Little Church by the Harbor, by Bill Henderson

I am 76 years old and I have been listening to sermons for all those 76 years. My religiously devout parents took me to church from the get-go. I had the longest string of perfect attendance pins in the history of the Oak Park Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia — one of the longest strings of perfect attendance pins in the whole of the U.S.A. I have heard thousands of sermons, sung millions of hymns, and heard the Bible explained in trillions of ways.

Often while listening or singing I have wished I had a basket of rotten fruit to heave at the pulpit and express my opinion of the preacher — such nonsense from the pulpit, such pap in the hymns, such utter confusion in Bible spinning. 

I have often thought that any of us in our little church in Springs could cook up any new religion at all from the Bible. It is so endlessly confusing and contradictory and too often appallingly violent. 

Once I took my 12-year-old daughter to a Bible discussion group at my Congregational church in Maine. A liberal bunch are these Congregationalists (at least in Maine), but Lily was so appalled by the violence of the Bible stories, she swore she would never go back to another Bible class. “How can you explain all that killing when you speak of Christians as people who love God and love their neighbor,” she said. In essence she pointed out that we’re all either hypocrites or psychotic. 

And yet that is what Jesus said, these few simple words: “Love God, love your neighbor.” We say God is love, and therefore, at least in my calculation, love is God. Love is the spirit that surrounds us, or should. That’s where we should be, in the spirit. But too often — daily — we stray from love to pettiness and hate and casual violence.

How is it that this Christian nation is also among the most violent? More mass shootings than any country on the planet. A love of guns that often equals our love of the church. Where does this violence come from? Why do we sit quietly and listen to our politicians speak of wiping out North Korea — which means millions of deaths, people like you and me? And we tolerate politicians who treat these people as nothing. We hear lie after lie from our politicians and we see violent death after violent death on our screens and think nothing of it. 

Is it that we Christians have been infected by our own Bible? “Guns and God” is what some of us worship, said a former president. Is that who we are as a nation? As Americans?

Consider if you would the New and the Old Testaments. We start with genocide. This God ethnically cleanses the earth and sends Noah out on a ship to save a few lucky critters, including us. When I was a kid in Sunday school we loved this tale — think of the neat animals, the fortunate humans, the great sea adventure. Never once did our kindly teacher mention the slaughter of innocents that this God had brought about — the millions of little kids dead in the sea. Imagine the stench of their decaying bodies. We kids were not encouraged to think about any of that gloomy stuff. God made a mistake in his creation so he wiped it out. What a rollicking tale. 

Then we come to Abraham and Isaac. Abe wanted to prove to God what a loyal fellow he was. His devotion and his willingness to sacrifice his only son are the basis for three religions — Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. He stakes out Isaac on a hill and prepares to kill him when, presto, God lets him off the hook. In some interpretations he does kill Isaac. 

What a fine example to us Christians. Instead of suggesting that he be locked up after all these years, we admire Abraham. But of course this history of child murder is not over. Many more human sacrifices follow. We come to the tale of God and his only son, Jesus. The lamb slain by his dad to erase the sins of the world. I’m not buying that spin and neither should any Christian. 

We do not worship baby killers. We are not a religion of human sacrifice. This has nothing to do with who Jesus was or who Jesus thought he was.

But just to make it even worse for those of us who worship the God of love, we run smack into Revelation at the end of the Bible — a bloody bookend with Genesis. Revelation is nothing less than a bloodbath of vengeance. Odd 10-horn beasts and various hate-inspired monsters slather the world in gore. Revelation alone has inspired more human violence than almost any book, including “Mein Kampf.”

I bring all this up to suggest to you why the Christian Church worldwide is in decline. The cathedrals of Europe are empty; American churches are in free fall. Our own little church — which is precious to me — has dropped to less than half its size in the 25 years I’ve been a member there. 

My friends are amazed I still call myself a practicing Christian. They consider the hypocrisy, the fundamentalist, evangelical jihads that support a racist, a liar, a philanderer, and woman abuser in power, a cruel narcissistic would-be tyrant who calls himself a Presbyterian. This is why our churches are failing. We have forgotten Christ. Christ was about love, forgiveness — a gentle man who abhorred violence. A rebel surrounded by a vicious Roman occupation and a rule-bound, power-mad organized religion. They killed him for daring to point to a different idea — a God of love, compassion, healing, empathy. 

This is the divine person Christians have worshiped over 2,000 years, about whom organized religion — and yes, I include the Presbyterian structure — has made up rules and myths such as walking on water, rising from the dead, casting some of us into hellfire, including unbaptized babies, to say nothing of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the endless stream of wars fought in his name. All these ridiculous and blasphemous ideas and adventures in the name of the Prince of Peace.

I think, in order to save our precious Jesus and precious little church, we must get back to the divinity who inspired us originally. The Jesus of love, of forgiveness, of turning the other cheek, of total nonviolence. I think, as Jesus said, God is love and love is indeed God. We must remember this or our Christianity and our beautiful Springs church will perish.

Bill Henderson is an elder at the Springs Presbyterian Church. He edits the annual Pushcart Prize, and his latest memoir is “Cathedral.”