Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Obama's War on Christianity

I was very proud on Pentecost Sunday. Six of the confirmands I'd taught--some of whom I'd known since they had been mere toddlers--affirmed their baptisms. The music was  joyful, the red vestments, paraments, and flowers were a delight to the eye, and the congregation seemed to be in a worshipful mood as they celebrated this feast of the Holy Spirit--the anniversary of the day when the Christian Church began.

The six young confirmands and I stood in the narthex after mass, greeting the parishioners. There were congratulations for the youths who had completed their catechetical training, and a few words of praise for their pastor.

"Beautiful service, Pastor," said Marge, a parishioner in her late '70's. "You know, we didn't have confirmation class when I was little. It was all marching and 'Sieg Heil!'"

Marge had been born in Nazi Germany. As such, she was forced as a child to forgo religious instruction and attend mandatory meetings of the Hitler Youth. She later fell in love with an American G.I. and came to live in this country. I must say, she is one of the best and proudest Americans one could ever hope to meet.

Sometimes I think I should ask Marge what she thinks of all this talk about the Administration's "war on Christianity." My suspicion is that she would find the question absurd. After all, she had lived under a truly despotic and totalitarian government. She knows what such a thing really looks like, and I would guess she would think that our current government comes nowhere even close to waging a war on faith.

According to that font of all knowledge, WikiAnswers.com, fully three quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians. If there's a war being waged against us, it's surely a fool's crusade. The majority culture simply cannot be persecuted by the minority since the minority does not have power. I have not noticed my right to worship being abridged in any way. I preach the Gospel Sunday after Sunday, and no one has come to arrest me. I have never been denied housing, a seat at a restaurant, or my right to vote because of my Christian faith. Furthermore, in spite of some egregious and downright evil misconduct on the part of some of my fellow clerics, I am generally treated with considerable respect when I appear in public in my clerical attire. If our government is persecuting Christians, no one in Northeast Philadelphia seems to have received the memo!

As an American, I am proud of my country's separation of Church and State. I do not want public employees teaching children to pray any more than I want theologians creating tax policies or directing the military. It is the role and duty of the religious community to encourage moral, just, and compassionate behavior to our citizens, and the responsibility of government to protect the rights of  people to practice their faiths.

Yes, I am a bit concerned about the clause in the Affordable Care Act which would require some religious organizations to cover birth control for employees (although I have nothing against birth control, myself). This may, indeed, be in conflict with the Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, it is a very far cry from a pogrom or a war on religion. The politicians who stir up trouble by asserting that the current administration is trampling on the religious liberties of our citizens would do well to visit Saudi Arabia, where the practice of Christianity is punishable by public beating. Christians have been persecuted, jailed, beaten and killed for their faith in countries all over the Muslim world. Christianity is still illegal in North Korea, and heavily regulated by the government of China. Even in the Holy Land Christians have been so marginalized that many are choosing to emigrate to other nations--leaving Christianity's holiest sites to the care of non-Christians.

We in the U.S. really need to get over ourselves and stop talking nonsense. The inflammatory rhetoric of some of our politicians is not only ridiculously exaggerated, but is openly disrespectful to the millions of our fellow Christians around the globe who genuinely are being persecuted for their beliefs.

So suck it up, people! No one is burning Bibles in America. Overly sensitive or overzealous readings of the First Amendment will not spell the end of the Christian faith on these shores. Stop this juvenile sniveling, and get back to the real purpose of the Church--to proclaim through loving word and actions the Kingdom of God.

That's my rant for this week. Let me know what you think--and God bless you for taking the time to read this.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"The Kingdom of God Has Come Near" (Thoughts on Epiphany 3)

What could make someone quit his or her job? Especially now, when unemployment is so high and money is so scarce?

Last night --yes, I'll admit it--I was watching that gargantuan of all TV talent competitions American Idol, and I was struck by the story of one contestant, a young husband with his first child on the way, who actually quit his secure job in order to pursue his dream of being a professional entertainer. I certainly wish this boy well--after all, he seemed like a nice enough kid--but I'm amazed by the strength of the vision and belief which would inspire him to give up security for himself and his family and embark on a very risky and uncertain career. I thought to myself, This young man must love his music a LOT!

Today as I look at the Revised Common Lectionary for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, I am again struck by the same courage--or foolishness--which inspired Peter and Andrew and James and John to leave their settled lives, families, and careers and follow an itinerant rabbi from another village into God knows what future.

The story itself, on the surface, seems unbelievable. I mean, I can't see myself going to the Philadelphia Building Trades union hall which is in the process of renovation next door to my church and telling the workers, "Follow me, and I will make you builders for the Kingdom of God!" They'd probably laugh and then tell me to get the you-know-what away from them so they could finish their work. In order to drop everything and embark on a new adventure as Mark's gospel says the fisherman did, one would have to be extremely desperate or extremely inspired or both.

So what was it about Jesus and his message that was so transformational? I suspect that times being what they were, there was most likely a bit of desperation in the lives of these men. They were feeling a longing for change, but had no idea what kind of change to make. Perhaps they never dreamed any change was really possible, and had fallen into despair--a condition which Luther called a "great and shameful" sin.

But what did Jesus tell them?

