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Sunday, January 18, 2015

One Question Fundamentalists Cannot Answer

For several years now I have been asking Christian fundamentalists and conservatives a question. I particularly like to address it to those who think I am “heretical” because my beliefs and teachings do not conform to their version of Christian orthodoxy.

Here’s the question: Why would God care more about what we believe about God, than how we live for God? Why would God care more about the beliefs we hold in our minds about God, Jesus, the Trinity, salvation, etc., than the way we actually love, care, and treat one another in our daily lives?  

Rarely does a fundamentalist/conservative even attempt to offer some rational explanation. Generally, they respond in one of three ways:

1. Some shout louder: “You are denying the truth!” “That’s the wrong question to ask!” “The question has no bearing on what is true!” They respond with accusations and denials, and never get around to actually wrestling with the question.

2. Others simply quote Bible verses or recite the talking points of doctrines they believe.

3. A few try to approach it rationally, but never really respond to the question directly. (For example, they usually say something about God’s holiness demanding that Jesus die in our place and that we have to believe in him, that is, accept substitutionary atonement, which, in the end, amounts to nothing more than a recitation of a doctrine they think essential for salvation.)

And still the question waits and lingers . . .

The reason no fundamentalist can reasonably answer the question is because no reasonable answer exists. No answer makes sense based on common sense, reason, human dignity, and our best intuitive sense of what is good, right, just, fair, and of most value. So about all they can do is quote the Bible, deny the importance of the question, cling to their creed, and stumble around it the best they can.

These responses suggest to me that these Christians are so completely locked into their belief systems that they have relinquished all responsibility for self-critique. They are, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to question, probe, and sincerely struggle with their faith. They settle for a second-hand faith that offers them security (heaven when they die), comfort (God is on their side), and feelings that they are really special (they have the truth).

I think many fundamentalists who are most ardent in their attempts to win/convert others into their system of belief engage in such activity as a defense mechanism. It’s a way of keeping all their repressed and denied fears, anxieties, and insecurities at bay.

True religion is not about believing doctrines. It’s about falling in love with God and learning how to love everyone and everything the way God loves everyone and everything.

It is much easier to believe doctrines, perform rituals, and enforce policies than actually live in union with God and allow God’s love to fill and overflow in our lives. 

Living in union with God means letting go of our egoism, pride, and false attachments to power, prominence, and possessions. It means letting go of our need to control, label, judge, and create “in” and “out” groups. Union with Divine Love means change and who wants to do that? 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Our Sense of God Is Not God

Gerald May is the author of a wonderful book titled, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. May seeks to expound for contemporary spiritual seekers the spirituality of the great Christian mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Here is what he says about our “sense” of God:

“I remember having an almost continual sense of God’s presence as a very small child. The feeling receded as I grew older and other things occupied my attention. Later in life, when I embarked on my intentional ‘spiritual journey,’ I realized how much I had missed that feeling of continual companionship. I sought to recover in in prayer and meditation, and prayed for it to return. I experienced the Holy [God, the Divine, the Really Real, the Sacred, the living Christ, use whatever term you prefer] through other people, through nature, in many other mediated ways. [This is how we most often experience God, namely, through some sort of mediation. When we experience God through the story of Jesus, we experience God through a mediator.] But what I longed for was that old nonmediated, immediate sense of direct, palpable relationship. I searched and prayed for it for nearly twenty-five years. Then, when I was very sick as a result of cancer chemotherapy, it came back to me. And since then, that sense of presence has never left me. I can feel it anywhere, anytime. All I have to do is turn my attention toward it. I love it and surely would hate to lose it. It’s the answer to a very long prayer. But I know it is not God. It is only a sense of God. I don’t think I make an idol of it, so I don’t imagine it will need to be taken away. If at some point I do lose it again, I hope I will be given the wisdom to continue to trust God in the absence of any sense of God.”

Do you hear what he is saying? One’s sense of God is not God. These senses, feelings, experiences of God vary with the ebb and flow of life, but God is always Love, God is always present, and we are always in union with God, regardless to what degree we experience or sense this union. This deeper awareness that goes beyond feelings, beyond the sense of God, is faith. It is trust beyond feelings, beyond experience. It is a gift. It cannot be manufactured or magically conjured up. But we can ask for it and be open to it.

