Category Archives: the good news

Spiritual growth is more about subtraction than addition

If your following along the Lenten devotional by Richard Rohr, yesterday you read that the spiritual journey is more like giving up control than taking control.

I have been thinking about spirituality and the idea that we grow through subtraction and not addition (I can’t take credit for that analogy as I first heard it from Richard Rohr).

This was difficult for me to grasp at first because I viewed people who were spiritual mature as those who could pray, fast, and read boatloads of the Bible. My experience, both personally and what I have seen of others, has led me to believe that you can do all those things and yet not become spiritually mature, i.e., transformed (particularly into greater love).

Perhaps spiritual growth happens more by becoming aware of our false self and letting go of this self – our fears, insecurities, desire to defend, our creation of us-vs-them, shame, anger, etc.

  • Is there something in your life you are invited to give up or let go of?

In today’s reading Rohr writes, God is always much better than the most loving person you can imagine…

For many of us, the good news was what we had to do to get God to love or forgive us. Yet Jesus suggests God’s love is unconditional. I would summarize the Good News as, “You and I are each loved by God.” Our job, our work, is to become aware of this and to walk into this.

  • Is the good news something we have to do, or is it something we simply become aware of and receive?

If Jesus tells us to “Ask and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock and it will be opened…,” perhaps today you might ask for a deeper knowledge of God’s unconditional love for both you and those around you. If you are really bold, perhaps you might ask for a greater understand of this love even towards those whom you dislike.

I invite you to meditation on these texts. Allow them to wash over you as you are reminded of God’s intimate love for you and for those around you.

Romans 8v38-39

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 3v18-20

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

The God of Jesus

Who is the God of Jesus?

Unfortunately many view God as a monarchical ruler, but Jesus understood God as Abba – the Aramaic word for father. When a person explores what Jesus meant by Abba, it becomes apparent that it is a vastly different picture of God than many have today.

Theologian John Cobb writes, “But a very important difference between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures of his time was the shift from monarchical language to family relations.”[1]

Let us try to understand what Jesus had in mind when he used the word Abba. While the Christian Scriptures were primarily written in Greek, many believe that Jesus spoke primarily Aramaic and Abba was most likely the word that Jesus himself used when he referred to God. Cobb suggests that Abba is baby talk.[2] It is difficult to be certain of this, but if correct, a more accurate translation may be that of “daddy.” What is most important in understanding Jesus’ use of the word Abba, is that “The normal relation of the father to the infant is one of tenderness and unconditional love. It was unconditional love rather than controlling power that dominated Jesus’ understanding of God.”[3] Jesus did not understand God as ruler or king and in fact never spoke of God in this way, yet it has come to dominate the consciousness of many religious people today.[4]

iStock_000002218181Small

A person’s view of God greatly shapes how they understand the central teaching of Jesus which was that the “kingdom of God” has come. If a person views God as ruler or king then this message will be understood a certain way. If a person understands God as a loving and caring parent, then this message will be understood very differently. The phrase “kingdom of God” has been translated from the Greek phrase basileia theou.[5] Since basileia is best defined as “a politically defined region,”[6] it can be interpreted differently. For example, if a person views God as a monarchical ruler or judge, then basileia would surely mean the region or area where the king ruled. In a similar way it could be seen as God’s empire. This is certainly how many interpret the phrase “kingdom of God” today. If, however, a person looks at the phrase “kingdom of God” with a view of God as a loving parent, then they will arrive at a very different understand. Cobb suggests that if God is seen as a father, then “We might describe a father’s basileia better as the family estate.”[7] Of course, this is still open to different ways of understanding depending on the type of parent who owns the estate.

We come back once again to the view of God that Jesus held. Jesus’ Abba was not a distant, angry, or demanding father who ruled with an iron fist, but was rather a loving and compassionate father who cared for the well being of all things with a particular focus upon those most vulnerable. Thus, “kingdom of God” or the of basileia theou means “the realm, or community, or commonwealth in which God’s will is done.”[8] The invitation is to become a part of that community or commonwealth right now. Two ideas surrounding this must be addressed.

First, Cobb addresses the belief of basileia theou as an eschatological reality. The “kingdom of God” or community is not something that will happen sometime in the future; rather it is a present reality. Second, if the invitation is a present reality to become a part of a community that cares for the well being of all things with a particular focus upon those most vulnerable, this brings with it a change of attitude, perspective, or way of living. This change – often referred to as repentance – is an essential part of the gospel message. Cobb summarizes the Synoptic Gospels well by stating that the heart of the message was: “reorient yourself radically; the basileia theou is at hand.”[9] The good news demands a shift, a change, or a reorientation of how a person lives so that they see with new eyes, but this shift cannot happen until a person understands God as Abba.

If the good news is an invitation to reorient our lives to enter into Abba’s commonwealth here and now, this inherently has affects on the individual as well as the community. Once a person is able to see God as a loving parent who desire’s to see them flourish (and not an angry dictator), they then cease to defend, hide, or pretend. Salvation is not simply extended by an intolerant God because of a blood sacrifice by His Son, but salvation is an invitation to enter into the healing process or to become more whole. Of course this invitation extends to all, but we must first we must experience this for ourselves.

The good news means that each person is a beloved child of God. If God is Abba, or father, then clearly that means we are His children. Cobb addresses the struggle of non-gendered language when referring to God and chooses to use the male masculine pronoun, though he realizes that this is also limiting because God is also mother. Cobb suggests that not using personal pronouns tends to inhibit an understanding of a personal God. This is something I had not previously thought of, but is beginning to make some sense. I don’t have a problem using the pronoun “she” or the word “mother” when referring to God, but I also understand that it is not common or widely accepted. Thus, perhaps a male masculine pronoun may more accurately reflect an intimate parent, limiting as it may be, than refusing to use any personal pronouns.

Realizing that a person is a beloved child of God and that they cannot and do not need to do anything to “become” this is the first of two steps in the gospel message. The second step is to reorient your life according to this truth. In my opinion, the first step is the hardest and since the second is a natural overflow, I tend to focus more upon the first. Realizing that a person is a beloved child of God is the hardest step because so many religious and non religious people alike understand God as a monarchical king who demands perfection. Because none of us are perfect and we have all “sinned” the idea that God demands a payment of sorts to make up for this “flaw” is prevalent in much of Christianity. Concerning this Cobb writes, “The idea that his mission was to die to appease the wrath of Abba was as remote from Jesus as devil worship, and its effect on the Christian world since Anselm has been poisonous.”[10] Theologically this view is called penal substitutionary atonement, and I agree that it is a poisonous view that has done much harm in our world.

God, according to Jesus, was a loving, caring, and personal parent. God was close, not distant, involved not disengaged, and always works through persuasive love and never through coercive power.

[1] John Cobb, Jesus’ Abba, xx.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 23.

Lent – the death of the old and the rebirth of the new

So this Lent season I have been thinking about what Lent means to me and what it says to the world we live in today.

I was not raised to pay much attention to the church calender. Of course Christmas and Easter were always a big deal, but following the church calender through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and ordinary time where never on my radar.

images

Lent is that time of year where Christians prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Often times this comes with giving up something in observance of this season.

I have specifically been thinking about the time between Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.

What happened in this time is one major faith shift.

I have gone through some pretty major faith shifts, but the biggest faith shift has been my picture of God.

I still remember very clearly not long ago someone on pastoral staff at a church who was suggesting that God brought about a recent hurricane to judge the “wicked”. This person quoted texts in the Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament) to prove that God had done this before and that God was doing it again.

I also remember during this time wrestling through different texts, their interpretations, and who God was when an old friend firmly tried to “rebuke” me (that’s a Christian way of saying your wrong) and declared that we should not wrestle with the Bible or God but we are to accept both as it is. Really? What this person was actually saying is that I needed to accept their interpretation of Scripture and their picture of God.

I also remember during this time hearing from an influential lay leader at a church that not only are Muslims wrong, but that they are evil and Christians need to be aware and stand against them or else they will take over our nation. This person had a very clear picture that America is a “Christian” nation and that any other religion is our enemy to be fought against.

I also remember during this time hearing from several about the importance of getting people to say a “sinner’s prayer” so that they do not go to hell and burn throughout eternity.

