Monday, January 27, 2014

Being a Martin Luther King, Jr. Kind of Christian (A Sermon)

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

The one thing that almost all theologians, biblical scholars, and historians agree on when it comes to Jesus is that the kingdom of God was foundational to his mission and ministry. It is front and center, it is at the heart and core of his life and work.

A second thing that there is broad consensus on is that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God he is talking about what God is doing or wants to do in this world, on this earth, with this creation, not some other world, not a heavenly world. That does not mean that Jesus did not believe in a heavenly world, I think it is fairly conclusive that he did, but when Jesus taught or preached the kingdom of God he was talking about God’s will being done on earth. As Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer puts it: your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The second line is an elaboration, extension, and clarification of the first line. The coming of the kingdom is about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

In Matthew’s Gospel it is interesting to note that in a number of places the author changes the phrase “kingdom of God” to “kingdom of heaven.” Many Christians read this and think that Jesus is talking about life with God in heaven, life in a different world. What they do not realize is that it was common among Jews in that day to substitute the word heaven for God out of reverence for God’s name. It may be, too, that Matthew uses the term “heaven” to emphasize that it is heaven’s rule coming to earth as emphasized in the model prayer. So the phrase “kingdom of heaven” means basically the same thing as the phrase “kingdom of God.”

The focus then, is on the rule of God in this world, the will of God being realized on this earth in our lives and relationships, in the structures, systems, organizations, and institutions of society, and in all creation. The kingdom of God is ultimately about the health and well-being of the whole planet. 

It is also important to understand that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God/heaven he talks about it as if it is both a present and future reality. Sometimes the focus is on the future, where kingdom of God is a future hope that is yet to be realized. Other times Jesus talks about it in the present tense, the emphasis being on the rule of God in the here and now, but not it any final or complete sense, not fully. It is present now as a foreshadowing and preview of what is to come.

A most helpful passage is found in Matthew 12, where Jesus is accused by some religious authorities of casting out evil spirits by the power of the evil one. Jesus responds by pointing out that no kingdom, no city or house divided against itself can stand and if Satan casts out Satan his kingdom cannot endure. Then Jesus says, “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt 12:28).

The transforming power of God’s kingdom/rule was present in Jesus as he went about healing and liberating people from oppression. For Christians, Jesus is the incarnation, the embodiment, the visible manifestation of what the rule or will of God is like.

We participate in the realization of God’s rule/will on earth when we embody the life, spirit, and teachings of Jesus, and when we conform  to his pastern of death and resurrection. As we live as disciples of Jesus, sharing his passion and work, his love of God and neighbor, his preference for the poor and the marginalized, his commitment to peace and justice, dying to the false self so the true self can flourish, as we assimilate his teachings and emulate his life and walk in his Spirit, we participate in the forming and shaping of God’s just world, God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus makes visible and tangible what a transformed individual and a transformed society might look like. This is the context for his call to repentance and to discipleship. Jesus in essence says, “Repent and share in God’s rule on earth that is now accessible to you.”

The call to repent that comes to us at this moment in history, right now, is a call to change the direction of our lives. Instead of living for self-honor, or self-glory, or self-fulfillment, we decide to live for the rule and will of God, we decide to love God and love neighbor and work for a just world. The call to repent and be a disciple of Jesus is a call to change our commitments and priorities so that life becomes centered in and oriented around God’s rule and will on earth that was fleshed out in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

* * * * * * * *

This is not how I first encountered the invitation to repentance, and I suspect this is true for many of you. The preachers that I first heard issue a call to repent got their cue more from John the Baptist than Jesus. It was more “you are going to get yours if you don’t” than a call to experience great love. It was more about fear and avoiding doom than learning how to love and being transformed.

I am reminded of the parrot that had a horrible attitude and an even worse vocabulary. This was one fowl with an extremely foul mouth. The owner did everything he knew to do to get the bird to change, but the bird continued to squawk profanities and curses upon everyone in the home.

One day the owner lost his temper. In a rush of anger and in order to get some peace and quiet, he grabbed the parrot and tossed him into the freezer. The parrot continued his barrage of bad language for a while, but then fell suddenly silent.

The owner became concerned. He didn’t want to hurt the bird, just teach it a lesson. When he opened the freezer door, the bird, with ice on its wings came inching its way out. The bird was slow to speak. Finally, still shivering, the bird said, “First, I repent. Second, what in God’s name did that Turkey do?”

Fear of retribution may motivate us to modify our behavior, but fear of punishment cannot redeem us at the core of our being. This is why one biblical writer says, “mature love casts out all fear.” It is not the fear of retribution, but the hope of redemption that is transforming. If somewhere along the path we do not fall in love with God and find Jesus’ vision of a just world - a world made right -compelling, we will not be truly changed. We might become religious, we might alter certain behaviors, we might join a church and become part of a faith community, but until we fall in love with God and learn how to truly love others, we will not be transformed.

One of the reasons I am so passionate about doing what I can in our little corner of the world to challenge traditional Christian teachings and offer a renewed vision is because I am convinced that large segments of Christendom, that much of the church at large, teaches and emphasizes things that will not transform anyone. Why do I believe this? Well, the evidence is in isn’t it?

* * * * * * * *

Last week we honored Martin Luther King Jr. who was a modern sage and prophet committed to a just world, and yet how many Christians sat silently on the sidelines or even actively opposed his work. I urge you to read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It is his response to white clergy who called his direct nonviolent social activism “unwise and untimely.” It is a long letter. My copy is 10 pages of single space type. Everyone should read it.

He wrote, “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern. I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unbiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

King talked about looking at the South’s massive buildings and structures built for worship and Christian education and wondering what kind of people worship there. He wondered where their voices were when George Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred. King wrote, “I have wept over the laxity of the church.” King acknowledged how much he loved the church, “but oh!” he wrote, “How we have blemished and scarred the body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”

King declared, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

He asked, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” “Perhaps,” wrote King, “I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, the true ekklesia and hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom.”

* * * * * * * *

The call issued by Jesus to repentance and discipleship is a call to be partners with Jesus and with the sages and prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. and with everyday people anywhere who are committed to a nonviolent, peaceable, equitable, grace-filled, inclusive, and just world. But is this gospel of the kingdom as taught and fleshed out by Jesus of Narareth the gospel that is preached in most churches? I don’t think so.

Soren Kierkegaard told a parable about a coveted jewel resting on thin ice at the middle of a lake with many skaters skating near the shore. Though everyone desired the costly jewel, no one was willing to take the risk of skating out on the thin ice to acquire it. The more they skated on the shoreline where the ice was thick, the less they thought about the priceless jewel out in the middle. And the more they skated on the shoreline, the more impressed they became with their skating. Eventually, they forgot all about the jewel, and became enamored with all their whirling and dancing and skillful skating along the shore. Kierkegaard thought this an apt portrait of the church and it’s avoidance of the risky call of discipleship.

Isn’t it true? What is Christendom most occupied with today? Worship styles, feel good preaching and music, success, buildings, doctrine, heaven when we die, who’s in control and who can do what, what kind of fun programs we have for the kids, and the list goes on. Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that these things don’t have a place, that they don’t have value. But there value is based on the degree to which these things further the kingdom of God on earth, otherwise, all these activities are like skating on the shoreline.

The jewel in the middle of the lake that we have forgotten about is the kingdom of God. It is the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field. Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God.”

Is it risky and dangerous skating out there on thin ice? You bet. Just ask Martin Luther King Jr. Ask Jesus who ended up on a cross. Ask any of the prophets who protested injustice or dreamed of a new world. The very phrase used by Jesus, “the kingdom of God” was subversive. Under Roman rule there could be only one kingdom, one empire, and that was Caesar’s. Jesus was doomed from the beginning.

The early disciples of Jesus knew this. They took Jesus’ life and teachings seriously. They accepted the risk and the danger. And they were willing to take up their crosses and fall in line behind him.

What has happened? Where did we go awry? How did we become so sidetracked? I guess the major turning point that inflicted the most damage on authentic discipleship was when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. Empire and church took up residence together. Empire and church scratched each other’s back. Actually, the church became the tool the empire employed to execute the empire’s agenda, and civil religion was born. Sound familiar.

