Blessing

I’m currently reading a new book by Brian McLaren entitled Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words. I’m finding this book extremely uplifting in places, straightforward to be sure, and challenging–especially when Brian confronts my own lack of faith, discretion, peace, joy, compassion or many other occasional (and frequent) failings.

I have always struggled with Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies.” Doing good to those I don’t like–hate is still too strong a word–is not my natural bent. I would much rather punch their lights out, slash their tyres, or wish a tornado on their house.

But Jesus–the One I have committed my life to follow-demands that I bless those who persecute me, do good to those who speak evil of me.

Brian challenged me with these words specifically when writing about being compassionate:

When we are wounded by others, we’re tempted to dehumaize and demonizethem by labelling them with words like ‘communist,’ ‘imperialist,’ ‘evil,’ ‘insane,’ heretic,’ ‘fundamentalist,’ ‘ilberal,’ or ‘infidel.’ Ironically, by turning them into subhuman monsters in our own minds, we also empower them, making them larger than life and intensifying our own anxiety about them. No wonder Jesus taught that our first response should be instead to pray for them and to bless them. In so doing, we turn them back from threatening monsters into what they really are: little human beings like us, human beings with a problem–fear, rage, hate, anxiety, ignorance, misinformation, misguided values, inappropriate habits, harmful training, insecurity, or whatever. By praying for them, by blessing them, we look beyond their faults and see their need, and we seek to help them with their need. Rather than getting caught up ourselves in the deadly cycle of violence and counterviolence, we join Desmond Tutu [He previously told a story about Tutu’s reaction of blessing towards a man who attacked him] and many other courageous spiritual leaders on a better path, the path of peace and reconciliation. (pp. 137-138)

This is not easy, but it is possible. It also echoes Jesus’ prayer when he taught us to pray, ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ In the context of ‘bearing the stretcher’ for others who are in need of healing, Brian’s words challange me to live in such a way that I live with compassion towards others, blessing them even whenI think they don’t deserve it . . .

. . . simply because, as a fellow human being, I too am frequently in the same need of compassion.

More Meanderings . . .

A new web resource and magazine called Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation has appeared in recent days. Some articles are published on the website but many others are available by subscribing to the magazine (which can be sent in PDF form). In the most recent issue entitled “Contemplation,”  Mindy Caliguire reviews Gerald May’s book The Dark Night of the Soul. Here’s an excerpt from her article:

One of the most striking areas clarified for me was this: the experience of a “dark night”, according to John and Theresa, is not in fact just a season of difficulty.  May asserts that a deeper meaning has been often lost in translation with the word, dark. Dark in John’s sense did not refer to something sinister or particularly bad. Rather, the Spanish word in John’s writing isoscura. May writes,

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, another Carmelite mystic, lived in seventeenth-century France. At one point in his famous treatise, The Practice of the Presence of God, he says, “People would be surprised if they knew what their souls said to God sometimes.” Centuries before Freud “discovered” the unconscious, contemplatives such as Brother Lawrence, Teresa, and John had a profound appreciation that there is an active life of the soul that goes on beneath our awareness. It is to this unconscious dimension of the spiritual life that Teresa and John refer to when they use the term “dark”.… For them, it simply means obscure. In the same way that things are difficult to see at night, the deepest relationship between God and person is hidden from our conscious awareness.

“In speaking of la nocha oscura, the dark night of the soul, John is addressing something mysterious and unknown, but by no means sinister or evil…. John says it is one thing to be in oscuras and quite another to be in tinieblas (the sinister kind of darkness). In oscuras things are hidden; in tinieblas one is blind. In fact, it is the very blindness of tinieblas, our slavery to attachment and delusion, that the dark night of the soul is working to heal.” (p. 67-68) Read more here.

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Brian McLaren was asked a good question about whether or not God’s grace comes with terms and conditions. The question and his response is found here. He has also made some interesting observations about Rob Bell‘s new book Love Wins and some responses to its release. Read about that here.

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Read on Twitter this week: “I’m not a universalist but I prayer every day that God is.”

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Nate Stratman on his blog has written about an oft-missing ingredient in youth ministry.

