Tag Archives: Catholic

Why we are Catholics and why we are not

What is a better term for “multidenominational?” The other night at our quarterly Doing Theology a few of us searched for a good word to describe how we identify with the genius of every stream in the broad river of Christianity, even the Catholics.

My journey into Christianity made me very fond of Catholics. For instance, I think of Francis of Assisi (who we celebrated yesterday) as one of my first mentors. I was a history major in college. While I was exploring history I ran into Francis. It was great to find him. He cut through the nonsense of the Church and lived with Jesus. He was just what I needed, since I almost left Jesus because of the Church’s nonsense, especially the Catholic part. I was so poor in college, I never missed the free movies they showed. One night, someone showed Brother Sun Sister Moon, which is all about Francis of Assisi and his friends. Watching his rebellion against war and self-serving authority and seeing his utter obedience to joy and Jesus helped seal my deal with God. I almost became a Franciscan and have been an almost-Franciscan ever since.

As a result, I am a Francis-kind of Catholic. Even through I think the rules say I don’t qualify, whenever the priest offers me communion, I take it like I am a member of the tribe. I figure I am more of a Catholic than a catechized fifth grader and, besides, I don’t care about most of the laws any more than most of the Catholics I know. So I’ve done a lot of travelling with the Catholic Church over the years. I even went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostella, which is one of the most Catholic things a person can do.

So why aren’t I and why aren’t we Catholics?

Continue reading Why we are Catholics and why we are not

Tagged with “cult”: After Elvis, Kool-Aid and Dr. Phil

Ouch. I got tagged with the title “cult” by an indirect shot from one of my relatives. I also heard that quite a few people in the church think other people think our church is a cult! That hurts – at least when I say cult, I don’t mean it in a good way.

“Cult” is not good

Sometimes the label “cult” is just a metaphor, like when you are talking about veneration and devotion cult of elvisdirected toward a particular figure or an object. Like “the cult of Elvis.” But that kind of odd devotion can turn religious too. For instance, my dear St. Francis is credited for starting eucharistic adoration in Italy which is veneration for an object: the “host” for the presence of Jesus. I suspect people thought he was a cult leader.

Most times “cult” is used to label a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister – like “a network of Satan-worshiping cults.” I suppose the relatively small Brethren in Christ, as a whole, is considered strange or sinister by somebody. There are quite a few members of Circle of Hope who would be disappointed if we were not considered strange, but I don’t think they would like to be seen as sinister. In the Roman Empire, Christians in general were sometimes considered a cult because they worshiped Jesus rather than the Roman gods. In South Philly there are a lot of Catholics who think Protestants in general are part of a cult and vice versa.

It’s all about the Kool-Aid

The term “cult” is often used to describe any organization but particularly religious ones in which people (often young people) have a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.  People say, “There is a cult of personality surrounding the leader,” or people are “drinking the Kool-aid.” The label “cult” can hurt people who get tagged by it, for whatever reason, because the term carries so much negative meaning. A woman reported that her sister was accused of being in a cult just because she preferred hanging out with Christian friends rather than going out drinking with other friends. She might have been in with a group of people that was unlike the norm (because they devotedly followed Christ), but she certainly wasn’t following a harmful faith.

Mimi and Eunice on cult habits
Mimi and Eunice on the matter

A  commonly used summary lists the traits of a religious group that could be called a cult:

  1. Exclusive. They may say, “We’re the only ones with the truth; everyone else is wrong” and “If you leave our group your salvation is in danger.”
  2. Secretive. Certain teachings are not available to outsiders or they’re presented only to certain members, sometimes after taking vows of confidentiality.
  3. Restrictive or coercive. A human leader or structure expects total loyalty and unquestioned obedience.
  4. Unorthodox revelations. They distort the Bible or come up with another book as foundational.

Christians, in general, recognize that Jesus has followers in many different denominations and nondenominational congregations, large and small. We have an adaptable and variegated faith. We don’t believe that the truth is available only to a select few—instead, salvation through Jesus is open to everyone and the Lord is our leader above any human leader.

Even though we don’t qualify, we decided we needed to put a tagline of our own on some of our advertising to deter potential taggers: “Circle of Hope: affiliated with the Brethren in Christ – Pennsylvania natives since 1780.” Maybe that might roll back any impressions that we are any weirder than the people who think we are “one of those cults” like the Presbyterians or something (that’s just a joke, Presbyterians are Christians, too).

So what if you get accused?

An accusation is often as good as a conviction these days. People who are falsely accused seem to be filling up the jails. Tales of being falsely accused at work and becoming the subject of an investigation are not that unusual. Circle of Hope has been taken down with false accusations a few times in the newspaper. So excuse me if I seem a little hypervigilant when I hear it through the grapevine that we are being accused of being a cult. Here are some things suggested by Dr. Phil (really, and I am not too fond of Phil) that might help anyone feeling falsely accused:

  • It can be destructive to be accused. A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends (Proverbs 16:28). I need to accept that it happened and deal with it. These things don’t just go away.
  • There is guilt by accusation. People hear something negative and tend to believe it. If you accuse a person unfairly, he/she still has that twinge — just from having the finger pointed at him/her. I feel that. I need to admit it.
  • But it is not THAT big of a deal. I may feel damaged but Jesus is still my Savior. My internal dialogue might need a redirect into more truthful and hopeful territory.
  • Besides, what other people label me is not necessarily who I am. Jesus calls me by name. Am I part of a cult? The answer is no. The other person might be hurting me, but that is their problem.
  • We need to talk about this (thus, this post). Sharing the problem is one thing that could help someone who is weighed down by an accusation or is scared about having a poor reputation with a few people we’d rather did not notice us (mainly because they tell lies about us).
  • Maybe I should try to find the people who actually think we’re a cult and have a face-to-face dialogue. I’ve only heard a rumor; I’ve never talked to anyone who thinks I’m weird in a bad way. But conversation might dispel some questions.
  • I’m mainly going to let it go and let God deal with it. If people say things behind my back, I can wait to react until they say it when I turn around. Until then, there is nothing to feel guilty about. It is possible that people are dive bombing us with their own stuff. Maybe they would like to intimidate because that is their thing. Since I don’t know, I’m not locking myself in the prison of some perverse possibility.

Has something like this ever happened to you, or have you been aware of it happening to us? If it it is just one bit of slander it can spread like poison until the whole body is tainted by it. So chances are, you may have heard this word applied to us, too. It feels bad. Try to be someone and there is likely to be at least one person who will try to get you back into the world as they know it. Try to follow Jesus in the way he is going and the takedown factor doubles.

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Incarnation is the Answer to Bad News Church

I was in Turkey last week. My body still thinks I am there. My mind is definitely still there.  It was a difficult pilgrimage in some ways. But it was a very stimulating one in almost every way.

For the first week, Gwen, my dears friends, and I fulfilled a long-held vision of taking one of the famous sailing cruises through the Aegean. I had very little idea of what I was getting into, especially since I let my friend do most of the planning. When I showed up in Bodrum, I met the people with whom I would be sleeping and eating on our little boat: two Belgians, four Dutch, two South Africans, four Americans, including me, and four Turkish crew members. They were nice people.

What I want to tell you about today is the small experiences I had of introducing myself to people whose English leaves a little bit lost in translation. Being the pastor of Circle of Hope is odd enough in the  religion-saturated United States. Explaining it to the post-Christian Belgians and Dutch is even odder.

The bad news church

For instance, my now-new-Belgian-Facebook-friend was very puzzled about my very existence. In Belgium the national government still owns the church buildings for the state-subsidized religious groups. My new friend was very interested (as a former mayor) that the people of my congregation actually pool their money to support my work.   Belgium is still highly influenced by the Catholic church, even though in 1967 about 42% of the population attended mass weekly and now it is only about 5%. My friend was also a bit shocked that I was married. When the subject of church came up, the first thing she had to talk about was celibacy! She was very concerned about the sex life of priests, since there has been a major sexual abuse scandal in Belgium for the last several years. I was meeting another person telling me the bad news about the church.

I think we forget that people are not necessarily antagonistic toward faith in Jesus; they really have no idea about faith in Jesus.  They think it is about connecting to the bad news church. It is hard to imagine an intelligent person in Belgium signing up for the state-sponsored Catholic Church, run by deviant, politically-savvy  priests holding meetings in empty, historic buildings. The only “issue” my friend had to offer when religion came up in our conversation was about celibacy! How unusual that I can have a wife! A sexually-active being, serving a community that supports his leadership — revolutionary!

Judgmental experiences

More poignant, perhaps, was my small conversation with a  Dutch passenger. She had some Christians in her background, so she was more in the know. Apparently, there is a “Bible belt” in Holland. She had ancestors from there and even knew about Mennonites, who got their start in the Netherlands. As soon as we started talking about Christianity, she made it plain that she was not happy about how churches judge others and hold to their bizarre convictions. Her first thoughts revealed her feelings about the notorious time there was a breech in the dike and people from the Bible belt would not come to help with saving the land because it was Sunday and they would not work on the Sabbath. It was the bad news church, again. But when I described to her what we were living as Circle of Hope, she almost immediately softened up. It struck a chord with her. She smiled at me and said, with a Dutch accent, “I would come to your church.”

Honestly, I think she is hungry for something. It is like she has been deprived of the church by a bunch of numbskulls who somehow took it over! I hate to be so negative, but the Catholic church still marching around in medieval costumes and the revival of Calvinist propositional-legalism is disastrous for evangelism. I know I am not supplying a lot of evidence for that, but I keep running into the bad news. What self-respecting Dutch person is going to ally themselves with people with so little love in their hearts that they would rather be “right” than serve their neighbor?

Incarnation is the answer

On one hand, I have nothing to prove. A person who wants Jesus can find him in the least likely places. We don’t worship the Christians or their churches. I am not the church’s history. On the other hand, we have a lot to prove. We are an incarnation of the kingdom of God, the presence of the future, as the Holy Spirit lives in us. If someone bumps into me, they should meet the love of Jesus. If they talk to me, they should hear some truth that resonates in some empty place in them prepared for God.

The old church is about gone in Europe and it is quickly disintegrating in the United States. Praise God! But do we have the followers who have the courage to incarnate what is next? Do we have people who can demonstrate the Lord’s truth and love to hungry people?  I hope to be among them.