Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Must Christians believe in a Second Coming?

One of the five principles necessary for Christian belief according to the Conference of Conservative Protestants that met in Niagara Falls in 1896 was the physical, bodily return of Jesus (the other four being biblical inerrancy, the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, and substitutionary atonement). These five beliefs have become central to Christian evangelicalism.

Many Christians today, even more progressive types, anticipate some kind of divine intervention to close human history as we know it and to begin something that looks very different than life on planet earth looks like now. Many of the early Christians connected the climax of this present age with the revelation of the resurrected Christ from heaven, which would result in the resurrection of all humanity. Paul called this Christ’s “coming” (see 1 Cor. 15:21-24, 1 Thess. 4:12-18).

Of course, these early Christians just as confidently believed that this “coming” (Greek, parousia) would happen soon. For example, Paul told the unmarried in the church at Corinth it would be best if they stayed unmarried because the world as they knew was about to end (see 1 Cor. 7:25-31). In Jesus’ discourse on the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus is purported as saying, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30). Of course, that generation did indeed pass away and the coming of the Son of Man did not occur. And here we are two millennia later.

Many Christians say, “The early church got the timing wrong, but the event is still going to happen; they messed up on the when but not the what.” Maybe so, but then maybe not. I am not looking for some kind of sensational “coming.” I believe the apocalyptic language of scripture (like Mark 13, par. Matt. 24, Luke 21) should be read poetically, symbolically, and metaphorically, not literally.

I sometimes wish I could believe in a divine intervention to end human history as we know it. Because it’s hard to imagine religious institutions and religious faith as they now exist doing much to make a difference in our world. In fact, one could argue that religion in general and Christianity in particular are about as likely to make things worse as better.

As a species we are probably not past adolescence in our moral and spiritual evolution. Terrorist groups are on the rise. Massive systemic injustice abounds in governments, economic systems, and institutions of all types. One has to wonder if we will survive as a species. I sometimes wish I could believe in some kind of divine intervention. It would sure be easier. I could then sit back and wait for Christ to come and clean up this mess.

God is hidden in the world. God invites, woos, entices, draws, and speaks in a still, small voice that is subtle and hardly perceptible. God does not coerce, control, or micro-manage our lives or any of the events and experiences on planet earth or in our universe. I don’t suspect that will change.

So what can Christians who interpret apocalyptic language symbolically draw out of it? For me there are two big truths. First, apocalyptic language points to some kind of ultimate vindication and redemption that means life beyond this life. If this life is all there is, then neither justice nor love are vindicated. Biblical apocalyptic scenarios are about future vindication.

The Hebrews began to form a belief in resurrection during the intertestamental period. Until then they spoke of sheol as the place of the dead. It was probably in most instances just a synonym for death itself. Then around the third century B.C.E. they began to intuit that there must be more to this life than this life. That those who have suffered unjustly and died prematurely will be vindicated. During this time apocalyptic language emerged as a way to talk about a final vindication, and the idea of a general resurrection became popular. This is why many of the early followers of Jesus believed the end was near after they became convinced that God raised Jesus from the dead. They considered Jesus’ resurrection the beginning of the resurrection of all humankind (see Matt 27:23-23; 1 Cor. 15:23-24).

I, too, believe that there must be more. That all wrongs will be put right. That all things broken will be healed. That all things estranged and alienated will be reconciled. My Christian faith gives me that hope and nurtures trust that God’s love will prevail preserving our conscious existence into the future. Now, I can’t begin to imagine what that might actually look like or be like so I don’t even try. I trust that it will be good.

The second big truth is this. While I am not looking for some miraculous intervention from heaven I very much believe God is working in our world to transform our world.

So while I am not looking for Jesus to personally return in some bodily form, I am convinced that the spiritual presence of the cosmic Christ is already here pervading this world and this universe. We just need eyes to see what is in front of our face.

