Don’t Be Afraid

Open Door Mennonite Church
July 1, 2018
Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV)

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing ?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

When I was a little boy, there was a swimming hole we all went to. It was just a small pond, really, but there was a big tree with a rope hanging from it, and when the weather was as hot as it is right now, we would take turns swinging from it and dropping into the pond.

Nothing ever felt as good as crashing into that cool water on a hot day like today.

I probably swam in that pond 50 times, at least. Everybody I knew did. It was a thing you did if you grew up where I did, when I did.

One day when I wasn’t there, a boy whose family was known to us went swimming, and this time when he let go of the rope and went crashing in the water, he landed in a nest of water moccasins. He got bit more than a dozen times, and he died before anybody could get him help.

Nobody went to the swimming hole after that.

It was still pretty to look at. The water was still cool to your skin, and the weather was still just as hot as it ever was. But the problem was, you couldn’t see what was under the surface. You didn’t know if the water was safe and refreshing, or full of water moccasins. It no longer felt safe, and you couldn’t tell if it was safe.

The safest thing was to just stay out of the water. To this day, I won’t swim in a pond of any sort.

We always have fears about the things we can’t see, and people in the ancient world were no different. The sea, the water, was a wild, unpredictable place, where sailors went off in boats and never came back. It was a place inhabited by strange creatures that lived hidden under the surface and would suddenly grab you and pull you under. The sea was calm and beautiful, but a storm could suddenly come up that would destroy your village, or crash your boat, or take your family from you.

The sea was a wild and dangerous place in the ancient world, and it was often used by ancient authors to represent chaos.

In the book of Genesis, when the author is trying to explain the chaos that existed before God created the world, they used the image of the sea:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

It was so chaotic before God put order to it, the author tells us, it was all water. All sea. All unpredictable. All scary. All unknown.

In the story today, Jesus and the disciples head out to cross the sea, and sure enough, a storm came up out of nowhere. It was a fierce storm, full of fury, and it threatened to sink the boat.

One of the things about this story that stands out to me isn’t that there is a storm – storms happened on the water. It’s that the disciples are so scared. I mean, these guys were fishermen, who made their living on the water. They had seen storms, had survived many storms. And this storm scared them. It must have been a serious storm to have scared such men as that.

Back in the late 90’s, I had a chance to go deep sea fishing off the coast of Florida with some people I knew. It was a beautiful day, and I had never been deep sea fishing before. But we hadn’t been out there but a few hours before the wind picked up and the waves started. First they were little waves, but they kept getting bigger and bigger until they were six feet tall or more, and the little boat was rocking hard, and we had to head back to the port.

But we were several hours out when the storm hit, and so it was a rough trip getting back. At first I was scared, seeing as I know nothing about boats, but the crew seemed calm, and that had a calming effect on me. After all, these were guys who did this sort of work every day, and they were not scared.

No, I wasn’t scared at all until the moment I saw the first mate throw down his pole, shout out a curse word and run to grab a hold of the mast to keep from being swept over the side. If he was scared, this must be serious!

But in the storm in the story, Jesus is calm – so calm, in fact, that he falls asleep. And when in desperation the disciples cry out to him, he rebukes the storm, and it stops.

How is it, they wonder, that this man can calm the storms with his commands?

Today in 2018, the world seems like a pretty chaotic place. Like the sea in the ancient world, dangers are everywhere. Young black men get killed at alarming rates by police officers. The opioid epidemic is, well, an epidemic.  Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, you can’t say it is all calm there, either.

If you turn on the news, or talk to your friends, or even just open up Facebook, it seems like everything is going bad all at once.

It seems like chaos rules the day.

And sometimes, when we are overwhelmed by the chaos, when the storms are raging all around us and it seems like we just are not capable of surviving this one, it can sometimes feel like Jesus is asleep and we are left to handle this all by ourselves. Sometimes, it feels like he is not even there at all.

You know, when you read the story of Jesus and the storm, it seems like the important thing is that Jesus can stop the storm and save you from it. But to me, that is not the most remarkable thing. To me, the thing that stands out is this: In the midst of the storm, Jesus is right there beside you, enduring the storm with you. And what’s more, he has been there the whole time. Even when you were losing it. Even when you were terrified. Even when you didn’t know what to do, or how to do it. In the midst of all of that, Jesus was there, right beside you.

Don’t be afraid, dear ones. Don’t be afraid. The storms are bad – bad enough to scare seasoned fishermen who have survived many storms. But don’t be afraid. God has not forsaken us, and even in the midst of the storm, we are not forgotten nor are we alone.

And we never were.

The one who can command the storms and have them obey him is in the boat with us, and we will ride through the storm, together, to the other side.

Saying goodbye to Carolina Beach

Carolina Beach

When we got married, we had no money. We spent a total of $300 on the wedding and reception, combined, and even that was incredibly stressful. Her ring came from a pawn shop. I didn’t have a ring for the first year we were married – we couldn’t afford it. A friend bought Renee’s dress, and another friend gave us their house for the reception.

It was really, really, tight.

So when a friend gave us the use of their condo in Carolina Beach for a week so we could have a honeymoon, it was a dream come true. At the wedding we had been given nearly a thousand dollars in cash from guests who would come up and slip folded bills in our hands, so we had the money to enjoy ourselves that week.

That was the week we fell in love with Carolina Beach.

It is a small beach town, with cheesy bright colored buildings, seasonal shops, restaurants of variable quality, and a pretty nice boardwalk along the dunes. That week we found new restaurants we liked, we walked along the beach for hours, went to the nearby aquarium, rode the ferry, and slept with the sliding glass door open so we could fall asleep to the crashing of the waves.

The Deck House is a restaurant in a converted church just off the main drag, and we ate there the first night we were in town at a friend’s recommendation. It felt decadent to eat there, and we instantly fell in love with it. I don’t think we have spent the night in Carolina Beach since without eating there at least once.

Next door is Kure Beach with a massive wooden dock that juts out into the ocean, where old men fish and the seagulls wait patiently for bait droppings and fish cleanings. We learned that if you bought popcorn in the bait shop, the seagulls would flock to you like you were St. Francis and that it would delight any small children who happened to be nearby.

There is a small island bookshop that sold overpriced used books and a few new books, but we believe in supporting what we want more of, so we always would spend an hour or so in that shop, and always buy a book or four. It is next door to the fifties themed diner, and just down the street from the coffee shop.

Up the road a few miles is the dock where I scattered a friend’s ashes, and down the road is the causeway where I love to sit on the rocks and watch the ferry go by while the waves lap at my feet.

We have been there probably 30 times over the last nine years. We have watched businesses change hands and improve, or fail. We have been there in every possible season, every possible weather. We learned that the week before Memorial Day is the best combination of affordability and seasonal shops being open, developed favorite restaurants and must do’s anytime we are there. We have even talked of moving there.

And now we are moving 12 hours away.

In some ways, moving away from there is harder than moving away from Raleigh. Carolina Beach was where we went to get away. It is where we went to relax, and where we began to be a family. We dreamed there, and we dreamed of there.

So last Thursday, we went one last time to say goodbye.

We ate at a restaurant we liked. We walked the boardwalk. We swung on the swings and talked about the future and reminisced about the past. We walked out on the pier and watched the waves and the seagulls. We bought a couple of used books. We got sunburned, ate donuts, watched the birds dart into the receding waves in search of food. Along the way, I wept some. Several times, in fact.

And then we drove the two hours home.

A New Chapter

I remember it perfectly. It was October 25th, 2015. Renee and I were on a bench overlooking the French Broad River. I was wearing a black hoody against the chill, and the leaves were changing colors in a way that only happens in the North Carolina mountains. It was the day after our seventh anniversary, and we were having a conversation we had never had before.

Renee was just three months out of the hospital. The story is long, but she had been born with a genetic heart condition that, at age 35, had her in heart failure. She was first diagnosed at 13. Her mother had the same heart condition and died at 45. We could not have children because the strain would be too much for her body, and the meds she depended on to survive would preclude it anyway. And while we never said it out loud, we fully expected her to die from this condition.

And then things changed. In August of 2015 we got a call at 10 AM that there was a heart available at Duke for Renee – could we be there in an hour? We could and did, and the following two weeks are their own long story.

But now, all that was behind us. We were celebrating our seventh anniversary and for the first time, we realized that we could have a conversation about the future that did not take as a given that she would die before age 50.

We had never had a conversation about retirement. About long-term goals. About what we wanted the future to look like. When you aren’t sure your wife will be with you when you are 50, you don’t waste a lot of energy planning that far ahead.

