Forgiveness

Loving Our Enemies

By Charlsi Lewis Lee

Loving our enemies has got to be one of the most, if not the most difficult, part of following the way of Jesus Christ.  Jesus does not gently prod us to change our ways or to subtly alter the way we think about others.  Nope.  Jesus calls us to leave all of our other stuff behind and love our neighbor as ourselves.  Dang.  This is hard.

Yes, you already know what I am about to talk about:  Burying the Boston Bomber.  As horrible, ugly, terrible, painful, and gut wrenching as I can only imagine the victims feel about that dreadful day, those emotions cannot drown our call to love even those who hate us.  We are called to live differently. 

Grieving is a difficult task for most of us.  No one likes it.  When we grieve we become raw from the pain and fear of living without the one or the thing we love the most.  If we do not honor the grief we drown in the sorrow, or anger, or fear and we are lost for a while—hopefully only a while—in the pain.  Our nation is grieving from disaster after disaster where we have lost too many at one time and too many altogether.  Our families have wept too much for their children.  Children have wept too much for their parents.  

Our grief, though, comes not only from the Boston Bombing, it comes from centuries of dedicating ourselves to being set apart from each other in such a way that we are declared “The Winner.”  We are better than the Brits because we believe in freedom of religion (really?); we are better than the Indians because we are fully dressed and speak English; we are better than the Mexicans because…well I don’t have an answer for that one.  We are better. 

Maybe, instead of better, I should say entitled.  We are entitled to a peaceful civilization wherein all the good people get all good things in life.   Why do we believe that we can go into another person’s country and blow it up and then step back in shock and dismay when it happens in ours?  We are not entitled to peace. 

Peace is a gift.  Peace is developed, nurtured and cared for by its recipients.  Peace is honored.   Peace is work.  It requires from us patience for the time of waiting, endurance for the difficult task, and hope for the time that will be.  It requires faith that when we do what is hard, what is against the norm, what is not the most popular thing, that it is the right choice.

On the news this morning, the newscaster reported that the man who is willing to give up a family plot for the Boston Bomber to be buried, is doing so based on the teachings of his mother.  He learned it in Sunday school:  Love your neighbor.  Another newscaster responded after the story, that he wonders if this guy’s mother would really want the Boston Bomber buried next to her.  What? 

Apparently, that’s precisely what she taught him:  that all people deserve to be treated with respect, even when they are mean, cruel, misguided, angry and hate-filled themselves.  I think she would be proud to see her son fulfilling the lessons of Jesus Christ.  I think she would be amazed at her son’s strength, composure, and faith in the face of a horrendous event.  I think she would be honored.

If we are serious about loving those who are not like us—and I hope we are—then this is a pretty big test.  If we are serious about doing the work to which we followers of Christ have been called, then it is time for the faithful to rise up and shout:  Love is the word. 

Loving our enemies is challenging, trench digging work that requires us to get dirty.  Loving our enemies is fearful and aggravating work that means we might make a lot of people unhappy (there’s some irony for you).  Loving our enemies is grace-filled and hope-endowed work that means that we are living like God’s presence is with us already and we know it. 

I hope that my children have heard this message from me.  I pray we may know the courage of one stranger extending himself to an enemy and be forever changed.  I know that peace, the peace we are searching for as individuals, as a nation, as a world, comes from loving our enemy.  And that is not an easy task. 

Mermaids, Squids, and Christian Reality

Recently a friend of mine mentioned that a counselor had concerns about her daughter because she believed that mermaids existed.  The questioning included why she believed in their existence, and the child responded because she had read about them and had seen a documentary on the Animal Planet, yet admitted to not have seen one in person.  The “professional” was concerned.  The child did ask the interviewer if she believed if giant squids existed and if she had seen one, and as you probably have guessed the answer was, the counselor had read about them and saw a documentary.  This would be funny if the person was not a “professional” analyzing the youth. I had seen most of the mermaid documentary one late night with my brother-in-law, and I must admit I truly understand one believing that mermaids might exist on earth, after viewing the documentary.  I honestly had to choose not to believe this reality when watching the show, and I have to admit the choice is mostly because it may “freak me out” if I saw something while on a boat and that it may open me up to the reality of Bigfoot.  I did just move to the Seattle area, where there are more boats and Northwestern woods in my future, so I have decided on a reality where there are no mermaids and Yetis.

As Christians, are we simply asking people to believe in an historical reality--Jesus’ birth, teachings, death, and resurrection?  Even our Gospel accounts do not match up neatly.  This sets up a reality in which those that believe are in, and those that do not are out.  It is ok to believe in giant squids, but not mermaids.  This is not my Christianity.  My religion is reality, which I find in Christianity.

Humanity did not create God, but humans did create religion.  We must look at our rituals and beliefs with anthropologic and sociological lenses and not simply as a litmus test, such as do you believe….?  And this can be true of the progressive churches as well.  We cannot kid ourselves to think we don’t have litmus tests.  Often we stand there like the professional above, judging other’s beliefs.

“Reality:” that word is itself a question, perhaps even a riddle.  I have been enlightened by the theory of Mimesis, put forth by René Girard.  A one sentence explanation might be that we desire based from the desires of others, and this changes the dialogue immensely.  I would argue it is pre-historical, and cognitive scientists have even confirmed this as desire based off the desire (and actions) of others within our brain function.  As a confessing Christian, this theory has opened me up to Christianity that dare I say, seems “natural” and “scientific.” No longer am I claiming something that others choose not to believe, nor am I stating what I believe they will know exactly like I know.  Rather, I see the reality of religion within Christianity, which I knew before, but now worry only about divine love as an action against our human reality of rivalry from mimetic desire.

Our purpose is to help the Divine we call love be the reality we know.  Violence and rivalry are part of our human condition, and as Christians we know the realization of love by Jesus empting himself without rivalry or retaliation on the cross.  This love is the reality we all aspire to, yet we are tied together not by our individual transgressions, but our universal sin of rivalry and violence.  Thus we don’t need everyone to believe exactly the same way, but to live, what we confessing Christians call the compassion of Jesus, as our reality.  The reality is, who cares if one believes in giant squids and/or mermaids, but rather, are we teaching love--that is, nonviolence, and compassion?

That is the religion for me, religion of revealing forgiveness, compassion, and love without rivalry and violence, as the reality and culture of earth as it is in heaven. That is a transformed world reality here on this globe, not simply an eternal heaven of gold streets, where some are in and others out.

RECLAIMING EASTER

Easter is about resurrection and transformation - today. Easter is not about the torture and execution and resurrection of Jesus. Easter is not about an event that happened one time to one person a long time ago. Easter is not about an 11th-century feudal theology .....of "penal substitution" or "substitutionary sacrifice." Easter is not about a 4th-century theology of "original sin." Easter is not about a sadistic abusive murderous blood-thirsty God. Easter is not about a narcissistic mercenary God .....whose love and grace are so shallow and tenuous and inadequate .....that the favor or forgiveness of God can only be earned or purchased. Easter is not about useless promises of an eternal post-mortal utopian etherial existence. Easter is not about using the sharing the Good News as a form of conquest. Easter is not about hate.

Easter is about the life and message and path of Jesus. Easter is about us living the life and message and path of Jesus. Easter is about the resurrection of the disciples - all of us who follow Jesus. Easter is about disciples living and being - here and now - the Kingdom of God. Easter is about disciples working together as the living body of Christ. Easter is about the Good News.

What difference would it make if an ossuary was found that undeniably contained the bones of Jesus?

To the message of Jesus – that God is personal and present and immediate and available and is characterized by love and grace, whose passion for us is to provide justice and compassion and generosity and hospitality and service, and who invites us and welcomes us and includes us and embraces us without exception or conditions – that message would not in any way be changed or diminished.

Something happened on Easter morning. Until that morning, the disciples still saw the message of Jesus as an unassembled upside-down puzzle with no idea as to what image would be revealed by the completed puzzle.

What happened on Easter was a transformative epiphany. The women had it first - a profound comprehensive epiphany. It was the best of epiphanies. When the women shared their insight with the others, the others had the same epiphany, the same transformation.

It was as if every piece of the puzzle had been turned upside-right and sufficiently assembled that the picture could be easily discerned. After all the questions that had only received Jesus’ annoying and unsatisfying answers and after repeatedly hearing the puzzling parables and confounding aphorisms of Jesus, compounded by the grief and depression and repressive fear of the preceding weekend, the impact of this epiphany had to have been earth shaking. It was such a powerful experience that it felt like an earthquake strong enough to roll away massive tombstones. It was so revealing, it was as if the curtain covering the Holy of Holies had been ripped asunder and the presence of God could be plainly seen by anyone who had the courage to look. It was so personal that it was as if Jesus was alive - speaking to them and sharing meals with them - a tangible presence. The life and message and path of Jesus did not die on the cross. The life and message and path of Jesus lives like a fire that hovers over us and smolders within us and breathes as powerfully and disturbingly as a noisy rampaging wind storm. The life and message and path of Jesus can be heard by anyone at any time and regardless of where they were born or what language they speak.

In those first few years, this same epiphany happened to Paul and hundreds of others. Repeatedly, it was such a powerful experience that people were transformed. The isolation and desperation and fatalism of day-to-day living in an oppressive empire supported and legitimized by imperial dominionist theology was replaced by the dual realization that the character of the one true God is: .....* unrestrained love and unconditional grace - .....* always present and immediately available to anyone anywhere anytime, and .....* that life does not require participation in the empire - .....* not its political activities, not its cultural domination practices, .....* not its imperial civic theology, not its military conquests, and .....* not its greedy and isolating economics.

This same profound epiphany, this same earth-shaking resurrection, this same life-as-if-from-death transformation is still happening today.

The Good News has 3 inseparable messages: 1) The universal accessibility of the personal and persistent 1) unrestrained love and unconditional grace of God; and 2) The feeding quenching clothing healing visiting welcoming compassion and 2) the reparative rehabilitating restorative justice of the Community; and 3) The inclusive hospitality and joyous generosity and healthy service of the Individual ............................................................RECLAIMING CHURCH - REDUX

This is resurrection and transformation! This is the Good News! This is Easter! Alleluia!

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.

Seven Years of Debt

In recent months there have been a string of reports about the student loan crisis, how it might be the next bubble to burst.  The crisis is happening now.  Outstanding student loans will exceed one trillion dollars this year. The average student graduates with over $25,000 in debt. There have been calls to forgive student loan debt  in blogs and in action.  Need to Know on PBS recently shared a good, concise understanding of the student loan crisis. For those of us who are clergy and church leaders, student loans are an excruciating burden.  Most clergy starting salaries do not take into consideration student loan repayment, let alone cost of living.  Most congregations in the mainline tradition have not increased their pastor’s salaries to the rate of comparable leadership positions in the community, such as school principals and other educators.  In my experience in the American Baptist Churches, most of the time the guidelines for compensation are “suggested guidelines” and churches take them that way: merely as suggestions, not as advocating for fair compensation.  In addition, Carol Howard Merritt recently wrote about the “extra costs” that are sometimes added on by ordaining bodies and churches who want their candidate to have more experience.  When all this adds up, seminary itself is already becoming expensive, then there are the added costs of ordination requirements.

I was fortunate in that my grades from college were decent enough to earn me a good scholarship. I also qualified for some grants, and my seminary had a wonderful financial aid administrator at the time who slipped notes into my mailbox about every single $500 or $1000 little scholarship.  Those little scholarships made a difference.  However, I still ended up working at least 2 part time jobs every year (during my Field Education year, which included a stipend, I count 3 part-time jobs).   Needless to say, I didn’t date much when I was in seminary. I didn’t have much of a life outside of school and work, and somehow I was supposed to attend local, regional, and national events for my denomination as well, most of the time at my own expense.  My scholarships were only good for three years, so I managed to graduate in three years, taking courses every summer and winter, and loading up on 5 courses both the fall and spring of my final year.  My grades were not as good that last year because of it (luckily my seminary offered  a “pass/fail” option for some courses, so I was able to pass, but I must apologize to my church history professors for whom I rarely cracked a book that last year because I was too busy writing my ordination paper, trying to get an interview for a position, writing papers for my other classes and working those two jobs).  I graduated in May of 2002 without a dime owed to my seminary.

However, this was not the case for my college years.  Almost all clergy nowadays have seven years of higher education under their belt.  We’re not talking the four-year college debt that is leading to the national crisis. We’re talking seven.  So of my seven years, four I am still repaying.

I was seventeen when I was applying for college, filling out financial aid paperwork (oh, the dreaded FAFSA—but with the dawn of the internet it is so much easier than the long paperwork one had to file in the 90’s) and had no guidance when it came to student loans.  My parents, divorced only a few years before, were still arguing over finances.  The college fund I thought existed was long gone.  My father wrote a check for my housing deposit to get me started, but after my scholarships (I had decent grades in high school—no valedictorian but at least I made honors) and grants (my parent’s income was pretty abysmal) there was still a “projected parental contribution” that is included as part of the FAFSA process.  That parental contribution, for me and most of my friends, and I imagine for thousands of students, does not exist.  Just like with taxes and most other paperwork, numbers on paper does not equal dollars in the bank account.  There are other debts, medical expenses, and hardships that eat up that supposed parental contribution.  So at age seventeen, I signed away on a Perkins Loan, a Subsidized Stafford Loan, and the big one: a large private loan with rates that shifted between 8-9% interest while I was in college.

Who understands what $50,000 of student loans will look like when you are seventeen?  Who understands interest rates and monthly payments?  Who understands that your income will not meet the demands of paying off your student loans in a timely manner when you aren’t even old enough to vote yet?  Yes, my parents did sign on my student loans as they had to, but no one explained to me the amount of debt I was getting myself into. Not my parents, not my college, and certainly not the school guidance counselors who were so excited I was going to a private college, so excited that they could add me to the list of college-bound high-school graduates. They were the ones who actually told me about and encouraged me to apply for the private loans.

There is good news for my story: after deferring my student loans in seminary, when I graduated and became an associate minister my salary did not cover both my cost of living and my student loans (I was renting a shared house with 3 other seminary students and graduates, our rent was minimal, our utilities were split 4 ways, and we did not have cable—we lived very simply), I was able to consolidate my Stafford loan at a decent rate. I was able to adjust my payment plan for my Perkins loan. My private loan, however, did not offer any assistance, and so I continue to repay it at the full amount.  But I did receive some help from the Massachusetts Baptist Charitable Society, which altered its charter to help Baptist ministers serving in Massachusetts with the repayment of student loans.  Through that assistance, I managed to work away at my debt.  I no longer live in Massachusetts so I am ineligible for assistance from that organization, but through working two-part time jobs along with my chaplaincy position (along with my husband's full-time ministry position, and he also has student loans!) I am almost done paying off my Perkins loan completely.  I will be celebrating in a few months.

My challenge is this, for our denominations and our congregations: we need to stop socking away money for buildings.  We need more organizations like the Massachusetts Baptist Charitable Society that can help clergy repay their student loans.  We need more counselors at the beginning of the process of both college and seminary to be up-front about debt, loans and interest rates before students enroll in classes.  For seminaries, we need to be especially honest with prospective students about debt and about calls to professional ministry: do seminaries accept more students so that they are able to make their ends meet with tuition dollars, or do they accept those students who clearly have a call to serving Christ and the Church?

For congregations, we need to recognize that if a congregation cannot afford to pay a minister a liveable wage, maybe they should not have a minister.  I’m serious about that.  I have known far too many churches that have paid housing allowances that would not even cover renting a studio apartment in their town.   And I’ve seen far too many churches in one small town, with lower attendance on Sunday morning and in weekly ministry activities, that have so much in common with their neighbors of the same denomination, or even across denominations.  We need to encourage more partnerships and even mergers, so that our congregations can give of their best, and their pastors can be fully compensated so that they can give of their best.   When resources become scarce, far too often support staff positions are cut and pastor compensation is frozen.  A church isn’t going to grow when that happens.  Rather, if resources are becoming limited, then a church needs to cast its vision outward rather than inward.  The church needs to look not at its own survival but how it can best serve Christ in the world—and that may mean partnering or merging with another congregation.

“Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts” (Deuteronomy 15:1).  Debt was a major concern of Moses and the Israelites as they established their communal practices. People needed to borrow from others to survive and debt was part of their society—in that debt is how most slaves came to be.  However, the tradition of Moses, the Israelites and of our Bible is to forgive debts, and to forgive them sooner rather than later.

There are some programs to help people with debt repayment: Income-Based Repayment Plan is not as well known as it should be, but it helps people pay off debts at rates based upon one’s income and forgives the rest after ten years.  But I think a Biblical model that denominations, seminaries and other religious bodies should use is the seven-year plan: if clergy and other church leaders go to school for seven years, four years of college plus three years of seminary (which is difficult in these days to complete 90 credits within three years, but some seminaries have cut back on the required number of credit hours for a Master of Divinity degree; my own seminary went from 90 to 81 credits, and some require only 72 credits for completion), then seven years is what it should take to repay back the student loans.  After that, we need a year of debt forgiveness.

It will be my ten year reunion from graduating seminary this spring; it will also mark ten years of repaying student loans.  I have five more to go.  Some of my colleagues are not as fortunate.  Some of my dearest friends live with their children in cramped 2-bedroom apartments because their churches sold the parsonage years ago, and provide a housing allowance that does not adequately provide for their family in the community they serve.  Most of my colleagues in ministry do not own their own home, unlike most of their congregants.  And as a result of lower compensation, most of my colleagues do not have sufficient funds in their retirement and work well beyond retiring years in at least part-time ministry positions to make up the difference.

We need a year of debt forgiveness.  Seven years of education, seven years of debt repayment is enough.  Let us uphold the Biblical model of debt forgiveness and strive for ways of adequately compensating our clergy and leaders, so that we can grow in our call to Christ’s ministry and serve the world as best as we are able.  And when tough decisions about resources have to be made, let us think about cutting compensation last and instead think about how we are best using our resources, because buildings are just buildings; clergy are people.

Resolutions and Repentance

Every New Year, we all have the chance to make resolutions, to resolve to change our lives for the better.  We make lists of things we want to do differently in our life, and all too often, by the end of January most of those resolutions are out the window.  If you’ve ever belonged to a gym, you dread the week of January 1st when all of the new people show up who have resolved to get into shape.  Most of the time they don’t know how to use the machines, don’t know that they are supposed to clean them afterwards, and don’t remember to turn their cell phones off.  But you know not to fret; most of them will not be back by the end of the month. I was one of those January gym-joiners seven years ago, only I stuck with it.  I hired a personal trainer with help from a denominational “clergy self-care” grant I received.  I told myself I’d go three days a week—I actually went six days a week.  It helped that I was getting married that May and had a dress I needed to fit into, but I stuck with it.  After my wedding, I still came five days a week.  I was a regular gym goer until I became pregnant.  Since that time, it’s been hard, but I’ve been working my way back.  I don’t go to a gym anymore but I do run and walk and take my son to the park and get in as much exercise as I can.

The Revised Common Lectionary sets us up for our own sort of resolutions in our faith life.  Though the Christian calendar begins in Advent, after Epiphany on January 6th we have an opportunity to join in with the rest of the world.  The first Sunday after the Epiphany marks the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.  We remember John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Repent means to turn back, to completely turn away from what one has been doing.  It is more than a resolution, an idea that you’re going to change your life—it is the actual change itself.  To repent is to change.  Baptism is the symbol of that act of repentance—that one has changed.  But it’s also a symbol of what has happened—God has also acted upon you by being in relationship with you—and you are changed forever.

So now the parties are over, the resolutions have been made and the local gym is packed with people determined that this is the year they finally make the changes necessary, but we all know not everyone will succeed with their resolutions.  While making the resolution to become healthier may not seem to be equal to an act of repentance, there are ways of making such resolutions acts of repentance.  Repent from selfish behavior and poor eating habits, spend more time with your family and friends and care for your body, the temple of the Holy Spirit.  That’s just one example of turning a resolution into an act of repentance.

Maybe you just want to resolve to spend more time doing things you enjoy.  But these too can become acts of repentance, when we remember the God-given talents we have neglected, when we remember the joy that comes from God when we are spending more time doing the things we were created to do.  A personal example: I resolve to write more in the coming year.  My act of repentance is that I have felt too self-conscious and unworthy for far too long to take the risk of doing the very thing I feel is a creative gift from God.  Instead, I give in to my fears and think it's not good enough and then don't write at all.

Or maybe it’s deeper than that.  Maybe this year you resolve to improve your family relationships, and your act of repentance is to seek to repair a broken relationship.  Maybe your act of repentance is to go to therapy and work on your own issues.  Maybe your act of repentance is to seek healing for yourself.

So after the resolution fervor has passed, remember John the Baptist, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Repent, turn back to God, and experience the change of Christ in your life.  Resolutions are fine, but most of them will fade by January 31st.  If you seek real change in 2012, choose repentance, experience real change--transformation in your life, and know that God continually offers forgiveness and restoration when we continually seek repentance and forgiveness.

Love Wins: A God of grace for all

Love Wins: A God of grace for all by Christian Piatt

I was psyched when Jarrod McKenna, one of the contributors to the forthcoming BANNED QUESTIONS book series, told me her had an interview of Rob Bell appearing on ABC Australia's news site about Rob's new book, LOVE WINS: Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived.

My initial excitement had to do with Jarrod's citation of a passage from BANNED QUESTIONS toward the end of the piece, but the central message of the interview, and apparently of the book, is far more significant than I expected.

Rather than paraphrase what Jarrod and Rob have already said so well, I'll just quote Rob from his book:

"Bell addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith - the afterlife - arguing that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering. With searing insight, Bell puts hell on trial, and his message is decidedly optimistic - eternal life doesn't start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins."

Did you hear that? It's the sound of thousands of conservative evangelicals closing their mental doors on Rob Bell in unison.

For some within mainline Christian circles, the prospect of "universal salvation," or the idea that God ultimately reconciles all of us into God's presence, regardless of our worthiness of such grace, may not be a real shock. But even the suggestion of what I consider "Christian Universalism" within evangelical circles is sure to send seismic ripples throughout the church.

And his claim has done just that.

Neo-Calvinist John Piper led the charge, bidding farewell en masse to Bell and his message of non-exclusive salvation. What, after all, do many Christians have to offer the world if not the key to unlock the gates of hell from the inside?

While Jonathan Edwards showed us, with his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermon, that fear can galvanize a congregation, Bell's message is that love - and more specifically God's love - is bigger than the sum total of our fears, sins, and other shortcomings is a call in a growing chorus. This, in the truest sense of the word, is Gospel: Good News!

Chalice Press is offering a special promotion through ABC Australia of 40% off pre-orders of BANNED QUESTIONS books. Order in March through the Chalice Press site and enter the code "BANNEDQ1" at checkout.

REFORMATION II

REFORMATION II

The Second Reformation Sunday, October 31, 2010 on the 493rd anniversary of the posting of the Thesis of Martin Luther

Reclaiming the Fundamentals of The Way

by Douglas C. Sloan

The Way is to...

* live the sacred life - here and now - of the one universal Good News message as the Kingdom of God.

* worship God, who has never been, at any time for any reason, a capricious God of death, war, murder, destruction, violence, abuse, vengeance, hate, fear, lies, slavery, systemic injustice, oppression, conditional acceptance, exclusion, segregation, discrimination, shunning, ostracism, eternal condemnation, eternal punishment, retribution, sacrifices, patriarchy, matriarchy, empire, nationalism, only one culture, only one race or portion of the population, parochialism, sectarianism, dogma, creeds, pledges, oaths or censorship – and who has never behaved as a Greco-Roman or narcissistic deity.

* worship God, who is singular, solitary, nonmaterial, immanent, transcendent – the sacred and ultimate reality, the divine mystery, the more – and who has always been a consistent God of life, peace, creation, truth, healing, rehabilitation, restoration, forgiveness, reconciliation, inclusion, participation, diversity, liberation, justice, resurrection, transformation, love and grace. There are neither multiple nor opposing divine forces or entities or identities or personalities. There is only God.

* know the grace of God to be unconditional and boundless – my acceptance by God requires nothing of me.

* know the love of God... .........to be unrelenting and unlimited; .........makes no exceptions and has no qualifications; .........to be the constant inviting presence of God; and .........to be the unconditional acceptance by God of me in my entirety as a gift.

* worship God, whose will is and who has always yearned for us to... .........be free and independent; .........think; .........be curious; .........be intelligent and wise; .........value knowledge over ignorance and compassion over knowledge; .........be creative; .........grow and mature; .........live long healthy satisfying lives; .........live non-violently without vengeance; .........be generous; .........be hospitable; .........be compassionate; .........do no harm; .........heal and rehabilitate and restore; .........forgive and reconcile and include all and have all participate; .........be good stewards of all resources; .........live here and now as one family; .........live in a loving intimate relationship with God; .........be transformed through resurrection; and .........be the kingdom of God.

* worship God, who has always been the same and whose character does not change and who is not capricious or abusive or narcissistic. God performs neither miracles nor acts of retribution. God neither saves nor condemns. God has never required and never accepted a sacrifice by anyone for any reason. God desires worship as relationship, not praise or euphoria. God does not preplan or predestine or interfere with the course or end of my life.

* reject as components or identifying characteristics or requirements of faith and worship and church and Christianity and life and God and Jesus and the Good News message and the Kingdom of God: death, war, murder, destruction, violence, abuse, vengeance, hate, fear, lies, slavery, systemic injustice, oppression, conditional acceptance, exclusion, segregation, discrimination, shunning, ostracism, eternal condemnation, eternal punishment, retribution, sacrifices, patriarchy, matriarchy, empire, nationalism, the superiority of one culture or one race or some portion of the population, parochialism, sectarianism, dogma, creeds, pledges, oaths, censorship, the valuation of thoughts or beliefs or praise or euphoria over justice and service and relationships, and any consideration of post-mortal existence.

* read scripture... .........as a sacrament for the experience and presence of God; .........for inspiration and motivation and contemplation and meditation and .........spiritual truth and insight and illumination about .........how God is a presence and influence in my life and .........to better understand the love and grace of God and .........to discern how God is calling me forward and .........beyond my previous understanding of God .........to a better and more complete and more mature understanding of God and .........how God is calling me forward .........to a more loving relationship with others and with God.

* know the best understanding of scripture requires... .........a scholarly knowledge of the original languages of the scripture and .........the linguistic devices used in the scripture .........(cultural assumptions, coded language, humor, sarcasm, hyperbole, .........poetic metaphor, etc.), .........of the cultural and historical environment in which the scripture was written, .........and .........of the people of that time by whom and for whom the scripture was written.

* know scripture as the metaphorical and narrative and thoughtful writings by the ancestors of my faith, who recorded their contemporary and historical, personal and cultural perception and understanding of the presence and influence of God in their lives and in the life of their community. While, at most, it can be persuasive or instructional, the scripture is not controlling.

* know the community of followers of The Way and worship and living the Good News message as the Kingdom of God to be more important than dogma and creeds and land and structures and debt and continuing expenses and material abundance and wealth accumulation and to be more important than pledges and oaths and empire and nationalism and patriotism and citizenship and civic religion and patriarchy and matriarchy and parochialism and sectarianism and political influence and social standing and financial clout.

* know largess to be more important than largeness and to hold that generosity and hospitality to all is a fundamental element of the Good News message and a defining characteristic of the Kingdom of God.

* know compassionate service to those who are hurt or lost or oppressed as a fundamental element of the Good News message and a defining characteristic of the Kingdom of God. Service requires partnership between the server and the served. Holy and wholesome service requires that the server be competent and healthy. Service is not slavery, not some form of enforceable servitude, and not an opportunity or a justification for the server to be oppressed or abused.

* know that as the children of God, we are one family in one place. There are no races, no tribes, no indigenous peoples, no ethnic groups, no castes, no nations, no royalty, no aristocracy, no social classes, no economic classes, no genders, no sexual orientations, no geography, no religions, no denominations, no sects, no churches, no elite, no privileged, no saved, no unsaved, no slaves, no outcasts, no untouchables – none of these are a consideration or a barrier or a limitation to the possession and development and utilization of time and effort and gifts and talents for service to others or participation in the Kingdom of God – there is no “us” and no “them”, no “here” and no “there”, no families other than the one family of all people together in one place as the children of God.

* know Jesus as: an intelligent compassionate Jewish mystic who had a strong persistent connection to and participation in and understanding of God; who could explain the reality of God to others and introduce them to a personal experience of God and a personal relationship with God; a messenger of the Good News and an example of the Kingdom of God. Because Jesus was effective as a messenger and successful as an example, he was killed. Both in message and self-understanding, Jesus was non-messianic and non-eschatological.

* know an experience of “the resurrected Jesus” or any other positive divine experience as an experience of the immediate and tangible presence of God, to know with confidence the reality of being and being in and of the Kingdom of God.

* not regard Jesus as divine or as a sacrifice or atonement or ransom or a substitute for me. The Good News message and the Kingdom of God and the presence and experience of God are what are divine in mortal life. Because of the love and grace of God, sacrifice and atonement and ransom and substitution on my behalf are not required for me to be accepted by God and to participate fully in and as the Kingdom of God.

* know the reemergence and revitalization of the disciples after the death of Jesus: ......–– as the first followers of The Way; ......–– as the first Good News resurrection and transformation; ......–– as the first example and witness that ......–– resurrection and transformation do exist and ......–– do not require death as a precedent; ......–– as example and witness that ......–– resurrection and transformation are available to all; and ......–– as example and witness that ......–– the Kingdom of God is here and now and active.

* know baptism, regardless of the method used, as a public act of private intent – to commit to living as a follower of the Good News message by being the Kingdom of God. Other followers are to provide the new follower with tolerance (ideally, acceptance) and the safety of time in a place devoid of condemnation and retribution which is necessary for the new follower to put behind and to put away a past life, to let the previous life die and in its place resurrect a new transformed life and person.

* know communion, regardless of the frequency it is shared or what elements are used, as a public act of universal unity. We gather at an open table where, without exception and without qualification, all are invited. At an open table, we celebrate and affirm the ever-present life of the Good News message and the ever-present all-inclusive unifying love of the Kingdom of God.

* proclaim “Jesus is Lord” and mean that I have no other Lord, that no person of any social or political or religious position has dominion over my life. To proclaim “Jesus is Lord” is to take a moral and spiritual stance and to commit an act of radical counter-cultural non-violent defiance of the oppression and systemic injustice committed by empire and civic religion and by individuals who are more interested in power over others than in service to others. My faith is personal. My faith is not a matter of proxy or the authority of others.

* know that the Good News message is not a loss of my freedom or independence, indeed, it is a much fuller realization of my freedom and independence; is not a forsaking of intelligence or wisdom or knowledge or the search for new knowledge or learning or finding new ways to see reality, or new insights into the workings and purposes of reality, or discovering or creating new visions of what reality could be; is not to forsake seeking or questioning or doubting or examination or reexamination or analysis or reanalysis. The Good News is dynamic, not static; is life, not death, not after death; is growth, not stunted development; is moving forward and moving beyond my current existence and is moving forward and moving beyond my current understanding of my existence and of God.

* be guided and instructed by the Good News message, which is: ......–– God is unconditional boundless grace and unlimited unrestrained love ......–– and always has been;

......–– God wants to have a loving intimate relationship with each of us ......–– without exception and without qualification;

......–– seek justice as healing and rehabilitation and restoration;

......–– seek universal reconciliation and inclusion and participation;

......–– in healthy partnership, ......–– compassionately serve all who are hurt or lost or oppressed;

......–– be generous and hospitable to all;

......–– live non-violently without vengeance and ......–– with a cheerful fearlessness of death and worldly powers; and

......–– be – here and now – the Kingdom of God.

Whatever we do – Whatever we are – Wherever we are – – can never separate us from the love and grace and the surrounding and inviting and welcoming and inclusive presence of God.

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REFORMATION II - letter size --- 8.5" x 11", 6 pages (appropriate size for copying and sharing)

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BIOGRAPHY Doug is a member of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 4950 East Wabash Avenue, P.O. Box 3125, Terre Haute, IN 47803-0125 (812-877-9959). Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is an open and affirming congregation where Doug has served as Elder and Treasurer and enjoys his continuing membership in the choir as the lowest voiced bass. He graduated in 2009 with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana State University and a BS in Management Information Systems from Ball State University in 1997. Since August 2005, he has been a member of the CIS Adjunct Faculty at the Terre Haute campus of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He has been published in DisciplesWorld and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. In the summer of 2010, Doug became a contributor to [D]mergent. Of the 7 articles he wrote, 5 are in the top 10 most-viewed articles at [D]mergent. Doug is married to Carol, a First Grade teacher, and is the father of two sons.

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STUDY RESOURCES To better understand the theology of Reformation II, please read the previous seven [D]mergent articles by Doug Sloan, listed here in order of publication: ..........RECLAIMING CHURCH ..........GOD IS... ..........RECLAIMING GOD ..........RECLAIMING MIRACLES ..........RECLAIMING NOT ..........RECLAIMING the GOOD NEWS - an epistle ..........RECLAIMING FORGIVENESS - it's personal

THESIS OF MARTIN LUTHER - in English

Poured Out -- A Lectionary Meditation

Each week, as I sit down to write this lectionary meditation, I look at the text to see if there is something that connects them in one way or another. After all, the creators of the lectionary have tried to some extent to bring some thematic unity to their choices. It doesn’t always work, but often something sticks out, something catches the imagination. As I looked at these three texts, which in some ways are quite distinct, a phrase stood out in two of the passages – the words “pour[ed] out.” In the Joel passage, the Spirit is poured out on the whole people, empowering and equipping them to bear witness to the things of God. In the passage from 2 Timothy, the author (assumed to be Paul in the text) claims to have been “poured out as a libation.” That is, he is being offered up as an offering to God. The words don’t appear in the Lukan parable, but consider the cry of the tax collector, he pours out his heart before God, seeking forgiveness. It could be that the Spirit is being poured out upon us, or it may be that the calling of God has led to our being poured out as an offering, or perhaps it is the need to pour out the heart to God so as to receive God’s gracious offer of forgiveness. Whatever is the case, we are being called upon to rest our lives in the hands of God.

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The Gift of Failure

[caption id="attachment_8" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="A pic of me from my Community of Grace days, circa 2006."][/caption] It's been a few years since I ended the ministry of Community of Grace Christian Church. For those not in the know, I helped launch a new church back in 2004. It had a shaky start, and then pretty much went downhill from there. Long story short, it was a failed church start. By 2007, I was tired and frustrated. I decided it was time to let this failing ministry die.

The resulting weeks and months after the closing were pretty had for me. I felt anger and shame. Most of all, I felt that I had failed.

As I look back over the last few years, I've started to see that maybe there was some good that came out of failure. Knowing what not to do as a church, has really helped me in my current call.

In our society, we like to say that failure is not an option. But the fact is, we do fail. Sometimes we are not going to hit the mark. Sometimes we will miss it by a country mile. But the fact is, sometimes we will fail.

And when we do fail, we then feel the shame of falling short. But we try to cover up our shame and want to blame others. We don't want people to see us hurt, to see our pain. Church can be a cold place and if people see our hurt, it can be like blood in the water to some in the pews.

The funny thing is that Jesus knew failure as well. Good Friday is the day that God failed. Yes, I know this was the thing that gave us freedom, but it was also a crushing blow. Here was Jesus trying to preach and heal and in the end, he gets crucified like common thief. He was supposed to be the guy who would bring salvation and he couldn't even save himself.

In the end, Jesus understands when we fail. God is right there with us. I don't know if it gets rid of the shame, but it sure makes it damn easier. And it makes those Easter moments all the more sweeter.

So, I'm thankful that I failed.

...though, I don't want to make a habit of it. :)

Dennis SandersDennis Sanders is Associate Pastor at First Christian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He describes himself as "your typical gay, libertarian, autistic, African American, Puerto Rican pastor just trying to figure out life." He blogs at A Pastor Named Questor.

Lost and Found -- A Lectionary Reflection

Is there any hope for me? For the world? Or, is all lost? Has a word of judgment been written that cannot be undone? Or, is there the possibility of a second chance? It always grieves me when I hear stories about a young person – usually a teenager – who has committed a gross and heinous crime, and thus deserving a severe sentence, receives the sentence of life without parole. To think of this young person, usually a young man, sitting in prison for the rest of his life is mind boggling. Surely there has to be some word of hope, some opportunity to be set free?

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RECLAIMING FORGIVENESS - it's personal

In the course of time.....Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and .....Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, .....but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.

The Lord said to Cain, ..........Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? ..........If you do well, will you not be accepted? ..........And if you do not do well, ...............sin is lurking at the door; ...............its desire is for you, but you must master it.

Cain said to his brother Abel, ..........Let us go out to the field. And when they were in the field, .....Cain rose up against his brother Abel, ..........and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, ..........Where is your brother Abel?

He said, ..........I do not know; ...............am I my brother’s keeper?

And the Lord said, ..........What have you done? ..........Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! ..........And now you are cursed from the ground, ...............which has opened its mouth ...............to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. ..........When you till the ground, ...............it will no longer yield to you its strength; ...............you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.

Cain said to the Lord, ..........My punishment is greater than I can bear! ..........Today you have driven me away from the soil, ...............and I shall be hidden from your face; ..........I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, ...............and anyone who meets me may kill me.

Then the Lord said to him, ..........Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. And the Lord put a mark on Cain, .....so that no one who came upon him would kill him. ............................................................................................( Genesis 4:3-15 )

By late 1996, my older son, Chad, was living with Shirley Newsom in her trailer on the west side of Indianapolis. Chad had convinced Shirley to steal drugs from her place of employment, a pharmaceutical warehouse. $1500 worth of drugs were placed on consignment with Frank Dennis and Curtis Holsinger. While returning with the drugs to Jasonville, Indiana, Frank Dennis was stopped by the Indiana State Police. Unknown to any of them involved in this illegal business, the DEA was already investigating their activities. The drugs were confiscated and Frank was neither arrested nor detained. Frank and Curtis were convinced that Chad had arranged for the loss of the drugs and therefore Chad owed them money. Chad was just as convinced that they owed him money.

On the night of January 21, at about 11:30 PM, the nieces and nephews of Shirley Newsom left the trailer to go home. A little after midnight, Frank Dennis, Curtis Holsinger and Curtis’ girl friend, Jessica Lopez, knocked on the door of the trailer and were admitted. Earlier in the day, Frank had been drinking beer and vodka and smoking marijuana. When Frank realized that Chad was not going to give them any money, he pulled a gun. Chad’s hands were bound and he was taken to a back bedroom. Shirley’s hands were bound and she was left in the living room. Frank Dennis and Curtis Holsinger went to the back bedroom. According to court testimony, Chad suffered 29 knife wounds over the entire length of his body. This included 7 stab wounds to the heart, 4 from the front, 3 from the back . Chad did not die quickly, quietly, or easily. Frank Dennis and Curtis Holsinger returned to the living room, Frank in blood-soaked clothes. Jessica Lopez, who had been sitting with Shirley Newsom, left the trailer with Curtis. As they left, they heard Shirley Newsom say, “Just do it.” Frank Dennis pressed the gun barrel against the pillow he held to Shirley's face and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered through her right eye and lodged in her brain. Having moved to stand behind her, Frank fired a second shot into the upper-back of her head. The bullet exited through her mouth and was found on the living room floor.

All this is from God, .....who reconciled us to himself through Christ, .....and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ .....God was reconciling the world to himself, .....not counting their trespasses against them, .....and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. ............................................................................................( 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 )

I oppose capital punishment. As far back as I can remember, opposing the death penalty has been as basic to my understanding of Christian ethics as following the Golden Rule or living in answer to the wristband question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Would I be writing this article were it not for the murder of Chad? His death opens doors and I must walk through them. His murder validates my right to oppose the death penalty. Without his death, all I would ever hear is “If it happened to you, you would feel different.” It has happened to me and I do not feel different - the death penalty is wrong.

I oppose capital punishment. The practice of capital punishment puts us in conflict with the work of God in the world. The work of God in the world is reconciliation. Our work in the world, given to us by God, is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the single lesson that binds together the entire Bible. The Bible is the record of a consistent and persistent God. The Bible is the record of the work, the teaching, the successes and failures, the continuous struggle of God to reconcile each and every child of God to God. The Old Testament is the record of God teaching the children of God their need for grace. The New Testament is the record of God proving that the grace of God is freely and constantly and abundantly available and is available to all without exception and without qualification. The work of reconciliation begins with forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process – a process of transformation because forgiveness is not something you do, forgiveness is something you become.

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman .....so that there is a miscarriage, .....and yet no further harm follows, .....the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, .....paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, .....then you shall give ..........life for life, ..........eye for eye, ..........tooth for tooth, ..........hand for hand, ..........foot for foot, ..........burn for burn, ..........wound for wound, ..........stripe for stripe. ............................................................................................( Exodus 21:22-25 )

Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: .....fracture for fracture, .....eye for eye, .....tooth for tooth; .....the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. ............................................................................................( Leviticus 24:17-21 )

In the Old Testament are the Commandments and the Law. The law of “eye for eye” was a radical legal reform - punishment would be limited to being proportional to the severity of the crime and limited to the person who committed the crime. Prior justice had been that for a murder or violent assault, the entire family of the murderer or assailant could be slain ( Genesis 34 ). Within this radical reform of the law, we find the roots of individual responsibility and individual rights. Even among these most demanding of laws, forgiveness is offered. Forgiveness is available for sins committed through ignorance ( Leviticus 4; 5:14-19 ); for sins of failure to testify or of uncleanliness ( Leviticus 5:1-13 ); for sins of deception, fraud, robbery, conversion or false testimony ( Leviticus 6:1-7 ); and for sins of impurity ( Leviticus 19:19-22 ). These sins and others like them are sins of trespass. Often, as part of the offense, the offender incurs a debt to the person against whom they committed the offense. In the Lord’s Prayer, we say: .....forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors or we say: .....forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us or we say: .....forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us ............................................................................................( Matthew 6:9-13 )

Regardless of which words are used, the phrase has a much deeper, wider and richer meaning than any we attach to it today. Though the law of the Old Testament is one of the earliest recorded legal reforms, the reform of the law does not stop there. God continued and continues to call us forward to the heart of the law. The law is still here and will always be here while no longer serving as a code of judgment. THE LAW is now only the law. Because of the grace of God, the law is not the metric by which we define and measure and judge our relationship with God. Arising from the heart and essence of the law and transcending the law is the superior and controlling commandments of Love of God and Love of Neighbor as lived and preached by Jesus. The law only defines, measures, judges and spotlights our imperfections, our separation from God, our mortality. The Love of God and Love of Neighbor Commandments, through the life and the Good News message of Jesus, calls us forward from the confines and shackles of the law and onward towards the perfect sinlessness and immortality of God. We are called to be the Kingdom of God - starting here and starting now - and unrestricted by empire or culture or time or place. From a finite journey of inescapable sin and judgment and death, we are called to an infinite journey of love and forgiveness and reconciliation and community - to be the Kingdom of God.

Then Peter came and said to him, .....Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, ..........how often should I forgive? .....As many as seven times?

Jesus said to him, .....Not seven times, ..........but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king .....who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, .....one who owed him ten thousand talents .....was brought to him; and, .....as he could not pay, .....his lord ordered him to be sold, ..........together with his wife ..........and children ..........and all his possessions, ..........and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, .....Have patience with me, ..........and I will pay you everything. And out of pity for him, .....the lord of that slave .....released him and .....forgave him the debt.

But that same slave, .....as he went out, .....came upon one of his fellow slaves .....who owed him a hundred denarii; .....and seizing him by the throat, .....he said, ..........Pay what you owe.

Then his fellow slave fell down .....and pleaded with him, ..........Have patience with me, ...............and I will pay you. But he refused; .....then he went .....and threw him into prison .....until he would pay the debt.

When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, .....they were greatly distressed, .....and they went and reported to their lord .....all that had taken place.

Then his lord summoned him .....and said to him, ..........You wicked slave! ..........I forgave you all that debt ...............because you pleaded with me. ..........Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, ...............as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger .....his lord handed him over to be tortured .....until he would pay his entire debt.

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, .....if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. ............................................................................................( Matthew 18:21-35 )

Peter’s question might have been prompted by this passage from Leviticus:

You shall not render an unjust judgment; .....you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: .....with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, .....and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; .....you shall reprove your neighbor, .....or you will incur guilt yourself.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, .....but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. ............................................................................................( Leviticus 19:15-18 )

Here, in the Law of the Old Testament – preceded by laws about how to worship and how to treat people with honesty and followed by laws about purity and atonement for sin - is a holy admonition for justice, righteous judgement, truth and reason. A holy admonition against vengeance and against even holding a grudge. A holy admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Never is this tested more harshly than when a loved one is murdered and the prosecutor is demonizing the murderer and demanding the death penalty. The survivors and family are told repeatedly that only the death penalty can provide closure. The death penalty is not closure because closure is not an event. Closure is a process – a process of transformation. Closure is a long, difficult, even tortuous process and journey. As such, closure can neither be granted nor initiated with a single event. Closure is a process that is never finished and so, no single event can complete closure. Embracing death and violence is never part of the closure process. Closure grows with an increasing personal dissociation and increasing distance away from death and violence. Closure comes from moving away from hate and vengeance, moving away from rage and retribution. And, at some point, closure can continue only with forgiveness and, if possible, reconciliation. With that comes the realization that we – who have been grievously hurt – also pay a price when the murderer is put to death. The closure journey, with enough time, always reaches the steep slope of forgiveness. Forgiveness itself is a process – a process of transformation because forgiveness is not something you do, forgiveness is something you become. The top of the steep slope of forgiveness is best reached with the face-to-face declaration, “I forgive you.” Capital punishment prevents us from being able to reach that goal. Bud Welch lost his daughter at Oklahoma City and he opposes the death penalty. Because of the execution of Timothy McVeigh, Bud Welch will never be able to have his healing and growth reach fruition. Bud Welch will never be able to face Timothy McVeigh and say, “I forgive you.” That moment would not have been for Timothy McVeigh, it would have been for Bud Welch. Abolishing the death penalty is not for the guilty, it is for the innocent who want to heal and need to reclaim their life and future.

There is no justice in listening to those in so much pain that in an effort to escape their pain they are willing to yank the trapdoor lever, pull the gun trigger, throw the electric switch, or push the syringe. Justice does not come from pain and anger. Justice is not about condemnation. Justice is about restoration. Justice comes from placing more value on life than on death, placing more value on rehabilitation than on retribution. Justice comes from placing more value on the lives of our loved ones than on their deaths. Justice comes from defiantly turning the other cheek in a demand to be treated as an equal. Justice comes from investing in the restoration of the lives of those who have hurt us. There is justice in a successful rehabilitation. Strangely enough, a successful rehabilitation means that the criminal personality has died and in its place is resurrected a new person - healed, restored, made whole and transformed. There is justice in a failed rehabilitation. A failed rehabilitation means that we have better protected the rights of the innocent by protecting the rights of the guilty. A failed rehabilitation means that we have found a better way than the evil and destruction of the crime, that instead of retribution and death, we have chosen rehabilitation and life. A failed rehabilitation means that we have been faithful to the call and grace of God and lived the Good News as the Kingdom of God.

You have heard that it was said, .....An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, .....turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, .....give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, .....go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, .....and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, .....You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and .....pray for those who persecute you, .....so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; .....for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, .....and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, .....what reward do you have? .....Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, .....what more are you doing than others? .....Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. ............................................................................................( Matthew 5:38-48 )

To some, that scripture from Matthew is a call for a passivity that will lead only to the suffering and death of a martyr.

We forget that martyr does not mean “sufferer.” It really means “witness.” Jesus did not suffer because he wanted to or because he could not help it. He suffered because he deliberately provoked the religious authorities to show their true selves. He succeeded. He forced them to reveal the truth about themselves, about their self-serving and limited conception of their holy task. In the process, he died. But in dying, he witnessed to the love and forgiveness of God even for those who killed him. For our sakes, he would not compromise that ultimate truth.

When suffering is the only possible means of witnessing effectively, we accept it as Christians. By the grace of God, it has proved very powerful over the ages. But for most of us most of the time, the best way to witness to the truth is not by suffering. The best way to witness is by standing up, holding up your head, telling what really happened, making a fuss, leaving an abusive situation, calling for justice.

Christian faith does have a commitment to martyrdom – martyrdom in its true meaning as “witnessing” to the love and truth of God. Martyrdom does not mean living like a doormat. There is nothing in the behavior or teaching of Jesus that encourages a life of complete passivity, a life that invites people to step on us. The life of forgiveness would be a strange and harmful kindness if it meant encouraging people in actions that are not good for themselves or for the people they harm.

Forgiveness is not about the past, it is about the future. Forgiveness is about the people doing the forgiving – who we are and who we are becoming. Forgiveness is about turning loose of the past so that we can live fully in the present while we build a new and surprising future with God and with one another. Forgiveness is about closing the door on the past and keeping open a door for future reconciliation and rebuilding. Forgiveness is more about being direct than being diplomatic. Forgiveness calls things by their true names. Forgiveness is not timid, it is fearless. Forgiveness is neither mealy-mouthed nor abusive, it is straightforward. Forgiveness does not seek to harm others by telling the truth. Neither does it refrain from telling the truth just because someone might be inconvenienced or their wrongs brought to light. Forgiveness is not a retreat from reality. To the contrary, it always looks outward. Forgiveness assumes a bold and engaged way of living. ..( excerpted from Forgiven and Forgiving, L. William Countryman, pp.70-71, 76-77 )

*** S P O I L E R *** *** A L E R T ***

This section reveals critical plot details and events of The Shack

If you have not read The Shack, then you might want to skip this section.

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GOD: (speaking to Mack about forgiving the man who kidnapped and murdered Mack's 6-year-old daughter and youngest child, Missy) This is not about shaming you. I don’t do humiliation, or guilt, or condemnation. They don’t produce one speck of wholeness or righteousness. ... Today we are on a healing trail to bring closure to this part of your journey - not just for you, but for others as well. Today, we are throwing a big rock into the lake, and the resulting ripples will reach places you would not expect. ... Son, you need to speak it, to name it. MACK: Papa, how can I ever forgive that son of a bitch who killed my Missy? If he were here today, I don't know what I would do. I know it isn't right, but I want him to hurt like he hurt me... If I can't get justice, I still want revenge. GOD: Mack, for you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him. MACK: Redeem him? I don't want you to redeem him! I want you to hurt him, to punish him, to put him in hell... GOD: (Papa waited patiently for the emotions to ease.) MACK: I'm stuck, Papa. I can't just forget what he did, can I? GOD: Forgiveness is not about forgetting. It is about letting go of another person’s throat. MACK: But I thought you forgot our sins. GOD: Mack, I am God. I forgot nothing. I know everything. ... There is no law demanding that I bring your sins to mind. They are gone when it comes to you and me, and they run no interference in our relationship. MACK: But this man... GOD: But he too is my son. I want to redeem him. MACK: So what then? I just forgive him and everything is okay, and we become buddies? GOD: Forgiveness does not establish relationship. I have forgiven all humans for their sins against me, but only some choose relationship. Forgiveness is an incredible power – a power you share with [me], a power [I give] to all [I indwell] so that reconciliation can grow. MACK: I don't think I can do this. GOD: Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly. Do you think this man cares about the pain and torment you have gone through? If anything, he feeds on that knowledge. Don't you want to cut that off? And in doing so, you'll release him from a burden that he carries whether he knows it or not - acknowledges it or not. When you choose to forgive another, you love him well. MACK: I do not love him. GOD: Not today, you don’t. But I do, not for what he’s become, but for the broken child that has been twisted by his pain. I want to help you take on the nature that finds more power in love and forgiveness than hate. ... Forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their minds and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release him from judgement, but without true change, no real relationship can be established. MACK: So forgiveness does not require me to pretend what he did never happened? GOD: How can you? But you can love him in the face of it. Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive. But should he finally confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you a bridge of reconciliation. And sometimes – and this may seem incomprehensible to you right now – that road may even take you to the miracle of fully restored trust. Forgiveness does not excuse anything. Believe me, the last thing this man is, is free. And you have no duty to justice in this. I will handle that. MACK: Help me, Papa. Help me! What do I do? How do I forgive him? GOD: Tell him. Just say it out loud. There is power in what my children declare. MACK: I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you. GOD: Mackenzie, you are such a joy. MACK: So is it all right if I’m still angry? GOD: Absolutely! What he did was terrible. He caused incredible pain to many. It was wrong, and anger is the right response to something that is so wrong. But don’t let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck. ...................................( excerpted from: The Shack, William Paul Young, pp. 225-229 )

Jesus does more than answer with words from the strict law of the Old Testament. Jesus lifts those words of love and forgiveness from the midst of the law and very plainly reveals to all of us that the words “You shall love the Lord your God” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – these words are the very heart and essence of the law, these words are what the purpose of the law has always been.

God has a purpose for each one of us. The purpose of God for each one of us is reconciliation – reconciliation between each other and reconciliation between ourselves and God. God is engaged in a relentless search for the wayward children of God. God is the loving parent who never stops watching for the prodigal child ( Luke 15:11-32 ). God is the cleaning woman who never, never gives up searching for the one lost coin ( Luke 15:8-10 ). God is the good shepherd who never, never, never gives up searching for the one lost sheep ( Luke 15:3-7, Matthew 18:10-14 ). If God does not give up on us, then who are we to give up on each other?

In the play “All My Sons” by Tennessee Williams, a father, Joe Keller, is finally made to realize that he sold defective engines to the United States Air Force during World War II. The defective engines were responsible for several fatal plane crashes including the one that killed his own son. Late in the play, Joe Keller faces the hard reality of the conviction and condemnation of his own conscience and then tragically accepts through suicide that all the men who died in the place crashes for which he was directly responsible were indeed “all my sons.”

In the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” the victim is described only as “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves” ( Luke 10:25-37 ). Because of the location of his trip, we assume that he is Judean. Nothing is said about his race or marital status or family, his political or occupational or educational achievements, his economic status, his sexual preference, whether he has a criminal record, whether he is HIV or STD positive, whether he is a substance abuser - we know nothing about his goodness or badness or blandness. We know nothing of his character or history. His rescuer is a Samaritan and we are as ignorant of the Samaritan as we are of the Judean who was robbed and beaten. It is important to remember that at the time of the telling of this parable, Judah and Samaria were as cordial as present day Israel and Palestine. All we know is what happened to the Judean and how the Samaritan responded and that the response of the Samaritan was right and good and holy. The response of the Samaritan illustrates the Good News in action. In this parable, the response of the Samaritan portrays how we are to be the Kingdom of God - here and now - regardless of personal safety or blind assumptions, regardless of cultural expectations or dissuasions, regardless of empire requirements or restrictions.

Contrast these two views of the family of humanity. Tennessee Williams presents a narrow Old Testament view. We are bonded together through guilt and sin under the spiritual parentage of a wrathful God. The parable of the Good Samaritan presents a view that says each one of us is a child of God, resurrected by the grace of God, transformed by the love of God, and as children of God, we are reconciled and united by and for hospitality, generosity, justice and service.

Our mortal journey moves from life to death. Our faith journey moves from death to life. Our witness moves from retribution to rehabilitation, from vengeance to forgiveness. We will be free of the evil of the crime, the paralysis of the grief, the blindness of vengeance when we decide it is more important to celebrate with our lives the light of the lives of our lost loved ones instead of memorializing their loss by dwelling in the darkness of their death. We will be healed when we can say to the face of the wrong-doers, “Curtis Holsinger and Frank Dennis and Jessica Lopez, you are forgiven, you are forgiven, you are forgiven.” We will be reconciled and will have traveled well the forgiveness road when we can say that Curtis Holsinger and Frank Dennis and Jessica Lopez are children of God, the same as us, and we - the children of God - do not need abandonment or destruction or death. We, the children of God, need justice as a source of restoration. We, the children of God, need rehabilitation and forgiveness and reconciliation. We, the children of God, need grace and resurrection and transformation.

Justice is a righteous act. Justice is an act of righteousness, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconciliation. Justice can never be served or achieved with a wrongful act or with an act that makes justice impossible.

God does not call us to a life of war, violence, justice as condemnation and retribution, or hate - or to a nebulous life yet to be lived at some undefinable place at some unknowable time in an unpredictable future that is perpetually and uselessly beyond our grasp and existence.

God does call us to live - here and now - a  life of peace, a life of non-violence without vengeance, a life of forgiveness and reconciliation, a life of justice as rehabilitation and restoration, a life of hospitality, generosity, service and love. God does call us to live - here and now - the Good News. God does call us to be - here and now - the Kingdom of God.

Amen

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Doug is a member of Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 4950 East Wabash Avenue, P.O. Box 3125, Terre Haute, IN 47803-0125 (812-877-9959). Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is an open and affirming congregation where Doug has served as Elder and Treasurer and enjoys his continuing membership in the choir as the lowest voiced bass. He graduated in 2009 with a M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from Indiana State University and a BS in Management Information Systems from Ball State University in 1997. Since August 2005, he has been a member of the CIS Adjunct Faculty at the Terre Haute campus of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. He has been published in DisciplesWorld and Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. Doug is married to Carol, a First Grade teacher, and is the father of two sons. Jason is a professional musician (oboe, flute, English horn, and piccolo) who is working on a Master's degree and licensure in Special Education.

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in sequence, the previous [D]mergent articles by Doug Sloan: RECLAIMING CHURCH........still the #1 most-viewed article at [D]mergent and ...........................the lead article in a series calling for a radical Second Reformation ..................in Christian theology and in the structure of the institutional church and ..............in the family of faith - all to be considered as a way of living here and now. GOD IS......................................the #6 most-viewed article at [D]mergent. ....................More of an on-going participatory meditation than a finished definition. RECLAIMING GOD................a continuation of and response to GOD IS... RECLAIMING MIRACLES ...Miracles are prohibitively expensive. RECLAIMING NOT................now the #3 most-viewed article at [D]mergent and RECLAIMING NOT...................the controversial list of what is not the Good News. RECLAIMING the GOOD NEWS - an epistle ...what is the Good News.

...with great love and appreciation, this article is dedicated to: Jason Sloan, my younger son, who continues to love me and has never given up on his imperfect earthly father, and Carol Sloan, my wife, whose steadfast love and loyalty is a blessing and a treasure beyond measure, worth, and words.

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It will be a few months before another article can be posted. It is time for me to return to the classroom as a member of the Ivy Tech CIS Adjunct Faculty. Speaking engagements can be arranged at: dcsloan128@msn.com.

There’s Still Hope — A Lectionary Meditation

There’s Still Hope Persistence – that is the message of Jesus’ parable in Luke 11. Just after teaching the disciples an abridged form of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells a parable about a man who wakes up his neighbor at midnight so he can feed a friend who has dropped by unexpectedly – in the middle of the night – and is now hungry. In that culture, if someone drops by, you feed them, but what do you do when the cupboard is bare? You go knock on your neighbor’s door – sort of like Sheldon knocking on Leonard’s or Penny’s door (Big Bang Theory). The neighbor might not get up and help out from friendship, but if you knock long enough, well then perhaps the neighbor will give in, get up, and get the bread. Of course, God isn’t like that neighbor who has to be pestered into helping.

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