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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The man who changed my life

Today's post is radically different from the spiritual journey chronicled in previous posts. Today's post is about the man who radically changed my life.

I was not exactly a high-flier in high school. A straight-A student through elementary and most of middle school, things started sliding in high school. Quitting band after making regional honor band my freshman year began the slide. "Extra curricular" activities of the really extra variety became much more important than academic achievement. But by my junior year, I began thinking about life after high school and started to make an effort again.

One afternoon in FFA "shop" (Future Farmers of America...I attended a really small high school in rural Texas), I spoke to my teacher, Ira B. Franklin, about pursuing a welding career after high school. I enjoyed welding in shop class and thought it would be a worthy pursuit.

Before I continue, I need to describe Ira B. "Chief" Franklin. Chief was a short but really heavy, stout black man with a voice probably two full octaves lower than that of James Earl Jones. Legend had it that a soon-to-be-steer got loose during the procedure and made a run at Chief. While the high school boys screamed like girls and hit the fence, Chief stood his ground, landing a forearm across the young bull's forehead, dropping him instantly, allowing the procedure to continue; Point being, Chief was a man's man and commanded respect from his minions.

Back to my story. I asked Chief one day, "What do I need to do to become a welder?" Chief had always been kind and respectful to me, despite my losing ways, and it soon became apparent why. Chief's smile quickly morphed into a grimace as he shouted "PAIGE! INTO MY OFFICE!" The rest of the class cowered as my jaw hit the floor, my face blanched white as a sheet, and I turned to follow him as ordered. I'm pretty sure I could have used a spare set of underwear as well.

I walked into his office and he closed the door behind me. "Paige, you gotta get thoughts like that out of your head. There's nothing wrong with being a's a noble profession, but you need to leave crafts like that to ****** and the like. You could be anything you want to be in this engineer, a banker, and executive...ANYTHING! DON'T SETTLE FOR THAT! GET YOUR ASS IN COLLEGE!"

Even as I write his words, I wish there were a way for me to re-phrase them into a more politically acceptable way - in the manner in which he meant them. Chief would never, ever, disrespect any hard-working man's craft. But he saw something in me that neither I, my parents, nor anyone else saw - academic and professional potential. That conversation (or more accurately, monologue) would be pivotal in my life, but not immediately.

Months later, just after beginning my senior year in high school, my mother would commit suicide. The next couple of years were a blur. Somehow I managed to finish high school, despite being kicked out of the house by my step father and "couch surfing" with a friend's family. Because of the Reagan budget cutbacks, in order to keep "Survivor Social Security Education Benefits" which were being fazed-out, I would need to be enrolled as a full-time college student by 12/81...yep, midway through my senior year in high school. So I worked a full high school schedule, 12-hours of night school at college, and worked a job to feed myself, while still grieving the loss of my mother and living on the edge of homelessness.

After graduating high school, my father (not my step father) allowed me to move in with him and his family for the summer to allow me to "earn as much money as I could for college" before the clock ran out and I had to move on.

I made a feeble attempt at continuing college, but was failing miserably. I wasn't ready. My father suggested that I might not be college material and perhaps I should consider dropping out of college to "learn a, whatever."

But Chief's words came screaming back to me. Despite my condition and failure, somehow I believed what Chief did about my potential; that seed wouldn't die.

I decided that academics would need to wait until I was ready and I entered the U.S. Navy to get it together, serving four years as a Search and Rescue Swimmer and Aviation Antisubmarine Warfare Operator in helicopters; I had the time of my life and was given a fresh start.

After leaving the Navy, I earned an Bachelor of Science degree in Business from The University of Texas at Dallas (with honors. Again, working full time, taking a full course load at night), then a Master of Business Administration from Southern Methodist University.

As much as I would like to take credit for "boot-strapping" it, I shudder to think where I would be had it not been for the seeds that Ira B. Franklin planted in me that day - and he meant it. I'm ashamed to say that I've never sought him out to thank him for the faith he had in me when no one else did. I owe him my life.

To my beloved Chief: Thank you and may God bless you. I know I'm not the only one you touched with your life.


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Sharing the journey

Short post today.

It's been an interesting trip, this exploration of my faith. In so many ways, I feel as if it's a journey just beginning. A pruning process has been at work, stripping me of much of the dogma and preconceptions of my heritage and discovering things anew, as if for the first time.

I've received some fantastic feedback and sharing from other faith journeys along the way.

But most telling has been some of the resistance and challenges I've received; Clearly I've made many uncomfortable. Most I would classify as people who "were where I was", very comfortable in the box they've built, where they've got it all figured-out. Bluntly, a very arrogant place indeed.

Others are openly struggling, as I am, and question from a place of attempting to understand rather than to judge. These are the special engagements where we both get to explore and grow.

Still others just don't care and are more annoyed than offended.

Social wisdom dictates the we should avoid talking about religion and politics as these are deeply personal topics with a propensity to divide. I have overtly chosen, counter to this wisdom, to share this journey with you publicly, as it's very important to me. I hope that some are blessed. I hope that some will share so that I am blessed. I hope that those who don't care will find another venue where they do care about the journey's direction.

Blessings to you all.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Now what?

