Grace, Revisted.

Emerging Grace: “The missional perspective seems to be that God loves us while we are yet sinners and that our sins are already forgiven before we even repent of them.

I think one of the biggest offenses of the evangelical gospel has been confronting people on the basis of their sin rather than introducing them to the love, grace, and mercy of God.

Do we dare run around in the ridiculous lavishness of His grace and trust others with that abundance of grace? What could happen if we let people be free of judgment, willy-nilly, without the restraint of guilt? Could their mistakes be any worse than the mistakes of legalism?”

I don’t think there’s anything I could add.

Post-Evangelical

As I’ve navigated my way through the Christian and evangelical worlds in the years since my embrace of Christ, cracks have developed between my understanding of God through scripture study and direct experiences with God and the traditional “evangelical” approach to those subjects. Some examples:

  • While I hold scripture in extremely high regard, I have trouble accepting the modernist doctrine of inerrancy. The fact is, when I read the scripture, there are points of disagreement within the text which I cannot reconcile with an inerrant reading of it. That being said, I believe that God in his sovereignty has directed the writers of the scriptures and the church in its development of the canon and therefore while the scriptures may not be inerrant, they are inspired, authoritative, and the ultimate rule in our faith. We are not to reject their teachings (but we may find that they teach us something different than we had always thought or were taught that they said). As I like to say, “I do not believe in inerrancy, but in something which is functionally the same.”
  • Evangelicalism tends to get caught up in its own certainty. There is a tendency within evangelicalism to believe that one’s own (or one’s churches own) interpretation of the scripture is definitively “the truth” and that anyone disagreeing with those teachings needs to be “corrected.” I have learned again and again that my beliefs are only my best approximation of God’s truth at this time, and can only be held on to lightly. I believe Jesus affirms this position when he discussed the concept of “new wineskins.”
  • I have been troubled by the lack of inclusivity among many evangelicals. Jesus modeled a radical inclusivity which reached out to even the most “sinful” of individuals, and which did not require any sort of hoop jumping to come into fellowship with himself. But for most evangelicals, that inclusivity has a limit. We’re a radically inclusive people, unless you’re gay, or (in some cases) liberal, or what have you.
  • Evangelicalism is far too focused on individual salvation rather than the expansion of the kingdom of God. While I believe that initially, we must be transformed individually, I do not believe God wants us to linger long in this place. He always brings salvation (in the form of inner healing, physical healing, and spiritual reorientation) first in order to move our focus outward to the world so that we may be agents of salvation and bringers of the kingdom of God to others. But in our “I” orientated worship songs, the “I”-ness of our prayers, and the inward focus of so much of what we do, I believe that envangelicalism tends to miss this key point.

While these are my immediate critiques of evangelicalism, I by no means want to imply that evangelicalism is without merit. To the contrary, as a post-evangelical attending an evangelical church, I believe that evangelicalism continues to be one of the key ways God is working in the world. Internet Monk has an excellent post which outlines some of the strengths of evangelicalism which I appreciate as well.

But in the end, at this point in my life, while I continue to associate with the evangelical expression of God’s church, I consider myself to be post-evangelical and believe that it will be the emerging church and its many “posts” (post-evangelical being only one of many) which will best show the gospel’s relevancy to our post-modern, post-Christian western society.

Mystery

My wife and I are thirty-one weeks into the launching of our latest project: an active little boy who was supposed to come out toward the end of July.

He will join his five year-old brother and three year-old sister when he arrives.

Now, for my wife, pregnancy has never been something which can be called easy, or even not horrible. Well, at least parts of it, in any case. She has suffered each time with incredible, debilitating morning sickness. And each time, her blood pressure has shot through the roof as she has entered labor.

Unfortunately, after the birth of our daughter, it never really came all the way down. And that has impacted this pregnancy.

She’s been given a prescription of “get as much bed rest as you can stand.” So we’ve reorganized our life to try to work around the loss of a very important pair of hands around the house. She’s been given medication, but so far, it hasn’t made much of an impact.

And we’ve been given a truckload of worry. Worry that the extra heap of contractions she has endured at an earlier point in this pregnancy may lead to a May or June baby rather than a July one. Worry that her blood pressure may spike still more during delivery. Worry about things that I won’t even mention because I cannot bear to think of them happening and am trusting that God will not allow to happen.

And here I sit in God’s mystery. Stretched quite a bit too thin by worry and added responsibilities. Quite aware of my sinfulness as I struggle to keep it in check. And praying longingly for God’s redemptive power in the midst of it all.

God knows what we want and he knows what we need. Praying “harder” won’t cause his grace to come any more or less quickly. But my desire is that instead I would pray deeper – deeper into the heart of God.

Deeper into the mystery.

I’m looking forward to holding our baby boy and crying with my wife as we celebrate his entrance into the world. An entrance which I believe is an opportunity for us to see the kingdom which glitters underneath the veil of the ordinary.

An entrance which will introduce us to yet another aspect of the mystery which veils so much of our lives.

Static

I just finished the book Static, by Ron Martoia. For a more complete review of the book, please go see what Michael Spencer of InternetMonk.com has to say. His review was what compelled me to pick up the book in the first place, and I am glad that I did.

Martoia’s book is about deconstructing and re-contextualizing the gospel message for the post-modern world. His point is that the tried-and-true messages of repentence, sin, salvation, and the “ticket to heaven” first of all do not resonate with today’s post-modern generation (roughly speaking, Gen X and more significantly Y), and secondly are based more on our cultural Christianity than on the teachings of scripture.

Some of the things that really struck me about his book:

  • He talks about the fact that while evangelical Christianity emphasizes the “Four Spiritual Laws” and the “prayer to accept Jesus,” the vast majority of converts come to know Christ gradually and don’t necessarily have a specific “date” of conversion. In fact, he seems to downplay the need to get someone to “make a decision for Jesus” to the point of unimportance. This resonates with me, as it was how I came to know Jesus. I can clearly see the “pre-conversion” processes which led me on the path to finding Jesus in college, and the gradual slide over a period of months from ardent skeptic to committed disciple. Even today I can see that my “conversion” is a continuing process. I can no more claim that I’ve “arrived” in my faith than I can that I have gotten as old as I will become.
  • He emphasizes that when Jesus talks about salvation in the Gospels, he is not talking about a ticket to heaven. Instead, he is talking about the restoration of the shalom of the Garden of Eden. Salvation comes to individuals not by praying a prayer, but rather through a reception of grace from Jesus – be it through healing, re-integration into society, or whatnot. In fact, Martoia emphasizes the fact that Jesus does not call people to repentence, but instead simply loves and cares for them where they are at. The repentence comes as a natural response to that grace, and then sometimes only much later.
  • He discusses that when Jesus talks about “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven,” he is not talking simply about some future kingdom, but rather his ushering in of the kingdom of God here and now. Jesus brings heaven down to us – we don’t need to wait until we die to experience it.

His main point in all of this is that we need to go back and read what the scriptures really said – trying as best we can to understand the context in which they were written – and then to take that understanding and re-contextualize it for post-modern people. Rather than focusing on a person’s sin and their need for forgiveness (something that many people today would not recognize), we can present the good news (or “newsflash” as Martoia re-christens it) that the king has arrived to heal the brokenness in our lives and in the world, and let people come to terms with issues of sin in time as Jesus draws them nearer to himself.

What I really appreciated about Martoia is that he did not cast off the traditional understandings from scripture – sin and repentence, eternal life in heaven, and so forth, but rather he shifted our vision to the stories that Jesus emphasized in his ministry. Yes, Jesus did on the cross for our sins, but that was simply part of the larger purpose he had in his ministry – the restoration of the kingdom of God – the garden of Eden – that we were intended to live in.

While much of what Martoia had to say was familiar to me based on some good teaching I have received in earlier parts of my life as well as the path on which God has been taking me over the course of the past few years, the way that he presented it was still challenging for my faith. There were some quite uncomfortable moments while reading the book, and some that I’m having to set aside for later thought. InternetMonk says this better than I could, and I wholeheartedly agree with him:

I appreciated his frequent references to his own struggles with these changes in understanding, because I’m still having them, and expect to have them for as long as I’m reading outside of the “safe and approved” box.

But I suppose if I never strayed off of the “safe and approved” list, I would have a much harder time shedding the old wineskins which prevent me from growing in my love for and understanding of God.

Emergent?

The term “emergent” as it applies to the Christian faith and the concept of the “emergent church” is still something around which I am trying to wrap my mind. At this point, here is what I think I have figured out:

  • It isn’t a denomination. In fact, it pops up in all sorts of denominational and non-denomination environments.
  • It doesn’t seem to have a particular theological take. In fact, it eschews systematic theology and embraces diversity of theological thought.
  • It doesn’t embrace any sort of “-ism.” In fact, people who associate themselves with the “emergent church” tend to place “post-” prior to any “-ism” to which they are associated.

Brian McLaren, in his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, uses the example of tree rings to describe the concept of “emergent.” Each new ring embraces those before it, and the tree grows in the soil comprised of its ancestors. A tree does not reject what has come before, whether it be well- or ill-formed, but encircles it, makes it a part of itself, and moves outward using it as its base.

McLaren’s book really struck a chord with me, as it summed up much of what I have been feeling over the course of the past several years. After I became a Christian, I simmered in the broth of evangelicalism into which I was converted. The world was quite black and white back then – basically, I and those who thought like me were right, and everyone else was wrong.

But then I graduated from my insulated bubble of a college fellowship and entered “the real world.” And things stopped lining up quite as well as they did before. The more people who were very different from myself that I met, the more I started to realize that there was a whole lot of God in people who I would have sworn were dead wrong about their theology.

This really came to a head for me when I went to the Politics and Spirituality conference last fall, and found that the person from whom I learned the most about God was a Franciscan father who had spent time meditating with Buddhist monks (a concept which set off all kinds of bells in the “black and white” remnants of my faith). And not only did I learn things about God from this man who in my former life I would have branded a “heretic,” but God’s spirit washed over me in response to those teachings.

Over the course of the past several years, especially in online conversations, I have learned as much from Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics as I have from the evangelicals in the church I attend.

So when McLaren talks of an “emergent” view of the world where we seek to embrace and not reject those who have gone before us, his message speaks to my heart. Because that’s what I have been living in recent years.

The thing I like most about an “emergent” view is that it recognizes that we will never arrive (at least, prior to meeting Jesus face-to-face). The moment when we think we have God and the scriptures all figured out is likely the moment when we are the most wrong. And it is this understanding which gives us the humility to recognize our limitations in understanding the truth and the grace to accept and embrace others who may have a somewhat different understanding.

McLaren states this much better than I could:

“What we will be is not yet clear to us. What we are becoming is presently only visible as through a glass darkly. As we see the glorious image of God in the face of Christ, as we lean toward that image that beckons us forward, as we identify it as our true destiny and the pearl of great price that we seek, we are purified and transformed inwardly, from glory to glory. We constantly emerge from what we were and are into what we can become – not just as individuals, but as participants in the emerging realities of families, communities, cultures, and worlds.

For too many, the process of emergence is fitful, stalled, aborted, like a butterfly halfway in and halfway out of its cocoon. It is to these trapped people that Jesus calls, ‘Follow me.’ We follow him into full emergence as children of God. It is for this full emergence that we thirst with aspiration, longing, and hope.”

I still don’t completely understand what it means to be “emergent.” But I think, at the end of the day, I am convinced that God is working though the “emergent church” to teach his followers and the world something new about himself. And like other movements of his spirit beforehand, I suspect that the church will be transformed for the better.

And so, I guess it would be accurate to call me an “emergent post-evangelical.”

God’s Broken Heart

I’m reading David Batstone’s Not For Sale about modern-day slavery. I’ve only made it through the first chapter, but am already convinced that this is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I’m not going to give a full review of the book, but rather just wish to share a few thoughts which have come from reading this chapter.

Chapter 1 is about sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. Batstone weaves the stories of individuals who are giving their lives to free women from slavery with the stories of the women themselves. In this case, he tells the story of a Cambodian girl, Srey Neang, who was sold into slavery as a child by her own family and by age fourteen had been delivered into sexual slavery. Her story consists of one despairing twist of fate after another, as her life moves from one nightmare to the next. It reminded me of what the prophet Amos prophesied about the Day of the Lord:

It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.

This girl was ultimately rescued, but how many others will never escape this life of pain and misery?

The Lord broke my heart tonight as I was praying after completing the chapter. There are so many millions of people for whom life is like the Day of the Lord described by Amos. There is no escape from their suffering – and anything that looks like an escape is only a gateway to more suffering. They live in extreme poverty. They live in slavery. They suffer oppression.

And God’s heart is broken for them.

God’s heart burns with white hot love for each of these little ones. His anger burns white hot at the oppression and injustice they face. And he longs to see his people be so moved by their plight that they cannot but act against it.

I am but one person, and my family numbers only a few. It is clear that we cannot save the entire world from its suffering. But we can help save a few. And we can pray against the strongholds which bind them in misery. And we can share this vision with anyone who will listen so that they too can have their hearts broken for the poorest of the poor. And we must. For this is where God’s river is flowing.

Grace

A saying that I have frequently used when discussing God on the internet is this:

I am convinced that God has sufficiently more grace than we credit him.

This has certainly proven true in my own life, and I suspect that even now, I don’t give him nearly enough credit for the amount of grace he has toward his creation.

When I first became a believer, I passed through what I consider to be the first stage of my understanding of grace. In this stage, His grace was good enough for me and a few folks who thought more or less like I did, but not so much for everyone else. It’s chief source text was the following:

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

In my initial zeal to follow Christ (a term I would have never used at the time, as it was too “Christian,” too “mainstream,” and too much what “they” used), I tended to classify most everyone as the outsider. The religious right couldn’t possibly be a recipient of God’s grace because of their angry language against groups they disliked, such as homosexuals. Megachurches had to be outside of God’s grace because of their opulent spending on themselves while the poor suffered. Middle-class Christians certainly couldn’t be on the right side of God’s grace because they weren’t radical enough in their pursuit of simplicity of living (in other words, they had too much stuff). Theological liberals had to be graceless because they “watered down” the scriptures to such a degree. And so on.

But fortunately, God’s grace was enough to be patient with me, a wild-eyed, judgemental new Christian. And his sense of humor was enough that he has allowed me to see through the eyes of most of the groups that I had labeled outside of his grace in the past.

And so he led me into stage two of my understanding of his grace. This is the stage in which I have found myself for most of my time as a believer. And its source text would be something like the following:

“I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.”

This passage, in all of its ambiguity, characterizes what I have come to understand God’s grace to be. The fact is, I as a human can never properly judge who is inside and who is outside the umbrella of God’s grace. It all comes down to the definition of what “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is, doesn’t it?

So what, then, is my definition? Understanding humbly that I am probably wrong to some degree, I would say that “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” is a failure to recognize the Trinity for whom they claim to be: God, transcendent, incarnational, and indwelling. When we reject the triune God and instead make other things the gods of our life, then we risk blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

However, I am not qualified to make the judgement about who exactly may be guilty of this blasphemy and who may not. Only God can judge such things.

But it is this very understanding of grace which has turned my previous judgemental certainty on its head. In fact, I am now quite sure there will be a lot of people in heaven – homosexuals and Republicans notwithstanding, who many Christians (including my previous and current self) would have been certain would have been excluded. The sheep and the goats, indeed.

But there’s a third stage of grace which I am just beginning to touch the edges of. I’m not quite sure I’m ready to go there, but at the same time, I cannot dismiss it out of hand. It is the unquenchable, all-consuming grace that Jesus ascribes to the father again and again:

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”

The father in this parable does not wait for his son to repent. In fact, he won’t even let him speak. Instead, he graciously receives his son back and restores his place in the family without any need to jump through hoops. His love is so powerful that he cannot but spend his days looking for his son to return, and his grace is sufficient that even the grumblings of his “holy” older son cannot change his mind.

This is the question which leads me down this path: Richard Rohr, at the Politics and Spirituality conference I attended last year, asked if any of us desired the eternal torture of even our worst enemy. And if even we could not bring ourselves to that level, then how could we think that God could do the same?

Now obviously, there are some people who probably do desire to see those who have wronged them tortured eternally, but that says more about their own hearts than the heart of God. In fact, the heart of God tells us to have the opposite motive: that instead of hatred, we have love for our enemies. That instead of desiring their eternal punishment, we pray for their eternal salvation.

The heart of God loves all of his creation, good and bad. And desires to be reunited with it. And who are we to complain if God so chooses to save even the Hitlers and bin Ladens of the world? And how can we claim that he cannot do so (For that matter, who are we to complain if he chooses NOT to save them?)?

While my heart wishes to believe that the hell God is saving us from is simply what we make of our lives on this earth while we live in disobedience, and that the reason we evangelize is so that people can be freed from that hell in this lifetime without waiting for the next and go about the work of building his kingdom on earth, here and now, I recognize that Jesus spends not a small amount of time speaking of hell, sheep and goats, and the like.

It is this fundamental paradox between one part of God’s character – the infinite love which would allow his incarnate son to be killed knowing full well that those he saved would continue to disobey, and another – the righteous judge recounted throughout scripture, which I suspect will challenge me the rest of my life.

But it is this paradox which makes me all the more certain that we will all be quite surprised by the collection of scoundrels we meet in heaven, not the least of which will be ourselves.