"The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15)

For our post-modern theology, it might be a good idea to think about what is meant by the "Kingdom of God.' I, for one, do not see the Kingdom as some distant paradise waiting beyond death. Jesus said, "The time is fulfilled," that is, the moment is NOW. The God who IS creation, who IS love, who IS existence is active in this very moment. As the old hymn says, "This IS my Father's world." There is nothing more for which we need wait. The miracle of life and consciousness itself has not ceased to be a miracle. We have not been abandoned. God has not ceased to be with and in us, nor has God ceased to be good simply because we have refused to look beyond our own circumstances. God's moment is always NOW.

So what do we do? We take today and NOW as a moment of repentance. And what is repentance but the constant challenging of our own assumptions. It's the call to change our minds. Whatever it is that you're thinking, can you think it in a different way? Our selfish, sinful nature loves to tell us lies to keep us from being hurt--or so we think. We're full of "I can'ts" or "if onlys." A life of repentance challenges us to challenge ourselves. Is there a new way in which I can see my abilities? My purpose? My relationships with others? Am I telling myself the truth?

Finally, Jesus challenges us to BELIEVE the good news. So what is that? Contextually, I would say in this passage it is the reign of God. But it is the question of belief that offers the great challenge. BELIEF comes from an Old English word which means "to desire." It's not enough to agree intellectually that something might be true. If you believe, you desire that truth. Without belief, there is no action. Without action, there is no change. Without change, there is stagnation and death.

Martin Luther wrote, "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said "Repent (Matthew 4:17)," he meant for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." (95 Theses, 1517)

Far from a command for shame and confession, Luther's words are a mandate for constant change and constant spiritual growth.

May God be with you, my friends. Thanks for taking the time to read this. Leave me a comment, and have a beautiful week!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Lutheran Shout Out to Cee Lo Green

Happy New Year, my friends!

My wife and I took it easy this past New Year's Eve. We were home by midnight, and, like many millions of other Americans, we watched the New Year's celebrations from New York's Times Square on television. A highlight of this year's broadcast for me was Cee Lo Green's interpretation of John Lennon's classic Imagine.

Imagine my surprise at discovering the very next morning that Mr. Green's rendition of this wonderful song had incensed many music fans and caused a fury of protest over a changed lyric. If you didn't catch it, Mr. Lennon's original lyrics to the second stanza read

          Imagine there's no countries;
          It isn't hard to do.
          Nothing to kill or die for,
         And no religion, too.

Mr. Green, in his New Year's Eve version, subtly altered the lyric "no religion too" to "and all religion's true." Personally, I thought the change was an improvement.

Many John Lennon fans, however, were indignant by the switched lyrics and have been burning up the internet with protest. Granted, the late Mr. Lennon has--and deservedly so, in my opinion--achieved something on the order of divine status among rock musicians and their devotees. Perhaps his fans believe that any change to his lyrics is akin to changing a sacred scriptural text--an act of blasphemy and desacration. I agree with this in principle as I'm one of those guys who gets annoyed when people screw up the words to songs I like; however, I also acknowledge that singers have commonly taken liberties with song lyrics for centuries without causing the downfall of civilization.

Now, I'm not really that familiar with Mr. Green or his work (although I will say he has a lovely singing voice), so I can't speak for his motivation in changing the song. He has since tweeted that he was attempting to promote a vison of a world in which all people could believe what they wanted. If his conscience did not permit him to sing the praises of a world void of religion, than I applaud his choice. As the founder of my own denomination, Dr. Martin Luther, so aptly put it, "...it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience." (Diet of Worms, 1521)

Imagine a world without religion. Would we really want a world in which there was no curiosity about ultimate meaning? A world with no quest for ethical behavior based on ultimate meaning? Such a world would have no humbling sense of mystery. There would be no unifying mythology or communal practices. Perhaps there would be no sense of altruism. No abolitionist movement. No civil rights movement. Would you really prefer a world without the music and art inspired by spiritual commitment? No J. S. Bach? No Michaelangelo?

Yes, I know the history of humanity is scarred by relgious abuse. Mr. Green's alternative lyric begs the question: Are all religions true? Certainly there are aspects of religion in history which cannot be validated. Decency demands that no stamp of approval can be placed on sectarian violence, warfare, and terrorism. Human sacrifices and burning crosses are repulsive to any moral person. Nor can we countenance political oppression in the name of faith, and we must acknowledge that an awful lot of pure sham has been built over the foundations of ligitimate spiritual pilgrimage.

But, being a Lutheran, I feel compelled to give Mr. Green the benefit of the doubt (See Luther's explanation to the Eighth Commandment in The Small Catechism). I suspect that he may knowingly or unknowingly be an adherent of the late Joseph Campbell, the Sarah Lawrence professor of mythology and comparative religions, whose great contribution to contemporary thought was his determination to find the similarities among all religions. When one reads Campbell, one can't help but think that all unifying mythologies are an attempt to come to terms with mortality, to seek a harmonious relationship with eternal things, and discover an authentic and ethical way to relate to the world and our fellow humans. And there is something very real, pure, and true about that.

So Happy New Year, Mr. Green! You have corrected the only blemish in an otherwise perfect piece of music.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Let me know what you think, will you?

(Oh! and, by the way, if you aren't familiar with Joseph Campbell, you really should click on the link above and learn more about him. His work will strengthen your own faith, whatever it may be.)