On Labels

The last five years have made it exceedingly tough to identify as a Christian. If I call myself a Christian, will people think I’m a Trump supporter? Will they think I’m anti-mask and anti-vax? Will they think I agree with everything (or anything?) that Franklin Graham says? Will they think I hate gay people? Will they assume I’m a white supremacist? A Christian Nationalist?

This has been coming for a long time. Even when I first converted in the 1990s, I did it in spite of the Religious Right, the so-called Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell (Sr.), and Pat Robertson. I did it in spite of the holy rollers who would tell me I was going to go to hell if I didn’t believe in their Jesus in exactly the same way they did.

But then I heard Jesus speak to the woman at the well. I saw him hang out with the outcasts and the oppressed. And I experienced Christ personally in ways I could not deny. I was in.

Until I wasn’t. Until I was required to believe in an inerrant Bible. Until my church told me I had to vote against the right of two people who loved each other but happened to be of the same gender to get married. Until I needed to accept that most people ever born were going to be eternally punished in hellfire.

I was out, or at least just going through the motions. Go to church, check Twitter. Critique the sermon for the theology I no longer believed. Become more and more bitter at all the people around me that not only voted for Trump but continued to support him wholeheartedly in the midst of his increasingly immoral and authoritarian Presidency.

And then I was free. Christ the Lover showed me that the way of Love was truly the fabric of the universe. That in the end, everything was good and everything would be alright.

But I still had a problem with the label. That Christian label, the one associated with everything I no longer believed and actions that I felt were not only no longer loving but outright harmful. And so I’ve spent the last three years tiptoeing around it. Am I a Christian? Not really. Follower of the Way of Jesus, sure. Believer in the historic creeds of the church. Mystic participant in the Love of God.

But Christian? No thanks.

I was in my “just can’t even” phase with respect to the church for most of the time that Rachel Held Evans was doing her wonderful work of allowing people to be free to question the established orthodoxies of evangelicalism and participate in God’s extravagant banquet table, where all were welcome whether they believed wholeheartedly or not at all. But in the past three years, since I was awakened by God, I have taken comfort in her words, even now that she is no longer here to speak them.

In her posthumous book, Wholehearted Faith, she says:

“It would be dishonest for me not to say I am a Christian when Christianity is the story I will wrestle with forever. There’s something about Christianity—and by that, I mean the venerable, beautiful story that has Jesus at its center—I just can’t shake. And I don’t just mean the parts I like, or the parts that on good days I believe. I mean the whole thing. The whole screwed-up, embarrassing, dysfunctional family of the church is as much a part of my identity as my gender, my nationality, my ethnicity, and my name.”

This is me. Even when I didn’t believe much of anything that was in the Bible, I couldn’t escape the story of Jesus. The Jesus who healed people, listened to people, and forgave people. Even when the church has again and again excluded people and rallied around its own privilege while fighting against the very people it was called to love, I could not escape the God who personally revealed themselves to me in times of silence and mystery.

And I’m not sure I want to give up St. Francis.

Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or Martin Luther King. Or Mother Teresa. Or Henri Nouwen. Or C.S. Lewis. Or St. Gregory of Nyssa. Or St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Or Julian of Norwich. Or the Celtic mystics. Or John Wesley. Or Oscar Romero. Or Walter Rauschenbusch. Or Rachel Held Evans.

And I certainly don’t want to give up the Eucharist. Or praying the rosary. Or walking the labyrinth. Or the Daily Office. Or the Book of Common Prayer. Or even some of the less theologically troubling evangelical worship songs.

I think these things are worth fighting for. These Christian things are worth fighting for. The label Christian is worth fighting for. Not in a violent, militaristic, “you’re out and I’m in” kind of way. But by asserting that I am a Christian, and while I do not agree with what you are doing to my church, I am going to stand here and claim my heritage nonetheless.

War Prayer

A prayer in response to this article about the impact of the “American War” in Afghanistan:

Divine Lover in the heart of each image of God,

forgive us for seeking out the logic of war rather than the Prince of Peace.

We confess that loving our enemies is hard,

and we frequently give in to our fears when confronted with danger.

O God of all people,

even those living in Afghanistan, Iraq, and countries around the world terrorized by drone strikes,

lead us in the way of peace.

Let us challenge our leaders to take the narrow way of diplomacy instead of the wide path of destruction.

Christ our very breath,

call your church back to the way of nonviolence it practiced in its first three centuries.

