Review: “The Passion of the Christ: A Gay Vision” by Kittredge Cherry & Douglas Blanchard

The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision
Text by: Kittredge Cherry 
Art by: Douglas Blanchard
Paperback: 154 pages
Publisher: Apocryphile Press (July 15, 2014)

 

It’s a bit shocking at first – at least to an evangelical believer, even a gay one.

The title itself almost slaps you in the face, first luring you with familiar religious tones, then almost sneaking in the punch: “The Passion of Christ: a Gay Vision.”  Half of you wants to be outraged; the other half is intrigued.  Your first instinct is to flip through the pages, looking at the artwork, with that same reaction: offense and curiosity. “You can’t do this to Jesus. That’s not how it was.”

But as you look more closely, you see Immanuel – God with us – portrayed in very human, very modern, terms. And that’s as true to the Gospel story as any classic Renaissance painting of Christ’s passion.

And if you’ll take a few extra moments and actually read a few pages, you’ll quickly fall into a devotional mood. Kittredge Cherry first explains each panel of art, pointing out the symbolism you might otherwise miss, tying the image more closely in with the biblical account it portrays, and then leads us in a moment of quiet reflection and prayer. Far from being outraged, you end up being grateful for this new spiritual experience, this new opportunity to appreciate the work of Christ, and to spend a few moments in awe-inspired prayer. “Help me to make this part of my life.” This might be one of the most interesting devotionals you’ll have on your shelf.

Cherry first began writing commentaries on Blanchard’s images during Holy Week in 2011, and they remain a great way to meditate on the final events of Jesus’ life – at any time of year – just to gain a fresh take on the well-worn story. This collection brings the story to life in a new way with vivid artwork and inspirational writing.

Dallas-born artist, Douglas Blanchard, began working on the 24 panels of his version of the Passion shortly before the attacks of 9/11. Sickened by the results of mindless religion, the terrorist attacks drove him more deeply into the project, motivating him to look beyond the surface of the faith-stories into the real meaning underneath them.

And while the images convey meaning many LGBTQ people can relate to, contrary to the impression the title might lend, Jesus is not portrayed as an obviously gay man. This is no radical repainting of the Christ-story in a politically-hostile, socially-oppressed gay context. Aside from one of the closing shots of Jesus ascending to the Father, there is no real hint of Jesus’ sexual orientation at all. He is simply a young, white male, beardless, athletic and urban – the deliberate attempt by the artist to link Jesus with contemporary life.

The whole point of the series, Blanchard says, is to reflect the message of God in solidarity with us. So instead of depicting Jesus with traditional solemnness and glassy-eyed passivity, holy and unapproachable, the Christ in these paintings is fully human, accessible, someone who draws people to himself instinctively. And in fact, just to prevent the pictures from being taken out of context, Blanchard painted a faux frame around each, complete with title and sequence number.

Take a look

But a few examples will work better to describe this book than any short review could do justice to it.

Blanchard1 The first panel presents Jesus as “The Son of Man,” the human one, identifying with us as one in our sufferings. He’s painted with Job and Isaiah, biblical figures associated with profound suffering. And Cherry’s devotional meditation is powerful:

“And the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14

Jesus was one of us, a real human being. He loved everybody, including his enemies. And yet some say that LGBT people don’t belong in the story of Jesus Christ. … The Holy Spirit inspires each person to envision God in his or her own way. This is the story of a Jesus who emphasized his humanity by calling himself the Human One or Son of Man. He doesn’t look very gay. Young and attractive, he can pass for straight. He is fully in the present, yet feels kinship with the ancient prophets, Job and Isaiah, who understood suffering. He wanted to serve God by healing people and setting them free. Here we remember his last days, his death and resurrection. Jesus was a child of God who embodied love so completely that he transcended history and even death itself. But while it was happening, people didn’t understand. Like many LGBT people, he was rejected by society. They locked the liberator in prison.

Jesus, show me how you lived and loved.

 

Blanchard2Or panel #2, “Jesus Enters the City.” Cherry writes,

“Look, the world has gone after him.” – John 12:19

Everyone cheered when Jesus called for justice and freedom. Crowds followed him into the city, shouting and waving. Their chants were not so different from ours: “Yes we can! Out of the closet and into the streets! We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Jesus was a superstar making a grand entrance. But he did it in his own modest, gentle style. He surprised people by riding on a donkey. Some of his supporters, those who had mainstream success, urged him to quiet the others – assimilate, don’t alienate. Tone it down. Act respectable, don’t demand respect. Stop flaunting it. His answer: I’m here to liberate people! If the crowds were silent, the stones would cry out! It was that kind of day, a Palm Sunday sort of day, when everyone shouted for equality and freedom. But was anybody still listening?

Hey, Jesus, here I am!

 

Panel 3 depicts Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple, and Cherry leads us to ponder:

“It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” – Matthew 21:13

Jesus acted up when he saw something wrong. Nothing made him angrier than religious hypocrisy blocking the way to God. He got mad when religious leaders made people pay to attend worship. … Everyone gets God for free. …

Jesus, thank you for your anger.
Give me the courage to act up against injustice.

 

When Jesus preaches in the temple, and we are led to pray, “Jesus, teach me, touch me!”

At the last supper, the modern Jesus is seen in a sport coat, surrounded by a multi-racial group, from a wide range of ages. An elderly black woman dressed in church clothes and a hat sits next to a young white man in a t-shirt; a young black man with a cigarette stands behind an older white man in a business suit. A young woman in a cocktail dress and heels holds hands with a guy in jeans and a leather jacket. And Jesus stands there, embracing them, hands on their shoulders, with the wine and matzah sitting on the table before him.  “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” … And we respond, “Jesus, thank you for feeding me!”

Jesus prays alone in a back alley somewhere, the modern Gethsemane. “Guide me, God! I put my life in your hands.” And when he is arrested, we are led to pray, “Jesus, how should I respond to hate?”

Images designed to provoke and evoke

There are some provocative images in the book. When Jesus is before the soldiers, we see him sitting naked, handcuffed, with his back to us, as modern soldiers hold a knife to his throat and dogs snarl at him from the side. We see him hanging naked from a pipe as he’s beaten, and blood drips down his back, buttocks and legs. Is this any more graphic or irreverent than what actually happened? “Jesus, be with all who suffer … and with all who cause suffering.”  And when he is crucified, we are prompted to pray, “God, help me find meaning in the brutal death of Jesus.”  Then follow images of his resurrection, his appearance to Mary, his eating with friends at Emmaus (“Come and travel with me, Jesus. Or are you already here?”)

At Pentecost, “The Holy Spirit Arrives,” painted as a woman in flowing golden gown and wings, descending among a group of black and white men and women, a person in a wheelchair with raised hands in the foreground. “Come, Holy Spirit, and kindle a flame of love in my heart.”

Blanchard3Perhaps the most controversial painting in the series would be #22, “Jesus Returns to God.” Blanchard deliberately avoids traditional religious language, and translates “the Ascension” into its plain meaning. Here, the shirtless Jesus, wearing blue jeans, is lifted into the sky in the arms of a handsome angel who appears to be kissing him, holding him tightly with one hand on his butt.  It is definitely a homoerotic image — but it suggests the intimacy that exists as “mortal human flesh was made radiant by becoming part of God.”  If one were to squawk at this book, this would be the gasoline used to light the fire.  But within context, and with an anticipated LGBTQ readership, even this image conjures the complex feelings we have integrating our sexuality and our faith. It is true to who we are. And if Jesus took on flesh to walk among us, and identifies with us in our complex humanity, what could be a more potent and suggestive image of the intermingling of his human and divine nature than this?

And that provocative painting might be a good summary of my reaction to this startling work by Cherry and Blanchard. I was reluctant at first, wary to have my faith sensitivities assaulted. But I ended up feeling richer for the experience. As much as my conservative evangelical upbringing might have wanted to cringe at the beginning, I found a deeper truth in the art and commentary that forced those overly-sensitive scruples to shut up and just appreciate the mystery of it all.


This review originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine in March 2015, and was reissued in Italian in Progetto Gionatta.

 

The Boston Declaration: Theologians Protest a Corrupted U.S. Christianity

This week, Christian theologians meeting in Boston donned sackcloth and ashes in a dramatic display of grief over the corruption of U.S. Christianity, and to call the country into a time of reflection and action to end oppression.  It was an unusual way to end the annual joint conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL), which draws thousands of religious faculty and students every year.

Over 300 theologians, bishops, and leaders from Christian seminaries and denominations signed what they are calling the “Boston Declaration,” to protest the demise of core values in the Christian faith as prominent politicians are exposed as racists and sexual predators.

