We all know the story of the prophet Jonah. Jonah was sent by God to speak truth to power in the city of Ninevah, but Jonah didn’t want to. First, you don’t usually make many friends speaking truth to power. Secondly, Jonah had the wrong attitude. If he was going to speak truth to power, then he wanted God to punish the offenders. The last thing he wanted to happen was for the powerful to hear his words, see the error of their ways, and change. So as the story goes, instead of taking on this assignment, he fled to Tarshish and ended up being swallowed by a whale on the way. God rescued him from the whale and sent him back to Nineveh where Jonah finally spoke truth to power. The people listened so . . .
God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jon 3:10-4 NRS)
When we speak truth to power, we need to hope for their transformation not their punishment – we need to speak in a way that seeks their well-being not their calamity – a way that welcomes them into the grace and mercy of God. Could we be failing at “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done,” because we are angry and don’t love the powerful in the ways that God loves them?
May Lent be a time of speaking truth to power with an attitude that seeks the well being of the powerful, as well as, the powerless.
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Mat 25:31-46
Jesus ultimately declares that we belong to him (or not) based on whether we cared for the poorest, the sickest, the least powerful, the least deserving, and etc. May Lent be a time of taking serious Jesus’s teachings to help the least.
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.
(Mat 6:6-7 NRS)
When I visited my youngest son at his college, he lamented that his Buddhist roommate had more going on with God than any Christian he knew. As I looked around their room decorated with colorful prayer flags and smelling of tea, I asked why he thought that.
Weary, my son said, “Because he wakes up and prays an hour every morning before dawn.” Sadly, he prayed sitting cross-legged in the middle of their dorm room, chanting, and burning incense when all my son wanted to do was sleep.
Exhausted, my son finally told his roomie, “You have to choose between talking to God at 5 am and rooming with me.” The boy chose God and my son found a roommate who didn’t pray. Sad all around–so many denominations long ago stopped teaching people to pray.
This led to an interesting conversation about the followers of Christ and prayer. In these verses, Jesus calls us to a quiet place where we can be alone with God. He also calls us into a place where we can be real with God leaving behind all formulas and expectations. It is a place where we can talk and listen as our true selves. Jesus even promises that God will show up: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
May Lent be a time of being yourself with God in a quiet place where the two of you can listen to each other.
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Whose says progressive Christians don’t have mystical encounters with God? Here goes…
Lately I have been having this odd dream of “hippie” Jesus leaning on a classic blue car playing his guitar. He is in front of me at a junction on a long dusty country road. The edges of the road are speckled with yellow daisies. The car is parked next to a little white sign with something written in red letters on it. I call him “hippie” Jesus because he looks a lot like John Corbett playing Chris Stevens in Northern Exposure. Usually I see Jesus in my mind’s eye looking more like “stained glass window” Jesus in jewel tones and glowing. But, right now he is appearing in my dreams as “hippie Jesus” in real flesh and blood. By the way, I met John Corbett at a bar in Roswell once and he is nothing like Chris Stevens. Nevertheless, I digress….
In the dream I can’t see what is written on the sign Jesus’ car is parked next to, but every day, I get a little closer and it is a little more in focus. Somehow I know the sign has directions on it telling me which way in this life Jesus and I will be going together next. It’s as if the sign is going to have instructions for a job I am being invited to do. Moreover, Jesus has plans to drive me there in his hip blue car. I don’t feel at all uneasy about what the sign is going to say, because Jesus will be driving. It doesn’t really matter where we are going – I am home already. Even though I sense the journey will be a lot of work, somehow, I know it is good work – like having a baby, birthing a book, or creating something beautiful for someone you love.
When I look at Jesus’ expression for some kind of clue, I realize that he is looking forward to seeing my expression when I am finally close enough to read the sign. Yet he knows I can’t get there any faster. Something is in my way – it’s a herd of beautiful white woolly sheep. Hippie Jesus is in no hurry, he is okay with waiting for the sheep to do their wonderful sheep stuff. So together Jesus and I smile at each other from a distance and admire these extraordinary beings that stand between the sign and me. As I watch them, I begin to appreciate their wisdom. What a community they have! They are all going in the same direction – toward me. Yikes! I am stunned at their graceful, yet determined, dance down the road as I get out of their way.
Then I wake up. Content. Happy. In anticipation.
I thought I would share this dream, because I just bet someone else might be waiting for God to answer a prayer or give them direction today. And it might help you to know Jesus is waiting at the junction, next to a classic blue car, playing his guitar.
BTW, I have a cold and have been running a fever at night. I had a bowl of “Love Crunch: Premium Organic Granola” with almond milk before I went to bed last night too. 🙂
April is a progressive Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.
Last Friday, I posted a piece titled “Nine Blessings from the Non-Conservative Christian Movement.” I thought it would be interesting this Friday to swing that table around and write about things that non-conservatives can learn from conservatives. Keep in mind that when I talk about non-conservative and conservative Christians, I am talking about theology, not politics. While theological and political leanings tend to be in the same direction, they aren’t always the same.
1) The Importance of Community
Conservative Christians have been really good at forming a community where they feel welcomed and included. In this community they raise their children, do life together, form a theological understanding together, and have a place to go to be prayed for and supported when needed. They take seriously the biblical teaching not to forsake gathering together.
Lack of this kind of community is a real issue among many non-conservative believers. It doesn’t help that many of the leaders of the non-conservative movement have declared that they have left the church. I think of Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, “Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith” where she not only hangs up her priestly attire, but says she feels at home on Sundays now just hanging out on her farm or attending a variety of different denominations with no church community to call her own. Then there is Rachel Held-Evans who is just starting to “try on” church again after abandoning it for several years. Brian McLaren’s article for the Huffington Post titled “Why we are Leaving Church” spoke to how church has become irrelevant for so many progressives. And even Rob Bell left the church that he grew to mega-church proportions.
Granted, many non-conservatives have grown weary of being condemned by the church for their non-fundamentalist theology and have decided to go it alone. Sometimes, they’ve even left church because they were asked to leave. But it is time for non-conservatives to move beyond licking the deep wounds of exclusion and make “gathering together” a priority. No one can optimally follow Christ without the support of other followers. Community isn’t a nice to have. Community is necessary in order to experience a healthy and complete spirituality – a place to be baptized, a place to take the Eucharist, and a place to serve the world together. And even a place that will help you raise your kids and take care of you when you most need it.
I am not suggesting that non-conservatives return to the churches they fled. There are churches and whole denominations who want you just as you are. I think the best Christian communities are the ones that welcome both conservative and non-conservative theology. But don’t stop until you find a community where you are wanted. I’d advise you to keep looking if they don’t allow the full inclusion of women and LGBTQ in their leadership and clergy.
2) An Attraction to Bible Study
Conservatives place a high importance on Bible study. They often teach that Bible study is the primary way that church members experience spiritual growth. I don’t really agree with that line of thinking any longer. I think worship, the practice of spiritual disciplines, and prayer are every bit as important for spiritual growth – if not more important. However, I grieve that so many non-conservatives have been turned off to Bible study. But I can see why. So many Bible studies – instead of challenging the student to dig in and discuss challenging questions – just declare worn out dogmatic answers.
But the Bible is fascinating when one digs in. I love studying this ancient text and pouring over its mysteries – from five thousand year old accounts of encounters with God to the closest friends of Jesus recording their insights and impressions of the Messiah.
If you’ve perused the rest of my website, you know Bible study is my thing. When I grow up, I’d like to be the non-conservative, less well dressed, never in your face version of Beth Moore. Or maybe the more humorous, generator of questions with less hard and fast answers, hippie version of Kay Arthur. I am in the process of considering a contract offer on my first book – a parable that teaches the Epistle of James – so keep this in mind later in the year if you get the hankering for studying scripture!
3) The Necessity of Financial Giving
Conservatives have long taught that all members should give at least 10% of their earnings to God. I think we can debate the need for a hard and fast percentage, but we can’t debate that non-conservatives should be pooling their resources to serve God and others. However, studies show that when non-conservatives join a church, they do not contribute much of anything financially until they have been members for at least five years. It is likely that they feel the need to stick around long enough to be assured their money isn’t going towards buying the pastor a second home in the Cayman Islands.
