October 2012


Disclaimer: This post contains negative comments about Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock. The statements are my personal views. They should not be construed as official statements from First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS or from me as pastor of the church.

Last Sunday, I asked the church school class I teach to share the dumbest statement they had ever heard. One member, a ruling elder (lay officer), said: “It was God’s will.”

After my initial shock and dismay at Richard Mourdock’s statements on Tuesday claiming that pregnancy from rape “is something God intended to happen,” I thought of that elder’s assessment of views that apparently maintain that a) God makes everything happen; and b) the speaker has a direct line to God so he or she is sure of what God wills/intends.

Mourdock has refused to apologize for the statement, which has brought derision and outrage.  And he has also blamed Democrats for twisting his words. He said: “‘For speaking from my heart, from the deepest level of my faith, I cannot apologize…. I would be less than faithful to my faith if I said anything other than life is precious. I think it is a gift from God. I don’t think God would ever want anyone harmed, sexually abused, or raped. I think it’s wrong when someone wants to take what I said and twist it’” (http://thehill.com/blogs/healthwatch/politics-elections/263843-mourdock-stands-by-abortion-view-says-dems-twisted-his-meaning).

The article I just cited, like many others, is a political piece. I haven’t seen much theological comment on Mourdock’s outrageous views, but then I don’t read that widely. I did see recently religion editor and Baptist Paul Brandeis Raushenbush’s take on the issue: “No God didn’t. There are some things that God doesn’t intend. At some point, sane religious people must insist that not everything was meant to happen, including rape — and including conception as the result of a rape”  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-raushenbush/richard-mourdock-god-abortion_b_2009718.html).

All I’ve read about his affiliation is that Mourdock is an “evangelical.” Given his comments, though, I think I could also safely label him as a hyper-Calvinist. The media have pointed out that his views come from his opposition to abortion, but they also sound to me like the statements of someone who believes in an extreme (and I would say, corrupt and mistaken) form of predestination. This spin on Calvin’s “horrific doctrine” (Calvin’s words) says that everything that happens is ordained by God, whether in the world at large or your or my personal lives. Every detail is planned out from before the foundation of the world for everybody for all time, from what you will have for breakfast tomorrow to whether or not I will go to heaven.

Here is a sample from the Westminster Confession of Faith (17th century), which was the only official statement of faith for the Presbyterian Church for a long time:  “God from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin; nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.” Even this lovely little catechism answer from The Heidelberg Catechism, meant to provide assurance, could be troubling: “Q. What is your only comfort, in life and in death? A. That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation” (emphases mine).

People who need to believe God intends everything or causes everything to happen do so, in my view, because they need to be assured that somebody somewhere is in control. It doesn’t matter how horrific the implications are, like God intends a pregnancy from rape or caused your only child to be killed in combat or a car accident or ordained the Holocaust. These folk bracket those concerns because their immediate need is to be free of the fear that the universe is spinning down into chaos or humanity is sailing off the edge of the world with no one at the helm.

But ultimately such ideas—and the people who espouse them—are dangerous and wrong. They result in everything from hurt feelings (as at the funeral when someone tells you your loved one is dead because it was “God’s will”) to genocide, when those sure of whom God favors decide to slaughter their enemies in God’s name. They lead to laws that take away your freedom and mine to choose our own course of moral action and substitute the narrow viewpoint of a legislator who is sure he or she knows “what God intends.”

Much better to affirm that indeed God will ultimately be victorious and his dream of peace, freedom, justice, and love will prevail. But in the meantime, we cannot know with certainty what God wants in every particular nor is our life planned out to the smallest detail. That doesn’t scare me. It makes me feel free and grateful and determined to make the best choices I can, by God’s grace.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

A couple of months ago, some sociologists of religion from the University of Washington presented a paper entitled “God is Like a Drug: Explaining Interaction Ritual Chains in American Megachurches.” The authors theorized that large religious events add a dimension of transcendence to the euphoria felt by crowds at other gatherings, like sporting events and concerts. According to the report in The Christian Century (9/19/12: 18-19), “the spiritual high from megachurch services is experienced as an ‘oxytocin cocktail’ of shared transcendent experience and the brain’s release of oxytocin, a chemical thought to play a part in social interaction.”

One of the authors, Ph.D. candidate Katie Corcoran, recounts how one worshipper described God’s love as “such a drug that you can’t wait to come get your next hit.” Another congregant said that the Holy Spirit was visible going over the crowd “like a wave at a football game.”

The high is created by the style of worship in megachurches, which includes a sermon targeted at the emotions, projected scenes of people dancing or crying, and intense music. The pastor is the center of energy and appeals not to reason in the sermons but intuition. The message just “feels right” said the other author of the study, Professor James Wellman. The Sunday worship, with its promise to get one high again, is what brings people back.

After I finished the brief article, I didn’t know whether to be envious or angry. Envious, when I think of how many times I’ve looked out over congregations and seen people stone-faced or exhibiting body language that signaled rejection of the message I was preaching, even as I searched for one or two affirming nods or smiles and worried if the rare visitor would return. Yet here were megachurch pastors pumping their huge crowds full of the God drug, getting them so addicted that they keep coming back for more! Angry, because I despise manipulation, and these pastors with their emotional appeals and their cameras scanning the crowd for faces to display on the screens were in fact little better than the backstreet pusher, selling a product that produced a temporary high, but provided no real coping skills, no solid content for dealing with the difficulties of life.

