First, a disclaimer: As this post came together, it began to take the form more of a manifesto than a simple blog post. The rest of my lexicon will not be this long, but this is foundational. This project required reviewing well over 10 years of notes from my study and contemplation, and distilling it down even this far was a chore. But this topic explains my brand, Salubris, which is latin for wellness or wholeness, and a translation of the Greek term used for salvation. It is literally the intended focus of the rest of my life, and I needed to spill a little extra ink (quaint metaphor, isn’t it?) on this one.
I begin this little journey with the big kahuna, the point behind all of it: salvation. Every good evangelical knows what that means, of course. It means you managed some kind of a transaction (asking Jesus into your heart, praying a sinner’s prayer, signing a communication card, the mechanics vary) with God so you go to Heaven when you die instead of the other place. This example of one of the most patently offensive Christian billboards yet that have been popping up all over town exemplifies that understanding. We need to somehow be saved from whatever it is Jesus is going to do to us after our heart stops.
All the ways and reasons that narrative no longer holds water for me is literally the point of this entire lexicon, so I won’t dwell on it in this post. But to begin this journey I will explain what this term has come to mean for me.
The New Testament term that is translated as salvation is sozo, which means to rescue from danger but also to heal or make whole. I have come to believe that the emphasis on wholeness, or integration as the means to be healed from that which dis-integrates, is the proper way to think of it. Furthermore, I think that while it can have personalized, individual implications it applies to something much bigger than just a series of transactional events to get people to heaven. Allow me to work through a few of my favorite “salvation” passages in the New Testament to illustrate, beginning with the most familiar and foundational to the way in which most of us have understood this issue:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16,17)
This phrase “believes in him” needs some unpacking. The term translated “to believe” is not about agreeing with a proposition about a person or a doctrine, it actually has connotations of faithfulness, or trustworthiness. The preposition is not so much “in,” but “into”, and the phrase “eternal life” is not about living forever after you die, it’s about living the kind of life that characterizes the new age of God. I know, that’s a lot to undo with our favorite salvation passage, but the way I think of it now is that if you are faithful into the way of Jesus, you will participate in the process of healing and integration that characterizes the age Jesus came to inaugurate. The following verses (and John in general) make it clear that it’s all about “living in the light,” not about believing certain things. Plus, one of the key things to take note of is just who it is that Jesus came to save: the world. Of course, I used to just think of that as “all the people in the world” (even though my crew never thought any but a small percentage would actually be saved, but I digress), but the term is cosmos, the entirety of the created order. More on that soon.
Second only to John 3:16, or maybe even more important to some, is a passage that comes from Ephesians 2:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (8,9)
Here again, some translation work is in order. First of all when Paul says “not by works,” he almost certainly means “not by your religious observances.” With regard to the phrase “through faith,” In my opinion the footnote that you will find in the latest NIV translations here and elsewhere in the N.T. will one day be the main thing, which gives us (for now) the alternate translation of “by the faithfulness of Jesus.” It isn’t about what we acknowledge to be true at all: it’s about what Jesus did. Furthermore, in my mind Paul probably intends it to be understood as embracing for ourselves the kind of faithfulness Jesus exemplified, so “through the faithfulness of Jesus” would be something like, “by living in the ways Jesus did.” I would go so far as to say that when Paul says salvation is by grace, he isn’t talking about God’s grace at all, or at least not just about that. It’s about us living a grace saturated existence: experiencing it, but also (especially) offering it. Certainly it isn’t about what we believe: the grammar is very clear with regard to that, it seems to me. I think the only reason our translations don’t read correctly is that we have a lot of institutions that have been built on the way we have been thinking about it, and I can tell you that once you start tugging on threads like this, the whole system is in danger of unraveling. But what I think is the correct understanding is what makes sense of the actual point, which is that there are good works for us to do- a clever way of re-interpreting this term to not mean religiosity, but living in the ways Jesus taught and displayed: entirely consistent with Paul’s main point he keeps coming back to in his letters. So, bringing it all back around, I now think of this passage as something like “live a grace saturated life: faithful to the ways of Jesus, so you fulfill your role in the redemptive plan of God.” Not the standard “God will have mercy on your sin-sick soul because you believed the right dogma about Jesus” approach from my past, but the grammar allows for it and it is absolutely consistent with the message of the New Testament on this subject. So just how do we live out the kind of works that are referenced in order to do that? Here I go to Philippians for some clarification.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (2:12,13)
This used to be a truly troublesome passage in my evangelical days, something to not pay much attention to or figure out how to spin, like it really means to “display” your salvation. But I think it means what it says: complete the process, git ‘er done. How do we do that? Once again, it is through embracing the way of Jesus described previously in that chapter: ….being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant, (Phil. 2:3-7)
Completing the process of salvation means looking to the interests of others, not your own, and living a life of servitude. The kind Jesus taught and exemplified. That is what it means to be faithful into the way of Jesus, as we saw was central to the previous two passages.