It is important that you find a great church and contribute financially – otherwise there won’t be any non-conservative churches left! And support your non-conservative clergy by paying them a fair wage and providing benefits.
4) A Willingness to Call-Out Sin
Conservatives focus mostly on personal sins (think sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll) and non-conservatives focus more on corporate sins (think all manner of social injustices). Overlooking our different definitions of sin, conservatives aren’t afraid to yell “sinner” when they see one. Conservatives believe that certain people are evil and that it is their duty to name the offenders and beat them down.
On the other hand, non-conservatives tend to believe that humans are basically good. However, that doesn’t really explain slavery, human trafficking, 9/11, violence against women, poverty, the Boston marathon bombing, pollution, global warming, or Sandy Hook.
Non-conservatives might want to rethink the possibility of the existence of an unseen, supernatural, organized “evil” in the world. Perhaps evil does exist and, in fact, has an agenda to destroy all that is innocent and good. Non-conservatives need to learn to name evil (which is different from yelling “sinner”), identify its agenda, and fight it. Of course, non-conservatives would fight it using non-violent means like education and working justice out in the legal system. Even so, non-conservatives should never stop holding onto hope that all humans basically want to be good and do good.
5) Zeal for Evangelism
Conservatives (sometimes synonymous with the term evangelical) make it a priority to invite outsiders to become one of them, while non-conservatives aren’t quite sure what to do with Jesus’ command to “go into all the world.” Personally, I distinguish between being evangelical and being evangelistic. For me, “evangelical” has come to mean, “my goal is for you to become like me in my faith so that your salvation is assured.” Whereas “evangelistic” means “you have an open invitation to join with me in seeking the way of Christ together.” We may evangelize for different reasons, but non-conservatives clearly need to get better at unapologetically inviting the stranger into their communities. Non-conservatives need to start accepting that having the stranger join them is good for everyone. More friends and a richer life for existing members. But it’s good for the stranger too, because our communities are committed to accepting, loving, and serving them in the way of Christ. We need to believe that what our communities offer is valuable!
Well, that does it. Five things non-conservatives can learn from conservatives! Would love to hear your comments. In closing, whether you are a conservative Christian or a non-conservative Christian, here is a mystery for all of us to ponder…
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:38-40 NRS).
Progressive, Unfundamentalist, the Christian Left, Mainline, the Liberal Church, the Next Church, or Liberal Evangelicals. Call the non-conservative Christian movement what you may, but these groups are changing the face of Christianity. Conservative Christians may be praying that these groups go away, but I am pretty sure they are here to stay. And they are not only changing the landscape of church, they are challenging conservatives to think about what it is they believe and claim to be truth.
There are nine things in particular that these non-conservative groups are bringing to Christianity that, whether you agree with them or not, are actually blessings to the whole church:
1) Emphasis on Continuing Jesus’ Ministry to the Poor and Sick.
The prosperity gospel is still very popular in America – often grounded in the mega-churches that dot the landscape of the suburbs. People are drawn in with the message that if you live right, then God will treat you right. When my own grandfather was diagnosed with a disease that would eventually kill him, he began sending money to a televangelist who promised that if you gave, then God would give to you. It didn’t work. And this was hardly the message of Jesus who ministered to the poor and sick without ever asking for a dime. The non-conservative movement is calling the ministers of the prosperity gospel out. And instead pointing the church toward Jesus’ ministry to vulnerable people insisting that all of us be his hands and feet.
2) A Far Reaching Understanding of Grace
The non-conservative movement rejects an understanding of faith as simply “believing in the right theology.” They don’t support praying a particular prayer and thus getting saved. They distinguish between religion as a ticket to heaven and religion as a relationship with God. They see that a right understanding of theology does not make one a follower of Christ. And, yet, at the same time, they have a hope that God’s grace will cover all of humanity – even those who don’t encounter Jesus in this lifetime. Knowing the character of God – to love and pursue us even when we’d rather God forget about us – is that hope hugely misplaced?
