Sign You Up?

EASTERN_737-800_N276EA_MIA_1214BK_JP_I haven’t shared this on the blog save an article I wrote two months ago.  I am trying to collect signatures for something that is near and dear to my heart, an airline.

Yes, it’s weird, but hear me out.

You can read the longer story, but long story short is that I am trying to get a charter airline named Swift Air to keep the name of the company it acquired a few months back named Eastern Airlines.

If the name seems familiar, that’s because it was a major airline in the US until it folded in 1991.  Fast forward to 2015 and a new Eastern airline emerges.  Along the way there were some issues that came to fore where the founder left the company either by choice or by force.  In 2017 the new Eastern was looking for a buyer and found one with Swift Air. They bought the assets and there seem to be some talk that Swift would rebrand itself using the Eastern name.  To this date that hasn’t happened.

The petition is asking Swift to use the Eastern name in some form.  To that end, I have created a petition asking just that.

This is where you come in. If you follow this blog, I hope you will consider signing it. It will mean a lot.

You can sign at two places. You can choose this one or this other one.



The Avenging Savior

gerung-bowl7Is God a God of love or of justice?

That has been a question in my mind over the years.  Is God the God that loves everyone and saves everyone?  Or does he send people to hell?

As I left evangelicalism and wandered into mainline Protestantism, I started to think that God was all about love.  God saved everyone through Christ’s death on the cross and so no one gets punished?  God isn’t about wrath, just about love.

But I’ve wondered over the years if there is something wrong with assuming that God is only about love and not about justice.  Because if God is just about love, then whole chunks of the Old Testament are wrong. Which I tend to think is what a lot of people would like.  That God didn’t have any hesitation in raining down fire from heaven to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Or to flood the earth and kill everything save the people and animals on the ark.

Pastor Jason Micheli wrote on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed Blog about the concept of a God of Wrath.  He notes that most people want to focus on forgiveness, especially how we think of God in Jesus Christ:

In The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge points out in her third chapter, The Question of Justice, we commonly suppose that Christianity is primarily about forgiveness. Jesus, after all, told his disciples they were to forgive upwards of 490 times. From the cross Jesus petitioned for the Father’s forgiveness towards us who knew exactly what we were doing. Forgiveness is cemented into the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

But Micheli concludes that God is not soley about forgiveness:

Nonetheless, to reduce the message of Christianity to forgiveness is to ignore what scripture claims transpires upon the cross.

The cross is more properly about God working justice.

The most fulsome meaning of ‘righteousness,’ Rutledge reminds her readers, is ‘justice’ understood not only as a noun but as an active, reality-making verb. Though righteousness often sounds to us as a vague spiritual attribute, the original meaning couldn’t be more this-worldly. Justice, don’t forget, is the subject of Isaiah’s foreshadowings of the coming Messiah. Justice is the dominant theme in Mary’s magnificat and justice is the word Jesus chooses to preach for his first sermon in Nazareth.

To mute Christianity into a message about forgiveness is to sever Jesus’ cross from the Old Testament prophets who first anticipated and longed for an apocalyptic invasion from their God.

And it’s to suggest that on the cross Jesus works something other than how both his mother and he construed his purpose.

The God portrayed in Mary’s Magnificat is not one that is all sweetness and light. In fact, it should put us on our knees, because this God is taking names.

I’ve been thinking about love, forgiveness and justice in light of the victim testimonies that have been taking place in a courtroom in Lansing, Michigan.  This is the where over 150 girls and women have come to confront convicting abuser Larry Nassar who molested them under the guise of giving them treatment. The statement that many focused on was the one given, by Rachael Denhollander. She was the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse. Her impact statement talked about how the abuse affected her, but she also took time to talk about her faith and what her Christian faith tells her about men like Nassar who refuse to see their evil. But she that wasn’t the whole story.  Here is the key part of her testimony:

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

Notice what she is saying here. She talks about a God of wrath that will punish men like Nassar. There is no Rob Bell “Love Wins” here, it is a fearsome justice that will happen to Nassar.

