Archives For December 2013

This is my first holiday season blogging with We Occupy Jesus, but it seems clear to me that we love Christmas. We love thinking about it, wrestling with it, and writing about it.

At work (I work for a progressive UCC congregation in Phoenix), we talk a lot about the sentimentality of the holidays and how that tends to put pressure on the families we serve. Plenty of people – most especially parents of young kids – are so busy trying to make perfect memories that they miss the counterculture messages of the gospel birth narratives. Plus, they just really stress themselves out.

 

christmas nostalgia

We want the greeting card, don’t we?

At home, I sometimes revel in the sentimentality. This past Monday, I loaded up Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, my favorite of the Rankin-Bass holiday specials from my childhood. SCICTT tells the story of orphaned Baby Claus, how the Kringle elves raised him, his brief period of time as an outlaw, his love story with schoolteacher Jessica, and how he chose Christmas Eve as the night of toy giving. When I was wee, it all seemed like a documentary to me… the *real* story of how Santa came to be.

So this year, I paid attention to the charming voice of Mickey Rooney and tallied up the lessons from this holiday classic:

1. The Joy of Work

When Santa first goes down a chimney to avoid the henchmen of the Burgermeister, he chuckles: “I love my job.” It’s hard work… all that toy building and the elaborate delivery scheme. But he has found his calling and takes joy in living it out.

2. Disillusionment / Disenchantment

Young Chris Kringle befriends The Winter Warlock. As Winter begins a fresh start, he describes himself as ‘disenchanted.’ It’s a pretty sophisticated theme for an animated children’s show: that we sometimes need to give up our old ways of seeing the world in order to grow. A Word comes to us, shattering our illusions.

3. Nonconformity

The adults of Sombertown do not welcome the young Kringle. They criticize his clothes (red, of course!) and don’t want to risk running afoul of the town’s law enforcement. Challenging the status quo is risky. Lucky for Kris, he has the elves and young teacher Jessica as support system.

4. Giving

What melts the heart of the Winter Warlock? What convinces the parents of Sombertown that the Kringles aren’t so bad? What wins the affections of Jessica? It’s giving – giving of oneself, sharing our gifts, taking a chance on love. The idea of a gift for everyone is why Santa begins to deliver toys on Christmas Eve, the night of profound love.

5. Change is possible.

The Winter Warlock changes his ways. The good people of Sombertown eventually realize that the Burgermeister laws banning toys and playtime are silly. Jessica opens her eyes to a new life. We too can put one foot in front of the other and change our perspective. Soon we’ll be walking out the door!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nu8UCrqMtwg

Enjoy these days between Christmas and New Years.  Relax and breathe deeply.

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Loving like Jesus, Part I

kymblie —  December 30, 2013 — Leave a comment

Note: This is a Sunday morning message I delivered to a Christian retreat last winter, and I myself am a liberal, progressive Christian (if I’m going to use a label, which I really try to avoid doing) so the message has that God-slant. Please forgive any blatant Christianese I fail to edit out. However your beliefs fall, I do believe that being open to God, or our conscious, or our interconnectedness, or just the nice thing to do is a guaranteed ticket to a love that gets you outside your comfort zone and into some serious adventure.)

I have a friend who is down in South Beach, Florida right now, on vacation with her husband and their young son. She told me about an artist they met on Lincoln Rd., where he had set up his work for people to buy. Dave—that’s his name, Dave Kahmann—makes baskets and sculpts animals out of palm fronds and coconuts from the trees around South Beach. He puts them out on the side of the road along with Bibles that he gives away, and waits for someone to stop by for a palm-frond cross or basket or tiny palm-frond sea horse.

dkahmann

Well, my friend Heather and her son Ben checked out Dave’s art and listened to his stories—Dave’s got tons of stories, including the one about how he walked to South beach from Santa Cruz, California with just a backpack and a few dollars—and then Dave sold Ben a sculpture of a palm tree. He wouldn’t take Ben’s money, though. No, Dave told Ben that the price of the little palm tree with the coconut stand was three R.A.K.’s—random acts of kindness. So Ben promised he’d perform 3 RAKs, took his sculpture, and then he and his parents went on their way.

On the way back to their hotel, Ben told his parents that his first RAK would be to pack Dave a lunch and bring it over. So that’s what they did—Ben packed a turkey sandwich, a banana, a yogurt, and some water in a bag and they brought it over—and together the artist and the boy sat on the side of the road in South Beach, eating lunch.

I love this story because I love the picture I get in my head of Ben, thinking, as he did when he first saw Dave, that here was a homeless guy and he, Ben, was going to go over and help the guy out. Show him a little love. Maybe buy something. I can picture Heather and her husband looking at each other doubtfully, and then kind of shrugging and reluctantly following their son. But then as they talk, and Dave tells them stories about his life and how he feels that God has led him to where he is, I can picture the doubt start to leave their faces and then as they watch the man and their son, wonder sets in as they realize they’ve just been educated, a little, in the art of loving as action.

love recklessly

flickr: The Sean & Lauren Spectacular

That picture of Dave and Ben, sitting on the side of the road, sharing a meal together is what I want us to keep in mind today while we talk about loving like Jesus. Here you have this guy, Dave, maybe he’s homeless, maybe he’s not, but he’s certainly living closer to the ground than you or I probably are, with his art set out on the side of the road by a folding beach chair.

He’s tan from being outside all day, he looks like he hasn’t shaved in a while, his clothes are fraying and worn. And here’s Ben, who is doted on by his parents, who is freshly showered—or at least as freshly-showered as a 10-year-old boy can reasonably be expected to be—who eats regular, balanced meals and goes to school. The two of them must have made a disparate picture, sitting there on the side of the road. Have you got it there, that picture in your mind?

Ok good.

Now, to introduce our topic of loving like Jesus as something that is biblically mandated, let me share with you my two life verses. They’ll be familiar, I promise—nothing obscure or earth-shattering, maybe they’re your life verses too, but here they are. The first is Micah 6:8. In the NIV it says,

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

    And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

    and to walk humbly[a] with your God.”