3) Sin Defined as the Absence of Love
The non-conservative movement doesn’t want to hear about a long list of rules they must follow to impress God. The rules are too often cultural, for one thing. I remember my brother telling me of man in his church who came down out of the choir, walked over to a boy who was wearing a baseball cap, ripped the cap off of his head, handed it to him, and then returned to the choir loft. Apparently God will condemn a whole church if you let boys in wearing baseball caps. The non-conservatives have returned to a definition of sin as the absence of love for God, others, and themselves. They aren’t interested in arbitrary definitions of sin based on cultural norms.
4) A Desire to be Producers not Consumers
Non-conservatives often simplify Christianity into two kinds of Christians. Ones that are consumers and ones that are producers. Consumers go to churches where they are served by the clergy staff. They contribute little to the Kingdom of God except attendance. Producers are those who join with others in order to serve the world. Non-conservatives don’t want to be caught consuming. They want to be out producing – making the world a better place.
5) A Healthy Understanding of Scripture
For conservative Christians it is a mark of faithfulness to believe that every word of the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit making the Bible absolutely and completely true historically, scientifically, spiritually, and in any other way. To them, if you can’t quite get there, it is a sign that God is not at work in your life the way God should be. But this whole “infallibility of scripture” phenomenon in the Christian world is pretty new. The problem with not allowing any human missteps of the writers is multifaceted. First, scripture was not meant to be historical or scientific – it is a spiritual document. It doesn’t really matter to the non-conservative if Adam and Eve were real people, because the story conveys spiritual truths. Secondly, non-conservatives are convinced that the people who wrote scripture were not aware that they were writing what would become sacred. And since Jesus never authorized a biography, it puts the collection of documents in a new light. Plus there are a few obvious contradictions in the scriptures – some historical accounts that don’t quite match up – showing not falsehoods, but a limited human accounting of certain stories. And we don’t even have the original scrolls to evaluate. The list of questions generated by the claim of infallibility is long. Therefore many non-conservatives have come to cling to Jesus as being the revelation of God to the world and the Holy Spirit as being the one who reminds us of all that Jesus taught. They believe that the Bible is unique, holy, and rich with Godly wisdom, but that it was never intended to be a substitute for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom guiding our lives.
6) Letting the Mystical and Science Hang Out Together
Non-conservatives often have no problem letting the mystical hang out with science. Faith lets them believe in a God that does miracles while accepting that the world is older than one might deduce from the genealogies contained in the Bible. They have no problem with the virgin birth, while believing that science brings valuable new information to our lives. They can believe in both Jesus and dinosaurs without missing a beat. They can accept Jesus’ power to heal without rejecting modern medicine.
7) Defining Tolerance as Tossed Salad and Not a Melting Pot
The word “tolerance” has a negative sound coming out of the mouth of many conservative Christians. They think it means that Christianity will be merged with all the other religions of the world in one big melting pot. They are worried that the Jesus of the future will wear a turban and be a vegan. But the non-conservative movement has started talking about tolerance as a “Tossed Salad” not a “Melting Pot.” They see themselves with their belief in Jesus existing right alongside those whose beliefs don’t include Christ. They do not believe that kind of tolerance lessens their faith in anyway. They may invite others into their faith with open arms, but they aren’t compelled to insist or threaten. They see coexisting as a very good and beneficial outcome of living out the teachings of Jesus.
8) Authentic not Contemporary
This one surprises some people the most. Non-conservatives are not generally drawn to contemporary Christian rock and loud screaming guitars on Sunday mornings. This kind of worship music feels laughable at times to them and they’d rather flee than attend a church with a praise band leader standing on stage fussing at them to clap their hands with more gusto and to sing louder. Non-conservatives are returning to high church with smells and bells – and lots of contemplative silence, prayer books, and the Eucharist generously practiced. They want to learn spiritual disciplines and to worship in an atmosphere that lets the heart experience God. Who would have predicted that? But they aren’t into making church look and sound like a rock concert.