Show it the folly of chasing after political power,

and the essential absurdity of using the tools of empire to establish the kin’dom of God.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

Amen.

Theology

I am an amateur theology nerd. I can’t escape it. When I’m not reading theology books, I’m thinking about theology. Even when I just couldn’t even with God I was still always thinking about theology. Even when I never prayed I would think about theology.

I almost applied to seminary in my early 20s. But I couldn’t get a recommendation from my pastor because he “felt like he didn’t know me well enough.” Whether that was valid or not, it was ultimately for the best, because a messy deconstruction would have been hell had I been ten years into pastoring an evangelical church.

I still want to go to seminary. Maybe I will do it, or maybe I won’t. I have serious doubts that I would want to pastor a church, and I’m a bit old to go up the PhD track to try to teach. But boy, would I love to study theology.

But the thing that I realized tonight is that while I find theology fascinating, I also find it absolutely, completely meaningless.

Let me explain.

In the end, what is, will be. There is nothing we can do, nothing we can think, nothing we can believe that will change ultimate reality. We’re all buckled into the roller coaster that has left the tracks and is going to crash into the ground regardless of however much screaming and squirming we do. Now, this can be existentially terrifying (and it has been for me). But it’s also profoundly comforting. I don’t have to get it right. I don’t have to believe exactly the right thing. I can just be.

But wait, you say! Don’t we have to believe the right thing to have a good outcome when the roller coaster comes crashing down?

I used to believe this.

But then I started hearing different, absolutely committed followers of Jesus interpret scripture in exactly opposite ways. And then I learned about the human tendency toward confirmation bias and making the world around us fit into our mental wiring. And that made me pretty sure that it’s 100% impossible to ever know what is absolute truth with any level of certainty.

And any God who would send people to hell for believing the wrong contradictory interpretation isn’t really God at all. You know, the God that John said is love? If God’s very nature is love (and it is, this I have experienced personally), then God isn’t going to toss you into hell for believing the wrong thing in a confusing life. And, as a matter of fact, that God isn’t going to toss you into hell at all (or even let you choose that as some would assert – even the older brother will ultimately join the party).

So basically all theology is to me at this point is a bunch of analogies we humans have come up with to try to make sense of existence, suffering, and death. Faulty analogies.

But these analogies, when pondered with love, can point us in the direction of what is.

And that’s why I still love theology.

Cicadas

So, here I am, sitting in my car, listening to and watching the cicadas of Brood X doing their cicada thing when all of a sudden all I could feel is love.

Love for the cicadas, co-members of creation with me. Sharing in the one essence that exists in all things. Christ under me. Christ over me. Christ beside me on my left and my right. Within and without me.

Thankfulness that they are sharing their very nature with me in this moment. They only know how to be in this moment, as cicadas, doing what they have spent seventeen years waiting to do.

Love for their flapping wings and their joyful chorus. For their ugly cuteness. For the way they land on my car window and look at me, sharing the Knowing that All Shall Be Well.

It is in these moments – watching cicadas now, or birds and fireflies a few years back, that I truly feel united with God. In these moments everything is right and good and can be no other way. All is love.

We only have this moment. And then the next. All of our regrets from our past only serve to distract us from the place where God exists. All of our worries about the future do not exist yet. If only we would set those aside and see the Glory of God that is all around us.

In a few weeks these cicadas will be gone forever, but they will also be beloved of God forever. Just as we all are. They are my brothers. My sisters. Made of the same stardust and divinity that I have confidence fills me as well.

What If It’s Not Meant to Be Figured Out?

I’ve spent my entire life – I mean, as much of my life as I can remember – trying to Figure It All Out. Is there a God? Am I going to hell? Is there such a thing as an afterlife? If there is, will we be floating around in the clouds? Will we be enjoying our own personal mansions? Won’t living forever be a colossal bore? Especially if we have harps and wings? Or are forced to listen to MercyMe forever (I Can Only Imagine…)? Will we merge into a cosmic sea of Oneness? And my favorite existential crisis forming thought – will we have hangnails in heaven (yes, I actually had this thought and yes, it actually freaked me out).

But last night, taking the dog out after a very long, tiring day, in the silence of the night, I had a thought. What if it’s not meant to be figured out?

Christians have come up with all kinds of theories about what Ultimate Reality looks like. But Jesus doesn’t talk too much about this. About all we get out of him is that God exists, God is love, and we are to love God and neighbor. And maybe some strange passages about women married to seven brothers being like the “angels in heaven” or a brief assertion that the thief on the cross will join him in “paradise.” Which, what the hell, Jesus? That doesn’t make things any clearer.

