Heart to Heart

We modern folks, Protestants in particular, have a hard time conceiving of ministry that doesn’t somehow involve an exchange of information. We talk a lot. Many words.

We ask for prayer requests and affirmations of faith. We made the sermon the central feature of the worship event. We analyze hymns based on their lyrical content. Especially since God cannot be seen directly with the eyes, we are tempted to reduce Christian faith to exchanging the right kind of information in the right way.

Let me be as clear as possible: I have come to believe that we have made a vital error in this. Faith and ministry are adamantly not primarily about the exchange of information.

I experienced this firsthand in a new way last spring when I visited St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. During my week there, I shared that space with the monks who live there year-round and with several other visitors: an Anglican priest, a Quaker pastor, a woman going through a difficult life transition, two young women in campus ministry, a group of men on retreat from a nearby Episcopal church, and a rabbi in the throes of a psychotic episode.

Each of us had our own reasons for being there, but what I experienced most deeply was the sense of togetherness and connection that emerged, not from our conversations, but primarily through the space shared in silence. We got to know each other while knowing very little about each other. This was intimacy minus the exchange of information. It runs completely counter to the style of relational building that our culture has trained us to pursue (which could be described as the exchange of information without intimacy).

There is a similar kind of ministry that grows among us at North Presbyterian Church, where I serve as pastor. Most of the people we do ministry with have some kind of serious, chronic mental illness. Some of our people are barely verbal in their cognitive expression. I stand up to preach every Sunday, but it’s not the main event of the service. My sermon could be good or bad, short or long, and the ideas would still go over the heads of several people in the congregation. They don’t come for the sermon.

Instead, they come to sing their hearts out (loudly and off-key), to share a hug and a smile (maybe the only one they’ll get all week), to voice their weekly joys and concerns in words that are sometimes unintelligible (but known to God in prayer), to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist (which we celebrate weekly, a rarity among Presbyterians).

Our liturgy is messy and rowdy: quite the opposite of Benedictine silence and Presbyterian “decency and order.”

Our worship and ministry at North is not about the exchange of information, but the intimate connection of heart to heart in the gospel. It happens in music and touch, in bread and wine.

The following video illustrates this beautifully. While none of our members are as impaired as Ms. Wilson, the principle of ministry is the same. St. Francis of Assisi is thought to have said, “Preach the gospel always; use words when necessary.” This video shows how it’s done:

Including and Transcending

Mark 1:1-8, NRSV

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Have you ever experienced yourself (or some part of your life) as completely and totally unacceptable? Something that, if it were known publicly, would cause you so much shame that you’d probably just go ahead and spend the rest of your life hiding under your bed, eating Cheetos? I think we all do.

We all have some parts of our life that we think about and go, “If anyone ever knew about this, they’d never speak to me again!”

A lot of the time, we don’t even like to think privately about the fact that these parts of ourselves exist.

And, even though we believe theologically that God knows everything and God’s love is unconditional, a part of us is still terrified that even God would look away in from us in disgust if such a thing became known.

And so we hide… whether we’re under the bed eating Cheetos or covering ourselves with fig leaves like Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, we ashamed and afraid of being exposed, so we hide these parts of our lives.

Looking at our gospel text this morning, the narrator (who is named ‘Mark’ by tradition) opens his story with the announcement that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

But the story is not just Jesus’ story alone: Right here, at the beginning, the narrator goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the story of the gospel includes parts of all different stories.

First of all, there is the Jewish story. This is not surprising, especially since Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. So, it makes perfect sense that the story of Jesus would have a particularly Jewish feel to it: Jewish memories of the past, Jewish hopes of the future.

We can see Mark intentionally including those elements in the way he tells Jesus’ story:

For example, there is his use of the word Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Christ (Christos in Greek) is a Greek word that translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah). The English translation of both of these words is Anointed. It refers to a part of the ritual for crowning kings in ancient Israel when a prophet or a priest would pour olive oil on the head of the new king. This anointing was a sign that the person in question was God’s choice as leader. In Jesus’ time, this idea had developed into a national hope for a coming king who would liberate the Jewish people from occupation by the Romans. So, by calling Jesus the Anointed (i.e. Christ, Messiah), Mark is including the Jewish story (with all of its memories and hopes) in Jesus’ story.

There’s another way that Mark makes this connection:

It’s not with Jesus himself, but with this other important figure: John the Baptist. When Mark introduces John, he spends a great deal of time describing what John is wearing – “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

These are all very important visual cues that Mark is giving his readers, but we 21st century people are likely to miss them, since we’re not from the same culture as Mark’s readers. However, we can get an idea of what he is talking about: If I were to use visual cues to describe a fat man in a red suit coming down a chimney, who do you think I would be talking about? Santa Claus!

We recognize those visual cues because they are deeply embedded in our own culture. In the same way, Mark is giving his audience visual cues about John the Baptist by describing what he is wearing. When he says that John is “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey,” people in his culture would immediately recognize that as the prophet Elijah, whose return to earth was supposed to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

Mark reinforces this idea by quoting a verse from the book of the Jewish prophet Malachi:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”

That’s all that Mark quotes, but if we kept reading in the book of Malachi, we would quickly come to this verse in the same section – “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Again, we encounter this idea of Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, God’s anointed king. Between these visual and verbal cues, Mark is actually laying it on pretty thick that John the Baptist is Elijah, so when John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” Jewish readers would get really excited, because that means that the promised Messiah is about to come. And we, as Christians, believe that’s exactly what happened when Jesus appeared on the scene.

