Living Lent Free

ash_nocrossThis is my first year without Lent. For years it was a time for reflection and focus on my spiritual self and to seek out a better union with God. I have fasted, prayed, and read the Bible. I have attended liturgies and fully invested myself in both the Western and Eastern calendars and cycles within the broader Christian community. But not this year.

Lent is not happening not because I have resentments toward religion, God, or Christianity or the people who worship there. It isn’t happening because I have chosen a way to find health and happiness apart from God and it is working. In short, I can’t sit in a pew this year and pretend as if God matters, because God does not. I am approaching a significant marker in my life. In March I will have lived one year without God. As I approach that marker, I will say more. But for now suffice it to say that engaging in a Lent practice where God is not at all part of the picture feels strange to me and lacks integrity. I can’t be authentic and do Lent which is the exact opposite of what Lent is supposed to do.

Other than confiding in a few people about my shift in beliefs, or lack thereof, I had this consistent feeling of guilt and even shame that I was “giving up on God.” That’s not what happened. I did not “give up on God.” What happened is that I decided to stop pretending. There is nothing “wrong with me.” To the contrary. The truth is that I lost faith a very long time ago, but I refused to let go. That refusal is the problem.

I held on for two reasons, both of which are not very healthy. 1) To let go of God means I am letting someone down. I need to have faith because other people expect me to. So therefore I have to believe. 2) Letting go of God means that all of my very hard work to understand my faith is a complete waste and a disappointment. The root of both of these problems has nothing to do with God, but has everything to do with my imagined status before others and a fear of losing them. Doing anything as a response of fear of rejection is a bad way to have a healthy relationship with anyone or anything. I decided a few years ago to move past fear-based thinking and find a better way to live. As I have become less afraid, God has become less important. That is something significant. I decided in March of 2015 to stop ignoring it and accept it for what it was. I needed to let go of the God idea even on a trial basis just to see what would happen. So I did.

What I miss about Lent is the experience of a community seeking the same or at least a similar thing. The rhythms and experiences of a religious community that were so central to my life for many years feel strange not being there. This is punctuated by the various practices friends from my previous religious communities are sharing all over social media this season. Synchronizing yourself in time and space with other people especially in the visceral experience of seeking a higher order and purpose for living is incredibly powerful and rewarding. I love the honesty that Lent is supposed to engender. It is a foundation of practices that one should engage in every day of the year. In many ways Lent is a great reset button for the year. In Orthodoxy, the first Monday of Lent is called Clean Monday for that purpose. The Greeks will clean the house and fly kites to celebrate the journey to personal purity and reconciliation. It’s a beautiful practice.

But this year there is no special calendar marker for this year. Today is Tuesday, it’s freeing rain, my dog refused to poop as we got soaked and cold, and I came to work this morning. I will run on a treadmill later to get in my workout, see a few friends later if the weather permits, and then go home. I will catch up on Scandal with a bowl of popcorn, read, and go to sleep. Then Wednesday will arrive. I am finding my own rhythm now. While part of this journey into authenticity has been a sense of loss, I have gained so much more. Today, I am happier and healthier than I think I ever was when God was such an important focus in my life. I am more in tune with the world and with what is going on inside of me in relation to it. I am more honest and less afraid. If living without God was something of an experiment, it is working for me.

Jindal’s Chronic Islamophobia and Christian Hypocricy

“In other words, we shouldn’t tolerate those who wanna come and try to impose some variant or some version of Sharia law.”

via Megyn Presses Jindal on Suggestion to Ban Radical Islamists from U.S..

The sheer ignorance and myopia of Jindal in this clip is nearly baffling. His message is basically that there are Islamist immigrants who want to treat women as second class citizens, undermine the freedoms of others, and who will weaken American by not believing in American exceptionalism.

“There are Muslims that wanna treat women as second class citizens.”

“There are those who wanna use our freedoms to undermine the freedoms of others.”

“We believe in religious liberty but that doesn’t mean that you can use your freedoms to undermine the freedoms of other people.”

Jindal like so many in the GOP ranks will make statements like these without calling out Christians who do exactly the same thing on a much wider scale than American Muslims. Jindal delivered the commencement speech at Liberty University in May of 2014 where he spoke about his conversion experience, the current “war on religion” perpetrated by the “left,” and his support for Phil Robertson and those who defend “traditional marriage.”

The question is not about what freedoms are limited, but whose freedoms are limited and by what religious beliefs. Christianity gets a free pass on every issue – even if the kind of Christianity he endorses to speak freely is very clear in its understanding of the subordinate role of women to men and consciously and intentionally limits the ability of some Americans to exercise the same rights and freedoms as others. This is no more clear in the case of same gender marriage. It is justified to limit these freedoms as a Christian. Apparently it is not justified to do the same action in the name of Islam – even if Islam generally supports the same views regarding human freedom with respect to women and homosexuality.

This is before we even take on the fact that the way the term Shari’ah Law is casually tossed around in GOP and conservative Christian circles completely misuses and misunderstands what it actually is. It is not a process to compel the infidel to submit to Allah. Shari’ah Law is fundamentally,

“concerned with a set of values that are essential to Islam and the best manner of their protection…Faith in God, the manner of worshipping Him and observance of the five pillars of Islam thus constitute the essential concerns of Shari’ah” (Kamali, 2008, p. 2).

That its application has become overly legalistic in some Muslim communities is known and it has been an area of disagreement in Muslim communities for how Shari’ah is interpreted and applied. This is true in Sufist philosophy which has a more inward focus on one’s mystical communion with Allah as opposed to outward or legalistic displays of legal submission. It is an emphasis on Islam in which one seeks foremost, “sublime feeling of divine presence.” External legality is secondary to this aim.

The overarching Islamic principle of divine unity (tawḥīd) which requires an integrated approach to values should not simply be subsumed under the rubric of legality that focuses on the externalities of conduct often at the expense of the inner development of the human person (Kamali, 2008, p. 4).

Shari’ah is far more complex and nuanced in both its interpretation and application than perhaps Jindal and its staunchest opponents will ever acknowledge. That is beyond a shame. It is the kind of rhetoric that continues to adrenalize intolerance to the degree that even conservative pundits like Megyn Kelly are unable to it bring down to earth. Lest we think that this is limited to conservative media, liberal sources are bleeding with Islamophobia.

An exchange that we need to watch carefully and often is between CNN’s Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota who are factually incorrect and continue to adhere to their beliefs even when confronted head-on by Reza Aslan. This is precisely why we need stronger departments of religious education as the media shows us time and again that with religion, Americans are chronically and pathetically ignorant. This, not letting those who oppose American exceptionalism become citizens, is the source of American weakness.

Source: Kamali, M. H. (2008) Shari’ah law: An introduction. OneWorld: Oxford.

The Jesus Movie You Didn’t Hear About, But Should

With Son of God, Noah, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Exodus: Gods and Kings coming soon, God has been a popular source of movie material this year. Son of God has racked up over $59 million since its release. Noah is at about $98 million, while Heaven is for Real and God’s Not Dead are hanging around $55 million.

What do all of these movies have in common?

White people.

The history of Jesus in recent film is very white. From Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, Scorsese’s the Last Temptation of Christ, Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ, and Son of God, Jesus is a white guy every time. Gibson’s film makes Jesus only seem Middle Eastern because Jim Caviezel, wore a prosthetic nose and his eyes were digitally enhanced to appear brown. Gibson essentially put Caviezel in black face to play Jesus. I’ll give Son of God a little credit since Diogo Morgado is Portuguese. At least we are headed in the right direction.

But no matter what, America still likes a good, white Jesus.

The movie you probably did not hear about was filmed in Jordan and Bulgaria, by a Palestinian director, with a Jordanian cast, and written in Arabic. It was based on the Gospel of Luke and premiered in Turkey. Not a single white person is in the movie – not even the Romans.

There’s one hang-up – there are Muslims who play many of the roles in the film. Of the many marketing reasons including the language issue, the fact that Muslims are even in the movie isn’t exactly a big selling point for a US Christian audience.

For the brave souls who can tolerate a brown Jesus surrounded by brown people from the same region in which the biblical narratives took place, the film is called The Savior and you might want to see it.

Many Christians berate all of the white Jesus images not only because Jesus was not a white guy, but that they over-emphasize the dominance of white culture and power in the world. I understand this sentiment and support it. I support it not only from the perspective of Biblical scholarship, but from the perspective of what I know about the culture and dynamics in a Middle Eastern, multi-cultural context.

So here is the preview to Savior. Want a Jesus movie more true to form? Get this one, share it, and crowd out the loud power trip of white Jesus. Prosthetic nose not included.

Being Christian after Religion

“Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”

Those in programs of recovery from drugs and alcohol have no doubt heard this expression. For a while I thought I was alone in thinking that it was dreck. Now I know I’m not.

Religion is more than seeking a spiritual experience – it is a way to structure life around the search for deeper connections to the world, to each other, and to a sacred reality. With the vast options for religious structure in the world, spirituality without a religious structure doesn’t own the market on coming out of hellish and torturous experience.

Archbishop Rowan Williams made a not-too-startling admission that Britain has become “post-Christian.” The facts seem to support his claim:

  • 56% consider Britain Christian where the remainder either consider it non-religious or are not sure.
  • 38% of those who consider themselves Christian do not practice regularly.
  • More Christians feel threatened to talk publicly about their beliefs.

None of this is all of that new. Steve Bruce (2002) argued this trend and its implications:

“Our critics might gloss our work as predicting the imminent disappearance of religion, but this is not our view. Our case can be summarized as saying that religion diminishes in social significance, becomes increasingly privatized, and losses personal social salience except where it finds work to do other than relating individuals to the supernatural” (p. 30).

Similarly Grace Davie (2002) argues that while Europe is seeing a decline not only in the practice of Christianity but in religion in general, this is an exceptional case when compared to the United States, Latin America, Africa, and the Far East.

“In short, many Europeans have ceased to connect with their religious institutions in any active sense, but they have not abandoned, so far, either their deep-seated religious aspirations or (in many cases) a latent sense of belonging” (p. 8).

While the condition of these “deep-seated religious aspirations” seems to be failing in health, the personal connection of religious belief to institutions also looks unhealthy not only in Britain and Europe, but also in the US. What remains is the desire for connection to a sense of belonging and meaning.

However, maybe Bruce is wrong. Maybe there is another salience to religion other than a connection to the supernatural. David Putnam (2000) argued that while our social connections have lost value, they are still vital to a happy and good-natured society. It’s more likely that the value of these connections is something we continue hold dearly, but we no longer know where to find it. If so, existing networks can, and should, be reconfigured to create space to recoup the value of social connections. Religion is one structure that can continue to provide a function to cultivate the value of deep connections to each other, the world, and deeper meaning.

As Christina Patterson from the Guardian writes:

“There is a place to go when we don’t have the words. There’s a calm, quiet peaceful place where someone else will supply the words when your heart is too full and your mind is too weary to come up with words of your own. There’s a place that will give us the solace of ritual. Human beings have always needed ritual. And the rituals we’ve developed in our still-quite-Christian country are on offer to everyone, and make almost no demands.”

There is a value to social connections, ways to structure our beliefs, and space to explore deeper questions about life without fear or threat. Much of religion today may over-value an intentional lack of structure. But what people seem to need most is a safe place to structure their experience of being together.

—————————-

Sources

Bruce, S. (2002). God is dead: Secularization in the west. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers.

Davie, G. (2002). Europe: The exceptional case : Parameters of faith in the modern world. London: Darton Longman & Todd.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Palin Pisses on Baptism

“Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:4

Suggesting or pronouncing that baptism is a form of torture sounds absurd at best and down right heretical from most theological positions among Christians. In fact, I am not sure if it has been said in the modern age.

Sarah Palin has now used baptism as a metaphor for torture amidst cheers at a recent NRA rally.

Let’s give her some slack; she was trying to make a joke. We all make bad jokes. If this came out of the mouth of Bill Maher, Louis Black, or Louis C.K. we might be offended, but expect to be offended since these are comedians. The difference is that she made this leap not as a comedian, and at an NRA rally. She engaged the audience and they lapped it up like parched dogs. I give her credit for that. But she also revealed utter theological ignorance and an ironic lack of conviction for her faith.

I haven’t spoken to or heard from any Christian who thought she was clever or amusing. The reaction has been quite the opposite. Pundits all over the map are registering really bad reviews for her near sadistic rant.

Here’s the snippet of what she said:

“They obviously have information on plots to carry out Jihad,” she said at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting on Saturday evening, referring to prisoners. “Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

This statement should alienate her from any Christian who takes sacraments seriously. Baptism is perhaps the most universally revered of the holy mysteries of Christianity as it marks the initiation of one’s life with God and the Christian community.

Baptism was certainly important in her own religious upbringing. Ms. Palin became a Christian as a member of the The First Assembly of God in Wasilla, AK. The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination of Christianity, believes that one is baptized after the initiate declares a pronouncement of faith in Jesus Christ, and encourages a Baptism in the Holy Spirit, a sign of which is speaking in tongues.

Ms. Palin has never been shy about her faith, offering often loud and convicted statements. Baptism played an important role in her own life as told in Charisma Magazine in 2009.

“It was so cool growing up in this church and getting saved here, getting baptized by Pastor Riley … my whole family getting baptized,” she told the congregation, just two months before her vice presidential nomination.

With these pronouncements, her language at the NRA rally takes a rhetoric of fear, violence, and hatred up many notches. Her faith preached from the pulpit of the gun is now scarcely recognizable from what it may have been.

Here is another comparison. The above image is an infamous photograph called Piss Christ (1987) taken by Andres Serrano. Here a Crucifix is submerged into a beautifully colored container of urine. Lovely. This work of art drew the ire of many, but the loudest voice was from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the United States; a conservative Catholic organization. The Crucifix Serrano used in the photo is distinctly Roman Catholic.

“I would argue that ethics should dictate that you don’t go around gratuitously and intentionally insulting people of faith,” (Bill) Donohue told the Guardian. “I don’t care whether you’re Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or whatever you might be.”

Whether it’s pissing on a Crucifix or telling us that a method of torture is like being baptized, Christianity was just mocked by one of its supposed champions.

White Christians Say “Redskin” Shouldn’t Offend Indians

Flipping through radio stations this afternoon I landed on a Christian station. Within a minute I heard such an absurdly offensive assertion that even the callers were confused.

On Way, Truth, Life Radio (WTRL) 89.9 in State College, PA the evening begins with “In the Market with Janet Parshall.” This program is produced by Moody Radio which gets us to the core of American Fundamentalism. What is the purpose of Moody Radio?

Moody Radio promises to provide programming filled with solid biblical insight and creative expressions of faith that help you take the next step in your personal relationship with Christ.

This isn’t just about programming radio for your listening pleasure; this is about converting people to their distinctive understanding of Jesus Christ. I didn’t even know that it was a Christian station until I heard a little spot from Ken Ham who is the brain trust behind the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky. His little bit was about how dragons were real and that they were in fact dinosaurs.

The assertion that Janet and guest Craig Parshall made went something like this:

  • Football teams market their brand based on success.
  • Invoking a racial slur is not a good business decision if you want to have a successful image.
  • Therefore, “Redskins” is not a racial slur.

The hosts went on to say that the debate over the mascot of Redskin is a fabrication of political correctness. “Where do we go with this? Where does it end?” they said. A 49er is a dirty gold digger. A Buccaneer is a nasty pirate. So what about them?

What I heard was: Well everyone else is doing it so why can’t they?

I wouldn’t dare teach my 8 and 6-year-old boys that such an ethic is responsible. I teach him to be principled no matter what others are doing or saying. That is just what virtuous people do from Socrates to Confucius.

The image of the Indian our Radio hosts conjured follows a white myth of the Indian. He is an emotionless, brave, and fearless warrior. The Indian is more of a mystical deity than a human being. This was a popular image in film before the Great Depression.

As I learned in a recent presentation, viewing, and discussion about the film Reel Injun, that mythic imagery was blown up by one movie – John Wayne’s persona in Stagecoach. From that point through several decades, the American Native was seen as savage, mindless, aggressive, unethical, and closer to animal than man. The women were sexualized and became sources of masculine pleasure. The American Indian became the race that could uphold white dominance all the way through to the Civil Rights era.

This is significant. Either the mascot for the Redskins was an intentional slur drawing on the image of the savage native, or it was that false idealization of the native as someone less than human. No matter what, the image of the Indian changed. Even if the image of the Redskin may have once been an image of dignity, it most assuredly has not been this way for a very long time.

Ethics 101: Just because something is so, therefore does not imply that it ought to be so.

In my mind that was where the academic assertion fell apart. I thought it was absurd, short-sighted, and a clear ploy to get me all frustrated. It worked because I kept listening.

A self-identified Choctaw called in. He said in no uncertain terms that Redskin is an offensive term and has been for quite some time. It did not make sense to him why his people were not given the same protection as other minorities. Why couldn’t his people tell us why a term used to give them an identity? Why couldn’t they dictate their own racial identity? To me, that seemed like a very reasonable question.

Rather than address the question, they dictated to this Choctaw why he should not be offended by the term “Redskin.”

Let me put this in sharper terms to highlight the offensive nature of this statement and the assertions made by the Parshalls – two privileged white people talking on a self-identified Christian program.

  • Faggot should not be offensive since it can mean a bundle of wood or even a cigarette.
  • Nigger just means the color black.
  • WOP is just an acronym for someone without papers, basically an illegal immigrant.
  • Kike is really a term that points to the anti-Christian sentiment of immigrant Jews.

If you were offended by any of that, good. You should be. I should be and am. The conservative diatribe that I heard is what I have been hearing for the entirety of this year with regard to racial slurs: It’s 2013 people, lighten up.

It does not matter what year it is. It does not matter how long and deep a tradition is. If we are acting with indifference and apathy to the psychological and social needs of any group of people, we are ceasing to protect the pursuit of happiness that defines an American citizen.

Theirs is not a position against political correctness, whatever that may mean.

It is a bold-faced dismissal of people of color.

Church: I Know How You Will Die

GravestonesCongratulations on the new organ. I think it is wonderful that you have an old building with lots of history. You have a legacy and have had a physical fixture in town for a century. These are important parts of your saga and it is good to remember them. You have a long memory and a wonderful tradition as a critical member of the town.

But you are dying.

I saw the wonderful people of your community aging and holding on to that legacy as they should. They have the longest memories of your house and its tradition to pass down to the younger generations. It is they who will take their place as the elders of the community. But as I sat in your pews, I saw one young person for at least every three of your elders. A legacy cannot be passed on if there are no recipients of your memory.

Who will hear your stories to tell their children and grandchildren?

Sociologists have been telling us that church attendance is decreasing due to a simple demographic fact. If a society does not replace itself by about 2.1 persons for each generation, it will die out. Some factors that affect mainline denominations is that families produce fewer children if at all. Their evangelical counterparts do a much better job of making babies and raising them in the church.

You don’t have enough people to sustain your beautiful physical architecture. More importantly, you don’t have enough people to receive your spiritual wisdom and witness to the Good News.

If the population is unsustainable because you don’t have enough kids who have been brought up in your church, you must have more immigrants from other cities, religions, and people who are longing for something greater than themselves.

There are people all over the world yearning for a spiritual experience. There are people who want to be part of something bigger and more magical than the mundanities of life. People are isolated in jobs they are unhappy with, stressed from too much homework and after school activities, going through divorce, recovering from addictions, facing bankruptcy, and struggling immigrants literally looking for a place to call home.

Many people have this yearning totally unaware of the message that we are healed, we will be OK, and we can help each other make it through what seem to be unmanageable conditions in life. People truly do desire spiritual healing and a sense of the divine. People are seeking purpose and how to make all of life more meaningful.

Even if the media shows how nasty people can be, and they certainly can, the goodness we see from ordinary people is astounding. Running up into burning buildings, serving soup to the homeless, driving drunk and high people home to keep them safe, spending time with disabled kids or those without families are common actions by the people of this society. Deep down people want to be good and want to be part of a society that helps them to be good and helpful to others. But for those who struggle to help themselves manage their own lives, helping others seems like too much to ask.

This is where you can step in. You don’t need a new program or ministry of outreach. You don’t need brochures or fancy websites. You don’t need door-to-door proselytizing. People don’t want more marketing. We have all been conditioned to associate marketing and advertising with lying. With the American legacy of televangelists and hateful messages delivered by so-called Christians, marketing will repel those you want to invite.

These are all just facts of our society you just can’t control. You cannot change any of this.

What you can change is to be a place where people can find help and healing from the travails of life. Listen to others and talk about how you found peace and healing in the church. Give people phone numbers and then call them. Call not to invite people to church, but just to see how they are doing. Send a note or two. Not a note with a mug, brochure, newsletter, and envelope for giving. But a note to acknowledge that you saw them, remember them, and are happy they are alive.

We are naturally attracted to both charisma and to those who we feel are responding to our needs.

I write this because I entered the doors of one of your churches this morning. I came in with my two boys. I fit the role of a single dad. My kids were restless. It was a new place and they may have been intimidated. I brought them there because the service would have been familiar to them. We were immigrants. We were looking for a room, a place to stay. No one said hello to me or them. I grabbed what I thought was a bulletin and the only words spoken to me were, “That’s the church history, this is the bulletin for today.”

I pulled my boys out of the church because they were making too much noise. You watched me have a “team meeting” with them in the foyer where the greeters ironically stand. I had come through a different entrance where no greeters stood. You didn’t even hold the door open for me as much as hold it so it did not make noise when it shut. I came back in and my boys started laughing before getting restless and cranky again. Quite a ruckus. You looked at me a couple of times and smiled. I was starting to get frustrated and realized I could not control the situation. I left the building with them. I may never come back.

The irony is that you were celebrating your 100th anniversary and rededication of the building. You shared a story or two of the church’s early days in 1913 and used the same order of worship from back then. Nicely done.

But you missed the point. I am not sure if you talked about looking forward at all because out of necessity, I missed most of what you had to say.

I am writing this to tell you that the future was in my arms. Those two restless boys are all you have left if you want another 100 years of life.

I may never come back. If I don’t, I am taking a part of your possible future with me.

A simple “Hello, I can help you with that” would have attracted me for another week. Instead I was invisible and felt only apathy.

Perhaps what you celebrated wasn’t a 100 year anniversary

I may have witnessed the beginning of a long and drawn out funeral.