Of course, this kind of thing has been around since way back in the day. What else is a revival than an attempt to pump the folks full of the God drug so they can keep going till the next tent goes up, with the dynamic preacher and the catchy music? What was that song about in the ‘70s that proclaimed “Jesus made me higher than I’ve ever been before” or Natural High, the underwhelming follow-up to the classic “folk musical” Tell It Like It Is?

I guess I just don’t get it. As I said last week, I think God comes to us in the ordinary stuff of life, whether it’s a simple, dignified, traditional time of worship or simply sitting quietly. I have no desire to be a pusher. I just want to be a pastor, giving people real, sustainable strategies to help them with life in a way no drug, allegedly divine or otherwise, can do. To me, that’s what “just feels right.”

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

A few weeks ago, I met with the owners of an estate sale company to try to arrange for the disposal of items remaining in my late mother’s home. No sooner had the men sat down than one of them said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. What you have here is just ordinary stuff.” Their clientele was not going to be interested in buying figurines, purses, and a few pieces of vintage furniture. The men could not justify the expense of hiring help, advertising, and so on; there was no promise of profit.

Fortunately, they had advice for me about to whom I might turn whose business handled the sorts of things I had to offer. But even as I proceeded with plans with the recommended company, the man’s phrase kept bumping around in my head and heart: “ordinary stuff.”

It wasn’t long before my thoughts turned to theology. (No surprise.) It is the ordinary stuff of our lives that interests God, isn’t it? At the very heart of Christian faith is the Incarnation, the affirmation that God became truly human in Jesus. He was a typical Jewish male of his day, in whom God shone and dwelt in a unique and noticeable way. He talked about everyday things in his parables—eating, sweeping, animals, birds, employment, farming, partying—and it was through such that he revealed to us the nature of the kingdom of God. Today we remember him through the sharing of bread and wine, and we unite with him and our sisters and brothers in faith through a ritual of water, the very essence of life.

Whatever is routine, usual, quotidian, repeated daily, ordinary is the stuff in and through which God speaks and acts. As Frederick Buechner said, God’s word is incarnate in “the flesh and blood of ourselves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys.”

Neither my mother nor I had or have much that is extraordinary when it comes to possessions. But thanks be to God, he took the ordinariness of her life, and he takes mine and yours and shows his glory and love through it.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1,2)

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

I first learned the word “dilatory” when I worked in a law firm in the late ‘70s. It means “given to or causing delay,” and comes from a late Latin word for “defer” (that is, to a later time). Synonyms or related terms might be “slothful,” “lazy,” and “passive-aggressive.” Dilatory lawyers are usually the latter, dragging out cases forever, “forgetting” to file papers, and the like. Being dilatory is a strategy for control and the retention of power.

Recently I’ve encountered a good many instances of dilatoriness. Like the cable company that told me it would take 8-10 weeks to get a little refund check, because “it had to come from corporate.” What, I wondered, was “corporate” doing that it took that long to process a single check? My answer ultimately was that they were delaying because they could. The company has a monopoly in its market. (In fairness, it actually took only a little over a week for the check to arrive.)

Then there is the road construction crew that has been building a bypass around Centreville, AL for as long as I can recall. Not just months, but years to complete a few miles of highway. Why so long? Before that, it took at least a decade for other portions of Highway 82 in AL and MS. Again, why so long? Is it funding? Is it permits? Is it that the crews aren’t really working? I don’t get it, but then I know nothing about building highways, so maybe years is simply how long it takes.

During the same time I was dealing with the cable company and contemplating the slow progress on the AL bypass, I began reading Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s book That Used To Be Us. They start by contrasting a project in China and one in Washington, DC. “It took China’s Tela Construction Group thirty-two weeks to build a world-class convention center from the ground up—including giant escalators in every corner—and it was taking the Washington Metro crew twenty-four weeks to repair two tiny escalators of twenty-one steps each” (4).  The repairs to the escalators, which had been terribly neglected in recent years, were causing big delays for commuters. Why could China build a huge structure in only two months longer than an American crew could repair the two escalators in Washington? The thing was, no one was asking why the maintenance took so long. People were simply used to it (5).

We ought to be concerned about the slowness of work on highways and other infrastructure and complain when customer service is unresponsive and drags out simple functions like sending a rebate or a refund. But there is a larger issue that the scriptures I cited above raise or seek to deal with. It’s the dilatoriness of God.

Why is God so slow? Whyfor thousands of years has he let drag on, and indeed increase, injustice and wickedness and greed and all manner of terrible things from the atrocities of individuals, groups, and nations to the bullying of kids on Facebook or the schoolyard to the hurts we perpetrate on each other daily? What exactly does he do all day? Is he dilatory in the manner and for the reason of the lawyers I mentioned: to demonstrate his power, to keep us under his thumb? Is he reminding us who’s boss? Or is he impotent and ineffective? Could he be otherwise occupied with problems in the Andromeda galaxy instead of with our little planet and our tiny lives?

These are questions people have been asking for a very long time, and there have been no answers, other than the sorts of things that people like the author of 2 Peter have said, which strike me as not helpful. In fact, I’m more likely to get an answer for why the Centreville bypass is taking so long than I am to get clarity on the theological issues I and so many others have posed.

If I were you, and you have the same questions, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a response. It will take an eternity.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.