So again, Mark is including these Jewish memories and hopes in his presentation of the Christian gospel. The Jewish story is part of Jesus’ story.

But wait, there’s more:

Mark doesn’t just include the Jewish story in Jesus’ story, he includes the Roman story as well. This is really surprising. After all, the Romans were pagans who didn’t worship Israel’s God at all. Also, they were foreigners: an invading army that was occupying the lands of Judea and Galilee. One would certainly not expect the story of the Jewish Messiah to also include the memories and hopes of pagan foreigners, but it does.

Mark begins Jesus’ story by calling it “the good news” (euangelion), which is also where we get the word “gospel” from. The term was not initially a religious term, but a Roman political one. An euangelion was an imperial proclamation that a royal child had been born, that a new emperor had ascended the throne, or that Caesar was victorious over his enemies.

Also, Mark refers to Jesus with the title Son of God. These days, we’re used to that title being applied to Jesus, but in Roman times, it was a title reserved for Caesar alone. By using the terms euangelion and Son of God, Mark is intentionally including elements of the Roman story in Jesus’ story. He’s saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for the Jews; it’s good news for the whole world.

However, even as the gospel of Jesus includes elements from these other Jewish and Roman stories, it also transcends them.

First of all, using Roman imperial images to refer to Jesus sets him up as another authority figure who will compete with the power of Rome. When the early Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!” they were making the dangerous and subversive implication that “Caesar is not.” That, to a large degree, is why the Roman Empire perceived Christians as a threat to national security and subsequently hunted and executed them.

The Caesars of Rome had a particular agenda that they were advancing: the Pax Romana. Their goal was to achieve world peace through conquest. They would impose Roman order over the face of the entire world under the leadership of Caesar. The dangerous claim of Christians is that they would achieve the same goal, but Jesus (not Caesar) would be the head of the global household. Also, the Roman vision was “peace through conquest” but the Christian vision was “conquest through peace.” The harmony of creation would be restored, not by imposing order from without, but by nurturing peace within. The Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) reigns in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ disciples by the power of God’s love, not by the power of the sword. The story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Roman story.

In the same way, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends the Jewish story. The Jewish idea of the coming Messiah was that of a revolutionary leader who wields political and military power to liberate the Jewish homeland from foreign occupation and usher in a Jewish golden age of national security, prosperity, and fidelity to the Torah of Moses.

But the gospel of Jesus is much bigger than that. The gospel of Jesus is not just a Jewish story; it includes the Gentiles and all the nations of the world (even the Romans). So, just as it was with the Roman story, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Jewish story.

When it comes to our lives, I think the same principle applies. The Christian gospel includes, but also transcends our personal stories.

Nothing is left out: all that you have, all that you are, everything that has ever happened to you, and everything you’ve made happen is part of what God is doing in your life.

This is a message of total acceptance. You are loved and accepted, radically and unconditionally, by God. God loves you, not just in spite of your mistakes, faults, character flaws, quirks, and wounds, but with them. God loves you, just as you are. Full stop. No exceptions. God’s love for you is an act of free, radical, and sovereign grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn it or lose it. As the theologian Paul Tillich was fond of saying, “All you can do is accept that you are accepted.”

Like you hear me say every week: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a powerful truth (which is why I make a point of saying it every week). If we were to let the significance of this truth sink into our souls, it would change the way we live our lives. I dare say that it would even change the world.

The story of Jesus’ work in your life includes all parts of your own personal story. Nothing is left out. Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that!” Nothing ends up on the cutting room floor, as it were. Total acceptance. Total inclusion.

And just like the Roman story and the Jewish story, even as every element of our personal stories are included in the story of the gospel in our lives, every element of our personal story is also transcended.

Nothing is left out. Just as Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that,” Christ also looks at every part of your life (no matter how good) and says, “Let’s work on that.”

God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way. When I was a kid, there were recruitment videos for the U.S. Army that called soldiers to “Be all that you can be.” But Christ is calling us to be more than that.

One of my favorite hymns in our new hymnal is “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The second verse of that hymn addresses this subject of transcendence and transformation directly:

O Light that followest all my way, I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray, that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

By including, but also transcending, all the various elements of our personal stories, Christ is calling us to a destiny that is bigger and more magnificent than we can possibly imagine. Just like the Transformers, there is “more” to us “than meets the eye.” Jesus is calling us up into that “more.”

What does it look like? Well, the answer is complicated.

We know that each person is unique. We believe that each person is made in the image of God. Therefore, it stands to reason that each person will reflect the image of God in their own unique way.

Christ is calling you to be more than you are now, but never calls you to be what you are not. God’s calling on your life will not look exactly like God’s calling on someone else’s life. Whatever you’re called to be, you’re not called to be exactly like them.

It’s like stained-glass windows in a church: each one is different from all the others; each one is hand-crafted by a master artist. But when the sunlight shines through them, it is the light of the one and only sun.

In the same way, our lives and callings in Christ will look very different from one another. We come with our own unique gifts and struggles. When the light shines through us, it shines differently, but it is the one Light of Christ: including and transcending all the various parts of our personal stories and making them part of the one Great Story: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Long Journey Home

One of the highlights of my college experience was Spring Break 2002, when I got to spend 10 days in Romania on a student mission trip. While there, we led evangelistic services in churches and cultural halls, visited orphanages and psychiatric hospitals, played and prayed with the people who lived there, and handed out packages of gifts prepared by volunteers through an organization called Samaritan’s Purse.

The trip was sponsored by the church I attended at the time: a non-denominational charismatic church in western North Carolina. Our pastors told us they had seen some pretty amazing things happen on these trips in the past, especially as they were praying for sick people. The Bible calls them ‘signs and wonders’ while most modern people refer to them as ‘miracles’. They told us the kinds of stories we had only read about in the Bible: blind people suddenly being able to see for the first time, injured people throwing their crutches up into the air and then dancing home.

I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s something I want to see!” I wanted to have direct, personal experience with the kinds of phenomena I had only read about in the Bible. But then it didn’t happen. I watched, I waited, I prayed, but it still didn’t happen.

When I go back and read my personal journal from that week, I’m kind of embarrassed at how obsessed I was with the idea of witnessing a miracle. It’s pretty much all I wrote about, even though I was on the other side of the world, leaving my home country and seeing real poverty for the first time, hearing another language, meeting people whose lives were very different from my own. I got to drive around the back corners of post-Communist, Eastern Europe, far off the beaten-path carved out for tourists. I woke up to the sound of Orthodox monks chanting in a church across the lake from the hotel where we stayed in Bucharest. I got to spend St. Patrick’s Day in Vienna, visiting a Gothic cathedral and drinking really good, dark beer with a bunch of singing old men in a hole-in-the-wall pub that had first opened its doors in 1435… decades before Native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus lost at sea.

I met a Baptist family in the city of Galati, who had transformed their home into a refuge for young men who had been turned out of the orphanage on their 18th birthday with no educational or occupational prospects for the future. This family welcomed these guys into their home, helped them learn enough to get a job, and incorporated them into the life of their church. This same family welcomed us as well and put out a delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres for our group of loud, whiny, and tired American college students who had driven in from several hours away and hadn’t had much to eat that day. We sang Amazing Grace together around that table, in English and Romanian… I think that moment the closest to heaven I’ll ever get in this life.

I even flew over the Alps, for crying out loud, the ALPS: one of the most majestic mountain ranges in the world. If it was miracles that I wanted to see, I was surrounded by them; I just didn’t have the eyes to recognize it the time. I was too obsessed with a particular idea of a miracle as a supernatural event that violates the normal laws of physics or biology. What I think I was looking for during that week was some kind of absolute assurance for my faith. I wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is real and God loves me.

I think a lot of people are looking for that kind of absolute assurance these days. I think it’s one of the main reasons why people get caught up in cults or other kinds of religious fundamentalism. There is so much to be uncertain about in this life; they just want something to hold onto, so they look for it in paranormal phenomena, mystical experiences, sacred texts like the Bible or the Qur’an, theological systems like Calvinism, religious institutions like the church, or authoritative leaders like the Pope or David Koresh.

Faith is hard. It’s a long journey home. Just like Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land through the barren wilderness, it’s a winding journey that takes a lifetime.

People naturally look for something to hold onto in that journey. We’re looking for something to help us keep going when the going gets tough, which is why we so often stumble into problems like cults, fanaticism, and fundamentalism. We’re looking for something concrete that we can put our faith in, some kind of absolute assurance that God is with us and will be faithful to love us all the way home.

That was the inner need that drove the Israelites in the book of Exodus to build a Golden Calf. They had already experienced God’s presence and power in their lives: God had already led them, by the hand of Moses, out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

But now they were at a crossroads, camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses had disappeared over a month ago in a thunderstorm at the top of the mountain and, by Moses’ own orders, they weren’t even allowed to send a rescue mission to go look for them. After 40 days with no contact, they didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

So they said to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Hey, we’ve been patient but enough is enough. We need to face the fact that Moses is probably never coming back. So, we want you to take command and the first thing we need you to do for us is give us some kind of absolute assurance, something we can believe in, something we can hold onto while we make this long, hard journey to the Promised Land.

So Aaron did what he could, given the circumstances. Someone in my profession might say that he was just trying to be a good pastor and meet his people’s spiritual needs. He took up an offering of gold, the very best they had to offer, and melted it down. Then he constructed the image of the Golden Calf from it and presented it to the people saying, “Here! This is your absolute assurance that we will make it to where we’re going… These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

And the people were delighted. They were unified, inspired, and motivated. Even Moses, with all his signs and wonders, hadn’t been able to give them something so clear and concrete. This was a God they could understand; this was something they could look to in the hard times, not some mysterious presence that could never be seen or touched. This was their “blessed assurance.”

The problem is that it was all a lie. In the eyes of God, their assurance, their absolute certainty, was nothing more than an idol: a graven image, made by human hands, to which they were bowing down in place of God.

God gives us many things, but certainty isn’t one of them. Absolute certainty, especially when it comes to the divine mystery, is idolatry. As it says in the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

God had no desire to fit inside any box that can be made by human hands, be it a literal box, a statue, a building, an institution, a book, a theological system, or any other Golden Calf we can imagine with our minds and construct with our hands. The basic motivation behind religious fundamentalism, whether it leads people to fly airplanes into buildings or picket funerals with offensive signs, is idolatry. These people, who often have the loudest voices calling others back to “worship the one, true God,” are the very same people who have bowed their knee to a graven image: a god who fits inside of a box, a god we can wrap our heads around, a god we can see and touch, and ultimately a false god who is not worthy of our worship.

Whether the format is Pagan, Muslim, or even Christian, any God we can fully understand is unworthy of our worship.

But this divine mystery doesn’t leave us much to hold onto. Once again, we find ourselves with the Israelites: camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, facing a long and difficult journey that we don’t expect to complete in this lifetime. We need something to hold onto. We need some kind of assurance, even if it isn’t absolute assurance. And Moses (who is not dead) knows this about us. And so he pleads with God on our behalf.

