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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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Jesus is not the same as Christ

A holistic, inclusive, compassionate, justice oriented Christian vision would be adopted by more Christians if more Christians more carefully understood and distinguished between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. The appearance stories in the Gospels (probably a late developing tradition for they are absent from Mark, the first Gospel written) function to bridge the gap between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the living, cosmic Christ, linking the two together. Christ, however, is not Jesus’ last name. Jesus is not the same as Christ, though Jesus is included in the cosmic reality of Christ.

In his excellent work, The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox describes it this way,

"Christ" means more than Jesus. It also refers to the new skein of relationships that arose around him during and after his life. . . . Paul frequently speaks of the Christ who dwells within him and within the other followers. When for example, he writes that among those who share the Spirit of Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for are all one in Christ Jesus,” he means something more extensive than the historical Jesus (Gal. 3:28). The Easter cycle, with all its harshness, joy, and impenetrability, tells of this enlargement of this historical Jesus story into the Christ story (p. 52).

This cosmic, collective, corporate divine reality known as Christ is not limited to Christians (we who are followers of the historical Jesus). Christians know and experience the character (love, compassion, goodness, etc.) of the cosmic Christ through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Spirit of Christ is not limited to Christians. According to Cox “one of the most devastating blunders made by the church . . . was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers.”

The Apostle Paul rarely references the historical Jesus. He speaks mostly of the cosmic Christ to whom we are united and in whom and through whom we live. We are in Christ and Christ is in us (Gal. 2:20).

In the Christ hymns/litanies of Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 the cosmic Christ precedes the historical Jesus. In Colossians the ancient Jewish wisdom tradition, which was personified as a woman (Sophia) in some texts, is applied to Christ. Christ here is creator and sustainer of everything and the reality in whom all things will be gathered up and reconciled to God (“through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”). The language here is poetic, mythic, metaphorical, and symbolic as all religious language must be.

What a big picture, grand story, universal, inclusive, kingdom of God kind of Christianity we would have if more Christians understood and made these distinctions! It is the cosmic Christ in whom we all “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christ is the light that enlightens every person (John 1:9) and is the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate that enlightens the whole world to spiritual reality (John 16:7-11). Christ is the fullness of God who will ultimately gather up everything in himself/herself (Eph. 1:10) and draw all people into conscious oneness in God (John 12:32).

Franciscan theologian and mystic Richard Rohr expresses this beautifully,

The eternal Christ Mystery began with the Big Bang where God decided to materialize as the universe. Henceforth, the material and the spiritual have always co-existed, just as Genesis 1:1-2 seems to be saying. Although this Christ existed long before Jesus, and is coterminous with creation itself, Christians seem to think Christ is Jesus’ last name. What Jesus [the historical Jesus] allows us to imagine – because we see it in him – is that the divine and the human are forever one. . . . God took on all human nature [Jesus is the archetypal, representative human being] and said ‘yes’ to it forever! In varying degrees and with infinite qualities, God took on everything physical, material, and natural as himself. That is the full meaning of the Incarnation. To allow such a momentous truth, to fully believe it, to enjoy it in practical ways, to suffer it with and for others – this is what it means to be Christian! Nothing else will do now. Nothing less will save the world.” (Rohr, Daily Meditations, Dec. 18, 2014)

What a difference this vision makes in how we see the world and our place in it, and also in how we interpret and apply scripture. The Gospels, for example, blend and interweave together memories of the historical Jesus and proclamations of the cosmic Christ. When we understand this the Gospels make so much more sense.

For example, consider the saying of Jesus in John 14:6, which is not an actual saying of the historical Jesus, but a saying attributed to Jesus as the living Christ by the Johannine community: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is not true of the historical Jesus, but it is true of the living Christ, in whom and through whom we all live, breathe, and have our existence.

Christians know the cosmic Christ through the historical person of Jesus, but the cosmic Christ can speak, draw, enlighten, touch, and transform people through means, methods, and mediators other than the historical Jesus. Scholar and spiritual writer Brother David Stendl-Rast says it like this,

Our knowledge of Jesus is mediated through others. The Christ is us we know firsthand, even if we have never heard of Jesus. . . . In this sense one doesn’t have to be a Christian to know Christ. You know Christ when you know your Self [the true self, the Divine Self, the Spirit of Christ within]. . . . As people come to know their authentic Self, they become aquainted with the inner reality that Christians call Christ. (Deeper Than Words, p. 47)

We can come to know and experience the Christ Self in us through a number of different ways. For Christians, Jesus is the way and truth that leads us into a relationship with the Divine Life.