I really like the way Brother David Steindl-Rast puts this in his book Deeper than Words (by the way, in this book he interprets and appropriates the Apostles Creed metaphorically and spiritually providing a wonderful example of how Christians can approach the scriptures in the same manner),

My favorite lines about Christ’s “Second Coming” are in the story “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. In this autobiographical piece of great delicacy, the author describes his last Christmas with the woman who brought him up. The author is seven at the time, she is in her sixties, a childlike soul radiant with inner beauty. They are each other’s best friends. On Christmas Day, the two of them are lying in the grass, flying the kites they made as presents for each other. Suddenly the old woman experiences a moment of mystic insight. She admits that formerly she had imagined Christ at the Second Coming shining like the windows in a Baptist church, sunlight pouring through the colored glass. But now she realizes with utter surprise and delight that what she has always seen – what we always see all around us – is Christ in glory, here and now” (Deeper than Words: Living the Apostles’ Creed, p. 132-32).

We don’t need more Christians to believe in some end-time cataclysmic shake-up. What we desperately need right now is more Christians to see the possibilities of Christ in glory here and now, to claim who they are in God and become the body of Christ – feeding the hungry, caring for the vulnerable, healing the wounded, liberating the oppressed, and working for peace and restorative justice in the world.  

(This piece was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog)

What the story of the poor widow can teach us about giving, taxation, and deep faith.

What are we to make of the Gospel story of the poor widow who put in the temple treasury all she had to live on? (Mark 12:41-44).

In the previous Markan paragraph Jesus denounces the self-righteousness of the scribes who seek the best seats in the synagogue, places of honor at banquets, and “devour widows houses,” that is they take advantage of the most vulnerable in their society.

Some interpreters see the story of the widow as further indictment against the scribes. They ask, “What sort of religious system would encourage a poor widow to give all she has to live on so that the system’s leaders may continue to live lives of wealth and comfort?” One commentator writes, “The scribes are like leeches on the faithful, benefiting from a religious system that allows poor widows to sacrifice what little they have.”

While that may be true, Jesus commends the poor widow who drops a couple of small coins in the temple treasury. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

She does not literally give more, but she gives more proportionally. She gives out of her poverty, while the wealthy give out of their abundance.

I recently had a conversation with my daughter who was bemoaning the taxes she has to pay on the profits of her part time business. My daughter whom I love dearly was arguing for a flat tax. I tried to explain how unfair a flat tax would be. It would make the disadvantaged even more disadvantaged. I wish I would have thought to quote Jesus who said, “To whom much is given, much is required.” I know my kids just love it when I quote Jesus. So while the poor widow only gave two copper coins, she gave more than the rich folks who gave large sums. Surely this has something to teach us about what constitutes legitimate taxation principles does it not?

But is that all there is to the story? What would compel this woman to give so freely? There is nothing in the text to suggest that she was coerced to give. So what would motivate her to do this?

We probably wouldn’t call this woman foolish out loud, but we think it. She gives to support an institution that has become corrupt, an institution Jesus both protested and predicted would be destroyed. Obviously Jesus is not commending what she is giving to. He is commending the condition of her soul.  

We carefully calculate what we give do we not? We make sure we have enough to live on and play on and that we have a surplus? We make sure we are comfortable. We have attachments. We have responsibilities. This woman gives completely free from the kind of attachments that bind us.

This woman has absolutely no interest in the kind of things that the religious scribes cared so much about. She has no interest in being seen or how she appears to others. She has no interest in being honored or recognized. She has no interest in merit badges and status symbols.  She is not even worried about survival even though she gives all she had to live on.

Apparently, she has such radical faith in the grace of God that she believes she will survive, that her needs will be met, and if not, God will be with her and sustain her in her want and neediness. Here is a woman who is not clinging to anything. She is so unencumbered and so full of faith in God’s grace and provision that she can freely give all she has without any regret or second thoughts and she can trust God to see her through.

I’m guessing that most of my readers are like me. We find it hard to even imagine what it would be like to have that kind of freedom from attachments and that kind of radical generosity and faith. What would it be like to live with such freeness and fullness within this present moment? It’s so beyond where we are we simply can’t imagine what it would be like to have that kind of faith. 

