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

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

Albrecht Durer’s 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

images

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!

 

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2 thoughts on “Pie in the Sky: A Big Reason People Reject Institutionalized Christianity

  1. The Scriptures and Christ in particular very clearly teach a “bias toward action.” Belief systems, dogmas and doctrines, are what we created after the doing was done. I think the Gospel is pretty clear that if you do not do it, don’t live it, then you’re lost (in more ways than one). “Pie in the Sky” makes me cringe too. Great post Greg, loved the last one on “Institutionalized Christianity” too.

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