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Faith Matters

Is It Time to Part Ways?

Is It Time to Part Ways?

“It’s difficult for me to imagine the Left and the Right of American Christianity ever meaningfully reconciling.”

It’s been a gripe of mine for some years now that our kind of Baptists have to explain and defend and qualify who we are to nearly everyone else: “Well, we’re not that kind of Baptist!”

This in a day when many of those churches who have given the name “Baptist” a black eye have decided to remove the B word from their name and church sign – leaving us who remain to suffer the indignities of being narrow-minded and judgmental, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-immigrant, pro-torture, self-righteous Bible thumpers – since that’s pretty uniformly what the word means to people on the street.

Every year or so, one of my church’s leaders, as a response to the most recent well-publicized “Baptist” soundbite and the latest embarrassment to real Baptists everywhere, says, “We should really talk about this ‘Baptist’ name. It’s doing us a lot of harm.”

Yes, but the issue is bigger than denominational identity.

More than 20 years ago a friend of mine, who had spent most of his career serving in “foreign missions” (as they called it those days) for the Southern Baptist Convention, said to me that he rarely called himself a Christian anymore; he preferred the term “Christ-follower.” Through his many relationships with Christians and leaders from the other major world religions, literally around the world, he had learned that “the word ‘Christian’ has become a political word.”

So, what does the word “Christian” even mean, if a Southern Baptist missionary can no longer use it?

The more time I spend as a Baptist Christian pastor in a world divided by angry religious differences, the more I wonder if “we” and “they” are actually part of the same religion.

The words and pronouncements I hear from many Christians in no way represent my theology (nor mine theirs). We clearly have different beliefs about our shared Book. Our approach to science-and-religion is incompatible. We have contradictory views of humanity and sexuality.

Regarding the role of the Church, we want to talk about what “evangelism” means and should entail; on “social justice” they will never talk at all! Interfaith relations means to them an opportunity for conversion; to us, it means the beauty of diversity and growth through dialogue. Nearly all of our common words have different meanings: creation, sin, salvation, redemption, heaven, hell….

The historical Jesus and the Christ of faith often represent different, often opposing, theological convictions. Even our basic concepts of God are frequently irreconcilable.

I don’t think I am overstating the case. When I listen to many Christians speak, more and more I respond with the thought, “Is it honestly fair to call what they believe and what I believe the same religion?”

I believe in reconciliation. I believe Christ’s life was a testimony to “breaking down every dividing wall between us,” as our scripture says. I also know some sectarian divisions cannot be healed. Maybe they should not be. In my active relationships with Muslim and Jews, Unitarians and Baha’is, we are able to work together despite our differences (and without the animosity that exists between some Christian groups).

Maybe, because we don’t pretend to hold the same views, we can appreciate our differences more, and more easily agree to work for a common good.

In her groundbreaking 2008 book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle makes the case that every 500 years there is a major revolution in the Church. There was the Christian emergence from Judaism, the creation of orthodoxy, the great schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation. It’s been another 500 years, and we’re in the midst of a volatile “culture war.” The crosshairs are on the Christian Church. What will come of us?

Is it time?

“So broken is our fellowship, so divergent our views, perhaps the name ‘Christian’ has ceased to mean anything helpful to the cause of Christ.”

Would it be easier for “us” and “them” to get along if we officially named our differences and amicably parted ways? It’s difficult for me to imagine the Left and the Right of American Christianity ever meaningfully reconciling. Maybe, like Paul and Barnabas, there comes a time when we must face the reality that we can do more and better things if we are not fighting each other for control of the name “Christian.”

As to the process and procedure, I don’t know who would “leave” or what it would mean to “stay.” As to the name, I have no idea who would become what. But, within the Christian Church and (especially) outside the Church, so broken is our fellowship, so divergent our views, perhaps the name “Christian” has ceased to mean anything helpful to the cause of Christ.

For the sake of Christ, the harmony of his church and the peace of our world, even if it meant someone abandoning the name “Christian,” maybe it’s time we had the conversation.


Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

I'm Embarrassed by American Christianity

I'm Embarrassed by American Christianity

It happens more and more these days. I’m embarrassed by much of American Christianity.

I’ve spent a lifetime bring proud of the word, “Christian.” As a child, when other young boys were planning to grow up to be firemen, “army men” or professional football players, I was going to be a preacher “like my daddy.” But, too often these days, preachers make me cringe.

“Too often these days, preachers make me cringe.”

-Russ Dean

I hear anti-education views that are dishearteningly narrow. I hear views about women that are shockingly antiquated and reflect distorted interpretations of Scripture. I hear opinions about “homosexuals” that sound as if we’re still living in an Old Testament world (or that we ought to be). I hear evangelistic proclamations that exclude and divide, tone deaf exclusivism in a pluralistic world. I hear support for torture and detention and deportation and preemptive war, and I wonder where the heart of Jesus is in all of that aggression. I hear celebration for The Wall without the slightest irony that the whole movement of God is to unite us, that Jesus showed us that Way “by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us” (Ephesians 2.14).

