. Amen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Confession: I am Evangelical

I have a confession.  I am evangelical.  No. I am not evangelical in the sense that the word is often understood, today--synonymous with fundamentalism.  I am far from a fundamentalist.  I'm not even evangelical in that I don't care much about "personal conversion," or "biblical authority" (as Wikipedia describes the tenets of Evangelicalism) nor do I necessarily believe that Jesus' death saves us, at least not in any traditional sense.

However, even while I don't fit into these categories or boundaries, I am not ready to surrender the word "evangelical" to those who want to apply it narrowly.  Consider the root of evangelical--evangelion--meaning "gospel" or "good news."  I am all about the good news, the good news that:

  • No height nor depth can separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8:39)
  • Blessed are the poor for they will inherit the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
  • There's neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28)
  • God loved the world so much that God sent his son, so that we might have eternal life (John 3:16)
 I will not let those who think evangelical means subscribing to certain dogmas have a monopoly on the good news. I will not let those who are quick to decide who is in and who is out--forever damned to "hell"--hijack the term evangelical when that understanding is really not good news at all! 

I believe in God whose love reaches to the highest heights and the lowest depths. I believe in God who doesn't reinforce the power structures of patriarchy, racism, wealth, etc., but rather sides with those on the margins. All of this is good news--this is evangelion--and this is why I am evangelical.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Limits of Empathy and Why Men Can't Be Feminists

Recently, during a class session when we were talking about theologies that were different than our own, I started thinking about empathy. Some students were quick to identify themselves in those theologies, to which I cautioned them not to be so quick to "find themselves"therein. For example, James Cone, one of the leading African-American liberation theologians, has been influential in and instructive to my own theology.  However, when he was writing in the 1960s and 1970s, he was not writing for me or any other white person. White theology had already been done repeatedly; he was doing something new.

This led to the conversation of: can we empathize with those who have experiences different from our own? Can we situate ourselves in a theology that is drawn from experiences radically different than our own? How do power dynamics and power differences affect our ability to empathize?

I read Cone's theology. I appreciate his theology. Yet, I would not dare say I "see" myself in his work. I have no idea what it is like to be judged, based on the color of my skin. I cannot imagine what it is like to be more likely to be suspected of a crime. I cannot imagine the systemic racism, partially overcome and yet still battled, by African-Americans, today. That is not saying Cone's theology is self-serving or has a scope limited to only his context. His theology has a broader message, as all theology should. However, while the message is one of hope, that God is on the side of the oppressed, it is convicting at the same time to those of us who are not on the side of the oppressed, but are, rather, the oppressor.

Simply put, there are limits to empathy. I have always understood empathy to mean that you can understand someone's experiences because you share that experience. Therefore, there are many things with which I cannot empathize. I cannot empathize with the plight of African-American people. However, I can sympathize. When I say "sympathize," I mean more than pity, feeling sorry for them, patting them on the head and giving them a look or shrug that says, "Sorry." However, I cannot empathize because not only have I never experienced racism, but I am also a participant in it, as a white person. I benefit from systems of white privilege, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

This leads to what, perhaps, will be my boldest claim. The limitations of empathy is one of the reasons why I believe men cannot be feminists. There. I said it. So far, on this blog, I have been called a "church snob." This may now lead people to call me a bitch.

Men cannot be feminists because they do not know what it is like to be a woman. Much of feminism is based on women's experiences, while also recognizing that there is no singular experience. However, men have never experienced what it is like to be a woman. Yes, men can be feminist sympathizers--working to promote systems of justice, working to upset systems of patriarchy, etc. Yet, while doing so, men will continue to benefit from male privilege, whether they like it or not. You can strive to be a "non-hegemonic male," but when you walk down the street, when you apply for a job, when you take your car into to be fixed, etc. You are still a man, are treated as a man, and function as one in society.

A lot of men get their feelings hurt when I tell them that they cannot be feminists. "But...but...," they say.  Ready for the really bitchy kicker? I think a lot of men want to claim the title "feminist," in an attempt to absolve themselves from the guilt they feel as a man. The guilt they feel from benefitting from male privilege, sometimes inescapably, and other times willingly. Calling themselves feminists make them feel better. Yet, their experiences are so dissimilar--even from the non-universalized, vastly different women's experiences--they can't empathize with what it means to be a woman.

