unidentifiable remains (the church, post-orlando)

I was fascinated a few years ago when the remains of King Richard III were found under a parking lot in England. Richard died in 1485; I was amazed anything identifiable still remained at all.

This week, there is news of other royal remains: archeologists believe Henry I may rest under another parking lot in another city in England. Henry died in 1135 of food poisoning. He gorged himself on his favorite unhealthy stuff, and then he died.

There is a lesson in here.

But first, it’s worth sharing a couple of tidbits from the news story of the discovery, the details of Henry’s reign, recounted on the website of the History Channel. Discussing Henry’s ascendancy, usurping the higher claim of his older brother, the story says,

“Henry proved to be an effective, if repressive, ruler, strengthening the monarchy and establishing a rigid administrative system that kept the realm functioning efficiently. He also stood out for his rampant womanizing; he fathered some two dozen illegitimate children, more than any other British monarch in history. In one gruesome incident, Henry is said to have let two of his own granddaughters be mutilated (their eyes poked out and the tips of their noses cut off) as part of a political quarrel.”

None of that surprises me, politics of the dark and middle ages being what they were. (And I’m not sure why I just relegated that to those “less enlightened” times.) Henry was a power broker, a power monger, a political animal. Power is a drug, and Henry’s bad behaviors could all be symptoms of his addiction.

The story went on to tell how they think he may have ended up in a parking lot. There used to be a church there, Henry’s favorite. He was buried at the church, under the altar. Four hundred years later, the church was torn down, when Henry VIII had a fit of anti-Catholicism. Three hundred years after that, a prison was built on the site. Which eventually included ample parking.

And then, this, my favorite part of the story, recounting the mullings of the historian leading the search: “Henry was a reforming king and would have been fascinated by the idea of cars and transport, and may well have liked being buried under a car park,” Mullaney told the (New York) Times. On the other hand, he continued, “He was a religious man and so I think he would have preferred being buried in a church.”

So, to recap, Henry allowed a political rival to poke his granddaughters’ eyes out. But he was a religious man and wanted to be buried in the church.

This week, lesbian, gay, transgender and other queer folks are still reeling from a massacre of 50 of us in an Orlando nightclub, and many of our families and allies are still grieving the loss of life – as well, perhaps, as the loss of their own innocent belief that LGB people’s battles are done. (Even the most insulated would have a hard time hiding from the battle over bathrooms waged openly against our transgender brothers and sisters.)

And we mourn and pray and shake our heads, and wonder whether anything will ever be different, whether we will ever regain any sense of responsibility to one another or any sense of national well-being or human equilibrium. Signs are not good.

And then this: a Tennessee lawmaker is giving away two assault rifles, similar to the ones used in the slaughter, giving them away as door prizes at a fund-raising event. To be fair, he had already announced the event (with one AR-15 door prize) BEFORE the patrons of the Pulse nightclub were terrorized and executed. But after the shooting, he changed his plans. He decided to give away a second weapon. “I’m sick and tired of the media and liberal politicians attacking our right to keep and bear arms,” he posted on Facebook.

On a hunch, I googled the legislator and learned he has previously drafted anti-gay legislation.

I also learned he is a deacon in his Baptist church.

In other news, the Washington Post told of a Sacramento pastor who posted a sermon online decrying the fact that the shooter in Orlando didn’t get them all.

“People say, like: ‘Well, aren’t you sad that 50 sodomites died?’…. Um, no, I think that’s great. I think that helps society. You know, I think Orlando, Fla., is a little safer tonight…. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is — I’m kind of upset that he didn’t finish the job!”

One could say none of this is surprising. Even as a package, it is so, so common. “Good Christian” equals anti-gay, pro-gun. It’s practically the American way.

I think about Henry I. He died of food poisoning, and probably not unrelated to his power addiction. “He was a religious man and would have wanted to be buried in a church,” said the historian, though he sacrificed his granddaughters to mutilation for some political gain. He gorged himself on his favorite unhealthy stuff, and then he died of food poisoning.

And I think about the Church, the remains of Jesus. The abominable ways we read scripture, the distorted tales we tell of the early church, the misguided perception we have of Jesus’ own life, the way we often usurp a higher claim. Are we complicit? Do we just continue to gorge ourselves, poison ourselves, on unhealthy stuff to our own detriment? How do we mutilate the body of Christ for power, political or otherwise?

Given our history, and as with Henry, I am amazed anything identifiable still remains at all.

So this is what I mean when I lift up the biblical theology of “remnant” — the Christ-like identifiable remains. In our world, there are still faithful people, people of all faiths, who are not an embarrassment to God. Let us strive ever to be among them.

jesus at gunpoint

I had a day yesterday of not liking people very much. Among other things, I was told about an exciting new ministry (not in Flint) with which I surely should find a way to partner. They do such good stuff, you know. Feeding people, sharing hot drinks on cold days, playing basketball with children, making people feel at home. All of which is great, and all of which is done by thousands of organizations across the country. But this organization is different, and I’ll forego the partnership, thanks.

First, I read the ministry’s mission statement, which, by the way, isn’t really a mission statement. It says something like “we exist to do things consistent with our mission.” So does Wells Fargo. So does the US Army. Neither of which is a community-based ministry, despite what they may say on the commercials and recruiting posters.

Next, I watched a short video of the leader, and learned how God had led him to this ministry and given him a building. In a neighborhood not unlike much of Flint, the community center was cheap and the seller threw in the house next door for free. Which surely must be God, and not the ravages of a rigged economy. I’m sure God won’t mind taking the credit/blame yet again.

Then, I read the sparse info on the still under-development website, and learned that the minister’s goal was to inject all the people with the love of Jesus. Which sounds violent and painful. And made me think of all the other missions and ministries which inject people with various things, like English and western clothing and iPhones and capitalism and revisionist history, often in the name of Jesus. All the ways that we’ve colonized so many peoples over the history of Christianity. Yes, we say, we’ll bring grain and bibles, and make sure you’re nourished on our food and our religion. Yes, we’ll provide powdered baby formula in a country where there is a dearth of clean water. Just sign this irrevocable loan agreement and hand over the keys to your future. Yes, we’ll provide whatever you need, in exchange for you becoming more like us, more open to our co-opting of your resources and commodities for our global trade needs, and more attentive to an eventual heaven rather than the desirability of a temporal revolution.

Then I found out they are “partnering” with the local public elementary school, doing God knows what, while taking  pictures of the children for their social media use. Because parents living in poverty don’t have enough to worry about, don’t have to face down enough threats to their children’s security. But who has money for an attorney, and why would anyone expect to afford the same consideration – that is, legal right – to those parents as to their more economically resourced white, suburban counterparts? They are merely fodder for our feel-good; they should appreciate all that we’re doing for them. Hundreds of Christmas presents, after all. Plus the hot chocolate and basketball.

Next I learned they are bankrolled by a giant congregation that seems to delight in establishing a similar presence in vulnerable neighborhoods across the region. All the while gathering CEOs of far-too-wealthy corporations and thousands of members who reliably vote for purveyors of the conservative social policies that got us into this mess to start with. A sort of whacked out economic Munchausen’s syndrome by spiritual proxy. It’s all pretty screwed up. Pretty exploitative. Like colonialism but without the need for vaccinations or a passport.

Then, God provided me with a real-life metaphor. Apparently, according to a Christian news outlet, the leader of this ministry encountered a burglar in his kitchen, and while he waited for the police, he talked to the burglar about the love of Jesus. While holding him at gunpoint.

Jesus at gunpoint. When ministries use human need as an opportunity to force religious dogma.

I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, except to say this: some people may think Woodside Church isn’t really Christian, doesn’t talk enough about Jesus, is too accepting of other faiths, isn’t really religious enough. But I think the way we do faith here is more consistent with Jesus himself than so many things that get done in his name. We have questions here, about everything. We try to meet human need where we can, and we work to make connections among the political, societal and spiritual parts of our lives. We live a public faith that is continually under construction, continually seeking ways to strengthen the common good and repair a world shredded by insatiable self-dealing, including our own.

Maybe we could do more. And maybe we will, as our mission continues to evolve in response to our changing city. But I think Flint needs us, a challenging voice clear about the emperor’s lack of clothing, a welcoming place for people to be themselves.

Always welcome, and never at gunpoint.


(This appears today in Woodside World, the newsletter of Woodside Church, Flint, MI)