Category Archives: theology

Beauty In The Wilderness

I originally posted Beauty In The Wilderness in March 2011 as I prepared for Lent.  I have edited it to eliminate the connection to Lent so I could repost it today as I have recently been connecting to many people who are presently wandering in the wilderness and I wanted to remind them that God is not causing their wilderness but he is with them in the wilderness.

“the wilderness is still one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be.” Barbara Brown Taylor

I grew up hearing sermons and bible lessons that talked about God leading us into the wilderness in order to teach us something – about Him, about ourselves, about the world we live in. The “wilderness” was another word for suffering and the reason (they said) God led us into suffering was because in the midst of suffering he was able to get our attention, to cause us to trust him and to make us teachable and transformable.

I believed it and it made me very afraid of God.

Whether it was a relationship problem or an illness or unemployment I didn’t just have the anxiety of the problem at hand to deal with – I also had the emotional and spiritual agony of believing that God was making me suffer in order to get my attention so I could be transformed.

I don’t believe that way anymore.

Now don’t get me wrong – I believe there are things I can learn in the wilderness and I believe my wilderness experiences do change me.  I even believe God can bring good out of wilderness situations – I just don’t believe God is causing or orchestrating my suffering. Of course I still battle those beliefs that set God up as my adversary but after I talk myself into remembering God isn’t causing my suffering I can more easily trust God in the midst of my wilderness.  And for as much as I dislike wilderness experiences and spend a fair amount of time and energy avoiding wilderness experiences it is in the wilderness where I have found out the most about who I really am and what my life is really about.  Not so much because of the suffering that takes place in the wilderness but because of the self awareness and self examination it causes, because of the focus it produces, because of the questions it births, because of the humility it generates.

It was during a wilderness experience where I discovered God wasn’t the perpetrator of my suffering – that I didn’t need to be punished for who I was and it was okay for me to be me – in fact, it was better than okay, it was good.

Not long after that particular experience I ran across the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver and fell in love with it … not just because it is a beautifully crafted message but because it reminded me of the beautiful truth I had just discovered while wandering in the wilderness with God.

I leave you with Oliver’s poem in hopes that you too will discover something beautiful about yourself, about God and about the world you live in even when you find yourself wandering in the wilderness.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver, Dream Work, 1986

 

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What’s Your Relationship Status With Jesus and Religion?

First let me say that I thought some people were too harsh in their criticism of Jeff Bethke’s viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”.  At the same time, I don’t have a problem with people stating and discussing what they don’t like or disagree with in the video/poem. (I think artists should expect the public to analyze and critique their work)

To be honest I didn’t like the video from the beginning.  In fact, the first time I saw it I only watched for about a minute before I shut it down.  My first impression was that it had been done before and better (I still think that to be the case although I can’t point to an example) but as more and more people began to criticize it I listened to it again (all the way through this time) and realized that I also had a problem with some of the theological statements Bethke was making.  My biggest complaint was that he was promoting the penal substitution atonement theory.  I believe that theory to be wrong and very damaging.  However, that doesn’t mean that I want to spend a lot of time or energy dumping on Bethke – that would be a waste of time and not something that would line up with my idea of what it means to be a Christ follower. But, I am interested in some of the conversations that are coming out of this. For instance this post, Jesus and Religion’s Relationship Status: It’s Complicated, from my friend Michael William Morrell has some excellent “stuff” for us to ponder and discuss. What about you? What’s your relationship status with Jesus and religion?

Three Things Tuesday: LOST, The God Imagination and God Is Not Male

First Thing:

(the promotional photo of the Lost poster belongs to ABC/Touchstone TV)

Being a big, huge, humongous, gigantic, colossal, enormous, monumental, epic fan of the tv show LOST, I have to mention that the final episode of the series aired this week.  I personally thought the finale was fantastic, but some long- time fans don’t feel the same way.  Some feel there were too many questions left unanswered – others feel the finale revealed that they had been duped for six years because they were under the impression that the show was about the mystery of the island and the finale was all about the characters, their lifes and their relationships with each other.

Now don’t get me wrong – I loved all of the mysterious stuff, all the theories and how when one question was answered I was left with 6 new ones … but I’ve known all along that this was a character driven show and that in the end it would be about the characters.  IMO enough questions were answered and the ones that have not been answered are a gift – in that we can still have many great and passionate conversations about our theories.

In the end LOST was about people, their struggles, their flaws, their fears, their guilt, their failures, their hopes, their successes, their dreams, their progress, their relationships, their redemption and the part that community or the lack of community plays in the life of people.

I feel that the writers, the actors and the producers have been true to that idea from the beginning to the end of this series and I think they created one heck of a backdrop that kept me coming back week after week as they told the story of some very dark, personal journeys.

I will definitely miss the show and all the community that was created around the show.  Thanks for the good times, the good lessons and the good memories.

Second Thing:

Jonathan Brink has just announced that his book “Discovering The God Imagination, Reframing Suffering, Justice, and Reconciliation in the Gospel Story is now available for pre-order.  The book offers a new conversation about how we understand the gospel, the problem that God is solving and how we can participate in the solution to the problem.  I’m really looking forward to reading this book and have already placed my order.  Go here today and pre-order one for yourself.  (I also recommend that you take a look at Jonathan’s blog which always has interesting content)

Third Thing:

Tony Jones is currently exploring an apophatic approach to God.  His first apophatic statement is:  “God Is Not Male”.

I have no idea how many statements Tony will share with us but several interesting things came out of this one post. One thing that I found interesting was that people were showing up to argue against the statement – I don’t really know what to say about that because even in my most conservative “the bible says it and so it is true” days I never thought the Bible said anything at all about God having a particular gender or even that God was both female and male.  I have always understood scripture to indicate that God was beyond gender.

Another interesting thing that developed out of my interaction with the statement “God Is Not Male” was that I was reminded that I naturally and unconsciously put God in a box all the time and that I must be very intentional to struggle against limiting God to my own imagination in hopes that I will recognize any divine revelation if God sees fit to lay one on me.

What do you think about the statement “God Is Not Male”?  What apophatic statement would you make about God?

Survivor, TransFORM and How You Treat People, Matters.

I was in Washington D.C. to attend TransFORM: East Coast Gathering a couple of weeks ago. I have put off writing about it because it was so wonderful that I know my words will not be able to adequately convey my experience … but it was too important not to write about … so, here is the first attempt:

I’m a big Survivor fan and just finished watching the 20th season, “Heroes vs Villians”.  If you are familiar with the show, you know that Russell played two seasons back to back, got to the end in both seasons, but didn’t receive even one vote by any jury member in either of the seasons.  Some believe that Russell should have won Survivor as he played a physically and mentally strong game.  He tends to be able to control who gets voted off, is a convincing liar and a great schemer.  He’s okay when it comes to challenges and has won several immunity challenges, sometimes when it was critical.  But, (that probably should be “BUT”) he treats people poorly and it is difficult to win Survivor when you treat people poorly, since the people you are treating poorly are also the people that get to vote for the winner.  In other words, “how you treat people, matters”.

This got me to thinking about my experience at TransFORM.

Now, to give you a little context, I was a newcomer among the people at TransFORM.  I’ve been in the conversation for less than five years and I pretty much just listened for the first 3 years … so, I was a little worried about how I would fit in at the gathering.  I knew several people online, but had only met one person face to face before. I’m also older than most, not in full-time ministry AND I don’t even have a MAC or an IPhone … I even had the audacity to show up with my HP laptop and my Verizon Blackberry Tour:>)  But, (that probably should be “BUT”) they embraced me anyway, generously included me and made me feel significant, valuable, loved, and even liked.  Was it because of my great personality and wry wit?  My good looks?  Did my charisma blind them so that they couldn’t see past the dazzling light that surrounds me everywhere I go?  No, it wasn’t about any of those things (if you can believe it!!) … it wasn’t really about “me” – it was about them.  It was about this group of people putting a high value relationships with others.  It was about relationships with others being more important to them than anything else.  It was about them believing even if they were the most cool, the most right, the best speaker, the best writer, the best looking, the most fun, the most knowledgeable, the best or most anything, it wouldn’t amount to anything if they weren’t treating others well.  It was about them believing they can’t be winners unless they are loving others.  It was about this group of people believing “how you treat people, matters” – not just intellectually but experientially, not just in theory but in reality.  This is their central message, their main thing.

And that is why ever since I came back home from Washington D.C. I have yearned to be back in the presence of this group of people.  They are good at real community, they are good at loving, they are good at relationships.  They are transparent and vulnerable but not sappy – okay, occasionally they are sappy, but it’s a good kind of sappy:>)  IMO they are courageous when it comes to offering grace and embracing humility.

In the days to come I plan to write about my impressions of some of the TransFORM sessions, but first I just had to say a little something about what I thought was the most important thing about TransFORM  …  which was that I spent a few days with a group of people who were having some significant success at living in the way of Jesus and it was compelling and attractive and inspirational and motivating and comforting and transformational.

It touched me and changed me.

How you treat people, matters!

Whose Soul Will Be Condemned To Torment?

There has been a lively discussion going on over at Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, about Brian McLaren’s view of the Soul-Sort Narrative in his new book, A New Kind Of Christianity.  Unfortunately, some of the theological talk went over my head but the last comment (at least it was the last one as of today) shared one of those real life illustrations that leaves a lot of the theological banter sounding cold and shallow.  Comment #107 by Lindsey, asked the question:  “Whose soul will be condemned to torment?”   Here’s part of what Lindsey had to say:

I attended a funeral of a man that I worked with. He was in his mid-forties and died of a rare form of cancer. He and his family were devoutly Jewish. The service was moving, spiritual, and had the raw feeling of the God of Abraham in Holy Spirit in the room. This man, Brooke, was an ophthalmologist, and had left his successful and lucrative practice to teach high school science to inner city kids. I taught with him. The kids were heartbreaking, helpless, and hopeless, and he built them up in every way. As he went through painful treatment, he refused to quit teaching, and taught up until a week before he died. The synagogue at his funeral was filled with his students: poor kids, minority kids, kids that had never set foot in a house of worship before. Through Brooke, these kids, and all who worked with him, saw God. Brooke, though he didn’t know it, was a true servant of Christ. Meanwhile, my very Christian neighbors across the street sport a confederate flag bumper sticker right next to their cross. Through this simple gesture, they have turned away many people in my neighborhood from even being willing to hear the name of Jesus. These people, have condemned countless people to eternity without Christ through their ignorance and selfishness.
So tell me, who’s soul will be condemned to torment?

In many ways this question is not relavant for me these days as I don’t embrace the theology that revolves around “who is going to heaven? who is going to hell?” but I believe the story that Lindsey surrounds the question with is important as it demonstrates the problem with the type of theology that I grew up with.

What do you think?

Good News/Bad News

I saw this on someone’s facebook status update recently:

Open your eyes to all the possibilities around you…. Never give in, trust in God and you will always WIN!!!! the power of ACHIEVING is BELIEVING!!!!!

I restrained from commenting but what I wanted to say is “this is baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad theology”!!

If you check out scripture it seems like the most faithful “good guys and gals” had a lot of troubles – some had to constantly flee for their lives, others were beaten, stoned or flogged, many were ridiculed and rejected, some were homeless and poor … these are not experiences that are usually associated with “winners”!

Yeah, yeah, I know, you (or someone) will be tempted to make an excuse and say that being a winner doesn’t necessarily equal a comfortable life … I agree with that statement, BUT we all know that the status update WAS referring to comfort and happiness and prosperity.  Which brings me to my point …

When we send out messages which basically say “if you trust God your troubles will all be resolved to your liking” we are preaching a prosperity gospel and imo that is a false gospel and baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad theology.

I’m not saying that following in the way of Jesus is always painful – there are blessings – but the longer I live and the more I learn I would say “it’s no picnic”.   The kind of individualistic gospel message that so many churches proclaim distorts the message of scripture.  People begin to think that everything that happens is all about themselves when it is obviously about everything but self.  In many ways, it’s a hard pill to swallow, but once you look at the big picture the suffering to be endured is tempered (somewhat) by the purpose and hope that is embedded in the story.

I think a more accurate status update would be something like this:

The good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand.  The bad news is that you probably will have to sacrifice and suffer in order to take hold of it.