I remember thinking through these four examples (and many others) and realizing that I just don’t see things the same way. Each of these examples could be argued (and were) using the Bible. I didn’t have the words, or the theology, but I was going through a season of Lent. The old way of seeing and understanding God had died – I just hadn’t made it to Easter yet!

Jesus was suppose to be the Messiah (anointed one) and the Savior who was suppose to free Israel from the Roman Empire. Palm Sunday is a clear example of this as the people shouted Hosanna which means “Lord save us” – literally they were anticipating salvation from the Roman Empire just as God had saved them from the Egyptians in the book of Exodus and from the Babylonians during the Exile (587-539 BCE). So to them Hosanna clearly meant Lord save us from the Roman empire.

This makes perfect sense. As they understood God was a mighty warrior who conquered and defeated their [Israel’s] enemies. Yahweh was a God who brought about calamity, commanded genocide, and fought for Israel and would send people to hell in a moments notice.

Here comes Jesus, the one who was suppose to represent all of the descriptions above. Jesus would to be a mighty warrior who would conquer and defeat Israel’s enemies, the Romans. Jesus would bring peace to Israel through violence and the sword and would condemn to death those who oppose him.

  • Palm Sunday – people celebrated and expected this Jesus.
  • Good Friday – this Jesus was put to death.
  • Easter – Jesus was resurrected and shows a new way of seeing God.

I have recently heard that each serious Christian has one primary text that acts like a lens through which they read the rest of the Scriptures through.

During this time, and today, one of the biggest texts that I use is found in Colossians which says, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God”. Also a similar text found in Hebrews 1v3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…”.

I understand not everyone believes that Jesus is divine, but it’s difficult to argue for a more beautiful way of seeing God. The one thing, above all others, that makes Christianity unique, is this idea that God entered into our humanity and showed us who God is and how to be fully human.

Now, I realize a lot of violence, destruction, oppression, and hatred have been used in the name of Jesus (much like it has been used by a few Muslim extremist today), but when one reads the life and teaching of Jesus it is very difficult to get a picture of a God who is violent, vengeful, angry, full of hate, and ready to torture people throughout eternity.

In fact, it seems to me that one gets the exact opposite picture of God. In my experience there are many people who do not believe in God, and when they talk about the God they do not believe in, I realize that often I do not  believe in that God either.

What does this mean for today?

I wonder if we need a season of Lent in our culture. I think that there are some very horrible and destructive ways of seeing God that should be put to death.

I have a feeling, that there is a growing number of people, like myself, for whom the old ways of seeing God no longer work. These people have entered into a Good Friday, and similar to the first followers of Jesus, it is easy to experience a disequilibrium of sorts.

During this time it is tempting to through the whole thing out the window (this is what the first followers of Jesus did and what we often do as well). While some are atheist because this seems to be the most rational way of understanding the world, I think some people are atheist because they have been presented with a god that doesn’t make sense and that is actually not worth worshiping and have rejected this god.

I think the invitation during this season of Lent for today is to hold on and continue the journey. While you may have gone through a Friday, the promise is that Friday does not have the last answer – Easter is just around the corner!

The Good News – part 3

So what is the good news ?

I believe that the good news is an announcement of who you already are; a beloved child of God.

It has everything to do with the last three words Jesus uttered on the cross.

It is finished.

It’s really easy to begin to sense if the good news is what you have to do, say, confess, believe or if it is something that has already been given (grace is always a gift) and you simply receive – it is finished, it has been taken care of. In 1 John 3 it says, “Dear friends, now we are God’s children…” As Richard Rohr puts it, “You are already a child of God, equipped with everything you need to begin resonating with the divine”.[1]

I believe this is true of every person, even those who would never darken the doors of a church and who may not consider themselves a Christian. I think this is true of all people, of all ethnicities, of all religions, of all genders, of all sexual orientations. One doesn’t need to find the right religion, church, or belief system in order for this to be true.

Now, my upbringing would push back at this as say that it makes the death of Jesus pointless and cheap. As a Christian I still see the point, value, and cost of the cross. Some say that Jesus died for my sins, I wonder if it is not more accurate to say that Jesus died because of my sins.