Pretty thin source material to figure out a Theory of Everything for Eternity.

And really, the things that Jesus DID teach about “eternal life,” are the things I have experienced. The deep Knowing that there is a love that undergirds the universe. The fact that this Divine Love can only be really accessed in the present moment. The essential sense that as Julian of Norwich saw, “All shall be well.”

And the really radical thing about understanding this is that it allows me to actually play around with these thoughts without feeling existentially crushed by them. And it also allows me to accept at face value the fact that other people have very different thoughts about these things, and that’s okay. Because to be honest, none of it really matters. What is, will be. And what we think it is won’t change what it actually is. And in the end, whatever it is will be okay. Because I’ve felt the Love.

So while it’s perfectly fine to study theology and come up with ideas about God and eternity, I am free to live my life here and now – the only place where the kin’dom of God really is anyway. And know that the next moment will be just as filled with that kin’dom as the current one.

Welling up to eternal life.

On the Days When I’m Not a Christian

So, Arkansas is the latest state to enact an abomination at the behest of the Religious Right:

“The Republican-controlled House and Senate voted to override GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s veto of the measure, which prohibits doctors from providing gender confirming hormone treatment, puberty blockers or surgery to anyone under 18 years old, or from referring them to other providers for the treatment.”

The purpose of this post is not to go into exactly how horrifically abominable this law is, although anyone with a heart for kids learning to be and love themselves as they were created should clearly see it. But this is just one in a long string of abominations the church has foisted upon the world.

And honestly, on days like today, and increasingly most days, where I really feel like the label Christian itself has become an abomination with which I no longer want to be associated, I can only think of two possible options for why the church has turned into such a dumpster fire of an institution:

  1. Jesus really was an evil dude who proposed an evil religion based on subjugating non-white people, toxic patriarchy, and oppression of anyone who didn’t conform to the norms of that religion (especially LGBTQIA+ folks).
  2. Jesus is either so exceptionally weak as to be irrelevant, or completely non-existent.

Earlier today, this was really where I was. Maybe all of the things I thought were God were really just myself? Maybe this is just a bunch of made-up nonsense that has no relevance to my life.

Maybe.

But then another possibility came to me. Perhaps, as I have experienced, Jesus wasn’t fooling around when he said the church was the body of Christ. That the entire purpose of the church was not some fools’ errand search for perfection, but instead its purpose was to be a vehicle for getting people in touch with their very real humanity. A humanity that is, at its core, one with Christ and all of Creation.

I was always taught that the church was supposed to be the moral exemplar to the world. That if only we could just be entirely sanctified, we would draw people to Jesus. That the most important thing is getting rid of those pesky sins, and calling others to get rid of their sins.

And then I never saw it happen. More than thirty years as a Christian and I have never seen the church be much of a moral exemplar of anything. Instead, it has been a place of condemnation, of subjugation, of sexual assault, of pedophilia, of greed, and of hate. Just like the “world” it was supposed to transcend.

And the more I pondered this, the more I recognized that expecting the church to be anything other than what the world is is untenable. The church cannot be any more or any less than what humanity itself is, any more than a rock can choose to be a tree or a tree can choose to be a star.

And while I absolutely think that the church is capable of acting in ways that are better for itself, other people, and the entire world, I believe this of all people regardless of whether they share a common tradition or belief system with me. And over time, I do believe that the entirety of human consciousness is moving in a more enlightened direction, despite devastating setbacks.

But history shows us that the church is quite capable of intense evil. The crusades, the Doctrine of Discovery, the genocide of native Americans, slavery, Jim Crow, and the continuing legacy of white supremacy in the church make that plain. But then history also shows us that the Communist Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, and Cambodia killed tens of millions. Humanity is quite capable of atrocities regardless of belief.

So then, what is the use of the church? What is the use of a faith in Christ?

On this point, I can only lean into experience and agree with Julian of Norwich. The purpose of the church, and any healthy faith, is to proclaim to the world “All will be well.” That we are not alone in this struggle to be human. That though at our zoomed in level there are plenty of worries for the day, when zoomed out to 13.7 billion years of universal history, goodness is unfolding and prevailing.

This is not something I can convince anyone is true. But it is something that I believe I have seen to be true. Not with my eyes, but non-dually with the eyes of my heart. And that’s enough for me.

