Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Before-and-After: Christian Salvation Is about Transformation

There are several passages in the New Testament that describe Christian salvation in terms of before-and-after. One such text, Titus 3:4–7, was featured in the Common Lectionary reading for Christmas Eve and Day. The contrasts in these texts are perhaps a bit overdrawn, but they are nevertheless real, and they highlight what the early Christians primarily meant when they spoke of God’s salvation. 

Christian salvation means, according to these before-and-after texts, that in Christ and through Christ, we Christians are liberated from negative attitudes and behaviors that are destructive to relationships, communities, and our own souls, as we learn new ways of relating to one another in grace, kindness, and love patterned after Christ. This process of transformation is Christian salvation, not just the result of it. 

Christian salvation is not something separate from Christian discipleship. It’s all one piece. Incorrectly, Christian discipleship has been understood by many American Christians as the consequence of salvation, or something in addition to salvation. This is usually expressed as: We are first saved, and then we are called to a live a Christian life. No. Such a distinction would have been inconceivable to the early Christians. 

God calls us to a life of devotion and service in partnership with the Spirit of Christ, and God enables us to realize this calling by delivering us from all those destructive and alienating attitudes and behaviors that diminish and destroy relationships and community. Our living out this calling through the power of the Holy Spirit is what the New Testament calls salvation. When Christian preachers and teachers make salvation primarily about “going to heaven” they do the church a great disservice. 

Christian salvation (this process of transformation) is a gift, but like any gift, to be of any use it must be appropriated. According to the text in Titus 3, it is appropriated through the renewing, regenerating, cleansing power of the Holy Spirit that has been generously given to disciples. 

The experience of Christian salvation comes about, then, as we are able to surrender to the wooing, speaking, and leading of the Holy Spirit through courageous trust. It’s largely about letting go of control, and the courage to become what God wants us to be

Author Sue Monk Kid tells about the time she volunteered at a shelter for abused children. One day she met Billy, a boy with spiky brown hair and pale eyebrows to match his pale face. The only life in him, says Kidd, was a thirsty look in the half-moons of his eyes. He’d been horribly wounded and was reluctant to go beyond the security he’d found in his room. The day of the Christmas party he shrank against the pillow on his bed and refused to leave the room. Kid pleaded, “Aren’t you coming to the party?” He shook his head. 

But then the volunteer beside her spoke up: “Sure you are, Billy. All you need to do is put on your courage skin.” His pale eyebrows went up. The thirsty look in his eyes, says Kidd, seemed to drink in the possibility. “Okay,” he finally said. The volunteer helped him put on an imaginary suit of “courage skin” and off he went to the party, willing to trust and risk beyond his secure places. 

Christian salvation is rooted in surrender to and trust in the Christ Spirit, who beckons us to join his party. Christ is the lure, calling us forward. We needed a witness. We needed to see the love of God embodied in flesh and blood. With the advent of Christ, “the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,” showing us the way.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Advent Reflection: Longing

Gospel scholars tell us that Mary’s canticle of praise (the Magnificat) was most likely a song or prayer used in early Jewish Christian worship. It is a song or prayer of longing that envisions a dramatic reversal: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:51–53). .

The overthrow of the wealthy does not come about through the rising up of the oppressed in revolution, but through the advent of a lowly, humble child, who is born in humility, if not poverty, and who, throughout his ministry, demonstrated what Gospel scholars call a preferential option for the poor. When he defined his ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, he declared that his mission was to bring good news to the poor and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18–19). When he said that he had come to declare “the acceptable year of the Lord,” he was referencing the year of Jubilee, which was Torah legislation that required, every fiftieth year, for all the land in Israel to revert back to its original owners. It was legislation that sought to curb the natural growing disparity between the rich and the poor that occurs in all economic systems. Jesus pronounced beatitudes or blessings on the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted, and he pronounced woes or judgments upon the wealthy and well-fed (Luke 6:20–26). He told stories like the rich man who finds himself in Hades and the poor beggar who is carried off to be with Abraham (Luke 16:19–31), and stories about banquets and dinners where the guests are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:7–24). He embodied this gospel to the poor by healing the sick, casting out unclean spirits, touching lepers, welcoming sinners, sitting down at the table with outcasts, and dying on a cross rejected and cursed. Such is the gospel, the good news according to Luke.

Scripture scholar Richard Vinson observes that in Mary’s Magnificat the hard words are spoken to us: “We must face the truth: we are the bad guys in this story . . . If God chooses the poor, we are doomed. If God scatters the rich, the proud, and the powerful, we will be dust in the wind.”

Mary, herself, is an example of God’s compassion: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant . . . for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:46–49). Mary is the quintessential example of God saving the poor and lifting up the lowly.  

How did Western Christianity miss this? And we certainly have missed it. Prominent Christian leaders on both the right and left speak of salvation in very private, narrow terms. Norman Vincent Peal and his legacy of positive thinking expressed God’s salvation in very individualistic language. Much Western spirituality today, both Christian and non-Christian, focuses on self-help and emotional fitness. Those on the right made salvation mainly about the afterlife, about going to heaven when we die. This is the legacy of the fiery evangelists like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.

I believe that both of the above components, in their more sensible and balanced formulations, are part of God’s salvation. I believe that the spiritual life in God we nurture now continues after death, and I believe that God cares about our psychological and emotional wholeness. But neither of these components were primarily what Jesus had in view when he announced the good news of the kingdom of God. Jesus envisaged a new kind of world; a world that he embodied in his ministry to sinners, to the poor, to the marginalized, to the blind, broken, battered, and beaten down.

When our spirit becomes infused with the Divine Spirit, the Spirit of the living Christ, then we, too, long for a new world, a more equitable world, a more just world, a world of peace and nonviolence, where all (not just the 1 percent, or 20 percent, or even 80 percent, but 100 percent) have enough of this world’s resources and spiritual resources to live a flourishing life. 

Maybe you have seen the cartoon that pictures God looking somewhat distraught, saying, “I think I have lost my copy of the divine plan.” When we look at the state of the world, I’m sure God will forgive us if we find ourselves wondering if God ever had a plan. We have seen the holocaust, and the genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia. We have seen the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the killing fields and purges of evil tyrants. Our own nation has amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the world several times over. Countless people have suffered untold misery as a result of war, injustice, oppression, and exploitation.

But that isn’t the whole story. There is a brighter side. We, who believe in resurrection, surely believe that evil will not have the last word. There are pockets of resistance. Not resistance, though, through fight or flight, which are the world’s methods. Resistance, rather, through courageous nonviolence, as incarnated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We have witnessed Gandhi, King, Romero, and Mandela, and there are millions of people on this planet living quiet lives of love and heroism in the pursuit of peace and justice. Bishop Tutu has said that these heroes are often among the poor and disenfranchised: “When you go into informal settlements and meet up with people in shacks who, living in such dehumanizing circumstances, it’s really always such an incredible experience. What you see is the humanity, the humanness, the dignity, the capacity to laugh, the capacity to love, to rear children, in circumstances that by right ought to make all of that impossible.”

This Christmas, we will spend time with our church family, with our friends and loved ones, and we will enjoy the food, fun, and fellowship that mark the season. We will be deeply grateful for the relationships that enrich us and for the material resources that sustain us, enabling us to live flourishing lives. I hope, that at some point, we will allow our hearts to cry out to God for all the people on our planet who do not have adequate material and spiritual resources. I hope that our gratitude for all that has been given to us (by luck of the draw, not by merit or worthiness) will be punctuated by moments where we allow ourselves to ach for all those who suffer from disease, malnutrition, oppression, and injustice.

May God, the All-Compassionate one, fill our hearts with empathy and move us to do what we can do, where we live, to bring us a little closer to a world put right and made whole.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Advent Reflection: Waiting

Children longingly anticipate Christmas day when they can open their presents. They wait with excitement. Not all waiting is filled with excitement. Sometimes our waiting is punctuated with anxiety and fear. Such is often the case with those who are unemployed, waiting for meaningful work. Or with the one waiting for the results of a full body scan after enduring a grueling round of chemotherapy. Or the waiting of a childless couple who so much want to start a family. 

When the prophet addresses the covenant people in Isaiah 40, there were those in Israel who had been waiting for the end of the Babylonian Captivity and the return of the glory of the Lord to the land of Israel. Many had died in exile, without seeing that hope realized, but they clung to the promise that one day their suffering would end. 

All true waiting is a waiting with a sense of promise. For Christians, it’s a promise that we already, in part, have entered into. The Apostle Paul speaks of the Spirit as an earnest, a deposit, a promise and pledge of fullness of life to come, but a fullness that we have already partially experienced. What Paul calls eternal life is simply the continuation of life in the Spirit begun now. Henry Nouwen put it this way: “Waiting is never a movement from nothing to something. It is always a movement from something to something more.” 

The Word of God that comes through the prophet, announcing the end of the time of suffering and the manifestation of God’s glory, is nothing less than the active power and presence of God working for our good. It is the practical equivalent of the Spirit of God working within creation, within our communities, and our individual lives—wooing us to accept and return God’s love, luring us to choose what is compassionate, good, and right, nudging us to pursue peace and reconciliation, inspiring us to forgive those who have hurt us, prompting us to lift up and identify with the disenfranchised and marginalized, and empowering us to act justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. 

True Christian waiting is a patient waiting for the fulfillment of a promise that we already experience through the Word and Spirit of God. In addition, all true waiting involves a waiting in humility. We know that the promise will not be realized through innate human ingenuity and problem-solving. God, most certainly, incorporates many human elements in its realization, but ultimately it is God working in and through human beings and the creation. 

Episcopal priest, Martha Sterne, tells about being in her local county Domestic Court as part of the mission of the local Ecumenical Council to have a clergy presence there, and this was her day to serve. Mostly, she says, she just sits and prays. It’s so chaotic. Trials get set time and time again. Victims don’t show up, either because they don’t want to prosecute or are scarred to. People sit in little clumps scattered around the room, and after a while it becomes apparent which clumps are furious with the other ones. She says that it is a difficult place to gather a lot of hope for the human condition. 

This particular morning, the head public defender approached the judge with some papers and said: “Your honor, I hate to bring this up, but Mrs. Smith called me and she said she was kind of wondering why she was still in jail after you said you’d let her out. And I checked around and it looks like you put the wrong case number on the discharge papers.” The judge looked at the paper and looked at the lawyer, and frowned a fierce kind of frown and said, “Well, now let me tell you that I am just mightily sick and tired of having my mistakes brought to my attention.” 

That’s a great line isn’t it? It’s not easy facing all our failures and shortcomings. Some folks find it easier to live in denial. Some become intoxicated with feelings of superiority and look down on those who just happened to have lacked the kind of opportunities or privileges they have enjoyed. Other folks can’t seem to get past their insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and wallow around in self-pity and self-condemnation. 

True humility restores to us a sense of balance. In one sense, we are all “nobodies.” Sometimes when I start to think that I am more important than what I am, I simply tell myself, “Chuck, all you are is a little shit.” It restores my balance. That’s all I really am. 

And yet, on the other hand, I am also God’s beloved. I am loved by God, accepted by God, called by God, commissioned by God, indwelt by God, and an heir of God. We all are. One of the things I love about the passage in Isaiah 40 is the chord of universality that is struck. The prophet says, “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” All true prophetic vision includes the good, well-being, and redemption of all people. We are all God’s children. Now, of course, all do not know that yet. All have not claimed their relationship with God, which is why Christians need to function as the salt and light of the world. 

When we come to experience God’s forgiveness and love, our waiting can be more open-ended. Spiritual waiting is not to be equated with wish fulfillment. When we put too much stock in our wishes, when we want the future to go in a particular direction, this almost always leads to disappointment. We get anxious about trying to manage and manipulate people and events to get the future to go our way. True Christian waiting is open to many possibilities, freeing us from the need to control people and circumstances

As one great Christian mystic proclaimed: All will be well. I don’t know how to imagine the afterlife, but I think Paul was right when he said that what God has in store for God’s children is more than we can think or imagine. 

When I pastored in Waldorf, Maryland, I had the opportunity to visit with Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, who was then Chaplain of the Senate. I asked him what he thought was the greatest spiritual need in our country. He said, hardly without a pause: For religious people to know God. There are a lot of religious (Christian) people, who are exclusivistic, judgmental, bitter, self-righteous, who think they are the only ones who have the truth and who use the Bible as a weapon to label and condemn others not in their group. (We are all a little bit like that some of the time; but some people are like that most of the time.) Do you know what they need? It’s what we all need? To experience God. They may talk about God, but they haven’t experienced God.

When one experiences God, the heart grows, like the Grinch on that day when he realized what Christmas was really about. Once we experience how wide and deep and great is the love of God, then we know that it is all going to be good, and it makes us better. It inspires us to wait patiently, humbly, openly, knowing that the Word and glory of the Lord that appeared in Jesus of Nazareth is with us and for us.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

Watch! An Advent Reflection

The call to “Watch” is a common theme at the beginning of Advent. Many Christians interpret this mostly in futuristic terms. Some are caught up in the violent apocalyptic sensationalism reflected in the Left Behind series of books. But many who pay little attention to prophetic calendars still believe that this present age will end with some sort of spectacular intervention or return of Christ. 

Many, if not most, of the early Christians believed the present age would end in their lifetime. The Apostle Paul, from what we can deduce from his letters, almost certainly believed this (see 1 Thess 4:13–18 and 1 Cor 7:28–31). Scholars debate about what Jesus may have believed about the “when” and the “how” of the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. 

The semi-technical word that the early Christians used to refer to the future revelation of Christ that would end the present age and usher in an age of peace and righteousness was the Greek word parousia. It is usually translated “coming.” For example, in 1 Thessalonians Paul prays that the church will be blameless before God at the “coming” (parousia) of the Lord Jesus Christ (3:13). The root meaning of the word is actually “presence,” and could be so translated in some contexts. 

While many Christians today still believe in some sort of miraculous second coming of Christ, there is a minority (but growing number) of Christians who imagine this differently. They imagine not a sudden invasion from outside the world, but a growing manifestation or unveiling of the presence of Christ from within the world. 

Christ is, indeed, present in the world, according to all the New Testament witnesses. The living Christ is present with us in Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, for Christians, the presence of the living Christ. 

Frankly, I’m not sure what I believe about a future coming of Christ, or even how to imagine it. But I certainly believe in the living presence of Christ in the world. Therefore, the call to “Watch” takes on present significance. 

At the end of Mark’s Gospel, the women who enter the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus encounter a young man dressed in white. He says, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, has been raised. He is not here.” He instructs them to go tell Peter and the other disciples that the risen Christ will meet them in Galilee. Galilee is where it all started. It’s where they left their fishing nets, their occupations, even their families to follow Jesus. But when Jesus was arrested by the powers-that-be they fled. They denied and deserted him. Now the young man tells them that Jesus would meet them again in Galilee. And meet him they did. There they encountered a kind of “second coming.” There they experienced forgiveness. There they were given a new mission. There they encountered the unconditional love of the risen Christ. 

Christ may or may not return in a cloud of glory. From one point of view, Christ doesn’t need to return, because Christ is already here. We can meet him. We can experience his forgiveness and unconditional love. We can participate with him in the work of the Spirit in the world. It’s possible for Christ to be born anew in our hearts this Christmas season. Christ is with us, among us, for us, and in us. 

Therefore, let us watch, let us stay awake and alert, mindful and faithful to the way of Christ. In colonial New England, I am told, a meeting of state legislators was plunged into darkness by a sudden eclipse. Some panicked and wanted to adjourn. Some thought the world was coming to an end. But one calm gentleman spoke up: “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. If it is the end of the world, I should choose to be found doing my duty. I move that candles be brought.” 

I think the living Christ would say to us: “Keep lighting the candles. Keep watching, keep praying, keep serving, keep loving.” 

Come, Lord Jesus, convict us, challenge us, comfort us, and compel us to love others as you love each one of us.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Thanksgiving Reflection

Our capacity to nurture an attitude of gratitude is greatly influenced by how we “see.” Luke says that the one who turned back to give Jesus thanks did so “when he saw he was healed” (17:15). The reference to “seeing” was obviously intended to imply more than physical sight. This man “saw” with a deeper wisdom; his insight sprang from a higher level of consciousness.

This is the challenge for all of us: 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?

I love the way Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes God’s grace that enables us to overcome the failures and hardships of life: “where sin abounds, grace does much more abound” (Rom 5:20). God’s grace “out abounds” the consequences of sin—poor grammar, but excellent theology. Love will ultimately win. Redemption is God’s last word. God is large enough and great enough to absorb all the evil, tragedy, pain, and loss—reworking, reshaping, and redeeming it in due course.

An Irish priest on a walking tour of his rural parish observed an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road, praying. Impressed, the priest said to the man, “You must be very close to God.” The peasant looked up from his prayers, thought for a moment, and then smiled, “Yes, he’s very fond of me.” That is not arrogance; that is our birthright as human beings.

Whatever hardship or tragedy we experience, God’s attitude of love toward us is constant. 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 challenge, danger, and excitement. Our security, however, rests in God’s unconditional love, which enables us to find our way back home.

(The preceding reflections were from my book, Shimmers of Light, Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season; click on book to the right to learn more or order)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

God's Unconditional Acceptance Does Not Mean Unconditional Approval

Unconditional love means unconditional acceptance, but it does not mean unconditional approval. God loves us regardless, but God doesn’t approve of all we do. God doesn’t approve when are complicit in injustice. God doesn’t approve when we act in selfish ways that hurt others. God doesn’t approve of our expressions of pride and egotism. Such attitudes and actions contradict God’s love. 

But God continues to love us, even though God may be saddened or angry by what we do. God never writes us off. God is patient and waits like a loving parent for the return of a lost child. 

God’s judgment, however, is not incompatible with God’s love. We have no idea what this consists of really. It may be, mostly, God allowing us to reap the consequences of our actions. Or, maybe it will be more direct, more engaging. We have all heard the expression “tough love.” The expression implies that love can be painful, difficult, and hard to bear at times. Loving parents may have to enforce some rather strict measures of discipline. The wife of an alcoholic husband may have to get a restraining order or even press charges, in order to protect their children or get her husband the help he needs. 

God’s judgment is always a form of love. It is nothing like the sentence or penalty of condemnation that may come from a non-feeling jury or judge. God is always partial toward our ultimate well-being. Judgment is never retributive or strictly punitive. It is always corrective, redemptive, and restorative. The ultimate intent of God’s judgment is to heal, redeem, reconcile, and transform. That may or may not be possible for all people, but it is God’s intent. 

If judgment were anything else it would nullify the gospel of grace. One afternoon when Jordan, my son, was a toddler, he was with me as I picked up a few household items at K-Mart. I told him he could pick out something for himself within our tight budget. (In those days it was very tight.) Well, he wanted some kind of action figure that was more expensive than what we could afford. As I tried to explain this, that he would need to scale back, he threw a little fit in the store. 

I looked him squarely in the eyes and informed him that if he didn’t settle down, he wouldn’t be getting anything. He didn’t settle down. So, I took it all off the table. Then he wanted to compromise. He picked something else out when he knew I was serious. I told him it was too late. As we made our way through the store, he was so sad and mad he couldn’t see straight. 

Well, I began to have a change of heart. I thought this could be a teachable moment. So I went back, with Jordan unaware, and slipped into the cart the second item that he had picked out. When we returned to the car and after I put him in his car seat, I pulled out the toy and surprised him with it. I said, “Son, this is called grace. You don’t deserve it, but in my love for you, I decided to get it for you anyway.” I don’t think he was old enough to understand the Christian concept of grace, but he sure was delighted to get the toy. And his delight was my delight. The hug he gave me to seal the whole experience made my heart melt. It demonstrates, I think, the healing, transformative power of grace. 

If God’s judgment is an expression of God’s grace, then there is nothing to fear. Whatever God’s judgment may involve, no matter how painful it may be at the time, it is for our ultimate good.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Discerning God's Word (Voice) Today

In my final year of Seminary, I pastored a small rural church in a little Indiana farm community. This was a seminary pastorate; the church didn’t expect me to stay after graduation and I didn’t expect to stay. As graduation drew close, I was ready to go on to bigger and better things. The problem was that no one else seemed ready for me to go on to bigger and better things. I had sent out resumes. No response. Not even a nibble. Churches were not exactly knocking on my door wanting me to come. In fact, they were not even sending me any rejection letters. This went on for several months. I began to question my calling. At one point I was so filled with anxiety that I found it difficult to sit in class. I felt miserable and felt guilty for feeling so miserable. And the feelings of guilt for doubting my calling and questioning my faith compounded my anxiety. 

I happened to be taking a pastoral counseling class at the time and the professor said something very simple that struck me as quite profound at the time. I heard it as a word from God. He said, “It’s okay to feel bad.” Pretty simple isn’t it? But that is what I needed to hear. And what a weight lifted when I appropriated that word. Some of the anxiety I was experiencing came from the sense that my stay in Hoover, Indiana could be for a longer time than I had wanted or anticipated. But the debilitating, oppressive anxiety I was experiencing sprang from the guilt over feeling bad and from questioning my calling. When I realized that it was okay to feel bad, to question, and to experience some anxiety, then the deep dread, guilt, and worry that hovered over me started to lift. 

I share this story as an illustration of how the Divine Voice speaks to us. The Divine Voice speaks to humans through human words, images, ideas, and feelings. This is true in any gathering of disciples for study, fellowship, and worship, and it is true of the Bible itself that is used by these faith communities. 

Paul tells the church in Corinth to “weigh carefully” what is said by the Christian prophets in their worship gatherings (1 Cor. 14:29). He tells the church at Thessalonica to “test everything” that is said by the prophets and teachers in their community, holding on to what is good and avoiding all that is evil (1 Thess. 5:19–22). 

The Divine Voice often speaks healing and transforming words as Scripture is read, interpreted, discussed, taught, and proclaimed in Christian communities. But biblical words read and interpreted must be “weighed carefully.” The Bible can just as easily be used to justify our sexism, racism, classism, nationalism, and egotism as it can be used for redemption and transformation. There is no infallible word. 

Here are questions I ask: Do the words reflect the compassion, love, forgiveness, and prophetic challenge of Christ? (In other words: Is the Spirit of Christ present in the words read or spoken?) Do the words inspire hearers to be more caring, empathetic, gracious, hospitable, and inclusive? Do the words call forth the best of the human spirit? Do they inspire us to pursue peace, reconciliation, and justice for all people, especially the disadvantaged and marginalized? Do the words bring healing in a holistic sense, calling forth humility, generosity, gratitude, and grace? 

Paul writes to the church in Rome that “the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God” (Rom. 8:16). When our lives are immersed and filled with the Spirit of Christ, it is not that difficult to discern the Divine Voice bearing witness to our human spirit. When our lives are not filled with the Spirit of Christ, we will often mishear the Voice, as I can testify through my own experience. Some Christians who mishear that Voice seek to justify their prejudices and sin by appealing to an infallible Bible. 

Every voice in the Bible or in the church should be filtered through and weighed against the Divine Voice that has become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth (John 1:1–18).

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Bible as a Lens

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg tells a wonderful story illustrating two different ways to approach Scripture. For many years Borg taught an introductory-level Bible course at Oregon State University. At the beginning of the class, he always informed the students that the course would be taught from the perspective of the academic discipline of biblical scholarship. Borg would tell them that they didn’t have to change their beliefs, but to do well in the class they would have to be willing to look at the Bible from that viewpoint. 

He explained that the Bible is the product of two ancient communities. The Hebrew Bible is the product of ancient Israel, the Christian Testament is the product of the early Christian movement. As such, the Bible tells us not how God sees things, but how those two ancient communities saw their relationship with God. 

Roughly 20 percent of the students that took the course believed that the Bible was inerrant (literally the Word of God). Borg would, inevitably, spend the first two weeks in lively discussion with the more articulate and courageous of those students. 

One semester, a very bright Muslim engineering student took the course. A senior, he did so because he needed another humanities course for graduation and the class fit his schedule. One day, after witnessing Borg’s interaction with the more conservative students, he said to him, “I think I understand what’s going on. You’re saying the Bible is like a lens through which we see God, and they’re (the inerrantists) saying that it’s important to believe in the lens.” 

That is a good analogy. When I am asked if I believe the Bible my response is: As a Christian I believe (I trust in) in Jesus of Nazareth, the living Christ who is my Lord. I use the Bible as a means to nurture a transformative relationship with God, whom I know through Jesus. The Bible is a lens through which I see God and Jesus. 

I try to approach the Bible in as unbiased a way as possible (we all, however, bring some bias to the text). I try to be open to both the diversity and the unity of faith that the various authors and faith communities express, and receptive to both the contradictions and the coherences found in the Bible’s many different kinds of sacred literature. 

When the Bible becomes the object of faith (bibliolatry?), the Bible can easily become an instrument of oppression and death. In a general sense, the Bible gives us a description of the faith of the writers and communities struggling with what is real and what is unreal, not a set of infallible prescriptions or propositions. 

Every reading of the Bible is an interpretation of the Bible. The reader inevitably brings his or her temperament, personality, culture, biases, and education into the process of understanding the text and discerning its meaning for today. 

The Bible is not just about God, but about how people of faith have perceived and related to God. While it is not literally the Word of God, it can become the Word of God (the Divine Voice speaks through it) to those who read it critically, spiritually, and discerningly.  We should employ the best methods at our disposal to make sense of it. This should include a balance between the best resources of historical-critical scholarship and other methods more spiritually oriented toward nurturing Christian disciples. 

The Bible contains a plurality of voices. Sometimes these voices conflict with one another, sometimes they speak as one, using different language and words. The Bible includes voices of oppression (claiming to speak for God), and voices of protest against oppression (also claiming to speak for God). There are voices that endorse conventional wisdom, and voices that speak a subversive, alternative wisdom. But in, with, around, under, and over these voices is the Divine Voice, seeking to lead us into a transformative relationship with our Creator and Redeemer.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's Time to Grow Up

The world needs for the visible body of Christ (the church) to grow up. How does this happen? According to one biblical writer, “it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16). What kind of love? The kind of love demonstrated through Jesus’ sacrificial life and death (Eph. 5:1–2). 

We have to stop using the Bible to justify our sexism, bigotry, and hypocrisy.   The Bible itself shows us how the people of God appealed to divine command to justify their greed, hate, and violence. For example, consider all those passages where it is claimed that God orders the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites wholesale, even the women and children, in order to possess the land of promise (see Deut. 7:1–6). Under European colonization, we did the same thing to Native Americans. We claimed “manifest destiny” and sought God’s blessing on our plundering and killing. We claimed to be doing the will of God, portraying the Native Americans as hostile, uncivilized, and inhuman (the same thing Hitler did to the Jews). 

We are still using the Bible to endorse violence, refusing to see the evil in our own hearts. (We are always finding evil somewhere else, projecting it onto “the other.”). One can find the worst and the best of humanity in the pages of the Bible. Since the Bible reflects our human sin and prejudices, as well as God’s vision of transformation, it is not hard to find Bible quotes that support our biases and injustices. 

Jesus is the Bible’s own answer to its divine sanctions and endorsements of violence. Jesus shows us that God is not violent at all, but a God of forgiveness and love. Even God’s judgment, which can be painful, is for the purpose of salvation. 

It takes us a long time to get there in Scripture; the process is always three steps forward and two steps back. But in the fullness of time God sends forth God’s Son. Jesus breaks down barriers, expands the boundaries of God’s grace (even to our enemies), and embodies and proclaims a nonviolent gospel. Yet, we have a difficult time believing that nonviolence is the answer. Even in the final book of the Bible, we take another step backwards, imagining that Jesus returns as a violent warrior slaying all his enemies. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin (singular) of the world. What is this sin? It is the sin of hate. It is the greed and animosity of the powers that be that put Jesus to death. Yet Jesus does not lash out in revenge. So how does Jesus take this sin away? He bears it in forgiveness all the way to the cross. This is why in John’s Gospel Jesus’ death is referred to as the glorification of the Son and the Father. The glory of God’s love shines through all the darkness of evil and hate. Instead of enmity and revenge, John says, “God so loved the world,” showing us “a more excellent way” (see 1 Cor. 13). 

As Christians, we must stop worshiping our Bibles and quoting Bible verses to justify our sexism, classism, nationalism, and all manner of greed, prejudice, and love of violence. We must listen to Jesus, as the Voice at Jesus’ transfiguration tells us to do (Mark 9:7). We must read our Bibles through the lens of the nonviolent, peace-seeking, forgiving, compassionate, inclusive Christ, who is Lord (head) of his body in the world. 

It is time to grow up. Our world desperately needs Christians to shed their infantile Christianity, and put on Christ, “the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). We must stop worshipping a book and using that book to justify our sins; instead, we must start worshiping and serving a God, who in the “fullness of time” plans “to gather up all things in him (Christ), things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), a God “from whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name” (Eph. 3:15), a God destined to be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Christian Salvation -- Is it about this life or the afterlife?

Some Christians have a narrow understanding of salvation that makes it all about the afterlife (going to heaven). They think they know who has it and who doesn’t, who’s in and who’s out, and they consider the work of the church to be largely about converting others to their version of the truth of salvation. It’s hard for me to be too critical of these Christians, since at one time, I, also held to that exclusive version of salvation.

Progressive Christians (and more evangelical Christians are coming to this realization also) insist that there are multiple images and metaphors for salvation in the Scriptures and different contemporary ways for understanding salvation. Many Christians are surprised to learn that not a single reference to salvation in the Old Testament relates to the afterlife. And only a few references in the New Testament relate specifically to the afterlife.

One of the dominant images in both Testaments is salvation as liberation from bondage. In the OT this is Israel’s primal story: Israel’s liberation from the domination system of Egypt. In the NT this is understood primarily as liberation from entrapment, liberation from the anti-life pull toward alienation, disintegration, and addiction (what Paul called the “flesh” and “the law of sin and death”). 

