“Jesus Christ is My Lord and Savior” or “Talk is Cheap”

I was asked recently why I don’t say “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” more.index

That’s a good question.

I think I don’t use that phrase much because of my experience with that phrase.  In my youth that phrase was used as a litmus test of sorts, a shibboleth for those of you familiar with that term (or familiar with West Wing).

Saying “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” was like the secret password into a club that I wasn’t so sure I wanted into.

Because usually the people that I heard using that phrase were also the people who were talking about “spiritual warfare” and being good “Christian soldiers” and “working blessings” and “praying away the pain.”

All that phraseology was just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals to my ears.

I wanted to know what they thought spiritual warfare was and if they’d be “fighting it” if they had never been introduced to the concept.  I wanted to know what they thought being a “soldier for Christ” meant in every day life.  I wanted to know what they thought they were doing when they were “working a blessing” or what conclusions we’re to draw when we pray and pray and pray and the pain remains.

I didn’t want talk to be cheap; I wanted it to mean something.  I want it to mean something.

Because, and this is the thing, Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  But that sentence needs so much explanation around it for me, that just saying it to you or anyone else will not do, I feel.

Because just saying it to myself doesn’t do it.

And no doubt people say that phrase and say it with utmost sincerity and face value; I truly believe it.  And I can speak that language, too, with much sincerity.

So, is Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior?  Yes.   Am I going to start adopting that language?  Probably not.

But I will say that my trust in God is deeply rooted in the Christ event.

And, believe it or not, I think that’s approximately the same thing.

I could say it another way, but it wouldn’t be authentic to me.

And I prefer not to.  It’s not how my spirituality is formulated.  My spirituality is formulated with deep roots in experiences and connection that don’t lend itself very well to short phrases like this, I find.

I’m much more Richard Rohr than Rick Warren.

That doesn’t mean either of those spiritual realities are “better” than the other one (how could we measure that, anyway?).  But it does mean that they present themselves differently.

And with a Christian history that needed a St. Julian as well as a Thomas Aquinas, that needed a Martin Luther as well as a Meister Eckhart, why should the fact that I don’t express my faith with these phrases, and that you do, cause us dissension?

So many churches are full of just Julians or just Luthers, just Rohrs or just Warrens.

What if we actually practiced radical community where you could lift your hands in praise while I fold mine in reverence and neither got annoyed with the other?  What if we actually practiced radical community where you could claim Jesus as your Lord and Savior and stretched my comfort with that phrase, and I encouraged you to parse that a little more to go a bit deeper than just phrases.

Because, and here’s the biggest thing, I don’t want any of our talk to be cheap…even our talk about community.

Because if we all think the same things, talk the same way, use the same phrases, and embody the same spirituality, we have less a “community” and more of a “club.”

And Lord knows we don’t need more clubs in this world.

And I’m a reluctant Christian many times because our clubs dot the streets, and our communities are few and far between.

“Relationship Issues” or “Jesus Doesn’t Want to be My Boyfriend.”

I know…the title.  images

I actually wanted to title this “Jesus Isn’t That Into You” as a play off of the movie…but that would have really brought the hate mail.

So let me start with a disclaimer.

Let me say, unequivocally, that I think Jesus is “into you” (although I think that sounds weird).

But maybe…maybe Jesus isn’t that into you.  Or, at least, not as solely about you as we’ve made it out to be.  Jesus doesn’t want to be my boyfriend.

Let me explain for a second.

In my blog on 5 Phrases I Think Christians Shouldn’t Say, I got a lot of push back for #2 on my list, “You just have to do God’s will…”  Specifically for my statement in the subsequent lines where I posit that I’m not convinced that God’s greatest wish is for us to be in relationship with God.

I should have put an asterisk next to that statement because, here’s what I really mean by that: I think that Christianity has adopted a “win souls for Jesus,” “you must invite Jesus into your heart,” “you need to have a personal relationship with Jesus” mentality at the sacrifice of every other type of relationship that God might desire for humanity.

We’ve given up our relationship as stewards of the Earth so that we can build monstrous mega-church compounds on open land to focus on the “Jesus-and-Me” relationship, adopting crazy ideas that perhaps global warming is fake and is God’s plan for the world.

We’ve given up our authentic relationships with others who, perhaps, don’t think the same things we do, because our singular focus is now to try and convert and “win souls for Christ.”

American evangelical Christianity has focused so much on fostering personal relationships with Jesus Christ, most other relationships are left in the dust…

Plus, speaking from a place of honesty, much of the agnostic/marginally Christian world (and a good number of us convicted Christians) finds the super-close-Jesus-is-my-boyfriend talk creepy.

I think we all want to be known; really known.  And I think God knows us; truly knows us.

But when we start talking about Jesus like he’s our lover in the modern sense we really are talking in ways that put people off.

Don’t think we do that?  Consider the song “In the Secret.”  Here are the lyrics:

In the secret, in the quiet place

in the stillness you are there.

In the secret, in the quiet hour I wait

only for you (this part is usually whispered)

Because I want to know you more.

I want to know you,

I want to hear your voice

I want to know you more.

I want to touch you

I want to see your face

I want to know you more.

Creepy, right?

Or what about Hillsong’s “I Surrender” where you sing “have your way in me, Lord”?  I’ve banned that song from my church because I can’t hear that without imagining how someone who has been sexually abused hears it…

I mean, c’mon folks, maybe Jesus isn’t that into us.

I’m all for the talk of having the “heart strangely warmed,” to use a Wesley phrase (and he was reading my boy, Luther, btw).  I’m all for the stirring of the spirit, for soul-stirring that you can’t explain.  I’m Lutheran, a spiritual descendant of the one who kept repeating over and over again, pro me, when it came to Jesus’ promises in Scripture.

“For me.”

It’s personal.  And the opposite can be true.  A lot of places talk so much about God in the abstract, that any sort of relational talk is totally absent.

But I hear less of the latter and more of the former.  It’s good to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but we’ve taken that and run right into the crazy bin.

If that’s all we focus on, the personal…and that’s a lot of what I hear…then, well, I think the boat has been missed, by and large.

When Jesus said “Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself,” I don’t think he imagined we’d stop on the first part as much we have.  Remember, that second part is “like the first.”

I’m all for a relationship with God; the mystic in me can’t do without it. St. Julian spoke of her relationship with Jesus in the most intimate way possible (totally scandalous…everyone should read some St. Julian).  But even from Julian you get the sense that she’s speaking from a “remain in me” kind of way, echoing Jesus from the Gospel of John.

But if it stops there…

No, really…I think a lot of places talk as if it goes on from there, about helping the neighbor, loving people for who they are and where they are in life, but it’s really just about you and Jesus and what you gain from that.

If that’s the case, well, then I’d say you have relationship issues. Maybe it’s good to consider that Jesus might not be that into you…not your boyfriend.

And that singular focus that I hear so much really often makes me a reluctant Christian.

I Found Jesus…He Was Behind the Couch

My wife and I have a magnet on our fridge that says, “I found Jesus…he was behind the couch the whole time!”7786.jpg_3

My nephews love it.  I love it.

I think my nephews are even likely to tell their pastor that.  I encourage them to.  I told them it’d always be the “right” answer in Sunday School…because, you know, faith is all about having the “right answer”.

I think it’s funny.

I think it’s funny because, well, that whole theme of “lost and found” in the Bible is turned around by this whole notion of “finding Jesus.”

In all of those “lost and found” verses in the Bible, it’s not Jesus who is lost, but the other person.

Even in that “seek and you shall find” passage, there’s no indication that it’s “seeking” Jesus.

Seeking knowledge.  Seeking enlightenment.  Seeking salvation, liberation, wholeness…sure.

But not Jesus.

So this idea that we can “find Jesus”…well, you might as well look behind the couch because I think you’re just as likely to find Jesus crouching there as you are to find him in the “seeker’s service” at your local big-box worship center.

I’m not trying to come down harshly on “seeker services”; I think faith communities need accessible points of entry.

But if we think we’re giving them Jesus, as if Jesus can be commodified…well, we should stop fooling ourselves.

The search for Jesus is the search for the white stag…it’s pointless.

Yeah, pointless.  Because I think all you’ll end up finding is a mirror image of yourself that you pass off as Jesus.

Instead the faith teaches that Jesus is/was/will be right where you are, and has been all along.

Martin Luther has this totally unhelpful/helpful phrase about looking for Jesus.  When explaining how God is present in the Eucharist, Luther said that Jesus is “in, with, and under the elements.”

This is absolutely unhelpful to the rational mind.  The literalist, the legalist, the fundamentalist, they won’t accept that answer.

There must always be a system, a way of finding, a problem/solution answer.

But what if there isn’t?  What if, instead, we leave those things behind and just agree to encounter the mystery of a present God, seen in the Christ, who subverts every single system and search, and who just surprises us as being on the scene?  What if we just walk with mindfulness?

It’d be a Biblical way of operating, that’s for sure.  Jesus surprises everyone at the tomb, the house of Mr. and Mrs. Clopas, the upper room, Paul’s lonely road to nowhereville.

Jesus surprises everyone in little Bethlehem (remember the Magi go six miles off course to Jerusalem to find him?).

Hell, maybe Jesus is behind the couch.  It’d surprise the socks off of me.

But if you looked, you won’t find him there.  Instead, it seems, Jesus finds us on the roads of confusion, in the upper rooms of fear, at the tomb of despair, in the little town of doubt.

That seems to be Jesus’ way.  This is why I don’t shy away from confusion, doubt, and despair.  I don’t have to have it all worked out.

Because that’s not the point.

I have a little mantra I repeat a lot to myself: “Jesus walked into a bar and no one noticed.”

Yeah…that sounds about right.

“Scripture and Responsibility,” or “Someone Stole My God and Put a Bible in It’s Place!”

I got a message on one of my social media sites from someone I don’t know.  They were upset with some of the blog posts that I had written.  They wrote,

All due respect, I get what you’re trying to do with your blog, but you are irresponsible with your perspective. You are pitting the world against Christians in the name of reaching them. That said, there is very little that is explicitly biblical in your blogs. You rely on opinion and hope. The scriptures themselves are the only hope we have, and I would suggest that your addition (or subtraction of their authority) are dangerous and, again, irresponsible to say the least.

One of the phrases that I think humanity should abandon, in general, is “all due respect.”  It pretty much ensures that what they say won’t be very respectful…

I’m not offended or anything.  People are welcome to have their own opinions, although I disagree with the writer’s analysis.  I don’t think it’s irresponsible to come into conversation with scripture, and I don’t find my writings based on “opinions and hope.”  There is much scholarship (and late nights with beer and granola bars) that inform these posts.  Hence why I don’t post every day…sometimes I have to sleep.

And I don’t think I’m pitting the world against Christians (what does that even mean?).  Although I’m uncertain exactly what the writer is trying to say there, I’m pretty sure that Christians are doing a pretty good job of pitting people against them on their own…

But I think that the writer makes one substantial claim that can be enlightening in teasing out the reason (or, at least one of the reasons) why certain parts of the faith/a-faith community talk over one another.  Did you double-take at the line, “the scriptures themselves are the only hope” that humanity has?

Yikes.

I’m a Christian, a person of faith, and I have to say that my hope is not in the scriptures.

The story of Jesus that is told in the scriptures is the most intriguing story I’ve ever read.  I believe that God has revealed something in the Christ that can’t be ignored for it’s importance and life-changing ability.  I believe that, in the person of Jesus, God started something new in the world.  So new, in fact, that people had to write about it in haste.

But you see, that’s just it.  My hope is in God’s work through Jesus.  The scriptures contain that story, but they aren’t the object of my hope itself.  Somewhere along the line we’ve turned the scriptures into God…and then everyone who begins to question them, to delve into their historical context to weed out discrepancies and cultural trappings becomes “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

In short, my question is: “If the Bible isn’t God, why are so many people worshiping it?”

As a Christian, a person of faith, a pastor, the Bible informs my faith.  It is the feedbox of faith; not the fence nor the object of faith.

But we’ve turned it into the idol on a pedestal.  We’ve claimed it as “infallible” and “inerrant.”  My favorite variation of this claim is that it is “inerrant in it’s original languages.”  Nice dodge, people.  I hate to say it, but that’s not exactly how language works.  It is not intellectually honest to claim that something is perfect in its original but long-lost form.  It’s a quaint way of acknowledging that there are internal inconsistencies with the scriptures while escaping any need to take them seriously.

Infallibility and inerrancy are traits commonly ascribed to the Divine itself.   But because we can’t see the Divine in the ways we want to, we’ve created this lovely Bible-calf out of the gold of our desire for concrete things, and think that full “authority” rests in it instead of the God it points to.

As an interesting test-study, let’s look at some scripture passages (as the person who wrote to me doesn’t think I use enough) that are commonly held up as proofs for the Bible’s inerrant nature and infallibility to engage the heart of the issue.

In 2 Timothy 3:16 the writer says, “All scripture is God breathed.”  This has commonly been used as a defense for the Bible’s infallibility and inerrant nature.

Unfortunately, the writer of 2 Timothy didn’t have a Bible.  They only had the Torah, the Psalms, and some wisdom writings.  In fact, they may not have even had all of those, depending on where they were in the world.  So, unless the writer of 2 Timothy was indeed projecting 300 years into the future to when the scriptures were canonized, the writer was talking about some other books.

On the face, to say that “all scripture is God-breathed” seems pretty cut and dry.  It can very easily be understood as talking about the canonized Bible because, for the last 1700 years, that’s exactly what most people have been talking about when they say the word “scripture.”

But I think it is irresponsible to allow that line of thinking to go on without some good questions like, “What writings did the author have?” and “What was the understanding of ‘God-breathed’ that they may have been working with?”  Too often we imagine these writers like they are sitting in Cleveland using the same dictionary we have on our shelves.

Another example that deserves a spin on the old turn-table of critical thought: Revelation 22:19, “And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from (them) a share of the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described therein.”

I love Revelation.  It’s a book of unending interest to me.  A great treatment on the subject was written by my seminary professor Barbara Rossing entitled, “The Rapture Exposed.” (Spoiler alert: the “rapture” is exposed as a bunch of leviathan dung…)

But one of the problems with this verse from Revelation’s 22nd chapter is that, for years I’ve heard preachers who haven’t done their homework take this line and apply it to the whole canon.  I mean, not only is it clear that John the Diviner (the name we’ve given to the writer of Revelation) didn’t intend for that to be the case, it’s absolutely reprehensible to suggest that notion to someone interested in the faith because it automatically cuts off any ability to question or wrestle with scripture.

If the result of wrestling, questioning, and even saying, “hey, that’s a little nuts…” is being cut off from God’s grace, do you think people are going to do it?  Instead people start yelling “false prophet!” or “anti-Christ” or…well, other things that people begin to yell when they feel like their faith is threatened.  It cuts off conversation at it’s core.

There are other verses and proof-texts, of course.  Many.  You know of some, too.

The person who wrote to me said that my suggestions are irresponsible, and that my thoughts are dangerous.  I want to say, quite plainly, that I think that reading the Bible without taking note of its historical context is irresponsible for a pastor/theologian leading a faith community, and that I think its dangerous for the faith to continue along this anti-intellectual trajectory that we’ve been heading down since the Enlightenment.

My own context, Lutheranism, has always understood scripture to be read in three ways: for devotion (spiritual edification), proclamation (faith formation), and study (critical learning).  I like that we uphold (at least) three ways…it’s very Trinitarian. And they each inform the other and have elements of the other within them.  My own faith has been edified and formed through critical study.  My devotional life has been formed and developed by hearing the scriptures and ancient texts read with other people gathered around.

But having a multivariant approach to scripture is important.  It’s important because the scriptures are not one monolithic writing, but contain myths, legends, histories, testimonies, letters, and all sorts of type of writings, and that variance should be acknowledged through a lens that allows for it.  It’s important because it prevents the reader from putting the Bible, as words on a page, on a pedestal because each approach informs and critiques the other.

Martin Luther himself, who took the Bible more seriously than most in an age where reading wasn’t exactly in vogue and questioning authority wasn’t encouraged (remember what happened to Hus?), even argued with scripture.  He opined that the book of James and the book of Revelation should be cut from the canon (at least, in his younger less angry years).  Was that irresponsible?

Or was it him taking scripture and what it is seriously?

I take scripture seriously, not literally. For me it is not some fable nor is it a golden book that fell from the sky. It holds the most intriguing story I’ve ever heard in which I put my hope…but it’s not the story itself, and is certainly not the hope.

So, read your Bibles, preferably with other people.  Don’t worship them.  And if you’re a pastor, introduce some critical thinking into your instruction…the world will be better for it.

“If it’s wrong, I don’t want to be right” or “I don’t want to be right, even if that’s wrong.”

In the July 8th issue of The Guardian, David Hare has an interesting interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Yes, get your “Mr. Bean” jokes out now.

Williams has been an outspoken critic of the New Atheist movement happening in his backyard, but his critiques have been mostly what I would call a “failure to engage.”  But as I read more and more about Williams, his theology, and his argumentative style, I would classify his critiques less as a failure to engage and more as a choice not to talk over.

That is, after all, what most of these shouting matches between atheists and theists have been: talking over one another.

So when one can boil the Archbishop’s responses down to the simple, awfully British, phrase, “Oh, please…” I now understand better why.  Williams finds the whole process of argumentation to be an exercise in futility.  And one, I might add, that leads to more bitterness and entrenchment than anything else in my experience.

I, too, came to this realization about a year ago.  In my search to mine the depths of my own skepticism, I finally came to much the same conclusion that Williams appears to have known for some time (if only those with ears would hear): argumentation in this arena is a futile attempt at making oneself believe by mind what is only known by heart.  Or, as St. Ambrose reminds us, “It does not suit God to save (God’s) people by arguments.”  Williams apparently often recites this.

This realization is not an escape, mind you.  That’s ultimate Truth.  And if you think you know it, I would question if you do.

Willaims explains this idea much more satisfactorily in the interview:

“Oh, look, argument has the role of damage limitation. The number of people who acquire faith by argument is actually rather small. But if people are saying stupid things about the Christian faith, then it helps just to say, ‘Come on, that won’t work.’ There is a miasma of assumptions: first, that you can’t have a scientific worldview and a religious faith; second, that there is an insoluble problem about God and suffering in the world; and third, that all Christians are neurotic about sex. But the arguments have been recycled and refought more times than we’ve had hot dinners, and I do groan in spirit when I pick up another book about why you shouldn’t believe in God. Oh dear! Bertrand Russell in 1923! And while I think it’s necessary to go on rather wearily putting down markers saying, ‘No, that’s not what Christian theology says’ and, ‘No, that argument doesn’t make sense’, that’s the background noise. What changes people is the extraordinary sense that things come together.

In reading Harris and Hitchens, in reading Craig and McGrath, I’ve come to this conclusion: I enjoy the reading.  On both sides.  I find myself nodding to Hitchens about just as much as I find myself nodding to McGrath.  And I find myself shaking my head in the same places, too: where the argumentation devolves into silly straw-people stereotypes and supercilious name calling.

(Harris and Craig, actually, I find pretty tedious because their anger is not mixed with enough sarcasm.  I prefer my agitants to be laced with humor.  It helps the hate go down better.)

But all in all this interview with the fine Archbishop has helped me to hone in, once again, on what it is that I am giving up in this life constantly, and that is the need to be “right.”  He notes:

Put it this way, if I’m not absolutely paralysed by the question, ‘Am I right? Am I safe?’ then there are more things I can ask of myself. I can afford to be wrong.

My dance with religion has led me to find that I’m not dancing to learn the steps, I’m dancing to dance.  And perfection is not the goal of this endeavor; dancing is.  I’ve given up my need to have the right steps.

But if that’s the case, why are so many Christians concerned with orthodoxy?  In my own church, my own denomination, we’re continuing to struggle with issues over orthodoxy, and yet, if we’ve given up the need to be right as the Christ has freed us to, it appears we haven’t given up the need to fight about it.

It is at this point that many will say, “Sure, but your point certainly doesn’t mean that anything is permissible!”

Quite correct (I’ll refrain from using the word “right”).

But must we argue and divide and split on account of it?  Williams’ own tenure as Archbishop has shown that diverse opinions can be pillars that hold up the same house.  And whether it’s because his eyebrows are too threatening to tussle with, or because he’s actually on to something here, he truly believes in the church in a way that makes me not want to fight him on it.

But I’ll allow his belief to be my own for the present time.  For while I want to believe in the church, the church often makes me a reluctant Christian.  Christians make me a reluctant Christian. While I find myself free from the need to be right, it appears my sisters and brothers throughout the church do not.

Sigh.

And sure, the one last argument the dissenting reader will throw out is true, “But don’t you think you’re “right” in believing its correct to give up being right?!”

Fine.  Incurvatus in se.  I won’t argue with you on that…because arguing will get us no where.  But I don’t believe in the rightness of my belief.  I don’t believe in the rightness of religion; no way.

Instead, I’ll just say that it’s my lens. I lean on it.  I look through it. Or to put it another way, I’ll quote someone else much smarter than me:

“Religion is not primarily a something to be believed…Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing.” (Kushner, Who Needs God)

So, I guess I don’t want to be right, even if that’s wrong.  Because in my reading and my experience, being right or needing to be so, well, it just leads to blindness.