Consider also the story of Jesus walking on the water in Mark 6:45-52. It is highly improbable that the historical Jesus walked on water. This story is rooted in the church’s proclamation of the cosmic Christ, rather than memory of the historical Jesus. Some Gospel stories are clearly rooted in the history of Jesus of Nazareth; other stories (like this one) are predominantly related to the church’s proclamation of the cosmic Christ.

Mark’s storm on the sea draws from a rich tradition in the Hebrew scriptures where 1) the sea is associated with evil powers, and 2) God rules the sea. According to an ancient creation myth that shows up in the Psalms and the prophets, when God made the world and separated the waters from the dry land, God had to combat and subdue monstrous forces of chaos that lived in, or were identified with, the waters of the sea (Ps. 89:8-10; Isa. 57:8-10). Rahab was one of the names of the primal sea-monster, or perhaps a personification of the chaos itself, which God had to subdue. See especially Ps. 107:23-29, which may have been used to shape Mark’s story.

Also, Mark's version clearly draws from the Hebrew imagery and language ("I am"; "fear not"; going to "pass by") of theophany. God identifies God’s self to Moses as “I am.” “Fear not” was the first word generally spoken by God or an angel when God or angels appeared to humans. The “passing by” imagery comes from Exodus 33:18, 19 where God passed by Moses when Moses said to God, “Show me your glory.”

Clearly, Mark’s story draws upon Hebrew imagery to connect Christ with God’s engagement in the world and God’s people. We could call this story a Christophany. It is a story about the living presence of Christ with the church in times of distress and hardship.

It is a story for all time, but think how appropriate this proclamation would have been to the Christian community Mark was addressing during and immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. All chaos was unleashed. But have faith, proclaims Mark, the living Christ is present in the storm. 

The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus, the man Jesus whose life gives us a full picture of what a human life immersed in God, full of divine love and compassion looks like. The post-Easter Christ incorporates the human Jesus, but is a much larger and more expansive reality.

As a Christian I understand the cosmic Christ through the lens of the historical Jesus. I experience the Spirit of Christ as the spirit, character, passion, and compassion of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus provides my “objective reference point” (Steindl-Rast) for making sense of the Christ Spirit, the Christ within, the Spirit at work in the world, my faith community, and in my personal life. My true self, my authentic self is the Christ Self – the Divine Self living in and through me. 

Christ in me is my hope of glory (Col. 1:27). It is also the hope of the world. If only the Christ within every human being could be brought to conscious awareness and the divine love (which was incarnate in the historical Jesus) within each one unleashed, the kingdom of God would come on earth. 

(This post was first published at Baptist News Globel)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Southern Baptists, Racism, and Inerrancy

Writing in The AtlanticEmma Green attempts (and does so quite admirably) to navigate the turbulent history of Southern Baptists’ previous support of racism to their now vocal opposition. She notes that since 1995 the SBC has been publicly repenting of its history of racial discrimination, which marks a decisive turn from the denomination’s beginnings when it “helped define the history of American racism.”
Southern Baptists who defended slavery and then later segregation appealed to an inerrant scripture for their justification. Ironically, when Green spoke with pastors and church leaders in Nashville, most cited scripture as their justification for opposing racism.
While Southern Baptists believe that scripture is “truth without any mixture of error” it is obvious that Southern Baptists do not read the Bible without any mixture of error. Southern Baptists, along with everyone else, read the Bible as fallible, error-prone human beings who are about as likely to get things wrong as right.
Green also observes how Southern Baptists read the text with an emphasis on the individual. She spoke with SBC African American pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, who said,
Most of my African American brothers and sisters, we’ve had a group experience. Our experience in this country has been defined first and foremost by this pigment that we share. So when we have these conversations about how to make progress, African Americans go to group experience pretty quickly. We speak in “we”. And white Americans go pretty quickly to the individual and speak of “I” …
One of the things we have to repent of as a denomination or as conservative Christians … [is] the shrinking idea of justice down to abortion and homosexuality. There’s far more going on in the world affecting far more people that we also ought to be concerned about.
The issues Anyabwile mentioned that Southern Baptists should be concerned with included criminal-justice policies, education funding, and the alleviation of child poverty. This, of course, is not likely to happen. And why? Well, it’s back to the Bible.
According to Russell Moore, the head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), scripture is not clear on these social issues the way it is clear that racism reflects humankind’s sinful nature. Green perceptively comments,
Notably absent from the ERLC’s policy priorities are issues like mass incarceration or fiscal programs designed to support those in poverty. It’s one thing to aim to purge a man’s heart of ill will toward his black or white brothers in Christ. It’s quite another to try to rectify the after-effects of 250 years of slavery and decades of Jim Crow that followed.
Green observes how ironic it is for Southern Baptists to embrace the former and ignore the later for the simple reason that Southern Baptists have had such a defining role in shaping the history of racism.
Fred Clark, responding on his blog to Green’s article, argues that inerrancy and individualism were not mere impediments to racial and social justice, they were justifications for injustice. He contends,
Inerrancy is an artifice constructed to provide a way of reading the Bible to defend slavery … That’s why it exists. It enabled Southern Baptists in 1833 and 1845 and 1965 to cite pro-slavery proof texts in order to limit and trump the Golden Rule …
And the white evangelical ideal of individual salvation – a ‘personal Lord and Savior’ whose kingdom exists only in some otherworldly afterlife – was developed as a rationalization for the brutal injustice and denial of salvation [read social justice] that white Christians were determined to defend and endorse in this world and in this life.
Either way – as contributing factors or as justifications/rationalizations – the Southern Baptist belief in biblical inerrancy and over-emphasis on individual salvation continues to limit their participation in a holistic gospel that intentionally pursues racial reconciliation and social justice issues.
This blog was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog at

