Category Archives: Jesus

Same God Is Out! Go See It!

Unknown-1“Same God” – Embodied Solidarity Comes at a Price
Back in 2016, I wrote two posts about Professor Larycia Hawkins, who was removed from her tenured position at Wheaton College because of her “embodied solidarity” with Muslims.
Wheaton College: an Intra-faith Controversy
The Professor Wore a Hijab in Solidarity – Then Lost Her Job:
An INTRAfaith Case Study

Then in 2018, I learned that there was a documentary about this intriguing story. So, of course, I wrote about that: Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God: More from Wheaton College

Now, it’s here! “Same God” is being shown this month on some PBS stations. Watch the trailer and find local listings hereThere will also be a limited theatrical release beginning March 8. The best way to get information is to follow @samegodfilm on FB, Twitter, and Instagram.  

“Same God” was directed by Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Linda Midgett, who is herself a graduate of Wheaton. But make no mistake about it; this is not a defense of the institution. Nor is it a condemnation. It is a beautifully filmed, honest telling, not only of Dr. Hawkins’ story, but also of the history and current state and challenges of evangelical Christianity.

A Quick Recap
It really all started in 2013, when Dr. Hawkins (or Doc Hawk as students call her in the film) became the first female African-American tenured professor at Wheaton. At Wheaton, an explicitly Christian liberal arts college, all faculty members are required to annually sign a covenant which defines what it means to be “dedicated to the service of Christ and His Kingdom.” 
As the film tells us, Dr. Hawkins willingly and faithfully signed this covenant upon her employment and every year thereafter.

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Then, on December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed in a terror attack in San Bernardino. Immediately, anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US began to ramp up. Then-candidate Donald Trump called for a Muslim travel ban. In response to this, Dr. Hawkins posted on her Facebook page that she was standing in solidarity with Muslims because they are also “people of the book” who worship “the same God.” As part of her Advent devotions, she posted a picture of herself wearing a hijab. That’s when it hit the fan. Long story short: she lost her job. The film covers all this very well, with interviews of Hawkins, plus faculty members and students. No one from the administration agreed to be interviewed.

UnknownA Rorschach Test
There is so much in this film that could and should spark dialogue. Someone said that the picture of Dr. Hawkins wearing a hijab was like a Rorschach test; different people would see different things. For example, many Muslim women would see an act of compassionate solidarity (what Hawkins would call embodied solidarity). For others, it would surface questions about academic freedom, religious liberty, and theology. I would add that having seen the film, the picture is a stark symbol of the systems of patriarchy and white privilege at work. It’s also a reminder of the need for interfaith dialogue. The ignorance expressed in many of the reactions to Dr. Hawkins’ post is simply appalling.

What I see in the inkblot is an intrafaith conversation needing to happen.
To be sure, there are many facets to this story: blatant racism and sexism; the emotional toll of the entire saga on Dr. Hawkins; and not to be ignored, the career and financial hits she was forced to take. All of these are very worthy of our attention. But what caught my intrafaith eye was the hurt she experienced in being accused of not being Christian. In a review in the Chicago Tribune, Linda Midgett expressed hope that her documentary will spark dialogue between people of different faiths so they can find common ground. I wholeheartedly agree! But I also hope it will encourage dialogue between people within the same faith – in this case Christianity. 

It Really Is about Theology . . .
In the film, Dr. Hawkins says that the controversy in which she was embroiled was not about a theological debate
. In the context of her grilling by the Wheaton provost, I agree and applaud her courage in naming what was unfair in the process and her refusal to engage in further “theological conversation.” 

Having said that, it is clear that theological questions loom large over the whole saga. Dr. George Kalantziz, Professor of Theology, hits the nail on the head: “When we ask the question ‘does Islam (or any other religion than Christianity) worship the same God?’ it’s always a qualified ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ We don’t all understand the word, not only ‘God,’ the same way, but worship the same way.” 

Bingo! Wheaton missed an opportunity to explore these questions. 

And Even More So, Christology . . .stained-glass-window-tepmlom-gate-glass
I’m particularly interested in the Christological questions raised by the firestorm of responses to Dr. Hawkins’ assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In the film, as Dr. Kalantziz is speaking, the camera pans across a beautiful church sanctuary. In the foreground is a gold processional cross. The symbolism is unmistakeable: this is a place that worships Jesus the Christ. Although never explicitly stated in the film, this is the heart of the matter. Who was/is Jesus? How does belief in Christ as the second person of the Trinity inform our beliefs about the truth of other religions? 

The interview with Bishop David Zac Niringiye would be the perfect discussion starter on how our interfaith encounters inform/strengthen/challenge/change our own beliefs. Speaking eloquently of the need for Christians to listen to our Muslim siblings, he says, “There is something about what they know of God that might cause me to understand God more.” He goes on to qualify: “Now, it is true, that the revelation of God is finally in Jesus Christ. It is complete.”

There is where I’d want the conversation to begin. 

“Your Christianity Isn’t Real”
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Dr. Hawkins’ story is the fact that her identity as a Christian was called into question. I can relate to a point. My job was never on the line. But I know that my adherence to orthodoxy has been questioned. In my case, it’s because I’ve moved further into Progressive Christianity, which has major differences with more traditional ways of believing. The ironic thing here, though, is that Hawkins is quite at home in evangelical Christianity. In the film, she movingly speaks about her baptism in her grandfather’s church, her love for Jesus and how that informs her work in the world. An interesting aspect of the film is its contrasting of African-American and white evangelicals. I was reminded that ‘evangelical’ does not describe a monolithic group; we on the more liberal side should not use the term irresponsibly. 

