July 2008


“…I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse…. Whoever… eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord….For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves”(1 Corinthians 11:17, 27, 29).

“Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these your gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood. Send us out in the power of the Spirit to live for others, as Christ lived for us…” (from a Eucharistic prayer, Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church [USA]).

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

At the beginning of this week, I read an article in the daily e-newsletter I get from Inside Higher Education. It was about an atheist biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris who used his personal blog to defend the actions of a University of Central Florida student. To protest the presence of religious groups on his campus, the student had removed a consecrated wafer from a Mass rather than consuming it. Myers wondered why the student’s actions were regarded as such a big deal.

He and his university were bombarded with emails attacking him and calling for him to be sanctioned “for insulting Catholic teachings.” (More on the treatment he received below.) In response, according to the article, Myers “responded by staging what he called a ‘great desecration.’ For the desecration, he took a communion wafer (sent to him by a supporter in the United Kingdom, who removed it from a church there), and pierced it with a rusty nail….He then threw it in the garbage with a banana peel and coffee grounds, symbols of refuse. But to show that he wasn’t picking on Catholics, Myers added to his mixture some ripped out pages of the Koran. As a proud atheist, Myers isn’t a member of a faith that he could desecrate at the same time, so he took a text he does cherish —The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins — and tore some pages out and added them to the trash” (Scott Jaschik, “Crusade Against a Crusader,” http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/07/28/myers).

Dr. Myers didn’t have to go to all that trouble. Christians really don’t need an atheist biologist to desecrate the body of Christ; we do it very well all on our own, thank you.

For example, according to the article, the expressions of outrage from churchgoers concerning the professor’s project included insistence on his firing or censure, hate emails, and threats against himself along with implied threats against his children. A religious organization mounted a campaign in which Dr. Myers was called so hostile to Christians that believing students could not expect fair treatment from him. The group also put him in the same category as child pornographers and racists.

How exactly does that follow the example of the One who taught us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and from the cross asked forgiveness for his executioners? How will threats against an unbelieving skeptic’s children convince him of anything other than that he was right about the hypocrisy of the Church? None of the actions of “Christians” in this case was honoring to Jesus, whose “body” they claimed to revere so highly.

Or consider an incident in my own ministry in Kentucky which I will never forget. It was Holy Thursday and a small group of people had gathered for the Eucharist. We had announced beforehand that Communion would be offered only by the ancient and honored method of intinction, in which each worshipper dips his or her wafer in a common cup. Two elderly “ladies” remained in their pews while others were coming to receive the Sacrament. That would’ve been fine, except they were complaining loudly that they were not being offered Communion by the method they were used to. Their commentary was highly disruptive, and I wanted to stop right there and rebuke them in the name of Christ for dishonoring his Table with their contentiousness. But I didn’t. After the service, their carping continued, and I did convince them to take the Sacrament in the manner offered that evening, not wanting them to be left out. They did it begrudgingly, and when I asked one of them why she objected to intinction, she said it was “too Catholic” and “not the way she was brought up.” She preferred the “traditional” way. An influential church officer blamed me for my insensitivity to them (!), despite my efforts at conciliation. I even said I would bring the Sacrament to their homes. They would have none of it. It wasn’t really the Lord’s Supper they wanted, in any form or fashion; it was power and control. They didn’t care that they had disrupted worship for thirty or so others.

However we understand what happens at the Eucharist, Christians desecrate the body of Christ when like those women and that officer we seek and use power for our own ends. We do it when we hate and threaten violence in his name or when we accumulate wealth but do not share it to help our neighbors. We dishonor our Sovereign when we come to worship not to give glory to God but to network, to see and be seen. We regard him as nothing when we consider ourselves consumers of religious services provided by professionals rather than partners in a community devoted to justice and compassion (“I’m just a paying customer,” a church member once told me). We profane Jesus’ name when we fail even to try to live as he taught and instead follow the world’s values.

But there is hope. There are those few who are serious about living their faith, even giving themselves for others as Jesus did. God uses them to convict and call the rest of us. We can learn from them and try by God’s grace to follow their example.

Like Greg McKendry. On Monday of this week, I heard about him. McKendry was the first to encounter the angry shotgun-wielding, liberal-hating madman who had come to the Unitarian Church in Knoxville, TN during a Sunday service to kill as many as he could. McKendry stood in front of a blast to protect other members. And when he did, his was the body of Christ.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

“…a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10).

“Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred with it” (Proverbs 15:17).

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

My wife Susan always makes great dinners, but I especially love it when the menu consists entirely of vegetables. The other night, we turned off the TV and sat down at the kitchen table for sweet potatoes, fried okra, and pinto beans. Incredibly satisfying! After the meal, despite having worked a long, full day in the office, Susan put up five pint jars of whole fig preserves made from the ripe fruit we picked off our huge tree out back. We ate some for breakfast the next morning on biscuits. Heaven!

Just as there’s something to be said for good home cooking (“nuthin’ fancy,” “hot, brown, and plenty of it” [“Cookie” in City Slickers]), so is there a great deal to commend humble work. I mean the sort celebrated and attempted by Mike Rowe on the Discovery Channel series “Dirty Jobs.” Being the doorkeeper at the Temple.* Serving as a small church pastor or a campus minister.

