Faith and Fallacies

My Staff Parish Relations Committee and I worked on our evaluation form last night. We dutifully and fruitfully prayed about and discussed the sense of living into Jesus the vine, and then engaged the questions on the sheet. The first one gave us trouble. We felt like the wires were a little crossed.

… Not because our answer is zero, although that also gave us some pause. See if you can guess where we took issue.

Has anyone joined your church by “profession of faith” in the last twelve months?

  • YES (how many?)  What are you doing to make disciples?
  • NO (why not?) What could you do to make disciples?

So, let me see if I get this: If people have added their name to a church membership roster, who have never been part of  church membership roster before, that is making disciples. I find this confusing, since Jesus didn’t leave the disciples with any such rosters when he issued them the Great Commission. And if no one has been added to the roll in this way, clearly that congregation is not doing *anything* to make disciples.

Yes, in part, this is just a poorly-worded question. I don’t want to parse words.

I want to strike at the deeper logical fallacy I see here.

I find it a false assumption in two directions to assume that a “disciple” and a person who has recently joined a church by profession of faith are the same thing. And, because I’ve been appointed in a place where we have some shared understandings of discipleship, or because we’ve been having conversations about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus for four years now, the members of my SPRC do too.

On the one hand, that’s an arbitrary bar to set. Plenty of people grow in and deepen their relationship with God and with others, becoming formed and re-formed as disciples, but do not join a United Methodist Church. Are they less worthy of being termed disciples? Never.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people on membership rolls of various churches who may at one time have met the qualification of having joined by profession of faith, but are not growing or deepening their spiritual lives, and are seeking or in need of being formed and re-formed as disciples. Do we neglect this need for spiritual care and formation because the fruits of this effort will never appear on an evaluation form? Heaven forbid!

It was a member of the team who reminded us that we sow seeds and may never see them take root. It was a congregant who wondered aloud about a person they knew who, having been touched by our church’s ministry, decided to attend a different church, asking, “Does ‘make disciples’ mean make more members of the Methodist Church?” It was a layperson who told the powerful story about our community meal, and how we’ve begun offering a blessing before the meal is served for those who want to participate (many come in closer to the table to share the blessing, while those who don’t wish to participate remain in conversation around the room), and how a couple of weeks ago, when the servers began to serve before the blessing, one guest said, “Wait. Aren’t we gonna pray first?” “Isn’t that man a new disciple?” the team member asked. These are the people of the church, owning and naming their own ministry, recognizing the transformation Christ is bringing in our midst. So I also want to say– are not they new and renewed disciples?

I assure you, our team did not remain in the place of objecting to the framing of the question to the point of missing the deeper exercise. Looking for the question behind the words, we talked about whether we had any new members (yes) and from where they are coming (mostly transfers from other United Methodist Churches). We talked about places for potential new “professions of faith,” including our current confirmation class– an opportunity to receive members who have thought and prayed and reflected and asked questions for over a year by the time they are done, so that is very exciting. We talked about the opportunity to reach out to people who are not affiliated with any church (those potential “professions of faith” such as the ones we had named) and discussed how, if we truly believe that there are some who are on the journey of discipleship, we might invite them to find a spiritual home on that journey at Trinity UMC– not because this will give us something to report on the professions of faith line, but because we believe we have something to offer as a community of faith.

Any question can point to fruitful conversation, I believe, if we can pick at it and pry it apart and uncover the spirit underneath it (or despite it!). This was a tough place to begin, because the fallacy runs deep– in our fear as a denomination, we have long prized the measurable membership numbers over the insubstantial feelings of transformation and growth– but in the end, this small group of people engaged the faith and calling behind the words.

I’m pretty sure that makes us a vital church.

Diary of a Delegate: Dude, where’s my church?

Twitter topic cloud from @andrewconard

Sisters and brothers, I don’t even know what day it is.

I think about 3 days of legislation have passed since last I posted. They weren’t good days for me and the people I care about. It seems that progressives make up about 40% of the voting body on just about anything. Other people have been reporting votes and issues. I’ve titled this a diary because it’s really about the experience.

The experience has sucked.

I’ve been exhausted, discouraged, and wrung out dry. We’ve lost votes on everything so far– actually not true.

