“You Killed Our Lord”…

I just finished a book which was out of the norm for me. (The BOOK was out of the norm, NOT that I finished it. Although I do have more than a few still lingering for me to finish…) The name is: The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is Jewish, and is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee. As a practicing Jew, Levine brings an interesting slant to the study of the New Testament. She does a remarkable job of straddling the un-declared, yet very real line of demarcation between Judaism and Christianity. She also explains the ministry and teaching of Jesus from a Jewish perspective. Levine gives insight into not only the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teaching from first century Judaism, but also how much in line with Jewish instruction and tradition Jesus was, and is; of which many parts of the church seem to have either been ignorant, at best, or deny and castigate, at worst. She is especially interested in developing, and helping others develop, an ongoing conversation between different faith traditions; especially between Christians and Jews.
Levine became interested in Christianity when watching the funeral of Pope John XXIII on TV as a child. She became so interested, in fact, that she told her mother that she wanted to be pope when she grew up. Her mother responded dryly, “You can’t. You aren’t Italian.” (Pg. 1. Love that line!) Her interest was furthered by her surrounding neighborhood. “I was in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a suburb of New Bedford, in a neighborhood that was predominantly Roman Catholic, and Portuguese. Thus my introduction to the church was through ethnic Catholicism, and it was marvelous: feast days and festivals, pageantry and mystery, food and more food.” (Pg.1-2) She attended both Hebrew school at her synagogue, and catechism with her friends at a Catholic church. Her early years were spent crossing the cultural and religious lines of Judaism and Christianity.
One of the first signs to her of dissonance between the two traditions occurred on a bus ride home from school one day at the age of 7: “…a friend on the school bus said to me, ‘You killed our Lord.’ ‘I did not,’ I responded with some indignation. Deicide would be the sort of thing I would have recalled. ‘Yes you did,’ the girl insisted. ‘Our priest said so.’ Apparently, she had been taught that ‘the Jews’ were responsible for the death of Jesus. Since I was the only one she knew, I must be guilty. But at the time, I did not understand the reasons for the charge or have the means to address it.” (Pg.2)
Eventually, when in high school, she read the New Testament, and began to understand from where the little girl’s charge emanated. However, she states, “…I had, fortunately, been inoculated against seeing only hate. My Christian friends had modeled for me the grace and friendship that are at the heart of the church: my parents had told me that Jesus was a Jew speaking to other Jews, and that his basic message was exactly the same as that of Judaism: to ‘love the Lord your God,’ and to ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ So I knew that, although the New Testament could be read as being anti-Jewish, it did not have to be read that way.” (Pg.3)
Levine’s purpose in the book seems to be at least three-fold, in my opinion:
1. To inform and educate Christians on the importance of remembering the time and place of Jesus’ message, as well as the fact that Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jews in the context of a first century occupied territory of the Roman Empire. She speaks of Jesus as part of “…a continuous… line of Jewish teachers and prophets…” (Pg.20) She reminds us that Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law and prophets, not abolish them.
2. To publically confront anti-Jewish teaching which the church inadvertently or purposefully promulgates in the message it teaches about Jesus’ life, teaching, and death as it relates to Judaism.
3. To encourage interfaith conversations, events, and ministries within communities.
As I sat in church today while we were finishing a discussion/series on the book of Galatians, I realized just how easy it is to step over the line into anti-Jewish language and thought. Trying to define the distinctiveness of the Christian faith can sometimes become exclusion instead. As Paul combats the teaching of people trying to deny the new Gentile freedom of faith practice, by requiring adherence to Jewish practice and tradition, it is easy to frame the argument into good versus evil; and some of the language of the New Testament seems to do just that. However, it is too easy for us to use our own cultural biases to interpret ancient culture and the scriptures which address issues the first century people were facing. Doing so only clouds the message, and robs it of its continual power to enlighten and change perspectives and lives. In the following, Levine makes the above point well:
“Historically, Jesus should be seen as continuous with the line of Jewish teacher and prophets, for he shares with them a particular view of the world and a particular manner of expressing that view. Like Amos and Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah, he used arresting speech, risked political persecution, and turned traditional family values upside down in order to proclaim what he believed God wants, the Torah teaches, and Israel must do. This historical anchoring need not and should not, in Christian teaching, preclude or overshadow Jesus’s role in the divine plan. He must, in the Christian tradition, be more than just a really good teacher. But he must be that Jewish teacher as well.
Further, Jesus had to have made sense in his own context, and the context is that of Galilee and Judea. Jesus cannot be understood fully unless he is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears. The parables are products of first-century Jewish culture, not ours; the healings were assessed according to that worldview, not ours; the debates over how to follow Torah took place within that set of legal parameters and forms of discourse, not ours. To understand Jesus’s impact in his own setting—why some chose to follow him, others to dismiss him, and still others to seek his death—requires an understanding of that setting.” (Pg.20-21)

There are many voices in the church which espouse strong interpretations as to the deep, rich message of scripture, and allowing others to hold differing interpretive messages without responding in arrogance and disrespect doesn’t always seem to be the norm. We do need to delve deeply enough into the history of that time and place, in order to catch the meaning there. We then can re-interpret both the impact and meaning into our own setting.
Levine points out how many of the church’s interpretations about the practices and beliefs of Judaism in first century Judea and Galilee, as well as the message of Jesus towards the Judaism of his day can cause an anti-Jewish sentiment in Christianity; even when it isn’t intended. She writes in detail of ways Christianity typically stereotypes Judaism in the first-century and then responds with rhetoric which shows how Christianity uses these stereotypes in ways which promote anti-Jewish thought and even action. (Pg.119-166)
Personally, I was struck by this notion. At first, I felt Levine was being too sensitive and defensive. I especially found my first impression to be interesting when she later notes that other Christian theologians responded in like manner when she confronted their statements in articles they had written and the anti-Jewish slant their views communicated. I believe we don’t really know the depth of our own prejudice until life brings it into full, frontal nudity.
However, I have also come to believe Jesus’s hard statements can be directed to the church in similar ways today. In fact, I have a theory that all organizations eventually drift from originating structures, and intentions which takes them away from the forms and priorities that made them successful in the first place. This drift must be corrected by re-defining or re-interpreting the original intentions of the organization. If this process isn’t undertaken, vitality is lost. This is, to me, one of the lessons of the Tower of Babel. When architects, engineers, and builders lose focus of the point of the structure by turning it into a self-aggrandizing project, communication lapses, and they speak in “different languages” because they are only concentrating on their piece of the building process, and their vision of how it “should” look and be. I think religious organizations are no different. We can build theological, economic, political, or corporate Towers of Babel. The principle is the same.
Phyllis Tickle (Google her…) theorizes that every 500 years, the church undergoes a theological re-interpretation crisis in response to changing understandings of the world, culture and the universe in general. I think it especially likely that the growth of science, technology, and overall knowledge increases the importance and likelihood of this re-interpretive crisis within the church. When we understand the universe, the earth, and people differently; we have to look again to the founding principles and revelation of God in order to understand how they relate to our new knowledge of reality. Since Christianity grew from the same roots as Judaism, Levine’s emphasis on the importance of cross-faith (my term) interaction is well-founded. There is no threat to deny the distinctiveness of Jesus and his message, or the redemptive nature of his death and resurrection, by interacting with Jews. Nor is there any need to try to proselytize. We must realize God’s freedom to draw people to God in the manner God chooses. As Christians, we are told to lift Jesus up. God does the rest. But lifting up Jesus doesn’t mean putting others down through exclusion.

Celibacy…

Celibacy sucks…

While that probably isn’t a surprise for someone in a relationship in which the sex is good, or at least not terrible, and the amount of sex at least approaches the frequency they want; for someone single and not sexually active, the phrase probably doesn’t need to be said. It is their reality. I realize some people have chosen celibacy as a holy calling, however for others, celibacy has been… thrust…. (sorry)…. upon them by a divorce, or a relationship dying. I guess there are many reasons why a person would choose not to be sexually active, but my time of celibacy has led me to look at sexuality in a larger sense. I have come to realize that my sexuality, and the manner in which I express it, is a much larger issue than whether I get to enjoy the intimacy of a sensual encounter with a woman. I have begun to understand how the masculine and feminine are inextricably intertwined in my own personality. I confess that I probably have more questions now about what it means to be male or female than ever before. Now, obviously, I’m not in need of an anatomy lesson. That isn’t my point; and my body tells me about the physical desire for a woman whenever one walks by in a bikini… just being honest. This is especially so after spending most of my life in the Midwest. I’m not used to seeing so much skin! I often feel self-conscious, as if I just inadvertently stepped into a women’s dressing room by mistake.

“Oops…. Sorry… I thought this was unisex, but that lingerie shows off your curves REALLY well!”

However, my brush with the power of sexuality in a physical sense leaves me questioning how we as a culture have treated it. Not just in a physical sense, but in a deeper, emotional and spiritual sense. What are the social/cultural cues regarding what roles men or women are supposed to fill? There seem to be mixed messages.

On the one hand, our culture seems to value a woman for how she looks. A woman should be beautiful. There are also parameters the culture mandates, as to what beautiful even means, as it regards to women. The media portrays how beauty is defined, especially as to size and shape. I suppose women feel objectified by this definition of beauty, and they should, for that is exactly what the image portrays. And yet… what is especially devious about this message is that few women are genetically predisposed to this size and shape. Whole arrays of businesses have risen to help women become this “goddess” of large-breasts-small-waist-cellulite-free-thighs-wrikle-free-skin-perfect-hair-white-straight-teeth-and-shapely-strong-butt-set-on-tan-legs. Living by the beach, I see women in constant movement in search of this self-perception. Women running, and riding bikes, and lifting weights, and laying out to get a tan, and whatever else will turn them into what they THINK men want. Or… at least I think that is why they do it. As if their identity is based on how their appearance approaches the media-induced portrait of what a woman SHOULD look like. I suppose if one were to ask them why they are going to such lengths… how they push their body to become this image… they might say they are pursuing health. I hope so. It just seems so easy for such a pursuit to plunge over the line into obsession.

There are also women, who seem to mock this “goddess” form. They wear clothing that exposes their apparent opposition to the form. They seem to be comfortable with their bodies, and their choice to bare it all is a big middle finger directed at public opinion to the contrary.

Then, there is another cultural voice that says women should pursue intelligence and achievement either instead of, or alongside physical beauty. Movies and television portray women that can not only out think a man, but also out work him. The message here seems to be one of independence, and even opposition to masculinity, or at least to the stereotype of a man created by our culture. It is as if men will be threatened by a smart, creative, gifted woman; and thereby become defensive, so a woman must always be on the offense against any perceived slight from a man. Obviously, a man WILL try to put down such a woman, right?

Then, there is the continuing battle between women who want to be a full-time mother/wife, and women who want to have a career, or women who want both.

Women can be especially harsh critics of not only each other, but of themselves as well.

The culture isn’t any kinder to men, in my view. Men are valued for the amount of money they either have or manage. Although I have noticed a slight shift towards valuing men also by their bodies, the message is pretty plain: Money equals attraction. Honestly, the journey to prosperity is getting harder for men, too. There are fewer jobs in this country for which it is advantageous to be physically male, and especially so for well-paying jobs. Jobs which utilize traditional male roles, are less available. The public, cultural perception still is that men have fewer obstacles in their career path than do women, and with the exception of child-bearing, I have come to believe this assumption is false. It seems there is a cultural war on masculinity. It feels like women and children are afraid of you sometimes. I heard Helen Fisher, (author of Why Him, Why Her) speaking about relationships on TED talks the other day. She said that she was asked if men were more inclined to adulterous affairs, and she responded that they were not. The questioner then asked if men weren’t more genetically inclined, and she responded sarcastically, “Who do you think they are having affairs with?”

In a marriage, the message to men is that they are to provide financially, yet also be more involved with the care of children, and daily tasks in the home. Actually, I agree with the former and with the latter if the wife works outside the home. However, doing those things will most likely mean that his earning potential will lessen because making more income usually means more time in some form or another. This is a lose/lose position for a man to be in. If he invests more time at work, in one or two, or three jobs; he isn’t a good husband/father. If he spends more time at home with the kids and wife, he isn’t a good provider.

There are social scientists/biologists who will say that these two ways of valuing the sexes are steeped in evolution.  A woman’s body was very important to be able to bear multiple children, so the species had a better opportunity to flourish, they will tell you. A man that could provide more of what the family needed also gave the species a better survival quotient. While that makes pretty good sense in a primal setting, it seems simplistic to me. I don’t think this view looks at our sexuality deeply enough. We are each more than animals competing for a limited amount of food, and the best partners to pass on our unique genetic code. There is a quality to physical intimacy that shares in spiritual transcendence. Making love has a divine quality attached to it. We celebrate the joy of loving another person with the totality of who we are. Removing our clothing and being naked with another person is a practice of shared vulnerability that is powerful. It can be affirming. Just taking your clothes off in front of someone else is a risk of humiliation. That is especially true as we age.

And yet…

The longer I am celibate. The more I feel the power of my sexual drive. It can be scary, too. It isn’t that I’m afraid that I will tackle some woman in a bikini and physically molest her on the beach. It is that I might fall to the physical/emotional pull to sex in some non-relational form. I honestly have no strong desire to get into porn. Although I understand why it is tempting, I also see the down side: the emotional isolation after the physical release. What I like and want in sex, is the connection between two people… Love. And that is where I would especially like to begin talking about Deep Sex.

A disclaimer to start… There is no way I can honestly say that if I were to have the opportunity for a sexual encounter with a woman to whom I was attracted physically and mentally, that I would be able to decline. Maybe this is why I haven’t had the opportunity… Maybe God is protecting me, and the other person from the complications of uncommitted sex. I have had opportunities in the past, yet with each one, I found a compelling reason not to pursue it. (I still get this little shiver remembering the Glen Close character in the movie Fatal Attraction…)  Ultimately, I decided to treat myself, and the other person I might add, with greater respect than falling into bed with someone I didn’t really know.

This does NOT mean it is easy… Far from it! It is very lonely, honestly.

In my seminary classes, we have studied how the church has handled sexuality in the past. More specifically, we have read of the tendency to view sex as dangerous to spiritual growth. Many of the spiritual mothers and fathers even went so far as to go into the desert in order to seek God. It is especially hard for me not to understand this approach as unbiblical. To me, it is a denial of the “goodness” of God’s design of community, and is an escape from the difficulty of living out one’s faith in the midst of dissonance. Eventually, other people followed the original seekers of solitude. So, community FOLLOWED them into the desert. Community forces us outside ourselves. Why is there a need to forgive, unless there is one who acts in a manner which conflicts with our intentions? We learn to both give and receive forgiveness by interacting with other people. I realize there are scriptural examples of holy hermits. Jesus’ human cousin, John, lived in the desert in a Spartan existence. The prophets of scripture also spent time outside the community, for long periods of time, in order to hear God’s message more clearly. Even Jesus went into the wilderness for a period of time for those reasons, as well as to do spiritual battle with the Adversary. However, John, Jesus, and the prophets returned to the community in order to live out the message they received in the wilderness.

I have found that it can be easier to live alone, even though it is lonely, than to risk the pain and messiness that is part of living in community with others. However, I am learning to see loneliness as an invitation to step outside myself. I am invited to release my fear of being rejected and misunderstood. Love is assertive. It is active. It does not wait, unless waiting is an act of patience rather than fear. Love is also willing to be misunderstood, then stays around to talk through the issue. Celibacy can be an act of love, but it also can be one of fear… unwilling to get dirty in the messiness that is brought by love. It can be a way to hide from risking the discomfort of intimacy.

So, how does one know the difference between celibacy as an act of love, and celibacy as an act of fear?

Can one person’s journey into celibacy help inform others around them about the nature and depth of their own intimate relationships?

Can one living without physical sex with another person accept and be accepted by the community of faith?

Can we be sexual beings outside of intimate, physical, genital contact with another person?

How can the church teach sexual ethics, within a culture so sensually driven in a manner that works in our everyday lives?

I want to believe that my journey into celibacy is an invitation from God into a deeper love affair with God. I want to believe it is an invitation into a fuller life within which I will find a fuller expression of my sexuality in ways that are generative in different forms, and that I will find varied ways to be co-creative with God. I want to believe that I am still a value to the greater community in which I live and can find a freedom to give of myself in a fuller spectrum than I previously believed possible. I want to believe these things, and intellectually, I do. Yet I also find myself struggling with my sexual body.

Rob Bell, in his book Sex God, says that humanity seems to err in regard to sexuality in one of two directions. We either see ourselves as angels, which are sexless beings solely created for service to God; or as animals which are destined to live by the power of their innate drives; sex being one of them. Bell points out, however, that we instead are created in the image of God. We are neither angels nor animals, but more profound beings: Children of God. We are created to manage Eden… the garden within which we have been placed, both in time and space. A part of that management responsibility is the management of our Self. That is the rub. I find it so easy to become obsessed with a self-created end to my own celibacy. In so doing, I lose focus on allowing the tension of living alone yet in community to bring out new depths of who God has created me to be. I want to be a sexy man, even though I am not getting laid!

I believe the phrase: sexy man, could be used to describe Jesus, especially because he treated women with deep respect. They responded to him with love, that was at times sensual, yet not physically, genitally intimate. Jesus’ love was redemptive. Even women who used their bodies to service the desires of men, found in Jesus a man who looked through the veil of their bodies into the depths of their soul; and they were changed radically due to the encounter. Jesus loved them without the expectations of a physical quid pro quo.

That is Deep Sex…

Thoughts of a Theological Bi-Sexual…

I wrote a friend recently about some thinking I have been doing about the Liberal and Conservative arms of the church. Below is the email:

“I attended a conference here in St. Petersburg a couple of weeks ago. The name of it was A Sustainable Faith Conference. Brian McClaren, Doug Pagitt, and Tripp Fuller were the headliners. (OK, so it’s a Vegas term, but many conferences some churches put on are really Vegas shows anyway, right? Or is that a little too sarcastic? I’m a preacher’s kid… religious sarcasm is my blood.) The conference was really good (despite my sarcasm…) and was really more progressive, as you might expect by the headliners. I really enjoyed the conversations during the conferences, when there were breaks, and especially at dinner with a beer or two. Good times.

I have been thinking about the liberal and conservative arms of the church. The conservative church always refers to God as male, while the liberal church either uses non-sexist language, or even more feminine language in reference to God. It occurred to me as I thought about it, that many of the stands of each wing politically, socially, and even religiously or emotively could be either stereo-typically Male/Conservative, or Female/Liberal. I must confess that I am not comfortable with either. Maybe this is some reflection of my forced celibacy…. I find myself blaming almost all my current ills on this…. or a genuine observation. At any rate, I find myself wanting to bring the two together. (I mean, if I can’t have sex, I might as well be a theological matchmaker, right?) The church I have been attending, Missio Dei, was a sponsor for the conference, and I feel most at home there. But there aren’t many single folks close to my age. So I attended a church my brother found this past Sunday: Bridgepoint. I feel at home in the first, and like what I heard from the pastor of the second this past week. I think I can wrangle hitting the first service at Bridgepoint, and then make it to Missio Dei right afterward. I know, I know, I know….. how consumeristic of me…. I’m telling you, celibacy makes you do CRAZY things!

Anyway… it occurred to me that I would like to introduce the pastoral staff of each church to the other, and have a party at my house. While I realize that pastors live VERY busy lives, I also think this is part of the problem in the church today. Pastors need time to breathe.

 

 (Ok…. just overheard a woman at another table talking about her friends that are HEALTHY Christians…. you know, like bean sprouts? I know I need to lose a few pounds, and I WANT to and live a healthier lifestyle, blah, blah, blah; but I don’t really make a priority of being a healthy corpse. A corpse is a corpse and we are all destined to get there one way and time or another. I wonder what judgement she will make when I get up in a second and go outside to smoke a cigarette?) SEE, celibacy makes me more easily distracted… and irritable, Damn-it! Whew…. glad that rant is out of the way….

 

Anyway, I am finding my way through the middle of both these ideological camps. Does that mean I am a theological bi-sexual? DAMN…. there it goes again…..”

The idea about attending both churches on Sundays has gone by the wayside. I have decided to attend where I feel more at home: Missio Dei. My point about pastors of conservative and liberal churches needing to get together is still in the back of my mind, though. I find that when people with different viewpoints get together with food and conversation, we find how much we have in common rather than dwelling on our differences. I remember when Rob Bell was publicizing his book, Love Wins, with a video that asked questions about conservative viewpoints about God and hell; and John Piper, a conservative theologian and pastor attacked Bell on the internet; I commented on a blog that I wished the two of them would go for a hike in the mountains of Colorado and talk out their differences. The high altitude of the mountains would bring air so thin that yelling would be impossible, and the beauty of God’s creation would inspire wonder, and a sense of exploration, rather than self-assurance. Sometimes, I think our arguments about how we understand God is rooted in our own issues, rather than being open to understand God better. We fight to make our point because our whole identity is wrapped up in a neat understanding of religious systems which work for us. So, the fight is more about ME than about God.

Another issue relating to our understanding of God is based on our interpretation of the scriptures. Scot McKnight does a great job of exploring this issue in his book: Blue Parakeet. Our interpretation of scripture, in my view, is influenced by at least three things:

The culture within which we live…

The cultural perspective of the language which the scriptures are translated into from the original languages…

The culture of the original authors.

All three can be hidden lenses which color our understanding of the meaning of scripture, when we don’t take them into consideration. I grew up in a fairly conservative tradition of Christianity, especially in our expression of life in relation to God and scripture. My tradition usually referred to God as He, and Father. (One of our speakers at the conference threw away a hilarious thought, in a flurry of quick, Groucho Marx-like phrases: “…I always wondered why the Old Testament authors decided to give God a penis…” LOVED that line!) This was a strongly paternal view of God and family, which was orderly, yet not always kind to women as it related to opportunities which were considered to be the responsibility  of men. The contrary was also true about men. There were pretty strong stereotypes about what men and women were SUPPOSED to be and act. I continue to see these patterns in stricter forms in the more conservative, evangelical denominations and movement.