But it is not just another protest echoing the outcry against sexual abuse dominating the news in recent weeks.

It is a plea for faith leaders and believers to take a stand against the trend in contemporary American Christianity to embrace sexism, racism, white supremacy, nationalism, cutting social safety-nets, and forcing the poorest and most powerless among us into desperation. It is a protest of the Church willingly becoming accomplices to political corruption and the oppression of the weak and vulnerable in this country — in direct conflict with the teachings of Jesus and the Bible.

It is the natural, even prophetic, response of spiritual and religious leaders to the rise of darker, ungodly influences in our culture. And at its core, it is a call for social justice. It is political. And it is a response to the popular wave which elevated Donald Trump and a culture of fear and anti-intellectualism to power.  (See the list of specific “condemnations” below, each introduced by the words in bold, “We reject….”)

The statement takes its inspiration from the Barmen Declaration of 1934, when prominent Christian theologians like Karl Barth, Martin Niemöller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against the subjugation and complicity of German churches under Adolf Hitler.

“Far too many Evangelical Christians have embraced the politics of exclusion, exploitation, and hatred, such that the Good News of Jesus has become a cover for a social and economic order that can only be understood as bad news for far too many,” their press release states.

But like so many “declarations” made in recent months, one can only wonder if these are just the words of angry preachers and professors, or whether they will actually wake Amercian Christians up from their apathetic slumber.

You decide.

The declaration is posted below, and you may add your name at The Boston Declaration.


A PROPHETIC APPEAL TO CHRISTIANS OF THE UNITED STATES

Occasion

As followers of Jesus, the Jewish prophet for justice whose life reminds us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) we hear the cries of women and men speaking out about sexual abuse at the hands of leaders in power and we are outraged. We are outraged by the current trends in Evangelicalism and other expressions of Christianity driven by white supremacy, often enacted through white privilege and the normalizing of oppression. Confessing racism as the United States’ original and ongoing sin, we commit ourselves to following Jesus on the road of costly discipleship to seek shalom justice for the least, the lost, and the left out. We declare that following Jesus today means fighting poverty, economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and all forms of oppression from the deepest wells of our faith.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
— MARK 12:31

Choose Life

This is a time of heightened racist and patriarchal empire where wealth is concentrated at the top. The Living God asks us to make a decision: “Today I offer you the choice of life and good, or death and evil. …Choose life.” (Deuteronomy 31). Following Jesus today means choosing life, joining the Spirit-led struggle to fight the death-dealing powers of sin wherever they erupt. Whenever one of God’s children is being oppressed, we will fight with them for liberation with the power of the Holy and Life-Giving Spirit. And yet, we live in a moment when death and evil seem to reign supreme in the United States, when those with the power of a uniform or the president’s pen or a position of authority or fame or economic tricks of capitalization and interest or sheer brute force… again and again choose death rather than life. In a moment when too many who confess Christ advocate evil, we believe followers of the Jesus Way are called to renounce, denounce, and resist these death-dealing powers which organize and oppress our world, not to embrace or promulgate them.

We acknowledge the manifold and complicated ways we participate in these systems, even as we are often complicit in them. We confess that the Church, in a variety of forms, has too often failed to follow the way of Jesus and perform the good news. We are people who are still discovering the ways we participate with death and evil, even while we continue to seek the good, to choose life again and again. This declaration is such a choice, hoping and clinging to the God of life and seeking to bear witness to that life in our present moment. Acknowledging our own failures and embracing an appropriate sense of humility should not, however, silence us. While we do not have ready-made answers for all the problems we face, we know something about the pathway we must follow if we are to find those answers, and this is the pathway of Jesus.

Who is our God and What is the Jesus Way?

We believe in a God who holds all difference within God’s own life and in whom there is no one or no people who are distant from God’s justice, merciful love, and presence (Micah 6:8; Acts 10:34-35). We affirm the beauty and humanity of all people in their manifold difference–race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and religion–as reflecting God’s image through lives of love and hope.

We believe the Jesus Way calls us to the possibility of living in a world where all can love and be loved, and live into joy.

The Jesus Way continues through our best, prayerful, honest, and empirical attempts to understand why and how the world has come to be in the shape it is today. This pathway calls us to act in ways that are Spirit-led and strategic in confronting evil wherever evil exists, to combat ignorance wherever ignorance has led people astray and to place our lives and our bodies on the line with whoever is being threatened, beat down, or oppressed in any way, anywhere.

Lamentation

As followers of Jesus who is our Sabbath, who preached and lived Shalom, and who offers the gift of jubilee to the world, we mourn the coarseness of our politics, the loss of compassion for those in need, the disrespect we routinely show each other, and the thoughtlessness with which we use and abuse our planet. We especially mourn the way in which the name of Jesus has been used to support and encourage actions and attitudes that demean others and threaten the community of creation.

We acknowledge and lament the realities we see around us: broken lives, broken homes, a broken social system that incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth. We lament a broken and corrupt police system, a broken economic system that prioritizes profits over people, a broken sense of national identity. We lament national boundaries that make our worries about security a pretext for destroying the lives of others, and a broken church that disrespects and marginalizes many people rather than honoring and embracing them. We rebuke the ideologies and idolatries that lie beneath the death we see in our midst and collectively hope to point to ways we might all choose life.

As followers of Jesus, it is vital that we take action when our government seeks to continuously harm life made in God’s image by cutting social safety-nets and forcing the poorest and most powerless among us to spiral into an abyss of desperation. Action on the part of the church is warranted at a time when women, people of color, and various ethnicities, individual religions, immigrants and distinct sexualities are targeted for slander and violence from the highest offices of government. We cannot sit idly by and allow the people and the earth to be accosted with series after series of unjust policies that allow the interest of corporate profits to expunge the future for coming generations of humans and other living species.

Condemnations

We reject the false ideology of empire building and the myth of racial laziness and substance abuse that harms the people of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the US territories.

We reject the false ideology that peace is achieved through military strength and that violence is the necessary foundation for freedom, safety, or security. We stand against the manufacturing and proliferation of weapons which continue to drown the planet in the blood of millions through global war and the terrorism of domestic mass shootings.

We reject the false ideology of the corporate ruling class that services and supports the US military, dispossess and represses poor communities of color, and which erodes and blocks real empowerment of the most vulnerable of peoples and of any real people’s democracy.

We reject the false ideology of American exceptionalism and the evil of political corruption, calling for integrity in our elected officials and multilateral governance. It is this myth by which moral responsibility is suspended in the pursuit of its interests.

We reject the false ideology of white normalcy and bigotry. We reject the false identification that exclusively binds whiteness with Christianity, true humanity, and United States citizenship. We reject antisemitism, which is driving much of white Christian nationalism.

We reject the patriarchal and misogynistic legacies that subject women to continual violence, violation, and exclusion. We stand strongly against sexual abuse and harassment in the highest offices of power.

We reject violations against the Earth, especially the stripping of her resources and polluting that harms her and the creatures that inhabit her soil and seas.

We reject economic policies that are grounded in an illusion of extreme individualism and favor the accumulation of wealth for a few to the detriment of the many.

We reject Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.

We reject homophobia and transphobia and all violence against the LGBTQ community.

We reject all anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that fail to recognize the contributions of immigrants who have come from every corner of the world to strengthen the fabric of this nation—culturally, economically and spiritually.

“Choose you this day whom you will serve!”
— JOSHUA 24:15

Call to Action

Today, we as Christian followers of the Jesus Way, call on the people of the United States who call themselves by the name of Jesus, to reject all political and social movements that do not lead to life.

May we live in this world continually welcoming the stranger and “treating the foreigner with love, for we were once foreigners in Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). Likewise, we resist the continued subjugation of the Indigenous people of our land and call for new relationships to be formed, and better policies to be forged, as we learn to become good guests to honored hosts.

May we bear witness to the hues of difference in God’s life – a God who is neither male nor female and who embraces all people regardless of their identity.

May we not fear the loss of power or certainty when confronted by our very real weakness. May we discover the gift of being creatures not as something to be overcome, but embraced, discovering the fullness of our humanity in the flourishing of all women.

May we embrace a future where the legacies of white supremacy are dismantled. We refuse to dehumanize any individual, reducing their identity to singular markers and possibilities. May we work toward a radical openness for every individual as we fight together for a better today and tomorrow.

May we build not to kill but to enliven. Let us garner all of our economic power to fight desperately for one another’s health, for full stomachs, for equal access to buildings and teachers where we might discover the fullness of our gifts and skills. May our power not be oriented toward empire but towards mutual community.

May we witness to a beloved community where we seek to be with one another as Jesus is with us. May love and mutuality be the marks of our lives together, our community building, our budgets, and our public policies.