But neither is this just about punishment. She also tells Nassar that there is also grace from God, but that only comes through taking responsibilty and repenting of his sin.

Denhollander isn’t presenting a God of only wrath nor a God that is just love. Instead we see a God that is both. There is the God like the one in the Old Testament that will forgive if only the people of Israel repent from their old ways. It was only when they ignored those pleadings did God then move to punishment. There is something about her sense of judgement and forgiveness that you can tell isn’t cheap. Both are costly and both must be taken seriously.

The cross is both a sign of God’s anger at injustice and also a sign of God’s love of all creation. We need a God that can get angry when young girls are molested and a God that can offer grace to the abuser (if they acknowledge their sin).

The thing about Denhollander’s statement is the role choice has in all of this.  People can choose to not acknowledge their sin, the pain that they have caused and suffer the consequences. Or, they can also seek forgiveness and repent, turning away from damnation.

But the trend especially in progressive religious circles is to take away that choice.  It looks a little heartless to have a God that might allow people to be judged and sentenced to damnation.

In a 2011 column, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explains that erasing the concept of hell can limit human freedom:

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

If what we do has no bearing on our eternal soul, then does justice matter? We are given the freedom to choose hell or not from our decisions. If our decisions don’t matter, then justice really doesn’t matter.

Denhollander’s talk of God’s judgement showed she believed Nassar’s actions had consequences not just in the hear and now, but in the hereafter. Only if he chooses to repent and seek God’s forgiveness can the script change.

I believe in hell because it is God’s way of avenging the innocent and punishing the proud. That doesn’t mean there isn’t salvation for sinners, but it does mean to be saved, you have to know you need saving.

I believe in a God of love. I truly believe in a God that loves all of creation. But I also believe in a God of justice, a God that doesn’t like when the vulnerable are oppressed. I believe we have choice in choosing salvation or damnation.

In the end, I believe God gives a damn.

Eastern Airlines and the Lost Cause


For the last few weeks, I’ve been involved in something that at least at surface level seems batty.

I’ve been running an online petition to gather at least 500 signatures to send to the leadership of a company.  It’s a long story, but I will try to make it short. I’ve been following the rebirth of Eastern Airlines.  Eastern was a major airline that folded suddenly in 1991.  It was reborn in 2015 to start as a charter airline with scheduled service coming later.  For reasons we don’t know, the founder of the airline left the company in 2016.  Many think he was pushed by the investors who wanted to make money fast.  The investors tried to run the company, and they did a bad job.  In 2017, Swift Air, another charter airline, bought the company. It sounded like the people who worked for Eastern would just be merged into Swift, but that wasn’t the case.  It seemed to be more of a sale of assets and nothing more.  Maybe a few went over to Swift, but a lot of employees including flight attendants were let go, from what I know in some cases without warning.

Swift has two airplanes from Eastern that for now still have the Eastern livery. My petition is a plea to Swift to keep the Eastern name in some way.  So far, over 225 people have agreed.  I want to get 500 people at the very least to sign it.

People have made fun of me saying the company will do what it wants or laugh at the possibility that my little petition could do anything.  There is also my own brain that wonders if I’ve gone mad. For many this seems like a lost cause.

When I look at our society today, what I see is an America that is risk-adverse. People don’t get involved or learn to dream big.  Where there are problems, people seem more content to just let them fester and not make a splash.  But I think the biggest problem is that we are an America ruled by common sense.

Mariana Alessandri wrote in the New York Times last year about Don Quixote and Lost Causes.  Spanish philosopher ressurected Spain’s most famous imaginary character after his nation’s loss in the Spanish American War.  He saw the delusional Quixote as a symbol to rally the people to take part in what might seem to be lost causes because to give into common sense is to not engage with the world. Unamuno sets up Quixote as the “sane” character while his sidekick, Sancho is really the delusional one:

Abandoning his senses — or rather, his common sense — freed up Quixote to engage in fruitless tasks like charging windmills. In the most famous scene of the book, his squire, Sancho Panza, warns Quixote that the giant he is tempted to charge is just a windmill, and, as such, should be left alone. Sancho’s common sense tells him that fights that are sure to be lost are not worth fighting. Yet it is that same common sense that continually keeps Sancho from engaging with the world; likewise, it keeps us from engaging in what are perhaps the worthiest of causes: the lost ones.