For today.

A Strange Day

I’m listening to Pornography by The Cure again, something that I don’t do often enough.

It’s absolutely my favorite Cure album. It’s dark, brooding, and all-out Goth. It overlays the existential crises of the band as they went through a particularly dark time that almost led to their breakup (and Robert Smith’s suicidal ideation) with amazing percussion and that gloomy wall of sound.

And it’s the album that most reminds me of my best friend at the time, Jason, who passed away during my junior year of high school. This was the album that we listened to every morning after he got his car and I hitched a ride with him to school. It was one of the many albums by Depeche Mode, Bauhaus, The Cure, and other 1980s New Wave legends that we spent hours listening to. Jason was the king of the 12 inch maxi-single, and had the best Depeche Mode collection of anyone I knew.

And he also probably saved my life.

My father had left home during my ninth grade year in an addiction laced bender which led to the collapse of his business and the collapse of my illusion that my dysfunctional family wasn’t completely fucked. I spent the entirety of that year ditching school (by pulling the Ferris Buelleresque “I’m sick” card while my mom was at work and my dad too far down the drain to deal with me). And once my dad was gone, the only thing I was left with was the depression. And online Bulletin Board Systems, but that’s for another post someday. Maybe.

So the hours that we spent at his house playing video games on his Atari 800 and Amiga computers, and listening to records, and sharing the most recent acquisitions to our collection were salvation for me. Jason, the consummate optimist, and I, the incorrigible pessimist, whiling away the hours listening to dark, dark New Wave anthems.

And years after he died, Jason also played a big role in the evolution of my faith. I’m not sure whether Jason believed in anything spiritual in any way. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure he was an atheist or an agnostic (as I was at the time). But he was God’s grace in a dark time. And it was that grace to me that made it impossible for me to believe in the days after I had decided to follow Jesus during college that he would end up in hell for not saying a specific prayer during his short life (and all lives are short, regardless of their length). This drove the wedge in my evangelical faith that ultimately led me to re-examine and ultimately reject doctrines such as eternal conscious torment, Biblical inerrancy, and the idea that who one was or who one loved could make them a sinner outside of God’s love.

And so now, as I listen to Pornography once again, I think of one of my favorite pieces of Christian Theology: The Communion of the Saints. And I feel Jason’s presence with me, as I am sure all of the saints who are one with us now and forever are also with me. And remember the lyrics to A Strange Day, my favorite song from the album:

“My head falls back and the walls crash down
And the sky and the impossible explode
Held for one moment I remember a song
An impression of sound
And then everything is gone forever
A strange day”

Here’s to you, Jason. You were one of the good ones.

There is No Church In America

So, today’s shocking/not shocking blockbuster is that evangelical Christian and former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx is coming forward a year too late to tell us that if only we had actually followed the science rather than followed Trump’s calls to “liberate” states last year, we could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives:

“I look at it this way. The first time we have an excuse,” Birx says. “There were about a hundred thousand deaths that came from that original surge. All of the rest of them, in my mind, could have been mitigated or decreased substantially.”

Now, this post is not primarily intended as a political rant. Wearing masks and not congregating indoors and temporarily suspending church services to save lives should never have been political issues. But the pandemic made it clear to me that you can’t rely on anyone in this country. There is no sense of the common good. And the church is more guilty than any other segment of the population of leaving people to fend for themselves. Deborah Birx is only a smart part of the problem.

The bigger issue is that there is no Church in this country. In its place, we have the Cult of Religious Freedom. We have the Cult of Christian Nationalism. We have the Cult of the Second Amendment (Molech Worship). And, to be honest, most of the local incarnations of this church are just cults of personality revolving around a host of Christian media stars and local pastors trying to become Christian media stars. And false prophets. Lots of false prophets.

The Church was intended to be the body of Christ. The same Christ who laid down his life for his friends and told Christ’s church to deny itself, take up its cross, and follow. It was intended to be a place that served and loved its fellow humanity because in doing so it was serving and loving Christ’s own self. And it did a pretty good job of this… for a couple of centuries.

But then empire took over, and instead of the cross we got the Crusades. We got patriarchy. We got the Doctrine of Discovery. We got settler colonialism. We got slavery. We got Jim Crow and Apartheid. We got homophobia.