I’m part of a denomination with ‘evangelical’ in its name: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We often have discussions about removing the ‘evangelical’ part because we don’t want to be identified with what has become white evangelicalism since the 1970s (this was a really helpful part of the documentary). Listening to Wheaton faculty members, it’s clear they’re having some of the same dilemmas. I believe we could easily find some common ground in an intrafaith dialogue. 

Who Are We? Christian Identity in the 21st Century 
Most religious groups are undergoing a time of questioning about their place in the world. This is causing great anxiety among many people and institutions. As Dr Kalantziz said, “Questions have moved. People, ideas have moved . . . expressions of theology have changed.” This is not good news to many who are resistant to change, especially in theology and religious practice. He talks about the evangelicalism of the past and the future, about two kinds of leadership: pioneers and overseers. The role of overseers is to keep the heritage of American evangelicalism alive. 

Wheaton College, despite its pioneering history as a stop on the Underground Railroad, has become an overseer, dedicated to an evangelicalism of the past. Larycia Hawkins, on the other hand, can be seen as helping to usher in an evangelicalism of the future. That’s obviously not an easy place to be. The film poignantly allows us to enter into her life – in the courage, strength, conviction, and resilience, as well as the vulnerability, suffering, and loss. I don’t know how anyone could fail to be moved by her story. 

My interest in Dr. Hawkins began as a rather academic exercise in showing an example of an intrafaith issue. Having seen the film, I’m even more of a fan – of the person and her witness of faith in action. It’s still an intrafaith story, but so much more. I hope it will be seen by Christians, from evangelicals to progressives. And I sincerely hope that director Linda Midgett’s vision of her documentary sparking dialogue will be fulfilled: both between people of different faiths and between people within the same faith. 

https://samegodfilm.com 

https://www.facebook.com/samegodfilm/ 

https://twitter.com/samegodfilm/ 

https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/samegodfilm/ 

 

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You Might Be a Christian Atheist If . . .

 

shutterstock_1455604277New Voices . . .

is a chapter in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation, in which I describe some of the groups now included in the interfaith scene.

These groups include . . .

Atheists and Humanists

Since the book was published in 2015, there have been a lot of new developments. I was aware of the wide range of definitions for atheists and humanists when I wrote the book. Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the further exploration, expansion, and definition of these terms. I’m not much interested in the fundamentalist atheists, who are just as dogmatic as the religionists they criticize. But I am drawn to those who are exploring the boundaries of who and what God (or Being or Presence or no word at all) is.

Probably the most public lately has been Gretta Vosper, the self-professed Atheist who is a pastor in the United Church of Canada (I wrote about her in Should the Atheist Pastor Be Defrocked?). In 1997, four years into her call to West Hill United Church in Scarborough, Ontario, she preached a sermon called “Deconstructing God.” At that point, she defined herself in a more “not this” manner, declaring that she did not believe in a theistic God. Then in 2013, she moved from non-theism to atheism after she read about the plight of Pakistani bloggers who faced punishment as blasphemers for questioning the existence of God. For her (according to her website), “god is a metaphor for goodness and love lived out with compassion and justice, no more and no less.”

In 2017, I met Carrah Quigley when we presented a workshop together at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto. Carrah identifies as a Spiritual Humanist. According to the Church of Spiritual Humanism, this is a “religion based on the ability of human beings to solve the problems of society using logic and science . . .  using scientific inquiry we can define the inspirational, singular spark inherent in all living creatures.” Spiritual Humanism is natural, not supernatural.

46159493._SX318_Atheists for Jesus?

Then, just this month I came across the category of Jesus-following Atheists (also known as Christian Atheists) in an article entitled Inter-faith Dialogue with Christian Atheists. 

Hmm. Intriguing.

From what I’ve read, it seems that the main focus of Christian Atheism is the life of the historical Jesus and the system of ethics drawn from his teachings. Although, regarding the subject of God, there is some divergence. While some do reject the idea of God altogether, others dismiss the belief in a supernatural, interventionist God. According to the author of What Does It Mean to Be a Christian Atheist?I still believe in ‘God.’ What I do not accept is belief in a theistic deity, a ‘being’ that created the universe, holds the universe together, or exists in or apart from the universe.”

Of course, Bishop John Shelby Spong has written and spoken much about the death of theism, and I greatly appreciate his insights about coming to reject the belief in a supernatural power. I don’t think he calls himself an a-theist; he’s more inclined to dismiss as inadequate these words for our experiences of the Divine. The experience is what is important. In this sense, I have no qualms about calling myself an a-theist. Especially since he doesn’t reject the reality of mystical experiences of the Holy, as do some who adhere only to the ethical teachings of Jesus.

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However, at the end of the day, I still resonate most with Teilhard de Chardin’s panentheism, in which all creation exists within a ‘divine milieu.’

Still, I am intrigued by the ongoing exploration of what we mean when we think about God (the Divine, Spirit, or no name at all). The freedom to go outside the bounds of our traditional (and limited) understandings enhances not only our own spiritual/ethical life, but our communal life as well.

The interfaith world benefits from the presence of those who do not fit the definition of “religion.” The intrafaith scene can benefit as well, if we get past our prejudices (especially when we don’t know the broad range of these groups) and listen to their stories.

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“I am the way and the truth and the life” at Churchwide Assembly

unnamedThis past week, my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), held its triennial  Churchwide Assembly. One of the main events was voting on the proposed policy statement: A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment. I’m proud to say that it passed 890-23. 

