A Vision of Monday

Daryl Davis

 

I watched a video yesterday about a group of people who went to D.C. to hold a Trump Support rally. There was a woman from Chicago who talked about her reasons for attending the rally. She was afraid for losing her freedom of speech. She spoke of people who—after finding out she voted for Trump—did everything they could to take business away from her, and how she can’t speak openly for her support without any kind of backlash from her community. I don’t know the woman’s full story, and I have only heard her side. Without the full story it is easy for anyone to be sympathetic. After all who wants their constitutionally granted freedom of speech taken away from them? I know I don’t. I’m liberal, and as much as I loathe the rhetoric of the conservative side of politics, I do respect their right to speak. However, I draw the line when that speech incites hatred, marginalization, injuring, or killing a group of people based upon the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.

I am also filtering her sentiments through my own experiences as a bisexual male living in central Indiana—specifically, Indianapolis. Living downtown, and frequenting my old neighborhood in Irvington, and Broad Ripple, I do not risk any danger for being out and flamboyant. But outside of Irvington, Broad Ripple, and downtown I become susceptible to any form of bigotry.

While running an errand at Walmart off US 31 on Indianapolis’ south side, I was almost lynched by a group of white men in Jesus shirts. We got out quickly, and Ronnie took my hand to be my beard—to meet their arbitrary, and meaningless, criteria of masculinity.

While working at a cigar bar in Avon—a west side suburb—I was fired for being too flamboyant and too out. The customers did not like me because of who I am, and the manager was compelled, by popular opinion, to fire me.

What can be done about these two examples? Legally, nothing. Why? Because in Indiana any kind of discrimination or violence towards the LGBTQIA community is permitted. When Mike Pence was governor of Indiana he signed in the Religious Liberty Act permitting businesses to legally discriminate against anyone who wasn’t straight or cis-gender. Many businesses revolted against this hateful action, and placed signs in their windows telling any passerby that all are welcome. Because of public outrage, Mike Pence withdrew the act, but discrimination and violence still happens. Many Christians in Indy—some who I know personally—consider this persecution because Mike Pence, a professing Evangelical Christian, was not allowed to legislate his particular expression of faith.

That’s what I think of when I hear people like this Chicago business owner. I don’t hear someone’s freedom of speech being taken away. What I hear is bemoaning the response to her free speech. She doesn’t want to face the consequences for her right to speak freely.

With freedom and rights there comes a responsibility in exercise. You don’t get to go into a crowded theater, and yell “Fire!” causing mass panic and injury, and escape jail time. The consequences of arrest and imprisonment for putting people in danger are not a cessation of the right to speak freely. The same can be said for the speech inciting violence against those who are different than you.

In the United States we have the right to freely assemble, and we have the right to protest and rally over issues affecting us and our community. What we don’t have the right to do—regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum—is to kill and maim those on the other side. From what I have seen and read the people on the right are the ones maiming and killing those who disagree with them. Not everyone on the right is homophobic, racist, xenophobic, etc., but the ones who are violent have ties to the right.

I have compassion for this woman because she should be allowed to express her beliefs and political sentiments without being blackballed in her community. But I don’t know the full story, and dare not treat her pain unfairly because I, too, know what it’s like to be shut down for declaring an unpopular opinion in my immediate community. My assumption is, as a business owner, she targets people who are transgendered, have a different sexual orientation, and, quite frankly, are not white Christians. I might be correct, but I might not be, and I could be withholding compassion and lovingkindness from a decent human being who is acting out of fear. Who among us has done despicable things to another person because we were completely saturated by fear? I know I have. Without the fear, hatred has no life to distort our vision and decency.

I can say that I have genuine compassion for the woman in the video, but I won’t be disingenuous and say I did not feel any apprehension about her choice of words or the images or the images a group of people standing and worshipping the American flag. She’s afraid, I’m afraid, we’re all afraid, and our combined fear has created a powder keg in our culture with a short fuse. One little spark, and the right to speak freely will be the least of our worries.

