Sermons

They seem to be the centerpiece of the worship service at church, no matter how long they are or what they’re called: sermons, teachings, messages, homilies.

I’m not sure they should be, but they kind of are by default for almost a couple thousand years now.

I would vote for the eucharist, the Lord’s supper, to take that honor and let Him host and be the center of worship, honor and praise.

But, hey, nobody asked me.

So we surround the sermon with all our other acts of worship (singing, prayers, reading of scripture, etc.), and — like I said — it becomes the centerpiece of the table we surround by default.

And what do we hear?

I attended church from before the time I could think or speak until just a couple of years ago. I think I can fairly say I’ve heard about every kind of sermon imaginable, from the very best to the very worst.

I learned a lot, I’m sure; and some of what I learned, I had to later unlearn — because what I heard was not valid, or helpful, or sometimes just wasn’t true. Occasionally it didn’t even conform to what scripture said, and even rarely contradicted and defied it.

But looking back, I think the very best sermons I heard gave me insight into the life, teachings, example and nature of Jesus of Nazareth.

They conveyed His humanity and divinity, His winsome appeal, His unflagging love for all, and His refusal to judge people while being unflinchingly judgmental about how to speak, act and relate to others in a world that God made and God cares about and God watches over all the time.

Sermons like that made me crave that nature and yearn for that living grace; they challenged me to imitate it in what I do and say with the goal of making it my nature.

I genuinely don’t know how you can preach a gospel sermon without talking about Jesus; He is the very best of all the good news in scripture. I tried preaching for several years, but it is not my gift. When I did preach, I genuinely tried to draw my listeners to the grace of Christ.

To the cross, yes, sometimes; even to the empty tomb. But, you see, that’s what the Lord’s table is for; that’s largely His story to tell in His inimitable way — by living it to death and then living it forever.

I can’t do better than that.

And you see, if that were all there is to His story, we would miss out on the part that makes it whole and full and complete: the incredible life of love and compassion that He lived. That, as much as anything else, is what proves He was/is/will always be the Son of God.

God could have raised anyone from the dead — it’s not like He’d never done it before! But who else but His very own Son could have lived such an exemplary life, seen and communicated the loving grace of heaven so clearly, had the unalterable faith to let mankind do its worst and still speak words of forgiveness?

Sermons come and go. A million every Sunday, maybe, all around the world.

But they are only heard by the people who listen to them; and if those people don’t leave that church inspired to live what they’ve heard, then only words have been spoken. Not The Word, the living Logos, the meaning of what God spoke into existence, the why of being, the purpose of living, the joy of loving, the embodiment of grace.

Well, I’ve rattled on here long enough. If I could live like that, I could still try preaching. But I know there is no credibility in what you say if you don’t practice what you preach.

So I’ve chosen to leave that to others of better qualifications, and just do my best to live up to some poor semblance of the One that I most admire.

They say that’s a sermon too.

I Don’t Know Anything About God

And neither do you.

What we say we “know” are items accepted on faith, communicated through scripture, written by mortal men. We accept them as inspired; we accept them as factual — but we accept them on faith.

I think it’s important to recognize that. Constantly.

Because overconfidence in what we “know” leads to an overweening pride in our own ability to interpret what we have read and accepted. Leads to arrogance. Leads to sects and parties and division and downfall.

Leads to loss of faith. Loss of faith, in favor of “knowledge.”

And I have to confess that in the past few years, my faith has changed. I hope it has matured, but I know it has changed.

I believe God exists, that He loves, that He cares, that He saves.

That means that I believe God cares in a divine way that I don’t necessarily comprehend. Perhaps even cannot understand.

For instance ….

Because I have faith in God, I have faith that God will let bad things happen to good people. He is God, and He can do what He likes in His own way and wisdom and time. I don’t know why. I don’t have to know why. If I needed to know why, I have faith that He’d have told me.

I have my own ideas on the matter, but they’re mine and they could be wrong — and ultimately they’re not important.

If they were important, I’d have answers.

I hope that doesn’t sound cynical, but I’m sure it does — especially to people who are certain that they “know” a lot about God. I think it’s just a recognition of reality.

But I also believe that God came, was and is present as human — in the form of the One whom we call His Son, Jesus — and therefore cares in a human way as well as a divine way.

Yet still lets bad things happen to good people. Lets good things happen to bad people (like grace). Lets things of all kinds happen to all kinds of people. And all the praying in the world will not sway His will if we are praying for something that is — in the divine perspective — not ultimately good for us; not something that can be within His will.

This is the God who let His Son suffer and die to give us the perspective of grace, a glimpse at eternity, a taste of blood and bread and the way that His world should be.

So we pray from a human perspective and receive our answers from the divine perspective. And the divine perspective calls on us to try to see them from His point of view. Even if we can’t do it. We must try.

Because we are also called to be part of the human answer to human prayers. Forgiving. Generous. Gracious. Kind. Loving. Self-sacrificial.

Part of the effort to make good things happen to all people. I believe that creating us, giving us His Son, showing us His grace, was all the work He needed to do; that it is sufficient. I can pray all I want to. But in the final analysis, I might as well just recognize that my prayers have (and must have) the power to change me. That’s entirely up to me.

Whether they have the power to change what He has planned to do in order to bring about good is entirely up to Him.

That’s what I believe about God. Just what I believe. Not what I know.

Because I don’t know anything about God.

And neither do you.

Sometimes I’m Sad

… that I can’t be the kind of Christian everyone expects. You know?

The kind with a contemporary Christian hymn in their hearts all the time. The kind who is always eager to tell someone about Jesus at the first excuse. The kind who goes to church faithfully, every time the door is open. The kind who gives generously every week he attends. The kind that can vote a certain way with no qualms in their conscience. The kind who believe God is in control of every minute detail all the time because He chooses to be. The kind whose kids turn out the way everyone expected them to. The kind who doesn’t question the traditions. The kind who gets along.

But that’s just not me. Some of those things were never me; I just didn’t make a big deal about them.

The fact is, I can’t be that kind of Christian. And I won’t pretend.

I’d rather be genuinely me than someone who says and does what must be done to fit in.

The contemporary Christian hymns — frankly, all the songs sung at church — are not the comfort they once were. They remind me of my departed Angi, who loved them and had them in her heart all the time and listened to them in the car and on her iPhone in the office. And that just raises difficult questions for me about God’s goodness that nobody actually has answers for, so it makes the faith and the trust in Him that I still have even more difficult.

My eagerness to share a gospel message is not what it was. For one thing, people find it off-putting and self-righteous and often not credible from people who can’t live up to it, and I am one of those far-from-perfect people. I’ll be glad to tell anyone who asks about the reason for the hope that lies within me (to put it in scriptural language), but most of the time it’s all I can do to try to be like Jesus of Nazareth. I used to preach. Now it’s just a matter of practice. In this case, practice won’t make perfect. He has to do that. I get that. I grasp the concept of grace, even if I can’t fathom the depths of it.

And I haven’t been to church but a couple of times in the past two years and more. I have questions and concerns about what church is and should be and how it’s done and what its purpose and expectations are that far exceed the word count of a readable post.

Giving to support some of those things I’m not sure I can believe in … well, that’s just not an option right now. I can give to support people I know who are in genuine need; I can give in other ways in total anonymity; I can give to the kinds of things that Jesus of Nazareth talks about giving to support. Did you ever notice He never once talked about giving to His church in scripture?

Frankly, I am horrified at the political tack that churches have taken to support a particular party and even economic/social ideology that I often find antithetical to the life that He lived and the way He loved and the extent to which He gave … even to His own life. For people who never earned it, never worked for it, never could, never will.

Because I can’t believe God shows favoritism, to rich or poor, one skin color over another, one ethnicity over another, one set of life choices over another, one religion over another, one soul over another. If He loves the whole world, then the Son He gave is for everyone. But God as micro-manager? Undoing everything in some karmic cosmic way that intentionally harms some people to the benefit of others; that’s one thing. But to undo the real-world consequences of it as if that doesn’t matter in this world at all? No. I can’t vote that way or believe that way because He doesn’t operate that way. Whether you take the story of Eden literally or not, the gist of it is that He gave us choice in the very beginning and He doesn’t interfere with the consequences and rewards of what we have chosen. Others might, but not Him. Evil still exists in this world because we still choose it; we choose self instead of others and Him. And that’s why there’s still death in the world, why there’s still suffering in the world, why there’s still inequity and hatred and greed and poverty and illness and crime and murder and bigotry and ….

Well, you get the idea. I don’t have all the answers. But that much seems obvious.

I choose. You choose. Our kids choose. Their kids choose. And we’re responsible for our own choices; no one else’s. I’m glad and proud that my kids are into adulthood, still forming their own spirituality just like their dad is. I’m proud that Angi and I helped instill and nurture a yearning for a deep spirituality in them. I can hope it leads them into good lives that care deeply about others. So far, it’s looking that way to me. What they do for a living, as far as I’m concerned, is relatively inconsequential compared to how they live their lives.

If they turn out anything like me, they’ll never accept tradition for the sake of tradition; never choose to go along just to get along; never be solely what someone else expects of them.

But sometimes I’m sad I can’t.

Rarely. But sometimes.

Because that would be easy.

The Purpose

I don’t believe that the purpose of encouraging people to follow Jesus is to get them to be baptized, or to go to church, or to give to church, or to agree to a certain set of postulates and catechisms, or to observe holy rites, or to memorize sacred scripture, or to vote a certain way, or to engage in a lot of churchly activities, or even to be fanatically worshipful and sold-out about going to heaven.

I believe we should encourage people to follow Jesus for the purpose of following Jesus. Finding out more about who He is; wanting more and more to be like Him; becoming a good person, a better person, a godly person, a person who is more and more like Him.

It’s about becoming less selfish and more selfless. Becoming less hateful and more loving. Less bigoted and more accepting. Less adamant and more inquisitive. Less mouthy and more listening. Less graceless and more gracious. Less judgmental and more equitable. Less helpless and more helpful. Less hopeless and more hopeful.

Jesus mentions church a couple of times in all of scripture. He talks about establishing it. He talks about what to do when something goes wrong in it.

The apostle Paul seems to have to address what goes wrong in it when people try to make it about self and their ideas about practice or theology or eschatology or politics or whatever. We get some lessons about those things in the process, but his undertone is the same as Jesus: love each other, and these things will matter less than your love for each other. And I think the other New Testament writers agree.

Synagogue is never prescribed in the Mosaic law. Church is never prescribed in Christianity. It was assumed, because people who have something wonderful in common like to gather and share it. There was a time when building a great edifice of a temple was part of the plan, but Jesus made it clear that time would pass, and it did. He would build a church, an assembly, independent of place and time and wealth and materiality — and it would be in the hearts of people who wanted to follow Him so He could show them who God really is.

Just, but merciful. Righteous, but gracious. Eager to walk with us. Exactly like Micah 6:8 describes Him.

And people who want to be like Him will want to be like Jesus of Nazareth.

So we’ll walk with Him. Learn from Him. Observe Him. Consider Him. Imitate Him. Reflect Him.

We’ll be people on a journey. Not sitting or standing to praise, pray, recite, assent, ritualize, preen, judge, condemn, divide, demand, legislate or pledge nationalistic loyalty.

People walking. On a journey with the One they adore, the Truth they adore about the Way they adore toward the Life they adore. Every single day and night. Getting a little closer to it. Drawing others with them to that candor and grace and hope.

That’s the Purpose.

And all the sitting in the magnificent buildings, and paying the devout and devoted staff, and listening to the inspiring messages, and giving so that staff members can do the hard work of gathering others, and saying all the right words together won’t bring us an inch closer to that Purpose if we’re not walking. Following.

I’m writing this on my blog-that-nobody-reads-anymore so I don’t have to take as much heat for what I believe. But this is what I believe, and I know these are harsh words for dear people I love; people who are sold on a way of doing church that I just can’t see working anymore; people who are so invested in it that their whole lives are about it and perhaps their income and their student debt and their thinking and their speaking and their actions. All church-centered.

But when church becomes your savior, you will always be in the business of trying to save it. Because we’re all human, fallible thinkers, inconsistent doers — constant screw-ups. And we’ll fail. It’s a given.

However, there is a Savior who is a perfect example of how and whom to be.

And He wants to walk with us.

Really, all we have to do is follow.

Censorship and the Why of It

I have been trying to hold my tongue — and typing fingers — on the subject of banned books for some time, but it’s hard to hold both at the same time.

I’ve written books (see also http://wkeithbrenton.com). They’re not great books. They’re not classics. They’re not destined to be. Hopefully they’re fun to read, as they were to write. But I wrote them with young readers in mind; so that the subject matter and language would be suitable for them.

But that being said, not all the characters in them are straight, which the way it is with people in 1973, 1886 or 2014, when these novels take place.

There’s nothing about these stories that grooms young people (or any people) to question who they are, one way or another. They simply recognize that such people exist, have existed, and have as much to contribute to the world as people who are straight/cisgendered.

How would I feel if my books were (should they ever become popular) banned by a school district or library board or state or the nation’s rulemakers?

Just as incensed as I am that books of any kind are being banned.

Because the motivation behind banning is fear and power and a sense of moral/ethical superiority.

“I know better than you,” is the thinking behind banning books. “Therefore you are not qualified and should not be allowed to read, think, and choose for yourself.”

It’s a whole mindset behind an entire political movement right now that’s based on fear and power and a sense of moral/ethical superiority.

“You do not deserve these rights: self-expression through reading/writing books … voting by mail … having an abortion (even if raped or a victim of incest or underage or your life is endangered by the pregnancy) … earning equal pay for equal work or a living wage … having equal opportunity to work … having affordable access to healthcare or life-sustaining pharmaceuticals … entering this country while endangered elsewhere … driving or appearing in public while not-white.

“I know better than you. And I decide.”

Well, pardon my Franglish, but screw that.

“I know better than you and I decide for you” is not the basis of democracy or a republic or any rational, decent, moral, stable system of government.

And it’s certainly not the rationale behind the Constitution of the United States of America.

It’s authoritarianism. It’s fascism. It’s totalitarianism.

Read what you want. Think what you want. Be who you are.

Be free.

What I Want

I hope to be really clear about this.

I want there to be fewer abortions.

I want babies to be born into the arms of mothers who will love, nourish, nurture and WANT them. Into families that are stable; with the resources to support this new life. Where violence and abuse is unknown. A circumstance where the birth will not threaten the life or health of the mother.

And when that can’t happen — or for any other reason — I want it to be the choice of the woman carrying that life to decide what to do. Not a law, not a legislator, not a policeman, not merely a doctor whose career and family income are at stake, not a man who has never had a fetal life inside of him, not any other woman who has nor hasn’t; not a religious leader or a secular counselor or an attorney or a judge who almost certainly has never been in that woman’s exact circumstances (or even if they have), not a court that can blithely rule while ignoring evidence that’s inconvenient to its ideology.

I want it to be HER choice. For all of HER reasons, needs, beliefs, capabilities and desires.

I don’t want the precedent to be set that a life that has never seen sunlight or breathed its first breath somehow automatically takes priority over the life of the woman bearing it inside — a woman who has family, friends, loves, interests, memories, responsibilities, experiences; a woman who is unquestionably and undeniably a person, and has been a person living a life for enough years to carry that life inside.

I don’t want the government (at any level or branch; local, state, federal, legislative, executive, judicial) to assume the authority to decide what happens whenever any health care issue is at hand; who must bear children; who can — or can’t — bear children.

Or who lives. And who dies.

I don’t want government to start insinuating its authority into choices of life and death at all, but it’s already been happening so long in the justice system that I doubt my voice would be heard on that matter.

Because when you let government assume that authority into life and death matters, things can and will go wrong and they are often irreversible.

I want babies to be born that have a good, fair, honest chance at a life worth living — and not under an authoritarian government that removes rights from its citizens and makes their choices for them.

Or decides that a settled-law right they and those before them have had for decades is no longer their right at a national level if their state decides it isn’t. How utterly irresponsible!

I’m not an attorney, don’t pretend to be one, but I understand what precedents are — and a precedent like that opens the door to even more terrifying possibilities. Not just in health care, but in criminal justice and immigration and a host of other issues.

I sure as hell don’t want those possibilities playing out! States’ rights already divided us as a nation and led us into civil war once. That’s not what I want for the next or any generation of United States citizens.

I want babies to be born into a country where the foster care system is fixed and the economy is excellent and good families who want to adopt easily can and every baby has a home.

I want babies to be born into an environment where health care is available to all and no one has to worry about going broke in order to stay alive and healthy.

I want babies to be born and grow up in school systems where ALL the facts are taught in history and science; where they can choose to pray their own prayers or not before a test; where they don’t have to fear for their lives while crawling under a desk or barricading a door when an alarm goes off.

I want babies to be born into a nation where bigotry is gone and race/ethnicity isn’t a problem and people respect others’ heritage, beliefs, backgrounds, life circumstances and the choices that flow from them.

And the right to make them.

To vote them.

To live them.

I hope I’ve made it clear what I want for my kids and my grandkids and everyone else’s.

What do you want for them?

Being Church

I get to this time of year, and I still can’t help but remember Angi’s last two weeks.

How brave she was. How much she endured. How quickly her faculties slipped away. How many people loved her.

Nine years ago.

I don’t want to forget. Ever. Not even if the last of my faculties slip away from me in the closing days of my life.

But I may not get that choice.

I also remember how those who loved us clustered around us — locally and virtually — and hoped/prayed for us and ministered to us. People who shared our faith. People who held other faiths. People who held no faith at all, except perhaps in other people.

They were our collective church.

And, ironically, in recent years that common desire of all those dear folks has contributed to the decline in my faith in church.

I’ve come to the conclusion that meeting as church and observing the sacraments and repeating the good words for an hour or three together one day a week has no value at all if we are not serving in the world the entire 24/7. None.

Yes, oddly enough I still have faith in the God who could have answered thousands of prayers and could have come through for Angi but didn’t. I don’t know His business, or how things work in eternity or what’s ultimately good as compared to what I want now. I know she didn’t suffer as long as she could have. I know that we all die; even His Son. I know that Angi was ready because she lived the life of the One she believed in, and served and loved others, often in selfless ways that humbled me.

It isn’t the Father, Son or Spirit I have trouble believing in.

It’s us folks who go to church, but aren’t the church any more or better than folks who don’t believe, but still live out a faith in others with love and compassion and grace.

So who’s lost and who’s not in this scenario? I’m glad I don’t have to sort it out, because I’m not qualified to judge. Just love.

Just love.

I haven’t been to church in a year now. That’s not an indictment of anyone there; they are among the most wonderful and dearly-loved people in the world. They are my family, fellow believers and siblings in Christ. But I have to recognize that they are not the only ones who are children of God, dearly loved by Him.

I’m just not comfortable being in church and saying and doing the right things there, knowing that I’m not saying and doing and being what I should when I am not there. It’s an indictment of me.

But it’s also a deeply profound questioning of how we do things as church. How our time and resources are spent. Whether worship is for God or us. Whether service is for others or ourselves. Whether we need to spend on big buildings for 1-3 hours a week, or homes for the homeless and meals for the hungry and clothes for the shivering. Whether we need to spend for staff, lighting, projections, music in order to worship … or live out our worthship in service to others and reflecting God’s grace.

I think He’s big enough for me to be able to ask where He was when Angi needed Him.

I also think He has every right to ask me where I was when one of my neighbors needed me.

So, at least for now, I have pretty much lost my religion.

But I still have my faith.

Except, maybe, some of my faith in myself.

My Author Blog

I’m posting more actively at my former portfolio site — and now author blog — http://wkeithbrenton.com.

For the most part, I’m talking about the novel series, The “People of the Water” Cycle, available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle format. The posts on my author blog feed into my Amazon author page via RSS.

This is a young reader-friendly series, but intellectually challenging enough for adults as well.

The three novels, set mostly in Eureka Springs, Arkansas between 1886 and 2014, detail the adventures of a family and friends investigating the secrets of the “Waters of the Stars” and shouldering the burden of what they have learned.

The series is a swirl of history, mystery, solitude, romance, the normal, the paranormal, science, science fiction, fantasy, and suspense.

Feel free to follow the journey here!

I am apostate

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.

Or at least abstained from gathering with the saints.

It has been six months, two weeks and two days since I have been to church.

I have forsaken the assembly.

Well, not totally. I still pray for my church family. I still pray for people who are not in my church family, but who feel like family. Surely they need Your help as much.

You see, that’s where I’m having this problem. I haven’t lost faith in You, Father; nor your Son; nor your Holy Spirit. I’ve lost faith in your church. The Bride of Christ. At least, I’ve lost faith in the way we’ve conducted ourselves.

As if we’re just married one or two hours of one day every week.

But that’s not all, either. I also feel like when we gathered to worship, it’s all about us. The songs we like to sing. The scriptures we like to read. The prayers we like to repeat. The sermons we like to hear. The gifts we like to put in the collection plate. The potlucks and activities we like to participate in. All in the building we like to have around us with the pews we like to sit in.

I’m just not at all sure that’s what You meant by “church” or “assembly.” I’m not convinced You intended for it to happen once or twice a week, every week, with the same rituals played out over and over with the same words spoken and sung and prayed. I’m not positive that the gifts we give should be largely funding a building and its expenses or even a ministry staff. I’m not certain any of that equates to worship.

Because it feels like, if that’s what worship is, we can only do it then and there and when we’re all together, and I don’t find that to be the case in scripture.

And I have to wonder if the time of worship in a specific place at a specific time with everyone gathered was supposed to end when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed just as Jesus of Nazareth, your Son, predicted. That worship was to be constant, and prayer was to be constant, and singing was to be constant in our hearts — whether we’re alone or together in our homes or a borrowed place or on a seashore or a mountainside or a plain or wherever.

I get the picture that our gifts should be blessing the hungry and sick and poor and homeless. That there wouldn’t be as many of them and the destitution wouldn’t be so extreme if we weren’t spending our gifts otherwise. Mostly on ourselves.

I’m just not comfortable with the way we’ve been conducting ourselves as your family and the Bride of your Son.

I don’t preach anymore because it feels that my life should be the sermon seen and heard by those who aren’t familiar with You, or have had an awful experience with people like me who preached You but didn’t live You or love like You or bless others like You do.

I can’t see myself doing it the old way anymore. I’m spending more time, I think, with people who don’t really know You; people who feel like family whom You would love to hear calling you “Father,” and trying to drop hints to them that they’re loved and You’re listening and that You care.

I feel more at home among my fellow sinners, Father; You know I do.

And I don’t even know whether to be sorry about that.

I know that your family still gathering will be fine without me there. They don’t need to see my doubt and hear my lack of faith in church as they love it. I still love them, and I miss them, and I just can’t be there for them the way I used to be any longer. It’s not their fault or your fault or anyone’s fault, as near as I can tell — not even mine.

I’m just different in my doubt now.

I still believe in them, too; and that they will do much good and their hearts will worship You and people will be blessed.

That’s what I needed to confess. I will never forget what your Son said or did or gave for us, nor cease to be grateful for it, nor will I ever give up on church altogether.

I’m just with a different church now. The one that doesn’t really know You yet. The one willing to shake any preconception of the way church is or must be in order for You to be pleased and worshiped.

I want to hang with them, and be less of myself and more like You. Loving. Accepting. Gracious. Forgiving. The nonconformist who fishes for men and shepherds people and shares meals and tries to help heal brokenness.

That’s my confession, Father. I may be totally wrong and off-base, and if so, I’m doubly triply sorry. But I can’t believe in church as church is done right now, and I have to try something else.

Lord, help my unbelief.

Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross

Jesus, keep me near the cross
the one on the wall in my church
or in my study
but not the one planted in the ghetto
where crime is rampant
and poverty is the rule

Keep me near the cross
where the shiny people are
people like me
people my color
people who make about as much as I do
or maybe a little more

Jesus, keep me near the cross
the shiny gold one
superimposed on my country’s flag
that tells me you’re on our side
and that we’re never wrong

Keep me near your cross
where there aren’t any thieves
hanging about nearby
where there’s no guilt or shame
or suffering or pain
or anything that requires my attention
my sympathy
my empathy
my generosity
myself

Jesus, keep me near the cross
that’s just there once a week
and not every day
every hour
every minute
every second
that’s just too much to ask
from the One who gave it all