May we work together to care for the community of creation, fighting against the influence of the pursuit of petrochemicals and all other earth diminishing, non-renewable and polluting practices that exploit Indigenous and poor peoples, poison our waters and contribute to the extinction of species. We speak for the earth herself and all her creatures, human and non-human, for the preservation of life over monetary gain.

May we stand in solidarity against anti-semitism and the use of any language and actions that threaten the lives of our Jewish sisters and brothers while standing with the plight for human rights with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

May we stand in solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers and all immigrants, fighting against Islamophobia and xenophobia. We denounce any legislation that discriminates against people on the basis of their religion, race or ethnic identity.

We welcome and seek the wisdom of all people of all faiths and those who confess no faith, believing that God’s faithfulness breaks into the world in many ways and through many people.

May we continue to stand with anyone who calls for justice, mercy, and love in this world.


Original Signatories

  • Amey Victoria Adkins, Boston College
  • Efrain Agosto, New York Theological Seminary
  • Macky Alston, Auburn Seminary
  • Gelky Alrvelo, New York Theological Seminary
  • Cheryl B. Anderson, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
  • Cara Anthony, University of St. Thomas
  • Ellen T. Armour, Vanderbilt Divinity School
  • Sarah Azaransky, Union Theological Seminary
  • Brian Bantum, Seattle Pacific University
  • William Barber II, Repairers of the Breach
  • Eric D. Barreto, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Angela Bauer-Levesque, Episcopal Divinity School
  • Nancy Elizabeth Bedford, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
  • Moses Biney, New York Theological Seminary
  • Traci Blackmon, United Church of Christ
  • Mary C. Boys, Union Theological Seminary
  • Valerie Bridgeman, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Gennifer Brooks, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
  • Stina Busman Jost, Bethel University
  • Lee H. Butler, Jr., Chicago Theological Seminary
  • Gil Caldwell, United Methodist Clergy
  • Leslie Callahan, St. Paul’s Baptist Church
  • Jamall Andrew Calloway, Brown University
  • Rosemary P. Carbine, Whittier College
  • J. Kameron Carter, Duke Divinity School
  • Cláudio Carvalhaes, Union Theological Seminary
  • Noel Castallanos, Christian Community Development Association
  • Choi Hee An, Boston University School of Theology
  • Shane Claiborne, The Simple Way
  • Jawanza Eric Clark, Manhattan College
  • Christian T. Collins Winn, Bethel University
  • Monica A. Coleman, Claremont School of Theology
  • James H. Cone, Union Theological Seminary
  • David W. Congdon, University Press of Kansas
  • M. Shawn Copeland, Boston College
  • Kendall Cox, University of Virginia
  • Shannon Craigo-Snell, Louisville Presbyterian Seminary
  • Brandy Daniels, University of Virginia
  • Keri Day, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Megan K. DeFranza, Boston University School of Theology
  • Gary Dorrien, Union Theological Seminary
  • Kelly Brown Douglas, Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary
  • Kait Dugan, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Victor Ezigbo, Bethel University
  • Nancy Fields, New York Theological Seminary
  • Jeannine Hill Fletcher, Fordham University
  • John Flett, Pilgrim Theological College (Australia)
  • Walter Fluker, Boston University School of Theology
  • Yvette Flunder, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries
  • Robert Franklin, Emory University
  • Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Duke Divinity School
  • Wil Gafney, Brite Divinity School
  • Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Colby College
  • Gene Green, Wheaton College
  • Sharon Groves, Auburn Seminary
  • Katelin Hansen, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Lisa Sharon Harper, Greenville University and  Freedom Road, LLC
  • Jennifer Harvey, Drake University
  • Susan Hassinger, Boston University School of Theology
  • Katharine Henderson, Auburn Seminary
  • Johnny Hill, Shaw University Divinity School
  • Peter Goodwin Heltzel, New York Theological Seminary
  • Michael S. Hogue, Meadville Lombard Theological School
  • Alice W. Hunt, Chicago Theological Seminary
  • Douglas “Jake” Jacobsen, Messiah College
  • Jeffrey Jaynes, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Willie James Jennings, Yale University
  • Wonhee Anne Joh, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
  • Alfred Johnson, New York Theological Seminary
  • Paul Dafydd Jones, University of Virginia
  • Serene Jones, Union Theological Seminary
  • Sherry Jordan, University of St. Thomas
  • Namsoon Kang, Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University
  • Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan, Claremont School of Theology
  • Grace Yia-Hei Kao, Claremont School of Theology
  • Catherine Keller, Drew University School of Theology
  • Jeff Keuss, Seattle Pacific University
  • Grace Ji Sun Kim, Earlham School of Religion
  • Nicole Kirk, Meadville Lombard Theological School
  • Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan, Shaw University Divinity School
  • Jennifer Wright Knust, Boston University School of Theology
  • Deborah Krause, Eden Theological Seminary
  • Kwok Pui Lan, Emory University
  • Sarah Heaner Lancaster, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Erik Leafblad, Bethel University
  • Terri LeBlanc, North American Institute for Indigenous Theological  Studies
  • Bernon Lee, Bethel University
  • Jacqueline J. Lewis, Middle Collegiate Church
  • Pamela Lightsey, Boston University School of Theology
  • Diane H. Lobody, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Tamura Lomax, The Feminist Wire
  • Vanessa Lovelace, Interdenominational Theological Center
  • Joretta Marshall, Brite Divinity School
  • Eboni Marshall Turman, Yale University
  • Jenny McBride, McCormick Theological Seminary
  • Clint McCann, Eden Theological School
  • Carolyn McCrary, Interdenominational Theological Seminary
  • Brian D. McLaren, Convergence Leadership Project
  • W. Travis McMaken, Lindenwood University
  • Linda Mercadante, Methodist Theological School of Ohio
  • Rosemary Bray McNatt, Starr King School for the Ministry
  • Stephanie Mitchem, University of South Carolina
  • Martha Moore-Keish, Columbia Theological Seminary
  • Otis Moss III, Trinity United Church of Christ Chicago
  • Deborah Flemister Mullen, Columbia Theological Seminary
  • Susan Myers, University of St. Thomas
  • Francesca Nuzzolese, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • M. Fulgence Nyengele, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Kate Ott, Drew University
  • Aristotle Papanikolaou, Fordham University
  • Joon-Sik Park, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Angela N. Parker, The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology
  • Peter Phan, Georgetown University
  • David Penchansky, University of St. Thomas
  • Jim Perkinson, Ecumenical Theological Seminary
  • Larry Perry, Georgetown University
  • Adam Ployd, Eden Theological Seminary
  • Alton B Pollard, III, Howard University School of Divinity
  • Thomas Porter, Jr., Boston University School of Theology
  • Andrew Prevot, Boston College
  • Bradford H. Price, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Jeffrey C. Pugh, Elon University
  • Marc A. Pugliese, St. Leo University
  • Luis N. Rivera Pagan, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Shelly Rambo, Boston University School of Theology
  • Erica Ramiriz, George Fox University
  • Paul Brandeis Raushenbusch, Auburn Seminary
  • Darby K. Ray, Bates College
  • Stephen Ray, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
  • Lallene Rector, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
  • Joshua Reno, University of Minnesota
  • Patrick Reyes, The Forum for Theological Exploration
  • Kenneth A. Reynhout, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
  • Kurt Anders Richardson, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics
  • Joerg Rieger, Vanderbilt Divinity School
  • Kyle Roberts, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
  • Gene Robinson, Episcopal Church
  • Luis R. Rivera Rodriguez, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
  • Timothy J. Scherer, Fuller Theological Seminary
  • Laurel C. Schneider, Vanderbilt University
  • Donna Schaper, Judson Memorial Church
  • Christian Scharen, Auburn Seminary
  • David Schnasa Jacobsen, Boston University School of Theology
  • Phillis Isabella Sheppard, Vanderbilt Divinity School
  • Ry O. Siggelkow, University of St. Thomas
  • Angela Sims, Saint Paul School of Theology
  • Andrea Smith, University of California, Riverside
  • Kay Higuera Smith, Azusa Pacific University
  • Melanie Smith, Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University
  • Patrick T. Smith, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
  • Shannon Nicole Smythe, Seattle Pacific University
  • Bryan Stone, Boston University School of Theology
  • Diana M. Swancutt, Boston University School of Theology
  • Kathryn Tanner, Yale University
  • Mark Lewis Taylor, Princeton Seminary
  • JoAnne Marie Terrell, Chicago Theological Seminary
  • John Thatamanil, Union Theological Seminary
  • John E. Thiel, Fairfield University
  • Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Chicago Theological Seminary
  • Linda Thomas, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
  • Julie Todd, Iliff School of Theology
  • Joseph Tolton, The Fellowship Global
  • Miguel A. De La Torre, Iliff School of Theology
  • Cameron Trimble, Center for Progressive Renewal
  • Emilie M. Townes, Vanderbilt Divinity School
  • Kirk VanGilder, Gallaudet University
  • Timothy L Van Meter, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Eldin Villafañe, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
  • Kimberly Vrudny, University of St. Thomas
  • Mark Wallace, Swarthmore College
  • Janet Walton, Union Theological Seminary
  • Nimi Wariboko, Boston University School of Theology
  • Michele E. Watkins, Iliff School of Theology
  • Eric Weed, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
  • Sharon Welch, Meadville Lombard Theological School
  • Jim Wellman, University of Washington
  • Cornel West, Harvard Divinity School
  • Traci C. West, Drew University Theological School
  • Vitor Westhelle, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
  • Andrea C. White, Union Theological Seminary
  • Tamara Francis Wilden, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
  • Wesley J. Wildman, Boston University School of Theology
  • David E. Wilhite, Baylor University
  • Matthew Williams, Forum for Theological Exploration
  • Reggie L. Williams, McCormick Theological Seminary
  • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Rutba House
  • Janet Wolf, United Methodist Clergy
  • Derek Alan Woodard-Lehman, University of Otago (New Zealand)
  • Randy Woodley, Portland Seminary/George Fox University
  • Jessica Wong, Azusa Pacific University
  • Gale A. Yee, Episcopal Divinity School
  • Amos Yong, Fuller Theological Seminary
  • Yvonne C. Zimmerman, Methodist Theological School in Ohio

