Monday, January 16, 2017

The Walking Dead

Words cannot capture my utter shock and disbelief at the glowing tributes to Eddie Long on the occasion of his death. Dying was perhaps the best thing he ever did. In so doing, an ignominious rot was removed from the church.

I attended seminary in Atlanta from 1997 to 2000. It was exciting for me to be in a city with so many well-known churches. I made it my business to visit most of them at some point during that time. Never could I bring myself to set foot in the church he pastored for reasons that were unbeknownst to me at the time. It was quite popular, but something about him was downright repellent. Now, I know. God always knew.

Judgment is a present and future reality.  A physical malady can be a means of God chastening a believer. 
For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world (I Corinthians 11:30-32).
Earthly judgement is a grace bestown because God can kill you in your sin. At best we can hope 
Eddie Long repented during his illness in a way he failed to do during the aftermath of his scandal.

Suffice to say, I have no shortage of preacher acquaintances.  Almost every single public reaction to his passing was a glowing tribute or a polite platitude. What must those abused boys and conscious believers be thinking today about a community professing faith venerating one who brought shame to the body? I do not believe the professions of black Christendom are God’s thoughts.

Eddie Long used his position—and hence the institution of the church—to access, seduce,  conceal, and eventually compensate his victims.
[B]ut whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6-7).
Whoever claims those are merely flaws of a mere mortal slanders the Holy Spirit. He will be accountable. Do not be deceived, God is not mocked (Galatians 6:7a).

Just as when Eddie Long’s scandal became public, the most compelling voice came from outside the church in the form of comedienne Cadillac Kimberly. She quipped ever so poignantly "God said 'touch not my anointed; do my prophet no harm.' He ain’t said nothing about Eddie Long." This time around, it came in the form of blogger, Son of Baldwin’s essay “Bishop Eddie Long Is Not the Only One Who’s Dead.” 

When I heard the news of Eddie Long’s passing, I searched deeply for the right words. The words eluded me even during prayer. He captured my sentiments perfectly. The enablers—direct and indirect—holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such [people] as these (2 Timothy 3:5).

Having been the victim of sexual harassment in the church with next to no sympathy or support, I understand what those boys and unchurched onlookers must be feeling. How can those claiming to be alive in Christ travel the world like The Walking Dead? These are not people with whom I would trust my children, let alone my own life.

According to Wikipedia, “The Walking Dead” is an American horror drama television series in which the protagonist awakens from a coma discovering a world overrun by zombies, commonly referred to as "walkers." He reunites with his family and becomes the leader of a group he forms with other survivors. Together they struggle to survive and adapt in a post-apocalyptic world filled with walkers and opposing groups of survivors, who are often more dangerous than the walkers themselves.

If that does not sound like the modern church I’ll take a vow of silence for life. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Waxing and Waning

National Public Radio aired a story about a minister who decided to try atheism after being kicked out of his church for struggling with his faith openly. I shared the article with friends while invoking the spirit of Chris Rock: I ain’t saying it’s right, but I understand.

One friend chided me saying he was “not sure how you can put on and take off your faith like a pair of shoes. It’s not about the ‘church’ it’s about the relationship with the Creator.” We cannot have a relationship with the creator without relating rightly to the creation and its inhabitants.

Humans have been struggling with their strained relationship with the divine since the beginning. Prophets hid, absconded, and cursed the day God called them. This confirms my call because I have done all three. After quitting my job, moving to a strange city, assuming massive student loans, and coming home without ordination papers from being blackballed in the church, I was through with my heavenly Father.

Another friend responded “God is still with him while he is ‘trying out’ atheism.” That is absolutely correct. Our response to an existential crisis does not change the character of God. Psalm 139 says:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee (v. 7-12).
Try as we might, there is no hiding from God’s presence. As the old spiritual goes. “There’s No Hiding Place Down There.”

God will show up and reveal Himself to be accountable for our plights for His sake. None of our questions, confrontations, or challenges intimidates Him. The psalmist continues:
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee (v. 13-18).
Who can withstand a direct encounter with the Lord unchanged?