May explains why we do not have more experiences of God than we do. It is because God is both too close and too far. The theological words here are immanence and transcendence. On the one hand, we are at one with God. God is too intimate to be an object separate from one’s self. This is why when we are most in touch with our true selves we are in touch with God, because our nature is fused with the Divine. The writer of 2 Peter talks about our being partakers of the divine nature. God is so close, we cannot distinguish God from ourselves. On the other hand, God is beyond our capacity to comprehend and so too ultimate to be an object we can grasp or hold on to.

So, for most of our waking lives we can only really experience the things of God, like beauty, generosity, compassion, gratitude, honesty, vulnerability, humility, integrity, all of which are facets of love.

This is why that when we open ourselves to love, when we love well, we are most open to experiences of God. 1 John 4:7-8 puts it this way: “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Where Is God? (A Sermon from John 1:1-18 explaining why it is not necessary to believe that Jesus is God)

John’s prologue is actually a poem that introduces major themes that will be developed in the unfolding of the story that follows. It is a beautiful poem about the mystery of incarnation.

I love the story about two mischievous boys, Tommy the oldest, Jimmy his little brother. One summer the two boys became quite popular in their community, but not in a good way. Families were waking up to lawns covered in toilet paper. One lady who liked to hang up her laundry to dry found a dead rat hanging next to one of her clean sheets. Something had to be done. So a few members of the community went to the pastor of the church where the boys and their parents attended; the pastor also lived in the neighborhood. “Pastor,” they said, “would you have a talk with the boys.” He reluctantly agreed.

A couple of days later he looked out his living room window and saw Tommy, the oldest, walking up the street. He stepped out of his front door and motioned for Tommy to come inside. Since this was his pastor and he trusted him, he conceded though he was certainly curious why the pastor wanted to talk to him. The Pastor decided to initiate the conversation with a probing question. So he asked, “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy made no response. The pastor asked again . . . again no response. Then a third time with emphasis . . . Tommy raced out the door, down the street, into his house, zipping past his little brother, into his room, and slammed the door. Jimmy had never seen his brother in such a state and decided to see what was going on.

Inside his brother’s room, he noticed the closet door slightly ajar – closed but not all the way. He crept over and just as he started to open it wider, a hand reached out and plucked him out of the air, “Quick, Jimmy, get in here. God is missing and they’re blaming us for it!”

Let me ask you that question: Where is God? If you were having a religious conversation over coffee and someone asked you that question how would you respond? This poem, I think, has something profound to say about that.

This poem does not say that Jesus existed in the beginning with God. It says that the Word – the Greek word here is Logos – existed in the beginning with God. Jesus Is not introduced until verse 14 and is not named until verse 17.

So what did John mean by the Logos? Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish literature most likely would have understood this image in three ways. One, they would have connected the Logos to the creative word in Genesis one where God speaks creation into existence. Two, they would likely have made a connection with the revelatory word of the prophets who often claimed to deliver a revealing word of the Lord. And three, they would have identified the Logos with Divine Wisdom.

In ancient Jewish literature and in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) Divine Wisdom was sometimes personified (symbolized) as a woman who, among other things, was God’s partner and helper in creation. For example, in the book of Proverbs the Divine Wisdom is symbolized (personified) as a woman who “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice” to offer instruction (Prov. 2:22). This is what interpreters are referring to when they use the term “Sophia” as a translation for this feminine personification of divine wisdom.

In Proverbs 8 “Sophia”/Lady Wisdom is present when God creates the heavens and the earth. Sophia says: “When God established the heavens I was there . . . when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limits . . . when he marked the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.” This sounds very similar to the poetic language employed in the John’s prologue doesn’t it? 

So, then, according to John, the Logos – the creative, revelatory word of Divine Wisdom becomes incarnate – embodied in flesh and blood – in Jesus of Nazareth. John says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14). John is saying that the creative, revelatory wisdom of God became incarnate in Jesus who is named in verse 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

So Jesus, as the Logos incarnate, becomes the model, the archetype who incarnates through his body and soul, through his words and deeds, the creative, transforming wisdom of God. This is why we Christians can talk about Jesus being the face of God (not literally of course, but symbolically), because Jesus reveals the character and nature of God – Jesus shows us what God is like.

