For the Bride: Non-Judgment

Continuing our exploration of early Christianity, we move from the principle of love to the practice of non-judgment, which is the application of love in situations and toward people who do not seem to deserve it.  When we read the sayings of the desert mothers and fathers, we find occasions when their refusal to judge another person assaults our sensitivities and flat out seems to be unwarrented by the facts.

So, how could they do it?

Before we can understand the early Christians’ refusal to pass judgment, we need to look at the motivation which gave birth to the refusal.  In a word, it was Romans 3:23–all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

When the early Christians enacted this verse (and they did not enact it perfectly any more than we do), they did so under the belief that the acknowledgment of universal sinfulness was the necessary pre-requisite for Christian community.  Why? Because the spirit and substance of fellowship lives or dies in relation to the presence or absence of humility.

When humility is present, judgmentalism cannot arise because we know that judgment belongs to God (Romans 12:19) not to us (Matthew 7:1).  If we assume the role that God alone is supposed to have, our judgment will be mixed with misinformation and pride.  And no accurate verdict or edifying outcome can result in that environment.

But even more, non-judgment rests on the conviction that mercy is a greater incentive for change than rejection can ever be.  In whatever ways people need to remove unrighteousness (metanoia), they will be more likely to do it under the influence of the heat of compassion rather than the coldness of censoriousness.  By actual experience, the early Christians saw non-judgment producing more transformation than judgmentalism ever did.

And most of all it meant enacting the Golden Rule–treating others the way they would want to be treated–treating others the way God had treated each one of them.  And far from being cheap grace, non-judgment was/is amazing grace.

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In-Sight: A Reconciled Church

In 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Paul describes the church as first ‘reconciled’ and then as ‘reconciling.’   That twofold flow has gotten my attention.  I want to write this week and next about it.

First question: what would characterize a reconciled church?  Surely we would be on safe ground for answering the question if we stayed with the biblical trilogy of faith, hope, and love–what the church has come to call the the theological virtues.

A reconciled church would be a church of faith–a church that holds to what came to be called the kerygma in the New Testament era and then later the creeds in the early-Christian era.  These affirmations would comprise the doctrine of a reconciled church, leaving other things (as kerygma and creeds do) as opinions.  The critical distinction between doctrine and opinion would characterize a reconciled church.

A reconciled church would be a church of hope.  Holding to humility, we would devote ourselves to prayer, in the hope that God would continue to perfect us and teach us how to apply the Gospel faithfully and creatively in each generation until Christ returns.

A reconciled church would be a church of love, where the two great commandments are the pegs upon which hang all the law and the prophets–just like Jesus said.  In terms of life together, we would make love the bond among us, agreeing that differences would not divide us, and believing (as John Wesley put it) that even when we do not think alike, we can still love alike.

A reconciled church would be alive in the Spirit, nurtured by the sacraments and other works of piety and mercy.  A reconciled church would glorify God through the nurture of faith, hope, and love.

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Journey: In-Spired!

Read: The Spirit is Moving!

All the way back to my childhood, one of my favorite hymns has been, “Breathe on me, Breath of God.”  Maybe that is why the image of the Holy Spirit as breath (wind) has been a positive one.  McLaren’s chapter is an excellent overview of this notion of the Spirit.

And as has often happened as I have read this book along with you, I made a new discovery.  I had not seen the crucifixion, burial, resurrection scenario in Peter’s sermon as a template for understanding and experiencing Pentecost.  But now I do. 

The disciples and those who heard Peter preach could not be filled until they were emptied.  They could not come alive to God until they had died to self.  The first Pentecost day and the Pentecost Sunday we celebrated yesterday commemorate the same spiritual journey that gave life to the first Christians, and gives life to us today.

In my tradition (it doesn’t happen every year), Pentecost Sunday and Aldersgate Sunday were both yesterday.  Aldersgate Sunday commemorates John Wesley’s pentecostal experience at 8:45 in the evening of May 24th, 1738 at the Fetter Lane Society on Aldersgate Street in London.

As in Acts 2, the fire of the Spirit moved upon John Wesley so that felt his heart “strangely warmed.”  The Wind of the Spirit blew into his life removing the dust of spiritual aridity which had covered his journey for several years.

The same pattern McLaren described was confirmed in Wesley’s life.  And the same in-spiration awaits any upon whom the Spirit breathes.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.”

