My Proud, Beloved Infidel

I saw a man wearing a shirt identical to this earlier today.

We’re all unfaithful,
To one thing or another,
God, women, whiskey,
cigarettes brands and two bit songs,
Or beer to cheap to pour in glasses to dirty to wash,
But I’ve never been proud to be unfaithful,
To somebody else’s God,
My hands are full,
Disappointing my own.

–Richard Bryant

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Is It Too Dangerous To Be A Good Samaritan?

I’ve been thinking about Good Samaritans.

The recent murders of two men on a Portland, Ore. commuter train by a man who was harassing a teenager and her Muslim friend wearing a hijab raises an important question.  In a time where sectarian violence is becoming more common; is being a Good Samaritan more dangerous than ever before?  In risking our lives to save others are we risking too much; putting some in unnecessary jeopardy because our sense of civic decency and religious pride cannot ignore a man with mental illness?  It’s a tough question to decide, in an instant, for what offensive behaviors one is willing to die.

Far from a simple question of situational ethics, the idea of the “Good Samaritan” is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and one that Christians cannot ignore.  The concept of the “Good Samaritan” emerges from Luke’s gospel.  It is a Christian story and for the most part, the secular world gets it wrong.  The “Good Samaritan” is an anti-hero.  His questions and motivation are not lost on today’s headlines.

As Jesus tells it, a man was traveling a dangerous road between two cities.  This road was known to be one where thieves, robbers, and bandits regularly plied their trade.  It was a dangerous path.  The man should have known better than to take this road.  It was, however, this quickest way to his destination. Somewhere along the road he was jumped, robbed, beaten, and left for dead.  No one intervened to stop his beating.  No one fought the robbers.  No one called the police.  He laid there, in the road, a corpse in the making.

While the man lay dying, on two separate occasions, two people walked by his half-dead body.  These people, while very religious, did nothing to help the man.  They valued their religious obligations over any duties toward people in need.

About this same time, a Samaritan was travelling along the road.  Samaritans were not do-gooders with first aid packs, civic heroes, or well-respected people.  The Samaritans were an ethnic group; a despised ethnic group.  The corpse in the making, his ethnic group hated the Samaritans.  The half dead man probably thought the Samaritans were sacrilegious heretics who worshipped a foreign God.  To most people, there was nothing “Good” about “Samaritans”.

And yet, the Samaritan stopped.  Remember the Samaritan didn’t see the initial attack.   There was no more physical violence.  There was emotional violence; that’s what the two religious guys did by ignoring the half dead man in the road.  Religious inaction is as bad as hate speech.  The robbers could have returned.  They did not.  The Samaritan picked up the nearly dead man, treated his wounds, and took him to a place where he could be cared for.  The Samaritan even paid his medical bills.

The Samaritan was “Good” because the dominant religious culture deemed him “bad”.  In last week’s attack in Portland, the Muslim women would be the modern day Samaritans.  If you want to apply the parable of the Good Samaritan: these women are the outsiders, the religious culture different from our own.  Secondly, the two men who died are also Samaritans.  I would also argue they are martyrs.  They stopped when no one else would, despite the danger (obvious or not), they came to assist someone in need. When Samaritans are assisting Samaritans, when we start to see each other as Samaritans; I can hear Jesus saying, “Now you’re getting it”.  It is notable that in Jesus’ story the Samaritan never responds with violence.  Like Jesus himself, the Samaritan counters the effects of violence with healing and compassion.  Death stops when Jesus gets involved.  Jesus (like the Samaritan) doesn’t have to kill others to be safe.

It has always been dangerous to be a Samaritan, good or otherwise.  The kingdom of God is full of Samaritans; outsiders and outcasts who are unrecognizable to the brick and mortar mainstream we call religion.  Look around at the Samaritans among you; they are in your congregations, in your pews, in your world, hiding in plain sight.   Welcome them home.  Tell them Jesus loves them, is proud of them, and their time is now.

Blessings,

Richard (the preacher next door)

I Dread the Prayer Hashtags

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I dread the prayer hashtags.  You know the ones.  Here’s some irony for you.  I’d be willing to bet that before the driver of the truck barreled into the crowd in Nice last night, he prayed.  It may have been a short prayer.  He could have been praying the entire time he drove over the bodies and killed eighty plus innocent people.  My point is this, I’m reasonably certain, at some point, he prayed for himself and the action was taking.

