Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Spongy Faith

I am so not good at this blogging thing. How do people remember to get to their blogs on a regular basis? I don't know how long it has been since my last post!

The occasion which leads me back like the prodigal blogger I am, is the wonderful experience I am having this week on the campus of Drew Theological School, auditing a course on Jewish/Hebrew influence on our New Testament gospels' stories of Jesus of Nazareth. The course is led by none other than Bishop John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal Bishop of New Jersey, popular author and speaker. Spong has been a provocative figure throughout his public career, and no doubt remains so. But he is a man of rare grace and good humor, a man deeply committed both to Christ and to his Church, though seeking to way beyond many of the pitfalls associated with biblical literalism, with which he grew up.

I have read several of Spong's books over the years, and I can't say I agree with every position he has taken on this, that or the other thing. Yet I share his desire to claim and reclaim a vibrant Christian faith that is not bound to a biblical literalism that many of us can no longer espouse in this modern/post-modern age. Many years ago I joined a few local clergy to attend a lecture Dr. Spong was giving, I believe, somewhere in the Newark area. I remember being so captivated by his presence and his articulation of his convictions. Now I find myself in a class with 20 other pastors, seminarians and local community members spending three hours each morning with him. For me it has been like going to church and hearing two inspiring morning-long "sermons" (Spong is nothing if not a great preacher!). It is a rare opportunity to share in an intimate setting with one of the most influential churchmen of the late twentieth.early 21st century.

Some of the material Spong is sharing with us and asking us to interact with builds on a previous work of his entitled "Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes". Because our tradition has been so divorced from our Jewish roots for 19 centuries, it just does not seem to register how Jewish our foundational "Christian" documents are. Jesus, Peter, James, John, Paul, all the rest, they were Jews, not Christians, as that term was later understood! Duh! Just one thought from the above mentioned book. Then more from me later in the week, if I can remember...

"In a deep and significant way, we are now able to see that all of the Gospels are Jewish books, profoundly Jewish books. Recognizing this, we begin to face the realization that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater or lesser degree, in the midrashic style of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that most of us do not begin even now to comprehend. This style is not concerned with historic accuracy. It is concerned with mean and understanding" (page 36).

There is plenty for us Christians to ponder right there, especially those last two sentences.

Could it be we have been reading the Gospels wrong all these years?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sorry, Billy, you lost my vote!

I have long had great respect for Billy Graham. Known as "America's Pastor", Mr. Graham is probably the most influential religious figure of the 20th century, confidant to generations of Presidents (I believe he got in trouble when tapes recorded ant-semitic comments made with Richard Nixon). Now pushing 94, in his more vigorous days he led crusades around the globe, inviting thousands to "come forward" and make a "decision for Christ". To his credit, Rev. Graham lost points with some of his fellow fundamentalists when he refused to segregate his crusades in the South. I have never had much affection for popular and public evangelists. But Mr. Graham has always seemed sincere and has pretty much confined himself to preaching a gospel of Christ's love (if overly simplistic at times). He has never feathered his own nest, as so many other so called "televangelists" have and still lives modesty down in the small town of Montreat, North Carolina, where we Presbyterians have a wonderful conference center I have enjoyed over the years.

I attended a Billy Graham crusade years ago with my Lutheran pastor grandfather at the Houston Astrodome. I have a graduate degree from his alma mater, Wheaton College, outside Chicago, and while there got the privilege of shaking hands with Rev. Graham when he came to town to christen the new Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. It was a thrilling moment for all of us on the Wheaton campus!

Two weeks ago I opened up my USA Today newspaper to see a full page picture of a smiling Mr. Graham. Accompanying it was the following message, with his signature underneath:

"On Novemeber 6, the day before my 94th birthday, our nation will hold one of the most critical elections in my lifetime. We are at a crossroads and there are profound moral issues at stake. I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the bibilical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life, and defend our religious freedoms. The Bible speaks clearly on these crucial issues. Please join me in praying for America, that we will turn our hearts back toward God".