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For the Bride: The Sum of All

When Paul wrote that love is “the more excellent way”–that it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things”–and that it is greater than faith or hope, he was doing all he could to say it is the sum of all.

Similarly, we have found the early Christians saying the same thing through their words and deeds, many of which are preserved in the Verba Seniorum (c. 550 a.d.), which we today call the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.

One of my favorite companion books to this ancient volume is Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert.  I cannot think of a better way to draw our exploration of the principle of love to a close than to post Merton’s summation written in the 20th century and in keeping with Paul’s conviction written in the 1st century…

“All through the Verba Seniorum we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love, in fact, is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions. The more lofty they are, the more dangerous the illusion.”

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In-Sight: Arise! (#2)

Last week’s post (Arise #1) encouraged us to see Jesus’ resurrection as the ignition of an ongoing uprising. It is an uprising that occurs in all sorts of ways–what Paul referred to comprehensively as a “new creation” (2Corinthians 5:17).  This uprising is not something we merely observe and affirm, it is something we are called to participate in.  Today, I want to offer three ways we can do this.

First, spend your time developing your position rather than criticizing someone else’s.  This makes us advocates rather than adversaries.  Of course, people will disagree with us, but our participation in God’s uprising should not be consumed in being a counter-point to someone else’s view.  Be proactive and constructive, not reactive and deconstructive.  If you really think your position is better, commend it by building it up, not tearing another position down.

In social media, this negative deconstructionism happens to an alarming degree.  I rarely read the “Comment” sections of Facebook posts, because people use them way too often to do little other than find fault.  Do not do this.  Instead, use your own media outlets to communicate your view, rather than piggy-backing on someone else’s.   Be a message, not a footnote.

Second, be a Kingdom-banquet person.  Invite everyone to feast on your point of view.  As in the parable, some will turn down the invitation. But rather than lament their refusal, go out to the highways and hedgerows (as Jesus said) and invite others to come. 

Be inclusive, not sectarian.  Some whom you hoped would show up will not, but you will find a host of others who will come and dine.  If your position is credible, it will attract others just as a magnet draws iron filings.  Like the sower in Jesus’ parable, do not predict or attempt to control in advance who gets the seed.  Sling seed all over the place, and you will get a harvest somewhere.

Third, align your heart and your treasure, or as the old phrase says, “put your money where your mouth is.”  Use your stewardship of time, talent, and treasure to advance what you believe in.

Sign up.  Join in.  Donate.  Find reputable groups to support.  Weave your single voice into the tapestry of a larger voice.  Be a visible member of a community that advocates your position beyond your own locale.

Fourth, seek for the fruit of the Spirit to characterize your involvement.  There will be some occasions when a clear and courageous stance is necessary.  But no stance should make us bitter, and surely not hateful.  The essence of Christlikeness has been described throughout church history  by the fruit of the Spirit.  As the commercial says, “don’t leave home without it.”

Finally, trust God for the outcome.  Like Moses, the best we can often do is only look over into the promised land, but not enter it.  Like the writer of Hebrews, we do not see everything in subjection to Christ.  Be content to show up and speak out, going as far as you can–realizing it will likely not be all the way to the end.  Transformation is usually trans-generational.  We are to be faithful in this generation,  and hand off what remains to those who come after us.

On his final night on the earth, Martin Luther King Jr. used this analogy to declare that even though he might not get to the goals espoused by the civil-rights’ movement, he had been to the mountain top, and everything else was secondary to that experience.  He went as far as he could, trusting the goodness of the cause would be embraced by those who outlived him.

Arise!  It is God’s call.  And while it certainly includes the ministry of encouraging others, it goes beyond that to include our own engagement.  It moves beyond support to showing up.  It means incarnating the apostolic spirit that says, “We cannot keep from telling you what we have seen heard.”  It is that personal involvement which turns a resurrection into an uprising.

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Journey: Known By The Scars

Read: Whatever the Hardship, Keep Rising Up

As I have already told you, I have benefited greatly from McLaren’s analogy of resurrection as an uprising.  Not surprisingly, he brings the third-quarter readings to an end in a way I would not have anticipated, but in a way we all need to recognize.

He ends with Jesus’ nail-pierced hands and Paul’s marks–both the real-life effect of bearing witness to their faith.  We must not view the Christian uprising as pain free–as a movement beyond struggle and suffering into an artificial “sweetness and light” existence.

Truth be told, the longstanding peace and prosperity that we have taken for granted in North American Christianity has never been the paradigm for most of the world’s Christians.  Untold numbers have lived daily under the shadows of persecution and deprivation because they profess faith in Jesus Christ.  Like Jesus, Paul, and the people of faith in Hebrews 11, they are known by the scars.

Without drifting into predictionism, that may or may not turn out to be true, what we can say for sure is that, because of the resurrection, Life not death is the final word, even if we have to pass through a tomb on the way to it.  The uprising truth is that strength is made perfect in weakness. 

So, the sooner we take off our super-saint outfits, the better.  The sooner we stop lighting the fires and then try to claim others are burning us at the stake, the better. Now, as always, we will be known by the scars.

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For the Bride: Soft on Sin?

We have spent an extended period of time considering the way of love in early Christianity, revealing that it was the virtue which defined and directed the inner life and outer witness of the desert fathers and mothers.

I will turn next to the practice of non-judgment, but today I want to write about a misperception that often arises among critics who view the way of love and the practice of non-judgment as meaning that ancient and modern Christians who espouse these values are soft on sin. 

I confess that I am inserting this writing into the larger exploration of the three pillars that I advocate in my book, ‘For the Sake of the Bride,’ because one of the false allegations that keeps raising its head against me is the notion that by advocating the principle of love, the practice of non-judgment, and the process of holy conversation, I have joined the ranks of those who take a minimalist position on sexual sin.

As a way of honoring the early Christian community, and simultaneously representing myself, I want to make clear where a theology of sexual sin fits into the paradigm I commend and that I find operative in early Christianity.  I know that what I am about to write will not satisfy everyone, but I hope it will put to rest the caricature that Christians like me (ancient or modern) have become relativists when it comes to sexual sin.  The following points can only scratch the surface, but I offer them as signposts toward a larger address of this matter which I hope to make eventually.

First, there is sexual sin, and in every case the Bible is against it.  God has created human sexuality as “good” in the original creation, and whatever violates the sacredness of sexuality is to be rejected. The two main words that capture the Bible’s prohibition are the Hebrew word zana and the Greek word porneia, usually translated by the term immorality.

Second, both heterosexual and homosexual persons commit sexual sin.  As Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson so clearly points out, heterosexual immorality is frequently ignored in the current debate, when the data reveals that heterosexual sinfulness more extensively affects the sexual mores of society than homosexual sinfulness does. I fully agree that this is an unacceptable imbalance in any attempt to establish a theology of holy sexuality.

Third, sexual sin is summarized in one word: promiscuity.  That is, any sexual behavior which is driven by lust rather than defined by love, centered in self-gratification rather than God-glorification, is temporary rather than permanent, and lacks a sense of commitment.  The two words used to describe this in Scripture are fornication and adultery, with a plurality of behaviors that emerge. A look at early Christianity shows that these two manifestations were roundly rejected.

Fourth, the often-debated passages regarding homosexuality in the Old and New Testaments are all about some kind of promiscuity, as are the other texts in Scripture that describe sinful sexual behaviors.  As with heterosexual sin, homosexual sin is not one overarching behavior, but rather sexual behavior that is promiscuous.

Fifth, the basis for determining the morality of sexual behavior is covenant: sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency.  Covenant is the evaluative factor for all of life.  We even refer to the two major sections of Scripture as the Old and New Covenants. In both Testaments, covenant is rooted in the two great commandments, upon which hang all the law and the prophets. Sexual behavior is, therefore, one powerful way we declare our love of God and others. Sexual sin is a violation of biblical love through a host of expressions, all egoic in nature.

Sixth, when covenant remains definitive, both heterosexuals and homosexuals can honor it through celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.  With regard to human sexuality, God has one standard, and both heterosexuals and homosexuals can and must keep it.

So, far from being soft on sin, I join with Christians who put the focus on behavior rather than orientation.  I join with Christians who reject sexual promiscuity of any kind by anyone.  And I join with Christians who offer any two people the opportunity to make vows that root their relationship in covenant (sacredness, monogamy, fidelity, and permanency), creating accountability and responsibility for us all.

I believe this way allows the principle of love to exist and flow between and among people, without creating  a carte blanche disregard for honoring the covenant which alone makes any aspect of life good.

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