The Sacredness of Doubt

It is unfortunate that the Johannine Thomas has come to be known by many Christians as “doubting Thomas.” Thomas, however, is no different than the rest of the disciples or for that matter, you or me. In the broader narrative where the encounter with Thomas occurs, Mary encounters Jesus alive and announces the good news to the disciples, but they did not believe her. When Jesus appears to them they are fearfully huddled in a locked room hiding from the religious establishment (John 20:19).

We are all doubters just like all the disciples. It is simply not true that all doubt leads to cynicism or relativism. Doubt is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in a book titled, In Praise of Doubt, write,

“One can doubt big and important, or small and unimportant, things. One can harbor doubts about oneself, the world at large, or God. What these cases have in common is that they question whether something or someone is reliable, trustworthy, and meaningful – that is, whether something or someone is ‘true.’ Doubt and truth, in other words, are about relationships” (p. 105).

Healthy doubt is often the prelude to deeper relationships and a richer faith.

If the truth were told I suspect that many people who claim to have no doubts actually have any number of doubts which they have denied and repressed. It’s much easier to deny our doubts than do the difficult work it takes to face them and struggle with them by digging deeper into both our faith tradition and into our own carefully guarded souls.

The most exalted Christological confession in the Gospel of John is found on the lips of Thomas after his experience of Jesus alive: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). What is important to understand though is that this declaration is not a confession of belief in a propositional or creedal doctrine about the person of Jesus. That comes later when the creeds, whose primary purpose was to unify the Roman Empire, solidified belief in the metaphysical nature of Jesus as being equal to God.    

When Thomas says, “My Lord and my God,” he is not making a statement about the metaphysical nature of Jesus’ divinity. He is pledging his allegiance to everything that Jesus stood for and lived for on earth.

In the days when John’s Gospel was written, to proclaim Jesus as Lord was a very dangerous and subversive proclamation. Both “Lord” and “God” were titles attributed to the Roman emperor who was proclaimed as “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “God manifest.” The early Jesus followers were saying in essence: Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is Lord. They were declaring their primary allegiance to Jesus – to the values he lived by and the kingdom he proclaimed.  

Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). It’s important to understand that “to believe” in John’s Gospel involves more than belief. It includes belief, but it means “to trust in” and “be faithful to” the way of Jesus.

And in John’s Gospel “seeing” is a way of talking about spiritual experience, about being in relationship with God and being enlightened to spiritual reality. When John’s Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen” he means, “Blessed are those who have not seen in the way that Thomas has seen.” Clearly, we do not all “see” the same things or in the same ways.

Blessed are those who don’t see the way I see or you see, and yet walk in the way of Jesus and express the grace and truth he incarnated. Far more important than believing the right things is living the right way.  

Consider the mandate the Johannine Jesus gives to the disciples: “As the Father sent me so I send you” (John 20:21). Of all the qualities and characteristics of the life and teaching of Jesus that could have been mentioned, the Gospel writer highlights forgiveness (20:23). Forgiveness is what disciples of Jesus do. The giving and receiving of forgiveness may be the most important way we can extend the incarnation of Jesus into our families, churches, and larger communities.