* * * * * * *

The narration of the call of the first disciples in Matthew’s version emphasizes the authority of the one who issues the call and the radical nature of the call itself. These disciples respond “immediately” Matthew says and leave everything behind. If they had given it much thought they probably wouldn’t have said “yes.” After all we are talking about the kingdom of God, about investing in and pursuing an alternative world, a world that defies empire and challenges all the powerful ism’s of empire – like sexism, racism, militarism, materialism, elitism, nationalism, and exceptionalism.

If you are going to pursue this kingdom then you have to be ready to leave everything else behind. When I read this story of the call of the disciples I can’t help but feel sorry for poor old Zebedee sitting in the boat having to carry on the family business without his family.

Spiritual writer Suzanne Guthrie has observed that in Duccio’s 14th century painting, “The Calling of Peter and Andrew” Jesus stands against an iconic mountain on the land, calling to the two disciples in the boat upon the water against a blank, golden sky. She noted how the painting does not reflect reality. There are no swarming seagulls, no women and vendors waiting impatiently on shore, no old men watching in the distance, no children running around or stray dogs looking for scraps. It’s just Jesus and the two in the boat, just like in Matthew’s Gospel. So as we are drawn into the scene there is nothing to distract us from the authority of the one calling “follow me,” and from the radical nature of the call itself.

That call is being issued today, to us, to you and me, not by the Jesus on the seashore, but by the living Christ - right here - in this place - with us. And as best as I can tell, the call today is not simply to be a Christian, that’s too easy; but it is a call to be a certain kind of Christian.

Follow me, Jesus says, and learn from me how to live fully within the rule of God and gather people into a just world. Follow me, says Christ, and discover what it means to be fully human. 

But I have to warn you. It means now what it meant then. It means defying empire. It means dreaming new dreams. It means pursuing an alternative world. It means standing with the marginalized and the demonized. It means forgiving and loving enemies and working for peace and justice. It means being a Martin Luther King, Jr. kind of Christian.

* * * * * * * *

Gracious God, forgive us for spending so very many hours skating along the shore, engaged in contests to decide who skates the best, all the while the priceless treasure goes unnoticed and unsought. May we hear and heed your call to repentance and discipleship, to center our lives in, on, and around your rule/will on earth. May we join Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others we know not by name who have given themselves wholeheartedly and sacrificially to your cause. Amen. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

When Is Sharing Our Faith Appropriate?

When it comes to faith sharing there are two poles. At one end of the spectrum is the witness who is absolutely sure of himself. He is anchored in certitudes and has the truth nailed down. You want answers, he has them. He is bold and brass, if not arrogant and obtrusive. Most people who would read this article are embarrassed by this kind of Christian witness.

At the other end is the Christian who is very hesitant to saying anything at all about her faith. “It is the life I live that matters,” she says, which, of course, is true, but shouldn’t disciples of Jesus want to say something about Jesus, in whom and through whom they have found a transformative path?

We don’t want to be obtrusive or offensive, and we certainly don’t want to be identified with the Bible thumpers who use Scripture as a weapon. So many of us in the progressive camp tend to be silent.

Will Willimon who teaches at Duke Divinity School and was a former UMC Bishop, in a recent piece for The Christian Century tells about helping out at a soup kitchen. The local missionary directing the work told Willimon and his co-workers, “Keep your church talk to yourself. We’re here to help people in need.” I can understand what he would say that. He probably had to deal with his share of Bible thumpers.

Willimon in his cynical kind of way assured him that he had nothing to fear, because “we mainline Protestants would rather hand out a bowl of soup than risk telling someone the truth. It’s less disruptive than to testify to that person that we wouldn’t be serving him or her if Jesus had not put us here.”

I don’t think progressives fear being disruptive, but we do fear being disruptive in the wrong kind of way. My contention is that there is a time and place to share our faith, particularly in the context of relationships.

Greg Carey who teaches New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, said recently in an article for the Huffington Post that he can’t recall ever meeting a person who reasoned his or her way to faith. He hails the work that theological and pastoral apologists do promoting Christianity by means of rational arguments. Their writings help readers imagine faith in more reasonable ways, which is what I try to do in my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls).  But such writings are most helpful to people who are already Christians; they help them develop a more reasonable faith. And faith should be reasonable— not provable, not without mystery and paradox, but reasonable. Christian faith should resonate with common sense and align with what we know in our hearts to be true. But rarely is one introduced into Christian faith by reason alone.