When is the last time that we found out that a student was in counseling or left our church because we delighted in them too much? Delight is a cousin of Joy, which is a fruit of God’s Spirit and scripture says “against such things there is no law.” – Gal. 5:23  So my translation is “slather on an extra spoonful of delight” when we have the opportunity to greet any student in our ministries.

Here is the caveat, there are those that are easier to delight in than others. I must always remember my personal story and how I wasn’t the easiest teenager to delight in, which made it shocking when adults actually loved my ugly and not just my infrequent, well-behaved side. We delight because HE first delighted in us. (Read it all here.)

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Jonathan Brink has written on the EV blog. One sentence stood out for me above others (perhaps because of my own experience):

“You know what I don’t understand. I have a lot of friends who are strict fundamentalists, and I’m okay with that. It’s what they want to believe and I don’t want to change that.But what gets me is that none of them say, ‘I may be right, but I hope I’m wrong.'”

My comment on this is: how often have I spoken the caveat when speaking my own thoughts on an issue? (I wish some of those who commented on Jonathan’s post could have considered this as well.) Read it here.


As We Begin our Pilgrimage Through Lent

Today marks the start of the 40-Day period of reflection and repentance known as Lent. This morning, as part of our staff prayer, we received the mark of ashes on our foreheads as a symbol of repentance. Commenting on this, Marianne (our school’s Director of Spirituality) summed up the Lenten experience with one word: Wilderness. Whether we think of wilderness as a time of testing, a time of retreat, or a time of journey, it describes what Lent means to the millions of Christians who observe this season each year.

Lent is a time to confess our sins. It’s also a time to “go deep” into our lives as we reflect on what our sins may look like. They may not all be obvious on the surface. In fact, Brian McLaren writes that we may be blind to many ingrained (or inherited) sins:

This blindness (itself a kind of social sin) explains why in many churches in my childhood, people could passionately confess certain personal sins (within polite categories) – dishonesty, greed, jealousy, and so on – but remain absolutely oblivious to our racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, environmental irresponsibility, homophobia, nationalism and denominational pride – not to mention the sins of our ancestors that created structures of privilege that we took for granted. (from Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words. HarperOne, 2011, Chapter 9)

It may be that we haven’t even seriously considered that certain thoughts, actions, ways of speaking about others, or prejudices could be sin. Be honest: If we consider something sin, then it means this too must be acknowledged, confessed, repented of, and forsaken–and we may not wish to forsake certain sins . . . so we ignore them, or make excuses for them: “My family has always thought this way,” “I can’t help it,” “That’s just who I am.”

Lent is a time in which we invite God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) to be our companion in the wilderness, journeying with us, conversing with us (are we listening?), and changing us to be more like we were created to be.

What does Lent mean for you?

Is there one word which would sum up your journey during this time?

I close with two prayers: one being the Collect for Ash Wednesday and the second being a prayer of repentance.

Almighty and everlasting God
You hate nothing that you have made
And forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
Create and make in us new hearts
That, lamenting our sins
And acknowledging our helplessness,
We may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
Perfect forgiveness and peace;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
Who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit;
One God, now and forever.
Amen

Father Eternal, giver of light and grace,
We have sinned against you and against our neighbour
In what we have thought,
In what we have said and done
Through ignorance, through weakness,
Through our own deliberate fault.
We have wounded your love
And marred your image in us.
We are sorry and ashamed
And repent of our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us,
Forgive all that is past;
And lead us from darkness to walk as children of light.
Amen

Spirit Life

I’m looking forward to Brian McLaren ‘s new book being released in March. Here’s a snippet from Brian’s blog:

A spiritual life is a Spirit life, a life in the Spirit, and Jesus’ life and work come into proper focus when we realise his goal was not to start a new religion – and certainly not to create a new religion that would seek to compete with or persecute his own religion of Judaism! No: his goal was to fill with Spirit-wine the empty stone jars of religion – his own religion and any other one, I’d say. His goal wasn’t to start a new religious argument about dogma-mountains; it was to fill hearts with Spirit-fountains. His goal wasn’t to replace one group of powerful religious grown-ups (like Nicodemus) with another, but to help everyone become like little children through Spirit-birth. (Brian D. McLaren, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words. HarperOne, 2011, Chapter 2)

How does my / your / our life demonstrate the living and ongoing regeneration of the Holy Spirit?

Why am I Evangelical?