The problem is not in the assumed differences in our political parties—there aren’t any—, the problem isn’t in our religious views, nor is our problem found in Trump. All these are symptoms of something greater that I—at the present moment—do not know. What I do know is pigeon holing people with our constrictive labels allows us to escape the work we have to do to improve the conditions of our world. If you have the courage to face another human being different than you, talk with them, get to know them, and find out you both want to be free from suffering and the root of all suffering and that you both want to be happy, would you be so willing to maim or kill them? I know I border on idealism with that question, but, based on my limited experience, I have met very few legitimately evil people. The rest are people doing evil things in an attempt to alleviate their own suffering and achieve their own happiness. I think the first step is to look outside ourselves in service to others ranging from a simple smile to standing with people of color at a Black Lives Matter Rally in St. Louis to protest injustice. The change begins when we hold our hands out to one another.

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For God so liked the world…

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While volunteering at Global Gifts last Thursday, I found myself in a quick conversation concerning the Catholic Church—maybe  two responses a piece before a customer walked through the door. The weather was pleasant. No humidity, the temperature was near seventy degrees, and a gentle breeze caused the plants and leaves to sway near the sidewalk. One block away on New Jersey, I heard the hourly bells from St. Mary’s Catholic Church ringing, and the sound reminds me of Dropkick Murphys’ song, “Famous For Nothing.” At the end of the chorus, they sing “And the bells of St. Mary’s were ringin’.” I mentioned the song to my co-volunteer, and she suggested I visit St. Mary’s because it’s a good church. I became sheepish and said I probably wouldn’t be welcomed there, and that I felt displaced since the election. The big push out the door came from St. Jude’s when the priest told the packed sanctuary how persecuted we Catholics were, and how we should respond with a militant faith—going so far as to say we should impose the Church’s interpretation of morality on our neighbors. I couldn’t get out of the church fast enough. The priest’s attitude was so far removed from Jesus. When I went to mass at St. John’s after the election, Fr. Nagel said we all needed to get along with Trump and his supporters. I felt betrayed by the church where I had been confirmed. I heard nothing of a rebuke towards those Catholics who voted for Trump or how they supported the anti-humane policies of the Republican Party. So I stopped going to mass. I felt Jesus had already left the building, and I went out to find him.

I ruminated on my co-volunteer’s suggestion. After my shift, I sat on a brick median under a few trees outside of Starbucks and Bru Burgers a few doors down from Global Gifts, and read Henri Nouwen’s Can You Drink This Cup? The title came from Jesus’ question to James and John who asked to be seated on his right and left hand. Nouwen equates Jesus’ cup to the cup of human suffering we all drink. Jesus also drank from this cup. I thought about my own suffering and the abuse I received from my family and church, and my clinging to the past. I decided, I would visit St. Mary’s, but I needed to go to confession before I attended mass. I didn’t think God cared one way or another, but I wanted to be honest with myself. The next day, I went to St. John’s.

The experience was painful, but that had nothing to do with the sacrament. Confession, or the rite of reconciliation, is about getting right with God by owning your behavior, thoughts, and words that causes separation between you and God. Confession is also about getting right with the Church because unskillful behavior, thoughts, and words can damage The Church’s reputation. The Church is Jesus’ body on earth, and to hurt that image, in my opinion, is nothing short of blasphemy. Something all Christians need to consider regardless of their denomination. My experience was painful because the priest was an asshole.

I didn’t catch his name because he isn’t a regular, but he was older with a pointed nose and sharp chin that lacked mercy. When I went into the room, the air was stuffy. There was no ventilation, and the red carpet and yellowish off-white walls pressed against my windpipe causing this penitent to gasp his confession in quick breaths. I told the priest I had not been to mass since the election, and I still struggled with anger and hatred with Trump and his supporters.  The priest snapped that I should “just get over it,” and that I should go to mass regularly to avoid these moral pitfalls. It took all I had within me to not dull his sharp chin with a right cross through the mesh screen while responding, “Fuck you! What if The Church is the problem?!” I didn’t. I reminded myself that my being there had nothing to do with this prick, or my feelings towards this situation. I was still in the presence of God receiving grace. If Fr. Nagel had taken my confession he and I would have had a chat while offering me the necessary tools to overcome my hostility. Fr. Nagel is like that with everyone, though, because he is compassionate, and genuinely cares for whoever comes across his path. He is a good priest.