So, we sat on the bench and watched the water go by and talked about where we wanted to live, where we wanted to do, what we wanted growing old to look like. And the more we talked, the more it took shape.

We wanted a community of people. We wanted to live in a small city. We wanted children in our life.  I wanted to do meaningful work. Renee wanted to shoot photographs. We both wanted to be near our families.

It began to fill out.

* * *

Every founder stays too long. It is what we do. We build organizations by scratching and surviving, and then we convince ourselves the organization cannot survive without us. We over-inflate our egos and tell ourselves that we are the key ingredient. It is easier to do this when the people who started this work with you have moved on, and so you are the only connection to the beginning of the organization.

I began Love Wins Ministries in 2007. It didn’t even have a name then – it was just me and some friends sharing food in the park. But it evolved and grew and one day you look up and we had a staff and a blog and a community center and how did all that happen?

And then the city tries to stop you from sharing food with hungry people, and you decide to fight back. And you win, which gives you some profile and legitimacy. So like all successes, you grow and move to a bigger facility and… then your wife has a heart transplant and all your priorities change.

* * *

In the fall of 2015, sitting on that bench, for the first time since Love Wins began I thought about what leaving it would look like.

Over the next year, we would begin to work on it. We took our list of things we wanted and realized we couldn’t have the life we wanted here in Raleigh. It was getting more and more expensive to live here. Our parents were getting older, and they live 12 and 18 hours away, respectively. I had a nephew who was 10 that I had last seen when he was 2.

And if I am honest, I felt like I had accomplished here what I intended to do. We did demonstrate that a relational approach to homelessness works. We did change the City and how it approached homelessness. The attitude now in Raleigh vs when I got here in 2007 around homelessness? Miles apart. Anything I could do now was going to be incremental, and I am not an incrementalist.

So we looked around. Wilmington was nice. So was Charleston. Chattanooga would have been a definite yes were it not so far to the ocean. Last spring, we began to think about Jackson, MS. It is less than 3 hours to my parents’ house. The cost of living is low there. Two hours to the Gulf of Mexico. Two hours to New Orleans. Three hours to Memphis. An economically depressed city, so I would have plenty of meaningful work to keep me occupied. A new government in place that wants to change things for the better.

It ticked off all our boxes.

* * *

Last summer we went down to check it out. I met with some community leaders. I met some folks at a small church that wanted to change their neighborhood and their city, but they had no money and didn’t have the skills.

We agreed to stay in touch because I have the skills. And while I don’t have any money, I have raised money to make the world better for 11 years now – the prospect does not frighten me.

For the next six months, we would share ideas back and forth. Renee and I would look at houses on Zillow, and marvel that a house that would sell for $400,000 here could be had there for $120,000. We began to contemplate a cross-country move with three cats and a thousand or so books.

By the end of the year, I had a proposal sketched out for them of what I thought was possible. In January we went back down to visit, meet with the leadership team and work out the details. They are a small multiracial Mennonite church. They are in one of the poorest areas of Jackson, and because of the tension in my denomination over LGBT rights, all the conservative folks left a few years ago, threatening the church’s survival.

I told them that none of that scared me. Because to quote a bad movie, while I don’t have any money, what I do have is a unique set of skills, acquired over a long career…

Two weeks ago I got a letter in the mail saying to come on down.

We’re going to Jackson.

* * *

In June, we are closing Love Wins Ministries. The Community Engagement Center will continue operations with MaRanda Kiser as its Executive Director. I will remain on the board of the Community Engagement Center for at least another year to provide continuity and institutional memory. I plan to begin work in Jackson on July 1.

The truth is, I have outlived my usefulness here. I am a starter by nature and have tons of energy around the creation of a thing, and not much around the maintenance of that thing. I have done good work here. I feel good about the work I did helping Raleigh change how it addresses homelessness. I feel good about the thousands of lives I have impacted here, and the way I have done it. But my role here is over. It’s time to hand it off to someone else.

MaRanda will do a fantastic job. In her first six months, she has added a peer support specialist position that is filled by a person who was formerly homeless, increased the meals we serve here from one a week to 10 a week, drastically increased our volunteer engagement and amount of in-kind donations. In short, she is taking what I built and is making it better, and the best thing I can do is get out of her way.

