Did I Go Too Far? Or Not Far Enough?

Recently I sent a letter to a high church official. I received no answer, although I emailed it to an address given on the organization’s website. I received no acknowledgment from the person I addressed or an assistant.

I present it here, lightly edited, with identifiers removed.

Grace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ, who animates the world and makes all things possible.

I am writing to you with a concern as a lifelong member of the [unnamed church organization]…

A friend of mine, also of long-standing, has informed me of a letter she and others received several years ago from the [lay leader]… of her church. I have not been able to read the contents of that letter, but she has informed me of its general content.

Apparently it is [your organization’s] practice to send letters to members who do not have a record of communion and do not make a financial offering for several years. The letter informs them they should be on record for communing or sending an offering, or they will be dropped from the membership rolls.

The letter apparently was written in an insulting, bureaucratic, and corporate tone. She is not given to exaggeration, has a good mind for detail, and I believe her.

This is abhorrent on several levels. First, I have long been bemused and put off by the use of communion cards, as if the presence of the risen Lord is in some way quantifiable. The card reduces an ineffable encounter with God to mere record-keeping. You may as well give reward points for each visit to the rail.

Secondly, and more importantly, letters of this kind reinforce the idea that the body of Christ should be run on a business model. This is far removed from the concept of the church as the sum total of the faith of its members. Apparently churches are at a financial disadvantage that have too large a percentage of inactive, i.e., non-revenue-producing members.

I have seen comments to the effect that other Christian churches do the same thing. Apparently a corporate mentality exists across American religion.

I understand that churches are housed in buildings that need upkeep and must pay their clergy and staff. And I applaud the [denomination’s] many efforts on behalf of the powerless. I am proud of [its] heritage of musicality and unrestrained preaching of the word.

But by imitating corporate philosophies that regard employees/worshipers as economic units, the church is complicit in a power structure that wounds the dignity of the very people it is commanded to champion. Skeptics see this clearly and it provides one more reason for them to stay away.

I think that, if the church truly wants to draw in those members (who know injustice when they see it), it should engage at the grassroots level in critical reflection of and repentance from an essentially profit-centered model, and open itself to the economy of God, which is based on generosity rather than scarcity.

I am not an economist, or for that matter, a businessman, but I am certain that a more equitable system could be imagined through the Holy Spirit, and implemented by the laity. What a witness that would be to a world of inequality.

I am not naive. I know I am speaking in broadly idealistic terms that would meet stiff resistance on the grounds of practicality.

But Christianity itself is supremely impractical. At its head is a God who died in disgrace, preaching a gospel of losing one’s life in order to save it, rising in defiance of all expectations.

It’s time to dream of the impossible. I thank you for reading this and wish you God’s guidance in your servant position.

Sincerely, Larry Bliss, [member] since 1965.

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Bits and Pieces: March 2018

More snippets from my journaling of March 2018. I am omitting names and events and bursts of anger. Consider these as fragments, adding up to form a semi-accurate sense of myself.

A safe place to lay out my heart… that’s what I can be with You, Lord. The phrase resonates with me, who grew up unsafe… as did all we humans.

I have so many things to thank you for, Lord, most of all for saving me from my sin. Thank you for the dynamo of your Power that revved up next to me on August 30, 1978. Thank you for the sacrament of Holy Communion. You rescued me from my active addiction and from the worst consequences of my alienation from God. I could thank you for a million things. As I say frequently, God is good.

The lesson is: when I focus on my disappointed expectations, I get disappointed… What I see, I magnify. Either plus or minus, I magnify it… I love NA and sometimes I don’t like it… But it has taught me so much. I owe it my life and sometimes (a lot of times) I forget that… I didn’t get to 29 years by sitting on my ass.

When I look at my complexity, I would really like to be balanced by a woman who has simplicity in her, who just likes to be around me, who I just like to be around… My goal is to recapture that simplicity in my life.

Putting myself out there. A theme for this year. Boost a little confidence, a little experience making mistakes.

I think my own high standards for myself have seeped over into expectations of others… who have years clean.