Unamuno believed that it was not Quixote but Sancho who was delusional, firm in his belief that windmills are not worth charging, and, more broadly, that unwinnable battles are not worth fighting. The result of this type of thinking will usually be paralysis, since most enemies are windmill-size instead of human-size. Sancho believed that tilting at windmills was dangerous. Today, we might just call it a waste of time, and since common sense also tells us that time is money, we had better steer clear of anything unprofitable.

The essay cites theorist Joshua Dienstag who says that Quixote charged windmills not because he thought he would win, but because it was the right thing to do. Quixote did what he did not thinking that it was sure thing, that success was certain. He was willing to be made a fool, because he believed battling windmills was a moral issue to be tackled, outcomes be damned.

Alessandri’s main point in the essay is that we can talk ourselves into thinking the monster in our lives is not that bad. While I don’t agree with Unamuno’s Marxist analysis or that Walmart is an always bad thing, her point still makes sense:

On Unamuno’s Marxist interpretation of the windmill scene, Quixote recognized that, though they might look harmless, the “long-armed giants” kept the townspeople sated and distracted enough to forget their oppression at the hands of the modern bread factories. Unamuno complained that instead of asking whether they would ultimately benefit the towns they invade, the townspeople ended up “venerate[ing] and pay[ing] homage to steam and electricity.” Contemporary windmills might look like a small town getting a Walmart, or like kindergartners getting free iPads. Common sense fails us in two ways: first and most often, it uncritically believes that technology equals progress, and second, even in cases in which people recognize the potential harm to the community, they generally don’t believe that they can resist it. Common sense calls it a waste of time and energy. Quixote rejected this calculus, instead favoring a moral metric to decide who and what to fight. Thus freed, Quixote was left open to fight for lost causes — and lose.

Warning: quixotic pessimism will not go over well in public. If you choose this life, Unamuno says you will face disbelief, judgment and ridicule. He writes that moral courage “confronts, not bodily injury, or loss of fortune, or the discredit of one’s honor but rather ridicule: one’s being taken for a madman or a fool.” In a real-life context, quixotic pessimism will look like constantly face-planting in public, and we will need moral courage to accept it. People will laugh at us as they do at Quixote. People will mock our decision to fight big machines, but we must do it neither to win nor to impress. We will eventually grow accustomed to ignoring the criticism of our saner colleagues and friends who seem to follow the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

This sense of trying to avoid lost causes or to become risk averse is something that I think plagues churches in America. In my years in mainline Protestantism, I’ve seen a church that isn’t really interested in experiment or risk. It is far more willing to play it safe more than anything else. It’s a reason that we don’t invest much time or effort into planting new churches; to do so is as I’ve heard people tell me, waste good money. Forget spreading the gospel, people just want to be taken care of.

Australian missiologist Alan Hirsch explains how risk-aversion is killing the church. He notes that a risk-adverse church tries to tame the gospel; to make more affirming of our middle class lifestyles. Episcopal priest Matt Marino shares this description and reminds us that this is a problem that reflects the entirety of the church in America (evangelical, mainline and so on). He notes:

Stasis and institutionalism are everywhere. I have experienced it in the mainline, the mega-church, the parachurch, education and mental health. Erwin McManus in his book, The Barbarian Way, tells of being at the trendiest Christian leadership conference in the country while the gurus of the big-box movement implored a generation of idealistic young youth pastors and church planters, “Don’t be an innovator, they get chewed up. Be an early adopter!” Not taking risks seems to be an inherent, and horribly sick, part of American church culture. How anyone can grow without risk is a mystery. Risk and faith and trust are the crucible where growth happens. Safety, security and a God who can be contained in our 5″x 7″ heads should sound like soul-death to those with a pulse. We may think we want safety and security, but don’t we really crave to stand on the edge of an abyss, fascinated by what might be on the other side and figuring out how to get the team across? Safety and security might be the “red sky at morning” of the dead religion Jesus came to free us from. Jesus came to “seek and to save the lost” and “give his life as a ransom for many” (Luke 19:10, Mark 10:45), not create an institution to function as packing material to insulate ourselves from life.

Faith is about taking a risk. It is about moving from our comfort zones. Faith as a Christian means being willing to believe even if it doesn’t make sense,even if it seems a waste of time,even if people will make fun of you. Which is kind of what Jesus said would happen when people followed him.

Let’s go back to my working example of Eastern.  On the surface it looks like some crazy guy unwilling to let go of a failed business. But there is more going on here than just keeping nostalgia alive.  There’s the case of how workers (flight attendants, pilots, flight crew) were treated during the transition.  There were also promises made to companies on future orders of aircraft that are now in doubt.  As I said in a recent post on Medium:

 If Eastern wasn’t doing well, then it should have honestly shut down. I think people would have understood that. But it feels like the owners of Eastern didn’t really care if the airline lived or died. They gave up. There also seems to be some dishonesty in the sale. The leaked email said things like the “next exciting chapter in the Eastern story.” But that seemed to be crock of you-know-what. The next exciting chapter was basically to shut down.

The actions of the owners had repercussions. People lost jobs because of this.

The common sense take would be to see this as just another company that folded and lost workers. It would be another airline that should have never started in the first place.

My petition has a high chance of failure. The naysayers might be right that it won’t change people’s minds. Common sense rules again.

But sitting on the sidelines and calling potshots might be safe, but it can also keep unjust people or systems in power. Charging a windmill might seem foolish, but it could be that the windmill will fall.

When I am being teased for charging this windmill, I am reminded by this quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go and attack a windmill.

No, It’s Not Going to Get Better


In the fall of 1983, the biggest thing on television was the TV movie, The Day After.  Coming at a highpoint in the Cold War, this movie depicted a war between the Soviet Union and the United States that becomes nuclear.  The movie centered on the lives of people living in and around Kansas City, Missouri. I never saw the movie itself.  What I did see was a clip from the movie that was shown on 60 Minutes.  It shows the last few seconds before the bomb hits KC.  There is chaos in the streets.  Freeways are clogged with people running away even though there is no place to hide.  The iconic scene for me is when Jason Robard’s character is stuck in traffic and peers out of the driver window when..boom the sky turns an ugly shade or orange and a mushroom cloud appears over Kansas City.

It was hard to sleep for nights after that.

I calmed myself by believing that God wouldn’t let something like that happening.  Yes, it was a lie, but it worked.

Thirty-five years later, I am wondering if a war with North Korea will turn hot.  There are already scenarios out there that show how an errant tweet might rain down death from the sky killing millions. The fear is back.  I want to tell myself that things will not careen out of control leading to some kind of apocalypse.  But there is also a voice telling me that yes, things could be bad very, very bad.

If there is something that I will be keeping in the front my mind in 2018 is to have a healthy sense of lament. Yes, you heard correctly. Over the last few days, I’ve encountered a few postings on social media that seem to tell us that yes, the worst can happen, will happen and is happening.  Normally, my MO is to ignore these postings and focus on hope.  What is happening will at some point pass, is what I tell myself. But I’m learning to not immediately go to hope.  I feel like I need to spend time in terror and despair. The above tweet is part of a tweetstorm that talks about how fragile “modernity” is. Progress is not certain. We can move forward in progress or backwards as is evidence in the technological advances of the Rome, that were lost when Rome fell.

Farooq Butt’s tweets remind us that our present can unleash forces that send us backward in progress and when that happens, it can take decades or even centuries to get back to square one.