As we wrap things up here, I am astounded by all the good that was done here the last 11 years. My feelings around all of this are complicated – excitement about what is to come, and sadness about what I am leaving behind. I hope you will continue to hold us in your prayers as I take the “Love Wins approach” to another southern city.

* * *

So that’s the story. We are in the process of selling our house (we have a buyer already!) and beginning to contemplate packing, figuring out what to take and what to lay down.

I am excited about the future. It is close enough to what I do to be competent at it, while different enough I will grow and learn. I am excited to be near my family again for the first time in 11 years. We are excited at the prospect of buying a nicer house than we ever dreamed possible and having a nice backyard to plant vegetables and flowers. Renee is already plotting out potential photo shoot locations.

And I am sad to leave here. But it’s time. Past time, if I am honest.

I will have a lot more to say over the coming weeks and months – it will be great to be able to talk about this thing that is consuming all of my energy. But right now, I am just grateful, and hopeful, and tired just thinking about moving three cats.

The world as it should be

Note: The following is the sermon I delivered this past Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh NC. It is also a pretty good example of applying a Christian humanist view to Christian Scripture. 

I bring greetings of Grace and Peace to you from the worshiping community at Love Wins Ministries. I am glad to be here this morning, and glad I was able to do it and allow Sasha some time away.

This is my fourth time to be allowed to speak in this beautiful sanctuary, and I am always honored (and a little amazed) that you keep having me back.

A friend of mine is a UU minister in another state, and she heard I was preaching here again.

She asked me what my text was. I told her I was preaching on the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

The phone got quiet.

“What?,” I asked.

“Hugh. That story revolves around a guy being tormented in Hell. Why on earth are you going to preach on that text in a UU congregation?”

I told her that the last time I was here I preached on Noah’s Ark, a story where God throws a fit and destroys all of humanity except one family, and y’all handled that OK, so I figured y’all could handle this one.

But seriously, I do want to acknowledge that texts like this one have been used to perpetuate some pretty horrible ideas about the Divine – about who God is and what God is like, and it has been a tool used to harm people who were on the wrong side of power.

But I keep coming back to these hard stories, because I believe there is something there for us. After all, the impoverished colonized people who originally heard these stories did not think them hard, but instead heard them and said that it was good news, which is what the word Gospel really means.

What I love about this story is that it is really two stories: a story about the world as it is, and a story about the world as it should be. This is not a story about a literal heaven and hell, as if it is some sort of Lonely Planet guide to the afterlife. No, this is a story about power and privilege and how we use it. Or, how we don’t.

Jesus tells us the story of a rich man who lives in a gated community, who is insulated by his privilege from the poverty literally at his gates.  The poor man dies and is carried off by angels, and the rich man dies and is tortured in Hades.

When they were alive, in the part of the story that concerns itself with the world as it is, the rich man was doing OK. He was rich and powerful, and wore fine imported clothes and ate sumptuous foods. We should probably point out that the story is not a condemnation of his wealth. There is no evidence that he got his money unethically. And that Lazarus went to the gates probably meant that he had been fed there before – in other words, the rich man had handed out charity in the past. He probably gave money to the PTA fundraiser at the school, and was probably a member of the Rotary club. According to the standards of the day, the rich man was a “good” man.

But the world as it is wasn’t good for Lazarus, however. He was poor. Desperately poor. And not just poor, but sick – so sick he could not keep the unclean dogs from licking his sores. And hungry. So hungry that he longed for the scraps from the rich man’s table.

Here is the truest thing I know:

When you have two groups of people – let’s call them groups A and group B – and there is a disparity between those groups, when one of those groups has more than the other, the moral and ethical responsibility for changing that disparity lies on the group with more.

Which we all agree with, right? I mean, when we look at the history of woman’s rights in the US, we don’t think that if women wanted to vote, they should have demanded it sooner. We think that it should have been put in the Constitution in the first place.  The people who already had that right should have demanded that women have it too.

Likewise, we don’t think that Lazarus should have just begged harder. No, we think the rich man should have voluntarily lifted Lazarus up. In the world as it is, the rich man had more, and should have used that excess to advocate for Lazarus in their lifetime.

But he didn’t. In the story, he isn’t in hell because he was a rich man, but because he chose to not use his excess to change that disparity.