I've continued my reading tear in an attempt to learn more about the historical Jesus, church history, and pluralism.  My most recently devoured titles:
Religionless Religion was very helpful in surveying several of the major religions in the world, helping me understand better their view of God and the universe as well as the amazing amount of common ground they share.  It's provided me with a better understanding of people reared in belief systems different than my own and it continues to shape my own spiritual outlook.

But it is Jesus Interrupted that has me contemplating the most.  I read Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Plus) several years ago; it was the first book I had read that introduced me to the imperfect canonization process and uncovered the nature of many of the "errors" in the Bible.  Misquoting Jesus was a tough read though, especially as an introductory book.

Jesus Interrupted was a much easier read - much more concise and approachable.  Ehrman introduces us to the historical-critical (HC) method of biblical study as opposed to a devotional one.  Although I had heard of the historical-critical method before, I was unaware that it is taught in all but the most conservative-evangelical seminaries in the world.  Briefly, the historical-critical method has us look horizontally at the bible, comparing and contrasting events to uncover the most likely historical reality (if any).  The HC method also triangulates this information against other historical information to discover the most likely "historical truth".

The HC method is not necessarily an investigation of faith, but a matter of history.  That being said, for many of us who grew-up in conservative "Bible-believing" churches, the historical / literal reading of the Bible was a huge source of our faith.  We were taught that the Bible is THE "Word of God".  Some would dodge the "literally perfect" challenge with a dance to the "inspired Word of God" argument; "Sure, there might be some clerical errors here and isn't perfect and his hands are on it, but God directed man's hand, the canonization process, etc. to deliver the message He wanted us to hear."

Confession: I no longer believe this either.  I see a collection of stories, mostly of unknown authorship, attempting to describe spiritual and life experiences, as best they can, from their perspective, in their time and circumstances, knitted together by people trying to express their own ("Orthodox") view of what they thought everyone had to believe.  That being said, there is something sacred about their stories - about everyone's story; but that is a topic for another post.

What has me puzzled right now is why it's taken me so long to get here.  I'm certain that every pastor I've known over the past several years was well-trained in the historical-critical method and knew much more than what I now know about the Bible.  But why didn't they teach it?  Why was I and the rest of my congregation kept in the dark? Shouldn't they have wanted to "share the truth" about the book that we raised (in some cases) to the status of deity?  Isn't the truth supposed to set us free?

So many questions.  I feel as though I've been set free from much through this study, but why now, why on my own?  Why did I spend so many years just blindly gulping the dogma and church doctrine? Why don't more Christians want to look deeper into their scripture and why don't more pastors bring scholarship to bear in doing so?  Are parishioners too stupid to handle the truth?  Will they stop believing things like the doctrine of the tithe and stop giving?  Yes, I've got some pretty cynical views about church right now.  The scholarship about the Bible is nothing new, it's been there for decades and to some degree, for a couple of centuries now, but it seems to be a secret outside of the seminaries.

I've heard the arguments from some of the conservative evangelicals: "That sort of stuff will cause people weak in their faith to stumble!"  If that is the case, perhaps they need to stumble.  These same people will parrot platitudes like "Well, every challenge we have in life makes us stronger..."  If this is the case, then perhaps a stumble in faith is exactly what most Christians need.  If they hold the Bible up as a perfect deity and worship it, perhaps they need to be set free with the truth about where their scripture came from and come to grips with it.

Others might respond "So what's the harm with people believing the Bible literally"?  Oh, I don't know, just spit-balling here, but supporting things like genocide in the name of God come to mind.  Behavior is shaped by our beliefs.  I have no problem with people holding a view of a judgmental God who will torment people for trillions of years because of the "sins" accumulated in 30 years (or 30 days, or 30 minutes) unless they can recite the correct creed and "believe" the right things about him, until they act against the rest of us.  We've elected presidents who thought they were on a mission from God to rid the world of evil-doers and thousands of innocents have died as a result, but again, I digress.  

Back to the title of this post - Now what?  All of this historical study has not damaged my faith per se.  I still see mystery in the universe and in my own experiences.  Things have happened to me that I cannot explain.  Learning more about other faith traditions has helped me see beauty all around me (and especially in other people) like never before and I want to learn more.  But I'm having a problem putting a label on where I'm at.  For now, "Progressive Christian" seems to fit since I was raised in the Christian tradition.  I also find a lot to like about the Unitarian Universalists who don't view the world as "us vs. them" and don't judge people according to their beliefs.

My challenge now is a practical one: How can I play nice and participate in a faith community where the vast majority of the participants believe sharply different things than I do?; things about God, Jesus, the Bible, people of other faiths?  Bluntly, most are where I once was so I want to be sensitive to that.  But I also want to be true to my own faith journey.  I live in a conservative community and progressive congregations to not abound here.

Now what?

Blessings my friends.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

It was easier then, but it's better now.

Not so long ago, my views on almost everything were far more simplistic and conservative. I could pull some Bible versus out of their historical, political, economic, spiritual, and religious context and knit them back together to justify almost anything:
- Economics? Reaganomics, trickle-down.
- Politics? All government was evil. Republicans good, Democrats bad.
- Social justice? I accomplished some things all by myself and I'm nothing special. If I can get an education and feed / care for myself, anyone can. You make your own bed, so sleep in it.
- Religion? It's all in the Bible. Look elsewhere and let the evil one in. OK, there was some poetry and other stuff that had to be viewed "less than literally", but it was authoritative and, if read right, The Word of God. Don't fall back into that whole "tree of knowledge trap", stay child-like.

It was all so simple. I didn't have to think; it was all packed neatly into this four-sided box.

Enter trouble. Most people start to really discover new ways of thinking in college. I'm a late bloomer I suppose. Having done both my BS and MBA at night while working full-time, I was more consumed with putting food on the table than "finding truth and discovering myself". Years later I started running into some very smart people who had views different than mine. My conservative upbringing had convinced me that I had been placed in their path to change their lives. In fact, the opposite would become true. Two situations would begin a radical overhaul.

First was a series of encounters with a former boss that really started to change things. He had been run-off from Christianity by conservative evangelical family members who, as he put it, were convinced he'd "spend eternity in the smoking section". I hoped to show him a more enlightened version of Christianity. He had earned a philosophy degree before earning an MBA and was far better-read in liberal arts, philosophy, and other world religions than I. Our late night discussions after client meetings on the road were always respectful and enlightening, at least for me.

After a trip to Seattle, I began to wonder aloud "Why do I believe what I believe?" I had never challenged my beliefs in any serious way. That led to a serious apologetics study which helped me with some of the philosophical, cosmological, astronomical, mathematic, and other scientific arguments for the existence of God, "The Original Uncaused Cause", etc. But what about scripture, religious pluralism, Jesus, salvation, etc., etc.?

The second major influence came as a result of a church squabble between conservatives and progressives (theologically). Generally speaking, let's label the conservatives those who see the Bible largely as literally true while the progressives tend to find truth in the metaphors the stories represent and are not bound to believing the historical accuracy of the "actual events" (I know...this is a gross over-simplification, but this is a blog, not a dissertation).

In an effort to better understand the progressive view, I asked for a book recommendation from a staff member at church and read The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg. That book led to many more and my life has been forever changed.

It has been both a fantastically blessed journey of learning and discovery and a difficult one of uncovering and letting go of deeply engrained dogma. Learning more about the historical facts and anthropology has given context to the myths that I once took for actual events and allowed me to consider the deeper truths therein.

Unfortunately this path I'm on has proved threatening to others. That's unfortunate. Anyone who can read should do so and look into the things they hold dear. The information is there to be considered, not blindly accepted. My personal life experience doesn't match that of the authors I read, so I don't necessarily agree with all of their assertions. But I can still learn from them and try to appreciate their perspective. The same is certainly true when I read scripture.

So, thank you Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, E.P. Sanders, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, and the many others I've read and will be reading soon. You've made my journey a little tougher, but much richer, more inclusive, hopeful, and insightful. Most importantly I no longer feel compelled to knit together circular reasoning to defend what was never a history book. The truth really can set you free.

Blessings my friends.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Whispering Spring Ln,Georgetown,United States

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Evolving in Monkey Town: A new favorite book!

I just finished reading my advance copy of Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans.  I devoured this thing in all of the spare moments I've had over the past two days, setting aside all my other reading to do so.  My initial reaction: I'm jealous.

I met Rachel on Twitter and we've had some limited engagement there.  I've enjoyed her tweets and her blog and jumped at the opportunity to read and review her book.  What I didn't expect was how timely the read would be and how close to home her words would strike.

Evolving in Monkey Town is a wonderful narrative of Rachel's spiritual journey from conservative evangelicalism to a more progressive Christian experience.  She doesn't pretend to have all the answer and she's brutally honest about her struggles along the way.  Rachel deals with doubt and lands in the same place I have - Doubt is essential to faith.  In the last chapter, Rachel writes:

"If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that serious doubt - the kind that leads to despair - begins not when we start asking God questions but when, out of fear, we stop."

It is exactly this realization that has transformed my life in recent months and a notion I found so moving in her book.

Rachel shows mettle in her ongoing grappling with issues like religious pluralism, sexual preference, political diversity, inclusiveness, social justice and other topics for which conservative apologetics training had already provided canned answers.

Each chapter feels like it's dealing with a topic or influence somewhat in isolation but the overall story emerges beautifully.  Rachel is a gifted writer which makes reading her work so enjoyable.  Topics are meaty and substantial, but form matters and it's a beautifully written book; a much easier read than so many of the heavy theology books I've read lately.  It's her story.

Back to the jealousy part.  I'm jealous of Rachel because she's still in her 20's while on this incredible journey.  I've spent many more years than her parked in "spiritual neutral", clinging to the same old dogma I'd been raised with, perhaps afraid of bringing the tough questions that were burning deep within me into the light to be dealt with.  Rachel gives voice to many of those questions.

I'm jealous of her style and ease with word.  Although I don't envy the depth to which she had been plunged into evangelicalism, so young and so often, I am envious of her depth of Biblical knowledge and the amount of insight she shows, again, so early in life.

I'm jealous because Rachel had the guts to write her story and become a published author.  She's a wonderful author at that with a fantastic career ahead of her and I'm already looking forward to her next offering.

I'm not going to reveal any more about her book because I want everyone I know to buy it, read it, and consider it.  My copy is going onto my wife's nightstand as soon as I'm done with this blog entry.  My bride tends not to read much of the heavy stuff I've read lately (Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, William Lane Craig, etc.), but I know she'll love this book, Rachel's style, and her story.  I'm convinced Evolving in Monkey Town will give Michelle deeper insight into my own journey and perhaps shape her own as well.