There are a lot more passages that mention this, but I want to underscore just a couple more that have become essential to me in really understanding this. The first is from Romans 5:
..while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!
This has become really critical to me, because it underscores that there is a difference between being reconciled to God and being saved. My experience is that it has been assumed those are the same thing: you’re “saved” because God is no longer mad at you, since you’ve accomplished whatever transaction it was to prove that you have embraced the blood sacrifice of his son to appease his wrath. “Being saved” was a way of speaking of whatever thing it is you did or believed that reconciled you to God. Paul concedes that a transaction to accomplish that reconciliation did happen, but it was a one time past tense event, and it applied to everyone: just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. (v.18) Frankly, I’m not at all sure what this reconciliation thing is really all about: it never gets explained. Was there really some sort of fundamental cosmic rift between people and God, or did people just think there was and it required an event of this magnitude to release us from these kinds of toxic religious intuitions? I tend toward the latter view, actually, but It didn’t really work very well: The movement that Jesus started rapidly deteriorated into one more version of that kind of fear and shame based religiosity that requires us to assume some sort of disconnect between us and God and oh-by-the-way, the institution that arose happens to hold the solution for you within the confines. But it doesn’t matter at all which it was, since either way the deed is done. So what we need to be “saved” (healed, delivered, made whole) from is thinking that there’s anything that needs to happen to be reconciled to God since that transaction has been completed and requires nothing from us. Yet that has been the entire focus of the salvation narrative in our history, leading to untold stress and anxiety we should never have had to deal with. Reconciliation is universal and a one time event in the past. Salvation is a current process. Once again, “in”, meaning through, or by means of, or entering into the realm of the kind of life Jesus led.
In 2 Corinthians Paul reiterates this: God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (5:19). Again, reconciliation is a thing that happened and applies to not just everyone, but to the cosmos: the entire created order. This brings up the 3rd option I can see regarding the issue of reconciliation, which is that the term focuses more on becoming aligned with a plan or a process. So at a cosmic level, something about the crucifixion acccomplished that. Once again, not something I can really understand, and the point Paul is making is that we don’t have to worry about that part. (Actually, there’s a 4th option regarding this issue that I’ve been considering, but it has to do with spirituality and quantum physics and it may be a while before I get around to thinking that one through enough to write about it.) The truly important thing for us is where he ends it in ch. 6: As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.”
