Sunday, June 24, 2012

Loosening The Bonds Of Church

Lately, I have listened to a number of people talk about the difficulties they are experiencing with their religious affiliation or specific church (or other religious group) connection.  Certainly it does seem that today most all organized religions seem to be in internal turmoil, and this institutional turmoil is leaving many people in personal turmoil over their personal faith.  This turmoil is often reflected in the continually diminishing number of occupants in the pews, the oft-stated worries about “the graying of the congregation” as young people turn away from church attendance, reduced financial support, and confusion about church mission and role.  Conversely we have the phenomena of the Evangelical mega-churches with their tens- and twenty-thousand members.  These numbers perhaps suggest a desire for “strength in numbers” as a defense again religious turmoil, rather than having to face the many challenges of direct human relationships that are encountered in smaller congregations.

Many people are struggling with what they have been given regarding their religious teachings and ritual, and the messages they hear inside their local church, versus what they see happening in the world and what their hearts and minds are saying to them.  Hypocrisy between spoken words and daily actions is all too frequent.  The religious teachings do not seem to fit today’s circumstances or reflect in personal conduct.

In sorting our way through this fog of spiritual doubt, it may be helpful to remember that God is all things spiritual, who thinks and acts on a plane far beyond our capability.  But religion is human, not God, and thereby inherently reflects all human limitations and shortcomings.  And our church is simply everyday people, no more nor less than the neighbors who live on our block, or the co-workers we meet each day at our job.  The church is its people, with all the people frailties that that entails.  So the church necessarily has limits on what it can accommodate and explain.  God has no such limits.

When we feel that we are in conflict with our religion or church, there is a basic question we need to reflect on: is our religion or church failing and needs us to remedy it?  Or is it we who have simply outgrown what it can offer to us?  A child must one day leave the teaching environment of its parents; we must similarly leave a job when it comes to limit, not nurture, our career.  So it is with our understanding of, and relationship with, God.  The difficult spiritual questions we ask are the tools that move us from being a spiritual child doing what we are told to do, versus becoming a spiritual adult.  An adult able to use God’s guidance and the lessons of the great Teachers to answer for ourselves our questions about how to live, how to be with others, and how to find fulfillment in this lifetime.  In the end, we are not the servant of the church; in all humility, the church is the servant to us.  Our focus and responsibility is, and should be, only to God.

Humans have a natural instinct and drive to want to “fix things” that are broken.  But sometimes what has been broken is simply the restrictive bonds that are tying us to that which is no longer supporting us.  In which case it is we that need to be fixed.  Fixed by leaving that known safety of our current religious house – be it our parents’ teachings, our church, our spiritual community.  Fixed by going out to make our own spiritual way through this abundantly rich yet often-frightening unknown vastness of Life.  If that time to grow comes upon us, we need to embrace it and go to that new place where we have been called.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Preachers and Pastors

We have many kinds of religious preachers in our midst today.  What they share in common is their emphasis, by training and inclination, to speak to matters of religious dogma, or to personal opinions of interpretation of a specific teaching, or to matters of the Church as an organizational entity and hierarchy.  It is all a great deal of time spent telling others how to think and how to live.  Some of that preaching is worth listening to.  Some is not.

On the fringe of this preaching are those who focus on division, hate and judgment, which appear to clearly fall outside of the core teachings of most all religions.  Recently in a small North Carolina town, a preacher spoke from his pulpit to his Sunday congregation that the solution to the homosexual “problem” was to build two high, electrified fences each several miles square.  All the lesbians would go inside one fence, the gays in the other, and then they would be left to starve to death.  Just prior to this, Franklin Graham was prominent on television ads advocating passage of an amendment to the North Carolina constitution to ban same-sex marriage and any other form of “domestic partnerships” except a marriage between male and female.  It was blatant political advocacy, with the ads paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelical Association.  (Inexplicably to me, their tax deductible status remains unchallenged by the IRS.)  Awhile back, there was the preacher of a tiny congregation in Florida advocating the burning of the Qur’an, an act more hostile than anything written in the Qur’an itself.  Then there is the preacher from Kansas who leads his family and adherents to military funerals around the country to chant that the decedent’s death is God’s punishment of our country’s evil ways.

When I hear the latest such outrageous words or actions making it into the headlines, I cannot help but wonder what the personal story is behind these people’s formation.  What was it in these preachers’ life experiences, or the shortcomings of their accomplishments, that would drive them to such beliefs and actions – beliefs that anger, hatred and punishment can be God’s real intention for human beings.  In these preachers’ seminary school, monastery or mosque, what teachers taught that violence (physical or mental) against others could somehow be expected to result in peace and fulfillment for either the perpetrator or victim, versus teaching that “violence begets violence” and “what you sow you reap?”

Somehow our desperate need for true pastors – in whatever title from religion to religion – has gotten lost in the incessant drumbeat of dogmatic preaching.  Pastors who are more concerned with comforting those who are ill, lost or troubled than with admonishing them.  Pastors able to give suggestions and guidance rather than marching orders.  Pastors able to help people think through and find their true spiritual beliefs instead of doing their thinking for them.  Pastors able to listen instead of talk, to be a spiritual friend rather than a judge and jury.

It is not easy for the religiously trained to move from preaching to pastoring.  But it is possible.  Pope John Paul II seemed to retain his sense of being a parish priest in spite of the huge size of his enlarged parish and the demands of managing his church structure.  H. H. the Dalai Lama speaks often of being “just a simple monk,” reflecting his humility as much as his role.  Reverend Desmond Tutu’s infectious enthusiasm for his fellow man despite his hurtful experiences from South African apartheid are inspirational.

We never lack for preachers.  But what we really need are the pastors.  By any formal title or none.  From whatever classroom of training, including the classroom of the experience of life.  Less talking and debating, more holding of another’s hand after a good hug.