This image, as it is found in one Gospel story, is particularly illuminating. Just after Jesus predicts for the third time his suffering and death, James and John ask if they can sit by Jesus’ side in his kingdom and share Jesus’ rule (Mark 10:35–37) . This continues the bitter dispute the disciples had been having over who would be the greatest (see Mark 9:30–37).

Jesus says, “This is how the prominent people of the world function. They strive for places and positions of power in order to lord it over others. Not so with you. If you want to participate in God’s dream for the world, then you must become the servant of all” (my paraphrase of Mark 10:42–44). Then, Jesus offers his own life as an example, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

The word translated “ransom” could also be translated “redemption” or “liberation.” Jesus is not specifically speaking of his death, though his death is the culmination of the life he lived. This text is saying that the self-giving, sacrificial life of the Son of Man (Jesus) becomes a means of liberation for his disciples as they follow his way of life.

The afterlife is not in view at all. The liberation here, in this passage, is from a life of grasping power and position, from the need to lord it over others. The disciples wanted to turn the old pecking order, where they were on the bottom, into a new pecking order, where they would be on the top. Jesus wanted to liberate them from the pecking order all-together. Jesus wanted to ransom/redeem them from the whole game of competing with and comparing themselves to others, so they would be free to be “servants of all”—without regard or distinction for social status, without bias or prejudice, without favoritism toward any.

Some Christians like to think of salvation only in terms of the afterlife, because then they don’t have to struggle with the need to die to the ego-driven self and become a humble servant of all people, which is what Jesus requires. It’s much easier and more convenient to make salvation about going to heaven. One hardly has to change at all; just believe the right doctrines or obey the right Christian rituals.

Healthy Christianity is about personal, communal, and societal transformation. It’s about liberation from egotism, greed, and selfish ambition. It’s about reflecting the image of God in all our relationships, embodying the love and compassion of Christ in all that we do, and serving all people without discrimination.  

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Key to Reading the Bible Transformatively

One of the most important tasks we engage in as a Christian community is the task of interpreting and applying the Christian Scriptures to our personal and communal lives. But reading (understanding and interpreting) the Bible in ways that can be transformational can be challenging. One Bible passage says one thing, while another Bible passage seems to contradict it. How do we know what to take seriously as “God’s Word” to us and what should be taken with less seriousness, or perhaps even disregarded because of the flawed theology of the biblical writer? And how do we make the distinction? 

The early Christ followers give us a key to reading and applying sacred Scripture. In Acts 2, Luke presents an account of early Christian preaching. Peter speaks to the Jewish community in Jerusalem in light of the outpouring of God’s Spirit on Jesus’ disciples on the day of Pentecost. Bible scholars point out that Luke tells the story Luke’s way, giving it his own theological twist and emphasis. But it is also generally conceded among New Testament scholars that Luke is passing on some of the core elements that constituted the earliest Christian proclamation. 

One of the critical components in the early Christian proclamation of the gospel was the way they reread and reinterpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. In Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, he offers a radical rereading of Psalm 16:8–11 and Psalm 110:1, applying these texts to the resurrection of Christ. These Psalms, of course, in their original contexts meant something entirely different. 

The early disciples did not conclude that Jesus was the Messiah in light of the promises in their Scriptures. They concluded that Jesus was the Messiah based on their conviction that God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead (Acts 2:36). Then, they worked their way backwards, radically reinterpreting the Old Testament to fit the paradigm of promise and fulfillment. They started with the conviction that Jesus brings to fulfillment God’s redemptive plan for Israel and all humanity, then they read the story of Israel in light of that conviction. This led them to read new meanings into Old Testament stories and texts that could not have possibly been intended by the original authors. 

The Apostle Paul does this same thing in his use of the Old Testament in his letters to his churches. For example, in his letter to the Galatians, as part of an extended argument on the inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant community, Paul cites the promise given to Abraham and his offspring/seed in the book of Genesis. Then, he makes this huge, dramatic interpretative leap: “it does not say, ‘And to his offsprings,” as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is one person, who is Christ” (Gal 3:16). This, of course, is a radical rereading/reinterpreting of the promise in light of the Christ Event. 

If we follow this same principle, we can reinterpret Scripture through our experience of and personal/communal encounter with the living Christ. For example, I read the many passages in the Bible that speak of retributive judgment/justice through the lens of Jesus’ life, message, teaching, death, and resurrection, as I have encountered Christ in the Gospels. What Jesus says about loving our enemies and the character of God (see Luke 6:27–36), and the way in which Jesus absorbed the hate and violence of his enemies in his death through non-retaliation and forgiveness (the passion story in the Gospels), trumps (takes priority over) all those passages in the Bible that sanction divine violence and seem to support retributive justice. 

I read the Bible through the lens of God’s more complete disclosure of God’s self through Jesus of Nazareth, whom God stamped with approval when God raised him up. The central Christian message of the first disciples was that Jesus, who was crucified by the powers that be, God raised up/vindicated, showing him (or appointing him) to be Messiah/Christ and Lord (see also Rom 1:3–4). 

Again and again, I apply this basic principle of biblical interpretation to contradictory and incompatible passages of Scripture. It’s a much better system than simply ignoring, denying, or trying to explain away clear and obvious contradictions in the Bible. It is a system of interpretation that has a precedent in the interpretative work of the first Christians. 

And it is a much better and more humble approach than the one taken by a number of conservative Christians and preachers, that while ignoring the Bible passages that contradict their message, pronounce condemnation on those who question their (church’s, group’s, denomination’s) absolutist teaching/preaching and their rendition of, “The Bible says . . .” 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Toxic Christianity in The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of my all-time great movies list. It is pervaded with great lines and rich spiritual symbolism. The warden, Samuel Norton, is an icon of toxic Christianity. When Andy and the other prisoners make their first appearance before the warden, immediately the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. He has one of the prisoners beaten for asking, “When do we eat?” Holding a Bible, he tells the prisoners, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.” 

The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. But it’s clear from the beginning of his appearance in the story that his Christianity is in name only. In one scene, the warden enters Andy’s cell. He takes Andy’s Bible as Andy and the warden quote Scripture verses back and forth. He does not open the Bible, which is good since the rock hammer Andy uses to tunnel through the cell wall is hidden inside. When he hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.” 

The final verse that the warden quotes is John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Of course, the warden does not have the foggiest notion what that verse really means. The warden walks in darkness and is about as blind and un-liberated a person as you would ever find. But he thinks he is a Christian. 

Christianity (as well as toxic religion in general) can be as deadly and destructive as it can be redemptive and life-giving. I sense that for a number of people who wear the badge of Christian faith, their faith has become a cleverly disguised way of protecting the ego. I suppose we are all guilty of this to one degree or another. 

Religion can become a clever way for us to feel secure, to feel superior (we are the ones chosen while the rest are passed over and excluded), and to be in control. Jesus, in the Gospels, saw right through this. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus found hospitable table fellowship, not with the moral majority, but with the immoral minority? Those who thought they could see were actually blind, while those who knew they were blind found spiritual sight (read John 9). 

Authentic spirituality is not about being correct or citing Bible passages. It’s not about wearing the right badges or shouting the right pledges. It’s about being humble enough to admit that we are blind, so that the Divine Spirit can lead us to a place where we can see. 

