Why I Left My Church

The more I read the Bible, the more I’ve been questioning things that I’ve been told since Sunday School, things that as an adult either don’t make sense to me or don’t align with the Jesus I’ve come to know through the gospels. If I’m to take what Jesus said seriously, as mentioned in a previous post, I can’t continue to ignore what’s happening here on earth and just feel good about the place God has for me in heaven. This has changed how I feel about church and about what should be happening every Sunday as we gather to worship, read scripture, and tell stories about God. 

As I attended small groups and talked with others, including the pastor, I came to see that there wasn’t room for different interpretations or honest discussions about the Bible. I was told that politics don’t belong in the pulpit, was cautioned against the ‘social justice gospel,’ and was told things that seemed to be the opposite of God’s message of inclusion, love, peace, and justice. While I hoped that being on the Leadership Team would allow me to bring about change to a small, non-denominational church with declining membership, I realized that it didn’t seem like anyone other than me was interested in change. A month or so ago, I made the decision to resign from my position and stop attending.  When I wrote my resignation letter, my hope was that it would open a dialog, that it would be shared with the church membership, and most of all, that people would reach out to me to talk about why I left and how they felt about the reasons. That didn’t happen so I thought I would write a post and see if the folks who read this would have any thoughts to share with me.

What follows is the letter in it’s entirety. Comments on social media and in the comments section of the blog are welcome – I’m also happy to meet with anyone who lives nearby. Also, if you too have questions but don’t want to speak out in a public space, please feel free to email me at ca.sparks@nakedonthetundtra.com and I will respond as soon as I can.

I think as Christians, we often assume that we are all on the same page politically, biblically, socially, and morally. Indeed, I made this assumption and was surprised to learn this is not the case. In the past couple of years, there have been many times when I as a follower of Jesus could not understand how fellow Christians could take a particular stance or seem so insensitive to the critical needs of marginalized people, especially those who didn’t have the good fortune of being born with white skin.

Our sanctity of life sermons, social media postings, and conversations focus only on abortion but I believe they need to include the thirteen thousand lives lost to gun violence last year, the hundreds of thousands of people killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the fact that people are still being executed by the state because the death penalty is legal in thirty states. Are these lives any less sanctified?

We want to prevent refugees from entering our sacred borders but I want to acknowledge that the very ground on which we sit was stolen from indigenous people and we have no intention of giving it back, making reparations, and in fact, continue to steal lands when it benefits those with money or power. We need to remember our call to give sanction and asylum to the alien who seeks a better life. I believe there is more than enough for everyone.

We are called to be stewards of the earth yet we blatantly ignore the damage done to the environment by our daily lifestyle choices and continue to colonize and pillage third world countries to ensure that we have a never ending supply of whatever it is that we want when we want it. We refuse to take even the smallest steps to reduce our impact because it inhibits the freedom we feel we so richly deserve here in America. I believe this should be a priority for everyone – our very lives depend on it.

Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters are welcome to come to our church, but I believe they should be able to marry, raise children, and not have to remain celibate. We welcome people of color as well, but I believe we need to recognize and stand against the blatant racism, poverty, and premature deaths that are a part of their daily existence. We welcome women to lead but I believe we also need to talk about the harm that is done to them by men in positions of power at home, at work, and yes, even in the church. 

I understand not everyone is called to be an activist and I understand the danger of speaking against injustice inside and outside of the church, but I also know this: our silence on these and other issues of justice and equity can only be interpreted to mean we are just fine with things the way they are. I believe we as the church must start speaking out. In the late eighteenth century, it was the church speaking out against slavery that caused it to be abolished. We can’t admire and take pride in that if we are unwilling to do the same thing today.

I love the church and believe in the necessity of community for proper spiritual growth. For a long time I’ve been bothered by the lack of interest at NewSong regarding issues I’m passionate about as well the resistance to talking about and wrestling with social issues and interpreting passages of scripture. While others have opted to leave NewSong, I thought that my serving on the Leadership Team might enable me to help to bring about change and revitalize a church with dwindling membership. I now painfully recognize that the changes Iʼm most passionate about will only cause division. As I am unwilling to cause any additional harm to this body, I am resigning my position effective today. While I am choosing to seek out a new community, my NewSong brothers and sisters will always be the witnesses to my baptism and for that I am eternally grateful. I pray that in time any wounds I have caused this body will be healed and our friendship in Christ will remain.

Grace and Peace to all

Cheryl

The Book Of Matthew

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.   

Matthew 28:19 – 20

In the Christian community, there’s a lot of talk about the ‘great commission,’ Jesus’s instruction to go out and spread the ‘gospel’ to the world. The ‘gospel’ is generally interpreted as telling people that Jesus loves them and he died to save us from our sins. But what does that even mean? For the past several months, I’ve been thinking that maybe we’ve gotten this all wrong. Like for the last couple thousand years.

Looking through the book of Matthew, here are some of the “commands” Jesus gives (this is not a complete list – not every command is easy to sum up in a succinct bullet point):

  • If you have something against someone, reconcile
  • Don’t lust after someone – it’s the equivalent of committing adultery
  • Love your enemies
  • Give to the needy without drawing attention to yourself
  • Don’t value possessions
  • Don’t worry about the little things
  • Don’t judge people
  • Know that following me will cost you something
  • Heal people
  • Rely on Jesus to give you rest
  • Feed people
  • Forgive people
  • Pay taxes but remember that all your wealth belongs to God
  • Love God and love people

This is the upside down kingdom that Jesus talked about – peace and justice and forgiveness and love. The upside down kingdom where the rich and powerful don’t control or take advantage of the poor and weak, where people say I’m sorry and I forgive you, where we don’t hoard possessions and worship money. The upside down kingdom where we love each other no matter the color of our skin, our religion, where we were born, or whether we’re gay or straight or trans or anything else. The upside down kingdom where everybody wins because no one loses. The upside down kingdom where the least come first and doing the right thing can cost you your life – or at least your friends and family. 

In the spirit of full disclosure – I’m not a theologian, I haven’t been to seminary, and I’ve only been reading the Bible consistently for the last eighteen years. But the theory of substitutionary atonement – Jesus taking our place on the cross to atone for our sins – doesn’t make sense to me. What kind of God – who made us in his image – would despise us so much that he wanted to kill us because of the things we’ve done wrong? And what kind of God kills his own son as a substitute? Because that just seems messed up to me. And what’s more – I can’t find any passage in the book of Matthew that says that’s what Jesus commands.

The upside down kingdom cost Jesus his life and it’s what he asks from us as well – to take up the cross and follow him. Will we do it? Will we really love our brothers and sisters no matter what? Will we redistribute our wealth so that everyone has enough? Will we stop judging others? Feed the hungry? Stop treating someone’s sexuality like a commodity and end human trafficking? Love our enemies instead of making sure that we Americans have the largest defense budget in the world so we can blow our enemies to bits? Spend a little time on social media or reading the news and it sure doesn’t look like it, even when the people speaking, being interviewed, or quoted are Christians.

What would it look like if all Christians worked daily at even this short list of commands? What if Christians had been doing these things for the past two-thousand years instead of just telling people, “Jesus loves you – he died to save you from your sins!” Sorry you’re hungry or homeless or persecuted, but it’s all going to be fine when you get to heaven! Why does it seem like people who aren’t Christians understand the commands in Matthew better than those who say they read their Bibles and love Jesus? Was Jesus killed as a substitute for us or because the rich and powerful wanted to make sure that the upside down kingdom never happened?

Like I said, I’m not a theologian. But there are others out there that have been asking the same question. Here’s an article by Elizabeth Johnson that you might want to read if you’ve been asking yourself the same question or if you’re starting to think about Jesus and his kingdom differently after reading this. You might be surprised at what comes up if you Google, “Did Jesus die to save us from our sins?”

As I write this, I wonder, am I going to receive any backlash after I hit publish? Will people be praying for me? Will they send me scriptures supporting the theory of substitutionary atonement? Will they shake their heads and wonder why I just don’t get it? Will it affect how people at my church think of me? And what about my family?

Or will people stop and think about Jesus’s commands and start to put them into practice? Will anyone dig deeper into Matthew and read EVERYTHING that Jesus commands? If that’s your plan, you might want to take a nap beforehand because it’s a lot! You may want to check out Red Letter Christians for guidance! What I pray is this – that you will reconcile, forgive, stop judging, feed the hungry, stop lusting after people, give away some money, get rid of some possessions, stop worrying about the small stuff, love people (especially those that are hard for you to love) and know that if you do, it’s liable to cost you something.

Peacemaking in D.C.

It’s been a few days since I got back from Washington D.C. but this is the first chance I’ve had to write an update.

The road trip started on Thursday as we headed to my cousin’s house in Virginia. She graciously agreed to allow her crazy relatives to spend a couple of nights with her (thanks, Melanie!) and even joined us for the march! It was a long day on the road with the biggest surprise being the forty dollars in tolls to take the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes. Apparently it’s been awhile since I’ve been on them because that was certainly not in my budget! What am I saying? The trip was completely unplanned so none of it was in my budget! 

After a leisurely breakfast on Friday, we drove to the Wiehle-Reston East Station to hop on the Metrorail and take the silver line into D.C. This wasn’t our first time on the train (the last time we each had a toddler and were pregnant, but that’s another story), but things have changed a bit since the mid nineteen-eighties. In other words, we had no idea what we were doing and had to get some human assistance.

Armed with a map and instructions from the self appointed greeters who met us at the Smithsonian rail stop, we headed to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial so we’d know what to do the next day when it was time for the march. It was quite an experience – not sure I can really put it all in words.

After that, we headed to the American History Museum. The highlight for me was seeing the African American History and Culture Gallery where there was a display about the Poor People’s Campaign that took place in 1968. Fifty years ago, an estimated thirty-five million people in the United States lived in poverty. This year the estimate is forty-three million. Hmm, seems like we’re not making much progress . . .

Later in the day, specifically after rush hour started, we hopped aboard the Metrorail’s green line to head to the Festival Center for the evening’s presentation. We spent some leisurely time browsing the books and having a bite to eat at the Potter’s House.

The speakers at the event were Dr. Kit Evans-Ford, John Dear, Ken Butigan, George Paz Martin, and Veronica Pelicaric. While they were all inspirational, I was moved the most by the people who shared their stories of the actions and projects they’d done in their cities over the past few months before coming to Washington D.C. They came from all over the country, one guy even came from Hawaii! It gave me hope that so many people are doing things, though it was a little embarrassing that the contingent of two from Michigan had done pretty much nothing. So far. But we are about to.

It was really late when we got back and it was hard to fall asleep anticipating the march the next day. At barely after six am we were back on the road heading for the train station. This time we rocked it like veterans and got to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in record time. As we gathered, a huge helicopter kept buzzing by our location, no doubt keeping an eye on us protesters. Though we were warned that we could be asked to leave by the park rangers, nothing happened and the rally continued without any issues.

Though I was doing my best to be professional, I did have a fan girl moment when Shane Claiborne arrived. Shane is the author of several life ruining books like Jesus For President, The Irresistible Revolution, Red Letter Revolution and Executing Grace. He’s partly responsible for this current journey I’m on and I just had to introduce myself and shake his hand. Because it would be wrong to kick him when I’m trying to be a peacemaker.

Speakers at the rally were John Dear, Lisa Sharon Harper, George Martin, Shane Claiborne, Ken Butigan, and Reverend Lennox Yearwood. As I listened, I looked up at the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and it looked like tears were streaming down his cheeks.  Were they tears of sadness that in fifty years we’d made so little progress or were they tears of joy that there were still people – however few – peacefully marching for injustice?

We paired up and silently started marching toward the White House. We passed the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As we passed fellow Americans and visitors from other countries, I wondered what they thought of our peaceful demonstration. 

We arrived at the White House and a group of people stepped up to the barricade. We stood directly across from them and it wasn’t long before the police arrived and asked them to leave. They stood their ground and the police called in a van and additional officers. After an hour we were all getting tired, hungry, thirsty (and it had been a really long time since any of us used the bathroom) so we gathered in a circle and each shared one word that was on our lips as we reflected on what we’d experienced so far.

You can see someone standing on top of the White House – not sure if it’s a telescope or a gun that’s pointed at us.

Ironic that an officer with an assault rifle is standing behind our peacemakers

The police explaining that not moving will result in an arrest

Though we would have liked to stay and see things through to the end, we had a long drive ahead of us so we left after the circle. The group ultimately waited about two hours but no arrests happened. What I’d like to believe is that the police continued to wait instead of arresting people so they wouldn’t have to arrest peaceful, respectful citizens who are trying to make a difference.

It will take some time to process everything I experienced, but I wonder – what would have happened if more people stood with us? What if we had two thousand people instead of a couple hundred? What if there were twenty-thousand people? Two-hundred thousand? Would it make a difference? Would the issues of war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction be addressed if more people stood up and said things are not okay? It’s frustrating that most people seem oblivious to the pressing issues of the day, but then until a couple of years ago, I wasn’t doing anything about these issues either. So here’s my plea to everyone that’s reading this post. Do something. You don’t have to march in protests (but you might want to!). Do some research, call or email the people in our legislature, recycle, be a responsible consumer, partner with organizations who stand against injustice, and exercise your right to vote after you’ve thoroughly vetted the candidates. Don’t wait – everyone can do something now.

My favorite shirt at the march