Let me share my one victory: my subcommittee’s paragraph on abortion, which is an improvement over the current Book of Discipline, and which we hashed out in a respectful, holy way, passed the full body without incident. As the recording secretary for that subcommittee, I have officially written a section of the Book of Discipline.

The rest is a mess. A day ago, clergy lost guaranteed appointment, a policy that has provided for and protected the fair appointment of clergy without respect to gender or ethnicity or theological stance, but has also, it can be argued, prevented cabinets from removing ineffective clergy. The result was not actually the tough part– what was worse was that there was a glitch and then an attempt to correct the glitch. The full body would have to vote to even allow discussion on this very important matter for clergy and churches. They did not. So lots of people lost their job security if not yet their jobs, and their pastor’s confidence in her or his prophetic voice if not their pastor, without even a blink.

Today it’s been conversations about restructuring the church– I’m not even sure what we passed on to the finance committee, but I’m pretty sure it’s out of order, and I said so. That’s right. I came here to advocate for justice and instead I stood and the mic and read from the rule book. Yikes.

Even advocating for justice has been hard. We are not all of one mind as to what that justice might look like and how it is best accomplished (surprising, right?), and so those of us “on the same team” are sometimes disagreeing with one another. It gets messy. That’s relationship. Today I was speaking passionately with 3 other people, and realized that I was disagreeing with Mark Miller. The Mark Miller. I said that, in fact. “I’m yelling at Mark Freaking Miller!”

We’re all just in shock. What is clear is that this is not the UMC we all thought we knew. Yesterday, we debated the preamble to our social principles, a seemingly benign paragraph of the Discipline that some felt needed a greater expression of grace. There was a proposal that we add “We affirm that nothing can separate us from the love of God,” a direct quote from Romans 8. We debated whether or not we would affirm this statement of prevenient grace, *the* essential Wesleyan/Methodist tenant. 53% of delegates believed in God’s unconditional love. Only 53%.

This is not my church.

My fellow progressives and my delegation from New England (powerhouse people!) are all walking around like zombies, shocky and stunned and confused. What happened to the denomination that taught hope? love? grace? compassion? Gone. Copoted. Outvoted.

We’ve got a hail mary pass tomorrow, but mostly it will probably be another day of voting on things that matter deeply– how much we are willing to wound our GLBTQ members of the body. I expect the votes will go 60/40. I expect it will hurt like hell.

There aren’t words for the feeling tonight. It’s prayerful, but there aren’t words. Sighs too deep for words. I ache.

Diary of a Delegate: Days Four and Five- Let me be full, let me be empty

Twitter topic cloud for Friday 4/27 from @andrewconard

When Bishop Weaver gave his episcopal address a few days ago, he concluded by inviting us to share in the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, which contains the phrase “let me be full; let me be empty…”

The past two days have been both full and empty.You’ll note that I don’t distinguish between the two days or what we did which day; I honestly can’t tell them apart.

The daytime hours have been filled with subcommittee and committee work (in rooms empty of even cell signal…). From the very beginning, it was clear that my subcommittee, dealing with issues of reproductive rights, was going to be a very conservatively-tipped body. Most of the votes, when we came to voting, split 14 to 9 in favor of conservative positions. However, we worked an entire day in a very collaborative way, rewriting the Book of Discipline‘s paragraph on abortion. At the end of the day, we had crafted something of which I am proud– and it needed only two changes to keep it from being a decided step back for women’s rights. Both amendments were made in the full committee, and in my opinion the petition we are supporting is an improvement to the current language in the BOD. I was filled with a sense of achievement for what we did together.

But on the issues related to GLBT inclusion and rights, we took major losses. Despite passing the most progressive legislation through sub-committee, the main committee of Church and Society B voted down any and all changes to the denomination’s stance that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. We will bring the fight to the plenary floor as well, so it’s not officially over yet, but at the lunch break after the vote, I sobbed uncontrollably in the arms of Will Green, as he sobbed in mine, and then I did the whole thing again with Annie Britton. My dear, dear friends and colleagues in ministry, two of the most clearly gifted pastors I have ever encountered.

Someone put food in front of me and I ate it, but I have no memory of what it was. In fact, I’ve eaten so little and walked so much this week that I have dropped 3 pounds. My body feels empty.

Twitter topic cloud for Saturday 4/28 from @andrewconard

At one point in my committee work, I was so filled with rage I could barely speak; (presumably) straight white male delegates called for a vote by standing– as opposed to paper ballots or raised hands, “to expedite our voting.” This request was raised for the first time when we read the first piece of legislation that contained the word “transgender.” One old white man said “I vote my conscience and it doesn’t matter who is watching; it’s a matter of integrity.” Easy for you to say since the system is built to serve and protect you, (insert colorful descriptor here). The chair overruled the request eventually, and after the paper ballot was taken and the legislation protecting transgendered persons from violence was passed, I called for a moment of person privilege and laid the smack down from the mic. I said that the transgender community has suffered more harassment, humiliation, and violence at the hands of the church and the wider community than any other, and that calling for a standing vote on so vulnerable an issue was not about expediency, but bullying and intimidation of the highest order. I ended by saying that a vote won by intimidating others into silence would not be progress toward any end but an evil one.

Finally, as I could have predicted, the full committee voted to withdraw the united Methodist Church from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (which, when you think about it, is ironic, since withdrawal is no guarantee…). What was most frustrating about this vote is that a conservative delegate presented “research” she had done off the internet, and it was factually inaccurate complete and utter lies. She said the RCRC opposed any restrictions on late term abortion (they, like the UMC, support them only if the mother’s life is in danger), had made no changes in the policy and focus of being solely pro-abortion (they have, after much conversation with the UMC, shifted focus to maternal and fetal health, contraception, education, and advocacy for access to safe, legal abortions when they are needed), and that they support the work of pagan witch doctors (yeah, I dunno). But when we tried to bring a person who actually worked with the RCRC to speak, they would not let the “witness” if you will give testimony. Lies and dirty tricks, and women around the world– particularly those without health care and family support– will pay the price.

That was the last action of the day, and after all of that, my overwhelming feeling was emptiness. Shock. Numbness. Emptiness.

I left it all on the field, every ounce of energy, creativity, hope, and connection. We will live to resurrect some legislation for another day, and make our case on the plenary floor for full inclusion and the protection of women’s rights. But in that moment, there was nothing.

Later, again out with friends, I was filled with laughter, and the smallest glimmer of hope.

Today, we stand in recess for the Sabbath. Church continues, sermons are preached, justice marches onward, if not always in places we can see.

Diary of a Delegate: Who are the Bullies? (a call for repentence)

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

Last week I mentioned on facebook/Twitter that I was wearing pink as part of Pink Shirt Day, a movement to help raise awareness about bullying (here’s one article that gives a little background about why pink shirts). At the time I wrote that wearing a pink shirt was not all I planned to do to combat bullying.

As a member of the Church and Society B legislative committee at General Conference (convening in one week +1 hour, but who’s counting?), I will have the opportunity to discuss a few pieces of legislation seeking to update the UMC’s resolution, “Prohibition of Bullying.” There are some strengths to the various proposals offered (naming the often fatal consequences of bullying, encouraging a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and bullying, expressing the church’s stance through sermons and printed materials). However, I feel that across the board, the resolution could be stronger.

I’d like to see our denomination have a special Sunday devoted to combating bullying. We have a Creation Sabbath (this Sunday!), and a Children’s Health Care Sabbath; I’d like us to have a Sunday once a year– or at least once in the next quadrennium– devoted to being a sanctuary from bullying.

However, I think we need to go further, and this is tough. I believe that as a church, as members of the global body of people called Christian, we need to take a long, hard look at how our words, actions, and lack of action have contributed to a culture that allows bullying.

We are not the only ones to blame, by any means. Perhaps it is part of human nature, going back to our pack/tribe instincts, to pick on or ostracize those “not like us” or those who we think represent weaknesses or characteristics we would rather not see. While the most obvious cases of bullying these days are against persons who are gay, lesbian, and transgender, people get bullied for every reason and no reason. I have no idea, really, what made me such a great target in middle school– Was it being a bit, er, pudgy? Hitting puberty a little earlier? Loving school, learning, and teachers to the point of being a “nerd” and a “geek” long before those things were cool (they are now, I promise)? Having less than zero skill at kickball? Was it that I stood up for others, thereby allying myself with the rest of the “losers”? We didn’t even have a glee club to join together (not that I sing).  In any case, I was on the receiving end of vicious, demeaning, dehumanizing gossip and joking, often sexual in nature. In sixth grade.

None of what I experienced fell within the purview of the church per se. None of what I experienced, I would also argue, was anything like the scope of what some of my glbt friends endured and endure. While I would say I was teased and harassed and shamed and bullied and degraded, it was kind of generalized. The bullying and harassment directed at individuals who are glbt have a sort of organization about them; they spring from a shared narrative. I was teased because I was uncool. I believe that glbt individuals are bullied because people believe they are unnatural.

It is my strong belief that the mistreatment of persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender in our society arises from a narrative about “those people.” They are somehow broken, wrong, vile. They are not natural. They are inherently less than “us” (although of course, recent studies show that the “us” doing the bullying are often not so different from the “them” selected as victims).

Here is my challenge: the Christian church needs to seriously examine our role in supporting and perpetuating this narrative.

I won’t go further into the narrative. We know how wrong it is, how fatally brutal. I won’t go further into our support and perpetuation of it. We know what churches, denominations, and movements have historically said about gay and lesbian people, what we say now, and how we “justify” our words. But I will say this: unless we seriously examine and repent of our role in perpetuating a narrative that dehumanizes glbt persons, we cannot wash our hands of the bullying, harassment, shame, and torture unleashed upon them.

We have to admit that we have been wrong– wrong to label people as unnatural, wrong to build a narrative of immorality around loving actions, wrong to keep silent when people have been “gay-bashed” in the name of Christ. I will admit that I don’t exactly know how we do this if we are going to hold on to the claim that homosexuality is unnatural or immoral (nor do I think it’s my job to do deep theological reflection for positions that I feel are wrong and untenable). But for those of us who believe that bullying, harassment, and dehumanization are wrong, we’d better find a way to say that any part we have played in them is wrong too. I call for a call to repentance for our complicity in the narrative that supports bullying.

Then, and I do believe only then, can we model zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies, create safe spaces for those who have been the targets of bullying and harassment, and say with any integrity that we are committed to combating this evil in all its forms.

(Diary of a Delegate) Vital Signs and Flat Lines

This week is the deadline by which my Annual Conference wants me my church to submit goals into the dashboard of the “Vital Congregations” website. Coming out of the UMC’s “Call to Action” report, we are supposed to be working on creating and supporting vital local congregations (which I think is a good idea), by making each church set goals for their worship attendance, membership, and financial giving (which I think is a bad idea– the making of goals in these specific areas, not the financial giving).

I’m not feeling very excited about this.

In part this is because our congregation is in the beginning stages of the Natural Church Development program, which is another discernment tool for helping a congregation assess its strengths and weaknesses and create goals and ideas for addressing the area in greatest need of growth. It seems counterproductive for me to enlist church members in setting alternate goals, and I don’t want to arbitrarily set them myself.

But my objection goes much deeper. As I (only somewhat jokingly) tweeted, I object to making these goals on religious grounds.

My concerns are legion:

  • Practical concern – I have no idea what these goals will mean. We are asked to make goals in five areas: Average weekly attendance, people who join the church by profession of faith, number of small groups, number of members in mission, and dollars given to mission. The only one I think makes sense is members in mission, by which the chart means members who have “gone on” a mission trip. Okay, to meet a goal in this category, we should offer more opportunities for people to go on mission trips. Not a bad goal, although it is rather limited to those who have the bodies, the work schedule flexibility, and the checkbooks to do so. I wonder if there are other ways to measure people *engaged in* mission activity, other than just going on mission trips, which are wonderful, but not the be all and end all of missional involvement.
    As for the other areas, I’m more confused. If I had a goal to increase the number of small groups (note– not the people in them!?!), I could understand that as a program goal. Easy to measure and achieve, especially if I (apparently) don’t care how many people attend them. However, how is that measuring discipleship? What are we trying to accomplish by adding programs that may or may not be used? I don’t even understand which lines are added together to get the “dollars given to mission” on the charts, based on the numbers compared to my statistical data, but assuming this has been entered correctly (*huge* assumption, see below),  much of the money given to mission is a function of events, special offerings, and disaster relief giving that has occurred in a given year. While the trend is academically interesting for me to know (I do love data!), it’s not based on measurable things within the congregation’s control, unless I misunderstand. So how do we set goals? Everyone would love to see an upward trend in average attendance, but how is that at all related to setting a goal of a higher number? What are we going to do about it? If all we care about are warm bodies in pews, what are we counting anyway? And professions of faith– apart from confirmation classes, which I do have planned– there is literally no way on God’s green earth to try to *make* professions of faith happen. They are movements of the Spirit in the purest sense, fruits of the faithful ministry of the congregation. As such, again, the data is significant. But that does not mean we can set or work toward a goal. I’m waxing theological on these last points, but sue me.
  • Practical concern – The statistics are inaccurate and either too small or too large a set to be helpful when compared to each other. The chart online shows five years of data, with the most recent year missing. I’ve been at this church for 3.5 years (2.5 of them shown). Prior to that, there was a, shall we say, unintentional interim appointment, and the statistics reflect a sharp downtick or no report filed. Prior to *that*, we have two years out of the eight of my predecessor, who is a pastor I love and respect, but who will be the first to admit that administration is not his strong suit. The stats entered here (and where I looked at them on the GCFA site for a longer history) are so consistent as to suggest guestimation. And, sorry, but I don’t trust that the guestimates were not a little padded particularly in the attendance department. Show me the past 20 years, and the stats will reflect the slow but steady decline of a mainline protestant church. Show me the three and a half years of my tenure and they will reflect the slow(er) but steady increase of a congregation healing from a bad match and coming back into its own. But this swatch of five years shows an inconsistent jumble of high, bottomout, and incremental increase.
    *Based on this,* the Vital Congregations website predicts a gradual decrease in my congregation’s attendance over the next five years, losing one attendee a year. My time here has actually shown a decrease of one, increase of one, increase of four, and the current year is too soon to count. I’d predict (not goal-set, just predict) a gradual increase on that data, but it’s such a small set that it’s hard. Of course, this is related to two larger problems:

    • The data is only as accurate as the people who enter it. I’m accurately and faithfully reporting my numbers to the best of my ability, but I fear they make me look less effective for doing so, because they are lower than earlier guesstimates.
    • The data doesn’t account for the whole story. It can’t account for purging of membership books, for the intermittent struggles of the congregation, or for the very persistent, uniquely Methodist, frequency of pastoral change. Not to mention that I bet most congregations show significant ups and downs relative to appointment match. Most of our inconsistency comes from that, but we seem unwilling to examine appointment length and strength in this conversation. Again, I digress.
  • Replies to my tweet objecting to making goals.

    The Practical Waxes Spiritual – because there are no stated uses for these goals or even what would be measured and drawn from them, and because they exist in the context of also talking about closure of smaller churches and removal of ineffective clergy, there is a great deal of fear in this system. Clergy fear that if their goals are not high enough or are not met (and those are probably two different things), they will be shown to be a bad pastor to that church or ineffective overall, and moved or removed from the appointment process. Churches fear that if their goals are not high enough or not met, they will be shown to be unsustainable ministries, and will be forced by “the Conference” to drop to 3/4, 1/2, 1/4 time, etc, or merged/closed. Fear is not a great motivator for growth, nor, it must be said, for encouraging faithful reporting. And if you don’t think that fear or appointment status get thrown around in this conversation, I have a wonderful tweet I can show you.

  • Spiritual Concern for our ends – I am not at all convinced that we are measuring the right things. Do we really think that these are what will make us vital? Here we have five “goal” areas, most of which are out of the control of both the congregation and the pastor, and none of which, I would argue, measure discipleship or spirit. Granted, these are things that can’t be easily measured. That’s kind of the point. And again, the information is intellectually helpful. But in terms of goals, I think we can do better. Sitting in church does not make a person a disciple any more than standing in a barn makes you a horse. Let’s try to come up with some ways to measure our “making disciples” not our filling pews. I’ll say more on that when I suggest alternatives. Ultimately, what we are measuring is how good we are at living up to a model of doing church that I would argue is horribly outdated. Church is not about showing up and putting money in a plate, being seen once a week and understanding mission trips to be things that happen out there. It’s so much more than that, now. Do we really want to make goals to be better at a model of church that is broken?
  • Spiritual Concern for our means – The entire process of using statistics and goals entered on a website cuts connectionalism from the conversation. Once upon a time, the United Methodist Church had some pretty decent ways of making goals and sharing them between congregations, clergy, district superintendents and even bishops. At quarterly (and later annual) church/charge conferences, a congregation would reflect upon, report upon, and celebrate the ministry of the previous year, and set goals for and plan for the years to come. This was/is done in the presence of a presiding elder, in many cases the District Superintendent, and reported to the Conference/Bishop. Yes, some forms and statistics are reported. But the heart of the charge conference is the meeting– the time together in conversation and shared visioning, in storytelling. That’s our tradition as Christians and Methodists. We are people of story, connection, and relationship. If you want to know my goals and the goals of my church, come listen to our story, or invite us to share it. Our story doesn’t fit in a 4×5 chart. This is why I have decided, in place of filling in these goals, that I will write a narrative of the goals and activities my church is currently doing (which I believe address all five of those goal areas more accurately, and a few extra besides), and submit that document to the office. I’ll also attach it here, hopefully tomorrow.

