The Christmas season has always been a time to be with family members and close friends for me. This year especially, it’s a time to rest and recover from a lingering cold. It’s also a time for me to reflect and think of the birth of Jesus and to think about this Christian church that I’ve called my home for all of my life. I first became passionate about my faith when I was fourteen years old, when I was taking my confirmation classes in a Roman Catholic church. I would read books and articles about Vatican II, St. Francis and an itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus who lived two thousand years ago and preached a message of loving God and loving our neighbors. Since that time, I’ve attended several churches from several different denominations and have had wonderful experiences and some painful conflicts. These various experiences have given me a love/hate relationship with Christianity, as I’ve strugged with the church’s various contradictions, as well as my own personal struggles and doubts about God. Yet I still feel it is important to go to church and I still consider myself a Christian.
About a month ago, I listened to a sermon on Christian orthodoxy, about its use and misuse in church history. After the service, I attended a sermon discussion, and in the middle of the various conversations, it began to hit me that I’m not a very orthodox Christian. I’m not for or against church orthodoxy. But over the years, I’ve developed a real fear of the word “orthodoxy” as I’ve seen too often groups of Christians do some cruel things to individuals to maintain their vision of what orthodoxy is. I’ve witssed many individuals get hurt by that and never return to church. Through out my life, I’ve tended to have the most trouble with people who have a black and white view of the world, and this has been most pronounced in the various conflicts that I’ve had in churches. These experiences have led me to be very wary of certain types of Christians and it has led to a deep dislike of the Christian Right.
Balancing some of these bad experiences though, are the good encounters that I’ve had with Christians who sincerely try to follow their Christian precepts and lead a life of humility and prayer. They have their human faults, but they also try to transcend their own weaknesses to try to love their neighbor as they love their God: they try to love their enemy, they try to forgive seventy times seven, they try to reach out to their community and help the poor and marginalized, they take time for prayer and quiet reflection. I’ve met these people in Catholic churches, in Evangelical churches, and now in Episcopalian churches. These Christians make it impossible for me to stereotype all Christians as being hypocrites or being all bad, as I know too many good Christians and have witnessed their struggles to lead good Christian lives.
So when I look at the Christian church, I see a lot of good and a lot of bad. The people in these churches are just people, no better and no worse than any other group of people, struggling with their own issues, trying in their own ways to understand and get closer to God. I’m in the same boat. I’m not all good or all bad. Sometimes I’ve done really good things and have had the courage to take strong stands to help people out. Sometimes I’ve hurt people and have been a real coward. I have struggles with faith and have real doubts about God. Then I think of Peter and his denial of Jesus. I think of St. Paul struggling with the thorn at his side. I think of Moses’s doubts and Jeremiah’s frustrations in being listened to. I think of the book of Ecclesiastes and Habukuk. And it makes me realize that even the people in the Bible struggled with God. I’ve grown to believe that being a truly religious person, means just being persistent.
Many years ago, when I attended an evangelical small group study, I learned that Christians naturally gravitate towards one of 4 different areas, based on what spiritual gifts that they are blessed with. Some Christians gravitate towards a more contemplative tradition, where they have a deep desire to live a life of prayer and spirituality. Some Christians are moved to a more analytic tradition, where they feel most at home studying the Bible and learning about theology. Some Christians are talented in the hospitality tradition, where they enjoy welcoming people to church and have a gift of evangelism. And some Christians are moved by the social justice tradition, where they feel a desire to fight for justice for the marginalized and the poor. All four of those Christian traditions are valid avenues for the Christian life.
The social justice tradition includes Christians like Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, St. Francis. A person cannot read Jesus’ parables or look at who Jesus associated with or read the Old Testament prophets without concluding that God has a deep empathy for the suffering of the poor and the marginalized. Throughout my life, I’ve been most attracted to the social justice tradition of Christianity.
I think Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Fathers were correct to put up a separation of Church and State in our country. Ken Poland is a Christian who has been very eloquent in arguing in his Everyday Citizen blogs on the necessity to keep our government a secular government, to not impose a Christian litmus test on office holders and to respect the diversity of nonChristian religions that make up the American landscape. I am deeply worried about the attempts by some conservative Christians to make our nation a “Christian nation”.
On the other hand, Christians have played important roles in many of the social movements that have made our nation a fairer, more democratic country. Christians played important roles in the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffragist movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement. These Christians collaborated with Jews, atheists, Muslims, agnostics, socialists and others who shared a passion to fight injustice. They were able to fight for social justice without having to impose their religion on other people.
This Christmas I’m grateful for Jesus’ birth and for the life that he led and the people that he touched. I’m a Christian because there is still that fourteen year old inside of me who grew to love this Jesus who loved his enemies and reached out to the poor and the outcasts. This Jesus had a lot of courage to challenge the religious authorities and to accept the company of the type of people who would usually have been shunned by respectable people. He talked to rich people and poor people, he accepted fishermen and tax collectors, he showed sympathy to Roman officers and prostitutes. This egalitarian outlook on his part is one of the most appealing things to me. I think an egalitarian outlook is a truly religious outlook. It says that God loves all people, that we are all equally valued in God’s eyes.
(Dedicated to Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopalian priest who was killed while participating in the Freedom Summer civil rights campaign in 1964)
““Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
(Inspired by the Arab Spring in Egypt, where Coptic Christians and Muslims joined in protest)
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction,
for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;
may his foes flee before him.
May you blow them away like smoke—
as wax melts before the fire,
may the wicked perish before God.
But may the righteous be glad
and rejoice before God;
may they be happy and joyful.
Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
extol him who rides on the clouds;
rejoice before him—his name is the LORD.
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.
When you, God, went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain,
before God, the One of Sinai,
before God, the God of Israel.
You gave abundant showers, O God;
you refreshed your weary inheritance.
Your people settled in it,
and from your bounty, God, you provided for the poor.
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
To see more of my church cartoons you can go click the link to the St. Thomas lectionary illustrations or see these cartoons at Everyday Citzen: