I'm a lapsed Christian. Then so is my pastor. The Rev. Freddie T. Piphus has been disengaged from leadership at Lincoln Heights Missionary Baptist Church (LHMBC). And it disturbs me to say so.
The reasons for Piphus' dismissal aren't evident, because no one besides God and Piphus really knows what went down. Oh, there have been years of speculation, accusation and frustration. Many of the die-hard, faithful tithers have left the congregation.
There were meetings. Rumors of meetings. Loyalties have been decided and divided. Rightfully so.
Piphus brought the sprawling church -- with its outreach, three Sunday services, progressive ministries and effervescent messages -- up from its humble Byrd Street beginnings. Young, dynamic and anointed, perhaps Piphus' greatest gift was integrating the needs of the Old Saints (the members whose faith, prayers and loyalty sustained the old church) with the needs of the younger, affluent and spiritually rootless members who, together, built his dream of a cross-generational progressive black Baptist congregation.
With his sermons on finishing -- a prayer, a task, a job, a relationship, you name it -- he was antithetical to the Old Jack/Up From Slavery preachers spitting into handkerchiefs, rubbing their brows and ignoring Scripture. His messages were practical, his progressivism notorious.
Newspapers profiled and quoted him. Other preachers and congregations requested audiences with him.
During a series on depression, he introduced to the congregation Christian-based therapists. It saved my life. I connected with one, navigated my depression and emerged more sane and stable.
If Piphus hadn't veered from tendencies of typical black Baptist ministries, I wouldn't be writing this today. He was the Kirk Franklin of the postmodern black Baptist pulpit
And like the Gospel impresario who weds grinding musical sensibilities of urban Hip Hop to the traditional mores of old-school Gospel, Piphus was a hip Pied Piper. He preached in jeans and sweaters. Congregants came to church relaxed and casual. Everything he touched and every word he spoke was golden.
He was fond of saying the church was "doing a new thing." And it worked. For a while.
Then somewhere there was a shift, then a rut. There was trickery of biblical proportions.
These are the rumors: An extramarital affair or affairs, a drastic drop in membership and noticeably low tithing. Plus a closer move to Charismatic Christianity, which embodies a reliance on personal religious experiences, divinely inspired powers and speaking in tongues.
And it looks like trouble in paradise.
I'd stopped attending LHMBC about three years ago, mostly because of transportation issues. But also I'd grown disenchanted with black churches. I'd been a faithful attendee of the 8 a.m. Sunday service. Maybe my feelings foreshadowed a rumbling dissatisfaction overall.
Once you start missing, though, it's easy to keep missing. I started back, coincidentally at this tenuous time, because I'd bought a hooptie.
So here we are. And now a pall hangs over the church.
Congregants -- some, not all -- splintered off into factions of the pro-Piphus kind, the never-mind kind and the let's-get-on-with-the-business-of-kingdom-building kind.
Pro-Piphus campers issued a recent letter stating his innocence and that the board of deacons and trustees overreacted. That's fraught with denial. If it weren't, he wouldn't have shown up to meetings with an attorney.
Piphus had been banned from church grounds and the locks changed, but his supporters called for a meeting at the church the following mid-week. Prior to it, a statement was read at all three services. It said Piphus had signed and agreed to a "separation package."
Severance? Who knows? What I do know is Christians, would-be Christians and play-acting Christians and their churches aren't immune to weaknesses -- flesh, financial and otherwise. In fact, they're especially in the cross hairs.
I columnized this breakdown in the body of Christ to document and testify that we've all sinned and fallen short.
Sinning preachers aren't new. Do they owe us more than who we're capable of being? Yep.
Remember when they first took the pulpit? They claimed a calling. They're supposed to be special, so disappointment is mandatory; yet, disappointment cannot sustain.
This normally isn't the space for such conversations. The Piphus debacle has been washed in the blood of secrets and lies. LHMBC sailed for years on a glorious sea of abundant blessings. Its members seemed empowered, infallible, even haughty.
There's now a new crop of members who think their way of worship and biblical scholarship supercedes all others. To them Hell is the resting place for anyone dissimilar.
Proverbs 16:18 says, "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall."
When Piphus shepherded the church, he'd never tolerate divisive, classist and arrogant thinking. But he's not there anymore.
His dismissal, his absence and the sadness that an entire congregation is wandering in the wilderness is itself a tale from the Scripture. And just like in those biblical stories, we need Jesus. We need redemption.
Weeping might endure for a night. But joy's coming in the morning.
Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.