Although I'm envious of Rachel for these reasons, I'm mainly blessed to have a connection with her, to get the opportunity to read her work, and to join her on this shared journey to find Truth, Peace, and Grace.  Life really is found in the questions more so than the answers.

"We thought that we had the answers.
It was the questions we had wrong." - U2

Blessings my friends.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Long List of Questions and Still Just the Beginning

It's Monday morning, which means going out for a 3-4 mile run is mandatory in order to start the week off on the right foot, so to speak.  Running is so important to my mental health.  It's my solitary time to be alone with my thoughts, work through issues, sweat-out frustrations, and try to recapture peace.  Things almost always seem clearer after a good run.

This morning's topic is inspired by a new favorite book of mine: A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, by Brian Mclaren

Today's obsession, a long list of questions of my own: What would I take away from the Bible if I were reading it for the first time, without any influence from the church, my family, or dogma that I've been exposed to?

What if I didn't bring a whole list of assumptions to it?  What if I didn't have to believe in (or had never been exposed to) the notion of the Bible being The Word of God?  What if I had never heard about Divine Inspiration?  What if I considered it a collection of stories?  What if I didn't have to believe in literal or historical accuracy and could consider metaphorical meaning?

Unburdened by any preconceived notions, could I learn something new about humanity and our spiritual history?  Might I see an evolving narrative of mankind's struggle to understand their world, their place in it, and spiritual things?  Would I be able to accept that perhaps some of these people had different perceptions than my own?  What if some of them "got it wrong"?

Could I understand how a person might pray for the destruction of their enemies, given their circumstances, yet not be compelled myself to believe that God hates anyone or would grant such a wish?  Could I see the books of the New Testament as different points of view, grappling with what each writer experienced and learned from Jesus; as independent accounts and perspectives without being troubled by conflicts?

Could I use these stories to learn more about myself and my own struggles along the way?  Would they help me understand that others have been where I am, whether crying out to God in despair or rejoicing in victory?  

Is there a view of the Bible that illustrates how connected we are, despite our different cultures and belief traditions, Gentiles and Jews?  Might I be able to move beyond my own self-centered issues with atonement, improvement, and acceptance to a view of myself as a world citizen?  Could I see Jesus' teachings as practical regarding His wishes for us as a citizen in this life and not merely about the afterlife?

Is it possible that every attempt to understand, experience, speak or write about God, the original "uncaused cause" of the universe and creator of us all, will always be a flawed human endeavor that falls short in some way?

Run complete, watch stopped.  The answer: Yes.

Blessings my friends.

Friday, April 30, 2010

"If your heart is as my heart, take my hand." - John Wesley

I met our newly appointed Sr. Pastor last night for the first time at a small reception for him and his wife.  For a couple of hours we all introduced ourselves with a little background information and were asked to speak of one thing we found to be a blessing in our church (Methodist).

When my turn came around, I spoke of the Baptist influence in my upbringing, then my move to a fantastic Presbyterian church in Richardson as an adult (Plug: Canyon Creek Presyterian Church), then to our current Methodist church.

To address the "blessing" part, I mentioned the theological diversity found in our congregation.  Were it not for this diversity, I might never have been exposed to more progressive Christian views that have been such a huge blessing in my life, mostly within the past year.

This exposure did not come without some pain.  A challenge of diversity is a tendency to seek like-minded people.  We feel secure when our beliefs are affirmed by others and we feel better about ourselves.  But when decisions need to be made by diverse groups, tensions can rise, people can begin to feel threatened, and it does not always proceed in a loving, compassionate, unified manner.  This is true in business, politics and other social venues, but I think even more so when when deeply held values and beliefs are involved.

The tension.  The tension can break us apart if we allow it.  But as I've told colleagues and employees in "less-than-optimal" business environments, "Wouldn't it be a shame to go through all this crap and learn nothing from it; be no better for it?"  In this case, I am far better for it.

If you've read my blog it'll certainly be of no surprise to you that my beliefs are transforming and moving in a more progressive direction.  Yet there is still this tension.  Actually, many tensions. A tendency to try to convince others of my new perspectives.  Although there is nothing wrong with sharing our faith in conversation with those who might be interested, I'm becoming less interested in convincing, and I hope, becoming more accepting that their faith tradition gives them peace.

Another tensions is that between the old and the new.  If I look back, I see where the old paradigm taught me many things about God.   But the questions and answers where different back then.  If the answer was "Yes, you've been saved", the question many years ago for me might have resembled "Will God save me from his wrath for all of my sins for all of eternity?"  You'll note from my previous blog posting that I no longer obsess about Atonement theology.  Now the question is more likely to resemble "Saved from what?  Saved for what?" and the answers: "From yourself, your selfishness, and ego" and "For relationship, compassion, and service".

I would assert that regardless of our literal - conservative or metaphorical - liberal theological bents, regardless of what we think we are saved from, we are all made for relationship with God, our neighbors, and service, in this life.

"If your heart is as my heart, take my hand." -- John Wesley

Blessing my friends.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Ignorant and Unteachables

What a Monday!  It started off rather typically: Stumbled into the home office, coffee, granola bar, caught-up on work email, two devotionals and some scripture reading, opened my Twitter client and began perusing the morning banter.  Then I came across the following tweet:

"OK, fellow largely Biblically illiterates, garden-variety progressives and ignorant and unteachables, I gots to get to work. Checkin' in l8r"

As I cleaned coffee from my monitor and keyboard, I couldn't help but to dwell on this post.  At first, I thought this was a self-effacing statement and tongue-in cheek remark toward various members of the group.  I later learned, this was an abbreviated list of things he had been called by people who, shall we say, have a different perspective on Christianity than his.  Either way, I enjoyed the post.

But I couldn't let it go.  Later, I went out for a run where I continued to chew on the statement.  If we consider it three different groups, whom belonged in each bucket and why?  Let's explore these categories a bit.

Garden-variety progressives: I guess the 'garden-variety' was meant to be condescending.  Whatever.

Biblical illiterates: This one is more interesting.  Since I happen to know that the author is a Commissioned Lay Pastor, I'm pretty sure he's more biblically learned than most.  However, one could assert that someone could read the Bible cover to cover, several times, and get very little from it, not be transformed by it, or worse yet, twist it into a grotesque self-serving justification for hate, judgment, crusades, etc.  Reading and quoting doesn't necessarily mean "literate", especially if one misses the author's intent entirely, doesn't understand context, or cannot effectively apply the lessons.  In fact, I've heard many pastors with Dr. in their title who've preached some pretty "interesting" stuff and don't seem to resemble Jesus at all.

Ignorant and unteachables:  Yep...this is the one that had me howling.  Who are these people...these ignorant and unteachables?

I suppose whom we place in this bucket depends on where we are ourselves.  Some Progressive Christians might classify literalist Evangelicals this way:  "They just can't move past the literal words and get the greater, metaphorical meaning present in the story!  They cannot accept that the Bible is neither a science book, a constitution, nor a history book, but a collection of stories written by flawed human beings about their struggle to understand God!"

Some literalist Evangelicals might classify the Progressives as unteachable: "They are reading stuff into the Holy Scripture that isn't there.  The Bible is the written Word of God.  If God said that Jonah was inside that fish, then Jonah was a real person and was inside that fish, and that is that!"

And the battle goes on.  But this blog post isn't really about the ever-present Progressive vs. Conservative theological debate.  What I really want to consider is this:

How do we treat all people, regardless of their degree of ignorance and teachability?
Let's start "at the margins".  Many people of faith (yes, including other faith traditions other than Christianity) have compassion for the mentally handicapped.  We don't expect them to necessarily accept our arguments and our growth expectations for them are adjusted according to their ability.  OK, that's an easy one.

At the other extreme, we expect highly intelligent people to test, reason, learn, grow, produce, contribute...the list goes on.  "To whom much is given, much is expected."

Most of us are in the middle on varying points of "otherness".  Some reason well, others feel their way along.  Some learn from trial and error (with lots of errors), some seem to pick-up things naturally and can deploy their new skills with ease.  But rare is the person who is good at everything.  We all have our strengths and weaknesses.  People are more than intellect.  We have unique physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual shapes.  We're complicated.

We also have baggage.  Events, traumas, successes, failures, all these things go into to who we are and how we engage in life.  If I overlay this understanding to the earlier discussion of Progressive vs. Literalist, how might I now attempt to view someone's perspective as to the nature of God?  Let me pick on fathers for moment:  If a girl had a traumatic childhood with an abusive father, how might she respond to the metaphor of "God, the Father"?  If a boy grew-up with an authoritarian father who judged everything he did as never good enough and lacking, perhaps even being punished for his shortcomings (in the father's eyes), how might he respond to the notion of "God the Father"?  Could he / she accept that God loves them, just the way they are, no matter what they ever have or have not done?  What might their view of love be?  Could they accept that they have worth just as they are, that they are God's unique creation that He called good?  Might they have some atonement baggage?

Some people will never see our point of view.  No amount of evidence, science, archeology, logic, apologetics, or arguments will convince them that their point of view might need at least some honing and perhaps a complete overhaul.  Does this make them unteachable?  Perhaps.  If we want to over-simplify and go tongue-in-cheek, "Some people are just stupid, angry, or both and are unteachable."  Perhaps a better way is this: "All people are complex, have issues, and may not be reachable by you."  If we all look at our circle of influence for opportunities to befriend, love, and serve, we'll reach some.  Others, perhaps not.

There's another option:  What if their belief system works for them and has become truly transformational?  I guess we'll know them by their fruit.  If they're still spewing hate, judgment, condemnation, and division, we'll know something about them.  If they seek the things that Jesus sought, like providing food, shelter, and healthcare to the least of these, speaking out against injustice, and walking in peace, even among oppressors, that tells a different story...a transformational story.

Jesus didn't hand-out IQ tests before serving those he encountered (or those he called into service).  He did, however, ask those who had the most to give much to those with the least.  He loved and served "the unloveable" of his day.  That's a tall order.  Can we love them anyway?  Even the unteachable?

Blessings my friends.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Atonement theology? Ta dah!

I've been obsessed with the notion of Atonement Theology lately.  I grew-up with this dogma and did my best to try to knit together a rational logic behind it.  It never quite felt right.  It's been difficult to drag this skeleton out of the closet to be dealt with, but it had to be done.