This beautiful poem is the interpretative key to the rest of the Gospel of John. For example in John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” In light of the prologue, John 14:6 does not mean that one has to believe certain things about Jesus in order to know God. What it means is that one has to give oneself to the things that Jesus embodied in order to know God. One must give oneself to the grace and truth and love Jesus embodied/incarnated in order to know God. To love selflessly and sacrificially the way Jesus loved is to know God, regardless of what one actually believes about Jesus.

To believe in Jesus in John’s Gospel is not about believing doctrines or propositional statements about Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the grace and truth and love of God which Jesus revealed, expressed, and incarnated as the Logos, the living Word. True religion is not about believing doctrines; it’s about falling in love with God and learning how to love everyone and everything the way Gods loves everyone and everything. That’s true faith and true religion. And we Christians are not going to help the cause of God in the world until we get that right – namely, that God wants us to do the right things (like loving our neighbor as ourself) much more than God cares about our believing the right things.

Now, what is true of Jesus is true of us or can be true of us, because the Logos, the Light and Life that came to expression in Jesus abides in us. Jesus models what can be true for all of us, because the Divine Life resides in us. The light and life that is the Logos dwells in us and longs to be incarnate in us and through us the way it was incarnate in and through Jesus.

John says in verses 4-5 that the Logos “was the light of all people” and it “shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” – it shines not only in the world in the person of Jesus, it shines in the darkness of our own hearts and souls. This “true light” says John in verse 9 “enlightens everyone.” This is why, as John says in verse 12, we have the power to become children of God. Each one of us has residing in us the Life, Power, and Wisdom of God that can empower us to live as God’s daughters and sons in the world. The very life, power, and wisdom of God abides in you and me.

Why did we need the particular incarnation of the life, wisdom, and power of God in the person of Jesus, if this life, wisdom, and power is available to all of us? Because we needed to see this lived out in flesh and blood. We needed a model, an example, a visible and tangible representation and mediator of this Divine Life lived out among us, and so “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

I believe that the uniqueness of Jesus’ incarnation is unique only in terms of degree. What you believe about Jesus in terms of his divinity is irrelevant. How you incarnate the Life that found expression in Jesus is what matters. The incarnation of God in Jesus is the incarnation God wants to see in all of God’s children.  

This is what John means, by the way, when he talks about possessing “eternal life” or simply “life.” To possess eternal life is to allow the life of God, the Logos of God, the transforming power, the self-revealing character, and the paradoxical wisdom of God to find a home in us, to creatively dwell and be embodied in our lives and relationships. That’s what it means to possess “life.”

In John 10 Jesus is attacked by the religious leaders for “making himself God.” They want to stone him. In response Jesus doesn’t deny the claim nor does he defend it. He invites them into the same unitive experience he enjoyed by quoting Psalm 82:6. The text reads in John 10:34-36:

Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? [He is quoting the Psalmist who described human beings as gods] If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – [Jesus accepts the Psalmist’s depiction of human beings as “gods”; Jesus accepts that in some sense this is true] can you say that the one whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”

Jesus is arguing: If scripture says that human beings are gods, then why are you upset with me because I said I am God’s Son? Jesus is basically arguing that the divine union he experienced with God is God’s intent and design for every human being. He invites them to believe that he is in the Father and the Father is in him and this union with the Divine is true of them as well, they just have to claim it and live in the reality of it. As a result of this interchange the Jewish leaders tried to arrest Jesus. And basically this is how the structures and systems of Christendom have reacted to this message both in the past and the present.

The power structures of religion (this is true of Christianity as well as any other religion) would rather have doctrines to believe, rituals to perform, and policies to enforce, rather than actual union with God. Because actual union with God would mean letting go of our incessant need to control and label and judge and create “in” groups and “out” groups. To be in union with God is to allow the Love of God to fill and overflow in our lives. Being in union with God means allowing the light of God’s grace and truth to expose our dark, hidden parts. It means letting go of our egoism and pride and our false attachments to power, prominence, and possessions. Union with Divine Love means change and who wants to do that?

So let me end where I started. Where is God? Is God up there somewhere in the great Beyond? No, sisters and brothers. The great Beyond is Within. If one of the goals (if not the goal) of Christian spirituality is to be like Jesus, then union with God the way Jesus experienced union with God is not some empty wish upon a star; it really is a human possibility. Sisters and brothers, we are both children of heaven and children of earth, flesh and spirit, divine and human. We are a living paradox, just as Jesus was. Don’t go looking for God up there, look for God in here and let the transforming power, will, and wisdom of God become incarnate in you.  

* * * * * * * * * *  

Our good God, it seems too good to be true, that you have taken on human nature, not just in the one we call Messiah and Lord, but in our very hearts, minds, and souls – that your Spirit infuses our spirit. Give us the faith to believe it and claim it. Show us how to be in tune with you, to allow your love and truth and grace to shine forth, to materialize in our bodies, in our work and play, in the way we react and relate to one another, in the habits we develop and in our attitudes and motivations. May the living Word, your transforming power, your self-revealing nature, and your wisdom, find expression in and through our bodies and souls. Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Keeping Hope Alive


One way to read the story of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple in Luke 2:22-40 is to read it as a story about keeping hope alive. Simeon and Anna, both prophets, were well along in years. For many years they had been waiting for “the redemption of Israel” and for God’s salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples” as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” In eschatological terms they were looking for a world of peace and restorative justice, a world healed and put right.

This is what the early Christians were longing for when they talked about the second coming of Jesus. They were looking for a new world order of equity and equality (Gal. 3:28), in essence “a new creation” (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17). The early Christians employed the language of “apocalyptic” to talk about this new world, which is the language of poetry, of metaphor and symbol, of exaggeration (hyperbole).

Some Christians think that God will intervene at some point in the human struggle to bring about this new world. Other Christians think it will come about through the collaborative, cooperative work of human beings as they work with each other (and with the Spirit) to bring it about. I align with this latter group, if indeed, the kingdom of God will ever be realized fully in this world. Sometimes I wonder.

In terms of our spiritual and moral evolution as a species we can’t be much past adolescence can we? Our intellectual and technological evolution seems to be outpacing our spiritual and moral evolution. We have made great strides in extending life expectancy and fighting diseases that once cut life off prematurely. And yet, millions of people still are not able to access these resources. We have amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the planet several times over. And we all know how systems large and small – governments, corporations, all kinds of political, economic, social, and religious systems, even local organizations, can become pervaded by injustice and evil.

How do we keep hope alive? How do we sustain hope that the world can be different, that we can be different? That our lives have meaning and purpose? That we can contribute to a more just, loving, peace-seeking society?

I do not have answers, but I can offer a few suggestions based on my own faith journey. One way I nurture hope is through the discipline of quiet. I set aside time to simply be with God and listen to God. I believe prayer is much more about listening for the Divine whisper than asking God for stuff - even good stuff. It’s primarily about being tuned in to the passion for love and goodness that is the essence of the Divine.

When I am in solitude my intent is to simply be with God, to give God my time. If nothing happens, if I fall asleep, if my mind wanders, I don’t beat myself up. Sometimes I hear God speak in those wanderings. Many times I can’t say anything happens at all. But somehow these times of solitude help keep my life oriented around a greater God and a greater good (what Jesus called the kingdom of God). Life changes from good to bad, and from bad to good all the time. The important thing is to have a Center (a greater Some One and a greater cause) that helps us to keep it all in perspective.

Another way to cultivate hope is by refusing to give up on the relationships and practices that can sustain us through difficult times – even in those times where we may be feeling the weight of the world. This can be as simple as maintaining connection with a faith community.

Spiritual writer Joan Chittister tells about the last year of the great polio epidemic in the U.S. when she, as a young person, was quarantined with sixteen other people. One woman cried incessantly day and night. She felt lost, scared, angry, and very alone. One day, a man in a wheelchair came rolling in her room inviting her to join their wheelchair races. She said,

“Those wheelchair races saved me. I never won any of them but my arms got stronger by the week and I learned to handle the chair. And, most of all, I laughed a lot and made new friends and had a great sense of the possible that carried me for years.”                                                                       The Sacred In-Between, p. 71 
Being faithful to the practice of community may be very difficult when we feel so bad, and yet this is one of the practices that can help keep hope alive.

One final suggestion: Do for others. We can give some of our stuff away. We can try to encourage someone every day. We can be kind. We can take the time to listen to someone’s story and empathize with their feelings. We can work to correct some injustice. In these ways, we can tangibly and personally participate in a story much larger than our little stories, and break the hold egoism often has over us. We are, of course, limited in time and resources, but each of us can do something for the good of others.