9) Understanding that Everything Hinges on Forgiveness
The non-conservative movement believes that forgiveness is not a suggestion. Forgiveness is how the universe is set right. Jesus forgave us. So we have no choice, but to forgive others. The act of forgiveness is the world’s only hope of salvation. This means we forgive our enemies and live in peace. This is a complex and difficult concept in a world that thinks peace is manufactured by having bigger guns than your enemies. The non-conservative believes that the way of Christ must begin with forgiving all others and seeking to live in harmony.
Whether you consider yourself a conservative or part of the non-conservative movement, I believe that one thing is almost certain: Denominations that will flourish in the next decades will be ones that humbly address the questions that the non-conservatives raise. Not by arrogantly having all the right answers, but by creating a space for all the right questions. A place where worshiping Christ together defines the community of Christ – rather than theological unity.
Please check out the sister article: Five Things Non-Conservative Christians can learn from Conservative Christians.
Author’s Notes: 1) The original article used the words “Anti-Conservative Movement” instead of “Non-Conservative Movement.” It wasn’t a great choice. 2) This article speaks to conservative and liberal theology – not conservative and liberal politics. Though they often go hand in hand, they aren’t the same. 3) Several people have asked me to define Conservative/Non-Conservative. Labels are always dicey and only true generally speaking. For me, Conservative Theology is that which interprets the scripture literally – in our present culture that translates to denying women and the LGBT community full inclusion in the life of the church including the participation in church leadership.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luk 1:30-33 NRS)
It was a cold crisp fall evening in the mountains outside of Asheville where my son went to college at Warren-Wilson. My husband and I had the habit whenever we visited him of taking him and dozen or so of his friends out to dinner. These were not your average group of college kids. Their families were quite affluent – some of their parents were even famous. But they had chosen to go to a school where you worked 15 hours a week doing everything from raising livestock, tending the vegetable farm, cooking and cleaning in the cafeteria, or maintaining the facilities. The students were also required to do 40 hours of community service. They volunteered in the local elementary school, the homeless shelters, or the food bank – to name a few. The school was a community like nothing I have ever encountered. I longed to be 18 again and attend! The thing that I noticed more than anything else was that their experience there instilled in them both the desire to make the world a better place and the confidence that they could do it.
I was a pastor at the time and that fascinated my son’s friends mostly because I wasn’t anything like the pastors they had encountered before. Pastors were supposed to preach fire and brimstone, be anti-woman, and most certainly be against the LGBT community. The Christians that they had encountered were against protecting the environment, caring for the vulnerable people in the world, and having any kind of real fun. These kids weren’t enamored with the church at all.
But oddly – they had no argument with Jesus. Love your enemy. Take care of the least of these. All of this was simple truth to them. And they longed for a mystical experience of the numinous. They weren’t afraid of believing in the supernatural. Some of them even practiced praying daily to a God they had not yet named.
That night, as I sat at the long table in the storefront window of a downtown Asheville restaurant all eyes turned to me when someone asked me to tell them about Jesus. In other words, they liked Jesus’ teachings so now they’d like to learn about him.
This question jolted my thoughts back to an older man – an ancient man, really – who had been in one of my congregations. I had no idea of his real age, but he was old. He did the opposite thing these kids were doing. He was from India and had converted from Hinduism to Christianity as a young man. He, like these kids, had been looking for an encounter with God. He told me that he went on a quest as a young man and studied all the major religions of the world. In the end, he decided on Christianity because we believe that we follow the teachings of a living God, not the teachings of prophets long dead. He said that only a living God was worth worshiping. It was after he made that decision that he found a church and started attending. Unlike these kids, he liked Jesus’ claims of deity and then decided to study his teachings.
But either way you approach Jesus, he had many good teachings that regardless of his divinity, if followed, would make the world a better place. But he also made some outrageous claims about himself. In the Gospel of John alone, he says some incredible things. In Chapter 4, he confirms to the Samaritan woman that he is the Messiah. He claims to be from heaven and eternal – having no beginning or end – in Chapter 8 of John. He claimed to be equal with God in Chapter 10. He claimed he was the complete revelation of God and the way to God in Chapter 14. He claimed to be more than just a prophet. He claimed to be both God and the Son of God in some unearthly relationship that we can’t entirely understand.
