Saturday, September 25, 2021

Prosperity Gospel & Narcissism: The American Church

Yes, that's a rather potent title.  But as we are exploring Jesus and what it means to be in His community, this is the diagnosis I am giving the modern church in America.

Let's define our terms first.  Narcissism is:

"[S]elfishness, involving a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy, and a need for admiration, as characterizing a personality type." (1)

"Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment, proposing that it is God's will for his people to be blessed. The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession." (2)

Wow. In just looking over the two definitions that I grabbed from Google, the overlap is astonishing.  I am going to integrate the two.  I did not plan it this way, but here goes...

"Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity. The doctrine emphasizes the importance of personal empowerment proposing that it is God's will for his people to be blessed ("selfishness, involving a sense of entitlement") The atonement (reconciliation with God) is interpreted to include the alleviation of sickness and poverty, which are viewed as curses to be broken by faith. ("lack of empathy")  This is believed to be achieved through donations of money, visualization, and positive confession." ("a need for admiration")

Let's break it down.  If I have enough faith to believe that God wants and will deliver to me my desires for health, wealth and prosperity, then the focus of my spiritual life will be on me.  I will become focused on what my needs, my wants and what will bring me happiness and contentment.  I am entitled to this, for God has promised it to me and the Bible is the contract that binds us together.  If I see people walking around without manifold blessings, then it is their fault.  They haven't the faith and understanding I have; their sickness, their financial failings, their pain is not something for me to weep over.  I must educate them about what they are missing in their understanding of the Bible.  If they still carry on with pain and suffering after I have enlightened them, then they can forget any help from me, for I don't deal with such matters.  I walk in a different kind of existence.  In addition, I will have all the people around me admiring my faith as I confess, donate money, visualize and positively confess, for such things are best done in public, are they not?  Then when something good comes along, I again go public to show how my faith, my confession, brought it about.  This just proves that God and I are in harmony, happily operating in the laws of prosperity.   

Wow.  I have seen the prosperity gospel filter in to churches that are not, nor would they identify with, a prosperity gospel church.  Yet I have, as a worship leader, led congregations in singing about "breaking every chain." 
Pray and believe.
I have faith not fear.
Trust in the Lord.
I choose hope.  
All these pithy phrases and more have surfaced during this pandemic, which has proven to be an interesting testing ground for the narcissistic/prosperity gospel that is in so many churches--whether openly or has just seeped in from the popular Christian culture.  
I wonder how many of my fellow believers will not get vaccinated, because they are showing God and the church how great their faith is?  They are trusting their essential oils diffusing all around them to protect them and those they love.  Their faith is strong in God's love.   
If they did go and get a vaccination, would it cast doubt on their faith to themselves and to those around them? That a vaccination is partnering with the world in trying to solve this epidemic, and not partnering with God and His natural cures?  
Sadly, I am watching my fellow brothers and sisters fall into a ditch of their digging:  My faith keeps me safe.  Those without faith are wearing masks and getting vaccinations, and the mask is the badge of the faithless. 
Yet, many have fallen ill.  Really ill.  Some have died.  
So, now, do we conclude that (a) They didn't have enough faith
(b) They may not see how self-centered their theology has become over time.  They may not even recognize it.
This pandemic has fractured the Christian community, pitting the "We got this, 'cause we got faith!" to those who say, "Please wear a mask.  It shows how your health impacts others, and how you want others to be safe."
This pandemic is the rain, wind and water that has bashed into the American Church House.  Its  foundation is not surviving the onslaught, for it is not built on Jesus' words:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:24-27)
Our fractured faith community may be crashing down.  I find this passage of Scripture very instructive, for these people coming to Jesus were facing an assault on their theology:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-8)

The people who came to Jesus with horrible news about Pilate were afraid, yet Jesus could see another emotion operating in them:  Pride.  That is why, I believe, He brings up the tower incident.

The people telling Jesus about Pilate weren't just reporting; their hearts were crying out, "Could that happen to us?  NO! Why not?  Because we are good people."   

Jesus went right to the heart of the matter:  These people had sinful hearts, but their pride told them otherwise.  The real question was being asked silently in these people's hearts: Only bad things happen to those who do not have the kind of faith we have. Right!  Right? 

Comforting, yes, to the people whose faith (they so proudly believed) exempted them from the vicissitudes of life.  Their fundamental belief in their own goodness made them lack empathy for the victims.  Their theology drove them away from the community.  Their fear kept them clinging to a belief that Jesus corrected. 