The Gospel text of John 1:29–42 speaks to the importance of sharing our faith in the context of relationships.

The text begins with John the Baptist introducing two of his disciples to Jesus. John has a very different function in John’s Gospel than in the Synoptics. He does not preach and perform a baptism of repentance as he does in all three of the Synoptics, nor does he denounce the religious establishment and pronounce imminent judgment as he does in Matthew and Luke. In John’s Gospel he is simply a voice crying in the wilderness with one purpose: to bear witness to Jesus. “He came as a witness to testify to the light . . . He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:8). That was John’s function: to bear witness to the light.

The true light, says the Gospel, “enlightens everyone” (1:9), but we need people who have seen and experienced the light to bear witness to the light in order to validate the light and point others to the light.

When two of John’s disciples hear him bearing witness to the light they follow Jesus. When Jesus sees them following, he turns and asks, “What are you looking for?” This is a question loaded with meaning.

What is true of all Scripture is quite obvious in John’s Gospel—namely, words, phrases, and ideas have double or even multiple meanings. The literal meaning is generally the lowest level of meaning in spiritual texts.  

The question, “What are you looking for?” is intended to be understood on a deeper existential and spiritual level. What are we all looking for? Meaning, purpose, love, a sense of belonging, significant relationships? Or maybe we’ve turned down a less noble path in quest of prestige, power, or a life of luxury. It’s a probing question that seeks to uncover our hidden motives, desires, and dreams. What do we really want in life?

They ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” The word for staying in the Greek is the same word used in other places for discipleship. For example, it is used in John 15:4 where the Gospel writer develops the imagery of the grapevine to talk about discipleship. In that passage Jesus says, “Abide in me (stay, dwell, remain) in me, as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides (stays) in the vine, neither can you unless you abide (stay) in me.”

The spiritual and existential question here is, “Where do you derive your source of meaning, strength, and courage. From what source do your draw your energy, vitality, and passion?

We might ask ourselves: Do we live our lives as disciples of Jesus in such a way that others might be curious about where our passion and commitment to truth, goodness, beauty, and justice comes from?

Jesus responds by saying, “Come and see.” In John’s Gospel “coming to Jesus” is a phrase that describes faith. “Seeing” is always seeing with spiritual perception and discernment; seeing things as they really are, not as we are with all our cultural conditioning and socialized biases.

Jesus is inviting them into relationship, to abide with him and learn from him what a deep, authentic relationship and friendship with God feels like, looks like, and is like.

As disciples of Jesus we need to learn how to say in creative ways to others, “Come and See.” Come walk with us, journey with us, stay with us, and see if the way of Jesus embodies what is good and true. Come and see if the truth in the path of Jesus does not align with your deepest self?

We learn what faith is by walking with the faithful who embody the light of Christ. They often become our mentors and we learn much from them.  

Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus. When Jesus sees Simon he says, “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” Both the Aramaic and the Greek mean “Rock.” Jesus gives Peter a nickname. Clarence Jordan in his cotton patch version calls him Rock. The renaming is a reflection of what Jesus envisions Peter becoming through his mentorship (his discipleship to Jesus). Jesus is saying: You are Peter—impetuous, brass, arrogant, quickly agitated, prone to failure, but you will become a rock—rock-like in character and faithfulness in my kingdom.

This is what mentors do for us. They bring out our best. They are instrumental in shaping us. We learn how to be real, true, and good through our relationship with them.

In the movie 42, The Jackie Robinson Story, Branch Rickey plays this role. He frequently encourages and empowers Jackie. When Branch Rickey first called Jackie in and invited him to be part of their organization, he was forthright and upfront about the kind of abuse that would be heaped upon him. Jackie’s first response was: “Do you want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”

Branch Rickey answered, “No, I want a player that has the guts not to fight back. People aren’t going to like this. They’re going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they will hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they will say the Negro lost his temper, that the Negro doesn’t belong. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground. We win with hitting, running, fielding. We win if the world is convinced of two things, that you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player. Like our Savior, you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”

Rickey was issuing a call, dare we say, a divine call? Jackie responded, “You give me a uniform. You give me a number on my back. And I’ll give you the guts.”

