Kenneth Copeland lives in a $6.3 million dollar mansion. When he flies, he does so in one of a fleet of 5 multi-million dollar private jets. According to beliefnet.com, his net worth is $760 million (https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/8-richest-pastors-in-america.aspx). He is also one of the most visible faces of a religion that purportedly follows a man who famously spent his life among and as one of the poor. For the past several days, the internet has been having a field day with a widely circulated video showing Copeland being interviewed by Lisa Guerrero, a reporter for news magazine Inside Edition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LtF34MrsfI). In the video, Copeland is not only incapable of forming a complete sentence, or of making the least bit of sense, he looks like a Hollywood casting agent’s dream candidate for the role of Demon in a low-budget thriller.
Why does the church put up with these guys? Small wonder young people are avoiding the church when its most public figures are loons like Copeland, television slick-talkers like Benny Hinn, and bigoted fanatics like the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. How can anyone take Christianity seriously when prominent Evangelical pastors tout Trump as if he were the natural successor to Jesus Christ?
Ever since Ronald Reagan threw open the doors of government to his religious fundamentalist buddies, the face of Christianity has been not Jesus teaching the Beatitudes on the mount (Mt 5:3-11), but a parade of well-dressed and undeniably charismatic superstar preachers. It’s time for churches to speak up, and stop letting these greedy bigmouths control the dialogue. We need some new faces, and we need them fast.
I was baptized, raised, and confirmed in the United Methodist Church. I spent a good deal of time as a child attending Sunday school, church services, vacation Bible school (now usually called by its hip initialism “VBS”), youth group, choir practice, and an assortment of church family nights, potlucks, caroling, etc. In college, I had a minor in religious studies. My present day job is as a worship arts coordinator in an RCA (Reformed Church of America) congregation. All of which to is to say the church has had a big role in my life.
So why is it that I still have so many doubts about not only the small niggling Biblical oddities and contradictions, but even about the most foundational aspects of faith? One thing I have learned for sure is that faith cannot be forced. I’ve tried and failed. It feels phony. It makes my brain hurt. My good friend Craig Ferguson (not the late night TV host but pastor of River of Life Church, an outreach of the UMC congregation in which I grew up) once told me he enjoys “living in the question.” It’s not a satisfactory answer, but I like it nonetheless. It implies that there is more to explore. It tells me doubt is not wrong, but rather an indicator that there is a reason to continue seeking.
I am a Type A personality. I like answers. Vagueness bothers me. Living in the question makes me uncomfortable. My ongoing effort to find answers leads me to dig deeper. It takes me into dusty corners, down hidden hallways, and often humbles me by forcing me to change my mind. By embracing doubt, my faith becomes fuller. Sometimes I feel afraid and discouraged. Then I remember that neither Job nor Jeremiah received satisfactory answers to their questions either. I’m in good company.
I have been sick all this past week, and am only now beginning to feel like I am truly on the road to recovery. When one is sick, the only thing that matters is oneself, and trying to whip that self back into a healthy state. Ironically, I was just thinking along these lines when I picked up a back issue of Christian Century and began reading an article by William Brosend on keeping the self out of one’s preaching. (“Enough about me,” February 23, 2010).
Self-centeredness is a hard habit to break. I have spent much of my life attempting a career as a professional musician, and it is an occupation very given to the self. Lots of time spent practicing alone. Many auditions trying to prove one’s superiority over the competition. Scores if stage appearances basically screaming, “Look at me!” I have spent a lot of time focused on myself.
And yes, I am aware that this post is wildly guilty of shining the spotlight on myself.
Doing things with and for other people is not always easy. The rewards can be slow in coming. It can be easy to get frustrated and cry, “I’d be better off just doing this myself!”
But as difficult as it can be working with and for other people, it can be even more difficult working with and for God, especially if one has nagging doubts about the very existence of God. A lifelong habit of self-centeredness can make acknowledging God feel wildly out of character. It’s a struggle. Brosend writes, “If you saw someone that you think the congregation would like to know about, tell them about that person and get yourself out of the way.” Maybe I just need to practice getting out of my own way.
For a religion class in college, I wrote a “Confessions” in the tradition of those by Augustine, Rousseau, and many others. In my Confessions, among other things, I discussed nagging doubts about my intended career as a musician. With so many big problems in the world, setting my sights on a life of music seemed frivolous.
These days, as I spend my days working in a church and devote much of my time outside of work to academic pursuits, I face similar doubts. With so many big problems in the world, is setting my sights on spirituality and books just another frivolous avoidance of my larger responsibilities?
Blog Post for 1-6-2019
My mom has played organ in church for as long as I’ve existed. Her mom before her played organ for most of her life. So it was inevitable that I would be dragged along to church every Sunday, and again every Wednesday for choir rehearsal, which involved both of my parents. And what did I think of this? I hated it! On Wednesday evenings, I occupied myself playing with the rather anemic selection of toys in the church nursery, usually alone. On Sunday mornings, Sunday school found me in with a bunch of kids who all went to a different school than I did, so I was again left feeling alone. What’s worse, once I began taking an active interest in the current music scene, the Sunday morning service forced me to miss Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” on the radio! That was unforgivable.
In high school, I began dating a girl who went to a different church, and by this time I was allowed to make a few of my own choices, so I abandoned the church of my childhood, and even switched from Methodist to Baptist! (In my dad’s eyes, THIS was unforgivable!)
When I left home for college, something happened to me that happens to a lot of kids when they first leave home: I stopped going to church altogether. And I stayed stopped for a good long time. It wasn’t until I started playing piano for a church choir that I began once again regularly attending Sunday morning services. It’s nice. I enjoy going now. Outspoken atheist Kurt Vonnegut used to routinely recommend going to church if for no other reason than to be part of a community.
The community aspect is certainly part of church’s appeal, but I think an even bigger factor is being part of a purpose. After all, a church isn’t just a group of people with nothing in common thrown together randomly. I can get that in a restaurant, at a concert, or on a subway car. The group of people in a church have a common purpose. I don’t pretend to agree with everything my pastor says, or with every line of every creed church hierarchy has handed down. I have too many doubts, questions, and concerns to blindly swallow every morsel of church dogma. But I respect the sense of purpose. I am happy to be part of something bigger than myself. I am not alone.
Before I begin, it’s only fair to say a little something about myself, so you know with whom you are dealing when reading these posts. I am primarily a musician, though to call myself a professional in that field would be stretching it as my music career, although a few decades old by this time, is still in its infancy. My main performance outlet is church, where I accompany the choir, and also play in the praise band. I also serve as the church’s worship arts coordinator, which is a part-time position, but a rewarding one. Aside from participating in the church’s musical activities, I engage in voracious reading about all things theological, philosophical, and historical. This blog is an attempt to add my own voice to the mix, unscholarly though it may be.
When I was just a kid, I loved reading daily devotionals, and even began writing my own book of devotionals. That project fell by the wayside before completion, and I have since regretted never finishing it. (Aside from the good it would have done me from a personal growth standpoint, just think of the commercial potential of a book of children’s devotionals written by an actual child!) These posts may or not end up being anything like devotionals, but this is my way of revisiting a bit of unfinished work from long ago. Besides, I believe a person’s quest for spirituality is an ongoing adventure.
Please join me in the journey!