The more deeply I get into a more liberal/progressive expression and theological understanding of God and scripture, I find a more maternal view of God and family. As I mentioned in the email, God is referred to in non-sexist, or female terms. (So…. a vagina is better than a penis?) The trend is towards the use of  non-violence as a means of responding to aggression or injustice. Talking rather than acting. The idea is that people will act differently if they understand differently. I also think that masculinity is redefined in ways that are less threatening, and in ways that involve partnership rather than leadership.

While these are both general descriptions of conservative and liberal viewpoints, I mean to see them at a thousand-foot view rather than get lost in the minutiae of each perspective, especially as it relates to my own recent thoughts and experience.

I am coming to see that each position sees God in their own image in some ways, then expresses their shade of Christianity into the world in ways which are somewhat congruent with their views. I like that, actually. If we think of conservative as male and liberal as female forms of Christianity, I think great value can be found in the what they bring into the world. However, what if they learned to work together in a dance of intimacy and love? When a man and woman love and respect each other, then become intimate… something generative and creative happens.

What if we learned to work and love together, in spite of our differences. I know, this is not a very original thought. But I am finding that neither perspective fits me very well, yet a combination of the two works great! I could go into specifics about views from each form that work for me, and I think are practical ways to live and love in the world; yet I also see attempts from each form to deny the totality of the other. How generative is that?

In my own journey, I am finding  God as BOTH male and female rather than NEITHER male nor female. Scripture uses language in referring to God which show both male and female roles and qualities. I believe the church must talk in more depth about sexuality and about what it means to be male or female. I think in so doing, we will find ourselves questioning the values of our own culture as we realize how deeply they are ingrained within our own views of life and love. As we compare our view of gender, sexual roles, and experience; we might be introduced to God in more depth than we formerly perceived.

If your church decides to engage in such a conversation…. get in touch with me…. PLEASE!

Randy…

Last Sunday, I attended Missio Dei in downtown St. Pete. Missio meets in The Gallery @620. It is an art gallery at 620 1st Avenue South. Set in the middle of urban St. Petersburg, just a few blocks from the bay which separates the western communities on a small spit of land to the west, and Tampa located on the mainland to the east, the church is a plant by a couple of different denominations, and is quite unique in both its ecumenical leadership structure, and its strong priorities of helping the poor and living in sustainable relationship to the environment. Its top priority, though, in my view is to people who are searching for God, no matter how that looks or sounds. I realize this thought is nothing new, and many churches carry the same priority, but for Missio, this seems to be more than just a “brand”. They embody the concept.

I began attending Missio since shortly after moving here, and have found a circle of friends. One of my new friends is Randy. Although I don’t know Randy well, I do know a little of his story. Randy has lived a very difficult life, and still does. I suspect he is living in transitional housing, and has had substance abuse issues and lived on the streets for much of his adult life. I don’t know specifically how old he is, but he has longer, primarily gray hair, and it usually looks like he stuck a fork in a light socket. (Which is actually…kinda cool, now that I think about it.) Randy’s hands are rough, and his skin tanned from the Florida sun. His clothes are clean, but very worn. Many times, he wears a suit coat, since it is Sunday and church. Recently he has brought his bible. I like Randy a lot. He is generally quiet, yet always friendly.

Last Sunday, I got to church early and was hanging out on the wide sidewalk just outside the gallery. Randy was there, too. We greeted each other, and he quietly motioned to a couple of chairs on the sidewalk.

“I brought a couple of chairs out. You wanna sit down?” He said shyly.

“Sure!”

It was a cool day with a few clouds floating through the otherwise sunny sky. We sat down and began to smoke a cigarette together, and make small talk about the weather, and about how he wanted to buy a car so he could have more freedom. He spoke a little about how much money he received from his monthly government check, and about how he wanted to get a job, but not having a car made it difficult. Unexpectedly, Randy suddenly said, “I was reading Psalm 42 earlier. Do you want me to read it to you?”

“Yes, I would like that…”

He took the bible, and openned it up to the right page, all-the-while holding his cigarette in one hand. Finding the psalm, he began to read…

“As the deer pants for streams of water, 

    so my soul pants for you, my God.
 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. 
    When can I go and meet with God?
 My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?” 
 These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul: 
how I used to go to the house of God 
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise 
    among the festive throng.

 Why, my soul, are you downcast? 
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, 
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

 My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan, 
    the heights of Hermon —from Mount Mizar.
 Deep calls to deep 
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

 By day the Lord directs his love, 
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

 I say to God my Rock, 
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning, 
    oppressed by the enemy?” 
 My bones suffer mortal agony 
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.”

As Randy began to read, I found myself sinking into a deep peace, mindful of the coolness of the day and the relaxed setting of a quiet, urban Sunday morning. I also began to think about how the words reverberated in the past few years of my life, and of how they must echo in the experience of Randy. “We are not so different.” I thought to myself.

After finishing, Randy hurriedly said, “I also read Psalm 25. Would you like me to read it too?”

“Of course…”

“In you, Lord my God,

    I put my trust.

 I trust in you; 
    do not let me be put to shame,
    nor let my enemies triumph over me.
 No one who hopes in you
    will ever be put to shame, 
but shame will come on those
    who are treacherous without cause.

 Show me your ways, Lord,
    teach me your paths. 
 Guide me in your truth and teach me,
    for you are God my Savior, 
    and my hope is in you all day long.
 Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love, 
    for they are from of old.
 Do not remember the sins of my youth 
    and my rebellious ways; 
according to your love remember me,
    for you, Lord, are good.

 Good and upright is the Lord;

    therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
 He guides the humble in what is right
    and teaches them his way.
 All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful 
    toward those who keep the demands of his covenant. 
 For the sake of your name, Lord,
    forgive my iniquity, though it is great.

 Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? 
    He will instruct them in the ways they should choose.
 They will spend their days in prosperity, 
    and their descendants will inherit the land. 
 The Lord confides in those who fear him;
    he makes his covenant known to them.
 My eyes are ever on the Lord, 
    for only he will release my feet from the snare.

 Turn to me and be gracious to me, 
    for I am lonely and afflicted.
 Relieve the troubles of my heart
    and free me from my anguish. 
 Look on my affliction and my distress 
    and take away all my sins. 
 See how numerous are my enemies 
    and how fiercely they hate me!

 Guard my life and rescue me; 
    do not let me be put to shame, 
    for I take refuge in you.
 May integrity and uprightness protect me,
    because my hope, Lord, is in you.

 Deliver Israel, O God,
    from all their troubles.”

This time as he read, I thought of what an honor he was bestowing on me, by reading the Word to me. It was beautiful, and simple, and so much like God to step into life in so unexpected a fashion. As he finished the last word, I realized that I had already attended church.

Listening to Psalm 25, I was especially impressed of how much like a prayer it could be for Randy…

Turn to me and be gracious to me, 
    for I am lonely and afflicted.

Relieve the troubles of my heart
    and free me from my anguish.

 Look on my affliction and my distress 
    and take away all my sins. 

Guard my life and rescue me; 
    do not let me be put to shame, 
    for I take refuge in you.

Those are the prayers of one who must walk the hard streets. The ones with few opportunities and many barriers. But I am also reminded that the streets can be hard anywhere, even when the one walking has many opportunities, and not as many barriers. Sometimes, I think success may be the biggest obstacle of all to our walk with God. I am sure that Randy also has had “sins of youth” and “iniquity” of heart which needed the forgiveness of God. I could pray those things, too. In fact, I do.

Later, after the “second” service… the one in the gallery… Doug, one of the co-pastors, asked Randy to pray the final prayer before we left. I was a little too far away to hear it, but I once again felt the simplicity and purity of faith which comes from hard times.  I spoke with Doug after the crowd had thinned, and told him about earlier on the sidewalk. Doug responded, “I think there is more to Randy than people might imagine…”

I agree. You just need to be open enough to see and hear it.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

My Current Image of God… (or at least one of them)

Ok… another paper for my Images of God class:

Images of God
Personal Faith Tradition Images

My personal faith tradition is somewhat eclectic. Although lived primarily within a broad, Wesleyan holiness context in the Pilgrim Holiness Church, a precursor of the current Wesleyan Church; and then the Church of the Nazarene; my familial faith roots are somewhat ecumenical although strongly evangelical. This fact became a family joke. My grandparents, on my father’s side, were especially so. Grandma Williams was raised Quaker. Her maiden name was Maris, and the Maris clan has had a strong Quaker faith foundation going back to George Fox. The original Maris progenitors to emigrate from England to this country, George and Alice Maris, were contemporaries to Fox. In fact, they also were religiously persecuted:
“the husband had had his goods distrained and sold to the value of twenty pounds sterling, equal to four hundred dollars now, and had been imprisoned eight months, for the crime of permitting a religious meeting to be held at his dwelling house, without having the services conducted by a priest of the State Church.” 1
Grandpa Williams was raised Baptist. They were married in a Methodist church, Grandma Williams eventually became a Pilgrim Holiness pastor, and were attending a Church of the Nazarene when my Grandfather died.
A stronger influence on my early faith learning than doctrine, was evangelicalism, primarily because Dad was an evangelist. However, just to say Dad was an evangelist isn’t a full picture. Our whole family travelled with my father as he held revivals throughout the United States, and infrequently in Canada. Dad preached in over 30 different denominations, and frequently stated that if you took all of the symbols out of a church which communicated denominational affiliation, you couldn’t really tell the difference in the experience. Dad and Mom also withheld their support of strong legalistic tendencies within both the Pilgrim Holiness and Nazarene denominations. This was especially so in the manner they raised my siblings and me. Dad frequently received criticism for not following strict dress, and behavioral requirements for his wife and children. Although these requirements were unwritten, they were nonetheless “enforced” by a culture of shame and superiority. Dad’s openness to the independence of his wife and children, was to be a source of personal and professional difficulty for him when, in the 1970’s, my mother became involved in the Charismatic movement. Because the Church of the Nazarene of that time had an informal suppression of certain expressions of spiritual experience inherent within the movement, especially the gift of tongues, Mom’s outspoken witness of the joy she was experiencing in her newly-found freedom brought severe consequences to Dad’s ministry. My dad’s response to Mom’s experience, was one of both disagreement with some of her beliefs, yet openness to her experience. He maintained his doctrinal independence, and upheld her freedom to follow God.
It was in this context I came to personal faith. Partially due to this, I believe, I have been open to other faith traditions and expressions than those I have experienced. Dad used to say that “everyone has to hack out their own way” through their faith journey, and I have tried to allow others that freedom. That leads me to the images of God in my tradition. I suppose the over-riding image would be the graphic of the Church of the Nazarene.2  The image contains fire in the upper left-hand corner with a dove descending. The meaning of it ties in with both the baptism of Christ, and the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples gathered in the upper room together. The graphic implies the purity and holiness of God, symbolized by the fire, descending on disciples of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the dove. I confess that the issues I have had with both the meaning, and the denomination itself has less to do with the symbol, and more with the expressions of “holiness” which I saw in the church. While the symbol expresses well the doctrine of the Church of the Nazarene, it also expresses the experience of the Charismatic movement. Is holiness expressed in the manner which my parents… and me, by association… were treated? Not in my judgment. The image which better describes my experience at that time, would be of fire in the lower part of the image, symbolizing destruction, with a black crow ascending after feeding on the carcasses of dead traditionalism and the people robbed of a faith which is open to Spirit innervated and energized re-imagination of fresh expressions.
To be fair, the current leadership of the denomination seems to be seeking to return to the original meaning of the symbol. There is an openness to what God is doing and saying in the world today. However, as with the Charismatic movement, there is resistance in the ranks. While I could recount examples of this, I will instead say how glad I am that the leadership seems to understand the transition our world is in from one cultural and historic epoch to another, and are looking for ways to re-interpret the denominations doctrinal distinctiveness to emerging generations.
So where does that leave me….
I have had a growing dissonance with the denomination’s stand on sanctification as a distinct, separate work of grace and experience; as well as the definition of “Christian perfection.” I have found little in my personal experience and in watching the lives of elders in the tradition to believe in the practical reality of experience of these two doctrines. The teaching seems too concrete to be true in the fluidity of life. I also am not convinced in the scriptural evidence which is sited to back up the beliefs, to my own satisfaction. The doctrine of sanctification as historically preached in my experience, seems curiously similar to the spiritual construct of “being filled with the Spirit” as taught by Pentecostals, as well as the term “accepting Jesus as Lord” as communicated in some Baptists circles. To me they are semantics which communicate a similar spiritual crisis experience separate from initial “salvation.” I have come to see that my walk with God contains many crisis experiences, many infillings with the Spirit, and more process that structure. In fact, I would say that the structure is more fluid than concrete. The deeper I get into relationship with God, the less certain I become; but the more responsive as well, as if in a real relationship. I find the Spirit working in my intuition, but also in my blindness, as well. I also keep coming back to the same lessons, again and again. As my life changes, I fight the same habits of responding or assertively acting in the world. I also find, however, that I hear God speaking and see God acting all around me; especially when and where I least expect God. The image which seems to resonate with my experience most recently is that of Wind. Knowing from where it comes or to where it goes is quite beyond me, yet I feel its presence.

1) From the website: http://www.lindapages.com/family/maris.htm

2) http://nazarene.org/files/docs/Manual2005_09.pdf

Symmetry and Redemption… Part 3

In one of my Facebook status posts, I took a moment to summarize the year 2011 in short form:

“2011 was a year of personal insight, growth, and introspection; with the introduction of new and now cherished friends. It was beautifully difficult at times, and called from me a deeper faith in God and an appreciation of life’s hard gifts. I pray 2012 will open itself daily as it, indeed, comes from the hand of God. I ask God to help me be a better man, father, and lover of life in the coming year than I was in the last.”

During 2011, I took a look backward at my life experience and the forces which formed me into who I had been up to that point. In the course of my graduate classes, I was exposed to information which helped both in looking backward with new understanding to help me interpret my memories, and to find a process of reframing my life in healthier ways. In my emotional and spiritual life, then, 2011 was an oasis of growth. However, financially, it was really tough. I took steps backward, fighting discouragement and struggled not to lose hope. The gracious part of the experience was threefold:

Living the Lord’s Prayer…

I learned to live The Lord’s Prayer (which is better named “The Disciple’s Prayer). I have essentially been homeless since September, 2011, and have been staying with Lyle and Jan Gibbons, who generously openned their home to me while I transitioned to Portland (the original plan) and now to Florida (the current one). During this time, I have come to understand some of the feelings homelessness brings. While my experience hasn’t included cardboard, shopping carts, and sleeping under overpasses; I have come to know the haunting pull of despair and a disconnection to my own capabilities. I have fought both these temptations tenaciously.

In the summer, I also lost my transportation when my pick-up broke down and I had to build up enogh cash to get it fixed. I learned the extreme frustration and complication of relying on public transportation in an affluent, suburban county which seems intent upon ignoring the practical, systemic obstacles to those in poverty trying to climb out of an economic sand pit.

I was often hungry during the latter half of 2011. Honestly, that wasn’t totally a bad thing. I have continued to keep the weight off that I lost in 2006 and 2007. I learned the hunger is worst, and most distracting, during the first day, but isn’t as bad afterward.

Through all these difficulties, I have discovered God’s provision in every day. I prayed:

“Our Father, Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be Thy name.

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done

In earth as it is in heaven.

Give us THIS day, our daily bread,

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For Thine is the kingdom, and the power,

And the glory, forever…

Amen”

I began to audaciously pray this prayer in simple faith and hope. I then watched to see what the day revealed as I continued in my responsibilities. It became amusing and excition to see God’s creativity in providing for my needs. Sometimes God used other people… MANY times God used other people. At other times, God used my own ideas and strategic planning to make it through each day. I found both of these ways of meeting my needs to be God’s wholistic method and process of provision. I found myself living in expectancy and thankfulness: Faith.

Life is tough, but so am I…

I found that I am tough, mentally and physcally. The past 5 years have thrown obstacle after obstacle in my path, yet I have fought to go forward. I realize that God provided the steel in my spine, the physical strength to keep going, daily provision, and the beauty in the natural world to refresh my soul; but I had to willfully access the steel and strength, receive the provision, and acknowledge the beauty. Part of being tough is also asking and accepting help when necessary. Life is a team sport. Nobody can make it alone, and sometimes it is toughest to admit your own insufficiency. Tough people are willing to give and receive help. I have done both.

I’m a good man…

I am a good man. Although acknowledging that fact feels a little weird and somewhat conceited; I am reminded that humility is honesty about both personal strengths and weaknesses. God gave us three initial gifts: God’s Self, our Self, and others. I am God’s gift to myself. I am created in the image of God… and that is good. My weaknesses serve as opportunities to form wholistic communities by connecting to God and other people that are strong where I am weak. In turn, my strengths become a conduit of God’s grace  to others. Living in this way is a generative, co-creative synergism: A return to Eden… before the snake…

Symmetry…

In the spring of 2009, as I began to look into the possibility of returning to school; I began the process of determining how I could give my life in a way that would make the biggest fundamental difference in the way people lived their lives. I determined that Spiritual Formation was that quality.

The manner in which each of us is spiritually formed affects all other aspects of our life and self. Our spiritual self is like a spiral galaxy with the Self at the center and from which spin the planets and stars of actions, attitudes, and intentions. A healthy spiritual galaxy is held together by the gravitational pull of love holding the planets and stars in healthy patterns of influence. An unhealthy galaxy spins out of control, violently hurling the planets into space in self-absorbed fear, without the connectivity of love. The result is a continual loss of the componants of the Self, and increasing isolation.

Spiritual Formation is the process we are each undergoing which transforms us into either of these galaxies. Every one of us is being spiritually formed. The question is: How intentional are we in the process? Are we seeking to actively engage in the process, or have we set ourselves adrift in the spiritual universe, like a cosmic pinball?

In order to find a university/seminary with a program inSpiritual Formation, I used a very post-modern research method: I Google searched it. One of the first sites which sprang from my search was George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Upon reading about the program and the history of GFES, I found that it, and it’s sister university, George Fox University; were Quaker in tradition, faith perspective, and intentionality. One of the faith componants of my familial heritage was a great-grandfather who was a Society of Friends (Quaker) pastor. My own life experience also included forays into disparate Friends’ congretations for revivals with my evangelist father.

Symmetry…

I then began classes in the fall of 2010. I had to wait a year because I couldn’t pull off the necessary finances to do it in the fall of 2009. Waiting for the next cohort to begin in 2010 seems now to be divinely influenced. When I travelled to Portland, and the GFES campus in August of 2010 for orientation; I was ill-prepared for the depths of connections I would make. I found a group of people struggling theologically with many of the same questions as I. I found a rich mix of faith- and life-perspectives which feathered into my own. At least two guys were from the same denomination I grew up in, with similar tensions and questions about doctrine and practice. Two guys were divorced, or soon to divorce, with similar marital death-stories to mine.

Symmetry…

Hidden Toxins…

Below is a paper I submitted for the class: Spirituality, Shame, and Grace. Some of the formatting may be a little messy…. Sorry.

Hidden Toxins

 

 

In 1962, author Rachel Carson published a book that was to become a hallmark in the environmental movement: Silent Spring. The book outlines the effects of chemical insecticides of that time period, in particular DDT, on not only insects, but also upon the entirety of a biological ecosystem. At the time, DDT as well as some chemical defoliants were commonly used not only for industrial applications, but also for home use. Silent Spring began with the premise that environmental systems were linked in an intricate dance in which all living things were connected, and when toxic chemicals were used for the control of one organism, they didn’t stop in their toxicity with just the intended species, but continued to poison all the way up the biological line until their effects contributed to the ill-health of humans, as well. The intension of becoming free from relatively minor irritants, caused the unintended consequence of actually limiting the healthy freedom of a balanced environment, which provided for the physical needs of a multiplicity of living things.

The freedom of disease killed the freedom of health.

In Genesis 2:7-3:24, the story is written about another instance where the perfectly designed balance of the creation is burdened with the choice of a freedom which kills over a freedom which heals. The scene is a garden where the inhabitants live in harmony within an environment linked in healthy balance, not only in a physical sense, but also in a spiritual, and emotional sense as well. The relational balance is generative and co-creative, with each being sharing and expressing their unique, and innate value in the beauty of love and mutual respect. As with all designs, there were boundaries with delineated responsibilities, and where mutual respect was part of the design. The overarching value was one of love and trust. God created the beauty of a garden, and invited people to be partners in its maintenance and expansion: a healthy freedom.

However, as the story goes, an adversary approached the people, offering a larger, more expansive freedom; or so the marketing schpeel went. The promise seemed to be attractive, yet it was based on the toxicity of lies:

“Did God say, ’You may not eat from any tree in the garden?’”

“You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The toxicity of these lies is in the deviance of their hiddenness. They are pervasive and invasive lies:

You cannot trust God to have your best interests at heart.

You are not enough, as you are. You should be more than you are.

The people freely ingested the lies, and the fruit of these seeds of doubt was shame.

Although the story is set in antiquity, it is always a present story, because the toxicity of shame is hidden within each of us. In these few pages, I will attempt to explain how this class has revealed to me both the disease process of my own hidden shame, but also the freedom I am finding in new understandings of grace which are clearer now than before the class. I will also write of how these new understandings have helped me in a ministry context.

 

 

Personal Experience:

It seems like I have spent most of my life waiting for the other shoe to drop. No matter how I presented myself, the success I experienced, the loves I shared; my feeling was that sooner or later, it would be gone… I would be found out. The voice in my head assured me of that. I’m not sure the voice was originally mine. In fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. But as the years progressed, the voice became mine. Sometimes the voice spoke in words, but most of the time, it was just a deep feeling of personal, innate failure. I never really knew what to call it. I called it guilt for most of my life. However, I am now able to call it by its real name: Shame. Jeff Van Vonderan defines it nicely:

Let me clarify something. Shame is often confused with guilt. But they’re not the same. God created you and me so that when we do something wrong we experience a sense of guilt. Guilt is like a spiritual nerve-response to sin, an emotion in response to wrong behavior (“I acted in a way that was wrong and I feel guilty”). Those uncomfortable impulses that stab our conscience are meant to turn us away from the wrong we’re doing and turn us back to God. In that sense, guilt is a healthy thing. Because guilt comes as a result of something you and I do, we can do something about it–change our behavior– and the guilty feeling will go away.

