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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.