It was once suggested to me that you can feel empathy toward anyone, depending on the strength of your imagination. However, I disagree; imagination only takes you so far.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Timely Lectionary Gospel Lesson: God And Money

Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What will we eat?' or `What will we drink?' or `What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."
 This is the gospel message for this Sunday's lectionary. I had no idea, prior to today, and yet this passage has been on my mind a lot recently. As someone who struggles with anxiety--worrying even when there is nothing to worry about--I remind myself often that Jesus instructs us not to worry about tomorrow.

This passage also goes along with something else about which I've been thinking. Wealth. Jesus makes a pretty powerful statement at the beginning of this passage: "You cannot serve God and wealth." Perhaps this is why I am so uncomfortable with the idea of wealth, money, and being rich. It conflicts with my ability to serve God faithfully, as wealth comes at a price.

Recent research has come out to show the gross inequality in wealth distribution within the US. From this, I draw the conclusion that there is only so much wealth to be had. So when some--a small percentage--have the greatest percentage of wealth, it comes at the well-being of the larger population. Wealth and economic success most often comes at the expense of other human beings; it is earned on their backs.

Jesus commands me to love God with my heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. I do not see how I can love my neighbor if my acquisition of money deprives them of money or other material necessities. Perhaps this is why I have no desire to be rich. I know you aren't supposed to say this, living in the United States. The "American Dream" is to have money and lots of it. Yet, when I do have any sort of excess money (which, I admit, is rare), I am always inclined to give it away. I cannot desire to have a lot, while others have so little. Nor can I live faithfully to Jesus' desire for me if my acquisition of money and/or stuff is an obstacle in loving my neighbor. I don't want to be poor. I would like to have enough money to meet our basic needs, make decisions as consumers that are more sustainable, and extra only to help others. However, beyond that? Not important.

I'm sure people will point to people who have lots of money and do great acts of philanthropy. Recently, the world's billionaires have committed to giving half of their wealth to charity. Good for them, but half of a billion still leaves them with half a billion, which could still make a huge difference in the world. 

So, then, just how seriously do I take this "don't worry about tomorrow" stuff, coupled with inability to serve both God and wealth? What does this mean for planning for the future? 401k's? Nest eggs? Retirement? I'm not sure, yet. However, I am inclined to think there is another way.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

These U2 lyrics keep playing over and over in my head when thinking about church. This blog has developed into a detailed account of my issues with church. The issues still persist.

I admit, I haven't actively been looking for a church recently, beyond visiting the local Episcopal church. I probably shouldn't generalize from one visit to one church, but I am inclined to say I am not Episcopalian.

I have looked a lot at websites of local churches. I check out their staff, leadership, belief statements, newsletters (to see what is going on in the life of the church), etc. The number of progressive churches within Lake County, Illinois is seriously lacking.  The number of churches that are--if I can say this--worth my time investing in the community, are seriously lacking. In turn, that leaves us in limbo, and without a church community. I don't like that for several reasons, too tiresome to explain right now.

There are two more churches in the area that I would like to check out. One is a Presbyterian church. However, when checking out their website, I noticed that participate in Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University. I cannot stand Dave Ramsey and the hype that surrounds him. His "disciples" tend to be a bit nutty, from my experience, and usually it's a more conservative camp that subscribes to his teachings on finances. So, seeing his name on the website put a bit of reluctance in my mind and heart.  The second church is a United Church of Christ/United Methodist church in the area--"United Protestant Church." They recently had Tony Campolo come speak (which I missed, since I didn't find out til the day of, boo!). That, alone, seems promising. I have no idea how big the church is, the age of the people in it, etc. But if they are open to thinking about social justice and the type of things Tony Campolo pushes people to think about, then that seems encouraging.

Life was so much easier as a child when you just went to church--every Sunday without fail--because that's just what you did. Of course, then, my faith wasn't critical. I was very naive, and I had no idea of the dark side of the church or the Christian tradition.  I don't think I want to go back to that innocence, but it did make things so much easier. Ignorance is bliss?