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
There you go. If we obsess over being reconciled to God, the grace of God is literally in vain: it doesn’t accomplish the intended purpose, which is to get us involved in bringing salvation: the process of re-integration and wholeness planned for the cosmos. In this statement Paul is appealing to a quote from Isaiah 49, telling us that Jesus inaugurated that time that the prophet looked forward to. The rest of Isaiah following that passage to the end describes the kind of world God wants, but here I quote a familiar portion at the very end as an example:
“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not live out his years;
the one who dies at a hundred
will be thought a mere child;
the one who fails to reach a hundred
will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them;
they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them,
or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree,
so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy
the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,” (65:20-25)
As with a lot of Bible passages, I can sometimes have a hard time separating what to read literally and what to read metaphorically, such as the wolf and lamb thing here: these are not actual animals, but represent the weak and the powerful, the haves and have nots. There is no distinction between these in God’s economy. But there really isn’t a metaphorical parallel for things like living to 100+ years, a lack of infant mortality, or enjoying the fruits of your own labor. This to me describes a world of wellness: personally and economically and socially as our lives are lived without avoidable calamity in a context of economic and social equality and justice. If we jump back to the New Testament where Paul once again puts this issue of new creation front and center in Galatians, we see how to accomplish this. At the end of the book he states:
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation (6:15)This refers back to the previous chapter when Paul says this: For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith(fulness, parentheses mine) expressing itself through love.(5:6)
This is a classic parallelism, underscoring what we have already seen in his writings: the religious rules and practices that you think are necessary to be reconciled to God are irrelevant. What counts is living lives of faithfulness expressed in love. That is how we bring the new creation, the day of salvation.
The message is entirely consistent: We shouldn’t even be worrying about whether we’re reconciled to God, the result that we have traditionally thought came from the transaction of being “saved.” The point is to live into the way of Jesus to be God’s co-workers to accomplish the process of healing and wholeness and integration in this world right now. I’ve always been intrigued by Peter’s exhortation at Pentecost for the crowd to “save themselves.” Oops. And from what? This corrupt generation. Salvation is entering into a new way of being in the world according to the pattern of God that is not subject to corruption, or dis-integration. Those who accepted that invitation went on to live lives of sharing and community and “looking not to their own needs but to the needs of others” (see discussion on Phil. 2) in profound ways (take a look at 2:42-27 for a description of how that played out in that immediate context).
So, salvation for me is about wholeness, wellness, the healing of disintegrations and dysfunctions that occur in individual lives and in the larger society as well as the created order when ego driven people live for themselves and not each other. It begins with the individual to be sure, as we become delivered from the stress of worrying about our eternal relationship to God and embrace the way of Jesus: a life of love and service not driven by all the stresses and dysfunctions that come with a self-centered “what about me?” approach to living. Being released from that allows us to stop worrying about not getting what we want, or things not happening the way we want them to for our benefit, because it’s no longer about us. We can chill out. Be cool. That’s the place from which we can begin to make our contribution to the healing and wholeness and deliverance of the world we live in and all others who occupy it, because that’s what we start to live for rather than ourselves: to be charitable, compassionate, caring. To be kind.
That’s how I intend to focus on salvation, on salubris, for the remainder of my existence, and it seems to me the formula can be boiled down to something pretty simple.
a sunrise intention
On my run this morning I looked behind me and saw the sunrise. So I sat to enjoy one of my “sunrise meditations,” a time to take a few contemplative moments to engage with this particular aspect of the manifestation of the divine. In this case, as can happen sometimes, something came to mind that I think could lead to an intention. It occurred to me as we begin a new year that I could pursue the intention to also manifest the divine in ways similar to that sunrise. To be a filter, or conduit, for the light which represents the energy source which gives life to all things. To filter it in ways that are colorful and beautiful, that add value to the life experiences of those who encounter it. In order to be that, to exist above the problems and difficulties of a world grappling with how to stay in balance in spite of circumstances. Just another way, I suppose, of visualizing my new motto. Be cool, be kind.
One of the questions being asked in my circles these days is whether or not there is the possibility of something good and useful arising from the wreckage of religion and Christianity in particular. Increasingly, I have trended toward thinking that they may be, although certainly not having a lot to do with the toxic version created some hundreds of years ago by people who were not Jesus that the institutional church seems to be having such a hard time unmooring itself from. In any event, for me that process has largely boiled down to re-defining a lot of terms and phrases that I grew up with but which mean very different things to me at this point. To that end, I've been thinking a lot about attempting to create my own theological lexicon, a dictionary of terms and concepts the way I currently consider them. Below is a list of those, with a comment about what I don't think they are. What replaces that will hopefully be the subject of a series of posts over the coming months.
Not: an individual transaction to get you to heaven
Not: belief in a dogma
Not: God was mad at you, but now he’s OK with you
Not: the happy place you go when you die
Probably this is one that should be deleted from the lexicon altogether, but for now:
Not: a place of eternal conscious torment for “non-believers”
Absolutely a candidate for being deleted from the lexicon, but for now:
Not: bad things you do that makes God not want to hang with you
-wrath of God
Not: God is angry with me because I’m a bad person
-forgiveness of sins
Not: God looking the other way at your "sin" (see previous definition)
Not: correct behavior according to your institution’s particular moral code
Not even going there on this one. I'll just explain why it absolutely needs to be deleted from the lexicon
Again, delete from the lexicon. Replace with Jesus the Christ
not: God's chosen blood sacrifice so he could "forgive our sins" (see previous)
Not: a being outside of creation who occasionally messes with it
Amy and Peter's wedding message
Note: Amy and Peter met para-gliding, and it remains one of their go to recreational options that they enjoy together. Also, if you want to see a video of the affair based on the songs that I wrote for the processional and the recessional, go to https://youtu.be/Ot2E-AkOyhs
Well, Amy and Peter: it appears that you’re ready to launch this thing. I think that’s true: you seem to have done some pretty good pre-flight, things seem to be in order..
But here’s the thing: once you turn and launch and your love is in the air, you’re committed. None of this “I think I’ve changed my mind, I’m going to bail out of this harness” stuff. Not without severe injury. That’s because, in part, that there’s a sense in which the two pilots who stood on launch have become one. So the only question left to answer is, “how do we make this the best flight possible?”
With regard to that, let me just say that in the many years I’ve been doing so I have observed relationships falling along a continuum between 3 basic types. The first is when both partners are primarily asking the question, “What’s in this for me? What does my partner have to offer me in this?” Those kinds of relationships, if they’re lucky, will just be a quick sled ride to the bottom. Otherwise they will suffer multiple collapses and eventually, inevitably, a hard landing with the only question left being how wounded will the pilots be walking away. Because that one pilot will have been split back into two, and nobody survives being cut in half without scars.
Moving along the continuum, however, you can come to a relationship where at least one of the partners is primarily asking a different question, that is “what do I have to give here?,” but with the other partner mostly responding, “yeah whatchyoo got for me? I’ll take that.” Those are relationships that have at least a chance to maintain some altitude, but they are asymmetrical and subject to multiple partial collapses that will prevent them from ever attaining the heights that they’re capable of.
But if you continue along you begin to approach a type of relationship where each partner is primarily asking what it is that they have to give. In the wisdom tradition we come from it is spoken of like this:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider the other better than yourself; not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others.
Just imagine that. Not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interest of the other. That’s when you get this amazing dance of people attempting to out-serve and out-give each other and there are literally no limits to how high you can go. Bring your oxygen. Always keeping in mind that it is about what you have to give, not just how you feel. There are plenty of emotions in these situations, as there should be, but those are not what will take you the distance. It is love manifested in concrete acts of selfless service that will do the trick.
But that is only half of this wing called marriage. The other half is just as important and is simply this: mercy. Grace. Forgiveness, because newsflash, Amy: in spite of the epic quality of the DNA he has inherited, Peter is a flawed human. Likewise Peter, in spite of her beauty and charm, her joyful demeanor and intelligence and immense ability to love…dogs. And some humans, Amy is also not perfect. And let’s face it: perfection is boring. Plus, it doesn’t get us anywhere. Because nothing grows unless it’s stressed and in every crisis is an opportunity.
