Saturday, April 5, 2014

What the Hell Does It Mean to Say "Christ Descended Into Hell?"

I grew up Southern Baptist and knew nothing about the historic creeds of the church.  Southern Baptists once were adamantly "non-creedal" declaring that each believer had the freedom to interpret scripture with guidance from the Holy Spirit and the church community.  (Of course, when fundamentalists took over the Southern Baptist Convention all sorts of doctrinal statements were enforced.)  It wasn't until I took theology and church history classes in college and seminary that I even learned what the Apostle's Creed and Nicene Creed were.  To this day, I have never committed them to memory and couldn't recite them if I tried. 

When I joined the United Church of Christ, I did so in the northeast in the heart of the Congregationalist part of our denomination.  Our Congregationalist forebears may have recognized various creeds and confessions throughout their history, but over time they too were fiercely protective of both an individual's and congregation's freedom of belief.  Sure, I read about the other denominations that merged to become the United Church of Christ--including the two founded by German immigrants: the German Reformed Church and the German Evangelical Synod of North America, but it really didn't register that I had joined a denomination in which some churches took the creeds seriously.

Although I serve now a congregation that had been Congregational before the UCC was formed in 1957 and just across the state line in Kansas there are a bunch of Congregational churches that were founded back when John Brown and his abolitionists came to Kansas, most of the UCC congregations in Missouri were originally part of the German Evangelical Synod of North America.  These "Evangelical" churches founded by German settlers eventually joined the German Reformed Church (centered around Pennsylvania) to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church (often abbreviated E&R).  They took church unity so seriously they kept uniting and joined with the Congregational Christian Churches to form the UCC.  (You can read a good summary of the UCC's history here.) Yet, if you go into most UCC churches in Missouri on a Sunday morning, you will be walking into a former E&R church.  Many of those churches--unlike the Congregational ones--will recite the Apostle's Creed each Sunday.

The idea of reciting the Apostle's Creed in a morning worship service may not seem strange to you if you grew up Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or even United Methodist but it still seems completely alien to me.  If I had to do it in a service, I would probably be looking over my shoulder for the Inquisition coming to check and make sure I really believed what I was saying.  If pressed, I would have to admit that no, there's some stuff here I don't believe--at least not in the traditional way it has been understood for centuries.

I was talking recently to a fellow UCC minister--who like me came from another denomination that didn't recite creeds.  He serves a former E&R congregation where they say the Apostle's Creed each week.  Every time they get to the part where it says, "he descended to the dead," he thinks to himself, "What the hell does that mean?"  A more traditional version of the Apostle's Creed says, "He descended into hell," although it should be noted the creed has had numerous forms throughout the centuries.
  
The United Church of Christ is quick to state, our denomination declares the historic creeds and confessions and even scripture itself are "testimonies of faith" not "tests of faith."  The UCC declares that "God is Still Speaking" and just because the historic church understood God in one way using particular language in a given historical context, that does not necessarily mean we are bound today to that same understanding of God.  With "God is Still Speaking" in mind, I've been thinking about this peculiar phrase regarding Jesus Christ descending into hell or the realm of the dead.  I may not feel comfortable reciting the Apostle's Creed as a part of my own worship, but plenty of other UCC folks do each week.  Perhaps there is something for me in it as well.

First, a very quick overview of how this phrase has been interpreted in church history.  There's not much in the New Testament to help us understand what this phrase means.  1 Peter 3:18-20 says the following: "For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey. . ."  That is vague to say the least and not much help.  Later on, in 1 Peter 4:6 it says, "For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does."  That's still not particularly clear.

In the early centuries of the church, interpreters understood these verses along with other passages of scripture such as Psalm 139 (which says, "If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.") to mean that after Jesus Christ died on the cross he descended into the realm of the dead (Hell or possibly the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible concept of Sheol or the Greek underworld) to give those who had died prior to Christ's coming a chance at redemption.  These interpreters argued whether Christ offered a chance at grace to all the dead or just to the righteous dead, but many began to believe that between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Christ dwelt in the depths of the earth preaching to the dead.

Some in the early centuries of the church understood Christ to be the triumphant victor who had defeated death and then raided death's domain to free the souls trapped inside.  Reformers like John Calvin balked at a literal descent into Hell and interpreted it figuratively to mean that on the cross Christ took on the full wrath of God, even experiencing condemnation to Hell to save humanity from having to bear such a punishment. 

I like what contemporary theologian Keith L. Johnson writes, "When we confess that Christ 'descended into hell,' we are not merely making a claim about an event that happened in the past; we are making a claim about the One who lives in and through us in the present."  Instead of getting stuck on the particulars of what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday--if anything happened at all--what if we interpreted confessional statements like this to mean that the presence of God is capable of being with us whatever trials we face.  Even when we walk in the "valley of the shadow of death," God goes with us.  Not even death is a barrier to prevent God from coming to us. 

When I visit someone who is homebound or in a hospital bed, I often read from Paul's letter to the Romans where he writes in chapter 8: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  It is a comforting thought to remember that not even death can keep God away from us.

I guess if I think about it in these terms, saying this bizarre line in the Apostle's Creed doesn't seem so bad after all.

Grace and Peace,
Chase

Recommended Reading 4-4-14 edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:

Here's some stuff I found meaningful to read this past week:
  •  Lots of discussion on the interwebs this week about the new movie Noah.  I haven't seen it yet, but I'm interested in all the different critiques of the movie, especially the writer/director's use of sources in addition to the book of Genesis to tell the story such as rabbinic midrash, Kabbalah and Gnosticism.  One African-American theologian noted that the decision to cast only Caucasian actors was an offensive choice, especially since the Biblical account of Noah's curse of his son Ham was used to justify slavery and later segregation.   Otis Moss III, a noted UCC minister who also happens to be African American, didn't like the all-white casting choice but did like the movie overall.   Here's a critique of the movie by an evangelical scholar who thought the movie was based on the Kabbalah and Gnosticism.  And finally, here's a response to the last critique that agrees there is influence from the Kabbalah but rejects the idea that it's Gnostic.    
  • Speaking of Noah, here's an on-line quiz to see how much you know about the Noah story in Genesis.  I scored poorly on it.   Maybe it's time to re-read the early chapters of Genesis.
  • The week before last the Christian humanitarian group World Vision shocked the world of conservative Christians by declaring it would remove its ban on hiring LGBT employees.  After the ensuing outrage, World Vision reversed itself two days later.  The writer and (former?) evangelical Rachel Held Evans eloquently expresses her outrage over the reversal and protests evangelicals' oppression of LGBT people.   
  • If you are looking for a preview of what I will be preaching on Easter Sunday, here's a column by Molly Marshal, president of Kansas City's Central Baptist Theological Seminary on alternatives to understanding Jesus' death in a way that justifies violence.  
  •  More thoughts on what Jesus' death accomplished: The modern Christian understanding of Jesus' death is called "penal substitutionary atonement" which means Jesus took the punishment ("penal") for humanity's sins in humanity's place ("subsistutionary") in order to reconcile humanity with God ("atonement").  Despite how often this is preached in American churches, there are real difficulties with such views, for example why must God be satisfied by violence?  if Jesus is God's Son, doesn't this mean God is committing child abuse?, throughout Christian history this understanding of Jesus' death has promoted an idea of redemptive violence, and so on.  New Testament scholar N.T. Wright has some thoughts about this Christian doctrine that may help alleviate some of these problems.   
  • Do you remember the mega-best-selling apocalyptic fiction books in the Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins.  Their particular mash up of biblical apocalyptic writings offers a distorted but wildly popular view of the end of the world.  A man named Fred Clark has been reading the series and posting his criticisms of the bad theology therein--here's a bit about how the Christian characters in the series seem unconcerned about the eternal fate of one of their non-Christian friends when he dies.   
  • Okay, I agree that Buzzfeed's so-called articles that are merely lists are part of what's wrong with the internet, but I did like this one which listed 11 great times when people of different religions demonstrated compassion for one another.  
  • As a white father of two brown-skinned boys, I appreciated this article on how to talk with your children about race.  (Not talking about it does not help.) 
If you want more recommended reading from me, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, March 28, 2014

What Does the KC Streetcar Teach Us About Church?

The following is from my weekly e-mail to the members of Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ where I serve as minister: 
 
If you live in Brookside or Waldo, as many folks in our church do, you have probably been paying attention to the debate about the proposed light rail streetcar line.  This week, it was announced that the proposed north-south line will stop near UMKC and will not come down into Brookside and Waldo.  Press reports indicate that resistance to the plan in Brookside is why the line will stop at UMKC.

I am probably stepping way out on a limb  here, but I think how these events developed can provide an analogy for how unhealthy churches operate.    Bear with me a bit.

I should tell you up front that I'm disappointed there won't be a streetcar running in front of our church.  I think it's a great idea.  Granted, I don't live anywhere near the proposed line, so my property taxes wouldn't have gone up to pay for it.  Also, I don't even live in Brookside or Waldo, so if the line did go in and was a disaster, I wouldn't have had to live next to it.  Nonetheless, I think the streetcar--if done right--could have been a real benefit to our church and the community it is a part of.

I also realize that there are most likely members of our church who were opposed to the streetcar.  We are a church of diverse opinions and beliefs after all, and nowhere does it say a church member has to agree with his or her minister.  A while back, our church was asked if it had a position on the streetcar line, and our response was no.  The only way our church can have a position on anything is to hold a congregational vote, and there were not and still are not any plans to hold one on the streetcar.  So, read the rest of my thoughts--as you should every week--knowing that they are my thoughts alone.

Our church building sits in the Armour Hills neighborhood, and the neighborhood association meets in our building.  I knew that there was a public meeting planned with representatives from the city about the proposed streetcar happening at our church building, and I became aware that other meetings in the area had included some ugly behavior.  Some of the opponents to the streetcar had been disruptive of those meetings.  So, I asked, since the meeting was taking place in our church building, if I could come and welcome those assembled.  I did so and asked them to behave as good neighbors.  I noted that we were a congregation that believed people could disagree with one another without being uncivil and without demeaning one another.  For the part of the meeting I was present at people generally behaved themselves, although I was informed that later on as the crowd thinned things did get ugly again--in large part due to the actions of opponents of the streetcar.   

A week later at the monthly association board meeting--held next door to my office--the room was packed.  Usually it is sparsely attended, but this time the room was overflowing into the hallway.  When I asked what was on the agenda, I was told  people were there to express their opposition to the streetcar again.  The opponents turned out.  They had the loudest voices.  A week later it was announced there would be no streetcar line in Brookside.  The voices that declared "Not in my backyard" won out. 

I freely acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons to question the idea of a streetcar.  For retirees on fixed incomes, an increase in property taxes of $300-$500 is a burden.  It seems unfair that only people who live within 1/3 mile of the rail line have their property taxes increased and people who would not have property tax increases get to vote on approving them.  Plus, there are many examples of public transportation boondoggles.  There are probably other concerns I haven't thought of.

On the other hand, everyone knows that as a culture, we need to drive our cars less for the sake of the environment.  Dynamic cities tend to have functioning public transportation systems--systems that have more than buses which middle class people generally refuse to ride.  If you lived in Brookside and worked downtown, the line would save you money on gas and parking.  Most of all--and this seems key to me--if people living in Brookside want to sell their homes in 15-20 years the generation 
they would sell to (Millennials) want to live near public transportation (again not buses).  Thus far, Millennials want to drive in far fewer numbers than previous generations--that's money which  could be spent on cell phones and internet access!--and they desire to live in urban areas that allow for this lifestyle.  It seems to me that if you want to sell your home in the future, your home value would only go up if you lived near a streetcar--bad news for people like me who live in Johnson County and now bad news for Brookside and Waldo.

What do these events have to do with church?

On the one hand, these events could be an example of democracy in action--people rejecting something they don't like, but on the other hand--and this is how I interpret events--they illustrate how a small group of people can block any change in the status quo and any actions that demand present sacrifice for future reward.  I've heard it expressed as the 10-80-10 principle.  10% of people in any group want to push for change.  10% are generally opposed to any change to the status quo (too expensive!,  too risky!, what's wrong with the way we've always done it?, we've never done it that way before!).  The remaining 80% of people will generally fall in line behind whichever 10% shouts the loudest.  Given that being against something is easier and generates more emotion, more often then not organizations--and I think especially churches--follow the 10% that prefers never changing and never risking anything new.

The future for American Christianity--especially for churches like ours--is pretty bleak.  The Millennial generation is abandoning organized religion in greater numbers than ever before.  Significant changes need to happen immediately for most churches to avoid becoming relics of the past.  Yet, any such changes naturally involve sacrifice, energy and a whole lot of risk.  In the face of such challenges, it is natural for people to choose the "devil" they know and continue to do church in a way that works for them. This means, of course, that the members of a church opt for the comfort of the individual rather than the health of the community.  Unfortunately, it looks like choosing not to change means most churches will become irrelevant.  By choosing not to sacrifice in the present, a church ensures it will fail in the future.

For a healthy church to exist--and a healthy community for that matter--the 10% who push for change and for what is best for the whole have to work twice as hard.  It also means that the 80% who give in to whatever group has the loudest voice (usually the 10% against ever changing) have to step up and get engaged.  Most of all, the church--and the community--have to think about the future; decisions made today are not just about the present but also about future generations.

It remains to be seen whether Brookside and Waldo have missed out on a good thing for the future.  There's always the chance the streetcar line will be revisited.  Also, the neighborhoods could be strong enough to still remain desirable 15-20 years from now even without a streetcar.  We shall see.

I feel the American church has far worse odds, however.  Only those churches willing to dream big and take risks for the future will have one.

Grace and Peace,
Chase

Recommended Reading 3.28.30 edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:

Here's some stuff I found meaningful to read this past week: 
  •  As a minister and a father of two boys, I really want my kids to grow up seeing a side of Christianity that is willing to take risks for the sake of others in need.  So, I could really identify with this column by Timothy Tutt, a friend of mine from seminary who happens to be the pastor of the UCC church Linda Kroencke belonged to in Maryland.  I think the title says it all: "I Broke the Law With My Son (for Jesus)."    
  • Have you noticed that the business leaders, ministers, politicians and Supreme Court Justices most upset about the Affordable Care Act making insurers pay for female contraceptives tend to be men?   There's a reason for that, as this article demonstrates.  
  • More thoughts about the hateful legacy of Fred Phelps: "Fred Phelps May Be Dead But His Fundamentalist God Still Lives" and  "This Man is the Future of Westboro Baptist Church
  • Have you been watching the new reboot of the TV show Cosmos?  It's a cool show, but it perpetuates the simplistic version of history that says the Enlightenment was all about overcoming the superstitions of the western Church.  In reality, then as now there are plenty of people of faith who embrace science and critical thinking.  The idea that all religion equals ignorance gets pretty tiresome. 
  • Sometimes it takes an atheist to point out the inadequacy of much of Christianity's views of heaven and hell.  (Alright, what this author says has actually been said before by Christians, but I do like the way she tackles the bad theology of the after life espoused by many Christians.)
  • Desmond Tutu on forgiveness.  Enough said. 
  • What is success?  What if we defined it in terms other than money and celebrity?  Alain De Botton redefines success in this TED Talk. 

  • If you want more recommended reading from me, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What Would I Say if I Gave Fred Phelps' Eulogy?

I was asked this week if I would do Fred Phelps' eulogy if I were asked.  Apparently Phelps' family isn't having a funeral for him, but even if they were, I would be one of the last people asked to speak at it.  Still, it's an interesting question.

The short answer is "yes."  I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to try and offer comfort to grieving people, and I believe every person--even a person who squandered his considerable intellect and caused so much harm like Fred Phelps--deserves to be dignified at his or her death as a child of God.  Phelps may have vehemently denied the worth of others in God's eyes, but his gross mistakes when it came to understanding God's love can no more undermine God's love for him than his denunciation of others could take away God's love for them.  God even loves a person who was as hurtful and hateful as Fred Phelps.

If I were to give Phelps' eulogy, it would be difficult to find admirable deeds to appreciate.  This is the man, after all, who created a religious organization (I won't dignify it by calling it a church) that went around the country waving signs proclaiming "God Hates Fags" at the funerals of people who died of AIDS and soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It's hard to say that Phelps loved his family when he brought his young grandchildren and great-grandchildren to his macabre protests to hold his offensive signs--I would label such decisions religious abuse of children.  Perhaps in his early law career when he filed suits on behalf of African Americans who were discriminated against there may be nuggets of laudable behavior, but I have to wonder if even those acts were done less out of a sense of racial justice and more out of Phelp's joy in ticking off the establishment. 

I would definitely resist any temptation to celebrate Phelps' death and would do all I could to stop others from doing so.  Just because Phelps had a distorted understanding of what it means to be Christian doesn't excuse other Christians from forsaking Jesus' commands to love and forgive all--especially our enemies.  It's tempting to want to give back at Phelps' funeral (were there to be one) some of the horror he gave at the funerals of others, but in my eulogy I would make sure to recite the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

I doubt Phelps' family would find it comforting, but I would point out that in some ways Phelps hate-filled antics helped those he condemned the most.  Phelps' declarations that America's acceptance of LGBT people caused God to punish America actually caused more people to reconsider their homophobia than it did to convince people his view was right.  By spewing hate in its ugliest form, Phelps forced people to confront the ugliness of the way religion is used as a club to wound people.  Of course, there are plenty of preachers who are quick to declare they aren't like Phelps and that they "love the sinner but hate the sin," but I believe Phelps' actions and words were so ugly that few can condemn LGBT people today without at least some small concern that they are on the same team as him.

In the end, I would come back to the reason I would agree to do Phelps' eulogy in the first place--God loves Fred Phelps in spite of the things he did that were hateful and immoral.  After all, that's what we hang our hats on as Christians.  I think there is a qualitative difference between the lives most people lead and the life of Fred Phelps, but whoever we are God loves us in spite of what we do to hurt others. 

