April 2013


People leave all sorts of things behind when they die. Their clothes or books or whatever can be given to a thrift store or divided among heirs and other family members. The assets are distributed as per the will, if there is one. But what is to be done with old, beat-up Bibles that are falling apart?

When I became executor of my mother’s estate, I ended up with a number of such scriptures showing promiently the ravages of age, with their bindings coming loose and their pages torn and yellowed. They belonged to my grandmother, my uncle, my sister, and my mom. My Uncle Jimmy’s Air Force Bible was in particularly bad condition; it had a cheap cardboard binding to start with and had been in storage since 1957.

In all my years of ministry, I had never had to dispose of torn and tired Bibles. Usually, the books were in good enough shape to give to a church library. Not the case here. So what to do?

I consulted our district council’s historian and worship expert and also went online. There were two options: burning and burying. I chose the latter, using the cobbled together liturgy below. It felt right and, as the administration of the estate proceeds with no certain date for my discharge in view, it was nice to get some closure not only on one little aspect of my mother’s life, but on that of other family members as well.

I hope if you face a similar situation, the service below will help you in your disposal of your family’s sacred volumes.

Brief Service for Burial of Bibles

Greeting
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. His word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.

Prayer
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Scripture Reading (from a Bible to be disposed of)
Psalm 119:89-96 or
Psalm 119:105-112 or
2 Timothy 3:10- 17 or
Hebrews 4:12-13 or
James 1:19-27 or
Matthew 4:1-11

Thanksgiving and Remembrance
Holy God, we do not live by bread alone. Your word in the Holy Scriptures nourishes our spirits and guides us in loving you and our neighbor. We thank you for these Bibles and for the inspiration and strength you gave to (names of family members who owned the Bibles) in their use. With thanksgiving, we give back to you these sacred pages as we place them in the ground. Amen.

Disposal (Bibles are wrapped in a clean white cloth and placed in the hole, dug prior to the service.) A time of silence and reflection may be observed.

Dismissal with Blessing

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

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A church on a busy corner I drive past at least four times a week has had this posted on its sign for quite awhile now: “The cross was enough.”

As with the slogan I commented on in my last post, I’m puzzled. With whom is the congregation arguing or whom is it trying to convince? Why is it important to post such a theologically dense statement? How is it supposed to help any of the people who pass the sign going back and forth to the university and town everday?

Maybe the church is arguing with a Roman Catholic straw man and trying to contradict any notion that Christ is sacrificed again and again in the Eucharist. Or perhaps the target of the comment is some Christian who believes that we need to add our good works to what Jesus did in order to have salvation. But I have to wonder in what world are such questions really relevant to the day to day lives of people who pass by the sign, folks who struggle with studies and relationships and whether or not their jobs are secure or their kids are going to make the soccer team or how they’re going to take care of their aging parents. Why not post something uplifting and encouraging instead of fighting battles with imaginary theological enemies via a church sign? Why give the impression with such slogans that Christians of all sorts are only interested in esoteric questions with no application to the average person?

The sign assumes a whole theological universe, and thus proves how insulated from the real world the church (or at least the sign poster) must be. Yes, people know what “the cross” is. But then the statement calls for a follow-up: enough for what? I suspect it’s referring to an act of God in Christ for all time, but it also assumes knowledge, and asks for acceptance, of a particular theory of atonement, namely, that Jesus died to satisfy the wrath of God and took our punishment for sin.  His death was “enough” to slake a wrathful God’s thirst for bloody sacrifice.

But if that is the intent of the sign, again, how does that help real people in the real world we live in, where besides everyday suffering and worry, we once again are dealing with a terrorist attack, this time in Boston by a couple of guys or maybe more whose story is still unfolding as I write on this Friday morning? How does such a slogan possibly help us make sense of such horrific events? How would it bring comfort to a child whose leg is blown off, whose brother is dead, whose mother is seriously injured?

My point is that the church—any church—needs to be addressing not straw men and made-up problems, but the questions people ask. The theologian Paul Tillich called this the “method of correlation’,” in which Christian revelation is “correlated” with issues raised by human existence. For him, the question and the answer were not separated.

So what we need to figure out in these days is not whether the cross was enough, whatever that means, but how the cross—the suffering, the passion, the gift—of Christ touches and helps victims of terror and abuse and assault and oppression and bullying and whatever other hurts we perpetrate on each other. Perhaps hymn writer Brian Wren has an insight worth meditating on: “In every insult, rift, and war, where color, scorn or wealth divide, Christ suffers still, yet loves the more, and lives, wherever hope has died” (“Christ is Alive,” 1968).

