Saturday, June 28, 2008

Church and State in Tension

The 4th of July holiday is coming up, and many churches are getting very elaborate in their celebrations. These celebrations unfortunately do not include acknowledgement that my wife, Jessica, was born on this day, but I digress...

Many churches are choosing to hold special worship services celebrating America's Independence Day. Some are even advertising these "Patriotic Services" in hopes of attracting those who feel strong national loyalties but don't often attend church.

A fellow Methodist pastor recently talked about putting together a Patriotic Service on his blog and he said that some people had objected to including the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the service. He argued that saying the pledge was acceptable for Christians because loyalty to one's country does not negate one's commitment to Christ.

I agree with his sentiment, but I don't think it's a good reason to include the pledge as part of the worship service. Clearly national loyalties and confessional loyalties are not mutually exclusive from one another, as we can see from the many faithful Christians who serve as members of the armed services. But just because these loyalties are not mutually exclusive does not mean that they never conflict with one another.

Such generalized discussion, however, doesn't really address the issue of including the pledge as part of a worship service. For the record, I don't think the Pledge of Allegiance, or any other national oath, should be part of a Christian worship service. I don't even think national flags should be present in sanctuaries or other worship spaces. 

A worship service is supposed to help us grow in our adoration and praise of God, and anything that distracts from that central goal should probably be left out. A pledge of loyalty to a nation, a national flag, or other symbols of human kingdoms might be nice ways to pay tribute to the nation, particularly a nation like the United States where we have the freedom to worship as we see fit. But would including those elements distract some of the people attending the service and confuse them as to what loyalties and values are being extolled in the time of worship? Does saying the Pledge of Allegiance or having a flag in the sanctuary help us to love God more? Does seeing the Stars and Stripes and singing "America the Beautiful" increase our devotion to Jesus Christ? 

No, they don't. So they should be left out. 

Let's have those things in the 4th of July Parade and the fireworks display. That way we can celebrate how great America is without accidentally implying that our loyalty to our country should be even remotely equal to our loyalty to Christ.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Waking Up to the Reality of Pluralism

A recent article in Time Magazine points out something that people of my generation have known for quite some time: the fact of greater diversity in American society has had a tremendous effect on people's theological views. 

According to a new survey from the Pew Research Forum, 70% of people (and even 57% of Evangelical Christians) agreed with the idea that "multiple religions can lead to eternal life". The basic reason for this, according to both the Pew Forum and nearly every single person I talk to about these issues, is that once you meet someone of a different religious tradition and begin to understand that they are basically a good, moral person and not that different from you, it becomes much harder to believe that they are headed to Hell simply because of a different confession of faith.

It's been interesting to watch reactions to this survey over the last few days. The nearly universal reaction in Evangelical circles is that the survey should make us take a very hard look at the status of evangelism in the church. And on this point I'll agree with them, but probably for very different reasons.

Most churches don't address the subject of other religions in a substantive way. Many of them that do tackle the subject do so to promote Christianity via negativa. That is, they try to prove that what they believe is true by attempting to show every flaw in the other system of belief. We see this in the political arena in pundits like Bill O'Riley, who would rather make their opponents look stupid than argue the merits of their own positions.

If the issue of religions pluralism is raised at all, it's usually for the purpose of evangelism. Once we've sufficiently (we think) debunked other "false" religious traditions, we go in for the kill and ask people to accept Christ by praying a quick prayer that magically ensures their eternal salvation, keeping them from burning in Hell with the infidels. In this mode of evangelism, Jesus is reduced to a "get out of Hell" free card in a cosmic game of Monopoly.

These approaches to other religions and evangelism work just fine when you live in a place where everyone is just like you and you rarely, if ever, need worry about actually interacting with that awful, scary "other". My dad grew up in a small town where this was the case. One of the biggest scandals when he was growing up was when one of his Baptist friends started dating a Catholic girl. He never met a Jewish person until he was in college, let alone a Muslim or a Hindu, so it was easy to see these "others" as godless heathens marching straight toward the lake of fire.

So maybe what the Pew Forum shows us is that building up your own religion by tearing down another is the act of a bully, just like kids on a playground. If there's no other reason to be a Christian than not going to Hell, then Christianity is a religion based more on the fear of God than the love of God. 

The Kingdom that Jesus preached about was one where no one need fear exclusion based on any criteria, confessional or otherwise. What if the evangelistic programs our churches engaged in were based less on "I'm in, you're out" fear mongering and more on the radical good news that says, "congratulations, you're in. Now live like it!"?

Just a thought...

Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Big Announcement...

Jessica and I are pregnant!

Well, technically it's just her that's pregnant, but you know what I mean.

We're about ten weeks along now and glad that we don't have to keep it a secret anymore. Jessica has a full report posted at our joint blog, The Parsonage Family, which you should read because she answers all the FAQs.

My brother, Andrew, who's a bit of a degenerate gambler, has set up an online poll where you can predict the gender of our baby. You can vote here, but if you're using the link from my blog you'd better vote for a boy!

Also, here's a picture from our first ultrasound earlier this week:

We'll post more info and pictures as we get them!