If our doubts can lead us into a deeper connection to our faith tradition where orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy and into a deeper relationship with the Divine where love trumps doctrine then we may indeed find religion and spirituality life transforming. Good religion and spirituality make us good and compel us to pursue the good within ourselves and in our larger world, thus inspiring us to work for the common good of society and our planet.   

What you or I believe about some Christian doctrine such as the deity of Jesus or the virgin birth of Jesus or the metaphysical nature of Jesus will not amount to much of anything. But how we live in the spirit of Jesus, how we embody the compassion of Jesus, how we dispense the forgiveness of Jesus, how we incarnate the grace of Jesus, that is what matters and that is what makes a difference.  

This post first appeared at Baptist News Global Global

Monday, April 20, 2015

A word to Christians who support RFRA laws: Grow Up!

Are you as weary as I am in hearing all these well-to-do, materially prosperous and secure American Christians whining about being religiously persecuted because they cannot act on their exclusive theology in the market place and deny services to our LGBT sisters and brothers?

To all my financially secure, well-off persecuted Christian friends: Please, let it go! Give it up!

It doesn't matter what your worldview is or what your religious beliefs are, in the public arena you have to treat everyone equally. This is not rocket science. It’s the best of our democracy.

Everyone seems to know this except sexists, racists, and conservative Christians (and maybe a few Supreme Court judges).

Besides, even if you do think same-sex marriage or partnership is wrong, should you not welcome and accept everyone the way Jesus did. He didn't require prostitutes and tax collectors to stop doing what they were doing before he fed them and accepted them at the table.

“Come one and all,” said Jesus. Shouldn't Christians be saying, "Serve one and serve all"?

When the disciples argued with one another about who was the greatest, Jesus told them to stop acting like persons of power and prominence who liked to “lord” it over others; rather, they were to be servants of all (Mark 10:42-44).  

A contemporary application of Jesus’ teaching might be: “Certain persons in the world like to assert their power over those they do not like – denying them services and goods. But it is not to be so among you. Whoever wishes to assert such power must become the servant of all.”

Many, perhaps the majority of American Christians initially opposed the push to abolish slavery. Then they stood firm against women's rights, a battle that is still ongoing. Next, they refused to join the civil rights movement, many supporting segregation. Now they stand against LGBT equality and fairness laws.

This is NOT the way to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

It's a damn shame!

An edited version of this article was first published on the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. 

Letting Go - Moving On (The Metaphorical Meaning of an Easter Story)

In the story world of John’s Gospel Jesus tells the disciples that he is going away, but he would not leave them without his presence. How could that be? Most spiritual truth is paradoxical in nature. The Father, says Jesus, will send an Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to be with them forever. The Advocate is currently “with” them, apparently in the person of Jesus, but will be “in” them (in a different nonvisible, nonphysical sense) after Jesus is gone. The Spirit of Truth, who will function in Jesus’ name will teach them “everything” they need to know and bear witness to Jesus (John 14:15-20, 25-26; 15:26).

The presence and activity of the Spirit of Truth will not be limited to the disciples however, but will be active in the world convincing and enlightening all people about spiritual reality (John 16:8-11). John declared in his beautiful prologue that the light and wisdom that became incarnate in Jesus is the light and wisdom that is in every person (1:9).

Here the distinction is made between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. Christ is a title attributed to Jesus, which includes Jesus, but means more than Jesus. Paul makes this same distinction when he speaks of Christ living in him and in the Messianic communities gathered in the name of Jesus.

And as John points out (attributing the words to Jesus in 16:8-11) the Spirit of Truth, the “Christ Spirit,” the “living Christ” is not restricted to the Christian community, but at loose in the world and in all people revealing, convincing, enlightening them to spiritual truth.  Harvey Cox points out in The Future of Faith that “one of the most devastating blunders made by the church . . . was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers” (p. 53).

In one Easter story told by John, Mary Magdalene comes to the empty tomb and is distraught. She encounters someone who she thinks is the gardener. It is actually Jesus, but she does not recognize him. When he speaks her name, she is enlightened. Then she sees, knows, encounters, experiences Jesus. Jesus next says, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).

In light of the Johannine narrative the point here, I believe, is that Jesus could no longer be present as Jesus; he would be present as the Spirit of Truth/the Spirit of Christ. Mary must give up the physicality of the pre-Easter Jesus in order to experience the presence and power of the living Christ, who is “more” than Jesus. In the biblical tradition there is an obvious and clear continuity between Jesus and Christ, but Christ is a much larger reality than the historical Jesus. (Notice the clear distinction made in the Johannine text above – “my God and your God” – between Jesus and God.)

Brother David Steindl-Rast points out that the connections people make between Jesus and Christ are greatly impacted by upbringing, cultural conditioning, and the circumstances of one’s life. He notes,

“A Christian child may grow up with a continuous confusion between Jesus and God. A Jewish child might discover that even mentioning Jesus is asking for trouble. If we are lucky, we might meet Christian followers who are true followers of Jesus and bring the joy of God’s love to everyone they meet. But we may have the misfortune to meet people who claim a special closeness to Jesus and are obnoxious. The culture of our ancestors may have been destroyed in the name of Jesus by well-intentioned but misguided missionaries. Or we may have grown up in a culture in which the most admirable traits are somehow connected with Jesus, from Handel’s Messiah to 12-step programs. A fair-minded approach to Jesus demands a colossal effort for many people to overcome either negative prejudice or biased exclusiveness . . . In any event, we owe it to ourselves to get as clear as picture as we can of Jesus [the historical Jesus], whose impact on history set in motion a nonviolent revolution that is still in full swing: the struggle to overcome the love of power by the power of love” (Deeper than Words, p. 48).

On a personal and communal level, this Johannine Easter story compels us to ask ourselves what we are holding on to that is hindering us from experiencing the living presence and power of Christ. (By the way, this is true whether you take the story literally or metaphorically).

It could be some deep hurt or betrayal or grievance story that we replay in our minds over and over again. The more we replay it the more we are weighed down by resentment and bitterness and entangled by frustration and anger.

It might be some regret, a dashed dream or a missed opportunity that we will never get back. Or a past failure or failures that have us questioning any possibility of our doing something that might have value and significance.

Or it might even be the image of God or Jesus we grew up with that no longer, if we would admit it, works for us or makes good sense to us. But since we have lived with this image for so long, to relinquish it, to let it go feels like we are being disloyal or unfaithful to our parents or our past Christian heritage and the pastors/teachers who taught us and have meant so much to us. 

But there can be no significant growth, no movement forward, no development, no becoming “more” unless we can stop clinging to whatever it is that is keeping us from living right now in the spiritual presence and power of Christ.

In a kind of picture book for adults Trina Paulus tells about the life journey of two caterpillars who eventually become butterflies. The one named Yellow is the first to undergo the transformation. She stumbles across a caterpillar who is hanging upside down. He tells her that he has to do this to become a butterfly. When she inquires further he says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

That’s the issue isn’t it? Do we want to move on so much that we are willing to let go of whatever it is keeping us from changing? Yellow says, “You mean die.” The other caterpillar says, “Yes and No. What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away” (emphasis mine, Hope for the flowers, p. 75)

Think of all the stuff in our lives that feeds the false self, the ego self, the little self (the self that looks like us, but is not the real or true self) and keeps us from moving on to a higher level of spiritual enlightenment and growth.

I love the final line by the Tom Hanks character in Castaway. He finally makes it off the island and discovers upon his return home that the woman he loved, whose memory kept him going on the island, has remarried and has a child. He is, of course, heartbroken. He tells his friend that he has lost her all over again. But then he says, “I’m alive. I have ice in my glass . . . And tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide will bring.”

Maybe it’s time we step outside of whatever tomb we have been buried in and let go of whatever it is that we have been clinging to, and look to the sun and take to the sea and let the waves of new life, hope, and faith wash over us. 

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Good Power/Bad Power (The nonviolent Jesus versus the apocalyptic Christ)

It is vital to our spiritual health to understand the difference between dominant power and spiritual power. Dominant power is the power to externally influence behavior by the use of force, coercion, threat or promise, reward or punishment. Spiritual power, on the other hand, is the capacity to influence and persuade based on the quality, integrity, authenticity, and authority of one’s own being, apart from any position or any external authority.

Dominant power is often bad, but not always. It is sometimes necessary. I think most of us would agree that some form of dominant power is necessary to stop a terrorist group like ISIS, with whom peaceful negotiations are impossible. Dominant power can force a child to comply, which is sometimes necessary, but dominant power cannot make that child love you. Love cannot be controlled or coerced or demanded.

Holy week begins with Jesus’ nonviolent, peaceful procession into Jerusalem on a donkey (Mark 11:1-10; par. Matt. 21:1-9; Luke 19:28-38)). This expression of spiritual power stands in direct contrast to another procession into Jerusalem led by Pilate, representing the imperial might of Rome. Departing from Caesarea Maritima, Pilot would have entered the city from the west with cavalry and foot soldiers to reinforce the Roman garrison on the Temple Mount, thus ensuring that during the Jewish high holy days any uprising would be met immediately with force.

