Monday, January 30, 2012

Openness to a Larger Vision

In The Last Battle, the final volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, there is a delightful scene toward the end of the story. A group of dwarfs sit huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable when in reality they are out in the midst of an endless grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Lucy, the most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, feels compassion for them. She tries to reason with them. Then frustrated, she cries, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers!” But all they can see is pitch black darkness. 

Aslan, the Christ figure, is there with them, but they can’t see him. When Aslan offers them the finest food, they think they are eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. When he offers them the choicest wine, they mistake it for ditch water. 

How did the Dwarfs become so blind? The dwarfs had refused to join the Narnians in their battle against evil. But they didn’t actually join the other side either. Their one constant refrain was: the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs. They lived by that mantra. 

That, I think, could pass for the philosophy of our age. We tend to live for “me” and “mine”—our group, our tribe, our party, our nation. This pervades our politics, our economics, our society at all levels, even our Christianity. Many politicians don’t even try to conceal their true motives these days. They just state openly that their number one goal is to defeat the other side. There is little interest in the common good and empowering the disadvantaged. This is true for many of our religious leaders as well. The highly popular Christian leaders in our nation talk mainly about self-fulfillment, keys to success (American style), living a happy life, or the afterlife. This is why it is so remarkable today when someone actually breaks away from party lines to say or do what he or she thinks is right for the common good and what is morally just and compassionate. It’s remarkable because it’s so rare. And it usually means vocational suicide. 

In John 1, Philip tells Nathaniel he has discovered Israel’s Messiah—Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph. Nathaniel remarks, “Can anything good come out of a despised little town like Nazareth?” I’m sure this prejudice against Nazareth was part of Nathaniel’s upbringing and heritage. Philip does not argue, but says, “Come and see.” Take an honest look. Remarkably, Nathaniel is open, honest, and receptive enough to set aside his bias and discover the truth (see John 1:43–51). 

I wonder how many of us are blind to truth and do not actually know God (though we may think we do), because we are unwilling to question our biases and assumptions. I wonder how often we miss what God is doing, because we keep chanting the mantra of our particular group or tribe, unwilling to consider how God may be at work in other communities and faith traditions. 

Can we become humble, open, honest, and receptive enough to see God’s dream for the world and hear God’s voice in the present circumstances of our lives? Can we admit that God is much larger than our little creeds and confessions (as important as these may be to our own faith)? Can we acknowledge that God’s love is much greater than what we are capable of? Our capacity today to respond to God’s Spirit and participate in God’s work is vitally connected to our humility and openness to a larger vision of what God is doing in the world.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Three Characteristics of Transformational Christianity

I believe there are three foundational characteristics of transformative Christianity. One is inclusiveness. Christianity that is unhealthy and toxic (and can be destructive and deadly) is always dualistic. It divides the world between “us” and “them.” Obviously, in order to explain one’s own faith or position some differentiation and categorization is necessary, but this is vastly different than saying that only members of one’s group or faith possess the truth or are accepted by God. 

Inclusive Christianity does not believe that all roads lead to God or that all beliefs are equally valid. But it does contend that God will travel many different roads to get to us, and that truth is truth wherever it may be found. 

The basic difference is this: Christians entrenched within exclusive Christianity insist that those outside their group must believe what they believe or relate to God the way they relate to God in order to become God’s children. Inclusive Christianity begins with the core belief that all people are already children of God. It’s all grace—radical, unconditional grace. It’s not that some are chosen and others are not. We are all chosen.  For example, the best of the Hebrew tradition says that God chose Israel, not because God loved them more or they were more special than others, but in order to communicate that “chosenness” to the rest of the world. So that through the seed of Abraham all the peoples of the world would be blessed. This was at the heart of the Abrahamic covenant (see Gen. 12:1–3). And it is at the heart of inclusive Christian faith. 

A second key characteristic of transformative Christianity is compassion. Compassion is both a feeling and a way of being that flows out of that feeling. In the English etymology, “passion” comes from the Latin word that means “to feel,” and the prefix “com-” means “with.” Compassion means, “to feel with.” To show compassion is to feel the hurt or pain of someone else and then, on the basis of that feeling, to act on that person’s behalf. It includes the twin capacity to participate in both the suffering and the healing of someone else. Transformative Christianity looks to Jesus as the embodiment of what it means to be compassionate. 

The third characteristic is conversion. Transformative Christianity results in real life change. Salvation is not merely about the afterlife, nor is it about some cosmic, judicial transaction that occurs when one believes certain things about Jesus. (Why would God care so much about specific beliefs anyway? None of our beliefs can capture the whole reality of God.) 

Conversion is about becoming who we already are (children of God) and learning how to live as God’s children in the world. It’s about becoming persons and communities that exude integrity, humility, forgiveness, and compassion. It’s about learning how to love—how to love one another in the church (the faith community) and those outside the church, accepting everyone as God’s child. In fact, the writer of 1 John argues that this is how we demonstrate our love for God, namely, by the way we love one another (see 1 John 3:11–20; 4:7–21). 

Transformative Christianity is not about emotional worship services that leave everyone feeling good. It has nothing to do with how many religious activities the church offers, or how many people are attending, or how large the church budget is. It has nothing to do with the American trappings of success. It has everything to do with how well we love, care for, serve, and uplift one another. Christians learn how to love through their discipleship to Jesus. Therefore, discipleship to Christ (being an apprentice of Christ) is at the very heart of the Christian gospel.