Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Heaven Is Now Before It Is Later

It seems to me a huge waste of time when religious people get caught up in the game of determining who goes where, when, and how, of separating the world into the chosen and the un-chosen, the lost and the saved, those going to heaven and those not.

I don’t want to suggest that those who believe such things are bad people. What I am saying is that it just seems to me to be an immense waste of energy and time.

I am confident that all our futures are in the hands of a merciful, gracious God, who is far more generous, forgiving, compassionate, patient, kind, and good than the best person any of us know.

This God, who I see beautifully embodied and made visible in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, will never abandon any of us, even in our worst moments—even when such moments makeup a lifetime.

It seems to me that our time could be more wisely invested in opening our lives to this gracious God right now. The Spirit wants to teach us how to love well, how to nurture healthy, caring, redemptive relationships with others. The Spirit wants us to participate with others in the common good, working for peace, restorative justice, and equitable economics, politics, and social relations. The Spirit cares about this world and the well-being of creation. The Spirit knows just what we need to overcome our negative habits, attachments, addictions, etc. and become more grateful, generous, and loving persons.

One of the reasons, I think, we like to play umpire in determining who’s safe or out (saved or lost) is because it takes our attention away from what is really important: learning how to love God with the totality of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Again, I don’t want to suggest that everyone who believes in separating the world between the saved and the lost are not concerned with matters of social justice, nonviolent peacemaking, and living compassionate lives. I know some conservative Christians who care about these things. A few are in my church. But it is interesting to observe how so few Christians in the church at large who are focused on issues of heaven and hell actually give themselves to the work of the common good and advocate for just, compassionate social policy.

Sometimes they even champion the opposite of the common good. A case in point: In my community a fairness ordinance is currently being considered by our City Commissioners that would extend equal rights and protection under the law to gays and lesbians who have historically been marginalized and disenfranchised. The most vocal group of opposition to this ordinance is a group of conservative Christians. I can’t figure out how any Christian can reconcile an anti-fairness position with the life of Jesus. Unless, of course, actually following Jesus is not that important.

I suspect that when one is totally focused on getting one’s doctrine right and getting people to believe it so they can be “saved,” one doesn’t have to be particularly concerned about actually doing what Jesus says or actually modeling his life. 

Imagine how much good Christians could do if we abandoned the practice of dividing the world between the saved and lost and concentrated on the truly important work of facing our own demons (we are all flawed, addicted, etc.) and learning how to love others with the love of Christ. Love is liberating, but it is also very hard work.

The Spirit is always calling us into the present, into the “now,” to participate in the flow of divine love, to taste and see that God is good—right now.

Heaven is now before it is later. Whatever heaven is in the future it is a continuation of life in God, with God, and for the good of all God’s creation. Sometimes heaven is right in the middle of hell.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Must I Do to Be Saved?

I mentioned in the opening sentence in my last blog that one of my favorite texts as an evangelical was Acts 16. It was a text I used in evangelizing. At that stage of my journey I had some very simplistic notions of salvation.

When the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” he wasn’t asking, as I thought then, how to go to heaven. He was asking, “What must I do to be made whole, to be healed, to be put right.” The word “saved” could be translated “to be made well, to be made whole, to be made complete.”

When Paul says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” what he is saying is: Trust in and be faithful to the Lord Jesus. Transfer your trust and allegiance from the Empire of Rome to the kingdom of God as embodied and lived by Jesus, whom God has made Lord. Paul is telling this Roman citizen to transfer his allegiance. He wasn’t saying, “Here’s this doctrine about Jesus you have to believe in order to go to heaven.” He was saying, “Rome is no longer your lord. Caesar is no longer your lord. Jesus is your Lord. Be faithful to Christ and you will experience true healing, you will be made whole, you will discover what it means to be fully human.”  

I think it is instructional to note how the slave-girl in the passage prior to the incident in the jail describes the message Paul and Silas were proclaiming: “These men are slaves of the Most High God who proclaim to you a way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Salvation is a “way” of life.

No one is made whole in an instant, no one is completely healed or restored to completeness in a moment, no one is totally converted or transformed through a single experience. It may well be a dramatic encounter with God that shifts our worldview and changes the direction of our lives. Certainly Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ set him on a new course that turned this persecutor of Christians into a propagator of the gospel of Christ. But that one experience didn’t completely transform him.

The interworking of divine grace and human responsibility may forever be a mystery, but there is no question that conversion requires effort, faith, discipline and the pursuit of love on our part. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells them:  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” – fear and trembling may mean something like “in awe and wonder,” or even “in trust and humility” (Phil. 2:12). In his correspondence with the church at Corinth, Paul says that the message of the cross is the power and wisdom of God “to those being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18). It’s not those who have been saved, but those being saved. It is a process.

The message of Christian salvation may be simple, but it is not simplistic, and I hope more Christians indoctrinated into simplistic explanations the way I was will recognize how such descriptions can breed real misunderstanding, false confidence, and arrogance.

Too many Christians think they are God’s chosen because they believe the right things. It’s hard to imagine why God would make belief the key to being saved. 

What we believe is important to the extent that it leads us to trust in God and be faithful to God’s loving will. God is not after correct beliefs—God can’t be that petty and small. God wants people who can experience and respond to God’s love and, in turn, love others. That’s pretty simple, but “working it out” requires the best of our humanity.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Power of Authentic God Experience

The conversion of the Roman jailer in Acts 16 was a favorite text of mine in my evangelical beginnings. What was it that compelled the jailer to become a follower of Jesus?

I hardly think it was the message itself. There is nothing in the text to suggest that the jailer’s conversion had anything to do with the reasonableness, truthfulness, logic, coherence, or appeal of the message itself.

What made the difference was the jailer’s experience of the message lived by Paul and Silas. It was the earthquake and what transpired afterward. Paul and Silas refused to flee. Had they fled the jailer would have been held accountable for their escape. It may have cost him his life. The jailer is emotionally, psychologically, and physically shaken. He comes trembling: “What must I do to be saved?” It was his experience that changed his perspective, that opened and readied him to receive the good news Paul proclaimed.

It has been fascinating to observe the cultural shift in perception and opinion in recent history with regard to gay marriage. When President Obama publicly endorsed gay marriage, he called it being on the right side of history. There has been a kind of historical shift. The question is: What prompted it?

Do you know what it is? Do you know why the tide has changed? Do you know what has changed peoples’ minds? People’s experiences. Some years ago, before there was a historical shift, a mother told me that when her son came to her and confessed that he was gay, she knew right then that this was not a choice, that her son was simply being true to who he was. That kind of experience is fueling the fire of change.

It’s not the theological, psychological, or social arguments, as important as they are. More sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors and loved ones are openly and publically acknowledging their same-sex orientation, and as a result, more and more people are seeing the issue through the lens of their experience. New experiences are changing people’s thinking.

For the jailer, it wasn’t the message itself that made the difference, it was his experience of the power of the message that he witnessed in the lives of Paul and Silas.

What do followers of Christ need to learn from this? As important as it is to articulate a transforming vision of discipleship to Jesus, it is even more important to live what we believe and embody what we say. As important as the contents of our message, how we live and validate the message through our experience is even more important.

Persuading people of the goodness, truth, and power of a life of discipleship to Jesus will take more than expounding on the reasonableness, logic, coherence, and beauty of the message itself – though, I certainly believe that the message we proclaim must be a good, beautiful, coherent, credible, compelling message. But that alone is not enough. The message must be lived, fleshed out, incarnated, and validated through our experience.

When Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, he also came healing, restoring well-being, and welcoming all manner of sinners. The power and truthfulness of the message of the kingdom was confirmed in the many experiences of people, as Jesus made people whole and radically welcomed and accepted them through the practice of table fellowship. He lived and demonstrated the message.