When a church speaks in a public way, such as on its sign, it ought to do so with a clear, encouraging, and helpful voice. I only hope the church on the busy corner learns that lesson.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

A church here in Starkville has a puzzling saying posted on its sign: “Faith Changes Facts.” Since I drove past the other day, I’ve been wondering what that sentence could possibly mean, and more than that, why anybody thought it necessary to say such a thing.

Does whoever selected the slogan intend for us to think that faith can nullify natural laws or alter uncomfortable realities? If I believe I won’t be hurt if I jump off a high building, does my faith do away with the effects of gravity? If my loved one has cancer that is resistant to treatment, does my conviction that there is no such thing as cancer send the disease into remission?

Or maybe the congregation is weighing in on the constant battle over “evolution vs. creation.” Just because I might not want to believe that apes and humans came from a common ancestor or that organisms change and adapt to their environments over time or that the earth is billions of years old, does that render scientific evidence for all these assertions wrong and trumped-up?

Please! Faith doesn’t change facts. That’s not what faith is for. Faith gives us strength to face facts, to accept our inoperable cancer and die with dignity; to move through the long, dark night of grief with the assurance that mourning will be turned to dancing; to look in the mirror and see that aging visage staring back at us and know that we are not defined by how we look or what we have, but by how we live. Then we trust God to guide us today and the next day and the next.

The sentence on the church signboard is nothing more than childish magical thinking, the common idea that if you believe something hard enough and repeat it long enough, it will happen. Mature biblical faith by contrast is robust and realistic; it leads us out into a world that doesn’t always work to our benefit or the way we think it should, and we go because we have confidence that in the midst of those uncomfortable realities, we meet God, working his will and showing his love.

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved. 

The North Carolina bill that would have established a state religion is dead, thanks be to God. It was killed on Thursday, the day before I wrote my post, but I only found out today.

I am astonished and troubled, though, that about a third of Americans said in a recent poll that Christianity should be the official religion of their state. 32% even said they would favor a constitutional amendment making Christianity the established religion of the US!

Those numbers should be zero, if people were smart and really cared about faith, the common good, and the life of the nation. That sort of entanglement is not good for government or religion.

At least the majority in the poll thought both possibilities were a bad idea. But the numbers are still astounding, so I say: God help us!

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Source:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/06/christianity-state-religion_n_3022255.html?ir=Religion

Some lawmakers in North Carolina want to establish Christianity as the official religion of the state. They say separation of church and state applies only to the federal government.

The bill introduced on April 1 (no, it’s not a joke) reads:

“SECTION 1. The North Carolina General Assembly asserts that the Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit states or their subsidiaries from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

“SECTION 2. The North Carolina General Assembly does not recognize federal court rulings which prohibit and otherwise regulate the State of North Carolina, its public schools, or any political subdivisions of the State from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

The impetus for the measure was a suit in Rowan County filed on behalf of three citizens who objected to the local Board of Commissioners opening meetings exclusively with Christian prayer, thus giving preference to one religion.

Of course, the legislators really care nothing about religion. This is a power play, plain and simple. As a person of faith and a leader of a Christian church, I object to and am disgusted by this blatant disregard, in the name of Christianity and Christ, for neighbors of other faiths or no faith. Jesus said “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and echoing Leviticus, called on his followers to love our neighbors as ourselves. How does running roughshod over the feelings and viewpoints of others honor either principle? Clearly it doesn’t. Jesus must be weeping over what power-hungry and insensitive politicians are doing supposedly in his name.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing has been around since the Pilgrims landed. The Puritans, contrary to what we were taught, did not come to these shores seeking freedom in general. They sought freedom of religion only for themselves. People like Roger Williams were exiled. Native American spirituality was looked on as heathen and devilish. As Richard T. Hughes notes: “The Puritans sought freedom for themselves but for no one else” (Myths America Lives By: 28).

Whether in the 17th century or the 21st, Christian faith is not about imposing a viewpoint on our neighbors by laws or violence. It’s about seeking the common good, together with all people of good will; being open to the insights of others that may and will enrich our perceptions of what God is doing in the world; and most of all, displaying humble love that regards the other as more important than ourselves (1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 2:3).

Not even the bill’s sponsors expect it to go anywhere. God grant that it be so. May he defeat all such wrong-headed and idolatrous attempts to force others to worship and live in a way a few declare to be right. 

© 2013 Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Sources:

“States’ Rights And Religion: North Carolina Legislators Say U.S. Constitution Doesn’t Apply To Them” https://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/states-rights-and-religion-north-carolina-legislators-say-us-constitution

“North Carolina May Declare Official State Religion Under New Bill” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/03/north-carolina-religion-bill_n_3003401.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=040313&utm_medium=email&utm_content=NewsEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

For an excellent discussion of matters of the common good and politics, see Arianna Huffington at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/jim-wallis-on-gods-side_b_3001635.html and Jim Wallis at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/on-gods-side-for-the-comm_b_2973104.html.