Thank-You Lou Riley: An Unexpected, Powerful Spiritual Experience

“Are you Lou?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Pastor Mark, from First Methodist Cocoa Beach.”

“You’re the new pastor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, come in!”

Within forty-five minutes of this awkward introduction, I would have an unexpected, powerful spiritual experience.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t like scheduling visits to shut-ins, hospitals, and nursing homes. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m actually spending time with people during visits, I’m always blessed, but it’s really hard to motivate myself to do it. It takes time to map out all the addresses, estimate travel times, and to call the day before to make sure they will be home when I’m in their area. Getting around to see everyone takes all day, and there are a hundred other things I would rather do. It’s easy to find excuses to put it off another week, and then another week, and then another week—saying to expectant family members and friends, “I really want to go visit your loved one, but things are just really busy right now.” Eventually, guilt and obligation motivate me and I drag myself out the door. Today was one of those days.

This is what brought me to Lou’s house.

Prior to this morning, I’d never met Lou. Our only contact was two months ago, when I called to set-up a visit. Despite my yelling into the phone several times, “I’M PASTOR MARK!” she couldn’t hear me and eventually just hung-up! Now I was standing at her door, wondering if she’d even invite me in.

Knock, knock, knock.

When the door open, I saw a reluctant elderly woman with obvious mobility issues. Although I too was a little reluctant, when I explained who I was, she immediately welcomed me in. My plan was to say up front, “I have many visits to make today, so I can only stay for about 15-30 minutes,” but she immediately began to talk and I didn’t have a chance to stage my quick escape.

Lou told me many stories about her life. I initially thought, “I’m going to be here awhile!” but as she reminisced about her life, I was drawn into her stories. She talked about her husband and children, proudly showing me pictures. She talked about her career, singing and dancing to entertain the troops during the Vietnam War. She explained how this provided her a chance to travel all over the world.

Excitement and joy bubbled to the surface as she reflected on her past, but then she looked at me and said, “Pastor, maybe you can help me with a question.”

“Why am I still here? I know that Jesus is keeping me alive for a reason, but I can’t figure it out. I pray all the time, but I can’t figure out why I’m still here.”

“I’m not sure, Lou. When the time is right, are you ready to go?”

“Why, yes! I want to go! But I don’t know why I am still alive. I can’t do anything anymore, other than walk around my apartment, touch all my things, remember the past, and say, ‘Thank- you Jesus.’ But I’m even a problem to my children. My daughter calls me a few times a day just to say something nice to me, and my son, Skipper, comes over all the time. But I don’t know why I’m still here.”

If you didn’t know, I’m well trained for these kinds for questions, so I started with good theology! “Well, Lou, the purpose of human life is a loving relationship with God. As we experience all of God’s good gifts, we grow in gratitude, and the more thankful we are the more we can praise Him. You have told me many stories, and I can see that your heart is full of gratitude. As you pray throughout the day, thanking God for all His gifts, God delights in you—your life is a blessing to God.”

I sat back in my chair thinking, “That was pretty good.”

She briefly pondered my points, talked a little more, and then repeated the question again: “Why am I still here?”

I leaned in to make another theological argument. “You said that you were a problem to your kids, but I think if they were here they would say that you are not a problem and that they love you very mu . . .”

“Well, yes, I know that!” she interrupted.

I jumped back into the conversation to complete my thought: “Well, maybe you’re still here because you bring joy to their lives and they still need you for some reason.”

While she was grateful for my efforts, my answers were not convincing. After an awkward pause, she abruptly said, “It’s probably your lunch time, so I should let you go.”

In that moment, I felt an opportunity slipping away. I took off my theology hat and said, “Can I tell you one more thing before I go?”

“Well, sure!”

I looked at her with complete sincerity and said, “You have really blessed me today. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, but listening to your stories has brought me joy.”

Her eyes welled-up with tears, and through a faint smile she said, “Well, maybe that’s why you are here. To tell me that I’m not worthless.”

I was stunned and broken hearted at the same time. “You are not worthless,” I insisted. “You are a bright light in this world, and you bring many people joy just by being here.”

“That’s it!”

She raised her hands in the air, slapped my leg, and look at me as if she had just won the lottery.

“Jesus sent you here to tell me that I’m not worthless! JESUS SENT YOU HERE! Jesus sent you here . . . to tell me that I’m not worthless! Thank-you Jesus! THANK-YOU JESUS! Thank-you Jesus.”

She grabbed my hands: “We have to pray now.”

“Thank-you Jesus for sending this young man to tell me that I’m not worthless. He is your messenger, and you have sent him to me today to cheer me up. I didn’t even know I needed cheering, but I did. Thank you for sending him to me. May his sweet face and gentle voice go and comfort others today. Thank-you Jesus.”

(Now I’m bawling like a baby.) She squeezes my hand and goes silent. That means it’s my turn.

“Thank-you Jesus for sending me to Lou. She has brought me so much joy in these few moments, and through her love you have reminded me of my calling. I didn’t know that I needed to hear it, but you have reminded me, too, that I’m not worthless. We are your children, you love us, and we have value. Thank-you Jesus. Amen.”

Still holding hands, we lifted our heads. As we looked into each other’s tear-fractured eyes, we both knew that we were beholding the face of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so palpable in that moment that I felt the world shift under my feet. It was one of those rare times when eternity breaks through the mundane and grace floods into your soul. We both experienced resurrection.

The irony in all of this doesn’t escape me. While God may have sent me to tell Lou that she was not worthless, God was reminding me that I’m not worthless either, and that I have been called to be a messenger of love and hope, especially to the lonely and forgotten. God was reminding me that sometimes the biggest blessings come when we are doing things that we aren’t particularly excited about doing, and that Christ is most powerfully present when people share their brokenness in moments of honesty.

Thank-you Jesus for sending Lou to me!

(The picture above is of items that Lou gave me during our visit.)

Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

(This article by Pastor Mark was originally published on “Philosophy Goes to Church” and is reprinted here with permission.)

Introduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

Success: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

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Notes:  

[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.

 

It’s Dangerous to Read the Bible Too Literally: The Seeds of Religious Extremism

Civilization is being challenged by religious extremists around the world: violent invasions, the seizing of land and property, public executions, taking women captive as sex slaves, tearing down sacred places of worship, and destroying irreplaceable cultural artifacts. We read reports of public floggings, the imprisonment of women who are the victims of rape, the abuse of the heterodox, and the cutting off of people’s hands for petty crimes like stealing. Most of us in the West become indignant, protest the uncivilized nature of these practices, and even sign online petitions to make our voice heard. As Christian communities in the West get news about other Christians being intentionally targeted and slaughtered in the most barbaric ways, we feel a special connection that generates empathy for the victims and rage against the perpetrators. We are tempted to think that Christianity is a religion of love and peace that serves as a civilizing force in society, while Islam is a religion of terrorism, hatred, and violence. Armed with the conviction that we are good and they are bad, our hatred is emboldened and we become blind to the seeds of the same kind of extremism and violence in our own sacred texts.

Almost every single abhorrent practice that we condemn in Islamic extremism is found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. There are too many examples to cite in a short blog post, but I implore you to actually read your Bible. It is astonishing to me how so many people claim to argue a “biblical perspective” who have never actually done a careful reading of the Old and New Testaments (and according to orthodox Christianity, both testaments are constitutive of Christian scripture). In fact, it is my humble opinion that the idea of a “biblical view” has almost entirely been coopted by the religious right to perpetuate positions that are anything but biblical. As one small example in support of my claim, I would invite you to read Deuteronomy 20-21 (and if you have time, go ahead and read through chapter 26). Here we read about brutal behavior that is not only considered permissible but commanded by God. By combining a sense of manifest destiny as God’s chosen people with a strict application of lex talionis and a worldview shaped by a system of purity that requires the purging of all that is “unclean,” the author paints a picture of merciless conquest. We see the total annihilation of holy war: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This supposed divine command includes the murder of women and children! Regarding other neighboring nations, we see violent invasion and conquest, along with practices such as seizing property, forced slave labor of occupied people, taking women as captives and raping them to make them unwilling wives, tearing down places of worship, and destroying religious artifacts. As we continue reading in Deuteronomy we find other barbaric practices commanded by God such as the public execution by stoning of rebellious children (21:18-21), women who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), and anyone caught in adultery (22:22). We see racism in the exclusion of some people from worship (and presumably salvation?)(23:1ff), divine sanction for public floggings, and dismemberment as a punishment for petty crimes. Again, almost everything that we condemn as barbaric and hateful in our protests against Islamic extremism is found in our own scared texts if we read them too literally!