While no specific candidate or candidates are mentioned, we get the drift. We know which political party he is endorsing. The 'sky is falling' rhetoric is designed to scare and alarm us that this election is somehow different or more important than any previous one. It implies that we live in a time more evil than ever before, when America has drifted away from God. We're going to hell in a handbasket if the right guy is not chosen (on the Presidential level we are referring to a member of an American-born distortion of Christianity known as the Latter Day Saints). I expected better from Mr. Graham!

What I object to this statement, which someone in his organization (son Franklin?) has crafted and then asked Billy to sign, is the implication, from such an authority as he, that any other opinions, interpretations, policies or voting, is unacceptable to a person of faith. In other words, this is how God or the Bible would have us vote. To not do so is to go against the Almighty himself.

This expensive ad is nothing more than an abuse of Rev. Graham's reputation as "America's Pastor", put at the service of a particular political and social agenda. When he insists, "The Bible speaks clearly on these issues", he is patently wrong. Good, well-meaning and equally faithful people hold differing opinions on these matters, and can amass support from the Bible or Christian tradition to do so.. If the Bible did speak clearly, there would be more of a consensus than there is. In fact, the Bible speaks clearly on very few things or we wouldn't have all the denominations and church groups we do have, all claiming some kind of biblical support or inspiratation. Sad to say, even at the ripe old age of 93 Rev. Graham has apparently not outgrown his simplistic approach to the scriptures!

I am offended at the implication that voting for only candidates holding certain political or social positions will "turn our hearts back to God". Which, I guess, will mean my vote will be a vote to keep us away from God!  Does Rev. Graham indeed know the mind of the Almighty?

Billy, I join you in praying for America. And for this world God so loves. We all are always in need of prayer. I pray for you as you approach that amazing 94th birthday and pray for you and your family in your battle with Parkinsons. I am grateful for your contributions to the common good of our nation for three-quarters of a century.

But with this blatant attempt to lend your religious authority to influence the upcoming election in a partisan way, in the process violating the third commandment to not misuse the name of God, well, you just lost my vote!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Nones on the Bus" II

In my last blog I mentioned the new Pew Trust poll which has been splashed all over the press the last several weeks. The poll indicates the steady trickle of the American people away from "organized religion", particularly among those under thirty. While we are still by far the most religious (and religiously diverse) nation in the Western Hemisphere, Starbucks, Sunday athletics, the NY Times and sleeping are desirable options for a great many people on Sunday mornings (sometimes for this author, too!)

Some will celebrate this trend away from active church participation; those of us within the fold wonder about the implications for the future of religious congregations, Christian and Jewish alike.

Here seem to be a few implications:

The "glory days" of the Judeo-Christian establishment in America are over. Post-WWII and when I was growing up in the 1950's, all a church had to do is have its doors open and smile to visitors and it would grow. Church families were having lots of kids, which kept nurseries, sunday schools, and youth groups brimming with young bodies. The days of automatic church growth are over.

Religious congregations have to work much harder to attract that shrinking "market share" of folks who are looking for a faith community for themselves and their family. Whether Protestant, Catholic or Jew, traditional faith communities have to make a much stronger case that they continue to provide a meaningful spiritual home. The so-called religious "nones" on the rise are not necessarily anti-faith. They often identify themselves as deeply "spiritual". They just don't know how to integrate their spirituality into the framework of traditional faith expressions. They don't find traditional forms of religious community dovetailing with their spirituality.

Part of the rise of the religious "nones" reflects a growing association between traditional religions and a certain set of social and cultural values. Rightly or wrongly, traditional faiths have now become associated with conservative values on many of the most pressing issues of the day, like abortion, homosexuality, science, global-warming, etc.The religious 'nones', especially the younger, tend to be more moderate or progressive on many of these issues that have come to define the public face of faith. Unfortunately a more moderate 'face' of faith, represented by the more mainline expressions of the faith (such as the Presbyerianism I represent), is a lot less savvy, vocal or creative about presenting itself as a valid faith option between a growing secularism on the one hand and a narrow biblical literalism and intolerance on the other.

