Our recent Distilled Spirit meeting featured Rev. Sherry Roby of Open Door Community Church, an LGBT friendly congregation on Southern Parkway in Louisville. Sherry spoke of her Christian journey and she encouraged us to entertain the thought "I might be wrong" as we relate to other people and faiths. More than once in the meeting, persons spoke of being somewhat embarrassed and frustrated with the state of American Christianity. Many pastors, frankly, feel the same way.
Is Christianity malignant or pregnant these days? A malignancy looks like growth - it is cell division out of control. But we all know that a malignancy threatens the whole body, and requires serious treatment. A pregnancy is another kind of cell growth altogether - promising new life. Over the past few decades, it seems that much of American Christianity is malignant. A lot of evangelicals have fallen into a kind of resentful nostalgia which ignores the injustices of the past, especially slavery, segregation and the lack of rights for women. The charity of Jesus is replaced by a demanding scowl which expects every store clerk to reaffirm their faith. Gays are blamed for the supposed decline of the nation. Second Coming scenarios slide into a mean politics and foreign policy - eager for Armageddon, willing to turn a blind eye to the faults of leaders (quite literally comparing them to King David), and fearfully turning away refugees. The open-hearted teachings of Jesus are hard to see in a survivalist, walled off, well-armed camp.
The more liberal churches have a disturbing habit of making blunt and condemning pronouncements in the name of justice which are rarely even heard by their target audiences. (One colleague calls these "fiery missives hurled into the void.") If they are heard - say, by someone actually in the pew - the language is so dense and self-righteous that conversation is cut off immediately. We have our own habitual scowl, which is not very appealing. We are anti-this and anti-that, but do not focus enough on what we are for. Our social concern all too often just comes off as arrogant and presumptive - even ignorant of the facts. Disdain is our shadow side, and we rarely admit it. We love to tell other people what to do, but rarely set our own house in order.
Catholicism continues to groan under the dual problems of patriarchy and pedophilia (not their issues alone, mind you). Millions of dollars which could have gone to mission and ministry have instead been funneled into defending priests and paying huge settlements to victims. Celibate men are held up as the sole ideal representative of Christ, as if his gender had something to do with the revelation of God's love.
Theses critiques may sound harsh. I have many evangelical friends and relatives who are lovely people. I live and work in the context of liberal mainline Protestantism, and I love the beauty and reverence of Catholicism.
But each branch of our faith has a malignancy problem. And malignancies are never to be treated lightly. Everybody needs surgery.
Could it be, at Christmas, that we also see the church as pregnant with possibility and hope?
I go back to our Distilled Spirit meeting, which was fun, respectful, even joyful as we discussed our faith. It was "church" in a completely different style than usual.
I think of the recent Santa Sprint for United Crescent Hill Ministries - which involved over 270 neighbors coming together on a chilly morning to raise money for our ecumenical community ministry. The Santa Sprint is often like a big reunion of church folks, neighborhood leaders, and cross country teams. This year was no exception. It was fun, and we had the sense that we were doing something good.
In the background of that event stood 21 churches or religious communities across the spectrum of Christianity and a bit beyond (Clifton Unitarian), working together. Our area pastors' group is one of the highlights of every month for me, as we share laughs and concerns, and talk about the issues of the day from various perspectives with respect.
Grace Immanuel received a surprise gift of $500 from the Butchertown Neighborhood Association this month - a heart-warming affirmation of our urban partnership.
The contact person for the Narcotics Anonymous group which meets in our fellowship hall called me last month to check on scheduling and thank the church for hosting the meeting more than 20 years.
When three of us went to the riverfront to buy the church Christmas tree, we fell into a faith conversation with the young man helping us. He belongs to a small congregation in the Portland neighborhood which is a combined coffee shop and church, focusing on loving the people of the immediate area. Don't these things feel pregnant with possibility and love? I think so.
Mary had an angelic visitation - a divine message. How did she carry that message? With the words, "Let it be with me according to your word." Will we follow her faith with our own "Let it be," or will we continue to grasp for control and power to the detriment of Jesus' message? One path is malignant, the other pregnant.