In today’s reading, God gives Moses two things: a mission and a promise. The mission is simple: “Bring up this people.” God wants Moses to guide his people home, to the Promised Land (which is always referred to as ‘up’ in Israelite geography). And God’s promise to Moses is this: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.”

These are good words, powerful words, and they reflect the truth of God’s reality and God’s disposition toward Moses and the people. But Moses follows with a very reasonable concern: what might be an appropriate alternative to the Golden Calf? What kind of assurance can we, as God’s people, hold onto in this journey? Moses says, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.”

He’s saying, in essence, “God, I believe that what you’re telling me is true, but how will I know?”

God replies, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And again Moses puts the question to God, “But how will I know?” He says, “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?”

And God repeats again the very first thing he said to Moses, “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

And Moses says, “Okay, God. Show me… Show me your glory, I pray.”

And God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked… I will make all my goodness pass before you.”

“But,” God says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God gives Moses what he asks for, but also doesn’t give it. God’s face, the fullness of divine mystery, is too big for anyone to handle. We can’t wrap our minds around it… our heads would explode. Moses has asked the impossible: he simply can’t see God’s face. But that doesn’t mean he gets nothing.

Moses has a direct experience of God, just not the one he asked for. God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses doesn’t get to see God’s face, but he does get to see God’s back. He has an experience, just not the one he asked for. It’s something less than the full experience of divine glory (which he couldn’t handle anyway).

Moses seeing God’s back reminds me of a parable that originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent and is told and retold in many different religious traditions:

Six blind men decide to find out what an ‘elephant’ is, so they set out to examine one by feel. One touches the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a great snake.” Another touches an ear and says, “An elephant is like a great flap of leather.” Another touches the side and says, “An elephant is like a great wall.” Another touches a leg and says, “An elephant is like a great pillar.” Another touches the skull and says, “An elephant is like a great boulder.” And the last one grabs the tail and says, “An elephant is like a great rope.”

Now, which one has it right? All of them. And which one has it wrong? All of them. Each blind man is having some kind of true experience of an elephant, but none of them is experiencing the full reality of ‘elephant-ness’.

Just as it was for these six blind men and the elephant, and as it was for Moses seeing God’s back and not God’s face, so it is with us and our experience with God.

Just like Moses on the mountain, God’s back is all we get to see in this life. The only thing that spiritual experiences, the Sacraments, the Bible, theology, and church can do is, when they are at their best, express God’s reflected glory in an indirect and incomplete way. These things are all good as means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves. They point us to God, but they cannot replace God.

There is no such thing as absolute assurance or certainty in this life. We cannot see the face of God, but only the back. Faith does not come with a money-back guarantee, there is always a risk. We will always have to take that ‘leap of faith’ in order to believe.

When we do (take that leap), it changes the way we see the world. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Through the eyes of a faith that dares to risk believing, everything becomes a miracle. The whole universe is able to reflect the glory of God’s back. Everything can be a metaphor for God.

In church, we tend to use the most well-known biblical image for God, “Our Father,” but did you know that the Bible also refers to God as a Mother? Also in the Bible:

  • God is honored as a king, yet humble as a shepherd;
  • God is powerful as a warrior and weak as a baby;
  • God is bright as light, yet ‘cloaked in darkness’;
  • God is one and God is three;
  • God is a rock, God is the wind, God is a river, God is a fire, and God is a star.

All of these are valid, biblical images for God, but none of them captures the fullness of the divine mystery. To paraphrase Rev. Forrest Church, “God is present in each of these things, but is also greater than all of these things.”

Anything and everything communicates something of God to us. Not the fullness, but a part; not the face, but the back.

Can we see it? Do we choose to see it with the eyes of faith?

If we let them, all things can point us back to God, their Source. In order to see it, we must trust (have faith) in the promise, God’s word to Moses: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.” In other words, “I’m here, I’m with you, and I love you.”

This is all the assurance we have in this life. Indeed, it’s all we need for the long journey home.

St. Hildegard von Bingen, Doctor of the Church (1098-1179)

St. Hildegard von Bingen was a Benedictine nun, visionary mystic, community leader, scientist, writer, and musical composer.

On this, the day of her memorial, I can do no better than to let her speak in her own words, interspersed with illustrations from her writings (whose production she supervised personally). All quotes are borrowed from the Spirituality and Practice website.

Images are borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

While you meditate, I invite you to listen to this music, which she composed…

Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthly. . . .
The earth is at the same time mother,
She is mother of all that is natural,
mother of all that is human.
She is the mother of all,
for contained in her
are the seeds of all.

God hugs you.
You are encircled by the arms
of the mystery of God.

Good People,
most royal greening verdancy,
rooted in the sun,
you shine with radiant light.

Humankind, full of all creative possibilities, is God’s work. Humankind alone is called to assist God. Humankind is called to co-create. With nature’s help, humankind can set into creation all that is necessary and life-sustaining.

Liberal Christianity – 10 things to know about the ‘middle way’ (reblog)

This is a good, concise introduction. Most (though not all) of these criteria apply to the way I practice my Christian faith. I wish the author had noted that there are many evangelicals and catholics who also meet several of these criteria as well, although they would not apply the ‘liberal’ label to themselves. These folks are no less followers of the ‘middle way’. Not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.