In the Message paraphrase, it says,

“But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,

    what God is looking for in men and women.

It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,

    be compassionate and loyal in your love,

And don’t take yourself too seriously—

    take God seriously.”

 

I really like how these two versions draw a parallel for that last part, saying that, to walk humbly with your God is to not take yourself too seriously, but to take God seriously. I think that’s a big part of what we humans get wrong in life. We get stuck on taking ourselves to seriously. We think, “Oh, what am I going to do with MY life, what are people saying about ME, how can I improve MY life, my hair, my golf score, the size of my…” But we don’t take God very seriously. He becomes the butt of our jokes or the target of our ire when life isn’t going OUR way. But mostly we’re going to concentrate, today, on the second part of that piece. “Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love.”

That doesn’t seem to hard. I mean, when I think about my neighbors, I’ve got one guy on one side who is never home, and then one guy on the other side who kind of minds his own business, and one guy across the street who let us borrow his snowblower last weekend…they’re not gonna be too hard, I don’t think, to, you know, love and be compassionate to…

OK, and the other life verse that I try to model myself on is another big-name verse.  You’ve heard this one, even if maybe you haven’t heard that other one. It’s Matthew 22:37-40 and it’s Jesus speaking, in response to one of the Pharisees, who asked him what the greatest commandment is.

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] (In the Message it says“‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence”)38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

All the law and the prophets. In other words, pretty much the entirety of the Bible, as they had it up to that point. It all hangs on loving God, and loving your neighbor. So…it’s kind of important, then, yes?

So, while we’ve all heard before that we are to love, love, love, we need to examine just what exactly is meant by “love”, what is meant by “our neighbor” and what is meant by “ourselves”. This is important stuff. I don’t know about you, but I’m basing my faith on the twin pegs of loving God and loving others, and we I want to miss anything.

love is not blind

flickr: lel4nd

The Nature of Grace

jordanmb08 —  December 29, 2013 — Leave a comment
sunflower

flickr: solarisgirl

In many religions, we often hear talk about grace, forgiveness, love, and mercy. They are often presented in abstract forms and a full understanding is not gained, unless you actively search for it yourself.

So. What is Grace?

We hear about God’s grace in forgiving us, but it is never truly explained. What is this grace? And is it just a religious thing or is it something that applies to all?

Grace is many things. When it comes to grace, it does not need perfection and it is not about perfection. Instead, it is about recognizing the flaws of a person and of yourself, and accepting them. It is about being kind to others, reaching out to others, and being a blessing to another person or occupant of this world.

“Grace means that all of your mistakes serve a purpose instead of serving shame.”

-We Occupy Jesus

The Nature of Depression

jordanmb08 —  December 28, 2013 — Leave a comment
flickr: Isabel Bloedwater

flickr: Isabel Bloedwater

Millions of people in the world suffer from depression and its various types. Depression is often thought to be something as simple as sadness, gloom, or sorrow. But its is not as simple as that. Depression is something that stays with a person and affects their life. Sorrow can, and does in time, fade away. But depression lingers, even when the edge has been taken off through counseling or medication. Those things just dampen the control that depression has on your every day life as much as it did before you got help.

Depression is a mental illness.  It is not something that can be taken care of through prayer alone, if you are a praying person. Prayer CAN help by simply easing the burden, but you still need to seek help. Not because God has abandoned you but because God put counselors and medicine in place to help you.

Depression can often result from traumatic childhood events, a death, a break up, divorce, a splitting of families, job loss, age, sickness, or other mental illness. This is why sorrow and gloom do go hand in hand with depression.  Depression can result from sorrow, even tho it isn’t the same thing. And depression, as any pain, is not trivial and should be met with compassion.

Depression is something that comes from a deep place within us, when we have been strong for far too long, when we have felt too much pain, and have finally reached our breaking point. Depression is something that can be physical and even spiritual as well as mental and emotional. To overcome it, a strong support system is needed and so is a lot of love and patience. Also, an effort to discover the triggers should be made as well as an avoidance of the triggers until the person who has the depression brings them up.

Depression is not something that results from a lack of faith, strength, love, honor, or makes you less of a person. DO NOT EVER BELIEVE THAT. Depression is an insidious illness and it is one that must be met with kindness and help for the person that does have it.

If you suffer from depression, regardless of what the voice of depression tells you, you are not alone. You have value and you are priceless and irreplaceable. There is only ONE of YOU. Don’t give up.

bc2

 

I have been writing on the subject of how I believe that Christianity is not supposed to be like religion – that is, a system of insiders and outsiders where we are the right side and everyone else is on the wrong side.  This post will be a continuation on this theme – if you have not read my other posts in this series, I recommend you do so:

  • Part 1 explores 5 reasons I believe Christianity is not supposed to be a religion in the sense I described.
  • Part 2 explores the balance between Orthodoxy (right belief) and Orthopraxy (right action)
  • Part 3 explores how one could go about analyzing their belief structure to find out if it was poisonous

The theme of this post is how “preaching” or “evangelism” works within the paradigm of a “religionless Christianity”.  But before I get into that, I think I should explore some concepts a bit more first.  Up to this point, I have been exploring this idea of “religionless Christianity” – that is, what Christianity is not supposed to be.  But is there a word for what it should be?

Religion Vs. Spirituality

I’ve been reading Diana Butler Bass’s book, “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” – a book I probably should have read before beginning this series.  This book, in my opinion, should be required reading for every faith leader out there – Bass puts together a remarkable amount of data from numerous studies and questionnaires, as well as history and personal stories, all having to do with the changing face of religion in America.  And she is able to put all of this together into a coherent narrative – a bird’s eye view of what is happening, why, and where we are headed.

In one section of the book, Dr. Bass talks about an exercise she would do as she went from church to church and from denominational meeting to denominational meeting to present her material.  She would ask the people at these events to do a word association exercise where they would list all the words that they associate with religion versus the words they associate with spirituality.  No matter where she was – regardless of denomination – she found surprisingly similar results.

