Category Archives: Religion

The INTRAfaith Conversation in Judaism

The intrafaith conversation is not a necessity for Christians alone. Divisiveness occurs in most, if not all, all religions. I once asked a Jewish friend to name the biggest issue that divides Jews, and she immediately replied, “Israel.” 

So I was intrigued by the title of this article on the GetReligion website: “American and Israeli Religious Infighting: Could It Destroy the World’s Lone Jewish State?”

Surveys contrasting the political and religious views of American and Israeli Jews are produced with such frequency as to make them a polling industry staple. In recent years – meaning the past decade or so – the surveys have generally shared the same oy vey iz mir (Yiddish for “woe is me”) attitude toward their findings, which consistently show widening differences between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.

Compare, for example, the vast differences on moral and cultural issues between the institutionally liberal American Episcopal Church and the traditionalist Nigerian Anglican church leadership. That, despite both national churches belonging (at this moment in time) to the same worldwide Anglican Communion.

Why should the Jewish world be any different? It’s like the old real estate cliche, location – meaning local history and circumstances – is everything.

Religion is just not the broad intra-faith connector some would like it to be. Often, if fact, it serves to fuel intra-faith rivalries rooted in strongly held theological differences.

Judaism even has a term for it; sinat chinam, Hebrew for, translating loosely, a “senseless hatred” that divides Jews and can even lead to their self-destruction. Intra-faith Jewish differences, however, take on an added layer of global importance because of the possible geopolitical consequences they hold for the always percolating Middle East.

You can read the rest of the article here.

 

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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. 

she likes it

 

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.”

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

Bill Lesher’s INTRAfaith Journey

blesherThere’s a very nice article by Joseph Prabhu in this month’s edition of The Interfaith Observer entitled A Tribute to Bill Lesher.

William E. Lesher was truly a giant – and not just in Lutheran circles. Parish pastor, seminary professor and president, civil rights activist, champion of the environment: Bill put several lifetimes into his 85 years! But it was his commitment to the interfaith movement that had the biggest impact on me personally. His involvement with the Parliament of the World’s Religions was a powerful witness to me of what Christian leadership in a religiously diverse world looked like.

I knew Bill only in the later years of his life. He and Jean were just getting ready to move to Claremont when I met him for lunch. I knew that he’d often said that what we really needed was intrafaith dialogue. So of course I wanted to pick his brain about how to go about doing that. So I’m grateful that Prabhu mentioned this aspect of Bill’s life, which was not just an academic interest, but part of his spirituality. As Prabhu wrote:

“. . . he took interfaith dialogue seriously as a requirement of interreligious under-standing and also as a source of personal spiritual enrichment. This enrichment usually takes the form of learning and appreciating religious traditions other than one’s own. Thus, a Christian might learn about Hindu or Buddhist meditative practice and discern parallels with the contemplative practices of her own tradition. There is, however, a stage beyond this when inter-faith dialogue leads to rigorous intra-faith dialogue. Here, the differences with other traditions, and specifically differing truth-claims, challenge one’s original convictions.”  (bold emphasis mine) 

In my book, The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves about INTERfaith Matters? I found a phrase in John S. Dunne’s book The Way of All the Earth that described just this process: “passing over and coming back.”

Dunne wrote:
“What seems to be occurring is a phenomenon we might call ‘passing over,’ passing from one culture to another, from one way of life to another, from one religion to another. 

“Passing over is a shifting of standpoint, a going over to the standpoint of another culture, another way of life, another religion. It is followed by an equal and opposite process we might call ‘coming back,’ coming back with new insight to one’s own culture, one’s own way of life, one’s own religion. . .

“Passing over and coming back, it seems, is the spiritual adventure of our time.”

Bill has now gone on to a new spiritual adventure. And I will always be grateful for his life, his example, his encouragement, his faith, his courage to move outside the boundaries of his own religious tradition, and the wisdom to come back with  new insights and understandings.  

Ash Wednesday: Called into the Fullness of Our Humanity

soil in potThere is an old Jewish saying that says that everyone should carry with them two notes – one in each pocket. In one pocket, the note should proclaim “for you the universe was created.” The other should say, “you are dust.”

Ash Wednesday is the day we bring these two notes with us to this place of reflection and transformation. As we begin our journey of Lent through the desert, we enter into a time of discovery (or rediscovery) of what it means to be human – in all the fullness that is: from the wonder of our birth (“for you the universe was created”) to the acceptance of our death (“you are dust”).

Ash-Wednesday-cross2Of course, it’s the “you are dust” one we expect to be the focus today. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust: we’re reminded of our mortality. Although, I wonder, do we really need the reminder? Death is a constant intruder into our lives. Who among us has not suffered the loss of a loved one? Tonight we mourn the tragic deaths of 17 people in a Florida high school. Whether expected or sudden, known or unknown to us personally, the death of another confronts us starkly with the fragility of life. If you’ve ever faced a life-threatening illness or been through any kind of health crisis, you’ve probably come fact to face with the stunning realization that you are mortal, you will not live forever.

So in a way, Ash Wednesday is a non-life-threatening way of helping us deal with our precarious existence on this mortal coil. It also brings us into solidarity with all our fellow travelers on the journey between birth and death. It levels the playing field, doesn’t it? The rich ruler is no different from the poor beggar. All of us, from the least to the greatest: ashes to ashes.

Now traditionally, Ash Wednesday services stop here, with the reminder of the brevity of life, the reminder that we came from dust and will soon enough return back to the earth, dust once more. And during the penitential season of Lent, we often give up something as a way of denying ourselves, fasting in a sense, in order to become more attuned to our lowly status. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with striving for a little humility. Any-thing that helps me remember that I’m not master of the universe is useful.

But if we’re honest – and I believe that Lent is a season of truth-telling about ourselves – we’ll recognize that most of us move back and forth on a continuum: on one end) feeling like we’re master of the universe, on top of the world and on the other end like we’re at the bottom of the heap, like the gum on somebody’s shoe. In other words, some days we need the reminder “you are dust.” On other days, we really need somebody to tell us “for you the universe was created.”

Unfortunately, there are some people who dwell on one end of the spectrum or the other most of the time. If you’re an autocratic bully, being told that the universe was made for you, is not a helpful Lenten message. If you’re the one who’s been beaten-down and abused by the bully, being told to humble yourself because you’re nothing but dust itself borders on the abusive.

universe-1044106_640The wisdom of these ashes, this dust of the earth, is that we are called to be fully human in all the beauty, sorrow, messiness that entails. This dust is beautiful. I’ve put it into the baptismal bowl to say in a visual way that – even before our baptism – we were all created in a beautiful image of the Divine – from the stuff of the earth.

And I believe that this is a message very much needed in our culture of denial about the beauty of our bodies – no matter what shape, what abilities, what gender, no matter what. Our bodies are beautiful. I dare you to look in the mirror when you get home and declare, “My body is beautiful!”

In this season, when we think a little more about sin, perhaps we could call it sin to denigrate bodily-ness in all its forms: from neglecting or not appreciating our own incarnated belovedness in this skin and bones to abusing the belovedness of the body of Mother Earth. There should no longer be a hierarchy of spirit over matter, a duality we inherited from the Enlightenment – not from scripture. In fact, as Matthew and Luke tell it, Jesus was born in the bloody messiness of human birth and died, really died in the flesh. In between, he called those who listened to a new way of being in the world.

And so we are called, too. Not to a life a self-flagellation or life-denying humility, nor to one of selfish indulgence. Jesus calls us to a life of deep truth-telling. And make no mistake about it, this can be a very scary and dangerous thing. You may discover things about yourself that you don’t want to know. You may find that you really do need to make changes in yourself that will be hard.

So if we believe that going into the metaphorical desert will ultimately bring about trans-formation, are we willing to go? Are you willing to enter into a truth-telling journey of self-awareness. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging than giving up chocolate. Unless you’ve discovered that chocolate is hindering your journey. It may well be. The idea is to ask yourself what is holding you back from being fully human – which incudes a deep connection to the presence of the Divine within you and around you. That’s the challenge of Lent.

You are dust. For you the universe was created. This Lent, live into the tension of those two great truths. Welcome to the journey.

Amen

 

 

 

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?