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.