Propaganda

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One area the church, theologians and it’s congregants are woefully slow to analyze but find a daily bombardment is propaganda.  Propaganda is used by those who have capital and power in an attempt to influence society, culture, individuals or organizations of the value of a cause, policy, war, set of emotional responses to an enemy and the ideological emotions toward state, religion or commerce.  This attempt is an appeal to emotions as opposed to rational/impartial information gathering.  It is important in a time when corporations, churches and governments have unlimited resources in attempting to manipulate public consensus that the church walk carefully and judiciously into each of the concentrations of power within our community.

The term itself finds its origin in the Roman Catholic church of the 17th century.  It was an arm of the church functioning to bring Catholicism to regions that were non-Catholic.  Yet, using emotional responses is nothing new to Protestanism itself.  The pamphlets of Lutheranism showing the Pope shitting out the antichrist, witch trials and centuries of end time marketers point the finger to our church as also one of its originators, if not perfecters.  The use of technology has been a mark of Protestant evangelism and also part of our inherit survival.  The striving for relevancy smacks of capitulation with capitalistic moors that benefit a few, but continually leaving the masses indentured to small pockets of power and influence.

Modern governments have always used fear to some extent or another, but the advent of 20th century strides in our understanding of human psychology have moved propaganda into greater avenues.  One does not have to live mentally in a dystopian science fiction novel or hang around conspiracy groups to know that some of what we hear, learn and are told is tinged with propaganda.  Much of it patently untrue or something we hate to say in our culture, a lie.

It is patently untrue that if a woman uses a certain type of shampoo she will have an orgasm, that the fiscal cliff has to do with debt, or that there is substantive spirituality behind a miniseries called The Bible with music inspired by the show.  Operators are standing by.  Many will say Lord, Lord…

Anyone who spends substantive time in the United States Capital will be struck by how obtuse a machine propaganda has become in our landscape.  Literally millions of dollars are spent honing a message in focus groups so that people will retweet the Democrat Party’s morning talking points.  The cacophony of talking heads who are sent out to media outlets to say the exact same words for their side is striking and belies a lack of attention that we have in judging the independence of our political class.  We currently have two partisan “news” networks and one whose shallowness toward independence is stunning.

Could we say that the Historic Protestant church is any better?  Current progressives parroting political operatives and conservatives plowing the same fields that have honed their power in multiple administrations.  In the church we are more than content to rely on 17th century decision making processes and having narrow tolerance for practical theology beyond a limited structure.   Sociologically the parliamentarians stay strictly  parliamentarian, the congregationalists stay strictly  congregational, the episcopate stay strictly to the episcopate and we stand watching the Spirit pass us by with new ways of discernment, collaboration and consensus.  Robert has set his book of rules firmly next to the Bible on our lecterns and to defy him is blasphemy.  Ethnically, politically, socio-economically, sexually and equally we are watching critical moments of human rights and values spiritually move beyond our casserole dishes.  In our desperation to “attract” people to come into our doors we contract with new marketing and branding.  Hoping that the next writer from Zondervan will fit the bill.  We invest in Wall Street as “Good Stewardship” while portions of our communities loose their homes and wonder.  We have bought into listening to and spewing out propaganda instead of the life giving truth of good news.

If surely the truth shall set us free and wisdom is crying to us on every street corner we must strip ourselves of the fetters that propaganda enslaves us to and return to our freedom in Christ.  This is a real freedom in which we discern the Spirit of this age in looking toward a new way, in truth toward life.  We can no longer afford to be duped by the principalities, powers and rulers of darkness of this world.  They will not bring salvation.  We look for freedom in the one in whose way is the promise of life and life in abundance.  Anything less is trading tin for gold, chimeras for the divine.

Blessed Are Those Using Binary?

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I have been interested of late to note a new development in a small section of the church.  It is their use of a word that I find very fascinating.  This word is one that is not found in the holy text and often goes unchallenged amongst a new generation of thinkers.  It is the word binary.  Most often we hear it as a chiding from so called post-modernists using it to explicate firm judgement in a theology.  It is “weak” theology that appears to be espoused and a viewpoint of the divine akin to panantheism.  Much of this new/old philosophizing is done online, through podcasts or at hash tagged conferences.  Some extoll a type of dialectics often meaning a type of logic  oscillating between two poles.