There is no magic formula: Believe this, do this, practice this. There are no four spiritual laws, five steps, six principles, or seven habits for highly spiritual people. But somehow our illusions must be exposed and we must face the many ways we parade and protect our egos. Somehow we must surrender to a greater Love and greater Story, instead of being so absorbed in our own little stories where we are so easily offended and hurt, and become bitter, jealous and resentful people. Somehow we must let go of our passion for power, prestige, and possessions that dominates Western life, and become more passionate about what Jesus called the kingdom of God

I wish I could offer you a prescription, but there is none, other than following Jesus. Transformative spiritual persons are fairly easy to detect, though. You can see the Love and Compassion in their eyes, their face, their words and gestures. Their whole body radiates the light of Christ. They are gentle, understanding, humble, empathetic, and at the same time, they can be bold, courageous, and unafraid to challenge the powers that be. 

Why are there so few transformed people today in Western/American Christianity? Or even better, why has my own (your own) spiritual growth been so slow and difficult? Interested in your response: cqueen@fewpb.net.      

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Are You? Saint or Sinner

William Sloane Coffin, a few years before his death, wrote a wonderful book titled, Letters to a Young Doubter. At the beginning of the correspondence he asks his young friend a probing question, “Who tells you who you are?” As Chaplain at Yale for a number of years, he knew full well the power of higher education to tell students who they are. 

There are powerful forces in our culture that impact and shape who we think we are. The Christian answer that I was given as a young person is that we are all sinners. Certainly that is true. I know that I am flawed and fail regularly to live up to the best ideals of humanity, or even my own best ideals. All of us are a mass of contradictions. But is that the first and foremost thing about us? 

This is not what compassionate parents teach their children. Not at first. We tell them how special they are, how much they are loved and cared for, and what possibilities they have. 

I find it interesting in Paul’s letter to the Romans that before Paul expounds on the human problem, he identifies his readers as those who are loved by God, who belong to Jesus Christ, and who are, by divine call, saints (1:6–7). Most of us tend to think that a saint is someone particularly holy, set apart from the rest of us, someone who has achieved something very special. But in Paul’s view, we are all saints. 

One aspect to faith involves saying “yes” to our sainthood. Faith is our acceptance of God’s unconditional acceptance. We are first the daughters and sons of God before we are sinners. Toxic religion turns that around. Unhealthy religion teaches that we are first unworthy, under God’s wrath, and must be saved from our sin. Healthy religion says that we are first secure in God’s love, that we are saints already, called to live as God’s beloved children daily. 

Once we accept that we are accepted and experience being loved by the One who sustains all existence, we then find the sacred space and inner courage to face the tensions and contradictions that our sin creates. When we know we are loved by the Divine Lover, we find the confidence and inner strength to confront our false self (our little ego-driven self with its propensity to grasp, grab, and cling to that which we think will bring ego satisfaction). Knowing that we are valued and have worth for simply being alive, we no longer feel the need to deny or repress our dark side. Our freedom to name our demons is the first step in overcoming them.  

In the movie, The Stand (a classic tale of the conflict between good and evil based on Stephen King’s book), an African-American woman known as Mother Abigail functions as the Christ figure. One of her inner disciples is a deaf mute. He is a man of great compassion and integrity, but he doesn’t believe in God. 

In one scene, Mother Abigail is talking about the role that this young man will play in accomplishing God’s will. His friend speaks up, “But he doesn’t believe in God.” Not the least bit surprised or shaken, Mother Abigail turns gently and communicates directly to the young deaf man, “That’s okay child, because God believes in you.” 

It’s true. In spite of all our mishaps and foibles, all the ways we become entrapped and addicted that diminishes our lives and relationships, God still believes in us. If enough of us really believed that, our world could be transformed. We are first and foremost saints, before we are sinners.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How Can One Support the Tea Party and Be a Christian?

I had not thought much about the wave of Tea Party members that swept into Congress until the recent debate over the deficit and the debt ceiling. The one thing that became crystal clear is that they share no concern for or feel any obligation to the most vulnerable in our country—the poor and marginalized. 

Jesus, of course, defined his mission and ministry with particular focus on the most vulnerable. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to bring good news to the poor . . . to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18–19). 

So my question is: How can one support the Tea Party agenda and be a Christian? I have no way of knowing, but I suspect a great many Christians voted to elect them to office. How is that possible? 

My feeling is that many Christians have no real idea what Jesus’ mission and ministry was actually about. Jesus’ focus was on the kingdom of God (God’s new world of peace, equality, and reconciliation) coming into this world (“May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”). The agenda of many Christians is focused on the afterlife, correct doctrinal beliefs, and personal success. 

For Christians whose faith is oriented around a heaven-and-hell framework, Christian faith is all about believing the right things or doing the right things in order to go to heaven. This is often (though not always) connected to a very rigid set of doctrinal propositions that one has to believe, such as biblical inerrancy, substitutionary atonement, or the deity of Christ. 

And then there are other Christians who equate the values of American democracy or American capitalism (it all gets thrown into the mix) with being a Christian, so that allegiance to God means allegiance to country (and vice-versa). 

Similar to the above approach are those who endorse an American gospel of success, personal fulfillment, and prosperity. In this system the poor are not only neglected, they are pronounced as cursed for their lack of faith or capacity to make money. Jesus’ way of the cross is either ignored or convoluted somehow into the way of personal advancement and riches. 

In a recent meeting, messengers (delegates) from the largest Christian denomination in the country (the Southern Baptist Convention), made it a point to affirm their belief in an eternal hell where unbelievers will dwell in conscious torment forever. They see their mission as one of rescuing people from hell by getting them to believe their version of Christian faith. 

It seems to me that a far more beneficial and transformational mission would be to get Christians to actually take seriously Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and vindication by becoming his disciples. 

I, myself, am a struggling disciple of Jesus. I fall short of embodying his life and living out his teachings in many ways. I know that I am complicit in the huge disparity between the rich and the poor that Jesus firmly judges. I often fail to love unconditionally, to give sacrificially, to serve compassionately, and to minister to others without any thought of personal reward. 

But this I do know: The Gospels that proclaim the life, teachings, and mission of Jesus make clear what the life of discipleship to Jesus entails. I know the kind of person Jesus calls me to be, even though I often fail to be that kind of person. 

The major problem with American Christianity today is that many Christians do not know what kind of persons and communities the living Christ expects them to be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

America's Dysfunctional Government Is Indicative of Dysfunctional Christianity

Paradoxically, my shadow side found the recent debacle in Washington entertaining, but my spiritual side found it deeply disturbing. What many have called dysfunctional government, in my opinion, is indicative of dysfunctional religion, particularly dysfunctional Christianity. Let me explain.

The debate exposed a couple of extremely disconcerting realities. The wealthiest Americans pay less taxes by percentage than the rest of Americans who earn much less, and huge corporations that have made millions, even billions in profits, like oil companies, pay even less. This is not a debatable observation; it is simply the way it is.

Second, the spending cuts that will be enacted will hardly impact the wealthiest Americans at all. These cuts will, however, undoubtedly take away programs and resources that aid people who are struggling to survive. This will leave them more vulnerable to the diminishing forces of life and make the possibility for a flourishing life a wishful dream with minimal hope of attainment. This second observation is, I suppose, a more debatable point than my first, but hardly so. There are many debatable points when it comes to the ways the deficit can be reduced, but these two observations simply describe reality as it is and as it will be.

My question is: How can this “state of the union” exist, when there are so many Christian people in our country? I suspect it was a majority of Christians that elected the newcomers to Congress, who were willing to let the country drift over the edge of economic ruin if it meant compromising on their radically conservative agenda.

How can that be? It is because most American Christians adhere to a form of Christianity that is based on a heaven-and-hell framework, focusing their major attention and concern on the afterlife and on correct doctrinal beliefs, rather than the kingdom of God on earth as envisaged by Jesus. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Christian denomination in this country, recently made a big deal of and confirmed at their annual convention their insistence on the future reality of hell, where non-Christians will suffer eternal torment. This is unhealthy religion, and it represents a sizable chunk of American Christianity.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus explained his mission not in terms of heaven-and-hell, but in terms of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan is a good example of someone who, though considered to be a social outcast and religious heretic by the religious establishment, embodied the ethic taught by Jesus to love your neighbor as yourself (see Luke 10:25-37). The Samaritan gave generously and sacrificially in time and money and effort. Every disciple of Jesus is called to give generously and sacrificially for the good of those beaten-down and down-and-out.

Surely, at the very least, in a representative government known as a democracy, adherence to the gospel of Jesus means paying our fair share of taxes to help the disadvantaged, supplying them with opportunities to live a flourishing life.

One does not need to be spiritually astute to see this constant emphasis in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In fact, Jesus was quite radical regarding the need to empower the impoverished and close the disparity between the rich and the poor. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:20–26).

Obviously, many American Christians have ignored, denied, or conveniently reinterpreted Jesus’ life and words to reflect their own obsession with the afterlife, doctrinal formulations, or personal success. (I include myself as one who is complicit in a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.)

According to the Gospels, Jesus proclaimed: “Repent (change the way you think and live), for the kingdom of God (God’s new world of peace and wholeness) has come near.” This message was directed to religious people—believers in God—who had become consumed with holiness codes and ritual purity. It is a message that American Christians need desperately to hear and heed.

What would happen if all the Christians who sent the Tea Party to Washington would join Jesus’ New World Party? Maybe then we would actually witness some signs and portents of God’s Dream for the world, breaking into our dysfunctional society with healing and grace.

If Christians really took Jesus’ mission and message seriously, it would be interesting to gauge how the uncommon gospel of Jesus would impact the common good of our partisan, polarized society. Would it make a difference? I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be great to find out!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Evaluating Spiritual Growth

How would you chart the movement and direction of your spiritual life? How would you describe your spiritual maturity or immaturity?

The criteria that so many Western Christians use for spiritual measurement and evaluation, I believe, are non-issues with God. Many Christians in the West measure their level of spiritual maturity by looking at two components: All the religious, church-related activities they are engaged in, or the beliefs they have adopted. Neither component concerns God all that much.

Beliefs are important to the extent that they determine attitudes and lifestyle. Spiritually healthy beliefs are important for a healthy, transformative spirituality, but in- and-of themselves beliefs are not the measurement of spirituality.

Religious activities can be a mixed bag. They can be instrumental and vital in nurturing spiritual growth, or they can be stifling and spiritually diminishing. The prophets railed against the people of God and their religious leaders when they became engrossed and entrenched in religious activity and worship, and yet neglected to care for the poor and oppressed—the widows, orphans, and the most vulnerable in the land (read Isa. 1).

There is one overarching measurement that is true for Christians in all cultures, times, and places, though it has many different traits, qualities, and cultural expressions: LOVE. Our capacity to and expression of love is the ultimate measurement of our spirituality.

Are we growing in love? If we are growing in love, then as we age, we will be, like Jesus, growing in wisdom and grace—with God and our sisters and brothers in the human family (Luke 2:52). Are we becoming more patient, understanding, forgiving, self-giving, generous, compassionate, and inclusive?

This involves much more than being nice. Richard Rohr has commented: “One of the best covers for very narcissistic people is to be polite, smiling, and thoroughly civilized. Hitler loved animals and classical music.”

Healthy Christianity and churches will be continually looking for ways to help disciples of Jesus grow in love. Consider how much emphasis today is given to externals, doctrinal formulas, correct rituals, Bible quotes, flags and badges and pledges, personal success, and superficial emotions. It’s mostly sentiment and style, with very little spiritual substance.

To know God well is to love well—sacrificially, inclusively, graciously, and unconditionally. The question to ask regarding our spiritual growth: Am I loving others (all others, including the creation) today better than I did yesterday?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Bible Is Not the Final Word

Three times in the book of Acts, Paul’s experience of his encounter with the living Christ is told. In Acts 9, Luke reports the story. In Acts 22, Luke has Paul recount his experience to an unruly temple crowd. And in Acts 26, Paul retells his experience to Festus and King Agrippa. Paul’s own brief account of his encounter with Christ is found in Galatians 1:13–17.

Paul explains this experience as a revelation— “God was pleased . . . to reveal his Son to me”—and as a calling through grace “to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles.” Paul says that after this encounter he did not “confer with any human being,” nor did he go up to Jerusalem to get the endorsement of the Twelve (“those who were already apostles before me”), but went, at once, to Arabia, and then afterward to Damascus where he began proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah. We don’t know how long he stayed in solitude in Arabia, where he was apparently sorting things out.

Paul underwent a major transformation as a result of this experience. Scholars of Paul, while noting that he was a very complex man and, like all transformational spiritual leaders, was marked by both contradictions and theological and spiritual growth as he served Christ and engaged in mission, nevertheless, remind us that he was forever changed by his dramatic experience of Christ on the Damascus Road. Paul based his authority as an apostle on this experience. Paul’s experience of the living Christ took preeminence over every external authority, including the Scriptures. In fact, Paul reinterpreted the Scriptures in light of his mystical experience of Christ.

Paul, however, still valued his religious tradition. He always considered himself to be a Jewish follower of the Messiah. He would never have claimed to be a Christian in the way that the word is used today by most Christians. We know that he valued the traditions of Jesus passed down orally, because he tells the Corinthians that he passed on to them the tradition regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection that he “had received” (see 1 Cor. 15:3-11). Yet, in that very passage, he grounds his own apostleship, not on the tradition he had received, but his own personal experience of the living Christ, who appeared to him as “last of all [the apostles], as to one untimely born.”

The lesson we can learn is this: Paul’s experience of the living Christ always took priority and precedence over his tradition and every external authority, even the Bible itself. Healthy and transformative spirituality will always value experience over tradition and the sacred texts. The tradition and the sacred texts are important, but our actual experience of the Divine is more important.

As Christians, our experience of the living Christ, who is able by his grace to transform our prejudices, jealousies, resentments, and hate into forgiveness, love, and reconciliation, is always more important than what the preachers and dogmatists tell us the Bible says.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Is Rob Bell Still an Evangelical?

In a recent interview by Kim Lawton of PBS Religion and Ethics, author and columnist Lisa Miller, Pastor Rob Bell, author of Love Wins, and Mary Vanden Berg, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, raise some important issues about where Rob Bell stands in relation to evangelical Christianity.

Miller notes that what upset people most about Rob Bell was that he calls himself a conservative evangelical Christian. If he called himself an Episcopalian, she observes, nobody would have batted an eye.

Miller, of course, is right. This is what sent Bell’s book, Love Wins, ringing throughout the land (pun intended). As Miller comments, Bell’s position on heaven, hell, and the possible salvation of every person, “is a radical upheaval of that entire worldview.” This is why popular conservative pastor, John Piper, tweeted, “So long Bell,” when he first heard of Bell’s position (even before he read the book). He was talking about Bell’s departure from traditional/conservative Christianity.

One could argue that Bell has moved out of the camp of evangelicalism into the camp of progressive Christianity. One of the fundamental differences between progressive Christianity and evangelical Christianity is how each group understands and interprets the biblical teachings on judgment.

Most progressive Christians do not ignore or deny the reality of judgment. In fact, I myself, as a progressive Christian, believe that judgment can be quite painful and severe. But, I believe that it is always redemptive, restorative, and corrective in nature, not punitive, retributive, or intended for punishment equal to the offense.

Bell basically takes this position in his book. In the interview with Religion and Ethics he says that judgment flows out of love, that it is important to start with love: “God’s love is for us to flourish in God’s good world. For us to flourish in God’s good world, judgments have to be made . . . that puts judgment in its proper place.”

The problem for Bell in the evangelical Christian community is that the Bible doesn’t always take that position. Both restorative judgment and vindictive/retributive judgment can be found in the Bible. Because the New Testament emerged out of a milieu pervaded by apocalyptic perspectives and beliefs, retributive judgment is quite frequent in the New Testament. Progressive Christians rightfully acknowledge that an apocalyptic orientation greatly influenced the first followers of Jesus, and many progressives would contend, influenced Jesus himself. (See my book, A Faith Worth Living: The Dynamics of an Inclusive Gospel, pp. 97–117).

I share Bell’s belief on heaven, hell, and the possibility of universal salvation. His understanding of judgment in the context of divine love is how progressive Christians interpret it. But what Bell has failed to do, and what he must do, if he hopes to stay within the evangelical Christian fold, is provide an adequate biblical hermeneutic for his position that somehow manages to maintain the high (idolatrous?) view of biblical authority that evangelicals demand.

In the interview with Religion and Ethics, Professor Vanden Berg, a representative of the majority evangelical position, says that “the Bible’s pretty clear that when the end comes that’s the end. You don’t have a second chance.” She concedes that it is possible that God could offer a second chance if God wanted, but for her the bottom line is: “What does the Bible say? The biblical text doesn’t say that at all.” This is the bottom line for most evangelicals: What does the Bible actually say?

The question is: Can Rob Bell offer a sufficient enough biblical hermeneutic to justify his beliefs that will hold water within the evangelical community. I seriously doubt it. I predict that Rob Bell will become a fresh, new spokesperson for progressive Christianity. Much the way Brian McLaren started out within the evangelical tradition, but clearly is now a champion of progressive Christian beliefs and practices, I predict Rob Bell will, also, cross over. It’s inevitable.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Authentic Christian Reading of the Bible

It takes spiritual eyes to read the Bible in a healthy, transformative way. The Bible can be (and has been) employed as an instrument of oppression and evil, as well as an instrument of change and transformation. All Christians who debate public and faith issues among each other or in a public forum use Scripture to support their arguments. Whether the issues relate to sexual orientation, women pastors or deacons, the role of government, the right to wage war, the role of the military, divorce, the nature of Jesus, or the nature of judgment and salvation, Scripture is quoted and interpreted by all Christians engaged in the debate. The critical question concerns how we use Scripture, how we interpret the Bible, what framework and guiding principles we use to make sense of Scripture and apply it to our lives and communities.

Some years ago, I, along with three other pastors, tried to change the policy regarding women’s participation in an Eastern Kentucky Baptist Association of the Southern Baptist Convention. As the policy stood, women could not speak publicly to any issue up for a vote at the annual meeting. I spoke for the proposed amendment. I appealed to passages in the Gospels revealing how Jesus was egalitarian in his ministry and mission, calling women disciples. I talked about the social vision of God’s new creation expounded by Paul in Galatians—how “in Christ” all social, sexual, and racial barriers are abolished. I pointed to Scriptures demonstrating that women served as coworkers and partners with Paul in preaching and teaching the gospel.

Do you know what happened? Those who opposed the change quoted Scripture, too. They quoted 1 Cor. 14:34 that says women should be silent and subordinate in the church, and if they have anything to say they should ask their husbands at home. Someone asked, “What if they don’t have husbands?” They said, “They need to get husbands.” Then they quoted that troublesome text in 1 Timothy 2 that says women should be submissive and not teach in the presence of men, because Adam was created first and the woman was the one who was deceived by the serpent. It’s in the Bible, they said. And they were right. It’s in the Bible.

And what the Bible says, God says, right? I don’t know of any thing that has done more harm in and to the church than this simple equation: What the Bible says is equal to what God says. The direct identification of God’s Voice with what the Bible says has been used to justify all sorts of destructive biases and oppressive practices. Think of all the preachers who raise their voices declaring, “The Bible says . . .” assuming that this is what God says. The damage this has done is immense.

In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in the Gospels, Moses and Elijah (representatives of the Law and the Prophets) appear with Jesus (see Luke 9:28-36). But it is Jesus who alone is affirmed by the Divine Voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.” The Law and the Prophets find fulfillment in Jesus. Listen to Jesus, the Voice declares.

Here is the key to a holistic, healthy, and transformative Christian reading of the Bible. Jesus is the lens through which Christians see. A truly constructive, redemptive, and transformative Christian reading of Scripture filters our understanding of the biblical stories and writings through the ultimate story, the story of Jesus. This means that an authentic Christian reading of the Bible will always be tilted and biased toward the things that Jesus stood for—the love, forgiveness, compassion, and grace embodied in Jesus’ life, death, and vindication.

Monday, June 20, 2011

It's Not the Answers, but the Questions that Matter

In the little book of Habakkuk, the prophet faces a crisis of faith. It was a common belief among Habakkuk’s people that plagues and invasions from other nations were indicative of God’s displeasure or judgment. Undoubtedly, Habakkuk shares this belief to some degree. Most of us share the beliefs we are socialized into through family and culture.

The Babylonians are coming. They are a ruthless and violent people who worship might and power. They will sweep down and set their hooks and nets into the land and gather the people of Israel in like a fisherman gathers in his catch, to be used and disposed of at will (1:5–17).

The prophet cries to God, “We cry for help but you do not listen. We cry out for deliverance but you do not save. The wicked hem in the righteous so that justice is perverted” (1:2–4).

It’s a question of justice. How can it be, cries the prophet, that God would use a more wicked people to punish a less wicked people? Israel wasn’t innocent, but they were not as vicious and ruthless as the Chaldeans. This baffles the prophet and sends him into a quandary. The old theology, the standard answer no longer works.

I heard about a man traveling on a dinner flight who found an enormous roach on his salad. Back home he wrote a harsh letter to the president of the airline. A few days later he received a letter from the president explaining how that particular airplane had been fumigated and all the seats and upholstery stripped. There was even the suggestion that the aircraft would be taken out of service. The man was very impressed until he noticed that quite by accident the letter he had written had stuck to the president’s letter. On his letter there was a note that said, “Reply with the regular roach letter.”

For more and more Christians today, especially critically-thinking Christians, the old answers, the generic responses are no longer sufficient.

Unfortunately, there are still many Christian communities that try to smother the questions. Questions arise that either you are not encouraged to ask or perhaps not even allowed to ask. And when you do ask them, you are given short, simplistic explanations or the questions are dismissed or ignored as insignificant. Or even worse, you are condemned for your lack of faith or treated as a heretic for asking the questions.

For many Christians in faith communities across the country there are teachings that dare not be challenged and questions that dare not be asked. The old answers are supposed to be true because someone in authority says they are true. The answers usually are given as: “This is what the Bible says” or “God says . . .”

If the answers come from people we love and care about, like our parents, family members, faith community and friends in our social network, we may live with those answers for a long time, until they no longer work or make sense to us anymore.

Sometimes it takes an experience of unusual suffering or loss to jar us awake—the death of a love one, the breakup of a marriage, the loss of employment, a debilitating disease. Or it may come about, as it did in my faith journey, through a growing feeling or gnawing sense that the old answers are simply not true; that the “old time religion” is not spiritually healthy or personally transforming.

At some point in our faith journey it is necessary to find our beliefs/theology lacking. Otherwise, we would never question and grow. Healthy, holistic, and transformative spirituality is not about having the right answers; it’s about asking the right questions—better questions.