Brian McLaren was recently asked the question ‘Why are you Evangelical?’ His response is multi-faceted and I give you a couple of his answers:

2. I grew up in a fundamentalist-evangelical background. That’s simply a fact of my biography. For good (I learned to read and love the Bible from an early age, I understood Christian faith in terms of personal commitment not just status or heritage, I was given a bias towards faith-inspired action) and for not-so-good (there was a lot of guilt, us-versus-them thinking, fear of being rejected, and simplistic reading of the Bible), I am who I am because of my evangelical heritage.

3. I’ve evaluated some dimensions of my inherited evangelicalism and found them wanting, but other dimensions mean more to me than ever; I think every evangelical would say the same thing. We’re all in the process of inheriting and adapting our inheritance so that what we pass on to future generations is a continually-enriched treasure. (Read the full article here.)

I would say pretty much the same thing. It is just a label in a world that seems to need a labeling system. I may or may not be classified the same by those who interact with me, but I still see myself within the evangelical camp, though not always sitting as close to the campfire or sleeping in the same kind of tent.

 

Christ

I cannot talk about the season of Advent–or any season on the church calendar–without speaking of Jesus. He is the centre of all Christian celebrations.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, or Sarcastic Lutheran (as she is known on her blog) preached the following on Christ the King Sunday:

Yet when it comes down to it the most reliable way to legitimately know anything at all about the nature of God is to look to how God chose to reveal God’s self in Christ.  And most notably we see who God is in how God chose to reveal God’s self on the cross.  And just to be clear: The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and well, somebody had to pay.  Because the irony about viewing the cross this way is that the whole thing was about God saying  pay attention – don’t avert your eyes from the cross.  This this is the logical end of your value system. Here is where it will always end. In the suffering of God.  Here is the extent I will go says God to defy your idea of me as a vengeful God.  If you think I am about smiting your enemies then think again for I will not lift even a finger to condemn those who hung me. I will simply not be known as the God of vengeance.  I will simply not allow you to project your puffed up human traits on me as though I’m a bigger better version of the best parts of you or a bigger badder version of the worst parts of you

On the cross we don’t see a legal transaction where Jesus pays our debt.  We see God. The Word made flesh hangs from the cross. And let there be no mistake – this is Christ the King. And while his scornful and shameful death is insulting to our idea of a king and a God the divine royalty of Christ is simply unassailable.  by us or anyone else.  because sometimes things are so holy that they cannot be desecrated try as we might.

In the previous chapter of Luke as Jesus sits at table sharing his last supper with his friends they break out in an argument over who will be the greatest.  Jesus says “the greatest of you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves…I confer on you says Jesus to his faltering friends “I confer on you a kingdom so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and you will sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.

Even Jesus speaks of his kingdom and of thrones and judgment.  Yet today on Christ the king Sunday we see that Christ’s kingdom is comprised of thieves and Christ-deniers.  Today on Christ the King Sunday we see our king enthroned yet the throne is not one of gold and jewel but of  blood and puke stained wood and the crown is not one of gold and jewel but of twisted thorn. And as his crown is piercing his brow it is from here the King of Glory judges the world who put him on a cross.  From his rough hewn throne of a cross Jesus looks at the world…those who betrayed him, those who executed him those who loved him and those who ignored him and he judges it all.  The pronouncement is made and the judgment is ….forgiveness.  Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing is, as my friend Justin reminded me this week,  an eternally valid statement. From his cross Christ the King loves the betrayer, the violent, the God killer in all of us. Because his divine self was unmockable.  Protected and apart and unmanipulatable by our opinions and value systems.  And it finally is only a God who enters our human existence and suffers our insults with only love and forgiveness who can save us from ourselves.  It is only a self-emptying God who walked among  as Christ Jesus, who, in the words of St Paul, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,  humbled himself to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Read the entire sermon here).

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Brian McLaren on The Propitiation Question:

. . . [T]he question itself is problematic because it rests on assumptions about God and God’s nature that need to be examined. Many of us saw that – to use your terms – there is original blessing in the Bible, and there is the reality of sin – and it doesn’t make sense to minimize one to magnify the other. That made a lot of us look for a deeper question – and for me, that question is, “What is the biblical narrative really about?” If it’s about “sin management” – dealing with the “problem” of sin as a legal problem, we’ll read the Bible in one way. If it’s about creation, liberation, reconciliation (and, I might add, incarnation) … we’ll read the Bible differently.

