The Three Is’s

In many ways, certainty is at the foundation of most Christian faiths. The Bible must be inerrant or how can you know what is true (just ignore the places where it contradicts itself)? The earth must have been created six thousand years ago or how can you trust the Bible (never mind the overwhelming evidence that it is in fact 13.7 billion years old)? Marriage must be between one man and one woman or you enter the slippery slope of relativism (lets just ignore the relativism of throwing out all of your previously tightly held moral values to support a hate-spewing, racist demagogue for President).

The problem, as I reference above in my parentheticals, is that the things that people claim that the BIBLE IS CLEAR about are absolutely unclear when you choose to actually take the Bible seriously. Sure, like anyone, you can pick and choose your favorite verses to come up with some sort of systematic theology that leads to a certain reading of the Bible. And every “theologically conservative” denomination has its own “infallible” reading of the Bible that relies on those choices. And in many cases, their choices conflict. Go figure!

So the gatekeepers warn us that if we read off the “safe and approved list” we will fall down the slippery slope that leads to apostasy. And they actually do have a point. For me, the entry place to deconstruction was the inerrancy of scripture, which never made sense to me from the early days of my becoming a Christian convert (see my reference to contradictions above). And for a while I tried to come up with alternative certainties around social justice or grace or inclusion or whatever. But in the end, I wasn’t left with much. The fact is that if we look at the Bible as a vehicle for certainty (or truth), we won’t find it. If it were there, we wouldn’t have so many denominations, each of which believes it has discovered the Truth.

And, of course, it didn’t help that so many of the people who asserted that the BIBLE IS CLEAR hated immigrants, downplayed racism, viewed women as less than equal, and ultimately advocated for “redemptive violence” to “Make America Christian Again.”

And so, by the beginning of 2019, I wasn’t left with much in the way of faith. If the Bible was uncertain, and Christians seemed to be so toxic, I didn’t have a whole lot of time for God.

But then, something altogether unexpected and wonderful happened. I encountered Divine Love directly. And while I don’t have the level of “certainty” I was taught to believe in or sought to find after I could no longer believe what I was taught, I have experienced what I call “The Three Is’s” which are now foundational to the faith I have today. They are:

  1. God is
  2. God is Love
  3. God is living in all things through Christ

I want to elaborate on each of these in a series of posts, but what is truly different about the faith I have today is that it is experience-based rather than certainty-based. This is what the mystics have taught us all along: that experience is the Great Teacher, the thing that reveals God to us and makes the scriptures come alive. Not intellectualism. Not dogma.

Brian Zahnd, in his book When Everything’s On Fire, references Karl Rahner’s prediction that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or nothing at all.” I have found this to be emphatically true.

The truly wild thing about the Bible is that it is innately iconoclastic. It subverts itself as a means of preventing itself from becoming the Idol at the expense of Godself. Martin Luther called the scriptures “the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” The point of the Bible is not to be the Word of God, but to be the words of people who knew God that point to God. It’s not prose, it’s poetry. It’s not dissertation, it’s metaphor.

God can’t be found in the Bible alone. But if you let the Bible lead you into the presence of Divine Love, you may find God.

On Labels

The last five years have made it exceedingly tough to identify as a Christian. If I call myself a Christian, will people think I’m a Trump supporter? Will they think I’m anti-mask and anti-vax? Will they think I agree with everything (or anything?) that Franklin Graham says? Will they think I hate gay people? Will they assume I’m a white supremacist? A Christian Nationalist?

This has been coming for a long time. Even when I first converted in the 1990s, I did it in spite of the Religious Right, the so-called Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell (Sr.), and Pat Robertson. I did it in spite of the holy rollers who would tell me I was going to go to hell if I didn’t believe in their Jesus in exactly the same way they did.

But then I heard Jesus speak to the woman at the well. I saw him hang out with the outcasts and the oppressed. And I experienced Christ personally in ways I could not deny. I was in.

Until I wasn’t. Until I was required to believe in an inerrant Bible. Until my church told me I had to vote against the right of two people who loved each other but happened to be of the same gender to get married. Until I needed to accept that most people ever born were going to be eternally punished in hellfire.

I was out, or at least just going through the motions. Go to church, check Twitter. Critique the sermon for the theology I no longer believed. Become more and more bitter at all the people around me that not only voted for Trump but continued to support him wholeheartedly in the midst of his increasingly immoral and authoritarian Presidency.

And then I was free. Christ the Lover showed me that the way of Love was truly the fabric of the universe. That in the end, everything was good and everything would be alright.

But I still had a problem with the label. That Christian label, the one associated with everything I no longer believed and actions that I felt were not only no longer loving but outright harmful. And so I’ve spent the last three years tiptoeing around it. Am I a Christian? Not really. Follower of the Way of Jesus, sure. Believer in the historic creeds of the church. Mystic participant in the Love of God.

But Christian? No thanks.

I was in my “just can’t even” phase with respect to the church for most of the time that Rachel Held Evans was doing her wonderful work of allowing people to be free to question the established orthodoxies of evangelicalism and participate in God’s extravagant banquet table, where all were welcome whether they believed wholeheartedly or not at all. But in the past three years, since I was awakened by God, I have taken comfort in her words, even now that she is no longer here to speak them.

In her posthumous book, Wholehearted Faith, she says:

“It would be dishonest for me not to say I am a Christian when Christianity is the story I will wrestle with forever. There’s something about Christianity—and by that, I mean the venerable, beautiful story that has Jesus at its center—I just can’t shake. And I don’t just mean the parts I like, or the parts that on good days I believe. I mean the whole thing. The whole screwed-up, embarrassing, dysfunctional family of the church is as much a part of my identity as my gender, my nationality, my ethnicity, and my name.”

This is me. Even when I didn’t believe much of anything that was in the Bible, I couldn’t escape the story of Jesus. The Jesus who healed people, listened to people, and forgave people. Even when the church has again and again excluded people and rallied around its own privilege while fighting against the very people it was called to love, I could not escape the God who personally revealed themselves to me in times of silence and mystery.

And I’m not sure I want to give up St. Francis.

Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or Martin Luther King. Or Mother Teresa. Or Henri Nouwen. Or C.S. Lewis. Or St. Gregory of Nyssa. Or St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Or Julian of Norwich. Or the Celtic mystics. Or John Wesley. Or Oscar Romero. Or Walter Rauschenbusch. Or Rachel Held Evans.

And I certainly don’t want to give up the Eucharist. Or praying the rosary. Or walking the labyrinth. Or the Daily Office. Or the Book of Common Prayer. Or even some of the less theologically troubling evangelical worship songs.

I think these things are worth fighting for. These Christian things are worth fighting for. The label Christian is worth fighting for. Not in a violent, militaristic, “you’re out and I’m in” kind of way. But by asserting that I am a Christian, and while I do not agree with what you are doing to my church, I am going to stand here and claim my heritage nonetheless.

Theology

I am an amateur theology nerd. I can’t escape it. When I’m not reading theology books, I’m thinking about theology. Even when I just couldn’t even with God I was still always thinking about theology. Even when I never prayed I would think about theology.

I almost applied to seminary in my early 20s. But I couldn’t get a recommendation from my pastor because he “felt like he didn’t know me well enough.” Whether that was valid or not, it was ultimately for the best, because a messy deconstruction would have been hell had I been ten years into pastoring an evangelical church.

I still want to go to seminary. Maybe I will do it, or maybe I won’t. I have serious doubts that I would want to pastor a church, and I’m a bit old to go up the PhD track to try to teach. But boy, would I love to study theology.

But the thing that I realized tonight is that while I find theology fascinating, I also find it absolutely, completely meaningless.

Let me explain.

In the end, what is, will be. There is nothing we can do, nothing we can think, nothing we can believe that will change ultimate reality. We’re all buckled into the roller coaster that has left the tracks and is going to crash into the ground regardless of however much screaming and squirming we do. Now, this can be existentially terrifying (and it has been for me). But it’s also profoundly comforting. I don’t have to get it right. I don’t have to believe exactly the right thing. I can just be.

But wait, you say! Don’t we have to believe the right thing to have a good outcome when the roller coaster comes crashing down?

I used to believe this.

But then I started hearing different, absolutely committed followers of Jesus interpret scripture in exactly opposite ways. And then I learned about the human tendency toward confirmation bias and making the world around us fit into our mental wiring. And that made me pretty sure that it’s 100% impossible to ever know what is absolute truth with any level of certainty.

And any God who would send people to hell for believing the wrong contradictory interpretation isn’t really God at all. You know, the God that John said is love? If God’s very nature is love (and it is, this I have experienced personally), then God isn’t going to toss you into hell for believing the wrong thing in a confusing life. And, as a matter of fact, that God isn’t going to toss you into hell at all (or even let you choose that as some would assert – even the older brother will ultimately join the party).

So basically all theology is to me at this point is a bunch of analogies we humans have come up with to try to make sense of existence, suffering, and death. Faulty analogies.

But these analogies, when pondered with love, can point us in the direction of what is.

And that’s why I still love theology.

What If It’s Not Meant to Be Figured Out?

I’ve spent my entire life – I mean, as much of my life as I can remember – trying to Figure It All Out. Is there a God? Am I going to hell? Is there such a thing as an afterlife? If there is, will we be floating around in the clouds? Will we be enjoying our own personal mansions? Won’t living forever be a colossal bore? Especially if we have harps and wings? Or are forced to listen to MercyMe forever (I Can Only Imagine…)? Will we merge into a cosmic sea of Oneness? And my favorite existential crisis forming thought – will we have hangnails in heaven (yes, I actually had this thought and yes, it actually freaked me out).

But last night, taking the dog out after a very long, tiring day, in the silence of the night, I had a thought. What if it’s not meant to be figured out?

Christians have come up with all kinds of theories about what Ultimate Reality looks like. But Jesus doesn’t talk too much about this. About all we get out of him is that God exists, God is love, and we are to love God and neighbor. And maybe some strange passages about women married to seven brothers being like the “angels in heaven” or a brief assertion that the thief on the cross will join him in “paradise.” Which, what the hell, Jesus? That doesn’t make things any clearer.

Pretty thin source material to figure out a Theory of Everything for Eternity.

And really, the things that Jesus DID teach about “eternal life,” are the things I have experienced. The deep Knowing that there is a love that undergirds the universe. The fact that this Divine Love can only be really accessed in the present moment. The essential sense that as Julian of Norwich saw, “All shall be well.”

And the really radical thing about understanding this is that it allows me to actually play around with these thoughts without feeling existentially crushed by them. And it also allows me to accept at face value the fact that other people have very different thoughts about these things, and that’s okay. Because to be honest, none of it really matters. What is, will be. And what we think it is won’t change what it actually is. And in the end, whatever it is will be okay. Because I’ve felt the Love.

So while it’s perfectly fine to study theology and come up with ideas about God and eternity, I am free to live my life here and now – the only place where the kin’dom of God really is anyway. And know that the next moment will be just as filled with that kin’dom as the current one.

Welling up to eternal life.

By What We Have Left Undone…

I just had a bit of an epiphany. I used to get really defensive when people would say that Christians are intolerant (“but but not all Christians…”). But to be honest, Christianity IS intolerant. It IS white supremacist. It IS hostile to people outside its mainstream, most especially LGBTQ+ folks.

The reality is that the Church is absolutely guilty of everything it is accused of being.

And I know, because I’m a part of one of these denominations, that there are “progressive” parts of the Church that are less all of these things. But we’re a small part of a dying Church that is dying even faster than the rest of it. And again, we’re only “less” of those things.

I guess for me personally, I can’t quit the Christian thing. It pointed me to Jesus both as a way of life and as a divine love to be shared with God and with everyone and everything in the universe. But I also don’t think I can just point the finger at “other” Christians. My Church is racist. My Church fails to welcome those fleeing persecution. My Church disavows people because of who they are and who they love. My Church voted for Donald Trump twice.

So all I can do is hold this in tension (or non-dually, if you will). The same Church that points to a divine love that is greater than even it understands also wounds people deeply.

One of my favorite prayers in the Christian liturgy is the confession of sin. I think that on behalf of the Church of which I am a part, this is my prayer today:

“Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

This is my prayer for both myself and my church in this time.

The Shape of All Reality

The story that most of us in Western Christendom have received growing up goes something like this. Six thousand years ago, God created two literal human beings named Adam and Eve. They lived with him in a perfect garden until one day Eve was naughty and believed a snake who tempted her to eat a forbidden fruit. She shared that disobedience with Adam and both of them were cast out of the garden and punished with death and suffering. Because they were naughty and disobedient, all of their descendants had this “naughty gene” as a part of them, and all of creation which was initially created good became twisted and so all sorts of nastiness entered the universe.

Then, one day, about four thousand years later, God incarnated himself into an individual by the name of Jesus. Jesus was an overall nice guy who taught us all to be nice people to one another, and most importantly to repent of our sins continually. He then died on the cross to make a payment to his angry Father who was otherwise going to send everyone he had created to a nasty place called hell where the fire would never be quenched and the worm would not die. But for those very few who accepted Jesus into their heart, the payment would be effective and they would not have to go to that nasty place. As long as they kept being generally nice people who continually repented of their sins and didn’t do anything really bad like be gay or have an abortion. But for everyone else, it was fire. Sorry!

But what if we got the story all wrong? What if we focused on the part of the story that made us feel like we and our tribe were the chosen people and everyone else outside that we actually didn’t like already were really evildoers? What if we chose a story that allowed us to be okay with our own brokenness because we didn’t engage in the sins of “those people?”

Maybe, just maybe, if we opened our eyes and listened to the story that all of creation has told since the beginning of time, and that the scriptures have attempted to tell us from the very beginning, and that Jesus modeled for us in his life, death, and resurrection, we would hear the melody of a song that is very different and much, more beautiful.

In this story, a trinitarian God always in loving relationship with its other parts creates this universe 13.7 billion years ago by incarnating one part of the Trinity, Christ, in all of creation. This God is a lover, who, to paraphrase Richard Rohr, loves all things by becoming them. And God sees that the universe that God has created is good, good, good, good, very good. And into this universe, through processes of natural selection, God creates living things on at least one planet, and a very intelligent primate that can perceive the universe, it’s physics, and even God. Now, the universe is not perfect and this primate does terrible things to its fellow primates as well as to creation, but God incorporates the good with the bad for the sake of a master blueprint God has in store.

So, after 13.7 billion years, a specific incarnation of the Christ that has existed in all of creation from the very beginning comes into the world as a baby, Jesus of Nazareth. This baby grows as any human would, ultimately becoming a man (as Rohr also teaches and which rings true, with a feminine spirit) who is given a mission by God the lover to live a life in the shape of all reality. Jesus spends his three years of ministry loving EVERYBODY and especially the outcast, welcoming the broken, healing the sick and the spiritually and mentally oppressed, feeding people, and building a beloved community on earth. And he teaches this beloved community, and anyone who would listen, that they should do the same in order to be the first fruits of what God had planned since the beginning of time.

But the world liked the first story better. So after Jesus spent his three years in ministry, the religious leaders conspired with the empire to kill Jesus. But this, too, was part of the blueprint God had laid out since the beginning of time. On the cross, in solidarity with the imperfections and suffering of all of creation, Christ suffered and died.

But the blueprint also had one more part. After three days, the specific incarnation of Christ named Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected as the universal Christ. His resurrection was the first fruits of God making “all things new.” The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the pattern of all creation. The shape of all reality.

But again, we missed the point. Because after an initial period of the early church getting what the story meant, and with the exception of a few monks, nuns, and mystics who also understood the story, by and large the church decided it liked the first story better.

Construction

Faith has never been easy for me.

I was raised in a home without any religion whatsoever, and basically considered myself agnostic through High School, although for some reason I never considered myself an atheist. Even though I was never taught much about religion, I would still from time to time pray to God/whatever. And I LOVED Christmas. I remember being little and looking for the Star in the sky on Christmas Eve, being too ignorant of the Bible and of science to know that it was a one time event two thousand years ago. But perhaps I was a budding mystic even then. That was basically the extent of it for me. And to counter any religious stirrings I might have had, we had the original Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right, people telling me I was going to hell, and all those “wonderful” things about conservative American Christianity in the 1980s.

So in college I met some Christians who didn’t seem like that. They didn’t judge me, they all seemed to like being around each other, and so I went to their Bible Studies. And I fell in love with the real, historical Jesus. The Jesus who was nothing like the Religious Right. The Jesus who would not condemn those that society was quick to condemn. The Jesus who was on the side of the poor and the oppressed. The Jesus who exposed the hypocrisy of the Religious Right of his day. And so I decided to follow him.

But, still, faith didn’t come easy to me. I remember struggling with the idea that my High School friend who had probably kept me from committing suicide during a really dark period in my life and had later committed suicide himself could possibly be in hell for it. I struggled when the evangelical prayer toolbox left me feeling like my prayers were bouncing off of the ceiling. For a time, I had to excuse myself from a house church I was a part of because of the pastor’s interpretation of the Revelation of John (eschatology is hard). I had weird thoughts that God would punish me physically if I sinned.

As I continued in the evangelical world, the tensions increased. The concept of the Bible being inerrant made no sense to me since there were obvious contractions between accounts of the same story. The need to make the Bible literal, especially with regard to the Creation narratives, made me come to the conclusion that either the literalists were wrong about the earth being six thousand years old, or God was evil to make the universe look billions of years old.

And then there was homosexuality. I could never reconcile the idea that the same Bible that told of a God of infinite compassion, love, and forgiveness could condemn people to hell because of who they are or who they love. It came to a head when I was serving as the “Social Concern representative” for my church and that denomination decided that it needed to come out publicly in favor of a political initiative to officially outlaw gay marriage, and it fell to me to stand in front of the church in support of this so-called “Social Concern.” By the grace of God, I was able to express my opposition to the pastors, even though they went ahead without my involvement. I resigned my position shortly thereafter, and while I would like to say that I heroically left that church because of that moment, I did stay around for awhile before leaving because of this and other issues. Always a work in progress, sadly.

But about this same time, God gave me new wineskins. In the gospels (Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5), Jesus talks about not being able to put new wine in old wineskins because the old wineskins had become rigid and would burst as the new wine continued its fermentation process and expanded. I went to a conference in Pasadena, CA called Politics and Spirituality with Jim Wallis, Anne Lamott, and Richard Rohr as its keynote speakers. And suddenly, it clicked.

It was wonderful learning in a community of believers who saw Christianity as primarily an expression of the love of God for all people and not an exclusive clique providing fire insurance for the “elect” few. It all felt very subversive coming from a reasonably conservative evangelical environment (although this being California, not nearly as conservative as in other parts of the country). No offense to Jim Wallis, but Anne Lamott and Richard Rohr stole the show for me. I loved the way Anne Lamott told stories about kindness and the love of God. One of her stories that stays with me to this day was about how she would call out to kids in her Sunday School class who were wearing certain shirts and then hug them and tell them that they were so loved and so chosen. Being a father of really small kids at the time, it spoke to me about the love of Christ for all people.

And then there was Richard Rohr.

I had never heard anyone speak the way he spoke. The concept of “how you see determines what you see” was transformative. The introduction to the ideas that the dualistic mind of the Western church is not the way the early church and the great mystics saw reality and the fact that we needed to have a “non-dual” mindset in order to truly grasp the nature of God reoriented my prayer life forever. And learning contemplative practices at the feet of probably the greatest contemplative of my lifetime was truly an honor. It absolutely transformed my faith.

I left that conference and devoured everything off of the evangelical “safe and approved” list. Brian McLaren. Rob Bell. More Richard Rohr. Anne Lamott. The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, who sadly passed well before his time several years back. Robert Farrar Capon. And many others.

I finally had an intellectual construct for what I had intuitively felt my entire Christian life. I didn’t have to subscribe to the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture because the scripture itself doesn’t claim to be inerrant, and in fact is a conversation among the people of God that God uses to point us to Christ. I didn’t have to believe that everyone not in my tribe was going to hell, because the arc of the scriptures points to a God who has generated a “tidal wave of grace” that will eventually “soak everyone,” to paraphrase Michael Spencer. And I didn’t have to believe that my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters were not a part of this story because the dissonant voices in scripture used to justify their exclusion were outside of the narrative arc of what God is trying to communicate to us through word and tradition.

And I learned to love the historic church, contemplation, and mystery.

But I was still evangelical, despite my non-evangelical beliefs. Or at least attending evangelical churches.

After a few years of tremendous spiritual growth, I think I just kind of settled into life. I wasn’t happy in evangelical churches and generally felt like an “other” who couldn’t speak up about what I really believed. If they only knew, they would kick me out for sure. But I also didn’t really want to rock the boat and so I just kept my head down, kept my mouth shut, and tuned out the things I didn’t agree with.

But that’s changing. God has awakened me again. The funny thing about contemplative prayer is sometimes God shows up. And when he shows up, things change. It’s changing again.

Free

2016 was a watershed moment for my faith. After years of trying to hold onto the tension between my obviously non-evangelical theological views and my desire to stay within the evangelical tradition I belonged to my entire Christian life, the election forced me to jump completely off that train. But it wasn’t until this week that I finally viewed myself as being fully outside of the tent of evangelicalism.

And I have to tell you, I feel free.

I really don’t know WHAT I am yet, and perhaps a label is just reductive and should be avoided anyway. But it ain’t evangelical. And it feels great.

I no longer have to care what evangelicals think of my theology. I no longer have to just go with the flow in a church where the majority of the people I see on Sunday somehow think that it’s okay to vote for white supremacy because abortion or Hillary or lols or whatever. I no longer have to keep looking for an evangelical church that will support me as I am in my spiritual journey because I’ve realized that construct is the mythical unicorn.

Maybe I will end up in a mainline church, or maybe I will find a group of like-minded people and start something new. But the days of pretending and worrying are over.

I’m free.

Clarifying my re-imagining

After reading back my previous post, I feel like there are a couple things that need to be clarified, for myself.

1. This is not a church that’s against anybody. It’s a church for people. Mainline, Catholics, Orthodox, and yes, even evangelicals are still our brothers and sisters, even though we would prefer to worship in an environment different from all of those. And of course, we are more than happy to reach across doctrinal boundaries to advance God’s reign.

2. It’s political but not partisan. The way of Jesus is by its very nature political. When you assert that you are a part of the vanguard of a new reign, you are necessarily political. When you come to bring justice for the oppressed, to raise up the poor, and to break down barriers based on race and gender; you are inherently political. But Jesus never sided with the Zealots, or the Saducees, or the Herodians, or Caesar. Because his reign judges all of those things. For 1700 years the church has been held captive by Christendom. And evangelicals are the latest to cozy up to power and its institutions of oppression in a drastic attempt to hold onto Christendom. And while we may be Republican or (more likely) Democrats politically, we must always be a prophetic voice to both parties and all other centers of power, and must never seek to impose our theological perspective on others through abuse of that power. We may march for black lives, but we shouldn’t lobby or desire access to the politicians themselves.