You may read and sign the declaration at The Boston Declaration.


photo credit: Twitter/@kkatyrose via Church Leaders

Please, Don’t Invite Someone to Church This Month

invite-someone-to-church

We’ve got some big problems in the Church these days. That’s no great revelation. Just ask anybody on the street what they think of Christianity, especially during election season, and you’ll get an earful.  We hear it so often, in fact, that we in the Church turn a deaf ear to it. We tune it out. We’re callous to criticism. And we just go on our merry way, carrying on as good soldiers of the Cross. Well, at least on Sundays.

So when I drove by this sign stuck lazily in the ground by the side of the road, insisting I “invite someone to church this month,” all I could do was shake my head in wonder and dismay.

That lawn sign for me, with its tone of religious obligation, was an all-too-accurate metaphor of American churchianity. Stuck in the ground so half-heartedly that the person couldn’t even bother to push it in all the way.

And it leaves me with this one begging question: “Why?”

Why should I invite someone to church?

At the core of my cynical reaction to the sign is the doubt that it would make a single bit of difference in a person’s life.  Of course there are churches out there that are legitimately changing the world, making a difference, with their people walking out the church doors and impacting lives around them in love and compassion and even power. But realistically, they are few and far, far in between.

Let’s get real for a minute. The current mass exodus from mainstream Christianity isn’t because people aren’t showing up to church on Sunday; it’s not because church-goers aren’t inviting others. It’s because we are showing up, but we’re more often than not walking away just as empty as when we walked in.

… It’s because we expect that pastor and the staff to do God’s work. We’re just there to be fed.

… It’s because our own encounter with God is too often limited to those 20 minutes of praise and worship once a week.

… It’s because we hear sermons week after week laden with guilt-inducing messages about how wretched we are, how we need to read our bibles more, pray more, and yes, invite people to church more, and how if it weren’t for the unmerited mercy of God, we’d all be doomed to hell.

… It’s because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet — and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips.

… It’s because on that eventful Sunday when the guest we invite does show up, she hears about a Jesus who probably wouldn’t even be welcome in our building. The guy who talked about giving up our wealth, who talked about loving our enemy — and not just in some warm-fuzzy way, but in wallet-emptying ways: feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the homeless, visiting (helping!) the sick who can’t afford medical care. That guy, Jesus, would never be offered the pulpit. His gospel would be too demanding, and he would likely be quietly ushered out the back. Not a good candidate for our country-club Christian comfort zones.

People aren’t coming to church … because we good and faithful church-goers, singing hymns about amazing grace and love, pour out of the building at noon every Sunday and head to our favorite buffet — and then gripe at the servers. And leave lousy tips..

… It’s because all those good words read out of the Good Book bear little resemblance to the anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-immigrant political propaganda coming out of so many preachers doing their best to defend “traditional American values” instead of “Jesus values.”

And honestly, if a new person did walk through our doors, would they meet God in our eyes and arms, or are they just supposed to absorb God from the singing and prayers offered? “You won’t leave here like you came, in Jesus’ name.” Lord, I wish that were true.

So, stick that sign out by the side of the road; let’s invite someone to church this month. Not even this week – don’t knock yourself out. Just any ole time this month will be just fine. Let’s fill these pews. Pack this place. Cuz that’s what this world really needs.

Instead, why don’t we invite the church out to the world this month?

How about instead of focusing on church Sunday morning, we come out Saturday night to offer warm soup on the street corner to the hookers? Or to hand out McDonald’s gift cards to those guys living under the overpass so they can have a hot meal for once this month, instead of having to beg for change or dig through trash?  Or how about we go down to the gay strip, and instead of passing out tracts trying to get people saved, offer them free bottled water or BBQ sandwiches to cut the alcohol in their system so they can drive home safely? Or maybe even pull an extra $20 bill out of our Gucci wallets and Michael Kors bags to help finance that shelter for homeless youth?

Let’s set aside for the moment the suggestion that we actually volunteer at the county jail or state pen in some program to benefit the prisoners, or to go up to the hospital and just hold the hand of our fellow church member who’s alone and afraid. That’s too hard. (Hey, I don’t do that either — so I’m not just throwing stones at others here.) I won’t ask that we actually participate in that Soup Kitchen on a regular basis, as part of habitually walking out our Christian beliefs.

It’s hard enough getting people just to step out of their — our — self-absorbed lives long enough to smile at the cashier at Walmart. Oh sure, we’ll say “Have a blessed day,” but exercising just a bit of patience when that cashier is having a hard time with her register and making us wait in line too long — that’s just a bit too much effort.

Invite someone to church this month? No thanks. At least not until the church we’re inviting them to is actually doing something outside the building on days other than Sunday. Not until we who go week after week are actually being changed, transformed, by those good words. Not until we show that we actually care about the people around us, until a little light actually shines from us in this dark place we call urban America.

When churchianity becomes authentic Christianity, when we’re doing some legitimate Jesus-following, we won’t have to invite someone to a service this month. And we won’t need signs to remind us. People will be knocking on our doors wanting what we have.

But until we have it, please. Please. Don’t invite someone. We’ve got enough church-goers in this country already.

photo credit: Stephen Schmidt, cc

 

Now is the Time of Your Breakthrough. Or Maybe Not.

 

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“God has a plan. God is working his plan. God’s plan includes you.”  Those were words printed in bold letters on a sign hung above the pulpit in a church I used to go to in Tulsa. The pastor wanted her people to know that their lives were not just stuck in the mud, that God was doing something in them and through them. God was working.

We all need that hope. We all need that reassurance that we’re part of something bigger, that our lives have significance and purpose. Or at least, many of us do. I do. And every once in a while we need someone to remind us that we’re on track.  That’s where encouragers come into play – I mean legitimate encouragers, those sensitive to the Spirit’s promptings who can offer words directly from God to those of us going through moments of self-doubt. I do not mean those false “prophets” who post memes on social media about “Now is the time of your breakthrough …” or “This is your year. This year God will bring all your dreams and plans to success.”

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general words of encouragement are great …

God does have a plan, and God does want your dreams to come true. He planted them in you, in your DNA, even before you were born. They are woven into the fabric of who you are. They’re not selfish, they’re part of the bigger picture, a piece in the cosmic puzzle, and without you fulfilling those dreams, that larger picture will never be complete.

But that does not at all mean that “now” is the time.

And while we all need general words of encouragement to “press on” from time to time, other well-meaning but misguided words claiming divine authority can do more damage than if they were never spoken at all. False prophets are dangerous. They can lead you down the wrong path or prompt you to do something way before the right time. And a good thing or even a well-meaning act at the wrong time can become a very, very wrong thing.

A couple examples …

Let me throw a couple of bible examples at you.

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… specific “prophetic” words broadcast to the public, not so much …

Anybody hanging out in a Word-based church in past few decades has probably heard sermons on Abraham “Ishmael-ing it”.  God tells old Abe that he will have a son, and makes some stunning promises about how his descendants would affect the course of history. Abe is thrilled, of course, but he is also 75 years old. He waits for it to happen, but after a number of years of waiting for his wife to become pregnant, he thinks “now is the time” and gets the bright idea to have a child with his wife’s slave instead. Ishmael is born. There are some family complications, and Abe finally has to send Ishmael and his mother away. He missed it. And the son he was promised finally came when he was 99 years old – almost 25 years after the promise.

Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph has a divine dream, two of them in fact, that he would be a great leader of his people. He’s a hot-headed, spoiled little punk, and rubs his brothers’ noses in it. They end up selling him into slavery, and he ends up in an Egyptian prison for several years. Ultimately, all that works out to make him a well-equipped leader when he finally is appointed Prime Minister of Egypt … about 15 years after the inspired dreams.

And we all know the story of “The Ten Commandments.” Who hasn’t seen the movie? Moses is the chosen deliverer of the Israelites suffering in slavery in Egypt. At the age of 40 he decides “now is the time,” and ends up murdering an Egyptian man who was abusing a fellow Israelite. And then has to flee Egypt to escape justice. He ends up tending goats and sheep for the next 40 years before God finally calls him through a burning bush.

The New Testament opens with stories about this exotic character, John the Baptist. He has a miraculous birth, born to elderly, barren parents, complete with angelic visitations and prophesy. He was called and destined to be the forerunner of the great Deliverer of Israel, yet he ends up living in the wilderness, wearing shabby clothes eating bugs. Then one day, “the word of God came to him while he was in the wilderness.” “Now is the time,” and he began his famous preaching.  But he had to wait, to live his life, until that time came. He had to wait until the authentic “word from God” said “go.”

Even Jesus – now there was some miraculous birth scenes. Immaculate conception, Holy Spirit impregnation, angelic proclamations – that whole scene from “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” where Linus quotes from the gospel of Luke: “… and there in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid …”  Yet even Jesus did not begin his ministry until he was baptized by John and the Spirit descended upon him, empowering and affirming him: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased…” Only then does Jesus’ miraculous ministry begin.

The bottom line

The button line is that just because God has a plan, just because he’s given you dreams, does not mean that those dreams start now. You may not be ready yet. In each of the biblical examples just mentioned, there was a time of preparation.  The gospel writers say of both John and Jesus that they “grew in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and with men.”  That is, they had some growing up to do. They weren’t ready to launch out into God’s promised plan or into their dream vocation right way. It took years before they were ready. And they had to wait for the divine green light: “now is the time.”  But that green light was legitimately divine, not just some positive word spoken by a feel-good, encouraging “prophet.”

God made some astounding promises to Abraham about his descendants, the nations of Israel and Ishmael. But they didn’t happen overnight. In fact, at one point, the nation was conquered by the Babylonians, and many of the people were yanked out of their homeland and taken into captivity to Babylon. They had their prophets claiming that God was about to rescue them and restore everything to its proper place.  But they lied. They were well-meaning, but they were wrong. And Jeremiah, a legit prophet of God, had this to say to them: “Settle in. Increase, grow. It’s gonna be a while, but I have plans for you …”

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.

This is what the LORD says: “When 70 years are completed in Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise … For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future…”  (Jeremiah 29:4-12)

We all love to quote that last verse: “I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD…” But we almost always quote it out of context. The verse right before it says “When 70 years in Babylon are completed …”  There is a necessary period of development, of preparation and growth. There is a timetable for your dream, for God’s plan.  But “Now” may not be that time.

now3So when you hear the so-called prophets and diviners making these warm and happy claims that “this is the year of God’s favor for you, now is the time for you to step into your call and to fulfill your dream…,” take note. Listen inside yourself for the genuine voice of God. Is now really the time, or are you still in the prep stages – like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus?

Don’t get frustrated. Don’t become impatient. Don’t lose hope.

There will be a time when you get the green light from God, when the “word from God” will come to you in your wilderness. That will be the time to launch.  God does have a plan. God is working his plan. And God’s plan does include you. Your job in the meantime is to prepare, to learn, to grow in wisdom and in stature, in favor with God and men – to get ready for the right time. To wait for the appointed time.

“Now” may – or may not – be the time.  Discern for yourself. Wait for your own specific word. Don’t jump the gun – or you might just end up wandering around a mountain tending goats for 40 years.

photo credit: “High Fly,” Abhinay Omkar via Flickr, cc.

This post originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine.

Your Tithe Doesn’t Belong to Your Church

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Wow, do we have it wrong!

I bet when you hear the word “tithe” or even “offerings,” your thoughts go immediately to pictures of a plate being passed in church. I’ve heard it from pulpits myself, “the tithe belongs to the church … your offerings can go to other places (like the traveling evangelist passing through), but your tithe stays here.” The common understanding among many Christians is that a 10th of their income belongs to God — and that means to the church. (Whether that’s 10% on your gross income or your net is a matter of conscience — and obviously, if you choose the cheaper way out, well, what does that say about you?)*

But here’s the thing: that was not where “giving” in the New Testament went. It didn’t go to build new churches; it didn’t go solely to pay the bills of some institution. It went to people. Poor people, in fact.

But let’s back-track a bit. Where did this idea of your obligation to the church come from? If you’ve been in any independent Charismatic church in the last half-century, you know very well the over-quoted verse in Malachi 3:10.

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”

It’s a favorite of preachers trying to motivate their congregations to reach into their wallets and purses, and give … give … give! until it hurts. Because God will reward you beyond your capactity to contain it all.

In other words, “give so you can get back.”

It’s a teaching made popular by Oral Roberts back in the 1940s when he realized that most people gave their tithes out of guilt and obligation. Preachers taught their flocks that they had to support God’s work, but Oral saw it in a different light. He saw it as an opportunity for blessing. “Seed-faith,” he called it. You sow like a farmer, and you expect a harvest, a return on your investment. “Give as a seed you sow, not as a debt you owe.”  It turned obligation into optimism; people began giving because they wanted to. They wanted their harvest.

And that’s great. If you have the faith that God wants to reward your generosity, then who can fault that? But on any other topic, most Christians are united in the belief that God cares about what motivates us as much as he does what we do. Why we do something is as important as the thing itself. Because God judges the heart. Outward actions can be deceiving, can be put on for show, can be the action of hypocrites eager for public approval but whose hearts are made of stone. God knows the difference.

And that’s exactly what Jesus taught. Right before his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, he advises his disciples to watch how they give, how they pray, and how they fast (Matthew 6). Do it in secret, he says, so that no one can pat you on the back, and your Father in Heaven who sees what is done in secret will reward you. It’s not that you nullify those actions if you do them publically (didn’t Daniel in the Bible pray 3 times a day with his windows open?), but Jesus declares that doing things “to be seen by others” reflects a corrupt attitude. And by doing so, you’ve forfeited God’s blessing. You have your reward — other people’s attention — paid in full.

Alms-giving was a religious fundamental in Judaism. Along with prayer and fasting, it was one of the main hallmarks of godliness. (Hence, Jesus addressing these three specific issues in Mt 6.) So much so, that “acts of righteousness” (or just plain ole “righteousness” for short) became synonymous with alms-giving. And it still is today. And, in fact, it’s a hallmark of the faithful in Islam too — it’s #3 in the “Five Pillars of Islam” (Profession of Faith, Prayer, Giving, Fasting, and Pilgramage to Mecca). But “giving” was well understood to mean “giving to the poor and needy” — charity, alms-gving — not dropping cash into the synagogue or mosque coffers.

tithes_2876749931_25fd3ac42d_zHow did we Christians get it confused? How did what was so clearly understood by the Middle Eastern faithful as taking care of the needs of people around us get turned into mostly supporting a church organziation?

Well, there’s that nice phrase in that Malachi passage, “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” And what’s the storehouse? The Temple — err, the church, I mean. Right? But wait: “so that there may be meat in my house.” That’s talking about food. Okay, yes. Part of the Israelite’s tithe (in grain, meats, produce, oil and wine) went to support the priests and Levites — the religious workers. So the analogy would be that your tithe goes to support people in ministry. But the storehouse was also the local food-pantry for widows, orphans, illegal aliens, and other assorted needy people. They, along with the Levites who had no other trade except priestly work, could come to their local storehouse to get food.

“Bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Dt 14:28,29)

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul did a little guilt-tripping on some of the congregations he founded. He was trekking across great distances, preaching, teaching, raising small congregations in the places he visited, and sometimes he had to foot the bill by himself. So he would use popular images to defend his right to financial support: A soldier does not serve at his own expense; you don’t muzzle an ox when it’s working at the mill; a teacher should share in the profit of his students, etc. He felt a bit abandoned. Except for his friends in Philippi, the other churches weren’t consistently supporting him (Phil 4:15). So yeah, there is that. People who surrender their lives to the work of God should be supported by the people of God.

But Paul wasn’t out to line his own pockets with gold — he had little good to say about those who preached the Gospel for personal gain. Look at Paul’s other teachings on giving, especially our favorite ones promising God’s blessing when we give. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) is ALL about Paul encouraging the Corinthians to support the poor believers in other jurisdictions. He devotes two full chapters on this, using God as an example who scattered his gifts abroad and gave to the poor. Christ who was rich became poor for our sakes, so that we might become rich. Just as God cares about and gives to the poor, so should we. It’s all about sharing our wealth with those in need. This wasn’t so that some could live a life of ease at the expense of hard-working folk, but so that there would be enough for all.

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little'” (2 Cor 8:13-15).

And then he adds a little sugar to his appeal: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. … God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. … You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.”

Taking care of the poor and widows was so important, that the early church under the first apostles created the office of “Deacon” in order to oversee the daily distribution of their food-pantry (Acts 6), and the people shared their possessions with anyone who had need (Acts 4:35). That was the mark of truly godly people — their generosity and support of the needy.

The church was never meant to be just a place where you sing a few songs and hear a good sermon. It was also meant to be a local storehouse. Literally.

But over time the church lost its concern for the physical and material welfare of the people, and focused almost exclusively on their spiritual condition. And giving to God, as a result, followed suit. Alms-giving which was once so closely associated with righteousness, became “giving to the church,” and shifted from caring for people to providing for the needs of the organization and its ministers.

The nature of tithes and offerings changed because the church’s priorities changed. (When was the last time you heard a sermon about God blessing you with prosperity for feeding the hungry or the homeless?)

I’m not suggesting that should you stop supporting your local place of worship. The work of God won’t get done if you’re not putting your money where your mouth is. And as Paul argues, ministers are in fact worthy of our support. But God’s promise of blessing is to those who care for the vulnerable among us. And unless your church offering envelope has a checkbox for programs specifically geared toward these social concerns, you might want to consider holding back a bit of your offering and giving elsewhere. Or maybe meeting those needs yourself. Neglecting the financial support of people who need help, and reserving your tithes and offerings exclusively for “giving to the church” would mark you as un-righteous not only in the eyes of other religions, but in the eyes of early Christians too.


* Side note: Whether “tithing” is even a Christian obligation is a matter of hot debate. Some claim it is a remnant of Old Testament law that the Christian has been set free from, and our only obligation is to “give” as our heart leads. Others will say that because Jesus mentioned tithing (once) in a discussion with some Pharisees, he obviously condones its continued use in the church today. But this is a topic for another time …

photo credit: “Who needs hope?” Keoni Cabral on Flickr, cc,
“Tithes & Offerings,” RayBanBro66 on Flickr, cc.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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That Church ain’t Dead

empty_pew_68916012_800512b224_oThis morning over my third cup of coffee, I was thinking about some churches I know that are experiencing diminishing congregations, a mass exodus of Gen X and Gen Y attendees, and a lost focus outside their own church box.  The phrase that popped in my mind was “Ichabod,” the Glory of the Lord has departed.

But then immediately in my gut, I felt that was wrong.  Completely wrong.  As long as people are there, the Spirit of God will be there.  That’s a given.  God loves human beings, it’s just not in his nature to abandon us, so wherever we are, especially if our hearts are inclined toward him in anyway, the Spirit of God will be there.

I remembered a few years ago when I was driving home from work, the car radio tuned to a Christian talk show where listeners called in and asked questions about the bible.  At one point, they were debating “the End Times” and when and how the Holy Spirit will be removed from the planet, and then Evil would be given free rein.  And as I listened, I knew instinctively that they were wrong.  They assumed some event would occur in history that would cause God to depart from this planet and turn his back on humanity.  Of course before that occurred, all the saints would have been gathered up in a great rapture and pulled into his heavenly bosom.  The poor wretches left on earth would suffer through some arbitrary number of years of incredible and unimaginable misery before God would return and reimpose his reign physically on the cosmos.

And in my gut I knew that was dead wrong.  We can be so glib sometimes when we say that “God is love” and then go on to attribute horrific and spiteful acts to him.  What I sensed at that moment was that as long as human beings existed on this planet, the Spirit of God would be there living among them.  Tribulation or no tribulation, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Even in the darkest moments of our history, God was — and will continue to be — close to those who reach out for him.  To deny that is to deny the very character of God.

So when I was thinking about these poor churches, having lost their vision, lost their way, floundering in a sea of mediocrity and irrelevance, making no impact whatsoever in the world around them, acting only as a weekend social club for the same familiar faces week after week, it was very tempting for me to fall into that same trap and think that God would abandon them.  But the truth is, as long as there is a living, breathing soul in that congregation who is seeking God with even an ounce of their strength, I do not believe the Spirit will abandon them.  That church ain’t dead.  It may be on critical life support, just waiting for someone to pull the plug, but it’s never too late.

My job, then, as a member of the faithful community is not to wish them ill, or to pray for their speedy and merciful demise, or even to sit back with my bowl of popcorn and watch the slow, painful, inevitable conclusion unfold. As cliché as it sounds, my job is — should be — to pray for them.  I may not feel inclined to dedicate my life’s energy into trying to revive them — most dying churches are dying for a reason.  They are usually resistant to change.  They are often locked within the trap of their own limited vision, usually anchored in some romanticized moment in the past, and usually focused inward, too preoccupied with self-survival, and too out of touch with the world around them.  They often have become “of no earthly good.” But I can still pray that God will at least stir one or two of them with the hunger for more.  I can pray that their leaders’ eyes will be opened to see clearly what is happening, and that they will reach out to God in a real way, beyond a perfunctory routine of simply walking through a Sunday liturgy.  I can pray like the Apostle Paul that the eyes of their heart will be enlightened and that they will know the great hope to which they are called.  I can pray that even if there is just a corner of their hearts that has not yet turned to stone, that they will look outward and see the people around them, and be moved with genuine love and compassion to do something other than turning on the lights Sunday morning for an hour and then going home. I can pray that the Spirit, who is still there — even if constrained by their lost interest and their restricted time table — will be unleashed to work among them. The church is dead only when everyone in the church is dead.

I learned this morning not to so quickly write off churches that seem to be failing — at least from my viewpoint.  As that old prophet Ezekiel discovered, even a valley full of dry bones is no match for the breath of God.  As long as people are still there, the Spirit is still there, lurking, waiting to breathe new life.

Even where the pulse is weak, those churches aren’t dead. There’s still hope — just like there is for the old guy needing that third cup of coffee in the morning.

photo credit: Ally on Flickr, cc

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Jesus in Drag

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Funny thing happened in church today. (Yeah, I know. Sounds like the start of a joke.) The church I frequently attend put on a nice Christmas program, with the choir singing some of the holiday favorites, interspersed with readings about Jesus, and a good mix of worship songs that never let our minds drift too far from the theme that Jesus is at the heart of our holiday.

God’s got an interesting sense of humor. Because, there I was, sitting way over in the left section of the sanctuary, empty seats around me, and about a half hour into the program, two women whom I thought might well be hookers, came in and sat next to me. I smiled and nodded politely — being the welcoming Christian gentleman that I pretend to be. And a few minutes later, in the middle of a choir member’s monologue, one of the lady’s phone goes off. And it’s ringing. Literally, ringing, like the old style phones. And it keeps ringing. And she’s fumbling with it, trying to shut it off. And still it rings. You’d think it would stop after a few rings — even if she can’t manage to find the mute — and go to voicemail. But no. It rings continuously for close to a minute. I thought, surely she’d just get up and leave the quiet intimacy of the sanctuary and try to deal with the noise out in the lobby. But no. Eventually, after what seemed an embarrassingly drawn out period of time, her friend grabs the phone from her and puts it under her thigh, effectively muffling it. After my initial sense of mortification and a brief moment of internal wrestling with judgmental indignation, I manage to find the humor in it, and just start chuckling. The one sitting on the phone looks over at me and starts to laugh too. Quietly, of course. And she smiles at me. Okay, “welcoming mission” accomplished.

The guy sitting right in front of me, also on an otherwise empty row, … I don’t know quite what to make of. At first glance, I thought he was one of the homeless youth we’re currently providing winter clothes for, but during the “meet and greet” — that moment all introverts dread — when I shook his hand and we exchanged names, I realized he was no teenager. He must have been in his 30s at least. And he couldn’t have been homeless because he was dressed in clean loungewear. A cut off tanktop that showed his belly (not rock-hard abs, in case you were wondering) and … I don’t even know what to call them: fuzzy pink and lime leppard print tights? Sweats? Yeah, not what they’re wearing on the streets these days.

That’s God’s sense of humor for you. In a room full of familiar faces, the handful of first-timers flocked to the seats immediately by me. The professional ladies and the … party boy? … and the uptight middle-class white guy in a constant battle to keep his Christianity real. We were like a reunion of the cast from the Island of Misfit Toys. Must be something about that side of the sanctuary that intuitively drew us — check who’s over on the left side next time you’re in church — or maybe God was just punking me. But hey, I did the smiley face pretty convincingly apparently, since the ladies chatted me up a bit afterwards, asking if I was a member, and telling me how they’d often walked past the place, but this was their first time to get the courage to come in, and how maybe they’ll see me next week. I only got to nod goodbye to the guy in the pink and lime jammies, as he kinda hurried out the door and I got caught up in after-church conversation that always seems to go on in places like that.

But here’s the kicker. During one of the choir monologues about Jesus being the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Gift of Love from the Father, the woman with the neverending-ringing cell phone had her eyes closed and her hands in the air. I think I even saw tears in the corner of her eyes. And her friend was just quietly smiling. And during one of the songs, I heard her whisper “Jesus.” And the fashionable guy in front of me was clapping in beat with some of the songs and standing at appropriate moments of worship.

I don’t know what was going on in their minds any more than I know what was going on in the hearts of the guys wearing suits a few rows up and to the right of me. But God was there. The Spirit connected with hearts that reached out for him. “Emmanuel. God with us.” And I got to witness a little bit of that taking place.

Jesus said whoever welcomes the least among us welcomes him. I’m still wrestling to shed my white, middle-class, evangelical uptightness, but at this particular holiday event, I was reminded powerfully — yet again — that Jesus comes in all shapes, sizes, and packaging.

Merry Christmas!

 

photo credit:  Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Wally Gobetz on Flickr, cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore

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I just read yet another article on why millennials are abandoning church. And honestly, if you’ve been around in the church-world for a few decades, it’s really just the same ole spin, same ole reasons used with every generation: “The young people are fleeing the church — what can we do to stop it?”  Nothing new under the sun.

But at the same time, the points in the article were entirely valid — not because they specifically reflected “millennial values,” but simply because they cut to the core of the whole point and purpose of the church.  What it boils down to is this: People see no reason to join a stale organization that doesn’t seem to serve an important purpose.

The author of the piece puts it in more churchy language: “Millennials perceive established churches to have values that are entrenched in non-missional traditions.” He writes that this generation of 20- and 30-somethings values community, service to others, and a world-awareness, but they see established churches acting contrary to those values.  Churches today seem more concerned about maintaining the status quo — too much “doing the same thing because that’s how it’s always been done” — rather than making an actual difference in the world. And in the process, losing the whole point of the Church in the first place.

But this is not just the perception of millennials. Any person with an appetite for authenticity and spiritual reality will tend to view churches the same way. In years past, “relevance” was the buzz word. Churches were dying because they were frozen in decades past, preaching about issues and sins no one cared about, using out-moded language, not addressing the modern viewpoint. So churches started trying to act “hip”.  Worship music was updated. New lighting systems were installed. Smoke machines were purchased to add effect. Youth ministers dressed in youth-trendy fashions. The suit jacket and tie disappeared from the pulpit in favor of jeans and open-neck, button-down shirts. Even the old bulky wooden pulpits themselves were replaced with transparent acrylic or newer industrial metal lecterns.

And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of that. But it’s all simply cosmetic if the heart of the church isn’t renewed, if the church doesn’t get back to its core purpose of reaching out to a hurting world.

The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all.  It’s a farce.  It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.

I heard a sermon online recently where the pastor spoke at length about the Christian obligation to “go into all the world” and “witness,” and it largely revolved around inviting people to church. “Let’s fill this house, let’s pack these pews.”  Really? Is that what Jesus commanded us to do?

Just to be clear, Jesus never instructed us to “go out and witness.” He commanded us to BE witnesses, to make disciples. That’s a day-to-day thing, being a living presence where you are, being a light for those around you to see. It’s about building relationships with people, where you get your hands dirty in their messy lives. Where you walk beside them, being a friend, a help, offering insight where you have it. “Discipleship” is day-to-day influence through one-on-one relationship. If you have to make a special effort, if you have to put on airs or act differently in order to “witness,” you’re really missing the point. It’s about being personally transformed by your own relationship with God, and having that work its way out in the way you interact with people, the way you do your job, the way you view the world. It’s about living a life of love that is so attractive to others that they hunger for what you have. That they want God in their lives the way he is in yours. They are drawn to the light.  But if you don’t have it, you can’t offer it.  And you sure can’t fake it. Nobody falls for that crap.

The church loses each successive generation because it is too tied with the past, too tied to maintaining the building, paying for the heat and light — too distracted with upkeep of the existing building — that it’s lost track of reaching out beyond its walls. It’s become a cycle of self-survival. And when the church turns inward, when it loses its outward focus, it become stagnant. It becomes about “us” and keeping us entertained. As the writer of that other article said, “the established church feels more like a religious country club rather than an outwardly-focused organization.”

So what is the Church?  It is the people of God doing the work of God. Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.

So, you want more millennials in your church? You want more people genuinely interested in the “real thing” that you have? Then get back to the basics. Get back to a heart that cares. Hands that serve. Money that goes to feed the poor, clothe the naked, help the homeless, care for the sick — that DOES SOMETHING. Be a group of people that actively engages the world, that goes to the bars, that enjoys life, that loves on people as they are and where they are — not a group that seals itself off from the “great unclean” world out there, shunning “sinners,” cloistering itself in its own little holy community.

The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all.  It’s a farce.  It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.

So what is the Church?  It is the people of God doing the work of God.

Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.

A friend posted a personal observation on Facebook today about his health.  He hadn’t been to the gym since he’d gotten back from a vacation in Europe, and noticed that he was feeling lethargic with lower energy levels.  Even his sleeping was effected, where he wasn’t sleeping straight through the night. So he returned to the gym, to physical activity — to “movement” — getting back to his cardio workout and yoga practice. Suddenly, he’s sleeping soundly again and his energy levels are back.  He sums it up: “All I did was move! The body is meant for movement.”

And it’s the same for the church. Too many churches have become lethargic, with low energy levels. The self-absorption and lack of involvement with the world around them has caused them to become dull and lifeless — and people are losing interest. People are drifting away.  Like my friend’s body, the Body of Christ is meant for movement. For activity. And like the human body, without it, we become unhealthy.

And the solution is just as simple. “Nothing elaborate — just move. The results are immediate.”

Maybe if we focused less on our shrinking church family and more on the people around us — becoming active in our communities, serving each other, taking care of our world — we wouldn’t be having these perpetual conversations about how the current generation doesn’t seem to be interested in us anymore.


photo credit: Seth Sawyers via Flickr, cc

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Who Cares What the Bible Says?

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Okay, that title is a bit cheeky and misleading, but it cuts to the heart of the issue.

I’ve got Facebook open most of the day. When I’m at work, yes, I’m working, but I still glance over from time to time to see what’s happening with friends and random acquaintances. And today, a friend posted an ad for a discussion group at a local college on what the Bible says about homosexuality. And the thought came to me: “If you’re going to the Bible for special instructions on how to treat certain people, you’re already asking the wrong question.”

And that part really hit me: “You’re already asking the wrong question.” Because, honestly, we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. We’ve done it for thousands of years. In our own recent history, we’ve justified slavery and the oppression of women by it. We’ve endorsed racial segregation. We’ve shunned divorced people. We’ve even justified wars by it. And we’ve had these “Homosexuality and the Bible” talks ad nauseum — and surprisingly, few minds have been changed.

Today I also noticed another FB friend had posted an informal poll on his wall, asking what top 3 things people look for when searching for a church home. Hey, that might be interesting info to know, so I was curious. Not surprisingly, although “fellowship” and “spirit-filled worship” were high on the list, the #1 response was “Word-based” / “Bible-based” as what these guys look for when thinking about joining a church. In fact, one responder put for his three choices: “The Word, The Word, The Word.” And another guy was even more emphatic, “The absolute unadulterated word of God being preached.”

Okay. I get it. People want a church that preaches and teaches “the Word of God.” But I bet if we asked them what that means, we’d get a variety of answers. What is “absolute, unadulterated”? Doesn’t a Southern Baptist church preach the Word, often straight out of the King James Bible? Doesn’t a liturgical Episcopal church that reads from the Bible every Sunday satisfy that criteria? Yet neither of those churches would likely satisfy those responders. Why?

Oh, by the way, these weren’t just fundamentalist or charismatic Christians who were responding. My friend is not a pastor. He’s a fitness coach, and his posts mostly focus on health, workouts and nutrition. And his friends/followers are mostly gay, fitness-oriented, and yes, Christian — of all stripes.

But these multiple respondents all reflect a similar mentality. We place a premium on hearing the authoritative voice of God — and for the most part, that looks like someone telling us what God wants of us based on what’s written in the Bible — a Bible we’ve all probably read countless times already.

Ruled by the Head instead of the Heart

We want an “authority” to base our faith around — to tell us how to live our lives. The problem is, the Bible doesn’t work that way. It isn’t that simple. Just ask any Southern Baptist and Episcopalian the same question, and see what they claim the Bible says. Faith doesn’t work that way either. A spiritual walk cannot be directed or legislated from an outside source. It must be directed from within, from a personal interaction with direction and promptings that come from the Spiritual Voice of God. And you won’t get that from a pulpit — or from just reading “the Word.” It is a spiritual activity.

So, ultimately, it’s not what the Bible says about a topic that is important. It’s how you read it. How you interpret what the Bible says, how you respond to it, what seeds of power are birthed through it by the Spirit. Because a Southern Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a charismatic Word of Faith believer are all going to read the same Bible and walk away with completely different understandings of what is expected of them.

So what then should be the standard we use to evaluate an issue or idea? How about Love? If we call ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus, and the New Testament is the filter through which we view all of Scripture, then we have to believe that the heart and will of God is as Jesus described it. It is demonstrated in the way Jesus lived it out.

So, let’s go to our chief example, Jesus. Look how he handled Scripture. Whenever religious people came to him wanting some technical answer or legal ruling — “What does God command us to do in this situation?” — he responded with “the heart” of the message, not the letter of the Law. He continually turned their cold and callous interpretation of Scripture on its head, and gave them something totally unexpected.

And the answers Jesus gave were always uplifting, forgiving, affirming, full of grace. In a word, full of Love. People walked away feeling they were special, important to God. Jesus didn’t use Scripture to trap people, to restrict them, to justify throwing stones at them. Ever. And the only people he seemed to have a harsh word for were those same religious folks bent on controlling others through “the Word.”

That’s why Jesus could say over and over, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you …” He took the Scripture that religious people were wielding heartlessly, dangerously, hatefully, and showed them the warm, affirming, loving side of it. He brought out the true meaning of those Biblical texts. He read Scripture through the eyes of the Spirit of God. He heard Scripture read through the ears of the Compassionate God. And the lessons he taught were so full of affirmation and love that when some of his followers wanted to leave him, and he asked Peter if he would leave him too, Peter responded immediately: “Where shall we go? You have the words of life!”

“Words of Life.” When’s the last time someone described our Bible-sword-fights like that? When’s the last time someone walked out of your Word-based church and felt they had just been fed the “words of life”?

So maybe it’s time we stop having these conferences about “What Scripture Says About …” and start reading Scripture ourselves — with the heart of the God whose will we claim to value so highly. Maybe it’s time we start looking at our lives, at the controversial issues that provoke us during the day, at the outrageous behavior of neighbors who challenge our religious cultural values, with the eyes of Love — the Love of God. Love defined not by mushy feelings or impersonal religious objectivity, but a Love that says “I wouldn’t want to be treated that way, so I won’t treat YOU that way.”

Maybe it’s time we stop asking “What does the Bible say about …”, and start asking, “What is the Loving way to handle this situation?” Or, “How can I show these people what True Love looks like?”

Christians of all denominations love to measure others by “what the Word says.” But the center of that Word is Jesus; we believe that all Scripture points to him. So maybe it’s time to stop being so “Word-focused” and more Jesus-focused. Maybe it’s time to stop asking for technical, black-and-white answers to everything, and start acting out of the Love that Word speaks of so much. Seems like things might be so much simpler then. And we wouldn’t need to call for so many convocations and conventions to determine how to treat our neighbors.


photo credit: “Open Bible with Pen,” Ryk Neethling via Flickr, cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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What Makes a Great City … or a Great Church

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I just saw an article on why Houston is the best city in America. As a non-Houstonian I thought, “Okay, whatever.” But then my thoughts started churning, the synapses started firing, and I started making connections with the church-world.

Okay, obviously you’ve got to do a bit of mental translation here, but what supposedly makes Houston such a great city are some of the same qualities that would make a great church too.

 Jobs. Houston’s got this great job market. In my mind, that translates in the church-world as involvement. Give church members a chance to DO something, to make a difference. It’s what we’re supposed to be about, afterall, isn’t it? Equipping the saints to do the work of the Kingdom. So let’s equip and then point them in the right direction to “do”.

 More healthcare businesses. This, to me, translates as: church should be involved in meeting people’s physical needs, not just spiritual.  It’s been said over and over. You can’t proclaim the Gospel to people when they’re dead. If we don’t feed them, clothe them, help with their medical bills (“Good Samaritan” ring any bells?), then no one’s gonna be much inclined to listen to what we have to say. Besides, it’s what Jesus told us to do.

 Massive international trade. Translates as “a global perspective.” The church is more than just a local body of believers. It should have a heart and resources that stretch beyond borders. And I’m not just talking about “missionary work.” I mean we should actually care about the people on the other side of the world.

 Houston is Space City, NASA. Okay, this is a stretch, but how about “Prayer“? Our prayers should be reaching out into the heavens. The church needs a solid grounding in prayer, not just as an occasional activity people do in their morning devos.

 A paycheck goes farther / cost of living. A good church should stretch its dollars to go the farthest and to have maximum impact. If we’re spending $$ on “stuff”, we’re probably missing it. The church has a responsibility to spend money wisely — especially considering that for most people putting money in the plate, every dollar counts.

 Ethnically and racially diverse. ‘Nuff said. The church is bigger than just a bunch of old, straight, white people. Everybody should be included. The local church should be a reflection of the local community. We need color, we need diversity to be healthy. Plus, it’s just a lot more fun that way.

 Wide range of ethnic cuisines. Pretty close to the last one, but … “food“. Need I say more? The church thrives on breaking bread.  What we eat says something about who we are, and sharing food, pot lucks, well, it’s just an essential part of that thing we call “fellowship.”

 One of the most exciting places to eat. Kinda the same deal. But maybe we could squeeze in “spiritual feeding” here. If you’re being fed the same ole tired spiritual food, maybe you need some fresh inspiration. We should be people of the Living Word of God, not the same old commercials. “If it ain’t fresh, don’t eat it.”

 More parks than most cities. For me, this is recreation and relaxation. The church that plays together stays together. Being a “church family” should be more than getting together on Sundays to do “the church thing.” And it should be a place where we can let our hair down after a hectic week of work and modern life, not a place where we have to put on a mask. It’s where we come to be re-energized, refreshed, and restored, not where we get more drained by having to pretend to be who we’re not.

 Great universities. I probably shouldn’t have to say that the church should also be a place where minds are being engaged as well as spirits, but we all know the unfortunate truth. In many houses of worship, an inquiring mind is considered the devil’s playground.  Just ask any of the “recovering fundamentalists.” In church, questions should be asked, and your spiritual exploration encouraged. You should be growing, stretching, seeing things in a new way, “growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Cuz if we’re not growing, we’re stagnating.

 Houston is filled with museums and cultural landmarks. You know what? The church should be filled with art, music, and beauty too. Didn’t God say everything was “good” when he created it? We should celebrate beauty. It can inspire us in higher ways to connect with God.  Maybe we need to swap out one or two of our Bible studies for free art classes, or hang the work of local artists in our church coffee shops. That would be great.

 Largest rodeos. Authenticity. This one I gotta give credit to my friend Rita Bosico who pointed it out when I first made these comments on Facebook. She said, having been to — and felt like she belonged in — a cowboy church, what she liked best about their attitude was that they were real people with real problems who need a real God. They had no time for phony “playing church.” They had a sense of raw unmasked spirituality that was refreshing. Most didn’t dress up but came right from he fields … with dirt and non-dirt on their shoes. And wouldn’t that be a nice change if we could just come to church showing our “dirt” and all?  When I thought of rodeos, well, umm, all I could think of was rodeo clowns, and everybody knows the church has plenty of clowns.

 Great sports teams. Church softball and bowling teams, anyone? More of that “play together, stay together” stuff. Besides, you should be able to work out your aggressions in ways other than yelling at the pastor.

 Finally, Houston is a great place for Southern Hip-Hop. Lord knows I’m not a big fan of funky music in church, but … it can have a place. Music is part of our soul, so it’s natural that it should be an integral part of our worship experience. Maybe we can let our hair down and really let go once in a while … umm, without having to pretend we suddenly “got the Holy Ghost.”  Just saying.

See? Almost anything can be turned into a sermon! Thanks, seminary!

Oh well. Until my next moment of random inspiration …

– Steve

 

photo credit: “Houston Skyline” by John Colosimo

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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