So what is your straight, non-sidestepping, no-holds-barred take on “The Propitiation Question?”

The best way I can reply, since I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative, is in the form of some questions:
1. Who was the primary audience for the suffering and death of Jesus? Was it intended to bring about a change in God, or in us? Since I don’t think God needs to change, but rather we do, I’d vote for the latter.

2. Where do we centrally locate God the Father on good Friday – in and with the political and religious leaders, condemning and torturing Jesus? Or in Jesus, suffering injustice with and for us? Again, I’d vote the latter.

3. Does Jesus, in some mysterious way, absorb/redirect the hostility of God towards us, or the hostility of us towards God? Again, I’d vote for the latter. (I think this is what C. S. Lewis was after in his idea of “the perfect penitent.”)

In each case, perhaps a case could be made for the former; there are ways we could say there is truth in the former. But I think the weight of meaning is found in the latter option. Many people see everything from within the conventional narrative and so they can’t even imagine Jesus being important apart from it, and that’s a major reason why, I think, they are so adamant in defending it.

It All Started With Rob . . .

Sometime during the winter of 2002 I clicked on an ad on the Sojourners website that took me to a place where I clicked on another link, which took me to a website and blog called Antithesis. Antithesis was the brainchild of Rob Schafer (actually rob schafer–he didn’t like using caps in his name). From this site I read excerpts from a variety of books about following Jesus, being missional and incarnational, and forsaking a religion of exclusivism and prejudice.

I bought my first ‘radical’ book because of a review on Antithesis: Greg Boyd‘s Repenting of Religion. From that followed Jim Wallis, Brennan Manning & Brian McLaren. These discoveries led me to Richard Rohr, Shane Claiborne, N.T. Wright, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, and Phyllis Tickle, among many others. I read a lot and mulled over what I read for many (most?) of my waking hours. I eagerly looked forward to the next month’s ‘issue’ of Antithesis where another theme would be explored, debated, deconstructed and reconstructed.

Then one day I clicked on Antithesis in my browser’s Favourites list . . . and a simple message screen appeared which said (in effect): “I can’t put up with the hateful messages, the name-calling, and spreading lies about me any more and I’m shutting down this website.” The next time I clicked on the site, the domain was for sale for $1500.

I felt really sad for rob. I can only imagine the struggles he had with people he once counted amongst his friends who had turned on him. Maybe they accused him of heresy. Maybe he was a little too far ahead of his time. Maybe he took the attacks too personally. I don’t know.

But I do know I am indebted to him and people like him who have had the courage to say what they think, if only for a short time.

I think there are two errors in the way we are brought up today:

  • We are taught to believe we have to refrain from saying what we really believe or think, or else other people may not like us, think well of us, or may choose not to be our friends, and
  • We are taught to turn our back on people–or at least to be seen to not be on their side of the fence– simply because of what they believe or say (or what they don’t believe or don’t say).

I have encountered this type of behaviour on numerous occasions.

One pastor* told me, “If my people knew I practised contemplative prayer and read the Christian mystics, I would lose my church.” An anonymous commenter on this blog wrote: “The last time I voiced my opinion it was met with name calling, outrage, disbelief and a number of other things. . . . For the sake of my mental health, I can’t go there at the moment.” A friend emailed me to say he agreed with what I wrote, but couldn’t say so publicly because of the scandal it may cause.

I’m not advocating a ‘damn the torpedoes’ approach. We don’t want to be the cause of division and anger. On the other hand, people really should get a thicker skin and not be so sensitive when a friend of theirs says something they don’t agree with. We are all imperfect and should be treating each other with the same gracious spirit which we would like them to extend to us.

I’m nothing like rob schafer. Dancing in Fields of Grace is a blip compared to the well-written, thoroughly researched, and professional design of Antithesis. This blog’s readership is much smaller. My influence is far less.

But I am convinced that anyone can make a difference and be part of a Divine chain reaction that may bring great change–if nothing more than to one person who is open enough to be willing to look at things from a different point of view.

After all, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for a man named rob.

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* names and situations have been changed