Saturday, December 25, 2010

Seasonal Madness

The granddaddy of all ironies is that one of the cheeriest days of the year commemorates the event that should rock us to our core. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).  Why would a holy and wholly other god, with no beginning and no end, enshroud himself in temporality to be in relationship with people who would not only be ungrateful, but also reject him? What kind of love is this that perfection would enter, not just imperfection, but a hot mess of a world and suffer the indignity of being killed by lesser beings.

How do we celebrate the eternal entering into temporality? With gross materialism and wanton feasts. Human nature is not receptive to the radical change that the gospel requires. Indulging the flesh makes it even less so. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (Galatians 5:17). Yes, we have a rationale for everything. We exchange gifts to honor the gesture of the three wise men to the newborn savior. But have gold, frankincense and myrrh ever been among the top sellers?

Being a management consultant by trade, one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld is when upstart comedian Kenny Bania mistakenly takes George’s work presentation on risk management and presents it on stage in his standup act. Kenny later relayed to Jerry that he killed the crowd with his routine.

Risk management in the real world is just as funny. It is a business practice based on eliminating or mitigating threats to planned events or desirable outcomes when in fact there is more in the world beyond our control than vice versa.

Jesus’ birth presented the greatest threat to human history. Simeon told Mary: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34-35). The world did not bake cookies and sing songs when Jesus was born. It hated him from beginning to end.

King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed upon learning of Jesus’ birth.  He sent the magi to Bethlehem find the baby so he could supposedly worship him.  God was way ahead of Herod because the magi received a vision not to inform the King of Jesus’ whereabouts.  When he realized he had been outwitted, Herod ordered the execution of all toddler and baby boys in and around Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary had to lay low in Egypt with little Jesus until Herod died.

Upon beginning his earthly ministry, Jesus posed a threat to the religious establishment and the political world order.  The priests did not sit idly as he abolished the Israelite ritualistic system, which was their bread and butter. Neither did earthly kings who wondered what threat this King of the Jews posed to their reign.
He warned his disciples in John 15:18, If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. He was ridiculed for his claims even as he hung on the cross.  One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)

In the same way, Jesus is a threat to our natural beings and any plans of our own. I can testify that I had no desire to be a minister and quite frankly enjoyed my carnal ways prior to him disrupting my life.  Acceptance of the grace he gives so freely changed my orientation away from a worldly perspective to things eternal. That has made me more enemies than I ever expected—both inside and outside the church.

This is the time of year when families gather from near and far, but Jesus’ presence calls us to loosen natural ties.  For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:50).  

If no other time of the year we get along, it can be while we celebrate his birth, right?
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
   “‘a man against his father,
   a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
   a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ (Matthew 10:34-36)
Jesus did not come that we might all get along. When relationships must change for his sake, there can be momentary distress, but it leads to everlasting joy.

To manage the risk that Jesus’ presence brings, so many have dulled their receptors to maintain an uninterrupted and indulgent existence. It can take the form of overconsumption, excessive activity, or even good religious form. Seasons come and seasons go without eternity breaking into temporality, with flesh fighting the indwelling of spirit with all it can muster. During the season commemorating his birth, otherworldliness seems more appropriate to focus believers on his continued presence in the world.

This is not a sentimental holiday. Move beyond the presents of today, to his presence that compels you to the abundant life his coming secured. Sin made it necessary for God to become one of us. His doing so gives us power over sin and the inauthentic life that it breeds. It’s not enough to be touched by his spirit. Unless you open your heart to receive the fullness of the promise, you will always be left wanting and despising those who do. Dare to give up the life you have planned for yourself to embrace the existence that makes you one with him and free from the fear of losing anything.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Talking Loud, but Saying Nothing

Growing up in Washington DC exposed me to some of the best preaching a little black woman could handle. The standard was high as the nation’s capital has always had the highest concentration of educated professionals. The same was true with preachers. During that era, it was the rule rather than the exception that preachers were trained formally in their craft. Not only were they seminary graduates, a significant portion of them had earned doctoral degrees. I’m not talking about the garden variety of vanity degrees produced by diploma mills. They had real PhDs or the equivalent which qualified them to teach in academia.

If I was not sitting under the voice of Chocolate City’s own prophets, I also had the privilege to hear the best preaching from around the world at black America’s cathedral, Rankin Chapel on the campus of Howard University. The Washington National Cathedral also provided a platform for the most compelling voices from around the world. I was spoiled rotten and didn't even know it.

Coming of age on the heels Civil Rights era, there was much to prophesy about.  Martin Luther King proclaimed a message that was now bearing fruit. America was still experiencing the growing pains of integration and those long denied finally felt like this was the Promised Land. The people had lots to relate to in God’s deliverance of His children in scripture. However, there was also a warning to be delivered about being too satisfied.

