Despite recent trends the U.S. is still pretty much an inclusive society. As the saying on the plaque at the Statue Of Liberty goes we welcome all others to our shores. The resulting diversity is in my mind one of the primary reasons we have been such a strong and prosperous country. Elitism is by definition exclusive. It wants more and more for a smaller and smaller portion of society. It celebrates that fact that more than half the wealth of this country is in the hands of the top one percent of the population.

The advantages of inclusiveness and diversity are equally true for our religious institutions.  Unfortunately most religious organization are exclusive. When they can’t even agree within themselves about something they call “religious” they far too often split over their differences. Each of the currently 39,000 different versions of Christianity today go out into the secular world to proclaim that they alone have it right when it comes to God.  But then again, many don’t actually go outside their doors with any seriousness. Instead they tell us to come and see them and if we jump through all the right hoops and proclaim the right beliefs then they will let us join their group. To me that pompous attitude is not the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t put conditions on his welcoming tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans and such; he welcomed them all without conditions.

I realize the above words are somewhat critical. No, they are actually very critical! This criticism did not come lightly upon me; it evolved for many years of observation and study.  I have come to truly mourn the fact about what much of Christ’s church has become. Thank heavens I have also been exposed to an evolving Christianity that has allowed my view of Christ to grow and not die as a result of this all too common church exclusiveness.

I have been exposed to numerous authors who tell me a different story. It is a story of celebrating Christian diversity. It is a story of getting back to the words of Jesus and putting all the various man-made beliefs about him on the back burner, and in some instances completely off the stove. It is about welcoming all people to our midst.  It is about actively going into the community to be our brother’s keeper. It is about being a Christian instead of just proclaiming certain belief, man-made beliefs. It is not self-focused but is about helping others.

My religious evolution was somewhat similar to when I went deaf. Before I met others who were deaf I was convinced that I was the only one out there. Before I was exposed to the other side of Christianity, the inclusive version, I was very distraught about what I saw in the church. Now I have hope for the church of Jesus. Will some of the current church institutions step away from their practices of exclusion or will they be simply sidelined to an ever decreasing minority? In some ways I really don’t care as there is now an alternative on the horizon to take their place if they stubbornly insist on the pompous belief that they are the only true Christians out there.

The emergent church movement gives me hope that the messages of Jesus will not be lost to mankind. All of Christianity will not be deemed irrelevant to the world and discarded. The idea of actually following Jesus will be resurrected, or I might say rescued, to return as a mantel of morality in this world.

Paul as Usurper of Christianity?

Apostle PaulSource: Paul as Usurper of Christianity? « Common Treasury.

I am aware that there has been much discussion in the past on the alleged contrasting visions of Jesus in the gospels (especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts) and the message in the Paul’s letters. There is something to the charge I think (not that I have studied this in great detail); I have on a couple of occasions tried to get into Ludemann’s examination of the issue in Paul: The Founder of Christianity but have never really got past the first chapter, perhaps I’ll try again in due course….

[W]e would be hard put to recreate anything of the gospels’ description of Jesus in the letters of Paul. Indeed, it is fascinating to ask whether any details of Jesus’ life and ministry, any of his words or deeds, play any role at all in Pauline letters or theology. Jesus’ life is for the most part irrelevant to Paul; his death functions as the means to his resurrection and the salvation of humankind.

The words above are from a fellow blogger who is likely much more versed in theology than I am. His are words that I have been thinking about but have not had the courage to vocalize. In studying the letters of Paul I have been constantly struck by the feeling that they have nothing to do with Jesus or his life’s lessons. Paul seems to simply use Jesus as a receptacle for his version of Christianity. This seems especially true for the Protestant brothers among us.

As I have mentioned before I spent the first twenty-five years of my life  in one degree on another as a Catholic. I was an altar boy who responded in Latin to what the priest declared during the mass. As I remember, and I my memory may be incomplete, most of my lessons in Catholic grade school came from the Gospels and the Book of Acts. But in reality the Bible itself was seldom used as a source for my Christian upbringing.  Instead it was literature and books published by Catholic publishing houses that referenced the Bible itself. We seldom picked up the actual Bible itself. Paul was not absent from my teachings but he was by no means the center of my Catholic instructions.

That changed dramatically when, after a fifteen year hiatus from everything religious, I approached a Lutheran version of faith. During those years I found Paul to be the primary emphasis of what it meant to be a Christian. It was strange to my Catholic upbringing that almost all of the so-called foundational issues with most Protestant denominations centers primarily on the letters of Paul. Almost all of their doctrine and dogma are from him.

