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Monday, June 29, 2015

Get Up and Walk! (A sermon on Mark 5:21-43)

One of the more confident claims made by historical Jesus scholars is that Jesus of Nazareth was a healer – he healed people. It is one of the most confident historical claims that can be made about Jesus of Nazareth. But if you asked these same scholars about a particular healing story – whether or not a particular story is historical – they would say maybe or maybe not. The reason they would say that is because they know that the individual healing stories in the Gospels are first and foremost not historical reports, but proclamations of the good news focused on the living Christ and his presence and power in his followers. So they function something like parables, though I’m sure many of them contain memories and echoes of specific healings.

In the story or rather stories before us Jesus crosses back into Jewish territory. I say stories rather than story, because we actually have two stories here fused together by Mark in his typical sandwiching style where he starts one story, has that story interrupted and then upon its conclusion, comes back to the first story. Here Jesus is first approached by a synagogue leader named Jairus. He falls down at the feet of Jesus and the text says “begged him repeatedly” to accompany him back to his home to heal his little girl.  

Jesus agrees. As they depart a large crowd presses in on Jesus and a woman who had been suffering with hemorrhages for 12 years presses through the crowd to touch Jesus, because she believes that if she can just touch his clothes she will be healed.  

What both Jairus and the woman have in common is that they are both desperate. Jairus’ daughter is at the point of death and he is so desperate to secure Jesus’ compassion for his little girl he falls down on his face begging. And this poor woman who had suffered for 12 years with this condition and had completely exhausted her means having “endured much from many physicians” pushes through the crowd, completely oblivious or uncaring that she was according to Jewish law unclean and so everyone she touched she rendered unclean. Both are desperate and they see Jesus as their last hope.

Sometimes, sisters and brothers, we have to be desperate before we are open to instruction and help that can bring healing and liberation. How many stories have we heard of addicts who had to suffer terribly, who had to endure much, who had to come to a place of utter desperation before they would admit their addiction and seek healing.

What we often miss or deny is that we are all addicts. Richard Rohr puts it this way, “Human beings are addictive by nature. Addiction is a modern name and honest description for the biblical tradition called ‘sin,’ and what medieval Christians called ‘passions’ or ‘attachments.’ They both recognized that serious measures, or practices were needed to break us out of these illusions and entrapments; in fact the New Testament calls them in some cases ‘exorcisms’!

Rohr points out that substance addictions like alcohol and drugs are merely the most visible forms of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything – our own defense mechanisms, and most especially our patterned way of thinking or how we process reality, which Rohr calls “stinking thinking.” We are all addicted to some form of stinking thinking, which is usually translated into actions and patterns of behavior, patterns of reacting and relating that smell up the place. And for some reason, we tend not be able to see what we are addicted to – it is typically ‘hidden’ from us, which is why it so often takes some major blow or hurt to remove the blinders.

Now, in both of these stories the touch of Jesus is emphasized. There are some healing stories in the Gospels where that is not the case, but here – clearly – touch is emphasized. The woman fights through the crowd and touches Jesus’ garment. Jesus senses that healing power has flowed out of him, so he turns around and says, “Who touched me?” The disciples think this odd because there were a lot of people touching him. But someone had touched Jesus on a deeper level, someone had connected with Jesus in a healing way – we could say a saving, liberating way.

The Greek word that is translated “to be made well” in vv. 23, 28, and 34 in our text is the same Greek word that is generally translated, outside the Gospels in the rest of the NT, as “to be saved.” To be made whole in the Gospels in other places is translated “to be saved. To be saved is to be healed or liberated in the Jesus stories. This is one clue, by the way, that these stories are about more than just physical healing.

When Jesus arrives at the home of Jairus they are greeted with the awful news, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any longer.” But Jesus turns to Jairus and says, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus is saying, “Don’t let fear overwhelm you, trust God’s healing power and trust me as an agent of God’s healing power.” Then, Jesus tells the mourners to stop mourning, because the child is not really dead, she is sleeping. The point that Jesus seems to be making is that it is time for her to wake up, it is time for her to get out of bed and rise up with new life and energy.

And maybe this is the word we near to hear today. What is it that is pressing us down like a sickness and keeping us from rising up and embracing life? It could be something physical over which we have no control. Or it could be something emotional or circumstantial or relational. It could be our “stinking thinking.”

Jesus removes all the naysayers and scoffers who can’t imagine that new life is possible. Then he touches her. He takes her by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up.” And Mark says that she got up and began to walk about.

What is this touch that heals and restores and brings new life and meaning? Well, it should be obvious to those of us who are followers of Jesus. It is the touch of love. Love is the power that can create life out of death.

On Friday, June 19 Dylann Roof, charged with nine counts of murder in the shooting deaths that occurred at Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, appeared before a bond hearing court. Family members and friends were permitted to speak to the suspect. Roof could hear them, but he couldn’t see them.

Anger was clearly acknowledged and expressed, but amazingly, in redemptive, not destructive ways. 

Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders said, “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts . . . and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza was my son . . . my hero . . . may God have mercy on you.”

Bethane Middleton-Brown, representing the family of the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor acknowledged her hurt and anger but then said, “We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God for your soul.”
Alana Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons said, “Although my grandfather and other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof – everyone’s plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”

Anthony Thompson, speaking on behalf of Myra Thompson declared, “I forgive you, my family forgives you. . . . Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you and you’ll be okay.”

The daughter of Ethel Lance said, “I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”

Can you imagine? Roof wanted to start a race war, but instead he heard these amazing declarations of grace.

Frankly, I don’t know how they did it. They are better Christians than I am. They were more filled with God’s Spirit than what I would have been. 

Such beautiful and powerful expressions are reflective of the power of love to prevail in the most horrible and evil of contexts. Such is the power of love to overcome in the midst of great hate and evil. Whenever disciples of Jesus talk about love winning this is what we mean. It’s a different kind of winning for sure.

And this is what it means to get up and walk in the midst of death. This is what it means to embrace life and peace rather than to give in to hate and vengeance and keep feeding the cycle of violence. This is the touch of Christ that can bring healing and liberation today.

So church, are we open to this touch? The touch of Christ may come to us through some expression of forgiveness by a friend or family member. It may come in the form of a personal presence, someone willing to sit with us, stare with us, listen to us express our own fears and insecurities without judging us or trying to correct us or make us feel guilty for feeling what we feel. Christ’s healing touch can come in many forms.

But we need to ask not only, “Am I open to the loving touch of Christ?” but we must go on and say, “Am I willing to be the loving touch of Christ?” Am I willing to be the presence of Christ to some brother or sister or community that needs to feel a loving touch, that needs to know that there is someone who cares.

Sometimes healing, God’s shalom, God’s peace and redemption come to us, not as the result of our own faith, but the faith of someone else, who simply refuses to give up on us like this father in our story who refused to give in to death. It takes some discernment, I think, to know how long to hang on and when to let go.

I wonder if there had been someone in the life of Dylann Roof who really loved him and refused to give up on him, if he would still have descended into this world of racist hate.

Amber Philips of the Washington Post interviewed Todd Blodgett who spent two years going undercover for the FBI at white supremacist meetings and conventions across the country. She asked him about the kind of person who is drawn into these racist hate groups. He said, “As a general rule, people who have got a lot of problems in their own lives. They often come from unstable families . . . It’s often a kid, usually a male, but sometimes a female, who cannot make it in school. He blames all his problems on someone else.” He says that when they log onto a hate web site or attend a racist meeting where they are blaming people that they already don’t like they think, ‘There it is. That’s why I am a drop out. That’s why I am addicted to drugs. That’s why I can’t get a job.” It becomes an effective scapegoat mechanism, almost like what Hitler did in the 30’s.

I wonder how many of these kids like Dylann Roof may have been turned around if someone would have been there to say, “I care about you. Don’t go down that path. You are better than this. This is not who you are.”

I’m sure you have heard faith stories, we use to call them testimonies, of people who have said, “I’m glad so and so didn’t give up on me.” It could be a parent or a brother or sister or a good friend or even an ex-husband or ex-wife.

Like the ex-wife who had remarried and went on with her life who said to her former husband, “Your daughter needs a father, so get your blankity life together. I’ll help you.” And she did and he did. And he is now a good father and a better person.  Sometimes we need someone to say, “Get up and walk and I will help you up and I will walk with you.”

You know sisters and brothers, sometimes we are the ones who must press through the challenges and obstacles blocking our path like the woman who pressed through the crowd to touch Jesus. There are other times we have no energy or ability or will to press through on our own and we are like this little girl in our story who is dependent on others. Sometimes we are too sick, too depressed, too fearful, too insecure, too this or that and we need someone who embodies God’s presence to touch us and help us get up.

And then there are those times when we have to ask ourselves and ask Christ who it is that needs our touch, who needs our presence, who needs our love and compassion and empathy. Who is it that needs us to stand with them or stand for them because they cannot stand by themselves?  

Our good God, I suspect that many of us are at different places in our spiritual pilgrimage and journey. Some of us may need to find the courage and strength to tackle the challenges that confront us, to press through the crowd, the naysayers, the negativity, the unbelief and not give up on your cause or give in to worldly pressures and enticements. Some of us perhaps are are being called to represent a loved one or friend, to stand with them and stand for them because they, for whatever reason, are too weak to stand on their own – not to cultivate dependence, but to empower them to get up and walk. Help us to be discerning in how we need to function as your disciples and increase our capacity to trust your love and grace to bring healing into our lives and the lives of those we love and are called to serve. 

Love Doesn't Really Win (or does it?)

On Friday, June 19, Dylann Roof, charged with nine counts of murder in the shooting deaths that occurred at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, appeared before a bond hearing court. Family members and friends were permitted to speak to the suspect. Roof could hear them, but he couldn’t see them.

Anger was clearly expressed, but in redemptive, not destructive ways. Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders said,

We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza was my son … my hero … may God have mercy on you.

Bethane Middleton-Brown, representing the family of the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor acknowledged her hurt and anger but then said,

We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God for your soul.

Alana Simmons, granddaughter of Daniel Simmons said,

Although my grandfather and other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof – everyone’s plea for your soul is proof they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.

Anthony Thompson, speaking on behalf of Myra Thompson declared,

I forgive you, my family forgives you… Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you and you’ll be okay.

The daughter of Ethel Lance said,

I forgive you. You took something really precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.

Such powerful expressions of forgiveness and mercy are reflective of the power of love to prevail in the most horrible and evil of contexts. When progressive Christians talk about love winning, this, of course, is what we mean.

Many of us also believe, however, that love can break down the most resistant and calloused among us and move them in a trajectory of transformation.

Some of us are hopeful universalists. We believe that even the likes of Dylann Roof, a child of God who allowed hate and prejudice to blind him to his solidarity and kinship with his African-American sisters and brothers, will ultimately repent (maybe not in this lifetime, but at some point in his eternal pilgrimage) and be redeemed. So ultimately love wins.

But in another sense love doesn’t win at all, because life in God’s kin-dom is not about winning. Life in God’s world is about completely stepping out of the game where winners and losers are assigned on the basis of comparison and competition.

Jesus told his disciples, who were caught up in an argument about who would be the greatest in God’s realm, that while the powerful of the world liked to exercise authority and control over others, they were to “be servants of all” (Mark 9:33-37; 10:41-44).

The way of Jesus is not about winning and losing, it’s about serving and loving, sometimes in the midst of great hate and evil — as the family and friends of loved ones tragically killed in a hate crime in Charleston, S.C. have so amazingly and beautifully shown us. 

(A slightly different version of this blog was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians website.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Christian Fundamentalism's Grand Illusion

I recently wrote two pieces published at Baptist News Global (“A Scripture Lesson on Fundamentalism” and “What does a progressive Christian statement of faith look like?) that ignited a response I repeatedly hear from conservatives.
Their claim is that progressive Christian faith is based on subjective criteria not rooted in any objective reality. Of course, their objective reality is their inerrant Bible.
One frequent commenter on my articles said:
“The authority for what is written begins and ends with those that wrote it. . . . These so-called progressives don’t use the term infallible but in reality they see what they wrote [the reference here is to the Phoenix Affirmations] as correct without any authority except themselves.”
Another who is also a frequent contributor of articles on the website said:
“I fail to see how on the progressive worldview any of these [the Phoenix Affirmations] can really be taken as more than mere expressions of personal preference . . . How do we decide which is right and which is wrong? . . . how do we know what is true and what is not? Surely you have defined truth for you, but without an objective standard, how do we know that your truth is any more true than any others? [emphasis mine]”
My response to this line of argument is that all religious belief and experience is subjective – all of it.
The above critic continued:
“If all spiritual truth is subjective, then it’s not really spiritual truth. It’s spiritual opinion . . . you are ultimately the one picking and choosing which bits are worth following based on prior choices you have made . . . this becomes a choose-your-own-adventure religion wherein you don’t have any rational basis to declare your findings any more correct or carrying any more weight than those of anyone else. There’s no real truth there, just whatever you happen to decide to believe [emphasis mine].”
I continually point such critics to the rational criteria I employ for understanding God and discovering God’s will:
  • the historical-critical study of scripture, especially the Gospels, that is grounded in the rational assumption that fallible human beings produce fallible documents that reveal not God’s perfect will, but what flawed humans think about God’s will and how they interpret their God experience
  • my own personal contemplative experience of the divine
  • how others have experienced God throughout religious history, with special consideration given to the mystical tradition
  • reason, common sense, and my best human intuition
  • a basic fundamental commitment to Christian love of neighbor and the common good
I often tell my conservative friends that their belief in an inerrant Bible is just as subjective as my subjective belief in an errant Bible. But they just can’t see it. They continue to shout the same refrain that their position rests on objective truth and mine subjective. These conservatives genuinely believe that they are the only truly rational ones and that we progressives pick and choose what is true without any rational basis. This is one of the great fundamental fallacies of fundamentalism.
In fact, their subjective belief in an objective, infallible Bible trumps everything else.  Case in point: Al Mohler. In response to Tony Campolo’ s change of position on LGBT inclusion and marriage equality Mohler said:
“This is where biblical [read as conservative] Christians who are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and are committed to that steadfast moral tradition based upon that Scripture must understand that compassion will never actually take the form of denying anything that Scripture clearly says.”
In other words, if Scripture legitimizes something it must be compassionate and vice versa. So this means that when scripture legitimizes polygamy, slavery, and genocide somehow these practices reflect God’s compassion. Now, does this sound rational?
It was rational thinking in the final year of a Master of Divinity program at a conservative seminary that sparked a new chapter in my faith journey. The seminary’s position was that only the original autographs of the Bible were inerrant. Therefore, it was important to establish the original text.
In a class on New Testament textual criticism I learned the basics about textual critical study. I learned that no original copy of any biblical book existed and that all the copies we have contain numerous variants (errors) – places where the manuscripts disagree with one another.
Some of these variants were intentional, others were unintentional, simply the result of miscopying. I learned how to evaluate these errors/variants based on scribal tendencies, as well as the age and geographical groupings of the manuscripts. I also learned that it was impossible to determine the original text in numerous instances.
So I reasoned that if God really cared about giving humankind an inerrant, objective revelation then God certainly would have preserved the original autographs or at least preserved some infallible copies. It was this kind of rational thinking that led me out of conservative Christianity.
Yet conservatives want us to believe that their subjective belief in an inerrant, infallible Bible is much more rational and objective than what progressives believe. What a grand illusion!
(This was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog)

Monday, June 8, 2015

What does a progressive Christian statement of faith look like?

The Phoenix Affirmations is a set of twelve principles originally composed by a community of clergy and laypeople from Phoenix, Arizona. As word spread a number of Christian scholars and progressive Christian leaders from around the country added their input and helped to give shape to their current expression. These principles seek to convey the major values that ignite and fuel progressive Christian faith. Dr. Eric Elines, senior pastor of Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ authored the original version of the Affirmations and has written an excellent commentary on them titled, The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christianity, published by Jossey-Bass (2006).

Here they are:


1. Walking fully in the Path of Jesus without denying the legitimacy of other paths that God may provide for humanity.
2. Listening for God’s Word, which comes through daily prayer and meditation, studying the ancient testimonies which we call Scripture, and attending to God’s present activity in the world.
3. Celebrating the God whose Spirit pervades and whose glory is reflected in all of God’s Creation, including the earth and its ecosystems, the sacred and secular, the Christian and non-Christian, the human and non-human.
4. Expressing our love in worship that is as sincere, vibrant, and artful as it is scriptural.


5. Engaging people authentically, as Jesus did, treating all as creations made in God’s very image, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, nationality, or economic class.
6. Standing, as Jesus does, with the outcast and oppressed, the denigrated and afflicted, seeking peace and justice with or without the support of others.
7. Preserving religious freedom and the church’s ability to speak prophetically to government by resisting the commingling of church and state.
8. Walking humbly with God, acknowledging our own shortcomings while honestly seeking to understand and call forth the best in others, including those who consider us their enemies.


9. Basing our lives on the faith that in Christ all things are made new and that we, and all people, are loved beyond our wildest imaginations—for eternity.
10. Claiming the sacredness of both our minds and our hearts, and recognizing that faith and science, doubt and belief serve the pursuit of truth.
11. Caring for our bodies and insisting on taking time to enjoy the benefits of prayer, reflection, worship, and recreation in addition to work.
12. Acting on the faith that we are born with a meaning and purpose, a vocation and ministry that serve to strengthen and extend God’s realm of love.

Consider how different these principles are from the creeds and faith statements that circumscribe Christian faith into tight compartments of specific beliefs and doctrines. It is past time for the older creeds, originally written to unify an empire through uniformity of doctrine, to give way to new expressions of faith like the one above that promote unity through diversity, inclusivity, and the pursuit of the common good rooted and grounded in Christian love.

I pray and hope that this emerging way of being Christian will eventually win the day, though if it does happen will not occur anytime soon. Establishment Christianity still has too much power and control to allow these new emerging forms to have much of a say.

As I survey Christian history I find that creedal/doctrinal Christianity has done very little to make the world a better place. One could make a legitimate case that when all the evidence is considered creedal Christianity has done more harm than good. It is past time for a new reformation, which John Philip Newell calls the rebirthing of God.

I welcome such declarations as contained in the Phoenix Affirmations. Here indeed is the kind of Christian faith thinking, compassionate persons can embrace and find healing, liberating, and transforming.

(This was first published at Baptist News Global)

Being Born Again in Unfundamentalist Fashion

It is unfortunate that the phrase “born again” has come to be associated with a particular kind of Christianity generally known for its belief in biblical inerrancy, its literal interpretation of scripture, its condemnation of our LGBT sisters and brothers, and its entrenchment in right wing politics.
The phrase occurs in John 3:3 where Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless one is born again.”
The word translated “again” also means “above” and is so translated in the New Revised Standard Version. The Gospel writer probably intended this double meaning. To be born from above does not mean that God sweeps down from the sky to invade our lives. It is simply another way of talking about being “born of the Spirit” (John 3:8), who like the wind cannot be managed or manipulated.
Fundamentalists literalize this image. They turn the “kingdom of God” into heaven and claim that unless one has a new birth experience, which they usually associate with believing the right doctrines, one cannot enter heaven or know God in a personal way.
Actually, to “see the kingdom of God” is just another way of talking about experiencing and participating in the dynamic reality of God’s life and will. John also calls this “eternal life,” which he contends is the present possession of disciples of Christ (3:15-16). Scholars of John call this “realized eschatology,” which is just a fancy way of saying that John puts the emphasis on interacting and engaging in God’s life and work right now – in this world – rather than in the afterlife. John by no means denies the afterlife, but the emphasis is on being in relationship and partnership with God in the present.
Hence, being born anew relates to this life, not the one to come. But what does this image mean?
I have found it helpful to think of being born again alongside another image John employs in narrating Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria, namely, “living water.” Jesus says that the water he imparts becomes a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). This metaphor applies not only to the woman, but to all of us willing to listen to Jesus as the living Christ.
One can think of being born again as a clearing away of all the debris and obstacles so that the dynamic energy, love, compassion, and nonviolent power of God (the Spirit) can flow unhindered in us and through us into the world.
And while the Spirit is like wind – it cannot be controlled – it can be channeled through our personal lives and faith communities.
Our job is to get rid of the clutter that dams up the flow of living water. So if we want to know and share in the aliveness of God then our pride, prejudice, resentment, hate, and lack of forgiveness will have to go. We can’t keep replaying our painful grievance stories over and over. We will need to turn from our selfish preoccupations and interests because the kingdom (read as kin-dom) of God, as we use to sing in Sunday School, is deep and wide.
If we do this once, we will have to do this a thousand times. Eternity is now. Today is the day of salvation – the day for healing and transformation. We are on a journey that calls for reassessment, repentance, clearing away the debris and letting go every day.
If someone should ask me: “Have you been born again?” I will say: “Yes, I have been born again … and again and again and again. And tomorrow? Yes, I will once again need to be born again.”
This is a powerful image. Isn’t it time we reclaim it from the fundamentalists? What do you think?
This post was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Scripture Lesson on Fundamentalism (and how progressives differ from conservatives)

The seventh chapter of John offers some important insights into the nature of fundamentalism. Consider the following:

Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, “Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? [This should be read as a dig at the religious authorities] Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I am from’ [the implied meaning is, “So you think you know me and where I am from”] I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me” (7:25-29). 

Here some of the people are convinced that Jesus is not of God based on a tradition. A tradition which they have come to accept as fact: The Messiah will have an unknown, mysterious origin.

Jesus, on the other hand, claims to know God and be sent from God. If one could ask Jesus how he knows this I suspect he would say, “I just know.” In other contexts Jesus points to his works of compassion as evidence of his authenticity. But how did he know that he knew God? Jesus obviously trusted his “inner authority” and experience. He just knew.

As the narrative unfolds others base their belief that Jesus could not be the Messiah on scripture: Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (7:41b-42) [Apparently this interpretation of scripture was so prevalent that Matthew incorporated it in his birth narrative in Matt. 2:5-6.]

So Jesus is rejected on the basis of tradition and scripture.

In the fundamentalist stage of my Christian pilgrimage I was taught what to believe. I was told this is what scripture teaches and this became part of my Christian tradition. So, on the basis of tradition and scripture I believed what I believed. This is how fundamentalism works. Scripture and tradition are used to support deeply entrenched beliefs one inherits from one’s group. The group, of course, can be family, church, denomination, peer group, club, political party, nation, etc.

As John’s narrative unfolds some common sense objectors to the closed-mindedness of the authorities raise their voices. The temple police refuse to arrest Jesus because, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” (7:46). Does this spark any inquiry or interest on the part of the authorities? The authorities reprimand them by appealing to . . . well, their authority: “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?” (7:47-48).

Next, Nicodemus raises a common sense objection based on scripture: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). This, too, is countered with sarcasm, a veiled threat, and authority: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (7:52). How can we account for such entrenched thinking and closed-mindedness? Maybe a contemporary example can help.

According to a recent poll a full third of the Republican base believe that a military exercise called Jade Helm is really just a pretense for President Obama to take over Texas. Now, how is it possible that one-third of the GOP would believe such craziness?

Political blogger Kevin Drum asks that question and contends that most of those who said they believe it don’t actually believe it. He thinks that GOP pollsters simply used the opportunity to show their hate and distrust for President Obama, but deep down they don’t really believe the theory.

In other words, hate and prejudice are the driving factors that account for the poll numbers, not actual belief. I suspect this is true of many entrenched belief systems. We could also add fear and insecurity to the list. These components – disdain, prejudice, fear, and insecurity – keep people from honest inquiry and the genuine pursuit of truth.

Blogger Fred Clark at basically agrees with this, but he takes it a step further:

Over time, these kinds of tribal-cheerleading responses to pollsters and other catechists eventually become required responses. And thus, over time, the things that people pretend to believe as a “way of showing that they’re members in good standing” of their political faction become the things that members of that action actually believe. The fluff becomes substance — becomes dogma. And the tribe is transformed to conform to this new dogma.

It starts as almost a joke . . . But then the pretense becomes habit and the habit becomes doctrine. What begins as a flippant response to express tribal membership becomes what you must say to show that you are a member in good standing of the tribe. And then, after it becomes what every member in good standing is saying and must say, it becomes what every member in good standing actually believes.

Thus, according to Clark, members of the group actually end up believing what the group teaches, no matter how far-fetched it may seem.

I don’t claim to be able to psychoanalyze why a group becomes entrenched in their traditions and beliefs, but this closed-mindedness is the fundamental characteristic of fundamentalism. And herein is the basic difference between progressive and conservative Christians.

It’s not that progressives do not believe what they believe passionately. Many do. I do. But progressives are much more willing to say, “I could be wrong.” Conservatives are much more likely to appeal to their authorities – tradition, scripture, creeds, belief statements, etc. – to affirm what they already believe. Progressives may also appeal to such things (I do), but we are more likely to trust our “inner authority” guided by reason, common sense, human experience and struggle, and certain central values.

