Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Death and Dry Bones

I loved being a minister. The job fed my soul and drained it at the same time. I don’t think I can go back.  I want to try to explain but it’s going to take some time.  The following is just one of the reasons I’m done. 

The minister helps people cope with death.  I’ve been at scenes where death occurred violently and I’ve also stood in dark houses or hospital rooms and watched people slip away while loved ones cried and kissed them. More than once I heard someone sing softly into the dying person’s ear.  Another time I heard a woman scream at her man not to die on her but he did anyway. 

I was often present when someone found out that a loved one died. I actually delivered the message on a few occasions. If the loss was sudden such as in an accident, the message would have to be repeated three times before it sunk in. 

I visited the homes before the funeral service, often just watching as family members came in from out of town. Fast decisions had to be made. Errands had to be done. At some point, I would interrupt the activity and gather them together to talk about the service and I would ask them for memories of their loved one.  Often, they didn’t know what to tell me so I learned to let them talk to each other and I would listen to them trade their stories.

Funeral dinners at the church were uncomfortable for me because while the family ate and visited, I usually sat out of the way at a separate table. It’s not that I was disliked or unwelcome. I just wasn’t one of the family. Often I avoided eating altogether by being busy with setting up the service.

At a funeral, if everything goes right, there's a certain progression.  Friends trickle in and take their seats. I  have them stand and watch the family enter and sit down.  The music plays, the tears flow, and people reach across the pews to touch each other. I speak words that I hope will comfort them. Sometimes the message is effective enough to help the people reach inside themselves to find their strength.  As I help them review the life that had passed I realize that I have missed out on someone special, and I feel the loss even if I hadn’t known the person

At the end when the people filed past the casket, I shook hands or hugged them, trying not to look like a politician cultivating votes. The hardest moments were watching the family members say their final goodbyes to the body. They’d literally hold each other up as they sobbed. 

My office was usually quiet after the service and most of the time, I would simply pack up and go home. My family wouldn’t know what I had experienced and they would go about their activities while I sank into my chair or lay down on the bed. I’m not sure I actually processed the events. It’s more like I let it all settle quietly into my bones.

After thirty-five years, sometimes it feels like all of their sobs and wails echo in my mind.  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bloody Love

“God so loved the world that he gave his only son….”

The older I get, the less I can accept this idea. When my own sons were born, I discovered a depth of love that I didn’t know I had and I went a little crazy thinking about how to care for them. They’re grown now but I would still fight tigers, armies, and hurricanes to protect my sons. I have cried in frustration and shame when I failed to care for them adequately.

How am I supposed to respond to a heavenly father who hands his child over to be sacrificed and says he did it for me?

Child sacrifice. It's an old concept where cultures thought it would protect them from disaster or perhaps give them a good harvest. Butcher a child, sacrifice a virgin, throw someone into the mouth of a volcano, and the village would be saved. Nowadays we know better and we understand that human sacrifice is reprehensible.

Except when God does it. For some reason, we don’t say it’s awful. Instead we say it’s beautiful—a gesture of God’s love and we sing lovely songs about it.

We especially sing of the blood of Jesus spilled on our behalf.

There is a fountain filled with blood.
Are you washed in the blood?
What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood.
Oh, the blood of Jesus!

But wait, there’s more! We have a special ceremony, a commemorative meal, where the bread is his body and wine is his blood. Some Christians say it miraculously changes to actual flesh and blood as it enters us. “Take this body, take this blood,” we say, "remember what was done for you and be grateful.”


No more.

I do not accept.

I do not celebrate the blood of anyone’s child.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Is The Story of Jesus' Resurrection True? You Decide

Mark’s gospel is the earliest account of Jesus’ life, and includes details left out in others' accounts. However, it comes to an abrupt end. 

Two days after Jesus was crucified, three women went to the tomb to attend to his body.  When they arrived, they saw the stone rolled away from the entrance and a young man waiting for them.  He told them Jesus was not there and that he was alive again. The last sentence of Mark's gospel says that the women left the tomb bewildered and afraid. 

That it. That’s where it ends.  An empty tomb. 

Evidently, people were dissatisfied so two different endings were attached at later times. One was short; the other was longer and more detailed. Take your pick. There's been much discussion but most scholars think the endings are not part of the original text.

The writers of the later gospels changed the ending, too. Instead of one guy at the tomb there are two angels. John says Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb and actually saw Jesus (she even hugged him). Then Jesus appeared to disciples in different places for the next forty days. A handful of those disciples watched him rise into the air and disappear into the heavens with a promise to return. 

But not Mark. The earliest account ends with fearful women looking at an empty tomb. If we look through the whole text we can see that it’s his style to end a story abruptly, leaving the reader to ask, “What happened? What does this mean?” I think he meant to challenge people to find answers within themselves. 