(This piece was first published at Baptist News Global)

Monday, November 16, 2015

It’s all about how we see

See what you see. This is the meaning of a Jesus saying in the Gospel of Thomas,

Jesus said, “Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.”

Not long ago I went into the kitchen to fix a piece of toast for breakfast. I opened the pantry door and looked in the basket where we keep the bread. No bread. So I looked around in the pantry. Couldn’t find it. I opened the cabinet where we keep the cereal. It wasn’t there. So I did what many people do. I blamed someone. I’m thinking, “Ok, where did my wife put the bread?” In the meanwhile I cracked my boiled egg, peeled it, and as I tossed the last piece of shell in the trash, I glanced around in the pantry one more time and guess what? There was the bread. Guess where it was? In the basket where it was supposed to be. So how did I miss it? How did I not see what I was obviously looking at it?

While this may be a rare kind of experience in the physical world, in the spiritual world it happens all the time. We tend to see reality as we are, not as it really is.

Consider how two Christians can read the same biblical text and interpret it not only in different ways, but opposite ways. We all know how the Bible has been used to support slavery, violence, patriarchy, oppression, elitism, nationalism, bigotry, etc.  

In the hands of an unenlightened, unloving person even the most enlightened, progressive texts can be employed in oppressive, punitive, and destructive ways. On the other hand, in the hands of a truly enlightened, compassionate person even the most unenlightened, regressive texts can be used in positive, healing, and liberating ways. It all has to do with how one sees.

According to Luke’s version of Paul’s encounter with the Christ, when he was awakened to the truth and beheld the light, when “something like scales [the scales of illusion, pride, self-righteousness, false assumptions, etc.] fell from his eyes” (Acts 9:18), Paul could then see Christ in the very ones he had been persecuting (Acts 9:5; Rom. 8:9-10).

The command to see what is, to discern the truth in any given text, situation, relationship, event, or experience requires real faith. By real faith I don’t mean belief in dogma or certitudes, I mean a dynamic trust in the power and reality of unconditional love. Seeing what is true involves looking at life – ourselves and others, as well as our sacred texts – with humility, honesty, compassion, and a genuine desire to find the truth. This is when the previously hidden mysteries are revealed.

How might we ready ourselves to see what is?

In his letter to the Philippians Paul says, “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about [or take account of] these things (4:8).”

In 1 John the writer says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (4:7, 16b).

So how might we prepare our minds and hearts to see what is really real, to see more clearly what is clearly true? By thinking about, focusing on, and orienting our lives around what is good, right, fair, and praiseworthy, and by engaging in acts and deeds of compassion and love.

However, what is real and true, as well as the real and true God remain hidden to those whose only interest is protecting their ego, defending their beliefs/certitudes, and guarding their turf. Religion (God) can become a way to further a person or group’s own ends and justify their egocentricity and self-righteousness.

Our present situation and circumstances can conceal God or reveal God. It all depends on how we see.

The story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel (Gen. 28:10-17) is a wonderful illustration of this. The text says that Jacob came to a certain place – it was just any, ordinary place where Jacob stopped for the night. He had a dream of a ladder that stretched from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. The Lord appeared in his dream and promised him land and descendants and that he would be an instrument through whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The Lord promised to be with him and keep him wherever he went. When Jacob awoke from his dream he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! . . . How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

This suggests that in the very ordinary places of our lives – our daily activities, responsibilities, relationships, periods of rest and work and recreation, etc. – God is present. There are angels descending and ascending, that is, there are spiritual powers and forces at work in this place at this moment in our very ordinary lives and relationships. This is all right before our face. Can we see?

Can I see God in the face of a child?
Can I see God in a selfless act by a friend or loved one?
Can I see God in the joy and laugher of friends sharing a special moment?
Can I see God in the forgiving embrace of a wife or husband for some stupid remark or foolish act?
Can I see God in the trees dancing in the wind or in the red bird on my deck?

Those who are advanced in the spiritual life can even see God in suffering and death.

Thomas says “the mysteries will be revealed to you” – the ultimate mystery is the mystery of the Christ/God/the Spirit dwelling in us. The writer of Colossians declares that Christ in us is our hope of glory (Col. 1:27). This means we are capable of reflecting the Christ image. This means that we have the potential to live and love like Christ.

What possibility and potential resides in each human being! If only we could see what we see.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The God of the Whirlwind (and Jesus too) - a sermon from Job 38:1-7

For many chapters God has been silent and that perhaps as much as anything is basic to Job’s agony and dilemma. In our text today God finally responds. God speaks. But God does not speak to a single question Job agonized over. Instead of answers God responds with more questions. Basically God asks: Who are you to question how I do things? Where were you when I created all these different forms of life? What do you know about all of this? Can you influence the elements of this vast creation? Do you have the wisdom to run things? So instead of answers, Job gets more questions that seem to be aimed at putting him in his place. But the amazing thing about this is that this seems to be enough. I will say more about that later.

But first note how God speaks. God speaks out of a whirlwind. What’s the significance of that? Maybe it’s a way of saying that you can’t hold God down, you can’t limit the way God works to four spiritual laws, or the Nicene creed, or the Baptist faith and message. You can’t explain this God. You can’t define or confine this God to propositional statements saying God is this or God is that because God is always more than this or that. God cannot be reduced to a text or a creed. This God is dynamic and on the move and appears in many forms and speaks in many ways. Here God is in the whirlwind.

The next thing to note is what God says. God simply points out all the wonders of the creation, the variety of life forms. God says take in all this mystery and wonder and beauty and terror. This is my doing. I am responsible.

Nature poets have a keen sense about the vastness of creation and our place in it. Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on . . . meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.” It’s a way of saying it’s not all about us. We are part of something that is much larger. And now we have these dazzling images from the Hubble Telescope which bears witness to the unfathomable vastness of the universe. Some images show multiple galaxies, each galaxy made up of billions of stars. Can you imagine?

William Sloan Coffin in his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, tells about the time he first began to realize this. When he was an undergraduate, three friends coming back late from New York crashed their car and were killed. The driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel. Coffin was angry when he attended the funeral service. It infuriated him when the priest taking the service began to intone from the back of the chapel the words from Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Coffin said he sounded nauseatingly pious. Looking around, he could see him coming down the aisle his nose in the prayer book. He thought about tripping him up. And just as we was about to stick out his leg, a small voice as it were, asked him, “What part of the phrase, Coffin, are you objecting to?” Coffin said he thought it was the second part: “the Lord has taken away.” Then it suddenly dawned on him that it was the first part: “the Lord gave.” It hit him hard that this was not his world and all of us are only guests. Of course the Lord does not take anybody away. Coffin points out, “God doesn’t go around the world with his hands on steering wheels, his fist around knives, his finger on triggers.”

The God who speaks to Job is not an answer giver or problem solver. Here God is the transcendent Other – which is important because we need a transcendent reference point that centers our lives and helps up put everything in perspective.

If we allow God to be God, that means we are not. But letting God be Lord is not an easy process for those of us who have lived our lives as if life were all about us. The private ego – the little self – likes to cling to its self-importance and will rationalize and resist any reality that subverts its sense of control, power, and autonomy. Many of us want to think and live as if it’s all about us. Often the result of such independence it that we feel cut off not only from God, but from others and this good creation. But that is where we have deluded ourselves, because we are not cut off at all.

We are connected, even though we might feel isolated. In reality we are one with the Creator and the creation. Healthy religion is always about nurturing this sense of connection to God, to others. and to the creation. Healthy religion helps us awake to and take responsibility for the larger world which we are part of. Healthy religion gives us a transcendent Other who is the ultimate reference point so that our significance comes not from the private self, the cut off self, the egocentric self, but rather our significance comes from who we are in God and who we are as part of a much larger whole.

