Where we go Wrong (Part 2)

in my last post I wrote about kind atheists and mean Christians and how we are wrong in assuming all those who do not embrace our particular form of faith are evil and have an untoward agenda.

I have been reading a few incredible books recently that have been raising all sorts of questions, and I’m grateful to the men and women who are able to frame these in such a thought-provoking manner.

Rachel Held-Evans wrote a particularly poignant book that tells numerous stories of her formative years growing up in Evangelicalism. It’s simply called Faith Unraveled: Gow a Girl Who Knew all the Answers Learned to ask the Questions. Through these stories Rachel shares her struggle with many of the idiosyncrecies often associated with American Evangelicals such as the self-focused “I’m blessed” attitude, for example: thanking God for good weather for your wedding when a hurricane is at that moment wiping out entire towns and leaving people dead, injured, or homeless. Among other things she addresses the idea of living “biblically,” the position of LGBTQ folk in the church, women in ministry and Biblical inerrancy. All together, Held-Evans has painted a stark and realistic view of modern Christianity whilst showing how, within the very institutions that brought this pain, people are rising up and bringing healing and hope, reforming and changing the organisations that tried to destroy them.

Another book I would highly recommend is the new Harper Lee (To Kill a Mickingbird) novel Go Set a Watchman. It took a while for this book to engage me. It wasn’t really until around the eighth chapter that I began to see beyond the words and into the intent of the author. What first appeared to be a rather mediocre narrative about life in the early twentieth century South took on the air of prophetic voice of one caught in the middle of the 1960’s Desegregation Movement, particularly feeling the pull between the paradigm embraced by her father (Atticus Finch) and that of her own deep-rooted convictions. Like Faith Unraveled, Watchman recognises the tension between not only generations but also between worldviews. Rather than resolving that tension, both authors deconstruct the conflict and then reconstruct it in such a way that brings a sense of understanding and peace into the relationships (yet not fully resolving the underlying tension).

How to hold a sense of peace in relationships that appear to be on the two ends of the spectrum has always been of particular difficulty to me. Often I have found the maxim of loving my neighbour truly troublesome at times, especially when my neighbour is actively and vocally propagating what I consider damaging. Yet, in both of these books, the possibility of living at peace with all is something that is not only seen as desirable but genuinely possible.

I have one more book to add to this mix, and it is The Gospel of Inclusion by Carlton Pearson. I will look into the message of this book in a later post, but will touch on the main story here.

Carlton Pearson was an Associate of Oral Roberts, an Evangelist and a megachurch Pastor of a Pentecostal church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That is, until he started seeing hell in a different light than his colleagues. Recounting his experiences in Rob Bell’s Robcast podcast, Bishop Pearson shares a turning point in his life–how he had a long conversation with the ageing Billy Graham shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, a discussion in which the famous Evangelist questioned the validity of his own 60-year ministry with remorse that he hadn’t left the world a better place, despite the millions “saved” in his numerous campaigns. This led Pearson to ask why this was so and, after much thought, study and prayer, to the conclusion that the gospel as it is traditionally understood (as a guilt- and fear-based message) is not at all how Jesus preached it. His argument through this book is that we must reclaim the good news that God has already redeemed all humanity and our Evangelistic message is truly good news to all: you are delivered, you are free! Live in the light and love of God.

For this. The Council of African-Anerican Bishops excommunicated Pearson, labelling him a heretic. He lost his church, his position on the board of ORU and many, many friends. Yet, in spite of all this, he believes that there is hope for the Church and he is at peace with her. Sure, the Church needs to change. One of his favourite statements is that “[The Church] is not growing; it is getting fat,” meaning that we are comfortable with who we are and what we believe. We have settled for ease in our places of worship rather than the discomfort that comes in asking the tough questions and facing the realities that our world is not a better place despite the centuries of spreading the “good news” to every nation. 

In the end, Pearson states that we are getting it wrong when we fail to question our understanding of the “good news” and settling for what is dictated to us by tradition, politics, church, or family. We are getting fat, not growing. We are caught in our parents’ worldview, our religious dogma, the doctrines of our Church, having never questioned their monopoly of the Divine. It is only when we see our faith unraveled that we can see order amidst the mess and a new and genuine faith arising from the ashes. Nothing is lost. Even uncertainty is a gift. There is hope. All is and will be redeemed.

Some may call this heresy. I call it evolution: an evolving faith that changes, grows and expands as new light is received. Perhaps it’s time we as a Church start asking the right questions. Perhaps it is time to be courageous and dare to be unsettled. Perhaps it is time to reclaim the “good news” as good news and take the steps necessary to leave this world a better place.

Atonement, the Prodigal Son and ‘Why So Serious?’

cross_2There is no doctrine so entrenched in Christianity as that of the Substitutionary Atonement (also known as ‘Vicarious Atonement’ or the ‘Penal Substitution Theory’). In simple terms, this is the teaching that, on the cross, God’s wrath against sinful humanity was absorbed by Jesus—that the payment for sin was made to God by Christ; that this blood sacrifice appeased a holy God and saves us from certain (eternal) condemnation/torment.

This is a major (or may I say MAJOR) theme in many Christian circles, more so amongst fundamentalists. When I was a student at a leading fundamentalist university, this was hammered home to us in every sermon, in most classes, in many prayer meetings. It was not ‘a’ but ‘THE’ central tenet of The Faith and demanded a serious analysis, on a regular basis, of one’s place in the overall scheme of sin and salvation.

And serious it was. One would be out of line to show a smile in a church service or during the singing of a hymn. People had been expelled at this university for daring to treat a song about Jesus in a ‘frivolous’ manner. (see the video that got two students expelled and a third a severe reprimand here.)

And so they sing solemnly, seriously, it seems with a burden that is weighing them down. (Have a look at these two videos of a ‘performance’ of a well-loved (fundamentalist) hymn here and here.)

Here are the words for those of you following along at home (the sheet music is here.):

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost:
Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God.
Bought by such love, my life is not my own.
My praise-my all-shall be for Christ alone.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

His robes for mine: God’s justice is appeased.
Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased.
Christ drank God’s wrath on sin, then cried “‘Tis done!”
Sin’s wage is paid; propitiation won.

His robes for mine: such anguish none can know.
Christ, God’s beloved, condemned as though His foe.
He, as though I, accursed and left alone;
I, as though He, embraced and welcomed home!

(His Robes for Mine by Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger ©2008 ChurchWorksMedia.com All rights reserved.)

Here is an insight into Chris Anderson’s understanding that has prompted this composition:

“Verse 3 focuses on the grand doctrine of propitiation, the fact that God’s wrath was not merely deflected from us by Christ, but was rather absorbed by Him in our place. Jesus Christ bore the infinite wrath of God against sin, satisfying God’s wrath and enabling sinners to be forgiven—and justly so. Isaiah 53:10-11 describes it this way: God looks on the travail of Christ’s soul and is satisfied by it. His wrath has been exhausted on Christ. The doctrine of propitiation is taught Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, et al.” (source: http://blogs.mbu.edu/praisemen/songs/his-robes-for-mine-authors-thoughts)

I have a HUGE problem with the language used (and the theology implied) in this song: ‘Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage,’ ‘Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased,’ and ‘Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God’ among others.

But then I realise that this comes from that classic Biblical story:

A man who had two sons. One demanded his share of the inheritance and then went off and spent it, in a far country, on riotous and loose living. The father, enraged with a fiery anger against that son, took his brother and turned him over to the torturers and finally the executioner. Only when the elder brother had died, paying the penalty that the father demanded for the younger one’s disobedience, was the father able to open up his heart in love and welcome the younger son home and once again grant him the blessings of being a part of the family.

No, I don’t have that story in my Bible either. That, on so many levels, goes against my understanding of God. And if we understand Jesus to be the most accurate depiction we have of God in Scripture, then we must accept that God is loving and compassionate. He would forsake his own Son only as much as he would forsake us, his children. He would not demand a penalty to be paid vicariously any more than the father in the real parable would have demanded one son pay for the sin of another. That is a primitive view–a tribal understanding–of God rooted in a culture set in ancient history and grounded in stories handed down from generation to generation over fires and in marketplaces.

