Belonging, Believing & Transformation

Following on from earlier references to Richard Rohr‘s writings, here is another excerpt from his book On the Threshold of Transformation: Daily Meditations for Men which is worth considering:

Early-stage religion is more about belonging and believing than about transformation.  When belonging and believing are the primary concerns, people don’t see their need for growth, healing, or basic spiritual curiosity.  Once we let the group substitute for an inner life or our own faith journey, all we need to do is “attend.”  For several centuries, church has been more a matter of attendance at aservice than an observably different lifestyle. Membership requirements and penalties predominated, not the change-your-life message that Jesus so clearly preached.

Membership questions lead to endless arguments about who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who is worthy of our God, and who is not.  Such distinctions appeal to our ego and its need to feel worthy and superior and to be part of a group that defines itself by exclusion.  The church ends up a gated country club, giving people a false sense of superiority.  This is why Jesus walks to those on the edges: the handicapped, the sinners, the excluded ones. (p. 276)

This way of thinking has implications for the type of church for which modernity is famous: the one whose message is “Come, join us.” Rather, the followers of Jesus are commanded to be those who go out into the community, live amongst the crowd, being the hands and feet of the Master and loving as he loved. This and this alone is the antithesis of exclusivism.

I am excited about many congregations that are embracing the life of Jesus enthusiastically and wholeheartedly, realising the importance of moving outside of the conventional stage-centred church and towards an open, inclusive and community-centred focus. Their aim is not to preach a set of beliefs, but to genuinely care and reach out in love to heal the brokenness in our world. This is not to say that beliefs have become unnecessary, but that actions and attitudes have superseded them in importance.

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?

The Measure of Truth

I was amused by the tweet (Don’t know what this is? Get on Twitter) by @almightygod the other day: “This tweet is true because this tweet says that this tweet is true. …”

This circular argument is actually quite common. Yet it brings to mind many questions about the very foundational truths we have trusted and still believe today.

My question is this: Why do we think what we believe is true?

And from that question, other questions arise:

Is our belief simply an interpretation of a foundational truth (which others have interpreted differently), or is it a unique and superior belief in itself?

Where does our own experience, or the collective experience of our community and/or faith tradition fit into the validation or verification of our truth?

Is there a possibility that the trust in the truths we hold dear may actually be misplaced, or founded on a faulty logic?

Do we believe what we believe simply because someone we respect highly has taught us to believe in this way?

Should we place our trust in a system of understanding which may or may not be illogical according to common reason simply because it declares itself to be (according to common tradition and historical interpretation) absolute truth?

Or should our faith be simply that: trust in what we have not seen or cannot fully prove simply because of our unique personal and corporate experience of a living and moving eternal Person, namely Jesus Christ?


Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
Image via Wikipedia

“If we are to be God’s people together, we must make room for conversations that we may not always agree with, but which allow all who are on the same journey a voice and a right to say, think and believe.”

Salvation is one of those often-used words in Christianity that can have so many different meanings and nuances of meaning. The most-often used is that of being “saved” from sin. I seems to go without saying in Evangelical circles that salvation is THE entire purpose of Jesus’ advent and death, and that this salvation is a personal and individual act of praying a certain prayer to “invite Jesus come into your life.”

I must confess that I am questioning a lot of the underlying modern-day assumptions about this teaching. Further, I need to admit that I don’t see a solid Biblical basis for a good amount of teaching on this subject. Rather, I’m afraid I see things such as “the sinner’s prayer,” “a personal Saviour” and “inviting Jesus in” as quite recent additions to the church’s historic understanding of salvation.

And whilst I am thinking about these things, I must also consider how much of what I believe is based on the paradigm I have been brought up to embrace.

Here is a conversation with a few questions which I read recently on another blog:

[Question:] I guess what I’m wrestling with is the question “Does Jesus play a crucial role in our salvation?” Consider this: What if Jesus had never been born and life for the Jews had progressed, or regressed, on into the 1st century and beyond? Could we still be reconciled to God and others? Couldn’t we realise our error, recognise God’s wisdom and repent? Or did we need a personal Savior? Or consider that Jesus had never been crucified, lived to be an old man, fell and broke his hip and died of pneumonia in the hospital. Couldn’t we still be reconciled with God and others without him dying on the cross?