There are many today who desperately need an awareness of this connection to the transcendent Other. Though, I have to tell you, God as the transcendent Other has its limitations. But it is an important starting point. Job is moving us in the right direction.  For in Job we have a God who speaks. This God doesn’t offer answers and doesn’t solve the conundrums of evil and unjust suffering, but this God engages Job. This God speaks to Job and for Job that seems to be enough. Job knows that he has been heard, even if God doesn’t answer a single question or charge. And maybe that’s the point. The amazing thing is not what God says to Job, but that God says anything at all. God shows up. God is present and engages Job.

So now we are on our way (we are not there yet, but on our way) toward a belief in a God who is not only the transcendent Other, but a God who is imminently near and intimately engages the creation. This is the God we meet in Jesus.  

In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He just knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

This story suggests what is most profoundly expressed in the Christian belief of incarnation, namely, that the most complete revelation of God’s self and will to humanity is through humanity. The Christian’s quintessential symbol and example of course is Jesus of Nazareth, who expressed the fullness of God. If discipleship to Jesus means anything surely it means learning from Jesus how to embody the life and character of God.

While Jesus’ life centered on God as the ultimate reference, Jesus did not often reference God as the transcendent Other, but as intimately near and close. Jesus spoke of God as Abba, the all compassionate one, who is as close as the air we breathe and who is gracious and forgiving and kind to all people. And while Jesus’ religious contemporaries kept trying to limit God to a chosen few, Jesus kept breaking down boundaries making God accessible to all.

Jesus does not resolve the dilemma we face because of the enormity of evil in the world or the unfairness of unjust suffering, but what Jesus does do is he brings God right into the mix. The God of Jesus is not way up there somewhere, but right here. He told his contemporaries that the kingdom of God was within them or at the very least in their midst and within their grasp. Jesus opens the way for the understanding that is expressed by Paul when he says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.” God was in Christ and God is in us too. That’s the miracle of incarnation. God inhabits our humanity.

The New Testament writers often reference the Divine as Spirit or Christ, but whatever term they use they are speaking of the same reality. Paul expresses this when he says to the Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” God resides in human flesh. God is both the transcendent Other and the true self who dwells within. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says, “But you are not in the flesh (here he does not mean physical flesh, but rather the ego dominated self); you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (8:9a).

This should give us a profound respect for all human beings, for all human beings bear the image of God. And not only with regard to all human beings, but this should cause us to reverence all forms of life on this planet, because in some unfathomable way God is present there too. The transcendent Other in the book of Job says to Job, “Do not think you are the only game in town. Look at all this variety of life. I am responsible for this.” But then the living Christ takes this further. The living Christ says, “I am not just responsible for all this, I am part of all this. I live and dwell in the midst of all this.”

In Romans 8 Paul speaks of the whole creation being in travail, groaning in labor pains awaiting ultimate redemption. Then he says that we too, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we hope and wait for the redemption of our bodies and the ultimate healing and liberation of the planet. The sense is that the Spirit who indwells us and fills all creation suffers with the suffering creation. God somehow – in ways that we will never grasp and comprehend – enters into the tragic pain, loss, and suffering of our lives and of the creation as a whole.

Jesus hanging on the cross is our ultimate symbol of God suffering with suffering humanity and the suffering creation. I love the symbol of the Celtic cross that has a cross inside a circle, with the edges of the cross touching the circle. It points to the truth that Jesus not only suffers as the representative of humanity but for and with the whole creation. In the book of Colossians the writer says that through the cross God reconciles not just humanity but all things in heaven and on earth.  

When we are living fully in the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, enlightened by the Spirit, then we are not only living in fellowship with and connection to God who is both the transcendent Other and the living Christ, we are also living in fellowship with and connection to everything else. In the Spirit we are awake to our connection to everything. We realize our responsibility to the planet – to manage and care for all living things as well as one another. We sense a deep reverence for all creation.

Our good God, nurture and grow within a deep gratitude for the wonder and mystery and variety of life. Help us to see that you are not just Creator, you are Co-laborer with us sharing in the joy and sadness, the goodness and tragedy of life on this planet. And while you give us no answers, you give us yourself, which is so much more. May your Spirit that filled Jesus fill us with love and compassion and a passion for justice. Amen.