Another critique I have of the article is that they lump all ‘mainline’ Christians into the liberal camp, which is patently untrue. Mainline denominations, like my own (Presbyterian), tend to make room for liberals to exist within their borders, but that doesn’t make them ‘liberal’ per se. The sense I get is that both liberals and evangelicals feel like the minority within their denominations, while our leaders try to maintain some kind of middle ground that leaves room for both parties to co-exist in good conscience.

With those caveats in mind, I still think this is a good 2 page intro to liberal Christianity and is worth reading.

One of the things I enjoy most about occupying this particular theological territory is that neither Richard Dawkins nor Pat Robertson knows what to do with me.

By Douglas Todd
Reblogged from the Vancouver Sun

When North American media look at religion, they home in on people who cite Jesus to condemn homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia, reject female clergy and organize Tea Party protests against taxation. This polarized portrait is amplified when famous atheists attack such views as backward.

Liberal Christianity offers an alternative. But few know about the option, which Columbia University history professor Gary Dorrien, the foremost expert on the subject, calls “a progressive, credible integrative way between orthodox over-belief and secular unbelief.”

Come to the Table: In Remembrance of Me (or ‘The Eucharist for Time Travellers’)

Image
By John Snyder (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the privilege of officiating at the funeral of a rather unconventional saint named Gloria. She was a rough-around-the-edges kind of grandma who exuded a kind of exuberant joy to those who loved her. Her home was an oasis for weary travelers who knew they could stop by any time and find food on the stove and drinks in the fridge. My favorite part of the funeral was when her grandson, Donald, got up and said as much about her. He spoke affectionately and off-the-cuff. It meant a great deal to everyone who came. Honestly, I think Donald’s brief remembrances of his grandmother did more to comfort bereaved family members than anything I said or did in the service.

What is it about the act of remembering that people tend to find so valuable? Obviously, the good feelings we get from fond memories help to offset the pain of loss, but I suspect there is actually much more to it than that.

When we remember something or someone, we saying that we want that thing or person to remain a part of us in some significant way.

For example, Donald sharing memories of his grandma’s hospitality and humor on behalf of his family was a way of saying that they want those same qualities of love and laughter to live on in them. We do this with negative things too, like the Holocaust. The great, resounding refrain that we hear again and again from the lips of Holocaust historians is: “Never again.” When we remember the Holocaust, we are not celebrating its existence, but stating out loud that we want the pain of twelve million lost lives to remain with us, so that future generations of human beings will never know the horror of genocide. This too, is a powerful kind of remembrance.

We’re talking about remembrance today. This is the second in a five-week series on the meaning of the sacrament of the Eucharist in the life of the church. Remembrance is the part of this sacrament that we Protestants are most familiar with. We eat bread and drink wine in accordance with Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

This sacrament is obviously a great memorial to Jesus’ love and sacrifice. When we celebrate it, we are saying that we want those same values of Christ-like love and sacrifice to live on in us. But there’s even more to it than that: when we remember Jesus in the sacrament, we are saying that Christ himself lives in us. As we eat the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ; as we drink from the cup, his blood flows in our veins. To put it simply: you are what you eat.

This truth becomes especially pertinent when we consider how ancient humans thought about time.  We modern folks have been trained to think of time as a straight line, moving in one direction, from the past to the future.  Two fixed points in time can never get closer to one another.  Once an event has taken place, we can only get farther and farther away from it.  Memory fades and sooner or later, everyone is forgotten while the universe goes on.  That’s the modern, linear view of time.

But our ancestors in the ancient world didn’t see time that way.  They saw the world operating in cycles: every day, the sun would rise and set; every month, the moon would go through its phases; every year, the four seasons would come around again.  Time, for them, was a great big circle.  Every time a certain moment in a particular cycle came round again, they thought they were repeating that moment.  This is the cyclical view of time.

This way of looking at time is important for us linear, modern folks to understand because it helps us make sense of why certain holidays were so important to ancient people.  When our Jewish ancestors would celebrate the Passover, they really believed, on some level, that they were taking part in the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.  By taking part in the ceremonial meal, they thought they were joining their ancestors on that journey.  (For all you science fiction fans: it’s kind of like time travel.)

This is how Jesus and his disciples would have thought about the Passover meal they were sharing on the night before he died.  So, when Jesus starts adding elements to the story, saying “this is my body” and “this is my blood” over the ceremonial bread and wine, it was a big deal.  It meant that what was happening through Jesus was as important to history as the Exodus from Egypt.

Later on, as Jesus’ earliest followers started celebrating this remembrance on a weekly basis, they brought with them that cyclical view of time.  The truly believed they were joining Jesus and the apostles around the table at the Last Supper.  (Again: time travel!)

For them, the Last Supper was not a single event, fading slowly into the distant past, but a recurring one in which Christ is perpetually present.  According to the linear view of time, we can only ever get further and further away from Jesus, who lived on earth approximately two thousand years ago.  But according to the cyclical view of time, he is ever present: we meet him again and again as we gather around this table in this act of remembrance.

Why is this important?  I think it matters today more than ever.  You and I live in the age of the Information Superhighway.  Infinite bits of data whiz by our heads at all hours of the day or night: news headlines, sports scores, stock prices, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  Our culture launches ahead with each new discovery, each new technological innovation.  We’re obsessed with “bigger, better, faster, more!”  We call it progress.  But is it really?  But have these fancy, hi-tech toys really done much to improve who we are as human beings?  We’ve landed robots on Mars, but have we yet touched down on the surface of our own souls?  I’m not so sure.

We have a wealth of information at hand to keep us abreast of what’s happening in the world, but very little wisdom to tell us what it all means.  Without that kind of deep guidance, I fear that our rocket ship toward progress might actually leave us falling head first into meaninglessness.

