A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter for the Hurting, the Skeptics, and the Cynics

Ah, Easter.  The time of the year when we celebrate new life with fuzzy chicks, colorful eggs, chocolate rabbits and try to pretend it all has something to do with church.  I mean, the chocolate totally makes sense.  Eating chocolate is almost a transcendent experience after all.  But the rest of it?  I'm not so sure.  

Easter is also the time of the year when church delves deeply into the art of denial.   We celebrate that death is no more never mind the funeral we attended last week.  We celebrate new life as though a goodly number of those fluffy little chicks won’t kick the proverbial bucket within a few days of life.  (I love to throw a little farming reality into my theology.  Sheep aren’t really very soft but actually kind of greasy and fuzzy chicks are ridiculously fragile little balls of fluff with poop on their feet.  Happy Easter.)  I understand trusting in the promises of God but it often all ends up looking more like pretending a certainty we don't really have and ignoring reality.  

I know I sound cynical and bitter but there are seasons in our life when Easter is excruciating.  When tragedy strikes, a loved one dies, or depression descends, Easter can be unbearable.  It is painful to sit amongst the celebration when your heart is breaking.  It seems false to celebrate life when death is a monstrous reality in your world.  Having experienced such an Easter, I will not forget.  To do so would be nothing more than denial.  Nothing has changed only the passage of time.  The reality is for those experiencing grief, death has not lost its sting.  Although sting is way too wimpy a word.  In the midst of tragedy, death often comes less like a sting and more like a leave you flat on the floor slap across the face.

We celebrate Easter as the defining moment of the church.  Surely if you don’t believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus you can not possibly call yourself a Christian.   Yet is the definition of Christianity really hung up on the particular molecules making up the body of the resurrected Jesus?  Scripture tells us those who saw Jesus after Easter often had difficulty recognizing him.  Some attribute this to a transformation of the body which takes place in the resurrection.  How different is that really than believing in a spiritual resurrection rather than a physical one?  Do we really need to use Easter as an opportunity to draw a line in the sand?

So, if Easter isn’t about chicks and bunnies, nor denial, nor triumph over death, nor defining the church, then what is it about?  It’s about no matter how deep the darkness, always there is hope.  It’s about the reality of death alongside the whisper of life yet to come.  It is not about denying reality but rather about facing reality while ordering one’s life according to a suspicion of hopefulness.  

I appreciate musically the majestic strains which often accompany Easter morning.  However, I will be quietly humming a tune which better fits the subtle stirrings of hope within my soul:

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been;
Love is come again like what arising green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Your touch can call us back to life again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;
Love is come again like wheat arising green.
 (Now the Green Blade Rises by John M. C. Crum, 1872-1958 verses 1&4 as printed in Lutheran Book of Worship)

Within the death and sorrow of this world, hope and life stretch toward the surface.  As we grieve, the spirit of Jesus touches us calling us not to false cheerfulness, not to get over it, but rather to go on living and doing what we can to grow love in this world.

I understand for some Easter is a time to shout alleluias to the heavens. Yet for some amidst tragedy Easter is a whispered alleluia, a gasp of hope.  For the latter, my heart and my thoughts are with you.  

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why God Is Not Dead For Me

The above title is a bit of false advertising.  I am not going to discuss the movie, “God's Not Dead.”  I haven’t seen it.  I can’t bear to see it.  I too often find “Christian” movies, books, music, etc. to be so full of sappy sentimentality, simplistic reasoning, and self-congratulatory nonsense, they actually make me nauseous.  I know, I know, you’re all thinking “Don’t hold back, Sheri, tell us how you really feel.”  But, I can’t.   I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t plan on it. 

Instead, I am shamelessly using the hubbub around that movie to draw attention to my blog.  For shame, I know. 

What I really want to talk about is exactly what the title says, why I have not given up on the idea of God.  And here it is, in picture form:

A tulip is the basis for my faith?  Not a tulip per se but rather what the tulip represents.  Beauty.  Soul-stirring, logic defying, hope imparting beauty.  There is that in this world which stirs us, which awakens something within us, which compels us toward life and hope beyond what the sum of its parts should do.  Such leads me to suspect there might be more to life than meets the eye. 

I am also a bit suspicious of thinking which says “the universe does not owe us justice.  Life is what it is.”  To accept such thinking seems almost elitist.  It is well and good to say “it is what it is” when life is full of mundane problems and struggles.  I just can’t quite fathom how I could look in the face of someone living in a place of violence, ravished by disease, or whose daily existence is an excruciating struggle to survive and say, “It is what it is.  The universe doesn’t owe you justice.”  Maybe it is true but it does not feel true to me.  Truth is more often beautiful at some level or at least freeing. 

Of course, whether it is true or not, whether you believe in some form of God or not, I hope we could look into the face of such suffering and join together in saying, “As long as we have power to stop it, such suffering should not exist in any world.  We will do what we can to help here and now.” 