Maybe I do use my education as a means to feel superior. It’s a fine line between taking pride in one’s ability and being prideful.

This is my season to grow. Can’t rush it, though. Waiting and wondering is part of the territory. I have to believe it will all be worth it one day. But first comes preparation. And in the meantime, receiving blessings with open hands.

Help me Jesus. Please help me through this night and tomorrow. I am feeling week and need your strength. But I cannot live in the future for a call/text that may never come. I have only the now.

I feel that you God are failing me. I am putting my heart and soul into this, and you are giving back nothing in return. Apparently you want to see me get hurt to teach me some sort of lesson. Well, enough. I feel hurt, okay?

The Word Became Flesh. Really.

The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us (John 1:14). What happens when someone lives among us? They come to know us, to learn our ways, to experience our ways of togetherness and celebration. They learn what makes us angry, sad, giddy, ecstatic, lonely. Maybe they don’t become one of us, but they come to know us intimately.

We under the Cross believe in a familiar God, one we can call by name. Our Baptist sisters and brothers speak of a personal relationship with Jesus… which may have the unintended effect of blinding us to the communal Jesus.

Yet he began his while among us as a stranger, an oddball, the only human being not created inside the womb. We thought we understood him, but as time passed, and the full import of his message sank in, we grew only more perplexed.

This outsider perspective led him to preach some very strange things. Bless your enemies. Love the undesirables. Exchange your precious, unique life for an uncertain existence grounded in an unseen god. Respond to an economy of scarcity with five loaves and two fishes. In short, be very very different.

Oh how we adore the acceptance, the applause of others. I want to be cool, part of what the Sixties called the in crowd. So many times I place money, power, and prestige in front of humility, other-serving, and repentance.

(Repentance is one of those words the preachers and theologians have worn out. All it means is: you know you did wrong, and you stop doing it. Simple.)

You can offer a thousand reasons why so many reject Christianity—the hypocrisy of Christians, clergy abuse, blind nationalism (all important issues)–but perhaps the main reason has to do with our lack of power. We (or most of us) intend to do right, but we fail. We trip over our own self-centeredness, and we fail. And no amount of therapy or self-actualization can prevent this. On our own power, we cannot be good. We have to let God be good for us.

Many preach a comfortable, prosperity-making gospel. This ain’t it.

I would rather be rich and comfortable, with every desire seen to, every whim obeyed.

It is simply not in the cards. A life like that would kill my spirit. Maybe it would work for you, but then you would be getting your reward in this world, and not the next.

The Word lived with among us for a while—a short one by today’s lifespan. It is more than past time for we who claim the blessing of the Word to live outside of our privilege and dwell with the very people we want to forget.

Shrive* (After Raging at God)

Christianity is not for the faint of heart. If you take God’s promises seriously, sometimes you will be let down.

I have been so angry at my Creator I could not talk, only type. Last night I reached an impasse, and in an intuitive, desperate leap, I began talking to Mary.

This is unusual behavior for this Lutheran. My church frowns on the idea of Mary being a kind of fourth person of the Trinity, as being necessary to speaking to Jesus who speaks to God. I believe she was an amazing woman. (Think of it—little Jesus must have been a handful.)

Nevertheless, I called her name. Years ago, when I was hurting, I encountered a statue of her. Her arms were outstretched in stone tenderness, and her face was kindly.

Last night all my friends were unavailable, so I poured out my sadness and disappointment to her. She listened and stayed with me a while.

To have been shriven (as in Shrove Tuesday) means, in my experience, to be completely known for one’s weaknesses, and accepted anyway. To have revealed to oneself the yawning gap between one’s intentions and one’s performance, the roaring space between what you are and what you want, the gulf you can not cross under your own power.

Sometimes there are no answers to the demanding questions, at least not in the moment. Others may hear voices from God. I don’t. Still, being heard and being shriven is enough for this one day.

* to free from guilt. intransitive verb. archaic : to confess one’s sins especially to a priest.

Reminders

You are not the center of the Universe. You owe the world a living, not the other way around. In this life you will suffer.

