Is Your Faith an ‘Innie’ or an ‘Outie’?

Or a Both/And?

This is a partial reprint of the Q&A column published each week by Bishop John Shelby Spong. This week’s answer is from the Rev. Mark Sandlin, who currently serves at Presbyterian Church of the Covenant and is a co-founder of The Christian Left. I believe the question gets at the heart of our current Christian identity crisis. As one who thinks we should balance both our inner spiritual life and our outer social activism, I appreciate the insight and challenge raised by both questioner and answerer. Undoubtedly, the subject needs further discussion. 

Kay from Florida, writes:
I have friends who seem to think believing that Jesus died for them is all they need to do. Some of them even treat other people badly and when I say something to them about being more Christian they just quote John 3:16 to me. What are your thoughts?

Dear Kay,
Most of us could probably quote at least one verse of the Bible and most likely that verse would be John 3:16. It has been called the greatest love story ever told. Martin Luther, (the early church reformer) called that verse “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Someone else once said that “if the Bible was destroyed and only John 3:16 remained, that would be enough information of God’s love to change the human heart.” It is also, by far, the most popular verse for cardboard signs at sporting events as well as for wooden roadside reminders.

Personally though, I sort of disagree with Martin Luther and others who hold this verse in such high regard. If anything, taken by itself, I find it to be symbolic of contemporary theological perspectives that find their way into books like the Prayer of Jabez and The Left Behind Series. They are overly simplified and promote a bumper sticker kind of theology that says, “Jesus did it, so come and get it.”

When we let John 3:16 stop at an understanding of “Jesus did it, come and get it,” we are only telling half the story. The remainder of the story is up to us. You see for me John 3:16, is incomplete without 1 John 3:16 – or at least the meaning behind 1st John 3:16. Let me read them to you together. (Note from me: I’ve changed the version of the texts to those from The Inclusive Bible.)

Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ died for us. And we, too, ought to lay down our lives for one another.

I’m much less concerned about what the theological question of atonement would encourage us to do and more concerned about what the life and teachings that lead to the cross would encourage us to do. In my way of reading these verses, in John 3:16 we learn how far Jesus was willing to go to show us how much we are loved, then in 1st John 3:16 we learn how far we should be willing to go in response to that love to show others how much they are loved.

Far too often, those of us who consider ourselves or call ourselves, “Christian,” forget to practice our faith as if these two verses go together.

Somehow, we don’t realize that on its own John 3:16 is only half the story. When we think it is the whole story, it is just a little bit too easy to feel slightly privileged, it is just a little bit too easy to measure the rest of the world by your own standards, judging whether people measure up rather than just loving them.

The truth is we all need to be a little bit better about turning our faith outward.

 

 

When It’s Just Too Hard to Talk to the Other Side

she likes itI know. I know I know. I’m the cheerleader for conversation among people who have differences of opinion. Mostly I talk about religion – how Christians of various stripes can come together and learn to respect one another’s differences. Lately I’ve been convinced that this is the same process that can help us bridge out political divides as well.   

But I’ll be honest. Right now it’s just too hard. These past six months have been so wearing, so discouraging, so maddening. Yes, this week I’m encouraged by the defeat of the latest version of “get rid of Obamacare.” But oh what it took to get there. Only three brave Republicans stood up for what I am sure many more knew what was right. The whining of Mitch McConnell after the vote only served to highlight the lunacy of what politics has become. No, it didn’t start with #45. But we have certainly sunk to unprecedented depths since he took office. Add to this dis-ease the ranks of evangelical Christians who have bought into this madness. 

So no, I’m not inclined to talk with “the other side.” I’m too angry. I know there are good people over there, but I’m afraid I just can’t listen to them right now with any kind of charity. This may be an indictment of my own spiritual malaise,  but I believe in full disclosure. For me, the primary goal of life right now is spiritual. 

Every day I get a thought for the Day based on my Enneagram type from the Enneagram Institute. Here’s yesterday’s:
What would happen if you expressed your Virtue of Serenity today?

How would you think, feel, and behave?