When the good news of God’s love expressed through Christ is validated through our life experiences, it demonstrates the power of the good news to incite hope, to bring about a new sense of identity and belonging, to make persons, families, and communities whole.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Most Important Word in the English Language

Richard Rohr says that we grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.  He also observes that people who consider themselves to be morally superior are often the last to learn this. The demand for the perfect is often the greatest enemy of the good.

Brennan Manning tells a wonderful story from India about a water bearer who had two large pots. Each pot hung on opposite ends of a pole that he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it. So while one pot always delivered a full portion of water after the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishment, but the pot that was cracked was disappointed and ashamed. After two years of this the cracked pot said to the water bearer, “I am ashamed of myself and want to apologize for my failure.” The water bearer responded, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” 

When they arrived at the end of the trail, the water bearer said, “Did you notice that the wild flowers were only on your side of the path. That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I planted flower seeds on your side of the trail, so that every day, as we walked back from the stream, you have watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, we would not have had this beauty to grace the trail and flowers to grace the master’s house.”

We are all wounded, broken, and cracked. God dwells in and works through human imperfection and weakness. People who have spent their lives wearing disguises and protecting their egos fight this. They invest heavily to keep up appearances, so much so that they often end up believing their own lies. Have you noticed in the Gospels that Jesus’ harshest words are reserved for the self-righteous, those who are secure in and proud of their self-professed spiritual superiority?   

We grow spiritually by dealing with our imperfection and brokenness in healthy, redemptive ways. We all have our demons. The worst thing we can do is deny them because of some high and holy quest for perfection or out of a need to appear righteous or holy or superior.

In the film Silver Linings Playbook there is a scene where Pat faces his brother, who never came to visit him when he was in the hospital in Baltimore dealing with his bi-polar disorder. His brother apologizes for not coming; he tells Pat that those places “creep him out.” His excuse is that he has been busy helping his father with the restaurant and dealing with his own stuff. He tells Pat that he is going to make partner at his firm. He says, “I don’t know what to say to you anymore. You lost your wife; I am getting engaged. I want to be able to tell you about these kinds of things. You lost your house; I’m getting a new house. You lost your job; things are going great for me at the firm.” This guy is clueless.

At this point their father interrupts and says to Pat’s brother: “Stop talking about all the stuff that’s good for you and bad for him. Leave it alone.” His brother says, “I am just goin’ to stop talking; I’m just goin’ to shut my mouth.”

There’s a long pause as Pat stares at his brother. He has every right to be upset, but then he says: “As my friend Danny would say, ‘I’ve got nothing but love for you, brother.’” He hugs his brother and the conversation resumes.

A few sentences later Pat says, “People like Tiffany or Danny or me [These are people who have had to face the consequences of their addictions and problems; they have all been in some tough places]. Maybe we know something that you don’t. Maybe we understand something that you don’t.”

What they understand is that there is no real spiritual growth until we face our spiritual poverty and destitution. It is by doing it wrong that we learn to do it right. But there is a catch: We have to confront our demons. We have to acknowledge our addictions, our negative patterns, our faults. We have to be honest and truthful, and find the inner strength and courage to deal with our failures and admit we did it wrong.

The most important word in the English language is “Help.” It’s not easy to say. We have to swallow our pride and admit we need it. It opens a door to our heart and provides a way through all the defense mechanisms, illusions, deceptions, and appearances we have employed to hide our humanity. 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Not as the World Gives

Jesus says to his disciples in his farewell discourse in John’s Gospel, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and not let them be afraid” (14:27). This bestowal of peace occurs in a context where Jesus promises the gift of the Holy Spirit (14:26). The Johannine community (the church/community out of which the Gospel of John emerged and to whom it was primarily written) clearly associated God’s gift of peace with God’s loving, dynamic presence.

On our part, the gift of God’s peace is inseparably connected to our capacity to trust in the provision and sufficiency of God’s loving presence. The phrase in our passage where Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid,” recalls an earlier statement by Jesus at the beginning of this chapter, where he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me” (14:1). Can we trust in the provision of God’s love? Can we believe that God loves us and makes his/her home in/with/among us, no matter what?

Ethicist John Kavanaugh spent three months “at the house of the dying” in Calcutta. At the time he was seeking a clear answer as to how to best spend the rest of his life. On the first morning there he met Mother Teresa. She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked. He said, “Pray that I have clarity.” She firmly retorted, “No, I will do that.” Of course he wanted to know why. She answered, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go.” When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

Can we trust God’s love? Can we trust that we are loved by God unconditionally and eternally? Can we firmly anchor our identity — “who we are and how we see ourselves”—in God’s love?

God’s peace is not subject to human forces. If we are secure in God’s love for us, we can still have peace even when we become the target of criticism or the projected fears and anxieties of others. We can still have peace, even when we become the object of malicious attack or are betrayed and abandoned the way Jesus was by his closest friends. God’s peace can endure all of that. 

When we trust securely in God’s unconditional love, we will not be manipulated or influenced by human opinion. So often the ego inflates or deflates on the basis of human approval or disapproval. We allow outside influences and cultural forces to affect our sense of self-worth. We have a tendency to be up or down on the basis of whether we are blamed or praised, accepted or rejected, adored or condemned.

As we learn to rest and trust in the Divine Love that calls us the beloved and names us as sons and daughters of God, we can become so firmly anchored in the Divine Presence and acceptance that the waves of human criticism and condemnation will not drown us. They may tear at us and we will feel the wear, but we will still be anchored in the larger story of God’s love and purpose for our lives.

As we grow in God’s love and peace, we may even get to the place where we can give ourselves to others without expecting or needing anything in return.

As I have written before, I’m not suggesting in any way that one remain in a place of victimization or dysfunction. But I am saying that when we know that we are fully received by God, that we are God’s chosen, then we will be able to give ourselves more fully to others, without having to be acknowledged for it.

If we are dependent upon others, in hope that they will give us the love we need, if we try to get from others what only God can give us, then we could well be setting ourselves up for a lot of disappointment, frustration, and growing resentment. When we give ourselves to others more out of our own need for love, then our giving can easily become manipulative and even coercive.

But when we learn to rest in God’s presence and trust in God’s love, knowing that we are received and cherished by God, then we can give to others according to their capacity to receive and we can also receive from others according to their capacity to give. We can flow with the river, and will have no need to push the river or fight the river.  

The more deeply we can rest in God’s acceptance and love, the more freely we will be able to give “generously and ungrudgingly” the way God gives (James 1:5), without any sense of superiority or pride or need to be acknowledged for our generosity. At the same time, we will be able to receive gladly and gratefully from others without any sense of being short-changed or any sense of indebtedness. Maybe you have noticed that some people appear to be good givers, but not good receivers; maybe you are one of them. I tend to be. By trusting in God’s love, by allowing God to dwell in our hearts, we learn what it means to freely give and freely receive.

To love deeply means that we will hurt deeply, we will feel the pain of others and make it our pain. Loving the way God loves makes us vulnerable. Relationships will be very important to us, so when those relationships are broken we will feel the pain of that brokenness deeply. But when we trust in God’s love, we allow the pain we feel to connect us to the pain and suffering of the world, and in the largeness of God’s Story and God’s Spirit we find peace.

When we look for peace exclusively in the world, when we try to find peace in a job or career, in a marriage, in our families, in a church, in a religious or political movement, in a relationship, in a dream, or some sought after experience, we are going to be disappointed and frustrated. I am not suggesting that these things are unimportant; they obviously have varying degrees of importance in our lives. But all these things are unpredictable. When we rest and trust in God’s loving acceptance and presence, we are connected to the eternal source of love and life who can give us a peace that passes understanding and who can sustain us when all the other things in our lives are not going well.