God Needs Better Press 


The word “Protestant” is generally misunderstood. Martin Luther’s protest that led to the Protestant reformation was not, in fact, a protest against the Roman Catholic Church; properly understood, it was a protest for God. God, in Luther’s view, was being manipulated to serve human and ecclesial self-interest. His protest was a plea to respect God’s transcendence.

We need a new protest today, a new plea, a strong one, to not connect God and our churches to intolerance, injustice, bigotry, violence, terrorism, racism, sexism, rigidity, dogmatism, anti-eroticism, homophobia, self-serving power, institutional self-protection, security for the rich, ideology of all kinds, and just plain stupidity. God is getting a lot of bad press!

A simple example can be illustrative here: In a recent book that documents an extraordinary fifty-year friendship with his former coach, basketball legend (and present-day exceptional writer), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, shares why he became a Muslim. Raised a Roman Catholic, a graduate of Catholic schools, he eventually left Christianity to become a Muslim. Why?

In his own words: Because “the white people who were bombing churches and killing little girls, who were shooting unarmed black boys, who were beating black protestors with clubs loudly declared themselves to be proud Christians. The Ku Klux Klan were proud Christians. I felt no allegiance to a religion with so many evil followers. Yes, I was also aware that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also a proud Christian, as were many of the civil rights leaders. Coach Wooden was a devout Christian. The civil rights movement was supported by many brave white Christians who marched side by side with blacks. When the KKK attacked, they often delivered even worse beatings to the whites, whom they considered to be race traitors. I didn’t condemn the religion, but I definitely felt removed from it.”

His story is only one story and by his own admission has another side to it, but it’s highly illustrative. It’s easy to connect God to the wrong things. Christianity, of course, isn’t the only culprit. Today, for instance, we see perhaps the worst examples of tying God to evil in the violence of ISIS and other such terrorist groups who are killing, randomly and brutally, in the name of God. You can be sure that the last words uttered, just as a suicide bomber randomly kills innocent people, is: God is great! What horrible thing to say as one is committing an act of murder! Doing the ungodly in the name of God!

And yet we so often do the same thing in subtler forms, namely, we justify the ungodly (violence, injustice, inequality, poverty, intolerance, bigotry, racism, sexism, the abuse of power, and rich privilege) by appealing to our religion. Silently, unconsciously, blind to ourselves, grounded in a sense of right and wrong that’s colored by self-interest, we give ourselves divine permission to live and act in ways that are antithetical to most everything Jesus taught.

We can protest, saying that we’re sincere, but sincerity by itself is not a moral or religious criterion. Sincerity can, and often does, tie God to the ungodly and justifies what’s evil in the name of God: The people conducting the Inquisition were sincere; the slave traitors were sincere; those who protected pedophile priests were sincere, racists are sincere; sexists are sincere; bigots are sincere; the rich defending their privilege are sincere; church offices making hurtful, gospel-defying pastoral decisions that deprive people of ecclesial access are very sincere and gospel-motivated; and all of us, as we make the kind of judgments of others that Jesus told us time and again not to make, are sincere. But we think that we’re doing this all for the good, for God.

However in so many of our actions we are connecting God and church to narrowness, intolerance, rigidity, racism, sexism, favoritism, legalism, dogmatism, and stupidity. And we wonder why so many of our own children no longer go to church and struggle with religion.

The God whom Jesus reveals is the antithesis of much of religion, sad but true. The God whom Jesus reveals is a prodigal God, a God who isn’t stingy; a God who wills the salvation of everyone, who loves all races and all peoples equally; a God with a preferential love for the poor; a God who creates both genders equally; a God who strongly opposes worldly power and privilege. The God of Jesus Christ is a God of compassion, empathy, and forgiveness, a God who demands that spirit take precedence over law, love over dogma, and forgiveness over juridical justice. And very importantly, the God whom Jesus incarnates isn’t stupid, but is a God whose intelligence isn’t threatened by science, and a God who doesn’t condemn and send people to hell according to our limited human judgments.

Sadly, too often that’s not the God of religion, of our churches, of our spirituality, or of our private consciences.

God isn’t narrow, stupid, legalistic, bigoted, racist, violent, or vengeful, and it’s time we stopped connecting God to those things.

Our Utmost in Dealing with our Faith


The complexity of adulthood inevitably puts to death the naiveté of childhood. And this is true too of our faith. Not that faith is a naiveté. It isn’t. But our faith needs to be constantly reintegrated into our persons and matched up anew against our life’s experience; otherwise we will find it at odds with our life. But genuine faith can stand up to every kind of experience, no matter its complexity.

Sadly, that doesn’t always happen and many people seemingly leave their faith behind, like belief in Santa and the Easter Bunny, as the complexity of their adult lives seemingly belies or even shames their childhood faith.

With this in mind, I recommend a recent book, My Utmost, A Devotional Memoir, by Macy Halford. She is a young, thirty-something, writer working out of both Paris and New York and this is an autobiographical account of her struggle as a conservative Evangelical Christian to retain her faith amidst the very liberal, sophisticated, highly secularized, and often agnostic circles within which she now lives and works.

The book chronicles her struggles to maintain a strong childhood faith which was virtually embedded in her DNA, thanks to a very faith-filled mother and grandmother. Faith and church were a staple and an anchor in her life as she was growing up. But her DNA also held something else, namely, the restlessness and creative tension of a writer, and that irrepressible energy naturally drove her beyond the safety and shelter of the churches circles of her youth, in her case, to literary circles in New York and Paris.

She soon found out that living the faith while surrounded by a strong supportive faith group is one thing, trying to live it while breathing an air that is almost exclusively secular and agnostic is something else. The book chronicles that struggle and chronicles too how eventually she was able to integrate both the passion and the vision of her childhood faith into her new life.  Among many good insights, she shares how each time she was tempted to cross the line and abandon her childhood faith as a naiveté, she realized that her fear of doing that was “not a fear of destroying God or a belief; [but] a fear of destroying self.” That insight testifies to the genuine character of her faith. God and faith don’t need us; it’s us that need them.

The title of her book, My Utmost, is significant to her story. On her 13th birthday, her grandmother gave her a copy of a book which is well-known and much-used within Evangelical and Baptist circles, My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers.  The book is a collection of spiritual aphorisms, thoughts for every day of the year, by this prominent missionary and mystic. Halford shares how, while young and still solidly anchored in the church and faith of her childhood, she did not read the book daily and Chamber’s spiritual counsels meant little to her. But her reading of this book eventually became a daily ritual in her life and its daily counsel began, more and more, to become a prism through which she was able to reintegrate her childhood faith with her adult experience.

At one point in her life she gives herself over to a serious theological study of both the book and its author. Those parts of her memoir will intimidate some of her readers, but, even without a clear theological grasp of how eventually she brings it all into harmony, the fruit of her struggle comes through clearly.

This is a valuable memoir because today many people are undergoing this kind of struggle, that is, to have their childhood faith stand up to their present experience. Halford simply shows us how she did it and her struggle offers us a valuable paradigm to follow.

A generation ago, Karl Rahner, famously remarked that in the next generation we will either be mystics or unbelievers. Among other things, what Rahner meant was that, unlike previous generations where our communities (family, neighborhood, and church) very much helped carry the faith for us, in this next generation we will very much have to find our own, deeper, personal grounding for our faith.  Macy Halford bears this out. Inside a generation within which many are unbelievers, her memoir lays out a path for a humble but effective mysticism.

The late Irish writer, John Moriarty, in his memoirs, shares how as a young man he drifted from the faith of his youth, Roman Catholicism, seeing it as a naiveté that could not stand up to his adult experiences. He walked along in that way until one day, as he puts it, “I realized that Roman Catholicism, the faith of my childhood, was my mother tongue.”

Macy Halford eventually re-grounded herself in her mother tongue, the faith of her youth, and it continues now to guide her through all the sophistications of adulthood. The chronicle of her search can help us all, irrespective of our particular religious affiliation.

Suicide – Redeeming the Memory of a Loved One


One year ago, virtually everyone who knew him was stunned by the suicide death of the most prominent American Hispanic theologian that we have produced up to now, Virgilio Elizondo. Moreover, Virgil wasn’t just a very gifted, pioneering theologian, he was also a beloved priest and a warm, trusted friend to countless people. Everyone dies, and the death of a loved one is always hard, but it was the manner of his death that left so many people stunned and confused. Suicide! But he was such a faith-filled, sensitive man. How could this be possible?

And those questions, like the muddy waters of a flood, immediately began to seep into other emotional crevices, leaving most everyone who knew him with a huge, gnawing question: What does this do his work, to the gift that he left to the church and to the Hispanic community? Can we still honor his life and his contribution in the same way as we would have had he died of a heart attack or cancer? Indeed, had he died of a heart attack or cancer, his death, though sad, would undoubtedly have had about it an air of healthy closure, even of celebration, that we were saying farewell to a great man we had had the privilege to know, as opposed to the air of hush, unhealthy quiet, and unclean grief that permeated the air at his funeral.

Sadly, and this is generally the case when anyone dies by suicide, the manner of that death becomes a prism through which his or her life and work are now seen, colored, and permanently tainted. It shouldn’t be so, and it’s incumbent on us, the living who love them, to redeem their memories, to not take their photos off our walls, to not speak in guarded terms about their deaths, and to not let the particular manner of their deaths color and taint the goodness of their lives.  Suicide is the least glamorous and most misunderstood of all deaths.  We owe it to our loved ones, and to ourselves, to not further compound a tragedy.

So each year I write a column on suicide, hoping it might help produce more understanding around the issue and, in a small way perhaps, offer some consolation to those who have lost a loved one in this way. Essentially, I say the same things each year because they need to be said. As Margaret Atwood once put it, some things need to be said and said and said again, until they don’t need to be said any more.  Some things need still to be said about suicide.

What things? What needs to be said, and said again and again about suicide?  For the sake of clarity, let me number the points:

  1. First, in most cases, suicide is the result of a disease, a sickness, an illness, a tragic breakdown within the emotional immune system or simply a mortal biochemical illness.
  2. For most suicides, the person dies, as the does the victim of any terminal illness or fatal accident, not by his or her own choice. When people die from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and accidents, they die against their will. The same is true in suicide.
  3. We should not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of a suicide victim, believing (as we used to) that suicide is the ultimate act of despair. God’s hands are infinitely more understanding and gentler than our own. We need not worry about the fate of anyone, no matter the cause of death, who leaves this world honest, over-sensitive, over-wrought, too bruised to touch, and emotionally-crushed, as is the case with most suicides. God’s understanding and compassion exceed our own. God isn’t stupid.
  4. We should not unduly second-guess ourselves when we lose a loved one to suicide: What might I have done? Where did I let this person down? What if? If only I’d been there at the right time!Rarely would this have made a difference. Most of the time, we weren’t there for the very reason that the person who fell victim to this disease did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot, and the means precisely so we wouldn’t be there. Suicide seems to be a disease that picks its victim precisely in such a way so as to exclude others and their attentiveness. This is not an excuse for insensitivity, but is a healthy check against false guilt and fruitless second-guessing. Suicide is a result of sickness and there are some sicknesses which all the love and care in the world cannot cure.
  5. Finally, it’s incumbent upon us, the loved ones who remain here, to redeem the memory of those who die in this way so at to not let the particular manner of their deaths become a false prism through which their lives are now seen. A good person is a good person and a sad death does not change that. Nor should a misunderstanding.