So here’s my answer:

  1. I will acknowledge my anger. Too many people have told me throughout my life, “Now, Susan, don’t be angry.” I refuse to “eat” my anger and silently accept bad behavior. It’s not good for my emotional or physical health. Having said that, I will also try not to act on that anger inappropriately. When I am with someone with whom I disagree, I will be respectful while speaking my own truth.
  2. I will cut myself some slack. If I’m not ready to dialogue, then I’m not ready. This is an important learning for me as I seek to encourage others. I remain committed to dialogue when I am ready, however I acknowledge that we all may need to take a break at one time or another.
  3. I will keep up the Resistance. This is a great channeler of righteous anger. And I’m overjoyed to hear of the impact that grassroots organizing and protesting is having.
  4. I will limit my exposure to the unending news cycle. I read and watch enough to know what’s happening from trusted sources and stay away from endless commentary. And I will look for and celebrate good news. It is out there. Good people doing good things. This makes me happy.
  5. And the most important thing of all: I will continue to maintain and nourish my spiritual practice. It may seem counter-intuitive that deep breathing and silent meditation can inform how I respond to the dysfunctionality all around me. It may seem to be an escape from it all, but it is not. It’s the ground from which my way of being in the world springs. When I realize that my anger is getting the best of me, when I’m  not able to feel charitable toward those with whom I disagree, I know it’s time to retreat for a while into sacred space. I discovered the week after the election that the peace I found in my practice was what gave me the ability to face the new reality that had been unleashed. So I must contiunue to seek the serenity that I can find there.

Now I know that I have the luxury of serving a congregation that is deep blue. I have friends and colleagues who are in what are now called “purple churches” and they have to remain in relationship with people of varying opinions and beliefs. But I think my advice would be the same. 

The time will come when we’re able to talk. If that time is not today, that’s OK, too.

Historic vs Progressive Christianity: Can We Talk?

she likes itI just read a blog post which warns me what to look for if I suspect my church is heading down the heresy path to progressive Christianity. Since my congregation has long resided on that path, I was curious to see what these warning signs might be and if I’d agree with them. You can read the “5 danger signs” for yourself here.

Right off the bat, I did agree with one of the author’s opening comments: “it is difficult to pin down what actually qualifies someone as a Progressive Christian, due to the diversity of beliefs that fall under that designation.” This is most certainly true! The intrafaith conversation has to happen within all the strands of Christianity.

Now clearly this blogger is coming from a particular theological standpoint (she uses the term “historic Christianity”). There’s no doubt that she’s out to expose those who embrace a progressive Christian theology as “false prophets” infiltrating our churches. However – I think she’s done us a service. Take away the pejorative nature of the “5 danger signs” and you have a pretty good outline of some of the big differences within Christianity today. 

For example, #5:
The heart of the gospel message shifts from sin and redemption to
social justice
There is no doubt that the Bible commands us to take care of the unfortunate and defend those who are oppressed. However, the core message of Christianity is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and resurrected, and thereby reconciled us to God. This is the message that will truly bring freedom to the oppressed. 
Many Progressive Christians find the concept of God willing His Son to die on the cross to be embarrassing or even appalling. Sometimes referred to as “cosmic child abuse, ” the idea of blood atonement is de-emphasized or denied altogether, with social justice and good works enthroned in its place.

There’s a lot to discuss in there. This question of Christology is really at the heart of our intrafaith challenge. I begin to get into it in Chapter Eight in my book with an opening quote from United Lutheran Seminary professor Kristin Johnston Largen: . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously. 

So I’m not dissing the author of this blog because I certainly understand where she’s coming from. It’s what I learned and preached for many, many years. But I would take exception to having my Christology defined as simply “social justice and good works.”

But here – in the willingness to share and to listen, to thoughtfully agree and disagree – is where the intrafaith conversation can happen. I imagine sitting down with the blogger over coffee to share our stories of faith and belief, listening without judging to “her side,” speaking without the need to convince or win her over to “my side.” 

I think we might eventually even be able to come up with a really good study guide. We could change the title to something like “5 Discussion Points Between Historic and Progressive Christianity.” Although that’s definitely not as sexy as “5 Warning Signs.” We’d have to work on that.