Religion was always associated with words like “structure”, “rules”, “building”, “order”, and “authority”.  These words are rigid, unmoving, strong, but lifeless words.

rules_n_regu

Spirituality, meanwhile, brought to mind words like experience, connection, transcendence, and energy.  These words have a sense of life to them, of being open to change and able to roll with the punches.

Dr. Bass writes that some congregations were skeptical of the word “spirituality”, and would describe it with a few more negative terms.  But even so, she remarks:

…”religion” got the worst of it: “cold,” “outdated,” “rigid,” “hurtful,” “narrow,” “controlling,” “embarrassing,” and “mean.” And those words came from people who were church members!  No matter the region or denomination, all of the groups associated spirituality with experience and religion with institutions.

So it seems that “spirituality” is more apt to capture the sense of “Christianity” that I am going for – a paradigm that transcends boundaries, and is willing to cast off structure if it presents an obstacle between oneself and a neighbor.  Spirituality, in this sense, is about inter-connectedness and relationship.

But this may bring about a perplexing question – what does it mean to “preach” to others who do not adhere to this form of Christianity?  How does one “evangelize” from within this paradigm?

First, let’s examine the way evangelism all too often works in the religious paradigm.

Marketing 101.

In the paradigm of religion, evangelism ends up looking a lot like the sale of a product.  There are 5 basic steps to marketing – you can notice this in every single commercial and sales pitch.  They are:

  1. Demonstrate a need
  2. Demonstrate the consequences of failing to meet this need
  3. Show how your product meets this need
  4. Define the price, but do so in a way that makes it look comparatively thrifty
  5. Create urgency

You can look at any effective commercial or sales pitch and find these elements.  And the weird thing is, this is how evangelism seems to be taught inside the religious paradigm of Christianity.  Take a look:

Step 1: Demonstrate a Need 

I can remember being taught basic evangelism techniques in Sunday school when I was in High School.  The first step was always to demonstrate to people that they were full of this thing called sin.  Sin was very bad, and there was nothing you could do to get rid of it.  And this was a problem because when God looked at you, all He could see (according to the marketing plan) was this sin!  There were two basic techniques for this step – one was to ask the question:

If you were to die tonight, and God asked you “why should I let you into my heaven?” How would you answer?

We were taught that if people started to talk about how they had been basically good people, we were to use the “three egg omelet” analogy.  The analogy works like this: imagine you’re making a three egg omelet for someone.  But when you crack the third egg, you smell something rotten – this egg is bad.  But hey, the other two are good, so I’m sure your friend won’t notice, right?  And then what you do is to describe how we’re all like that omelet, and we all have sin, like the third egg that is rotten.

So there’s nothing you can do about your sin, right?  We’re all disgusting omelets made with a rotten egg!

Eew

Eew

Step 2: Demonstrate the Consequences of Failing to Meet This Need

Ok, so we’re disgusting omelets and we can’t do anything about it.  Why should I care?  Why don’t I just try to be happy anyways?

Hell!  Oh yeah, buddy.  Hell is really scary, man!  Worst consequences you could ever possibly imagine!  Whatever torment you can concoct in your mind?  It’s going to be worse, and it’s going to last for ever, MUAH HA HA HA!

(Note: I have written a lengthy defense on why this idea is not Biblical and it starts here.)

So what can we do about this problem?

Step 3: Show How Your Product Meets This Need

So then, the evangelist in the religious paradigm presents the product: Jesus!  That’s right!  Jesus will solve your problems!  You just need Jesus and your sin problem goes away!  And Jesus can get you into Heaven, man!  Heaven is like the opposite of Hell – we’re going to live forever, and we’ll sit around on clouds all day and sing hymns to God!

Um, I don’t really like hymns – an eternity of singing them sounds kind of like Hell to me….

You need to repent, sinner!  You don’t want to end up in the eternal lake of fire, do you?

Well…no, that sounds pretty crappy.  So…what do I do?

Ah, now we’re ready for the next step.

Step 4: Define the Price

So guess what!  All you gotta do is say a magical incantation…er, I mean a prayer…and invite Jesus to come into your heart!

Um, how can a person fit inside my vascular organ?

Heretic!  Repent and believe!!!  You don’t want Hell, do you?

Well…no.

Ok, so it’s settled.  You need Jesus.

Jesus doesn't seem much like a person any more....

Jesus doesn’t seem much like a person any more….

Now we’re ready for the final step!

Step 5: Create Urgency

So you might notice that a lot of commercials and sales pitches have this thing called a “limited time offer”, right?  They put an expiration date on this awesome, thrifty sale.  The whole idea is that you want the customer to buy now.  Because marketing experts know that the minute the salesman walks out the door, the chances of making a sale go down drastically.  So what do you do?  You say “hey, this price is great, right?  It’s not going to last forever, so you should buy now while the offer lasts!”  Here’s the weird thing:

The religious paradigm of evangelism works the same way.

They have their own limited time offer going on and it actually comes in two forms. The first form is this: you die, the deal is off.  Simple as that.  And that’s a great way to create urgency, right?  Because dude, you never know when it’s gonna happen!  You might be crossing a parking lot and BAM!  You get hit by a car, you know?

The second form of the limited time offer is THE END OF THE WORLD, MUAH HA HA HA!  Yeah, apparently when Jesus comes back we find out that he’s bipolar and went from being meek and mild to a kick-ass Rambo type of guy who is going to destroy everything.

I'm your worst nightmare....

I’m your worst nightmare….

The fact that religious evangelism often ends up looking like the sale of a product is pointed out by Diana Butler Bass in another section in “Christianity After Religion“:

Other than the fact that denominations offered religion as the product, they differed little from other corporations that dominated America in the last century. As a Presbyterian elder once sighed to me, “Our church is like GM, only we sell faith.” And if the Presbyterian Church— or any denomination, for that matter— is like GM, that is not a good thing.