Those featured in Rowe’s series aren’t the movers and shakers of this world, but they “make life possible for the rest of us,” as he says. The doorkeeper in the Temple was not part of the religious hierarchy, but his was the face of hospitality and welcome to worshippers. Small church pastors and campus ministers typically are not regarded as successful nor are they listened to like the vocal fat cat minister making six figures. But they care deeply for the few with whom they minister. Who knows how God may multiply their faithful gifts?

And consider that “honest labor” is called that for a reason. With more power and money come increased opportunities, pressures, and temptations to compromise one’s values, to lie/spin, to do whatever is necessary (ethical or not) to keep the position or the salary. Those on the lower rungs of the ladder (in the world’s terms) are most assuredly struggling financially, which brings great stress. But the church worker laboring in obscurity doesn’t have to worry about whether the next decision will split the denomination apart or undermine on a large scale the credibility of an institution. The humble worker is concerned about a great many things, but increasing the stockholders’ profits, restructuring the company or being indicted for fraud isn’t one of them.

A good, simple meal with the one you love and trust. Showing hospitality and giving mutual help. A satisfying day’s work that might bring aching muscles but leaves you with a clear conscience. Looking at yourself in the mirror and not being ashamed of the person looking back at you. Refusing to be enamored of the trappings of power and money that the world and the idolatrous Church value so highly. These are God’s gifts. Indeed, such is the way of life God commends, demonstrated in Jesus, crucified, but raised up and exalted to the right hand of God.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

*I’m aware that the text can also mean someone standing or sleeping on the threshold of the Temple, waiting to enter for worship, rather than someone doing a job.

“‘And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades” (Luke 10:15).

“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’” (Luke 10:17-21).

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

I recently heard an outrageous story that unfortunately was also true. A couple went out to dinner at an upscale restaurant with some friends in a Southern coastal town. They chose as an appetizer a crab and lobster dish that contained some exotic ingredients. The price? $85. $85! For an appetizer! Something that will be consumed in 15 minutes or less and digested. I can only imagine what the entire meal cost! In what universe does spending so much for an appetizer constitute sound financial judgment?

Of course, the point was not to demonstrate responsible stewardship of resources or to show generous hospitality. Nor was it even to have a sensual experience of delight in rich food. Rather, the couple wanted to confirm their status as conspicuous consumers, to gain bragging rights with their colleagues and friends. In a word: prestige. In telling the story of how they spent $85 for an appetizer, they implicitly referenced their wealth and at the same time shamed and belittled their listeners, in effect saying “I can afford to eat in such a restaurant, and you can’t.”

A business decided to move from its location in a wooded office park to the downtown area of a small city to provide better accessibility for and visibility to its clientele. Though there were cheaper options for a new place, those in charge decided to renovate an historic building. No expense was spared for furnishings, such as a custom-made conference table costing five figures. The lobby was done in marble. With some difficulty, an elevator was put in the old structure, which had three floors, along with new wiring for Internet and cable TV. But the conference room with its magnificent table had no built-in media capability. The CEO had nixed that expense. The kitchen had to double as a work room. There was no place for employees or visitors to park conveniently. The marble flooring cracked and got scratched. In the drive for prestige and the visual “wow” factor, practical considerations had been forgotten or never considered. Tremendous and potentially bankrupting expense had been incurred, but none of it mattered for the day-to-day operations or future success of the business.

One would think churches would know better, since supposedly they follow One who called on his followers to refuse exaltation and humble themselves. Unfortunately, the lust for prestige burns in the hearts of “Christians” of every stripe. The tall-steeple church on the hill measures its worth not in the quality of its ministries and the depth of its compassion for the hurting, but in the size of its endowment, the percentage of its members who hold positions of power in the community, and the address and purchase price of the pastor’s home. The formerly mainline denominations long for a return to the heady civil religion days of the 1950s, when their leaders had the ear of presidents and corporate moguls and appeared on the covers of newsmagazines. The little country church that hasn’t taken in a new member or had a birth in years is expected by the bureaucrats all of a sudden to grow and change now that people are moving into the area from the nearby large city. All so the Powers-that-Be can crow and say: “See, we can get the numbers, too, just like the evangelicals!” The fundamentalists of the Religious Right (RR) believe their worldview will be validated, and they can rightly claim victory for the kingdom of God and his righteousness when governments and their agencies buy the RR’s agenda of teaching warmed-over creationism known as “intelligent design” in public schools (e.g., in Louisiana) or get a Christian license plate approved and produced (South Carolina). Again, the point is “look at me, look at me!”

People and organizations that seek prestige define themselves by what they have done, especially achievements that will enable them to belittle, or distinguish themselves from, others. They place great importance on looks, whether the beauty of a face and body or the architecture of a building; and numbers, whether of people involved or dollars in a bank account. But the drive for prestige is at root fed by a deep insecurity, a fear of loss, and a need for external validation.