God hates injustice, bullying, self-seeking, power-lust, and a lack of empathy.

The other gender is not your plaything. Sex is not a tool.

Your harsh words deeply wound people.

One day your sins will find you out. You won’t like this.

Everyone you love will die.

You are the crown of creation. Your presence completes the Universe.

God loves kindness, encouragement, seeking the welfare of others, willingness to share power, and having a heart for others.

The other gender enriches you. Sex is an art form.

Your kind words will make someone’s day.

This day your blessings will come back to you. You will cherish this.

Everyone you love lives now.

A Life of Gratitude

When I got clean, the people who had been in recovery longer than me—in other words, everyone—told me to do several things: make meetings, take things a day at a time, stay away from old friends, call others in recovery. They didn’t tell my why, other than to stay clean. They told me to do them. The why would come later.

One suggestion/order was to make a gratitude list. Write down the things I was grateful for, no matter how rotten I thought life was. If I had writer’s block, start with: 1) I’m clean, then 2) I’m alive.

The practice serves me well to this day.

Gratitude lists have made me a much happier person. Making them focuses me on the positive. I am a firm believer that we have the choice as to where we set our minds. Gratitude shows me what is right and true in my world, which is now so precious.

I give thanks for the big things: recovery, good health, shelter, family, friends, conscious contact with a higher power. But I also give thanks for the smallest of things: a pleasant encounter with a stranger, a baby’s attention, the reflection of a cloud in a window.

Small things matter. Like the proverbial tip of the iceberg, minutia hint at hidden significance. The great architect Mies van der Rohe said God is in the details. Yes.

The “attitude of gratitude” changes your world, incites a small revolution in your worldview. It does not make the world a happier place. It makes you a happier place.

I am not pollyanna-ish about gratitude. Sometimes in my screw-you moods, I make my list through clenched teeth. I tell God that I want this suckiness to end as I want nothing else, and I don’t want anyone to bother me, but I am grateful for… And then I fill in the blank. If I do this long enough in enough detail, my thanks become sincere again and my black cloud dissipates.

It works for me. It will work for you.

Here goes: [insert name] am grateful for… Fill in the blanks. Maybe you won’t have many items on your first list, but with practice, they add up.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared my thoughts with you. Peace.

Lead Me, Guide Me, Along the Way…

Uncertainty, pain, and suffering are woven into our DNA. American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, author, essayist, scholar, and activist, knew this. He prayed:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

A Few Words About the M-Word

For adults only, adolescents, and precocious kids

Shhh… shhh… maintain low tones… I am going to discuss (wait for it)… masturbation. Persons of delicate constitutions and/or sexual hangups should leave now.

Is anything as universal and secretive? Masturbation dates back probably to Adam before Eve, and yet even mentioning its existence is considered vulgar in polite society. Given our preoccupation with hook-ups, BDSM, threesomes, and swapping, saying “quiet please” to discussions of solitary pleasure is absurd.

All of the information presented in this essay, it goes without saying, is based on the experience of people other than me.

Immediately after the first wank, condemnation followed. Various religious texts prohibit five-finger (less for women) dating, often based on the premise that its practitioners load up with fantasies involving the wrong people.

Shall we be real? In and of themselves, fantasies are not harmful or wrong, unless you mistake them for reality. The workings of the theater of the imagination only present a potential for problems if they are acted upon. The First Amendment says this, somewhere.

Others argue that flying solo is unhealthy. So is gardening, if you do it too much. For most people, beer is not harmful unless consumed in cases. As in all habits, moderation is the key.

(I should be serious a moment. Use of the, er, equipment presents problems if practiced in long sessions too frequently. Like architecture, less is more.)

So folks, let’s go easy on ourselves. There are plenty of opportunities for guilt without adding another. God wired human beings for pleasure. If not, our arms would not be exactly the right length.

Thank you for your attention. I gotta go.

God’s Timing

You have to have a card to get into the building I live in. The other morning, as I was about to go on a short photo walk, two EMS techs were waiting at the door. I let them in and asked if it was an emergency. Just a fall, they said.

Just a fall. From their point of view, this was all in a day’s work. They encounter much worse. But to people my age and older, a fall is a serious matter.

I said a prayer and went out, headed for a magnolia tree with blossoms in all stages of bloom. I made some pleasing compositions.

When I came back in about twenty minutes, the elevator doors were just opening. I recognized one of my neighbors in the stretcher.

I averted my eyes and went up the nearby stairs, so as to be unobtrusive. I can only imagine the embarrassment of being wheeled out to the ambulance. It could easily have been me. Fortunately no one else was around to witness her trauma.

This just happened. I am praying for her now, as she enters the hospital and undergoes a long succession of doctors, tests, waiting, and questions. As she sits with her mortality.

There is such a thing as God’s timing. My goal was to take a few pictures but I became a vessel of prayer. There was no coincidence here. I was meant to see it, and lift this hurting woman to God’s mercy.

I am reminded to remain attuned to unexpected events. My own problems seem smaller now. We are all connected, each to the other, as we are meant to.

It is time to pray again.

It’s All About the Labels

I have written before about the drawbacks of stereotyping and the misapplication of labels (Wakey, Wakey). Although necessary for organizing our thoughts about the world, they also mislead and oversimplify.

In addition to “liberal,” there is one label that applies to me in part and yet describes me poorly: “evangelical”.

From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, definition 1: of or relating to a Christian sect or group that stresses the authority of the Bible, the importance of believing that Jesus Christ saved you personally from sin or hell, and the preaching of these beliefs to other people.

In that sense I and millions of other Americans are evangelicals. We believe in spreading the Gospel. We believe in having a living relationship with Jesus.

Back in the early Eighties, I knew some evangelicals in college. They were decent folk, with a sincere desire to learn about and obey God. Friendly, fun-loving, devout, salt of the earth. They welcomed me and fellowshiped with me at a turning point in my life, and I am in their debt.

At least in the conversations they had with me, they preferred C. S. Lewis to Jerry Falwell, whose star had just begun to rise. Which brings me to another definition, listed fourth by Merriam-Webster:

Definition 4b: of, adhering to, or marked by fundamentalism.

Therein lies my problem. As practiced in the United States, fundamentalism (by which I mean the so-called Religious Right) has adopted abhorrent political stances: homophobia (or more accurately, hatred of homosexuals), racism, nativism, sexism, false patriotism, and distorted love of capitalism. Lately they have made a devil’s bargain with the Trump administration’s obeisance to money and power.

When the mainstream media says evangelicals are flocking to Trump, they are referring to definition four. Although journalists don’t mean it personally, their reporting often associate mes with political views that violate my most basic values.

I wish the mainstream media would cover the Christians like us, who base our lives on definition one. There are sources out there that show the nuances of American Christians, such as the Christian Science Monitor, but most news organizations portray evangelicals with little subtlety, as if we all thought alike.

As a definition-one evangelical, this is the ground I stand on: the authority of the Bible, as opposed to the fundamentalistic insistence on a literal interpretation. Authority means to me that God has included in the Bible all a Christian needs to know about life and living on a personal level. God has the last word.

The Bible is not meant to dictate every move you make. In that sense, it is not a “user manual” as some like to claim. I think of it as more of a jazz chart, setting forth essential themes while allowing the freedom to improvise.

By contrast, literalism weakens the mind and wounds the spirit, ill preparing its adherents to a pluralistic society. It infects followers with a constant desire to look behind them and make sure they are obeying a demanding god to the letter.

Perhaps they are afraid that Jesus is catching up with them.

The Word also proclaims a vision of a just society. Many of the Trump-following evangelicals do not, or would rather not, see the implications of this vision, since injustice is now so rampant in our culture.

We need a national conversation on many things, including the intersection of church and state. We need to open our minds to the possibility that women and men of faith can have sharp differences over public policy while working for the common good. More discourse, less demonization.

Taking down a few stereotypes would be a good place to start.