April 14, 2014

Holiness Is Not The Goal

It's means to an end, at least according to Peter.

A few days back, I had an exchange with Richard Beck on his blog, and his replies got me to thinking. As is usual for me, it takes a few days of an idea tumbling around my subconscious for it to become something I can express.

His blog post was about the practice of kenosis and the contrast of what this looks like in the lives of people with power and privilege and people who are oppressed and victimized. I commented that is has to start with love, especially in terms of speaking about sins. Richard aptly noted that when we speak of sin, we generally are speaking about the sins of others, rather than our own. However, when we look at our own sin, we should be looking at the sin of not loving others (Rom 13:10 -  Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.)

He also noted that we are called to be holy and pure, bringing up 1 Peter 1: 16 & 22. (because it is written, "YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY." and Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart) 

For Peter, holiness and purity is connected to our loving others. We make ourselves holy, not so that we are protected from the impurity and contamination of the world and others, but so that we can actually love them. And this moving in love is our work to do, not a result of our purity and sanctification.

In 1Pet. 16:22, we have two different types of love being talked about. Purifying our souls takes us into brotherly (philadelphian) love. The Greek here shows that the brotherly love is a noun that we are placed into. From there, Peter commands us to practice agape love (agap─ôsate), an imperative verb. It is in this practice of agape love towards others that we find ourselves in fulfillment of the law. But what does this look like in our individual lives?

"Speaking the truth in love" gets thrown about in Christian circles a lot. Much of the time, it's used to excuse our offending other people with our ideological statements. But here's the rub: if you don't actually love the person(s) to whom you're referring, you're not really speaking the truth. If we're struggling with some sin in our lives of which we haven't purified ourselves, we're not fully placed into that brotherly love. But, if we look at the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), we have to consider that one of the big sins from which we must purify ourselves is the sin of not loving (judging and condemning) others.   

So we tell the rhetorical 'others' to purify themselves in order to get right with God, all the while not realizing that we are defiling ourselves by doing that. Ephesians 4 tells us to "lay aside falsehood" to speak truth to our neighbor. The biggest falsehood we have to lay aside is not loving our neighbor in a real and meaningful way. This means we have to have a real relationship with them. We have to know them, and see them as we see ourselves, as someone who needs God's grace in the same way we need it. 1 Pet. 1:13 tells us to " fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." If we're completely fixed upon that grace, then it's going to be extended to others, expressed in loving relationship. 

Open-ended declarations against the sins of unnamed (and largely unknown to our hearts) 'sinners' don't express the grace and love which our our own work of purification brings us into. And we're just compounding our own sins when we do that. When we're in an actual loving relationship with someone, we can speak that truth without causing offense and worldly sorrow and pain. In a real, loving relationship, that truth will bring about the godly sorrow that leads to repentance.

What it boils down to, is that we can't simply decry the sins of an entire group of people, especially if we don't actually know and love someone in that group. If we feel that the sin is important enough for us to declare to them, then we need to avoid sinning ourselves by taking the time and doing the work to know and love that person. That's a big part of our own purification. It requires humble kenosis (emptying ourselves) on our part. 

Emptying ourselves of the Pharisee's pride.

Emptying ourselves of our false image of ourselves.

The true love of being a loving and humble servant to others.

Knowing ourselves and our need for Christ, and who we truly are in Him.

That's the goal of holiness.

April 11, 2014

Theologies and Psychologies

A while back, I made a comment on one of Zach Hoag's blog posts, and a phrase I wrote resonated with him: "Theologies reveal psychologies."  Now, depending on your experience, you could understand it, agree with it, or think it's completely off-base. Since I said it, I obviously agree with it, but I think I should develop it into a deeper and more complete line of thought.

First off, we need to realize that it's a two-way street. Not only do our theologies reveal our psychologies, theologies also influence psychologies, and I'll readily admit that my story demonstrates both. Let's look at both points.

Theology reveals Psychology

There are many ways this could be investigated, but the easiest to examine, and the primary way it manifests itself, I think, is in the parallel of how we think God sees humanity and how we see humanity. Show me a person that constantly emphasizes God's wrath, and characterizes people (sinners) as the object of that wrath, and I'll show you a wounded and angry person that distrusts and dislikes people in general. They may well say and do a lot of things that are humanitarian in nature, and give real physical help to people, but I would submit that those actions arise from feelings of pity, rather than love. People are evil and in need of God's pity, and so they view themselves and others in the same way.

