Of Church, Bikers and Beer!

This ad for Carlsberg Beer has received over eight million hits on Youtube! After you finish laughing, think about how this might reflect someone’s experience walking into a church for the first time. Will we appear as a room filled with intimidating bikers? Will we welcome the brave souls who squeeze into a pew warmly, if not raucously? If not a cold beer, what do we have to offer that lets people know that they are just one of the gang? Turn it around? How would a couple tough looking bikers feel walking into our church on a Sunday morning?

Published in: on November 11, 2011 at 7:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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Peace Elmo Joins South Church Community Clean-up!

“No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome at South Church!”

Published in: on October 16, 2011 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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My Imagined (Not Imaginary) Friend

I am about half way through Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel. Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969 to Muslim parents.  Her father was a leader of revolutionary forces opposing Somalia’s dictator, Siad Barre in the 70s and 80s, requiring her family to move to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya before she reached adolescence.  Having experienced first hand, the brutality of Islamist beliefs toward women (including the mutilation of her genitals at the age of five), Hirsi Ali has become a strong and articulate critic of those Muslim beliefs and practices that lead to the subjugation, oppression and abuse of women.

Hirsi Ali’s biography is as riveting as it is hard to read.  In addition to describing the suffering and brutality she has experienced, she provides a compelling account of her faith journey.   As a child she studies the Quran in a series of schools and works hard to submit to its teachings.  Submission, Hirsi Ali explains, is the central tenet of Islam, complete submission.  But young Hirsi Ali also loves to read, and she devours everything from Western literature to romance novels.  The values that are communicated in these stories contrast with the messages she hears from the imam and the harsh realities of her life leading her to question her faith.

I never do this, but I was so curious that I flipped to the back of the book to find out how Hirsi Ali resolves these conflicts and answers these questions.  She becomes an atheist.  “Before reading four pages (of The Atheist Manifesto),” writes Hirsi Ali, “I already knew my answer.  I had left God behind years ago.  I was an atheist.  It felt right.  There was no pain, but a real clarity.”

I confess that I felt sad when I read this.  I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing.  Hirsi Ali makes it clear that her decision to be an atheist is liberating for her, freeing her from an oppressive and violent God.  Her choice is rational and understandable in the context of her life.  I admire her courage and strength.  Nonetheless, I was very disappointed.  To me, the choice to be an atheist represents the ultimate failure of imagination and therefore, the death of hope.

This probably requires explanation.  First, I am not saying that God is imaginary.  God is not like Santa Claus or the imaginary friend, Kala, that my daughter Abigail used to have.  I believe that God is more “real” than the physical world we live in.  But just as imagination is necessary to write poetry, to make music, to play, to invent and to create, so also imagination is necessary to conceive of and live in relationship with God.  Hirsi Ali writes, “God, Satan, angels:  these were all figments of the human imagination,” as if this is a bad thing!  Of course they are.  Faith is humanity’s greatest creative act.  Faith is sacred imagination!  If we can, against all reason and experience, conceive of a good, just, loving, forgiving God, maybe we can also imagine, then live into, a world without war, racism, homophobia, hunger and poverty.  But if we give up on God, on the possibility of God, if we say our broken down, crappy humanity is all we’ve got, what, then, do we aspire to?  What do we reach for?  What do we live for?

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 2:14 am  Comments (2)  
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Holy Mandaeism: A New Old Thing

I confess that I have been in a bit of a rut.  Not much has surprised or impressed me recently.  I try to find new music, but it sounds like the same old stuff.  I haven’t read a book that really made me sit up and take notice in over a year.  Even Bible commentaries that I read in preparing for sermons seem tried and tired.  Well, in just two weeks I seem to have hit the jackpot of things new and interesting.   I have already written about the first of these, Whittier’s poem, The Brewing of Soma.  The second was an interesting perspective on Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth that draws from rabbinic midrash (I’ll post the link to the resulting sermon).  The third, and perhaps most astonishing, “new thing” happened today.

I met a lovely family of recent immigrants from Iraq .  In the course of our conversation I learned that they are followers of John the Baptist.  Really?!  Really!  In the course of my seminary studies I learned that John the Baptist had his own followers that believed that he was a more important prophet than Jesus.  Some thought John might be the promised Messiah.  The gospel writers sought to lay this perspective to rest, having John himself pronounce Jesus’ divinity.  Luke writes: “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming ; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”  I knew this much.  But I had no idea that there were still followers of John the Baptist walking the earth.

“We are cousins,” said one of these Iraqi gentlemen, “like Elizabeth and Mary!”  Again, Wow!  Here is someone from Iraq who is reaching out as long lost family, recalling the connection we share through Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother) and Mary (Jesus’ mother).  That’s  just crazy cool.  The circumstances didn’t allow a full exploration of the history or beliefs of these good people, but as soon as the conversation ended I went straight to Google and entered “Iraq followers of John the Baptist.”  And there they were (in Wikipedia, of course) Mandaeans!  Having just provided the link, I won’t repeat everything I learned, but in short, Mandaesim is a monotheistic religion with a strongly dualistic world view that reveres Adam, Abel, Noah and especially John the Baptist.  The Mandaens “may be the only sect from late Antiquity to identify themselves explicitly as Gnostics.”  There were about 70,000 Mandaens in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, but all but about 7,000 if those have fled to Jordan and Syria to escape persecution.  A very few have been able to immigrate to the U.S.  Fascinating.  I can only hope that I will have the opportunity to deepen my relationship with these, my cousins, and their ancient faith.

Lest I ever doubt, it is just as the UCC proclaims – God is Still Speaking in new old ways!

Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 2:07 am  Comments (1)  
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