It is important to remind ourselves daily that our attitudes and actions have consequences. We can pollute the world with negativity or we can strive to make things better. After Jesus instructed a religious leader to love his neighbor as himself (which he illustrated with the parable of the Good Samaritan who went out of his way to help an enemy) Jesus said, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). This is how we say “yes” to life.

Our attitudes and actions can foster despair, or they can nurture hope. By committing ourselves to do good to others, to sow seeds of compassion and mercy, to work for fairness and the common good, especially for the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable, we are choosing life over death and we are choosing to keep hope alive.

Sometimes I wonder how it works: If people first give up and then a cloud of hopelessness descends, or if people first lose hope and then give up. Maybe it works both ways. What I do know is that if we want to be hopeful, then we need to be faithful. We can’t give up. We must keep listening for the still, small Voice. We must keep engaging in the practices and relationships that can sustain our lives. And we must break the power of the ego and the temptation toward negativity by doing for others, giving to others, and investing in a greater cause than our own self-interest.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Greetings, Favored One! (A Sermon from Luke 1:26-38 about divine-human encounter)

Not every experience of the Divine, not every encounter with God is as momentous as Mary’s encounter with the angel in our text today, but Mary’s experience can be seen as a kind of archetypal representation of what a divine encounter can do in our lives.

Any authentic God experience generally gives us two things that are foundational to a heathy and transformative spiritual life. First, such experiences give us ground to stand on.

Luke says that when the angel appeared saying, “Greetings, favored one!” she “was much perplexed . . . and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Then the angel declared, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Isn’t interesting that almost every time God appears or an angel of God appears in the Bible, the first thing the angel says is, “Do not fear?” It would seem that fearing God, being afraid of God has been a problem throughout human history.

If Mary is to stand on solid ground with God, she must let go of her fear and know beyond question that she is loved by God. Twice the angel assures her that she has found favor with God. This was not based on anything she did. This was not based on merit or status or any accomplishment. Mary is just an ordinary Jewish girl trying to get by in a very patriarchal culture. It would have been quite normal, I think, for a young Jewish girl to feel devalued and inferior.  So Mary is assured, first of all, that she is loved.

If you spend any time reading the mystics in the Christian tradition, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avilla, and others (and this is true of the mystics of other religious traditions as well) they all attempt to describe an experience of feeling loved unconditionally whereby they fall in love with God. They encounter divine Love, and that encounter changes them.

They all depict God as the initiator, the aggressive lover, the protagonist who seduces them out of their fear and their feelings of unworthiness. And the greater the experience of God as an unconditional Lover, then the greater the sense of radical acceptance, and the more energetic and devoted they are to give back to the world, especially to the poor and disenfranchised. Love is repaid by love alone. Love is reciprocal. There is no sense of trying to acquire God’s favor or climb some sort of ladder of worthiness, there are no merit badges to earn. Love is experienced and love is given back to God by giving back to the world which God loves.

This is the first thing authentic God experience gives us: ground to stand on, namely, that we are accepted and loved by the greatest Lover of all.  

The second thing authentic God experience gives us is a vast Divine Mystery to explore. In 2 Samuel 7, David wants to build God a house, but God doesn’t want a house, because once a house is built then the temptation will forever be to limit and confine God to God’s house. And so often this is what we do with our doctrinal confessions and creeds and our particular religious traditions and practices isn’t it? We limit God to the house we build for our kind of people to worship in. But once we experience the Really Real, the vastness and Mystery that is God, we become open and receptive to so much more.

I certainly did. I grew up like so many of you in a particular tradition that taught certitudes about God. For a long time I never thought to question those certitudes. I was taught that these certitudes were absolute truth and nothing good could come from questioning the truth. So for a number of years I confined and limited God to a particular house.

Now, there is nothing wrong with worshiping and serving God in a particular house, in a particular tradition. In fact, it is important to be able to call someplace home. But when we think that our house is the only house where God can dwell, then we severely limit God and our experience of God.

Only the vastness of the love of God and awareness of the vastness of the Divine Mystery we call God can set us free from our confinement to the little houses we have built.

If we hope to be able to know and rest in God’s radical grace and acceptance, then Images of God that strike fear (like “I will torture you if you don’t love me”) or simply childish images (like the Santa Claus god who is making a list, checking it twice, in order to find out who is naughty and nice) – these fearful and childish images of God (the torturing God and the Santa Clause God) have to go. Generally, though, we do not abandon such images easily – not without a struggle – and we are often wounded in the process. Maybe that’s why so many Christians avoid thinking deeply about their understanding of God; they just don’t want engage in the struggle.

A part of the struggle is letting go any need to use God or manipulate God for our benefit. I am reminded of a small boy who was writing a letter to Santa about the Christmas presents he so much wanted. He began, “I’ve been good for six months now.” Then he paused, and crossed out the word six, and wrote three, “I’ve been good for three months now.” Well, after he wrote that, he stopped again, and marked out three months and wrote three weeks. Then, after some more deliberation, he marked that out too. He got up from the table, went over to the nativity scene that had the figures of Joseph and Mary, picked up Mary and stuffed her in his pocket. Then he went back over to the table. He started a new letter, “Dear God, he began. He decided to by-pass Santa and go to even a higher source. “Dear God, if you ever want to see your mother again . . . . “

Once we experience God as Unconditional Love and Lover and realize there is no reason to be afraid, then we also realize that it is a waste of time trying to manipulate others or use others for our advantage or to use God to manipulate others. And we no longer want to. That’s the real liberating reality. We are finally able to see how childish and silly all those manipulative games are. 

Mary found herself grasped by love, held on to, chosen by a greater Someone, and that gave her the courage to participate in a larger story. Standing firmly on that ground, held and gripped by loved, she found the courage to say “yes” to God’s call. She was willing to be led beyond her comfort zone, beyond her house of certitudes to a new place. She had to leave her safe place, but she found a better place (not as safe, but better) in God’s love and purpose.

Mary would indeed be wounded in her participation in the Love and Mystery of God. In saying yes to God she said yes to the struggle. She suffered a questionable reputation and gave birth to a son who would break her heart, who would be crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Mary found no security in her circumstances. She found her security in God – in God’s choice of her, in God’s love and acceptance, not in her status, or name, or reputation, or place in the world.

Mary personifies the entire mystery of how salvation is received. She  functions as the ideal disciple in Luke’s Gospel. She epitomizes trust. She trusts God to lead her into the mystery. Can we?

I see the angel as a symbol for our own experience of God, which is almost always inner experience. It is the experience that tells us that we are loved. This was Jesus’ experience when he heard the Divine Voice say, “You are my Beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” I suspect that the writer of 1 John was trusting his inner experience of the Divine, which he calls an anointing, when he spoke about God being love. He wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.” Obviously, the kind of “knowing” he is talking about is experiential knowing, not academic or informational knowing. He goes on to say that love casts out all fear and that to abide in love is to abide in God, for God is love. Wherever love is at work, God is at work.

This is the true ground of being. This gives Mary the courage and faith to surrender to a greater purpose and mystery that she does not fully and will never fully understand. Mary’s trust and surrender to this great Mystery and Love is beautifully expressed in 1:38: “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Author Sue Monk Kid tells about finding an old bundle of Christmas cards while poking around in the attic looking for a picture frame. As she sifted through them she found a card that had meant a great deal to her one year when she seventh months pregnant. She was terribly tired of waiting and yearned to hold her baby in her arms. Then the card came. On the front was Mary, great with child, and inside were the words, “Let it be.”

Kidd felt a kinship with Mary; she felt as if Mary had come to show her how to wait through her pregnancy. She writes, “Don’t fret so, the card seemed to say. You can’t control the life in you. It grows and emerges in its own time. Be patient and nurture it with all your love and attentiveness. Be still and cooperate with the mystery God is unfolding in you. Let it be.”

The late Henri Nouwen wrote of his own experience with regard to the spirituality of Christmas: “I realized that songs, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying “yes” to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying “yes” to a hope based on God’s initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work, not mine.”

Some context here is important: Nouwen wrote that personal word as a struggling workaholic. It is God’s work to redeem the world. Indeed, it is, but God works through incarnation. This is what the Christmas story primarily tells us. So Christmas is not only believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work, it is also accepting our part in God’s work to save the world. It is God’s work to save the world (to heal, transform the world), but it is our part to say “yes” to our participation in the salvation of the world, and we can start by saying yes to God’s work in our own hearts and lives right now. We can say “yes” to God’s love right now, and allow God’s endless flow of grace and goodness to wash over us, to immerse us in something much larger than ourselves, to fill us and overflow into all our relationships and all the other aspects of our lives. It is God’s work to save, to redeem, to heal, and reconcile; but it is our work to create space and opportunity for God to work both in us and through us.

God does this extraordinary work in and through ordinary people. Mary was so very ordinary. There was no special heroics or holiness that commended her for this task. That God would dwell in these flesh and blood bodies and in this material world (which is what incarnation teaches) is truly extraordinary isn’t it?

The great mystery is that we cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God all the time and everywhere. The prayer attributed to Saint Patrick captures it well: God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you. We do not earn this. It’s all a matter of being tuned in, being aware, being able to trust and surrender to this Greater Love and Mystery at work everywhere all the time.

Mary was willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery that allowed the Christ child to be formed in her. What about us? Are we willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery, to create the space and time and opportunity for the image of Christ to be formed in us?

* * * * * * * * * 

Our Good God, we are so distracted, so obsessed with other things – buying the right presents, decorating the house, entertaining, and so much more – that we hardly have time to think about the things we have talked about today. We thank you for this church, for this place and time where we can again be reminded of what is important, of what really matters, and how our small lives are part of a much bigger story. I pray that that each one us here will have an encounter, an experience of your love that will open our eyes to your vastness, to your abiding and surrounding presence, and to your unconditional love for each and every one. May we not be afraid to have our small, little houses come crashing down, so that we will be prodded to journey beyond our little world and see how you are present in so many ways, revealing your love and inviting us to share in it.  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why It’s Wrong to Use Jesus to Reject Full Inclusion of LGBT Persons in the Church.

It is practically blasphemous to appeal to Jesus as the reason for a church’s refusal to fully accept and affirm LGBT persons because Jesus was the great boundary breaker, not the boundary maker. Consider the following:

First, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he broke down barriers between the “righteous” and “sinners.” The meaning of these terms in the Gospels was usually based on sectarian categories (see especially Mark 2:13-17). “Sinners” was a term applied by the “righteous” to those who did not keep the law as the righteous understood and applied it. Sinners were excluded from religious life. Jesus demolished that barrier when he welcomed all “sinners” to eat with him. Eating together meant full acceptance and inclusion. New Testament scholar James D. G. Dunn aptly summarizes:

“Jesus’ practice of table fellowship was not only an expression of the good news of God’s kingly rule. It was also an implicit critique of a Pharisaic definition of acceptability, of a Pharisaic practice which classified many fellow Jews as sinners, effectively outside the law and the covenant . . . What to many Pharisees was a sinful disregard for covenant ideals was for Jesus an expression of the gospel itself. People they regarded as unacceptable, Jesus proclaimed by word and act to be the very ones God invited to his royal banquet.”

Jesus was constantly in trouble with the gatekeepers because he consorted, befriended, and welcomed into his fellowship all those the gatekeepers ruled outside the ranks of the people of God. The exclusion and condemnation of those categorized as sinners by the righteous in Jesus’ day is analogous to the labeling and judgment of LGBT persons as “sinners” by the self-designated righteous today. 

Second, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he made the whole of Jewish scripture and tradition hang on the commandments to love God and love neighbor. In Luke’s version of the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, a Jewish leader sought to justify himself by asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by telling the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff).

When I was a kid in Sunday School I remember being taught many times that being a good neighbor is helping someone in need. While that is important, that’s not the main point of the story is it? The point is that the Samaritan was the enemy. Some Jews may have despised the Samaritans even more than the Romans and vice versa. And what Jesus taught by parable regarding love of enemies, he taught more directly in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:43-48; also Luke 6:27-36).

Third, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he extended boundless grace by healing all who needed healing. Consider this summary in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pain, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them” (Matt. 4:23-24). 

There were no hoops to jump through. Jesus healed all who came: women, men, children, Jews, non-Jews, poor, rich, those with or without faith . . . he made no distinction.

Fourth, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he critiqued and confronted his own sacred tradition in order to bring about needed reform. This is particularly reflected in the Sabbath controversies where Jesus challenged Sabbath law (see especially Mark 2:23-3:6). With regard to Hebrew scripture sometimes he accepted it, sometimes he expanded it, and sometimes he rejected it. For example, he accepted the commandment against murder, but extended it to include anger (Matt. 5:21-24). Jesus completely rejected the law of retaliation in the Hebrew Bible and encouraged non-violent protest (Matt. 5:38-42). Jesus critiqued and challenged his Jewish tradition and scripture in order to break down barriers and move people toward inclusion, grace, and compassion. 

Fifth, Jesus was the great boundary breaker in the way he overstepped social mores and customs in order to love and elevate those regarded as inferior. In the ancient world a female was deemed inferior to a male. Polygamy was common (Deut. 21:15-17). Only a man had the right to divorce (Deut. 24:1-4).  Concerning vows, women were economically valued less that men (Deut. 27:1-7). The monthly menstrual bleeding of a woman was considered a source of the woman’s ritual and spiritual uncleanness (Lev. 12:2). Female inferiority was even built into the structure of the temple itself, with the court of women outside the court of Israel. Women were not allowed into the inner court where sacrifices where offered.

Jesus broke through the taboos of uncleanness when he healed the woman who had the “flow of blood.” When she touched Jesus, instead of rendering Jesus “unclean” Jesus rendered the woman “clean” by healing her (Mark 5:25-34). Jesus overturned notions of female inferiority when he called women disciples (Mark 15:40; Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42). Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Mk 10:1-12) was really aimed at trying to level the playing field for women who could be divorced by their husbands for any reason whatsoever.

Again and again, in story after story Jesus crossed boundaries, tore down walls, overstepped social mores, and challenged laws, scriptures, traditions, and customs that separated and segregated people into acceptable and unacceptable categories which determined who was ‘in’ and ‘out.’ He did this in the name of “Abba” and for the cause of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ ministry as boundary breaker clearly demonstrated what God is like and what God is about.

Given the nature of Jesus’ work as boundary breaker why would anyone think that Jesus would erect barriers to exclude and judge our LGBT sisters and brothers? Some of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day accused Jesus of blasphemy because they felt he misrepresented God and thus violated God’s glory. They were the ones, however, who were actually misrepresenting God and distracting from the glory of God’s love and compassion. Doesn't this seem all too contemporary?

If blasphemy is understood as misrepresenting God and distracting from the glory of God’s love and goodness (as the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day defined it), then we are all guilty on some level and to some degree. But let’s hope that in our treatment of our LGBT sisters and brothers fewer of us fall back into the same mistake the so-called “righteous” made in their treatment of “sinners.” LGBT persons are not anymore “sinners” than the rest and it’s time more churches embrace full affirmation and inclusion.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Misuse of Scripture (Southern Baptists seem to lead the way)

When our president issued his executive order giving deportation relief to millions of undocumented people in our country, as part of his explanation he quoted Scripture: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; also 22:21). This angered a number of conservative Christians who apparently felt they had a monopoly on the Bible.

Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote a piece for the Religion News Service claiming that the President misused Scripture by running “roughshod over context.”

The irony of this is that the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution in 2011 quoting this very Scripture as a basis for compassionate action. The resolution declared: “The Scriptures call us, in imitation of God Himself, to show compassion and justice for the sojourner and alien among us.” Following that declaration the Scripture the President quoted was listed along with several others.

Did Coppenger change his mind or did he never support the SBC resolution to begin with? My purpose here is not to critique Coppenger’s hypocritical hermeneutic. Mainline Biblical interpreters can easily tear his shoddy reasoning apart (see Mark Silk’s excellent critique at the same website).

The question I want to ask is: Could there be some bias at work behind the argument that the President misused Scripture? Could it be a general animosity toward our President? Could it be a commitment to a political ideology or party? Or could there be some other bias or interest at work? I can’t make that judgment, but clearly some sort of bias is behind Coppenger’s argument.

Coppenger proves the point that I frequently make about our use and misuse of the Bible. Our biases (and we all have them) influence how we appropriate Scripture for good or ill.

So why not apply Scripture with a bias toward love? This is what Jesus seemed to do in his use of Scripture. And the most enlightened biblical texts suggest as much:

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). 

“Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us . . .”  (Eph. 5:1-2).

“Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14). 

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God: everyone who loves is from God . . . Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:7-8, 16).

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:36-40).

If Dr. Coppenger and all the other conservative Christians who are crying “foul” at the President’s use of Scripture would allow the above Scriptures to shape their hearts, then we wouldn’t have to have this conversation.

My principle is simple: Only love provides the context for appropriating Scripture rightly.