Underneath all of this are two very real and inescapable truths: There are ineffective clergy and there are churches that are not sustainable. I get that, and I’ve seen both. I believe that we do need ways to evaluate the effectiveness of our clergy– but you’ll have no better measure than honest and frequent conversation with them and with the congregations where they serve. Likewise, there is no better measure of a church’s sustainability in their ministry and context than honest and frequent conversations with them and with the clergy who serve in those areas. Data and statistics should be used to back up and fact check what is discovered through story, relationship, and connection, never as the first part of the conversation. It’s a tool, but it is not who we are.

Ultimately, I believe our goals need to flow from our sense of who we are, who we are called to be, and the mission that we are called to live out. I think we can do a better job responding to those questions with story rather than statistics.

I love Jesus, but I kinda like religion too

A lot of folks on facebook have been posting links to this video, where political science graduate and non-profit worker Jefferson Bethke seeks to “highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion” (text of video description). Mr. Bethke is a self-proclaimed healed pornography addict, and attends the Federal Way campus of Mars Hill Church (dot com) in Washington. For those keeping track at home, that’s the mega church pastored by Mark Driscoll (as opposed to Mars Hill Bible Church [dot org] in Michigan, pastored by Rob Bell– man, did that confuse me for a while). I won’t try to articulate my concerns about pastor Driscoll, but will refer you to the excellent critique of his particular brand of (in my mind, masochistic) Christianity by Rachel Held Evans here and here.

Jefferson Bethke’s YouTube video has some merits and some pitfalls in my mind, and so I’m torn when I see it on facebook on my friends’ feed or as a recommended link by The Christian Left. Here are my thoughts on religion and Jesus and this particular video.


The video is thought-provoking and invites reflection and discussion. Case in point. Anything that encourages us to think about our faith instead of blindly following gets bonus points in my book.

The video challenges certain assumptions about religion and Christianity, which I think is helpful. For example, Bethke says that being a Christian and a Republican are not the same thing (nor are being a Christian and a Democrat!), and that we should be freed by Christ, not enslaved by what he calls “behavioral modification” through the rules and chores that he sees as religion. I think breaking free of the rule-based way of thinking about religion is important.

The speaker insists that Jesus doesn’t support self-righteousness. I agree, although I’m not totally sold that the video succeeds in demonstrating that.

The video clearly separates Jesus from religion with what I see as a beautiful distinction (if phrased in gendered language that makes me gag) “Religion is man (sic) searching for God; Christianity is God searching for man.” Further, the words separate religion, which Bethke says he hates, from the church, which he says he loves, and that makes for good reflection as well. I fully agree with leaving behind some or all of institutional religion to follow Jesus, if that is what is needed.

We are asked “Would your church let Jesus in?” Not a new question, but an important one.

Finally, there are some beautiful words, phrases, and ideas here. I like “Religion says ‘do’; Jesus says ‘done’.” But my favorite:

If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean. It’s not a museum for good people; it’s a hospital for the broken.



I’m not sure what the speaker thinks religion is. He distinguishes it from “Christianity” as well as from Jesus, says he hates it, calls it an infection, and blames it for wars. But I’m not entirely sure what he means by “religion.” I suspect he may mean “institution,” but it’s not clear. I would define the broad concept of religion as a set of beliefs about the Divine (theology) and a particular way of living out beliefs (praxis), held in common by 2 or more people in a given place and time.

The video then blames this ambiguous concept of religion for war and attacks it for failing to feed the poor. Since religion, as I define it, is a series of beliefs and practices, it doesn’t really *do* or fail to do anything. Rather, religious people carry out actions and explain them using their theology and praxis. Religious people have gone on crusades and committed genocide, slavery, and rampant discrimination, claiming religion as their motivator. Religious people have also preached civil rights, resisted apartheid, lived among lepers, and given all their wealth to the poor, claiming their religion as their motivation. Maybe this is a little like saying guns don’t kill people, but I see religion as a tool, an implement, and in the wrong hands, yes, a weapon. It’s what we do with it that matters.

Bethke also decries religion for being a human invention. While I like the above-mentioned distinction that religion is humanity’s search for God while Christ is God’s search for us, it is presented as if this is a bad thing. We cannot simply receive God’s searching for us separate from our human responses. Yes, religion, church, prayers, worship songs, cathedrals, ministry programs, global institutionalized church, and YouTube videos are all human-made. And they are imperfect. What else would they be? The fallible, broken, human construct of religion is humanity’s response to and search for God. We’re still working on it and we don’t get it right, but we’re in it together with one another and with the Holy. We might show *that* a little grace, too. We never know how the God of the Universe might be able to use even the broken vessels of the church, her people, and each individual person of faith. I hear God’s good at that.

Having rejected and resented “religion,” Bethke replaces religion with something else that looks a lot like… religion. He replaces it with a series of beliefs about the Divine and implies a way of living out some of those beliefs in practice.

Furthermore, I don’t like the theology he presents in place of “religion.” It’s very strong on substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus took on our sin and bled and died and did we mention the blood? for us– you can read some of my reactions to this theology here). It’s also very dominated by masculine, hierarchical, and violent language. I get squeamish about blood dripping down Jesus’ face and him dangling on a cross thinking of me. Just not my thing. It may move us away from adherence based on fear to adherence based on guilt, but I’m not sure that’s a drastic improvement.

Finally, rejecting religion undermines the important function of accountability it serves. The video itself suggests some good theology and some bad, and the praxis is largely unknown or perhaps irrelevant. In the context of a “church” or dare we say a “religion,” there are other believers present against whose wisdom we check our theology and praxis. If my relationship with Jesus teaches me to hate gay people or club baby seals, who is to correct me if “religion” is vile and my personal interpretation is all that matters? Rather, the institution of religion, for all its faults, serves as a clearing house, a sounding board, a discernment group. Call it what you like, but it keeps the crazies at bay. When corrupted, yes, it mistakes the prophets for the fanatics (because there are fine lines already), and Jesus is crucified. But when it tries to let God work, it can also lift up the Desmond Tutus and the Mother Teresas, and it can resist the false prophets of Fred Phelps and his ilk. All of us individually searching for God are bound to make mistakes. In the grouped-together theology and practice of religion, our mistakes can indeed be amplified and multiplied, and more to our shame. But the good that we do, the times that we reject discrimination and violence, the voices we lift for the outcast and oppressed, the compassion we extend in word and deed– these can also be amplified and multiplied and tested, empowered, and equipped.

In Summary:

I applaud the video for raising questions and provoking discussions, for challenging outdated assumptions about religion and for lifting important, beautiful, inspirational concepts about what the love and grace of God are like. I support the sentiment of serving Jesus, even where that breaks from the institutionalized church (perhaps especially there!). I agree with the critique against what the video’s text description calls false religion. I hate false religion, too. But I remain unconvinced that the theology and (lack of) praxis lifted up here in place of such false religion are better, or a place that I would feel comfortable, and I believe the demonization and rejection of religion as a whole is throwing the baby (possibly the baby Jesus) out with the bath water. Instead, I would affirm the rejection of false religion, and the call to make the church and individuals therein more faithful to the true ministry of Christ. Let us swim in the ocean of grace.

What Happens Tomorrow

I don’t really want to give airtime to the ridiculous notion that the end of the world begins tomorrow. It’s a non-biblical idea about rapture plucked from random texts and mashed together with poorly-constructed numerology and a re-calculated dating of Noah’s Ark. It’s a lot of nonsense.

But really, it’s much worse than that.

First, it represents terrible theology that presupposes a monstrous God who deals in bloodshed (or fire, or earthquake or something) as a means to somehow produce “justice” and “peace” and “blessing,” and is totally okay with killing everyone and everything at any time. I don’t believe that God exists, and I feel really, truly sorry for people who do. My faith gives me hope and joy; the faith they describe conjures terror and futility.

