The Devil in the Church

I don't want to go back to that March Sunday in 2018, when I first attended worship at The River at Tampa Bay.

I don't want to feel again that heart-pounding anxiety, that sense of wrongness deep in my soul, the intense reality of the presence of evil amidst so many earnest Christians, desperate that - like the young woman who gave her testimony - their financial contributions would lead to a new car.

I don't want to return to the night when I walked in past that front door, the door that told me the pastors were strapped and locked and loaded, that they'd defend "their own" with guns inside the sanctuary.

Sign posted on the front doors of The River at Tampa Bay Church

I can still hear it now, legions of people lying flat on their backs and laughing maniacally, after the pastor pushed their foreheads to the floor. One longtime churchgoer there told me he didn't agree, that the so-called Holy Spirit laughter had been manipulated out of the people. But they laughed anyway, out of their minds,  until they walked outside to a massive burning fire, whose orange flames leapt to the sky and devoured whatever the people threw into it.

The financial offerings, of course, were kept far from the fire. These treasures were held sacred, next to the American flags and bookstore selling only books written by lead pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, about Killing Uncle Sam.

I remember texting my editor, "If you don't hear from me in 30 minutes, call 911."

Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, photo and caption credit, Tampa Bay Times


***

I'm making myself go back there now, two years later, because the world needs to know about the River at Tampa Bay, and the greedy, deceptive, idolatrous, would-be savior pastors who have destroyed American Christianity.

I'm making myself go back there now, because as of Tuesday, Howard-Browne was out on bail, charged with unlawful assembly and violating Hillsborough (FL) County's stay-at-home order, for holding mass worship services during a global pandemic, risking the lives of vulnerable congregation members to feed his ego and his pocketbook.

***

Coronavirus came to America around the same time as Ash Wednesday, a day when we still allowed people outside our homes and families to touch our foreheads and mark us with a symbol of sin, death, and resurrection.

Coronavirus came to America at perhaps the worst time for the Church, canceling Wednesday night soup suppers and Lenten services and Palm Sunday processions and Maundy Thursday foot-washing and First Communions, and Good Friday Tenebrae choral services and, worst of all, church Easter egg hunts and Easter potluck breakfasts put on by seniors and pink and light blue Easter dresses and the brass blaring Jesus Christ is Ris'n Today, ALL-ALL-ALL-LAY-LUOOYAH

I am a Lutheran Pastor, so I know this first-hand. I know that our church year centers on this time of year, before people leave the pews for summer baseball and cabins and working in the yard. I know that most of our churches are hanging by a thread, dipping into endowment funds to patch the roof and pay the janitor, or cleaning the church ourselves week in and week out. I know that many churches survive financially by Christmas Eve and Easter, that we've become utterly irrelevant to much of American society and we have to rely on the slightly guilt-inducing ritual of passing the offering plate to maintain our decrepit buildings and weary leaders. I know.

Coronavirus came to America at perhaps the most critical time for the Church, reminding us that the Holy Spirit does not dwell in arching cathedrals or sound-optimized auditoriums or Instagram-ready baptismal pools. We are the Church, sins, scandals, lies, bankruptcy, indebtedness, desperation, abuse, prayerfulness, meal-making, food-pantry-preparing, Bible-reading and all.

When Coronavirus came and began to steal lives around the world, it stormed into churches, jump-starting an outbreak in South Korea, and canceling Mass even at the Vatican. When Coronavirus came, we had to look in the mirror to remember who we were. Would we continue doing what we'd always done, how we'd always done it, to save ourselves and sacrifice the weakest among us? Would we strive to be martyred saviors ourselves, risking our lives for, we told ourselves, the sake of our flock?

Or would we refuse to continue to allow American culture and capitalism to rewrite the Christian narrative? Would we turn anew to a Biblical narrative in which Jesus reprioritizes the 99 so that he might save one lost sheep? Would we risk our financial well-being to make of our church communities an offering to the re-moralizing of America?

***

Remember that old ghost story people used to tell? Where the babysitter keeps getting threatening phone calls, and hanging up, and the caller keeps calling and she's so scared and the story builds and builds until - SCREAM - she realizes the caller is INSIDE THE HOUSE.

American Christians have been searching for evil outside our house for too many years. We blamed the degradation of society on anyone but ourselves, castigating feminists, LGBTQ people, immigrants, drug addicts, the poor.

My Christian siblings, it haunts me to write these words as we prepare to celebrate Jesus' resurrection, but in the age of coronavirus, I have no other choice.

The Devil is in the Church.

He is watching his stocks rise and fall with the advent of Coronavirus, from outside his second home, and he's making Facebook videos saying he's praying for you and he hopes you buy his book - and maybe even a special holy prayer oil that will protect you.

He is telling you to share the peace with your neighbor as you spread the virus in the pews and place your offering in the offering plate.

He's scheduling bus drivers across Louisiana to pick you up from your homes and bring you to his church, knowing you are desperate for a cure and good news, and he's telling you that maybe if you just give a little bit more this month, you'll be protected and saved.

He takes your last dollar and sends you an inspiring reminder about worship next Sunday. He tells stories of miracles in the Bible and acts like he can do miracles, that he too is a Savior, and he pretends the Holy Spirit is on-call for him only, subject to the whims and sporadic needling of a conservative American Christian culture that is rotten on the inside, beholden to lobbyists and money and hatred. Utterly rootless and adrift, foot soldiers for a self-aggrandizing president who promises to save Easter but claims he has nothing at all to confess first.

Jesus - remember him? He long ago turned over the tables of the money-changers at the Temple, and so do not look for him on-stage at your local megachurch, sitting at a table with proper lighting and background singers and AV workers. Jesus is hiding in the bathroom, guarding the janitor who makes minimum wage and still has to come and clean the church after thousands gathered here Sunday, manipulated into homage for a Golden American Calf, leaving behind traces of a deadly virus that spreads more quickly than faith and forgiveness.

Easter will come again this year. The date changes every year and so April 12 means little except a reminder that Jesus' resurrection happens without our help and without our money and without our church buildings. As countless little churches gather by Facebook Live or Zoom or phone, as parents read the Easter story to their children without the help of a massive play Ark and high-tech video screens - Jesus will rise again.

Church in America will never be canceled because the Church is not a building. It's a Church Council in the rural Midwest forming a phone tree to check on elderly members, and setting up Grandma on Facebook so she can watch services, and sharing online instructions for making homemade masks.

It's worried and anxious charity workers, donning masks and gloves to provide a meal for people who have nowhere else to go and nothing to eat.

It's an offering envelope, sent via mail, a commitment to a vision for an American church that is Pro-Life only when we sacrifice ourselves, our egos, our buildings, our offerings - so that those whom we love might live.

As for self-made saviors who sell out their congregations for one more week of in-person offerings and a chance to make headlines, a reminder: self-made Saviors never rise again.

Comments

  1. Angela, reading this blog after finishing your book (the one you reference in the blog) is interesting. This is a bit less nuanced than what I read in the book, but still of the same clarity. It does fit with your spot on 1A which is where I discovered your book.

    -----

    Regarding the book I want to say that I enjoyed it a lot. It helped me understand how so many of my good friends and fellow pastors could support someone whom I first thought was a joke and then was appalled by his evangelical support. As a self-described evangelical pastor I am devastated. And after being a life long Republican I now have to describe myself as an independant.

    Thanks for your hard work.

    Doug

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  2. Angela, thank you very much for this. Another way of saying "The devil is in the church" would be for people to understand the meaning of antichrist -- the ever-present problem of self-aggrandizing leadership within the church that gets in the way of Christ, puts itself "instead of Christ" (literal meaning of antichrist), and does great damage to the truth.

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