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That might have been due to the fabulous array of ecumenical and inter-religious guests!

Watch the whole process here.

 

There was, however, one moment of concern from the intrafaith perspective. An amendment had been submitted calling a section of the policy statement “inconsistent with Scripture,” which proposed striking some of the language of the statement under the heading “Limits on our knowing” (lines 630-655). The author of the motion based his challenge on our old friend John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

i-am-the-way...In the amendment he wrote: “We have a clear statement from Jesus, who is fully God and fully man. We do therefore have a basis to know God’s views on religions that do not require faith in Jesus Christ as God’s son.”

Speaking from the floor, he added: “I am here to speak truth to power, even if it is an inconvenient truth. I would urge this assembly to repudiate and repent of any false teachings.”

The only other person who came to a microphone stated, “I’m embarrassed that we’re having this conversation in front of our interfaith guests.”

The motion to amend was overwhelmingly defeated and the policy statement was adopted.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am delighted that this policy statement has been adopted. But I’m also disappointed that this very appropriate question was not adequately addressed. To be fair, I doubt that it could have been adequately addressed in the context of the amendment’s discussion time. And I have to wonder how many other voting members had similar questions but not the courage of this one lone amendment-maker. Having the discussion with all the interfaith guests standing right there on the stage might not have been an embarrassment, but it sure might have been a deterrent.

As I have said innumerable times, the “What about when Jesus said . . .” question has come up in virtually every interfaith workshop I’ve ever led with Christians.
Here is an audio version of the interview I did on Pastor to Pew a few years ago. We talk about my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But mostly it’s my take on John 14: 6 and how taking the intrafaith  question seriously is a necessity for today’s church. Screen Shot 2019-08-13 at 4.45.35 PM

Presiding Bishop Eaton said (in reference to our ecumenical relations) that “ecumenism is not an add-on, but a central part of what it means when we say we are church.” I know even that’s a stretch for many congregations, but I wish that our inter-religious relations could also be central to what it means to be church.

But if we do take interfaith seriously,
we’re going to have to also take intrafaith seriously.

Thankfully, there’s a resource for this!  (Shameless self-promotion warning)

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“. . . meeting and respecting a person of another religion confronts us all with the question raised by Marjorie Suchoki in Divinity and Diversity
Our Christian past has traditionally taught us that there is only one way to God, and that is through Christ. But we are uneasy. Our neighborliness teaches us that these others are good and decent people, good neighbors, or loved family members! Surely God is with them as well as with us. Our hearts reach out, but our intellectual understanding draws back. We have been given little theological foundation for affirming these others – and consequently we wonder if our feelings of acceptance are perhaps against the will of God, who has uniquely revealed to us just what is required for salvation.

“As pastors and lay leaders we are responsible to our congregations to provide the theological foundation for affirming ‘these others.’ Rather than succumbing to what John Cobb calls ‘the danger that sensitive Christians will simply delete central beliefs rather than transform them,’ I believe that we have some serious theological and Christological work to do in defining, or perhaps re-defining, ourselves in light of our interfaith milieu.” (The INTRAfaith Conversation, Introduction)

I really hope we take up the challenge to build relationships with our inter-religious siblings. I also really hope that we’ll also take up the challenge to engage folks like the writer of the amendment. That’s not an add-on either, but should be part of what it means when we say we are church.

. . . if interreligious dialogue is to be real dialogue,
then intrareligious dialogue must accompany it.
– 
Raimon Panikkar

 

 

 

What to Do with “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”?

i-am-the-way...

In virtually every workshop I’ve ever led about interfaith matters, someone asks the question: “What about when Jesus said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me?”

Here is an audio version of the interview I did with Steve Kindle of Pastor to Pew a few years ago. We talk about my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation. But mostly it’s my take on John 14: 6 and how taking the intrafaith  question seriously is a necessity for today’s church. 

You can also see the video here.

 

 

For Dorcas, Rachel, and All Good Shepherds

shutterstock_1084294370Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace, from God our Creator and Christ our Wisdom. Amen.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. I’m always a little flummoxed by the day because I’ve never seen a real-live shepherd. I mean, I get it; the job of a shepherds is to take care of sheep. But I’ve often wondered if there couldn’t be an updated version, you know, one that modern people could relate to. I did see a couple examples (forgive the exclusive language):

A Programmer’s Psalm 23shutterstock_705197296

 The Lord is my programmer,
        I shall not crash.
    He installed his software
        on the hard disk of
        my heart;
all of his commands
        are user-friendly.
His directory guides me
    to the right choices for his name’s sake.
Even though I scroll
    through the problems
        of life,
I will fear no bugs,
    for he is my backup.
His password protects me.

An Architect’s Psalm 23

shutterstock_525927412The Lord is my architect,
        I shall not be mis-proportioned.
    He makes me enclose
        beautiful spaces,
he builds me erect in tranquility,
    He restores my
        deteriorated parts.
He puts me together
        to reflect righteousness
    for his namesake.
Though I am overshadowed
    by skyscrapers and cathedrals,
I will fear no evil,
    for you stay attentive  to me;
your pencil and creativity,
    they comfort me.