Although the image and text below may be a little irreverent (and hilarious), it illustrates my point:

(I can already feel your pulse quickening, your collar tightening, and your bottom squirming).
I've been reading a fantastic book lately, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith by Brian Mclaren.  Mclaren asserts that much of what conservative / evangelical faith preaches is actually derived from Greco-Roman mythology and the Six-Line Narrative:
A key question Brian asks regarding this narrative:

Does it contribute to a higher vision of God, a deeper engagement with Christ, a more profound experience of the Holy Spirit?  Does it motivate us to love God, neighbor, stranger, and enemy more wholeheartedly?
I'll let you read the book and consider his perspective deeper.  Mclaren goes deep into a discussion about concepts of God, heaven, and hell that were introduced by Greek and Roman influences, many of which were not present in Judaism.  Yet, we overlay these concepts and attempt to view the Bible and Jesus through this lens.  Further, most evangelicals have elevated the Bible to an infallible document, direct from the hand of God (or at least inspired by God) and worship it as it it were part of the Trinity.  Brian's perspective is that the Bible is a library of books, assembled by man, which describe the ongoing (and still evolving) struggles of man to understand and relate to God.  But I digress...I'll save this for another blog entry for sure.

Why is this discussion important?  Jesus spent much of his time trying to correct the ungodly perspective of the Pharisees, the "keepers of the law"; a law that was oppressive, manipulative, and self-serving to the leaders of the church; a law that did not effectively bring people into a personal relationship with God that was transforming.  Jesus came to save them, but was it really to be a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God?  Perhaps he came to save them from themselves, their oppressive, legalistic religious practices, all sorts of things that separate people from The Holy God, and the things God loving other people (and His entire creation) through service?

Perhaps we need saving again, not from an angry, judgmental God, God the accountant who needs a blood sacrifice to balance the scales of sin, but perhaps from this Atonement theology that's all about the afterlife?  Perhaps he wants us to turn from that which separates us from Him and from one another?  Perhaps we are meant to be serving and loving one another TODAY?

If you must believe the story illustrated in the "Ta Dah" image above and it is truly transformational for you, calls you to meet people's needs in real ways today, then I certainly don't want to try to talk you out of your belief system; Go Forth and serve.  But if you struggle with the two narratives above and need to see God, Jesus, and Christianity through a different lens, I encourage you to buy Brian Mclaren's book and see how your faith unfolds; it continues to be truly transformational for me.

Blessings my friends.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

You believe what? Give me a break.

Caution: The following is a rant.

Don't you just love it when someone "proclaims their beliefs" to you, as if this is going to have some sort of redeeming, transforming affect upon you? By their speaking "The Truth", I suppose their expectation is that the hand of God is going to come down from heaven, grab you by the heart, and instantly transform your life (in a way that they want). By uttering the words, I suppose the Holy Spirit is supposed to leap into action on their command, descend into their targeted convert and act.

There's a problem. Perhaps this works from time to time when someone just shows-up on the doorstep, or sits in the seat next to someone on an airplane - the right person in the right place at the right time. But unless the speaker has made some deposit into the life of the other, the likelihood that they'll really be heard is very low. More often, a negative reaction is experienced: "Who is this person to speak to me about such personal things?" Why would you or anyone else listen? More likely, if you're having this sort of conversation, you probably know this person. You know something about them; the way they behave, the types of relationships they have, something about their family, etc. If you're a rational person, I would expect you to ask a key question: How has this person's "beliefs" been transformational in their life?

Human nature has always been self-seeking. To break this natural tendency, something transformational must occur. All of the enduring faith traditions seek to break us away from selfishness and seek the transformational peace and presence of God. Yet most followers of all of these faith traditions do not actively work to grow in their faith and follow the teachings of their tradition. I've spent decades of my own life in this mode.

Jesus understood human nature when he said “So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?" (Luke 6:46) Jesus expressed frustration with both the disciples and the townees, often. He was trying to break them free of their selfish nature, legalism, and their lack of faith in God, their creator and provider.

But Jesus saved his strongest criticism for the self-righteous. The Pharisees were the keepers of the law and O how they loved to drop truth-bombs on Jesus. Imagine the arrogance. You don't have to look very far to see Pharisee-esque behavior alive and well with us today. Our churches are full of them. Most of them can recite chapter and verse and hit you with truth-bombs for every situation that your fallen, miserable life need to ask, they'll serve it right up. They exist among "evangelical conservatives", eager to tell you that if you don't raise your right hand and ascribe to the literal truth of every syllable of the King James version of the Bible and every element of the Apostles Creed then you're going to hell (a creed probably developed in the fifth-century or so). They exist in the "progressive left", proclaiming all evangelicals idiots, the entire Bible metaphorical, and God, who may have created the universe, incapable of interaction with us today.

I recently had a conversation with a person who asserted "You have to believe in the historical, physical resurrection of Christ!" I continue to dwell upon this notion, the virgin birth, and other elements of Christianity and I keep coming back to the same place. What I want to ask this person and people like him is this: Has Christ been resurrected in your life? Does Christ live in you, in your life, today? Do you dwell on His teachings and want to love others as He loves you? If not, then the historical event has no bearing on you, and as far as your life is concerned, never happened. Apparently, there is no filmed recording of the resurrection; It's only evidence remains in the movement it spawned and the lives it transformed.

