Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Dream

"As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in Thanksgiving."  Colossians 2:6-7

These are great words to live by.  Be rooted in Jesus.  Let Jesus be your guide.  Live as you have been taught by Jesus to live.  To me that means to live peacefully, fearlessly, compassionately, humbly, simply, lovingly, generously, gratefully.

Last week had me thinking about some of the things I would like to change about Christianity.  I wish Christianity was more Christ-like.  I imagined saying as Martin Luther King, Jr., did on the march to Washington to end segregation, "I have a dream..."  Only I would say...

I have a dream...

that one day Christianity will no longer be seen as a religion of beliefs and creeds but as the way of loving our neighbor and ourselves in truth that can be found among all peaceful people;

that the word of God will be known as always available and timeless, guiding people today, and into the future, like it guided people in the past;

that no Christian will use the Bible to prove themselves right and their neighbor wrong, but only to understand themselves and their neighbor better;
that "church" will not be thought of as a set of buildings to maintain, but will be any gathering of people for fellowship, service, and the sharing of God's word;

that each one of us will treasure our unique gifts and value the different opinions of others as necessary for learning and growth, according to God's will, not as cause for distance or separation; 

and, that no one will see themselves as greater or lessor than another, but all as equal beloved children of God.

Am I naive?  Well, as my Pastor's bumper sticker reads, ala John Lennon, "I may be a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."

Rob Bell writes in "Love Wins" that "God's purpose ... is 'to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.'  Unity.  To all things.  God is putting the world back together and God is doing this through Christ. ...  This is for everyone.  Jew and Gentile.  Everyone.  Not just any one tribe. ... Jesus is bigger than any one religion.  He didn't come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day.  He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called 'Christianity'."  (pgs 148, 150-1)  I loved Bell's book, but especially this part, because it emphasizes the unity of the world that God desires and the universality of Christianity.

This last week I also stumbled upon Langdon Whitsitt's "Open Source Church," and found another way of saying the same thing.  Whitsitt writes that the gospel of Jesus is about freedom.  Guided by Martin Luther's  insight that a Christian is "free, subject to none", and also "a servant, subject to all", Whitsitt writes, "To proclaim Jesus Christ is to proclaim freedom and to proclaim freedom is to proclaim Jesus Christ.  ...God has freely given all people the gospel so that we might all have abundant life. one can claim to speak unequivocally for God or offer the last word on biblical interpretation. ...we will never consider ourselves to be in possession of the original, correct, or sole understanding of Christ's person or work....any expression of faith is not limited by our current understanding but remains open to whatever it is God might reveal to us in the future...the freedom promised in Christ's gospel does not depend upon a particular understanding of that theology.  Freedom is freedom, whether one has their theology 'correct' or not."  (pgs 20-29)  This last thought is important.  We live in a very diverse world.  We can either keep fighting, trying to force other people to think like us, or we can figure out how to embrace our diversity, and learn from it what we need to learn.

Langdon Whitsitt writes powerfully about diversity:  "When it comes right down to it, diversity is not something that we as Christians attend to because it's the nice thing to do.  We don't seek it out because it's politically correct.  We don't -- or shouldn't -- concern ourselves with it because we feel compelled.  We don't do it simply because we think Jesus told us to -- because our reading of the Scriptures begs for diversity in the church.  No, the reason Christians attend to the ideal of diversity is that it is a necessary component in achieving the work that God has created, called, and gathered us together to accomplish.  We do diversity because we will fail in our calling from God if we do not.  When we do not attend to diversity (in as many forms of it as we can conceive), we make vital mistakes in our ministry and mission."  (pg. 92)

To me, unity in the midst of diversity is what Christianity is all about:  how to love your neighbor -- who is so different from you -- as you would be loved; and how your own life must change in order to accomplish that.

Jesus' way, the way of peace, generosity, compassion, is God's way.  It is THE way....wherever this way may be found:   amongst Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, amongst atheists, and agnostics, etc.  This is the way of abundant life, the way life is meant to be lived. 

Dear God, please help me to be fearless and humble both, help me to live more simply and more generously,  in all areas of my life.  Focus my compassion on those in need, and fill me with thanksgiving at every moment of my life.  Love always, Pam

Sunday, November 11, 2012


"No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.  Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved."   --  Matthew 9:16-17

This passage is rich with meaning.  Every time I read it, I gain some new insight into Jesus' message.

We have been reading the Gospel of Matthew in the Wednesday Evening Adult Bible Study, and these verses are found in a section titled "The Question about Fasting," by the NRSV editors of my Bible.  I did not understand the connection between new patches on old cloaks, new wine in old wineskins, and questions about fasting until someone read a commentary on the passage.  Their commentary explained that the passage illustrates the fact that Jesus came to change things, to bring something new into the picture.

I sometimes think that Jesus did not say anything new because his message echoes all of the great prophets of old. It's all about loving your neighbor as yourself.  But it seems like this message needs to be re-invented every so often.  It needs to be re-taught again and again in fresh new ways every so often.  Why?

Because we repeatedly get bogged down in doing the same things the same way, in traditions and rituals, even when they stop producing fruit, or having any meaning at all.  The disciples of John the Baptist had a really difficult time thinking of Jesus as the Messiah because he didn't do what they expected.  They thought Jesus should fast, as they did.  Why?  Because that is the way things had always been done. They could not believe that one could have a close relationship with God unless one fasted. 

But Jesus came to say that life in God's Kingdom wasn't about doing without, it was about doing for.  He changed, or wanted to change, their focus.  Some could accept this re-focusing, and some could not.  Those who could not, were set in their ways -- they were "old".

Perhaps that is why Jesus repeatedly says that you must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of God.  Children accept new things.  They are open-hearted.  They adapt to change much more easily than adults do.  Generally.  Some adults do stay young at heart, adapting to the changes that life brings with grace and insight.  And some young people refuse to accept change.  Being young at heart has nothing to do with how old you are in years.  But it does have a lot to do with how well you adapt to new circumstances.

This week, changing our ways, has been a topic of conversation wherever I go.  Since the election last Tuesday, there has been a lot of talk about the GOP needing to change if they ever want to survive.  A political party consisting of mostly old white guys, who refuse to compromise, is not going to influence very many people -- certainly not the majority of the people.  And so the GOP  (which ironically enough stands for Grand Old Party) must change, must adapt to the changing times, or die, to put it harshly.  They cannot keep preaching a message that only old white guys want to hear.

For an example of young people refusing to change, I don't have to look very far at all.  Some of the high school youth of our church are adamantly opposed to change.  They want things to be they way they have always been even though we have a new youth director and new cast of volunteer leaders. Every suggested change, even minute ones, are met with, "That's not how we used to do it."  Or, "We want to do things the way [the previous director] did them."  Sigh.  It's been three months, and we are still hearing this.  I wonder if they have ever heard of the Serenity Prayer.   I wonder if they have ever read the book, "Who Moved My Cheese?"  It seems that we will need to address this issue head-on if we are ever going to get past it.

I am reminded of a movie I saw recently.  "Invictus" tells the story of how Nelson Mandela united South Africa upon becoming President after more than half a century of division promoted by the Afrikaner apartheid government.  This is a movie about change, BIG change.  The Afrikaners must get used to thinking of black South Africans as their equals.  The black South Africans must get used to working alongside white South Africans, including those who previously oppressed them.  Even Nelson Mandela has to change the way he has felt about some parts of the old regime.  He (played by Morgan Freeman) says at one point in the movie, "If I cannot change when circumstance demand it, how can I expect others to?"  The kind of change brought about in South Africa required, first of all, immense forgiveness.  It's a powerful movie, and shows how the leadership of one very wise and courageous person can bring about tremendous change.

What would I like to see change?

Well, this week I was reminded again of something that really bothers me about the Christian church.  In our Womens Study, we have been reading Rob Bell's "Love Wins", and this week, we discussed his chapter on the meaning of the cross.  I like the way Rob Bell explains the many ways the cross was interpreted in New Testament times.  I especially like how he explains how the writer of Hebrews interpreted the cross.  The writer of Hebrews was speaking to a people who regularly sacrificed animals.  Bell writes, "You raised or purchased an animal and then brought it to the temple and said the right words at the right time. Then the animal was slaughtered, and its blood shed on an altar to show the gods that you were very sorry for any wrong you'd done...  Entire civilizations for thousands of years enacted sacrificial rituals, because people believed that this was how you maintained a peaceful relationship with the gods, the forces, and the deities who controlled your fate... So when the writer of Hebrews insisted that Jesus was the last sacrifice ever needed, that was a revolutionary idea.  To make that claim in those days?  Stunning.  Unprecedented.  Whole cultures centered around keeping the gods pleased.  ... And now the writer is announcing that those days are over because of Jesus dying on the cross.  Done away with.  Gone.  Irrelevant."  (pgs. 124-5)  Think about the impact that must have had on a culture, on a world, that had always sacrificed to appease the gods.  Talk about changing things.

After reading that section of the book, I had a better understanding of where this idea of Christ's atoning sacrifice, which has always bothered me, came from.  If this theory helped do away with animal sacrifices then it was clearly a step in the right direction.  And maybe if I had lived in those days, it would have made sense to me.  But today?  Why is this interpretation still taught today when we are so far removed from the days of  ritual sacrifice?  The idea that Jesus had to die in order for my sins to be forgiven doesn't fit with my understanding of God or Jesus.  In order for that to be true, God had to want or need Jesus to be sacrificed in order to forgive me.   But this isn't the God I know or read about in the Old Testament or in words of Jesus.  After all, God told Abraham that he did not want him to sacrifice his beloved son.  Why would God then make this a requirement later on?  Jesus forgave the sins of people... when he was alive.  He said, "Repent and your sins will be forgiven."  So simple.  And Jesus said repeatedly, quoting ancient Hebrew Scripture, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice."

