I don’t understand someone who believes that the Bible is inerrant, and every word is straight from the mouth of God would then vote for somebody who believes that after Jesus rose from the dead, he took a hard left and went to America. Because that’s not our tradition, that’s not in the truth of our book.
- Stephen Colbert
I am not a deeply religious person. I was reared in a home that attempted to be very Christ-centered, but I left the majority of those beliefs behind as I grew into adulthood.
Even though I have been attending church regularly for a few years now, I do not consider myself a person of faith. I don’t even identify as Christian, since I consider the meaning of that word to be Christ-like. I do my best, but I’m far from being anywhere close to the seemingly unattainable character of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament.
Whenever something comes up the news pertaining to religion – whether it be something as horrifying as Muslims killing one another over cartoons or movies, or something as inane as Chick-fil-A’s donations to organizations fighting against same-sex marriage – I find it embarrassing to even consider myself part of an organized religion.
Although my church is a member of a very progressive denomination, that fact isn’t always evident to outsiders looking in. Someone driving by our church would have no reason to believe it to be any different from the multitude of ultra-conservative churches in the area. Why would a woman or a gay person have any reason to believe that our congregation supports equal rights for both?
During times like these, I wholeheartedly believe that religion is at the root of the world’s problems. Sure, poverty and class warfare play some role, but religion almost always seems to be the catalyst for violent uprisings, terrorist attacks, and various other forms of human rage. Let’s not forget the corruption and sexual perversions that are running rampant through the world’s biggest Christian denomination.
Although certain religions seem more prone to violence than others, the phenomenon certainly isn’t exclusive to any one religion. Christianity still has its fair share of extremists running around calling for the deaths of those considered to be sinful, so to say being a Christian is more peaceful or God-like than any other religion is fruitless.
So, basically, I am embarrassed to be associated with any organized religion. I love my church and many of those in attendance, but it causes me great discomfort to realize that most of the world assumes our congregation is no different than all the others. How can I ridicule other churches for their archaic views when my church is part of the same machine?
Religion isn’t all bad. It helps fill a desperate need that mankind has to be a part of something larger, and provides peace to people in times of suffering. It just seems that far too often, religion is the cause of the suffering.
Many years ago, John Lennon asked us to imagine a world with no religion. I don’t think he was asking people to become athiests; I think he was referring to the way we use religion to divide people and create untold agony. Perhaps he was onto something.
I have watched with great interest over the past couple of weeks as Whitney Houston went from being perceived as a washed-up addict to a veritable saint in the eyes of the public. As tributes began pouring in from celebrities and fans, many expressed their belief that she was finally at peace in heaven. Family and friends said they knew without a shadow of doubt that she was with Jesus. Where she had been ridiculed only days and hours before, she was now being proclaimed the newest angel in paradise.
We tend to do that when people pass away. It becomes much harder to pass judgement on someone when they are no longer around to defend themselves. Death also reminds us all of our own mortality, and of our desire that other people not be too harsh in their judgment of our lives.
The morning of the day she died, I spent several minutes perusing photographs of her looking rather disheveled as she left a recent event and thought to myself that she probably wouldn’t live long. I was heartbroken when the news came in later that evening.
I have been a fan of Whitney for several years, and although I wouldn’t describe myself as a “fanatic,” I did purchase her albums as they were released (I actually have over 20 compact discs of her music), watched her movies, and always rooted for her to overcome whatever demons she was fighting at any particular time. Even though I liked her a great deal and followed her career, I don’t think I realized just how important her faith was to her until this weekend.
As I watched her funeral on Saturday, Whitney’s personal friends and family members recounted over and over how she prayed constantly, read her Bible, and quoted verses. Her bodyguard said she refused to go anywhere without her tattered Bible, even leaving clothes behind in order to have enough room for it in her suitcase. In a television interview, a minister friend recalled how Whitney recently laid prostrate on the floor as she prayed and spoke in tongues while begging God for deliverance from her addictions. Even the last song she sang publicly just two nights before she died was “Jesus Loves Me.”
On Sunday night, Oprah rebroadcast the interview she had done with Whitney a couple of years ago. Whitney had just revealed her obviously painful battle with drug abuse and the dissolution of her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown when Oprah asked the poignant question “Who do you love?” Without a moment of hesitation, she replied, “The Lord.”
So, what I know now is Whitney Houston had an astonishing love for God. She might not have been living what some would describe as a “Christian lifestyle,” but she certainly didn’t have a problem with faith. She wholeheartedly believed in Jesus, salvation, and the hereafter. Despite many shortcomings in other areas of her life, no one can accuse her of not taking her faith seriously.
As society replaces its condemnation of Whitney with a more compassionate understanding, I wonder why we have to wait until someone dies to show them any mercy and respect. Maybe if we would look a little deeper, beyond the image projected on people by a ruthless and merciless media, we might see how each person we take so much joy in building up and tearing down is still just as human as we are. We all have flaws, we all make poor decisions, and we are all worthy of a little grace and compassion.
If I should die this very day
Don’t cry ’cause on earth we weren’t meant to stay
And no matter what the people say
I’ll be waiting for you after the judgement day
- lyric from “Your Love Is My Love” by Whitney Houston
I have long loved the hymn “Just As I Am.” Although it was often overused at the Christian school that I attended as a child, I loved the simplicity of the melody and the message. As we sang the lyrics this past Sunday during worship, one of the verses jumped out at me, and I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed the refreshing honesty in the words before.
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt
Fighting and fears within, without
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
It’s unusual to find such conflicted feelings about faith tucked inside an age-old hymn, but it immediately connected me with the writer (Charlotte Elliott). Despite all of my shortcomings, it’s comforting to know that Christ accepts me just as I am.
My church is currently observing Lent – a season of spiritual discipline that leads up to Easter. We are encouraged to “give up” something during this time, apparently as a way to relate to the 40 days of temptation that Christ endured.
Although the denomination that I grew up in didn’t observe Lent, fasting and other forms of self-denial were commonplace. Regardless, the idea of denying myself something for an extended period of time every year feels both foreign and compelling.
I guess I like the idea more for carnal reasons than spiritual ones. I think it’s good to practice forms of self-discipline, whether that means pushing away the plate or turning off the television. Even so, in the four years that I’ve been attending my church, I have yet to participate in this tradition.
I think the main problem is that I can’t decide what to give up. Most of the things that people commonly abstain from seem downright silly. Surely giving up chocolate or soft drinks doesn’t really give one a deeper understanding of Jesus’ suffering, but I can appreciate how difficult it is to choose something meaningful.
Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of Lent, was last week, but I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to abstain from. Maybe my hesitancy is evidence that I don’t want to give up anything, because deep down, I really don’t. I don’t want to stop checking Facebook every ten minutes. I don’t want to quit Dr. Pepper, or stop watching “Big Love,” or order a salad instead of french fries.
But I guess that’s the point. Jesus went through hell in order to enlighten the world and save humanity. Surely I can give up something I really like for a few days.
“To follow Jesus is to be political.”
I quoted that line from a book titled If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World in an article I posted over two years ago. I remembered it during a meeting at church earlier this week. Here’s the full paragraph:
The question is not whether we should mix Christianity and politics. To follow Jesus it to be political. The issue is whether our understanding of Christianity makes the world more gracious or less gracious. Do we work against injustice, oppression, greed, and self-absorption, or do we defend the status quo? Do we take seriously Jesus’s call to “bring good news to the poor,… proclaim release to the captives and… let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18), or do we treat Jesus as our team mascot? Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives all face these temptations.
Our church is in the unenviable position of trying to find a new pastor. We formed a search committee recently and had our first meeting after our prayer service on Wednesday night. This experience is rather unique for me, since I’ve never served on a pastoral search committee or even remember a time when I was part of a congregation that was looking to hire a new minister.
During our meeting, we discussed what qualities we might be looking for in a potential candidate. Certain things seem very important (like education), while others (such as gender) seem quite irrelevant. As we began to discuss the theological viewpoints of an applicant, the issue of homosexuality came up.
I immediately made it clear that a pastor with an inclusive viewpoint would be of the utmost importance to me. After all, I explained, my partner and I would not feel comfortable continuing to attend our church if we didn’t feel welcomed by an incoming minister.
Although everyone seemed to be in agreement about this topic, concern was expressed by some about political views coming from the pulpit. I asked, “Is it possible to be a Christian without being political?”
Even though I wholeheartedly agree that a pastor should never condone a political party or persuade the votes of his/her parishioners, I do believe a true Christian has a responsibility to stand up for those who are maligned and mistreated by society – or as Jesus would have put it, “the least of these.” It’s incredibly sad that the rights of women and homosexuals – human rights – are viewed as nothing more than political talking points.
As I pondered the conversation later, I began to question my involvement in the pastoral search process. I recognize that I have an agenda, or at the very least a list of prerequisites that a candidate must possess. Even so, I also recognize that our denomination, the United Church of Christ, insists upon social justice and equality for all. I think to disregard that would be not only a disservice to our church and denomination, but also to the very message of the Messiah – the One whom we profess to follow.