It is these two halves of the wing: mutual, selfless, sacrificial service as well as the mercy and grace necessary when one falls short, that is rightly spoken of as unconditional love: rumored by some to be not just a characteristic of, but the very nature of the divine, as well as what we are called to reflect in this world. So pursuing your relationship in these kinds of ways becomes one of the ways in which you pursue your very purpose in life. This is a big deal you're getting yourselves into.
So here is my charge to each of you as individuals and the two of you as a couple: every day of your relationship, so long each of you endures, make every effort to take advantage of what I guarantee will be the multiple opportunities for selfless sacrificial acts of service and unyielding grace. If you do this the wing of your marriage will stay inflated and stable, able to handle the turbulent air that will come as well as to take full advantage of the nice lifty thermals that will take you to the heights you’re capable of. There will be adventurous days and bumpy days and days when you will be soaring along on that smooth buttery air, as the reverend Jesse would say. And ultimately you will come to a nice soft landing. Amy will remember to flair, and I along with all those here, those who wish they could be, and those yet to come who will be on your side, will celebrate with you here and now and we will celebrate with our then and there. Because there’s a party over there.
Father's day in the redwoods
Sunday I managed a long overdue wander through the woods, eventually finding myself in Todd Creek Redwood grove above Saratoga. These sorts of meanderings seem to be particularly helpful in processing whatever it is that is currently stewing in my brainpan. Simmering near the top of the stew lately, especially given that my wife and I both lost our fathers recently, is this whole “what happens when we die?” question. Lately I have run into various posts/podcasts on the question of whether our consciousness endures, as well as the latest from the world of quantum weirdness: to wit, it appears that rather than asking how consciousness derived from matter, what we should be asking is how matter derived from consciousness, the true building block of the universe. That makes my brain melt, I’ll admit, but on the other hand seems consistent with a creation narrative as I have understood that, as well as aligned with my current thinking on the nature of the divine. Rather than the bearded dude separate from creation “out there” somewhere, I am much more inclined toward considering God as “I Am,” pure existence, and as being “over all and through all and in all:” the reality we all live in the midst of and are a part of, “In whom we live and move and have our being,” if you will. It would certainly be theologically and scientifically consistent, in my mind, to call that consciousness God.
So there I am, finally at the grove after too long of a hike (took a bit of a rabbit trail for a bit, quite literally, before it petered out) and I found myself thinking about the dads and asking, “Are you there? Are you now a part of that consciousness that undergirds reality? Are we here together?” Then came one of those memorable mystical moments that sometimes occur on occasions like that, and the answers in the affirmative were as clear as if they had been spoken.
I have always had the notion that our consciousness endures, something the tradition I come from certainly affirms. But that has always assumed a distinct disconnect between realities, “going to heaven,” wherever that is, but it certainly isn’t here. In this case what was particularly meaningful to me about the experience was the sense of presence that felt more like an overlap than a disconnect. Considering the way in which their present spiritual reality and my physical reality were connecting in that grove reminded me of another time years ago as I sat by a stream in a different part of the forest (same mountains). I was pursuing a contemplative moment when my prayers became words which became sounds which became melded with the sound of the stream and turned into music: an interplay of melody, rhythm, harmony and yes, meaning, that was so incalculably complex even Beethoven or Frank Zappa wouldn’t have been able to understand it’s structure. But they would have been entranced as I by the immeasurable beauty of it all. And I was a part of it, integrally integrated into the substance of creation. It was a completely overwhelming experience made more so by the sure knowledge that I had the barest hint of what that existence is really like. Last Sunday at Todd Creek Redwoods, I felt the presence of those who had so recently passed and thought about the chance they were experiencing in its fullness that which I had only glimpsed, and I was glad for them.