The more deeply I entrenched myself in this new version of Christianity the more it was obvious to me that Paul knew very little if anything about Jesus other than he was raised from the dead.  For the most part it seems that there are two completely different belief systems within the same context.  Yes, to me it almost seems like Paul is indeed the usurper of Christianity. Me, I choose to follow Jesus. Paul  not so much.  Jesus gave us the reasons for his church; Paul gave us all the rules and beliefs that we are supposed to follow.

I am still working through these feelings. More on this in future posts….

Don’t Embarrass God….

Since this is the first post here in 2013 I pray we all make a new years resolution to not embarrass God!!

We followers of Jesus seem to think that our self-proclamation that we are Christians doesn’t affect anyone but ourselves. But in reality making that claim and then not living up the actions necessary to show the world that you follow Jesus embarrasses God. It makes him look bad when everyone who knows you to be a Christian see you doing things that are definitely not Christ like.

The primary way that someone comes to be a follower of Jesus is not by a sudden mysterious urge to read the Bible but instead by observing the good examples of others and asking “what makes this person different?”.  Most simply see the Bible as a very old book written centuries ago that has little to do with the world today.  They learn about Christ through you and how you act!

But the trouble with this is that there is almost no difference between how you, a self-proclaimed Christian lives your life, than anyone else. In fact if we look hard enough we can see that Christians actually take marriage less seriously than non-Christians since statistically Christians divorce more frequently than the population as a whole.

When Christians insist that science is wrong about so  many aspects of life they embarrass God. God continues to give us scientific revelations about life including the recent advances in DNA  but many Christians seem to want to deny scientific findings. As an example some stubbornly insist that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old when even with a cursory look around us we know it to be otherwise. When we effectively ask our guests to our services to check their intelligence at the door we embarrass God. We not only embarrass him we make him irrelevant in the eyes of many around us.  Instead of wanting to know more about this God that we pray to they could care less.

When we squabble incessantly with each other about what we are supposed to believe about him we embarrass God. We are currently divided into over 39,000 different factions each claiming to be the only ones who know the “true” God! How can anyone make any sense of what being Christian means when we can’t even agree among ourselves. More shamefully when we discipline, reject , and shun those in our midst for simply praying with those who might not proclaim exactly the same beliefs as us we embarrass God.

Let’s face it many “Christians” today embarrass God by their actions or maybe more seriously their lack of actions. When we proclaim that being Christian is all about what we believe and nothing to do with what we do.  We embarrass God when we continuously  split over the most petty things.

It will take a paradigm shift in our understanding of Jesus and his messages to turn us around. I think the current emergent movement is just such a thing. How long will the shift take is anyone’s guess.  All I know is that we have to quit embarrassing God by our words and inactions and get on to doing what he told us to do.  That is the only way we will ever point others to Him.

Lets all make a very serious attempt to not embarrass God in this new year…..

Defining Evangelicals…

I have had a Sojourners membership for a number of years now and enjoy the monthly magazine. One reason is that it shows me that I am not alone out there in believing what I do about Christianity.  Jim Wallis, who is the editor-in-chief of the magazine always has an editorial at the beginning of each issue.  This month is was about how the word “evangelical” means to the world in general.  In the editorial Jim opens with the following words:

Here we go again. Presidential elections are coming, and the role of ‘evangelicals’ is predictably becoming a hot political story. Voices on both the Religious Right and secular Left describe evangelicals as zealous members of the ultra-conservative political base.

Why? Perhaps because some conservative Republicans want to claim a religious legitimacy and constituency for their ideological agenda, and some political liberals seem determined to portray religious people as intellectually flawed, right-wing crazies with dangerous plans for the country.

He goes on to say that while there are evangelicals as described above they do not define the overall evangelical community.  He has been stating this view for many years. But from a personal experience I, like many others in this world,  have trouble getting the secular view of evangelicals out of my head.  For a couple of decades I was a member of an evangelical church and for the most part the majority of its members held radical right political beliefs. I always felt like the odd-man-out in our weekly bible studies especially when the discussions turned political in nature. It seems to me that the “social conservative” values of the these right wing political groups runs very counter to what I read in my bible?  I knew a few others in those studies felt as I did about being my brother’s keeper and doing good works but for the most part they sat silently while the majority, among many other topics, ranted about  personal responsibility and those lazy “freeloaders” who just need to get a job.

So, while I want to believe what Jim says I just saw very little evidence of it in the Christian world immediately around me. This is one of the reasons I have divorced myself from that group and no longer call myself a Christian but instead say I am just a follower of Jesus Christ.  I seem to be more attuned around the following message by Susan Isaacs (her message here also came from another Sojourners source)

While I may detect a difference between “evangelical Christian” (theological connotation) and “evangelical” (political connotation), a person outside the faith may not. Tell an agnostic you’re an evangelical — meaning you believe in the words of the Apostle’s creed — and he may assume you’re anti-gay, anti-Obama and pro-British Petroleum….I don’t know if we’ll ever divest “evangelical” of its political connotation. We might have to ban the word the way Germany outlawed Hitler as a surname. Which is sad, because the Greek root, evangel, means “good news.” – Susan Isaacs 

I like Susan think maybe it is time to ban using the word “evangelical” in a theological mode. It has just been too polluted by the political sphere and that is a terrible shame as the word actually means “good news”.  The words “evangelical” and “Christian” just don’t seem to mix together anymore. They are like oil and vinegar.

If God is Love (Part 2)

This is a continuation of my collection of snippets from the book by Philip Gulley entitled If God is Love.

The Psalmists boats, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hate. I count them my enemies” (Psalm 139:21-22). Hatred, when directed at those we have judged wicked, becomes a sign of religious devotion rather than a grievous sin. The enemy is not loved, but destroyed, not prayed for, but preyed upon.

We can protest religious hatred and violence are sins of the past, but to do so we must ignore current Christian visions of the future. How do we explain the tremendous popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books? These books, which have sold millions of copies have spawned two movies, portray a future in which Evangelical Christians are saved while everyone else is destroyed. They proclaim a Jesus with a sword in hand atop a charging steed, initiating a violent end.

Our violent religious past and expectations of a wrathful future impinge on Christian behavior today. David Beneke, a leader in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, discovered this reality shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He was suspended for eighteen months from his duties and required to defend himself before a variety of denominational panels. His sin was not something as radical as believing in the salvation of all people. His crime was joining with Muslim, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh religious leaders in a prayer service at Yankee Stadium. He was accused of praying with “heathens”. He said “This ordeal reveals the hard side of Christianity”.

If fairness, similar stories abound in other religious traditions. This arrogant exclusivity plagues all the great religions. Adherents of each faith hate the “other” — Christians hate heathens; Muslims hate infidels; Jews hate Gentiles. For many, religion is how we decide who to love and who to hate.

As I have said many times Jesus melted down the Old Testament laws into just two: Love God and Love your fellow man. Hate was not in this mix. Why do so many current day religious institutions base so much of their practices on hate? One thing I love about reading Philip Gulley is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He certainly didn’t in this example. 🙂

Give them Jesus

There are thousands of different concepts and ideas floating around in Christianity and most of them have followers who have split from others over their specific views. Of course the biggest split started when a lowly monk decided he knew better than the Pope what God was really about. There are those who have split off other denominations because they believe that total immersion is the only way to receive a “correct” baptism and, of course there are those who choose different views of the Bible. Some say every word is literally true and some say only the doctrinal messages are true. There are literally hundreds of other excuses we Christians have used to divide ourselves into different flocks.

While the people involved in all these 35,000 or so splits take very seriously the reasons they believe it was necessary to go their own ways. When I think about them the book title by Richard Carlson entitled “Don’t sweat the Small stuff (and it’s all small stuff)” comes to mind. The front and center for all of us who call ourselves Christians must be Jesus Christ; everything else is just small stuff. I can hear some of your saying” NO that is not true. If you aren’t baptized correctly then you are going to hell!!” Or other such words. I hope some day we all realize how petty we have become over many of these issues.

I have spent the last several years studying perhaps a hundred books on theology. In that study I have basically found that for every thinkable concept of God there are many human versions of what that concept means. Things like the Trinity really don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Whether God is three in one or just one really doesn’t matter much. God is God and can be whatever he chooses to be and in my mind what he chooses to be is a God of agape love.

One of the basic things that does matter is why Jesus came among us? This question also seems to have many answers for us. Most, but not all, Christians believe that he came to be an atoning sacrifice for our salvation. As I have mentioned a few times in the past I don’t really understand this concept but do accept it on faith. Some say he also came to teach us lessons on how to live our lives in the universe he created. I am definitely in that camp but there are quite a few who almost totally discount this aspect of Jesus’ life. They believe that Jesus’ sole purpose was to die for our sins and to point us to heaven and that anything else he did or said about living was at best irrelevant to the “real” issue. They are totally convinced that it is proper to jump from Jesus’ birth immediately to his death. Nothing in between has much significance. Calling anything God says or did irrelevant is a pretty risky thing to me! Of course, Calvinists are among this group but I think many other fundamentalist denominations join them. To shortchange Jesus’ teachings on how to live causes them, in my opinion, to lose out on understanding of who Jesus really was. I feel sorry for them in that regard.

Let’s not spend much of our day worrying about what God looks like and instead spend it concentrating on what Jesus said and did while he was among us. All the other stuff is just stuff that causes us confusion and gets in the way of this central message. Jesus opened his three year ministry with the following words:

Luke 4:16-21

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoner and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I would hope that all of us take at least these words to heart in calling ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ. But sadly that is not the case for some of us. So to end this, concentrate on Jesus and all the other minor details will resolve themselves.