Recently I heard a minister claim that God could (and presumably would) lead a congregation to split from the PC(USA), whose elected representatives had had the audacity, at this summer’s General Assembly, to pass some measures that he and his church council vehemently disagreed with. At the same time, other people are pleased to remain in the denomination, also because they feel led by God to do so, but in their case because they are convinced that the Assembly followed the Spirit of Christ in its decisions. Still more folks are not particularly interested in politics, policies, and pronouncements and simply want to be left in peace to minister in their own communities, far from the storms raging elsewhere. And again, they would claim it’s God’s will that they do this.

When I reported what I heard to my wife, she and I both wondered how exactly it worked that God told people contradictory things and led them to do precisely the opposite from what their sisters and brothers in faith did.

Isn’t it more likely that all this “God” talk is really just the baptism of what we already wanted to do? We take the Bible and read it through whatever lenses feel comfortable to wear and claim that our sin-soaked interpretation is the “right” one, the “only” one, the “clear” one, “God’s word.” And we’re not even aware that our take on Scripture and God’s will may well be just as mixed up and prejudiced and downright wrong as anybody else’s.

None of us, in fact, can or does see the whole Truth. Like Moses (Exodus 33:23), we can only see God’s back, not God’s face, the full-on revelation of all God is and where God leads. Yes, God has come among us in Jesus Christ, who is God’s Word, but that does not mean he ceases to be sovereign or mysterious or “wholly Other” (Tillich). So unless and until we have plumbed the depths and scaled the heights of God’s reality and spoken with him face to face and have had definitively revealed what he wants, a little humility is called for. Let’s focus for now on what we do have clearly from both testaments: that the will of God is love. For him. For our neighbors. For ourselves. As Paul put it, in these days of dim mirrors and partial knowledge, love abides. When we love, that’s the surest sign we can have that we are indeed being led by God.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

A conservative minister attending an ecumenical meeting complained that even in his town, nestled snugly in the heart of the Bible Belt, a business event competed with Sunday services. Specifically, the local Chamber of Commerce had scheduled a meet-and-greet with Santa, complete with cookies and milk, from 10 AM until noon the Sunday before Thanksgiving (Christ the King Sunday). The minister had intended to celebrate a baptism that day for the child of a Chamber employee, and now the sacrament would need to be moved to another Lord’s Day. This pastor clearly expected that the activities of the Church would take priority over any other events on a Sunday, especially in the South.

Maybe that was so back in the day. But no more. Not even in the South. Sure, businesses still close on Sundays, but that is by the choice of the local owner or the franchise office. “Blue laws” no longer force everyone to conform to Christian practices. Restaurants can serve alcohol, and stores sell it, on Sunday, whether the teetotalers in the congregation down the street like it or not. Soccer games are scheduled on Sunday mornings. Plenty of people from small towns to big cities routinely actually rest on Sunday after working a long week rather than attending services and listening to sermons that fail to inspire and strengthen. Perhaps the last vestiges of a bygone era are the opening of public events with explicitly Christian prayers and  the alliance of the religious right with the political right that  dominates Southern politics.

The reality of our day is that the Church cannot depend on cultural props and laws to support its life and message. Indeed, it must not. Instead, the Church needs to present such a winsome and compelling word of faith, hope, and love that everyone will be drawn to it, instead of being repelled as an increasing number are. It needs to be a safe place to ask questions and be oneself without fear of condemnation and ostracism. It should insist on intellectual rigor in dealing with the Bible and theology and welcome the insights of the sciences and the arts, rather than discounting them. In sum, the Church should be a model of grace and acceptance as it follows Jesus.

It’s the crumbling edifice that needs propping up so that it doesn’t fall down. It’s long past time for the Church, for its own good, to stand on its own, and welcome the challenge as a gift. As Walter Brueggemann once said: “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, by the grace of God” (quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith: 122; original source in Brueggemann’s works unknown). 

©2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

I’ve made some interesting and helpful discoveries lately. Why I didn’t see these things years ago, I don’t know. Distracted and not paying attention, I suppose.

One realization is about my clergy shirt and collar. Ever since I started wearing that garb (sometime in the 1980s), I’ve struggled to put the little metal stud into the back buttonhole on the neckband of the shirt. The stud is a post that holds the plastic “dog collar” in place on the shirt if a clergyperson is not wearing a rabat (a kind of vest). Somehow it dawned on me just a couple of months ago that I could put the stud in the buttonhole before I put the shirt on! It was like a revelation! Now I don’t have to twist and turn and risk dropping the stud on the carpet.