Our ancient ancestors may not have had the kind of scientific knowledge that we moderns do, but they knew about wisdom.  I am continually amazed when I read the great spiritual classics like The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing and I find their messages just as relevant today as they were when they were first written, hundreds of years ago.

At no time is this truer for me than when I sit down at the table next to Jesus.  I hear his words, eat his bread, and drink his wine.  And suddenly, I find myself time travelling: looping around to connect again with the One who gives life meaning.  Jesus Christ is not a distant memory, fading slowly into the past; he is alive and present with us in his body and blood.

Taking time each week to remember this truth gives us the perspective we need to see the world aright.  In the act of sacramental remembrance, we step outside the constant stream of information and feed back repeatedly into this moment around the table with Jesus.  We remember once again what Jesus showed and taught us.  We remember what life is all about and then step back out into that data stream again, but maybe this time we’ll have the wisdom to see, not just what is happening in the world, but what it all means.

The answer we come up with, as people of faith, to that question of meaning will be fundamentally different from the answer handed to us by (so-called) modern civilization.  The challenge Jesus leaves us with is to remember in our souls and bodies where we truly come from, where we are going, and where our allegiance lies.

It’s a difficult challenge, one that we’re sure to fail at in the long term, which is why it’s so important for us to keep coming back regularly and participating as often as possible in this act of remembrance.  May this bread and this wine, the body and blood of Christ, nourish you with all the strength you need to make it through this week faithfully… and I’ll see you again next Sunday.

How A Poor Theology Of The Cross Created America’s Broken Justice System (Reblog)

I love Sojourners!
An excellent article by Benjamin Corey reblogged from their website:

Our jails are overflowing, people are receiving life sentences for minor crimes under three strikes laws, racial disparities leave minority populations disproportionately represented in the incarcerated population, and we’re so obsessed with killing that we’re now using untested concoctions of drugs that recently took a condemned inmate more than 20 minutes to finally die.

Our system isn’t working.

It might surprise you however, to understand how we arrived at such a broken justice system.

We got here because of poor theology.

Click here to read the full article

Redefining Success

Image
Károly Ferenczy [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

What would you say are the marks of a successful church?

Here are some of my ideas for North Church:

  • We’re going to court some billionaire investors. Not donors, but investors. We want to incentivize their giving by promising a lucrative return. Once we have their money, we’re going to make use of it.

  • First of all, because we need to keep them happy (so they’ll keep sending us money), we’re going to turn our upstairs balcony into a skybox where our wealthiest members can observe the service in comfort, with leather recliners and a full wait staff serving champagne and caviar.

  • For our music ministry, we’re going to hire a full-time, paid, professionally trained choir (we already have the best organist in Michigan, so we won’t need a new one of those). Our contemporary worship team will get brand new, state-of-the-art AV equipment.

  • We’re going to get TV cameras so our service can be broadcast live via satellite around the world.

  • We’ll get paid endorsements from celebrities like Derek Jeter (add Christina Hendricks and George Clooney for sex appeal), who will tell everybody how great North Church is.

  • And finally, we’ll need to protect all this new stuff, so we’ll need to get a security force to guard the church. And I’m not thinking just some smiling, helpful rentacops either… I’m talking about SWAT team gear with assault rifles: I want such an overwhelming display of power that nobody will even THINK about messing with our church.

If we had all of those things (i.e. money, fame, and power), we would be a successful church, right? Wrong.

Blessedness

Jesus’ definition of the word success is different from the one accepted by the rest of the world. The world has a very self-centered definition of success, but Jesus presents us with a God-centered definition of success. The word he uses is blessed, which can also mean successful or lucky when you take away the spiritual side of it. That word blessed, by the way, comes from the Latin beatus and is where we get get the word Beatitude from. Blessedness, from the God-centered perspective of Jesus, is quite different from the world’s self-centered idea of success.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The world sees wealth as a sign of success: the Armani tux, the Vera Wang dress, the Italian sports car, the yacht, and the mansion. The world looks at people who have those things and calls them successful/lucky.But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdoms of this world (governments, corporations, institutions) cater to the desires of the haves, but the kingdom of heaven (Jesus’ vision of an ideal society) will serve the needs of the have-nots. On the day when God’s dream for this world comes true, no more will Senators and CEOs vote to give themselves raises and go on vacation while the people whose jobs they cut sleep in shelters and line up outside soup kitchens. That’s not going to happen anymore.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The world looks at people who seem to be happy and calls them “successful.” Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the one day a year when people watch TV just as much for the commercials as they watch it for the program. How many people plugging products in those commercials will be average-looking folks, looking bored, and saying, “Meh, I guess this product is okay…”? Not very many, I think. TV commercials are full of beautiful, smiling people who are excited to tell you all about how a particular cleaning solution changed their lives forever. They want us to believe that we’ll be as beautiful and happy as they are if only we buy what they’re selling. The world says that happy people are successful people, but Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus invites us to not buy into that “cult of happiness.” Jesus doesn’t want us to turn away from the pain of this world, he wants us to look at it and do something about it. That’s what compassion is: Showing up with food or clothes, visiting the shelter, the drop-in, the hospital bed, the courtroom, and the prison cell. That’s the kind of love Jesus showed us and it’s the kind of love he wants us to show others. Wherever there’s pain, there’s Jesus, so that’s where we should be too.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The world says that successful people are tough-minded alpha-dogs who stand their ground and don’t compromise. Those are the big-shots who end up in running the show. The world puts them in charge of things. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek (i.e. gentle, flexible), for they will inherit the earth.” I like this one because I read a book by a couple of biologists last year that talks about how competition is not the only driving force behind evolution. They make the case that cooperation plays just as big a role in the ongoing development of life. When God’s dream for this world comes true, the ones in charge will be the ones who know how to work well with others and value relationships more than ideologies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

