Near Death Experiences

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes:  “Today I watched an interview with a woman who had a 37-minute near-death experience four years ago during childbirth. Her short experience was that of a pure and good spirit separated from her body. It has given her a new outlook on life. She believes that our spirits are pure, and travel into our bodies at birth and leave again at death, and that all sin and evil are earthly. I found that an interesting take. Have you ever known anyone who has had a near death experience?

I have not had a near-death experience myself or personally known another person who has reported having such an experience. I say it that way intentionally because your question raises an important point for our consideration.

As a pastor, there have been many times over the years when I’ve been asked whether or not I believe in a particular spiritual manifestation. I’ve been asked, for instance, if I believe in ghosts or demons or particular manifestations of the afterlife that have been reported by those who have reported experiencing such things.

The pressure in such moments is for me to say either, “I believe in them” or “I don’t believe in them”. Such a response seems to miss what I consider to be the real point.

I say that because one’s position on such matters is more than simply an intellectual assertion; I believe one’s position is primarily based upon one’s personal experience. If I have a first-hand experience of a supernatural event, then I will say I believe in it. If I don’t have a first-hand experience of the phenomenon, then more than likely I’ll say I don’t.

Of course, there are some who will assert or deny a position because of their need to assert or deny a position based upon their spiritual or philosophical beliefs. In my experience, however, this has not been true of most people. Most people who ask and genuinely curious and searching.

So, when asked about such supernatural experiences, I say, “I have not personally had that experience.” That is my way of doing two things simultaneously: (1) honoring the other person’s experience; and (2) acknowledging my own modern, science-based way of thinking – which tends to be suspicious of supernatural reports.

That approach has helped me stay in conversation with many people whose personal experiences and conclusions are radically different than mind. It also keeps me humble as I admit that at any given moment my thoughts and experiences are limited. It challenges me to remain open to ideas and experiences to which I might be skeptical today.

So how about you? What does Stevie’s question raise for you?

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Letting Our Hair Down with God

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes: “Monday I had a time of doubt and anger and loss of faith. Please tell me you think God “gets” that. Thanks, Craig.”


How do I “know”?

Two reasons.  The first is biblical.  The second is personal.  Let’s start with the biblical.

If you ever wonder if your current thoughts or feelings are okay, just start flipping through the book of Psalms.  There, you will find virtually every human emotion expressed to God.  Feelings of sadness, lament, joy, anger, and revenge.

One would have to look no further than Psalm 137:9 to see this in action.  In Psalm 137, the psalmist laments his people’s time in exile.  The psalmist concludes the chapter with these words: “A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!”

If God can not only receive those horrifically disturbing and violent words from the psalmist, God can surely handle whatever spiritual and emotional stuff we could ever throw God’s way!

Now on to the second reason: the personal.

When I think in human terms, I know that the most important relationships in my life are the ones in which I can be 100% real.  Relationships where I can communicate the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Whenever I’m in a relationship and feel that I must sensor myself, that’s a good indicator that the relationship isn’t that strong.

If that logic holds in our relationships with other human beings, I believe that principle translates into our relationship with God.  If we try to pretend everything is good when it’s not (i.e. in our prayer life, our devotional time, or our time of worship and celebration), we aren’t fooling anyone.  Certainly not God!

So when we can take a risk and poor out our true feelings – no matter how “bad” they may seem – I believe that very act ironically draws us closer into our relationship with/connection to God.

So what about you?  What does Stevie’s question raise for you?

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Our Greatest Fear

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes: “I believe that fear is the most paralyzingly of the emotions. What do you think is the biggest fear among people, and how does it affect them?”

There are certainly many things that people fear.  Surveys show that one of the greatest fears many people have is public speaking.  Others fear death.  Still others fear things that are more specific – say clowns or birds (says this pastor who fears clowns and birds).

There is one fear that I have seen play out more than any other over the years, however: the fear of being left out.

This fear gets played out in many different areas.

Many political campaigns are built upon this fear.  They tell individuals, “If so-and-so is elected [or such-and-such party wins the majority], there won’t be room for people like you!”  Voters hear that message and respond – casting millions of votes and donating millions of dollars in a desperate attempt not to get left behind.

Individuals often present social issues in ways that prey upon this fear.  Some stoke dislike of immigrants by telling folks, “Keep them out of the country.  Otherwise, they will sneak in and take your jobs!”  This fear is often used to stoke hatred of religious minorities as well.  Some have suggested that if Muslims gain power in the country they will advocate for the institution of sharia law – thereby threatening Judeo-Christian ways of being.  And who can forget the common claim that the legalization of gay marriage would be a threat to the institution of marriage itself!

Sadly, it’s not just in the political or social realms where the fear of being left out rages its ugly head.  The same fear often takes hold of churches as well.  In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, for instance, a battle raged between traditionalists (who advocated for the use of traditional, male pronouns to refer to God)  and proponents of inclusive language (who advocated for either gender neutral or feminine pronouns in referring to God).  Individuals would often get VERY angry, VERY fast if they either heard (or failed to hear) a particular word spoken worship that suggested the worship leaders were on “the other side.”

So how does this fear affect individuals?

My experience has shown this fear causes people to go to great lengths to try to exclude those they perceive as a threat.

They do this in many ways.  When it comes to social/political issues like immigration or gay marriage, individuals try to pass laws that keep certain people out (or keep particular groups in their place).  Churches have their own way of acting out their fears.  A church might call a pastor – or elect leadership – that agrees with their take on things.  The assumption, then, is that it is the spiritual leaders’ job to keep out THOSE who are different.

Before I leave your question, I would like to add a third dimension to this issue: how can we help people overcome this fear and act in ways that are motivated by love – NOT fear.

Here’s where I believe my denomination – The United Church of Christ – provides a helpful model for the world.  Unlike most Christian communities that are creedal (meaning one particular theological camp has won and established their view as the “right,” or “orthodox”, position), The United Church of Christ is a non-creedal community.  This means folks in our churches are not thrown into theological camps marked “winner” or “loser.”  Every person has the opportunity to find and claim their belief.  They are then expected to give others the same space.

By living in such radically inclusive theological communities, we help individuals learn to let go of their fear of being pushed out and embrace a graciousness and generosity to others.

Those are a few of the ideas Stevie’s question sparked for me.  What about you?  What fear do you think is the greatest – and how does it affect the lives of others?

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Today’s question comes from Beverly.  She writes: “I just read this article ( about the ways in which evangelical churches have tried to address racism in their theology, and how those attempts often fall short of creating systemic change by focusing too much on individual relationships, with God and with people of color. It struck me that this analysis could apply well to non-evangelical churches also, and certainly to atheist groups (if you substitute moral philosophy for theology).  What do you think of this analysis, and what do you do in your own congregation to cultivate a theology that does not privilege whiteness or coddle white fragility?”

There is so much here to chew on.  Let me throw out a few initial thoughts and then invite you into this timely question.

One of the profound differences between Evangelical and Progressive Christian communities has to do with a difference in emphasis.  As the author of the article correctly noted, Evangelical Christianity tends to emphasize the individual (and her or his PERSONAL salvation) above all else.  That’s why in their encounters with others, they often lead with a question like, “Do YOU know Jesus as YOUR personal Lord and Savior.”

Progressive Christianity, on the other hand, tends to focus its attention on systems (social justice) and groups (we are ALL God’s children) – and often shies away from talking about things of a personal nature.  One way to make some Progressive Christians uncomfortable is to ask them to talk about their personal relationship with, or experience of, God.  They would much rather talk about theological ideas or systemic issues than personal faith matters.

The challenge for us Christians, then, is to figure out how we can bring both aspects – the personal AND the systemic – together in order to address important matters today.

One of the challenges I’ve found in trying to get Progressive Christian community to explore issues like racism is that many Progressive individuals want to talk about what others (i.e. members of the “other political party, for instance) are doing that are terrible.  If you try to move the magnifying glass away from other groups (of which the individual is NOT a part) onto either groups with which they identify (or worse yet, themselves!) they get extremely nervous.  I suppose that’s because it’s much easier to look at others’ brokenness (dare I say “sin”) and not our own.

So how do I try to do that with my own congregation?

There are a couple ways: both of which are admittedly subversive.

First, instead of talking about the big political concepts like “immigration reform” or “white privilege”, I speak in very personal terms.  When it comes to talk about matters of white privilege, for instance, I like to start by talking a lot about assumptions we make.

I like to get people sharing stories about times when they had a difficult experience with another because they assumed the other person had a similar set of experiences or attitudes when it turned out they didn’t.  Then I gently try to start opening their eyes to the fact that there are some who assume everyone has shared their experiences and attitudes that have more power than other – and get to inflict (and sometimes legislate) their assumption on others.  Other people don’t have the luxury.

This gets at perhaps one of my most controversial assumptions I make in my life and ministry: I don’t believe that most people are evil and mean to force others to live and think like they do.  Instead, I believe that many are simply naïve.  I believe many are in fact good-hearted; they just need to be challenged to understand that not everyone sees things the same way they do because of their different backgrounds.

Once they come to realize that, I’ve found that even some of the most rigid folks I’ve encountered can be reached.

This leads me to a second way I work with people.  You’ll notice that I didn’t use the phrase “white privilege” a lot in my words above.  There is a reason for that.

From my perspective, the greatest challenge we face is getting individuals to realize two things: (1) the privilege they enjoy from their social location; and (2) the ways that privilege can blind them to the plight of others.

No matter what our social location is, there is a part of our self that is privileged over others.  Those who are of European descent, for instance, have privilege over Latinos or African-Americans in our society.  Those who are male have privilege over those who are female.  Those who are heterosexual have privilege over those who are bisexual or homosexual.  Those whose gender identity was consistent with the physical traits they were born with are privileged over those whose gender identity is different.

So why, then, am I hesitant to use a qualifier – like “white” – before talking about privilege?

I’m hesitant because when I use a qualifier, it seriously affects – and in many cases, minimizes – the reach of the conversation I am trying to have.  If I talk about “white privilege”, for instance, it is clear that I am addressing the system injustices that are perpetuated against people of color by those of European descent.

As a consequence, I’ve noticed a couple of things happen.  First, people hear the qualifier and decide what position to take in the conversation – before the conversation has even happened!  They decide either I identify with the qualifier and so therefore I must defend myself – and those like me – from the charge that we are bad people; or they decide that I don’t identify with the qualifier and decide I’m one of the good people.

That kind of posturing makes it incredibly difficult to engage people on the deepest levels.

Another reason I tend not to use qualifiers before the word “privilege” is because I believe that all of us enjoy privilege on some level.  Our challenge is to be honest and “own” our privilege in some areas – and what might be perceived of as our powerlessness in other areas.

In other words, I believe very strongly in the interconnectedness of oppression.  When it comes to matters of privilege of any type, I don’t want people to walk away from our conversation thinking, “I’m in no way a part of the problem.”

I want to find creative ways to get individuals to understand that the problems we face all boil down to privileging – which is based on the assumption that there is a right and wrong way to be.  Those who are “right” deserve more power and privilege than those who are “wrong”.

As a pastor, my job is to constantly take on the matter of privilege by declaring God loves us all equally.  And our job (as Christians, in my call) is to respond to that reality and love each other equally in word and deed.  Therefore, we are called to challenge and confront expressions of all privilege wherever we find them: in others, and in ourselves.

So what about you?

What matters does Beverly’s question – and/or the article she shared – raise for you?

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I do. Or do I?

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes: “Marriage is one of the most holy and sacred of sacraments. What do you want to know about a couple before you officiate at a wedding?”

Marriage is truly one of the most holy and sacred commitments two individuals can enter into with one another.  While it may not be a sacrament for Protestants – as it is for our Catholic sisters and brothers – we treat it with the ultimate respect.

So, what do I want to know about a couple before I officiate at their wedding?

There are two things.  Let me take a moment and back into the first thing.

In the congregationalist tradition in which I serve, one of the most important theological concepts is that of covenant (or promise).  Our lives are built around those series of sacred promises we make that range from our baptisms to our marriages.  Those promises involve three parties: ourselves, our Creator, and those with whom we live.

One of the most important covenants we enter into is marriage.  And while many think the promises which are made involve just the two individuals getting married, I believe they involve far more.  A Christian marriage ceremony involves promises the individuals make to God, to one another, and to their loved ones.  That’s why the wedding ceremonies in the tradition in which I serve often begin with a statement by the couple’s loved ones promising their support of the union.

With this said, then, the first thing I want to know is if the two individuals understand that web of promises.  Do they appreciate, for instance, that by inviting a spiritual leader into their ceremony, they are intentionally bringing God into the midst of their marriage?  Do they understand the depth of the promises they make to their spouse?  Do they understand the ways in which their marriage will affect the lives of their loved ones as well?  Before I officiate at a wedding, I want to make sure the answer to all those questions is, “Yes!”

The second thing I want them to understand is the effort that crafting a successful marriage takes.  In order to demonstrate that understanding, I ask the couple to do three things.

First, I ask them to complete a Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory.  The purpose of the inventory is to ensure that each member of the couple understands both her/himself and her/his partner.  A person can’t effectively work to meet a loved one’s needs if a person doesn’t understand what those needs are.

Second, I ask them to complete The Five Language of Love assessment.  This test helps each partner understand the way she/he (and her/his partner) communicates thir love.  Some individuals, for instance, communicate love best by giving gifts; others communicate love by extending quality time; others use words of affirmation; others use acts of service to communicate affection; others use physical touch.  It’s crucial that each partner understands what her/his preferred way of communicating love is (as well as her/his partner’s).

Third, I spend time exploring what’s called Family Systems Theory with the members of the couple.  What this means (in the simplest terms possible) is that most of us think that the dynamics we saw in the household in which we were raised were “normal”.  Consequently, we assumed every family should operate that way.  If we grew up in a household where our father handled the money, for instance, and our mother did the bulk of the domestic chores; then we assume that’s the way things will operate in our household.  That approach works fine when partners grew up in households with similar dynamics at play.  If the partners grew up in radically different households, then real problems can arise.

If couples are willing to hang in there and do some of this basic relationship work in the pre-marital counseling sessions, then I am happy to officiate – because it shows me they are willing to be introspective and do the important work needed to make their marriage work.  If they are not willing to do this work, then I know I’m not the right officiant for them.

Those are the two things I need to know before I do a wedding.  So what issues does Stevie’s question raise for you?

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Organized Religion? Who Needs It?!

Today’s question comes from Yvette. She wrote these words after watching a loved one be attacked for supporting transgender persons in a posting on social media.

“I do not know if I have a question or just a statement on how religion makes me HATE religion. Of course, social media does NOT help the situation, it just pushes me farther away from religion and those who practice organized religion. I read stories of these overzealous who preach the Bible (which was written by man in his own words to gain power and control). They are stories to teach a lesson, and – face it – control others whom are different. They call themselves Christian, but they are the farthest from what Christ was. What Jesus was. If he set foot in their church. Jesus would hang out with the outcast. He wanted nothing to do with organized religion, and when a Pastor goes on social media preaching hate and exclusion because of one thing or another– and my friends back this preacher up, I have to wonder what kind of cool aid my friends have been drinking. Maybe my question is, why after so many years of this fear and control, does it still go on?”

There are many things to address in your post. Let me chew on just a couple of them, and then invite others into the conversation as well.

In terms of your comment about the Bible, there are different views of what the Bible is in Christian community. Some Christians relate to it as if it were full of literal, inerrant words given directly by God. Other Christians relate to it as if the Bible contains words that were stimulated by God – but communicated through human beings in ways that reflect their social and historical context. Most Christians would agree, however, that the Bible has meaning – and provides us with critical lessons about how we can conduct our lives.

Unfortunately, the Bible is much like a knife. A knife can be used to do tremendous good (i.e. prepare a meal or cut a cord that binds you); or a knife can be sued to do tremendous harm (i.e. stab or kill someone). Likewise, the Bible can be used in radically different ways. It can be used primarily as a tool to declare God’s love and grace; or it can be used primarily as a tool to judge and condemn. The question each person must ask her or himself is, “How shall I use it?”

This takes me to a second point you raise about those who call themselves Christian but don’t conduct themselves in ways that reflect the love and teachings of Jesus. It reminds me of the old saying, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

Anyone can claim to be a follower of Jesus (or put on her or his lipstick by spouting isolated verses from the Bible). Eventually, however, their true nature (their piggy-ness in the form of their self-righteousness and conceit) will shine through.

So how do you know if someone is truly following in the ways of Jesus?

Jesus gave me a good sense of that in the seventh chapter of Matthew when he warned individuals about the dangers of false prophets when he said, “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:20 – Common English Bible).

So when folks claim to be a follower of Jesus, I look at the fruits of their lives. Are they spreading love, grace, and peace; or are they spreading hatred and dissension? That tells me who – or what – they are following.

One thing I would challenge from your comments was your statement that Jesus wanted nothing to do with organized religion. Actually, Jesus was involved in organized religion. He was an observant Jew and regularly participated in the spiritual life of his tradition. He did, however, have a passion for confronting those that tried to portray the tradition in ways that were not consistent with his understanding of what the tradition was all about. In other words, Jesus was a reformer. Someone who cared enough about organized religion to call it to be its best self. That’s why I – as a follower of Jesus – try to follow his example and stay involved in organized religion and challenge it when it strays from its mission.

Which takes me to both the beginning and ending of your post. Your frustration about how some preachers – and their followers – say incredibly hateful things about those who are different from them (most recently, about transgender people).

Sadly, some followers of Jesus have become like those Jesus challenged. They have become self-righteous literalists who are more concerned about the perception of being right than living in right relationship with God and with neighbor.

While it’s easy to meet their rigidity and intolerance with rigidity and intolerance of our own, I don’t think that accomplishes anything.
What does move things forward?

Claiming the essence of our faith.

One of my favorite summaries of the nature of the Christian faith is found in The Beatitudes. Jesus closes the Beatitudes with these powerful words: “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12 – Common English Bible).

When I have engaged some followers of Jesus who spew verbal violence and hatred in debates over topics ranging from homosexuality and gender identity issues to gun control to reproductive rights, I have often been dismissed by my opponents as not being a “real” Christian – because I don’t agree with them on their positions.

Instead of being filled with anger and judgment, I try to allow my heart to be filled with joy and gladness – at having the opportunity to witness to another understanding of who Jesus was and what he stood for. That is one of my greatest joys in life!

So what about you? What is raised within you by Yvette’s comments.

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What’s On Your Mind?

It’s been awhile since someone has sent in a question. Just wondering what’s on your mind these days?

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