Then I wondered, we seem so near and so intertwined in spite of our current realities, could they manifest in this world if they chose? I have no idea, actually, but if they are experiencing the complete reality that I had only a glimpse of, why should they? They don’t need to come back for dolphin rides: they experience everything because they are a part of it.* However, I considered one who did choose to incarnate at one point, someone who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself human, and offered us an example and teachings as to how to manifest the God consciousness in this world. He died, as do we all, but apparently didn’t stay that way. And that is spoken of in the sacred texts of my tradition as something that reconciled not just every human, but the entire cosmos, whether “things on earth or things in heaven” to God. Somehow all that exists in the physical and spiritual realms were brought into alignment with a plan and a purpose. The hows and the whys and the (quantum) mechanics of that are beyond me. But in speaking about his conviction that this “resurrection” is destined to be a universal phenomenon for everyone, Paul elaborates what the end game is pretty well, I think. In his central discourse on the subject in 1 Cor. 15, he speaks of a process of defeating those things that are not in alignment with the prime objective until finally God is “all in all.” To me that is a picture of finally getting to the point where there are no boundaries between the physical and the spiritual, and the little overlaps like I experienced become the totality. Death itself is spoken of as the final enemy to be destroyed, so there is no more going from “here” to “there,” because here and there become one thing. This is the mystery of God’s will to be completed when everything is fulfilled spoken of by the author of Ephesians: “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth.”
My thinking on stuff like this continues to evolve, but at this point here’s what I can say regarding where I’m at on this whole “what happens after you die?” thing:
For me, that means that everything I do in this life which is aligned with the objective of the God who is love- every act of compassion, service, caring for the marginalized, all the kinds of stuff Jesus showed and taught about how to manifest God consciousness: all of it is a piece of the process of getting to the goal, and I believe a piece of the process of getting me to become a more useful part of the program now and even after my Zoom memorial (God help us all).
All of creation is saturated with meaning and purpose and hopefulness as it continues to evolve toward a positive goal the nature of which none of us can possibly imagine, but every day we are a part of the process, now until time itself no longer exists.
I’m all good with that.
*in discussing this with a friend, he mentioned to me that the story of the transfiguration might be an example of a possible answer to that question. Why didn’t I think of that?
** see 1 Cor. 3:10-15, among other passages, for a description of this sort of process
vacationing without a spine
Recently I found myself on a journey outside of my normal cultural context for reasons of attending a funeral, hanging out with family, and a little vacationing action in a different part of the country. Prior to embarking on my journey, I had determined to avoid conversations related to politics or religion. Other folks don’t always have that same determination, of course, so following through on my decision became at times a bit of an exercise in self discipline. Fortunately, I am by nature committed to conflict avoidance, but I couldn’t help but reflect on what input I might have had absent my wonderfully self righteous form of non-engagement.
One such conversation I overheard was regarding the appropriate attitude for a Christian toward same sex relationships. I realized as I was dawdling in the adjacent room that somehow my name had entered into the conversation, so avoiding being drawn into it included physically walking away and pretending I didn’t know it was going on.
Later in the weekend I listened to someone else describe the estrangement he currently experiences from his gay son, whose wedding to his partner he graciously attended but nevertheless sees as having gone to the “dark side.” I thought it impolite just to remain silent, given it was just the two of us chatting, so I made some bland remark about how love is stronger than our divisions and can find a way to ultimately heal them. General enough and sufficiently lacking in anything challenging to engender an “amen” from any well meaning believer.
Perhaps these were meant to be opportunities to try to make a contribution toward helping people consider different ways of approaching something that can cause that kind of pain, but my life’s journey has left me with very little stomach for that sort of thing. It caused me, however, to reflect on an experience I had recently related to why my name had come up in conversation #1. The reason for that referred to a reflection I had offered for the funeral of someone who is generally revered and regarded as an example of a Christian leader by the folks attending this gathering. As such, it was asserted that he would agree that same sex relationships were something God would not approve of. However, in my funeral reflection I had noted how the two of us were together at the last service he was able to attend of the church he had chosen as his final spiritual home. That was the service in which they installed their new female pastor, which might have been strange enough for some churches he and I have been a part of, but in this case the new pastor's wife was also there. I recalled how we had reflected together regarding the way in which that experience would have, at an earlier times in our lives, been the cause of some significant theological consternation.
That is not the experience I speak of, however. That came later as one of the former members of a church this man had pastored reached out to me after having listened to the reflections I had to offer at his service. He told me of a time when he had come out as gay to the man who was his highly respected pastor at the time, and had been told that God would never be able to accept who he was with regard to his sexuality. This man seemed very interested in the ways his former pastor had clearly evolved with regard to his thinking, and desirous of some kind of assurance that today he would receive a different response. It is one of the great pleasures and privileges I have had in my life to be able to assure him that, were he to still have a voice today, he would repent of what it was he had said to him so long ago and embrace him completely for all of who he is without reservation. That was clearly a healing balm for this man, and to be able to offer that for someone post-mortem is a unique opportunity to be a small part of making some kind of amends for what can clearly be deep and lasting pain our attitudes in the church have caused people.
So I suppose that if I had the integrity or the spine to actually engage with these kinds of conversations in these kinds of contexts, what I would say is that it is possible to go on a journey that enables you to avoid inflicting that kind of damage to people, or have to experience the pain of estrangement or fear for your loved ones that so many people in the church have inflicted and/or endured. And you can do so in a way that does not require any compromise to a right understanding of the nature and character of God or how and in what ways that is revealed to us. I won’t try to describe that journey here: I think it is different for everyone. For some it is deeply intellectual and theological and all about biblical interpretive frameworks, blah blah blah. For others it simply boils down to seeing the fruit of a dogma as inconsistent with love, so it must not be from God.
Taking that sort of a journey can be a frightening prospect when our worldviews have been so tied to particular ways of thinking about things. But if you have known the good and gracious heart of someone who has been gravely wounded by a rejection that needn’t have happened, and subsequently have watched the cauterization of those wounds via a willingness to embrace the offer of an enlightened compassion, even if it is post-mortem via a stand-in, I cannot imagine how someone who claims to embrace the God who is love would not at least consider taking a few steps down the path.
a tribute to my father in law
My father in law and I had a unique relationship, especially as it relates to our spiritual journies. The video below has some intel about that, feel free to get in touch if you have questions or want to chat about just what the heck I'm talking about. Rest in peace, Werner.
Rest in peace, dad
Up until now my family has been mercifully spared from trajedy due to Covid 19. But now dad is among the statistics, which never had to be as large as they were. That pisses me off, not gonna lie, but I hope we're all still doing what we can to support our immune systems as well as the societal systems that will help us get to the other side of this thing.
an act of god, pt.2
In a previous post I had some comments about whether the Coronavirus pandemic could be seen as the wrath of God, and if so in what way. Now we have the one-two punch of a pandemic and racial unrest that reveals a soul-sick society still in great need of redemptive healing. And the voice of one segment of that society cries out in rage.
Let me just re-iterate the basis of my comments on the virus founded in a Pauline notion of the divine: that God is not a being “out there somewhere”, somehow separate from their creation, but is “over all and through all and in all,” and “in whom we live and move and have our being.” A reality that transcends creation, but that creation is a part of, that we as humans are integrally connected with, and which is ultimately defined by one word: love. In that way, who we are and how well we reflect that definition will in part define the health and wellness of God themselves.
I combine that with the story of a man who is said to be the ultimate example of what that reality would look like as an actual human being living among us. He was an ethnic minority living in territory occupied by a nation obsessed with its own power and economic well being, daily witness to all of the injustices which accompany that. A nation with a political structure that was in bed with religious leaders who used a fear and shame based religion to keep people subjugated physically and spiritually. A system controlled by religious and political leaders who based their power and privilege in defining who the outsiders were and who was less than equal.
