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.