 

The Widening Divide Within Christianity

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If you have any doubt that Christianity is in the middle of an identity crisis, take a look at these recent articles that appeared on my Facebook feed:
‘Great spiritual awakening’: Pastors lay hands on Donald Trump in the Oval Office

Then there was Yes, I’m a Christian—But I’m Not With Them From Pastor John Pavlovitz’ blog, Stuff That Needs To Be Said.

William Barber,Sheila Jackson Lee

Then this happened . . . Rev. Barber And Other Clergy Arrested On Capitol Hill

And even the Vatican has weighed in.

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I’m all for Christian love and unity. But is it time to ask: which side are you on?

 

 

A New Schism within Christianity?

 

schismWe usually use the word “schism” when talking about the split within Christianity in the 11th century. This was the formal breaking of communion between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which continues to this day – although Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of the Russianimg Orthodox church did meet last year and released a joint statement addressing the problems of the world. It took almost a millennia, but things are looking much friendlier.

Of course there was also the big kerfuffle instigated by Martin Luther in the 16th century which brought about the Protestant split from Rome. We (at least in the Protestant churches) might prefer to call it Reformation and remind ourselves that Luther never wanted to found a new church, but a new church is what we got. And while the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by both  the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, there are still great differences among us. But at least we’re no longer hurling anathemas at one another.

Now we come to the state of Christianity today. There is increasing tension between churches that hold to a more traditional theology, ecclesiology, and those that are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be Christian today. When pathos.com was founded in 2008, they quickly found that having one channel called “Christianity” didn’t  work. There are now channels for both evangelicals and progressives.

Not that the lines can be so easily drawn. Some people are very progressive in their politics and pretty orthodox in their theology and practice and vice versa. What seems to be occurring is a lining up behind either Christianity as a belief system or as a practical way of life. That’s way too simplistic, I know. But I know there are those today who don’t want to be identified as Christian, but as “followers of Jesus. 

This disconnection has been brewing for a while, but it’s really come to a head since the election of He Who Shall Not Be Named. Take for instance a recent blog post by former evangelical, now progressive Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans. You can read about it in an article entitled “Author Calls Out Evangelical Trump Supporters: “You don’t like that I’ve ‘gotten political,’ huh?”

Now I happen to know pastors who have been criticized for “bringing politics into the pulpit,” so this isn’t even just about supporters of HWSNBN. Many people go to church only to be comforted, not to be challenged. But we’re going to have to make some hard decisions about what the church is going to be. Popular author/speaker Brian McLaren recently posted on patheos.com Why Pastors and Priests Are Leaving the Church (Part 1)”

“A sense of mission often draws people to ministry, a desire to be part of God’s healing and transforming mission. But once they get inside, they see behind the curtain and discover a kind of boutique shop keeping a certain finicky clientele satisfied with a steady stream of ‘spiritual goods and services.’ 
The newly ordained often experience a keen sense of disappointment, even disillusionment, as they realize what Clarke (a correspondent with McLaren) now sees, that many of our churches have more to do with subcultural identity preservation than they do with mission. What especially grieves Clarke and many like her is the prime directive to walk on eggshells regarding issues deemed political.”

She wrote:
“As a leader in the church I feel I am expected to be silent and non-opinionated on these issues. Ironic. When I look to the life of Jesus religion seems to have been low on his list of cares other than to challenge the religious elite of the day. Jesus cared about people who were on the margins, He cared about the list of things that I feel I cannot talk about as a leader of the church. So how do I passionately follow Jesus and ignore the very work that defined his ministry?

That is indeed the question. McClaren  calls us to stop walking on eggshells and begin to upset the status quo. But he’s no fool; he recognizes the consequences we face. He advises: ” . . . moving forward will take more than raising our voices. It will also require raising some money. We need church members to approach forward-leaning leaders and say, ‘If some donors get mad and stop giving, we’ll make up the difference. What good does it do to save the church budget and lose our souls?'”

Can we avoid schism? I don’t know. But even if we can’t, maybe we can hope that in another millennia, we’ll start talking to one another again. 

Bring All People to Faith in Christ?– Maybe Not

band_3815_logo_6Today’s intrafaith question:
What about the Great Commission?