Shame on the other hand, is not just a feeling, though we often speak of it that way (“You ought to feel ashamed of yourself!”) Shame is the belief or mindset that something is wrong with you. It’s something you can live with and not necessarily be aware of. It’s not that you feel bad about your behavior, it’s that you sense or believe you are deficient, defective, or worthless as a human being.

Consequently, you develop a shame-based way of looking at yourself. You accept the view that others might slip up and make mistakes once in a while, but they’re still basically worthwhile people. You, however, are like a mirror image of that: No matter how many times you get it right ( whatever it is, according to the standards of your environment) you will never be acceptable. Deep down, you believe something is wrong with you.”

My parents were wonderful people. Dad was an old-school evangelist during the beginning of my life. That meant that the whole family would travel by car from one revival meeting to another. I have two older (much older… and I love to remind them of that fact) siblings who were essentially raised traveling in this fashion. It was a difficult life for my mother, especially. About every 9 years, she would have an emotional break. We have since learned that she has Bi-polar disorder. Speaking to my siblings, I learned that she was different after I was born. She was an older mother when I was born, and had one of her depressive breaks shortly afterward which required hospitalization, so I was cared for by friends of the family while my father, brother, and sister traveled to revivals. I noticed throughout my life, that I had emotional peaks and valleys periodically. Although they are not extreme enough for me to question if I am bi-polar, they have been a fixture from childhood. Infants learn emotional habits from their primary caregiver. These ways of feeling about the world and themselves are the first messages they receive about whether they are safe and if their efforts of communication will be successful or not. While the intellect isn’t developed enough to understand these messages, their brains make neural connections in the limbic region. Since this region is also the center of the emotions, the messages are related to feelings, rather than thoughts. I believe my fluctuation in emotions through the years are simply emotional habits carried over from infancy.

In contrast to these inward, emotional habits; I learned (as does every preacher’s kid) how to perform and make a good first impression. While this wasn’t something I remember being verbally taught, it just seems something I have always known. From the age of 2, my siblings and I began to sing publicly, as part of the music in each revival service. I was somewhat shy as a child, and since we moved frequently, I never really developed skills of intimacy which long-term friendships require. My companions were my immediate family, or most typically, myself. I now see how these two contrasting experiences developed a type of emotional dissonance within. I became good at performance, and could get along with people for short periods of time, but knowing how to allow someone to come inside my private world to the feeling level was especially difficult. Understanding the normal give and take of relationships was not something I learned. My perceptions of what others thought of me, was based on surface issues.

The faith tradition I was raised in was conservative, focusing on legalistic outward appearance, all the while preaching a message of pursuing God, and holiness. Evidence of personal holiness was especially defined in external life style. However, the emphasis was placed more on what we didn’t do, rather than how we lived as Christ would in the world. I must say that my father didn’t preach in this manner, or live that way either, and although Mom wouldn’t have held other people up to these standards, she constantly fought her own demons of shame. I have always said that Mom always fought feelings of guilt in her own walk with God, and was a great purveyor of guilt to her children, but in a very subtle way. I have always been very intuitive, so it wasn’t hard for me to catch her subtle references that there was something wrong with me.

Actually, I now see that there have been both inward and outward voices of shame in my life. The origins of these voices have remained hidden until recent years. As a result of these voices, my ability to feel God’s love for me became essentially non-existent across the totality of my life. I felt God’s love for me when I performed well, but in the weak areas of my life, or in my sin… I waited for the other shoe to drop.

I lived most of my adult life by an equation:

Church + Family + Performance = Worth.

Eventually, after years living in the “Try harder/Give up” cycle Van Vonderan describes, an unsatisfying marriage that ended in divorce, difficulty in being able to stay in a career I seem best suited for: ministry, and recurring financial issues; all the factors on the left side of the equation collapsed in a heap. I was left with a deep, personal sense of failure, and huge pockets of hidden, toxic feelings of shame.

Through the midst of it, though, God has been speaking to me in metaphors which reach to the deepest parts of me, to redefine fundamental terms of the Christian faith in ways I can understand, and feel. I have found that shame is peeled away, layer by layer. God has spoken to me in powerful ways through the natural world, through the bible– yet in ways radically different than I learned before– through books– both secular and religious– and in popular media– including movies, plays, and music. God has also used both old and new friends to allow me to see glimpses of the value God sees in me and created in me: the Imago Dei. These friends have spoken good into my life. I have finally come to know that I worship God, while before, I worshipped god: a religious figurehead of morality, who is quite emotionally unstable, and unrelenting in his expectations. The God I now know is both Father and Mother, although it is taking time for me to relate more fully to Mother God.

I found the most powerful ideas for personal change within the class, to be:

Van Vonderan’s discussion of the Rest cycle. Although his manner of communicating the message of renewal of our mind to the actions of Christ on our behalf, was so close to what I’d always heard that I had difficulty stepping outside my tradition; the diagram was helpful.

Justification by Grace. David and Sandra Rhoads’ article in Robert Jewett’s compilation was powerfully helpful to me, especially David’s explanation of the different models of redemption:

Justification by grace is not the only, nor indeed the most common view of redemption in Christian churches. The most common view of redemption among Christians is that Jesus died for people’s sins to be forgiven. This is the abbreviated formula: All people have sinned and, as such, they deserve judgment and death. Through Jesus, God forgives their sins and saves them for eternal life. There is a tendency to collapse justification by grace into this popular formula of forgiveness, as if they were the same thing. After a recent lecture I gave on this subject, a former Lutheran bishop acknowledged that it had never occurred to him that justification and forgiveness were not the same.

Justification and forgiveness are, in some sense, quite different models of redemption. One way to understand the difference between justification and forgiveness is to realize that forgiveness works within a system. Forgiveness leaves in place the legal/moral system that is used to make ourselves right with God and others. It affirms our successes in meeting the lawful standards and addresses only our sinful failings. So, we do our best to follow the laws and be good moral humans– and God forgives us when we fail to live up to that system. The system remains in place and also our efforts to justify ourselves before God remain in place. We make it in the system because we get help from God, who forgives the failings. The status of the legal/moral system is reinforced in the process of forgiveness. And the performance principle– our efforts to justify ourselves before God by our actions in living up to a system of law– is also reinforced.

By contrast, justification by grace is an action by God (not by us) that justifies (sets us right with God) by (God’s) free choice to do so as a gift– based neither upon a system of standards nor upon human performance.”

I find Rhoads’ description of justification by grace most powerful because, while the forgiveness model of redemption views humanity as being innately wrong so that we need a system to be right with God, the justification by grace model views our perception of our value as the problem. Justification by grace speaks with powerful clarity regarding God’s belief in our value. Justification by grace with action by God, speaks and acts powerfully to address the Edenic lies of the snake:

“You can’t trust God…”

“You aren’t enough…”

by accepting the consequences of believing and living out those two statements: death alone, and shame. Thus, the need for the cross of Christ, and the resurrection which acts like a bridge to a return to relational Eden, with the values of love of God, love of self, and love of others.

Although this counteracts the power of shame, and neutralizes the hidden toxins within; living in the new reality takes practice, as Van Vonderan states:

“ The battle to recover from shame and live a life of freedom and fullness is waged in two primary arenas: the renewal of the mind, and the fight of faith.”

Ministry Experience:

A major source of the power of shame is that it is hidden. There are at least two aspects to this:

Sometimes it is hidden to us…

Other times it is known to us, but hidden from others…

It is God’s grace to make known to us the origins of our shame. Until we can know why we feel shame regarding our body image, for instance; we have great difficulty counter-acting the inward and outward voices which reinforce it.

Secondly, it is important for us to find a safe place with safe relationships where we can reveal our places of shame. Being honest about our pain is the first step towards healing. I believe this courageous action on our behalf, and the gracious listening of another person, is a practical act of confession. Twelve step groups have learned the power of shared incompleteness and shame, without the need to try and “fix” the other person.

I led a divorce support group where we tried to provide just such a safe place, where people could be honest about their feelings and speak openly about their perceptions of reality as they saw it. Just the act of listening can release the power of shame.

Another way the community can counteract shame, is by speaking good into the life of another. I don’t mean trite statements which deny the experience of another– as in pithy, syrupy statements to those in the middle of personal devastation and crisis– rather honest observations about the value and strengths of another person. While these statements may be caught in the “shame grid” of the other person, and they may have difficulty believing your observations of good in them; the Holy Spirit can keep them in the unconscious mind, until they are ready to be retrieved and “heard” by the person.

The church in the individualized West has lost the power of a shared community of faith. I believe we are so acculturated by both the redemption system of forgiveness, rather than justification of grace, and we each feel that salvation is an individualized act of individual faith; that we have denied the power of collective faith. Edward Wimberly explains this powerfully:

“As indicated before, the experience of guilt is not the dominant experience in our contemporary society. The experience of shame is by far the most prevalent experience. This lecture takes seriously that our contemporary experience is not the need for forgiveness for wrong behavior. Rather, ‘our contemporary experience is one of disconnection, of being unloved, of being overwhelmed by information, of experiencing nihilism or the loss of meaning, and of being inept and clumsy in human interaction and interpersonal relationships.’ The age of shame is the loss of love. It is the loss of meaningful community. It is the feeling that one is unlovable and will never be loved. The point is that a juridical model of guilt over sin and wrong behavior makes no sense when the dominant experience is being unloved. The guilt model presupposes an intact community where one’s sense of connection is not threatened unless one commit’s a heinous crime. Shame, however, is based on disconnection and a breakdown in community. Moreover, shame is a fundamental experience and is prior to guilt in the developmental cycle. Guilt, however, comes later in the developmental cycle when relationships are better formed.”

We currently live in a culture of division at every level of American society. Disconnection is a component of everyday life for many, if not most of us. And we feel alone because of it. Could it be that this is the natural outgrowth of strident individualism gone to seed? However, rather than face the pain courageously, embrace it, and allow it to drive us back into community; we seem to be self-medicating. In fact, I would contend we self-medicate in at least three ways:

Consumption as Self-Medication:

-We seem to make a commodity out of everything external… people, experiences, food, alcohol, tobacco, religion, art, career, etc… It seems that we feel like if we can just consume enough, the emptiness on the inside will be filled. While the emptiness is actually an echo of believing the Edenic lies of the snake. It is our innate value that we feel like we have lost. While that isn’t true, we are created with innate value… the Imago Dei… we can’t seem to believe it, so we cover our shame with consumption.

2. Money as Self-Medication:

Wimberly puts it well:

“The predominant impulses behind our desire to rise in the social hierarchy may be rooted not so much in the material goods we can accrue or the power we can wield as in the amount of love we stand to receive as a consequence of high status. Money, fame and influence may be valued more as tokens of–and meant to– love rather than ends in themselves.

Love is no longer defined relationally. Rather, it is defined as the pursuit of things, and such a pursuit starves the soul and makes people shallow.”

3. Morality as Self-Medication:

This seems to be especially rampant in the church.

Now when people ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ they mean ‘What would a twenty-first century American Jesus do?’ The fact is there never was a twenty-first-century American Jesus. With a sense of anachronism and ethnocentrism, the question means what would a first-century Mediterranean, Israelite Jesus do. For most Bible readers, this is an insuperably unanswerable question. The only Jesus they know is one in their own U.S. image and likeness.”

The American church often seems to act towards the larger culture in fear that our value is being threatened, especially as it relates to what we say we believe, and our over-arching world view. We respond in anger to voices within our culture which espouse ideas which we interpret as being counter to our world view. Why would there be a need for anger, if we believed in a God who is perfectly capable of protecting Godself, and if our belief system were based in reality, rather than an attempt to protect our own beliefs, and perceived self-worth which is based on these faith-assumptions? Is our anger really about Truth, or about what we believe to be true? Is it about God, or ourselves? Do we fear that what we believe is not true? If all Truth is God’s Truth, why are we not open to interpretations different than our own? We act like a “truth junkie” who must do everything possible for our “truth fix”, no matter what we have to do and who we have to hurt in order to get it. Are we trying to make religious clones of ourselves in order to impress upon ourselves our worth?

One of the ways I hope to minister to the church is by encouraging and engaging in conversations about the manner in which we in the individualized West interpret the culture of the bible, and the cultural context in which Jesus lived. By learning the world and society in which Jesus moved and spoke, I think we are better able to identify the differences in our own context, and enliven our message to the cultural voices of shame in our part of the world. Perhaps one of the reasons Christianity is growing in the technologically emerging world is due to the communal nature of their society. Maybe they understand the bible better than we because the cultural contexts are similar. It might benefit us in the West to engage in cross-cultural conversations with brothers and sisters in these world areas about how they read and interpret the bible.

In conclusion, I would like to see communities of Christian faith which redeem and reframe our experience in ways that hold interpersonal respect, responsibility, and healthy, personal boundaries in tension with grace, unconditional love, and personal freedom. How does that happen? God knows, but I suspect it looks suspiciously like Eden, before the snake. A redeeming community allows exploration and embraces the dissonance of the moment in hope and assurance of future resolution in the Kingdom of Heaven, whether that be on earth, or in the next realm

1  http://thebestnotes.com/booknotes/Silent_Spring/Silent_Spring_Rachel_Carson04.html 

2 http://thebestnotes.com/booknotes/Silent_Spring/Silent_Spring_Rachel_Carson03.html

3 Genesis 3:1; New Revised Standard Version, HarperOne, San Francisco, CA; 2007

4 Gen. 3:4-5

5 Jeff Van Vonderan; Tired of Trying to Measure Up; Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, MN; 1989; Pg. 18

6 A General Theory of Love; Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D.; New York, NY, Random House, Inc., 2000, Pg. 148-153

7 Van Vonderan, Pgs. 90-103.

8 Van Vonderan. Pg. 115-117.

9 Justification by Grace, David M. Rhoads and Sandra Roberts Rhoads in The Shame Factor: How Shame Shapes Society, Edited by Robert Jewett; Cascade Books, Eugene, OR; 2011. Pg. 88-89.

10  Van Vonderan, Pg. 109.

11 “The mind begins with the belief system, or what I earlier referred to as the ‘shame grid.’ This means that you have a belief system that perpetuates shame.” Van Vonderan, Pg. 92.

12 Edward P. Wimberly; No Shame in Wesley’s Gospel, in Jewett. Pg.107.

13 Wimberly in Jewett. Pg.108.

14  Bruce J. Malina, Anachronism, Ethnocentrism, and Shame: The Envy of the Chief Priests; in Jewett. Pg.144.