human suffering

Pie in the Sky: A Big Reason People Reject Institutionalized Christianity

You've heard the old American idiom "pie in the sky," haven't you?  Maybe you've even formed a sentence with the phrase.  We tend to use it when we're referring to a promise of something that has low likelihood of happening right now.  "Good luck with that," we'll say similarly. Origins of "Pie in the Sky"

Joe Hill, 1911

Do you know where the phrase originated?  The idiom "pie in the sky" was first coined way back in 1911 in America by a Swedish-born itinerant worker named Joe Hill.  Joe belonged to one of the labor unions of that day, The Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, and wrote songs for them.  One of his tunes grew in popularity.  Titled The Preacher and the Slave, it was composed as a criticism of The Salvation Army's theology and philosophy, specifically their concentration on the salvation of souls rather than the feeding of the hungry.  The song parodied the Army's heavy use of the hymn "The Sweet By and By" which Christians still enjoy singing today.  Here's the opening verse and chorus:

"Long-haired preachers come out every night, Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right; But when asked how 'bout something to eat They will answer with voices so sweet:

Chorus: You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay, You'll get pie in the sky when you die."

"Good Luck ... We're Praying for You"

Pie in the Sky.  In other words, "Sorry, folks.  We know you don't have much to eat right now, but just hang in there.  When Jesus returns, it will all be different--you'll get your pie in the sky.  In the mean time, we're praying for you."

"It's All Going to Hell Anyway"

This attitude and philosophy gets expanded to, "Since Jesus is coming back soon and the earth will be destroyed, with the righteous being saved to Heaven, we really shouldn't spend too much time and energy trying to fix this world.  We should invest our energies into saving people's souls before it's too late."  Pie in the Sky.

I've heard many Christians say these very words to me in conversation.  And I have to be honest--every time I hear this I cringe.  I'm angered.  Not because I don't believe in paying attention to people's souls.  Not because I don't think people should be concerned about Heaven.  But because it communicates such a narrow, limited, destructive view of life right now.  When people are suffering and dying from starvation, poverty, AIDS, other diseases, natural disasters, economic injustice, torture and killing, slavery, environmental destruction, hatred and greed ... in the midst of theses painful realities, the best the Church can do is offer "pie in the sky"--after all, it's all going to be destroyed in the end, anyway?

Why People Reject Christianity

It is this Christian belief that is one of the big reasons I hear all the time as to why people reject Christianity as a viable spiritual belief and practice system.  In fact, the fastest growing religious demographic in America these days is the Nones, those who are intentionally choosing not to be affiliated or attached to religious organizations.  They're the famous "wanting spiritual but not religious."  More than one in five are in this category.  And it has a lot to do with this limited belief that church people often portray in word and deed. A Pie in the Sky theology.

So people respond, "Why would I want to be a part of a religion whose followers are more concerned about the next life than the quality of this life for the whole world?  Why would I want to join a group that cares more about the after life and getting there rather than helping fix what's wrong right now by bringing compassion and service to the suffering everywhere?"

The sad irony is that the Founder of Christians at the beginning--Jesus--had more to say about how people are to live right now than about getting ready for a coming kingdom.  In fact, Jesus' primary emphasis was about the Kingdom of God being here right now, in the present, and learning how to live out the values of God's kingdom now in the face of a pseudo-righteous church institution and an unjust empire.  His emphasis was so dangerous to the status quo that he was executed.

Jesus' Lord's Prayer Establishes Our Priority

Albrecht Durer's Working Praying Hands

When he taught his disciples to pray--what we call The Lord's Prayer--the opening request is "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  This isn't an expression of longing and hope for the Second Coming.  It is an ardent, passionate desire and surrender to cooperating with God so God's will would be done on earth right now.  That's a powerful introduction to a prayer, isn't it?

It's like Jesus is saying, "Look, don't even think about making any other requests to God until you surrender to the task of bringing God's will to bear on all of life in the present.  When you've aligned with that Will, then bring your own needs to God.  'Give us our daily bread.  And forgive us as we forgive our debtors.'"

Not "Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by."  But "pie on earth in the sweet and sometimes sour now."

An Echo of the Old Testament Prophets

By introducing that part of the Lord's Prayer, Jesus was intentionally echoing the vision of the prophets of old which descriptively and passionately pictured "a world where all people are treated equally, cared for, respected, fed and nurtured for the wonderful creations of God that they are; a world where all people regardless of color, sex, race, religion, political party, nationality or sexual orientation have a voice and a place; a world where people and nations, as the Prophet Isaiah put it, 'beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; where nation no longer takes up sword against nation; where war is no longer learned' (Isaiah 2:1-5)."  (Dr. Steve McSwain)

This is the world Jesus came to establish and build.  Not a Pie in the Sky in the Sweet By and By kind of exclusively future hope, but a dig in, get your hands dirty, working tirelessly to press God's compassion to every corner of the broken world kind of lifestyle.  People need the pie right now, after all!  "For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the whole world" (Mark 10:45).  "I have come that you will have life, an abundant life" (John 10), not a pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, but right now, in this life and in all the ages to come.

Everyone Deserves A Piece of the Pie Now


I wonder how people would feel about a Church that chose to pray seriously this first part of the Lord's Prayer--prayed so seriously that they actually went about intentionally and courageously and compassionately bringing God's powerful will of compassion and care to the enormous and painful needs of this world?

It's time to give everyone a piece of the pie right now.  And some day, in the sweet by and by, we'll all together enjoy more pie!


Transformational Spirituality Pays Attention to Walls

Gordon MacDonald, author and speaker on spirituality, tells about one Christmas vacation when their son Mark flew home from college and greeted his parents with an unexpected gift – a cute little ferret named Bandit.  Unexpected, for sure.  And not exactly a gift they were hoping for. But in the following weeks, the cute little furry animal worked its way into their hearts – Bandit was cuddly, fun, funny.  They enjoyed him.

But enjoyment stopped after about four months.  Bandit began to grow up, and they started learning the hard way that adult ferrets can become nasty – they bite, they exert independence by neglecting simple hygiene producing a stinky house – it all overwhelmed their delicate senses.

Gordon and his wife Gail soon lost all affection for this Christmas gift critter.  Which led them to begin considering how they could get “rid” of Bandit.  The idea finally emerged:  Why don’t we take Bandit up to our cabin in the woods and give him his freedom.  After all, the acres of forest and woods will be perfect for him to live and roam and enjoy!  Nothing there will be bothered by his smelly habits!

Gail said she’d feel more comfortable if she could first go and talk to the pet store people to see what they thought.  Later that day, she came home and told Gordon:  “The pet store people explained that we shouldn’t release a tamed ferret (or any tamed animal for that matter) in the woods.  It would be dead within twenty-four hours because it wouldn’t know how to find its own food and it wouldn’t know who its enemies are or how to defend itself again them.”

The irony of the situation struck them both.  By taming this ferret, by taking it out of the real world and teaching it to live in the safety and seclusion of their nice home, they had destroyed its ability to live where it had been born to inhabit.  It could never be a free ferret.

Is it possible we do the same thing with our faith and our spirituality?  By trying to forge faith and spirituality within the exclusive confines of a personal, small, safe, isolated, and secluded world, we create a faith that doesn’t work in the real world – a limited faith and spirituality – a potentially timid, narrow, insecure, ineffective, unliberated spirituality.

I love the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it.  Bonhoeffer was the Protestant pastor in Germany during WWII who became convicted that he should preach and write against Hitler and the genocidal Nazi regime.  He boldly broke ranks with many Christian leaders of that time who were either silent or supportive of Nazism.  He ended up being arrested and jailed and then finally executed by Hitler just as the Allied Forces struck the final blow of liberation in Europe.  Here’s what he wrote:

“It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith … By this worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.”

Effective spirituality, transformational spirituality, has to be forged and lived in the real world.  It has to work and make sense and produce positive effect in the WHOLE world, not just our safe, small worlds.

So in my spiritual community Second Wind, we’ve had a series during September called “APPLYING YOUR SPIRITUALITY TO THIS WEEK’S GLOCAL HOT SPOT."  Our goal is to inform our spirituality by means of seeing the rest of the world beyond our individual lives.  So each week, we focused in on a current issue taking place in the world (*GLOCAL = think global + act local).  What is the “crisis/need/situation” – what are the issues involved – who are the people involved – how is the situation being currently handled – how are we impacted?  And how does this situation inform and shape our spirituality?  What kind of spirituality does it take to work in this situation?

The whole attempt is to inform our spirituality and faith with the real world, opening ourselves up to a bigger picture than we would typically allow for ourselves.

This last Saturday we looked at the current plight of the Roma, Europe's largest minority group that originally migrated from Northwestern India back in the 11th century.  They traditionally held slave-type positions among the aristocracy and monasteries of Central and Western Europe.  And now they find themselves spread out all over the continent and beyond, often living in camps under squalid and marginalized conditions from the rest of society, barely able to eke out subsistence to stay alive and provide for themselves.  Last year, Amnesty International described current realities:  "The Roma community suffers massive discrimination throughout Europe. Denied their rights to housing, employment, health care and education, Roma are often victims of forced evictions, racist attacks and police ill-treatment."

The Roma have especially been in the news the last few months as France's President Nicolas Sarkozy moved to expel over 1,000 Roma from his country back to Romania and Bulgaria, creating quite a firestorm of controversy among the nations of the European Union.  It's forcing leaders to address this significant humanitarian crisis within their borders.

So how does our spirituality and faith inform our response to this contemporary situation?  How does this significant human need shape and inform our spirituality and faith?

Timothy Egan, in The New York Times last week said it well:  “Perhaps the best way to judge the health of a nation’s heart is by how it treats the shunned.”

He's certainly echoing the sentiments of historic sacred scriptures.  Jesus himself put it this way:  "If you've shown compassion to one of the least of these, you've shown it to me."

In other words, a Christlike heart (a healthy heart) manifests Christlike compassion, especially to the shunned and marginalized of our world (in Jesus' statement of what the final judgment is about, he refers to acts of compassion to the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, and prisoner).  And the amazing thing about Jesus' statement - that reveals how important this issue is to Jesus and the values of God's Kingdom - is that when we show compassion to those in need, we are in reality showing compassion to Jesus - Jesus incarnates himself within the "shunned" person so that we're actually encountering and relating to Jesus himself.  And in the End, says Jesus, we are judged by our response to these people (and therefore to him).  Quite a different paradigm from the picture of Judgment so many religious groups paint of the End, where we're judged by what we believe, by our subscription to the doctrines of those religions and how closely we align with them.

Transformational spirituality is informed by a global view of the world, not just our narrow individual every day worlds.  Transformational spirituality, the kind that really works and makes a difference, chooses to actively engage with the "least of these," refusing to ignore the shunned, the strangers among us, the aliens and foreigners, the dispossessed, the refugees and immigrants, the sexual "other," all of those people groups who are too often labeled and judged as "less than" or wrong or unworthy for whatever reason.

This is a raw and honest kind of spirituality that refuses the easy way out, that allows itself to be confronted by those most unlike us, that chooses to look beyond the surface and in fact discover that we are one family under God, interconnected, interdependent, and intertwined in the life of this planet.  How we navigate this complex, complicated, and yet very human journey is how we are ultimately judged, says Jesus.  Sobering and yet exciting and brimming with possibility!

I'm reminded of Robert Frost's profound poem Mending Wall.  He pictures himself and his neighbor walking along the stone fence that separates their two properties, talking together about the purpose of the wall, the sections that need mending and how.  His neighbor's view is that "good fences make good neighbors."  He, however, doesn't see it that way.

"There where it is we do not need the wall: / He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. / He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: / 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it / Where there are cows? / But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, / And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down.'"

Transformational spirituality is about taking down walls where there shouldn't be any.  It's about refusing to shut ourselves out from the "shunned."  It's about engaging the world of hurt, human suffering and pain.  It's about not allowing our sight to become mono-focused and narrow to our own little worlds.  It's about compassion for "the least of these."

Rarely easy to do.  I admit.  But, as Timothy Egan reminds us, it reveals the true health of our hearts.  And who among us doesn't want a healthy heart!

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