Then take the person that is convinced that God loves only a few people, and He has intended to condemn most people from the very beginning. You're likely to notice how people within the in-group (the Elect) are celebrated as "Godly" people and that people outside the group are "enemies" that wish nothing but to destroy the in-group. Everything they do revolves around sustaining the boundary between "us" and "them". When the horrible events of life hit someone, it's evidence that God has decreed that they deserve to suffer, and very little compassion and connection can be extended.

Then there's the person that is completely convinced that God loves them deeply and fully, and that He feels the same about everyone, and became the God that experienced death in order to defeat death and Satan for us. Those are people that love in a way that is willing to embrace pain and suffering to help relieve the pain and suffering of others. They give freely of all that they are, sometimes in a way that makes them unrecognizable to the world for the avatars of love which they truly are.  

The reality of the matter is that none of us can study the Bible as believers in a vacuum estranged from our experience, pain, hopes, and ultimately, our personality and worldviews. We cherry-pick the parts on which we will place more emphasis and give more weight, although we may deny that fact vehemently. We allow the conscious and sub-conscious ideas in our minds to determine the kind of God we declare to the world. If we declare that God only loves a chosen few, can we absolutely declare, with absolute honesty, that our view of God is uncolored by our feelings and experience about love? If our conception of love has been defined by exclusivity, by loving only a few, or feeling loved by few, can we really say that our view of God hasn't been affected by that? Likewise, if we feel that there is some grouping of people deserving of our scorn (whether ethnic, ideological, or behavioral, i.e. criminals/sinners), is it realistic for anyone to expect that our declarations about God haven't been affected by that? These last questions lead us into the next section.

Theology influences Psychology (and Vice-Versa)

What if churches were not just a place to worship, but communities that could bring deep and effective healing and reconciliation into our lives? What if we had a real way to changes hearts and lives, to bring the awesome humility that comes with episodes of deep spiritual healing and acceptance? Well, we do have the way to do that, but there are so many churches in America that refuse to embrace the complex nature of how that can happen. Churches that get invested into a worldview that wants to exclude psychiatric therapies that include admittedly secular methods, that want desperately to see Jesus as the source of all healing, yet want to limit the ways in which He brings that healing. Churches that don't want to be seen as endorsing anything that is "un-biblical." Churches that care more about growth than health.

Our church communities influence us in not only the words from the pulpit, but also in the attitudes that define the community's practices. Do we view sin as a contaminant that must be rooted out and excluded, or do we see it as a common part of our human experience, a part from which we all need to seek continual healing and progress? Do we view our own holiness as an image to present to the world, or as part of the healing that increases our connection to each other in our church community and to those outside as well?

These attitudes will affect people who come into our communities on a superficial basis. People who are not what we would call "dedicated church-goers" or "hard-core church/denominational folks" will accept or refuse attendance at a church depending on how they feel about the experience (those who are closely examining the theology to see what they think about the church fit into the 'Theology reveals Psychology' group more so than this one).

It's too easy to say, and quite disingenuous, to say that a church at which person x feels comfortable is a healthy church. Churches can reinforce our exclusionistic perception of our injuries. We can feel safe and protected in a church that tells us that all our problems are due to others/satan/the world/etc. But this might not be a place that can bring real and deep healing and connection. These same churches can cause just as much, if not more damage to people who have been victims of abuse.

That bears repeating: these same churches can cause just as much, if not more damage to people who have been victims of abuse. A church community that seeks true healing for everyone is a church that has experienced true healing. And healing and reconciliation are two very different things. Reconciliation is NOT a part of the healing process. It is, however, a part of the process of which a community regains comfort and equilibrium. Is the community demanding reconciliation between the abused and the abuser, or is it demanding reconciliation between the abused and the world a large? Is it demanding more of the abused or the abuser? Does it want the abuser restored to a place in the community, or the well-being of the abused ones?

A healthy community of people who are healing in a healthy way lays blame in appropriate places, and only in appropriate places.

What we get from our church communities reinforces and strengthens what we already feel about ourselves and others. The biggest thing that gets reinforced from this is the 'us v. them' or 'we're all in this together' paradigm. And that reinforcement works in exclusionary and inclusionary ways.

Who is welcome? Those who wish to look and act just like 'us', or anyone, even tatooed-up, ear-pierced me? Those who agree with the group politically, or those that bug the daylights out of us? If we have a desire to be 'a part of' or 'separated from' we can get those feelings justified and reinforced at a church.

Jesus gave a comforting welcome to all sorts of people that would make any of us uncomfortable. We like to twist His words and actions in ways that protect our sense of 'us v. them', but everything He did was to make us uncomfortable with that dichotomy.

Do we want to be like Him or 'us'?

March 10, 2014

Koinonia, Kenosis, and Charis in The Lord's Supper

On Sunday, I gave the communion and offering prayers, as well as short talks for each. I got some very nice feedback from the talks, so I want to flesh the ideas out a bit here.

I used Philippians for my texts, highlighting the depth of some Greek words that translate into English words that convey a more limited sense than the Greek words do. I think these words and concepts translate well onto the Lord's Supper and the offering, even though Philippians never speaks directly to observance of the Eucharist. From Philippians, I highlighted three Greek words, koinonia, kenosis, and charis; fellowship, emptying, and grace in English.

I. Koinonia.  
 For the bread that represents Christ's body, Philippians 3:8-11 demonstrates this fellowship:
8More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship (Koinonia) of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Emphasis mine)
Koinonia is much more than what we tend to view as fellowship today. It's much more than the sense of brotherhood and conviviality we enjoy at our fellowship dinners and gatherings, it's a participation and sharing in all of life's events. It's something that is always active and purposeful, and not simply a passive occurrence that we experience.

In His body that suffered for us, we participate in the fellowship of His sufferings. For us, this is comforting and frightening at the same time. We draw comfort from knowing that we serve a King who fully understands all of our pain and suffering, fear and loneliness. He knows that horrible place in the midst of life's worst events where we scream to God, "Why? Why? Where are You?" He asked the same upon the Cross. At the same time, He asks us to confront our fears as we participate in this fellowship of suffering. He asks us to stand beside others when they are in the midst of crying out that agonizing question, and to be brave enough to admit to ourselves and each other that we don't know, but we trust.

II. Kenosis

In His blood that was poured out for us on the Cross, Philippians 2:4-8 give us an example of how to live this emptying, this pouring out of ourselves:
4do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied (kenosis) Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
His pouring out of love and blood becomes our outpouring of love for each other. As His blood covers our sins from the sight of God, our deep love for each other covers a multitude of sins for each other. His blood that was shed frees us from the slavery of the fear of death, and as we continue to empty ourselves, we are able to use that freedom to practice the true religion James wrote about, visiting orphans and widows in their distress. We walk up to the captive and proclaim freedom, the freedom that comes by becoming His servant  And as we empty ourselves in love, we find we become filled by His love and compassion.

III. Charis

Grace, and the active sharing of grace is shown in Philippians 1: 5-7, and displays the true spirit within our offerings and giving:
5in view of your participation (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now. 6For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. 7For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace (charis) with me.
This grace that we partake of with Paul is something with a much wider meaning than only the saving grace of God. This grace is alive and active within us; it participates in our lives as we actively share it. It increases our love, it expresses itself in gratitude, and it brings us joy, the joy of God that is our strength. Our offerings are the grace of God in which we partake, extended to others. It isn't limited to the giving of money, it's giving of our love and our selves. It's living out kenosis and koinonia.

Christ asked us specifically to observe His Supper in remembrance of Him . And we should view it more than just a remembrance of what He did for us; it's a call to remember the other things he asked us to do for Him.

February 27, 2014

On Extending Grace

Last night, I encountered something that once would have made me angry, but now it just makes me really sad. It was during a Bible study, and the discussion was on why "Love the sinner, hate the sin" isn't what we should be practicing as Christians. The explanation was great (and from a perspective that I hadn't yet considered), but during the discussion, the proposed Arizona law allowing religious principles as an affirmative defense for discrimination by a business came up. What I heard sounded a lot like "Those sinners are attacking us! We have to be judgmental to protect ourselves!" to me. A need for a new volley of arrows in the Great American Culture War.

Now, typically, my response would be to start angrily railing about them being bigoted hypocrites. But since the Holy Spirit has started softening my heart, and scrubbing the crustiness off of my soul, I was just saddened. The only response I had was about the contradiction of being asked to practice love and practice hate by the same cliche. I wanted to write last night, but couldn't manage to do anything until this morning.

"Love the sinner, hate the sin." I have yet to meet anyone that can effectively keep the 'sinner/sin' paradigm in a proper perspective. If we can't properly keep sinner separate from sin, then as we try to practice love and hate at the same time, both love and hate will wind up being directed at the wrong object.

January 27, 2014

Embracing My Irrelevance

I'm irrelevant.

Not young enough to be handsome anymore.
Not old enough to be considered wise.
Not credentialed enough to be considered learned.

Churches talk about being 'relevant', but all they're doing is declaring who gets to be 
relevant' to them.

Relevance is something that is bestowed by the Other; a gift given to those deemed 'worthy', 'beautiful', 'smart', or 'iconoclastic'. And if you don't fit into those groups, or pander to the relevance givers, you get ignored. Completely.

I know I'm not relevant, and I never will be. Heck, I doubt anyone will actually bother to read this. Most of the hits I get last about five seconds; just long enough to get put into the "tl;dr" category.

January 17, 2014

I Can't Stop Running

My 49th birthday is approaching rapidly. My body tells me every morning that it's not happy to go along with the program of getting up and moving around anymore.

By all rights I should be settling down into a role of advocating for a return to the good old days, with that old time religion. You know, the one where they preach the "Gospel®". The one where you just follow the tried-and-tested Formula™ (Sinner's Prayer, Repent and be Baptized, Get Slain in the Spirit, etc.) and you get your official "Get Out Of Hell Free" card.


Cheap religion, cheap grace, cheap salvation... until it's time to tithe. Then you'd better dig deep.

December 20, 2013

In Which The Phil Robertson Event Becomes Irrelevant

So it's a day or so after Billy Whiskers Phil Robertson helped to stir up all sorts of outrage over his comments concerning gays and blacks in civil-rights era Louisiana. I still think that Phil owes the LGBTQ community an apology for the dehumanizing tone of his statements and members of the church of Christ (and Christians at large) an apology for the coarse and vulgar manner of stating his opinion that served only to bring reproach upon himself and the church at large. A man that serves as an elder should be mature and compassionate enough to know how to speak in a more gracious manner.

But that's all irrelevant.

For lots of reasons, in the big picture, but for a very specific reason in my life.

This morning I received a phone call from my dearest friend. I answered expecting to hear her cheerful voice, but I heard the choking gasps of anguished grief.

December 19, 2013

Why Phil Robertson Hurts the Church of Christ

I'm a member of the church of Christ (coC) denomination, just like Phil Robertson, the ZZ Top imitator that's the star of a reality TV show. There's a big difference between us, though. I was raised in the coC from childhood, and left it for a decade due to people with attitudes like Mr. Robertson promoted. Trust me when I tell you that when a coC member expresses his opinion in the way Phil did, you can bet that the LGBT community and people of color aren't the only ones looked down upon by them. Anyone that doesn't agree with their doctrine, people with mental illness, divorced people, feminists and women are second-class citizens in their worldview. That's because their worldview consists of the 'saved' inside the conservative coC and everyone else that is 'outside' of the coC.

There are a lot of people in the coC that want to move forward with gender equality and a new discussion on sexuality, but the reactions to Phil's comments are going to do nothing but cause a lot of people that are in the 'undecided' category to hunker down and retreat into the old exclusivist sectarian doctrine. That's going to shut down the possibility of gender equality discussions in a lot of coC congregations, and put back an open dialogue on human sexuality a decade or two.

December 17, 2013

Burning the Witches

Even though we think we're all compassionate and forgiving as Christians, we still love to burn us some witches.

Today, Rachel Held Evans tweeted about finding some of her work plagiarized by Amy L. Fritz in a blog post (since removed). This instance of plagiarism was nine paragraphs copied verbatim from a post Rachel wrote for Qideas. Of course, Twitter caught for immediately, with critical chirps and squawks aimed at Amy, her husband, and eventually back at Rachel.

December 5, 2013

Choose Your Lens

The more I've looked at my own heart, and watched the struggles of other people, the more I'm convinced that the problems and divisions manifesting themselves in Christianity these days isn't about lack of knowledge.

We all have a problem with vision. Not the 'vision' of future plans, but of our spiritual eyesight.

We make so many theological decisions that have huge personal and social implications for us based solely on evidence presented to us. But how we look at that evidence makes a world of difference in how we treat others and ourselves.

Do we see the world as fallen into evil, or do we see it as God's good creation? Do we see people as depraved sinners, or do we see each person as a bearer of God's image ? Are we living out the law of sin and death, or the law of love?