But people will say that things were worse in say, 1968 as opposed to today.  They have a point.  But we don’t know if our relative calm is truly a sign of a better day or if it is the calm before a storm.

I think that we are living at a time when we feel like we are at the edge of a precipice. When a trip to Korea in the fall of 2018, has a pastor and his spouse talking about nuclear war, we are not in a time teeming with hope.

The reason I’m thinking about lament is because of an Instagram post by religion writer Jonathan Merritt.  He decided to ring the new year with a downer:

If I had to describe #2017 in one word, it would be LAMENT. I had to release and mourn destructive relationships that had sapped my emotional health for too long. I had to grieve the words and behaviors of many fellow Christians, which distorted the Gospel of peace. And I was consistently frustrated by a president who attacked minorities and women and immigrants and shamelessly used racial slurs in public. This, and more. So much more. . In 2017, I wept alongside the Psalmist and shouted angry prayers: “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself!” (Ps 44:23) . I’m tempted on this New Year’s Day to sanitize my sorrow from last year. To cling to cliches about the darkness before the dawn. To use the #bestyearever hashtag and pretend that I believe it. To proclaim that “joy comes in the morning” in hopes that you all click “like” and share it far and wide. . But yesterday at @tgctribeca, @edgungor preached a masterful sermon that liberated me from this impulse. Sometimes, he said, we should refuse to be comforted. At least for a time. Because pain is something to embrace, something to sit with, something that humanizes in a way that candy-coated cliches cannot. . So if you’re still reading, here’s your permission slip to keep grieving, keep mourning, keep wailing WITH ME. There is no indication that #2018 will be the dawn to 2017’s darkness. It may be bleaker and harder and more painful, actually. But if we lean into it, we may just find a God who teaches us lessons in lamentation that we could never learn in celebration. Stop to smile in the midst of your pain knowing it is doing its job and you’ll be better for it. . “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” – Barbara Brown Taylor . #barbarabrowntaylor #inspiration #truth #grief #sadness #mourning #lament #theology #Christianity #honesty #quotes #Christianquotes #newyear #newyears (📸: @kaylajohnsonphoto)

A post shared by Jonathan Merritt (@jonathan_merritt) on

Sometimes,…we should refuse to be comforted. That’s hard to hear, but more and more I am accepting it. Sometimes things don’t get better. Sometimes there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes all you are left with is lament. Lament is not the same as despair, but it is about not trying to put lipstick on a pig when life just sucks.

The thing is, being a Christian doesn’t mean bad things will never happen to us. Just because we think God is in control doesn’t mean that evil will never harm us or that the sun will come out tomorrow.

But the thing is, God will be with us as we lament. God can take our tears and fears and sit with us in the dark. It is a God that will be with us even if the worse happens.

I don’t know what 2018 will bring.  Maybe there will be war. Maybe not. Maybe other things that will happen that could bring calamity.  That is a time for lament and sadness.  It is a time to be like those mothers mentioned in Matthew 2 who refuse to comforted after Herod kills all the baby boys in Bethlehem and not try to talk about things passing, because they just might not.

But even in our lament, even in our fear I know paraphrasing the Apostles Creed, that I believe in God, I believe in Jesus, I believe in the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


Beyond Soto Voce

no-voiceIf there is one thing I want to do more of in 2018 is get back to blogging about religion again.  I spent a lot of the past year just not saying much.  I can look at my blog and see a large number of drafts that never went anywhere.

There are a lot of reasons, that I kind of went dark this past year.  Part of it is wondering what other people will think of my views which most of the time won’t mirror their views. But I’ve also just became afraid of sharing my viewpoint.  For reasons I can’t go into, I just felt more and more that I couldn’t say what I was feeling or thinking, so my voice got smaller and smaller, and my desire to write just shriveled up. Bluntness was replaced by hesitation and fear.

But I missed not sharing what I felt or thought about some issue. And I just missed writing.

