A Long December

As the year draws to a close, I find myself slightly optimistic, but only in the sense that perhaps some of the things that happened this year will not recur next year, that lessons will be learned, dramatic changes will occur, and I will become hopeful again. It’s been a long season of lament and where hope once bubbled abundantly through my being, now I find it’s merely a single flickering candle, a flame that will sometimes twist and nearly fade from view or grow brighter, but doesn’t have the ability to shine enough light to show that there is a way, a path, a direction to be taken.

It’s been a season where beloved people and much wanted babies died, where complications from minor surgery turned grave. A season where relationships sometimes bloomed, but also fractured, possibly beyond repair, or changed in a way that’s no longer comfortable or healthy. Sometimes I’ve had to learn that I believed a relationship existed only to find that in truth it existed only in my head.

Social media feeds kept me informed about all manner of politics, of protesting against injustice, scripture quotes, the climate crisis, racism, sexism, violence and abuse, and also the occasional rare meme or tweet that was funny but not at the expense of a fellow human being.

This year I moved to a new apartment, which meant the final gasping breaths of a dream dying, acceptance that maybe it’s just not possible to live in community, even if it’s with people I love and with whom I share similar values. Though I was an active participant in all that occurred I still sometimes wonder what exactly happened, why things turned out the way they did, and what could have been done differently.

As I walked around the parking lot before and after Christmas, I saw dumpsters and recycle bins filled with the aftermath of excessive consumption, shiny new things purchased by parents and grandparents, spouses and children, daughters and sons, things that are supposed to bring happiness and a feeling of good cheer during this holiday season. This seemed rather incongruous as voices of parents yelling and children crying echoed in the hallway outside of my apartment. Was it necessary to buy all the plastic toys that will be on this planet forever? Will we ever learn that we can’t continue to consume at this rate without causing our own extinction? What sort of world will our grandchildren grow up in? Will they have fresh air, clean water, food to eat? Will they suffer from illnesses and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents and grandparents?

The one saving grace in this season has been the forest that sits behind my apartment building. As I walk along the path, leaves crunching under my boots, I listen for the birds, watch the squirrels and chipmunks running up and down the trees, watch the deer, who seem as interested in me as I am in them. I feel at peace, refreshed, at home. It’s hard to describe the beauty and the joy I feel when I’m there and I’m sure Thoreau or others have said it much more eloquently than I could hope to. And yet this beauty is also laced with sadness – a developer owns the land and the city has approved the building of twenty plus new homes that will wipe out the majority of the forest. Staying here when that happens is something I’m afraid I won’t be able to bear and I feel intense pressure to figure out the next step.

Will next year be better? It seems unlikely given what I know at the moment. Many of the problems that plague our country and humankind in general are not easily solved and it’s hard to be patient when change is so painfully slow, and quite frankly, when people refuse to acknowledge what is wrong, who is being harmed, and the role that each of us plays in it. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not clear on the path or direction I need to take, but I’m working on figuring it out.

And so, there is that glimmer of hope and I cling to that because without hope, there can be no revolution. And we are desperately in need of a revolution. As the song from Counting Crows goes, “It’s been a Long December but there’s reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last.” Time will tell, eh?

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.