October 2014


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.