The cost of discipleship is high, psychologically and otherwise. It is intensified given that we forsake that which we can see for that we cannot see.
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).
Kierkegaard said it best: It takes a purely human courage to renounce the whole temporal realm in order to gain eternity.

Religious organizations seem like such a godless place sometimes and the faith walk can be quite lonely. However, restoration is not beyond the reach of God. The problem is most churches do not equip members for the time of trial or respect the process itself. More people fall away from the false certainty of religious doctrine than from the overwhelmingly otherness of our unsearchable God. Sounds like the minister in question was punished for wrestling with his faith openly, which is neither forbidden nor unique.

Jesus’ first cousin, John the Baptizer, jumped with joy in the womb whenever their mothers came together during pregnancy. Yet, while he was imprisoned for preaching the Gospel and awaiting execution, he sent a message to Jesus and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). If someone so intimately acquainted with our Savior experienced such angst, how much more will it be for those of us far removed from his presence?
Jesus responded to the gathered crowds:
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ palaces!” (Matthew 11:7b-8).
And so it is with discipleship. Every day will not be Sunday. At times, God will seem nowhere to be found in our circumstances. John was beheaded. He could have sold out his calling for a cozy perch. By remaining true to Jesus, he gained something greater than this world could ever offer. Nonetheless, he did not have sight of his reward while being tortured, humiliated, and rebuked.

The few times God shows up and shows out on our account with help us to withstand our personal 
storms. We can keep the faith because our plight pales in comparison saints of old. We are not losing our lives literally to exercise faith. The early church was deprived of property, persecuted, and executed for merely believing. Our struggle is mostly metaphorical, but still crisis-inducing. I’m clinging for dear life as I write this. Like John, the thief on the cross, and a great cloud of witnesses, we each can be great in the Kingdom now and forever. But first we have to kiss and make up with God.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

All the Wrong Places

There is an old country song whose refrain repeats the line “looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in all the wrong faces.” That seems to be the story of my life personally and spiritually. We can leave my love life out of this for now. But the place where I, and like-minded individuals, have a reasonable expectation that we would find love is often the last place we encounter it.

When I think about how going to church has made me feel, loved is one of the last words to come to mind. My early years were spent crashing the party, so to speak. Bourgeois families came from around the DC metropolitan area to gather in the edifice where parents in my neighborhood sent their children for a few hours of free childcare. Not only were we not under the watchful eyes of our mothers and fathers, we were free from decorum and theological commitments.

Much to the chagrin of our Sunday School teachers, we came more often than we did not. It did not take long for hostilities and rivalries to arise. By the grace of God, some of my peers there are among my most cherished friends today and the teachers are too senile to recollect the ruckus when they see me.

Several churches later, I can say I still have not found that deep, benevolent, abiding love that characterizes God. It’s not an unreasonable expectation to find love in God’s house. I John 4:7 says:   Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.  
This begs the question of whether most church people really know God or just like dropping His name. Faking it is easy and often expedient to fill the pews and separate you from your money. The following verse presents the converse: He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love (I John 4:8). It’s as simple as that. Jesus said himself: So then, you will know them by their fruits (Mark 7:20).

My absolutely most disastrous romantic relationship was at the hands of a lying, cheating, psychotic minister.  One of my female seminary classmates rebuked me upon hearing the story. “You know we’re not supposed to date them!” she exclaimed. I knew such to be true, but was in a weak place at the time. If you can’t trust your heart with a so-called servant of the Lord, them with whom can you? Like the Jews and the Holocaust, I invoked the mantra “Never Again.” Church is many a player’s playground.

Ironically, I have experienced some of the most loving encounters with strangers and those who are not outwardly religious. That is not unlike Jesus’ experience with the religious establishment of his day. The Samaritan woman at the well, who was victimized and marginalized, was very receptive and accommodating to him. By no coincidence, she became a great evangelist—even ahead of the twelve disciples.

In the same manner, I have experienced prolonged periods of unemployment while my fellow believers peered voyeuristicly without offering so much as a sandwich. No hard feelings because God always provides. I have also heard stories of church members departing after not receiving more than perfunctory niceties following the loss of a family member. Even in my challenges with pursuing ministry, church folks could not care any less. Meanwhile, my friends whose church attendance is as spotty as mine remain the ones who breathe new life in me to pursue God.

It’s a good thing that God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. He knows what we need, has ordered the universe to manifest His will, and is fully-capable to deliver. When the white-washed tombs fail, angels in disguise appear. Go into the world and plant your altar. Your sacrifices will not be in vain and may be better-placed than in the halls sanctuaries of indulgence and indifference. Just when you stop looking, love appears.

One of the members of my most recent church tried to chastise me for leaving by saying my salvation was in One of the members of my most recent church tried to chastise me for leaving by saying my salvation was in jeopardy. I looked at him incredulously and replied “I was saved before I joined here. As a matter of fact, there is more of God’s outside of sanctuaries everywhere than inside them.” Upon further reflection, the odds of finding love outside the church are not bad at all. If no building can hold God, then why do we spend more time looking for him there than in the world? The answer is why we often come up short.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

March Madness

This month precedes another high holy season when we celebrate the victorious resurrection of our Lord and savior. I’m not referencing Lent, but rather the NCAA tournament when millions of fans try to predict with random accuracy which men’s college basketball team will advance and be crowned champion from a crowded field of contenders. 

An incredible amount of risk is required to forecast which underdog will upset a top seed. One would have to be crazy to think a team like Duke can be upset in the first round by an unranked WhointheHellAreTheyAnyway University that was doing well just to be invited to the big dance. Yet, it happens (and it hurts).

Top seeded teams are targets for perennial giant-killers.  Only devoted alums of the underdogs or fervent haters of the favored can complete their bracket with a straight face and make the right calls with aplomb.

Such it is with faith. Who invests all their personal stock in the redeemer of the world being born of a virgin and rising from the dead over 2,000 years ago? For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (I Corinthians 1:18). There is nothing rational about the gospel, but its power is all that keeps some among us going strong.

Objective observations fly in the face of historical speculation in the same way top-ranked teams defy those with little hope of advancing in the tournament to fight for a win. Even those claiming to believe waver in the face of adversity. … you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6b).

The ante was increased for this year’s tournament as Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, offered a billion-dollar prize to anyone who completed a perfect bracket in advance. Upset after upset resulted in no perfect brackets remaining after only a couple rounds of play.  Only a lunatic, computer, or Godself could have foretold the winners with perfect accuracy. However, perfectly sane contestants were making detailed plans for spending their expected windfall.

In the same manner, theological pre-commitments prevent many from getting this faith thing right. Either we become arrogant in our individual position and those of the institutions to which we belong or we sink into despair when things do not go our way.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
    and hide your face from me?
 From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair (Psalm 88:14-15).

God never promised every day would be Sunday. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). Even believers are subject to the effects of the human condition. Yet, we have victory in Him. Evidence of it is not readily seen. However, the power of the Holy Spirit working within and around us confirms that we are not just mad.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
For by it the elders obtained a good report (Hebrews 11:1-2).

Faith is what separates with winners from the losers. Mercer believed they could beat Duke, but faith in themselves only got them to the next round where they were defeated. 

Grasp sufficient absurdity to withstand your time of trial. (B)ut the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13). God never fails and God’s promises are true.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Wet Dreams

In the top of the news recently was the “baptism” of Prince George, the heir to the British throne, followed by the announcement that he is now a member of the Anglican Church, which he will head one day as King of England. Even some of the more sensible publications got caught up in the hoopla. He wore a reproduction of the christening gown worn by every Royal baby since 1841 and was flanked by seven godparents. There is no arguing that he was cute as a button. Unfortunately, all they had was a wet, overindulged, cross-dressing baby.

Just a week prior, people were outraged at a report that a prominent pastor refused to “bless” a baby because it was born out of wedlock. The mother claimed Marvin Winans would not allow her to participate in a public presentation dedicating babies at his church. What’s the loss? Her friends and family would not witness the spectacle and join her for brunch afterwards. Just raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord without forgetting to model such before them. Does she work equally as hard to ensure the biological father lives up to his responsibilities?