[Response:] This is a serious and important question, and I don’t think I could do it justice without writing a whole Christology … To some degree, I think you’re asking about “penal substitutionary atonement theory” . . .  Let me try to rephrase your questions like this:

Was the only reason Jesus came to save us from the wrath of God, to avert God’s wrath so we wouldn’t be tormented in hell forever?

Which is related to this question:

Does Jesus offer anything of value besides his blood to assuage the wrath of God?

Which is related to this question:

Is God unable to forgive sin without inflicting pain on someone?

When facing questions like these, you make a choice before you even start answering: do you try to answer these questions within conventional paradigms . . . or outside them? In my experience, when you step out of conventional paradigms, the questions begin to evaporate and different questions present themselves, questions like these:

What would it mean for God to be revealed in a vulnerable human being who is tortured and killed by religious and political elites?

If Jesus had never revealed God “in the flesh” as he did, what would we not know today?

In what ways does Jesus’ death intensify and strengthen our call to repentance and transformation?

I know I will be labelled as a heretic by some simply for the reason that I am giving a voice to someone’s questioning an important Biblical truth. I don’t think that’s fair, but you are fully within whatever right you think you may have to do so.

If, however, your criteria for orthodoxy is broad enough (and I hope it is) to include all who confess to a historic faith as stated in The Apostles’ Creed, then let me say that I affirm with full conviction every statement made in the Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.


Maybe it’s time we put our labels aside and look at the content of the heart (in the words of Dr King) rather than the colour of our theology-skin (possibly this is not so good a picture, but the thought is there).

If we are to be God’s people together, we must make room for conversations that we may not always agree with, but which allow all who are on the same journey a voice and a right to say, think and believe. We may see a doctrine in a different way, or express our opinion using different words or shades of meaning. And, in allowing one another freedom to discover the faith for themselves, we may just find that they have something to share that would be of value to us on our own journey.

That is, if we determine we are on a journey and not willing to settle into a lonely existence where only one voice–our voice–is heard.

Learning from Tyler Clementi

Gareth Higgins has written an excellent post on his blog “god is not elsewhere / some conversation about movies, art, politics and spirituality with gareth higgins” as he downloads his frustration at the senseless suicide of Tyler Clementi, a promising young University student in the U.S.  Reading about how young people have been let down by a system that is still mired down in handed-down, modernist thinking, does more than slightly annoy me. But I had best let those who are skilled in the art of wordsmithing to say what I feel better than I could ever say myself. So here’s a paragraph or two from Gareth’s blog:

I am tired of not feeling free to discuss sexuality in church as anything other than a problem.  I want to celebrate it for what it has become for me: an astonishing gift from God, the space in which love between human beings, made a little lower than the angels has the potential to find its most elegant and connected expression.  The space where we may come closest to mirroring the divine relationship with the human.  The space that can produce such profound happiness, and is so powerful that it leave you feeling as if you’ve been ripped  apart.

The story of Tyler Clementi is not just about a young man and his roommates’ stupid prank.  It is a story about cruelty, and dehumanization, and fear, and the lack of an understanding of how human relationships can promote the common good instead of individualistic gratification.

It is a story about the role that bad religion – most of it Christian – has played in creating a culture of shame around sex and sexual identity in America, and the distortions of human happiness that pass for healthy religious practice. (Read it all here.)

I know there is a HUGE debate within American evangelicalism about the place of LGBT Christians in the church, but that debate will not be entertained here. God loves us all equally and accepts us all equally. God’s grace is not only enough to take care of the sins of all but to restore relationships, break down dividing walls, tear apart prejudices and judgmentalism and heal all kinds of hurt. That is what we need today.

And we need more people who will stand up and be champions of that grace, who will proclaim boldly the unconditional, inclusive love of Jesus to all, and put an end to senseless suicides by showering people like Tyler with grace and hope for a better world.