Jesus’ peaceful entry into Jerusalem depicted in the Gospels also stands in direct contrast to the procession depicted in Revelation 19:11-21. John Dominic Crossan in his book, How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian points out that the radical, nonviolent, humble Christ of the Gospels who is committed to distributive justice is subverted by the apocalyptic, violent, warrior Christ of the Second Coming who pours out retributive justice. In other words, the spiritual power embodied by the Jesus of the Gospels is subverted and contradicted by the dominant power wielded by the apocalyptic Christ at the Second Coming.

So, which version of the Christ are you going to trust and aspire to emulate? Since every viewpoint is a view from a point, what will be your point of reference? Where will you plant your feet? Where will you stand? What lens will you use to see God and your place in God’s world? Will you stand with the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels or the violent Christ of the book of Revelation.

If your tendency is toward dominant power you will most likely side with the apocalyptic Christ of Revelation 19 (along with all who embrace the Left Behind worldview/Godview). If you are a believer in spiritual power then you will allow the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels and Paul’s authentic letters to be the filter through which you read and apply the rest of Scripture and the Christian tradition.

If we read the Bible motivated by and filled with spiritual power, then we will read and appropriate the Bible so that the very best in the Bible brings out the best in us. The Bible will then be appropriated as an instrument of transformation that grows and expands our souls, empowering us to become more compassionate, loving, courageous, and self-giving.  

However, if we read the Bible motivated by and filled with dominant power, then we will read and appropriate the Bible so that the very worst in the Bible brings out the worst in us. When we rely on dominant power we use the Bible to justify our prejudices, our demand for retribution, and our control and dominance over others. 

The late Walter Wink tells about an experience he shared with a large crowd of both black and white activists during the turbulent weeks when Selma, Alabama was the focal point of the civil rights struggle in the South. The story vividly illustrates the difference between spiritual power and dominant power.

They had gathered singing to pass the time, when suddenly a funeral home operator from Montgomery took the microphone. He reported that a group of black students demonstrating near the capital just that afternoon had been surrounded by police on horseback. With all escape barred they were cynically commanded to disperse or take the consequences. The mounted police then waded into the students and beat them at will. Police prevented ambulances from reaching the injured for two hours. The one who reported this to the group in Selma was one the ambulance drivers. After the incident he had driven straight to Selma to tell them about it.

The crowd, which had gathered outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church was infuriated. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” Behind them, across the street, stood the Alabama state troopers and the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. The situation was explosive. A young black minister stepped to the microphone and said, “It’s time we sang a song.” He opened with the line, “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, Lord!” the crowd responded. “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly Lord!” “Do you love Martin King?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

Right through the chain of command of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he went, the crowd each time echoing, warming to the song. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord” they sang. Then, without warning, he sang out, “Do you love Jim Clark, the sheriff?” “Certainly, Lord” came the somewhat stunned, halting reply. “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, Lord”—it was stronger this time. “Do you love, Jim Clark?” Now the point had sunk in. “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord,” they sang.

The Rev. James Bevel took the mike. We are not fighting for our rights, he said, we are fighting for the good of the whole society. He proclaimed, “It’s not enough to defeat Jim Clark—do you hear me, Jim?—we want you converted.” Then he said to the group, “We cannot win by hating our oppressors. We have to love them into changing [emphasis mine]. (The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium, pp 176-77).  

This is a point that Martin Luther King, Jr. repeatedly emphasized to all activists in the civil rights movement. Their goal, he said, was not to defeat or destroy their enemies. Rather, their goal was to destroy the enmity, the prejudice and hate that fueled their enemies. They wanted to turn their enemies into their friends.

In that struggle two very different kinds of power were at work and visibly on graphic display. I suspect the racist Christians who supported Jim Clark and the police brutality took their cue from Revelation 19 where the apocalyptic Christ slaughters all opposition. How different is the nonviolent Christ of the Gospels who tells his disciples to love their enemies (Matt. 5:38-48; Luke 6:29-36).

Only persons who are filled with spiritual power can be trusted with external power, because they don’t crave it, seek it, need it, or even want it. They are secure in their own being and in God. Spiritual power gives us the courage to follow Jesus all the way to the cross where we see another vivid pictorial of the difference between dominant power that induces suffering, and the spiritual power of suffering love.

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global.)