Both cases were equally absurd because neither event is of any consequence when it comes to the faith of the children. It was not this way in the beginning. Our Lord and Savior was not baptized until adulthood. Of course, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). On the flip side, some churches will not baptize children who request it if their parents are not members of said church. It happened to me.

This issue was one of the things standing between me and another piece of paper on my wall earlier this year. While being examined as a candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church, I freely admitted that I do not believe in infant baptism. There is no biblical support for it and the practice is actually counter to the fundamental assent of the will to the grace of God for partaking in the sacraments. John Wesley (founder of Methodism) himself said that every believer must have a datable conversion experience (which baptism follows).

Well, that was the wrong answer. It wasn’t so much that the United Methodist Church is a bastion of theological purity. I’ve heard all manner of heresy from ordained clergy among its rank without institutional consequence. One of the most attractive attributes of the denomination for me was its supposed regard for intellectual freedom.

This encounter was more so about a matter of refusal to conform to their will or try to impress them. I recall classmates rehearsing their lines for ordination committees and boards while in seminary.  It was shameless. Some folks would say whatever was necessary to get what they wanted just like a man with an erection. Both parties would be aware what it was, but played along as they each had an agenda to advance.

The chair of the Committee lashed at me verbally.  “How dare you come in here and disagree with the discipline of our church.” I responded “how dare you invite me knowing in advance where I stood?” She gave me that knowing look that I could lie my way into the next phase of the process like others have done before me. However, I fear God and dread looking at myself in the mirror knowing I had. Integrity is clearly not one of their preferred character traits.

Babies were baptized on the day of their birth in colonial America to swell the rolls of the church. Thomas Jefferson refused to endorse attempts to require infant baptism under law. As one of the drafters of the U.S. Constitution, he was the brainpower behind the clause forbidding the establishment of religion. He is one of my political heroes because he left it personal choice to exercise faith. If God did not want humanity to exercise choice, we would not have been endowed with a will.

It is no secret that mainline protestant churches are in decline. Have those who swell their church rolls by forcing membership upon those born into their constituent families considered that may be part of the problem?  Socialization into faith is no substitute for real discipleship. John Calvin argued centuries ago that one cannot impute their faith to another.

One of the most perverse cases came when a seminary classmate who is now a pastor had a couple in his church experience the misfortune of a still-born child. He announced that he had to rush to the hospital not to counsel the grief-stricken mother and father, but rather to baptize the baby.

This did raise age-old theological questions tackled by theologian Jonathan Edwards.  “One of these two things are certainly true, and self-evidently so: either that it is most just, exceeding just, that God should take the soul of a new-born infant and cast it into eternal torments, or else that those infants that are saved are not saved by the death of Christ.”

I discussed this with another pastor friend who admitted the absurdity of the response, but said “we must do this to make the family feel better.” I replied “What?!! Did Jesus give us this holy sacrament for emotional relief or as an outward sign of an inward change?” He had no answer because he knew on which side his bread was buttered and he had an elaborate shindig planned for his own infant daughter.

Why does the church insist on so much pomp and pageantry around something so insignificant and virtually ignore more meaningful milestones? Yes, the baby is cute. I’m glad you’re going to provide religious training. It was good seeing everybody who does not normally come in church. Brunch was delectable. However, that baby is only a Christian in your dreams.

Friday, October 11, 2013

In the House

I grew up going to church 52 Sundays a year. It’s not that my parents were particularly religious. They actually were not at all. They just happened to have discovered free childcare for their brood for a few hours on a weekend morning. Other parents in the neighborhood caught on and sent theirs as well. My friends and I were all in the house Sunday every morning.

Strangely, that pattern remained with me in adulthood. I could not wait until I graduated high school and thus liberated from forced church attendance. When I went to college, Sundays were spent recovering from Saturdays. However, something had been planted deeply within that beckoned me to continue freely. My first inclination upon matriculating in graduate school in the land where the devil is blue was to attend high church service at the campus chapel on Sundays. At the urging of some well-intentioned classmates, I eventually began attending service at a church across town of my predominantly black then-denomination.

After graduation, I returned to Washington, DC and began attending my conservative childhood church again on a regular basis. After two years in the south, it no longer fit. God led me to another congregation in the city that resembled the style of churches in the Bible Belt where everyone seemed to know God’s middle name.