The world believes that truly successful people lack for nothing. They have everything they could ever want. They benefit from the way things are. Insulated by wealth and power, they don’t sense the urgency of the situation or feel the need to challenge the system. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (i.e. justice, fairness), for they will be filled.” That last part is especially ominous because history has shown, time and again, that poor people will not stay quiet and submissive forever. If the leaders will not change the system, the people will change the leaders. Jesus has been proven right more than once: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

The world says that successful people know how to give as good as they get. If you hit them, they hit you back. They make an example of you so that others know not to mess with them. That’s the politics of power. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Real power, according to Jesus, comes from knowing that you could rip your enemies to shreds but choosing not to. What’s more is that mercy is contagious: it comes back to you. It stops the cycle of violence from going around and around and escalating until the situation is out of control. The United States and the Soviet Union spend the latter half of the twentieth century with nuclear missiles pointed at each other in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But then the Cold War ended, not with a mushroom cloud, but with a party: people singing and dancing as the Berlin Wall came down. The doctrine of MAD-ness did neither side any good in the end.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

The world says that successful people are savvy: they know how to read between the lines and close the deal. They’re street-smart; they have guile. Successful people know how the game is played and stay two steps ahead of the competition. These savvy, successful people are sure to see great big dividends on their investments. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Savvy, street-smart people see the world for what they can get out of it, but they’re missing a whole other dimension of reality. Those who see the world like Jesus does get to see the hand of God at work in creation. These blessed folks know that they’re not alone and that life has meaning. I like to compare this one to the scene in Star Wars when Han Solo is laughing at Luke Skywalker as he trains to be a Jedi Knight. Luke says, “You don’t believe in the Force, do you?” Han replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” Han is savvy but Luke is pure in heart. Luke is learning how to see the world through a different set of eyes and so, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said about him, he’s taking his “first steps into a larger world.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The world defines success by winning. Whether it’s trophies on the shelf or notches on the bedpost, the world wants to know about your conquests. This was especially true in ancient Rome, where the empire was built on the doctrine of Pax Romana: world peace through global conquest. They believed that Roman order would prevail over the barbarians of the world by the mighty hand of Caesar. And Caesar himself was worshiped and given a very special title: “The Son of God,” Sol Invictus, “the Unconquerable Sun.” But Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers (not the conquerors), for they will be called children (lit. ‘sons’) of God.”

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Finally, the world says that respect is a measure of success. They say a good name is as good as gold. If people listen to what you say, you’re successful. If you get invited to the White House to advise the President on a matter, you’re successful. The world says it’s good to be admired and respected. Those who possess the kingdoms of this world are accorded respect, whether they deserve it or not. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the parallel with the first beatitude. God’s ideal world belongs to the have-nots, the disrespected, the ones without a voice, and those who suffer and die for standing up and speaking out for what’s right. When God’s dream for this world comes true, these are the people we’ll be listening to, not the flattering bootlickers who only tell powerful leaders what they want to hear. We need people of conscience who will “speak the truth in love” to the powerful ones in charge. That’s what prophets do, but they’re almost never listened to or given the respect they deserve. Nevertheless, Jesus calls them “blessed” and commands us to keep doing it.

Conclusion

Jesus redefines success. He takes the world’s self-centered idea of success and replaces it with his own God-centered idea of blessedness. In the mind of Christ, success is not a blessing and blessing does not look like success. God’s blessing is upon the poor and oppressed peoples of this world, the ones without a voice, the ones who weep in the night, and the ones who are literally starving for change. God’s blessing is upon the gentle, the compassionate, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.God’s blessing is upon those who face the pain of this world and do what they can to make a difference. God’s blessing is upon those who are a blessing. And so it is that I say to you:

May God bless you and make you a blessing, this day and every day. AMEN.

Reclaiming Repentance

By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Repent is one of the most misunderstood words in the Christian religious vocabulary.  The sound of it typically conjures up images of wild-eyed, Bible-thumping preachers screaming about hellfire and damnation from atop a soapbox on a street corner.  Even those who know better still tend to associate repentance with feelings of guilt and shame over past failures.

Jesus uses that word in this morning’s gospel reading when he says to the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  I don’t think he was trying to lay a guilt-trip on his listeners, nor was he trying to frighten them into becoming disciples.

When Jesus uses that word, repent, he is inviting his listeners into an experience of expanded consciousness.  The word repent in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written) is metanoia.  It literally means “to change one’s mind.”  Jesus is trying to get his listeners to think differently, think bigger, think outside the box.  Specifically, Jesus is inviting us to change the way we think about three things: God, ourselves, and the world.

First, Jesus is inviting his listeners to think bigger, think differently about God.  In the world of first century Judaism, people thought of God as being far away.  Moreover, they thought there were certain things that people needed to do or think in order to get God’s attention.  They thought God had to be appeased by certain rituals or impressed with good moral behavior and theological belief.  This is what groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees did with their time: they worked hard to get God’s attention/approval.

All of this is pretty consistent with what I call the human religious instinct.  In just about every human culture, on every continent, in every part of history, people have had some kind of belief in a Higher Power (e.g. God(s), Brahman, Tao, etc.).  Likewise, they have also had some kind of system in place for contacting, relating to, garnering favor with, or even controlling their Higher Power(s).  This is how religions are born.  Some scientists have even done studies that indicate our brains might be hardwired for forming religious beliefs and rituals.