The God-man raged against it. He excoriated the religious elite with no-holds-barred teaching to lay bare their hypocrisy. He raged through the marketplace with a whip, disrupting commerce and calling out their unjust and unequal economics for the ungodly travesty it was.
That was the wrath of God. That was the voice of God raging against the injustice that is the opposite of love. Today that is what I am hearing in the rhetoric and seeing in the overturning of tables.
I began with the notion that the voice of one segment of our society cries out in rage. I hear in that voice the wrath of a God crying out in sickness and pain, who is still not well, not entirely whole. Because we shouldn’t be able to even describe our brothers and sisters as a “segment” of our society. It has been 2,000 years since a movement began with the declaration that there are no segments, we are all one and a part of the one that is all. But here we are.
The winds and the rain are beating against our house, revealing a foundation that is cracked and unstable. It remains to be seen if the great crash is what’s next, and if so whether we are able to rebuild a better foundation in order to construct something more durable.
An act of God?
I had a conversation the other day with someone about whether the Coronavirus outbreak is going to be considered an “act of God.” This apparently has some financial implications related to insurance and stuff, but for my part I was wondering how it is those who purport to be followers of God would think about something like this, if it is indeed a deliberate act.
I start with the presumption that the usual way to think about deliberate acts of God like this have something to do with God being angry and pouring out judgment, the so-called “wrath of God.” For a long time now I’ve thought a little differently about that phrase. Wrath, or orge, is derived from the notion of a plant swelling with liquid and “crowding out” what doesn’t belong. To me, that’s a perfect analogy to our immune system: if we are attacked by something like a virus our immune system sends white blood cells to attack it and drive it out.
Combine that understanding with how I have evolved theologically (my term: not everyone would consider it an evolution) to think about God more along Pauline lines: that God is “over all and through all and in all,” and “in whom we live and move and have our being,” but especially that God is love: absolute compassion in action. The leads me to think of the "wrath of God" as their immune system: a built in response that crowds out whatever does not conform to that ideal.
A couple of examples of “natural disasters” which were also “acts of God” described in the bible come to mind. One is the great flood annihilating everyone because the earth was corrupt and full of violence. I no longer subscribe to a dualistic view of God as a deity out there somewhere full of anger who devolves into a genocidal maniac. However, there is a story here that says something true: bad things happen when we are corrupt and hostile toward one another. But when the waters have subsided there are always those left who have evolved to understand peace better and able to declare “never again.”
Likewise, the sin of Sodom was that “She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) We know what the “act of God” was in that story.
This is a god-awful mess we’re in right now. But is it an act of God? I’m hoping so. Not as a deliberate judgment from a wrathful deity being poured out on us from elsewhere, but an immune response that will help us make progress in crowding out those things that do not conform to love, to compassion in action.
As I write there is a conversation going on as to whether it is worth sacrificing potentially millions of lives on the altar of the markets. I pray that God’s immune response during this crisis will help to crowd out and destroy that kind of thinking. There are even so-called “Christian” leaders joining this pathetic godless chorus. I pray that this will help to hasten the demise of that particular “strain” of Christianity.
I hope you don’t mind me referring to it as that. I’m not suggesting that brand of fundamentalism is a virus that humanity has contracted.
Really, I’m not.
I pray that God’s immune response will help us to evolve beyond the lessons of coronavirus into ways of thinking about our economic systems that advance the cause of justice, what the Bible calls righteousness: everything working right for everyone.
I pray that God’s immune response will help us to evolve in our understanding that our common humanity knows no borders and we are all in this together because we are all one thing, God in us and us in them.
I no longer believe something like the Corona epidemic could be a deliberate act of God who decided for whatever reason to do this to humanity. I could never even like a God like that, much less love them. But I have no trouble thinking of this as a divine immune response that will help us to be stronger and better as a human race on the other side: a people more just, more compassionate, and more committed to the systems and processes that will achieve that kind of wellness: that kind of salubris.