Jesus talks about sin and repentance using both incidents. People died, not because they were "selected" for their unrighteousness; they were living in a fallen world where terrible things happen.  To everyone, good, bad or indifferent.

So, Jesus clarified His inspection of their theology with a parable.  The fig tree was not producing fruit, yet the caretaker gave it one more year to produce fruit.  What was the tree given?  Fertilizer.  It is the fertilizer of life that makes us grow, and if we push it away out of self-righteousness, fear and not wanting to be with Jesus in a community He has created, we will not produce fruit of any eternal value.  

We, in America, are being given a similar opportunity to produce fruit, or the axe will come. Where do we start?  With ourselves, repenting of our pride.  Then with others, reaching out and loving them with a Christ-centered love.

Now, that's church!




(1) "Narcissism." Google's English Dictionary, Oxford Languages

(2) "Prosperity Gospel"  Accessed 9/25/2021


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Jesus and Community

Jesus could have saved the world alone.  The moment He stepped out of the water of the Jordan, He could have walked off, and just started His ministry.

It wasn't a lack of ability, power, or mental resources.  He was given everything He needed by the Father:

Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.  For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. (John 5:19-20)

So, the Son, under the marching orders of His Father and the power He held as the Son of God, could have simply partnered with His Father and that would have been that. 

But Jesus came from a community:  The courts of Heaven were resplendent with angels, creatures and His Father.  Jesus would not have stepped onto the earth to go solo.  He received the Holy Spirit at His baptism (showing us what would happen to the newly birthed church at Pentecost) and went out with the Trinity animating everything He did.
He sought a public inauguration of His ministry by being baptized by John, and after He endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune launched by Satan in the desert, He started to preach.
He also starting choosing disciples. 
Huh?  Was He just operating in the rabbinical tradition of talmidim?  These talmidim were more than disciples; they lived, ate and breathed every moment they could in the presence of the Rabbi.  They desperately wanted to not only learn His wisdom but emulate His very behavior.
So, yes He was acting in the tradition, but Jesus went deeper:  He was showing us the power of community. 

Community would sustain the disciples throughout His ministry and when they needed each other the most--when Jesus was being crucified--they scattered.  But when the resurrected Christ appeared, His presence galvanized them into an unstoppable force that spread the message of the Savior to the far ends of the earth.
We, who believe in Christ, are here today because of those talmidim.  
I find it sad, however, that today the church is made up of many 'brides."  The church in the Bible is referred to as the "Bride of Christ"--a kind of e pluribus unum of all of us throughout the ages.  I know that division was rampant in the history of Christianity.  
But in my lifetime (I was born in 1960) I have seen a decisive and divisive swing to the church being centered on the individual.  When I first started to go to church as a new believer, as a teenage in the early seventies, the message was clear:  You learn the Word and go out with the message of the hope in Jesus.  I was part of the "I Found It!" campaign, and the Evangelism Explosion campaign.  Both those programs embodied the idea of learn the Word so you can lead others to the Word--Jesus Himself.

I continued to see that in the churches I attended, but by the 80's, I started seeing a shift.  It was the time of the Recovery Movement--the church was a place where broken people came and lay leaders, pastors and worship leaders emphasized healing and how trauma affects everything we do--including in our walk with Christ.

Sometimes the psychological terms and the emphasis on the broken self (as opposed to the sinful self) gained the ascendancy; but overall, it was a positive effort.  Someone who has suffered trauma will need more than an altar call; the Gospel reaches (or should reach) the whole self.

By the 2000's, I started seeing an emphasis on the self.  Period.  Churches began to eschew the little church with a pastor sitting in an oak-lined study, ready to talk with you, to a kind of corporate model.  The very first cell phone I ever saw was in the hands of a pastor, who drove a Mercedes and pastored a mega church in California.  The church he was in split over him leaving; half the congregation came with him to found this new church.  It was big in every way.

Later I found out this pastor left the church over an affair.  

Then I noticed the march towards a kind of McChurch--Jesus as a kind of spiritual Big Mac.  What makes the Big Mac so universally loved is it has just enough punch in the secret sauce to have some flavor; otherwise, it's a pretty insipid burger.  Jesus was presented as having just enough punch (He loves you; He is your Friend, your Life Coach, Your Healer, Your Provider) to draw people in and yet otherwise, Jesus was preached in a way that portrayed Him as rather insipid.  In fact, as a kind of repose to this weak Jesus were books trying to insist that manly men could love Jesus, who Himself had manly characteristics. (What is taught from the pulpit often doesn't match what is written in books and vice versa).

Now, in the last 15 years, I have watched churches brand themselves, market themselves, and act like profit-driven organizations, with the "product" being the Christian lifestyle:  God wants you to live your best life.  

Sin?  Some churches still preach it, praise God.  It is at the core of the Christian message:  Jesus didn't die on the cross so you could be healthy, wealthy and blessed.  He died because sin divides us away from God; God's wrath was satisfied in the death of His Son.
The early church preached the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus because THAT WAS NEWS WORTH DYING FOR!  They would give up everything they had to spread this news; have we lost the kind of zeal they had we preach another Gospel--one of health, wealth and prosperity?  Has our message of Jesus as Cosmic Coach, kind and loving, who really won't call anyone out (and thus, nor should we) taken over the complacency-shattering news that we were crucified with Him and now the life we live is because of Him in us?  (Galatians 2:20 is the essence of the Gospel applied to a life!)

After so many years of filtering the Gospel through a prosperity/consumerist lens, the church in America is facing a time where community is essential:  banding together to help in this pandemic, by comforting each other, praying for each other, and doing whatever we can to maintain that community.

Sadly, I see quite the opposite happening.

The "brides" of Christ are at war right now.


Sunday, September 5, 2021

The Human Experience Distilled: Jesus' Words on the Cross

I just got a new job!  Thus, working in a classroom all day means I come home pooped.  Hence, it has been a while since I blogged.  So, here we go.

I think we have explored quite thoroughly how Jesus understands us so well, having experienced all of the human realm of loss, abuse, rejection, joy, sorrow and yearning. 

It is interesting to me how Jesus' words on the cross so encapsulate the human experience.  Let us stand at the foot of the cross and listen to His heart-rending words. 

 Let's start with Matthew's account: 

At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock. At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Some of the bystanders misunderstood and thought he was calling for the prophet Elijah. One of them ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, holding it up to him on a reed stick so he could drink. But the rest said, “Wait! Let’s see whether Elijah comes to save him.”

Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people. (27:45-53)

Even at Jesus' greatest need, no one really understood Him.  He was truly isolated from the human community at the most vulnerable, most frightening and the most painful time in His life.  He endured mockery from the leaders and some of the people there; someone thought He needed an analgesic; others thought He was calling upon Elijah.

They were all wrong. 

Darkness engulfed the land. Had the mockers and the leaders fled earlier on, as the darkness descended?  Were they now afraid, witnessing something that even they, in all their supposed wisdom, could not explain?  

Jesus released His spirit unto His Father.  The work was done; salvation was secured.  But just like the animal God killed for Adam and Eve's covering, to the many slaughtered creatures in the Temple whose blood covered the people's sins, Jesus' eyes were lifeless.  

But all around Him was life!  The Temple was no longer a segregated place where only certain people could go in; everyone could now approach God because of the blood flowing down from the now deceased Savior.  Light flooded into the Holy of Holies and God's life flowed out, transforming dead humanity into sons and daughters who would dwell with the living God.

The earth seconded this message of new life:  No longer a still silent spectator to the drama on the hill, it quaked and the dead left their newly opened tombs.  Soon like the disciples, who were to tarry in Jerusalem for the bestowal of the Spirit upon them to empower them, the dead also waited until Jesus resurrected, to show what new life really meant:  life here and life in the hereafter. 

With the lifeless Savior placed in a borrowed tomb, He experienced separation from His beloved Father.  Death does that.  It takes away those we love, and creates a never-ending longing for reunion; Jesus faced that as well as did His Father.  

But this despised, lonely, abused and broken Son burst to new life three days later.  Satan could no longer laugh in the cemeteries; he was silenced when that stone rolled away.

The broken One became the Risen One; we too, will share in that part of Jesus' story.  He walked into our story; we will one day walk into that final chapter of His life over death.  We will enter into eternity and worship His Father.   

It is interesting that Luke adds another detail that Mark and Matthew do not: Jesus' death on the cross shows its power already in progress when Jesus invites the believing thief, who has shown an open heart to His message, to join Him in paradise.  If Jesus, even at His most helpless, could offer salvation to a willing soul, how much more now does He offer it as the Son crowned in heaven? 

Even at our most helpless, the Son still reaches out to us thieves, dying of our own sin and desperate to believe in Someone beyond ourselves.

John adds a final detail to Jesus' words on the cross, that ring down through the ages and pulls us out of the miry clay and puts our feet on higher ground: "It is finished."

Amen.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

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