Several years ago, my church family went through a painful transition period as the founding pastor retired. There was no great scandal but there was plenty of disagreement, miscommunication and hurt feelings. Having been at the church since its first Sunday gathering 22 years before, I had seen enough to recognize behavioral patterns in the church body. Faces changed, but certain dysfunctional strongholds remained.
At the time, I was not in a leadership position (much too introverted), but had good friends on the board, on staff and on the transition team. One of the patterns I had noted was the tendency to keep control by limiting communication between the various teams. Couched in Christianese, stern warnings against “breaking confidentiality” and “gossiping” or promoting the need to “protect the flock” meant that often only one person had all the information. What was presented to the church as “God’s will revealed” never indicated the power struggle beneath. As a somewhat neutral third party, I heard a lot. I was often the safe space for people needing to process and I kept their confidence. But what I heard broke me.
There was no conspiracy in my church. No bad guys or good guys. Just people wrestling with the responsibilities of leadership. In the Supreme Court, the highest judicial body in our country, the judges charged with ensuring equal justice research, discuss, debate and finally render a verdict by a vote. If the majority vote does not reflect a particular judge’s interpretation of the law, he or she may write a dissenting opinion. Usually this dissent voices the judge’s concerns about the process or interpretation or it may express the judge’s hopes for a future judgment to be considered differently.
Dissent, voiced respectfully, serves a vital purpose in our society. But often in our churches, dissent is not tolerated. If we question the “revealed word of God,” we may find an uncomfortable silence which can grow into our own faith being questioned. We are not burned at the stake as heretics or even shunned as the Amish, but anyone who has felt the social pressure to join in on something you feel is wrong, knows that a church sanctuary can feel just as ruthless as a junior high locker room.
Jesus was born into a society where “might makes right,” where the Roman Empire was the mightiest might the world had ever seen. The Messiah was expected to be a King who rescued Israel from her oppressors. But Jesus didn’t arrive as a conquering warrior. Instead, He turned every expectation upside down.
It seemed the only times Jesus was aggressive, the only harshness he showed, was toward those who claimed to represent God but instead used their positions of power for themselves. Jesus cleared the courtyard of God’s house of those cheating the worshipers who were trying to be obedient. Jesus sharply challenged the interpreters of the law who layered heavy burdens on the people.
Fundamental change often happens slowly. Like yeast leavening bread dough, it can incorporate dissent over generations, readjusting as necessary. I wonder if Jesus repeated warnings against the Pharisees’ leaven – the pride and perfectionism and legalism – because He knew that two thousand years later, we would still be battling against it? How does one remove something so baked in, something that permeates everything?
Today many of our American churches tend to resemble either mini-kingdoms, headed by a benevolent dictator who continues patterns based on centuries of patriarchy, or mini-corporations with a business model (not exactly a bastion of functional human relationships). Both social hierarchies are based on position and power; neither is the servant leadership Jesus modeled.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a church meeting I attended in the midst of all the transition turmoil. Members had been asked to pray regarding a proposed candidate for senior pastor. Announced as a discernment meeting, it became clear to me fairly quickly that the meeting’s agenda was rather about convincing the body to accept an already-made decision.
There was a moment in that meeting where I experienced true bewilderment. I had been asked to pray, and I had. With fasting and groaning too deep for words, I had begged God for direction for our church. He answered. There was a depth to His direction that I knew was not mine alone. I saw our church at a crossroads, similar to the Israelites’ decision whether to enter the promised land despite the report of giants. The way of the giants would be more difficult, painful and untried, but I believed God was calling us to greater freedom in that choice.
As I sat in the meeting, we were told that God had spoken clearly to the team members that the other road (the one I saw leading to 40 more years of desert wandering) was God’s will. Again, I knew the people on that team. I knew they had love and best intentions for the church at their core. So how, I wondered, if we were both seeking the same God for the same answers, were we ending up with so vastly different convictions?
I voiced my concerns in the meeting, and again to some of the leaders. I received nods and agreement privately, but somehow the train continued toward the desert. Not long after, while the chosen one was rocking his audition sermon, I looked around at all the smiling faces being charmed. “Is this what you want for us, God?” I asked, still confused.
“This is what they want,” the quiet voice said. “But I have something else for you.” At that moment, as everyone around me laughed, I wept. I would be leaving a rhythm of twenty-two years, the greater family with whom I had raised my children. At that moment, all I could see was the loss of all I knew. Good people, loving people. But my body was done, my health had been sacrificed. I had nothing left to give.
Today I have a wider view of God’s kingdom, a more solid trust in His leading. There are days, however, like yesterday, when I’m thrown for a loop. A person I respect, a mentor from my early days as a Christian, has been re-posting some of what I see as paranoid conspiracy material. It leads me back to my question in that discernment meeting: How, if we are both seeking the same God for the same answers, are we ending up with so vastly different convictions?
Is one person wrong and the other right? Are we both degrees of wrong and right?
I used to be proud of being on the right side of politics. Fundamental, conservative, evangelical, right. These were solid terms, God terms, upholding traditions that have made our country great.
At least great for some. Never once did I hear a sermon on how our brand of Christianity was used to uphold white supremacy and racist social structures. Never once did I hear a contradictory opinion about the role of women not being subordinate to men. I did, however, hear quite a few sermons regarding the liberal left media bias.
Jesus didn’t spend much time on the religious and political debates of his day. Who had it right, the Samaritans or the Jewish purists? Was it right to pay taxes to support a pagan government? Jesus bypassed the rhetoric to arrive at the heart of each person he encountered.
Most people who came to Jesus wanted something from Him – physical healing, political leadership, religious guidance. Some stuck around when they noted His compassion and His wisdom. As the crowds grew, Jesus observed they were “like sheep without a shepherd.”
It reminds me of us wandering through this time of Covid-19. We look to medical experts and political or spiritual leadership, most of whom have been caught as clueless about this disease as we are. We expect perfect answers, which they cannot provide. In our uncertainty, they, and we, fall back on our old prejudices. Soon the experts are wearing the faces of our old fears and failures.
Many of us have been raised with so many sermon analogies of armies and battles that we easily equate spirituality with warfare. It is not much of a leap to see other humans as enemies of our faith, to rage against not just evil, but people. We may even have been told that we are on the side of good, and “the world” is bad.
A friend showed me this poster from a QAnon follower:
The poster was accompanied by white supremacist propaganda. Now I’m fairly certain none of my white evangelical friends would put this poster up in their church hallways. But quite a few have railed against media “attacks” on the president, have shrugged off his lying, his boasting of sexual abuse, his racism, his misuse of presidential power. These friends sincerely believe Trump is on the side of right. After his 2016 election, they celebrated that “our side” was winning and the liberal left were sore losers. Some still believe the nomination of conservative judges is an acceptable exchange for the loss of so much more.
Dissent can be costly. I never intended my blog to have political content but I find the issues that consume my thoughts are now being debated on the national stage. I never intended to stand opposed to dear friends but I can no longer keep silent when l see some buying into lies misrepresented as God’s truth.
- Thirty years ago, I believed many things that have not held up well under scrutiny.
- Thirty years ago, I experienced God’s blessing; I was thoroughly loved and respected by my Creator.
These two facts are neither causal in nature, nor exclusive. Even if much of what I believed was, in fact, wrong, that did not hinder God’s blessing or love for me.
I hope that all of us believe somewhat differently from thirty years ago. It means we are growing. Neuroplasticity studies are just beginning to map how our brains form new neural connections based on new information and experiences. Our brains change, we change. This reminds me to stay humble, to hold lightly the ideas I now believe just in case another thirty years proves I’m not as smart as I think I am right now.
The danger I’ve encountered in a white evangelical environment is a blatant refusal to grow. The same sermon illustrations, the same dire warnings (“Rome disintegrated from within, because of their moral decay” — not exactly historically accurate, by the way), the same prophetic promises (“there is a small remnant of the faithful, these chosen few must lead the battle”) are recycled with updated graphics and video footage. It’s as if we have taken Hebrews 13:8 – Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever – to mean (and yes, I’m quoting Adrian Monk) “Nothing should change. Ever.”
From a PRRI report released today: Among religious affiliations, white evangelical Protestants (72%) are most likely to say police killings of unarmed Black men are isolated incidents….Among all religiously unaffiliated Americans, 26% view police killings of unarmed Black men as isolated incidents. Think about this for a minute: white evangelical Protestants — the people who claim to represent Jesus – are three times more likely to deny the patterns of injustice in our society. Yet, when confronted with documented evidence, with the myriad of incident reports and names of the slain, other unchurched white Americans are finally recognizing what black mothers have known for generations – their sons are not safe from the very people commissioned to protect them. These unchurched are the people repenting for their ignorance and apathy, these unchurched are the people risking their health to join the protests, these unchurched are the people asking “how do we make this right?” And the white evangelical Protestants? Some are there. Others huff a dismissive “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter.” Still others start a counter-revival. (Oy vey!)
I believe God loves us. All of us. I believe He blesses us, irrespective of our theology or our political beliefs. But I do not believe His blessing is an indication of His approval of either our theology or our politics. Jesus welcomes every heart turned toward Him.
There are Truths. Capital T truths that are the same yesterday, today and forever. These haven’t changed in thirty years or three thousand. The Truth of God’s love, the Truth of God’s mercy, the Truth of God’s heart for justice. Faith, hope and love. The fruit of the Spirit.
From these Truths, we build structures. As we work out how to put our faith into practice in each generation, we devise programs and organizations, scaffolding to uphold the building in God’s kingdom. But we must always keep in mind, the scaffolding is not the building. The building is the Truth. The scaffolding can be taken down anytime. Example: Compassion (Truth) for illiterate working children led two gentlemen in 18th century England to start Sunday schools to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Bible knowledge was included in the curriculum but the original intent was social justice — to give uneducated children the chance for a better life.
A hundred years later, after compulsory public education was established and child labor was regulated, churches still kept the Sunday schools but the focus gradually changed to center on Biblical, denominational and character instruction. Because many of us have encountered God through Sunday School, in our minds the church structure becomes enmeshed with who God is. A suggestion to abolish Sunday School, because its original intention is no longer necessary, would seem almost heretical. No Sunday School? How about no choir or Sunday worship or prayer meetings?!
Last year, to imagine having a relationship with God that didn’t include these things, would’ve seemed ridiculous to some Christians. And today? Perhaps one of the hidden blessings of this time of pandemic has been to jar us away from all we thought was God to reveal who our Creator truly is. What are the true Truths? What stands when buildings and meetings and programs are shaken? If all of that came crashing down, when it is just you and God, what do you hear Him whispering to you?
The societal and structural issues we face today are complicated, but not unsolvable. We need consensus and dissent working together. We need to recognize the immense value of whoever we perceive as “other.” We are not being called to battle each other. It’s time to lay down those rusty paradigms. We don’t need watchmen on the walls; we don’t need to build walls with a sword in one hand. We don’t need to march to “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
I get it, I do. This has been a tough year for everyone; it’s natural to feel defensive in the midst of so much turmoil. The pandemic. The social upheaval. Right now, a wildfire that is only 2% contained is burning a few miles from our Santa Cruz home. It has only been three weeks since last month’s hurricane; I’m looking up sideways and saying, “Really, God?”
I have a choice right now. I can growl at the climate change deniers who blocked meaningful legislation a decade ago. I can be fearful and obsessively refresh the CalFire map (ok, been there, done that.) I can put on a plastic smile and say, “Oh, boy, here’s yet another opportunity to rely on Your strength.” Or I can be real. And while I may cycle through all of these (minus the plastic smile), I really do know everything is going to be okay. Whether my stuff burns up or not. Whether Covid-19 ends my life or not. In that place where it is just me and God, I know I’m being held and loved. That solidness has been six decades in the making. And it’s a lovely place to be.