In Chapter 9 of my book, I wrote:  If we do not reject the truth claims of other traditions, we may have some problems with our own. These dilemmas are not solely academic exercises. They are very practical issues that need to be addressed, for example, in our practices of evangelism and mission. As Asian theologian C. S. Song has written: “The problem of Christian mission is is the problem of Christian theology. Reconstruction of Christian theology must then precede reconstruction of Christian mission.”

So it was with great interest that I read of the resolution passed by the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) at its annual assembly in June. You can read the full resolution here, but the bottom line is this:

Whereas in the light of the growing positive and rich multi-faith engagement of the 21st century, we have come to a new humility about the question of God’s relation to other religions: Be it resolved that the New England Synod memorialize the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to initiate a process to amend the phrase “bring all people to faith in Christ” in C4.02b and its constitutional parallels in order to achieve greater consonance with both our understanding of Christian witness and sensitivity to our interfaith contexts.

I actually learned about this resolution from a blogger who is adamantly opposed to any such change which would “soft-pedal our faith” and move us further “out of historic and traditional Christian heritage and closer toward cultivating a rampant religious universalism.”

As much as I agree with and applaud the resolution and distain the language of demonic apostasy in the blog, I certainly recognize the intrafaith challenge presented here. What do we do with the mandate presented in Matthew’s Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations”? What is Christian mission anyway?

I also applaud the second part of the resolution:
Be it further resolved that the resources of the ELCA enlist and consult its teaching theologians, Bishops, and other leaders in the drafting of such an amendment for consideration at its subsequent CWA.

We need input from theologians who will take seriously our understanding of mission in the midst of our religious diversity. I am sure there are members of our congregations who fall all along the continuum of belief about Christian mission: from the position of the resolution to the orthodox blogger. I’m also sure that many would welcome serious theological guidance from the church in answer to their questions about faith in the 21st century.

How about you? What do you think the Great Commission means today?

 

 

 

Another Take on “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”

Bible text - I AM THE WAY, THE TRUTH, AND THE LIFEThis is a re-blog of a sermon from Pastor Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church near Toronto. It’s entitled “Letting Go of the Words Attributed to Jesus So that We Can Embrace the WORD – Easter 5A – John 14:1-14”

For me, the best part of the sermon is her story of being paired with a Hindu student for an assignment in a Religious Studies program. They were each asked to bring a piece of sacred scripture from their partner’s faith tradition that they found intriguing. To her chagrin, her Hindu friend brought “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except though me” to the table. And to her surprise, he then launched into – as she says – “an exegesis of the text that put this particular Christian to shame.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Your INTRAfaith Opportunity: Easter 5

Way-Truth-Lifejy-if6-sIt’s the passage that’s always brought up when Christians get together to talk about interfaith relationships. It is one of THE intrafaith questions. What do we do about “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me”?

How do you answer that question? I was interviewed by the Rev. Steve Kindle for Pastor2Pew about this text.  You can see that interview here. Let me know what you think.

she likes it

0a21aaab-a4d4-4d03-978e-665f0bfe6fdaPLURALISM SUNDAY
May 7, 2017

The teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.

………………….Pluralism isn’t just diversity;
………………….it’s something we create out of this diversity.

Dr. Diana Eck, founder and director of the Pluralism Project

 On May 7th (or other times during the year) – churches dedicate their worship to a celebration of our religiously diverse world.

Progressive Christians give thanks for this diversity! We don’t claim that our religion is superior to others. We recognize that other religions and traditions can be as good for others as ours is for us. We can grow closer to the Divine and deeper in compassion – and we can understand ourselves better – through a more intimate awareness of all the world’s religions and traditions.

Sponsored by ProgressiveChristianity.org, Pluralism Sunday is one way of fulfilling Point 2 of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity:
By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey.

On PLURALISM SUNDAY, churches celebrate other traditions in a variety of ways: sermons, litanies, and music; speakers and singers from other traditions, for example. Some congregations have exchanges with other faith communities, going to each other’s houses of worship. It’s entirely up to you!

SIGN UP NOW to be listed as a participating congregation for 2017 by emailing Rev. Susan Strouse, Pluralism Sunday Coordinator.  (You can celebrate the event on other dates and still be listed as participants – indicate your plans for the event to Susan so these details can be listed on our site.)