So here we are, in 21st century America, and Christ has no Church. And while I do believe that there are groups of followers of the way of Jesus at the margins of whatever it is that is masquerading as the Church today (the black church comes to mind), I’m absolutely convinced that whatever the hell we are doing in those so called church buildings nowadays, it isn’t being the Church.

For me personally, I am still a follower of the way of Jesus, think that there is an ineffable God beyond my understanding, and enjoy being a part of the local church of which I am a part. But make no mistake about it: The Church does not exist in this country. Jesus has left the building.

Our Babylonian Captivity

As part of my morning prayers, the Psalm of the day was Psalm 137:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept,
when we remembered you, O Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up
on the trees in the midst of that land.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”

How shall we sing the LORD’S song
upon an alien soil?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD,
against the people of Edom,
who said, “Down with it! down with it!
even to the ground!”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!

Setting aside the imprecatory last two verses, I was struck by how relevant this Psalm is for those of us who still seek to follow the way of Jesus in 21st Century America.

Like the Psalmist, we live in Babylon, the pre-eminent empire of our time.

The church has chosen the idol of Religious Freedom over the call to love its neighbor as itself. When faced with the gravest health crisis of any of our lives, it chose to flout lockdowns by singing its songs for Babylon in mass worship concerts and to teach its children to burn their masks rather than wear them to protect their vulnerable neighbors. When confronted with the essential dignity of all people, regardless of who they are and who they love, it chose to exclude and file lawsuits to enforce its exclusion. When challenged to treat people of all faiths with kindness and compassion, it whined about a “war on Christmas.” Neighbor love is not high on its list.

Like the Psalmist, we weep for the fall of Zion, the church which has been swallowed up by the original sins of our nation: white supremacy, Christian Nationalism, and patriarchy.

When confronted with the call to affirm that Black Lives do, indeed, matter, it chose to once again sit on the sidelines and offer up a weak “All Lives Matter.” When 10 AM on Sunday remains the most segregated hour in America, we know that the church has fallen. And when asked to just learn about and understand the struggle that BIPOC people in our country have always faced, the church instead made up a strange new theology that says Critical Race Theory is opposed to the gospel.

When we turn on our televisions and see Jesus Saves flags at an attempt to overrun and overthrow the people’s will through an election, we know that the church has fallen. When our fellow congregants are more likely to believe in QAnon conspiracies as in the radical love of Christ, we know that the church has fallen. When adhering to Fox News Conservatism become the marker of whether one is a true Christian, can we come to any other conclusion than that the church has fallen?

And when we see a “good Christian” gunman walk into businesses and murder Asian-American females in order to eliminate the “temptations” he blames for his “sex addiction,” we see the damage the church’s patriarchy and purity culture has done. How it blames women for the sexual violence of men. How it victim shames. How it gaslights. How it infantilizes men by stating that their raging hormones are uncontrollable and so they need to live a so-called “pure” life rather than doing the work needed in order to see all women as equals and not objects.

And so we weep.

But for those of us who still seek out the way of Jesus, “how can we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” By joining in with the chorus of the captive American church, we forget our Jerusalem. It would be better if our tongue was unable to move than to sing the songs of empire disguised as worship and praise songs.

And so, I would rather leave the captive church than stay and sing its songs to Caesar. I would rather leave the captive church than hurt my very own flesh in my neighbor. I would rather leave the captive church than teach my children to forget who they truly are and how they should be in the world.

A Lamentation

How long, Lord

Will we have to see
Asian women killed in their workplace
Black Christians gunned down at Bible study
Black men and women murdered at the hands of bad cops
“Good cops”, police unions, politicians, and regular citizens covering for those bad cops
Children hiding in terror at an approaching gunman
Those same children dying in terror
Matthew Shepard beaten, killed, and tied to a fence
Emmett Till’s lynched body in a coffin

How long, Lord

We are tired
Tired of a system that values whiteness over humanness
Tired of politicians who inflame hatred to get votes
Tired of inhumanity directed at people fleeing violence and poverty
Tired of Black lives not mattering
Tired of Asian lives not mattering
Tired of Latino lives not mattering
Tired of Muslim lives not mattering
Tired of Native lives not mattering
You see where this is going?

How long, Lord

We wonder if you can hear us
We wonder if you are too weak to fix things
We wonder if you care
We wonder if you are even there

How long, Lord

On days like today, where hope is hiding, all we have is our fears
Our fist-shaking anger
Our pain
Our worry
Our sadness
Our tears that won’t stop falling

How long, Lord, until you make yourself visible?