This was posted on my old blog on March of 2013. I have resisted the temptation to tone down the sentiments expressed here.
Right around the time I formally retired from the United Methodist ministry, I surprised myself. I recognized that I was still a Christian. In a way, nothing had changed. Yet, somehow it had.
And, that’s how it still is. I still hunger for worship. I still interpret life by reference to the Bible and the historic beliefs of Christians. I still want to lead others to Christ. I still want to pray. I still love to preach. I still wish I could teach the Bible.
It’s all pretty weird in a way.
Things went bad in the last full time parish I served in the United Methodist Church. The issue had to do with my wife and my family. If it had had to do with me and my conduct of ministry that would have been bearable — but, the attack centered on my wife and family. And the Bishop of the Michigan Area of the United Methodist Church sided with the church against my wife and family.
I don’t know how I could have experienced a deeper betrayal. For years I had said both publicly and privately: if I had to choose between my family and the church I could never choose the church. But, the church I served asked me to do that. I could forgive them. I believed that there had been some malicious gossip that had been spread. But, the man who was called “Bishop” told me to do that. I could not do it — nor could I retain even the slightest sense of respect for him. I had served for over 30 years in the United Methodist Church, but now I came to a new revelation of what this denomination was.
I requested a part-time appointment until a full time appointment could be made in the summer. My colleagues must have thought the Cabinet was “punishing” me by sending me to a part-time three point charge. People talk, I know. But, that wasn’t it at all. It was my choice. I was escaping from the stress of serving a church my wife would no longer attend — and where there was a deep and unresolvable misunderstanding.
Knowing what I know now I would not have done that — I would have stuck it out where I was. But, the stress of that would have taken a toll on both Robin and me. So, maybe it’s just as well I didn’t.
And, besides, I enjoyed serving those three little churches. I got away from the stress. I was able to do the things I felt called to do: to preach, to teach, to support people in their faith journey. I was there for 7 months. And, it was a time of peace. I am so grateful for that.
But, in times of quiet — even sometimes during my morning devotions — the following line of thought occurred to me: If the Church is the living presence of Christ in the world, doesn’t the Church’s widespread failure to live out a life of love and faithfulness disprove all of the claims of Christ? Put simply: if the Church is the living witness of the truthfulness of Christ’s claims, then haven’t those claims been dis-proven?
Let’s be honest: the church burns people out. It uses people up. Its prayer chains subtly turn into gossip chains. It’s life together is infected with judgementalism. Instead of sharing God’s love with the world, it, all too often, tries to keep the knowledge and love of God to itself.
It’s leaders are too often corrupt: authoritarian, secretive, and self-justifying. They usually don’t finally fall until their lives get so out of control it becomes a scandal. And, maybe the church is at fault for putting them in such positions of power and influence in the first place.
It’s teachings are often exclusivistic and self-serving: Jesus thinks we are special — and, to Hell with the rest of the world. Yeah, literally.
It occurred to me more than once in the last full time appointment I served in the United Methodist Church, that it might be the Church itself which is standing in the way of God’s love and justice impacting the world. Too much energy, time and money has to be committed to simply keeping the old ship afloat! And, as the ship starts taking in water — or as someone even fears that it might! — more attention turns to internal maintenance worries. We don’t have time to make the world a better place. We’re too busy keeping the Church going.
I sometimes sense a certain agreement even with the New Atheists (hmm, are they still “new’ now that one of them is dead?). Yes, I’m offended by some of the things Harris and Dawkins and Hitchens say (as I am supposed to be) — but, really, I feel I have a lot of common ground with them. The most withering critique of religion you can find anywhere is right there in the Bible itself! The prophets speak out against religion. Jesus’ main conflict was with the religious leaders of his day. (And, how Karl Rahner ever got the idea that the grace of God could be mediated through the various world religions, I’ll never know. Can it be mediated through any religion?) So, when the New Atheists rant against religion I don’t get entirely defensive — not at all. They are largely right! And, I think Daniel Dennett’s proposal to study religion from a scientific point of view is both helpful and appropriate.
But, in the last analysis, atheism is simply a denial. It doesn’t go anywhere — certainly not anywhere good. The history of atheism is tainted with atrocities. And, the New Atheism itself is intolerant, close-minded, reductionistic and hopelessly tied to modernistic foundationalist thought forms. I can see how a person might be driven to this. But, I don’t see it as something one can exactly embrace.
And, deep within me is the belief in a Power of love and justice. I believe that love and justice are not illusions. They are backed up by the very Power that lies behind the creation and maintenance of the world. Yes, I am subject to depression — as many people are. But, my despair can only go so far. At bottom, I know there is some trustable Power of goodness and right, that values our lives and strives to bring hope out of hopelessness. And, as human beings who can reflect on the universe and ponder its meaning, we are no accidents. We are somehow meant to be here.
I still believe Christ is the name through which I come to understand God’s working in the world. I still find the Christian Bible the inspired witness to God’s working in the world — yes, the Bible, in all its wonderful and sometimes maddening complexity.
I’m embarrassed by most of popular theology. I’m repelled by the new Calvinism (and the old Calvinism). Many of the currently popular Church leaders are an embarrassment. I wonder where the church is going. And, Church history doesn’t give me a lot of hope that we’ll find the wisdom we need. There are days I wish I could wash my hands of the whole Christian Church. Really. But, apparently I can’t.
Make no mistake about it. The Church will chew you up and spit you out and then forget your name.
But, still… there is God. And, God has come to us in Christ.
The message of this season is a message of hope coming in the midst of despair. To lost and demoralized disciples, it says: “He is Risen!”
It’s not just an historical event in times past — it is that and it is important that it is that — it is also a message of hope in the here and now.
“Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3:1–2, NIV
It is a way of living our life. We live as resurrected people, raised to new life in Christ. And, this makes all of life precious. Our faith is not simply something for the next life (as the old song says: “The Sweet Bye and Bye”).
We live the resurrected life in the here and now.
In our lostness and darkness and death Christ meets us — alive and life-giving.
And, so for all of us who are: the confused, the screw-ups, the rejected, the betrayed, the burnt-out, the hopeless cases — the word is “He Is Risen” — and yes, in the midst of it all there is still life and hope.