Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Spirituality of Bass Fishing

3When I was a kid I loved to fish. Then life happened. I became preoccupied with many other things. By becoming consumed in church work I thought I was doing God’s work and didn’t have time for such trivial matters like fishing.
Last year I came to a point where my passion for things “religious” had fizzled and I was all dried up. Then a church member took me bass fishing and I fell in love with a first love all over again. It has given me new life. The night before I’m headed to the lake I’m like a little kid on Christmas Eve. I am doing something I love to do just for the love of doing it. I have never been more alive. When I’m making the hour and fifteen minute drive to the beautiful lake where I kayak fish for largemouth bass, I am thanking God much of the way for simply having the opportunity to do something I truly love to do. I believe it is making me a better person.
I recently posted this on my Facebook page:
I am KISSING PARTISAN POLITICAL POSTS GOODBYE. I have made a decision to go on an indefinite fast from writing or posting any piece that names political parties or persons. I will still post on issues of justice, but I will stick strictly to the issues. I can see myself writing a piece such as, “Why mass, indiscriminate deportation is morally wrong” but I would not mention any political party or persons. This election cycle will be filled with lots of name calling and ugliness. As a Jesus follower my first priority must be to love inclusively, especially those I may disagree with politically and on issues of restorative justice. WHAT ULTIMATELY MATTERS IS HOW WELL WE LOVE.
I believe that this fresh sense of “aliveness” has increased my capacity to love. I guess time will tell.
I am part of an online kayak fishing community (Kentucky Kayak Anglers) where religiously and politically we are as different as night and day. Of course, we don’t talk religion or politics–we talk fishing. And I can honestly say that I love those folks. At least as much as one can love those one relates to online. We share a common passion that reminds me that we share a common humanity. We all hurt, suffer, and grieve over the tragedies of life. We all find in life joy and delight as well, certainly when we are on our kayaks on a lake, river, or creek trying to catch whatever it is we try to catch. It reminds me that however different we are, we must find ways to work toward some common good and a better world. We must find ways to love and care for one another as best we can.
My point here is that spirituality cannot be safely labeled and compartmentalized into things “religious.” Everything about us is spiritual. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that spirituality means “a heightened aliveness on all levels.” He says, “If we encourage people to be more alive–to find the area of their enthusiasm and feed that area then they may gain in vitality and then be able to take in stride the pain and suffering that’s part of life.” I believe that to be true.
Bass fishing has given me a new enthusiasm for life, and a new enthusiasm to love more inclusively and passionately.
This post first appeared at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Becoming More Fully Human (A sermon from Romans 5:1-5 and Psalm 8)

Have you read any of the books by Robert Fulghum? If you haven’t you should. Some of his stories are hilarious, but he also makes one think. In his first book, All I Really Needed to Know I learned in Kindergarten, he reflects on an experience at the San Diego Zoo. A little girl was standing beside him, both of them were looking at the giraffe. She asked her mommy, “What’s it for?” Mommy didn’t know. Does a giraffe know what’s its for?

Fulghum writes,
 “Besides the giraffe, I saw a wombat, a duck-billed platypus, and an orangutan. Unreal. The orangutan looked like my uncle Woody. Uncle Woody is pretty unreal too. He belongs in a zoo. That’s what his wife says. And that makes me wonder what it would be like if samples of people were also in zoos.

I was thinking about that last notion while watching the lions. A gentleman lion and six lady lions. Looks like a real nice life being in a zoo. The lions are so prolific that the zoo had to place IUDs in each of the lionesses. So all the lions do is eat and sleep and scratch fleas and have sex without consequences. The zoo provides food, lodging, medical care, old-age security, and funeral expenses. Such a deal

We humans make a big thing about our being the only thinking, reflective critter, and make proclamations like ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ But I look at the deal the giraffes and lions and wombats and duck-billed-what’s-its have, and I think I could go for the unexamined life. If the zoo ever needs me, I’d give it a try. I certainly qualify as a one-of-a-kind endangered species. And examining my life sure gets to be a drag sometimes.