Great sermons are now few and far between. How we got to the present state boggles my mind. It seems to be a direct correlation to the advancement of the institutionalization of faith and the proliferation of media outlets. Are we stretching our preachers too thin? Has proclamation become merely transactional? Do we even care? I cannot count the number of times in my life that I have left a service feeling motivated and amused, yet malnourished.  Being the creature of habit that the church counts on us to be, I return without thinking about it.

Upon looking further, I realize this is not a new phenomenon. Writers have noted it through the centuries. As a matter of fact, the problem goes all the way back to prophets of old. In scripture, prophets are not received warmly—to put it mildly—if they foretold something that included rebuke or news unfavorable to the listeners. Tradition holds, and Jesus confirms in Luke 11:47, that they were murdered.  Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your ancestors who killed them.

If it is God’s nature to reveal the disconnects between His people and their Creator, how have preachers become celebrities today? Could it be that a lot of what's proclaimed is void of prophecy? Jesus’ close followers even complained about the unappealing nature of his teaching. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60).

The most significant role of a preacher is to stand in the gap between the people and God and say what thus sayeth the Lord. It is not to empathize with the people. Oswald Chambers said "You cannot intercede if you do not believe in the reality of the Redemption; you will turn intercession into futile sympathy with human beings which will only increase their submissive content to being out of touch with God."

The preacher is just making noise when he or she ceases to speak for God and becomes one of “them.”  That is another reason that the character of the preacher is important. Scripture makes it clear that sin separates from God. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear (Isaiah 59:2). If the preacher is living foul, how can he or she hear clearly from God consistently enough to provide righteous leadership? Notice that Jesus never makes way for excuses in his teaching. He keeps the standard for both discipleship and leadership high, while committing his Spirit as our power to be the light of the world.

We as listeners must open ourselves to receive what God is imparting to us through the proclamation of the word and the redemptive purpose for it in our own lives. Not only that, we must also discern and test whether God is saying anything through the individuals to whom we lend our ears. Listen for how the preacher has wrestled with the text with intellectual and spiritual rigor, in addition to how that struggle has manifested itself the preacher’s life. If you keep coming up short, then express it with your feet.

Dressed to the Nines

God never promised that every day would be Sunday nor that even the best among us would always feel like doing what we were created to do on the Sabbath. Some Sundays, getting dressed is my only motivation to go to church. During the depths of my disillusionment with the church, only a newly acquired outfit stood between Bedside Baptist and a place of collective worship. Not proud of that fact, but at least it got me to the house of the Lord.

There are some people whose gift it is to reveal that if nothing else is working right in the world, it is the ensemble they have pulled together. Every church has at least one sister or brother who worships God with sartorial splendor. I ain’t mad at them either. Everybody brings something to the party.
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:28-30).

God wants God’s people to look good and especially good for His sake. Tradition holds that believers began putting on their best on Sundays in honor of the angels who were present at the empty tomb after Jesus' resurrection. They have been described in some translations of Luke 24:6 as wearing dazzling clothes. What better occasion to look your best than when meeting God incarnate face-to-face?

That is what Sunday mornings represent. Yes, God is present everywhere at all times. But the assembly of the saints for the purpose of hearing what thus sayeth the Lord is a personal presentation. Jesus himself encourages us to keep up our appearances.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18).
Blessed are those who can keep it together no matter what they are going through. One of the most memorable pictures in American history is of Jacqueline Kennedy mourning at her husband’s funeral. Even in her grief, she was giving it up with the same elegance she became known for exhibiting.

Does this mean that less aesthetically-endowed are not welcome in the house? Heavens no! The point is, no matter what you have, bring your best. As with all gifts, some have been blessed with more than others. Just as those who preach like prophets and sing like angels assure my soul of God’s presence, fashionistas reveal something too. And if that’s what it takes to get some folk’s attention. So be it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Pimpin' Ain't Easy

Tithing is one of the hardest sells of the church today.  On the surface, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for believers to give God a ten percent cut of their income. The average American spends a significant portion of their money frivolously anyway. Ten percent is not a real sacrifice. Then why is it so hard to get people to come up off their cash?

The reason tithing is so hard to sell is because it is not necessary. The law required eleven of the twelve Israelite tribes to give a tenth of their material benefits to support the Levites, the tribe responsible for the priestly and ritualistic duties of the cult. Jesus’ finished work on the cross satisfied the ritualistic requirements of the law permanently. Consequently, all believers gained direct access to God and the priests lost their jobs.

The New Testament doesn’t speak much of tithing. Jesus labeled it one of the lesser parts of the law. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former (Matthew 23:23). To hear the church tell it today, if you ain’t tithing, you ain’t doing nothing.

The law is not a compelling argument juxtaposed with the grace of the gospel.  The most often quoted verse before the collection is Malachi 3:8-10 (in The King’s Version as God spoke it).

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

In all my 42 years, I ain’t never heard this text preached right. Go back and read it yourself in context. First of all, God directed this rebuke at the priests who were withholding proper sacrifices from God. The people were giving right. The priests were the ones stealing by not using the gifts for their intended purpose.  People today watch passively knowing their money is not making it to the Kingdom, yet continue to invest in unfruitful ministries. The most hardened pimps blush as they watch some preachers coerce parishioners to hand over money to which they have no right or meaningful purpose.

The two main guidelines for giving in the New Testament fly in the face of tithing. On the right is II Corinthians 9:7:  Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. God doesn’t need your money to accomplish redemption’s plan. The show will go on with or without your contributions.

Before you get too happy, perfection of faith demands that you abandon your right to yourself, including your possessions. Jesus said “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The first generation church shared all their possessions in common. Today's "Evan-publicans" would have no part of that.

Churches would be empty if such became the standard. That’s why pastors don’t preach it.  Rather, we collude to accept a compromised standard for giving. Give the church a cut and you can do whatever the hell you want. This is no different from the Roman Catholic Church selling indulgences centuries ago. Today’s methods are just not as blatant. In exchange, we don’t ensure that the treasury is going toward real kingdom building. That too would require too much of us.

I Peter 2:9 declares that all believers are priests. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  If this is true, should we all get a cut of the collection plate as a member of the new Levitical tribe? Go to your pastor and demand your share of the take. Let me know how that turns out.

The Catholic and most Protestant churches dispute the equal access of all believers to God in the face of overwhelming scriptural evidence to the contrary. The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently (Hebrews 7:23-24).  The institutional church wants you to believe that you still need a priestly system as an intermediary and demand a fee from you to intercede on your behalf. Go ahead and throw the whole book of Hebrews out the window.

The strange part is that all the answers are within the grasp of anyone willing to read and open their heart to where God is leading. If preachers would concern themselves with ministering to the soul before dipping in congregants' pockets, they would never want for anything. We have been offered something better by way of the new covenant. Rather, we prefer to forsake our spiritual birthright by reverting to the old. Like any runaway will tell you, there is always a pimp waiting to pick you up. Don’t make their work too easy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Between a Ham and a Hard Place

Thanksgiving could not get here early enough this year because unlike the past eight years, I am not hosting. One of my three older sisters is performing the honor today. Being as anal as I am, however, I had to check her plan, and intervene. Thanksgiving for me is not just a time to overindulge in the bounty of the land. It is also a time to savor the company of family and friends, as well as the generosity of God.

Then, why did a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses feel the need to canvas my neighborhood last night telling the community that we should not be observing this day. Yes, Thanksgiving as we observe it is a government-established holiday rooted in domestic terrorism and hypocrisy. However, the occasion for giving thanks cyclically is rooted deeply in human history across religions.  One doesn’t even have to be particularly familiar with God to appreciate that. We naturally find our way back to the source of our blessings by simply being. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1:20).

There is an old song of the church that says “when I think about the Lord and all He’s done for me, my soul cries out ‘hallelujah!’” How could anyone not? We are in the midst of record unemployment, foreclosures, deterioration of the family, and global strife. Yes most of us will be welcomed at gatherings of loved ones, in the safety of a home, with the freedom to praise God—or not—in our own way.  Complete meals are free for the asking from the overflow of benevolence of churches, community organizations, and individuals.

I stood in my door defiantly waiting for my turn to give an account of why I look forward to expressing my gratefulness to God. How dare anyone step with the intent of denying not only the right, but obligation, to reflect and express gratitude?  And insult to injury is trying to come between me and a Honeybaked Ham. However, I didn’t get my turn because they know who abides in my house and avoid it as much as possible.

Thanksgiving is a deeply personal day. God has been too good for me not to take offense at someone seeking to forbid me from expressing it. The craziest part is they felt it their bounden duty as believers to do so. Had they come onto my porch, I would have challenged them to recount what God had done for them and dared them not to get happy. Just the idea that God not only desires fellowship with humanity, but came to earth dressed in mortality to suffer and die to secure our salvation is cause to lose one’s mind. God, who knows all about us, extends this amazing grace. Personally, I wouldn’t have done it. Not even to save myself.

Had the Witnesses fallen short, my testimony was ready to be offered freely.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17).  There is no need for a special occasion to give thanks, but having one ensures the task does not get overlooked.  Fortunately for them, the stores are still open.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Temple Trap

It is no small wonder that church sanctuaries in America have expanded over the past couple of decades.  We like everything big: big-box stores selling things we don’t need, mega multiplex theaters that show very little worth seeing, sports arenas that can seat the entire population of some towns, and large-scale chain restaurants that serve broad, unappetizing menus to our ever widening derrieres.  The church is gravitating in the same direction to accommodate the masses. It seems that most churches have perpetual building campaigns. Doing so makes little sense from the perspective that these massive buildings will find themselves in the lake of fire when this world meets its end.

In early recorded history, people tried to reach God by building ziggurats.  Genesis 11 provides the account of the Tower of Babel, which the builders thought could serve as a stairway to heaven.  The first problem with this was that it was not commanded by God. The people did so to make name for self among mortals not to improve their standing with their creator. They also mistook physical proximity to the sky for an indicator of relationship with God. God subsequently divided their languages, which ended their futile effort.

As God led the Hebrew children from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land, he ordered the priests to maintain a tent of meeting as a portable dwelling place symbolizing God’s presence among them. Jerusalem was a sacred place in Israel because it was thought God lived there. Psalm 46:4 calls Jerusalem the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God later ordered the building of the Temple in Jerusalem as a sacred space for the Israelites’ worship and ritualistic activities.  King Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, was quick to acknowledge upon his completion of the temple: But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built! (I Kings 8:27).

The temple served its purpose, but was by no means construed as God’s only presence in the world. Neither was it immune from God’s wrath. The prophet Jeremiah warned that God would destroy the temple if the trust of the people became misplaced:
While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your fellow Israelites, the people of Ephraim.’ (Jeremiah 7:13-15).
Although the temple was sacred and special, it was by no means absolute. From the very beginning, people violated its sanctity and misconstrued God’s purpose for it. Not only that, when the temple was eventually destroyed and the Israelites were in exile and captivity, they fell into despondency as if God was no longer present.

Jesus came as the embodiment of a new temple. Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to the temple to consecrate him to God, as required by the Law. Jesus made the importance of the temple abundantly clear from his childhood. He lingered behind at the Temple in Jerusalem as Mary and Joseph made their way back home. After journeying for a day, they doubled back to the city to find a snarky adolescent greeting them with: “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). I am sure this went over very well with Joseph.
Jesus also revealed his identity early in his ministry at a synagogue in Galilee by reading from the Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
   because he has anointed me
   to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
   and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing .” (Luke 4:18-21).

Jesus frequented the temple and used temple imagery in his language that flew over the heads of not only the religious leaders, but also his own disciples. When asked to provide a sign to prove his authority to perform miracles, Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:19).  He was even mocked from the cross with reminders of his claim. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:40). While it is easy for us to stand on the other side of the resurrection and view them with disdain, we still don’t comprehend that Jesus freed us from the confines of a temple.

In Jesus’ final teaching after his resurrection and before his Ascension, he issued the Great Commission: therefore go and [disciple] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”(Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus’ finished work on the cross was the perfect sacrifice fulfilling the ritualistic requirements for atoning for sin.  The new covenant unified what was scattered in response to earlier attempts to get to God in the physical realm. The ushering in of the Spirit at Pentecost unified believers unto this day to be God’s presence in the world.

Ezekiel 37:26-27 establishes that a time will come when God will make a new covenant with humanity and dwell permanently with God’s people.
I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.
The book of Revelation refers to new Jerusalem as the ideal state restored to God’s order permanently. Verse 21:2 describes the new Jerusalem as the holy city coming out of heaven from God. The writer further uses language to describe it as intimate fellowship that God has promised to those in covenant with him.  Biblical scholar Robert Gundry takes a bold step in saying John is not describing the eternal dwelling place of saints; he is describing them, and them alone.”[1]  In other words, the New Jerusalem is not a heavenly city; it is the fleshly temples of those who believe. This newness raises saints to the cause of Christ beyond temporality and worldliness. Apostle Paul makes it very clear: Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; (I Corinthians 6:19).

Knowing all that we know, why are we building wider spatially rather than going deeper into ourselves?  Christians have return to primacy of the temple in the community of faith as opposed to being God’s presence in the world. Some churches are housed on sprawling campuses with scores of acres. Just as one mega church is complete, here come plans for another as some pastors get caught in the throes of steeple envy. Others view the relative success of large land-holding churches and follow suit like League of Dreams. “If you build it they will come.”

Church membership has become a very transient affair. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a big beautiful church in most metropolitan areas. Some are so immodest that they command you to come inside and take a peek. A hard truth that congregations everywhere are learning is that people are drawn to new edifices in a sensory manner. A church can be the flavor of the month until the next bigger and more beautiful one is built. Then who is left holding the bag?

Just as owners of McMansions are finding themselves overextended, so are the McChurches.  Church borrowing and building followed the same boom as residential and commercial development in the late 1990s and 2000s. Just as the effects of the economic downturn and financial risk have hit individuals, foreclosure proceedings against churches have tripled in the past three years.  Over 100 churches have also filed bankruptcy this year alone.

