Tag Archives: theology

Reconciling Theology: It’s Bigger than Gandhi’s Fate

04 Gandhi statue. Tavistock Square, Londonphoto © 2006 Jose Mesa | more info (via: Wylio)

“The end is reconciliation; the end is

redemption; the end is the creation

of the beloved community.”

– ML King, Jr.

In just one week, my post titled “Will Gandhi Burn” became one of my top five most popular posts of all time.  It also drew a good number of very insightful comments which made me want to unpack this issue a bit more.  This week I would like to dig a little deeper into Jay’s comment:

“We diminish Jesus death and resurrection if we do not lean fully into His great big, grand salvation plan (the redemption of all things Col 1).”

Like Jay, I think when we over emphasize “individual salvation” we miss the fuller understanding of Christ work of reconciling all things.  Many other writers and theologians also agree that our obsession with the afterlife and who is “in” and who is “out” has gotten us completely off track.  This quote from Richard Stearns, “The Hole in Our Gospel” says it best,

“The Kingdom for Christ was not intended to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife; no, Christ’s proclamation of the “kingdom of heaven” was a call for the redeemed world order populated by redeemed people – now.  Focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life.  The kingdom of God, which Christ said is “within you” (Luke 17:21), was intended to change and challenge everything in our fallen world in the here and now. In the Lords prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” were and are a clarion call of Jesus’ followers not just to proclaim the good news but to be the good news, here and now. (Matt. 6:10)  This gospel – the whole gospel – means much more than the personal salvation of individuals.  It means a social revolution.”

When I spoke with Jay this week, he suggested I read Operation: Restoration by Eric Smith.   Below are a few excerpts from that text.

“More than any other single topic, Christ taught about the Kingdom of God, which is the world as it ought to be—a world marked by harmonious relationships, a sufficiency of resources, and shalom living. Scriptures about the new heavens and a new earth describe a scenario where God’s reign is made fully manifest. (Isaiah 65:17-25, Revelations 21:1-7 & 22:1-5) They give us a clear picture of what Christ means when He talks about the Kingdom of God.

Christ’s program of healing and casting out demons was meant to be a concrete expression of this new reality breaking into a fallen world. Not only did Jesus talk about it, He taught us to pray about it. The Kingdom was Christ’s framework for describing the world when God’s reign is complete—where His values and agenda are fully manifested.

God’s intention for the whole creation, and especially for human beings, was that all things should exist in peaceful, loving harmony so that the whole creation could flourish. This is shalom; all things as God intended them to be and do. And all people living up to their full potential as His image-bearers.

The Church is sometimes referred to as, “the people of God doing the work of God.” This definition begs the question, what is the work of God? Another way of asking that question is, what is the agenda of God? And what role do we have in living this agenda in our communities.”

2nd Corinthians puts it like this:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 NIV).”

Eric Smith summarizes with this:

“Christ’s mission was to reconcile all things, both spiritual and physical, both individual and corporate. In order to have an impact at the individual (mercy) level, the Church must also have an impact at the corporate (justice) level. The Church must be missional in its mindset, holistic in its approach and transformational in its impact.”

I loved these words from Sammy Williams blog post titled “Genesis”

“Well, it’s amazing how many Christians begin the biblical story with Genesis 3, focusing on sin and the fall of humanity. Neither the word sin nor the word fall occurs in Genesis 3. If you begin the story with Genesis 3, the primary issue becomes the removal of sin and the posture toward people is who we are not (not worthy, not holy, not good enough). If you begin the story with Genesis 1 and 2, the story becomes about the restoration/renewal/reconciliation of all things, which obviously includes the removal of sin but extends to the ends of the cosmos.”

I’m with Dr. King, Jay, Richard, Eric, Sammy, the Apostle Paul and Jesus – our job as Christians is to remember that all of us are children of God, created in God’s image.  Christ is calling us to be “reconcilers,” people who see the beauty of the original design of creation and who are ushering in the Kingdom of God here and now.