Can’t you imagine you and your kids passing by a large, comfy cage, all litered with cigar butts, cognac bottles, and T-bone steak bones – and there, snoozing in the sun, is old Fulghum with six beautiful ladies piled up around him. And your kid points and says, “What’s it for?”

Fulghum says, “The lion and the giraffe and the wombat and the rest do what they do and are what they are. And somehow manage to make it there in the cage, living the unexamined life. But to be human is to know and care and ask. To keep rattling the bars of the cage of existence hollering, “What’s if for?”

And by the way, this is what the Bible is for. The purpose of the Bible is not to give us answers, but to invite us into the journey and struggle of being human. The Bible at its best prompts us to keep asking questions like, “What’s it all for?” Many folks who use the Bible for answers, for the most part, already feel they have the answers and go to the Bible to support their answers. I certainly did. I didn’t read the Bible as it is, I read the Bible as I wanted it to be – affirming and confirming the beliefs I was taught. And when we do that the great questions the Bible raises go unexamined.

What are we for? The scriptures today do not give us answers, but I do think we can draw some insights from them in wrestling with the question of what it means to be fully human.

I believe we become more fully human when we accept that we are accepted and then accept others with the same acceptance by which God has accepted us? Paul’s writing can be really dense, so let me offer a contemporary paraphrase of my sense of what Paul is saying in Romans 5:1-2. I believe Paul is saying: Because we have accepted that we have been accepted by the only one whose acceptance ultimately matters, we have peace with God. That is, we have a healthy, wholesome, redemptive relationship with God who compels us to accept others with the same grace in which we stand accepted, for we all have access to God’s unconditional acceptance. As we live out this acceptance, as we live in this state of grace, we rejoice in the hope of sharing more fully in the glory of God’s love. That, I believe, is what Paul is saying.

Whether or not I experience God’s gift of acceptance and hope will largely depend on my capacity to live in a state of grace. Frank McCourt wrote the book Angela’s Ashes that received a Pulitzer prize. He begins the book by saying that it’s a terrible thing to be born poor, to have that strike against you. But it’s even worse if you are born poor and Irish, that’s two strikes against you. But it’s a triple disadvantage when you are born poor, Irish, and Catholic.

Andrew Greeley, a progressive Catholic priest wrote a review of the book and he began his review by telling McCourt he needed to stop whining. He says, “McCourt, the fact that you were born poor, Irish, and Catholic are the only three things that make you interesting.”

Greeley goes on to review the book and give it its dues praise at certain points and then he ends his review by giving McCourt some advice. He says to McCourt: “You are no longer a child, you’re a grown man, so why don’t you do what you need to do – that is – forgive. You need to forgive your mother, your alcoholic father, Limerick, Ireland, the church, the Catholics. You need to forgive them all so that you don’t die an angry, bitter man.” That’s good advice. And that’s what it means to live in a state of grace. Paul calls this justification – meaning a state of being in right relationship with God and others.

Forgiveness plays a major role in living in a state of grace. Can we forgive those who have hurt us? And can we ask forgiveness from those we have hurt? And can we forgive ourselves for some of the stupid choices we have made? Can we accept that in spite of everything we are accepted because God is a God of grace, and can we then extend that same grace to others? If we can, then we are on our way, I believe, to becoming more fully human.

Another way, I  believe we can become more human is by allowing our human suffering to teach us, refine us, grow us, to expand our compassion toward others and toward the human condition. Can we allow our suffering to take us to a deeper place? Not necessarily a better place, but a deeper place – a wiser, stronger, more mature place?

Paul sees suffering as a necessary part of our redemption and growth doesn’t he? I suspect he is overstating himself when he says, “we boast (or glory) in our sufferings” – that’s a little over the top don’t you think? Maybe we could tone it down a bit and ask: Can I nurture a deeper faith in the midst of my suffering? Can I possibly see some value in it? Paul says “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

I remember some time back seeing on facebook two postings that jumped off the page because of the contrast. Someone had posted a picture of a beautiful rainbow – the picture was taken on her way to work. She said that she hoped this was a sign of good things to come. Just below it on the page was a posting of the terrible devastation wrought by a Tornado that had tore through a town in Oklahoma. Two very different pictures.

Metaphorically speaking, we all encounter rainbows and tornadoes on the path of life. Never in equal proportion. In the journey of life on planet earth we experience both surprising beauty and unforeseen tragedy. And rarely are they proportionately balanced. We never know what unexpected treasure or wreckage may wash up on the shore of our lives.

These are not “signs” of God’s blessing or cursing. God is not the cause. Such experiences are simply part of what it means to be human. Suffering comes to all of us, and not in equal portions. Life is not fair. Which is why we may have to forgive God too, along with forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. Some rail at God thinking that God is responsible for reality as it is. I can’t see a whole lot of value in that. Could God have done things differently? No one knows. My sense of it is that God is doing the best  God can do.

So in the midst of our suffering we must ask: Do we want to become more human? Do we want to become more – stronger, mature persons? If we do, then we must not give into fear, or bitterness, or resentment; we must not blame others and lash out at others. We must live by faith. The wilderness of suffering is a hard place and it is a lonely place, and yet it can be a transformative place if we can keep trusting in the liberating, healing power of love, which is what God is.

A third way I believe we can become more human is by finding joy and purpose in the great privilege and responsibility of being a faithful image-bearer of the Divine and caretaker of God’s world. We can become more human by being a good steward of creation and a servant of the common good.

When the Psalmist praises God for giving human beings “dominion” over the creation (the version we read speaks of “ruling” over the creation), the Psalmist is not talking about exploiting the creation or using the creation for selfish purposes. In the first creation story God breathes life into the human couple so that the human couple can mirror God’s likeness in the world, which involves exercising responsible, loving care over the planet, and showing reverence for and guarding the sacredness of all life.

As Christians we understand our call to be image-bearers through the lens of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus is our quintessential image-bearer. When Jesus’ disciples wanted to share in his power, thinking it meant exercising power over others, Jesus took a basin of water and towel and washed their feet. When they argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them that if they wanted to share in his kingdom that, unlike leaders of the kingdoms of the world who like to lord it over others, they would need to be servants of all. God’s kingdom, you see, is not like the kingdoms of the world. We are called to exercise dominion in God’s kingdom not by asserting our will over creation, but by being the best stewards and caretakers for the good of creation that we can be.  

John Woolman, a devout Quaker, lived in the 18th century at the time when many wealthy Quakers were slave holders. As a young man, he vowed to rid the Society of Friends of this terrible blight, and for 30 years he gave himself to that task. He did not picket or hold mass rallies. He didn’t publish vindictive sermons against slavery. Rather, he traveled up and down the length of the land visiting with slaveholders. He would accept their hospitality and then ask them how it felt as a child of God and as a Christian to own slaves. He asked them hard, disturbing questions like: What does the owning of slaves do to you as a moral person? What kind of value system are you passing on to your children? How do you reconcile the owning of slaves with the life and teaching of Jesus? His one man campaign was so effective that one hundred years before the Civil War not a single Quaker held slaves.

I know that few of us can have the kind of impact that a John Woolman had, and we are not called to be like John Woolman. But we are called to work for justice and engage in works of mercy right where we are. We can pursue the common good whatever our station in life.  

There is a story about a Zen Master known for his wisdom in responding to difficult questions. One day a former disciple decides to challenge him. The disciple, holding a small bird in his hand, asks, “Master, is the bird dead or alive?” The question is intended to be a trap. If the master says, “The bird is alive,” the disciple can simply crush it to death and say, “No, you are wrong.” If he says, “the bird is alive” the disciple can simply open his hand for the bird to fly away. The master pauses, and then repeats the question: “Is the bird dead or alive?” Then he adds: “It is as you will.”