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Space Between

We just wrapped up the latest meeting of the Annual Conference here in Tennessee, and the clergy and lay delegates have returned to their respective congregations. I don't know anyone who will tell you that they find Conference to be fun (without a heavy dose of sarcasm), but we'll all agree that the business of the Conference is important. Some might even say they find it enjoyable. I had a genuinely good experience at AC this year because it was an opportunity to reconnect with friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in months, or in one case, nearly ten years. Reports on the church finances, setting of apportionments, learning about the different ministries of the Conference, and the Service of Ordination (in which I hope to participate next year) are all important, of course, but maybe the best reason for us to have Annual Conference is those times in between business sessions where we get to hang out with one another.

Conferencing is a major part of our Wesleyan heritage. John Wesley  even put "Holy Conferencing" up there with scripture study and regular practice of the Eucharist on his list of important spiritual disciplines he called "means of grace". In contrast to his Calvinist friends, Wesley saw the church as more than a mere "gathering of the elect", but an absolute necessity in the life of a follower of Jesus because we are much stronger when we work together than we ever could be on our own.

So perhaps the most important reason to spend hours on end sitting in pews with 1,200 others voting on apportionments and authorizing committee actions is not so much the business at hand but the space between those meetings that are left open for us to connect with one another and tend to relationships that we are often otherwise too busy to enjoy. 

Maybe this is even something that is really important about our churches, even if we often forget it. Perhaps the most important thing we do at church is not committee meetings or Bible studies or even weekly worship (although all those things are crucial), but the spaces between these things where we sit down with a cup of coffee or with covered dishes (something Methodists are famous for) and share the joys and sorrows of our lives together. Maybe its that space for relationships that truly bond us together and one family in Christ.

To borrow a phrase from one of my mentors, it's something to ponder.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Obama and his church

We found out this weekend that Barack Obama has resigned his long time membership at Trinity UCC in Chicago after his affiliation with the congregation has caused him one too many political headaches. It’s a sad ending to what from the beginning has been a very sad and unfortunate story.

Before I go on, a disclaimer is in order. I am no expert in the Black Church. I’m a white, suburban male who has not spent a significant amount of time worshipping in the Black Church (a term which is itself far too generalized). While I don’t have much firsthand experience in these issues, I have a number of friends, colleagues, and teachers who do. I was very fortunate to have friends and professors in seminary who were raised in and are active in the Black Church and can talk about these issues on intellectual, spiritual, and emotional levels. My view on the whole situation with Obama and Rev. Wright is largely formed by what I have learned from them, so take my views for what they’re worth.

I first heard of Jeremiah Wright several years ago when I heard audio of some of his sermons in a preaching class. Of the half dozen or so sermons I heard in their entirety (and many other short clips), I’d say 90% of the time he wasn’t yelling the way we’ve seen in those sound-bites that have been ripped out of context and run in endless loops on cable news channels. Rev. Wright actually has a very rhythmic, mesmerizing speaking style that almost makes you forget how good of a biblical and theological scholar he is. He puts forth a tremendous amount of substance in a very attractive speaking style.

That being said, he does yell and speak off the cuff in the heat of the moment, as do many African American preachers. And as happens sometimes when preachers go off script, he says things that, in retrospect, he wishes he might not have said. No one who preaches regularly, myself included, wouldn’t take back some of their impromptu comments if given the chance.

But even more important than the realities of the occasional gaffes that are part of public speaking is the tradition of prophetic speech in the Black Church. From what I’ve read and what I’ve been told by friends and teachers, the church occupies a very different place in African American culture than it does in the Caucasian culture in which I was raised. The difference is chiefly in terms of empowerment. White, educated, reasonably affluent people have a plethora of venues in which we feel safe to express our hopes, dreams, frustrations, and general opinions. We’re on top socially and economically, so we have the tremendous privilege of being heard whenever and wherever we want. As the great philosopher Homer Simpson said, “I’m a white male aged 18 to 45. Everyone cares what I think!”

This is largely not the case in the African American community. In the average white church you can find business leaders, civic leaders, and other people with tremendous influence in society at large. In the Black Church there is a tremendous sense of disenfranchisement, and the church is one of the few places where African Americans feel truly free to voice the frustration and anger that comes from this sense. As the spokesperson for the community, the preacher has the opportunity (some would even say the obligation) to give voice to these frustrations. So when Jeremiah Wright or another African American preacher yells about oppression they are not just giving voice to their feelings, but to those of their whole congregation. Is it any wonder that the congregation roars back? It’s cathartic!

So it’s simultaneously unfortunately and unsurprising that the media has jumped all over the whole Jeremiah Wright story. Some say that it’s indicative of the latent racism in America’s white majority culture. I think that’s true insofar as it demonstrates our willful ignorance of how important the church is as an institution in African American culture. But the main reason the story has been so big is simply the reality of a 24 hour media culture. Broadcast media is big business, and most of it is controlled by corporations whose singular goal is to keep their stock price high. Clips like the ones of Jeremiah Wright yelling seemingly anti-American sentiments from the pulpit grab people’s attention and can keep it for a period of time, enabling CNN, MSNBC, and Faux News to charge higher ad rates.

Barack Obama is a major player in a game whose rules he did not make, and to win he has to pick his battles carefully. I believe him when he says this was a painful decision for him, and that he felt it was the right thing to do. And neither I nor anyone else can say if the pain he has caused himself and others by leaving the church will be outweighed by the good he might be able to do as President. That will be for historians to judge long after all of us are gone. In the meantime all we can do is pray for him (and John McCain, and Hilary Clinton, and George W. Bush) as he faces many difficult decisions in the days ahead. I hope he will be able to find a place to worship where he is welcomed and treated not as a symbol for one cause or another, but as a beloved child of God.