I think we have three conclusions that we can come to about who Jesus was. The first is that Jesus’ claims are true and he is both God and a great teacher. The second is that Jesus was a religious-demagogue, who set out to control people for his own personal gain and failed. However, this isn’t remotely in line with his teachings and life. He never seemed to seek to please those who could have made him more popular – nor did he seek any personal gain whatsoever. Finally, he could have been a nut case believing himself to be God, but in reality just being one of us. His closest friends (and one of them was a doctor) never give us any hint of this possibility. And all but one of them were tortured and died for their faith in Christ.
I believe Jesus was God. But in honesty, my belief doesn’t come from reasoning it out. It comes from experiencing Christ in my everyday life.
My ancient friend from India told me once that every morning he goes into a quiet room in his house, lights a candle, and prays. He said this time of being in the presence of Jesus is more real to him than what the rest of the world considers reality. He experiences God every day. And he has named the God he prays to: Jesus.
On CBS’s Big Bang Theory, Sheldon and Amy have a game that they play. One of them names some event that has taken place in history and then the other explains what the world would be like if that event had never happened. For instance, if meteors hadn’t struck the earth, then the dinosaurs wouldn’t have died off and there’d be no great works of art because people running for their lives from dinosaurs all day long don’t have time to paint. The game is kind of silly. And none of the other characters on the show ever want to play the game with them – but, yet, I find it sort of interesting to think about how one event can change everything. On the other hand, if I think about it too long, then I start worrying about bee colonies collapsing and how the fruit, nuts, flower, and vegetables are going to go with them. But I digress…
This week, I took some time to think about what the world would be like if Jesus had never been born. It was hard to get my mind around it. It is too easy to slip over into naming all the awful stuff people have done in the name of Jesus: the crusades, burning those who didn’t agree with them at the stake, forming the KKK, taking Native American land and resources, the Salem witch trials, slavery, the mistreatment of women, etc. I could go on and on.
But it is Christmas and that quagmire is not where I want to live. So I imagined the baby Jesus lying in the manger and thought of what the world could be like if we really followed him:
This is the Kingdom of God. I long to become better at living it out.
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What do my Hindu friend, my atheist friend, and my agnostic friend have in common? Well, most recently, they have all ganged up on me wanting to know if I think they will go to heaven when they die. We have great theological conversations – three of us have known each other for almost thirty years. But they aren’t asking this question because they believe in Christ and want to spend eternity with him. They are asking because they want to know if I am bold enough to “arrogantly” (their word, not mine) exclude them from eternity. And if I am arrogant enough – that is somehow just more evidence that Jesus was not the real deal.
Many progressive Christians would simply answer this question by saying something along the lines of “All good people go to heaven because all religions are basically the same.” But I think the answer is far more complicated. First, although that sounds like a non-arrogant answer, it really isn’t. And secondly, it doesn’t capture Jesus’ complete teachings. For instance:
What does being good at anything have to do with getting into heaven? Jesus is not like Santa Claus rewarding us for good behavior. Salvation cannot be earned either by keeping a list of rules or doing a set of good works or even by believing hard enough.
Are all religions the same? No! We don’t even answer the same questions. “How do I achieve nirvana?” is not the same question as “Am I going to heaven?” And isn’t it just as arrogant for me to claim that all religions (ignorantly) really worship my God when they don’t claim that for themselves?
Furthermore, while it is true that modern Christianity has focused on getting everyone a ticket into heaven, that is not the question Jesus was even answering. Christianity does not answer the question “Who is going to heaven when they die?” It answers the question, “How can I align with Christ to do the work of God this day and forever more?”
Demanding that I answer whether they are going to heaven when they die is like demanding an ultra sound give them a blood analysis. Deciding who is in and who is out is not my job. However, I promised them I would try and answer the question best I can from what scripture does tell me… so here is my answer…
Scripture testifies to a time when humanity was in a right relationship with God and each other. We were whole in this relationship – free to love God, others, and ourselves unconditionally. It was an intimate and fulfilling relationship all around. Then humanity decided we could do better on our own without God and in doing so we broke creation and ourselves. We became diseased, violent, destructive, selfish, etc – all the things that sin is made of. We were no longer whole. We could no longer love God, others, or ourselves unconditionally.