So, why is this idea of Jesus dying for the forgiveness of sins still  such a prevalent message in the church today, in the liturgy, and in the songs we sing? Is it because this is how it has always been?  What if this idea no longer bears fruit, or has meaning for people today?  What if this idea is actually a stumbling block for many people who cannot understand how God could require such a sacrifice?  What if this idea prevents many people from understanding what Christianity is really all about?  While Jesus' death on the cross has many relevant meanings, a requirement for forgiveness of sins isn't one of them

So, this is one thing I would like to see change.  There are others.

Dear God, may we all grow in wisdom and courage, learning your ways of forgiveness and compassion for all.  Love always, Pam

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Love

Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word.  Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.  --  Psalm 119:17-18

This reading has been in the daily lectionary for most of the last week.  When I first read it, I was feeling very appreciative of God's guidance in my life, which always amazes me.  I often wonder why I feel this guidance so strongly, and other people do not.  "Why is that?  What is the difference?"  For a moment, last week, I actually thought, "It must be because I try to do what God asks."

I'm happy to report that I immediately recognized this thought as being problematic.  It was exactly that kind of problematic thinking that Jesus was trying to get the religious people of his day to see when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector, the story of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, etc.  I was thinking just like the Pharisee in the parable:  "I am so blessed because I keep God's laws.  I do this and that and the other.  Not like that unfortunate person over there."

Really?!  I keep God's laws perfectly?  Well, I think we all know the answer to that question.  I had temporarily forgotten that I do not always love my neighbor as myself.  I do not always forgive other people as I would like to be forgiven -- that is, immediately.  I sometimes judge other people negatively.  I can make more excuses for pure and simple sloth than anyone I know.  And, among other things, I can be very arrogant sometimes -- as illustrated by that first thought.

This is the danger for religious people, as John Ortberg describes so well in "The Life You've Always Wanted."  We think that we, more that other people, follow God's law.  We forget -- or ignore -- all the times when we fail to follow God's law.  But no one, no one, is perfect.  That is why the gospel is so important.  God loves us despite our flaws. 

So, if it's not what we do that makes the difference in why some people feel God's guidance and others don't, what is it?  Is it simply faith?  Is faith alone, without all the trappings (or traps) of divine favor or judgment, the key?  Is that why I feel God's guidance?

I know that whenever I am feeling particularly challenged by life's circumstances, I remember that God has guided me through troubles before, and I trust that he will guide me through the current one.  Like the Jewish people, my faith rests on past events of God's divine intervention.  Perhaps it is simply faith in God's love and guidance that allows me to see God's love and guidance. 

Later that same day, a woman at my boys' school told me about a friend of hers whose young daughter, four years old, had just died of ovarian cancer.  Sixteen years earlier, this woman had lost another child, at six months, to another kind of cancer.  The grieving woman was, of course, beyond devastated.  She no longer wanted to be around people who had healthy children.  I wondered how someone would help this woman believe in God's love and guidance.
I came across a book later that day which provided more food for thought.  Martin Seligman, Ph.D. writes in "Learned Optimism:  How to Change Your Mind and Your Life" that how we think about circumstances can determine much of our reality.   "The key to this process is hope or hopelessness."  Seligman writes that whether or not we have hope depends upon how we explain misfortune.  "Finding temporary and specific causes for misfortune is the art of hope:  temporary causes limit helplessness in time, and specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation.  On the other hand, permanent causes produce helplessness far into the future, and universal causes spread helplessness through all your endeavors.  Finding permanent and universal causes for misfortune is the practice of despair."  (pgs. 49, 76, 89).  For example if I fail a test, I could think that I hadn't studied very much and would do better next time with more studying, or I could think that am stupid and would never get it right.  Seligman writes that we can learn to turn around our pessimistic way of thinking, and learn to find temporary and specific causes for negative events.  We can learn to hope in a more positive future.

I recalled the first time I experienced God's guidance in my life -- before I had any personal history of such things to rely upon.  I went to church, at a loss to help myself, hoping to find some solace from God.  And I heard words in the sermon that spoke so directly to my specific concerns that I could not doubt that God was comforting me.  My hope in God led to an experience of God.

So faith  and hope.  Both essential ingredients in feeling the love and guidance of God.  But what if you have neither?

I imagine that the woman who lost her only children to devastating diseases was in such deep despair that hope was out of reach.  I imagine that after the first loss, she might have been much more pessimistic when her second child was diagnosed with cancer.  Like Naomi in the Book of Ruth after the loss of her husband and two adult sons, she may have felt abandoned by God altogether.  Naomi, too, felt little hope for the future.  She sent her daughters-in-law back to their homes because she had no hope of providing for them.

But Naomi's thinking changed over the course of the story.  What turned Naomi's thinking around?

It was the love of her daughter-in-law, Ruth.  Ruth would not leave Naomi, even though Naomi repeatedly told her to go.  Ruth stayed by her side.  And through Ruth's love, faith, and hope, shared with Naomi, they both were able to survive, and eventually thrive.

Perhaps that is why love is the greatest of the three, as Paul writes.  And why God's law is the law of love.  Perhaps it is through persistent love, the kind of love that is not easily turned away, that faith and hope are best shared with those that do not have such knowledge. And, perhaps, eventually, they might turn around and see it too.

Dear God, help us all to share the love we have been given with all those we find in need.  Love always, Pam