Some jurisdictions have passed measures limiting the proportion of land used for religious organizations within them. Some churches consider this a form of modern persecution, when in fact they may be saving us from ourselves. Just as the hubris of reaching God vertically led to a failed tower, the image of success has become the strongest selling point for some churches to capture their market for believers.  So what are we to do?  Remember, Jesus built no buildings and his ministry turned out all right.

[1] Gudry, Robert H. “The New Jerusalem: People as a Place, Not a Place for a People.” Novum Testamentum. XXIX, 3 (1987), p. 256.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

From Stellar to Cellar

Never did God promise us that every day would be Sunday or every Sunday would be easy like the Commodores intoned. By the time I finished seminary in 2000, I did not even attend church anymore. Not only had I experienced spiritual heights I could not have imagined, but had also seen the bowels of the church. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone anymore and was even giving God a closer look.

This was very hard because for some strange reason I still loved God and felt God loved me. From the days of forced Sunday School attendance by my bunned-up parents, to a closer personal walk and my eventual call to ministry, worshipping and serving the Lord provided coherence to my life. For in him we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28a). However, dealing with God’s people was draining my soul. My New Testament professor used a term to describe the early church’s religious experience that captured my angst precisely.

Cognitive dissonance is the tension when personal experience is not consistent with one’s learning, beliefs, opinions. The first-generation church struggled to reconcile Jesus promise of abundant life with their suffering and persecution. I had to decide whether God was indeed reconciling the world unto Himself by the perfecting work of His spirit or this whole church thing was a ruse.

In the meantime, I was going crazy trying to pretend my eyes were lying and faith could move the monumental black ball Rev. had placed me behind. All of the conflicting notions were pushing me to the edge.

God’s word, however, commands us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves (Hebrews 10:25). God also invites us to (t)aste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him (Psalms34:8). Yes, He gets us coming and going.

Then about a year after graduation, God told me to go to this particular church in downtown DC. Yes He did. So, I went and felt something that I had not felt in a long time. Can’t put it into words, but I got my mojo back. Without deliberation, I went again, and again, and again. However, I had no intent on joining and being the same fool twice.

I subsequently began to ask around about the pastor. Almost nobody I asked knew anything about him. Then, I knew he had to be clean. One Sunday, God sneaked up on me and had me taking the walk down the aisle I had been resisting for over a year. I had a new church home. And the people were not crazy. Or so it seemed.

During a series of private sessions, I told Pastor my story. He received me well and nursed me back to spiritual health. Through all our meetings, his wife, who sat outside his door as the church secretary, never raised an eyebrow. Although I bared my soul, not a word of those sessions was ever uttered publicly by him. He subsequently allowed me to flex my gifts of teaching and preaching, without reservation. Some churches act like you have to get a Top Secret security clearance to access those privileges, although the quality of what comes from their pulpits and classrooms does not reflect due diligence.

What happened next simply blew my mind. Some of the members had grown restless. They wanted a leader with more flash and pizzazz. With a stroke of the District Superintendent’s pen, the congregation went from stellar to cellar. Pastor was reassigned and a new joker was appointed. I kept an open mind, but The Joker looked strangely familiar. The quality of the teaching, preaching, and administration began to decline immediately. Then I remembered: Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 John 4:1).

Meanwhile, the congregation went wild in response to his theatrical antics in the pulpit in spite of his words having no redeeming value. “Did you see how he jumped around shouting today? He was on fire!” could be overheard after Sunday services. Not once did I hear how the anointing on the message (or lack thereof) impacted their lives. Not only that, I never—in five years—heard him provide a single account of how God’s spirit manifest in his life personally. Recounting second-hand testimonies is not credible witness.

Then at the beginning of last year, I resolved to be more receptive of The Joker’s ministry. This was not the result in a change of heart, but rather justification for maintaining my social ties at the church. The year couldn’t even get off to a good start before The Joker stated one of the most antithetical statements to the gospel I have ever heard from the pulpit. The crowd said “amen.” I turned around in the middle of his message and asked “did you hear what he just said?” The man behind me responded in the negative. “Well you said ‘amen’” I stated. He responded “it’s just a habit.”

Trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, I went to The Joker’s office after service to discuss the theological implications of what he stated. Maybe I heard him wrong. Maybe his words got twisted. He stood beside his ignorance and defied my right to object. I broke out my bible and went point-by-point through the inconsistency of his message not only with the gospel of Christ—which he acted like he was hearing for the first time—but also with the denomination’s discipline. He looked at me with that “who the hell you think you are” look that I know so well. I wrote the bishop to express my concern about the weak pulpit and spiritual decline of the congregation. He basically told me to kiss his hindquarters. Add one more denomination to the list of churches who would never ordain me.

