For the Bride: Narrow Vision

In his book, The Word in the Desert, Douglas Burton-Christie notes that the early Christians realized how easily they could deceive themselves into thinking they could know the condition of another person’s heart, and thus accurately pass judgment on them.

So, lest they sinned against themselves (pride) and against a brother or sister (presumption), they refused to pass judgment on someone else.  They believed that love arose where judgmentalism was absent, and that love would produce any needed changes in a person, while keeping arrogance at bay.

This required a different starting point.  If they began by looking at their own sins, they would see the sins of others in the correct perspective.  But if they started with the sins of others, their eyes would be blinded, so that their assessment could easily be skewed–and worse, they would never move back to contemplate their own sinfulness.  Egotism always keeps the spotlight on someone else.

Once the early Christians no longer started with their sinfulness, they believed that anger (usually veiled under spiritual superiority) would begin to burn, creating a punitive approach to others rather than a redemptive one.  Or to say it another way, they believed that when they became strangers to grace, they would become prisoners of legalism, and imprison others by their attitudes and actions.

Underneath all this ran what John Wesley later called “watching over one another in love.”  Arising from the convictions that they were shepherds of one another, the early Christians realized how easily they could do harm to another person by misleading them to think of themselves as any other than God’s beloved daughters and sons.

Burton-Christie summarized it this way, “The commandment of love thus required one to exercise real skepticism regarding one’s narrow vision of things, especially toward the actions of others.”  We need a resurgence of this same skepticism.  We have made ourselves judge and jury of others to a fault, turning our assessment meetings into kangaroo courts.  Non-judgment is the way God offers us to keep grace and truth in proper balance.

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In-Sight: Healing A Wound

In medicine, a simple rule guides the treatment of a wound: the deeper the wound, the longer the healing.  Physicians treat deep wounds differently and commend patients to exercise patience while the body responds to treatment and completes the healing.

In sociology and theology, the same rule applies: the deeper the wound, the longer the healing. Physicians of society and doctors of the soul are right in telling us not to expect a quick-fix when we are wounded deeply.  Rather, healing progresses over time, often with occasional setbacks. This is normal. Patience is required, even as perseverance continues.

With respect to last week’s SCOTUS decision to approve nationwide same-sex marriage, we begin by acknowledging that a deep wound in our society is now beginning to heal, but that it will take time before the wound closes completely. I do not write this to advocate passivity, but rather to exhort us to perseverance born of quiet confidence.

Christ, the Great Physician, applies the healing medicine that carries the aroma of love, now applied and offered to all. To those who are perishing it will be smelled as a stench of death.  But to those being saved, it will be the odor of life (cf. 2 Cor 2:15-16).  But it takes a while before an aerosol spray covers the entire house to create a new fragrance.

The deep woundedness experienced by so many for so long still needs the triage of love, rather than the  oft-used North American response of “Well, now that this is taken care of, we can move on to something else.”  No, we hold hands and stick together (to borrow a phrase from Robert Fulghum), and cross the street from one reality to another.

Similarly, those who feel wounded by the SCOTUS decision must receive the same love that provides healing grace from unfounded fear.  This too takes time and sustained effort.  And some will resist the medicine longer than others, with some perhaps never taking it.

But as with previous corrections in society and church, time will yield the final verdict.  In the meantime, recognizing that the deeper the wound, the longer the healing, Light shines on our path, as we pray the words of the hymn, “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage–for the living of these days.”

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Editorial: The SCOTUS Decision

Various writers have rightly noted that the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage is an interpretation of the Constitution and its advocacy of equal treatment under the law.  They have rightly pointed out that the decision is not directly based on any religion’s sacred text, but is rather a reflection of a national ethos rooted in our nation’s historic commitment that all persons are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.

A reading of the confirming opinion, however, does reveal a keen insight captured in the decision–an insight revealed in the Bible–namely, that marriage is defined in terms of covenant.  And as such it combines privilege and responsibility.

Those who oppose the SCOTUS decision are doing so largely and most-often using a definition of marriage that arises from creation.  When this is so, biology and anatomy become the interpretive portals. And from those doorways, opposite-sex marriage is quickly believed to be the defining element of the concept.

But when covenant is viewed as the norm (not only for marriage alone, but for all aspects of the God-human, human-human relationship), the portal becomes holiness, expressed in marriage through vows that commit those married to sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency.  Holy sexuality is rooted in and defined by covenant, not creation.  And when it is so viewed, it can be the privilege and responsibility of any two people who are willing to make the commitments that any marriage expects and enforces.

The SCOTUS decision is an interpretation of the Constitution, not an interpretation of the Bible.  In that respect it is trans-religious and non-sectarian.  But in defining marriage in a covenental context, the Court keeps marriage in the same high place where Scripture has placed it from the beginning until now.  Far from diminishing marriage, it has kept its covenant core intact, offering the blessings and benefits of it to anyone willing to make marriage holy matrimony–what a government can only describe to is citizenry as “liberty and justice for all.”

I will continue these thoughts in a second post next week.

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Journey: The Lifegiving Difference

Read: Spirit of Unity and Diversity

As far back as my seminary days in the early 1970’s, I can remember Dr. Dennis Kinlaw saying that the Trinity is the distinguishing mark of Christianity.  And since then, I have heard him say it repeatedly and read his more extended writings about it.

McLaren says essentially the same thing in this week’s chapter.  And he and Dr. Kinlaw stake their claim in a view of the Godhead that is far from abstract, but is rather immensely practical.  The Trinity is simultaneously revelational and experiential.  In the Trinity we see the nature of God, and we see that nature expressed as a holy love that is personal and relational (I-Thou, not I-It).

It is in the Trinity where we discover that God has made us, redeemed us, and entered into fellowship with us.  It is in the Trinity where we find grace to see ourselves as beloved sons and daughters of God, which makes it clear that we are also brothers and sisters to each other.

The Trinity is, therefore, our source of life and the basis for our hope.  The philosophical and theological descriptions are not meant to confuse us, but to give us confidence that we have come to know and relate to the God who cannot be fully grasped by humanity’s best thinkers and deepest thoughts.

The Trinity brings us into Mystery, which in the end says, “Bring forward the highest and best you know, and discover that it barely scratches the surface of All There Is.  The Trinity is the final word that this world is not our final home–that Reality requires an eternity to reveal it.

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Editorial: Living in the New Day

The SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage is a long-awaited decision for many, including gay and straight Christians who have spent decades advocating for this.  It is a day for thanksgiving.

But one of the lessons of history is that the hardest work comes after a high moment.  We see it, for example, in the life of Jesus when after his baptism (including the descending dove and God speaking) he faced his most severe temptations.  John Wesley used this passage as an example of the need to expect challenge after high moments and to engage ourselves for the long-haul.

We are at such a moment with respect to same-sex marriage in The United States.  We must resist the notion that we can relax and rest, which is the natural feeling after any intense and prolonged struggle.  Instead, like our wisest predecessors, we must recognize that our hardest work lies ahead. I believe such work includes the following things.

First, we must define the new normal with the finest examples of it.  This means putting this new freedom on the top shelf of excellence and virtue.  It means confirming that the need for it was valid.  Nothing silences criticism more than showing that fear and opposition was unfounded and unnecessary. 

Second, we must expect and not be dismayed by an immediate negative response by critics, including various “doomsday” scenarios.  Efforts to regain control (e.g. local legislation) will occur.  This is another reason why continued  vigilance is necessary.  Straight-line accomplishments will be turned to crooked lines by critics, but the line is still a road that can be traveled toward increasing progress.

Third, leaders must lead us into the new day.  Freedom does not have inherent wisdom, it requires devoted and expert guidance.  Leadership is more important than ever, because after a victory, people need pastors more than prophets.  Sheep need shepherds who can lead them to green pastures and still waters.  Visionaries must now become navigators.

Finally, the fruit of the Spirit must characterize life in the new day, just as in the days leading up to it.  Christlikeness exhibited by the formerly vulnerable must not be abandoned, but rather increased.  Outloving those who will still resist is the only way to glorify God in the new normal.

Without these kinds of actions, the ego seizes control, turning those formerly oppressed into a new class of oppressors.  The deformative cycle continues, the only difference being that the cast of characters has changed position on the field.

Returning to Jesus, his journey from baptism (revelation) into temptation (his hardest work) was followed by his missional announcement in Nazareth that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and has anointed me to…”  This is the witness that will turn an initially-sown seed into a harvest that brings an increase of the Kingdom to pass.

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For the Bride: Radical Trust

The church’s perrennial call to repentance is rooted in our belief in God’s willingness and ability to forgive sin.  Judgmentalism was, however, eschewed by the early Christians because they believed it was a diminishment of that belief.

One of the desert fathers was asked about this, and his reply was in essence, “If God has told us to forgive one another seventy times seven, don’t you think God will forgive anyone at least that much, and even more?”  That was Abba Poemen’s way of keeping the redemptive center in God and not putting it in himself. 