Eventually, things fell apart there as a result of my pastor’s sexual harassment and the congregation’s betrayal of me with its indifference. The last thing I wanted to do at the time was attend church every Sunday. I would go to the gym, ride my bike for long distances, visit  farmers’ markets, check out a museum exhibit—anything but church.

But there are some dresses that are too fancy for work and too casual for after-five. Where would I wear them? Seriously, I loved praising God and studying His word. But what was passing for church became revolting.

Then God revealed to me that there is no requirement to attend church Every. Single. Sunday. Yes, the bible says forsake not the assembling of ourselves as is the habit of some (Hebrews 10:25). That passage was written to a community in despair as they were under persecution for their faith. It was not a prescription for overdosing on organized religion. Society has misconstrued the primary function of Christianity as assembled public worship as opposed to serving and discipling the world.

I still have my seasons of weekly church attendance, interspersed with periods of worship in the world. It bothers some of my friends, church members, and neighbors to see me skipping church. It’s not that they fear for my soul’s salvation, but rather are uncomfortable with how their own religious constructs are being challenged. Altars can be found wherever God has created.

The hymn “How Great Thou Art” opens:
O Lord My God!
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed

The chorus follow with:
Then sings my soul, My savior God to Thee
How great Thou art, How great thou art!
Then sings my soul, My savior God to Thee
How great Thou art, How great thou art!

When Job became confounded spiritually, God did not tell him to go to the priests or prophets. The Lord commanded him to speak to the earth and she will teach you (Job 12:8). There comes a time in every person’s life when they need an unmediated word from God. There’s no money in that, so churches tend not to promote such ministries.

I defy you to go to the mountains and not be filled with admiration for God’s handiwork or stare at the stars and not revere the order in the universe. When I need a fresh revelation, I go to a new place all by myself and He never fails to deliver.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Robe

One of my less than honorable responses to my call to ministry was my obsession with my preacher swagger. I am not into whooping and flashy cars, but I am quite a clothes-horse. As I prepared for my initial sermon, what I would wear received more attention than what I would say. Every Sunday spent in the pulpit as a licentiate was a deliberate display of my eye for design. More than anything I studies more seasoned preachers to inform choices about my eventual clerical vestments and accessories.

Clerical vestments have their biblical origins with priestly attire. God provided very specific instructions in Levitical law for what the priests should wear down to their undergarments. In the same manner, I have both outer garments and intimate apparel that I consider divinely-inspired.

I planned to earn a PhD after receiving my M.Div. not primarily so I could think deeply and teach others, but so I could rock three chevrons on my sleeve legitimately. A vanity degree from a diploma mill would not do. It had to be a qualifying credential from a top-tier university.

Then God stopped me in my tracks and showed me the character of the preacher is far more important than the persona. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Who knows what I would have become had I succeeded in being approved for clerical status by the institutional church? That would have left me to my own devices for shaping my ministry according to the prevailing ethos. However, their cultural norms do not suit me. No denomination can function effectively without an unquestioning, complicit, and conforming clergy. That’s totally not me.

To their credit, neither denomination that rejected my candidacy for ordination denied my gifts or call. They just did not sanction them for their organization. Jesus said:
If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. (Matthew 10:13-15).
In other words, middle fingers to the sky! I thank God for confirmation that I don’t have to prove anything to anybody and the ability to make an ever so elegant departure.

Now I find myself seventeen years later not ordained (by men) and not likely ever to be. I’ve made peace with that. Would receiving approval from a group of mere mortals validate my call even more so? Do multiple rejections make me any less anointed? [F]or God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable (Romans 11:29). Who in the bible had to get a second opinion after being called directly by the Almighty? Soren Kierkegaard described ordination as an “ostensible token, though not an infallible one.”

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being (Galatians 1:15-16).

James Baldwin said "I left the pulpit so I could preach The Gospel." The same holds true for the brand of ministry to which God has called me. I have always known this intellectually. But part of me still longs for a robe perfecting the balance between overly-done and understated so well that Coco Chanel would nod in approval from the heavens above.