One of the really interesting things about Jesus is that he takes this whole human religious enterprise and turns it on its head.  All religions present us with a way to find God, but Jesus presents us with a God who finds us.

He says in today’s reading, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Other English translations read, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Think about that: at hand.  Hold your hand out in front of you and look at it.  Think about those words: “The kingdom of heaven/God (i.e. the place where God lives) is at hand.”  Later on, Jesus would take this idea even further and say, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

This is a radical, prophetic, and mystical shift.  If it doesn’t blow your mind, then you weren’t really paying attention.  This turns the whole human idea of religion upside down.  God is not far away, God is close.  How close?  At hand.  Within you.  Taking a hint from Jesus, St. Augustine of Hippo says that God is closer to you than your own heart.

The other part of this is that there is nothing we have to do (or can do) to get God’s attention or gain God’s approval because we already have it.  Theologically speaking, this is called grace.  Grace is the unmerited favor, or unconditional love, of God.  Grace is God’s basic orientation toward the world.  It can’t be earned any more than a baby can earn the milk that comes from its mother’s breast.  It’s just there, free for the taking, because that’s just who God is in relation to the world.

This is how Jesus changes the way we think about God: he turns the whole human religious enterprise on its head by presenting us with a God who is close by and accepts us as we are.  The importance of this shift cannot be overstated.

As one might imagine, this change in the way we think about God would naturally have a profound effect on the way we think about ourselves and the world.

Under the systems and institutions created by our own human religious instinct, membership in the community of faith is intentionally kept exclusive.  There are certain things one has to do, think, or say in order to be let into “the club.”  The privileges of membership are reserved for the few who prove themselves worthy.  There is always an us and a them, insiders and outsiders, the saved and the damned.  This is the way that our human religious instinct has trained us to think, but it’s not the way that Jesus thinks.  To him, there is only us, there are no outsiders, no one is damned, and all are destined for salvation.  This is the good news that Jesus preaches.

And he doesn’t just preach it, either; he practices what he preaches.  For Jesus, the community of faith is not exclusive but radically inclusive.  They literally let anyone through the door of this party.

Jesus demonstrates this first of all in his ministry of table fellowship.  Sharing a home-cooked meal with someone in the ancient near east was a powerful thing.  It meant that you accepted this person as is, with no strings attached.  So, it was quite the village scandal when Jesus gathered a reputation for eating with “tax collectors and sinners” in the towns where he traveled.  The religious leaders of his time were constantly up in arms over the bad example he was setting by his willingness to accept and love all people unconditionally (even the losers, rejects, ne’er do wells, freaks, geeks, and criminals).

Another way that Jesus demonstrates the inclusive nature of his ministry is in the calling of his first disciples, which was also part of today’s gospel reading.  Look at this text with me, if you will.  What kinds of professional or spiritual qualifications does the text say that Andrew, Simon, James, and John had before Jesus was willing to call them to be his disciples?  Does it say anything about an interview process?  Do they have to attend classes first?  Does the text of Matthew’s gospel say anything about how often they went to synagogue, prayed, or studied their Torah?  No, it doesn’t.  Jesus just calls them and something within them responds, feels drawn to this person.  As I once heard someone else say, “Jesus doesn’t choose the qualified; he qualifies the chosen.”  That certainly seems to be the case here, even when it came to Christ’s apostles.

In the centuries since then, the Christian Church (in its better moments, anyway) has tried to embody the same kind of open inclusivity in its community that Jesus demonstrated in his.  In the early days of the Church, the big controversy was over the question of whether or not to let Gentiles (non-Jewish people) join the Church.  This might not seem like such a big deal to us, but I assure you that it was to Christians in the first century.  The debate got so heated that it almost split the Church.  They fought about it for a long time, but eventually landed on the side of inclusivity, saying that their faith would be a global faith with room for “every tribe, language, people, and nation.”

In more recent times, we’ve seen Christians reach out in the name of our inclusive faith to bridge the gap between denominations and religions.  We’ve worked hard to make room in our congregations for people from every race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and disability.

Right now, at this divided and polarized point in our nation’s history, when the spirit of community seems to be breaking down at all levels, the inclusive gospel of grace is one that people particularly need to hear.  In spite of the fact that people in our age are more electronically connected than ever, we have never been more spiritually isolated from one another.  We, the people of Christ, have been called to carry his subversive, disarming gospel to the nations.

We are called by Christ to repent (metanoia – “change the way we think”) about God, the world, and ourselves.  The gospel of Christ calls us to let go of our efforts to get God’s attention by doing, thinking, and saying the right things.  Christ calls us to rise up out of our polarized, divisive, and tribal consciousness shaped by the human religious instinct.  We are called to be a light to the world and show them by our gracious living that there is another way to be human.  We are called to lift up every voice and preach the good news of salvation: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Amen.

7 Ways to Be Sure You Are a Martin Luther King Jr. Kind of Christian (Reblog)

Image
By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: DeMarsico, Dick, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Reblogged from Huffington Post

By Paul Brandeis Rauschenbusch

To understand the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. one should first look to his Christian faith, which gave him the language, spiritual strength and community to fuel and sustain his singular efforts for justice, peace and freedom.

Faith was at the center of his life.

However, as we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. it is worthwhile to consider the kind of faith King embodied. Because there isn’t just one kind of Christian; and not all faith leaders lead towards freedom.

Click here to read the full article