Progressives contend for values like compassion, forgiveness, love of neighbor as one’s self, commitment to restorative and distributive justice, the necessity of honest inquiry, and the humble pursuit of truth wherever truth can be found. These values transcend particular beliefs about God, the Bible, salvation, etc. As a progressive Christian I generally find myself more at home with compassionate humanists than conservative Christians, simply because we share core values rooted in acceptance of diversity and commitment to the common good.

The only things I am sure of are these values. For example, I am confident that love trumps all doctrine and dogma and that loving others is far more important than believing ideas about God. How do I know? I am convinced that this is what my “true self” (the Christ self) tells me. I, of course, can support this with a progressive interpretation of scripture, especially by appealing to the life and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. But ultimately, I just know.

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Where Is Heaven?

Almost two decades ago I went through a crisis in my faith where the conservative Christianity of my early training left me dry and empty and wondering if I had made a huge mistake with my life. Rather than abandoning the faith, I discovered some “progressive” options that were more credible and transformative.

Surprisingly, an evangelical philosopher and theologian helped me with my transition. Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God prompted me to rethink my views about salvation, the kingdom of God (which was the central theme in Jesus’ preaching and teaching), discipleship and the spiritual life, the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, and the reality of heaven. This is a book progressives could benefit from. I certainly do not agree with all that Willard taught, especially his view on biblical inspiration, but I benefited immensely from his teaching at that critical time in my life. I wish more evangelicals would read Willard and interact with his teaching.

With regard to the reality of heaven, he helped me realize that heaven is not just up there somewhere, it is right here right now. He wrote,

The Old Testament experience of God is one of the direct presence of God’s person, knowledge, and power to those who trust and serve him. Nothing – no human being or institution, no time, no space, no spiritual being, no event – stands between God and those who trust him. The “heavens” [he noted that heaven in the Greek is usually plural] are always there with you no matter what, and the “first heaven,” in biblical terms, is precisely the atmosphere or air that surrounds your body. (p. 67)

Willard referenced biblical stories of how God spoke and appeared to human beings “out of heaven” noting that “in such passages ‘heaven’ is never thought of as far away – in the clouds perhaps, or by the moon. It is always right here, ‘at hand.’” Willard emphasized that God is not up there, but right here, and therefore constantly accessible and available.

Willard warned,

The damage done to our practical faith in Christ and in his government-at-hand by confusing heaven with a place in distant or outer space, or even beyond space, is incalculable. Of course God is there too. But instead of heaven and God also being always present with us, as Jesus shows them to be, we invariably take them to be located far away and, most likely, at a much later time – not here and not now. And we should then be surprised to feel ourselves alone?

Not bad for an evangelical don’t you think? These words from Willard came to me as living water when I was in a dry, parched land. At the time, I desperately needed to know that God was that close, and I learned from Willard that the world is immersed in the Divine and the Divine pervades the world. Very, very good news.

Today, I would attribute to words like “heaven” and “hell” more symbolical and metaphorical applications, but this idea of heaven being right here all around us and in us is very helpful. The progressive Franciscan priest and mystic Richard Rohr expresses the symbolic meaning of heaven this way,

Heaven is the state of union both here and later. As now, so will it be then. No one is in heaven unless he or she wants to be, and all are in heaven as soon as they live in union. Everyone is in heaven when he or she has plenty of room for communion and no need for exclusion. The more room you have to include, the bigger heaven will be. (Falling Upward, 101)                                                                                                
Where is heaven? Heaven is up, down, and all around. Heaven is where God is and God is the very Spirit in whom “we live, move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Heaven is now as well as later. It is where we experience conscious union with God and all God’s creation. It’s when and where we recognize that we all belong, that we are all connected.

Heaven is where we realize that the God who fills all space and is part of all that is, dwells in each one us as the eternal Logos/Wisdom who enlightens every person (John 1:9), as the Holy Spirit who leads us into the truth of who we really are (John 14:16-17), and as the cosmic Christ who makes God real in our hearts, engenders hope, and empowers us to love the way Jesus loved (Eph. 3:16-19; Col. 1:27; Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21, 4:13). 

An edited version of this article first appeared at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog.