Monday, December 27, 2010

"God With Us" Is Not Just for Christmastime

In Matthew’s Gospel the joy of the birth of Jesus is overshadowed and sent fleeing with the holy family’s flight into Egypt and the loud cries of lamentation from the parents of the children slaughtered in Bethlehem (Matt 2:16–18).

Life is filled with interruptions of tragedy and tumult. The abundant life made available to us in Christ does not provide immunity against the discomfort and distresses of life. Any version of Christian faith that downplays suffering or attributes it to God’s displeasure needs to reinvent itself.

The intricacies of the interplay between divine power, divine goodness, and human freedom will always be a mystery. Jesus believed that God loves the creation and is creatively engaged in its healing and redemption. Jesus taught that God knows the number of hairs on our heads, which is to say that God takes special interest in each one of us. Even the minor players of creation, according to Jesus, do not escape God’s attention, for God observes a little sparrow when it falls to the ground. Jesus’ faith was firmly grounded in the goodness of God. He was convinced that God is “with” and “for” the creation.

God’s care for the creation, however, does not prevent bad things from happening that are the opposite of God’s good will. We live in an open universe. God has bestowed upon and built into creation the element of freedom. This freedom is essential to the biological, evolutionary processes of life. God does not (or perhaps cannot given the nature of reality) intervene to stop hurricanes and floods, nor does God alter the processes of life so that children are born free of mental disabilities and physical handicaps. This holds true in the moral life as well. We are granted the freedom to do good or evil, to harm or heal, to destroy or save life. The Herods of the world exercise their freedom to dispose of any person or group that threatens their position and power.

Freedom, then, is at the core of evolutionary life and moral existence. It is, of course, influenced and limited by many factors: genetics, time and place, circumstances of birth, education, the entire socialization process, and numerous factors beyond our control. Cancer strikes randomly, as do terrorists exercising their God–given freedom.

God does not (or cannot) override this freedom. God does not intervene to stop holocausts, genocides, tragic accidents, and random natural disasters. There are powerful forces of evil at work against God’s will: egotism, classism, racism, nationalism, militarism, and narcissism. The powers of greed, hate, and selfish ambition are strong in our world and they reside in some degree in every human soul.

Does this adequately explain why God does not or cannot intervene to stop monstrous evil in the world? Not really. The biblical writers offer no solutions, and the great thinkers—the theologians and philosophers—continue to debate issues of theodicy.

For some people of faith it is enough to know that God absorbs into God’s self the world’s anguish; that God participates in and is influenced by our misery and travail. God is “Emmanuel,”—God with us. God cannot stop tragedies from happening and people from dying, but God walks with us, sharing our struggles and pain.

God is not a spectator in our suffering, but rather, an active participant in the ebb and flow of both the good and bad in our lives. Our experience, rapturously joyful or horrendously painful, or anywhere in between, becomes part of God’s experience.

An artist was painting a bleak picture of a winter storm sweeping across the countryside. Over in the corner was a cabin that looked dead and hopeless. But with one small stroke, the painter dramatically changed the mood of the picture. He took the tip of his brush, dipped it in gold paint, touched one window of the cabin, and the golden glow from that cabin transformed the picture from one of coldness and gloom to one of warmth and welcome.

No matter how dark the night or how fierce the storm, the warm glow of “God with us” shimmers in our hearts. And that is sufficient, that is enough to get us through.

(The following reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light, published by Wifp and Stock Publishers. Click on picture to order.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Shimmers of Love

Willa Cather's Christmas story, The Burglar's Christmas, portrays a young man named William, who had moved away from his family back east and was now in Chicago. Impoverished, he breaks into a house on Christmas Eve to steal some food. He discovers that he has burglarized the house of his parents who had moved to Chicago. His mother catches him while stealing, and he confesses everything.

In so many words she begs him to stay, “Tonight you have come back to me, just as you always did after you ran away to swim in the river that was forbidden you, the river you loved because it was forbidden . . . I never asked you where you had been then, nor will I now. You have come back to me, that’s all in all to me.”

He looks up at her questioningly and says, “I wonder if you know how much you pardon?” She responds, “O, my poor boy, much or little, what does it matter? Have you wandered so far and paid such a bitter price for knowledge and not yet learned that love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness, that it only loves, and loves—and loves?”

The God who has come to us in Christ, “only loves, and loves—and loves.” God is continually at work in non-coercive, creative ways, revealing to us the width and depth of unconditional divine love.

Jesus, empowered by divine love, challenged the powers that be and stood in solidarity with the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and excluded, confronting the gatekeepers of conventional religion and the powerbrokers of the social order. Courageously, he preached, taught, and lived the kingdom of God, and the kingdoms of the world were offended and outraged. In our discipleship to Jesus we are called to love like him.

God’s love is the energy of the universe. When this energy pulsates through our thoughts, attitudes, and actions, and vibrates through our conversation and conduct, then our spirits are electrified with the joy, mystery, wonder, and sheer gift of life. As we become conductors through whom God’s love flows, we become God’s gift to others who need fresh experiences of God’s grace and goodness. As the current of divine love arcs outward into the lives of the people we touch, we serve as mediators of the light and radiance of the divine presence.

I read somewhere that during the filming of The Misfits, Arthur Miller, who was married to Marilyn Monroe, watched his wife descend into the depths of depression and despair. He feared for her life as he observed their growing estrangement, her paranoia, and her dependence on barbiturates. One evening while she was sleeping, after a doctor had been persuaded to give her yet another shot, Miller stood over her. Commenting on that moment he said, “I found myself straining to imagine miracles. What if she was to wake and I was able to say, ‘God loves you, darling,’ and she was able to believe it! How I wished I still had my religion and she hers.”

Can we really believe this? Can we believe that God loves us each one with an unconditional love that drives out all fear; a love that will never give up on us and never let us go? What a difference it would make if we could. When we are confident that we are forever God’s beloved children, then we are empowered to love God’s creation and one another with the unconditional love of God.

(The preceding reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season, available at wipfandstock.com. Click on picture at right for more information or to order).

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Way of Peace

What are your first thoughts when asked to reflect on the word “peace”? You might think of a feeling of ease or comfort. The popular country rock group, the Eagles, had a hit song that echoed the heart’s longing for a “peaceful, easy feeling.” As you anticipate family gatherings this season one of your Christmas wishes may be: “I hope we have a peaceful time with family this year.” Invariably, there is always someone in the family who knows what hot buttons to push to get uncle or aunt so-and-so on his or her soapbox. Or you might think of a pastoral scene, like the one reflected in Psalm 23, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters.” You might think in negative terms, such as the absence of strife or conflict. The biblical meaning is much broader and deeper.

In the Greek world, “peace” was often employed to describe an inner state of well-being, whereas in the Hebrew tradition, the word was used primarily for interpersonal or social relations, coming very close to meaning “justice.” Both of these perspectives are found in the New Testament, and though a particular context may emphasize one or the other, neither meaning should exclude the other.

In a Peanuts cartoon Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “I hate everything. I hate everybody. I hate the whole wide world.” Charlie Brown responds, “But I thought you had inner peace.” Lucy replies, “I do have peace. But I still have outer obnoxiousness.” Whatever Lucy may have, it is not spiritual peace. In the biblical tradition, inner peace goes hand-in-hand with relational and communal wholeness.

In the birth narrative of Luke’s Gospel, an angel announces the birth to lowly shepherds who were caring for their flock by night, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10–12). Then suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host joins in, “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace among all humankind, on whom God’s favor rests!” (Luke 2:14, my translation)

In the Roman Empire, it was customary for poets and orators to proclaim peace and prosperity at the birth of one who was destined to become emperor. Following that familiar pattern, the angelic messenger announces the birth of Christ, the Lord, who is destined to be the Savior of Israel and the world. The irony is that Israel’s Messiah is Rome’s Savior as well.

Luke begins the actual birth story by setting it in the historical context of Emperor Augustus. Caesar Augustus was heralded as the greatest of the emperors. He was born Octavian and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Following his father’s assassination a great civil war tore Rome asunder, wrecking havoc on the empire until Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE at the Battle of Actium. He then assumed the position of emperor and became known as Augustus, the Divine (the imperial myth had him being conceived by the gods). Augustus ushered Rome into a great era of peace and stability. He was proclaimed throughout the land—on coins, inscriptions, and temples—as “Son of God,” “Savior of the world,” “Lord of the whole world,” and “God made manifest,” among other titles.

Undoubtedly, Luke is drawing a contrast between the one he believed would occupy the throne of David (1:32), and the one who brought peace to Rome. The peace ushered in by Augustus was a temporary peace, enforced and supported by imperial might that violently subdued all opposition. It was a kingdom maintained by violent power, exercised by the powerful.

How different is the kingdom of the Christ child! He was born, not in pomp and pageantry, but in a humble peasant’s house among the animals. He did not walk among royalty in palace halls, but among the poor, oppressed, diseased, and demonized in the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea. Lowly Jewish shepherds, often despised among their own people, came to honor him, for to them and their kind he had come, bringing hope of a new world where the power of love would take the place of violent force. He did not wield sword or spear and he admonished his followers to love and pray for their enemies. He taught his disciples a nonviolent strategy for asserting their humanity and dignity as children of God under the crushing hands of imperial force. He pronounced blessing on peacemakers, judgment on warmongers, and he challenged all security systems rooted in wealth and control. He is a different kind of king, the viceroy of God’s peaceable kingdom, and he manifested in his life, words, and deeds the character of a forgiven, healed, and restored world.

Many contemporary Christians seem to favor the kingdom of Augustus over the kingdom of the Christ they profess to follow, by supporting a war policy that responds to violence with violence. Jesus told his disciples to put their swords away and when he stood before Pilate, the representative of imperial might, Jesus said that his kingdom was of a different nature altogether. Jesus and those who would follow him dance to the beat of a different drummer—Pa rum pum pum pum.

(The preceding reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season, published by Wipf and Stock Publishers (wipfandstock.com). Click on book picture at right for more information.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent is Now!

Jesus’ life in this world began in a small, one-room peasant house that would have been divided between living quarters and space for the animals. It was most likely damp and dirty, not the kind of warm, cozy place often pictured in our manger scenes.

Many of us know Jesus in his redeeming role as “Son of God,” but the title he used of himself was “Son of Man,” a phrase employed most often in the Hebrew Bible meaning simply, “the human one.” Jesus was a teacher of wisdom, a sage, a healer and prophet, who challenged the status quo, turning conventional wisdom on its head. We meet Jesus among “the least.” Of course, “the least” are only “the least” from the point of view of a world gone awry, a world that elevates wealth and status over humility and compassion, a world that rewards the winners and the successful. Jesus turned this sort of world upside down.

Mary’s Song of Praise (the Magnificat) anticipates the scattering and deposing of the proud and powerful, and the uplifting and strengthening of the weak and humble. The rich are stripped of their wealth and the hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). A change of fortunes is anticipated in the Messianic age.

God’s choice of a humble peasant girl to give birth to the Messiah signals that the great eschatological reversal has already commenced. God’s values and the world’s values often clash in a collision of opposites. To partner with Christ in the work of the kingdom is to side with the poor, weak, powerless, and humble, for to them belongs God’s new world. Unless we find ourselves among them, we will not likely encounter Christ’s presence or experience Christ’s redemption.

The gospel of God’s new world that Jesus proclaimed and incarnated has been altered and distorted by many modern versions of Christianity, which attempt to make the message more marketable to a culture obsessed with solace and security. Whether the focus is on health and wealth in this life or the afterlife, some folks want a Jesus who can solve all their problems, answer all their questions, and be an endless source of comfort and happiness. Jesus, however, who was born in humility and died in humiliation, bid his followers to take up their cross and pursue his same path of surrender, service, and sacrifice for the good of others.

Christ’s coming in humility and service is not only tough to market, it is difficult to comprehend. Any rendering of Christianity that reduces the mystery of the incarnation to a propositional statement, a creed, or doctrinal formula diminishes its truth. Any attempt to explain it will inevitably miss the mark and stifle spiritual understanding.

The coming of God in Christ invites us to bow in wonder and entertain the mystery in a spirit of humility and awe. “Advent” is derived from a Latin word meaning “arrival” or “coming.” It marks something momentous: Christ’s coming into our midst.

The invitation to celebrate Advent includes both remembrance of the past (the life of Jesus of Nazareth) and anticipation of the future (God’s new world), though the light that was and will be is now, shimmering against the backdrop of our lives. The presence of Christ is for the present.

The invitation of Advent is the invitation—right now, this very moment—to open our ordinary lives, common experiences, and everyday relationships, as well as our deepest selves, to the Spirit of the living Christ. Today is the day the Lord has made. Let us gladly give ourselves to it, to live in it as one fully alive, with eyes wide open. Advent is now!

(The preceding reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season available form Wipf and Stock Publishers (wipfandstock.com). For more information click on the book cover)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nurturing an Attitude of Gratitude

Our capacity to be thankful is greatly influenced by how we “see.” The great challenge for all of us (though for some it is greater): Can we “see” beyond and through the chaotic circumstances that threaten to envelop us? Can we find some stability in God’s mercy and love, even when all hell breaks loose? Can we discover the underlying thread of God’s grace and presence beneath the rough, jagged texture of suffering and hardship?

One thing that helps is to remember that whatever tragedy or tumult we experience, God’s attitude toward us is one of acceptance and love. Even when God is upset with us, God loves us and will never banish us from her presence.

To Catch an Angel, by Robert Russell, is the autobiography of a young blind man who lived alone on an island in the middle of a river. He went rowing on the river almost everyday by means of a fairly simple system. To the end of the dock, he attached a bell with a timer set to ring every thirty seconds. In this way he was able to row up and down the river, and every thirty seconds judge his distance by the sound of the bell. When he’d had enough, he found his way home by means of the bell. In the young man’s words, “The river lies before me, a constant invitation, a constant challenge, and my bell is the thread of sound along which I return to a quiet base.”

Life is like a continually flowing river. God calls us to venture out on it where there is frequent danger and challenge. Unexpected storms arise. Our security, however, rests in God’s unconditional love, which enables us to find our way back home.

We can find reasons for being either grateful or bitter. We have to determine the attitude that will permeate our spirit. The late Henry Nouwen spent the last years of his life working with developmentally disabled adults who had every reason to be bitter. They experience loneliness, rejection from family members, the unfulfilled desire to have a partner in life, and the constant frustration of needing assistance. And yet, observed Nouwen, most do not choose to be bitter, but grateful for the many small gifts of their lives—an invitation to dinner, a birthday celebration, a few days of retreat, and most of all, for their daily community with people who offer friendship and support. The more we decide to be grateful, the easier it becomes to live a grateful life.

Even when our problems are unsolvable and mountains unclimbable, God is with us. As we cultivate an attitude of gratitude for God’s sustaining grace amid all the tensions and pressures of life, and as we learn to live through our disappointments and let go of our frustrations, then we will become more aware and alive, more whole and complete—more fully human. Our hard places may become “thin places” where we can catch a glimpse of God’s glory and grace.

The preceding reflections were adapted from the first chapter of my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season. It is just off the press and available on line at wipfandstock.com. Click on picture to order.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” Jesus is talking about those who have given themselves to the difficult and challenging work of making peace between individuals, amilies, groups, and nations.

An excellent contemporary example is Nelson Mandela. When he assumed the reins of power in South Africa he refused to be bitter toward his enemies. After twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he refrained from any form of vindictiveness and called on all races to work together to heal the nation.

At the core of all peacemaking is a basic commitment to nonviolence. Only nonviolence can break the cycle of violence and open a door for peace. Violence can never stop violence because its very success leads others to imitate it. It’s ironic, but violence can be the most dangerous when it succeeds.

However successful we are in Afghanistan it will not put an end to terrorism. Governments face hard decisions, but whenever violence is met with violence it causes hate and animosity to escalate. Every terrorist we kill, and particularly every civilian that gets caught or killed in the crossfire, becomes a cause for recruitment to the terrorist agenda and increases their hatred.

Peacemakers committed to nonviolence always look for creative alternatives. There may be times in self-defense that we have to resort to force, but disciples of Jesus should always be looking for creative ways to diffuse violence and make peace, even when it involves bearing the hate without returning it—the way Jesus did on the cross.

Our society is so saturated and prone toward violence that people find it hard to believe in anything else. Many people tend to trust violence. And one has no trouble in marshaling biblical support. One can find any number of divinely sanctioned expressions of violence in the Old Testament, even divinely commissioned genocide. Jesus, however, while he certainly held his Scriptures and traditions in great respect, did not blindly accept everything in the Bible hook, line, and sinker.

Jesus exposed the lie and the deception of so-called “redemptive violence” by embodying a life of nonviolence in what he taught, how he lived, and especially in the way he died. This is why the cross becomes a symbol of the gospel of peace. Jesus bore the violence of the powers that be without returning it upon them.

Peacemaking through nonviolence, however, does not involve being a “doormat.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offered examples of how his followers could take nonviolent direct action against the oppressive powers. To so act involved great moral and spiritual strength and courage.

Peacemaking through nonviolence does not mean conflict avoidance. There were numerous times in the Gospels where Jesus acted in defiance of the religious authorities, thus provoking conflict (for example, see the Sabbath controversy stories such as those found in Mark 2:23–3:6).

It’s ironic today that so few Christians even aspire to be peacemakers, and yet, according to Jesus, these are the ones who are living up to their title. These are the ones, says Jesus, who are truly living like children of God.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

To Will One Thing

One of Soren Kierkegaard’s famous lines (also the title of the book) is: “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” A person who is “pure in heart” is undivided in his or her intention. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt 5:8).

In a wonderful scene in the movie “City Slickers,” Curly (Jack Parlance), the tough-as-nails, wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world, trail boss, asks Mitch (Billy Crystal) if he wants to know the secret of life. Curly says, “It’s this,” holding up his index finger. Mitch retorts, “The secret of life is your finger.” Curly, never batting an eye says, “It’s one thing. The secret of life is pursuing one thing.”

According to Jesus, the one thing his disciples are called to pursue is the kingdom of God. In a context where Jesus tells his disciples not to be anxious about how they appear to others, nor about their daily needs (what they will eat, drink, and wear), he says, “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice, and all these other things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33). In other words, everything else in life will find its place around life’s central priority—the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God as embodied and proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospels relates to this world, not a different heavenly world. Unfortunately, a lot of popular Christian preaching and teaching emphasize that the world is not our home and that we are just passing through. That’s partly true. Christians are a pilgrim people. And certainly we are going to die and enter a new stage of existence. While Jesus believed in an afterlife, he taught that the kingdom of God has to do with God’s good, gracious, just, and peaceable will being done “on earth” as it is in that dimension of reality called heaven.

I’m convinced that we will always be a pilgrim people, a people on the move. Whatever may ultimately be involved in the realization of God’s kingdom on earth, this will not be the end of our spiritual journeys.

As children of God, I believe that we will always be growing, developing, and becoming in God’s unfolding plan. (I can’t imagine living forever in some heavenly mansion singing endless praise songs; well, maybe if Bob Dylan is the writer/singer). Perhaps there are new worlds, creatures, and universes yet to evolve in which we will have some part.

My point is that, for now, this earth is our home and we are charged to be good stewards of it. (Some Christians are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good). Here, on this planet, is where Jesus envisioned a flourishing world of justice, peace, and abundance for all people.

Eternity is right now; it is what we are living at this moment. God expects us to learn how to love one another and take care of one another right now. What else does it mean to be the body of Christ—the presence, the hands and feet of Christ—in the world? Disciples of Jesus are called to be collaborators and partners with God in God’s project to heal and redeem the world, right now!

Jesus promised that those committed to this cause “will see God.” Throughout the Gospels “seeing” is a way of talking about understanding, perceiving, and grasping the truth in a transformative way. It’s the capacity to see through our many deceptions, illusions, and subtle lies, and recognize what is real, true, and good. No one will ever see the essence of God, but we can see the beauty and goodness of God in one another, in life’s experiences, and in creation.

As we give ourselves to the healing, wholeness, and well-being of others, we will find our own redemption. We most certainly will become “more” and “better” than what we are now when we truly “see” God in ourselves, others, and the world.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Let justice roll

Some years ago popular speaker and author Tony Campolo helped initiate a master’s program at Eastern College that trains students to enter Third World countries, as well as impoverished sections of American cites, with the express purpose of starting small businesses and cottage industries with the poor. Campolo was once part of such a micro enterprise in the Dominican Republic that produced durable footwear out of discarded automobile tires.

Campolo says, “When we talk about Jesus, we make it clear that he is not just interested in our well-being in the afterlife. He is a Savior who is at work in the world today trying to save the world from what it is, and make it into a place where people can live together with dignity.” This, I believe, is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice), for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6).

The word translated “righteousness” can also be translated “justice.” Justice in the Hebrew/Christian tradition differs significantly from what many folks today mean when they use the term. Justice, as employed by the prophets and by Jesus, does not mean “getting what one deserves.” According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, the meaning of “justice/righteousness” is principally about actions that sustain and improve community well-being, particularly those that show special attentiveness to the poor and needy. The Hebrew prophets railed against religious and political leaders who spurned justice, but yet were very pious and religious (see Amos 5:21–24).

Author Robert Pirsig refers to a clever method used to capture monkeys in southern India. A hole is drilled into a coconut, then the insides are hollowed out and filled with rice. The coconut is chained to a stake driven in the ground. The hole is just large enough for a monkey to insert its paw, but too small for it to remove its paw once it is filled with rice. The monkey, unwilling to let go of the rice, becomes effectively trapped. The irony, of course, is that it is trapped by the very thing it believed would sustain its life.

Our religion, which is intended to enhance and sustain life, becomes a snare when we are motivated by selfish ambition, or use it for personal advancement and self-aggrandizement. Our Christianity becomes a snare when we make it primarily about the afterlife or personal success in this life. When our faith becomes nothing more than a way to eternal bliss or a way to achieve personal happiness or self-fulfillment, then we too come under the indictment of the prophets and Jesus in particular.

Our faith becomes a snare when it entraps us in personal and group idolatries. When we arrogantly assume that God’s blessing is limited to our faith, our group, our people, our church, or our nation, then our Christian practice stands under the judgment of God.

Restorative justice is not about what is legal; rather it concerns what is good, fair, and just. It’s committed to the dignity of all people and to eliminating the causes of oppression, poverty, and injustice. Its focus is the common good, not private interest. It’s centered on God’s kingdom on earth, not the afterlife. (We need not worry about or concern ourselves with the afterlife, because our gracious heavenly Father/Mother will take good care of all of us).

Real virtue is bound to the pursuit of justice—the well-being and life enhancement of the community. Without this quality our religion fails and falls under the judgment of God.

The modern prophet William Sloan Coffin reminds us that the church “doesn’t so much have a social ethic as it is a social ethic.” Without a hunger and thirst for justice, the church is not the church. For the church to be what Jesus envisioned—an outpost for God’s kingdom on earth—the church must cultivate a hunger and thirst for justice.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Meekness is not Weakness

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). According to Jesus, “the earth” (referring here to the “kingdom of God”) is the possession of the meek. Meekness is not weakness. Jesus challenged the powers that be when he intentionally pushed the edges of religious respectability through his practice of an open table (inclusivity), identification with the marginalized, healing on the Sabbath, and intentional disregard for the holiness laws of clean and unclean.

Jesus did not, however, use his charismatic, spiritual power to control or coerce others to do his bidding. He emptied himself of all selfish ambition, and both embodied and taught forgiveness, non-violence, and peacemaking.

The word translated “meek” in Jesus’ beatitude could just as easily be translated “humble.” Humility, as expressed by Jesus, did not in any way resemble timidity. It took great courage, restraint, and spiritual strength for Jesus to confront the injustice and exclusivity of the powers that be, knowing full well that his challenging of the status quo would evoke the hate and animosity of the religious and political establishment, eventually bringing about his death.

What is authentic humility? Rolling Stone Magazine interviewed Scott Weiland of the band, “The Stone Temple Pilots,” after he had been released from prison, having served a term for drug possession. (Not that I know Scott Weiland; I’m still listening to Bob Dylan and James Taylor.) In the interview he kept using the word “humility.” The reporter asked him to define the term. Scott Weiland said, “It’s not me thinking less of myself. It’s me thinking of myself less.”

In my opinion, too many Christians have overemphasized the biblical story of the fall at the expense of the story of creation. Certainly we are all flawed and broken. We have a selfish bent and a strong propensity to seek and misuse worldly power. But that doesn’t mean that we are “no good” or “no account.” Humility is not someone saying, “I am a wretch; I am a worm.” It is not debasement, self-contempt, or self-hate.

We are created in God’s image. The biblical story of redemption is rooted in our worth and value. Every person is a child of God, no matter how flawed or sinful. We are each worth redeeming, and I believe, in God’s time (it will take much longer with some than others) every one will be redeemed. I believe that the death and resurrection of Jesus serves as the ultimate demonstration that divine love will one day triumph, transforming the most evil persons into persons who will finally learn how to be good, merciful, and just.

Humility is not thinking less of myself, but thinking of myself less, so I can think of others and serve others. It is being less self-absorbed, so I can be more other-centered. It is being less preoccupied with my ego desires, so I can seek first the kingdom of God, nurture caring relationships, and work for the good of the planet.

Meekness is not weakness, humility is not timidity, and Jesus’ relinquishment of worldly power is not powerlessness. In God’s upside-down kingdom, the powerbrokers of the world will find themselves last, and the meek will inherit the earth.

(This is Part 3 in the series, “Blogging on the Beatitudes.")

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Honoring Sacred Texts"

I attended a service at Highland Baptist Church on September 11 called “Honoring Sacred Texts.” The service included representatives from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikhs, and Baha’i communities, each reading a selection from their sacred texts. According to Rev. Joe Phelps, senior pastor of Highland, it was intended “to be a word of witness against . . . divisive hate-filled ideology, found in every nation and religion, by reading what we believe is fundamental and common from our various sacred texts: love, humility, peace, reverence before the Creator.”

Undoubtedly Rev. Phelps and the good folks at Highland Baptist Church will take plenty of heat from this courageous action. Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, called their “interfaith” service a “denial” of the faith. This, of course, is the exclusivist position that will continue to foster ill will between people of different religious traditions and ultimately do more harm than good.

Rev. Phelps wrote on his blog that that their intent was not in any way “to deny or dilute the role of Jesus, who is central to the message and mission of Highland.” He then observed that the way of Jesus was “one of reconciling love rather than polarizing division,” and that the only ones Jesus excluded were “driven by a spirit of division.”

Rev. Phelps noted that “while there are passages that say he [Jesus] is the only way to God . . . other Bible passages are clear that God’s bigness and love extend to all the earth, to all peoples, to all nations who come in reverence before God.” See, for example, passages like Acts 10:34-35, Eph. 1:9-10, Col. 1:19-20, and 1 Cor. 15:22. Rev. Phelps wrote, “Every sacred text–including the Bible–has passages that extol violence, which can be misunderstood and misapplied by outsiders (and by insiders).”

The Bible, Christians’ sacred text, argues with itself in numerous places. In an internet conversation with a Christian who refused to identify himself, I pointed out several passages of Scripture where there were clear contradictions and asked him to explain or defend his inerrant position on the Bible in light of these contradictions. That ended the conversation. He would not because he could not, at least not in any reasonable, logical way. It seems to me that the Christians who are most in denial of the faith are those who, like Dr. Mohler, are actually incapable of offering a legitimate, credible defense of the inconsistencies and contradictions in our sacred text. Claiming the Bible’s infallibility possibly turns more thinking young people away from Christianity than any other of the fundamentalist Christian doctrines.

I love our (Christians’) sacred text, but I do not worship it. I probably spend more time and effort studying it and teaching it than most do who claim it to be the literal word of God. And while I consider it inspired of God, it is clear to me that it is not without human flaws and errors. Rev. Phelps observed that our sacred text (the Bible) is a diverse “collection of inspirations and understandings which must be allowed to interact and inform each other.”

I am convinced that a healthy, transformative, compassion–filled Christianity is directly connected to an interpretation of Scripture that is rooted and grounded in the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ. Thank goodness I am not alone. There are a number of other Christian leaders and churches like Rev. Phelps and Highland Baptist Church (and more are emerging) who are committed to preaching, teaching, and sharing God’s unconditional love as expressed in the inclusive gospel of Jesus, whom we claim as our Lord.

Monday, September 13, 2010

God's Upside Down Kingdom

A pilot practicing maneuvers in a jet fighter turned the controls for what he thought was a steep ascent and flew straight into the ground. He was unaware that he had been flying upside down.

Maybe that is true for many of us. We have been so conditioned by our culture that we don’t know what is up or down. So when Jesus flips our world upside down in the Beatitudes he is really turning it right side up.

The second beatitude in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reads: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Jesus is not giving his disciples timeless truths about the way the world is, for the world is not this way at all. In the world mourners often go uncomforted, but not in the kingdom of God.

This beatitude is based on Isaiah 61 where, in its broader context, the prophet is lamenting the desolation of the holy city and the spiritual and social condition of the people of God. Jesus reflects this spirit when he looks out over Jerusalem and cries, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings and you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).

Jesus mourned the spiritual and social state of his people, and yet he exuded an abundance of joy and peace. He, through God’s Spirit, was able to hold the contradiction together. He was in great agony in Gethsemane, not only as he contemplated his own death, but perhaps more significantly, as he mourned the state of the covenant people whose leadership was mired in legalistic stipulations, aristocratic pride, and religious manipulation. And yet, in the shadow of the cross, he said to his disciples, “My peace I give to you . . . these things I have shared with you so that you may share my joy” (John 14:27; 15:11).

Clarence Jordan is a more contemporary example of a disciple of Jesus living with this contradiction. He and his interracial farm community in Americus, Georgia felt the prejudice, hate, and wrath of the powers that be. Their farm was boycotted and their people shot at. Their roadside market was destroyed by dynamite. In the middle of the violence against them their very lives were in danger daily. And yet Jordan was known for his laughter, his clever wit, and his love for life. When the local and state powers boycotted their farm, this little community relied on friends throughout the country to get their pecans to market. Their slogan was: “Help us get the nuts out of Georgia.”

This is the paradox: Even when we feel life diminished by the losses, suffering, and injustice of the human condition, we also discover that life is enhanced by the Spirit of Christ, immersing our lives in God’s goodness and in God’s dream for the world. Even as we mourn the poverty, oppression, and tragedies of life, as well as our own personal losses, we are sustained and strengthened by a deeper peace and joy.

Often, in our experience, either sadness or joy has the upper hand. We sometimes journey through grief into joy, where the Psalmist says that our mourning is turned into dancing. Our grief through our own personal loss and our ache at the evil and injustice in the world invites us to place our grief and hurt in larger hands. In one sense, there is no healing without woundedness, no growth without suffering, and no resurrection without death.

And yet, in Christ, we are able somehow to experience both grief and joy simultaneously and live with the tension this creates. The living Christ enables us to hold these incongruities together. The living Christ invites us to share in both his suffering and joy. (This is Part 2 of the “The Beatitudes”)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Less Is More

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel with the Beatitudes. (The teachings in Matthew 5–7 were no doubt given by Jesus in many different contexts and the biblical writer gathered them into this form.) The first beatitude is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed” means something like “spiritually well-off,” (the translation “happy” doesn’t do it justice).

Luke’s version simply reads: “Blessed are the poor . . .” Was Jesus referring to the material poor or to a poverty of spirit before God? The Hebrew word that is behind the concept of “poor” conveys both of these meanings and both would have been intended.

In Luke’s version there is a corresponding judgment: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). How many sermons have you heard on this text? In Luke’s Gospel Jesus often speaks about the dangers of wealth. In one place he tells his disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (Luke 12:33). (I don’t know of one biblical inerrantist who takes that literally.) Jesus instructs one would–be disciple who was very wealthy to give away all his possessions, and when he is unable Jesus responds: “How hard it is for those who have wealth (this would include most of us who are reading this) to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24). In numerous contexts Jesus announces that the first now will later be last (when the kingdom comes), and the last now will later be first.

If we take Jesus’ words and actions in the Gospels seriously it is clear that Jesus championed the cause of the poor (see Luke 4:17-19). There is no question that he exercised a preferential, perhaps even a prejudicial, compassion for the poor and the oppressed. Proponents of a health and wealth gospel find no support in the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, I don’t plan to give away all my possessions anytime soon. (If I attempted it, my wife and kids would probably do me in to get the insurance money—maybe not.) But the fact is: I may not be wealthy judged by American standards, but from a global perspective I am one of the “rich” (the haves) of the world. That means that I am complicit to some degree in the disproportion and inequity of the world, and therefore, come under the indictment of Jesus. And simply cultivating a spirit of humility, generosity, and gratitude does not remove the indictment.

American disciples of Jesus who take Jesus’ life and words seriously must live with this tension, and “spiritualizing” all Jesus’ teaching on the subject is no solution. In the upside down kingdom of God the poor have the advantage, says Jesus.

If it is the role of the prophet “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” then Jesus is surely being the prophet in his teachings regarding possessions (afflicting us preachers as much as anyone). Keep in mind too, that the call to relinquish possessions involves the relinquishment of the power, prestige, and honor that goes with them. It’s hardly ever just about money; it’s what accompanies it.

When the rich man walked away sad, the disciples exclaimed: “Who then can be saved?” (Meaning: Who can be spiritually well-off/whole/blessed?) Most of us would like Jesus to pat them on the back and say, “It will be okay.” Instead Jesus says, “Well, it is impossible for human beings, but it is possible with God” (Luke 18:26-27).

There is a spiritual principle at work here: The less we are possessed by our possessions, the more God is able to possess us. The less hold (attachment) we have on our possessions, the more we are able to lay hold of the kingdom of God, and find our joy in being the companions of Christ and collaborators in helping bring in God’s new world.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ancient/Future Christianity

In the book of Acts Luke says that Paul, who then was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” went into Damascus looking for those “who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:1-2). This is how the first Christians were known: They were “disciples” of Jesus committed to his “way” of life, the way of God’s kingdom that Jesus himself embodied (Luke 17:20-21).

The early Christians understood that to be a disciple of Jesus meant commitment to a process of learning how to walk in the way of Jesus, a way of simplicity of life, humility, inclusivity, forgiveness, compassion, and surrender to a greater good—the kingdom of God.

Do you realize that there are many versions of Christianity today that hardly resemble this anymore? They have made doctrinal and creedal conformity central to their faith (some would even denounce as false teachers anyone who would preach or teach a different version than their own) and have put most of the emphasis on the afterlife.

I remember in my youth being part of a revival effort, wearing a button that had a picture of a hand and finger pointing upward with the caption, “Jesus is the way.” But if you had asked me then what that meant I would have said either of two things. I would have told you that Jesus is the way to heaven if we will only accept him as our personal Savior, or I would have said that Jesus is the way to a happy and meaningful life (meaning—a self–fulfilling life). I had no idea then what I know now about the actual way of Jesus in the world—his commitment to the poor and marginalized, his insistence on non-violence, his charge to love our enemies, his focus on forgiveness, his readiness to challenge the injustice of the political and religious powers that be, etc.

No one ever told me. We have skewed the faith. We’ve told people to believe in Jesus and then we’ve given them doctrines, dogmas, and creeds, and incorporated them into church systems that have been more about control, management, and growing the institution than it has been about living the life of Jesus in the world. But then, we didn’t know any better either. No one ever told us. We were only passing on the Christian faith as we had been taught.

I am hopeful, though, because it seems to me that we are starting to witness in Western Christianity a growing emergence (this emergence has been happening for some time in other places like the Global South) of the faith “of” Jesus. There seems to be a slowly expanding minority of Christians who are taking seriously Jesus’ vision of a transformed world, who are attempting to put into practice the attitudes and actions, the life and vision of Jesus. Time will tell what impact this will have.

In the days ahead, if we Christians and our churches are to have any credibility and authenticity with spiritual seekers who are peace-loving, clear-thinking, and who care about creation, equality, and issues of justice for the poor and marginalized, then it will be to the extent that we actually pursue and practice the “way” of Jesus.

I am hopeful that as a species created to bear the image of God that in the future we will more visibly and clearly reflect that image. I am hopeful that we are evolving past the days of the Crusades, Inquisitions, witch hunts, and heresy trials. Christians can be a major force for good on this planet if we can move past exclusive, belief centered, condemnatory Christianity and embrace a more grace-filled, inclusive vision of the cosmic Christ who is ever present in the world and who resides with and in each person (John 1:9).

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Challenge of Jesus

We could make progress toward a more healthy, holistic, and inclusive Christianity if we spent less time talking about the need for faith in Jesus and more time emphasizing the faith of Jesus. The faith of Jesus centered on God’s kingdom.

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) make clear that the heartbeat and passion of Jesus’ life and ministry was “the kingdom of God.” For example, in Luke’s Gospel when the people of Capernaum tried to get Jesus to extend his stay Jesus responded: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

What did Jesus mean when he proclaimed this good news? The “kingdom of God” is a rather dynamic and fluid symbol that has earthly, social, relational, spiritual, and political implications. Certainly, Jesus was talking about a transformation related to this world, not some heavenly or other-worldly reality. He taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Matthew’s Gospel employs the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” which has unfortunately been a source of much confusion and misunderstanding for many Christians. Matthew was following the common Jewish practice of substituting “heaven” for God in order to avoid the common use of God’s name. Matthew substituted “heaven” for “God” out of reverence for God’s name; he was not suggesting that God’s kingdom resided in some other realm.

Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, envisaged a time when the domination systems of the world would no longer run things. The prophets looked forward to a time when the will of God will be written on the minds and hearts of all people. This utopian vision anticipated the end of all injustice, violence, and poverty (see the poetic vision of Isaiah 65:19-25).

Recently, our church sent a mission team to visit Zambia. We help support the work of CBF missionaries Lonnie and Fran Turner through their Partners in Development. Last year we raised money to build a maternity clinic there (see the video on my Links). A key component in their work is providing fresh water to villages by digging wells. Upon our team’s return, a member noted that Zambia did not have a water problem. The water table was high and they did not have to dig very deep to find water. Their problem was not a resource problem, but a distribution problem. And that, of course, is a problem all over the world.

When the kingdom of God is realized on earth there will be no distribution problem. All will have enough. Some of us who have more now may have less, but all will have plenty for an abundance of life.

Obviously, there is a deep inner, spiritual, and personal dimension to this. In order to have transformed systems, institutions, and communities, we have to have transformed individuals. This is why Jesus talked about dying to the ego, about being born again, about being pure in heart, and about hungering and thirsting after righteousness/justice.

Jesus called people to repentance (Mark 1:14-15): To stop living for self-glory, self-honor, and self-fulfillment, and live for the good of all humankind and all creation.

Jesus embodied this new world in such a way that the kingdom of God was realized in his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Jesus rejected the security systems of wealth and power, and lived a very simple life. He believed in a God of compassion and told his followers to be compassionate to all people because God is compassionate to all people. He championed the cause of the poor and marginalized. He ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners, extending God’s grace to all. He called women disciples, treating them as equals. He broke down barriers of race, extending God’s grace to Gentiles. He healed the diseased and demonized. He touched lepers and made them whole. He modeled and taught his followers how to act in direct, non-violent ways, protesting oppression by the powers that be. He forgave his tormentors and required his followers to do the same. He refused to be controlled by fear and anxiety, and believed God was with him every moment. He absorbed the jealousy, hate, and evil of the world in the hope and prospect of redeeming the world.

For Jesus, faith had nothing at all to do with believing doctrines, dogmas, and creeds. It had everything to do with a vision of a world healed, transformed, and made whole.

Jesus did not proclaim himself; he proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom. After God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead, it was a short step for the early followers of Jesus to go from proclaiming the kingdom to proclaiming Christ, since Christ was believed to be the embodiment of the way of the kingdom.

The first disciples were known as “people who belonged to the way” (Acts 9:2). The early Christians did not mean what many Christians mean today when they say: Jesus is the way. Christians today think: “Way to heaven,” or “way to a happy and meaningful life.” The early followers of Jesus meant that Jesus incarnated the way of God’s kingdom and to be a disciple of Jesus meant learning from Jesus how to live that way of life.

When the Gospel of John talks about “believing in Jesus” it is not talking about believing doctrines about Jesus in order to go to heaven. It is talking about trusting in Jesus as the way into the truth and life of God’s kingdom. It means trusting in what Jesus stood for, believed in, fleshed out in word and deed, and ultimately what he gave his life for. Jesus told his disciples: “Strive first (pursue above everything) the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness/justice” (Matt. 6:33).

The primary meaning of “eternal life” in John’s Gospel is not life in heaven, but “life of the age to come,” fullness of life in God’s kingdom. We enter into such life now by trusting, following, living in the way of Jesus.

We don’t need more faith in Jesus; that is, faith as understood as belief. We don’t need any more creedal formulations and doctrinal statements about what to believe about Jesus. These have been an endless source of divisiveness and contention. We need more of the faith of Jesus; more faithfulness to the way of Jesus, faithfulness to the love, compassion, inclusivity, simplicity, courage, and hope of Jesus for a world healed and transformed.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ann Rice and the Challenge Facing the Church

Author Ann Rice, opened her heart to God in 1998, returning to her faith after years of describing herself as an atheist. She explained her journey away from faith and back again in her 2008 memoir, Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession.

Now she has decided to leave Christianity, renouncing her claim to be “Christian,” though she has not renounced her claim to Christ. She wrote on her “Facebook” page: “For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

As a pastor working in an institutional church I cannot advocate for or agree with Ann Rice’s decision, but I certainly understand it. In a lot of institutional Christianity (both traditional and non-traditional, both conservative and liberal) there can be very little of “Christ” in it; that is, little of the Christ we know in the Gospels as a friend of sinners, welcoming of all—especially the rejected and marginalized, challenger of the status quo (meticulously maintained by the powers that be), and champion of the poor and the oppressed.

The church in all its denominational and institutional forms and expressions desperately need pastors who are not afraid to engage in the work of a prophet, calling the church to actually follow in the way of Jesus. For only when Christians begin to take seriously the life Jesus lived and the teachings he imparted will there be real renewal and authentic transformation.

I do not for one minute doubt Ann Rice’s experience with the church as a “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” I, too, have experienced some of this contentiousness and animosity. Maybe I’m too hopeful, but I believe the church is capable of changing. But change will not come easy. Pastors must be willing to risk their jobs, good standing, reputation, even friendships in order to engage in the prophetic work of deconstruction and reconstruction. This work is not for the timid and fainthearted; it will require a boldness of Spirit.

Many Christians in our Western culture have no intention of changing and they want their pastor or priest to confirm what they have come to believe and the particular manner in which they have come to practice their faith. They are not interested in “living the questions.” They do not wish to face their doubts. They have no intention of confronting the Great Mystery. They want certitudes and assurances that reality is just the way they have been socialized to see it and believe it.

The problem is that there seems to be just as many pastors and priests who like it that way, for this makes the Christian faith and the church manageable. They are like the big shots in the movie, The Truman Show, whose financial well being and social prominence depended on keeping Truman’s world circumscribed and confined.

Jesus believed that the kingdom of God would come on earth and he instructed his disciples to pray, serve, love, and give of themselves that God’s good, just, and righteous will might take root and grow. (Think of all the parables involving seed growing.)

The question which those of us in Christian leadership must ask: Do we still believe this is possible? If not, we should find some other line of work. If change is to occur we leaders must first and foremost seek to embody and express God’s unconditional, inclusive love through our words, deeds, and kindness to others (all others, especially the “quarrelsome, hostile, and disputatious”). And then we must not shun the prophetic task of confronting the status quo, preaching, teaching, and manifesting an inclusive gospel. We have chaplains galore, but prophets few.

I still believe that we need the church. Not the “infamous group” that refuses to change, but the church that serves as an outpost for the kingdom of God on earth. And it falls on all of us who exercise leadership in the church to give our very lives for this cause.

When the church functions as an inclusive, healing, being transformed and transforming community then the church can be a vital instrument in bringing peace, hope, justice, and redemption to our world.

Harvard professor Harvey Cox argues in his book, The Future of Faith, that before Christianity entered into an Age of Belief with its insistence on creedal conformity and doctrinal correctness, the earliest expressions and communities of the Jesus movement were known for their commitment to “the way” (way of life) of Jesus in the world.

The need is great for courageous pastors, priests, and church leaders to call the church out of a theology of “hell evasion” and a lifestyle of ego avoidance and personal security into a “new and living way,” the way of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is possible! For the Jesus who lived, taught, and modeled “the way” is the church’s living Lord and Redeemer, “God with us,” whose Spirit is at work shattering illusions, opening minds and hearts, inspiring suffering love, and ever wooing and drawing us into a new stage of Christ consciousness and compassionate community.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Two Kinds of Christianity

There are some major differences between belief-centered Christianity that focuses on creeds and doctrine, and the kind that puts a priority on following in the way of Jesus. Some Christians mistakenly think that in the beginning of the Jesus movement there was uniformity of belief and all differences emerged later. But that is simply not true. The Jesus movement that later became known as Christianity was diverse from its inception, as any careful study of the New Testament demonstrates (and is confirmed by other early Christian writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament, like the Gospel of Thomas). What the early expressions of the Jesus movement had in common was their focus on following in “the way” of Jesus (his way of life).

How did Christianity come to this? How did the main thing—loving God and loving neighbor—get lost amidst a quagmire of detailed doctrines and beliefs?

It is much easier, you see, to have a battle for the Bible and be against some belief or group, than it is to love and serve one another in the way of Jesus. It’s much simpler to be correct and self-affirming (or group-affirming) than it is to live with mystery and be committed to this messy business of forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is much more ego-satisfying to be right and convinced that one’s mission is to convert the world to a particular version of truth than it is to admit that one does not have all the answers, and learn how to live with those of different beliefs in mutual acceptance and respect.

It is much more convenient to acquire a claim to heaven by believing the right things than it is to follow the radical Jesus who loved the unlovable, welcomed all to table fellowship, and called his followers to join him in suffering with the marginalized, caring for the downtrodden, announcing good news to the poor, and liberating the oppressed (see Luke 4:14-21).

The Christian mystics are a great source for helping Christians today realize what is important. Trappist monk Thomas Merton, well known for his spiritual writings, wrote about an experience he had in 1958 that had a transformative impact upon his life. He had just been to Louisville to see a doctor. Then, standing on a busy intersection at the corner of Fourth and Walnut Street in the center of the shopping district, Merton had something of an epiphany. He wrote, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

Merton was at that moment experiencing the Divine Love of God for the world. Mystics never attempt to define God by a string of words or concepts, but they do stretch the boundaries of language when talking about the wide, large, expansive, and inclusive Mercy that pervades all reality.

Mystics challenge the rest of us to move beyond either/or thinking and the kind of group thinking that divides the world into “us” and “them.” They encourage us to let go of our silly comparisons and petty judgments and see God in every person.

A living faith is not a script of beliefs to be memorized and mastered, but a landscape to be walked, where there are fresh experiences of God around every twist and turn.

Simply confessing Jesus as Savior or believing doctrines about Jesus will not change us; walking in the way of Jesus will. Loving the way Jesus loved is what transforms individuals, relationships, and communities; it is the truth that sets us free.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Living Faith

There can be a vast difference between a living faith and adherence to a system of religious beliefs. In the Gospels faith has nothing to do with doctrinal beliefs about Jesus, and everything to do with trust in Jesus as a mediator of God’s grace and love.

For example, a woman suffering with a chronic bleeding condition that rendered her unclean according to Jewish law believed that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothing she would be healed. She obviously held to a popular cultural myth that claimed that the healing powers of a healer (there were other healers in the ancient world besides Jesus) extended to the healer’s clothes.

When she touched the garment of Jesus healing power went out to her, without Jesus intending it. Jesus told the woman, “Your faith has made you whole” (see Mark 5:25-34). There is no suggestion at all in the biblical account that she believed Jesus to be the Messiah or anything like what later Christians meant when they ascribed to Jesus the title, “Son of God.”

In this story faith constituted a simple, humble, and risky (the woman risked the hostility of the religious authorities because everyone she touched in the crowd she rendered unclean) act of trust in Jesus as the mediator of the healing power of God.

A living faith enables us to be sensitive to God’s presence and connects us to the renewing, healing grace, forgiveness, and mercy of God. It is not some doctrinal or dogmatic belief about Jesus; it is, rather, a child-like trust and vulnerability that opens the disciple up to the dynamic presence of the living Christ.

Years ago, early on in my spiritual journey, I thought that what one believed about Jesus was what changed a person. I was wrong. The evidence is fairly conclusive. Some of the most doctrinally certain Christians can be the most difficult to get along with. Confident in their beliefs “about” Jesus, they lack the love, grace, and humility “of” Jesus.

A Christian belief is what we think and endorse about some aspect of Christian teaching (God, Jesus, the Bible, etc.) at a particular stage in our faith journey. As we grow in love and grace our beliefs change. If our beliefs never change this is probably a good indication that we are stagnant and are not growing spiritually. I have discarded many of the beliefs I once held, but my faith is stronger today than it ever was.

I am not suggesting that faith is devoid of all belief or intellectual content. There is something to be said for a reasonable faith, as opposed to a blind faith or one that lacks intellectual credibility. But faith does not deal in certainties and reason alone does not open us up to God. Certitude is usually rooted in fear, which explains why some people become so defensive about their beliefs.

“We see through a glass dimly,” says Paul in his great exposition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. There’s no infallible experience of God: no inerrant Bible or infallible tradition or perfect anything. But we can and do experience love and love is foundational and essential to the nature of Divine Reality.

A living faith exposes us and makes us receptive to the Divine Love that pervades the universe—a Love that Christians believe became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

Intellectual assent or doctrinal belief in God, Jesus, the Bible, heaven, or anything else does little in and of itself to change us. It is our experience of love that frees us from our ego, opens us up to the Mystery, and is transformative in our lives and relationships.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Doing What Is Right May Mean Being Ineffective

Charlie Pearl, Staff Writer for the Frankfort State Journal, recently interviewed Wendell Berry in the aftermath of Berry’s decision to move many of his personal papers (which measure 60 cubic feet in volume) from the University of Kentucky archives. Berry, who is known for his passion for the land and for environmental issues, made the decision after the university accepted a $7 million dollar donation from the coal industry for a new basketball dormitory, agreeing to name it Wildcat Coal Lodge.

Berry said that he was willing to live with the university’s “manifest lack of concern about surface mining in Eastern Kentucky and its ecological implications, its implications for the forests, for the survival of the wild creatures and maybe preeminently for the rural people there that a land grant university is mandated to look after and help,” noting that this form of mining “is literally hell for the people who live near those mine sites.” Berry said that he was willing to live with their lack of interest in these things, but when they accepted the coal money and agreed to name the dormitory after the coal industry the university “passed over from indifference to manifest alliance with the coal industry.”

When asked if he had “any hope that mountaintop removal mining will stop before all the mountains are gone” Berry said: “Of course I hope it will stop . . . and I have publicly stated my willingness to do what’s necessary to stop it (including) doing nonviolent resistance.” After remarking that there wasn’t much room to be optimistic that this would happen, Berry says something quite profound and important: “I don’t think a person has a right to protest or work for change on the assumption that the effort will be effective. This is whether it’s right or not.”

The real issue, the heart of the matter, says Berry, is whether or not it is right. It’s not about effectiveness; it’s about integrity and doing what is good, just, and right.

I have sometimes wondered why I am doing what I am doing—challenging dualistic, exclusivistic, heaven and hell oriented Christianity in the context of presenting a more holistic, inclusive, and gracious understanding, rooted in the unconditional love of God.

In a Bible Belt town, where there is a church on every corner, I have certainly made more enemies than friends. (I don’t consider them enemies, but they consider me an enemy, or a messenger of Satan, as someone recently called me).

I have little chance of being effective. Many of those who sympathize with this message will not dare stand up to their family and friends; the pressure to conform to traditional beliefs and practices is too great.

I guess I’m doing what I’m doing because if I didn’t I couldn’t live with myself. Preaching, teaching, advocating, and writing about an inclusive gospel is the just, good, and right thing to do.

I have little hope of being effective. The church I pastor will probably lose more members than it gains. I probably will not see much difference in the community. Traditional, dualistic beliefs are deeply entrenched here. No matter. There is a kind of peace that comes when you do what you believe in your heart is right.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Church and Patriarchy

Spiritual writer Richard Rohr has observed that in recent centuries most churches have been on the wrong side of most human reformations and revolutions, until after these reformations succeeded. Consider the issue of civil rights: Many churches in America remained silent, while many others either overtly or covertly worked against just legislation and practice. There were, of course, Christians like Martin Luther King, Jr. who led the charge, but these constituted a minority.

Western Christianity has evolved largely into a matter of the head. This took the form of highly academic theology in Europe, and in America it was expressed through a narrow, dogmatic fundamentalism. In both forms Western Christians seemed to show little interest in the things that Jesus of Nazareth was passionate about.

Any version of Christian faith that shows little interest in issues such as human suffering, inclusivity, poverty, political and spiritual oppression, planet care, and care for the outsider lacks credibility and authenticity.

Today, churches seem to be the most formidable institutional structures resistant to egalitarian roles for women. In the early 1990’s I pastored a church in Eastern Kentucky where our female choir director was not permitted to lead congregational singing because to do so, the deacons argued, would usurp male authority. Still today few evangelical churches ordain women into pastoral ministry, or for that matter, even elect or appoint female deacons or elders.

Sara VanScoy is a medical doctor and psychiatrist who served 11 years in the Air Force. She earned a master’s degree in divinity (summa cum laude) at Bethel Seminary in Jonesboro, Arkansas in May 2009. Though praised by her professors for her gifted preaching and teaching, she can’t even get in the door of a church to be considered for a pastoral position. In a recent article by religious professor Anne Eggebroten in “Sojourners,” Sara told Anne: “It’s sad, really, that the only place in my entire life that I have experienced gender discrimination is the church.”

Even in some mega-churches, like Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California where John MacArthur is pastor, you will find only male pastors, deacons, and elders, along with specific teaching that women are to live in submission to men. In 1987 the “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” was formed to counter the influence of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus and the newly-founded Christians for Biblical Equality.

Isn’t it sad that Christians have to fight these battles? The solution, I believe, is not to abandon Christianity, but to reform it.

We must allow the fresh wind of the Spirit of the living Christ to blow away these patriarchal structures, as well as all oppressive, exclusivistic, and dualistic beliefs and practices that have become encased in many forms of institutional Christianity.

The God Movement, proclaimed, embodied, and expressed through the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, is among us. It is even within us (Luke 17:21). We need eyes to see and a will to respond.

God needs women and men today who will have the courage to challenge the religious powers that be and become selfless instruments of peace and ready conduits through which God’s unconditional love can flow out to the world.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Who Are the "Lost"?

At the recent Southern Baptist Convention which met in Orlando, a theme reiterated throughout the meeting was the “lostness” of the world. Consider the following quotes, taken from an article in the Western Recorder by Editor Todd Deaton titled: SBC takes ‘fresh look’ at nation’s lostness:

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, declared: “We need to be looking forward with an aggressive agenda to penetrate lostness around the world and in North America.”

Ken Whitten, a Great Commission task force member, said: “Every pastor has to walk away from this convention asking, ‘What can I do . . . to make a difference by penetrating lostness?’”

Roger Spradlin, the newly elected Executive Committee chairperson, proclaimed: “I think God has put in the forefront in all our minds the tremendous lostness not only of the world . . . but also of North America. We are a nation of lostness.”

Until the theology, God-image, and basic worldview that undergird all this talk of lostness changes, I can’t see how Southern Baptists will offer any hope or wield any positive influence in our world.

As membership within the majority of churches within the SBC declines (both membership and baptisms are on a plummet within all branches of American Christianity) their solution is to engender louder rhetoric (shout louder) and more aggressive strategies (work harder) to proselytize those who don’t share their faith (“the lost”).

At one time I believed this way—that I was one of God’s elect, God’s chosen, and everyone else who didn’t share my faith in Jesus was “lost,” “unsaved,” or “under the wrath of God.” And though it pains me now to admit this, I even used words and phrases like “doomed” and “condemned” and “children of the Devil” to describe all those who did not fit my definition of a Christian.

Jesus’ parable of the Father and his two sons (Luke 15:11-32) may serve as a corrective here. Both sons, the wayward prodigal and the resentful elder brother, are in some sense “lost.” But in their “lostness’ they never cease being the beloved sons of the Father. There is no “us” who are saved and “them” who are lost.

Whether we are “lost” like the younger son, through greed and rejection of the Father’s way of life, or “lost” like the elder son, through resentment and failure to share the Father’s heart, we are still, in our “lostness,” God’s daughters and sons, loved with an unconditional love by the ever seeking God.

The beautiful words the father speaks to the angry, bitter elder son are reflective of the all inclusive gospel Jesus embodied and represents: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:31-32).

I have a notion that wherever this inclusive gospel is rejected and a dualistic version of Christianity prevails, Christianity will increasingly become irrelevant, and may become more of a hindrance than a help in healing and bettering our world. Dualistic religion tends to polarize and divide, establishing the “in” group (the chosen, the ones who alone possess the truth, etc.) as superior.

This trend toward irrelevance and decreasing influence will become more evident in major urban centers, than in small, conservative towns, but eventually, even the most Christian-entrenched areas will feel the impact. This diminished interest in Christianity is now widespread in Europe, and America is not far behind.

According to recent surveys and studies, only about 10 to 20 percent of America’s younger generation is finding a connection to Christian faith. Most church growth comes at the expense of membership loss from other churches. Mega churches are in some sense both the result of and cause of this loss in smaller churches. All signs point toward decreased interest in Christianity, even among those who claim to be Christians. From the perspective of dualistic Christianity, it is more difficult these days to get “lost” people “saved,” and more of the “saved” are rejecting the faith once embraced.

I am convinced that traditional Christianity has to change (in both its conservative and liberal forms) in order to be a positive, redemptive influence in the world. Our basic understanding of God and God’s relationship to the world must become more inclusive, holistic, compassionate, ecological, and reconciliatory or Christianity will increasingly be regarded with both indifference and disdan.

The sad and ironic thing about all of this is that the good news of Jesus—the inclusive message he proclaimed and the compassionate life he lived—is often lost to the very ones who herald him as their Savior.

Some Thoughts on Religious Freedom

Dr. Fred Craddock tells about the time he was teaching Homiletics and New Testament at a small school in Oklahoma. They were hanging on by their financial fingernails. The president of the school said to Fred, “I’m in touch with a man who is concerned about improving the quality of preaching in Oklahoma. He has a lot of money and I believe he’s going to give a sizable gift to our preaching program. Will you go with me to talk to him?”

Fred was delighted to go, so Fred and the president went to visit the man at his office. He was ready for them; he had the gift ready. He said, “Before we finish this I think we ought to pray.” Neither Fred nor the president prayed. The man prayed. He had the money and he had the prayer. Amen.

He took his pen and was about to sign the check. His lawyer had everything prepared. This was a large donation. But before he signed he looked up and said, “Now, this all goes for the preaching program?” They said, “Yes sir, that’s what it goes for.” He started to write, but paused again and said, “Now, you do understand, none of this goes for women or for blacks.”

The president stood up. Fred stood up. The president said, “I’m sorry, we cannot accept your money under those conditions.” They started to leave. Then the man said, “Well, there are plenty of schools that will.”

And he was right. That man had given to schools and churches over sixty million dollars, but not a penny to women or African-Americans.

In the same way that this wealthy Christian wanted to restrict the preaching ministry to white males, there are many Christians today who would like to restrict religious freedom to Christians.

There are those who get all worked up over the prohibition of public prayer in educational institutions (there is no prohibition on personal prayer; those who pray, however, cannot require others to pray with them). Yet many of the same Christian people who are pushing for prayer over the loud speakers in public schools would get worked up to a frenzy if a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist led in public prayer.

They want public prayer in school, but only a particular kind of prayer: Christian prayer. But that’s not religious freedom. Being an American is not to be equated with being a Christian and vice versa.

This is why patriotic services make me nervous. Waving the American flag and singing “God Bless America” in the house of worship comes close to idolatry. The Christian view is that “God so loved the world” that he sent Jesus to show us the way into truth and life.

I am glad to be an American and in many ways I’m very patriotic, but authentic Christianity calls for God to bless the world, not just America.

Even if I want to argue that my Christian faith is superior to all other religions and philosophies of life, religious freedom means that I also allow others to believe and argue that their faith or philosophy is superior to mine. Religious freedom means that the freedom I want for myself I concede for everyone else.

When Christians gather as a community of faith for worship, they are there not to pay allegiance to their country (however appropriate that may be in other contexts), but to offer allegiance to the Christ whose kingdom transcends all national, political, and territorial boundaries.

Christians in worship kneel, not before the American flag, but before the cross, the Christian symbol for true spiritual freedom, representing the wisdom and redemptive power of God.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Living the Radical Gospel

In his autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, Will Campbell recounts the experience that confronted him with the radical implications of the gospel of reconciliation. His friend, civil rights worker Jonathan Daniels, had just been gunned down in cold blood by volunteer Deputy Sheriff Thomas Coleman. Will was livid with grief and rage over Jonathan’s murder.

In the aftermath Will’s agnostic friend P.D. East reminded Will of a conversation they had years earlier. P.D. had challenged Will to give him a definition of the Christian faith in ten words or less. Will defined it this way: “We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” P.D. now challenged Will’s succinct definition of the gospel.

P.D. tore into Will: “Was Jonathan a bastard?” Will commented on how Jonathan was one of the sweetest, most gentle guys he had ever known. P.D. pressed: “But was he a bastard?” His tone almost a scream. Will knew P.D. had him cornered. Will finally conceded, “Yes.” P.D. came firing back: “All right. Is Thomas Coleman a bastard.” That was easy. “Yes, Thomas Coleman is a bastard.”

P.D. said: “Okay, let me get this straight . . . Jonathan Daniels was a bastard. Thomas Colman is a
bastard. . . . Which of these two bastards do you think God loves the most? Does God love that little dead bastard Jonathan the most? Or does he love the living bastard Thomas the most?”

The truth of the gospel hit Will with such force that Will describes the encounter as something of a conversion experience. Will was overcome with emotion. He found himself weeping and laughing simultaneously. He told P.D.: “Damn, Brother, if you haven’t gone and made a Christian out of me.”

The gospel of reconciliation is a radical gospel; it is offensive to conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike. To think that God loves the Thomas Colemans of the world as much as the Jonathan Daniels’ is hard to take, isn’t it?

I have no doubt this is why so many liberals have equated the gospel with a social cause and so many conservatives have reduced the gospel to going to heaven when we die. Institutional Christianity on both the right and left has a tough time with this radical gospel of unconditional love and grace.

Paul says in his correspondence with the church in Corinth that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, not counting their transgressions against them (2 Cor. 5:19). All are loved and forgiven. Thomas Coleman and Jonathan Daniel; Hitler and Mother Teresa. All are God’s children.

How do we live this scandalous gospel? It’s not easy. I know I cannot do it on my own. It’s easy to identify with the victim, but to love the perpetrator of abuse or violence takes more love than I am capable of. I need grace. I need to “know” at the deep, core level of my being, beyond my intellect, the love of God that passes all understanding.

Only through fresh encounters with the Divine Love that pervades and sustains all reality—that we Christians believe became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth—can we find the faith, strength, courage, and hope to love the Thomas Colemans of the world.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Grand Visison: Universal Reonciliation

A number of interpreters believe that a disciple of Paul or someone in the Pauline tradition wrote Ephesians and Colossians. This is primarily due to Greek stylistic and language differences, as well as shifts in theological emphases from what is found in Paul’s undisputed letters. When I taught a class on Paul a few years ago I basically held to this position, but have now changed my mind. The language differences are not all that significant and the shifts in theological perspective can be attributed to Paul’s theological development; after all, he was working out his theology on the road.

In both Ephesians and Colossians a dominant theme is reconciliation, and Paul’s teaching on the subject is drawn from the perspective of the cosmic Christ and God’s overarching plan to reconcile all things to God’s self. In Ephesians he says, “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:8b-10). In Colossians he writes, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). Echoes of this hope can be found in passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians, where, in Paul’s representative theological perspective, all are justified and made alive in Christ (Rom. 5:12-21) and God becomes all in all (1 Cor. 15:20-28).

In Ephesians, the language of election and destiny is employed to emphasize Paul’s view that this is God’s overarching project/plan for the universe, namely, that all reality, visible and invisible, will be brought together, unified, made whole, reconciled to God and each other through and in Christ. In both letters Paul emphasizes the agency and instrumentality of Christ in this process.

The cosmic Christ is at work in our world in various ways, employing diverse means, engaging in this reconciling work. Like the yeast that leavens the dough, Christ often works anonymously, in hidden ways. The cosmic Christ works through many different religious traditions, mediators, and through non-religious organizations and persons to effect reconciliation. We who are disciples of Christ, especially, are called to engage in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-20).

I am convinced that in time all living reality (which has been given the gift and capacity for immortality) will be reconciled to God and to each other. There are some folks who have been so beaten down in life, so neglected and abused, that their hearts have become hardened and resistant. And unless we have walked in their shoes we have no right to judge them. There are others, who, driven by pride or lust or greed, have become entrenched in evil and seem to have no conscience. But no matter how strenuously they have suppressed the light of God that is within them, it is still there; no matter how deep the traces of God have been buried, the residue of God still abides.

I believe that in time God will be able to draw out the flicker of love and goodness that has been buried beneath all the rubble of hate, violence, evil, and injustice. I have hope that, even those who appear to be entrenched and enslaved to evil, will be saved from the terrible mess they have made of their lives and the lives of others, having opportunity to repent, change, and rectify all the evil they have done.

Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, in their book, If Grace is True, tells about a conservative Christian friend, Harry, who is one of the most compassionate people they know. Harry takes every opportunity to tell of God’s goodness and love, and he creates opportunities by caring for people in whatever ways he can. He’s a good, caring person.

Harry befriended a man who later died of cancer. He did work around his house when his friend was no longer able, and Harry had witnessed to his friend up until his death with no apparent success (that is from his conservative Christian point of view; his friend never made any sort of decision for Christ). At the funeral the deceased man’s wife asked Harry if he thought her husband is in heaven.

Harry said: “I told her that when her husband was lying in that hospital bed unconscious and hooked up to all those machines, I prayed for him. The doctors are always saying people can hear more than we think, so I took his hand and asked him to repent of his sins and accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. I told his wife that I believe Jesus was with her husband in those final moments before he died, and I have every reason to hope that he accepted the Lord.”

I don’t know why he would tell her that he had “every reason” to hope that he accepted Christ, since his friend had never indicated any desire to accept his Christian faith before. But Harry gave the widow the very best reply his theology would allow; in fact, he even pushed the limits. Whether it was any comfort to her or not, it was the very best he could do. Harry was more gracious than his theology. He gave her a little thread of hope.

Surly “the riches of God’s grace” that has been “freely bestowed” and “lavished on us” (Eph 1:5-7) offers more than a little thread of hope, thrown to a dying man with the meager prospect that somehow he will latch hold of it. Gulley and Mulholland make this assessment: “Harry’s God was willing to redeem a person even if that redemption came with the very last breath. But sadly, Harry’s God is powerless in the face of death. Those who resist until their dying breath are forever doomed. Death always has the final word.” I don’t believe death has the final word. In light of the death and resurrection of Christ, grace, hope, and life have the final word.

Someone is likely to point out the passage in Hebrews that says that it is appointed for humans to die once, and after that, face the judgment (9:27). But that is only a bad thing if judgment is a bad thing. Judgment, I believe, is that process all of us undergo that refines, purifies, and purges us, making us, like Jesus, more fully human.

Judgment is only something to be feared if the judge is a hanging judge. But according to Jesus the judge is Abba, the compassionate, caring Parent who will go to any extent to save God’s children. In our judicial system it would be a conflict of interest for a judge to be a parent, but not in God’s court. The judge is the one who loves and loves and keeps on loving.

I think the church that practices an open table (Communion), inviting all to participate, reflects the reconciling nature of God. God is constantly beckoning, wooing, and drawing us to God’s self.

In the parable of Luke 15, the father went out and entreated the older son to join the party. You know he left the door open. I don’t buy the apocalyptic version that says there is only a limited time and if one doesn’t change in the time allotted on this earth then one’s case is hopeless.

Our freedom to choose in this life is limited by any number of factors: our family of origin; the time, place, and circumstances of our existence, and the opportunities or lack thereof that affords; our mental and physical abilities; the socialization process, and the total impact of our culture on our thinking. Someone who has suffered an abusive childhood and encountered little love in this world is not as free to respond to the good as someone who has been well loved and cared for. If God’s love is unconditional, then there can be no time limits or constraints on the invitation to embrace the welcome and hospitality of God.

No one, of course, is ever force, manipulated, or coerced; it has to be one’s free decision. Anyone who remains outside the party, like the elder brother in Luke 15, remains so on one’s own accord. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that hell, whatever it may be or represent, is locked from the inside. But if it is locked from the inside, it can be opened anytime one chooses. My hope in universal reconciliation does not deny the need for or reality of judgment, but sees judgment as a restorative, redemptive process, not a punitive, retributive act that separates and excludes one forever.

If, as Paul says, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19), then Jesus’ death is the ultimate demonstration of how far God is willing to go and how much God is willing to bear, to reconcile us to God’s self. God is patient, not wanting anyone to parish, and will bear with us as long as it may take.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Western Christianity Must Change or Remain Irrelevant

One of the indisputable findings of Jesus scholarship is that Jesus was planted deeply in the soil of first century Judaism; in other words, Jesus was a good Jew. The New Testament as a whole and the Synoptic Gospels, in particular, show the emergence of the Jesus movement within the milieu of Jesus’ Jewish heritage and the connection between Israel’s story and Jesus’ first followers. But Jesus did not adopt hook, line, and sinker every aspect of his Jewish faith and culture.

In many ways Jesus was a deconstructionist, but not simply for the sake of deconstruction. Jesus’ critique of his own religion was motivated by a passion for God (who, he believed, had entered into covenant with the Jewish people for the sake of humanity) and for the good of Israel and all humankind. Jesus deconstructed the faith for the purpose of reconstruction.

Jesus offered new readings and fresh interpretations of the Torah, particularly in regard to divorce, Sabbath law, and the nature of holiness.

Jesus confronted the popular Deuteronomist claim that wealth was a sign of special favor and a reward for obedience. He undermined such teaching by proclaiming that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, while announcing judgment upon the rich. Jesus clearly exercised a preferential, prejudicial compassion and regard for the poor and oppressed.

Jesus disturbed the Jewish religious establishment, refusing to concede to their authority and claim to be gatekeepers of the tradition, which they employed for the purpose of determining and distinguishing between the “insiders” and the “outsiders.” Jesus interpreted the tradition in ways that were more inclusive and universal. His practice of table fellowship with all kinds of people—tax collectors, prostitutes, and “sinners” (those who did not keep the Jewish law for whatever reason)—and his healings and acts of mercy toward Gentiles subverted traditional Jewish exclusiveness.

Though first century Jewish culture was pervasively patriarchal Jesus was refreshingly egalitarian in his view and treatment of women, calling women disciples, violating cultural taboos, and elevating women to a level of gender equality and mutuality.

While Jesus acknowledged God as a “transcendent Other” familiar to traditional Judaism, Jesus most frequently spoke of and related to God as an intimate “Abba” (loving Father, merciful Parent), who was dynamically engaged in the world, caring immensely about the creation, especially God’s children.

Jesus, in contrast to most traditional Jewish teaching, considered all people to be children of God gathered within the embrace of God’s unconditional love. Jesus pushed the limits of forgiveness and love, instructing his disciples to love their enemies, because in reality, they are their sisters and brothers.

So while Jesus was clearly a first century Jew, living and ministering within that tradition, he refused to accept all the popular and traditional teachings of his Jewish faith. Instead, he charted new territory, broke down barriers, overstepped boundaries, offered courageous interpretations of Israel’s sacred Scriptures, lived a contagious faith, and in significant ways re-imagined God.

I believe that the current state of traditional western Christianity may be comparable to the state of first century Judaism (as it is depicted in the Gospels). And now, as then, critique, deconstruction, and renovation are needed. Jesus’ continuity and discontinuity within his faith tradition, his deconstruction for the purpose of reconstruction, are paradigmatic for emerging, progressive Christianity. There are today a number of elements in traditional, western Christianity that must be deconstructed for the purpose of reconstruction.

Bibliolatry—elevating the Bible to the status of infallibility—a form of idolatry, needs to be deconstructed for the purpose of developing healthier, more holistic and transformative readings and interpretations.

The dualisms of separate identities (“children of God” standing juxtaposed to the “lost,” “unsaved,” the “children of the Devil,” etc.) and separate destinies (heaven and hell) must give way to more inclusive, universal theologies that restore the dignity, worth, and authenticity of persons of other religious faiths or those of no faith at all.

Evangelism that is bent on converting others to traditional Christian beliefs (to one’s own group or way of believing) must give way to acceptance (not just tolerance), welcome, inclusion, partnership, and genuine Christian hospitality patterned after Jesus’ open table fellowship and acceptance of all people.

Apocalyptic ideas of the end (destruction) of the world and the dissolution of the creation must yield to dynamic approaches that affirm the value of and anticipate the renovation of the creation; approaches that emphasize our vocation of being good stewards and collaborators with Christ in the care of the planet and the advancement of universal justice and peace.

In these and numerous other ways traditional Christianity must change if it is to play any significant role in the work of God’s kingdom on earth and the spiritual, moral, and social transformation of this world into God’s new world.