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, "Nothing can separate us from the love of God."  He goes on at great length about how God's love is greater than all other powers that exist.  God's love is far, far greater than the hatred of Fred Phelps or the hatred that any of us carry in our hearts.  I would stand at Fred Phelps' graveside and I would declare that good news, because it is good news for all of us.
Grace and Peace,
Chase

P.S.--here are some other reflections on the death of Fred Phelps I found meaningful:

Recommended Reading 3.21.14 edition

Each week I send out a weekly e-mail of my thoughts to folks in my church.  I include in it what I found worth reading in the past week.  Here's this week's recommended reading:
If you want more recommended reading from me, follow me on Facebook or Twitter.

Friday, March 14, 2014

When Wounded Strangers Come Knocking

"I feel like the church needs to be exposed for the role it has played in tearing these families apart." 

These words were in an e-mail from a member of one of my previous churches who has a gay son.  Thankfully this particular Christian father loves and supports his gay son, but this particular father was also grieving for all the LGBTQ young people out there who have been rejected by their families--a rejection often justified by Christianity.  I share his grief.

It is ironic and tragic that a religion originating with a first century rabbi who taught it was better to die than to use violence could be used throughout the centuries to commit so much violence.  From the killing of "heretics" and Jews to the verbal assassination of feminists and LGBTQ people, Christianity as a religion has much to atone for.  How very human of us it is to spend more time using religion to reinforce our own prejudices than allowing religion to challenge them.

Even though legal protections for LGBTQ people thankfully continue to expand, Christianity as a whole seems hell bent on doubling down its attacks upon this group of people.  Attacks on LGBTQ people, however, should not be seen in isolation.  They are just the latest manifestation of the ugly side of Christianity that has condemned people who hold beliefs different from "orthodox" ones, women who refuse to be submissive to men, immigrants, divorced people, supporters of civil rights for all ethnicities, free thinkers, doubters, advocates for the poor, and pacifists.  Most Christians are aware of the sins of their spiritual ancestors, but they refuse to consider that they may commit similar sins in their denunciations of people who disagree with them. 

My former church member who wrote to me via e-mail may wish to "expose" to the Church all of the lives it has torn apart, but one doesn't need to look very far to be exposed to the pain Christianity's misuse has caused.  Our culture is awash in people wounded by Christians who believe they are doing God's will.  Jesus said, "Those who have eyes to see, let them see."  Yet, most Christians do not have the eyes to see or the ears to hear people hurt by the Church. 

Within the last few weeks, I have met with two young people deeply wounded by the Church.  One was a lesbian and the other was a transgender woman.  Although these two people fall into the category of the Church's current target for violence: LGBTQ people, they just as easily could have been people wounded by the Church for a different reason.

The first young woman visited our church one Sunday.  As is the case with every visitor who leaves contact information, I wrote to her welcoming her to our church and let her know I would gladly meet with her to talk more about it.  She immediately replied and we met together.  She shared with me her story of coming out as a lesbian, that she and her girlfriend were looking for a church and that she knew that God accepted them as they were despite claims to the contrary by each of their families. 

I said to her, "It sounds like you already know this, but I need to tell you this anyway, because you deserve to have a representative of the Church say this to you.  God loves you as you are.  God made you as you are.  God accepts you as you are.  You are welcome at our church just as you are."

She burst into tears, because it meant so much to her to hear a minister say those words.

The second young woman called our church sounding upset and asked if our church was LGBT friendly.  I assured her it was, and sounding upset she asked if she could come to the church and talk to someone.  I told her to come and I would meet with her.  She turned out to be a male-to-female transgender person who is being kicked out by her parents who believe God condemns who she is. 

We talked for about an hour and during the conversation when the time was right, I shared the words, "God loves you as you are.  God made you as you are.  God accepts you as you are.  You are welcome at our church as you are."

Again, tears flowed, because it meant so much for her to hear these words from a minister.

My sadness over the pain caused by the narrow-mindedness of so many Christians is tempered by how grateful I am to serve a church that welcomes all people.  I have no idea if these two wounded strangers will return to our church, but I am glad that when they did come knocking I could say without crossing my fingers that they really were welcome at our church just as they are.

Maybe we can't make up for all of the sins of Christian history, but we can do our part as a congregation to welcome wounded strangers as they come our way.  These two wounded strangers came our way, because we have gone public with our love for for LGBTQ people.  How many more people like them are there out there who need to hear the words, "God loves you just as you are."  The multitudes of people hurt by the Church are not only LGBTQ people but all kinds of others who have been condemned in Jesus' name.  How might we "go public" with our love for all these other people too?  How many more wounded strangers might come knocking if they only knew there was a church who would really love them as they are?
Grace and Peace,
Chase