And the second thing is that futility. It’s such a scary and foreign idea to me– that it would be okay– let alone good!– to give up on life, on the future, on God’s love for humanity, on our own love for one another, and anticipate a second coming of Christ that means the last day for everyone else. I was reading about families who stopped saving for college, people who quit their jobs, and folks who honestly believe that they will miss tomorrow night’s SNL because they’ll be with Jesus by then. This is chilling on so many levels.

I’m not okay with resigning oneself to the idea that ones children, who don’t believe in this rapture business, will be “left behind” to be tormented.

I’m not okay with forgoing the work of this life, including college and jobs and house repairs because it “doesn’t matter.”

I shudder to think about how scared and abandoned these people will feel come Sunday morning when they are still here, and the narrow, terrifying, vengeful god who is apparently the only god they know has not rained fire upon the earth. Will they have the courage to find a new faith in a different sort of God, and fix their hearts on the hard task of living ones faith rather than force-feeding it to others?

I’m not okay with the overall idea that, once again, religion is all about what you believe and how zealously you believe it, because after all, why does it matter if you help your fellow person with their physical needs when only their souls matter? Just preach the fire and brimstone to scare them into submission and you’ve done your good deed. If the world is only going to be around for another day (or week or year or decade), then helping people doesn’t matter, only what we believe.

In the end (or not, as I’m sure we’ll see!), it doesn’t matter to me if the doomsday prophesy is that aliens will conquer us or an asteroid will take out the sun, or Jesus will scoop up the elect or the environmental devastation we have unleashed will destroy the habitable environment (and I think only one of those is a probability); what distresses me is the energy spent on proclaiming and fearing the end, rather than on living our lives as we are called to live them. My plans for Saturday include time with my family and time in preparation for church. My plans for this year include ministries at church and in the community and seeking greater joy in my home life each day. My plans for my life are– well, pretty much the same. If I go tomorrow, by fire, by car crash, by aneurism, by freak accident, may it be while I am in the midst of what I have always done and will always do: loving and living. I’m unconcerned with “where I’m going,” but deeply passionate about where I am. It is here and now that I am given to love as I am able and to do all the good I can. This is my chance to be who the Holy calls me to be, and I’m not going to waste that time in fear. I may struggle to preach conversion to a more sustainable life, that we might be more faithful stewards of the earth and avert or slow the disaster that we have quite possibly unleashed, but while we’re working on that, we’re also working on economic justice and civil rights and loving relationships and joyful living.

As an older bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming; look busy.” I don’t buy that.

Jesus is here. Be busy at his work.

poem for a hate group leader

Fred, Fred.

One day it’ll happen.

I don’t know when or how, but then none of us ever do.

Perhaps you’ll be blessed enough to die of old age. Or maybe disease will consume you, or the poison you spew take an inward toll. Or maybe, tragically, a grief-stricken family member at a funeral-turned-protest will snap, will become, only for a moment, half the monster you are.

I don’t hope for it. I don’t pray for it. I have lost loved ones, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, even you and your family, even though none of us can escape it.

But it comes to us all.

And on that day, when sorrow grips the Phelps household, when those who love you– if there are people in your circle still capable of such an emotion– gather to remember your life, to lift up whatever it is that you have accomplished and given to the world between and despite the hatred that consumed you, I have a single hope.

I hope thousands come to the funeral, and stand at a distance of three hundred feet or more.

And I hope they bring candles.

And flowers.

I hope they carry signs with messages of forgiveness, and hope, and prayer for comfort and healing.

I hope they shower upon your family every human decency, every kindness, every ounce of compassion you have tried to deny so many grieving families.

And I hope you are able to see, from whatever place a twisted soul like yours might call repose, or might call torment. I hope their compassion touches you beyond the grave, and you see how unlike you we have all remained, that you may know how very much you failed, how very much

you will always fail.

I do not disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision that hate speech is still protected as free speech. I support, on a civic level, the right of all people to espouse and articulate their views.

I refuse to accept, however, that hate speech is morally acceptable, is merely speech, or is without poisonous and violent ramification both for the targets of the vitriol and for those who spew it. I refuse to combat it with my own hatred, although that is often the most difficult choice I make. I will not let hatred use me as a conduit, and I will not let it go silently unanswered and unchallenged.

And I will never allow it to win.