In one scene, Jackie almost gives in to the desire to fight back. He retreats inside the doorway to the locker room in Philadelphia; he smashes his bat against the wall. Rickey meets him there. Rickey tells Jackie that he can’t fight, he can’t quit, there are too many people who believe in him and respect him.

Jackie asks Rickey if he knows what its like. Rickey says, “No, you’re the one. You’re the one living in the wilderness—40 days—all of it, only you.”

Jackie retorts, “There’s not a thing I can do about it.” Rickie declares, “Of course there is, you can get out there and hit and get on base and score. You can win the game for us. Everybody needs you. You are medicine, Jack.”

As the Dodgers take the field, Rickey puts his arm around Jackie and asks, “Who is playing first?” Jackie replies, “I’m going to need a new bat.” He goes back onto the field and ends up scoring the winning run.

We need people in our lives who believe in us, and we need to be such people for others, finding ways to tell them and assure them that we believe in them. It is in the context of these kinds of relationships that children of God are empowered to become who they are. 

We might ask ourselves: In what ways do I need to be more intentional in inviting others—family members, friends, co-workers—to come and see? How might I wet their appetite for the light made visible in Jesus of Nazareth? What can I do to invite others to discover the beauty, power, goodness, and love I have discovered by walking in the way of Jesus and being part of his faith community?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Deep Knowing

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16–17).

The baptism of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels is more of a theological proclamation by the Gospel writers about Jesus, than it is a historical recollection or narration of an actual event. The heavenly voice echoes a combination of Ps. 2:7 and Isa. 42:1. Jesus is hereby proclaimed at the very beginning of his ministry as the Son of God who is God’s agent of redemption in the world and the Servant of God who is faithful to God’s will and cause.

And yet, I think that the imagery used to describe what Jesus saw and heard echoes the kind of deep spiritual experiences Jesus must have frequently had. The symbolism of the heavens opening and the Spirit descending and the Voice proclaiming Jesus to be God’s beloved Son and Servant reflects something deep and true that is available to all of us who are open and receptive to God’s workings.

The experience of hearing the voice of the Spirit calling us a beloved son or daughter and servant of God (bringing together identity and vocation) maybe the most important spiritual experience we can have.

In one of Dr. Howard Thurman’s trips to India, a little boy from a nearby village heard the famous American minister share his faith. Later that night, there was a knock at the door where Dr. Thurman was staying. It was this little boy. His clothing immediately identified him as an untouchable. The caste system in India locked one in to the class one was born in so that there was no real possibility for any other kind of life. In fairly good English the boy said, “I stood outside and listened to your talk. Tell me, please, can you give hope to a nobody.”

When we are receptive to the divine Spirit who lives within each of us, when we hear the Spirit’s voice, the first and most important thing the Spirit says is what the Voice says to Jesus at his baptism, “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.” In God’s eyes and from God’s point of view, there are no nobody’s, just somebody’s—God’s beloved daughters and sons.

This spiritual experience lies at the heart and core of all authentic spirituality. Paul spoke of this experience in his letter to the Romans when he said: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15).

The reference to God as Abba is a warm, intimate expression that was popularized by Jesus. It was Jesus’ way of addressing God, which undoubtedly reflected his own rich, full experience of the divine Compassion and Love.

As soon as the Divine Voice pronounces Jesus to be the Beloved Son and Servant of God, the Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he confronts the tempter. The first words of the tempter are, “If you are the Son of God . . .” Didn’t the Divine Voice just proclaim him as such? Did he really hear the Voice? Is it really true?  

When we feel connected to and at one with the Divine Spirit who speaks to our human spirit, then we know this to be true, we intuitively, instinctively, and subjectively know this—that we are God’s beloved child, called to a high vocation of service in the kingdom of God.

But when our calling and responsibilities as God’s redemptive agents and servants take us into the wilderness, or when the events and circumstances of our lives thrust us into the wilderness, we are soon confronted with other voices, we face the tempter telling us that we are nobody’s, that we are unworthy, that we are not good enough or capable enough.

Or the voices may tell us that we deserve more, that we need to grab the gusto while we can. The tempter may entice us to pursue our own glory, to acquire accolades and honors.  “Haven’t you worked hard for these? Don’t you deserve them?” the tempter whispers.  

When we read of Jesus withdrawing from the crowds and retreating into solitude, we see a rhythm in Jesus’ life, a rhythm of ministry and prayer, of service and  solitude, of engagement and withdrawal. I suspect that amidst the clamoring voices, Jesus needed to be in silence and solitude to hear the Divine Voice affirming him as God’s Beloved and giving him discernment for his work.

If Jesus needed this, how much more do we?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Becoming Who We Are

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:12)

Living a spiritual life is about becoming who we already are. Our destiny is to realize and fulfill our place and purpose as children of God. According to John’s Gospel, Christ followers discover the power to become who they are by “believing in the name” of the one who is light and life, the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

Christian believing is never simply about assenting to doctrine, it’s about trust in and faithfulness to the way of Jesus. As we embody the way of Jesus, as we experience and express in our lives and relationships the light and life, the grace and truth that Jesus is, we become who we are. This is the Christian path toward becoming who we are. There are other paths, but this is ours.

John’s Gospel says that from the fullness of the Word made flesh we have received “grace upon grace,” or “grace in exchange for grace” (perhaps a better translation). Like a child dipping his sand bucket into the ocean, there is no chance of it drying up. The reservoir of divine grace is endless. Our part is to tap into and draw from that divine source.

According to a Greek legend, Helen of Troy was kidnapped and whisked across the seas to a distant city where she suffered from amnesia. In time she escaped from her captors and became a prostitute on the streets. Back in her homeland, her friends refused to give up on her. 

One admiring adventurer who never lost faith set out on a journey to find her and bring her back. One day as he was wandering through the streets of a strange city he came across a prostitute who looked strangely familiar. When asked she responded with a name that he didn’t know. Then he asked if he could see her hands. He knew the lines of Helen’s hands.

When he looked at her hands and realized who it was he exclaimed, “You are Helen! You are Helen of Troy!” “Helen” she whispered. When she spoke her name, her true name, the fog began to clear and a sense of recognition registered on her face. She discovered her lost self. Immediately she discarded her old clothes and old life and became the queen she was called to be.

When it dawns upon our consciousness who we really are in our true self, then we can begin the process of putting off our old clothes and putting on some new ones. We can embark upon the journey of discovering our true self and becoming who we are.

Claiming our chosenness, becoming who we are, means that we refuse to allow anyone else—family, friends, co-workers, no one—to define and determine who we are. We may need to remind ourselves of who we are every day or maybe even every hour. This means listening to the Spirit’s voice and being in touch with our deepest and truest self.

The more we become who we are, the less calculating and self-serving we become. Becoming who we are requires us to make something other than ourselves the center of our lives. No longer are we driven by a need to compare and compete for worthiness. Keeping score becomes pointless.

We become more inclusive. Because our chosenness is rooted in divine love and grace, the realization of our chosenness leads to our awareness that everyone else is chosen too. We realize that everyone is unique and has eternal value, that we are all connected, we all belong, we are all part of the beautiful mosaic God is creating.

The more we realize that we have been blessed “with every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3), the more we want to help others discover their blessedness also. So we intentionally and deliberately look for ways to bless others and help other see how loved and special they are.

Becoming who we are means that we want to be like Jesus in the ways he crossed borders, broke down boundaries, and included people rejected by those in authority. The more we become who we are, the more we will see others through the eyes of Christ and embrace them with the love of Christ.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Redefining Evangelism

 “. . . who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13).

When a baby is born into a family, that baby obtains a name by birthright. Obviously, the baby doesn’t know that right away, but that’s who she or he is. We are children of God even if we have not learned that yet or claimed our identity.

Sophie, my granddaughter (will be four in June), went through a stage, where if I said, “Sophie, you’re silly,” she would say, “I’m not silly, I’m Sophie Jordan Griffith.” How silly of me not to know that. She’s Sophie Jordan Griffith. She knew who she was. When it comes to our true self and our identity in God, not all of us know who we are.

We are all children of God by divine birth. We did absolutely nothing to effect that birth. Our spiritual claim to be children of God has nothing to do with human belief, wisdom, or accomplishment. There are no doctrines to believe, no rituals or religious deeds to perform, no spiritual hoops to jump through in order to secure our identity. Our identity is given to us by God through grace. 

