The Voices of the Past Are Calling Out to Us

The Voices of the Past Are Calling Out to Us

OR: An Ode to White Christians
by Thom Stark

Every Sunday you go to church and you participate in a celebration of an unjust execution that took place 2,000 years ago, and you confess your sins and you consider your guilt. And you celebrate an exodus from 400 years of slavery that took place 4,000 years ago. And you listen to stories about sins committed by the Patriarchs and Israel and the Prophets and the Kings and the Apostles and the Early Church, and their sins are identified with your sins, and you live in their sins and you receive not acquittal but forgiveness and reconciliation. And you are taught that you are a sinner saved by grace. That you are guilty, and share in and identify with the guilt of your forebears, while walking in forgiveness. Every week you are confronted with your guilt and you participate in the pattern of transformation and reconciliation.

And then you leave church and you scream at black people for remembering their past and tell them to live in the present, and you deny that you are guilty, and refuse to be ashamed, and refuse to confess the sins of your forebears as sins in which you share, and you condemn those who see the past in the present, and those who remind you of your condition. You deny your guilt and refuse to look within yourself and around yourself. In doing so, you cut yourself off from grace, from reconciliation. You blaspheme the Spirit through whom you claim to participate in a suffering most ancient. You refuse to suffer now with those who suffer. You claim victimhood for yourself and never hold yourself accountable for anything but the most personal and banal of sins. Your religion is purely one of self-interest—you see sin and forgiveness as conditions of the individual. Heaven is a place prepared for you. Jesus belongs to you and you to him. Yours is a religion of cheap romance, devoid of justice.

You don’t know Jesus. If you did you would stop defending yourself and your own kind. You would stop pledging allegiance to a national flag and putting your hand on your heart for a national battle hymn. You would worship God alone and demonstrate your allegiance to God’s reign by eating with and listening to those you hate and fear. You would know that the past has always lived in the present and always will, and that we must remember the sins of our forebears in continual acts of confession, contrition, and reconciliation. You would understand that we are not autonomous creatures; we are the products of yesterday and the fashioners of tomorrow. When we participate in Eucharist, we join with all our ancestors and we identify with all their sins, and together we reenact the suffering of Jesus of Nazareth, who was publicly executed in the manner of thieves, rebels, and runaway slaves. If the past was not in our present, Christ and a cloud of witnesses would not be with us.

And if the past is not in our present, our ancestors’ sins remain unresolved. We have silenced again with lashes the voice of the slave who spoke his mind. We have murdered again the mother who tried to escape to find her son. If they are not alive among us now, we silence them all over again. The voices of the past are calling out to us, with Christ among them. We have access to them only through a living tradition. The living memory of the black and native communities connects us to this past. In order to confess our sins at Eucharist, in order to receive grace, we must hear the voices of the past speaking in the present. Habitually. Ritually. The people with whom you now have enmity are your only way to the table of thanksgiving. If you’re not sharing that table with them, you’re not at the table of the Lord.

I think you will always be blind and your heart will always be hardened to the truth.

You’ve had too many chances already.

Finding Life in the UCC

Finding Life in the UCC

So it’s been a year since I’ve posted! Whew! Time for an update. In the past year I’ve moved my ministerial credentials from the Christian Reformed Church in North America to the United Church of Christ. It’s been a healthy and hopeful move, and I wanted to share a bit of that with you. I am posting here the “Theological Paper” that I had to write as part of my transition to the UCC. In the past year I’ve also been a part of starting a new UCC community in Holland, MI: Holland UCC. You can read more about that at It’s a long paper, but I thought you might enjoy reading about some of my spiritual journey and theological evolution—which of course is ongoing! Here’s the paper (including endnotes!):

Along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in small fishing towns in the first century of the common era, these simple words rang out: “Come, follow me.” Words that echo through the centuries. Words that evoke something within us: a longing to go, to participate in something large and meaningful, to hear the voice of God in our lives, and respond. This simple beginning for Jesus and his disciples reminds us that the spiritual life is above all a journey. My own journey of faith started early, as a child raised in a loving, Christian home. I was taught the tenets of the Reformed faith from a young age, as expressed in the Christian Reformed Church. This was a wonderful foundation for my faith journey and I am grateful for it. Yet my journey has taken me beyond the inherently narrow confines of this confessional tradition with largely conservative values. A confessional tradition like the CRC requires consent for all pastors and office bearers to uphold, defend and be governed by certain Reformation-era doctrinal formulations.[1] My journey, some of which we’ll discuss in this paper, has led me to a place where such consent is no longer possible, and further, seems unnecessary. This has led me to the United Church of Christ, where there is “no rigid formulation of doctrine or attachment to creeds or structures” and the “overarching creed is love.”[2] Those words are incredibly welcoming to someone coming from a tradition with quite rigid formulations, and incredibly strong attachment to its confessional identity. The “What We Believe” section of the UCC website notes that “In the UCC, members, congregations and structures have the breathing room to explore and to hear … for after all, God is still speaking, …”[3] I find this a healthy and hopeful statement, because it creates space for real journeys by real people seeking to hear that ancient and simple invitation of Jesus. It opens to the real possibility of the Spirit at work in new ways in our lives and world today. Continue Reading..

The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

The Sweet Kingdom of Jesus

“Listen to what your heart is telling you.”

I had the delightful experience of attending a middle school play recently: Cinderella and the Candy Kingdom. It’s the usual Cinderella story, but set in a world of chocolate, sugar and sweets. Plenty of puns made it a very fun show: the wicked stepsisters of Cinderella were named Kit and Kat. The prince of the kingdom was named Reese, who rarely appeared without his squire, Hershey.

While Hershey won the audience with his consistent jokes and eager banter, it was Prince Reese who brought home the underlying meaning of the play. In the world of the Candy Kingdom, everyone loves sweets: first dessert, second dessert, third dessert. Whip cream and chocolate syrup on everything. You get the idea. Yet the young prince has a secret: he doesn’t like sweets. In other words, he’s not like everyone else. He doesn’t belong. Not only that, he’s in line for the throne, but isn’t the “right kind of prince.” Continue Reading..

Why Does the Church Insist That People Stop Learning?

Why Does the Church Insist That People Stop Learning?

AS A PARENT, it is a particular delight when I see one of my kids reading. I love to see when they become immersed into a story, or discover something they didn’t know before as they pore over a book. It is a thrill to watch their imaginations and worlds expand. Which makes it hard to imagine a parent saying to a child: “Stop reading! You’ve learned enough already. You’ve learned all you need to know.” Yet in my experience in the church, I’ve been told exactly that. And I know my experience isn’t an isolated one. Continue Reading..

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

The Bible as Many, the Bible as One

In a recent conversation about the Bible, I referred to it as “a collection of texts known as the Bible.” Someone responded:

In the collection known as the Bible?? I’m sorry, my friend, but you have gone off the deep end…

This response was a bit of a surprise. The fact that the Bible is comprised of various books by various authors is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a single religion class in high school or college, or to anyone who has actually opened a Bible. As a young child, I was required to memorize “the books of the Bible.” Continue Reading..

The Last Week Tonight: What Will It Take?

The Last Week Tonight: What Will It Take?

Holy Week reflections by Chris Lubbers

Have you ever repeatedly uttered a word until it just became a meaningless sound? Try it for one minute. Love, love, love, love, love, love, … At most, you’re left with a familiar, comforting noise. We often fail to notice what is familiar. The fish don’t see the water or understand its significance–if that expression isn’t itself too familiar to make the point.

Continue Reading..

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Unacceptable: What it’s like to be a Liberal Christian in a Sea of Conservativism

Guest post by David Schell.

NO_LEFT_TURN_signPeople think I moved left because I wanted to compromise with the world, because I wanted to fit in better.

People think I moved left because I was deceived by the devil.

People think I moved left because I’ve been reading the Bible without the help of the Holy Spirit.

People think I moved left because I just stopped reading the Bible.

Continue Reading..

A Palm Sunday Prayer for Peace


Holy Week begins this Sunday. It is a familiar week, beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. But maybe so familiar that we still aren’t quite hearing the full story.

Marcus Borg reminds us that there was not one, but two processions entering Jerusalem that year. Two very different processions. “They proclaimed two very different and contrasting visions of how this world can and should be: the kingdom of God versus the kingdoms, the powers, of this world. The former is about justice and the end of violence. The latter are about domination and exploitation. On Friday, the rulers of this world kill Jesus. On Easter, God says “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers that executed him.

Thus Palm Sunday announces the central conflict of Holy Week. The conflict persists. That conflict continues wherever injustice and violence abound. Holy Week is not about less than that.”

In the spirit of the One who came in peace, and in the wake of this week’s continued violence in our world, a prayer for peace. May it bless you this week.

reat God, who has told us
“Vengeance is mine,”
save us from ourselves,
save us from the vengeance in our hearts
and the acid in our souls.
Save us from our desire to hurt as we have been hurt,
to punish as we have been punished,
to terrorize as we have been terrorized.
Give us the strength it takes
to listen rather than to judge,
to trust rather than to fear,
to try again and again
to make peace even when peace eludes us.
We ask, O God, for the grace
to be our best selves.
We ask for the vision
to be builders of the human community
rather than its destroyers.
We ask for the humility as a people
to understand the fears and hopes of other peoples.
We ask for the love it takes
to bequeath to the children of the world to come
more than the failures of our own making.
We ask for the heart it takes
to care for all the peoples
of Afghanistan and Iraq, of Palestine and Israel
as well as for ourselves.
Give us the depth of soul, O God,
to constrain our might,
to resist the temptations of power
to refuse to attack the attackable,
to understand
that vengeance begets violence,
and to bring peace–not war–wherever we go.
For You, O God, have been merciful to us.
For You, O God, have been patient with us.
For You, O God, have been gracious to us.
And so may we be merciful
and patient
and gracious
and trusting
with these others whom you also love.
This we ask through Jesus,
the one without vengeance in his heart.
This we ask forever and ever. Amen
A Prayer for World Peace,
by Sister Joan Chittister, of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie

The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth*


What is the more important: a) seeking and speaking the truth; or b) toeing the party line?

A revealing, but unsurprising post yesterday from Fred Clark at Slacktivist about the challenge of working in an evangelical institutional setting. He shares an excerpt from Jonathan Dudley’s  book Broken Words, where he’s describing his time at Calvin College:

In my freshman biology class, I sat riveted as the professor explained why scientists believe in evolution (I had never learned about the subject in high school). The summer after my first year, I pored over a summer-school psychology book by an evangelical professor, who argued (shockingly, to me) that gay people don’t choose their orientation and cannot readily change. Over the course of my second year in college, I learned why scientists think there is an environmental crisis. And during my last year of college, a bioethics professor argued against popular evangelical thought on abortion. I was surprised to find out during an office visit that many other evangelical scholars shared his view, though not surprised when he said they would rather not speak up about it due to the avalanche of protests it would generate from college donors. …

My bioethics professor reinforced a conclusion I had drawn from my undergraduate and seminary years: There is a significant gap between the opinions that dominate the popular evangelical culture (which is the only part of evangelicalism with political muscle) and the opinions that prevail among leading evangelical scholars.

Clark goes on to note: “Most evangelical college graduates have a story like the one Dudley tells.” I wonder if any of you can relate?

Clark notes the shock one receives as an underclassman hearing these new ideas, and then later, in a private setting, hearing a professor explain “what is and is not allowed to be said and how it differs from what is and is not true.” I’ve written before on how Calvin College has found itself in a quandary of this sort.

>>Related post: If science conflicts with theology, what should give way?

Unreal. And the truth. I know this from experience at Calvin Seminary as well. There’s the official party line. Then there are other truths that must be hidden, because it flies in the face of the institution’s self-imposed limit on truth. It always strikes me as ironic that Christians are all about “seeking truth,” but then when the truth turns out to be slightly different than what our historic theological heroes put down to paper 500 years ago, suddenly we have to be mum about it. It makes no sense, really, and it is a disservice to students, and in a seminary setting, a disservice to future pastors – and by extension – to their congregations.

I remember hearing a pastor at a Pub Theology gathering in Michigan note: “Why are we so afraid of sharing biblical and theological scholarship with our congregations that has been accepted for over fifty years already?” She lamented that too often clergy serves as filters for what congregants can or cannot “handle,” and that when she did share such research and knowledge, parishioners were hungry for it! I think sometimes the mentality is to treat our congregants as children who aren’t “ready to hear” that some of their cherished beliefs or understandings actually might not line up with how things really are. Kind of like we don’t tell our kids the reality about Santa until they’re old enough to handle it. Apparently some congregants are never meant to grow up.

I have heard several pastors note that they are encouraging their congregations not to read their denominational monthly magazine because the articles are stretching the “accepted notions” on homosexuality, the historicity of Genesis and other topics. I think the more we earnestly wrestle with these things the better, even if there are no simple solutions. Some colleagues have even argued that because they’ve signed a statement of belief they don’t have to engage with certain ideas that interpret the Bible through other lenses. They literally use a “statement of truth” to protect themselves from the truth. It’s incredulous, really. The worst thing is to stick our heads in the sand, especially as professors, pastors and other leaders, and to keep trumpeting perspectives that are either out of date, not informed, or perpetuate common misperceptions. I’m grateful there are some willing to do otherwise, despite the obstacles thrown their way.

In the same column, Fred Clark cites Peter Enns, who describes the desperation he’s heard from many, many academic colleagues in evangelical institutions:

I had the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity. His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation. His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not.

I wish these stories could be told, but without the names attached, they are worthless. I wish I had kept a list, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have done anyone much good. I couldn’t have used it. Good people would lose their jobs.

Ugh. And Clark notes that it’s not limited to academia: “I’ve heard similar stories from clergy, journalists, musicians, missionaries and aid workers — all wrestling with the conflict between what they know to be right and “institutional expectations” shaped by the threat of an “avalanche of protests” from donors with political muscle. Not healthy. Not good.”

I concur. You?

>>Related Post: Toes, Lines and Bad Religion