The other discovery was just two days ago. I’ve been with the church I serve about five years. The key to the outside door of the house where I have my study looks exactly like the one that opens my office door: brass, with a round head. I’ve marked the office key with a sticker, permanent marker, anything to tell it from the outside key. Nothing really lasted. On Wednesday I finally saw that my interior key had the raised word “Yale” stamped on it; the other one doesn’t. Now I can tell the keys apart, even in the dark, by feel.

These are hardly earth-shattering breakthroughs in human understanding. But I did begin to wonder because of them: How often are our lives or those of our neighbors and friends made difficult because we don’t pay attention to details or to our surroundings? We don’t bother to read the fine print on a contract; we assume everything will be OK. We fail to check a box in the settings on our computers, and the machines don’t work properly. We mishear a word in a conversation or news report, latch onto that, post it on social media, and suddenly there’s a flood of misinformation for which we are responsible. We text and drive, looking at the phone instead of the road, and we have a wreck. Focused on those same phones or on some other screen, we don’t notice beauty that is a gift of God, like the deer peeking out from the woods or the lovely colors of a sunset, and so we miss out on free help in lifting our spirits after a hard day.

It took me years to discover two little things that would make my work life simpler and less frustrating. I pray you don’t have to wait that long for your epiphanies.

©2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

This week a careless backhoe operator hit a clearly marked water line in my neighborhood while digging a hole for the installation of fiber optic cable. The project promises 100% faster Internet for subscribers. But now, because of the accident, we must boil water until test results come back sometime Monday. I commented to a friend how ironic it is that in our quest for faster speeds to stream movies and download whatever, we were thrust back to the Dark Ages, having to purify our water as if it came from a creek.

Such ironies in fact abound in our so-called “connected” day. We walk around with our ears to or our eyes on our phones and pay little attention to the people or the sights around us. We have 1000 friends or followers on social media, but don’t know the person down the street. We display some of our worst tendencies toward cruelty and stupidity sometimes when commenting on a news story or someone’s “status.” Our technology has not improved the human heart. Indeed, it has given us new and more efficient ways to humiliate and kill each other.

I’m no Luddite. The irony of my writing a blog post about the evils of how we use our fancy tools does not escape me. But I wonder sometimes if in our quest for speed and efficiency, we have forgotten how to slow down, take time truly to listen or merely enjoy silence. If we could do that, I think we would begin to recover our essential humanity, the wholeness God desires.

And that really would be progress.

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Raymond Burse, interim president of Kentucky State University, has given up more than $90,000 of his salary so university workers earning minimum wage could have their earnings increased to $10.25 an hour from the current $7.25.

Burse, a former president of the university, retired from an executive position with GE with good benefits and says he doesn’t need to work. His voluntary salary reduction is a way to recognize the needs and importance of those who are on the lower end of the pay scale, but, as he says, “do the hard work and heavy lifting.” “I did this for the people,” he explained. He still will make almost $260,000 for his twelve months as interim (note 1).

Burse has set a wonderful example of real leadership that every high-paid executive (is there any other kind?) could and should follow. What if the “Christian” CEOs of a well-known big box store and a certain craft chain that has been in the news would take similar steps to ensure that their employees make a wage that would lift them out of poverty, so the cashiers and stockroom workers wouldn’t have to rely on food stamps for groceries and could afford basic health care? Suppose football coaches, paid obscene salaries and benefits by universities, didn’t live in million-dollar homes, but insisted on lower pay that would go to fund the custodians’ and groundskeepers’ and cafeteria workers’ wages? Or maybe the “rock-star” preachers on TV could donate the royalties of their books and videos to Habitat for Humanity or their local food pantries.

Pope Francis recently said that “Jesus teaches us to put the needs of the poor above our own. Our needs, even if legitimate, will never be so urgent as those of the poor, who lack the necessities of life.” He has set an example by driving a Ford instead of some luxury car and living in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Palace (note 2). Of course, his opinions and lifestyle have not endeared him to some “Christians” in our Congress. Too “liberal.”

If two men, one in a secular university, the other the world leader of a church, can live so, why can’t others with wealth and power? Why can’t some do with a (relatively) little less so others may simply have enough? Those who keep amassing more and more while other suffer want may not answer me or you, but they will have to answer to Jesus.