Can we become more fully human? Can we accept that we are accepted by God and accept others with the same measure of grace? Can we walk courageously through the wilderness path of suffering and allow it to take us to a place where we will be larger, deeper, and stronger? Can we arise to our calling to be a divine image bearer by doing all we can to take care of one another and our planet? Can we become more fully human? It is as we will.

Gracious God, we can become so distracted and preoccupied with our own agendas and plans that we stifle the very desire to examine our lives and live more fully human. So much of the time we miss opportunities to reflect your image and live up to our potential as your daughters and sons. Forgive us our failures and create within us a desire to become more fully human – more like Jesus. May the Spirit of Christ mold us and shape us into your image – both for the benefit of others and for own benefit, that we might find true joy and peace in living out our destiny.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The language of the Spirit: the way of love

How do you imagine the Spirit? The creeds speak of God in three persons, and the Spirit is often referenced as such. Some scholars note that the creeds meant something different than what we mean when we use the word “person.” Perhaps, but it was a terrible choice.
The reason it’s not helpful to identify God or Spirit as a person is because it’s too reductionistic — too narrow and confining. God is so much more. A human person is a unique combination of body and soul, flesh and spirit, material substance and immaterial reality, brain and mind/consciousness that is confined to a particular point in time and space. The divine Spirit is not. Identifying the Spirit as a person is extremely limiting.
On the other hand, it gets no better by thinking of the Spirit like the force in Star Wars, which can be manipulated for good or evil, a kind of non-living, non-personal power that is a part of everything. God is a part of everything, but God relates to us personally. So thinking of the Spirit as a non-personal force is not helpful either.
Spirit is a word used in the scriptures to talk about God relating, speaking, engaging and working in human lives and the creation. Spirit is just another way to talk about the divine presence and power. Spirit is a wonderful word for God’s activity and involvement in the world because it’s a word that is full of mystery. We do not see the Spirit; we can only see the influence and impact of the Spirit.
Read full article at Baptist News Global

Monday, May 16, 2016

A better way to evangelize (We are not sinners first of all)