Now, besides the fact that the Marketing 101 strategy of evangelism turns Jesus into a ticket that you put in your pocket so you can bring it out and show the train conductor in the sky after you die and gain admittance into a place that honestly doesn’t sound all that fun in the first place, there’s a major problem with this way of doing evangelism: Jesus never did it like this.

Peter’s Three Confessional Moments

I think that the best model for the evangelism of Jesus comes in the form of the Apostle Peter.  We see a very different model when we follow Peter’s story – basically a three step model, which I will refer to as Peter’s three confessional moments.

Calling

The first confessional moment came when Jesus introduced himself to Peter.  We see this story in Mark 1:16-18 and in Matthew 4:18-20, and you might notice something interesting about these stories: there’s never any discussion of religious doctrine.  Jesus doesn’t go to the brothers Simon (who was later given the name Peter) and Andrew and discuss five tenets of his new religion, or tell them “dudes, I’m God!  And if you accept that, you can go to Heaven!  Otherwise – Hell, bro!  You don’t want that!”

No, he says something very simple: “Follow me.”  That’s it.

And this comes with a promise: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men!”

There’s something interesting about this metaphor – Jesus is giving Simon (Peter) and Andrew a new purpose.  This purpose uses their talents in a new way that is enticing to them.  One of the popular terms for describing this is “calling” – people use this term to describe all kinds of things these days.  When you notice that someone is really good at making things look good, you might say they have a “calling” in the world of art or design.  By promising a future of being “fishers of men”, Jesus is appealing to a sense of a greater future ahead.  Jesus is saying that we have common goals to make this a better place – let’s work on that together!  He’s promising that they can be part of a plan to do great things – and this is enough for the two disciples to drop what they were doing and follow Jesus right then and there!

This is a remarkable contrast to the Marketing 101 strategy of evangelism, because rather than appealing to fear in order to manipulate people into accepting him, Jesus instead appeals to an innate desire to be part of something grand.  This is the complete opposite strategy!

A Question

So Jesus takes Peter along with him, and Peter witnesses Jesus healing people, feeding the hungry, being a friend to outcasts, and challenging prejudices.  And after a period of time where Peter repeatedly witnesses Jesus doing these incredible things, there is a second confessional moment.

We see this moment paralleled in Matthew 16:13-20 and in Mark 8:27-30.  Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?”  And Peter declares his belief that Jesus is the Messiah.

Now there’s two ways in which this contrasts with the Marketing 101 strategy of evangelism.  The first way is in the timing.  In Marketing 101, you push people to declare their belief in some tremendous claims about Jesus right off the bat.  But this isn’t how Jesus works – this confessional moment of Peter occurs after he has already had time to see who Jesus is.

And the second way this contrasts Marketing 101 is that Jesus is asking a question, not making a declaration.  He opens up the discussion – he asks “Who am I to you?  What do I mean to you?”  He doesn’t insist that there is only one meaning and everyone should accept it – he allows his disciples to form their own interpretive views on his meaning and then poses the question after they’ve witnessed how his actions have played out in the world.  This is a very different model from the manipulative insistence of Marketing 101.  Rather than declaring who he is and then invalidating anyone who doesn’t agree, Jesus leaves the question up to his disciples!  And Peter makes quite a bold claim about Jesus as a result of being given the freedom to think for himself!

So that’s it, right?  Evangelism is over now.  We’ve gotten someone to “believe” and now we are done with them, right?

No.  After this event, we continue to observe Jesus being a good friend to Peter, and we see that Peter is still a work in progress.  Declaring Jesus to be messiah doesn’t solve all of Peter’s problems like some kind of magical incantation – it’s only through relationship that he begins to grow into the great man Jesus always knew he could be.  And this is where we find the third confessional moment.

Forgiveness and Reaffirming the Calling

Peter’s third confessional moment comes after he faced his own weakness and came to grips with his own limitations.  You see, Peter had always been a little headstrong and rash.  He always seems to be telling Jesus how things could be done better, too.  And before Jesus’ death, Peter declares that even if everyone else deserts Jesus, Peter never will.  (See Mark 14:29 and Matthew 26:33)

But rather than standing up for Jesus, Peter ends up denying that he ever knew Jesus in order to protect himself – not once, but three times.

So after Jesus’ resurrection, we find Peter facing up to this failing in a remarkable scene in John 21:15-19.  In this scene, Jesus asks Peter three times: “do you love me?”  And each time, Peter says “you know that I love you”, and then Jesus says “feed my lambs.”  There’s a lot going on in this scene that you might miss if you’re not observant.

The first thing that is all too often missed has to do with the original language this passage is written in.  The Greek language had more than one word for the concept of love.  And in the original language, when Jesus asks Peter the question the first two times, he uses the word agape.  Agape is perfect, unconditional love.  But when Peter answers, he uses the word phileo, which has a sense of affection and is often thought of as “brotherly love.”

So Jesus asks: “do you agape me?”  And in his response, Peter is showing that he is now more aware of his limitations, and his response communicates: “Jesus, you know that I don’t agape you, but I do phileo you.”

So Jesus says “feed my lambs.”

Then Jesus repeat the question: “do you agape me?”  Peter is probably a little confused, and maybe a little upset at this point.  The repeated question is probably making him uncomfortable.  But the last time Peter rashly insisted on his own virtue, he ended up failing Jesus, and he can’t risk doing that again.  So once again, Peter responds “you know that I phileo you.”

Jesus says “take care of my sheep.”

Once again Jesus asks Peter a question, and the moment he begins the question, I imagine Peter’s heart is breaking – it’s like he is reliving the moment of his denial all over again, and facing his betrayal.  But Jesus does something remarkable this time – he asks: “Peter, do you…phileo me?”

In the English translation, we miss what’s going on here.  By changing his wording from agape to phileo, Jesus is showing his acceptance of Peter’s limitations.  He’s meeting Peter where he is.  Rather than demanding what Peter does not feel able to give, Jesus is saying “I’ll take what you offer.”

But I think there’s something else going on here.  Because once again, Jesus repeats the command: “feed my sheep.”

I think that this is a map for Peter.  Peter was a fisherman, and when he was called, Jesus said he would make him a fisher of men.  But Jesus often used the analogy of a shepherd to describe himself.  So when Jesus tells Peter to take care of his sheep, I think that he was saying: “you want to know how to get from phileo to agape?  Follow in my footsteps.”

And then Jesus repeats the very first thing he said to Peter in verse 19: “follow me.”  Jesus is reaffirming Peter’s calling here.  He’s communicating to Peter that just because there was a failure does not mean he’s out of the game.  Jesus doesn’t bench Peter because he messed up: he says “get back out there.”  The relationship Jesus offers is a radically persistent one that does not fray at the first sign of trouble, but continues to endure after failure on Peter’s part.

And that’s the model of evangelism that I believe the spiritual paradigm should follow – the model of building enduring relationships.

If you asked any conservative evangelical which is more important to them – Jesus or the Bible – of course they’re going to say Jesus.

But if you then asked them to quantify honestly how much more important Jesus is than the Bible to them… I’d love to hear their responses.

It seems to me that Christians almost deify the Bible, elevating it to a place with God, making it infallible, unquestionable, in much the same way that the same people accuse Catholics of worshipping Mary. Catholics I’ve spoken to say that they honour rather than worship Mary – maybe evangelicals would say the same thing about the Bible? But it can look like worship.

Anyway, this all brings me round to explaining that my doubts and uncertainties over sections of the Bible, questioning various aspects of it, have paradoxically strengthened rather than weakened my faith in Jesus.

Or, rather, that my increasing honesty over those doubts has strengthened my faith. Because faith, and relationship with God, thrive in an atmosphere of openness and truthfulness.

I very recently wrote about this more fully in ‘How’s Your Spiritual Depth-of-Field?’, using some photographic allegory! Ever heard of photographic allegory? I just made that term up.

It’d be awesome if you could give it a read and perhaps even let me know your thoughts and comments.

You’ll even get to discover what this beach post has to do with the blog post!

Publishing a post of this kind that challenges the Christian status quo carries with it certain trepidation and concerns.

How will it be received by my own friends and church leaders? Will it encourage their faith or create unnecessary and unwelcome threats to their beliefs? And, of course, what will they think of me as a result? How well will I cope with any rejection or disagreement (I’m not the most thick-skinned of individuals)?

‘How’s Your Spiritual Depth-of-Field?’ has so far attracted more likes, shares and positive comments and debate than any of my other blog posts to date, and looks set to run up more internet hits than any other post, revealing a resonance with many Christian friends and strangers.

The only real difference of opinion has been with a church leader / friend, and this was in a spirit of mutual respect and grace.

I suspect there may be others who have read and disagreed with what I’ve written, but out of grace (or fear of exposing their own doubts) have declined to comment.

What has all this shown? It seems to me that this array of responses has revealed….

… that there is a need for greater openness in our churches about our doubts and uncertainties.

… that there exists a great deal of grace and respect (in some churches, at least) to be able to cope with disagreement if we feel differently about, say, the historical accuracy of the Old Testament.

… that this deeper level of honesty would engender greater love for each other and greater faith in Jesus.

Did I mention that I’d love you to read ‘How’s Your Spiritual Depth-of-Field?’?

IMG_1007RRoger (or ‘Roj’) and his wife Janine have 3 lively children ranging from teenager to toddler; he goes to work for a rest. A trained nurse, he’s in his ideal job, utilising his skills and passions by running a homeless healthcare service, and learns a lot from the people he works with, including the idea that God is more inclusive than people sometimes give him credit for. To let off steam, he runs reasonably fast around the hills of Hastings (England), where he lives. Now writing for We Occupy Jesus, he’s childishly enjoying being ‘Roj of WOJ’.

peace at christmas

flickr: John Attebury

One of our editors asked the question: “What does Christmas mean to you?”

[ed note: That's me! He means me!]

One of the first things that came to mind for me was: peace on earth.

Jesus has been called the “Prince of Peace“, and in his “Sermon on the Mount”, he says in Matthew 5:9:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

It is almost as if he’s saying that being a peacemaker is a prerequisite for being a child of God.  Indeed, he repeats this theme in Matthew 5:44-45 when he follows the command to love enemies with an indication that this is what it takes to be children of the Father in heaven.

Peace is a dangerous thing.  Dangerous to the authority structures that create systems of domination, and defying them can be dangerous to ourselves as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a pastor in Germany during World War II who was martyred for standing up to the Nazis in the name of peace – once wrote:

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.

I am reminded of a story from the battlefields of the previous war – World War I. 

peace on earth

flickr: AZRainman

The scene is a battlefield on Christmas Eve, 1914.  The Germans and the English/French allies are locked in the stalemate of trench warfare.  Trench warfare was a new method of waging battles, and it was extremely brutal.  Both sides would dig themselves in to trenches, and no progress would be made until one side decided to risk rushing the other.  But in doing so, they put themselves at a tactical disadvantage, as they were unprotected and exposed, while the enemy was hidden underground.  Tens of thousands died by the day.

These were no battle hardened soldiers, either – the war had demanded that young men sign up and be shipped off to battle after a very short period of training.  Nothing could have prepared these young lads for the horrors they saw on these bloody fields – more human blood than you or I will likely see in a lifetime.

And on Christmas Eve, these young men missed their beautiful young wives.  Some of them had small children at home.  Most of them were missing mothers and fathers as well.  They longed for a warm embrace, a gentle touch, a warm living room, the smell of hot food, the sound of laughter.

And then something strange happened.  Some of the Germans had made Tannenbaum Trees – small Christmas trees with a lit candle on top.  They placed these on top of the trenches where they could be seen, and began singing “Stille Nacht, heili’ge Nacht” (Silent Night, Holy Night).

In one version of the story, after this song was over, a German man is said to have shouted over the trenches:

English men!  Sing us a song!

The reply:

We’d rather kill than sing!

But the spirit of peace had infected their hearts too deeply already, and the reply went back:

Your singing might just kill us, if it’s bad enough!

Both sides broke out in laughter.  And with that good-natured joke, the spirit of war had been broken.

One man from each side cautiously climbed over their trenches and approached the other – shaking eachother’s hands timidly, and a ceasefire was arranged for the next 24 hours.

British and German troops meeting in no man's land during the unofficial truce

British and German troops meeting in no man’s land during the unofficial truce

Cpl. John Ferguson of the Second Seaforth Highlanders tells the story of what followed:

We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans – Fritz and I in the center talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street corner orators. … What a sight – little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs.

Gifts of food, tobacco, and alcohol were exchanged.  Some versions of the story say that a soccer game was arranged.  A joint service was arranged between both sides to bury their dead with an English Chaplain present.

On Christmas Eve, 1914, peace was waged.

This peace was a very dangerous thing and enraged the authorities of both sides – Cpl. Adolf Hitler of the Germans, and Gen. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien were outraged!  The Germans were accused of betraying honor, and the British were issued strict orders not to continue fraternisation with the other side.

Making peace amounted to treason, in the eyes of the authority structure.

But these men had been shaken up by the peace of one day.  They had embraced their enemies for one day, seen their humanity, and found them to be friends.  It took effort to resume the war, and Commanders were forced to rotate many of these troops out of the area, because they had lost the will to fight.

Peace threatens authority in a way no amount of guns or bombs ever could.

And that is what Christmas truly means – waging peace in the name of love.

How can we wage peace in 2013?  How can we threaten the authority structures of today with radical love?

What Christmas Means

kymblie —  December 25, 2013 — Leave a comment

Hey guys, Kimberly here. I’m one of the editors for the WOJ blog, and something occurred to me the other day:

Christmas doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.

I know, I know. Should be obvious.

But I always get stuck on thinking that everyone thinks, talks, and acts like me. When I’m exercising regularly and eating right, I think most people also prefer to eat right and exercise.

When I’m going through a blockbuster-movie binge when all I want to do is watch Pirates of the Caribbean 8 and Fast and Furious 20, I assume everyone else will have seen them each five times.

 

muppet christmas carol

What? Isn’t this *everyone’s* favorite Christmas movie?!

 

So the sudden revelation that not everyone looks at Christmas the same way was–well, a revelation. I wanted to bounce it off a few people to see what they thought. And since WOJ is all about opening up a conversation about the whole Jesus thing, I thought I’d ask our writers to share what Christmas means for them.

I asked them each for a paragraph–which, if you’ve been reading our blog for any amount of time at all, you’ll quickly recognize as folly. What can any of us possibly say in one paragraph–and especially about Christmas?!

So anyway. Here is a little on the meaning of Christmas, from four of our excellent writers. And may you have a Christmas that fulfills the hollow spots within you and keeps you warm–today and far into the future.

 

nativity

flickr: Proxy Indian

Roger NuttallIMG_1007R

As a young atheist I hated both the consumerism and the religious sentimentality of Christmas. Becoming a Christian, if anything, then reinforced that view, and I railed against Christmas for many years, much to my wife’s chagrin!

But I’ve gradually realised that the real reason for my dislike of Christmas probably has a far more sub-conscious origin based in unhappy childhood memories (see My Life’s Soundtrack), and now with 3 kids of my own, aged between 15 and 2, I’ve lightened up in my attitude towards Christmas out of neccessity.

But more than that, reflecting on the true light coming into the world has genuinely given me hope for change in my own life.

My Christmas story, from cynicism and scepticism to celebration, is told in a little more detail in ‘Christmas is for Life’. Hope you enjoy reading it.

Adele2Adele Henderson

Christmas means that I do not have to be perfect.

Though I am relentless on myself at making everything perfect,t is not what God requires of me and Christmas reminds me of that.

When I think about the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus–that was anything but perfect. Mary was a very young teenager who found herself pregnant outside the bonds of marriage and carrying a boy that was not the son of her fiancé. As my pastor said Sunday, “You could be stoned for a lot less in Palestine during that time.”

Then we have the night of the birth. If what my friends say when it comes to the ninth month of pregnancy is true,I am sure that riding a donkey is not at the top of the list of fun activities to do. To top that Mary and Joseph could find ‘no room in the inn.’

When Mary gave birth to her son she did so in an unsanitary barn that you know smelled something awful. She then laid him in the only place she could–a feeding trough for animals.

Jesus’ birth, the reason for Christmas,was a less-than-perfect situation. If God can be in that messy (birth is messy) situation he can be in mine. Christmas means that even in my imperfect situation God is there and working through me.

May you have a Merry but less than perfect Christmas and know that God is with you.

Geoff Glenistergeoff glenister

One of our editors asked the question: “What does Christmas mean to you?”

One of the first things that came to mind for me was: peace on earth.

Jesus has been called the “Prince of Peace“, and in his “Sermon on the Mount”, he says in Matthew 5:9:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

It is almost as if he’s saying that being a peacemaker is a prerequisite for being a child of God.  Indeed, he repeats this theme in Matthew 5:44-45 when he follows the command to love enemies with an indication that this is what it takes to be children of the Father in heaven.

Peace is a dangerous thing.  Dangerous to the authority structures that create systems of domination, and defying them can be dangerous to ourselves as well.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a pastor in Germany during World War II who was martyred for standing up to the Nazis in the name of peace – once wrote:

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.

How can we wage peace in 2013?  How can we threaten the authority structures of today with radical love?

Stay tuned for more from Geoff in his full post, later today.

Jordan BlaylockJordan Michelle Blaylock

Christmas is many things to me. Not just because of my beliefs, the things that happened to me during this time because of those beliefs, and what I have seen Christmas become to others.

The first thing Christmas is for me, is a time of mourning to an extent. You see, my dad passed away around Christmas when I was seventeen. So, while I love this season, I also feel a bit grieved in my heart because of the loss.

The next thing that Christmas is to me is a time of healing. This does have a bit to do with my religious beliefs, yes, but it also has to do with my dad passing away around this time. He was very sick, and, to me, death is not the end, but a passing on, a rebirth, and an ultimate healing.

Christmas is a time of rebirth to me for many reasons.

It is a time of rebirth to me because of the birth of the Messiah, and the Pagan traditions that celebrated this sacred season for many many years before the birth of Christianity. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, yes, but I also realize that this season is celebrated as it is because of it being adopted from the Pagans by Christians about 200 years after the birth of Christ. My theory and hope is that Christmas was adopted at this time because of the rebirth of the sun that the Pagans celebrated at this time as well.

This is Christmas to me- a time of kindness, love, healing, rebirth, renewal, and good tidings.

If you enjoyed our authors’ perspectives, please share with friends.

the poison of religious religion

flickr: cavin

 

I have been writing on the subject of how I believe that Christianity is not supposed to be like religion (see part 1 and part 2) – that is, a system of insiders and outsiders where we are the right side and everyone else is on the wrong side.

This is a very confusing concept for most people, I would guess. I can tell you that it was for me when I first started dealing with these issues, and still is as I deal with my own dualistic thinking.

I obviously hold certain beliefs to be representative of truth, and worthy of “fighting for” (in a non-violent way, mind you).  But how does one adhere to a religion that transcends religion?  How does a person even come to a point where they feel the need to challenge their religious beliefs?

Recognizing the Reality of the Poison

For myself, I came to a point where some things bothered me–I felt that there were unresolved problems I needed to address.

I realized that some belief structures that some people had were causing them to exhibit some unhealthy behaviors and attitudes, and then I realized I had been raised in these same belief structures.  And so I decided that I must examine my belief structure.  The realization caused me to open myself up to a possibility I had never considered before: I might be wrong.  This led to what I’d call an awakening.

What I think every human being needs to realize is that we all fall prey to cognitive biases – faulty reasoning which prevents us from seeing the truth.  We actually get pleasure from winning an argument, rather than from discovering a truth as a result of realizing we were wrong.  The Bible calls this pride, and has a lot of negative things to say about it, while telling us that we ought to be humble instead.

One of my favorite diagrams that helps me to conceptualize how bias works is called “The Ladder of Inference”:

The Ladder of Inference

This is the natural way that all human beings operate–we develop our belief structures based on our observations, which we’ve added meanings to, and then inferred assumptions, conclusions, and beliefs from.

We also see in this diagram that there is a tension between belief and action–our beliefs affect the way we act, and the way we act affects the way we develop new belief structures.  And these belief structures change the way we observe reality itself!  So a faulty belief structure is like a deadly poison which cripples you and prevents you from seeing straight.

Identifying the Poison

How do we find this poison in our lives?  And what is the antidote?

Poison (the band)

No, not THAT Poison….

Some would say “read the Bible!”  But there is a naivety to this response that makes me cringe.

It’s not that I don’t respect the Bible. I have a great deal of respect for it, as should be easily inferred from the way I refer to it throughout my writings.  But I think this knee-jerk response shows a lack of understanding for how our own views shape the way we read the Bible.  It also tends to reinforce the idea that a person who has never read the Bible couldn’t possibly know anything about truth, which is a horribly prejudiced view, in my opinion.

So how do we discern between right beliefs and wrong beliefs?

I’d start by changing the wording of that question a bit. I don’t think it’s helpful to use the terms “right” and “wrong” in this context, because it puts too much pressure on the situation.

We want so badly to be right, and the thought that we might have been wrong about anything puts guilt on us, which pressures us all the more to defend our current position so that we won’t have to bear this guilt.  But rather than using the terms “right“, and “wrong“, I’d say “healthy” and “unhealthy” instead.  I think that using these terms not only takes a bit of the pressure off, but also helps us to understand the method for discerning where the poison lies.

The Bible has a lot to say about a concept known as “sowing and reaping“, and Jesus said that you will be able to know a false teacher “by their fruit” (Mt. 7:15-20).  The apostle Paul talks about the “fruit of the Spirit” in Gal. 5:22-23 – “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  So a healthy belief structure will lead to a bountiful harvest of these good fruits, but an unhealthy belief structure will lead to hate, misery, fear, anger, unkindness, malice, irritability, and a lack of self-control (this is my own list, but I’m sure you could add others).

The idea of the fruits of a belief structure is not all that dissimilar to the scientific method’s approach to experimenting in order to prove or disprove a hypothesis.  Science is always developing new ideas based on old theories, as well as making adjustments to old theories.  It is not often that an old theory is thrown out completely, but when an experiment shows results that don’t fit within a theory, it shows that adjustments might need to be made to the theory.

Well, that didn't turn out so well....

Well, that didn’t turn out so well….

In the same way, we ought to be constantly examining our beliefs and our actions to see if they produce “good fruits” or “bad fruits”.  Do our beliefs make us healthy or unhealthy?

But I believe that we can get a clearer picture but expanding our views as well – rather than only focusing our ourselves, we can observe the track society is on and the results of belief structures.

Along with the theme of “religionless Christianity” and how beliefs play out in society, I read an interesting article recently about research that found that when people thought about religion, it made them more prejudiced, while thoughts on God caused them to be more generous.

Many Christians like to think they’re shaping today’s secular culture with their faith. But in reality, they’re shaping their faith with yesterday’s secular culture.

The central question in this exploration is: Do these beliefs cause love for neighbors?

Love was a central teaching of Jesus, even to the point of demanding love of enemies.  So if a belief structure is not leading you, or a larger cultural group, to love others, but is rather leading to division and strife, you’ve got bad fruits.

Finding the Antidote

Once we’ve we’ve examined the fruits of our beliefs and recognized that we have poison in our system, we can then search for the antidote to this poison.  But how do we search for an antidote?