We all wish maintaining traditional forms of worship and religious service were easier than it is. Most houses of worship are feeling the financial pinch of this economy. Visitors and new members trickle rather than pour in. But our job is to be faithful, not successful; our job is to be open, to be warm, welcoming and embracing those who come our way. And for more moderate houses of worship, like the one I serve, this just may be a golden opportunity to practice and invite others to consider what author and teacher Brian McClaren calls "a new kind of Christianity" - a biblically and spiritually serious faith, yet one also open to God's truth wherever it may be found - inside and outside the confines of 'that old time religion'.

I believe that the best hope for the future of Christianity lies precisely in this new kind of Christian!

Perhaps we should say, with Mark Twain: "The rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated..."


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"Nones" on the Bus

According to the results of the latest study just released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Protestantism is in trouble. As they say out in the world of retail, our "market share" has been shrinking from roughly 66% of the US population in the 1960's, to 53% in 2007, down to the latest figure of 48%. Pollsters and social scientists have dubbed these members of the church alumni association as "nones". No, that is not a mispelling of the female Catholic religious who are currently battling the Catholic hierarchy. It refers to the fact that the majority of those who have been leaving Protestantism are not going anywhere else, they are just disappearing from the landscape of organized religion and simply identifying themselves as no longer having a religious preference. While we remain a predominantly Protestant country (22% Roman Catholic), we have slipped below the majority 50% line for the first time in our history.

As of this point in time, just under 20% of Americans claim no religious identity. As the front page article in today's "USA Today" puts it, "This group, called 'Nones,', is now the nation's second-largest category after Catholics, and outnumbers the top Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptists. The shift is a significant cultural, religious and even political change". So now the second largest religious grouping-denomination?- in America now consists of those who have left behind whatever religious upbringing or connection they once may have had.

What should we think of this trend? What can churches do to stem the tide of folks drifting from their previous religious affiliations? What does this say about the future of Christianity in America? How have we allowed ourselves to become irrelevent to this increasingly large number of 'nones', who now worship at such shrines as The Church of Starbucks or, if they are Catholic, Our Lady of the Satin Sheets? Is there a silver lining to this trend?

I'll give it some more thought and get back to you.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Hallowed be thy name..."

Here at UPC we are currently working our way through the Ten Commandments in sunday worship. Last sunday we were up to number 3, which in our New Revised Standard Version reads, "You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name". The more well-known version is probably the one found in the King James Bible: "Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain". And for the texting generation, someone has "translated" the Ten Commandments into text-speak, where the third commandment reads, simple, "No OMGs!".

Taking the Lord's name in vain or misusing it can surely take many forms, including the use of the word 'God' in swearing or cursing. A church sign like the following, "God's Last Name is Not Damn" probably captures what many if not most people believe this third commandment prohibits.

While that is surely part of it, I think this commandment has bigger fish to fry than simply prohibiting swearing and cursing. In fact, I think there are far greater violations of misusing or making wrongful use of God's name.

For example consider popular radio and TV preachers who preach a "prosperity gospel" promising that God's best life for them, God's plan for them is to bless them with abundance, with goods, with wealth, if only they have enough faith. Yes, Jesus did have much to say about wealth and possessions, but most of it wasn't very favorable. Consider other popular public religious figures who have gone on record claiming that tragic events like 9/11 or natural diasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake are in some way divine judgement for sin. How do they know this and upon what basis do they pontificate? Or consider politicians who take advantage of the deep-seated religiousity of the American people by appealing to the Almighty in support of their programs, politicies or party. These kinds of things are blatant misuse, if not actual abuse of God's name, for self-serving purposes. None of these declarations can ever be substantiated and most often only distort the scriptural record. Does the GOP stand for "God's Own Party" simply because they pepper their party platform with invocations of deity?

I think God finds this kind of bizarre God-talk much more serious infractions against the third commandment than the proverbial "swearing like a sailor". They certainly do more damage to the body politic and to the faith which we profess.

In a culture awash in God-talk, most of it meaningless, perhaps "less is more". Then when we do bring the name of God to our lips - carefully, reverently, it will actually mean something. Surely that would be appropriate for those whom Jesus taught to pray, "hallowed be thy name..."