After I made my penance, I drove to St. Mary’s for their daily mass, and yesterday, I attended the mass celebrating The Holy Trinity. The first thing I noticed was the sign outside the church stating in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

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When I walked in, I saw a wide range of age, skin color, and nationality. I also witnessed the genuine care people had for one another as well as visitors. For the homily, Fr. Carlton said that we need to reexamine how we view God. God is not angry or wrathful, but loves his/her people regardless as stated in Exodus 34. The role of Jesus was to demonstrate that God is in the flesh calling us all into the divine dance between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I smiled for the entire mass, and almost giggled and clapped when Fr. Carlton held up the host and chalice saying, “Receive what you are, become what you receive.” After the Eucharist the announcements called for donations to support radical hospitality and acceptance, and standing against policies marginalizing people for any reason. After I genuflected, I saw my co-volunteer in the aisle, “What did you think?”
“This is the first time I’ve been to mass, and left really understanding that God likes me.” We’ve all heard that God loves us, but it’s a wholly different thing to know that God likes us. We all know how that works when we’re around family during the holidays. God liking us is such a powerful movement of the soul opening the heart to give and receive love. That is the point of The Church. Instead of striving to be Republican why not be like Jesus and proclaim the good to everyone that God loves them, and then treat people with such compassion so they know God likes them.

Doubting Thomas

 

St. Thomas

My father, like anyone, was dumbfounded when he found out he had cancer, but the news that caused his foundations was found in the lateness of the discovery. The cancer started in his prostate, and when that kind of cancer is caught early, the chances of survival are good. My father, though, didn’t know he had anything wrong with him until he went to the doctor for his incessant back pain. Because my father suffered a broken back from the steel toed boot of an abusive father, he had bouts of chronic pain throughout the year. When my father complained more of the pain, our family doctor told him it was the sciatic nerves acting up, and he needed to take it easy. The pain did not relent, and when he went in for a check-up, my father discovered he had cancer. The disease began in the prostate, and then spread throughout his bones. The cancer had metastasized in both femurs, his entire rib cage, his lower back, and the back of his skull. For those who are not aware, when cancer is metastasized there is no return, do not pass go, do not collect $200, and go directly to the grave. When my father asked how much time he had, the doctors estimated he had one year.

My father had religion imposed on him by his father since he was born, and after his father died, he decided to live life on his terms. We didn’t start going to church until I was nine, but that had to do with my great grandmother wearing down my mother with guilt trips. My great grandmother, and most of my mother’s family for that matter, are not religious people, but use church attendance as a means to navigate through society without being bothered. Church made you appear God fearing and good, and they made use of that appearance to do all manner of swindling of their family and neighbors. My mother’s lack of attendance exposed their hypocrisy and deception. We lived in my great grandmother’s house so we went because my mother felt like she owed her grandmother something, and my father went along to church to keep the peace in the house. He didn’t like my mother’s family, and the feeling was mutual, but he didn’t want to be hassled any more than usual. My father still believed in God, but he was pissed at God for letting his father die. My father was twenty-one when his father succumbed to leukemia at the age of fifty-four, and did not teach my father anything. Without his father to show him what it meant to be a man, my father had to learn everything the hard way. God left him helpless, so God could fuck off. As he got older and gained a better understanding of life, he got over his anger with God, and went on life as usual.