I want to get back to being able to be honest and less afraid of writing. I need to develop my voice again and to not be fearful of what others think.

But I need to write again, because it is the most effective way to express myself.  I’m not always open around people in ways that I can be behind the screen. Not being able to share myself felt a bit like I was dying on the inside.

So, I’m going to try again. And by trying, I want to start living again.  Here’s hoping 2018 is when I can share my thoughts again.

Loving Jesus, Hating Church?


I gave up church because I can no longer make the trade-offs between worship, theology, mission, and community that I have made for years. My congregational options usually seem to consist of historically Black church settings with prophetic preaching and action on issues of racial and social justice, but that reject women’s call to pastoral leadership; predominantly white churches that profess gender and sexual inclusivity, but are experienced as oppressive by people of color; and multiracial churches whose preaching, worship, and leadership are oriented to the comfort of white, middle-class Christians (which is, incidentally, an act of white supremacy). I gave up church because fitting into any of the spaces required me to conceal or contort too much of my womanist self. I gave up church because I cannot seem to find a place where I can worship God with my whole being. And I am not alone.

These are the words from a recent post by Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor at McAfee School of Theology. Her post is about her leaving the church because it is not prophetic enough. I want to be sensitive and not be dismissive of her complaints. Churches are not perfect and they are filled with racism and homophobia and misogyny. I know that churches have treated people of color, LGBT community, women and others poorly. I have been treated as such.

But there is something in this post that bothers me.  It’s something that I’ve seen in other thinkpieces over the years.  Usually someone will say how the church doesn’t do X and because of this, they aren’t in church anymore.  If the church took part and offered X, then maybe they would return to church. This is what former Millenial pastor Steve Austin has said about his generation and why they gave up church:

We’re desperate for honesty. We are hungry for conversation. We want to show up at church with our success, failure, vulnerability, questions, and what’s left of our deconstructed faith. We have shifted away from and sifted through the excesses of man-made religious constructs. We have grown up and read the Bible for ourselves. And we are passionate about the overarching theme of the life and lessons of Jesus: that love comes with no strings attached. Anything else is just a loan.

We are choosing to step away from the in-fighting that happens too often in the name of God. We’re sick of petty fights over the color of the new carpet in the sanctuary, or the volume of the music. Deeper than that, we’ve had our hearts crushed because our friends aren’t welcome in certain sterilized churches. We’re convinced that Jesus was serious when he said, “Love one another.” But much of what my Millennial friends and I have witnessed from institutions that operate in the name of God is pain and abuse. We were once baptized by well-meaning people in fear, shame, and guilt. But we aren’t buying that any more. We are coming up from those muddied waters, looking for new life.

Like Walker-Barnes commentary, Austin’s piece brings up some important themes that should be taken seriously. But there is also could be something else taking place at the same time; a sense of seeing the church not as a place where the imperfect people of God gather and to work to keep including people at God’s table, but as a consumer good that should be made to a person’s desires and likes. It’s like taking the old slogan of Burger King, “Have It Your Way,” and make it how the church should operate.

I know that some will think I don’t take seriously the cry of those who feel hurt by the church. I think we should work to make the church more receptive to women, to gays and especially to be more willing to take on the topic of race. But I don’t think Walker-Barnes is talking about churches that are preaching against LGBTQ individuals or preaching for racial purity.  What I think is happening here is that the churches aren’t where she is on these issues.  The churches aren’t where she is, so she decides to not go to church.

No one should stay at a church where you are being abused or condemned from the pulpit. But what this seems like is a sense of consumerism.  The church isn’t made-to-order to her expectations and so she walks.

But the church is never going to be up to our own standards and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it is to our standards.  The church has to be to God’s standards.

As for dealing with racism, we have to remember that God used people who at times didn’t get it.  In Acts 10, Peter is called by God to preach the good news to  Cornelius, a Roman, which is another way of saying “not a Jew.” God schools Peter by telling the disciple that the gospel is for all.  But after Peter’s epiphany there was some backsliding as Paul notes in his letter to the Galatians.

