Monthly Archives: February 2017

Is Sin Our Problem – or Is It Shame?

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I’ve been thinking a lot about shame lately. For many people – myself included – shame is a much more insidious problem than our guilt over our sins. Make no mistake – I’m not denying the reality of sin or of our need to confess and repent. Though I would like to see us pay at least as much attention to our systemic sins (such as racism) as we do to our individual wrong-doings.

As Lent approaches, I’m wondering if the attention we give to sin is the best way to go. In his book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg asks whether ‘sin’ is the best way to name what is wrong and why we are lost. Not that he denies the reality of sin either. Borg doesn’t dispute that sin is a primary image within the Bible. But there are other images of our human predicament as well, each requiring a kind of healing. He writes:

To list some but not all of them: we are blind, in exile or in bondage; we have closed hearts; we hunger and first; we are lost. Each of these images for our problem has a correlative image; that is, each implies a remedy, a solution.  If we are blind, we need to see. If we are in exile, we need to return. If we are in bondage, we need liberation. If we have closed hearts, we need to have our hearts opened. If we hunger and thirst, we need food and drink. If we are lost, we need to be found.

But what do we need to help us heal when we feel shame? And just to be clear: I’m not equating shame with guilt. Guilt is about what we ‘ve done; shame is about who we are. Some use the phrase “toxic shame” to describe the feeling that we are somehow inherently defective, that something is wrong with our very being. Toxic shame can come about for all kinds of reasons: being bullied as a child, being sexually assaulted, for example. Veterans diagnosed with PTSD often experience shame. Unhealthy family dynamics can bring about shame in children.

Unfortunately, the church has often been guilty of shaming its members – usually for sexual “sins”. And while the church does offer a path to confession and forgiveness for our actions, it’s much less equipped to offer healing for the shame that affects our being.

So how can we in the church promote this kind healing?  As Borg would put it: If we have been shamed, then we need . . . what?

I suggest that the first step is acknowledging this as a human condition from which many of us suffer. Maybe instead of focusing exclusively on our sinfulness this Lent, we lift up all the ways we can be broken and out of sync with our true humanity. And instead of offering only confession and forgiveness, we also offer a listening ear and compassion.

For some, especially those who have suffered severe trauma, psychological therapy is also needed. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church could also participate in what author John Bradshaw called Healing the Shame that Binds You?

Marcus Borg used to tell of  the Buddhist who once said , “You Christians must be very bad people—you’re always confessing your sins.” Maybe we could learn from that critique.

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Lent from an INTRAfaith Perspective

she likes itWe’re going to use my book, The  INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Mattersfor our mid-week Lent discussion group this year. You might be thinking that it’s an odd choice for a Lent study.

I agree that some seasons of the church year lend themselves better than others to delving into interfaith education/discussion/relationship-building. Epiphany, for instance, with its Zoroastrian Magi crossing over into Judaism to pay homage to Jesus, then going back to their own country and religion “by another way,” is a wonderful example of what John S. Dunne calls “passing over and coming back” in his book, The Way of All the Earth.

Lent, however, might seem to be more problematic. The cross looms over us, and questions about the identity, mission, purpose of Jesus also loom large. But I suggest that it is, in fact, the perfect time for intrafaith education and discussion. At the very least, worship planners can take a new look at some of the anti-Semitic texts that will come up. I address this in more detail in Chapter 23 of my book, but here are a few examples.

The Gospel of John especially gets into rants against “the Jews.” While some people know that this reflected the growing split between Judaism and the followers of Jesus, not all will understand the context. In The Passion According to John, which is often read on Good Friday, the phrase “the Jews” appears nineteen times in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). We don’t have to look very far for evidence of the damage done by anti-Jewish rhetoric. Language matters. Repetition nineteen times only reinforces hateful stereotypes.

In The Inclusive Bible (TIB), “the Jews” appears only six times, when the reference is to the title “King of the Jews.” In seven places, “Temple authorities” is used to convey the part played by Jewish leadership is the crucifixion of Jesus. In other places “the Jews” is omitted entirely. For example, in contrast to John 19:20 in the NRSV, which reads “Many of the Jews read this inscription,” TIB has “Many of the people read this inscription.” And in verse 21, where the NRSV reads: “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews . . . ”, TIB has: The chief priests said to Pilate, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews . . . ’”.

And another: changing John 20:19 from “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews . . .” (NRSV) to “In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Temple authorities . . .” (TIB)

A helpful resource here is Sermons without Prejudice. Its stated purpose is “to counter this anti-Semitism by addressing the anti-Judaism that some New Testament readings may convey.” Another is Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary by Ronald J Allen and Clark M. Williamson. These would be excellent places to start.

But the questions do go much deeper and raise issues within Christianity and among members of our churches. In Chapter 8 of my book I ask: “Is a professed belief in Jesus Christ the only way to salvation?” What do we mean by salvation? What do we believe about Jesus that effects this salvation?