Many argue that this understanding of what took place at the cross is helpful to Christians in certain situations. Scot McKinght in his book A Community Called Atonement illustrates the many theories of atonement (Substitutionary Atonement being one) as being like a set of golf clubs where one club (say, a wedge) may be good for a particular situation (like, for example, if you land your ball in a sand trap), but not practical or helpful in others (as in driving). While this may be true in a metaphorical or illustrative sense (though this may be open to interpretation as well),  I don’t believe it is very helpful in explaining anything of the nature of God or God’s interaction with humanity.

The problem is that we have ‘Set the members of the Trinity against each other—as when the Son is described as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross. Others stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to “divine child abuse”—where an angry, cosmic Father beats up his meek and helpless Son—hardly the biblical imagery of the relationship of the Father and the Son.’ (source: Christianity Today) God becomes a deity with a schizophrenic tendency or bipolar disorder (and, as we know, without proper medication, either one of these illnesses renders an individual quite unstable.)

Joking aside, if we accept that God is love—If we accept the story of the Prodigal Son to be an illustration of how that love works itself out in reality—then we must not be so hasty to take on the ‘traditional’ view of atonement as fact. Certainly, it can be argued, some of the New Testament authors seemed to believe this was so. But a look at Jesus and his revelation of who the Father is cannot be dismissed. Rather, it should be the cause of much joy, celebration and excitement: All are welcomed—sinners and saints, elder and younger brothers, tax-gatherers and Pharisees—not because Jesus satisfied an angry God, but that God has sought and found us and brought us into the embrace of love and grace.  Welcome home!

Post #350: Abundance

Milestone post. What shall I say that speaks of a milestone in my life? There are numerous ‘a-ha’ (or epiphany) moments along the way that have changed the way I think and who I am.

Here’s one.

eggplantMy parents never spoke of scarcity or lack in our home. This is not to say there weren’t times when we had no idea how we could make it through the month.

We were not by any measure of the phrase “the upper class.” We lived amongst common, salt-of-the-earth folks in a barrio in the Philippines. All our clothes came from missionary barrels (secondhand clothes sent from the home country). We had vegetables from our own garden, cheap non-branded food and my parents often bought in bulk and froze, canned, or preserved copious amounts of whatever was in season.

One month something happened with the bank transfers from the States upon which my missionary-parents relied. There was no money. I don’t ever remember them even telling us ‘We have no money.’ We survived on eggplant–our family and the three or four students we had living with us.

Somehow, there always seemed to be enough . . . enough for us and whoever happened to be living in our home at the time.

Regardless of our family’s financial status, we were never ever made to feel that we would go without. I heard often these words, spoken in confidence: ‘The Lord will provide.’

When we moved to Australia, mum started stashing away coins in an old cookie jar. We knew that, whenever there was a need, we would always have the cookie jar to fall back on.

We didn’t know it then but, often, there was only a few cents in that jar. I can see how my parents showed that trust in God is like having a spare change jar: you don’t know what’s in it, but, when a need arises, there always seems to be enough.

This reflection happens to be the daily reflection from StillSpeaking which appeared in my inbox one day recently:

So much of our scripture is a celebration of abundance.  The first chapters of Genesis are a song of praise for God’s generosity.  With each act of creation, the divine refrain is, “It is good, it is good, it is very good.”  And it pictures the Creator saying, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Many of the Psalms, including the one for today, survey creation and catalogue this abundance in loving detail and with joyful thanksgiving.

Then, in the Gospels, Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes so that there is more than enough for everyone.  At a wedding feast he turns water into wine, and more wine than could be consumed at a dozen weddings.  These highly symbolic stories speak of God’s abundance.  There is enough, there is more than enough.

That’s the biblical narrative.  But the narrative by which we are tempted to live is another story entirely, a story of scarcity, where there is never enough.  In fact, we are tempted to define enough as, “always something more than I have now.” . . .

. . . Do you live out of a sense of abundance or scarcity?  That may be an economic question, but certainly it is a faith question.

(Martin B. Copenhaver)

In a day when we are well aware of the misleading abundance-preaching of televangelists and the pitfalls of embracing a ‘prosperity gospel,’ we can still say with confidence, ‘The Lord will provide.’