11 When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

-Galatians 2:11-13

The thing is, there have been many throughout the history of the church, Christians have arose hearing the call of justice. Think Martin Luther King. Or the Freedom Riders. And there are times when the church went silent in the face of evil. Church is a mixed bag because it is filled with humans who aren’t perfect.

And for that reason, we need Jesus.

But I wonder if the people who say they love Jesus and not the church realize their need for Jesus and that Jesus inugurated the church. It seems at time that these people want a Jesus that is more like Che Guevara- a revolutionary Jesus. But the Jesus was read in Scripture is the one that gathered the disciples and prepared them to lead the church .

Jesus does care for the poor and Matthew 25 is a good example of what happens when we ignore those in need. But Jesus is not just a social justice figure. Jesus is also the son of God who comes to die for us, to set us free from the bonds of sin.

In the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we are given an understanding of what the big C church is as well as the little c church. This is what is has to say about the church:

Within the whole family of God on earth, the church appears wherever believers in Jesus the Christ are gathered in His name. Transcending all barriers within the human family, the one church manifests itself in ordered communities bound together for worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members. The nature of the church, given by Christ, remains constant through the generations, yet in faithfulness to its nature, it continues to discern God’s vision and to adapt its mission and structures to the needs of a changing world. All dominion in the church belongs to Jesus, its Lord and head, and any exercise of authority in the church on earth stands under His judgment.

The Design continues:

Within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is identifiable by its testimony, tradition, name, institutions, and relationships. Across national boundaries, this church expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), bound by God’s covenant of love. Each expression is characterized by its integrity, self-governance, authority, rights, and responsibilities, yet they relate to each other in a covenantal manner, to the end that all expressions will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. We are committed to mutual accountability. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and constantly seeks in all of its actions to be obedient to his authority.

The emphasis is on the word “covenant.” Church means that we are connected. It means we are responsible to each other. It means loving that person that you think is stupid for support that tax policy or who supports a $15 minimum wage when you think its madness. It means being in covenant with the guy that think women can’t be ministers even when you want to walk away. None of this is about allowing or enabling abuse, but it is about being willing reach beyond what is comfortable to see that person on the other side is your sister or brother in Christ.

I want to share one more quote from Chanequa Walker-Barnes as she explains why she’s given up church:

We are people who take seriously what Jesus said in Matthew 25 when he stated that the test of true discipleship was solidarity and service with the “least of these.” But rarely can we find a church that makes solidarity and service its central focus. Instead, we encounter churches that endorse such hate-filled and theologically vacuous declarations such as the Nashville Statement opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage; that refuse to engage anti-Black police violence, mass deportations of immigrant families, and unjust prison systems; that shun, silence, and demonize leaders that it deems too outspoken on matters of justice.

I don’t know what churches she’s gone to, but I know a lot of churches that do take justice seriously. But I wanted to contrast this with something written by pastor and writer Lillian Daniel six years ago. It got her in trouble, but it helped distill what church is really all about. In some way she responds to Walker-Barnes about the church and what it is made of:

Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur’an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It’s no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.

The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.

But—here’s a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don’t want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.

But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn’t seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It’s as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It’s as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.

It’s as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.

I served at a church that had two members who were interesting. One of them was developmentally disabled and he would use his outside voice and blurt something in the middle of worship. The other was schizophrenic and was always struggling to deal with the voices in his head. But he could draw some of the most wonderful drawings of futuristic worlds.

What does this have to do with church? Everything. These two men come to church on a regular basis because they need church. They need the community that will pray for them when the voices are too loud. They need that community because they need a place where they can speak up in the middle of worship and know that they still belong.

I need church because  I don’t need to learn about his life lessons or teachings but because I want to meet him in the Word that is preached and in the sacraments that are shared.

Church is not perfect.  It doesn’t always do the right thing.  But it is the only church we got.

Awesome God


Lake Superior.