Jesus teaches a different way. Our identity and value come not from what we have done, even casting out demons, but from belonging to God. They aren’t based on how much we own and can spend, but on how much we have been given by a God whose love and grace know no bounds.

So, as Scripture says, “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23,24).

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

For over a decade, agents and volunteers from a local real estate firm have placed small U.S. flags along the streets of Starkville to mark Independence Day. Most of them stay put, but some fall over.

One such forlorn flag could have been rescued by a young man I recently saw leaving his apartment as I drove past. The Stars and Stripes lay partly in the wet grass, partly on the sidewalk. Rather than pick up the emblem and replant it, the man stepped on it, not even aware of its presence. His disrespect arose not from intention, but from a lack of mindfulness. Still, the effect was the same.

The incident reminded me of the trashing of another symbol some years ago by people who should have known better. My wife and I were cleaning out cabinets in the ladies’ parlor at our church when we discovered under the sink a small vintage silver chalice stuffed with dirty rags. “Horrified” does not begin to describe our reaction. How could anyone in a church have taken a vessel from the Eucharist and treated it so badly? Or even if they did not have liturgical sensitivity, how could they trash an object from the history of the congregation? I have an unsubstantiated but reasonable theory: somebody had given new, finer Communion ware, and the old cup became an embarrassment to be relegated to being a receptacle for a cleaning cloth. I guess nobody thought of donating the chalice to some other, needier church or placing it in a display case.

Somebody may ask: “What’s the big deal? It’s only a symbol.” But such a person fundamentally misunderstands symbols. They are embodied, visual metaphors, a kind of shorthand for something that could take thousands of words to explain or is beyond speaking at all. If I remember Tillich correctly, they “participate” in the reality to which they point.

So the flag reminds us of all that makes America and Americans great when we are at our best: freedom of choice, a readiness to assist those in need, a fierce devotion to and defense of the rights given in the First Amendment. Would we let such things “fall to the ground” (in the biblical phrase from 1 Samuel), that is, become ineffective or irrelevant? Why then let the flag, however small, languish on the wet grass and dirty sidewalk?

The blessed and lifted chalice invites us to reflect both on the far reach of God’s love and the human capacity for self-sacrifice (“my blood of the new covenant, shed for many”). It points us to the possibility of forgiveness, even for the worst offenders (“drink it, all of you”); the power of memory to form and sustain community (“in remembrance of me”); and the persistence of hope (“I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” [Matthew 26:29]). Even a plain and inexpensive vessel—or perhaps especially such a cup—speaks to us of such transcendent realities. Would we dismiss them as nothing more than garbage? How then can we treat their symbol with such disrespect?

Instead of disregarding, discounting or mistreating symbols, let them move us to action. That’s their ultimate purpose. For example, we show our allegiance to the flag and all that it stands for by defending our neighbor’s rights as much as our own or celebrating the realization of someone’s dream of prosperity and freedom. We honor the chalice when we demonstrate compassion and live with generosity and justice or welcome the stranger with genuine hospitality. And in doing so, we are transformed into living symbols, pointing to a reality beyond ourselves, for which we wait and work and hope.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

We don’t go to the movies much, preferring to stay at home and rent DVDs. But on occasion, when there’s something we simply must see on the big screen, we plop down our cash and go sit in a darkened room with strangers to experience some director’s vision. Our latest was the current Indiana Jones flick.

Unfortunately, our enjoyment was marred by some jerk who felt his right to talk loudly on his cell phone outweighed the right of the fifty so other people in the theater to watch a movie in peace. I spotted him when he came in and knew he would be trouble. He had his phone lit up, despite the prominent “no cell phone” signs everywhere. Every now and again the glow of the LCD on his mobile would distract me from the images I wanted to pay attention to. Finally, it happened: he got a call and proceeded to speak at FULL VOLUME from right there in his seat. The person in front of him called him down, but he kept on for awhile.

Of course, there is really nothing the management can do about such rude people. Back in the day, there were ushers stationed to call down talkers or even escort them out if they persisted. But now the quietness of a theater depends on patrons policing themselves. And most people in such a situation do that just fine. But inevitably, there’s some selfish person who believes the rules don’t apply to him or her.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at such arrogance. Rather, I should be surprised when people behave decently. My theological tradition (“Reformed”) particularly emphasizes that we are at root fundamentally flawed by sin, which not only separates us from God but from each other and from our environment. Our first and consistent thought is for ourselves. Given power in government or family or church, equipped with tools like a cell phone, a car, money or a bomb, we will most likely use the power or the tool to advance our own agendas, and to hell with everyone else. We will indulge our own desires, spending whatever it takes, doing whatever we can, to satisfy our longing or feel superior.

We have to be taught to care, nurtured in the ways of community and sharing. Obviously, the guy in the theater had never learned (or was never taught) how even to be courteous, much less be genuinely interested in somebody else’s enjoyment and needs. He was probably given no boundaries as a child and teen. All around me, I see his selfish and self-indulgent behavior becoming the rule, rather than the exception, at every level and in every context. And if that is true, I despair for our society.

Kyrie eleison.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham