Faith

The Four Questions of John Dominic Crossan

By Douglas C. Sloan

New Testament authority John Dominic Crossan suggests four questions for Christians:

  1. What is the character of your God?  When you think about God, what are you imagining?
  2. What is the content of your faith?  What do you believe in?
  3. What is the function of your church?  What are you coming together for?
  4. What is the purpose of your worship?  How does God want to be worshipped? Does God simply want prayers said – or is God more interested in prayers that lead to a life?

And then of course, it goes back to, “What is the character of your God?” It is a circular exercise where each question flows into the next. These are the questions we have to face.

The ideas we hold about the nature of God and the language we use to describe God play out in small ways – how or even whether we pray, how we think about our purpose in life, how we relate to those who do not share our beliefs. They also influence how we see the world and, ultimately, God’s role in that world.

Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity

David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy

pp. 25-26

What follows are my answers to these questions – as they are for now.

What is not the character of my God?

  • Santa Claus, a magician, genie, leprechaun, fairy godmother, four-leaf clover, wishing well, magic lantern, or birthday cake
  • a vending machine or engaging in “quid pro quo” transactions, trading or bartering, purchasing or selling
  • neither favors nor disfavors
  • a vampire requiring blood
  • a kidnapper demanding ransom
  • an extortionist demanding payment
  • a psychic, medium, fortune-teller, or in any way knows, controls, directs, shapes, or influences the future.
  • a medieval lord requiring the punishment, injury, or death of a vassal or serf to satisfy a perceived offense to an honor code defined by the lord
  • a psychopath cruelly creating a mandatory binary choice between either the tortuous sacrifice of Jesus or a personal eternal punishment
  • a puppet-master pulling every string of every person and every object and every event and every energy
  • a mad scientist experimenting with the universe by manipulating every variable at every level
  • a Greco-Roman deity who needs mindless obedience and endless appeasement and praise
  • a disciplinarian, gym teacher, sport coach, or drill instructor toughening us for the rough rigors of life
  • a referee, umpire, or judge in a court of law
  • the ultimate micromanaging tyrant
  • an avenging wrathful warrior
  • a murderer or destroyer of life
  • an enemy or bully or a source of fear
  • a danger or threat in any way

What is the character of my God?

unrestrained boundless Love 

expressed wastefully and uncontrollably and

unconditional Grace

provided freely with no exceptions and no restrictions and

a persuasive presence of excellence

whose desire is for each of us to live a long healthy life full of peace, joy, contentment, growth, and discovery.

What is the content of my faith?

Engaging in a relationship with the Divine does not require a God

who controls, manipulates, interferes, judges, condemns, punishes, destroys or

who is narcissistic, capricious, sadistic or

who condemns us or abandons us or opposes us or oppresses us or for any reason inflicts death, disaster, illness, loss upon us or

who avenges us or rescues us or rewards us or protects us or provides for us.

IF

the later theologies that are both post-biblical and non-biblical are rejected:

  • Rapture and End Time (Darby/Scofield, 19th century)
  • Biblical Literalism and Inerrancy (17th century)
  • Penal Substitution (Reformation, 16th century)
  • Omnipotence (Thomas Aquinas, 13th century)
  • Satisfaction/Sacrifice (Anselm, 11th century)
  • Ransom (Origen, 3rd century)
  • Original Sin (Irenaeus/Augustine, 2nd century)

AND

IF

God is not characterized as has been previously listed

THEN

we need to consider that

  • God is not in charge and
  • God does not control and
  • God does not interfere and
  • God does not intervene and
  • we do not need either to placate God or to be rescued from God.

That what is Divine is neither defined nor measured by

power, knowledge, size, time, any dimension, any quantifiable metric or

any threat or any promise or

any calamity or any good fortune.

That what is Divine

is altogether something other than control or coercion or capriciousness or condemnation.

is relational instead of domineering, manipulative, obstructive, or suppressive.

is participatory instead of observing, criticizing, or judging.

by being relational, is vulnerable to associated relational risks.

by being participatory, is active and creative.

by being relational and participatory, is present, persistent, messy, and immeasurable.

is a Mystery.

That we are called by and to

a deep multilayered complex influential Mystery

that is better than and more and beyond ourselves

and is and dwells in

  • the journey and the learning and
  • the growth and forward movement and
  • the death of old ways of passive being and passive waiting and
  • the resurrection of new ways of active living in the present and active creation of the future and
  • the act of personal transformation

and not in the dogma of death or destination or certainty or finality.

It is Divine

to have a positive growing relationship with and

to have our spirit and actions be persuasively influenced and empowered by our nearness to and association with and

to constantly move toward a total embracing of and complete assimilation by that which is Divine

What is the function of my church?

To be a Community of Peace, Justice and Compassion

Peace that

actively rejects and opposes war and violence and oppression and

actively seeks and advocates for Peace at all levels from individual to global

Justice that repairs, rehabilitates, restores, and reconciles

Compassion that quenches, feeds, clothes, houses, heals, educates, visits, welcomes, includes, embraces, affirms, accompanies . . . 

To be Individuals of

abundant Generosity and

joyful Hospitality and

gracious Service that is healthy for the server and the served and neither obligates nor belittles the served.

As Community and as Individuals

to live, share, proclaim, and provoke the Divine

as joyous and celebratory Good News.

What is the purpose of our worship?

To intentionally gather as a community at least once a week to spend time

immersing in and centering within and nurturing our relationship with and

participating in and sharing the communal and individual presence

of the Divine.

Lexicons of Faith and Practice

By Jeff Gill

For those of my readers who are not church folk, may I ask that you bear with me a few lines while I make a bit of a point? Thank you.

So: narthex, sanctuary, chancel, pew, steeple, pulpit, lectern, stole, paraments, chalice, vestments.

Or: doxology, Gloria Patri, invocation, benediction, introit, postlude, homily, offertory, responsorial, collect (no, not that), proper (uh uh), diaconate, cantata, Pentecost.

And then, as if those weren’t enough: redemption, atonement, intercession, incarnation, epiphany, transubstantiation, adoration (well yes, but), confessional, sacramental, evangelistical, connectional, and covenantal.

Yes, church folk use some specialized terminology. The first set was architectural and object names in churches, the second set are terms used in worship services, and the third are theological words. Wait, do I need to explain theological?

Maybe so. And yet . . .

In fields like architecture you run into cornice and architrave and footer; if you go to concerts, you expect to hear about concertmasters and thaumaturges and tunings; anyone who stays past the final credits knows that movies have animation supervisors and gaffers, grips, best boys, and “assistant to Mr. Spielberg” along with various wranglers and caterers. It doesn’t put us off of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” so why do we worry so about how language and lingo can keep people out of our temples?

One difference is that you can enjoy the movie or concert (in fact most people do) without ever understanding what a continuity person does, or all their colleagues. The technical language is kept neatly off to the end or a quick nod at the beginning, but the bulk of the group experience is open to those who have not a clue about the central role of a cinematographer.

In church life, we’ve been accustomed to keeping the lingo and in-group labels right in the middle of things. There used to be assumptions that most people just knew what this all meant, but it may have been that people just used to be more tolerant of those in authority talking over their heads.

Not any longer.

My own weakness is “narthex,” which is a handy word for the room many would call a “lobby,” the space usually the width of the worship space, or auditorium, or sanctuary if you wish, that is separate from a vestibule, which is where you can take off and hang up your outer & dust-covered vestments. The narthex used to be a working part of the church proper, where those preparing to make a confession of faith would worship, until they formally became members of the body of believers.

Adding to the muddle is that this technical language can have different meanings in divergent traditions. Most low-church Protestant congregations I’ve known call the general seating area (usually filled with bench-type seats, or “pews”) the sanctuary, while more liturgical traditions refer to the “nave” while the area up around the pulpit and lectern (reading stands from which prayers and preaching are done) is called the sanctuary.

And in Orthodox churches it has an even more specific definition!

There’s also a chicken and egg question here: is it that faith communities have technical language that is why people don’t go to church, or is it the increasing numbers of people who don’t go to church that makes faith language so problematic?

I’d make an omelet here and just note that there’s room to stir up the whole question. In-group language reinforces those who are in as in, and increases barriers to helping new people feel included and involved, so it’s a problem to be considered and edited carefully.

At the same time, in worship there are acts and ideas that simply don’t just translate into everyday terms, and even when there’s an outward similarity, it makes sense to suggest the differences intrinsically between a table and an altar by using separate terms.

The process of teaching and sharing “this is what we mean by redemption” can be a good way to integrate a visitor into the community, and a few questions in that visitor’s mind as they leave I doubt will make them decide “next week, I’m going somewhere I know the names of everything.”

But if they leave thinking “those folks like it that outsiders don’t know what’s going on, and aren’t interested in helping people figure it out,” I can give you a new technical term.

Non-returners.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what church term has always puzzled you at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

[Note: This article first appeared in Faith Works in the Newark Advocate here.]

Staying With My Religion: Hope

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

This is the last in a series of articles that have been written concerning my decision to stay with the life of faith.  I titled this series, “Staying with My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  It has been written in response to a book by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risk and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”   After twenty-five years, this former pastor left the ministry, the church and his faith.  He felt that life “no longer worked for him.” His book has become a workshop and he recently led a sold-out session.  I don’t want this series of articles to be seen as a judgment upon this former pastor’s decision.  His story is his own.  I simply wanted to offer a different perspective. 

I have worked in congregations for nearly thirty years, and there have been a few times when I was ready to throw in the towel.  I have also had tragic losses in my own life and been present with many people in their own difficult circumstances.  Times when the shallowness of the simplistic answers offered by too much of the religious world become so easily apparent.  Times in which I have learned that a silent presence with one who is hurting may be the most powerful gift we have to offer.  Yet, neither those tragic times nor the difficulties of congregational life have led me to leave my faith behind.  They have led to periods of deep questioning in which I thought I might walk away, but I haven’t.  My faith is different than it was thirty years ago when I began in ministry, as well it should be.  But my belief in the Sacred and Holy continues to be central to who I am.  My trust that life has meaning and purpose, that there is a Reason behind it all, has only grown stronger over time and through my experiences.  For anyone who was interested, I thought I would share at least some of the reasons why this is so.  Not in judgment of the other pastor, but as an alternative.

I have written about what I call the Sacred Realities of love, joy, hope and beauty.  Realities that cannot be empirically proven to exist, but are the Realities that give life its deepest sense of meaning.  I also wrote about the importance of the community of faith as a place of both comfort and challenge, a place where our relationships help us to understand what it means to be fully human.  In ending this series, I want to point to religious faith as being a word of hope for our world.

In her book, “A People’s History of Christianity” Diana Butler Bass quotes Sojourners founder Jim Wallis:

From the perspective of the Bible hope is not simply a feeling or a mood or a rhetorical flourish. Hope is the very dynamic of history.  Hope is the engine of change.  Hope is the energy of transformation. . . . Between impossibility and possibility, there is a door, the door of hope.  And the possibility of history’s transformation lies through that door.

I believe that the message the church is called to share with our world is ultimately one of hope. Hope that the darkness of the ways things so often are, are not the way things have to be.  Hope that things can be different.  Hope that the people who live as enemies can live in peace.  Hope that the blessings of this world, which are abundant, can be shared with all in need.  Hope that every human being is treated with dignity and respect, for we recognize that all are created in the Sacred image.  Hope that selflessness can overcome selfishness, that love can overcome indifference, that understanding can overcome prejudice.  This is the hope-filled message of the church.  This is the gospel; that in Christ an alternative way to live has been shown to us, a way that shines light into the darkness. 

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” has become quite a cultural phenomenon, especially now that the books are being made into movies.  “The Hunger Games” are a stinging critique of our society’s fascination with media, celebrity, and violence. The disparity between the “haves and have-nots” and the insidious nature of power also play a central role in the future dystopian society that Collins has created.   She holds a haunting mirror up to us so that we might see that our ways are costing us that which is most precious, our children.  

In her story about the country of Panem, there is a revolution that is beginning to take place, a dissatisfaction with the way things are is beginning to brew.  The leader and symbol of the revolution is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen.   In the second book, “Catching Fire” it is decided by the President of Panem, who is invested in keeping things just as they are, that Katniss must be eliminated.  When he is asked why, the President responds, “Because she gives hope to the revolution.  Without her, they have no hope and the revolution is over.”  In this series of books, both highly popular and highly critical of our culture, hope is understood to be that power which can change things.  Hope can make a difference.  Hope can bring down the oppressive structures and create a more just society. 

I understand that the church doesn’t always live up to what it should be.  I know religious doctrines and dogma can often sound hollow amidst the complexities and tragedies of life.  I seek not to judge someone who has experienced the church’s failures and meager attempts to explain the unexplainable and then decided it isn’t for them.   I simply wanted to share another perspective.  I still find the life of faith, and life lived in the community of faith, to be a life of blessing and worth my commitment.  I am deeply grateful to be part of a tradition where we proclaim the hope that the power of love is greater, by far, than the love of power.   

I haven’t stayed with this life of faith because “it works for me.”  I actually find such a utilitarian approach to life to be very dangerous.  I have stayed with the life of faith because I believe in things that can’t be seen, but can experienced – love, joy, hope and beauty.   I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe our most important journey in life is toward becoming a more complete human being and this can only happen in the relationships of a community, a community that is about so much more than just “me.”   And I have stayed with this life of faith because I believe it is through our faith that we provide the hope of different possibilities to our world. 

These are some of reasons that I have stayed at it for the past thirty years.  And I plan to keep staying at it.  I hope that maybe something I have written over the past month has given you some reason to think about the place of faith in your own life.  I encourage you to stay with it.  I believe both you and our world will be blessed if you do.       

Staying With My Religion: The Comfort and Challenge of Community

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift the other up; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.  A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

This is the third in a series of four articles titled, “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  It is a response to a workshop taught in Indianapolis by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  After twenty-five years in ministry he had resigned his pastorate, leaving behind not only the ministry, but the church and his life of faith. He believed that life “no longer worked for him.”  Since I have been in pastoral ministry for about that same amount time and chosen to stay with it, I thought I would offer a different perspective.  That is, I have chosen not only to stay with the life of ministry, but, even more, the life of faith.  Though my profession is an extension of my faith, my faith is much more than my profession.  It is through my faith that I understand myself and others and with my faith that I seek to engage the world.  Last week, I wrote about what I call the Sacred Realities.  There are realities in this world such as love, joy, hope and beauty that are beyond the realm of empirical verification.  They are realities that cannot be measured or weighed or touched, yet they are the very things that give human life its truest sense of meaning and purpose.  I believe that behind all these realities is the deepest Reality – God.

This week, I want to share about the importance of community in the life of faith.  The community is a place of comfort and challenge in which we learn what it means to be truly human.   In “The Courage To Be” Paul Tillich wrote, “Only in the continuous encounter with other persons does the person become and remain a person. The place of this encounter is the community.”  In other words, our humanity can only be fully realized in our relationship with others.

That our American culture with its emphasis on individualism has seen a break down in community has been well documented in books such as “Bowling Alone” and “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.”  Our increasingly disconnected lives has led to a breakdown in civility that is easily seen in our political world and is possibly a contributing factor to the many random acts of violence that seem to take place almost daily.  The Christian faith, in which we are taught to love both neighbor and enemy and to welcome strangers, can and should play a vital role in helping our culture overcome our increasing estrangement from one another.

The church can help to build community in a variety of ways, but I want to briefly mention two.  First, the church as a source of support and encouragement for people.  Life can be very difficult at times – each person has struggles and difficulties and loss that must be endured.  The church is a place where people should realize they are not alone through the difficult times of life; that their sorrow is shared by others.    As a pastor, I have had countless opportunities over the past twenty-five years to be with people in some very difficult times.  When I am present on such occasions, I always feel as if I am standing on sacred ground, a place where the grace of God can be made manifest.  This grace often comes in the form of other church members living out their own faith with those who are suffering by holding a hand, providing a meal, cleaning a house, sending a card, or any number of other expressions of compassion.  I have heard on more occasions than I can remember, someone saying to me, “I didn’t know so many people cared.”  The community of faith is a place of support and encouragement.  Not only within itself – but also within the larger realm.  This is why churches must always be engaged in ministries of care and compassion beyond its own members.  Every congregation should be reaching out in the town or city in which it finds itself to help meet the needs of folks who are struggling in life – food and housing and clothing ministries are at the top of the list.  But there are numerous ways we can share in the life of those who are our neighbors and who just like us, are the beloved God.   It is also the sense of community support that should lead the church in being among the first and most consistent responders to people who have endured the devastating natural tragedies that happen.  And when longer term recovery efforts are part of the equation, the long term commitment of people of faith is vital.

Another important aspect of the church in building community is the inherent challenge of living together in community.  In my understanding, the community that the church seeks to build is not one in which we ask everyone to be just alike.  It is instead a community built upon having dignity and respect and love for each other even with our differences. It is a community in which we recognize that we all have different gifts and talents and abilities, along with different thoughts and ideas.  It is not our uniformity that is the foundation of our community, it is our united commitment to recognizing that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus worthy of the love and respect that forms the foundation of community.  It is not just the one who looks like me, thinks life me and acts like me that I am to be in relationship with.  It is also the one who doesn’t look, think, or act like me that I am called to journey with in life.  That can be quite a challenge at times . . . . but it can also be very beautiful when it is accomplished.                

So part of the reason I have stayed with my faith is because I find in the church the community of support and challenge I need as I strive toward my full humanity.  Yet, I recognize that the church has often fallen short in these areas.  There have been some, even many, who have come to the church with the hope of finding a community of support and they did not.  For whatever reason, they were not made welcome.   I have heard their stories.  I know it is true.  I also know that the church hasn’t always proclaimed the unity that exists in our diversity, but instead, often out of fear, proclaimed uniformity.  I know it is true.  I am aware of these shortcomings.  And I am deeply sorry for those who have experienced these failures of the church in their own life.  All I can offer is that what you experienced is not the way it is supposed to be.  All I can hope is that you can keep looking for the sense of community that we all need to be who we are meant to be.  I found it as a person of faith in the community of faith.  My commitment is to strive to make my faith community the best community possible for all people.         

Do Good

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

                                    The Apostle Paul, Galatians 6:10

“. . . cease to do evil, learn to do good, . . . “

                                    The Prophet Isaiah 1:16, 17

This past summer, my son, Christopher, and I attended a ballgame of our local AAA affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians.  They are the minor league team associated with the Pittsburgh Pirates and some of the young men now playing for the Pirates and the chance to compete in the World Series played in Indianapolis on their way to the major leagues.  It was a fun evening. The Indians won and Christopher even bought my hot dog and peanuts.  The night was most memorable, however, because of the conversation Christopher and I had on the way home. 

Christopher is a college junior and needless-to-say, we don’t always see eye-to-eye on many matters.  But on this night, he initiated a conversation I thoroughly enjoyed.  It started out about how much fun it is to go to games together, which is something he and I have done quite a lot.  But then our conversation took several turns and we covered many aspects of life.  We discussed what he wants to do in regard to a career. He spoke about his understanding of faith.  He also asked a lot of questions about family members that he doesn’t know very well.  Then at one point in the conversation, Christopher said, “You know, Dad, sometimes I listen when you preach.”  I said, “Well that’s good that sometimes you listen.”  Christopher added, “Yeah, I mostly listen when you tell stories.”  I replied, “I think it is easier for most people to listen to stories and that’s why Jesus told stories so much.”  My son then asked me, “Do you know what I get from your sermons when I listen?”  I honestly did not know if I wanted to hear the answer to that question, but I went ahead and asked, “What?”  And he said, “Do good.  That’s what I get from you when I listen. Do good.”  Other than my wife, probably no one has heard more of my sermons than Christopher and if after twenty years of sometimes listening to my sermons, he can sum up all that preaching in those two words, “do good,” I’ll take it.

I thoroughly believe that the future strength of the church is to be found not first in “orthodoxy” which is adherence to correct beliefs, but in “orthopraxy” – the practice of right behavior or as I would put it “to do good.”  The congregation I serve is one that has taken as its mission imperative the task of “thoughtfully and faithfully following Jesus.”  Those five words form the core of who we are and how we try to engage the world.  Following Jesus is not a passive endeavor.  It means being involved with the world the way Jesus was and asks us to be.  It means working to ensure that everyone has food to eat and clothes to wear and a place that they can call home.  It means that our congregations are places that practice a deep sense of hospitality, not only welcoming all who come our way, but by finding ways we can actively be good neighbors in our communities. It means caring for the sick and the aged, giving voice to those who have been pushed to the edges of society.  It means having a sense of grace and respect for all people, helping our world to become that beloved community of reconciliation and peace that it was created to be. Following Jesus means giving our lives so that others might have life.

Faith is an action oriented endeavor.  I have always appreciated the wisdom of an old Chinese proverb, “It is much better to light a candle in the darkness, than to just curse the darkness.” 

The media tells us about the overwhelming response that often occurs after a natural disaster or another kind of tragic event, such as the bombing at the Boston Marathon.  It is wonderful that people respond to the real needs that arise during such times.  But the good we are called to do and which needs to be done is not limited to tragic and catastrophic events.  Every day there are real needs of struggling people that need to be met.  Children who are hungry, families who need adequate shelter and access to health care, villages that need wells drilled for clean water, people living in nursing facilities who need someone to hold their hand on a lonely day.  The list of needs goes on and on without end.  Moses said to the Israelite people, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hands to the poor and needy neighbor . . . .’”

 The ways to help are numerous as well, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International, Living Water for Clean Water, Week of Compassion, local food pantries, nursing facility volunteer, adult literacy programs, etc. and etc.  There are numerous ways to be involved in the doing of good.

Of course, no individual nor single congregation can do all that needs to be done.  But every individual and congregation can do some of the good that needs to be done in our communities and world.  And whatever good any of us do makes a difference.

The last thing our world needs right now is a passive church or one that is focused only on adherence to a correct system of doctrinal beliefs.  The world needs a church that is leading the way in respecting human dignity and worth, working for human equality, responding to human need, finding ways to take care of our planet that we share together.  The world needs a church that is working to “do good.”  May we strive to be that church.

Do some good today.

Laws and Ideas

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

Recently I was asked to be part of a conversation with our U.S. Congressman concerning the matter of immigration reform.  Our Congressman, who is a first term Representative, was traveling around all the counties he represents and meeting with anyone who had called in to his office and prearranged a conversation that would last about fifteen minutes.  The discussion could cover any topic the constituent wanted to talk about.  An immigration lawyer heard about this opportunity and scheduled such a conversation about immigration reform.  She asked a 21 year old undocumented college student who was brought to the States when she was 9 years old to share her story.  It was powerful.  She had asked a local business owner who had become a US citizen to tell about his experience.  Another moving story.  I was the only other person asked to be a part of this conversation.  I had no compelling immigration narrative to share, but I was a local clergy person who was perceived to be someone who would be interested in this matter since it is ultimately about human dignity and equality.  I am glad to be perceived in that way and agreed to go to the meeting. 

After the brief and moving stories by the college student and the business owner, I was given a couple of minutes to introduce myself and tell why I was there.  I actually had no idea what I would say and didn’t know for certain what would come out of my mouth.  But after I introduced myself this is what I said, “I’ve come to understand America not to be ultimately about geographical boundaries but about the high ideas of freedom and justice and equality for all.  And I think anyone who is willing to partner with us as we seek to move toward the fulfillment of these ideas ought to be allowed to call themselves a citizen of the United States of America.” The congressman thanked us all for our being there and then began sharing his perspective on the matter and the difficult political position it put him and many of his colleagues in. To the congressman’s credit he seemed to be genuinely listening and especially sympathetic to the college student’s situation.  He also seemed to have a very strong working knowledge of the matter of immigration reform.  But the longer I listened to him, the more obvious it became that he and I worked out of two different perspectives.  He was working in the world of laws and legislation and I was working in the world of ideas and principles. Neither way is necessarily right or wrong, but they are different and sometimes that difference can make the conversation, and any positive movement forward, very difficult. 

We often hear America referred to as a land of laws and that it is. But I prefer to think of America as a place of ideas.  No matter how imperfectly we may live them out, the ideas of freedom and justice and equality for all are behind the American experiment.  Laws are, of course, a necessity in any ordered society.   But I understand the primary purpose of laws to be that of helping a society live out the ideas that give it meaning and purpose.  Thus, the ideas precede the laws and the laws are in service to the fulfillment of the ideas.  Sadly, however, sometimes those in power make laws that keep others from sharing in the fulfillment of the ideas.  Think of the “Jim Crow” laws that were part of American culture in the middle part of the 20th century. Instead of enhancing and expanding the ideas of freedom and equality, they narrowed the scope of who those ideas were for.    

The difference between laws and ideas plays a role in the current religious landscape of America and the entire world as well.  I think behind the religious impulse is the idea of experiencing the Sacredness of life.  It involves the idea that there is Something more than this material world, that there are realities woven into the very fabric of the universe that give life meaning and purpose.  Such things as love and hope and joy and beauty.  In the presence of these non-material realities we experience the Sacred.  This, I believe, is the idea behind the religious impulse. 

 Where religious faith sometimes gets off track is when we want to make rules and regulations (laws) about how those realities are to be experienced.  I heard the story of a wise man who went off into the wilderness to have an experience with God.  And indeed, he had such an experience.  When he returned from the wilderness the town leaders asked him what happened and he told them about his experience of God.  The town leaders appointed a committee and based upon the wise man’s story came up with a document that was titled “Ten Steps to Experiencing God.”   All the steps were based upon the wise man’s experience.  The bottom of the document read “No other experiences of God are valid.”  When the wise man saw that line he cried and wished he had never shared his experience.

Especially in this day and time, I think the church needs to have a great grasp on the ideas that are at the heart of religious faith – love, grace, hope, joy, equality, dignity, compassion, peace.  And our goal is to expand and enhance these realities wherever possible.  We are not to say that they can only be experienced as we have experienced them, known only as we know them, lived as only we live them.  The God we claim to worship is much larger than only our own experience . . . . and for that we should be grateful.            

Saying Goodbye, and Hello

We are saying goodbye to our church, community and state that we have lived in and been a part of for the past 2 ½ years. Goodbyes are never easy, among colleagues and friends, and also among church members. Church relationships are tricky. The old-old school of thought was that the pastor was part of the church family. If a pastor came to the church single, many in the church would work to set up the single pastor with a suitable partner for the future. Pastor’s families were expected to be in attendance and involved in the church thoroughly. My mother, a PK (Pastor’s Kid) herself, tells me of how she was expected to babysit children of the church when needed and for free. My grandmother had a china set with settings for 12 and coffee service for 16. My step-grandmother shared that in one church she was expected to serve the punch at every church meal. Ministers were part of the social clubs in town, often invited by church members, and ministers went golfing with their members on Saturday mornings. There were no days off in that school of thought—the minister and “his” family were always on.

The old-old school of thought was replaced by the old (modern) school of thought, which is that the pastor should keep strict limits with their congregation. Friendships were strongly discouraged. Professional boundaries needed to be set and maintained. Ministers were encouraged to seek friendships outside of the church, to attempt to not overwork their hours (though the hours of work were still estimated to be 50-55 hours a week) and to protect their family from the burdens of church life outside of Sundays.

I was taught in the old school, modern way of pastoral boundaries. In my last congregation I served, I was strict with my boundaries. I rarely spent time outside of meetings, worship, visitations and educational events with congregants. I protected my family’s time. When I felt a connection to church members in terms of hobbies or interests, I did not pursue beyond the church walls very often. As a result, when I left that congregation, I received a note that expressed disappointment that some felt they never got to know me as well as I knew them.

That note has stuck with me as I transitioned from pastor to pastor’s wife. While the role is different, this time around I did allow for friendships within the church. Having moved to a location where we had no family or friends in the surrounding area, friendships were a necessity. And try as I may to make friends outside of the congregation, my first friendships were within the church. And now, as we prepare to leave, I think about saying goodbye, and the ups and downs of these relationships.

As the culture has shifted, with the advent of Facebook and other social media in the last ten years, so has the dynamic of pastor/congregation boundaries. Many ministers are “friends” on Facebook with their members. Some still try to keep a professional page but many share pictures and events from family life. Our personal and professional lives are more integrated.

While this certainly can be abused, it can also lead to great connection. I think we still need to set some boundaries. I know I have made mistakes, both in being too concerned about holding boundaries and the reverse, of being too involved at the level of friendship. We need to strike a healthy balance.

My previous congregation’s previous pastor had been more integrated in the church community. Members were over at the parsonage much more often and the previous pastor spent more personal time with members at birthday parties, cookouts, dinners out and other celebrations. When I came, I set stricter boundaries for myself and for the congregation, and as a result, I received that note, which made me aware that perhaps I had been a bit too strict with the “rules” of professional boundaries.

As we move into newer ministries that are based more on relationships between people than on traditional commitments to institutions, we need to shift our thinking on how we relate to our congregations, in ways that are safe and healthy, but not restrictive to genuine interrelationship with Christ and the community.

As my husband and I say our goodbyes, and both of us prepare for new pastoral ministries, I hope to shift safely into the newness of both relationship-building and ministry, letting go of old “rules” that were so strict as to stifle genuine relationships, and embracing new ways of fostering relationships that are healthy and generate authentic connections in new ministry.

Into the night of his very own room (a tribute to Maurice Sendak)

Forgive this article today. It may seem superficial or just silly. I had an idea for an article today but it wasn’t coming together.

Then Maurice Sendak died, and I knew I needed to write about him, and Where the Wild Things Are.

Where the Wild Things Are is, as everyone knows, a beloved children’s classic.  I never bothered to see the movie because I knew it would create an unintentional background and write in a new story where one never was.  The same happened with the full-length motion picture The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  Sometimes, we really should leave the classics alone, for we lose the beauty and innocence of the original tale.

Every one of us has a wild streak, a time when we don’t play by the rules and we do things because we want to.  We make mischief of one kind and another until we find ourselves alone, because we’ve pushed others away by our actions.  We enter The Wild, becoming a Wild Thing.  We join the Wild Rumpus.  We are driven by desire to satisfy ourselves.

But at some point, we realize that living by our desires doesn’t fulfill us.  We realize that the people who love us the most are the ones we may have pushed away—and we attempt to fill that emptiness but we remain hollow.  Like Max, we may hear the call of The Wild even say that we are loved, but we know the real love is the love that calls us into responsibility, into caring for others, and that real love is always waiting for us.

No matter where we wander and roam into The Wild of the world, we know that we can always turn back.  Supper will still be waiting for us, and it will still be hot.

Rest in Peace, Maurice Sendak, for teaching me about faith before I could read, and more importantly, about love like a mother has for her Wild Child.  May you make your way home from the Wild, and may you find your supper still waiting for you, hot.

The Beauty of the Church

Sometimes I get disillusioned with “the church.”  I hear stories of people who were run out, who were gossiped about, who were hurt by the very people who were supposed to love them.  I hear of pastors who were treated like the sole employee with their boss being a board of 15 who criticized every decision the pastor made, every minute of the pastor’s time and every breath or sigh taken during the sermon.  I hear stories of bully pulpits and sanctuaries where children were definitely not welcome. There have been times when I have been down about “the church.”  I become very critical of an organization that can perpetuate myth in tradition, that runs on models outdated and yet expects the pastor to be a miracle worker.  I have been hurt by people in my churches in the past.  I have been hurt as a guest by a pastor using their pulpit to instill fear and justify their own narrow beliefs.  I have been hurt by the things said casually about other people, even in general terms, that were degrading to certain groups of people that happen to be who my family is made up of.

It’s easy to walk away from the church.  I see people do it all the time, I have had people visit me as a pastor and now speak to me as a chaplain about why they will never set foot in a church again.  They are done with organized religion.  They are done with the institution called “the church.”

It breaks my heart.  But rarely do I try to encourage them to go back.  Sometimes the damage is too great.  Instead, I always encourage them to continue on the spiritual journey.  And my hope and prayer is that perhaps they will find their way back to the church.  But me, as clergy, as a direct representative of the institution that has harmed them, I don’t feel it is my place to tell them to come back.  I wouldn’t tell the victim of domestic abuse to go back to the person who has abused them.  But I would tell them they can love again, that in time, perhaps they can trust again.  The same I would say to those abused by “the church.”  I would encourage them to continue on their spiritual journey, and my hope is that they would find a loving, supportive, embracing community.

I love the Church, the Body of Christ described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.  I don’t love all manifestations of the church.  But I love what it is supposed to be.

The church is supposed to be the place where you feel you are a part of the Body of Christ.  You are valuable.  You are significant.  Your gifts are useful and necessary.  You have an important part to play in the whole body’s function.  You are part of the family.  You are loved, exactly as you are, exactly as you were made by God.  You can come with your wounds and hurts and find comfort and strength.  You can come with your worries and fears and find courage.  You can come with your grief and find some ease.  You come and find your burdens are born by others, your joys are shared by others.

Thankfully, I have experienced the church as this: the body of Christ.  I realize it is hard for me to say this as clergy and have any clout beyond that, but before I was a minister, I loved the church.  As a teen, the church was where I was welcomed and embraced and encouraged in my call to ministry.  As a child, the church was where I was included and loved just as I was.

It saddens me when people throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Whereas I understand completely how individuals, even groups of people have been hurt by the church and have left, I am grieved that there are people calling for the end of the church.  I do believe the church is changing, dying even, but with death there is always the hope of resurrection—something new.  It may look completely different than it is now.  But my hope and prayer is that the church—whatever it is—will be the Body of Christ.

All too often I have friends who claim to be spiritual but not religious—who want nothing to do with church.  Fine.   I actually have no problem with that because the “church” they are rejecting I would reject as well, a place where people are harmed rather than healed.  But it is when my friends go to nothing—there is no faith community, no gathering of people to talk about spirituality or God or whatever—when there is just an absence, this is where I grieve.

I’m not talking about those who have rejected those things and have gone to atheism (that is a different kind of grieving for me, I will admit), but for those friends who rejected the church of their childhood and are raising children, and they tell me they want their children to have the values they were taught but not in the church, and don’t know where to turn—I grieve for them.  I grieve for the ones who want to talk about spirituality and faith but feel they have no place to go.  And I grieve for the ones who simply ridicule those of us who stayed in the church.  I have friends among them all.

But I know one person, who once described his return to church after a twenty-year absence as a “homecoming.”  He walked in the doors and was immediately greeted.  Someone came to his seat and welcomed him.  The people shook his hands and shared their names and made him feel comfortable.  The preacher shared a message of hope.  The songs were uplifting.  And communion was shared with all as a welcome to Christ’s table.

This is the beauty of the church, that for all the shortcomings of the earthly “church” (and as I used to say, the problem with churches is that they are full of people!), there are some who will find their way home again, and find the love, grace, peace and joy that we expect to be there.

Easter Sunday to Doubting Sunday

Easter Sunday has passed.  Doubting Sunday is around the corner.

I love how the Revised Common Lectionary places the second half of John 20 the Sunday after Easter.  It’s unfortunate for those regulated to always preaching the Sunday after Easter, when many senior pastors take the day off, and as one who has preached many times on that Sunday, it can get tiresome.  Thankfully, it’s a day when even in some of the more formal Protestant traditions won’t bat an eye if you go off-lectionary.

But I love this day because I need it after Easter.  Easter is often a time when long-held understandings (or misunderstandings) of the Christian story are upheld formally, even if every other Sunday strict blood-atonement theologies are challenged.  It’s the Sunday when everyone’s family is in town and the C & E people come and so the same message is often shared.  The tomb is found empty.  Christ is Risen!

It’s not a bad message by any means.  But where is the room to ask the questions?  Where is the space to say, “Could that have really happened?”  Where is the challenge to the old formulaic answer that because Adam sinned, we are born into sin and need Christ to save us, so Christ had to die as a sacrifice?  Is it safe to question on Easter Sunday, either in the pew or in the pulpit?

Thankfully, we have Thomas, who was no different than Peter who denied Jesus or any of the others who fled.  And we have this Sunday, when the C & E people have gone back home, when others are out of town and it’s typically a low attendance day, perhaps there is more space in the pew and pulpit to speak those challenges, those questions and doubts.

In my Christian Faith journey, the questions and doubts have flowed and ebbed over the years, going from the extreme of coming forward to accept/rededicate my life to Jesus about four times in my teen years, to considering forgoing Christ and exploring Unitarian Universalism and Judaism in my first year of seminary.

But Christ always calls me back.  Despite my rejection of theologies presented to me in my youth and at times doubts of the resurrection stories in the Gospels, I have never been able to leave Jesus behind.  Like Thomas, at times I want proof, I want answers, but it is through encountering Christ I am compelled to stay within the Christian tradition, and through relationship with the Body of Christ, I am compelled to stay within the church—even if that means at times facing traditional simplistic explanations and theories.

Christ is Risen!  And praise God for the space and room to doubt, question, and challenge.  And thanks to Thomas, who paves the way for questioning believers, who keep coming back even when the doubts and challenges pester our hearts.

If you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it: Separation of Church and State

I’ve been really disappointed in the current discourse on the separation of church and state. I’m not disappointed that people do not agree with it. I’m not disappointed that some people believe America should be a Christian nation. What I am disappointed about is the fact that we are not teaching our history to our children, and as we all know, those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. As a fifth-generation ordained Baptist minister I am incredibly frustrated with my brothers and sisters that do not know their own history. The separation of church and state, the freedom of conscience, is one of the basic Baptist principles. Even among some of my own family, all Baptists, whom with a few I have disagreements with on political and social issues, we always agree that the government should not control the church, that America was not founded as a Christian nation with Christianity as the official religion. Because in my family, we know our history:

Roger Williams, fleeing banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony where he had protested the Puritan-controlled colonial establishment, established not only the colony of Rhode Island on the basis of the separation of church and state, but also founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence in 1638. The Puritans may have come to America in search of religious freedom for themselves, but among their laws was a ban on celebrating Christmas and working on the Sabbath. It was clear that religious freedom meant a freedom only for those that believed the same way they did, and that they believed the government should regulate religious beliefs. Roger Williams believed that religious freedom must mean everyone had the right to worship as their conscience directed, that this freedom could not be regulated and controlled by the government. There should be no interference between the individual and their relationship with God—not from a pope, a priest, and certainly not from an official state religion. Williams and other Puritans had already experienced the suffocating hold of the Church of England, and they were destined to repeat their mistake in the “New World.”

Now fast forward 138 years. Thomas Jefferson received a petition from the Virginia Baptists to disestablish the Church of England in Virginia. The Baptists in Virginia experienced the same crackdown against their freedom to worship that Roger Williams and others experienced in Puritan Massachusetts, which was what they had experienced less than a generation earlier in England. Same thing happens in Connecticut, another Puritan (now Congregationalist) colony at the turn of the nineteenth century, and once again Thomas Jefferson speaks out on behalf of the Baptists for religious liberty. Jefferson, accused of being an atheist by some, an agnostic by others, and one who cut out the parts of the Bible he didn’t agree with, was a champion of religious freedom for the Baptists in America.

Now, fast forward again to 1960 and JFK’s election campaign. Kennedy is poised to become the first Catholic president of the United States. There is great concern that Kennedy will “take orders” from the Pope and foster legislation based on his Catholic beliefs. Kennedy addresses a large gathering of Baptist ministers to assure them that the church and state will remain separate as he believes it should—and as they believe it should. Baptist principles, which include freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, were alive and well among most Baptist in the 1960’s.

But we have forgotten our principles and our history today. We look back at history and take the snippets, the soundbites that prove our point or our view, and don’t look at history in its context. Some might accuse me of doing the same thing, but if you read the history of Colonial America through the Revolutionary War, watch the entirety of JFK’s speech and understand the political context of Kennedy’s election campaign, it’s hard not to draw similar conclusions: the history of religious freedom in America’s foundational principle is the separation of church and state. Baptists may lay claim to originating the idea, but it is foundational to all who believe in the freedom of the church and the right to worship God without the interference of government regulation.

This is what I find most disappointing: unless we are willing to learn our history, we are doomed to repeat it. And if we Americans want to forget our history, forget the foundation for the First Amendment, forget the ways we were once oppressed for our beliefs and the ways we have oppressed others with our beliefs, then we are destined to be oppressed again.

(For a great article on Roger Williams, see this article in the January 2012 issue of the Smithsonian. For more on Thomas Jefferson and his history with the Baptists in Virginia and Connecticut, I recommend the PBS special "God in America").

Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down... or we can all find hope

Lent begins today, the traditional 40 days (not including Sundays) of repentance and reflection.  We hear the familiar words: journeying towards the cross, giving up something for Lent to help us draw closer to God, repenting where we have gone wrong, etc. Lent can be dark and depressing. But Lent can also be refreshing, a time for self-reflection, a time to deepen one’s faith.  Many churches have turned away from the dreary darkness of Lent and the self-denial towards a brighter outlook—preparing for the resurrection, taking on a spiritual practice to deepen one’s relationship.  Lent can be almost a joyous time, as the days get brighter and warmer and Easter approaches.

This year, Lent falls in the heat of the election cycle.  The language is getting more intense, the attacks have become personal, to the point of attacking our president’s own religious beliefs by make assumptions and declarations based simply on the fact that the president has a different viewpoint on an issue than a candidate.  In our own local politics, at times we hear that real Christians vote with one political party and not the other.  It is enough to make one’s head explode with rage or make my stomach turn over.

However you look at Lent, it has traditionally been a time of self-introspection.  As the political climate has become volatile, perhaps this year we might take the time of Lent to look inward.  Do I allow my own anger and rage to consume my thoughts and actions?  Do I take cheap shots and aim at others with the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality?  Do I determine that all those who differ from me are truly evil, greedy, selfish and ignorant?  Do I become the very thing that I detest in others?

And maybe it’s time to look outward: how can I best model the life and ministry of Christ in my own actions?  How can I stand up for the poor, the sick and uninsured, the immigrant, the suicidal teen, the imprisoned, the oppressed, without taking on the attributes of those who make my blood boil?

This season of Lent, I hope that those of us who claim Christ and the name of Christian might look at how we are engaging the political sphere as followers and witnesses of Jesus.  How can we uphold the inherit worth and dignity of all persons, even those who would not include us in the faith?  How can we speak out on matters of justice authentically without taking on the rage and insults that often accompany political discussion?

It is hard to be authentic and be consistent with our faith and action.  The disciples couldn’t cut it.  Peter followed Jesus throughout his ministry only to draw a sword in the garden and then desert Jesus when he was arrested.  So we shouldn’t feel too awful when we fail to follow through all the time.  But we should strive to minister in the way Christ ministered to others—to be concerned about people more than issues, doing right more than “being right,” and proclaiming the Good News (the Gospel) instead of judgment and condemnation.

And this Lent, as the political rhetoric at times makes me want to vomit, I am reminded that beyond the cross is the Resurrection.  We will get through this.  We will make it to the promised hope.  We will see the New Life promised by Christ.  And we have this promise now—it is up to us to live into that New Life here on earth.  It does us no good to become just like those we disagree with when their actions don't follow up to how Jesus ministered, but in following Jesus, we are shown the better Way.  We can either live in the darkness and ashes, or we can do our part to live into the resurrection.

Reading the Bible, Again

On January 1st, in the evening, I picked up my Bible that I had been given at my baptism, flipped to the “Read The Bible Through a Year” chart, and began with day one.  I’ve read the Bible all the way through twice, once taking several years just reading a chapter an evening, and once in our first year of marriage, JC and I read the “One Year Bible.”  But I’ve begun this project many times throughout the years, only to fail for one of two reasons: I get behind in my daily reading about midway through January, or I get bored in Leviticus. I’ve heard a number of mainline preachers over the years say you shouldn't read the Bible straight through: there’s a lot of useless information such as the “Begats” which you don’t need to know, plus all the outdated law codes, and on top of it, the stories may begin in chronological order but it gets messy in the history and prophets—they weren’t written in chronological order to begin with.

Another argument I hear against reading the Bible straight through is from those who came out of more fundamentalist/evangelical traditions, who argue that they were forced to read the Bible this way, as-is, verse by verse, with no study guide or in-depth study on what they were reading.

But I think there’s something missing by not reading the Bible all the way through, at least once in your lifetime. This is how our scriptures have been put together. This is the canon we have now (though one can argue for Protestants this version has been around for much less time than the fuller version our Catholic and Orthodox siblings have).  This is the Bible, love it or loathe it, that we have, that millions around the world read (of course in various languages, translations and paraphrases).

I love the simple fact that I and perhaps thousands of other people have begun reading the Bible together on January 1st.  We may be reading at different paces, with different charts, we may get behind or read more quickly, but almost all of us started on January 1st with Genesis 1:1 and will end on December 31st with Revelation 22:21. Some of us will read the Psalms throughout the year, some of us will read both Old and New Testaments at the same time, but we all are reading these scriptures together, throughout the year, in an individual but collective way, as Christians and as skeptics, as conservative and as liberals, from all walks of life.

There are other reasons for reading the Bible all the way through as well: every time I read it, I understand a passage differently.  I pick up on something I didn’t before (Digression: This time, only eleven days in I have noticed that in Genesis 5:29 Noah is really the first Messianic figure in a sense: “He named him Noah, saying ‘Out of the ground that the Lord had cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.’“  I had never noticed that before—that the curse Adam experiences after disobeying God in the garden, which is the basis of the doctrine of original sin, is overcome with Noah, prophesied at his birth by his name!) I know the context of all those verses that have been taken out of context and use as proof texts for Scripturally-based arguments.  I remember where certain passages and stories are in the Bible more clearly each time I read when someone asks me my opinion or has a question about the Bible.  I gain new, fresh insights on the Scriptures and on their application in my own life.

As clergy, I think the practice of reading Scripture as a spiritual practice is a tough discipline to take on. We have to read the Bible to prepare for Sunday sermons or Bible studies.  We read it as part of our work, part of the job we do, and it’s hard to look at the Scripture without a critical eye for study or how to bring the Scripture to relevancy in our congregational life.  It can be difficult to let go and read the Scriptures in a way that is part of our spiritual life.  I think of all spiritual practices that clergy and lay leaders engage in both in leadership and in personal life—such as prayer, charity, fellowship, etc—devotional reading of the Scriptures may be the hardest to do in our personal life.  This does not mean to take away our critical eye or to not store away and take notes for sermons in the future, but it does mean to allow for the words to simply be sacred, for the words to simply be inspiring, for the words of Scripture to connect us with the Divine.  Lectio Divina is a practice that has become popular again in recent years, in Protestant circles as well as Catholic, as a way of prayerfully reading and meditating on the Scriptures, rather than studying and critiquing them.

So as this New Year is still dawning, there is still time to develop a practice of reading the Scriptures devotionally. You don’t have to do it in a year’s time, just one chapter a day.  Or you can double-up and be caught up by the end of January if you prefer.  I continue to marvel in the new insights I find in Scripture, and at the fact that millions around the world declare the Bible to be their sacred scripture, and that thousands of us are trying to read it all in a year, every year.

Sunset, Sunrise: Light Returns

As a child, at this time of year I would wake up in the dark, ride the schoolbus in the dark, and even have first recess outside in the morning in the dark.  By 9:30AM the sky would turn from black to dark blue and eventually a rosy color by 10:30AM.  The sun would peak up over the Chugach Mountains to the south around 11:30.  Then as I rode the bus home the sun would be setting just a few peaks down from where it rose, the sky would turn rosy-pink and be dark again by 5PM.  If you think handling that limited amount of daylight is hard, just try living in Barrow, Alaska.  Their sun sat on November 19th, over a month ago.  It will rise again on January 24th, 2012.   I encourage you to see the calendar for Barrow’s sunrise and sunset and understand how quickly the light/darkness ratio changes throughout the year here.  It's pretty amazing. While Christmas is celebrated around the world, when one travels north of the 45th parallel, one truly understands how Christmas began as a solstice celebration (this year it is at 12:30AM on December 22nd) in the northern pagan cultures of Europe.  Ironically, during winter in the Northern Hemisphere is actually when the earth is closest to the sun, but the tilt of our earth is what gives us our seasons, and gives us winter when we are over two million kilometers closer.  But it is the darkest time of the year for us in the north, and one understands the need for light to return to the world and to our lives.  And we should also remember that while Hanukkah is not nearly as big of a holiday to Jews as Christmas is to us Christians, it is also a celebration of light in a time of darkness at this time of year (and Hanukkah of course begins at sundown tonight).

The prophet Isaiah wrote over fifteen hundred years ago “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” in chapter 60.  Isaiah was writing to a people returning from the exile, described as a time of darkness for the people and for the land.  The light has come to them; and yet Isaiah writes that the people of Israel themselves have become the light, as other nations will be drawn to them.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we remember that our Christian celebrations could not take place without our ancestors of other faiths and traditions that started worshipping and celebrating at this time of year, recognizing the promise of light returning to the earth and to their lives.  We remember the darkness of the exile and that light symbolized the promise of the hope of return for the people in the days of Isaiah.  We remember what the coming of Jesus meant to the first-century peoples in the darkest times of the Roman Empire.  What does the returning of light to our world mean to us today?  In what darkness have we been exiled to?  What light do we desire to return to our lives and our world?

And in seeing how during the winter in the north, the earth draws closest to the sun during the darkest time, does our faith journey have any parallels?  At times has our faith been fragile, trembling with doubts and fears, but when we look back, we can finally see how close God has been?

We sometimes read the words of John 1:3-5 at Christmastime: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Isaiah teaches us that while God is bringing the light to us, we become the light to the world.  As Christ becomes the light, then we become the light sent out into the world of darkness.

For Christians, let us celebrate the birth of Jesus, but let us not forget all the others who are celebrating and who came before us recognizing that the light is returning to our world.  Let us work with others to be the light of the world, to bring hope and healing, as we prepare to enter the New Year.  Arise, shine, for your light has come, and now, you are the light to the world.  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice, and Happy Holidays.

Time to take Christ out of Christmas?

Spending my second Advent and Christmas season in the South, I’m still a bit taken aback by Christmas.  I knew that there would be a perceived “War on Christmas” when I moved here.  I still don’t understand why saying Happy Holidays, which originally emerged as a shorter way of saying “Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year” along with Season’s Greetings, and now is a way of including Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah or Happy Kwanzaa or any other holiday (Yule or Solstice, anyone?) is such a bad thing to say.  I get that people are worried about Christmas being left out, but with all the lights, carols, and traditions, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

But you probably know all that.  What surprised me most by moving here was the prevalence of Santa, shopping and, well, Christmas outside of Christ.  It’s not that much different than most of America, I suppose, but I was prepared for an anti-Santa and therefore anti-commercial Christmas.  But I found the opposite.   There is still much talk about needing Jesus but I hear more talk about shopping and Santa lists than I do about Christmas Eve services.

I took the above picture the March after we first moved here.  What I have come to realize is that the signs “Keep Christ in Christmas” which appear all over the billboards on the highway this time of year don’t really mean that.  What they mean is “Celebrate ONLY Christmas.”  And Christmas can include everything here from Santa to Yuletide, shopping and commercialization.

What does not seem to constitute Christmas is anything that takes away from the consumerist hold on the holiday.  Saying “Happy Holidays” does not imply a need to purchase a gift, whereas “Merry Christmas” does.  So therefore, school functions, parades, community events and businesses that use “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” are antithetical to the consumerist drive of the season.

I get that the word “Holiday” can be overused and misused.  Calling a Christmas Tree a “Holiday Tree” really makes no sense to me since trees are part of our European-American Christmas tradition from Germany.  Cookies that are shaped like trees, ornaments, bells and candy canes are clearly Christmas cookies and “Holiday cookies” is just an absurd generalization.  But overall, “Happy Holidays” should not cause the ruckus it seems to do every year.

I once heard a pastor say that it may be coming time to take Christ out of Christmas rather than keeping Christ in.  As much as we love the carols, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” does not really correspond with “Joy to the World!”  Most of our traditions are related to midwinter festivals that took place even before Christ was born and were not associated with the celebration of Christ’s birth for hundreds of years.

At my previous church, we celebrated “Christmas in July.”  Often an attempt to boost slow summer sales by department stores, our “Christmas in July” was without the gift-giving list-making present-wrapping craze.  We sang the Christmas carols of Christ’s birth.  We celebrated suddenly, without preparation, as if Advent had happened every day and suddenly it was Christmas.

I don’t think we could ever get away from December 25th.  And I still love watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and singing the silly songs of the season with my son.  But trying to connect it all with Christ is perhaps not necessary.  Maybe instead of trying to fit Jesus’ birth in by the Christmas tree and Santa coming down the chimney, we should consider a return to Epiphany celebrations, of Jesus’ manifestation to the world—away from the commercialization and craze.   Then instead of worrying about saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” we can say, “Happy Epiphany!” and not worry about the confusion with the commercial world, whose sales are done by then.

We really should not be threatened by “Happy Holidays.”  There are many who celebrate Christmas who aren’t Christian and don’t connect the date to the birth of Jesus anyway.  But I sense that in general, there is a deeper desire to get away from the commercialization and get back to celebrating a season of peace and charity, goodwill and celebration.  This more general seasonal, communal feeling is not necessitated by sales and shopping.

Perhaps it is time to take Christ out of Christmas, or at least take away the connection of Christ to consumption.  I think Jesus would be far less concerned with us saying “Happy Holidays” than our Christian acceptance of consumerism tied to the celebration of His birth.  Rather, I think growing the celebration around peace, charity and hospitality for all people would be more in tune with the message of John 3:17 of Christ coming so that the world might be saved through Him, instead of condemning those who say “Happy Holidays.”

Vocabulary & Grammar Is Important for "Grace"

"Hopefully" in Irish is “le cuidiú Dé;” directly translated it reads, "with the help of God."   I do not speak Irish fluently, but I do have some sayings, and there are some I say regularly to my son.  For instance, when I put him to bed I say “Oíche mhaith, codladh sámh,” which means “good night, sleep well.”  He has heard it often in his three years.  I am confident he knows it as a blessing for sleep, but honestly, as he is delayed in communication and has autism, we truly do not know when he understands English, Irish, or Choctaw (he attends Choctaw Headstart). We concentrate on his English, but it is wonderful that he is exposed to the language of our ancestors and the language of people native to this area (well, the “relocated” area).  I know he is delayed in communication, but vocabulary is not his issue.   He can certainly learn words in multiple languages and transfer between them, why should the primary colors be only known as “red, yellow, & blue,” they can also be known as  “dearg, buí, & gorm” or “humma, lvkna, & okchvko.”   Communication is not simply vocabulary, and that is what my son’s teacher, aids, speech therapists, and parents are teaching him.

The church, on the other hand, needs vocabulary and grammar lessons.  We use some very religious words, but we use them incorrectly (I am talking to pastors here).  Atonement, justification, faith, and sanctification are four words that come to mind.  Across the theological spectrum I hear pastors use words in such a way that undermines the meaning of the great word “grace.”  When that word, “grace,” is used everyone seems to know it is the love of God that we receive even though we do not deserve such a gift.  That is good news; that is the Gospel.  However,  when we (and I am certainly not immune) use other religious words such as justification or faith, we are not always clear what we mean, and we fail our vocabulary quiz.

We preach that God is the only one that saves us; God’s grace justifies us.  Simple, but then I hear someone point to actions one may do to be right with God; however, that is not as common a culprit, for they will make it clear that the good acts are in response to God’s Grace.  The most common culprit I hear is, “justified by faith.”  No longer does the word grace have any meaning.  If justification is determined by one’s faith, it is determined by human action, not the free gift of grace.  This may seem subtle, and I know that most who say “justified by faith,” preach grace and God as the only source, and thus will call this issue semantics.  That is the point--we must be aware of our vocabulary, our grammar, and our semantics when we talk, and especially, preach.

I believe that Joe Jones offers an important alternative, “I prefer to avoid the expression ‘justification by faith’ and use instead ‘justification by grace through faith.’ It is the grace of God that justifies, and it is through faith that we say ‘yes’ to that prior justification and begin to live on the basis of that justifying grace.”[i]  Hear the difference?  We maintain the meaning of grace, justification, and faith.

My son may need to learn to communicate, but as church we need to remember our grammar and vocabulary and how they work together. Once we get our vocabulary and grammar straight, I hope we can join my son and work on our communication.  Hopefully (le cuidiú Dé ) we will  remember that it is all done with the help of God especially our justification and salvation by grace, through faith.

[i] Jones, Joe.  A Grammar of Christian Faith; Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine. Volume II Rowman & Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.  2002.  p. 518.

Saving the "Saved" language

Language is a complex concept to begin with.  Add in culture, another complex concept—with regional, ethnic and socio-economic facets—and then generational understandings, speaking to another person even in technically the same language may result in garbled nonsense when trying to have a dialogue.  Then throw in theological language with all those understandings and facets and you begin to understand why two Christians of the same denomination, even the same church, can sometimes believe that they believe in two different Gods, or two different Jesus’. Even though I grew up in a liberal mainline small congregation, in my high school and college years I got very concerned with “being saved,” and with others “being saved.”  Now I have to explain: for some “being saved” means being saved from hell and going to heaven.  For me, “being saved” meant being acceptable to God because somehow I believed in my original state—in other words, who I was—was somehow not good enough for God.  I grasped on to this concept of “being saved” through the end-of-the-week altar calls at church camp, summer after summer.  In college, this manifested itself in the Campus Crusade for Christ meetings and other such gatherings where, most of the time, older men told us that the things we were doing as typical teens and young adults were sinful, that we were separated from God and therefore unworthy.  To make matters worse, often young, charismatic adults were recruited in these gatherings to reach out to us to tell us how we needed to “be saved.”

So nevermind the teachings of my church.  Nevermind the feeling I had when I was thirteen of God moving in me that someday I would be a minister.  Nevermind that I had been baptized when I was thirteen.  I still needed to be saved.  And more than once.  It seemed like I was never good enough for God when all these people kept telling me I needed to be saved.  And I felt that I wasn’t doing my part because I wasn’t out trying to save others all the time (actually, I did try, and I strained a few friendships because of it—people who still to this day won’t set foot in a church, and I played my part).

During my junior year of college when I took a course titled “Fundamentals of Sociology” I began to understand the complexity of social structures, culture, and other layers of our communities.  Even though I am quite certain my professor wanted nothing ever to do with Christianity or religion for that matter (except to study it in research), I credit her with my understanding of systemic sin.  Through that course I began to understand the role of power and patriarchy at play in the Christian church tradition in general.  I began to see how the systems and structures in place in our world kept the power out of the hands of the poor and oppressed.  And I began to see how this power play was at work in the very language of my faith.

I abandoned the term “saved” at that time.  I wanted nothing to do with being saved.  I was definitely a follower of Jesus but I was no longer trying to coerce others to think and believe the way I wanted to.  I stopped using much of the language of the Christian youth gatherings I had been a part of.   I stopped singing the praise songs about redemption and sacrifice.  I stopped going to any gathering where crying would be part of the worship experience.  I wanted to get away from anything that was emotionally charged, where power played on the fears of others, where emotions were manipulated to get us to commit to a relationship we already had with God.  I refused to use the word “saved.”

Even in seminary I avoided the term “saved.”  I argued with my field education supervisor who told me that there may be times when I need to “speak the language” that I still could not bring myself to use a word that had been used in such a manipulative, even abusive, way.  I would not ever make someone feel that they were not good enough for God.  I would not ever use a word that had made me feel that I was hopeless, helpless, and unworthy, the way I had perceived others telling me I needed to be “saved.”

Then it happened.  A family started coming to my church, a blended family with unmarried parents.  One of the parents came to me and asked me about what they needed to do to be “saved.”  I was taken aback.  At first I tried to explain that God desires relationship with us and that we can be in relationship with God and others, but as we talked, I realized she was very concerned about wanting to be in heaven.  She needed the reassurance.  She needed the hope.  And I realized I could not have a different conversation about Christ without her having the assurance first that she was “saved.”  So I did something I hadn’t done in years.  We prayed a salvation prayer, similar to the ones I had learned in my conservative youth group days.

But the difference this time was that the journey didn’t end there.  This was the beginning.  We were able to continue to meet, dialogue, and pray together, and her understanding of relationship with God through Jesus developed far beyond just a doorway into heaven.

I’m still not a fan of saying one needs to “be saved” or “get saved” in terms of talking about my own faith journey.  But I recognize that while for me, that language seemed damaging and hurtful, for others, it is familiar and comforting.  And having known people coming out of addiction or out of prison, people who have been able to come out of the darkness of depression—sometimes, people really are “saved” by Christ, in the real sense of the word: without relationship with Christ, they would have been lost, dead.

There is a danger, and I know I am guilty of this, in allowing language to be co-opted by another group, to the point one refuses to use it anymore.  In the liberal/mainline church, we have begun to abandon the language of our tradition and have allowed it to be used and misused by others.  Evangelical basically means “eager to share the Gospel.”  The Good News of Jesus the Christ.  But we have allowed evangelical to mean a particular theological/political slant.  We have abandoned the language of redemption and salvation at times to leave behind blood atonement theologies that don’t work for us, choosing a friendlier language for Jesus (remember “Buddy Jesus” from Dogma?) as if Jesus went smiling to the cross, instead of suffering, and dying.

Language matters.  And sometimes we in the liberal/mainline church have given over the language of our tradition to the point that our language cannot cross social-cultural boundaries.  We cannot reach out to those looking for a more progressive church home who still value their faith in Jesus, who understand their Savior as one who has really saved them from a life of sin, or from a life without meaning, or from hell itself.

As our 21st century church cultures continue to shift and transform, I think we will find many more who have grown up in the evangelical or fundamentalist churches looking for congregations that are welcoming and affirming of GLBTQ folk, congregations committed to social justice, congregations truly trying to make a difference in the world around them, here and now.  But can we learn their language and even have a conversation, or do we assume that they are abandoning their concept of relationship with Jesus as Savior as they abandon the prejudices their old churches may have held?  Can we speak the language of “being saved” by Christ, and understand our own faith journey in a language that we have once shed?  Can we share our language in a way that is not condescending or judgmental of the variety of theological backgrounds we come from?

Did Jesus Really Die for Our Sins?

This article originally appeared on Christian Piatt's blog on Patheos.com.

One of the most pivotal concepts in contemporary Christianity has to do with whether Jesus died for the sins of humanity. For many, this is a central tenet of their Christian faith; for others, the very idea that a God would require the spilling of blood — let alone that of his son — to forgive us seems appalling.

In my “Banned Questions” book series, I’ve tried to pull together some of the most challenging questions about the Christian faith I could find. Then, instead of offering cut-and-dried answers, I pose the questions to a group of theological thinkers and activists to see what they think, with the intent of allowing readers to decide what they believe.

Given the centrality of this particular question, I decided it would make a good opening topic for the newest book in the series, “Banned Questions About Jesus.” I posed this to the respondents as follows:

Why would God send Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God, dying for the sins of the world, instead of just destroying sin, or perhaps offering grace and forgiveness to the very ones created by God? Why does an all-powerful being need a mediator anyway?

Chris Haw, co-author of “Jesus for President,” says:

I have found it important for my mind to get “sacrificial lamb” idea back into working shape by, for example, considering how Jesus also died from the sins of the world. … A multitude of our sins, not God, killed Jesus. And for what it is worth, the “sending his son” verse should not be understood as God killing someone (Did God’s denunciation of human sacrifice not begin with the binding of Isaac?) No: we killed God’s Son, and it was sinful and unjust.

Haw’s response resonates with John Dominic Crossan’s understanding of what was the cause of Jesus’ death (humanity, not God), while also pushing up against the myth of redemptive violence, as put forward by such theologians as Walter Wink.

“There is a long and complex tradition of varying interpretations of the meaning of the death of Jesus,” says Lee Camp, author of “Who is My Enemy?” He continues:

The early church primarily thought of the death of Jesus as a victory over the powers of sin and death. … In the medieval era, another trajectory became predominant in the west: Anselm argued that a God-Man was necessitated because of the great gravity of sin: sin dishonored God, and humankind had to make some reparation, some satisfaction for sin. Humankind was unable to make such a repayment, and thus Jesus became the substitute, restoring the honor due to God through his obedience unto death.

It is worth noting that, in Camp’s historical context, the notion of Jesus dying for our sins did not gain traction in the Christian imagination until at least a dozen centuries after Christ’s death. This is critical in our understanding of the crucifixion, namely because so many assume today that their present belief in substitutionary atonement has forever been the cornerstone of Christian theology. Not so, suggests Camp.

“By the sixteenth century, Calvin focused upon punishment,” he says. “Because of the immensity of humankind’s sin, God’s wrath demanded punishment; Jesus became the substitute punishment.”

Australian peace activist Jarrod McKenna takes a different approach, affirming the need for sacrificial atonement, but suggesting we distort its purpose:

The Gospel is not that some deity takes out its rage on an innocent victim so he doesn’t have to take it out on all of us eternally. God doesn’t need blood. God doesn’t need a mediator. We do!

The Lamb of God is not offered to God by humanity, but is God offered to us to enable a new humanity. God is reconciling the world to God’s self through Christ by knowingly becoming our victim, exposing this idolatrous system that promise order, safety, peace and protection in exchange for victims.

The idea that the sacrifice of a living creature was required to appease God for one’s sins has been around a lot longer than Christianity has. Mentions of animal sacrifice can be found throughout the Old Testament, and Abraham’s faith is even tested when he’s asked to sacrifice his own son.

This value of sacrifice as part of one’s faith also was common in the Roman culture, where the types of sacrifices usually were specific to the characteristics of the Gods being worshiped. So a God of the harvest would require an offering of produce, and so on. Some pre-Christian cultures, such as those from Carthage, even practiced human sacrifice, though the Romans generally condemned it.

Interestingly, a millennium prior to Anselm’s understanding of blood atonement, there were very different understandings of Jesus’ death germinating in the Christian collective consciousness.

In the fourth century A.D., Gregory of Nyssa proposed that Jesus’ death was an act of liberation, freeing humanity from enslavement to Satan. Seven hundred years later, around the same time that Anselm presented to concept of substitutionary atonement, a theologian named Abelard proposed that it actually was that Jesus’ response of pure — some might emphasize nonviolent — love in the face of violence, hatred and death was transformational in the human psyche, reorienting us toward a theology of sacrificial love over justice or atonement.

Contemporary theologian Walter Wink goes a step further than Abelard, claiming that atonement theology is a corruption of the Gospel, focusing on an act of violence rather than the values of peaceful humility and compassion lived and taught by Christ.

Resolving the debate about the causes of, and purpose behind, Jesus’ death is an impossible task. More important, though is to make clear that such a debate is going on. For too long, Christians and non-Christians have assumed that all who yearn to follow the way of Christ universally believe Christ died for our sins. For millions, this not only defines their faith, but their understanding of the very nature of Good as well. For others, it is the basis for rejecting Christianity, understanding it as an inherently violent religion, centered on a bloodthirsty God that requires death in exchange for mercy.

This is not the God in which I put my faith, and I am not alone.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visitwww.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

The Ministry of Presence

On Monday afternoons, I go to the local hospital to be a volunteer chaplain for the afternoon. I hate going.

Every Monday, there is a bit of dread that hits my stomach as I step into my professional clothes, clip on my official badge and drive to park in my official spot.  With my hands still on the steering wheel, I pray the prayer a mentor taught me when I was doing Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital in Boston: “Lord, help me not to run.”

I enter the hospital through the main doors and greet the volunteers at the front desk.  I bypass the public elevators and head for the staff elevators.  Turning the corner from the second floor desk, I enter the chapel.  Usually it is quiet and empty.  Occasionally there are staff members on their phones that I have to politely remind that it is a chapel, not their lounge.  I log on to the system, check the main census, and attempt to memorize the names of the ICU patients.  I check the census by religion which is never complete.  While some staff members are great at intake in asking spiritual preference, when they are in a hurry it’s often the first question that is skipped.  Usually I only know the spiritual preference of about half of the ICU folks.

I log off.  I sit in a pew and stare at the stained-glass window.  I take a deep breath.  I pray again.  “Lord, use me, however you need me.”  Sometimes I have been known to pray “Lord, please don’t let me be needed today.”

Then I walk out that door, around the corner and down the hall to ICU.

And somehow, miraculously, every time I pass through those doors, the switch is turned on.

I’m the Chaplain.  I’m here for you.  Whether you be a patient, a visitor, a nurse or therapist or business representative or doctor or housekeeping or internal services, I am here for you to be your chaplain.

At that point, I forget that I ever wanted to run or wanted to not be needed.  I’m actually disappointed if everyone is asleep or being bathed or whatever.  I’m ready.

I visit the sick and the elderly, the dying, the post-suicidal, the recovering addict, the mother or daughter, the brother or ex-husband.  I go in, introduce myself, invite them to introduce themselves.  If the environment of the conversation is open, I pull up a chair.  I sit and listen, and sometimes pray.  Sometimes it’s just a minute.  At times it has been an hour.

I don’t have a lot of time to give.  Unlike the other volunteer chaplains at our hospital, I rarely take the emergency calls because I am the one primarily home with our child.  I rarely hit the main floors, but I always make a point to go to the ICU, the ER, and the Women’s Center.  While the other chaplains may get to the floors, I try to get to the new mothers, mothers-to-be, and those who have been mothers for all too short a time.  Most of the time, it is a temporary crisis.  A baby was born too soon and had to be flown to a larger hospital, but mother was not discharged yet.  It is so very hard to be separated from your baby like that.  But it will be well.  In the meantime, in that limbo between birth and being reunited, I offer prayer, comfort, and an ear to listen.  More importantly, I offer myself, to be there, for the father and/or other family members may have gone on to be with the new baby.

At times the news is not as good.  A child has been lost in miscarriage or stillbirth.  A child has been born with a birth defect that the child will live the rest of their life with.  I offer prayer, an ear to listen, and space for grief.  At times I contact the patient’s minister with their permission for continued support after they leave.

I don’t get to see everyone.  I probably don’t even see a quarter of the people on Monday alone who are in the hospital.  Some days I wonder if it’s even worth my time.  Then there will be that nurse in the elevator who says, “I’m so glad you’re here, I need to talk to someone.”  Or the doctor in ER who, in between running to patients says, “Pray for all of us here, we need it today.”  Or the worker whose daughter is dying of cancer and she is in the chapel, weeping, where her coworkers can’t find her.

In the midst of the chaos, in the midst of insurance paperwork and cost-efficiency and healing and treatments and general life of the hospital, I am there, even if for an hour on Mondays.  But more importantly, the presence of God is made known to people.  There are wonderful nurses who have called me in to pray with patients.  There are doctors who have listened to the spiritual concerns of their patients.  God is already known, but yet, when I and the other chaplains are there, we are there for everyone.  We are there for you.  We aren’t going to stick you with a needle or make you do physical therapy.  We are simply there to represent the presence of God, which has been there all along.

And I realize that my fears when I arrived were my own; but when that “switch” turned on, it was no longer me, but God in me, God with me, God through me.

And when I leave, this is my prayer:

“Thank you, God, for today, and for having me be here.”

I love being there.

The Path is Wide!

I read a wonderfully interesting paper called “Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism.” I believe the authors of this paper have scratched at the surface of a new field, as they state in their abstract, and I am open to more work in this field of cognitive science of religion.  People have often jumped to one negative conclusion that would fit in that field, with the statement “religion is the opium of the masses.”  This statement has me welcome the study of psychology of religion, for I am confident the researchers will not discover opium.  This is because I work in church and live as one who confesses faith.

The paper specifically interested me because my three-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and we hope it will be high functioning.  “We” are his parents, and are two ordained ministers, thus we are invested in the faith.  I encourage everyone to read the paper and understand, especially those that are active in a faith and love a person with special needs, that these authors are not attacking nor are they praising people with high functioning autism (HFA).  This is simply a paper based on two studies by researchers truly interested in this growing field.  Within these writings there are certainly important information for psychologists and neurologists, but I want to explore and reflect on what this may say to theologians and the church.

Church is sadly not always different from the secular world. Church is somewhere people feel different just as they would feel different in the secular world.   That is to say, our hospitality at church is not as developed as we would hope.  If a child and family do not feel welcome at church, or if it is a struggle to worship and learn with special needs, it will affect the relationship with the Divine.  I would be interested in the second study that asks about history and if it was asked about how church was experienced.  Was Sunday School welcoming?  Were people tolerated when they were a toddler with HFA, or did they start later? How were their questions handled by pastor, teachers, and family?  These are examples of  important questions about how church was, and therefore, how God was experienced, introduced, and sustained for these children of God with HFA.  Therefore, these are the questions the body of Christ, the church, need to ask constantly, and not wait for a study.

Upon reflection, perhaps apologetics has a greater place in theological discussion.  I enjoy C. S. Lewis, and not just because he goes by his initials.  However, I am someone who does not worry about faith being logical and reasonable.  I find many contemporary apologetics forget the great mystery and thus I do not share their conclusions when sharing my faith.  They seem to want to describe the lighthouse, where I am comfortable seeing the guiding light.  Perhaps as a pastor I need to be encouraging to those who explain God’s existence without the word “mystery,” as well as what works for me.  We must be aware of the many paths to confession of faith.

The most important message to theologians and the church is that people who do have HFA have thinking styles that are different.  Part of the difference may incline more people with HFA to embrace no confession of faith.   This is an important insight for us who do want to share the peace that surpasses all understanding we know as Love, that we call “God.”  The night before I started writing this I was at an event for Christian Piatt’s new books, “Banned Questions about the Bible” and “Banned Questions about Jesus.”  I bought both books and had them signed; I had one signed to my wife, and was going to have the second made out to me.  I then realized that I bet my three-year-old who (not unlike me) will want to ask the questions contained in these books, for many are very blunt and reasonable questions.  I know that some of the essays will answer with the word “mystery.” This realization made me ask that the other book to be signed to A.J.  So even though I read the paper on the two studies, I already worked on an assumption that the paper concludes, that people with HFA are going to look at religion differently and with preference to reason and logic.

I am reminded that Paul had an issue with a certain group of preachers who taught there was only one way to believe in Jesus, the way they had experienced Jesus.  For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the History of Israel; and Paul knows who Jesus is because of his understanding of the Jewish faith, and thus he writes:

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)

Emphasizing the relationship with Jesus is essential; it is not essential how he got there and so we should not force others into the same mold.

So the real lesson of this study is that people are going to come to faith differently, and we should be aware of the various paths.  We have been aware that there are people who are much more comfortable with theology than others.  I just hope the church continues to be a welcoming place for all, from logic to mystery, and everything in between.