This is ironic because of the etymology of dialectics tends against either/or.  The root of the word comes from dialects.  A pattern of a certain region in the way they speak.  Looking at the logic of twos or looking at the logic of discerning patterns and differences in speaking from region to region, culture to culture.  Dialectics in its earliest form was how to discuss and have discourse on philosophy.  Philosophy, of course, can be interpreted in two ways from it’s roots.  It can be Love of knowledge, or it can represent a love of wisdom.  I think that looking deeper into binary might actually help us find the wisdom we require.

I believe sociologically there are cultural ambiguities with the word binary that are not being confessed to by these new theologians.  It is understandable that they might not even know that they are undermined by their existence.  When a term is not used generally in a vernacular except one way it is difficult, if not impossible, to wrench it from its cultural heft.

A case in point is the term evangelical.  There are plenty of people who would quixotically try to rescue and save that word for it’s original meaning.  After all that word was so important to the Reformation.  Yet, it cannot be saved from the bombardment of media and the billions of dollars invested in marketing it as a form of fundamentalism.  Whenever the term is used, whatever the purpose of the speaker, it is interpreted in a way that goes back to how the dominant culture defines that term.

How does the dominant culture know the term binary.  I believe  those who have the technical expertise to actually interpret this obscure word at all are often those who do computer coding.  These individuals are some of the most powerful cultural forces in our society.  They make programs in our computers, phones, iPads and cars that influence much of our postmodern life.

Binary code itself is merely a way for computers to read human instructions.  The two binaries numbers are 0 and 1.  For a computer to understand this code it  is put into a binary string.  For example the letter from the American Standard Code for Information Interchange’s 7 binary string is 01010111.  Each binary string can represent a letter or symbol.

This is probably an overly simplistic representation that many of my computer friends would laugh at, but I think it serves the purpose of understanding that binary is not generally seen as an either/or in our culture.  It is seen as a expansive code of instructions occurring when the numbers 0 and 1 are strung together.

I feel much more comfortable with what I believe those who espouse this term might mean.  I believe that they are talking something akin to the Either/or that Kierkegaard so prophetically explains in his book of the same title.  These are his ways of explaining the aesthetic and ethical stages on life’s way.  In it there is internally our hedonist and duty bound beings.  These two poles compete in an arena of how we live.  Both are equally binding to one’s freedom.

So what is the concern with being binary?  Why does it matter?  I feel that it is a culturally accepted definition of evangelicalism that many of these non-binary xians are reacting.  Many who leave evangelicalism’s cultural tendrils crave freedom internally but function as Kierkegaard described.  Some swing toward hedonism, while others construct new creeds of duty from philosophy.  These two poles bind instead of freeing them into a full existence, being or as Christ describes a life full of abundance.  Still there are those who claim to believe beyond the either/or.  It is those intellectually struggling with what they call non-binary that are on the path to wisdom.

Yet, as Soren Kierkegaard would explain there is a limit to reason that must be broken.  In my own personal journey  I do not believe I have a answer, but experience.  Freedom has not been something I thought, but something experienced in my existence now.  I believe we have been given a truly great gift in these people questioning polarities to explore something liberating and as Paul would say a faith region where “there is no law.”

For most of us we fear uncertainty, cowardice and duplicity.  Yet, there is something truly biblical in all of those three words.  So, I pray that those who look toward philosophy will not look at it as a love of knowledge alone, but also as a love of wisdom.  Wisdom is something lived, expansive and free.  It is something that allows two opposites to be practiced in different contexts and it gives people the freedom to be opposite in perspectives while still possessing truth.  It is open to revelation, but knows that revelation is prismatic and limited with our own finitude.  Most of all it loves, it has mercy at its core and desires peace.  It is my prayer that others will find wisdom and love it into life.

Buy A Cool Journal and Help Our Ministry

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A week ago I finally opened an Etsy store to sale my handmade blank book journals.  These journals are made from various repurposed materials like old books, VHS boxes, Bingo score cards and record album covers.  At this point all of the proceeds from Merritorious’ Etsy store will go toward our Pay What You Can produce market Open Table Exchange.  We are hoping to open this market, community garden and community gathering space in one of Chattanooga’s more intense food deserts.  If you are looking for a way to support Mercy Junction Ministries and want something cool in exchange please visit our store at:  http://www.etsy.com/shop/Merrittorious

It’s Okay, We Are All Cowards!

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John 20:19-31

Preached at First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

If you think I am going to talk primarily about Thomas today then you will be horribly disappointed.  When I read John’s text I am always surprised that Thomas is in my mind the most uninteresting character.  To me the most identifiable and interesting characters are the cowering disciples.  They are hiding, afraid and are cowards.  It is shocking to hear that word, isn’t it?  Cowards!  The only one who was not a coward was Thomas, he is not hiding.  We don’t talk about cowardice in good company, that is why Thomas is so popular.  Doubt, now there is something that is admirable.  Even though you have never picked up St. John of the Cross you can always say, “I am having a dark night of the soul.”  Doubt makes us look like we are taking this thing seriously.  Yet, at some point we are all cowards, in the moment of great importance we fail.  That is something that good people don’t admit.  It takes courage to doubt, cowardice is despicable.

I have a particular love for the more obscures writings by the Japanese fiction writer Shusaku Endo.  At the time of his contemporary writing he was unfortunately considered the Japanese version of Graham Greene.  I find his works to be hauntingly beautiful and real snapshots of people struggling with their Catholic faith in the midst of a culture that is alien to the ideas of following Christ.

One of the themes that is too often neglected by Christian fiction writers Endo returns to again and again is that of the coward, the apostate, the one who renounces the faith at the precise moment that strength is needed.

In Endo’s short story “The Day Before” a contemporary character waits in the hospital for serious surgery and anticipates the visit of a priest who is bringing him a hand made fumie of Jesus from a period of great persecution amongst Japanese Christians so that he can view it.   A fumie was a picture of Christ or Mary that the authorities used to have persecuted Japanese Catholics step on to renounce their faith.  During a period of serious persecution many people were tortured into stepping on a fumie.

Then the story switches from his hospital bed to recollections of the story behind a particular fumie.   In it there was a village of Catholics who are captured for their faith.  The story takes an odd focus than many celebrated martyologies in Church history.  This story tells of an immediate renunciation from Togoro, someone everyone in the village knows to be a complete coward.  Before he can be tortured he steps on the fumie.

As the story progresses, it is apparent that the fumie will not arrive in time for the patient to see before for surgery.  Then we are reminded of the tortured male villagers who have refused to recant their faith.  They are put into tiny boxes and their leader sees something quite amazing through one of the holes, it is Togoro who has returned and given himself up to the guards again as a follower of Christ.

Clearly leery of him as a possible spy the villager’s leader Kashichi questions him.

“Do you realize that you will be tortured here?  If you’re going to make it harder on the rest of us, you’d better go back home.”

Togoro remained silent.

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“I’m afraid,” Togoro muttered.

Then he blurted out something very strange.  He had come here because he had heard a voice.  He had most certainly heard a voice.  It had instructed him to go just once more to be with the others.  “Go to them in Tsuyama.  And if you fear the torturers, you can run away again.  Go to Tsuyama,” the tearful pleading voice had said.

The only person amongst the villagers who is conflicted about this opportunistic voice is the leader Kashichi.  When Togoro recants again during torture Kashichi is strangely relieved that he was not a spy, but truly heard a voice.

Returning to the hospital bed the patient greets the priest who was to bring the fumie and it’s absence is confirmed.  Upon description the priest tries to play it down.  He describes it to the patient.  He also tells him that he wouldn’t have been able to see the image of Christ anyway because it had been distorted by too many people stepping on it.

Not the most honorable fate that we have come to celebrate.   One thing that has increasingly become important to me over time has been a clear-eyed and sober understanding of cowardice and fear.  What is at the root of my fears and causes me cowardly to retreat?

Fear is something that we are told should not rule us as followers of Christ.  True love will set us free from fear’s fetters.

I will have a moment of honesty here.  As the only evangelist for the Presbyterian Church in East Tennessee I am filled with fear.  It can be overwhelming.   I am embarrassed to admit that I have sometimes been a coward when it comes to doing the things I know I should that require great risks.

I fear things like uncertainty, I want security, I lack self-confidence for the task, I do not like change, I hate being out of control of outcomes and I want success more than faithfulness.  You know what I know that I am not alone.  Every church I have served has been filled with these same fears and many more.  I can almost guarantee that this church has encountered fears like this.  Yet, we are called to not be paralyzed by our fears but transformed by the renewing of our minds.

What combats fear in this text?  Peace and being sent out into the world like Christ was sent.   The Jesus blows on them!  It is his Spirit they receive.  They will not be going alone. I don’t want to indicate that it is as simple as that, because I want to complicate Jesus.  Yet, I will say it.  It is as simple as that.  Choose peace and go out into the world preaching the good news.   Don’t go alone!  Take the Spirit with you.

Classy

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No matter what your opinion of the work of Karl Marx it is undeniable that there are certain parts of his ideological program that are now indelibly marked on secular thinking.  One of these is the idea of the importance of class which now is a matrix used in the Census Bureau of the United States.  Some of his thoughts about class are now institutionally accepted, while others are wildly rejected.  We are not a socialist country after all, as all our politicians seem to remind us.  While Marx in no means began the discussion about class in the West (or the East by that matter) he is the important link toward seeing class as something that matters in historical, economic, social, psychological, religious and sociological settings.  It is hard for us to imagine a time when a statement like, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”  wasn’t common. Although, we may disagree, it is not something that is uncommonly argued with or without many nuances today.

In the United States we have maybe the most benign view of class.  In a personal, individualistic responsible way we denote one’s class in very narrow 18th and 19th century categories so that we can know how to make a federal budget.  Whether these categories are still valid is not argued, what is argued is whether these people in lower, working classes are deserving of services or whether that is asking too much of our society.  While the census has worked around how the numbers are compiled they have made no serious attempt to make more nuanced understandings of class.

Last week it was announced that Britain came out with a new and updated class system for it’s country.  There is even a calculator that helps to determine which of these new classes one is now a part of at the BBC.   The new and more nuanced class system in Britain consists of an interesting cross section of their society including:  Elite, Established Middle Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Worker, Traditional Working Class, Emergent Service Workers, Precariat.

Often in the US it appears that we believe that there are two or three classes.  All of us in the middle class and those other people who are poor.  If one actually admits to being wealthy they are often seen as no different than oligarchical billionaires of which they are certainly not in the same category.  Everyone admits to being middle class and no one wants to fall into the bottom category.  Wealthy people lie to themselves and others about their financial struggles.  The super rich are untouchables.  They are too big to touch, influence or even see.

In the church there is even less of a distinction.  Even in churches like the Presbyterian church we often live blissly ignorant of our own class structures that bar us from being effective in a broadening and diversified community.  All one needs to do is listen for about 10 minutes in any discussion about mission.  Inevitably the conversation becomes, “What can we do to help.”  This denotes a certain position of power to make such a non-collaborative statement.  In over 20 years of social justice work in the church this phrase is one that I have come to expect and revile.

In the larger denomination I am a part of we almost blithely ignore class as a factor in our decisions and our inability to reach new and emerging groups in our society.  What about educated students who are struggling to keep their heads above water with debt?  What about immigrants who are sending money back to a country of origin and working for slave pay?   What about foreclosures?  Our old class assumptions do not help answer these questions.  Just parroting the phrase, “first world problems” denotes another callous classist way of thinking that ignores justice issues at home for more well deserving people in far off lands.

Last week on vacation I visited the trailer park that my great-grandmother lived in during the last few years of her life.  I was amazed that 30 years later, next to the railroad tracks, this dilapidated structure was still in use.  People were living in this run down metal structure.  I was humbled.  I again realized that a certain segment of the church that I am a part of would not be accepting of the people I come from.   How do I  know this?  I review our educated oriented curriculum, I see how our style of preaching is lectures and I watch how our outreach often is toward a certain type of people that would be more comfortable in our pews.  Uneducated, poor, unhealthy, conservative, gun toting, trailer park, using improper English usage and t-shirt wearing cultures may be tolerated by some, but are not who we are looking for to fill our pews.  They work at Wal Mart (not even in management) and are not lawyers, doctors, professors, realtors and business owners.  The Wal Mart society is most of our population and are increasing in our craptacular economy.

Yes, I do think there is also sexism and racism.  Yet, even those I can see as being complicated in the miasma of our ignorant relationship to class in the denominational church.

I believe that the denominational church will continue to miss its calling if it continues to be ignorant of class and how it functions as gatekeeping in our congregations, leadership and judicatories.  We will miss out on the increasingly diverse array of people that are living in our society and we will increasingly look like the white, upper middle class, educated elite that is mostly our reality.  That is not the world most of our society wants to inhabit any longer.  It is also not where the Spirit resides.

Moral Awakening

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In Matthew 22:1-14 Jesus tells the parable of the wedding banquet.  In it there is a King who prepares a wedding banquet for his son.  He makes invitations, but people keep up their important business transactions, they go to their fields and some mistreat the servant so badly they end up killing him.

For this the king is enraged by these important people ignoring the invitation and the violent mistreatment of his servant.  So, he does something amazing.  The king orders that they go out into the streets and invite whomever, good or bad to the feast.  He turns away from the powerful and invites the commoner to the feast.  When someone that is not a commoner is found trying to sneak into the feast the king has them bound and thrown into outer darkness.

There is a moral awakening going on across the country and quite frankly sweeping the globe.  It is not being reported by the corporatized media, it is not being discussed in our most austere pulpits, it is not being discussed in our corporate board rooms and it is certainly not being discussed in the halls of Washington’s powerful elite.  God has chosen not to invite them to the banquet.

This moral awakening is amongst students who see their future as indentured slavery, it is amongst the homeless who set up tent cities with codes of conduct, it is amongst anarchists who put their bodies physically between environmentally devastating pipelines, it is amongst occupiers who have attempted to save people’s homes from immoral foreclosures, it is amongst Strike Debt who has tried to raise the disgusting underbelly of a debt culture ruining so many people’s lives, it is amongst guerrilla gardeners who are taking back abandoned urban spaces to cultivate food, it is amongst immigrants who send money back to relatives while working for wages no one should accept, it is amongst African American neighbors car pooling because of a lack of transportation and it is amongst our first people’s who are raising a voice against scarring the land in Idle No More.

Sometimes we find that the Spirit is moving, but just not amongst us in the church.  God is free to create a church where ever God wants.  Being a part of a religious institution does not ensure our participation in salvation.  As the holy texts indicate over and over only humility can provide such a position.  Since many of us have decided to side with plutocrats, oligarchs, money changers and usury loving  bankers we are not being invited to the banquet.  We will find ourselves outside in darkness.  This is sad.  It is like the old Lyle Lovett song, “We weren’t good, but we had good intentions.”

It is time for us to be quiet and listen to what God is doing in the world.  What God is doing in the world without our help.  It is time for us to go back to work, regaining our foothold as people following Christ.  We need to humbly practice Jamesian good works, because when the commoner looks at our faith they see something that is dead.  This will be painful for a group that wants so badly to be “relevant”.  Our flashy new programs and gimmicky theology need to be put on hold to humbly listen and then do something showing love.

The Spirit blows where it will, and I believe the church is in a time of wilderness.  It is my hope and prayer that we can have enough humility to listen to where the Spirit is leading.  This may be away from Wall Street investing, bankers, lawyers, CEOs and an “educated” wealth class to a much broader world.  The Spirit is working in the world, with or without our help.  The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.

I Am Sick

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I have been sick for a few days with a nasty stomach virus and when I am not sleeping I have been reflecting on being sick.  That is what we can do when we are stopped by illness, reflect.  Of course, this is  not my first sickness.  I missed my first year of kindergarden due to illnesses, but every time I have an illness that forces me to bed I reflect upon the frailty of human existence.

As a minister I have indelible memories of the “sickness unto death” that many of my members encountered.  I remember visiting a stage IV breast cancer patient who had fought the disease for 6 years.  As she laid in bed during those final hours I could see she had no more fight in her.  I held her hand and said, “You are tired, aren’t you?”

Her response was telling, “Yes, I am ready.”

We prayed our final prayer together and she slipped off into death.

Another encounter was traveling to the hospital with an elderly member of my church who had just been told that his son’s brain tumor made these his final minutes of breath.  We hurried to George Washington hospital, but were too late.  He had succumbed to the cancer before we could get across town.  As we stood around in a circle and prayed I felt an almost audible sigh from everyone.  Each went forward to whisper their final goodbyes.  This father’s goodbye and kiss will always be pressed into my memory.

As clergy we are given the rare opportunities to share people’s most intimate life experiences: birth, faith and death.  These are a rare privilege.  We are not the doctor bringing good or bad news.  We are not the social worker coming to assess the patients needs.  We are not a nurse changing tubes.  We are the friend of Christ.  What an outstanding gift.  I am already feeling better knowing that Christ’s love extends to me in a way that I am able to cry with those who cry and laugh with those who laugh.   In a time when it seems both secular and religious society demeans the calling of pastor, I celebrate it.  Thank God I am not called to be a Barista and pastor at this point in my existence.  God calls people for different tasks in life and I affirm that Pastor is a unique and precious calling.