It is, as the writer suggests, a ‘sense of abundance.’ This doesn’t mean we will have plenty, but we will see whatever we have as an expression of God’s abundance in our lives.God provides what we need and what he wants us to share with others who need. We learn the joy of contentment and the joy of giving, all the while trusting in the abundance of God.

Jesus Bombs and Other Bad Ideas

Josh spoke in church yesterday and challenged us with his unique and totally real perspective on how we need to be incarnational, intentionally so, as we seek to follow Jesus into our neighbourhood.

I appreciated his exuberance and enthusiasm. This is, in fact, what he actually is doing. He is moving to Melbourne to intentionally be involved in the art scene, to serve those on the streets, to be part of a fringe community, to live with them, share with them and be Jesus to them. His journey to this point is inspiring and shows real evidence that God is moving in his life.

After telling his story, he shared a few things about what he has learned about life and serving others (and a lot of other things). In his words, “One of the great things about having a low IQ is that I can learn things from almost anyone.”

JesusbombBut what he said about ‘throwing Jesus bombs’ and then running back into the safety of our Christian community struck me as being so real and true about how many choose to ‘do witnessing.’ This has become the normal way of doing things, the modus operandi of ministry.

I picked up an American magazine this morning and was leafing through it (if you can call turning on-screen pages ‘leafing) when I came across this comment at the end of an article entitled, ‘Compassion for the Lost:’

‘Let’s choose to show  compassion toward lost souls. Let’s equip ourselves with gospel tracts, a mindset of unselfish service to others, and let’s seek to share Christ with someone today.’

‘Equip ourselves with gospel tracts’? Really? Do you really think this is the best way to ‘share Christ’?

Is unselfish service simply an add-on to the real intention of deploying a Jesus bomb? Is that act of kindness a ‘tool’ to get an opportunity to hand out a gospel tract? Is that Christmas hamper given to that needy family purely an effort to get a ‘foot in the door’?

tractsI grew up with this method of ministry and, honestly, I cannot remember seeing one person who came to faith through such a method. (What I do remember is a lot of  angry people shouting abuse and throwing our ‘good news’ on the ground–but that was because they were under the power of Satan and didn’t understand that Jesus died to set them free from the chains of sin that so obviously were binding them. How else would you explain their rejection of our gospel leaflets? There was always the consolation that we would never know until we get to heaven what happened to the ‘seeds of faith’ that were ‘planted in the hearts’ of all those ‘lost souls’ who received our literature.)

Again, going back to Josh’s message for us, ‘We are called to be witnesses, not “do witnessing.”‘

Being is something that we are, not something we do. It is a lifestyle, as natural as breathing. It flows from us as much as our own personality and character flow. Being is who we are.

I am not a bombardier. Using the good news as a ‘tool’ has never been who I am. I don’t buy into the ‘bait and switch’ or the agenda-driven-kindness.

I know I’m not the only one.

To me there is something honestly compelling about seeing a person who lives like Jesus, who loves like Jesus, who serves like Jesus. Encouraging. Inspiring. Inviting. Welcoming. Healing. Accepting.

The only bombs would be grace bombs. The only agenda, love. The only catch–well, there is no catch! None at all. It’s fully unconditional, unassuming, no big expectations. Just being.

Thanks for reminding us of this, Josh. May grace and peace be with you in every step of your journey into your new neighbourhood.

The True Basis of Authority

Why is it that Mother Teresa could stand up before crowds of thousands and repeat simple New Testament phrases and seemingly pious clichés, and still blow people away?!

She didn’t say anything new: “Jesus loves you,” she assured us. “We’re all sons and daughters of God, and we have to love Jesus’ poor.” Yet people walked out renewed, transformed, and converted.

She wasn’t a priest or minister. She wasn’t well educated. Her authority came from her lifestyle, her solidarity with human suffering, and thus her pure goodness.

Loving servanthood and foundational surrender are the true basis for teaching authority in the Church, much more than title, vestment, role, or office. Such lives have the living authority of Jesus himself, and need no special ordination or public validation. Jesus says to Simon Peter that he, and we ourselves, must first “be sifted like wheat,” and only then are we in a position “to recover and in turn strengthen others” (Luke 22:31-32). Such undergoing is the seminary that finally matters and that changes others’ lives. It was Jesus’ essential and first “recovery program.”