But they don’t really do the trick, do they? The shepherd image somehow works, even for 21stcentury, urban dwellers. How can that be? Maybe we can get a hint from Allstate. I almost always mute the sound when commercials come on TV. But there are some I actually like. Like the ads for Allstate Insurance that feature a character named Mayhem.Unknown-1

In one, a man is driving in his car and his cell phone starts buzzing. But the phone has fallen and gotten stuck between the seat and the console. As it keeps buzzing, the man keeps trying to get at it. Mayhem, who we can see lying underneath the seats where the phone would be, is goading him on: “Cold, warm, warmer . . .” until BOOM, the driver rear ends the car in front of him. “Jackpot!” exclaims a triumphant Mayhem.

Now, I’m pretty sure you know there’s no man on the floor hiding the guy’s phone – but you get the message. He symbolizes mayhem. Even if you’ve never dropped your cell phone and rear-ended a car as you frantically tried to find, there’s a whole series where “Mayhem” wreaks havoc in someone’s life. It’s a very effective way of tapping into the common human condition – stuff happens. The good news according to Allstate is: you’re in good hands.

Same message as the Good Shepherd. We know that neither God (23rdPsalm) or Jesus (Gospel of John) is a literal shepherd. But like “Mayhem,” the Good Shepherd (the anti-Mayhem?) hits us in the middle of our human condition. We get the message. The good news according to John: we’re in good hands. God cares for us, lovingly, faithfully, consistently. We matter to God. In Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we see that most clearly. The sheep and their shepherd are bound in a relationship that, when expressed in theo-logical language, is very powerful and moving. The 23rd Psalm is a prime example, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” Or as one little girl, in telling her teacher she knew the entire 23rd Psalm, recited: “The Lord is my Shepherd, that’s all I want.” 

Now, today I’m going to focus on women as shepherds. Particularly one woman. In the passage from the Book of Acts, we learned about a woman named Dorcas (Greek), also known as Tabitha (Aramaic). You might recognize the name Dorcas as part of a trio of women commemorated annually on October 25. The official title for the day is: “Dorcas, Lydia, and Phoebe – Faithful Women.”

Saint_Tabitha
St. Tabitha (Dorcas)

But hold up a minute. Because we’re reading in English, it is very important to know that Luke identifies Dorcas with the Greek word ‘mathetria.’ You might wonder why that’s so important. Here’s why. Dorcas is “the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in Acts, and 9:36 is the only occurrence of the feminine form of ‘disciple’ (mathetria) anywhere in the New Testament.”

Hmm. Isn’t it interesting that “when men take care of widows, Luke calls it ‘ministry,’ but when Tabitha (Dorcas) performs the same services Luke calls it ‘good works .’ 

“Good question, and one that illuminates for us the power of words, especially when we consider the exclusion of women from ordained ministry for so many centuries (and in some churches, even today).”   Sermon Seeds

Scripture, of course, identifies many women who play important roles of shepherding and leading (even without the designation‘mathetria’).  And they come by it honestly. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God as a shepherd, including the feminine aspect,
Like a shepherd you feed your flock, gathering the lambs in your arms, and carrying them in your bosom, and gently leading the mother sheep. 

Shepherds care for the most vulnerable in our society. Jesus followed that job description, and we follow his example. In Jesus’ time, one of the most vulnerable of God’s flock was the widow. In today’s story we know that Dorcas conducted her ministry among the widows of her community. Hebrew and Christian scriptures alike declare God’s desire for widows to be treated with kindness and justice.

The frequency of these urgings suggests that God’s will was not always obeyed. Widows remained very vulnerable. So what does Dorcas do? She makes clothing for them. In the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, her compassion is hands-on. The emphasis in the story is her discipleship among them. She is their pastor.

An interesting fact is that the town of Joppa where Dorcas lived was where Jonah had 224px-Dublin_St._Patrick's_Cathedral_Ambulatory_Southern_Section_Window_Raising_of_Dorcas_by_Saint_Peter_2012_09_26been called to go to the hated Assyrians. This seems to have been a place where ministry happened on the margins of society. Dorcas ministered with women that society routinely overlooked. They had obviously become a close-knit community. When she died, these women came together to grieve her death – and then miraculously her restoration to life.

This is one of the several ‘restoration to life’ stories in the Bible. They are hard to deal with sometimes because they cause us to wonder ‘why that person and not this person?’ That question was certainly on many peoples’ minds last week after the tragic death of Rachel Held Evans. If you’re not familiar with her, she was the 37-year old mega-popular Christian writer, blogger, and speaker. Her ministry on the margins was with exvangelicals, those who have left evangelical Christianity for a more progressive church. Rachel herself had moved away from being an evangelical Christian to becoming Episcopalian. For many exvangelicals, she modeled the transition away from a constricting form of faith to one of openness and inclusion. 

Rachel entered the hospital in April with flu-like symptoms, and then had a severe 440px-Rachel_Held_Evansallergic reaction to antibiotics. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma when she developed seizures. When they attempted to wean her from the drugs maintaining her coma, the seizures returned. Her condition worsened in early May and her doctors discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died on Saturday, May 4th, leaving behind her husband and her children, a 3-year-old boy and a girl who turns 1 later this month. I imagine that Mothers Day will not be a happy occasion for them.

And I imagine that the many faithful people who were praying so hard for her recovery – and today hear this story of the restoration to life – will wonder, “why not Rachel; she was every bit the shepherd/minister as Dorcas.”