The mere idea of challenging our beliefs is often frightening for people.  But this may help us to recognize where the problems lie–because if you realize that love should be the grounding of all your beliefs, then you can keep in mind that love drives out fear (I John 4:18).

Paul tells us in 2 Tim. 1:7 that God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love and a sound mind.  And in John 8:32, Jesus said that the truth will set us free!  Free to question, free to be skeptical, free to doubt!  Because love can bear it!

Often our beliefs structures are built in such a way as to protect themselves–we fear questioning them, because we fear the consequences.  But this is not how love works.  Love doesn’t build loyalty through fear.  And love does not demand that we be ideologically pure in order to be part of “the in crowd” (see I Cor. 13:5).  In “The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi”, Gandhi writes:

Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.

The Buddha once told a parable about a poisoned arrow -  Thich Nhat Hanh paraphrased this parable like so:

Suppose a man is struck by a poisoned arrow and the doctor wishes to take out the arrow immediately. Suppose the man does not want the arrow removed until he knows who shot it, his age, his parents, and why he shot it. What would happen? If he were to wait until all these questions have been answered, the man might die first.

If your beliefs are causing you to live in a way that is harmful, you have a poisoned arrow in your side, and love would not demand you keep it there.  Love would set you free to remove it!

St. Augustine once said:

The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.

So do not fear–set the truth free to defend itself, and you will be free.

When you are free to question, and you have examined the fruits of your belief structures–both in yourself and in the larger societal groups around you – you may then search for the cure with love as your guide.

You may do this in a variety of ways, but I’d like to suggest two methods.

The first method is to change your practices.  Just as our belief structures shape our actions, I believe that our habits change the way we perceive reality.  Mark Twain once said that if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

The central message of Jesus has always been love for neighbors – so if you want to find an antidote to the poison, begin to look for practical ways to change your habits in a way that shows love for neighbors.

This highlights a second method for finding the antidote for the poison–examining alternate perspectives without fear.  In “Introducing Theologies of Religions“, Paul Knitter writes:

A simple analogy might make all this clearer and reveal its relevance for our issue of dialogue: we might compare “truth” or “the way things are” to the starry universe around us. There is so much of it, and it is so far away, that with our naked eyes, we really can’t see what’s there. We have to use a telescope. But calvin_stars_cut-offby enabling us to see something of the universe, our telescope also prevents us from seeing everything. A telescope, even the mighty ones used by astronomers, can take in only so much. This describes our human situation. We’re always looking at the truth through some kind of cultural telescope, the one provided us by our parents, teachers, and broader society. The good news about this situation is that our telescope enables us to see; the bad news is that it prevents us from seeing everything.

The answer to the problem Knitter highlights is surprisingly simple and is only possible if we overcome fear: borrow someone else’s telescope. 

By expanding our horizons, and examining the multiple ways that other people and cultures perceive “truth,”  we can metaphorically borrow their telescopes, and look at the sky through alternate lenses and from many different angles.  And by doing this we can begin to build a better model of reality.  And when we do this, we might find out that the people we’ve been afraid of aren’t so scary after all–they are just fellow travelers searching for answers to the same questions you and I have been asking.

And when we overcome the fear that separates us from our fellow travelers, we might just find the antidote to our poison is in the possession of our new-found friends.
——–

Oh yeah, I'm a rockstar! Geoff is a Pub Theologian and a geeky/nerdy programmer with three super cute kids and an awesome wife who puts up with his quirks. He is also a Progressive Metalhead, which means he listens to loud music that’s also snobbish. Geoff reads way too many books – especially the ones he’s told not to read - and is proud to have been called a “dangerous hairy tick”.

So this time of year, we think a lot about Jesus and Santa.

On Facebook, one Catholic friend is lamenting that Santa is making an appearance in their nativity play (bringing newborn Jesus as a Christmas gift, no less!).  The church around the corner is boasting that Santa is reading the Christmas story on Sunday morning.

In my family, we are big believers in the Big Guy.  Particularly, we are fans of Disney’s The Santa Clause movies with Tim Allen.  In these movies, Santa (“Scott Calvin” – Allen) is definitely no saint, but he finds his calling in being Santa.  We watched the final movie in the series just the other night.  Santa’s stress over visiting in-laws and the impending birth of a new baby send him over the edge, and he almost loses everything.

But, back to Jesus for a second…

Have you ever heard a sermon, scripture lesson, or commentary on the story of Jesus healing the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter? Likely not.  It’s Mark 7: 24-30.  Here’s the NRSV:

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syro-phoenician origin.  She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”

So, let me get this straight:

  • Jesus gets in a verbal sparring session with a Gentile woman, during which he calls her and her family dogs.  That’s really enough to make it a strange story, but wait… there’s more!
  • She twists his words around, winning the debate.
  • Because of her sharp wit, Jesus heals her daughter.

This story is strange on many levels:

1- This woman seems more adept at rising to the challenge of Jesus than the disciples are.

[In fact, if you ever feel like you're worthless as a human being, just read about the disciples in the Gospels.  They are bumbling in the extreme.]

2- Jesus treats this woman with a severity (you could even describe it as a bigoted bias against Gentiles) that he does not show to others who have sought healing.

3- In contrast to other healing stories during which Jesus praises the petitioner’s faith, in this story he responds to her verbal argument.

Despite this incredible level of weirdness, the story appeals to me.  However we might characterize his initially harsh reaction to her request, Jesus recognizes graciously that the woman’s argument is sound.  Against cultural and religious norms of the time, he grants her request for healing.

I have heard pastors and commentators try to explain away Jesus’ actions here.  But I prefer to think that this is the truly human Jesus, who perhaps recognizes his cultural limitations and, at the same time, finds the courage to rise above them.  In this brief 7-verse episode, Jesus is much like Tim Allen’s Santa… flawed to be sure, but capable of the very best of humanity. I can see myself hanging out – and learning so much from – both of these guys.

Human Jesus, Human Santa, Human Me.  Merry Christmas!