Richard Rohr

Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, pp. 384-385

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

NarrowWayI remember when U2’s amazing song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For first came out on the radio. It was mid-1987 and I was a new church-planting pastor in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, working under a rather strict, fundamentalist mission. It was my duty to inform my congregation of the errors of the secular world and how their chosen path leads to destruction and eternal condemnation, to warn them of the dangers of uncertainty and lead them to an strong and unwavering faith in The Truth of God’s Word (at least our version of it).

Imagine the internal conflict when i found a copy of the Joshua Tree album in our local Christian bookstore. I was disturbed. Here is a song–the second single from this album–that speaks of uncertainty, seeking but not finding . . . and we knew the answer was Jesus Christ and this is so crystal-clear in the Bible. Everything back then was black or white, fact or fiction. There was no middle ground.

And so I preached vehemently against the insidious faithlessness of the wide path and the indisputable certitude of those who walk in the narrow way (pardon the pun).

But what I failed to say and refused to admit was that I myself was searching. I had many unanswered questions, unspoken doubts, and shaken assumptions. I still hadn’t found what i was looking for.

Twenty-five years on and I am not at all embarrassed to say that I am still on a quest and will be until the end of my time here. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but I’m certainly relishing every step of this journey towards that awesome discovery.

I have climbed highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you

I have run
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well yes I’m still running

You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…*

Here’s a clip from the Rattle & Hum DVD of a Gospel Choir version of this song. It will move you.

May your quest be honourable. May your questions shape you, challenge you and cause you to never stop seeking, growing and learning. May your faith in the one who carried the cross for you be only the beginning of a lifelong quest for meaning, truth and peace. May you be disturbed, confronted, and challenged every step of your journey, and may you never settle for the mediocrity of knowing it all.


* Written by Adam Clayton, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson, Larry Mullen and Victor Reina.

Faith vs Fear and a Warning of ‘Civil War’

I was amazed (and somewhat amused) when I read how a Texas (USA) judge has warned that President Obama’s re-election could lead to a new civil war in America.

Tom Head, a county judge in Lubbock, Texas, plunged far out into the periphery of anti-President Barack Obama conspiracy theories on Monday, pushing a particularly outrageous one as justification for a tax increase in the county.

Head told FOX34 that Lubbock’s law enforcement needed extra tax dollars in order to be prepared for a full-scale uprising, which he said could be a byproduct of Obama’s reelection. According to Head, the president is seeking to sign a variety of United Nations treaties that will effectively take precedent over domestic law.

“He’s going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the U.N., and what is going to happen when that happens?” Head asked. “I’m thinking the worst. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. And we’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations, we’re talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms and get rid of the guy.” [Read more about this here.]

At a planning gathering for Advent in our church last night, we were talking amongst ourselves about angels and angellic visitations. Mike commented that he found it striking how it seems every time in the Bible when an angel visited, the first words were ‘Do not be afraid.’ This is continued in Jesus’ appearance walking on water and again after his resurrection.

Richard Rohr’s daily meditation for today speaks of our natural fear of God and how Jesus broke down this misconception:

The Bible can be summed up as interplay between fear and faith. In general, people are obsessed and overpowered by fears; they fear what they cannot control. God is one of our primary fears because God is totally beyond us. The good news, the Gospel, according to Luke, is that God has breached that fear and become one of us in Jesus. God says, in effect, “It’s okay. You don’t have to live in fear of me.” God not only takes away all human shame, but even identifies with that shame by changing sides from all cultures, religious and secular, and identifying with the sinner, the rejected, the prostitute, the foreigner, and the leper. (Adapted from The Good News According to Luke: Spiritual Reflections, p. 66)

Those who give in to fear–whether of governmental tyranny or of God’s own self– live a life characterised by worry, anxiety and stress. I’m not surprised that so many who claim to follow Jesus still find themselves bound up by fear. After all, this is a very human condition. God understands this. Thus, when God chooses to reveal the Divine to mortals it is always prefaced by a calming ‘Fear not.’

As the prophet writes:

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.(Isaiah 41:10 NLT)

It is not a question of whether or not God is on our side, but whether or not we have faith in God to give us the strength to overcome our fears and enjoy the peace that comes from knowing he will be with us.