Regardless of the theology of any given group, my question remains: How has your belief transformed you? How has it called you to serve others? How do you treat others who are different from you (Gay and lesbian community, minorities, political differences)? Who do you judge and why? If there is no discernible difference in the fruit we bear, there has been no transformation and our beliefs are a dead.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Who you are is speaking so loudly that I can't hear what you're saying." This quote hits me right between the eyes every time I read it. It's a daily thing, to set ourselves aside and choose to live out our beliefs. The truth is, we do live out our real beliefs every day and our actions speak louder than our words.

I'll end this rant with my favorite Bible reading:

Matthew 22: 34-40
The Most Important Commandment
34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. 35 One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” 37 Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’[e] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[f] 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

Blessings my friends,


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When the struggle ends

I received a call and voice mail from my Aunt Jilla while in church this past Sunday.  I reviewed the voice mail immediately upon returning home.  My grandmother was in ICU...again.  Since August of last year, she has suffered pneumonia and chronic pulmonary issues ever since.  At 87 years of age, it was a tough battle.

When I arrived at the ICU, I decided to wait outside my grandmother's room and wait for Jilla to arrive.  In my grandmother's mental state, I wasn't sure she would recognize me and I didn't want to startle her.  I watched Grandma from outside the room.  Her breathing was very labored and I could tell she was struggling. Once Jilla arrived, we went in and greeted Grandma.  She recognized me and we embraced.  Diminished lung capacity, sheer exhaustion, and the CPAP mask she was wearing made it very difficult for her to speak, but we managed a few sentences here and there, in her brief moments of consciousness.

Grandma had a few visitors throughout the afternoon, including some of her other grandchildren, her Sunday School teacher, and her pastor.  She had brief moments of semi-clarity and exchanges with them, then she would be out again.

While some of these moments were tender, most of the time in between was filled with real struggle.  The doctors were not confused; This situation would not improve.  Her lungs simply could not exhaust the CO2 from her blood on their own and only the CPAP machine and an IV medication to artificially elevate her blood pressure were keeping her alive.

Thankfully, we were not confused either.  Grandma made it clear years ago that she was to be considered a DNR patient (Do Not Resuscitate) and did not want extraordinary life-preserving measures to be performed.  Although we call it a tough decision, given the circumstances, the decision was clear; it was just a matter of when.  How long would we let her go on this way?

As I recall the events of two days ago, the most striking thing to me is the nature of the few thoughts she was able to communicate, not just to me, but to all who came to visit.  I'll spare you the family history and attendant drama, but suffice it to say that not all family relationships have been harmonious all of the time.  However, it became clear that these past events no longer mattered to Grandma.  In spite of her struggle for every breath, it was paramount to her that everyone knew that she loved them, including those who were not there with us.  She struggled mightily to communicate this notion and she did so with all of the assertiveness and force she could muster.

Isn't it interesting that in spite of pain, suffering, and dealing with one's own mortality, only one thing mattered?  Love.  All of the nonsense and baggage melted away.  Only love remained.

As the afternoon turned to evening, so did Grandma's condition.  The decision was made, the time had come.  With Jilla and I each holding a hand, the mask and the IV were removed by the medical team and we were left alone with her.  Grandma's sleep deepened, her grip loosened, her breathing slowed.  In about fifteen minutes, she was gone and the struggle was over.

I'll communicate Grandma's last thoughts to some of those who could not be present on Sunday.  What they do with her words are for them to decide.  As for me, there is a lesson in forgiveness here.  No matter what separates us, life is too short to hold grudges and miss the blessings to be had between the cradle and the grave.  We need to forgive, more for our own benefit than that of our perceived adversary.  No matter what blessings are awaiting us in eternity, there are many here to be had if we'll just accept the gifts of our presence in each others lives.  That being said, Zig Ziglar asserts: "Life is too short to spend your precious time trying to convince a person who wants to live in gloom & doom otherwise."  All we can do is forgive on our end regardless of the decision of the other party.

While my relationship with Grandma was never strained, I do regret not been present in her life for many years.  What if I had spent a day here and there, just sitting with her, watching a Texas Rangers game (her favorite team)?  I'll try not to dwell further on regrets, but I pray I don't miss the opportunities with those in my life who remain.

Blessings my friends,


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Antony Flew: A change of heart and mind

A short post today.

Like many of you, I follow several blogs for daily nourishment and information.  I highly recommend Apologetics 315 if you're interested in continual study regarding why belief in God is the most rational answer to our biggest questions.  Today's post, Antony Flew's Change of Mind, is very interesting indeed.

While it's not "new" news, it is news to me.  In 2004, world-renown atheist Antony Flew renounced his naturalist point of view and became a believer in God.  He did not convert to Christianity, but he now believes in a God, creator of the universe in which we live.  I'm really looking forward to reading Antony Flew's book, There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, and have already added it to my Kindle reading list.

Check out Apologetics 315 and click on the links to reviews and commentary on Antony Flew's change of mind.  It's good stuff!

Blessings my friends,


Saturday, January 2, 2010

"Talk amongst yourselves...Here, I'll give you a topic:"

In my last post, I discussed feeding ourselves in 2010 with things that will build character.  It seems only natural that we should build a solid foundation first then build up from there.

At the base of everything we experience is our belief system.  It is the lens through which we see and experience the world.  It affects how we approach all of our relationships and it is there that true character is revealed.

It should be no secret to anyone who has read my previous posts that I am a Christian.  What's unfortunate, is that some who have known me throughout my life might be shocked by this revelation.  All I can say in response is "yep...guilty".  My life has not always been characterized by a "walk with God".  The good news is that my life is indeed a work in progress.  I hope that the transformation will become increasingly visible to those around me.