The glimpses of beauty I see in this world feel like potential to me, like a taste of things to come.  I hope so anyway.  Such astonishing beauty exists in nature, in love, in art, in music, in hope and yet such horror exists as well.  It seems the potential for beauty to grow and horror to recede is so great it would be a shame not to fulfill it in some world.  

Yet, still, staring into the abyss of the possibility “this is it and then you die” makes more sense to me than turning one’s back on the abyss and whistling a happy tune or trying to weave a safety net out of a particular set of beliefs and a narrow definition of morality.

Yep, from what I’ve heard, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to see the movie.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Listening To Atheists

People of Christain faith spend way too much time being afraid. We are too often afraid questioning will lead us to lose our faith.  We are too often afraid scriptures don’t all make sense.  We are too often afraid we will be unable to answer questions about our faith, respond to other people’s doubts, convince others to believe like we do. 

When we are afraid sometimes we latch on to any answer, even clichés, even things which don’t add up.  And sometimes we are afraid to listen.  We shut down people who have doubts as not faithful enough,  pretend those who have lost their faith never really had it at all, search for ulterior motives behind every question. 

Following Jesus is not about right beliefs but about love.  Doubt is an essential part of faith.  Believing people must think like us or end up in hell leads to all sorts of manipulation and craziness.  But, all of these things I have written about before.  Today I want to encourage us to set aside our fears and listen.  Listen to the voices of people who have lived a life of faith until it no longer rings true to them.  Listen to voices of those burned by the church.  Listen to those who have tried to believe in God but just couldn’t.  Listen to those who think faith in something without factual evidence is irresponsible.  Listen to those who are hurt and angry.  

Here are a few examples of some voices the church tends to want to ignore.  I invite you to practice listening without falling back on clichés, flimsy explanations, or victim blaming.  Just listen and really hear what these folks have to say

From A Preacherman's Secrets as he describes why he is angry:   
“First, I resent the promise that a holy spirit is present to guide and comfort me.  If it’s there, it has done a piss poor job.  I’ve spent most of my life with searing loneliness, as well as plenty of confusion and sadness. I’ve tried to pretend the spirit is there, and I’ve held onto faith, but after half a century of searching, I haven’t seen it or felt it or believed anyone who told me they did.  I’m angry because I would like for it to have been true.”  
Read several more thought provoking points from this blog here.

Now from Roll To Disbelieve on why she rejects Christianity:
“Way too high of a ratio of embarrassing members to sane members. I hate to say this, but I’ve got too much pride to throw in with a label shared with so many people I have to apologize for and argue with.... Every group has nutbars in it, of course, but when I’m dealing with untold millions of assholes and idiots, all gently tolerated if not encouraged by mainstream members and not reined in immediately (like the ludicrously disturbed Pat Robertson, who really should have been retired decades ago but who not only is tolerated but adored and given nationwide soapboxes by Christian groups), that’s where I draw the line. Given that I don’t see any reason to believe in Hell or Jesus’ sacrifice anyway, and given that I don’t think that Christianity is uniquely positioned to help me become a better person or help me better humanity in any way that another, less toxic viewpoint couldn’t manage just as well if not better, there just doesn’t seem to be much incentive to me to get involved with a group I would be fighting my entire life about issues like my bodily autonomy and rights as well as those of people I care about. “  
Read many more reasons here.

And just in case you think these are all people who didn’t try hard enough, here are some important words from Daniel Fincke of Cammels with Hammers
“I did love Jesus. I loved Jesus enough to commit every fibre of my being to Jesus. I loved Jesus enough to do everything I thought was necessary to express my love for Him and to grow closer to Him. I went to a devoutly Christian university to study about Jesus and live with fellow Jesus-lovers, I devoted my heart, soul, and mind to figuring out how he could be known and how to convince others of His existence so that they could believe in His love and come to be saved. I kept myself sexually chaste as best as I could because it was what I thought Jesus wanted. I risked alienating friends and families by constantly making Jesus the central issue in our conversations.
And yet, I still came to believe Jesus was a fraud. And it ripped my guts out and terrified me and alienated me from the people I loved most, including my very self. But I had to stand on my conscience and say, No, I know longer believe this is true. And I came to realize, by my conscience, that loving truth and loving my fellow human beings meant putting my intellectual conscience above the love of Jesus that had defined me as a person and animated my entire life up until that point”.   
Read more thoughtful arguments from Daniel Fincke here.

We need to listen to these voices without defensiveness and not for the purpose of improving our manipulation tactics so we might more successfully convert such people.  We listen so we can understand, learn, and better love our neighbors.  It is important to also resist responding with cliche, judgment, or convoluted and fragile answers.  Such responses are unconvincing, frustrating, and sound discordantly false (even to some of us in the church).  Like drumming on a rusty bucket of ...manure.