Sometimes these Bible stories really hit us where we live – and die. I remember the Sunday after ministering to a couple who had lost their baby to SIDS, when the first reading was the story of Elijah restoring life to the son of the widow of Zarephath and the gospel reading was the one in which Jesus brings back the only child of the widow of Nain. It seemed as if the lectionary was playing a cruel joke on us that week

These are the times we really wrestle with our faith and our understanding of scripture. It’s impossible for us to know the mechanics of healing. Living as we do with both faith in the healing power of God and knowledge of modern science, we wonder. When I was a hospital chaplain in Buffalo, NY years ago, there was a patient who had been declared brain dead. There was no possibility of recovery. But her family, all very devout Christians, believed with all their heart that she would be healed – not unlike the Oakland teenager whose family refused to have her removed from a ventilator after being declared brain dead. I know from working with the family in Buffalo the fine line I had to walk between faith and medical science.

So I wouldn’t want us to get so embroiled in these questions that we can’t answer that we lose sight of some truths that we can know. First Dorcas, though raised up by Peter at this point in time, would eventually die. Death is part of our human condition. We take a whole Easter season to celebrate the fact that death does not have the last word, that it is the gateway into life eternal. What we see in all of these restoration stories is the power of God at work through prophets like Elijah, through Jesus, and through some of the shepherds who followed in his path.

But the one I want to raise up today, on this day that we honor mothers and others who give motherly care, is Dorcas: not only ‘faithful woman’ but a mother of the church, disciple, shepherd, pastor.  And all the disciples – women and men – who show us what a shepherd of God’s flock looks like and acts like, so that we can do the same – go out into the margins and care for the most vulnerable of our community. And we do so without fear, knowing we are in good hands – in life and in death. Believing with all our hearts:

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me 
all the days of our lives,
and we will dwell in God’s house forever.

Amen

 

Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple, a woman named Tabitha—“Dorcas,” in Greek—who never tired of doing kind things or giving to charity. About this time she grew ill and died. They washed her body and laid her out in an upstairs room.

Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples sent two couriers to Peter with the urgent request, “Please come over to us without delay.” Peter set out with them as they asked.

Upon his arrival, they took him upstairs to the room. All the townswomen who had been widowed stood beside him weeping, and showed him the various garments Dorcas had made when she was still with them.

Peter first made everyone go outside, then knelt down and prayed. Turning to the body, he said, “Tabitha, stand up.” She opened her eyes, then looked at Peter and sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her to her feet. The next thing he did was to call in those who were believers—including the widows—to show them that she was alive.

This became known all over Joppa and, because of it, many came to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter remained awhile in Joppa, staying with Simon, a leather tanner.

John 10:22-30

The time came for Hanukkah, the Feast of the Dedication, in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple area, in Solomon’s Porch, when the Temple authorities surrounded him and said, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you really are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus replied, “I did tell you, but you don’t believe. The work I do in my Abba’s name gives witness in my favor, but you don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never be lost. No one will ever snatch them from my hand. Abba God, who gave them to me, is greater than anyone, and no one can steal them from Abba God. For Abba and I are One.”

 

Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God: the Pope Said So!

Angelico,_san_francesco_fa_la_pova_del_fuoco_davanti_al_sultano_21219 CE: St. Francis and the Sultan
This year marks an important date in interfaith history. Eight-hundred years ago, as Christians and Muslims were in the midst of fighting the fifth crusade/jihad, St. Francis of Assisi had a remarkable 
visit with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt. You can read more about that historic event here

What I really want to talk about is another, much more recent, historic meeting. Last month, Pope Francis visited Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and met with  Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar mosque. What transpired is just as momentous as the meeting of St. Francis and the Sultan.

2019 CE: The Pope and the Imam
On February 4, Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb signed a document on improving Christian-Muslim relations called “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together”. Pope_Francis_and_Ahmed_el_Tayeb_grand_imam_of_al_Azhar_signed_a_joint_declaration_on_human_fraternity_during_an_interreligious_meeting_in_Abu_Dhabi_UAE_Feb_4_2019_Credit_Vatican_Media_It begins:
In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace . . .
By beginning this way, the document (hopefully) puts to rest the idea that we do not worship the same Deity, whether we call that Deity God, Allah, Ground of our Being, or Nameless One. 

The really stunning part comes two-thirds of the way down. Tucked into a list of convictions essential for upholding the role of religions in the construction of world peace, is this statement:
The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings.
(I know. I have to temporarily suspend all of my convictions about exclusively male language for God. But the implications of the statement are too big to ignore.)

It’s Been Done Before
While potentially provocative, it’s not the first time the Catholic Church has made such a
declaration. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council approved Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Regarding Islam, it said:
The church also regards with esteem the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself, merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.

16mag-16hawkins-t_CA1-mediumThreeByTwo440Remember the brouhaha at Wheaton College a few years ago when one the professors was fired for wearing a hijab in solidarity with Muslims? It was also about quoting the Pope: “As Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Her reference was to: Meeting with the Muslim Community at the Central Mosque of Koudoukou, Bangui (Central African Republic) on November 30, 2015. 

Pushback!
There has been criticism of these pronouncements. In 2000, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger issued a warning about the danger of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.” In 
“Dominus Iesus,” the future Pope Benedict XVI said
This truth of faith (that Christ is the salvation of all humanity) does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism
“characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another.

Of course, the Protestants also got into the act. Hank Hanegraaff, known as the “Bible Answer Man” on his radio show has said that “the Allah of Islam” is “definitely not the God of the Bible.” And the evangelical Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry unequivocally states that Christians and Muslims do not adore the same God, and that the Catholic Church has “a faulty understanding of the God of Islam.”

Now granted, these are positions from the Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity. I have problems with both sides on issues other than this one. But I applaud the efforts of Pope Francis to further our interfaith awareness and acceptance.

What Does Progressive Christianity Say?
As a progressive Christian, I agree with the second point of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity:
tcpc_logo_tag.pngBy calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who 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. 

The INTRAfaith Conversation
Agreeing to this statement, though, doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the dilemma that exists within these statements, pro and con. I give Cardinal Ratzinger just a tiny bit of credit because he attempted to engage the elephant in the living room: what about Jesus?  I don’t agree where he comes down, but he did engage the question. 
Pope Francis and Sultan al-Malik al-Kami didn’t get into knotty questions, such as the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity.

They were all about peacemaking – and props to them for that!

UnknownIt is left to us to wrestle with our inherited Christologies (as well as doctrines, creeds, liuturgies, hymns, prayers, etc.) in light of our desire to live in peace and harmony with our religious neighbors. As Kristin Johnston Largen  wrote in Finding God Among Our Neighbors, . . .issues of Christology cannot be avoided in an interreligious conversation that professes to take Christian faith claims seriously.” In other words, who/what is Jesus in an interreligious context? 

Such wrestling is what I attempt to facilitate in my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters?

Pope Francis and the Imam have given us a lot to think about. 

Let’s talk!

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The Intra-faith Quandary of John Allen Chau

go-therefore-and-make-disciples-of-all-nations-matthew-2819a

The tragic story of missionary John Allen Chau should cause us to ask: what is Christian mission in an interfaith world? 

The Great Commission at the end of the gospel of Matthew has always been the impetus for doing mission in the world. It’s so familiar, we might not stop to consider what we mean when we read it or say it. But, in fact, it’s a prime example of our need for the intrafaith conversation. The recent death of Chau – and the controversy over his actions – reveal the dilemma. 

“Thinking about Missionaries: Stupid Fools or Believers Obeying Core Christian Beliefs?” on GetReligion hits the nail on the head (GetReligion is a website that attempts to highlight the religious aspects of news stories often neglected by mainstream news outlets). Author Terry Mattingly explains that he has three “hot-button” doctrinal questions that he finds “useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks.” In other words, the intrafaith conversation.

He goes on to say, “The Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.”
And w
hat is question No. 2? “Is salvation found through Jesus Christ alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  One of the big questions at the heart of the intrafaith conversation.

So, what’s the debate over Chau’s actions and death? The thing is: the definition and purpose of mission has been changing. In my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Emmaus_a0000402Church in America (ELCA), mission is described as a journey, in which disciples  walk with others, listen to them, learn from them and with them. The biblical story used as a model is the “road to Emmaus,” in which the gospel is revealed in the relationship that develops among the travelers: in talking, listening, and breaking bread together. This way recognizes the mistakes of past history, such as seeing people as “objects of mission,” and defines mission as accompaniment.

On the other hand, there are those who still subscribe to the goal set forth by All Nations, the  mission-training organization which trained John Allen Chau: “to see Jesus worshiped by all the peoples of the earth.” 

The people on both sides of this interpretive chasm are faithful Christians. However, one side looks at the Chau story and sees an oblivious young man propagating the worst of Christian imperialism. The other sees a martyr who died attempting to fulfill Jesus’ mandate. Both have biblical texts and theologies to support their positions. Who is right? 

The better question is: how do we talk with our brothers, sisters, and siblings in the faith about such matters? 

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Christianity on the Spot

IDP-2018-graphic“Can I put you on the spot?”
That was the question asked by the woman who came up to me after the International Day of Peace brunch at Pacifica Institute.

I might have been the only Christian in the room. I’m not sure about that, but of all the people who spoke and identified their tradition, most were either Jewish or Muslim. But I was the one who was there in a clergy collar, was introduced as a reverend, and had stood on the stage to42487030_597514903998950_2624665346493120512_n offer a peace blessing after brunch. 

Can I put you on the spot?”
“Of course,” I said, pretty much guessing at what the question would be.
“What do you think about these Christians who are supportive of Trump?” 

I knew it! Immediately the anger rose up in me – not at my new friend, but at the awful predicament we Christians are in. I explained about the growing divide between us. On one side are some evangelicals who are trying with all their might to hold onto a dying theological worldview which embraces tribalism, exclusivity, individual salvation, and a hierarchical/patriarchal ordering of the world. On the other side are those who are leaning into a new paradigm of interconnectedness, interdependence, interspirituality, and inclusivity. 

I also shared my theory that the reactivity we’re witnessing in both religion and politics is due to the fear engendered by this shift. In a way, I can sympathize. Theologian Hans Küng calls what we’re going through a “Macro-Paradigm-Shift,” affecting all of our institutions on a global scale. Some characteristics of the emerging paradigm are:

  • It’s global. Humanity is seen as a single tribe and this one tribe is interconnected with the total cosmos.
  • It’s an age of dialogue, not monologue. Instead of talking only with those like us, we meet with people of differing convictions, not as opponent, but in order to listen,  share and learn from one another. 
  • It will be characterized by a deep commitment to environmental justice, including a shift from an exclusively anthropocentric view to one which sees humanity in interdependent relationship with all other life forms and with the Earth itself.
  • It will involve a redefinition of religion. Many of the answers given in the past do not address questions being asked today. Just as Christianity moved from a Jewish way of thinking into one of Greek philosophy (which produced the ‘substance’ language of the Nicene Creed), we are now moving into a new way of reflecting on theological matters.

I get it; change is difficult. Even when I’m in full agreement with a change in my own life, I still feel discomfort as I go through it. So I get the resistance to change. I can even sympathize with it to a point – but not with the reactionary, knee-jerk attempts to hold back the flow of history.

As a Christian, it is helpful (although sometimes frustrating) to be in an interfaith setting. Seeing myself through the eyes of a Jew, Muslim, Pagan, or Atheist reveals the intrafaith spot we’re in. It’s not enough to vehemently declare, “I’m not like those Christians. We have to define ourselves by who we are. 

At another interfaith gathering last week, a Jewish woman spoke up and said that she was usually more comfortable with Muslims because the issue with Jesus never comes up; with Christians, you just couldn’t be sure. Once again, I felt the desire – the urgency – to promote a different kind of Christianity than the kind that turns people off. 

The divide is growing and we are on the spot. How will we contribute to peacemaking in our churches, communities, and world – as Christians of a new paradigm?

Reclaiming Jesus?

30738727_146209712884568_1219961842403639296_nThere’s a lot of talk going on these days about what it means to be a Christian. There are lines being drawn: specifically between the Christianity of the white evangelicals who claim #45 as one of their own and continue to bless his behaviors, actions, and policies and the Christianity of those who see Jesus as the champion of those most impacted by those behaviors, actions, and policies. 

Jesus Suddenly a Hot Topic of Conversation!
I’ve been noticing Jesus popping up in unexpected places. Just this past month, I’ve noticed14716201_10209629251221386_6462186587389417945_n.jpg that on MSNBC’s The Last WordLawrence O’Donnell has been unabashedly preaching about Jesus in reference to the latest immigration nightmare (see ” These are Animals” and “From Abhorrent to Evil”. Although I am a Proud Member of the Religious Left, it was (pleasantly) startling to hear on a left-leaning network.  

And Now There Is a Movement!
The Reclaiming Jesus statement was released during Lent this year and signed by many leaders of a variety of Christian denominations. And o
n May 24, Reclaiming Jesus held a vigil and demonstration in Washington D.C. to protest #45’s “America First” policies:
 . . . we reject ‘America first’ as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children . . .We pray that we, as followers of Jesus, will find the depth of faith to match the danger of our political crisis. 

However . . .
I will admit to some hesitancy to endorse this statement. While I applaud the inclusion of shutterstock_692129986issues of racism, misogyny, treatment of the most vulnerable, authoritarian political leadership, and the “regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders,” I was struck by what was not included. There was no mention of respect and support for members of the LGBTQ community. I suspect that it was a line that some signatories could not cross. I did hear that some of the speakers at the worship service before the vigil did affirm our LGBTQ neighbors and denounced homophobia from the pulpit. 
But I wonder how we can use the document without adding another “We Believe” and “Therefore We Reject” paragraph. 

Who Else Is Missing?
I’ve also learned that the probable reason for there being no Lutheran signatory to the Reclaiming Jesus statement is some theological differences. Well, I’d expect that there would be some differences, seeing the list of signatories all the from evangelicals like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallace to progressives like Walter Brueggemann and Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I don’t know what Presiding ELCA Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s theological issue was. I do know there were many ELCA members, both clergy and lay, at the demonstration. 

The Dilemma
So here’s the quesiton: can I be critical of the ELCA for not signing on because of theological differences while I myself am critical of the statement’s exclusion of  LGBTQ folks, which is probably itself a theological difference? This is where the intrafaith rubber hits the road. IF Christians of varied stripes – and it’s a big if – can come together in agreement that something has got to be done to counter a Christianity in service to empire, then we can be a powerful force for good. 

What do you think? Are there lines in the sand you can’t cross? Can you be part of a movement to reclaim Jesus even if you disagree with some of the other participants?  

Hmm, maybe what we need, in order for us to reclaim Jesus together, is an intrafaith conversation! It might be the most patriotic thing we can do. 

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Who WOULD Want to Be a Disciple?

6a00d8341cbf9a53ef015435d666c8970c-350wiA Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent Mark 8:31-38

Who wants to be a millionaire? Maybe you’ve seen the game show that asks contestants that question. It’s rather a silly question; who doesn’t want to be a millionaire? Well, I guess billionaires, who don’t want to be downsized. But for most folks, it would seem to be a no-brainer. Unlike the question: who wants to be a disciple?

Maybe those of us who grew up in the church or have heard the gospel message so often have grown inured to what is really being asked of those who agree to be a follower of Jesus. “If you want to follow me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.” If that’s the job description, who would want to be a disciple?

And it is the job description. Jesus says it quite plainly: “if you want to follow me . . .”
He surely knew what the outcome would be if he kept on speaking and teaching a way of life that did not accommodate itself to the ways of the Empire. He wasn’t a zealot. He didn’t encourage violence. His way was much more subversive and much more effective. His was a way of inner transformation. And as hearts and minds were changed, people were moved to act in outer ways also, bringing about transformation of their society.

And that was as threatening to the powers that be as an armed rebellion – as Jesus well knew as he began to teach his disciples that he would suffer at the hands of the authorities. You didn’t have to be God to figure that out. It was obvious to Jesus. So he didn’t have any patience with Peter, who didn’t want to hear about suffering and death. No wonder: the Romans killed tens of thousands of people by crucifixion. Stephen Mansfield, author of the bestselling book Killing Jesus, described crucifixion as “an act of state terror.” Who wouldn’t take issue with a beloved teacher who seemed hell-bent on becoming one more of Rome’s victims, aided by the religious authorities?

This word “rebuke” is not a mere matter of a friendly discussion. It’s a severe censure of what Jesus is saying. We might imagine Peter screaming, “Shut up!” as Jesus described what he saw coming in his near future. And his language as he lashes back at Peter is just as harsh. “Get behind me, Satan.”

Angry-Jesus-crop-546x500This is the only time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus use such heated language. And how odd that the recipient of this anger is Peter: one of the first disciples, the first one to call Jesus “Messiah,” the “rock” on whom the church would be built. This clash is no mild disagreement. It’s the moment of truth for all who would be disciples of Jesus: “If you want to follow me, you have to deny your very self and take up your cross. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”

If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we don’t want to hear those words any more than Peter did. If we really get the horror of crucifixion, we’ll wonder why we choose to have such an ugly thing, this instrument of torture in our churches, around our necks, in our ears. And we’ll recoil from the reminder that being a follower of Jesus is not without its risks. It’s not an easy ticket to heaven. It’s not a guarantee of prosperity. It’s not a bypass around the hardships of life. Who would want to be a disciple?

Yet here we are. Moving together a little further into Lent, toward the story of the crucifix-ion. Knowing that it’s important not to get to Easter too quickly, that we need to let these words soak into us once again because they are so counter-intuitive. Sacrifice for others? Deny myself? Take up a cross? Suffer? Who wants that?

Who wants that indeed? Yet the undeniable fact is that suffering is already part of our lives in this broken world. The last time I stood here in this space was Ash Wednesday – the day that 17 people died in a school shooting in Parkland, FL. Perhaps you saw the photo of a woman, presumably the mother of a student, waiting for news outside the school. On her forehead was the sign of a cross, marked in ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Since that terrible day, a lot of words have been spoken and printed, hours of discussion and commentary on news programs, extensive coverage of the movement begun by young people determined to see that it never happens again. Will this attack be the tipping point that finally brings some resolution to the problem of gun violence? We already know that these students are experiencing harassment and pushback. Standing up to the powers that be is not without its risks.

And what should our response be as followers of Jesus? Thoughts and prayers? Well, yes. That is certainly part of who we are and what we do – we reach out in compassion to those who are suffering. However, that’s not what Jesus is suggesting here as an answer. As theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve.”

Sad to say, the problem of school shootings is not the only intractable and divisive issue confronting us these days. Also sad to say is that we as a society have become so unable or unwilling to have civil conversations across our divides. The church is not immune to this phenomenon. I know several pastors who have been warned to “keep politics out if the pulpit” for even mentioning an issue. But I believe that the Jesus who blew up at Peter would take exception to those warnings.

Untitled-design-49In a recent article entitled “Silencing Jesus with Politics: From a Subversive to a Submis-sive Jesus,” the author suggests that the Jesus who preached and taught that the realm of God had come near and showed us how to live within that realm was transformed into Jesus meek and mild. According to Howard Thurman, African-American author, educator, philosopher, theologian, civil rights leader, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., “too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and powerful and against the week and oppressed – this despite the gospel.”

I’ve been disturbed lately by the attitudes and opinions expressed by some who would call themselves followers of Jesus. So-called Evangelical Christians are under heavy scrutiny these days for their unwavering support of leaders, despite disturbing revelations of abusive behavior. And like it or not, as Christians, we all get lumped into the same category by many who cannot or will not distinguish between us.

This is disturbing on many levels. One is the fact that, as we know, the Church is under-going a massive re-formation. It’s certainly shrinking. Anxiety in congregations is rising. The future is uncertain for the institution that has been the church, at least within our life-time. We can’t afford to be painted with the same brush used to condemn the actions of other Christians. We have enough troubles of our own.

For example, it’s obvious that many younger people are not interested in what we have to offer, at least not in the form that we offer it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about things. You may know that there is a mission outreach program in San Francisco called Middle Circle that has been gathering together young people and listening to their thoughts, ideas, and needs. One thing I’ve learned in getting to know many of them is that they care about the world and they want to take action. They are keenly interested in matters of social justice and want to do something about it. Thoughts and prayers won’t cut it; action will. Just look at the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

If the church is to be relevant and vibrant into the future – in whatever form it may take – it has to be true to the Jesus who spoke openly about what it would take to make a difference in the world. We have to be true to the message of the gospel – even when it’s hard. Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That’s definitely one of those hard parts.

So who wants to be a disciple? Who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about the sins of our society, about the sins of our communal, national, and global world?

Who is willing to take the risk of speaking up, even when it means being in disagreement with family members, friends, neighbors? Who’s willing to call out racist speech and behavior? Homophobic, misogynistic Islamaphobic, any kind of hate language? Who is willing to take up a cross and work for a cause for justice? Don’t worry; there are plenty to choose from.

And who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about a different way of living in God’s realm right here and right now? Who’s willing to learn how to do so without descending into bad behavior ourselves, by practicing what one activist described as “calling someone in while calling them out.” Who’s willing to learn non-violent ways of responding to violence, of how to always “go high” when others are “going low?” Who’s willing to show up at a rally or demonstration – visibly as a Christian – to show that we are on the side of love and justice?

“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” That is what happens when we’re willing to take on the powers of the world. That’s what happens when we’re determined to show the world that God’s love is greater than any human show of might. That’s what happens when we say, “The realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” -and then live as if we believe it.

Who wants to be a disciple? Today – how do you hear Jesus’ call to pick up a cross and follow?

Amen

 

Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly.

Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eying the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s.”

Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you want to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose your self in the process?

What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and of my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”