Note 1: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/08/01/3361549/ksu-presidents-gives-up-90000.html

Note 2: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/06/pope-francis-poor_n_5654732.html

“The name of [the] infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God” (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations: 57).

“Prayer in personal worship may be expressed in various ways….One may contemplate God, moving beyond words and thoughts to communion of one’s spirit with the Spirit of God” (PC[USA] Book of Order W-5.4002).

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Earlier this week I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a package of romaine hearts. None of them seemed fresh. It was the 15th, and each one I picked up was stamped “use by 7/14.” I kept looking, though, and way underneath the stack were some marked “use by 7/21.” I wasn’t satisfied, wanting something still fresher. I was still searching when I heard a deep voice behind me. Another guy shopping was trying to save me some trouble. “They’re all the 14th,” he lamented. “You’d do better getting this” (pointing to a loose bunch of leaf lettuce). “Thanks,” I replied, “but I did find some good till the 21st.” “I should have dug deeper,” he said.

Sometimes we all have to dig deeper.

We have to when we’re angry with or hurt by someone, and we have to go way down inside ourselves in order to keep silent, refusing to let our heated or wounded emotions rule us and make a bad situation worse.

We need to dig deeper when we must find the courage to speak up for a person or a group of persons being ridiculed, marginalized, robbed of voice.

We mine the depths of our hearts when we are asked to take on a task we know will be incredibly difficult, like becoming a caregiver, but it’s the right thing to do.

We have to dig deeper when our prayers seem pointless, and/or we have no idea what to say, to a place beyond words, where the Spirit’s sighs are the only sound.

And in the depths*, we find something fresh and new (2 Corinthians 7:14).

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

*In Orthodox tradition this spiritual practice or way of doing theology is called apophasis, seeking and encountering the mystery of God beyond words and images. See, for example, http://theorthodoxlife.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/what-is-apophatic-theology/

When the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision came out earlier this week, I said to my wife that it sounded a great deal like the 16th century principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose the realm, his the religion”), an agreement reached in 1555 in which the religion of a ruler within a territory of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) determined that of the ruled. Only Catholicism and Lutheranism were legal. Calvinism and any Anabaptist spin on Christian faith were outlawed. Those who practiced anything but the two legal religions were considered heretics and subject to execution. Should someone wish to follow one’s conscience rather than the dictates of the state, he or she could leave the territory with his or her possessions.

Now along comes Hobby Lobby and other “closely-held” companies, in which the owner’s religion trumps a woman’s right to insurance that covers certain contraceptives. Even if the woman does not share the owner’s viewpoint, her conscience and what she may do with her life are effectively held hostage to the CEO’s faith. If she wants her company’s insurance carrier to pay for an IUD, which may be prohibitively expensive at minimum wage, then she can either somehow pay for it herself or leave and find new employment where the religion of the one doesn’t trump the right of conscience of the many. This situation is exactly the same as cuius regio. Just change “territory of the HRE” to “corporation.” What’s next? Having all employees of closely-held for-profits sign statements of faith?

I am really, really tired of seeing “religious freedom” used as an excuse for selfish, oppressive, unjust practices which would make Jesus weep. Here is One who in fact sought to free people–especially the vulnerable, common folk–from the demands of a religion and its leaders that sought to control every detail of their lives. He said, in the lectionary reading for this Sunday: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). The demands of those now using “religious freedom” to push all kinds of hateful, oppressive agendas, indeed to lay the groundwork for a theocracy, are diametrically opposed to the gentle, lowly care of Jesus. If this is what a “Christian” is, then those who of us who indeed seek to follow the humble, loving Lord need to find a new name for our faith. 

Religion has become a cruel idol, before which some demand we bow or else. Paul Tillich, in a late 1940s sermon entitled “The Yoke of Religion,” warned of the danger of what has in fact come to pass in 2014, but also of the possibility if we truly follow Christ: “We are all permanently in danger of abusing Jesus by stating that He is the founder of a new religion, and the bringer of another, more refined, and more enslaving law. And so we see in all Christian Churches the toiling and laboring of people who are called Christians, serious Christians, under innumerable laws which they cannot fulfill, from which they flee, to which they return, or which they replace by other laws. This is the yoke from which Jesus wants to liberate us. He is more than a priest or a prophet or a religious genius. These all subject us to religion. He frees us from religion. They all make new religious laws; He overcomes the religious law.”

God help us and make us truly free!

© 2014 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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