The early desert fathers heard the confessions of others, but they did not initiate the call for repentance.  That was the prerogative of the Spirit in the work we call ‘conviction.’  If people were not under conviction, it meant that there was more work to be done by the Spirit–or–it meant that one Christian’s assessment of another might be incorrect, and the other person did not need to repent of whatever the first Christian thought he/she did.  Either way, the fellow Christian more nearly played the position of catcher, not pitcher, on God’s team.

Compared to our predecessors in the faith, we are too prone to authorize ourselves to be judge-and-jury over someone else.  We are too quick to name the sin of another and prescribe the act that will convince us the person has repented.  All of this, while being a reflection on us and our tendency to be judgmental, is also an indication that we have lost our radical trust in God to deal with the world and the Church.  By refraining from judgmentalism, the early Christians believed they were affirming their faith in God as the One Who will not fail to deal with whatever is amiss.

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In-Sight: Another Way To Look At It

In much of the contemporary conversation about the Church, we use life/death language to frame what we say.  So, some allege they are in a “dead” church, while just down the road others claim theirs is “alive.”  And from there, we expand the conversations to evaluate denominations and other parts of the Body of Christ. The recent Pew survey on religion in America is a case in point of how life/death interpreters go to work on the data.

Subsidiary words are also used to carry the freight of the life/death metaphor (e.g. bigger means life, growing means life–the opposites mean death), leaving us with human measuring tools that combine theology, sociology, demographics, and trends to form, describe, and defend our assessments.

Missing in a lot of this conversation is a third category, one that Jesus himself used–the process of pruning (John 15:2).  In every vineyard, most branches were alive and bearing some fruit, but all the branches had to be pruned recurringly so they could bear more fruit.

This is the category I choose to use in talking about what is happening to the Church today.  Life/death language takes survey data and uses it to say, “If this trend continues, we will be out of business by the year________(different years for different groups).”  And, of course the statisticians are correct, IF it is all about numbers.  A vineyard worker would agree–if you keep cutting back the branch, it will eventually be gone.  And that is the way most of what I read and hear frames the conversation.

Life/death language gives groups permission to go into crisis mode, requiring a last-ditch effort to save the vineyard–usually described in some kind of divisionary concept or life-boat call to join “the true believers” in getting off the sinking ship.

The pruning metaphor operates from a different assumption–that cutting back is for the purpose of greater fruitfulness in the future.  It is a theological and ecclesial manifestation of “less is more.”  It does not require abandoning the existing vineyard, but only tending it with greater attention and care.

I cannot speak comprehensively about pruning because even Jesus said only the vinedresser (his heavenly Father) knows what needs pruning, and how much cut-back there needs to be on a given branch.  But at least here in North America, I believe God is pruning us along lines that (whether real or imagined) are stunting the fruitfulness of Christianity.  Here are a limited number of examples where I believe God is pruning us…

—Christianity is being separated from the impression that the true version of it is largely located in one political party,

—Christianity is being pulled from the grip of “media Christians” who use their platforms, institutions, and ministries to allege the country is going to Hell in a hand basket, and they are the only ones who can “save the nation,”

—Christianity is being pruned of dualistic thinking which (among other things) allows one group to claim it holds the copyright on orthodoxy,

—Christianity is being purged of a top-heavy institutionalism that concentrates power in too few and consumes too much money on ecclesial maintenance,

—Christianity is being taken out of the hands of “old guys” (and yes, much of it is GUYS), who hang on too long and block the emergence of a new generation of young leaders,

—Christianity is being salvaged from those who blur the life-giving distinction between doctrine and opinion, losing sight of the fact that the issues we must face are shaped by hermeneutics, not by the false charge that only certain Christians “believe in the Bible,”

—Christianity is being cleansed of the public impression that it is made up of people who are mean-spirited, judgmental, and arrogant, and

—Christianity is being emptied of concepts that allow quantification (“more is better”) to be definitive in determining its authenticity and vitality.

These cut-backs are threatening to any living on the part of the branch that will be removed, and we can expect the soon-to-be-pruned branch portion to put up quite a fight when the shears begin to do their work.

The pruning is not a sign that the branch will soon die, but that it will be restored to new and fuller life–to the spirit and substance God has had in mind for it all along.  Pruning is the prelude to the production of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) on the vine. 

In that day, the Church will be a fruitful vine.  And with that fruit in place , it will be harvested by the Spirit so that the world can drink the New Wine only God can make!

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