My father was an intelligent man who never gave himself much credit for his intellectual prowess. He studied and read the bible so much the binding of the book wore thin, and came to the same philosophical and theological conclusions of the early doctors and fathers of the church without every reading them. He had a rational faith that was practical in his everyday life. As an adolescent, the big thing in church was people asking incessantly, “What is God’s will for my life? What does God want of me?” My father thought these questions were ridiculous and responded, “What is God’s will for my life? It’s Monday, so God’s will for my life is for me to get my ass out of bed, and go to work to take care of my family.” When my father realized he was going to die, and to die from cancer, he had to stop. He stopped going to church, he put away his bibles, his theological books, and refused to watch any religious programming—his favorite being the Atlanta pastor, Charles Stanley. He wasn’t pissed off at God, nor did he assume there was no God—he needed time to think, to question, to doubt, and determine if he really believed in God and the words of Jesus. “I want to make sure I taught you boys the truth, and didn’t waste my life.” My father didn’t give himself a timeline, but it took him three months to break apart every letter of the bible and doctrines of the church and come to a conclusion. His mind moved that fast, and he determined God as real and Jesus as true.

My brother and I came to very different conclusions than our father, and when we voiced our doubts on God, our father was not threatened. “I disagree with what you believe, but all I care about is that you’re good men.” My brother is agnostic, and takes an indifferent approach, “I don’t know if there is a God, and I don’t care.” Just like me, he is well read and can tell anyone, who ventures to ask, how he arrived to his conclusions. My ignorance, though, is not indifferent. I have this inkling that we are more than chemicals and flesh, and that inkling is like an itch on your back that is a millimeter away from the nail of your middle finger—almost there, but you suffer until you find a tree or a brick wall to scrape off that dry layer of skin. That doesn’t mean I am more “spiritual” than my brother, but that we look at the notion of God differently. Think of our agnosticism in terms of the Kinsey Scale with 1 being a hard agnostic and 10 as one who is not altogether agnostic. My brother would be a 1 on the scale while I am a 6. I find the Judeo-Christian narrative fascinating because the idea of a God taking literally our stories and becoming one of us to help us find our way tickles my inner storyteller; but the reality isn’t there. The absence of the reality has to do with the myriad of terrible experiences I had from churches and many individual Christians. True, it’s about God and not about people, but my father always told me that “you may be the only gospel anyone ever reads,” and the low quality gospels I’ve “read” has made Jesus seem like a distant fairy tale; but, I still attend my friend’s church because I see some substance to the practice that validates their belief in Jesus.

With the probability of the United States experiencing a nuclear strike from North Korea, the matter of my own death meets me eyeball to eyeball like Stephen King’s killer clown, Pennywise cackling as he tells me we all float down here. I don’t know how my father felt when he realized that he would soon die, but I understand his intellectual and spiritual reaction to the matter because I’m doing that, too. Is God for real? Is Jesus true? As we lurch towards midnight on the doomsday clock, I am at a loss for words because I don’t know. On some level I’ve always had that uncertainty, but the threat of extinction has brought that uncertainty out of the dusty cellars of my subconscious to the forefront of my conscious mind. I’m envious of my friends who are atheists and the friends who believe in God. They know. They have looked at all the evidence before them, and they can tell you, me, and their grandmother at Thanksgiving why they think there is a God or there is not a God. Their certainty gives them a strength to face nuclear war with courage while my trepidation will blow throughout the cosmos after my body has turned to dust.

A few years ago while at Blackburn College, my religious studies professor, Dr. Meyer, a brilliant and patient man, started a discussion about a Muslim speaker that came to campus to educate everyone about Islam. The original guy could not attend and sent one of his younger students who is unapologetically conservative. He was nervous and maintained a black and white position that left a bad impression on the female and LGBT students on campus; but when you talked with him one on one his faith was not as exclusive. The next day, Dr. Meyer was livid because he studied Islam, and he thought the speaker only confirmed negative, false stereotypes. I raised my hand to agree with his point, “But I also respect him because he didn’t evade the questions, and we all knew where we stood.” It was a wonderful discussion. After class, I went up to Dr. Meyer to talk with him on the way to his office. While carrying his binders he told me, “You know, that was one of the most peaceful debates I ever had.” I chuckled because I didn’t realize I had started debating with him, nor would I dream of doing so. I began, “Dr. Meyer, I’m jealous of that speaker, I’m also jealous of my friends who are atheists and the friends who are theists because they are certain, and I’m sitting here completely ignorant.” He nodded, “If you were certain, you would be dangerous, but you don’t know, and that’s why I like you.” I went away encouraged. Later, I found out he was a pastor, and I became shocked because he was the first pastor to celebrate my doubt.

This is why I think St. Thomas has been given a bad rap by Christians after Jesus’ resurrection. The account of St. Thomas’ doubt is highlighted in The Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was written close to the end of the 1st century C.E., and as I wrote in a previous post, the gospels are not historical fact, but a highlight of Jesus’ teaching to a specific community. In John 20:24-29, Thomas was not with the rest of the twelve when Jesus appeared to them, and did not believe they saw Jesus, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the prints of the nails, and put my hand in his side, I will not believe” (20:25 NKJV). I’ve heard pastors and other Christians insult Thomas’ lack of faith because he needed material proof,  I don’t think they respect Thomas’ perspective, and they have the luxury of being on the other side of the story.

I am not so presumptuous as to demand that God be revealed so I can touch the wounds of Christ as St. Thomas did, but I desire to know the reality of God—if God truly exists. Yes, I am filled with overwhelming dread over the possibility of all of us being turned to ash because Kim Jong-Un wants to prove his dick is bigger than Donald Trump’s, but I don’t want to say God is real because I need a some sort of blanket to provide me the illusion of warmth. For me that’s a regression to an early stage in development. If God is real, then God is real when the sun is shining and the wind blows through the trees and in the shadow of destruction. Sure, turning water into wine after everyone has already had too much to drink will make you a hit at parties, but a miracle doesn’t address deeper psychological needs. There is substance to faith, and I don’t think it takes a suspension of logic to have faith. William James pointed out that people don’t believe based on rational arguments but believe an idea because the idea feels true. They adopt the belief then support their choice with rational argument. The desire for me is something that is real and feels true. At this point in my life, Christianity is a good story I will listen to, but I do not see any substance. Years of abuse in the name of Jesus have created a stumbling block, but I’m not stubborn in my rejection. I don’t want to put my fist into the gaping hole in Christ’s side, but I want to see the realness of Jesus in my own life. Frank Schaffer put out a memoir he titled, Why I’m an Atheist Who Believes in God, and I relate to the title because I’m an agnostic who prays to God hoping that God is real.

Christian Atheism or Christian Maturity?

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Holy Week is upon us, and I have taken it upon myself to re-read Peter Rollins’ The Divine Magician. The book is a correction of Thomas Alitzer’s argument in The Gospel of Christian Atheism, but not for the argument’s lack of strength. Altizer takes a romantic view of humanity as divinized by the death of God through Jesus on the cross. Though, Rollins espouses Altizer’s radical theology, he takes the application to the everyday life. In talks, Rollins has said he denies the resurrection when he doesn’t love his neighbor as himself or withholds compassion from others. Likewise, he affirms the resurrection when he embraces the other while lifting them to their feet. How Rollins communicates his ideas in his book is nothing new—Christians over the centuries have done it as they moved throughout Europe and in the east: he translates the gospel of Jesus into the language of the culture. In the twenty-first century west the language of sacrifices and a moody God do not communicate the love of God for the world—in fact, it is quite the opposite. If we here in the west took the bible literally without any knowledge of the world that produced the bible, we would find God, at the very least a monster. God is a parent who had a child by mistake, but is more annoyed when the child misbehaves. Rather than take out all “his” hate on the mistake, “he” finds an innocent to take the blame. The innocent has to be willing so God can point to the sacrifice while yelling at the child, “If it weren’t for him, it would be you gutted and pinned to the tree.” Why would anyone want to believe in a God like that? The Eastern Orthodox Church shares that sentiment, and concluded that God, in Jesus, showed how far “he” was willing to love the world while the world beat “him” and killed “him.” The love of God is not tarnished by the language of violent culture, nor is that love contradicted.