If you read Chapter 8, you’ll discover – as I did –  that things start to get complicated and scholars debate this from every which way. But as a parish pastor, I wanted to know how to bring these issues to bear on the beliefs and questions of our church members and the educational and liturgical practices of our congregation.

So we’ll be delving into topics, such as:

  • The Intrafaith Landscape: A New Reformation
  • New Voices: Spiritual Independents and Hybrid Spirituality
  • Faces of God and Jesus: “Who Do You Say I Am?”
  • Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism
  • Heresy, Syncretism and Relativism – Oh, My!
  • The Mystic Heart
  • Evolutionary Christianity

It will be a mix of intra and inter faith work. Once you begin, there’s no way to separate them. Shameless promotion alert: there are reflection questions at the end of each chapter and suggestions for further reading. So  if you haven’t chosen your Lent study book yet, might I suggest . . .

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Beginning the InterPolitical Conversation

Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person. – Dinah Craik dscn0223

“Safe Space” is one of the thousand plus words added to the Merriam Webster dictionary this week. MW defines a safe space as “a place (as on a college campus) intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, ideas, or conversations.”

I must take exception to that last bit, although I understand its purpose. No one should be physically or verbally threatened or attacked. However it is likely in conversations about highly charged issues that one’s assumptions, worldviews, and belief systems will be challenged – if not threatened. In that sense, it’s not a safe space.
I address this issue in my book as it applies to interfaith and intrafaith conversations.

For some people, entering into an interfaith experience can be confrontational. For some, engaging in intrafaith conversation can be equally or more challenging. For this reason, I usually begin a new group with the poem, “It Is Difficult, O God” by C.S. Song. I do this to let them know that discomfort is to be expected, in fact it is perfectly normal. Having said that, it is essential to create an environment of respect and safety. By safety, I do not mean that one’s belief system may not be shaken. It is entirely possible that it might be. What I mean by a safe environment is one in which viewpoints are respected and in which the leader is capable of managing the group process under all circumstances. There will inevitably be challenging ideas and differences of opinion. There will often be conversations that will cause some participants to become distressed or upset. The idea is not to avoid conflict, disagreements or upset, but to manage them in appropriate and safe ways.

I am coming more and more to the belief that this is the same kind of basis we now need in order to enter into interpolitical conversations. Many of us are recognizing that people on opposite sides in our polarized nation need to talk to one another. But what I also hear again and again is that we don’t know how to do that. From both sides I hear the expectation of not being heard and/or verbally attacked.Thankfully, help is becoming available. I’ve recently discovered a resource called Reaching Across the Red-Blue Divide, a free download from the Essential Partners website.

Their pitch:screenshot-2016-11-23-08-37-31
Most of us have at least one important relationship that has either been strained by painful conversations about political differences or silenced due to fear that it could get ugly. Bring it up and fight about it or avoid the conversation – and sometimes the person – altogether. Both options limit who we can be together as friends or family and limit what we can accomplish in our communities. What alternatives are there? You can let media pundits and campaign strategists tell you that polarization is inevitable and hopeless. Or you can consider reaching out and taking a journey with someone who is important to you. With some tools to support your best intentions, you can actually learn about what motivates other people and understand how they’ve come to believe the way they do. Connecting across our differences is both possible and necessary.

The introduction promises to:
help prepare you to speak about what is most important to you in ways that can be heard, and to hear others’ concerns and passions with new empathy and understanding even if — especially if — you continue to disagree.The guide offers a step-by-step approach to inviting another person — someone whose perspectives differ from your own — into a conversation in which:

  • You agree to set aside the desire to persuade the other and instead focus on developing a better understanding of each other’s perspectives, and the hopes, fears, and values that underlie them;
  • You agree to be curious and to avoid the pattern of attack and defend;
  • You choose to ask questions and move beyond stereotypes and assumptions.

A lot of the process they outline is very similar to what I advocate in The INTRAfaith Conversation. But there is material specifically geared to the interpolitical, such as how to be at our best on social media.

So – now there’s no excuse. The plan is pretty simple. We – I – just have to do it. As I read my words describing interfaith and intrafaith conversations, I wonder if I can substitute political and be able to say the same thing. I think it’s worth a try.

I learned that entering into an exploration of other peoples’ religious faith and practice is a wonder-filled experience. For me, hearing another’s story is an intimate look inside that person’s heart, and that is not something to be taken lightly. In both my interfaith and intrafaith encounters, I have heard stories of joy, as well as stories of pain and hurt. In many of the encounters, each participant brought his or her whole self into the process. Entering into an examination of religious beliefs took us even more deeply into one another’s lives. It was crucial that an atmosphere of safety and trust had been created because, as I came to realize, the ground of this kind of encounter is a place of extreme intimacy and vulnerability. It is sacred ground. I often found myself in awe at the willingness of many of the participants to give of themselves, not only in terms of time, but more importantly in terms of openness — to me, to others, to their own growth process.   It is a privilege to be in the company of such people.

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