You’re looking at an empty tomb and a stranger saying Jesus has risen from the dead.  What do you think?

A lot of preachers say, “Here’s what really happened, and this is what you should believe about it.” Many of them also say, “Everything is pointless until you agree that it actually happened.” If they refer to the later gospels, picking the passages carefully, they may find something to back up their assertions. 

But it boils down to this. A story is told that a long time ago, there was a great teacher who worked miracles. He was executed and became a martyr. But he didn’t stay dead and the evidence of his resurrection is an empty tomb. 

Did any of it happen? We don’t know. Did Jesus rise from the dead? We don’t know. Is Jesus a deity worthy to be worshiped? You get to decide.

A lot of people have insisted it’s all true, including the parts that are added later.  They have the right to believe it. They also have the right to speak up and say they believe it. 

But they don’t have the right to force others to believe it. They don’t have the right to insist that it be taught as history in our schools.  They don’t have the right to legislate belief in any form. Even if they did have the right they still wouldn’t have the power, no matter how hard they try, to force someone to believe. 

Preachers can preach. Teachers can teach. Parents can read it to their children at bedtime.  Movies can depict the story with stirring music and graphic detail.  But none of that makes it true and people don’t have to accept it as such.

However, if you want to believe it, by all means do so. It’s your choice.  

Friday, April 14, 2017

I Didn't Kill Jesus

In recent years, this would have been a big week for me.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.  For a few years, the town’s musicians, especially the high school students would do a Dixieland Jazz style concert on Saturday at our church.  And then there was Easter Sunday with a Sunrise Service, breakfast, Egg Hunt, and Sunday School.  Then we had the big worship service where attendance would be high and we’d wear our best clothes and play our best music and I’d give my best effort at preaching.

This year, I thought I’d quietly skip the whole thing. But I can’t.

To begin, Good Friday is problematic for me.  It has been for a while but I couldn’t articulate what agitated me. 

Tonight a few preachers will give graphic descriptions of Jesus’ physical suffering, turning it into a CSI episode.  I hasten to say, however, that most preachers will be more restrained in their presentation.  Nonetheless, people will weep, often tapping into recent, more personal grief.  Many will also tap into the general guilt and anxiety most of us carry within, and they’ll find themselves feeling personally responsibility for Jesus’ suffering.

Our doctrine encourages that.   

I ignored my inner conflict and I played my part. Some years, I played the part of Jesus in church musicals and reenacted the crucifixion scenes.  Most years for Good Friday service, I’d have someone bang a hammer against metal to make people think of the nails driven in Jesus’ hands and feet. Or I’d have people come forward and hammer their own nails into a cross.  But my last group was too sensitive for that and it caused them too much pain. So I modified the ritual and had people come to the cross simply to touch it—that was powerful enough. 

Nowadays, I’ve become clearer in my objection to the “Atonement Model,” as some theologians call it. It’s the explanation that Jesus died on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world.  This concept goes back to the priest Martin Luther. Before him was the monk Anselm, and earlier still was Bishop Augustine. Most of their thoughts are developed from Pauline passages of scriptures.  I understand how Paul, who reportedly murdered people for their faith, would be comforted by the thought that his sins were forgiven by the atoning sacrifice of Christ. 

But I have a problem with it.  If God required a blood sacrifice to mollify his rage… well, it isn’t forgiveness, is it?  I also have a problem with making everyone take responsibility for the actions of a murderous mob, some  corrupt religious leaders, and two cowardly politicians of the day.  

I have done some bad things for which I take responsibility but I did not murder Jesus, and I won’t carry that burden anymore.  Nor will I put that burden on anyone else ever again.  I’m not telling any more children that it was their fault. I’m not telling decent people who work hard and do good things, that they should carry such a monumental burden of shame. 

I’m sorry that I did for so long. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Science and Religion

As a minister, who has been formally trained in theology and biblical texts, I've been sucked into the conflict between these two disciplines innumerable times and I'm sick of it.  

Anyone who insists that we should get our science from the Bible doesn't really understand the Bible, much less science. Anyone who discounts the Bible because it does not measure up to scientific discovery also does not understand the Bible.

Science and theology are two different disciplines pursuing two different directions. There is no competition between the two although occasionally we might see some overlap in topics.

For hundreds of years, we’ve been pitting faith against science and it has been a colossal waste of time, distracting us from doing actual good. Could we please go fight some real battles like famine, human trafficking, loneliness, violence, sickness, poverty, and ignorance? 

We could use both disciplines to make things better. Want to be a scientist? Be a thorough, honest one and quit spending time fighting the theologians. Are you a Christian? Then for Christ’s sake, do Christ’s work and stop trying to bully science with your religion.