This past Sunday, the text in the Narrative Lectionary was the Binding of Issac found in Genesis 22.  It is one of the most disturbing pieces of Scripture that there is in the Bible.  Having a father ready to sacrifice his son has to rank up there as most horrific thing about the Bible.

As I put together the Bible Study and prepared for Sunday,  I was all set to focus on the the distrubing aspect of the Abraham wanting to off his son, but I felt that I was giving this passage the short shrift.  I remember hearing something years ago from a professor about how people are hungry for the good news.  “Give us gospel,”she said.

“Give us gospel.” People want the good news.  But is there good news in this passage?  A lot of progressive Christians would say no and move on to some other passage, one focused more on justice, one that didn’t show a god asking a father to off his son.

Rachel Held Evans wrote in 2014 about her misgivings if God is actually doing such atrocities:

God is God. 

When people say this, what they seem to be saying is that God is power. And if God is power, God gets to define love however God pleases.

While I agree we can’t go making demands and bending God into our own image, it doesn’t make sense to me that a God whose defining characteristic is supposed to be love would present Himself to His creation in a way that looks nothing like our understanding of love.  If love can look like abuse, if it can look like genocide, if it can look like rape, if it can look like eternal conscious torture—well, everything is relativized! Our moral compass is rendered totally unreliable. 

Among mainline/progressive Christians, there is a question on how to deal with passages like this.  More often than not, we want to ignore these passages or try to give them a meaning that feels more comfortable to us. But I don’t think we can just ignore some of these stories just because they are disturbing.

When mainline/progressive Christians encounter passages like the Binding of Issac, we tend to say to ourselves, “If God is like this, I don’t want to worship God.”  When we ask those kind of questions it gives away how we are looking at the Bible.  Methodist theologian David Watson wrote in 2014 how where is the starting point for studying the Bible. In the 20th century the question progressive Christians were asking dealt with theodicy, why a good God allows the existence of evil.

Many mainline Protestants will immediately object, “Why did God act in one instance, but not in another? If God behaves as you suggest, then God is unjust.” I think they would respond—and I would agree with them—that we are not the judge of God. God judges us, but not the other way around. There are simply things about God that we cannot know or understand. Suffering is heartbreaking, but this does not mean that God is an absentee landlord.

What we tend to do when we encounter troublesome texts is that we start to judge God.  If God acts a certain way, then we can’t follow God.   While I get this in some way, we are in essence trying to judge God.  We want to see if God is worthy and not the other way around.  What if we were able to read these texts in a different way?

This past week was the 20th anniversary of the death of Christian artist Rich Mullins.  One of his signature songs is “Awesome God,” which is found in his 1988 album, “Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth.” Some have seen the song as not as meaningful as his other songs, but I’ve always liked it because Mullins was able to talk about the “good” and “bad” of God. This is the second verse:

And when the sky was starless 
In the void of the night 
(God is an awesome God) 
He spoke into the darkness 
And created the light 
(God is an awesome God) 
Judgement and wrath He poured out on Sodom 
Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross 
I hope that we have not 
Too quickly forgotten that 
Our God is an awesome God

The God that created the world, also destroyed it. The God that sent wrath on Sodom, showed mercy on a cross.

It’s easy to think that the awesome in the song is about how cool God is, but I think it is really about standing in awe. God is not understandable. We are left with questions at time. Maybe what we take from these stories is not about seeing if God is really good, but about learning to appreciate this God we serve and understand how this God works in our lives. I am reminded what Will Willomon wrote about the binding of Issac:

How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost. How puny is this orderly, liberal religion before the hard facts of life.

I think sometimes, we are so wanting God to bend to our wills that we forget to actually meet God. To see the awesomness of God in the way that one does when seeing the Grand Canyon or the ocean. When you realize that there is something much bigger than you that rearranges how you think about your life.

Our God is an Awesome God. We don’t always understand this God, but God is bigger than us, God’s ways are not our own ways. Sometimes we need to stop judging God and just take in God’s awesomeness.