That disparity between two groups of people – it isn’t just money we are talking about here.

Like at Love Wins Ministries, where I pastor – some six years ago, we were given the use of a building. We used it for offices and to worship in on Sunday, but most of the space sat empty during the week. And we looked around and realized that the people we knew who were homeless had no space to be during the day.

So there were two groups of people: One group had space no one was using, and the other had no space they were allowed to use. So we opened our doors and shared it with them, planting the seeds of what would become the Love Wins Community Engagement Center, a place where some 70 to 100 people who have nowhere else to go come to rest, get out of the weather and build unlikely friendships.

We don’t read this story and think that the reason Lazarus was starving was because he did not beg hard enough, or that he did not protest the injustice enough. Lazarus is not the victim of injustice because he did not speak up. No, when we hear this story, we immediately assume the rich man should have taken the initiative.

The rich man in this story is condemned because he had the power to change things, and chose not to.

So we go now in the story to the world as it should be.

The poor man is taken on the wings of angels to be with Abraham in paradise, and the rich man is tortured in hell.

The rich man is burning in hell and sees Lazarus with Abraham – apparently part of the torture is being able to see the people who are not being tortured, which is just mean, y’all – and asks Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand.  Not just once, but twice.

Do you hear that? This man, this rich, privileged man is so used to being in control that when he is being tortured in hell, when he is literally on fire, he still feels that he has the right to dictate the movements of the poor man who died of starvation at his gate while he feasted.

And in the midst of that hubris, that privilege, that power, the rich man makes demands of Lazarus, attempting to perpetuate the power dynamic. Lazarus says nothing in response to this, but Abraham does.

Abraham says “No. No, that isn’t going to happen.”

Here we again have two groups of people, and one has more than the other – in this case, more power.

And the person with more power – Abraham – sees the rich man try to use the historical systems of power and oppression against Lazarus, and he speaks out. He is a bystander who speaks out, who inserts his privilege in the gap between the rich man and Lazarus, and who, when sees an injustice be attempted, says, “No, that will not happen on my watch”.

Notice what doesn’t happen: Lazarus does not have to speak out to defend himself. It is never the responsibility of the oppressed to ask the oppressor to stop oppressing them. And in the world as it should be, they don’t have to.

No, in the world as it should be, those of us with power speak out when we see injustice happen.

In the world as it should be, those of us with excess use our excess – whether it is power or money or space or food – to make things right.

In the world as it should be, the only people punished are those who had the chance to help, but chose not to.

In the world as it should be, those who are on the side with less do not have to beg for the things they need, whether that is food or shelter or advocacy or rights, but they are given by those who have more of those things than they need.

This story presents us with two worlds: The world as it is, and the world as it could be.

And the only thing that prevents the world as it is from becoming the world as it could be is those of us with more – more money, yes, but also more power, more privilege, more time – not taking the initiative in making things right. In our not leveling the disparity.

In the world as it is right now, Lazarus is at our gates, dying of hunger while we feast. Don’t make him have to ask us. May we have the moral courage to stand up and say, “Lazarus! Come inside! Sit down and eat. We have plenty.”

I am a Christian Humanist

This is something I wrote last year in response to a question I received on Facebook. It got lost in the website redesign, so I republished it here.   – HH

Christian y Carina

Him: I was reading your posts, and I wondered what you are exactly? Are you a Christian?

Me: Well, I am not sure what you read, but it doesn’t bother me if you want to call me a Christian. I generally use the label “Christian Humanist” myself, but whatever.

Him: What does that even mean? Are you Christian? Do you believe that Jesus is the only way for people to get into heaven?

Me: Well, that opens up a lot of conversation. If you are asking, “Do you, Hugh, believe that apart from someone explicitly praying a prayer, asking Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior, they will burn in hellfire for all eternity?

Because if that is what you are asking, the answer is no. I do not believe any of that. I do not believe that people who grew up Hindu, who faithfully lived as Hindus and tried to live good lives and raise their families and make their world better are abhorrent in the eyes of God and will burn in fire because they did not say the magic words only revealed to a small colony of the Roman Empire in the Middle East some 600 years after Hinduism was even formed.  

I do not believe that my friend Tim, who was sexually abused by a priest and is now an atheist who gets physically ill if he sets foot in a church is damned forever because he cannot believe in God anymore.

If there is a God, I cannot believe that God would be so capricious and ego bound that people who do not praise the name of that God would be eternally punished. And if God were like that, I would have no use for that God, and whatever spot I have in heaven could be given to someone else, because I can imagine nothing worse than to spend eternity praising such a monster.

When I say Christian Humanist, what I mean is this:

I am part of the Christian story. It is my story – I was born into it, and its ethical teachings permeated me and formed me. The teachings of Jesus captivate me, and I have willingly submitted myself to them. If you ask me who do I aspire to be like, well, I want to be like Jesus. I want to love that way, I want to see the world that way, I want to be captivated by creation that way. So I follow Jesus.

But I also recognize that were I born in India, I would have a different story, with different examples. Or had I been born in a Buddhist family, or a Wiccan family. I can’t speak to that – because that isn’t my story. Mine is the Christian story.

I am humanist because I am human-centric. I think people matter. I think people have inherent dignity and worth, and I think that we are responsible to each other.

So, in short, I am a humanist who loves and finds himself within the Christian story, and who has decided they are not incompatible. Or a Christian Humanist.

As a Christian Humanist, I believe that people have inherent worth, and they are made (as the Christian scriptures tell us) in the image of God, only a little lower than the celestial beings. I do not discount the possibility of supernatural miracles, but I do not have any experience with them myself. I believe it is not we who wait on God to act – rather, it is God who is waiting on us.

I believe the God who heard the cries of the slave in Egypt and sent Moses to liberate them still hears the cry of the oppressed and still sends people. I believe God hears the cries of the oppressed, and God hears the belly rumblings of the hungry and feels the tears of the abandoned and sees the devastation we wreck on the environment, and I believe God has a plan to deal with all of that: To right the wrongs, to comfort the afflicted, to humble the mighty, to fill the bellies of the hungry.

I believe that God has a plan. God’s plan is us.

And that is what I mean by Christian Humanist.

By now, if you are still with me, you might have some questions.

What about the divinity of Jesus? Did Jesus rise from the dead on the third day? What happens after we die? Do we go to heaven? Is there a hell? Do you believe in predestination?

Sigh.

I am an ordained minister, in an historic denomination. As such, I can tell you what the church has historically believed about all of those things. Or rather, I can tell you what churches have believed, because there have been a wide variety of beliefs about all those things, many of which clash with and contradict each other.

The simple truth is, there is no such thing as historic Christianity. There have been many manifestations of Christianities that sought to provide the answers those particular people in those particular places wanted answers to.

But me? Those questions aren’t questions I have or need answered. Those questions are in response to the bigger question, “How can I make God not be angry with me?”  I don’t have that question, because I don’t think God is angry at me.

Rather, the question I want answered and have devoted my life to finding the answer to is, “How do I find healing for myself and the world?”

So, I don’t know (I mean, really know) what happens when I die. I don’t really know what happened on that first Easter, thousands of years ago. No one knows, and anyone who says they do is trying to sell you something. 

But I know exactly what happens to me and the world when I forgive someone who has wronged me. I know exactly what happens when I make the table I sit at more open and inclusive, and I know what happens when I offer a hungry man some food or a homeless man housing.

Those are the things that answer the questions I have, so those are the things I spend my time worrying about. And as for the afterlife and the rest of it?

Well, as I said earlier, if there is a God, either that God is way more loving and accepting than I am, or that God can give my spot in eternity to someone else. Because while I do not get to decide what God is like, I do get to decide what sort of God I deem worthy of worship. And if that God isn’t more loving than me, more generous than me, more open than me, more accepting than me, then that God isn’t worth my time or my devotion.

Why I am a Christian Humanist

I received the following question the other day by Facebook Messenger. Since it took me a thousand words to respond, and I get asked questions like this all of the time, I thought I would respond here. If you have questions, feel free to send them. I don’t always have time to go into this sort of depth, but I will try my best.  – HH

Christian y Carina

Him: I was reading your posts, and I wondered what you are exactly? Are you a Christian?

Me: Well, I am not sure what you read, but it doesn’t bother me if you want to call me a Christian. I generally use the label “Christian Humanist” myself, but whatever.

Him: What does that even mean? Are you Christian? Do you believe that Jesus is the only way for people to get into heaven?

