chalice press

Recommending Wilderness Blessings

By: Rev. J.C. Mitchell

Not that many years ago, my wife and I went for an ultrasound which left us scared, and we were given an appointment for another ultrasound at the hospital with a skilled doctor who simply analyzes visual pictures created by sound waves.  The worry was that there were two markers of Down syndrome.  Being clergy, we shared this fear in prayer at the church we attended together in the evening, after working at our respective morning churches.  A retired minister came up to me in fellowship time and was pastorally navigating this raw situation.  This wonderful man, David, was sharing very carefully that all people are people, when I said to him we are not mourning having a child with special needs, we are mourning the loss of our perfect dream and admitting we are scared, for no matter what, this is our child.  He smiled and said, “You will be good parents.”  At that hospital appointment, we found out that there was no reason to be concerned, but I am glad we had that moment, for I believed it helped us as parents to deal with our son’s autism which became obvious when he was about 18 months.  We had this cathartic moment to remind us that our fear is ours, not our son’s.  

There are many stories of children with special needs and often I share from my experience, but today I want to recommend a book by Rev. Jeffrey M. Gallagher, Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and FaithThis is the story of a pastor whose son Jacob was born with serious heart issues and Down syndrome.  Looking back through the Caring Bridge entries during the two surgeries of his son’s first year, he shares what it means to see the Body of Christ to include everyone through the lens of differing abilities.  Gallagher asks, and then admits by answering his own question, “So what makes Jacob’s story so special then?  Nothing.  And everything. And that’s exactly the reason why I felt so compelled to write this book.” (163)  I am so thankful that this very specific story shared is understood to be also a universal story for people with different abilities.

I must admit that I have been obsessed with Theology of Disability since Gallagher’s editor and mutual good friend, Rev. Dr. Beth Hoffman, introduced me to his way of thinking at the same seminary Gallagher attended (he graduated the year I began). Now having a son with different abilities and a new ministry that upholds creating a loving inclusive culture no matter of ability, I would of course read this book.  Also, having had a sister that was born with a heart condition that required surgery when she was a young child, I was compelled by this story of” J-Dawg’s” (Jacob’s) surgery.  However, I do not simply recommend this book to people that have children with Down syndrome, or other different abilities, nor for people that know what it is like to have a child need serious surgery.

I recommend this book to those that do not, as well as those that do have a child with different abilities. So often I talk about the theology of disability to pastors and lay people at conferences or coffee shops (or anywhere I go), and generally the response is to reply “that is interesting.”  Then they tell me some sort of success story they know, either in their church or another.  I listen intently because I love success stories, but I try to bring it back to why it is important to actually understand what it means to be an Open and Affirming church, which is not simply to be for equal marriage.  Don’t get me wrong--I like the success stories, but I recall once when serving in Massachusetts a youth saying we are not racist in that state because we elected Deval Patrick governor.  I know that is a success story, but I also know there are still systemic racism in the Bay Colony. 

Jeffery Gallagher engages the reader through this very tough first year in the raw entries from the Caring Bridge page.  He also brings in other future events up to the current reality, and leads the reader to understand what it is to have a child with special needs.  While not all have such life threatening surgeries, it is a story that resonates with the reality of raising a child that has different abilities.  Gallagher admits, “Looking back on these posts has revealed just how much of Jacob’s journey at the hospital is a metaphor for the life that we have lived with him.” (137)  There are steps forward and steps backward, the uncertainty that is the only certainty, and advocacy is needed throughout Jacob’s life. 

Gallagher writes this story in a very compelling narrative for those that know nothing about having a child with special needs.  You will be drawn into a wonderful story of vulnerability and love, and gently introduced to the theology of disability, which will only enhance one’s appreciation of the church as a place of belonging for everyone. 

To purchase this wonderful book please go to Chalice Press Website.

Gallagher, Jeffery.  Wilderness Blessings: How Down Syndrome Reconstructed Our Life and Faith.  Chalice Press: St. Louis, Missouri, 2013.

WildernessBlessings_400.jpg

The Hyphenateds

Check out The Hyphenateds, our new sponsor from Chalice Press, edited by [D]mergent contributor, Phil Snider.

Can emergence Christianity help established denominations understand that radical transformation means more than a new worship service?  When hearing complaints that church is irrelevant, can mainliners understand that reclaiming relevancy means more than changing meeting locations from church buildings to coffeeshops?  Yes, say the writers of The Hyphenateds, as they show you how they've done it.

(From the back cover)

Includes contributions from such heavyweights in emergence Christianity as:

Click on this link and buy the dang book!

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.