This, I believe, is the key point made in Ephesians 1 where the writer says that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” that “in love he destined us for adoption as his children” (meaning that he destined us to realize our full position and potential as God’s daughters and sons). We were chosen before we could believe or do anything.

I don’t read this in a dualistic way to mean that some are chosen and others are not. In fact, the writer envisions a future, which he calls “the fullness of time” when God “gathers up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). The writer is declaring what is true about all of us, not a certain few.

We all know what it feels like to be passed over don’t we? When I was a kid we played sandlot baseball in the field behind our house. Two captains chose sides. I can’t remember how we decided who got to be a captain. I guess the captains decided they would be captains. One of the unofficial rules of the playground has to do with who is in charge. There is a pecking order to the playground. Typically, the same kids were picked last.

I suspect that all of us have had experiences where we didn’t make the cut. The only thing worse than have too many of those kind of experiences is having too few, because it’s important we know what that feels like – to not make the cut, to not be chosen, to not be considered good enough.

Author Robert Roberts tells about a fourth grade class that played “balloon stomp.” In “balloon stomp” a balloon is tied to every child’s leg, and the object of the game is to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. The last person with an intact balloon wins. It’s a game rooted in the philosophy of “survival of the fittest.”

In this particular fourth grade class balloons were relentlessly targeted and destroyed. A few of the less aggressive children hung shyly on the sidelines and, of course, their balloons were among the first to go. The game was over in a matter of seconds. The winner, the one kid whose balloon was still intact was the most disliked kid in the room. 

But then, says Roberts, a second class was brought into the room to play the game, only this time it was a class of mentally challenged children. They, too, were each given a balloon. They were given the same instructions as the other group, and the same signal to begin the game.

This time, however, the game proceeded very differently. The instructions were given too quickly to be grasped very well. In all the confusion the one idea that stuck was that the balloons were supposed to be popped. But instead of fighting each other off, these kids got the idea that they were supposed to help each other pop their balloons. So they formed a kind of balloon co-op.

One little girl knelt down and held her balloon carefully in place while a little boy stomped it flat. Then he knelt down and held his balloon still for her to stomp. On and on it went, all the children helping one another, and when the last balloon was popped, everybody cheered. They were all winners. No one was put out of the game.

What if more churches decided they would go about their mission the same way. Instead of insisting that others, who they would deem outside the circle of the chosen, believe everything they believe and do what they do, what if more churches decided that all are chosen already and their mission is to help others discover and claim who they already are. What if we defined evangelism as helping others realize and become who they already are?

Do you think we might have more winners and fewer losers? Would the world be a better place? If that inclusive grounding became foundational to our Christian faith do you think Christianity might actually make a difference in helping create a just world, rather than foster further polarization and division? Perhaps then, we would make a significant contribution to the common good and the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

When Being "Spiritual But Not Religious" is Not Sufficient

Lillian Daniel has written a very good book titled, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church.  In it she observes how important the community/church is for our spiritual development.

She concedes that the church has done a lot of foolish things in its day. She writes:

  “Now, let me acknowledge that on all sides of the Christian spectrum, there is much I do not want to be stuck with, from Koran-burning, pistol-packing pastors to the more ordinary preacher who was trying desperately to be inspiring and shouted out, ‘Let us launch out into the depth of the sea, standing upon the rock that is Jesus!’
   No wonder many good people get like the pop singer Prince—they want a new name for what they do, like the artist formerly known as Christian.”

The church has indeed done some embarrassing things, things that many of us do not want to be associated with. But the church has done some good things too. And, as Daniel points out, only in church, in community, in relationship with other people, sharing a basic commitment to Christ, do we learn how to be the body of Christ in the world.

A fundamental truth about the spiritual life is that it takes great love or great suffering to be the catalyst for spiritual growth. The church provides a context for both. On the one hand, where else will we find some people who will care for us when we are sick, encourage us when we are down, support us when we are weak, celebrate the high points of life with us, pray for us, and tell us the truth. Granted, not all churches do this equally well, but if you find people who will do this at all, you are likely to find them in church, in some faith community.

On the other hand, the faith community provides a context for us to experience the necessary challenges that must be faced if we are to acquire any depth and substance to our spirituality.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities where the mentally challenged live with their helpers in community, knows all about the benefits and challenges of community life. He mentions four great crises that must be faced by those living in community. Much of this can be applied to the church.