I was raised by Southern Baptists, proud to be a Southern Baptist and planned a career of service among Southern Baptists. I was educated in church-sponsored institutions (Furman University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Beeson Divinity School). I was proud of their histories and their commitments to provide a “Christian education”; and I was excited to share those legacies.

But, as a Baptist educated by Baptists, I hear anger toward immigrants (as if the land under our feet could actually be called “our land”), and my heart aches for the lack of compassion and sympathy. I hear angry religiosity that is difficult to separate from self-righteousness. I hear “convictions of faith” that are deeply mired in blind and bitter partisanship – with no awareness of the dangers (if not the embarrassment) of needing the State to do the bidding of the Church. I hear hatred of difference, not hope in diversity. I hear fear of change rather than faith in the future.

I stand in the pulpit of a Baptist church every Sunday. I cannot imagine a better vocation, a more fulfilling calling. I get to bring the Gospel to bear on the important issues of the day, engage with people in life’s most joyous and sorrowful moments, welcome newborns, bury the dead. I am that preacher I longed to be, like my daddy.

“I just think the word from the Church should always sound different than the word from any White House.”

But I hear Christian people celebrating “a roaring economy” with no apparent awareness or concern for the larger, more important issue – that despite any economic success our civility is crumbling. Where is our shared sense of decency, our morality? The nation may be enjoying a moment of financial prosperity, but at what cost? Truth and integrity, and maybe democracy itself, are at stake. And yet some Christians want to cheer that their portfolio has grown a little?

I hear affirmations of our military strength, with no concern for Jesus’ warning that “the first will be last, the greatest will be the least.” I hear the arrogance of American “exceptionalism” instead of the biblical affirmation that all people are created in the image of God. I hear the praise of “God bless America” with no recognition that God blesses all, and that “pride goeth before the fall.”

I believe in the power of the Gospel. I believe Jesus changes hearts, and that his calling is a daring summons to a truly social justice – to a salvation that changes our minds as well as our souls, that dares us to put the good of all before the success of any individual. (How could any of us actually be “whole” otherwise?) I believe one sermon can change your life (because one sermon changed mine!). I believe the world still needs the Church. I just think the word from the Church should always sound different than the word from any White House.

But I hear preachers gloating over the meanness (they call it “toughness”) the current administration boasts, with no acknowledgement that Jesus’ calls to self-abasement and self-sacrifice invite us to a completely different approach to human relations – a “more excellent way.” I hear exhortations to domination and submission (in marriage and in foreign diplomacy), power and a “theology of victory,” with no evidence of humility or kindness.

I hear 30 years of preaching about the utter and complete abandonment of personal morality, while the same preachers bemoan that American culture is going to hell in a handbasket, turning its back on the Church and forsaking God for, you know, Sunday baseball, kids soccer matches and the like. (But shouldn’t even Sunday baseball be preferable to hypocrisy?)

More and more these days, I’m embarrassed by Christianity.

I’m just not ready to give up on Jesus.

Upaplogetic

Upaplogetic

It’s an old saw for me at this point, one of my favorite soap boxes. I’d apologize for talking about it again, but I hope you can appreciate your pastor’s vocal advocacy for THE CHURCH! I am an unapologetic fan, and I worry about what it will mean if we as a nation let it slip away.

Last summer prior to that big Scottish wedding, Amy and I met friends from England along the first 12 miles of our 61-mile pilgrimage from Edinburgh to St. Andrews. We were introduced to Kate and Tony when we walked 70+ miles of El Camino de Santiago together. He’s a retired barrister; she’s a former teacher, and we have a lot of common convictions, though active church life is not one of them.

They were both raised in the Church of England, but like most folks there they have moved away from institutional religious life. So, when I asked them, “So… is there anything missing in British life and culture because the Church no longer plays a prominent role?” I braced for either polite criticism or enthusiastic ambivalence. Instead, both responded immediately: “Yes!”

She correlates the demise of church attendance with the loss of family, and the structure that it brings to school children, adolescents, and the youth of England. Attuned to the laws that lead to order and the structured conduct of a society, Tony said, “We have no codes.”

He didn’t mean they have no laws. He meant there were no longer any underlying ethics, no un-written rules, no universal convictions of etiquette or courtesy, much less of right and wrong, good and bad, generosity and vulgarity. According to our British friends, their people live any kind of way they want because there is no longer a basic, shared order – which the Church once gave to their society.

 When Notre Dame went up in flames, a world-wide congregation wept with Paris. It reminded me of the global attendance at Megan and Harry’s royal wedding at Windsor Castle, and, in a different way, the sense of global community we experienced after 9/11. But, what were the French masses actually mourning as the cathedral’s spire collapsed, and why did that largely unreligious nation gather to light candles and sing hymns?