Me: Well, that opens up a lot of conversation. If you are asking, “Do you, Hugh, believe that apart from someone explicitly praying a prayer, asking Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior, they will burn in hellfire for all eternity?

Because if that is what you are asking, the answer is no. I do not believe any of that. I do not believe that people who grew up Hindu, who faithfully lived as Hindus and tried to live good lives and raise their families and make their world better are abhorrent in the eyes of God and will burn in fire because they did not say the magic words only revealed to a small colony of the Roman Empire in the Middle East some 600 years after Hinduism was even formed.  

I do not believe that my friend Tim, who was sexually abused by a priest and is now an atheist who gets physically ill if he sets foot in a church is damned forever because he cannot believe in God anymore.

If there is a God, I cannot believe that God would be so capricious and ego bound that people who do not praise the name of that God would be eternally punished. And if God were like that, I would have no use for that God, and whatever spot I have in heaven could be given to someone else, because I can imagine nothing worse than to spend eternity praising such a monster.

When I say Christian Humanist, what I mean is this:

I am part of the Christian story. It is my story – I was born into it, and its ethical teachings permeated me and formed me. The teachings of Jesus captivate me, and I have willingly submitted myself to them. If you ask me who do I aspire to be like, well, I want to be like Jesus. I want to love that way, I want to see the world that way, I want to be captivated by creation that way. So I follow Jesus.

But I also recognize that were I born in India, I would have a different story, with different examples. Or had I been born in a Buddhist family, or a Wiccan family. I can’t speak to that – because that isn’t my story. Mine is the Christian story.

I am humanist because I am human-centric. I think people matter. I think people have inherent dignity and worth, and I think that we are responsible to each other.

So, in short, I am a humanist who loves and finds himself within the Christian story, and who has decided they are not incompatible. Or a Christian Humanist.

As a Christian Humanist, I believe that people have inherent worth, and they are made (as the Christian scriptures tell us) in the image of God, only a little lower than the celestial beings. I do not discount the possibility of supernatural miracles, but I do not have any experience with them myself. I believe it is not we who wait on God to act – rather, it is God who is waiting on us.

I believe the God who heard the cries of the slave in Egypt and sent Moses to liberate them still hears the cry of the oppressed and still sends people. I believe God hears the cries of the oppressed, and God hears the belly rumblings of the hungry and feels the tears of the abandoned and sees the devastation we wreck on the environment, and I believe God has a plan to deal with all of that: To right the wrongs, to comfort the afflicted, to humble the mighty, to fill the bellies of the hungry.

I believe that God has a plan. God’s plan is us.

And that is what I mean by Christian Humanist.

By now, if you are still with me, you might have some questions.

What about the divinity of Jesus? Did Jesus rise from the dead on the third day? What happens after we die? Do we go to heaven? Is there a hell? Do you believe in predestination?

Sigh.

I am an ordained minister, in an historic denomination. As such, I can tell you what the church has historically believed about all of those things. Or rather, I can tell you what churches have believed, because there have been a wide variety of beliefs about all those things, many of which clash with and contradict each other.

The simple truth is, there is no such thing as historic Christianity. There have been many manifestations of Christianities that sought to provide the answers those particular people in those particular places wanted answers to.

But me? Those questions aren’t questions I have or need answered. Those questions are in response to the bigger question, “How can I make God not be angry with me?”  I don’t have that question, because I don’t think God is angry at me.

Rather, the question I want answered and have devoted my life to finding the answer to is, “How do I find healing for myself and the world?”

So, I don’t know (I mean, really know) what happens when I die. I don’t really know what happened on that first Easter, thousands of years ago. No one knows, and anyone who says they do is trying to sell you something. 

But I know exactly what happens to me and the world when I forgive someone who has wronged me. I know exactly what happens when I make the table I sit at more open and inclusive, and I know what happens when I offer a hungry man some food or a homeless man housing.

Those are the things that answer the questions I have, so those are the things I spend my time worrying about. And as for the afterlife and the rest of it?

Well, as I said earlier, if there is a God, either that God is way more loving and accepting than I am, or that God can give my spot in eternity to someone else. Because while I do not get to decide what God is like, I do get to decide what sort of God I deem worthy of worship. And if that God isn’t more loving than me, more generous than me, more open than me, more accepting than me, then that God isn’t worth my time or my devotion.