The first crisis comes when we join the community. Everyone has to face the fact that there will always be parts of us that want to cling to the values we have left behind. The second is the discovery that the community is not as perfect or good as we thought. It has weaknesses and flaws. Our illusions are shattered and we have to face reality. I like to tell people: If you are looking for a perfect church, don’t join it because you will ruin it. The third crisis comes when we feel misunderstood or neglected by the community. The fourth is when we feel disappointed with ourselves because of all the anger, jealousies, or petty frustrations that boil up within us.

Being in community forces us to confront these crises. There are some who leave the church, but those who are committed to the community and work through these challenges are those who deepen their spiritual lives. They become wiser, better, stronger, and more compassionate and loving. They grow.

The church I pastor has encountered such crises, as well as other kinds over the years. Many of the members who stayed have grown. Their faith has developed some deep roots. They have become more gracious, generous, and grateful. They have become more.  

I don’t believe such growth and spiritual depth is possible for those who typically claim to be spiritual, but not religious. Authentic spirituality requires community. For Christians that means learning how to be the body of Christ. 

It takes many members with different gifts and responsibilities working together to be the body of Christ in the world. Being spiritual but not religious doesn't count.   

Monday, January 6, 2014

Questions Jesus Might Ask of Scripture

In a recent piece for the Washington Post E. J. Dionne beautifully wrote of our imperfect quest for the truth. Christians need to humbly acknowledge, wrote Dionne, how “imperfectly human beings understand the divine” and how, “over the history of faith, there have been occasions when ‘a supposedly changeless truth has changed.’”

Truth exists, but our experience of it is limited and fallible. Christians would do well to humbly acknowledge that our sacred texts are also limited and fallible. Jesus did.

According to the Gospels, Jesus had no problem dismissing, rejecting, and reinterpreting the sacred texts within his Jewish tradition.

For example, some religious authorities in Jesus’ day abusively used Deut. 24:1 to justify divorcing a wife for any reason whatsoever, very much the same way religious authorities today abusively use Scripture to condemn the LGBT community, condone violence, and subjugate women in the home and in the church.    

Jesus dismissed Deut. 24:1 by offering a critical reading of it. Jesus said that this law did not come from God (as the Scripture claimed), but from Moses himself, who made the concession due to the hardness of their hearts (Mark 10:2-5).

Or consider how Joseph decided to disobey Deut. 22:21 by deciding to divorce Mary quietly without bringing public shame upon her (Matt. 1:18-19). Matthew wrote that Joseph did this because he was a “righteous man.” Obviously from Matthew’s perspective, being “righteous” may involve refusing to do what the Bible says.

When it comes to the Christian’s sacred texts the critical question is not: What does the Bible say? The key question is: What would Jesus say about what the Bible says? Would Jesus give it a critical reading and dismiss it? Would Jesus offer a new reading and fresh interpretation?

I advise asking three questions of a biblical text to determine its redemptive value. These are questions I think Jesus might ask.

One, does the text make God look good? My assumption here is that God is good; that God is always better than our best. If the God depicted in a text is not as loving, just, good, reliable, forgiving, compassionate, etc. as the best person you know, then that text cannot possibly be giving us an authentic depiction of God.

Two, does it make me want to be good? Does the text in some way offer a vision of God or human possibility that inspires me to deal with my false attachments and strive through God’s grace to be a better person?

Third, is it reasonable? I do not mean, “Is it provable?” or “Is it without inconsistencies?” Often, authentic spiritual truth is filled with paradox and on-the- surface contradictions. What I mean is, “Does it make sense and does it reflect common sense?” Does it align with the deepest truth I intuitively know in my heart about what is good and true?

The Bible, while central to Christian faith, argues with itself on almost every issue of any importance. The biblical writers and communities that gave us our sacred texts brought their biases, cultural conditioning, beliefs, worldviews, and presuppositions into the process of discovering God’s will just as we do.

While not literally the Word of God, the Bible can become a medium through which we encounter a living Word from God when, in our imperfect quest for truth, we read it critically, discerningly, and spiritually the way Jesus did.

Those interested in reading more on this subject are invited to check out my new book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith (click on book at right for more information). .