It is clear that the first Christians used language and imagery that made sense – sacrifice, ransom, payment, debt etc because that is how they understood the world to be. I don’t see a God who demands payment for sins while being born into a broken world. I do not see a cigar chopping loan shark who demands a pound of flesh in order to offer forgiveness. I do not see a God who inflicts pain and ultimately kills God’s Son – God’s one and only Son on top of it.

What do I see?

I see a God who is willing to endure hell instead of sending me there. I see a nonviolent, self-sacrificing, unconditionally loving God who was not pounding the nails into the hands of Jesus, but who was hanging on that cross some two thousand years ago because that is who God is – surely the cost was great! God endured hell for us and now we better understand who God is.

Now I heard a friend quote a sentence that I believe originated from Richard Rohr, and it has changed my life since.

Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity, he came to change the mind of humanity about God.

The last sentence deserves a second read.

One thing I find so compelling about the Christian tradition is this idea of incarnation – that the divine and human can be found in one place. What is so beautiful about Jesus is that Jesus reflects the image of God…at least that’s what the Christian tradition teaches. So in a world where religion had often become about status, prestige, and control, a Jewish rabbi came along and created a revolution that changed the whole thing. Now people no longer had to enter into that system, no one needed to offer a sacrifice in order to think they were right with God, no one needed to go through a gruesome ritual where they sliced a piece of their foreskin off, no one needed to be bound up in all the laws which benefited the wealthy at the expense of the poor, but instead offered freedom by throwing away any distinctions imposed.

Now there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, (neither heterosexual nor homosexual, neither American nor Iraqi, neither white nor black, neither rich nor poor) for you are all one in Christ Jesus. The distinctions we as humans make are not distinctions God makes. God sees all of humanity as loved, cherished, and accepted exactly as we are and we do not need to change a thing for God to love us – while we were still sinners…

f3767b969e02e2970080120614c7f16c

So where is the hard part? Where is the challenge and the struggle?

The invitation is simple yet so very difficult.

We are invited to receive this gift that we are loved and that there are no distinctions made. Grace is freely given to all (therein lies the offense of the cross ). The challenge then is the invitation that follows –  to enter into this way of being and seeing in the world. We are invited to see that all our loved. We are invited to see that any distinctions we make do not make anyone less loved or accepted. We are invited to look past the outer appearances into a deeper Reality and to be as Jesus – self sacrificial, unconditionally loving, full of grace, mercy, justice, nonviolence, forgiveness, and compassion toward all.

So the good news is really good news for all, but it invites us to see with new eyes and to enter into a new way of being.

If you’re like me, this is an extremely difficult task which is why I have found it necessary to rely on Something greater than myself, namely God.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013), 104.

Part 2. Is this good news?

good-news-261x300

Last week I posted what I was taught the good news was growing up. I summarized by saying:

I believed that everyone has sinned and thus was separated from God, yet God sent God’s one and only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for my sin so that when I die I can go to heaven instead of being tortured for all eternity. (more about hell in a future post)

Before I begin to talk about what I believe the good news really is, let me share the process I went through as I deconstructed this.

First, this belief has a theological name – penal substitution atonement.

Now I could get all theological, but that’s not my intent. Basically this understand of the good news (more specifically atonement) was not the dominant understand for the first 1,000 years of Christianity!

The dominant view for most church fathers was what has been called the Christus Victor or ransom theory (these may have several nuances between them). This understanding is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christ was victorious over death.

This dominant view began to shift to the ransom theory and later the penal substitutionary theory. (For a list of the different theories click here. If your interested in exploring more of the nuances, especially a more recent understanding using mimetic theory click here.)

Here’s what I’m getting at. I realized that my belief of the gospel had a name, and it was not the dominant view for over 1,000 years of the church. Also I began to realize that there are multiple different ways to interpret the death of Jesus. This opened up a whole new world for me as I began to explore the different theories and understandings of why Jesus came and what His death means.

As a theology student, I quickly realized that one can prove just about anything using the Bible (e.g. slavery, domination, genocide,). I also began to slowly see (and this took a little time) that it isn’t what the Bible says, but about how one interprets the Bible. I personally call these the lenses people use  (more on this in a future post but this is huge!).

Now in the Bible you can find different metaphors that speak about the work of Jesus on the cross. You can find metaphors of sacrifice, ransom, reconciling all things, freeing guilty sinners, a victorious battle, and redemption of something lost. So which one is correct?