I agree with Rollins’ assertion that people make things, ideas, and people an extension of their deepest desires or darkest fantasies like the totems of Freud or Jung’s archetypes. Jesus becomes God in the flesh sacrificed for the world because everyone of us desires redemption in our own lives regardless if we believe in a deity or not. Jesus becomes another symbol of humanity’s yearning for atonement. The empty tomb is comparable to the empty Holy of Holies after Jesus’ death, and the vacant room the Roman General, Tacitus observed as he pulled away the veil after he entered Jerusalem. There is nothing there. The space is void because such ideas as “God” or “Jesus” are neutral. Take away our ideas and our desires there exists no-thing. The question of God becomes a question to us, and wants to know what we’re seeking. Did God die on the cross as Altizer states, and the resurrection became a symbol of a divinized humanity carrying on the message of reconciliation in each other? Was God merely a symbol, like a rattle to an infant, to draw us out of ourselves, and when we finally matured we realized there was no rattle—like Neo in “The Matrix” when he understood there was no spoon? God is just a word and redemption is the cry of a child doubled over in guilt and self-loathing.

Rollins’ change in the Christian narrative has been long overdue because for too long the church—denominations aside—has responded to the world with milk, rattles, and spoons when necessity demands meat and an honest dialogue; however, a mature practice was hinted in the gospel of John, and argued blatantly by St. Paul. The author of John’s gospel wrote to a community about the tangibility of God and the Kingdom of Heaven being inside them using the fleshy metaphors of Jesus embodying the word of God. The author goes one step further in the sixth chapter when Jesus says to the people they must eat of his flesh and drink of his blood to be a part of him and the work of God. Even at the time of its writing (the end of the first century), there were people in the community who took such ideas as literal, and found the teaching reprehensible. The teaching the author wishes to pass on is the work of God is not found in the temples or scrolls, or the Rabbinic interpretations found in the Talmud, but in the heart of each person. St. Paul argues in a similar manner in the first two chapters of Romans as he says that the Gentiles who did not have God’s law in their culture had God’s law inscribed in their heart. Forty years before Jesus, one of the greatest Rabbis, Hillel (the teacher of Gamaliel who taught St. Paul) was approached by a Greek man who desired to convert to Judaism. The man wanted Hillel to treat the law as a philosophical exercise and asked him to recite all 613 commandments while standing on one foot. Hillel didn’t need to. He replied to the man, “That which is harmful to you do not do to your neighbor—the rest is just commentary. Now go study.” No one needed the Torah to understand that loving your neighbor as yourself, or treating others as you want to be treated is good way to get along in life. The man understood something valid in the teachings of Judaism, but assumed he had to adopt a Jewish narrative to live the life of God.

As it was in the time of Hillel, so it is today. Many churches I have attended still rely on the mixed narratives of Roman culture and Jewish religion from the first and second century of the common era—most notably in ethics and understanding redemption through Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice. For the ancient Romans and Jews there were no contradictions in a benevolent deity who required sacrifices, nor were these two groups the only cultures to live in a sacrificial system littered with totems and divine hierarchies. The gods demanded sacrifice to communicate with humanity or redeem it when a heinous act had been committed.  A deity who would otherwise unleash his/her wrath unless people appeased it with a live sacrifice of some sort was accepted. Nowadays, we can look upon that as a psychological pacification for the pain of guilt over mistakes of the past—the infantile need for a blanket to cover up the shame for existing and keep warm in a universe cold and uncaring to the plight of living. The authors of the gospels, along with St. Paul, made use of this sacrificial language to communicate God, in the form of Jesus, loving the world and redeeming it as one of us so we did not have to endure “his” wrath. This narrative was good for the audience of the time, but even that narrative had to be changed from the original to meet their needs.

