Month: May 2015 (page 2 of 2)

praying to love

“I am God, says Love, for Love is God and God is Love.”
– Marguerite de Porete (1249–1310)

The way we pray is determined by our image of God. The most popular image in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that of a supernatural theistic God who dwells somewhere “up there” or “out there” and reigns with unlimited majesty and power. This is the image of a transcendent God—separate from and greater than all of creation, including humanity. The blended God(s) of the Canaanite and Hebrew traditions—Elohim and Yahweh—whom we encounter in the Hebrew Bible, were conceived of in anthropomorphic terms, nearly always with male gender. Ezekiel and Daniel viewed God as a human-like being seated on a heavenly throne (or a flying war chariot) surrounded by a royal court of lesser divine beings. I was taught in catechism classes that the biblical God is omnipresent (present everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipotent (all-powerful). Because of these characteristics, our prayers are directed to a God who is nearby, accessible, and listening, who already knows what is in our hearts and minds even before we speak, and can answer our prayers by powerful supernatural means when necessary.

For many Christians, a supernatural theistic God is a daily reality in their lives, but for many others, this kind of God is simply not there. They long to feel God’s presence and God’s love, but instead they experience emptiness and isolation. They worship God in church, but find that God is not present in the sanctuary. They pray fervently to God in private moments, but realize that their prayers often go unanswered. In the end, there is only silence. The biblical character of Job cried out to God in despair, “I cry to you God, but you do not answer. I stand before you, and you don’t even bother to look.” (Job 30:20)

Barbara Brown Taylor (b. 1951) describes this emptiness in her book Leaving Church: a Memoir of Faith, in which she relates her experiences at a small Episcopal church in rural Georgia.

On my worst nights I lay in bed feeling like a single parent, unable to sleep because I knew I did not have enough love in me to go around. God was the boundless lover, but for many people God was the parent who had left. They still read about him in the Bible and sang about him in hymns. They still believed in his reality, which made it even harder to accept his apparent lack of interest in them. They waited for messages from him that did not arrive. They prepared their hearts for meetings that never happened. They listened to other Christians speak as if God showed up every night for supper, leaving them to wonder what they had done wrong to make God go off and start another family.

Mother Teresa (1910–1997), who ministered to the needs of the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in India for over 50 years, felt a similar absence and silence in her life. It began soon after she set up her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in the late 1940s and continued until her death in 1997. She interpreted it as a loss of faith.

If there be a God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

The image of a transcendent all-powerful, interventionist God is still the most prevalent one in America today. But for some people, it has ceased to be a reasonable working hypothesis. Continue reading

beyond ritual: a life of prayer and action

Go and learn what this means, “I desire compassion, not sacrifice.”
–Jesus (Matthew 9:13)

In March 1943, the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian and pastor, because documents linked him to subversive activities against the Reich. Two years later, just a few days before the end of the war in Europe, he was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.

A year before his execution, as he sat alone inside cell 92 in Berlin’s Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer reflected on the state of the church to which he had devoted his adult life. In a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote about the seeming ineffectiveness of Christianity—and religion in general—in contemporary life.

We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…

And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?

In light of the depravity of the Nazi state and the horrific violence of the Second World War, perpetrated by religious people on all sides, the church had proven to be either incapable or unwilling to deal with the evils of the modern world. For many, the religious practices of Christianity had become personal and private, and were largely divorced from social ethics and politics. The mainstream churches in the so-called “Christian nations” proved to have no prophetic voice.

Bonhoeffer was disturbed that religious people were not speaking out and their social and political struggles were conducted without drawing on their faith—or more likely, that their faith had become so disjointed from social and political conditions that they saw no connection. If religious institutions in every nation were willingly transformed into servants and chaplains of their respective states, and if Christians were not raising a prophetic voice for peace and justice, Bonhoeffer asked if there was some other way that one could be a Christian in a world of continual injustice, suffering, and violence.

Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity?

Bonhoeffer was struggling with what remains when the typical traits of a religion—clergy, religious institutions, sacred rites, orthodox beliefs, and a rigid moral code—are eliminated. How would that redefine Christianity and what would become of the church as a result? Continue reading

why I stay in the church

I am often frustrated with the church. I find myself drifting away for periods of time and then wandering back. I am too unorthodox in my theology to be in the mainstream of Christianity, so I linger at the margins. I am often uncomfortable with the theology of the ancient creeds and so I remain silent when they are recited and I am equally uncomfortable with the theology of 21st century happy-clappy praise songs, so I do not join in. For me, the experience of worship should be challenging, not entertaining. It should help us grapple with poverty and injustice, war and oppression.