As many of you know, my first two degrees were from conservative, evangelical institutions. In those days I was immersed in evangelical theology and very much committed to evangelizing. The two approaches I was trained to use were called “The Roman Road” and “The Four Spiritual Laws.”
The Roman Road is a way of explaining the evangelical version of salvation using verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans. The first verse referenced is Romans 3:23: “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The second verse says: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). So the presentation begins with sin and death.
The Four Spiritual Laws does a little better. The first law says: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” That is good news, but it is followed by the terrible theology of the second law: “Humanity is tainted by sin and is therefore separated from God. As a result, we cannot know God’s wonderful plan for our lives.” God’s love, then, is a carrot on a stick that in our flawed, sinful state we cannot experience, unless of course we meet the proper conditions: believe the right things, say the right things, do the right things.
While I agree that we are all tainted by sin, that all humanity and reality is flawed, it is not true that our sin separates us from God. If that were the case we could never experience God’s love, because we never get rid of our sin.
Evangelical theology begins with sin and makes a relationship with God conditional. I believe that a relationship with God is unconditional, that it is our birthright. Even the creation story that describes the so-called fall begins with God’s indwelling: “The Lord God formed man [the human one] from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man [the human one] became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). The human one is alive because God’s Spirit ignites and infuses human life. Without the Spirit – the breath of God – there is no life.
In the first creation story, whose origin mainline biblical scholarship assigns to a different period in Israel’s history than the second story, there is no fall. The human couple are created in the image of God and God pronounces the creation “very good” (Gen. 1:27, 31). Only if one reads these stories literally, which of course is what conservatives do, would one conclude that sin separates a person from God.
Human flaws, weaknesses, and sin/evil has been part of the human condition from the beginning. Sin does not separate us from God. Sin is simply part of the process of human evolution. God is vital and inseparable to this process. Without God there would be no human life.
There is a beautiful passage in John’s Gospel that bears witness to this reality. Richard Rohr has called the text in John 10:31-39 one of the most highly enlightened texts in the Bible. In the passage Jesus is accused of blasphemy by the religious leaders: “because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus, of course, never claimed to be God (Jesus, like the Jewish leaders, was a good monotheist). Rather, he claimed to be God’s son, and to act in and with the authority of God, and for that he is charged with blasphemy. In rebuttal Jesus says,
“Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods?’ [Ps. 82:6] If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – [here he is using their own argument against them for this is what the Pharisees would say] can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”
Psalm 82 makes clear that the “gods” referenced by the psalmist are the covenant people of God. In the psalm God calls out their evil and admonishes: “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps. 82:3-4). Why does God expect justice and equity in the land? Because, says the God of the psalmist, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you” (Ps. 82:6).
All of us? Yes, indeed! Even the wicked? Yes, even the wicked. We are all gods. We are all God’s daughters and sons. Do you see Jesus’ point? Jesus is saying to the religious leaders in John 10: Why would you want to kill me simply because I claim to be God’s son and be at one with God? Don’t you realize that you are gods, too? Don’t you realize that you are God’s sons and daughters? Can’t you see that you, also, are one with God, because God’s Spirit resides in you?
What good news! Of course we are sinners. But our sin doesn’t separate us from God. Of course we are human and we are going to die, but our death is not God condemning us. Our death is simply part of the human condition.
The good news is that we are gods. The good news is that we are God’s offspring (Acts 17:28), and that God loves us and pronounces us “good” simply because we are. It is God’s own life that sustains human life and that is true for both the wicked and the righteous.
The invitation of the gospel is not: Realize you are a wretched sinner who deserves to die. The invitation of the gospel is: Realize you are a beloved child of God called to reflect God’s image. Realize your value and worth. Claim your belovedness by faith. Trust God’s love and your basic goodness by living in and out of that goodness.
What a difference it would make if we read these Roman Road verses in light of our original goodness, not sin. Of course the wages of sin is death; it’s part of the human plight. But the good news is that the free gift of God is eternal life because even though we are mortal, we are gods. We are God’s children. God’s very life (eternal life) resides in us. And to live in and out of that reality, to live out (incarnate) this goodness and love all we have to do is trust and follow the way of Jesus. (Following Jesus, of course, is not the only way to realize one’s goodness as a human being, but it is the Christian way). That’s a liberating message worth sharing with others.
The post was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog

The reason biblical inerrancy simply makes no sense

The reason biblical inerrancy simply makes no sense is this: It’s simply not true to human and universal reality.
Conservative Christians generally believe in a literal creation and fall, and because of the fall we are all sinners. Progressive Christians generally believe in some form of theistic evolution — that human beings and all forms of life have evolved, but God has been and continues to be engaged in the process in some way. Both camps offer myriads of variations and explanations to go with these two basic positions, but no one denies that human beings are flawed. We do not, of course, agree on how we became flawed, but we all readily admit that all life is flawed.
Conservatives emphasize original sin; progressives emphasize original blessing (which, by the way, is reason enough to compel anyone to be a progressive). But either way human beings are imperfect and flawed. The earthly creation is flawed. The universe is flawed. Jesus himself never claimed to be flawless. According to Mark’s Gospel Jesus was asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?” (Mark 10:17-18). (It was later in the development of Christian doctrine that the institutional church attributed to Jesus sinlessness.) I suppose one could even argue that God, in light of universal flawed reality, is (I would say possibly, but not probably) flawed. (Process theologians believe God is evolving along with the universe). My point here is that there is nothing, with the exception of God himself/herself, in our known universe that is not flawed.
To posit an inerrant Bible written by flawed human beings makes no sense. That is not to say that the writers were not in some sense inspired. I suspect they were, though not all inspiration is good, helpful, constructive inspiration. The biblical writers responsible for the genocidal passages purporting that these whole-scale slaughters of men, women, and children were done in obedience to God’s command were certainly not writing under the inspiration of a good, loving Spirit. The very attempt to justify a divine decree to kill even one child, which of course, inerrantists must do, demonstrates the unreasonableness, futility, and abject blindness of belief in inerrancy. I know inerrantists will accuse me of insensitivity, arrogance, and a lack of understanding here, and that’s okay. I’m simply being honest, and honesty can cut deep. Whatever inspiration may or may not mean, and there are as many definitions and descriptions of inspiration as there are theologians who write on the subject, it most clearly does not mean or imply inerrancy.
As I often say, no one reading the Bible for the first time, unless he or she is told beforehand that the Bible is inerrant, would come to that conclusion on their own. Human imperfections are all over the pages of sacred scripture. The Bible didn’t just float down out of heaven on the wings of angels. Numerous and diverse genres of material were passed down orally, going through a number of changes and alterations, then written, edited, redacted, adapted, and collected through a very human process. Flawed human minds and hands were involved from beginning to end.
Can God use these human documents to form human character and create peace-seeking, just, grace-filled communities? Indeed! God has, is, and will continue to transform lives and communities through sacred scripture. Can the Devil (I am speaking metaphorically here) use these human documents to deform human character and to justify religious, national, and cultural exceptionalism, elitism, sexism, materialism, and racism? Indeed! The Devil has, is, and will continue to inspire evil actions in the name of God.
Every Christian group I know of that is known for its prejudice, condemnation, and its exclusionary practices believes in some form of biblical inerrancy. They read the Bible selectively to justify their harmful beliefs and actions. Evil done with God’s approval is the worst kind of evil, because one can do harm to others without any sense of guilt. Remember Saul of Tarsus. He considered himself “blameless” (Phil. 3:6).
Lest I distort the truth, let me remind my readers that there are many good, gracious people who believe in inerrancy. I have family members and friends who are biblical inerrantists. They believe what they believe because almost all of the people in their life whom they love and respect also believe in inerrancy. To not believe in inerrancy would put them at odds and outs with their whole support network. I suspect that is the greatest reason of all why many of my friends and family will not even entertain the notion that inerrancy may not be true. So they will continue to claim to believe that the whole Bible is the word of God, but then they will read and apply it selectively in ways that conform to the Christian culture they are enmeshed in. They will simply ignore all the bad and crazy stuff in scripture.
Another reason why some inerrantists will not even consider the possibility that they could be wrong relates more to psychology than theology. They equate giving up inerrancy with giving up their faith altogether. Of course, that would probably not be such a bad thing. Many who give up their faith in the interests of honesty and truth end up finding it again at some point along their journey, only the second time around it is much healthier, healing, and life-affirming.
The title of Peter Enns’ latest book, The Sin of Certainty, would suggest that having to have an inerrant Bible out of a need for certainty is a sin. I don’t know if it is or isn’t. I have enough sin in my life to keep me plenty occupied without trying to find it in others. But what I do know is that belief in biblical inerrancy simply makes no sense.
This post first appeared at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog

Finding our way to a good conversion

No Christian conversion is exactly alike; each one is unique. This is certainly true of Saul’s conversion depicted by Luke in Acts 9. There are, however, some common elements.

Read post at Baptist News Global

Why Bible believers are not really Bible believers.

A good number of evangelical Christians self-identify as Bible believers. It’s a peculiar way for a Christian to self-identify when you think about it. A Christian is someone who has some kind of relationship to Christ. After all Christ is part of the word Christian. And yet for a good number of evangelical Christians Bible believer is the term of choice.
It’s not accurate though, because no self-identified Bible believer actually believes the whole Bible — at least not in the way they claim to.
Read post at Baptist News Global.