And this is exactly what I want to focus on: One of the primary drivers of religious extremism is the reading of sacred texts too literally. This has been pointed-out repeatedly by scholarly assessments of ISIS. For example, in the article written by Bernard Haykel in the Princeton Alumni Weekly (see link below) we are reminded that “The Islamic State is a Jihadi-Salafi movement, which means that its members adhere to a strict literalist interpretation of the texts of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.” Wherever you find religious extremism that uses exclusion, violence, and fear to accomplish its purposes you will almost always find a literalist reading of sacred texts. While this is not the only cause of violent extremism, it is an important one.

While condemning Islamic extremism, certain fundamentalist Christians in America are stealing from their playbook to establish a kind of Christian extremism (although in most [but not all] cases it looks different from ISIS because it is tempered by Western values so as to be “respectable”).  Most Christians in America, want to ignore almost all of the Old Testament laws until an ideological bear is poked! For example, people that are already abhorred by certain sexual practices (e.g. homosexuality or cross-dressing) will slog through a forest of divine commands and prohibitions in the OT that they quickly dismiss as outdated, barbaric, disagreeable, or impractical in contemporary society to find the one or two verses (a splinter in the forest!) that supports their preconceived judgement. They bypass a litany of laws (especially things that question our financial systems, like the prohibition of charging interest on loans [23:19ff]), to hone in on the one or two verses that will give their position divine support. Why completely ignore the exclusion of men with crushed testicles from worshipping in the temple (23:1), but elevate as an immutable and context-invariant holy law the prohibition of cross dressing (22:5)? My main objective here is not to make arguments for or against cross-dressing (or any other behavior you might dislike), so please do not respond with straw man or red herring fallacies. Rather, my objective is to point out that a ferocious insistence on a literal reading of scripture is almost always in defensive of moral judgements and ideologies that have been developed quite independently of the Bible. In this way, carefully selected parts of scripture (not the full tenor of scripture) are elevated as the literal, infallible, immutable word of God insofar as these parts can be used to support my view of morality and the world. There are serious dangers in reading the Bible too literally no matter what religion we are talking about.

To make matters worse, most of our laity don’t know any other way to read scripture! Most interpret the Bible the same way they did in their sixth grade Sunday school class. Their bodies and minds mature as they get older, but they remain a child in their faith because no one was brave enough to stretch them. Pastors in my tradition (UMC) who attend one of our reputable seminaries are trained in biblical and theological hermeneutics.  All who are ordained as Elder or Deacon (or appointed as a Local Pastor) must take theology exams, and one of the questions is about the authority and interpretation of scripture. I would propose to all those on the Boards of Ordained Ministry that this is perhaps the most important question candidates will answer, and is a significant indicator of the kinds of ministries they will lead. But despite their training, many pastors will not teach alternative interpretive methods because this is almost always met with staunch resistance and takes an enormous amount of wisdom and patience. As a result, most give up trying and simply capitulate to a populist interpretation of scripture that is heavily weighted toward a literal reading in service to eisegesis (instead of exegesis). Too many of our pastors fail the laity in this regard. It is true that some people will have a vile reaction when you try to lead them in a new interpretive direction. Some of those people will personally reject you and leave your church. But many are emotionally and spiritually mature enough to sit with the discomfort of change and challenge and to learn a different way of reading. Think about your response to the seminary professor who called your beliefs into question and the freedom that you felt when alternative views became live options and real possibilities.

Pastor, are you courageous enough to take a stand against dangerous readings of scripture, no matter how popular they might be and no matter how risky taking such a stand might be to your career? Are you loving enough to patiently lead laity out of the desert of an overly literal reading of scripture, even if it takes forty years, even if these ideas don’t click until the next generation? Don’t abdicate your responsibilities to teach people that you don’t have to read scripture literally in order to take it seriously.

(https://paw.princeton.edu/issues/2015/06/03/pages/0027/index.xml#.VW7Rby9Yo1g.facebook.)