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…

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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.

Reflections after Thanksgiving.

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Reflections after Thanksgiving.

So I attending small Thanksgiving liturgy yesterday for the first time in my life. When I say small there was about 18 of us gathered in a circle as we reflected on Thanksgiving, read Scripture, prayed, confessed, heard a short but powerful sermon, and partook of the Eucharist.

I learned that the Greek word for thanksgiving is eucharsteo (yoo-khar-is-teh’-o) which has deep meaning within the Christian tradition – most clearly this is what we do on a weekly basis in the tradition I am currently a part of.

There is something powerful about the Eucharist, which I have come to know. First, the Eucharist (communion, Lord’s Supper) is a meal that is prepared by God and we bring nothing but are simply invited to partake. This is a simple, yet profound reminder that everything we have, including life itself is a gift.

Now I’m taking a short online course that has been very powerful as it teaches how to find the sacred in the everyday – something I am learning to do as a stay-at-home father. At the root of this class is the understanding and constant reminder that all of life is a gift which is powerfully transformational because when we begin to lose sight of this it is easy to feel entitled and entitlement robs us of joy. When I begin to think I deserve something, it is no longer a joy when I receive it and if I do not receive it…well then I’m offended and angry.

Now back to the Eucharist.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Eucharist for me is that it reminds me that all are invited and it is more about our response than getting all our beliefs right (as if any of us has all our beliefs right!).  I prefer a centered set understanding compared to a bounded set.

What I mean by this is that there is a clear center, but no clear boundaries.

Many religious people do not like this understanding because it becomes quite difficult to tell who is “in” and who is “out”, but in my experience this is true and so much more helpful. It also seems like this is what Jesus taught. How many times did Jesus talk to those (religious gatekeepers?) who thought they had a clear bounded set of who was “in” and who was “out” only to flip the entire thing! Brilliant!

As I experienced this Thanksgiving liturgy it was a reminder that I am invited to simply receive this Thanksgiving meal.

If nothing else, may this be a reminder that –

If you’re here, the universe has given you the gift of life and all you can do is receive.

 

Part 2. Is this good news?

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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.

 

Divine Mystery

So, my first post was about what I used to think the good news was. I will continue this post next week, but I wanted to share something a little less theological and more spiritual and recent (the other post was something I wrestled through several years ago but of course I continue to bump up against since many link penal substitutionary atonement as the gospel).

I have been on a faith journey. Actually, I think we are all on faith journeys (even if you’re an atheist or agnostic), but mine has taken some very unexpected twists. Like all exciting journey’s, I have found myself in unfamiliar territory – heck if it’s all familiar it’s not very fun is it?

I am taking several classes through a Hybrid MDiv program and loving them. My favorite class has been about spiritual practices and spiritual formation (i.e. meditation, centering prayer, etc). This has led me to engage in contemplative theology and experience something I cannot fully express in words.

What contemplative spirituality has taught me is that there is a way to be religious and yet remain in a dualistic either/or mindset – in fact most people have! In this lower level religion (as Richard Rohr often puts it) everything is clear because the ego demands this. Everything is easily defined, easily recognized, everything is black and white and it is clear who is “in” and who is “out”. This way of believing, often found within many different religions, only feeds the ego and the need to be right and to try to convince everyone else to think the way you do. In other words, I have the one and only key and if you want it you have to go through me to get it. Within Christianity this is most easily seen with those who feel the need to argue their way every single time they disagree – what an exhausting way to live!

For a while I could not explain why I thought the way I did because I did not have the words to articulate my experience. I knew it had to do with Divine Mystery and how to be a Christian without being exclusive, but I had never witnessed this before. This is difficult because many believe Christianity must be exclusive even if they are not Christians themselves. I am no longer convinced of this, but that does not mean that I do not think Christianity can be a beautiful thing…I still very much do and I am still very much a part of the Christian tradition.

As part of the class we read through a book titled Will and Spirit which was very insightful, and toward the end the author gave words to my experience (when this happens it’s like a release valve).

Much of the book was about surrender and about this topic the author writes, “I would pose that surrender is dangerous whenever there is any known, definable cause, group, person, or other substantive and limited entity that is used as an object of surrender.”[1] Later he continues, “This is true even if the object of surrender is called God, as long as God remains an object that one presumes to know and to understand”.[2]

Now if you were raised in the Christian tradition like myself, you’re probably thinking that of course God can be known and to think otherwise is ridiculous – this is not Christian. I too have thought this.

The author continues, “It is only when one can surrender to the ultimately unknowable Mystery behind the images of God that the act of surrendering can result in less self-definition rather than more”.[3] My focus here is on the ultimately unknowable Mystery part.

This is where I began to understand what I was experiencing. It is easy to remain at a lower level religion (dualistic thinking) where God has been clearly defined, articulated, and packaged. Then all one needs to do is convince others of that specific package – the problem is

God is always bigger than the package we place God in!

This thinking, I believe, is driven by the ego. Those who are “in” are those who agree with me. There is a clear box, but what happens when that box no longer works and you have experienced something bigger? It may be that we all need to begin at this lower level, but to remain here is like, as I recently heard, arguing about the menu instead of experiencing and enjoying the most delicious meal.

Now, the author is not suggesting that God cannot be known, but he is suggesting that God can never be fully known.

There is a difference and it’s big.

“God can become very real, alive, and active in a personal way. The first is through images that are acknowledged to be incomplete, expedient tools”.[4]

In other words, we can experience God, and understand God but it is like peeking through a small crack or hole, you can get a glimpse but it’s incomplete. I think it is important here to acknowledge them to be incomplete, if you do not then we develop a sense of superiority and feel a need to convince others that this is the way to experience God.

I think the author puts it well when he writes, “But in all such cases it is important for me to remember that these ways of seeing God, while real, are never complete”.[5]

Those who believe they have the complete or full picture of God are not really that interesting nor are they fun to be around. Usually they argue and push back against everything and seem extremely dogmatic and defensive. Who wants to live like that?

In the Hebrew Scriptures it talks about God’s ways being so far above our ways…in essence we cannot completely understand God for God is so far beyond, so much greater, so much more inclusive, loving, forgiving, and beautiful than we can possibly imagine!

I think if we begin here, we can enter into a more fruitful dialogue with those we disagree with and with those of other religions because we don’t have the one and only key. As I have experienced this, I have seen God at work in all kinds of beautiful ways. I am more curious than argumentative, engaged in exploration and not defense, and more interested in conversation that dogmatic debates. I have learned from others whom I do not agree with and have become a better person and have seen God in different ways because of this.

  • Is there a way to be Christian without being exclusively so? I say yes, I am an example of this and I know I am not alone.

I invite you to see God, not as easily defined, but as Divine Mystery which can never be fully known. Then we are free to see God in so many ways we never imagined possible.

[1] Gerald, G. May, Will and Spirit (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1982), 304.

[2] Ibid, 304.

[3] Ibid, 304.

[4] Ibid, 305.

[5] Ibid, 305.

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.

the in-between space when the old no longer works and the new is not yet clear