The gospels were not historic accounts as we understand history, but a story of what Jesus said and did, and why the authors believed he was the messiah and, later, as God in the flesh. The first thirty years after Jesus’ death and possible resurrection, his followers went everywhere in Judea and throughout the empire to spread Jesus’ message. Jesus lived in the backwoods of Judea, and spoke of the love of God with the imagery rural people could understand and apply to their own lives. By the early to mid 60s many of the listeners were either urban Jews or Greeks who had no connection whatsoever with the religious and cultural life of a rural countryside. Raymond Brown, a noted Catholic scholar in the 1990s, argued the writers retained the core tenants of Jesus’ gospel but changed the language so the new listeners could understand this good news. The same thing happened as the gospel spread and the followers of Jesus became Roman venturing into the most distant regions of the empire with the gospel. Roman imagery of Jesus, let alone the Jewish imagery, were lost on the tribes outside Roman borders. These ancient missionaries took the practices and language of the pagan tribes, and talked about the love of God in terms these tribes could understand. To accuse the ancient church of stealing or copying pagan rituals reveals a misunderstanding of the methods of these Christians. They saw God communicating to the pagans in their language, and saw Jesus as a fulfillment of what the pagans desired—Grace perfecting nature. By adapting Jesus to the pagan imagery, these tribes could have a clear understanding of what they were accepting or rejecting.

I think a change in the gospel’s narrative is beyond necessary for today. Theologians like Paul Tillich and philosophers like the Niebuhr brothers called for a change in how we relate to God in a post-nuclear context. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world changed because humanity could now destroy itself with a wild hair and a button. Men like Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and Bishop Fulton Sheen wanted to go back to a world before the atomic bomb, a world they thought could be recreated with shallow doctrines and positive thinking—and that was a mere band-aid to treat a gunshot wound—a golden age fallacy. Evangelicals and Catholics in the 1950s reverted to the old narratives that satisfied a post-enlightenment America set in the rural frontier; but America became more urban, and had to deal with the world full of problems the old narratives could not answer. That is still the issue today as many Evangelicals and Catholics still rely on first and second century views of Jesus, and are put in the position of political leadership. How can the gospel be rescued from the likes of Paul Ryan and the Trump Administration hell bent on inciting another world war so their literal approach to biblical prophecy can be realized as Russia is mobilizing against the United States? The narrative needs to be changed to accommodate the issues we, as a species, now face. The infantile approach, thus far, has not worked and only oppresses people to an early death—literal and figurative. God, if God indeed exists, is not bound to a book or a culture’s interpretation of a book. The authors of Isaiah spoke of God never changing and always doing a new thing. This God, Christians claim to be theirs, did not stop doing a new thing when the New Testament canon was closed in the fourth century. How does this God speak to us today? How do Jesus’ words translate into our issues? How does the cross speak to the twenty-first century west? The old interpretations cause more harm than good, and Rollins’ approach to the gospel’s message is a good example so we Christians can take Jesus away from the kid’s table to have a conversation with grown ups.

Sunday Story

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This past Sunday I attended Lynhurst Baptist Church on the near west side of Indianapolis. I go there off and on because a friend of mine is an associate pastor and a worship leader, but he is not the usual type of pastor I meet, nor is the head pastor—they like to get their hands dirty by being part of the neighborhood. The church’s location is a poor neighborhood, and like any poor neighborhood, families struggle with gangs, violence, alcoholism, drugs, single parent homes, and desperation. My friend and head pastor do not come in preaching the gospel of the affluent, middle class, white SUV Jesus who rewards new believers with six figure incomes and a nice house upon reciting a prayer of acceptance. There are plenty of churches who come from the suburbs and preach that Jesus downtown, and those are the churches who share in the responsibility for gentrification and displacement of the poor. The pastors of Lynhurst Baptist Church live in the neighborhood and face similar struggles as the residents, and have earned the right to speak into the life of their community. For my friend, he came up on the Indy’s east side like I have, and we grew up in similar neighborhoods as his church’s neighborhood. We are all too familiar with gang violence, violence in general, racism, but we never got caught up in that. The gospel my friend and pastor teach is a Jesus who is part of the family, lives next door, and wants to find people who have lost their way; and he does it without toeing the doctrinal line—Lynhurst Baptist Church is Baptist in name only.