It’s a wonder how God takes us to heights spiritually only to drop us back in the valley. Why can’t we build tents on the mountain tops and let the mere mortals fend for themselves? Then God revealed to me that He did not call me to sit under someone’s spiritual teat for the rest of my life. The change in altitude was part of His plan. There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

That’s where the madness jumps off. Just as members of the military swear to defend this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic, disciples must battle His enemies from within and beyond. That does not make me too many friends in the church because its worldliness not only suits counterfeit preachers, but also provides comfort to spiritual slackers. If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you (John 15:18-19).

We must rid God’s house of darkness so it can bear light to the world as it should. It won’t be easy because a lot is at stake on both sides. The enemy is always seeking who he may devour especially those who are called according to God’s purpose. Well, ever since childhood, I have never been able to resist a good fight. Gird me up Lord and bring it on! Who is with me?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How Low Can You Go?

One of my greatest frustrations in the church is that we have conspired to lower the moral bar to the point where anything goes. Yes, all sin and fall short of the glory of God. However, that is not cause to cast off all restraint. We must all face judgment in the flesh and the afterlife.

Saints have been endowed with the authority to assess the quality of those within the boundaries of the church. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you (I Corinthians 5:12-13).

What vexes me is that this requirement never gets enforced. I’m not talking about disciplining every misstep by neophytes in the faith. The Holy Spirit is perfecting us all day by day. What bothers me is the tacit acceptance of egregious acts by so-called leaders of the church.

An old saying states there are two things that one does not want to see made: laws and sausage. Well my friends, I submit a third: preachers. When I first began my journey toward ordained ministry, I began to wonder what does one have to do to get kicked out of the fold? Adultery was more commonplace than marital fidelity. Spiritual integrity didn't seem to matter. And don’t get me started about embezzlement from the collection plate. Seasoned ministers made it their business to ensure that the end product was not too clean.

First, they line up all the sexual favors a new candidate can stand. They have men’s fellowship at the strip club. Alcohol and drug abuse are no strangers. The best lines for exploiting people and separating them from their money are proffered freely. Once they indoctrinate one into the game, the ministers cannot be held accountable by them. You see, there is no honor among thieves. An irony of all ironies is that keeping your nose clean becomes a liability because they have nothing to hold over your head.

This brings me to one of the most misquoted verses of scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5), Jesus instructs disciples (d)o not judge so that you will not be judged, but he doesn’t end there. This message is a warning against hypocrisy and holding others to standards to which one does not adhere. Jesus goes further to instruct believers to first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. Then, and only then, will they be in a position to correct another. The church wants you morally corrupt to prevent you from being in a position to discern and call things for what they are.

The modern church absolves itself of moral responsibility while chastising others. What has resulted is a limbo dance in which spiritual leaders take turns committing acts that defame the Kingdom. The more base the act, the lower the moral bar is subsequently stationed. They laugh mockingly as they get away with scandal after scandal with their chain of fools intact.

During my first year of seminary, Henry Lyons, then President of the National Baptist Convention, was charged and indicted on grand theft, racketeering, fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion, among other things. He initially played the race card, but copped a plea while his supporters continued to proclaim his innocence. The denomination had the gall to have his wife take the fall for setting fire to the house he purchased with his mistress (who wouldn’t?) by citing her alcoholism as the source of his problems. In more irony, they did not rebuke his affair or financial misappropriation that the resulting investigation uncovered. Although he was not successful in reclaiming the helm of the denomination after being released from prison, Lyons returned to the pulpit and cultivated a significant following.

Eugene Marriott, Minister to Men at mega-church Ebenezer A.M.E. in Fort Washington, MD was caught in the act of beating and raping a woman outside a hotel by a police officer, no less. His defense was that they were role-playing a violent act as part of their regular sexual routine, despite the fact he was married to another woman. The church immediately relieved him of his duties but would not comment on whether he remained on the payroll during his legal proceedings.

More scandalous than that, his church did not acknowledge how they aided in his defense and legal bills. Marriott eventually pled guilty to lesser charges, was sentenced to 16 months in jail. The state changed the charges because Marriott “did not want to register as a sex offender.” News accounts describe the prosecutor saying “I wish Mr. Marriott well. I hope that his wife takes him back. I am very glad to see his church and his community are still supporting him”[1]. That’s pretty remarkable for a hard-nosed state like Virginia where the incident occurred. Her boss, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, responded after the fact (t)he function of a criminal prosecutor is to point out how bad the crime is; it's not a social partnership with the defense.”[2] If you’re gonna go that low, get in with the right church.

Insult is added to injury is the case of Jamal Bryant, the pastor of Empowerment Temple A.M.E. Church in Baltimore. Where do you begin with him? Word on the street is that the state of Maryland is adding an office just to deal with the series of paternity suits against him. One of the earliest of record resulted from him impregnating a woman while engaged to be married to another. He never claimed that child in spite of indisputable DNA evidence and a monkey face just like his. The most recent involves a young woman who was a teenaged member of his congregation at the time of conception. His membership roll and collection plate have not suffered. The victim has been shunned consistent with the long and shameful tradition of not addressing clergy sexual exploitation.

What did the denomination do? Bryant was silenced and ordered out of his pulpit for 30 days by his Presiding Bishop. What did he do? Go on a speaking tour to spread the love. What a tour it was. In the wake of the disciplinary action, he has headlined worship services for the national meetings of the National Urban League, Congressional Black Caucus, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Shame on all three and any others promoting this brand of prophecy without accountability.  Bryant also appears as the spiritual advisor on two reality television shows. Talk about the blind leading the blind. Need more speaking engagements? Go lower.

Another irony is that the man who uses “empowerment” in the name of his church claims to no power over sin. I will be the first to admit that Bryant is a gifted speaker, but gifts come without redemption. He speaks more about his haters than the redemptive work of God in changing his behavior which God hates. 

I wonder how many copies of his book World War Me: How to Win the Battle I Lost he has sold. That’s like taking financial advice from a broke man. You can’t teach what you don’t know, you can’t lead where you won’t go. But P.T. Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute.  The Apostle Paul said Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified (I Corinthians 9:26-27).

There will be a lot of well-meaning servants of the Lord in hell because they failed to work out their salvation with fear and trembling before God. Look at all of the biblical accounts of people in the afterlife. The scandalous are surprised when they arrive in heaven and the wicked are always shocked to find themselves condemned.

How did we get to this low? They have become lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. The bible tells us have nothing to do with them (2 Timothy 3:4b-5). Listeners enjoy the feel-good motivational speeches with a little Jesus thrown in for good measure. When leaders fall, the church embraces them and calls for collective prayer. Innocent souls must be preserved by removing counterfeit believers God from the fold. Those who have been barred for backsliding will similarly recognize the need for repentance. We have no responsibility to follow anyone in their flesh. The systematic enabling of immoral behavior is corrosive to the church. Do not be misled: Bad company corrupts good character (I Corinthians 15:33).

[1] The Washington Post, 3/17/07
[2] Ibid, 3/22/07.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I Ain't Mad at Cha

This past week, we said goodbye to a real soldier of the Lord. I had the privilege to grow up in a place where women in ministry were not a big deal. We had two female assistant pastors at my church when I was a little girl. Not too far from my childhood home, was a couple who co-pastored the relatively large Jericho Baptist Church long before ecclesiastical duos became a trend. In 1996, James Peebles passed leaving some to wonder who his wife, Betty, a credentialed minister in her own right, would get to “cover” her. They had three sons, but Betty Peebles held the reigns tightly as if to say “I got this.”

The concept of a female needing “covering,” or supervision by a man to perform ministry, is contrary to the transcendence the gospel provides. Ironically, the twelve disciples disapproved of the woman at the well evangelizing after her encounter with Jesus in the fourth chapter of John. At that point in the narrative, they had not won one convert, let alone comprehended the gospel. That’s the peril of promoting the penis over the power of God.

Phoebe was also a deacon in the Church whose ministry preceded the Apostle Paul’s. He commends her to the church at Rome in Romans 16. Tradition and poor interpretation have conspired to consign her to “deaconess.” But the identical form of the Greek term is used to describe Phoebe’s title as is attributed to males in the same role throughout the New Testament.

If I can take one issue with Betty Peebles, it is that she made it look so easy. It could not have been considering that Jericho was originally part of a denomination whose first criterion for ministry was a pair of testicles. Have they not read There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)? The witness of scripture does not support such a patriarchal framework. The prophet Joel foretold:

It will come about after this

That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;

And your sons and daughters will prophesy,

Your old men will dream dreams,

Your young men will see visions.

Even on the male and female servants

I will pour out My Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28-29)

I know for a fact that Betty Peebles endured a lot of sexism in the church, but she never said a mumbling word. The answer to her disposition can be found in the title of one of her many books, Performing for an Audience of One. She tells of being so keenly focused on God that she didn’t pay attention to what others thought about her. She remained steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in her work for the Lord.

You see, her God was bigger than her obstacles. Men who barred Betty Peebles from their pulpits were left in the dust (no pun intended) as she achieved heights in ministry to which they could only dream. All the while, she pressed on, bearing her signature smile that was bright as the sun. Clearly, she kept in mind that:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19).

Betty Peebles’ mere presence commanded authority. She journeyed on to found the non-denominational Jericho City of Praise and became the only female to pastor one of America’s largest 100 churches. At the time of her passing, over 19,000 members were on the rolls. Jericho’s sanctuary accommodates over 10,000 with a warmth that makes you forget how big it is. Not only that, she expanded the range of ministries to include a day care, elementary school, ministry training academy, professional counseling center, and a senior residences so well-appointed that they rival major hotels. All of these services are housed on the church’s campus which spans over 100 acres and is entirely debt-free. She did not simply acquire property. She used those resources, along with the power of God working through her, to change lives.