Some of us were born in great circumstances and rarely, if ever, really stepped off the path.  They were in church as an infant, came to know God at an early age, accepted certain truths without much questioning, and hit the ground running as it were.  That's not me.  I'll spare you the biography, but although I was exposed to Christianity early, it wasn't often.  Although I don't think I've ever really questioned the existence of God (I've always felt His presence), there were certain issues with the ultra-conservative bent of our faith that have been problematic for me.  In recent years, I've come to understand that my faith had to be of both the head and the heart.

When discussing my beliefs and understandings with a friend who I would characterize more as a Buddhist (who had been run away from Christianity by an overly aggressive conservative family), I had to ask myself a tough question:  Why do I believe what I believe?  Is it because of my heritage?  I was fortunate to have a Christian father who took me to church on the weekends I visited him, often less than once a month, then much less often as I grew up?  This question drove me to begin looking into apologetics.

Let me start with a huge disclaimer regarding my beliefs and what I'm going to assert:  I don't believe for a second that apologetic study and reasoning is necessary for many to come to understand God.  God has made himself available to every human being to ever walk the face of the Earth.  God is as available to a person with a very low IQ as a college professor.  God is also equally accessible to a person driven primarily by their heart as a person driven by their head.  Everyone lives on a unique point on the head-heart continuum.  As for me, I've come to understand that my head needs to understand at least some of what my heart feels.

Now let me get back to the "talk amongst yourselves" topic.  Before even considering Christianity, one usually must consider the existence and nature of God.  But before considering God, one might consider an even more fundamental question:"Why does anything exist?"

Yep...I've done it...I've started the new year with a discussion that could also be characterized as The Meaning of Life; The BIG question.  I would assert however, that if we do not seek to understand this question and why its answer matters, our world view will be adrift and overly subject to influences that can destroy our character.

Richard Dawkins is arguably this most popular atheist apologist in the world these days.  His recent book, The God Delusion, has sold over 8.5 million copies worldwide.  Dawkins has been described as "the world's most famous atheist" and a "militant atheist".  In fact, there is a debate raging around Dawkins and his contemporaries asserting that "the New Atheism" has become "the New Fundamentalism".

If you read Dawkins' work, you'll find plenty of venom and heavy-handed criticism of religion and faith of any sort.  After all, people of different faiths have at times taken heavy-handed and hateful approaches toward those who believe differently than themselves, especially toward atheists.  Turnabout is fair game...right?  Whether in his books or in live debates with Christian apologists, Dawkins often draws conclusions about religion from atrocities committed in the name of religion.  This is like placing blame on any specific object used as a weapon in a crime, as opposed to the person committing the crime.  But I digress.

Many will read Dawkins and be convinced of his rationale; He is a learned biologist, ethologist, and sociobiologist.  It is unsettling to me however that many will not look further.  Obviously, there is much that science teaches us and much more yet to be revealed about the universe in which we live.  But there are things that cannot ever be explained fully by science.  In fact, there are notions in mathematics that cannot ever exist in reality, for example, an infinite set of events in the past and imaginary numbers.  Many of the notions that Dawkins and others assert regarding the origin of the universe and the existence or lack of existence of God, might appear as "good science" on the surface, but they fail miserably by philosophical reasoning.

While Dawkins may be the worlds leading atheist apologist, arguably the worlds leading Christian apologist is Dr. William Lane Craig.  Craig's book Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics is a staple in apologetics study.  Originally authored as a seminary text, it can be a heavy read, but is accessible to the layperson as well.  Craig's book is written with two main points to demonstrate: 1) How to we know that Christianity is true? 2) How do we show that Christianity is true.  Many Christians would agree that we know Christianity is true because the Holy Spirit makes itself known to us and is an a prioi truth.  This argument will not hold water with an atheist.  We also cannot argue "Because the Bible tells me so", as a some Christians who believe the Bible is the Word of God might be tempted to do; It's circular reasoning since the authority of the Bible is questioned by the non-believer.  Therefore, if we are to become instrumental in opening hearts to The Holy Spirit, we should consider meeting people where they are and show that Christianity is the most reasonable fit for the data.  Craig covers many rationale as to why God MUST exist, including reasoning in mathematics, cosmology, physics, philosophy and much more.  Again, many are prone to leading with the head and not the heart, therefore apologetics is a tool useful in reaching them.

A side note: It is interesting to me that Dawkins will not debate William Lane Craig.  He asserts that Craig does not have credentials beyond "being a good debater", which is patently absurd given Craig's resume.  Check him out on Wikipedia.

Back to the topic at hand:"Why does anything exist?"  If you've bought into the atheists' argument, I  ask that you look into the question and also consider philosophy offered by sources other than that of the atheists.  Even if you're a believer in God, this sort of study will indeed strengthen your faith.  We should listen to both sides of an argument before deciding what is true.  Even scientists have faith in something, even if it's an atheistic faith that there is no meaning, no purpose, no creator of the universe.  In short, I'm asking everyone to look deeper into their faith, question things, and seek deeper understanding.  We should never be afraid of The Truth, otherwise our faith will be shallow.

Let me leave you with the following source: The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe by William Lane Craig.

Blessings my friends,