But the good news is that going our own way did not break God. God still loved us unconditionally.
Humanity immediately began searching for what we once had. We found that God was still there reaching out to us, but our hearts (like creation) were broken and unable to fully accept the love God wanted to give us. Without God’s love filling our hearts, we were unable to unconditionally love God, each other, or ourselves. This resulted in a lot of rule following and sacrifices hoping to be made right before God. But neither the rules nor the sacrifices worked. Our hearts were still broken, we still committed selfish acts, and we were always making one more sacrifice hoping God would be happy with us.
Then the prophets started to speak of the Christ – God coming to us. This would be a whole new way of living. No longer would we follow a set of rules to try and make God happy. Instead this Christ would make it possible for the Spirit of God to live within us and guide us. No longer would we make sacrifices to impress God. The Christ would be the one and only sacrifice for us. In his sacrifice our hearts would be healed so we could once again hold – not only the love of God – but the Spirit of God.
And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)
Christ came, Christ died, Christ rose again, and Christ sent the Holy Spirit to live within us. It is by this Spirit living within us that we can follow him and serve God. Following Jesus has nothing to do with a set of rules, a set of good works, or a right theology. In fact, one of the only things the early Christians agreed upon was the resurrection. Following Christ has everything to do with letting the Spirit of God live within us – providing us with love, wisdom, and power to do the work of God. This is a completely new way of life.
Christianity isn’t about getting a ticket to heaven, it is about the Spirit of God living within me so that I can follow Christ. “Are you going to heaven when you die?” is the wrong question to ask me. All I can say is that God can (and will) do whatever God wants.
The right question to ask me is: “How do I receive the Spirit of Christ so that I can follow him?” The answer is that God will not force the Spirit upon you. But it is given to all who genuinely want to follow Christ to do the work of God. I can’t tell you if you are going to heaven or not. But I can tell you how to start following Jesus today and for eternity. I can tell you that your life will never be the same again. And I would really enjoy following Jesus with you. It is an amazing journey.
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The woman sat across from me in my church office. She had no trouble believing in miracles, the Immaculate Conception, the resurrection, a-man-swallowing-whale, The Eucharist, or any number of unexplainable mystical things. She had no trouble believing in a God who loved unconditionally – who asked followers to love and forgive even their enemies – who taught we were all one in Christ. She had no problem with God calling her into servant-hood. In fact, that gave her a joy that she couldn’t quite explain.
But she had a list of things from the scriptures that made no sense to her. She was struggling with a deity who on one hand told followers that their purpose was to invite outsiders into their community, but who on the other hand told his followers to kill whole nations in order to gain their land. She didn’t understand why this deity was against the LGBT community and allowed slavery. And she didn’t understand why would this deity take an interest in women’s fashion demanding long hair, no makeup, and hats.
The bottom line was that she just couldn’t accept that scripture was inerrant. There were too many things at odds with each other. To make matters worse, she attended a church that was very concerned that its members accept every word in the scriptures as completely inerrant – 100% truth – fully inspired – fully relevant to her life. To believe this was to be “in” – not to believe this was to be “out.” It was certain she would be shunned if she disagreed. Understandably, this was all causing her a lot of unrest.
But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
But if we go back to scripture itself, Jesus never suggested that our guidance for following him would come through a canon of letters, books, and gospels put together in the centuries following his death. We have no record that he ever instructed his followers to even write stuff down. Instead he told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach us, guide us, comfort us, and empower us.
Perhaps, many of us have placed our faith in the wrong thing… a book. A great book, inspired by the Holy Spirit containing great wisdom. But why would we place our faith in a book, when we could place our faith directly in the living Spirit of God?
It is not the scriptures that are inerrant – it is the Holy Spirit. The danger of course is that we never open our hearts to hearing the Holy Spirit and stumble along making it up as we go. On the other hand, if we intentionally seek the Spirit, we will develop a deeper relationship with God than we have ever had before – one in which the things of God are interpreted and understood like never before.