The focus is on the stories of the individual people who walk in the door and their context in the ancient story of the cross. The mission of the church is not about conforming people into the image of a Bronze Age Hebrew or a second century Roman Christian, but in the image of a God who meets people at their level. Sure God worked a certain way with the people who contributed to the Bible, but many churches have made the mistake of presuming that is how God works. The same God who said, “Behold!  I am doing a new thing.” did not stop doing new things in people’s lives after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. This is what the pastor thinks, and has put aside his preaching on some Sundays so the people in the congregation can share their stories on what their lives were like before they came to Jesus, and what their life is like after choosing to follow Jesus. Because of the language, the content, and the lack of a “positive” spin, these would offend the masses of the hip, polished downtown churches as well as the WASP nests in the suburbs. I find this strangely odd because the people whom God called in the Old Testament as well as the people Jesus called to follow him were not the upper crust of society. Political and religious extremists, murderers, adulterers, brawlers, thieves, ill-tempered, and swore just a little too much for the comfort of religious people. Granted, these people did not remain as they were after God called them, but those are the people God wants. They know they are lost, but they have no clue how to find themselves again; and they know they need help.

I think churches, in general, have done a disservice to God by only catering to the privileged while ignoring and victimizing those whose lives have become a disaster through bad choices or circumstances out of their control.  Not until I talked with the head pastor after the Sunday Service did I understand the role of the church in the middle class. He and I discussed different books and authors and their impact on the culture. I brought up my disgust with books by the likes of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren because what they said resonated with me, and when I went to the churches influenced by these authors, I was still ostracized. I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s books anyway because I’ve noticed a sort of theological plagiarism, but that is for another conversation. When I brought up my contentions with these particular churches, and the treatment I received, the pastor told me those books are written for the middle class because that’s where the money is. This Jesus belongs to them, but the people who would benefit from this Jesus—the ones who need him the most—do not have the money to purchase these books; and once again the poor are dismissed so nice, white people can bring a quasi-mysticism to lives dulled by complacency. From a business standpoint this what you do to make money off of fluffy, evangelical jargon that pushes against theological views taken for granted; but those outside the target demographic are dismissed. Giving space to those who would otherwise be forgotten, and permitting them to tell their stories allows for the change in the dynamic surrounding the gospel. The poor may not be academics or even have a high school diploma, but they know they were lost, who found them, and how their lives have changed.

Sunday’s service did not have the pastor preaching, instead one of the members had the opportunity to get behind the pulpit and tell his story. He grew up in Mars Hill, a poor, white ghetto on Indianapolis’ southwest side, and lived the life of a gangbanger just to survive. He drank, he did drugs, and he was also the muscle when someone owed money. He did not put a delicious spin to entice the congregation, but talked openly of how he hurt people, and how he hurt himself—all the while noting how God kept him from dying or making a deadly mistake. I resonated with the story because I had friends who lived a similar life, and some of them did not make it, but his story stood out to me nonetheless. He did not censor his language, but he did not go out of his way to swear incessantly. He used a couple “damns” and when talking about the time he first met his wife referred to her as “a piece of ass.” He said that only to communicate his mentality at the moment he first saw her. He was comfortable as he said these words, and when I looked around at the congregation, I did not see anyone wince.  The people in the church accepted this person, and, because of their acceptance, he felt comfortable to be authentic. If I could give a title to this sermon, and it was a sermon, I would say “Here’s How Jesus Saved Me.”

The most simple and soul opening stories I have heard have come out of a heart that has been broken by tragedy praying to a God whose existence is uncertain. Theology and apologetics dissipate with the opening: “Here’s how it happened to me”. It’s the story that draws our attention, and connects us with our hopes that our lives can also be found and redeemed. That’s the Bible: a book full of stories from people and how they experienced God in their lives, and how that God was expressed in that culture. That’s also the gospel. The four gospels were written thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection because his followers went out and preached Jesus’ message to whomever. After a few decades the followers of Jesus consisted of urban Jews and Greeks who could not relate to the rural imagery of Jesus’ parables so the authors took the message of Jesus and translated it into language of the growing church. The original message was never lost but evolved and adapted to the different people meeting Jesus for the first time. The gospel was never intended to be limited to a book in a specific time, but ever changing because God is always changing to meet people where they are. The gospels were never written on paper but on the heart of the speaker. The point of the church is to go out and tell people about Jesus and allow them to experience Jesus in their own way, and Lynhurst Baptist Church lives up to that point.