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A new twist on the conversation: Fire Insurance vs Justice

Over the past few weeks, I have read a large number of posts related to how we define the Gospel and how we communicate it in a way that leads people to faith in Christ.  Scott McKnight’s post Viral Gospel takes the conversation a bit deeper.  He attempts to define two consensus points which I agree most people who visit the Jesus Creed site agree on.  In summary, 1.) the old method of sharing the gospel as “fire insurance” is overly reductionist and 2.) Any attempt to define the Gospel must include an emphasis on the Kingdom if it is to accurately reflect Jesus’ teachings.

I think McKnight’s two consensus points are a good place to start to wrestle with how we share the Gospel.  However, as both Kimball, McKnight and I myself in my post “Social Justice vs Evangelism” point out, any message that attempts to reduce the Gospel down too much and becomes overly focused on one element of Christ’s message, is dangerous.

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Giving Up on Serving the Poor

Over the years I have met many people who have said to me “I gave up on serving the poor” for a variety of reasons; they became too busy, they got burned, they did not feel like they were making a difference or did not feel like they were appreciated.  However, Claudio Oliver gives an even better reason in a post on the site  The Ooze titled “Why I stopped serving the poor”.  Below is a small excerpt from the post.  I encourage you to read the full article.

“I’ve given up on helping the poor, given up on serving and saving them. I have rediscovered a hard truth:

Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those who serve the poor. Jesus didn’t come to bring good news of the Kingdom to those who serve the poor; he brought Good News to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah, or Redeemer.

God Shows Up in Our Need to Be Healed

Jesus’ agenda only brings a message for those who recognize themselves as poor, naked, hurt, tired, overburdened, needy and hopeless. As for the rest, his agenda has little or nothing to offer.

The only way to remain with the poor is if we discover that we are the miserable ones. We remain with the poor when we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes. When we can see our own misery and poverty in them, when we realize our own needs and our desperate need to be saved and liberated, then and only then will we meet Jesus and live life according to His agenda.

God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed. Finding out this weakness of ours leaves us in a position of having nothing to offer, serve, donate, but reveals our need to be loved, healed and restored.

Herein lies the meaning that the power within us is not the power of our strengths, abilities and wealth, but rather, in the power that is present in our personal misery, so well hidden and disguised in our possessions and false securities. As Jean Vanier says in a book I recently read. “We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion, and love through our wounds.”

I have given up on serving the poor. I’m going back to encountering the poor and finding myself in them. I have rediscovered my poverty. And with it I can cry out again: “Son of David, have mercy on me.

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Filed under Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Safe Spaces to Question

Steve Holt, in his post appearing on Jim Wallis blog “God Politics” titled “God is Big Enough to take our Doubt and Anger” writes “What if, little by little, we started to believe that God is big enough to take our doubt and anger? What if we changed our culture of false pretenses? What if we began to not only share our struggles along with our joys, but were present to lend an ear to a struggling friend, without judgment? What if our hymnody, sermons, and prayers began to reflect more fully the range of human emotions, including doubt, fear, and anger?”

Steve Holts post reflects upon the ministry of Peter Rollins whom I had the privilege of hearing speak last year when he came to Richmond.  Some how Peter Rollins, through his own ministry has created safe spaces for people both Christians and non-Christians to share their questions and doubts without being told they are “wrong”, “uninformed” or simply “ignorant” of the “truth”.  I find it sad that the venue in which he did this was pubs because the church is unwilling to embrace the fact that even good Christians have doubts and questions. Holts article vividly illustrates what happens when we do not create safe spaces for people to be authentic in sharing their beliefs and require people to simply “play the part” ignoring their own questions and doubts instead of embracing them.

This is an excellent article, I hope you all will read the full post.

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Confessing my Ignorance – Revised

I have made a few minor changes to this post because as a friend of mine pointed out, I committed an error of omission, by saying “I don’t know” and not explaining further.  Apparently my original post gave the impression that I did not believe anything profound happened on the cross which in no way represents my personal beliefs.  I hope these modifications will bring clarity to this post.

In my post “The Rainbow of our Faith” I shared that I work with a very diverse group of Christians.  This evening I was reading an interview with Dallas Willard posted at  http://conversationsjournal.com.  I realized that one of the most divisive issues among Christians relates to our respective atonement theories.  I personally have an issue with  penal substitutionary atonement (the belief that Jesus died to appease an angry God).  This week I was asked “Why did Christ have to die?”  I was totally honest and replied “I really don’t know.”  I now realize that that was a poor choice of words (thus the need to modify this post).  What I should have said is “I think it is a mystery.  I know something incredible happened but I honestly can not describe it in human terms. I do believe that it is by Christ death and resurrection that I am able to experience God through the Holy Spirit in my life but I can not define exactly how that mystery takes place.” I felt like as a pastor I should have a better answer but my ego was restored when I read Dallas Willard’s comments below. Willard’s words below capture what I meant to say or convey.   This is a small excerpt from that interview.  (GWM is the interviewer and DW represents Dallas Willard’s response.)

GWM: So what happened at the cross?

DW: Well, I think anyone who thinks they understand that is probably not justified in that belief. One of the things that happened was God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, so; one of the things was reconciliation. Obviously, something happened between the Son and the Father also. Now, that’s where, Gary, our problem really arises—with people theorizing about that, and attempting to impose that on the clear statements of the scripture. That’s where our theories come in—for better and worse.

GWM: So…

DW: So, what happened?  At a minimum, what happened was something that permitted God, in His wisdom, to act differently towards men than He would have if the death on the cross had not occurred. Now, what was that? I don’t think anyone knows what that was.

GWM: Thank you for your honest and for allowing some aspects of theology to remain a mystery.

DW: Yes, to impose more understanding, I believe, is to intrude into the mysteries of the Trinity in a way that I simply think we are “off base” when we try but I think we should say, it is a fact that there was something that happened between the Son and the Father on the cross that makes possible the plan of salvation. That plan is God’s plan; not our plan. That’s God’s plan, but people often present it as my plan for how to get saved. The Son poured out His life on the cross. The life is in the blood, so, when we talk about the blood of Jesus, we are talking about His life or as Isaiah 53 says, “He poured out His soul unto death” and that life is what saves.

I encourage you to read the full interview.  It provides a good summary of the different theories and the weaknesses of each.

If Dallas Willard is willing to admit that even he does not know with certainty exactly what transpired on the cross; I don’t feel quite so inadequate in my own theology.

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The Rainbow of our Faith

Why don’t Christians all get along?  Why are there so many divisions in the Body of Christ?

I grew up outside the church and always marveled that my “Christian” friends seemed to belong to different tribes.  Each tribe had their own customs and ways of believing and each told me that “their way” was the “right” way, the “one true” way.  They all loved Jesus, but they seemed not to like one another very much.  My Baptist friends judged my Catholic friends, and my Catholic friends passed judgment on my Methodist friends and there I was the clueless one in the middle trying to reconcile what all of them were telling me about this “Jesus” character.  How could they all claim to follow the same man who sounded so loving and yet hold such distain for their fellow sisters and brothers?  It was this disunity that kept me from exploring the Christian tradition for many years.

It is strange how God calls each of us into the same place over and over in our lives.  When I first moved to Richmond I started a women’s ministry made up of a very diverse group of women from all different denominations.  From that group of women, I began to see the differences in the way we understand our faith, not as a divisive tool, but as different hews of the same rainbow.  I began to see the beauty of the Catholic tradition because of the beauty of the Catholic Christians who followed that tradition, I began to see the beauty of the Baptist tradition because of the beauty of the Baptist Christians who followed that tradition and my Presbyterian friends showed me the beauty of the Presbyterian tradition through the way they lived out their faith.  I began to love the diversity of the collective Christian tradition and rather than see our faith as shattered or fragmented, I began to see it as an intricate mosaic that collectively revealed a very mysterious, complex God that could never be fully understood by the human mind or explained through manmade theological statements.

Today, I find myself back in that same place; surrounded by Christians from all different traditions and each one passionate about “their way” and as in the beginning, I am in the middle pretty clueless about the whole thing; willing to admit that I simply don’t have all the answers.   Our leadership team possesses every hew of the rainbow from far left to far right on the theological continuum.  I love the beauty of our team.  Collectively we illuminate the fullness of Christ.  Julie reminds me that Christ message is one of love and Jamie reminds me that it is my own sin that keeps me from fully receiving that love.  Janie reminds me that God is my comforter and healer; that still small voice that is always present.  Joe reminds me that God is fun; God wants me to laugh and dance and sing and shout.  Becky reminds me that God is in control, that even when I mess things up, God’s plan will succeed.  Tammy reminds me that God is my wise councilor willing to speak truth in love.  Louis is our newest teammate and I am not sure yet which part of the “truth” of Christ he will bring to our rainbow but I know his heart is pure and his love of Christ just as real and true as the rest of this amazing team and I am open to seeing Christ revealed through him.

I know my role as the leader of Embrace would be far easier if we were all from the same tribe and all saw Christ through the same lens.  However, God’s unique call on my life is to create safe spaces where the fullness of Christ body can co-exist and honor and respect one another while working toward Christ command to love our neighbors.  I get to stand in awe at the beauty that is revealed through our collective perspectives; we are like a diamond that reveals different colors depending on the angle of the light.

Our key verse at Embrace is Micah 6:8 “Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly”.  Humility is the key to Christian unity.  When we accept that God is so much bigger than our finite minds can comprehend and that no matter how smart we are or how well we know our bible, we can never fully comprehend God, then the differences cease to be a tool of division but instead become simply hews of God’s beautiful rainbow.  Can you see the beauty of Christ shining through those who do not believe as you do?  Isn’t it a beautiful sight to behold?  God is a great big God who radiates through all those who humbly seek, regardless of their theology.  God sees the heart while man stands and judges theology.  I pray that somehow by the power of the Holy Spirit we can learn to see as Christ sees and love as Christ loved without letting theological differences divide and destroy the beauty of the Body united.

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Taking off our Lenses so we can See

Do you believe that you can take a radically diverse group of people and in all that diversity find unity while still respecting differences?

When I wrote the vision of Embrace Richmond in 2005, I never dreamed it would be so difficult to live out.  Our vision is “a city united to embrace all who are in need; a place where people of every race, class and religious background join together to care for one another.”  This is no small vision.  The issues of race, class and religious beliefs have deeply divided, not only our city but our world. These are the things that have brought about wars and terrible destruction.  It would be much easier to pretend these differences did not exist or to simply hang out only with people who are just like us. There are very few places in our society where this level of diversity exists in harmony.  While I believe in the vision, I acknowledge that Embrace Richmond has a long, long way to go in achieving this vision.

While the issues of race and class are often the most visible dividing lines, I believe the issue of religion can be the most divisive if we do not approach it with sensitivity and intentionality.  However, I also believe that if we learn to respect the beliefs of others, and focus on our common values, then our shared faith in God can be a unifying bond that can help us bridge the divides of class and race.

I think all of us would agree that respecting the religious beliefs of others is essential to creating unity across religious divides.  However this is no easy task and I have fallen short on many occasions.  It is not that I sought to offend, I simply forgot to take off my Christian lenses. At times, I act as though everyone around me believes the same things I believe and by making that assumption, I have unknowingly offended others.

I know my evangelical Christian sisters and brothers are getting very uncomfortable, they are thinking “But I am a Christian and I am not ashamed of the name of Jesus!” I am in no way suggesting a kind of Universalism. What I am wondering is if there is a way for us to each be true to our own beliefs while still respecting the beliefs of others?

I am a Christian, every one knows that. I make no attempt to hide that fact.  Embrace Richmond was founded on Christian principals and values and is sustained by the prayers of my Christian brothers and sisters.  I do not want to underestimate the role our shared faith in Christ has played at Embrace.

However, even among Christians we often fail to recognize that we all have different theologies (ways of understanding our faith).  Some believe that the primary reason Christ came to this earth was to save us from the wrath of God and eternal damnation; while others believe Christ came to this earth as the tangible presence of the living God so that we could come to know God more fully through him.  Some emphasize Christ’s life, some his death, and some his resurrection. For some its all about a “personal relationship”, others the “saving of souls” and for others it’s about “redeeming the world” or “ushering in the Kingdom of God.” Some focus on the “sin of man” and some focus on the “grace of God”, some on the “word of God” and some on the “life of Christ.” All of us know that even among Christians, we don’t agree…thus the vast number of denominations.  We will never achieve unity by trying to reconcile all these differences or by coming up with some unifying “statement of faith” that we all agree on.

However, with all the many things that divide us,I have seen individuals from vastly different understandings about faith grow to love and respect one another and each others beliefs. I think often we offend out of ignorance of about what others believe.  This ignorance exists because we don’t make space for honest conversations about faith.  If we always assume everyone agrees with us,they will not feel safe enough to share that they think differently.  This is especially true if we present our beliefs as “the only way of understanding God.”  This simply perpetuates the ignorance about what others believe and prevents honest conversations. To create this safe space we must acknowledge that none of us are God…none of us know everything there is to know about God…there is room in all our theologies for a margin of error.  Honestly, I would not want to worship a God that could be fully understood and defined by man.  Would you?

Brian McLaren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity” is an interesting read.  I especially liked his analysis  of the “lenses” we use when we look at Jesus.  Some view Christ through the old testament, some theologies view Jesus heavily through the Apostle Paul’s lens. McLaren argues that Paul viewed Jesus through the lens of his day, the Greco-Roman world view which was influenced by Plato and Aristotle.  Most western Christian’s view Jesus through the theology of Augustine.  All protestant Christians are heavily influenced by Martin Luther’s “solo scriptura”.  The list of “lenses” is endless.

Having grown up unchurched, I see the church through the eyes of an “outsider”.  I have spent time in seven different denominations and thus have been influenced by the lenses of these denominations, I have dear friends from every specter of the Christian tradition.  I read extensively and thus have adopted the lenses of those I have read.  It is impossible to read the bible, or reflect upon our faith without bias.  If you have only been in one tradition or have only experienced one version of the Christian tradition, I believe it is even more difficult to see these blind spots.

This past week six very devout Christian women read a chapter of scripture and spent time praying about what the passage meant to us personally.  Everyone of us interpreted the same words out of the same Bible passage completely differently.  So who was “right”?  I don’t think “rightness” is the point of reading scripture. The passage spoke to all of us through our own lenses and met each of us where we were.  The key is allowing space at the table for everyone to agree to disagree and fostering a spirit that allows the scriptures to speak to everyone where they are.

McLaren argues that the place to start is to view Jesus through the gospels.  That is the reading of Jesus that is the clearest, least contaminated by human lenses.  I love reading the gospels in my parallel bible which lines up the passages that are similar side by side. By reading the same story in different gospels, you also come to see that even the gospel writers had their own lenses, their own target audience, and their own agenda. Ask any devout Christian and each of us will name our favorite gospel.  My favorite is the Gospel of Luke because of Luke’s strong liberation emphasis.  What is sad is that we even argue about which gospel is the “best”.

My prayer is that we stop trying to prove ourselves or our positions as “right” and begin to simply see them as “different” or “right for us.”  I don’t want to stifle religious conversations, I think our world is hungry for safe places to explore spiritual questions.  I simply want us to engage in these conversations with the utmost respect for everyone at the table and I think context is important.   If everyone at the table happens to be Christian, we need to respect the diversity of the Christian tradition but can find common ground in the person of Jesus.  If we do not know the beliefs of everyone at the table, then we need to respect the diversity of religion in general and find common ground in the loving God who created us all.  This does not mean we have to be shy about our own beliefs, but that we simply need to acknowledge that our way of understanding God is not the only way of understanding God.

Brian McLaren’s blog is very interesting.  In a post titled, “On Emergent”, McLaren reflects on the diversity of voices present in the emerging church conversation which is trying to define what the church of the future might look like.  McLaren writes “The process is awkward and messy at times…. the key issue is to stay at the table when you’re hurt and offended and misunderstood and made uncomfortable.”

This is my prayer for those of us in leadership roles at Embrace; that we would stay at the table, seek to understand one another, be willing to be made uncomfortable, forgive when we are hurt and above all seek not to offend but instead seek unity while respecting our diversity.  It will not be easy, but I believe this is the unique call of Embrace Richmond.

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