Now that Betty Peebles has gone from labor to reward, sisters who are holding up the blood-stained banner must likewise fight for our rightful place in the kingdom. No more merely carrying a man’s cup. God is not a respector of persons (Acts 10:34). If someone tries to downplay your call on grounds of gender, rest on the sufficiency of God’s anointing. As the spiritual says “no man cannot (sic) hinder me.”

But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me (Philippians 2:17-18).

I think I get it now. Well done good and faithful servant, well done.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Crying Shame

The most powerful emotional moment of our Lord and Savior’s earthly life are captured in two words: Jesus Wept (John 11:35). This is the shortest verse in the bible. Upon learning of Lazarus’ death, Jesus did not rejoice because his friend was in a better place. He cried. And he did not just shed a tear. He lost control and sobbed from the depths of his soul.

The pain of separation by death of a loved one can be profound. Psychologists place the natural limit for the number of people the human brain can connect with deeply enough that their death would leave one devastated at around 12. This would place Lazarus in what they term Jesus’ sympathy circle. His sisters referred to him as the one you love in the message informing Jesus of Lazarus’ illness (v. 3).

I have experienced it once in the passing of my ace boon coon, sista from another mother, number one friend, Neptina, the day before her 30th birthday. She succumbed to colon cancer. Neptina and I first met when she transferred to Smothers Elementary School. We cut up together in Sunday School. We played in the band together at Kelly Miller Jr. High. We assembled our wardrobes together in the stores of downtown DC. We shared bad luck in romantic relationships. We pursued our respective careers with intensity. We came into full faith around the same time. She was me and I was her. I didn’t even realize the place she occupied in my life until she was gone.

Her death was so earth shattering that I collapsed to the floor upon hearing the news and I could not compose myself to pay fitting tribute to her during the service. Even her pastor cried throughout the eulogy. It was tragic. Her passing made no sense. A decorated police officer, athletic physical specimen, devoted daughter, loyal friend, and saved soul should have been allotted more days upon this earth. Surely the world would be better off without some other people still among the living. But even the very hairs upon your head are all numbered (Matthew 10:30).

My cousins just buried their father this past weekend. Our extended family gathered in its hometown of Rocky Mount, NC to bid my uncle adieu, bless his memory, console one another (and get some awesome barbecue). Why in the world did this fool of a minister stand in the pulpit and say "this ain't no funeral, this is a celebration"? Excuse me, but your daddy ain't laid out up front in a box. The asinine ideas that catch on in the church astound me. Let’s consult Webster’s Dictionary:

fu·ner·al [fyoo-ner-uh]


1. the ceremonies for a dead person prior to burial or cremation;obsequies.

2. a funeral procession.


3. of or pertaining to a funeral: funeral services; funeral expenses.


4. be someone's funeral, Informal . to have unpleasant consequences for someone: If you don't finish the work on time, it will be your funeral!

My bible says:

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

The first biblical account of a proper burial is recorded in Genesis 23:19. Throughout scripture, we find individuals and communities grieving losses and performing rites befitting the occasions. Even the law establishes protocols for handling corpses. Death is a sacred moment so it is only fitting that the funeral be a solemn occasion to honor not only the dearly departed, but also their loved ones' journey from sorrow to joy.

The eulogy is also not the time to speculate on the deceased individual’s eternal destination. The term is derived from the Greek root eulogio, which means literally “I bless.” This is the opportunity for the preacher to speak highly of the deceased and share special memories. Preach like you’re praying their way into heaven. It is not the time to break out generic notes and insert their name in the blank. If a pastor has been on his or her j-o-b, he or she should have something to say about the quality of an individual’s life, spiritual and otherwise. Is that too much to ask?

If one more jackleg preacher tells me to put on a happy face as I mourn, it will be their funeral. We must be careful not to be bulls in china shops on occasions such as these. Walking on holy ground requires one to remove one’s shoes and to tread carefully. Grieving is a complex and delicate process warranting respectful handling.

Jean Paul Sartre got it right in his description of Christianity as a breeder of psychosis, the mental disorder characterized by gross detachment from reality and the inability to function in it. Religious sensibilities dictate that we act ecstatic when sinking into despair, feign enlightment when confounded by life’s challenges, and shout amen at nonsense while our spiritual needs go unmet.

That's one of the reasons I believe the church is so crazy and not living up to God’s purpose for it. We must be true to our feelings and not pretend to be something we are not. God knows where we are and cares enough to provide adequate grace to get us where we need to be. Only let us live up to what we have already attained (Philippians 3:16). You have God’s permission to keep it real. Anyone denying you that right, my friends, would be a crying shame.