Doug Pagitt’s A Christianity Worth Believing (Live Occurrence)

When I was in fifth grade, I got kicked out of Sunday School class. It was a simple telling of the story of Noah’s ark. The flannel graph had a huge boat on it, several animals popping out of it. A smiling Noah under a now beaming sun; a tranquil boat ride scene, the ark drifting on calm waters. My teacher took issue with me adding floating bodies to the surface of the water.

The second time I was asked to be quiet at the church I was attending, it was because the church was having a debate on the issue of baptism. Not whether folks should be baptized, but whether they should be dipped one time or three (the conservatives, the three dippers, were defending the truth against those lackadaisical, anything goes liberal one dippers). I pointed out that while we were having this debate, I was hurting, I had questions, my life was spinning out of control; there were poor not being served and loved that were our neighbors to the west but because they didn’t look like the majority of the church and made them uncomfortable (coincidently, they looked a lot like me), the church didn’t reach out to them.

Apparently I derive from the same tribe of Doug Pagitt’s contrarians.

Full of questions, doubt, and conflict, we wonder if there’s room for us at church as it has largely lost its role as a safe place to ask questions. In a world more worried about production and attendance (“giving units”) and sermons and bottom lines, there’s little room for the eclectic, the square pegs for the round holes reserved for pew potatoes anxious to hear the latest bit of ear tickling, as we’re written off as trouble makers or drama bringers.

So we’re left struggling to make sense of Christianity in our cultural context, in our time. Looking for narrative not formula, as narrative transcends systematics; with theology being the adapter unit between the narrative and our time/culture, making sense of the story, not being the point of the story.

We need to participate in some narrative therapy.

Hearing the Good News that we are beautiful and wonder and made in the image of God. People of worth. That we’re not quite whole, our feelings, spirit, will, and mind not working in concert as they should, with sin disintegrating what’s normal and desired, unraveling our lives and goodness.

Jesus went to those caught up in sin, because sin was its own punishment. He offered a way of life to free us from sin and bring healing and wholeness. Reminding us that we are more than our misdeeds and struggles, we’re still healing and still becoming. But we can live up to who we are, our true humanity, the image of God. He says that the kingdom of God is at hand and we need to join in with what God is already doing as he restores His creation. And he brings the Good News that life will win over death, that God is active in our present reality. That we don’t know how everything will play out, but we live in a state of hope.

Thanks for the reminder, Doug.

Fear of Punishment II

All of this talk of parenting and punishment got me to thinking about why we obey God. A friend of mine asked if I obeyed the tenets of my faith because I was afraid of punishment (either of burning in hell or being otherwise “smited”). On the flip side, am I obedient strictly because of the possible privileges (either eternity in heaven or otherwise getting rewarded)?

I suppose in our capitalist way of thinking, reward and punishment isn’t a bad motivation for why we do things. The downside is that this places us only a hop, skip, and an apostasy from the prosperity gospel that has infected Christianity.

Ultimately, it paints a rather sad way to live. Fear of punishment is no way to establish and maintain a relationship. It’s the kind of “love me … or else!” mentality of an abusive parent, a relationship build on fear which is quite the opposite of love. I do think there is a fearful element to God, one built of awe and majesty, of the transcendent and a fear of losing that which is precious.

Part of me wonders if this “fear of punishment” mentality stems from the fact of the Gospel message having been reduced to a legal transaction (Christ’s sacrifice balancing the scales of cosmic justice) or presented at Christ sparing us from the hands of an angry God (leading to a get your own butt into heaven, save yourself sort of salvation).

So why should I be obedient? Why should I love God? Is it a matter of “because I said so” (the oldest of parental justifications)? Do we love God because he first loved us, thus we have a debt to love him? Do we also love him because it is in our best interest to do so? Is any of this the kind of love we want to build a relationship on? Do we love God because it is the natural response for all that he has done for us?

Someone want to jump in here and save me from my spiraling thoughts?*

*This is one of those times when my faith is pretty simple: I love God because … he’s God. I love my parents not because I’m scared of them or want into their will, but because they’re my parents. They first loved me and love tends to reciprocate. It’s not a matter of debt or obligation. God’s law is relational, Him stepping into my life to guide and protect. Obedience sustains the relationship. It’s love in practice.

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We’re More than Just Sinners*

The total depravity of man – it’s one of the five points of Calvinism. The doctrine that hammers home the point that man has no inherent goodness, no inherent value in thought, word, or deed, and that left to his own devices, man is incapable of saving himself. The emphasis is on man’s “natural condition,” his fallen state, born into and a slave to sin; in so doing this points to God’s divine grace in saving us. It’s a Gospel message that begins with “the Fall,” but I can’t help but wonder that if the story begins with humans as sinners, it fails to deal with the “why would God care about us?”

Maybe the problem begins with the fact that the story doesn’t begin with “the Fall” but with “Creation.”

Instead of seeing humans first and foremost as sinners, we need to see them as Eikons of God, created to relate to God, to relate to others, and to govern the world as Eikons. The Fall affects each of the previous: our relation to God, our relation to others, and our relation to the world. Humans, then, are cracked Eikons. There is all the difference in the world in depicting humans as simply sinners and seeing sinfulness as the condition and behavior of a cracked Eikon. Humans sin, but their sin is the sin of an Eikon. They can’t be defined by their sin until they are seen as Eikons.

It’s hard to have a discussion about the Gospel message without eventually touching on the issue of sin. And though sin is a word often tossed about, sometimes I wonder if whenever any two people talk about “sin” they are even talking about the same thing. I’ve heard definitions ranging from “the evil that men do” to “missing the mark”.

The Gospel message has been reduced to a legal transaction (Christ’s sacrifice balancing the scales of cosmic justice) or sparing us from the hands of an angry God (leading to a get your own butt into heaven, save yourself sort of salvation). If sin is just about any imperfection, any falling short, what does that project onto God? “Oops, you missed. It’s smitin’ time!”

Sin is a religious term within a religious construct, only having meaning in connection to the Divine. It’s a turning away from the life of God, an apathy or transgression of the will of God. That’s one way of looking at it. Removing the word from its doctrinal connotations, we can look at it another way. We can think of it as human error, a failure to fulfill human potential (and thus sin becomes that which dehumanizes us).

“Sin is a failure to be, we wonder, what or who have we failed to be? To answer this question, we must return to the image of God…God created us to be his image-bearers. And at the heart of the imago dei is God’s desire that we show forth the divine character. “Sin,” therefore, is the failure to reflect the image of God.” –Stanley Grenz (Created for Community, 89-90)

Now, one brief comment as I end this post today: sin itself is more than judicial failings and more than offense against the Law. Sin is the disruption of the relationship of loving God, loving others, and governing our world. Which means, the gospel is designed to heal our love for God, our love for others, and our relationship to the world.

We start the story of our faith with creation. With humanity created in the image of God and declared “good”. As image-bearers, we have inherent worth. The Fall becomes about not living up to that potential, what we were created to be. This impacts our view of the Gospel, as it attains a more holistic dimension. It becomes about seeking wholeness, humans to be restored in all the dimensions of humanity, being fully human. However, it doesn’t stop there. The inward journey leads to outward love. All grace should move us to outward expression. The Kingdom of God is now and ours becomes a ministry of reconciliation, of restoration. Transformation of everything about our world, from our societal values, to our economic structures/priorities, to our cultural identity.

We’re more than just sinners.

*Special thanks to Scot McKnight and Rich Vincent