In the wake of the tragedy, we are inevitably reminded and asked to “Pray of Nice”.  There is so much prayer and even greater religious misunderstanding.  Is it any wonder people of good will, be they Christian, Muslim, or Jewish are confused about prayer?  The reminder to pray for somewhere or something has become a weary burden for many in the secular world.  Most people pray or reflect when confronted with the overwhelming reality of death.   They ask a simple question, “What will we recall in silence next?”  For Christians, we wonder if God is listening to our words.   There’s something more, though often ignored, is this:  prayer can be a weapon.  If not approached properly, prayer isn’t just a way to respond to tragedy but also means of justifying mass murder.  Some of my Christian colleagues talk about events and people being “bathed in prayer”.  The irony of last night (and today) is that Nice was bathed in two traditions of prayer, Islamic and Christian.

Is prayer the problem?  And by that question, I don’t mean the action, I mean the word itself.  Yes, as some have argued, Christians need to talk less and do more.  It’s easy to pray and never follow up on our prayers.  However, as the attack in Nice reminds us, once we’re asked to “pray” for an idea or place, no matter how vivid the news is made on television or the internet, we fall into a mode of powerless reflection.  What do we do then?  When we pray, we should use the words of the Psalms, the Book of Lamentations, and talk about Nice, Dallas, and give voice to those who have lost their lives.  Our thoughts should come out of our heads and hearts and onto our lips.

I do not believe that praying (in the wake of tragedy), they way we’ve been doing it, is getting us anywhere and doing much good.  Looking at colorful memes and changing on profile pictures may make us feel better or convince us we’re praying by scrolling our feed.  But that’s not prayer.  Prayers need to be unlocked from our heads and shared among each other.  Maybe we shouldn’t even call them prayers, perhaps they’re really conversations.  Some of the conversations need to be with those of other faith communities.  Our faith conversations need to be so indescribable, linguistically uncontainable; they cannot be held to 140 characters or less.  I should be able to say “God is Great” and my sisters and brothers should feel no threat in saying, “the Lord is our shepherd”.  Our conversation is to speak each other’s God talk in a way that leads to loving not killing.  That is the Jesus way of living, loving, and praying.

 

Food for Thought-I Will Not Condemn Donald Trump

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I do not agree with Donald Trump’s recent statements regarding Muslims coming to the United States. I am opposed to this idea. As a clergyperson, what should I do about my disagreement? One of the ideas repeatedly hitting my inbox is an “Open Letter from Clergy to Donald Trump”. The letter raises important concerns about dividing America along religious lines. I hold these same concerns. Despite my sympathies, I’m bothered by this letter. If religious leaders started sending such petitions, in their role as defenders of the moral and ethical status quo, to everyone who said something stupid, racist, bigoted or xenophobic; we would spend all day writing letters. The immense volume of correspondence would bring the work of ministry to a halt. Inevitably, we’d have to start sending letters to each other (pastors to pastors and church members to church members or church member to pastors and vice versa) asking our neighbors and friends to repudiate positions we find morally repulsive and religiously offensive. We would be perpetually offended, pissed off at the world and angry at something all the time. Sound familiar?

Welcome to reality, religion, and life in America. In essence, this is the platform Facebook and other social media outlets provide. In an instant, we can alienate our family and friends with instant calls to attack them, they way I’m being asked to condemn Donald Trump. Petitions and open letters aren’t new; we now do them quicker and in 140 characters or less. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” was written in response to an open letter signed by several pastors. Which one do we remember today? Is it the open letter of moral indignation or one man’s thoughtful reply and call to action? Online petitions lack the eloquence of Dr. King’s call to tangible action.

Doesn’t this come back to the essence of the issues raised by Trump and others in world dominated by war and religiously motivated terrorism? How does one remain faithful to their religious tradition without telling someone else their faith sucks and they’re going to hell? How do you condemn others without implicating your own sinfulness? You can’t do it.

One place to start would be universal declaration of non-religious suckiness: Thou shalt not say that anyone’s religion sucks.  I could sign that letter. I am also more than willing to sign a letter which bans Hell out of existence and states no one is going there for not believing the way I do. When and if I see such letters, I’ll let you know.

I would love to condemn Donald Trump. I’m not a fan. Although I agree with the premise, “America isn’t America if it’s divided along religious lines”;  I can’t sign such a letter.   Yes, people of faith shouldn’t remain silent.  But this isn’t the way to be heard.  I cannot sign the letter because of the log in my eye, the sin in my life, and the grace I’ve received which tells me the best means to reject Trump’s ideas is to love in ways I don’t think I’m capable of loving.  I wouldn’t be signing such a letter out of love.  It would be out of fear and hate.  I can’t change Donald Trump’s mind or heart. Online petitions merely feed his publicity machine. Trump needs to be hated as much as he is loved by his most ardent supporters. This is the fuel on which his campaign runs.

I can take away my hate.  At some point, I need to be comfortable in praying for Donald and letting the Holy Spirit do her thing. I can, however, feed every refugee I meet, house those I encounter, clothe the needy, comfort the sick, and visit those in jail. Our positive actions can stand in stark contrast to his dark words. Or people of faith can condemn Trump, with a host of others, online. To paraphrase Dr. Phil, “Let’s see how that’s works out for you.”

Food for Thought-Awkward Discussion Topics for A Thanksgiving Meal in Rural North Carolina

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I live in rural North Carolina. I was born and raised here.  I know Thanksgiving is a time for family discussions and catching up on the world around you.  If you’re in the rural south (or anywhere really) let me offer these awkward topics for discussion at your Thanksgiving table. These are guaranteed to enliven any celebration.  Use them at your own risk.

1. So Mom, is the upstairs bedroom ready for the refugees?

2. Have you read those Biblical verses about welcoming widows and orphans?

3. I’ve just enrolled in a new class in Sharia law. They make some super points.

4. You know, there are parts of the Bible which are just as brutal as the Quran.

5. What Would Jesus Do?

6. Are you going to eat the drumstick?

7. So I hear you’re supporting this podiatrist Ben Carson?

8. Allah is the basic Arabic word for God. We could substitute God with Allah when we bless our food.

9. Why did you make so few deviled eggs? You know I like deviled eggs. Someone ate more eggs than they were allotted by the Thanksgiving High Council.

10. Praying five times a day, formally, as mandated by some holy book. Who could get any work done? You spend all day long in prayer? Am I right?

Food for Thought-Should We Let Refugees In Who Believe In a Man Who Committed Suicide By Execution?

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There are underlying reasons (not justifications) for everything, especially when it comes to religious belief and faith in God. If you realize you’re dealing with religious people in a religious situation, believe it or not, you can start to see why people take certain actions and do certain things. Devout people are predictable. For instance, I can tell you where many of the people I know are going to be on any Sunday morning at 11:00 am. It’s a better than average chance they’ll be in church. This is because they’re usually going by a sacred book or books and accepted faith traditions which determine their religious conduct.

If one reads these holy texts in some of the many ways they might be interpreted, one may form a good idea of what motivates them to do what they do. In my case, it’s possible to understand what drives them to make audacious claims about eating the body and drinking the blood of a dead Galilean carpenter. Far from an archaic practice which recalls an instance Greco-Roman cannibalism, we symbolically retell the story of how an innocent man died. And through this death, we’ve come to understand a fuller understanding of life in the present through something called the kingdom or community of God. This is because religious belief, faith in a God, has a habit of bringing out the best and worst in people. This type of behavior has occurred long enough and in enough religious traditions (especially the Abrahamic faiths), it becomes easier to predict and understand why people make both good and bad decisions in relation to their religious faith.  Placed in one context, we think we understand how our sacred stories can help us be better people.  However, these same stories can be can not be separated from the images of death and suffering where they found their origin.  The idea of a righteous death makes good people, especially religious people, open to the idea of dying for God.

At the most basic level, Christianity is a faith built around the sacrificial death of one man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus allowed himself to die. He permitted himself to be arrested, taken, beaten, tortured, and killed by the Roman authorities. The words “allow” and “plan” are part and parcel of our Christian vocabulary. Except for a few sermons in Holy Week, when a pastor may refer to Jesus’ desire to have the “cup pass from him”, there’s never any indication given that Jesus didn’t want to die. We love to talk about how Jesus wanted to die for our sins. Jesus committed suicide by allowing himself to be executed by the Roman army.

Modern Christians take this idea for granted. It makes us squeamish. Jesus, on the cross, becomes the first Christian martyr. He is martyred for the ideas, beliefs, and religious vision. Towards the end of the 23rd chapter of Luke, awaiting his death by martyrdom, Jesus tells one of the two thieves who is dying with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” As a willing martyr, Luke says he awaits a place in paradise. We compose hymns about his desire to die. Palestinian mothers (perhaps from Nazareth or Bethlehem) sing songs today about their own sons who choose the path of martyrdom and death:

The martyr give us stone from his blood,
From his red blood thee rose becomes red
His mother trills for him in joy,
He has given his blood to the nation.

A camp meeting hymn by another name? It sounds almost Pentecostal, doesn’t it?

Are others killed when Jesus chooses to die on the cross? On that day, no. Will other early Christians eventually choose death, suicide, and martyrdom? Yes. Embedded within the creation our own Abrahamic faith tradition is the violent suicide by execution of Jesus of Nazareth. The glorification of choosing death would seem to be at the heart of what we believe and do. We appear to be more than at peace with this notion.  We revel in our bloody past.  We tell the stories.  We read the books and now we show the videos.

Who would want to let anyone into the United States (or any other country) who held such strange beliefs? Surely, anyone who believed in symbolic cannibalism or suicidal death cult leader would be a threat to the good order of rural communities all over the United States. He believes in dying and going to paradise? Are there 72 virgins involved? That’s awful suspicious. Could Jesus be a “terrorist”? What if Jesus’ followers infiltrated the country and started encouraging others to commit suicide as a means of civil disobedience to unjust laws? He did it once before. We don’t know what he really believes because none of us have read the religious texts relevant his teachings. Who reads Greek or Aramaic? Certainly not the government. Perhaps, we should ban all Christians from entering the United States of America. We might need to get rid of the ones we have.

Food for Thought-Surely This is About More Than Praying for Paris

Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr

So what do we do? What does a country do when it has bombed everyone it can bomb? Osama bin Laden is dead.  We’ve killed the number two in every militant group twice over.  What do we do when there is no nation state with an army to fight? Will the special forces of any given nation be able to complete what thousands of regular soldiers were unable to do in 15 years? What do we do when all we know how to do is mourn and mourn defiantly? What do we do when everything we’re doing seems to be playing out like a well-worn script entitled, “What to do in the first week and arguments to have in the first days following a major terrorist attack.” What do we do?

I think platitudes are unhelpful. I believe vague requests to pray for cities and countries have little impact; unless they are followed with specific ideas about which to pray. Prayer is confusing for Christians on a good day. In the wake of the attacks on Saturday morning, I needed to write down tangible people and places to remember in prayer. I might pray to go on vacation in “Paris”. I may remember visiting the Louvre. When I first saw these “hashtags” and memes, something didn’t quite connect. These prayers were about more than clichéd landmarks and ideas of Paris in my memory and mind. They didn’t seem to be about the reality of the event unfolding on the streets.

In truth, Praying for Paris means praying for people I’ve never met, will never meet, and who died in places I’ve never been. It also means praying for the Russians who died over the Sinai and the Lebanese who died 24 hours before the attack in Paris. Praying for Paris must mean praying for victims of violence everywhere. We have to pray in a contextual way that makes sense of our beliefs, remembers the dead, and doesn’t turn the symbols of grief into idols being worshiped.

Flags, towers, short video clips, and monuments all have the potential to become idols. The first commandment Moses gave the Israelites as they left Egypt addressed a prohibition against worshiping images and ideas he believed might be greater than the God who had delivered them from slavery. The first commandment hasn’t been far from my mind since Friday as I’ve watched the French tricolor pop up everywhere. Here’s my question: Are we worshiping symbols (yes, a polite way to say “idols”) or remembering the dead? Are we becoming slaves to the coverage of the carnage, worshiping the fear, riding the “How dare they attack city of lights again bandwagon?” rather than genuinely remembering the lives of those who died?  I fear we are.

We pray and we mourn. What else do we do? How do we find meaning in the midst of the meaningless? I’ve done a great deal of reading this weekend both in and out of scripture. I want to read the words of people who went through traumatic, anxious times and lived to tell the tale. On a cold Saturday night, after officiating at a candlelit wedding, I went to see Paul Tillich.

In his 1957 book, Dynamics of Faith, Tillich describes a “crisis of faith” in western civilization. The old German was right then, when France was fighting a colonial war in Algeria which set the stage for much of the immigration to France from Morocco and Algeria in the late 20th century. Paul Tillich is also correct today. We have a crisis of faith. There are people who take their faith too seriously; seriously enough kill others and there are those who remain completely befuddled by anyone still attending church in Western Europe.

Tillich goes on to say:

There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions and questionable definitions than the word “faith.” It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men. Today the term “faith” is more productive of disease than of health. It confuses, misleads, creates alternately skepticism and fanaticism, intellectual resistance and emotional surrender, rejection of genuine religion and subjection to substitutes. Indeed, one is tempted to suggest that the word “faith” should be dropped completely; but desirable as that may be it is hardly possible. A powerful tradition protects it. And there is as yet no substitute expressing the reality to which the term “faith” points. So, for the time being, the only way of dealing with the problem is to try to reinterpret the word and remove the confusing and dis¬torting connotations, some of which are the heritage of centuries.”

Yes, we have faith in all the wrong things. There is a faith which says suicide vests will change our status in eternity. There is faith which believes that signs of solidarity, displays of lights, and singing “Imagine” will send messages of cultural strength to terrorists who could care less about how others grieve. There is a faith which believes our governments will do the right things when it comes to welcoming refugees. There is a faith in humanity’s goodness always deteriorating into name calling on Facebook. There is faith in the deity I call God and others call Allah, a God who felt absent on Friday night in Paris and was nowhere to be seen among the Russian wreckage in the Egyptian desert.

Yes, it is time to find a new word; a new way to remove the distorting connotations hanging over our heads at this moment. What next? What is the new word? I don’t know.  In the last sentence of “The Courage to Be” there is an indication of what one might do in times like this:

“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”

That is a good place to start.