Through the past half-century, I have experienced the church in many settings—as part of a struggling inner city parish, a growing suburban congregation, and a tiny small-town church. I have been a part of churches with many ethnic roots: German, Slovak, Norwegian, and African-American. Over the years, I have been a part of the church’s engagement with social, political, and economic issues. As I came of age, I witnessed the church struggle with integration and civil rights, and then watched it segregate itself every Sunday morning for worship. I have seen it wrestle with the evils of war, and watched it feebly respond to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I have seen the church grapple with women’s social, political, and reproductive rights and their equal right to ordination—which far too many churches still deny. And most recently, I have watched the never-ending debate over the role of gay and lesbian people in the church and their frequent exclusion from equality in the body of Christ and its leadership.

On nearly every one of these issues, the larger church has found itself on the tail end of the struggle for peace and justice. It has rarely been a leader in these movements and all too often has been a distant follower. I have watched churches test the wind on nearly every social issue and adopt positions that will offend the fewest number of its members—often in the name of ‘unity.’ I have observed that many churches rise to speak boldly and prophetically only after the matter has been resolved by society at large and the issue has been settled everywhere but in the church.

Increasingly it seems that the church has become an irrelevant force in the world. Too many churches seem focused entirely on personal salvation rather than addressing the everyday evils of violence, power, and systemic injustice. Too many congregations focus solely on themselves instead of the suffering and needs of their neighbors. Too many pastors find it difficult to speak the truth, challenge the faithful, and rock the boat. In nearly every country the church too often serves as a chaplain to the policies of the state rather than a prophetic voice calling for peace and justice.

I wish the church was different. I wish it was more faithful in its calling. Yet I take heart that there are faithful people and communities who, though small, are engaged in the work of God on earth. Jesus often used images of a tiny minority who could accomplish great things—a bit of yeast in a large loaf of bread, a pinch of salt in a great kettle of soup, a tiny mustard seed scattered in a well-tended garden, a feeble lamp in a vast darkened house.

So I often feel alone, on the margins of the church. I find it increasingly hard to be true to Jesus in an institutional church that by its silence validates war and economic disparity around the world. And so I wonder why I stay. Continue reading

fear not

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

You came near when I called on you; you said, “Do not fear!” (Lamentations 3:57)

Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27)

My six-year-old grandson was recently given an assignment by his first grade teacher to write a list of things he was worried about. They had just read a book called Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes about a little mouse who worried about everything—things both great and small. Wyatt’s list was heartbreaking: “Tornadoes come. I die. My baby sister gets hurt. Mom dies.” For me, it was a great insight into the mind of a small child. Many of us think that young children are worry free. Quite the contrary, they are consumed by existential fears.

I remember as a child going into the dark and dank basement of my house, an aging two-story two-family flat. A light switch on the second floor dimly lit the winding stairs to the basement, but at the bottom, the basement itself was engulfed in darkness and held hidden terror. Several feet from the foot of the stairs was a single light bulb with a string attached to a chain pull. One had to step out into the fearful gloom and reach out in the murky darkness to find the string and turn on the light. Until the light came on, the experience was gut-wrenchingly frightening. Even then, with the sole bulb lit, evil seemed to lurk in the surrounding shadows. I remember a sense of dread and panic overtake me each time I had to descend alone into the darkness.

But children are not the only ones with fears of terror and misfortune. Adults worry too—about things great and small. Currently—at least if you listen to the 24/7 cable news channels—Americans are consumed with fear about the Ebola virus in Africa and Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq, dangers that are far away and unlikely to affect us here. Strangely, they seem to ignore the much more significant threat of gun violence by their armed neighbors at home. Mostly, however, they worry about the practical things of life—jobs, financial security, college costs, medical coverage, retirement, illness, and death. We are all plagued by anxiety about what the future holds. But the Bible says repeatedly, “fear not!”

The expression ‘fear not,’ or ‘have no fear’ or ‘do not be afraid’ is found approximately 115 times in the Bible, spoken again and again in the Hebrew Bible by Yahweh and the prophets, and in the gospels by Jesus and angelic messengers. It is also found in the Hebrew Psalms and in the letters of various authors in the New Testament. Altogether, it is one of the most commonly found phrases in the Bible. In the larger sense, the biblical message seems to be that although things may appear bleak right now and that evil seems to be winning, there is hope that God will act to transform the future.

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