My strong conviction is that we are spiritual creatures at heart, embodied souls who long for mystery, transcendence, “God” – whether our Enlightened intellect or our jaded experience will let us admit it or not. The proof I offer for my conviction is that the great tragedies and celebrations of life speak to human beings on such a deep level that no ordinary response will suffice. The Psalmist says, “Deep calls to deep” – so we cry out in ways that are undeniably religious.

 People filled churches after 9/11, lit candles, kept silence, sang songs together, made commitments to live and serve better. Bishop Curry’s homily at that Royal wedding evoked a world-wide response – because it was much more than a great speech. As a sermon, it invoked the transcendent conviction of love (born of God!), in an ethic called marriage. Parisians sensed in that uncontrollable inferno much more than the loss of a 900 year-old building.

 I’m sure many would disagree with me, but I believe the response of the world proves otherwise. God is real. You can feel it in the deepest longings, the pure emotions, the native utterances of people when the grip of pain or the flight of ecstasy reveals our instinct to worship.

I hope you will be in church on Sunday!!

Quoting the Bible Without Understanding It

Quoting the Bible Without Understanding It

It’s easy, and it appears sadly enjoyable for some people of faith to read the Bible in a way that gives “legitimacy” to pointing the finger at other people. If that is the result of your reading, please, read again.

What is Missing Without the Church

What is Missing Without the Church

Before we parted I had taken the opportunity to ask a daring question. “No preacherly pressure or guilt intended,” I said, “But I need to ask about the English Church. Many people feel the US is going the way of European secularism, and the US Church may also become a casualty. So, I need to know what is missing from England without the influence of the Church. Is anything missing?”


Maybe It's Time

Maybe It's Time

I am weary of Evangelicals belittling my faith. As a pastor who still believes in the power and importance of Church, I am saddened and frustrated by the hoards leaving the American church – because of the American church.

So … maybe there really is an “us” and a “them.” Maybe there really are two different churches, two different religions. Maybe this is the 500-year moment.

The Repair for Our Ills is Forward Only

The Repair for Our Ills is Forward Only

Last night I spoke to my congregation about having tried to remain mostly silent during this campaign, for fear my thoughts would be viewed as partisan.  But now that the election is over, I want to speak. 

A Letter to my 18-Year-Old Self

A Letter to my 18-Year-Old Self

Hi there.  This is weird, I know, but this is a letter from your 38-year-old self, written twenty years in the future.

I have timed this letter to arrive to you on August 14, 1996, which is a Wednesday during your first full week of classes at the University of Tennessee.  You have a roommate you’re still not sure you can trust, and suite mates you knew from high school that you’re glad to have.  Flip your expectations, buddy.  Let this be the first of many lessons not to judge before you have experience.  

Salvation and the Common Good

Salvation and the Common Good

Why should we ever need to raise charitable funds to educate our children? To buy supplies and provide technology? Even to provide weekend snacks, if lack of nutrition is keeping a child from learning? We ought to want to educate our children, all of them.

It is the common good – even if we have to pay more in taxes to do it. 
 

God Help Us

God Help Us

As 2016 begins I am praying – for a spirit of civility and common sense, for a vision of a future, together, for a sense of peace that must begin within the hearts of the American people. I’m praying because that 2015 year-in-review indicates that our brokenness is so deep and so complete, any real movement to peace will have to come from outside of us.

The Dangers of Radical Islam and Christian Hypocrisy

The Dangers of Radical Islam and Christian Hypocrisy

I’ll be honest. The sight of all those cheering Christians almost brought me to tears. I cannot bear the thought of a so-called “Christian” sanctuary filled with cheers and praise. The pastor says: bomb the hell out of them, just as Jesus said. The people cheer.

Seven Monks and a Baptist Church

Seven Monks and a Baptist Church

In a world of such maddening events, I am proud, honored and humbled that seven Buddhists from the other side of the world, and at least 150 neighbors, from across my own community, were comfortable to come to a Baptist church, sit for an hour, search the silence of their own souls and the strains of ancient, chanting rhythms, in search of peace.

Maybe Starbucks is Not the Problem

Maybe Starbucks is Not the Problem

Since when are secular companies, practicing competitive business in a free market society supposed to speak for the Church?  Is that what Christians really want?  And would that actually “put Christ into Christmas” – or just make him another commodity, traded on the Market?

The Gospel Will Always be a Threat to Power

The Gospel Will Always be a Threat to Power

So today, governments are afraid of preachers, because the Gospel has always been a political narrative.  You only have to read the critiques by U.S. politicians and pundits of Pope Francis's comments on climate change and income inequality to understand the truth of this assertion.

Kim Davis:  Blinded by Belief

Kim Davis: Blinded by Belief

So bless Mrs. Davis for her conviction.  But as we say in the South “bless her heart.” Once again religion has blinded the religious from seeing that God has “more truth yet” to shine on us (John Robinson). And thanks be to God for a secular democracy – unbearably slow though it sometimes is.