November 2012


A couple of Sundays ago, I used a stage monitor as an object for the children’s word and told the kids about how it helped me hear what I was playing and singing that day. I invited the children to pay attention to what they say and reminded them that sometimes we need others to be our “monitors”  because we’re not always aware of how our speech either hurts or helps others.

Too bad everyone hasn’t learned that important lesson. Mark Coppenger, for instance. He is the professor of Christian apologetics and director of the Nashville campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When told how Unitarian Universalists are growing in numbers*, he said he wasn’t surprised. Coppenger said he’s sure that those “inclusive groups** are made up of nice people who would be good neighbors. Even so, their take on faith is wrong, he said. ‘Just because you are drawing a crowd doesn’t mean you are saying something that is true…’” (emphasis mine).

Uh, huh. So I wonder if Dr. Coppenger would apply the same logic to some of his own congregations and any number of evangelical and fundamentalist megachurches in America. They pack ‘em in. But what they say “ain’t necessarily so.”

Maybe the professor should listen to himself.

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*According to an article in The Christian Century: “In Tennessee, Unitarians grew by 20.8 percent from 2000 to 2010. During the same time frame, they grew by 22 percent in Georgia and by 42.5 percent in Colorado.”

**“Anthony David, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, which has about 1,000 members, says that Unitarians would rather be kind than right. ‘In our tradition, you get to be wrong,’ he said. ‘God is big. God is magnificent. You can’t tell me that we know everything there is to know about God yet.’”

All quotations from http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-10/unitarian-universalists-see-chance-growth-growth-secularism.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

I’m not wired, I guess, to appreciate poetry very much. I haven’t read many poets, ancient or modern; I can’t even name a handful of them. (Songs, I suppose, are different for me somehow. Here I mean poetry meant to be read.)

I love the concept  of poetry, how it breaks open reality, inviting us into an alternative world or dimension of imagination. As Walter Brueggemann said in one of his classic books, poetry is “language that moves…, that jumps at just the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace” (Finally Comes the Poet: 3). It’s subversive speech, resisting the claims of the “rulers of this age” to define what is real, true, and worthy, a privilege that belongs only to the sovereign God. Poetry, as Brueggemann observes, is expansive, while prose (“a world organized by settled formulae”) is reductionistic.

There is one poet, however. that I have read and found inspiring, thought-provoking, and heart-opening. He is Rainer Maria Rilke, an early 20th-century writer. Recently, I ran across on Krista Tippett’s blog on HuffPost a haunting work of his, “Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29.” It has affected me so deeply that I must share it with you. The translation is by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows.

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/krista-tippett/let-this-darkness-be-a-bell-tower_b_2078531.html)

Here is another of Rilke’s poems I find evocative of the hope of freedom perhaps we all cherish and the benefit of experiences, hard though they may be:

Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote: housed and protected again, one with the day, the night, knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss, innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness; only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free, through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself over the vast abyss. Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space, doesn’t it fill our hands differently with its return: heavier by the weight of where it has been.

Amen.

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Note: This post contains positive statements about President Barack Obama. These are my personal, not pastoral, views and should not be construed to be the official position of First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS.

The Religious Right has so gained control of the perception of what’s “Christian” in this nation that the sort of perspective on faith that once was widely shared and understood now is declared to be not Christian at all. So Barack Obama is criticized for not being a Christian and is even labeled a Muslim. This despite his referring to his faith more times than most presidents ever have. “‘But for many it’s the wrong kind of faith,’” says Jim Wallis of Soujourners, an evangelical social justice organization.

The Rev. Gary Cass, a conservative Christian, claims that “progressive Christian” is a contradiction. For him, Obama and others who support liberal causes and do so because they read the Bible differently are liars. They’ve co-opted Christianity to support their own agenda (John Blake, “The Gospel According to Obama, October 21, 2012; http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/21/to-some-obama-is-the-wrong-kind-of-christian/?hpt=hp_c1).

For these kinds of conservatives, there is obviously only one kind of Christian that can be considered the “right” kind. You have to use the “proper” language (“I’m born again, praise the Lord”), be on the “correct” side of issues (gay marriage, abortion, the structure of the family, health care, taxing the rich, the Middle East, global warming, science), believe in a literal six-day creation, go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church, and vote Republican. As scholar Diana Butler Bass says in the cited blog, “‘The kind of faith that Obama articulates is not the sort of Christianity that’s understood by the media or by a large swath of Christians in the U.S.’” Progressive (AKA “mainline”) Christianity has lost its place in the public square and has to fight these days to be understood. Its nuanced, intellectual, and not-easily-summarized-in-a-sound-bite faith is hard to articulate when everyone seems to want only short answers that confirm what they already believe, not challenge and invitation to thoughtful consideration.

So, is there a “right” kind of Christian? I think so, but it’s not what the Religious Right and people like Cass say it is. For me, the right kind of Christian is someone who pays more attention to what Jesus did as reported in the gospels than to made-up doctrines about him. Such a believer models his or her life after Jesus and so is open to those who are marginalized, voiceless, scorned, and feared. He or she is not afraid to criticize and call to account his or her own religious system and question its departure from its core values in favor of distorted doctrines and exclusive traditions. This sort of Christian can admit and celebrate that those outside his or her faith tradition, including other Christians or those who follow a different path, can be and are pleasing to God, as Jesus did with the Roman centurion and the Canaanite woman in Matthew. This kind of person’s life is about hospitality and justice and compassion, not intolerance, hatred, and judgmental condemnation.

It is the total witness of someone’s life in public and private, not a position on this issue or that or a certain reading of the Bible that shows whether one is a Christian or not. Jesus said it. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

© 2012 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.