“For these first Christians, something massive and universe-changing had happened through the cross, and they set out to communicate the significance and power of it to their audiences in language their audiences would understand. And so they looked at the world around them, identifying examples, pictures, experiences, and metaphors that their listeners and readers would have already been familiar with…”[1]

This makes sense doesn’t it? If you live in a time where the religious sacrificial system is central and you are involved in the process, then an announcement that Jesus was the final sacrifice and you don’t need any more sacrifices is revolutionary and freeing!

If you think that because of sin you are separated from God and a price must be paid in order to set you free, than to say Jesus has paid that price is revolutionary and freeing!

If you think in terms of a cosmic battle between a good divine being (God) and an evil being (Satan) and someone declares that battle is over and good has overcome evil it would be good news!

So the first followers of Jesus were taking images, metaphors, and pictures that were very real and relevant to the people in their day to say that something amazing has happened through Jesus?

Yes!

So the question isn’t which one is right and which one is wrong, but a better question is to ask what images, metaphors, and pictures are real and relevant to people today?

Next post I will share briefly what I think the good news is, but to give you a little taste it has everything to do with the last three words uttered by Jesus on the cross.

 

 

 

[1] Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York: Harper One, 2011), 128.

 

Is this good news?

I grew up in a tradition where I was taught and believed that the good news (we called it the gospel) was that everyone has sinned and thus was separated from God, yet God sent God’s one and only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for my sin so that when I die I can go to heaven instead of being tortured for all eternity.

Now this is problematic on many levels, but to put it simply it’s not really good news for the following reasons:

1 – It begins with sin management

First, the story of the Bible begins in Genesis 1 where God creates and calls everything good. Where is the action? Here! Notice there is nothing about heaven, an afterlife, and most especially going somewhere else…the action is all here, on earth.

Second, sin (ie anything that is destructive) does not come into the story until Genesis 3.[1] If you start in Genesis 3 it becomes about sin management. Like every story one should begin in the beginning.

2 – It is primarily concerned about the afterlife

Notice the good news (gospel) I was taught is primarily concerned about escaping this world and going somewhere else – this has most definitely led to all kinds of destructive behaviors most recognizably the lack of environmentalism among many Christians. Thankfully the importance of earth care is gaining traction in theology and in faith communities around the world.

Back to the afterlife. As mentioned above the story begins here, on earth, with no mention of anything out there somewhere else.

Where does the story end?

In the book of Revelation (one of the most difficult to interpret and probably the most misinterpreted book of the Bible) we get this beautiful picture of a holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven as a picture of heaven coming to earth.[2]

In what has traditionally been called The Lords Prayer Jesus taught his followers to ask that God’s kingdom and will be done here as it is in heaven.

See a pattern?

The movement of the story is always about heaven coming down here and not us going up there.

3 – It paints a horrific picture of God!

This is one of my biggest struggles and concerns with the way I was taught the good news. This good news paints a picture of God who cannot stand to be around us (God’s good creation?) and needs  blood  in order to forgive. Now the imagery of sacrifice is sprinkled all throughout the Scriptures, but it seems to be the need of the people and not God (more on this topic later).

Now to the main point

God needs to send God’s one and only Son who must be tortured and killed in order for God to forgive? Many have already pointed out the multiple ways this understanding can be destructive, but it does raise many difficult questions and points to a divine child abuser who treats His/Her son in a way no sane parent would deem humane.

I am currently finishing a very good book by Richard Rohr titled The Naked Now where he raises two important points about this topic

  1. “The individual Christian is told to love unconditionally, but the God who commands this is depicted as having a very conditional and quite exclusive love himself or herself! The believer is told to love his enemies, but ‘God’ clearly does not; in fact, God punishes them for all eternity.”[3]
  2. “Even my less-than-saintly friends, the ordinary Joe’s on the block, would usually give a guy a break, overlook some mistakes, and even on their worst days would not imagine torturing people who do not like them, worship them, or believe in them. ‘God’ ends up looking rather petty, needy, narcissistic, and easily offended”.[4]

So what then is the good news?

 

[1] For a great teaching on this subject click here

[2] Revelations 21.

[3] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013), 80.

[4] Ibid, 81.