Whatever Name

When I was six years old, I was selected to recite from memory John 14:1-6 on our church’s Saturday night TV show. It was filmed at the local CBS studios and I remember looking over at the monitor constantly as I was reciting the passage and at the very end exclaiming, “Hey dad – I can see myself on TV!!!” It aired with just the “Hey dad -” part.

Like all good Baptist boys, I was taught that when Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father but by me” (yes, the King James Version), that it meant all other religions are wrong and unless you pray a particular prayer and believe a particular list of things, you’re not getting into Heaven (wherever that is) when you die (whenever that happens). It’s almost as if the implied question the disciples were asking beforehand was, “How do I personally get into Heaven when I die? Is there more than one way?”

Except that’s not what the disciples were asking.

BigBeaver

Context: they just had a Passover meal where Judas left to betray Jesus for some coin (often referred to as The Last Supper) and Jesus is telling them he’s going away (to die) and they should all love each other because that’s how people will recognize them as his followers.

Instead of saying, “Ok, sure, we’ll love each other…” they respond, “Uh… where are you going? How can we know the way to get there?” In other words, they missed the point (as we all often do).

Jesus says essentially, “Don’t worry… keep trusting God and me. I’m not lying… I’ll prepare a place in ‘My Father’s House’ and come get you so we can be reunited.”

You can probably see how people would take that “My Father’s House” as “Heaven” and the reuniting happening after we all die. However…

Jesus used a lot of euphemisms… the people he taught did the same. Out of respect for even the word “God”, they would use the vague term “Heaven”. Jesus talked about the kind of society that could restore the world as the Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven, Life to the full, and even Life of the Ages (eternal life is an unfortunate translation of that and has led people to wrong conclusions).

The phrase My Father’s House could also be rendered the Household of God or the Family of God and are likely just other ways of saying the same thing. It’s a place where things are done the way God wants them done (with love, mercy, grace, kindness, etc), and it’s the very thing Jesus taught his followers to pray for: “May your will be done on Earth (just like it’s done in your presence [using the euphemism Heaven])”.

His follower Thomas didn’t get it and responds, “We don’t know where you’re going? How can we know the way?” He wasn’t asking “Will people who have never heard of you go to Heaven when they die?” It’s obvious he’s not. He’s really only thinking of himself and his fear of moving forward without Jesus being the leader.

Brian McLaren writes of this, “Stretch your imagination and put yourself in the disciples’ situation. Jesus just told you he is going away and you can’t come with him. Then he says you know how to get where he is going. You don’t understand what he’s talking about. You have no idea where he is going, so how can you know the way to get there? Maybe you assume that since he’s going, you need detailed information on how to meet up with him later on. So you want the missing information so you can get yourself to wherever it is you’re supposed to go. But he tells you to trust him, because he will work everything out. He’ll get you to where you need to be. What a far cry from asking about the eternal destiny of people from other religions or periods in history who had no access to belief in Jesus!”

And so the disciples all responded, “Ah! NOW we get it!”

Nope.

Philip, still confused by all of this, says, “Just show us the Father and we’ll be OK.” In other words, you keep talking about this “Father” whom we’ve never seen, and now you say you’re going to see him and someday we’ll get to as well… well, just SHOW us this Father.” He may even have felt like he was calling Jesus’ bluff.

Jesus responds, “If you want to know what the Father is like… LOOK AT ME. Look at how I live and, what I’ve done… look at my character that you’ve seen for several years now…”

And what was Jesus like for those years the disciples walked with him? Was he exclusionary, showing favoritism, condemnation, elitism? No, quite the opposite – he was known for his compassion, healing, acceptance, forgiveness, inclusion, and love the entire time.

So why would anyone think that Jesus would all of a sudden basically say, “Forget all of that crap, now I want you to believe God will reject everyone except those who share your doctrinal viewpoints about me; the rest can just burn and burn forever.” Sorry, but that just does not compute… any teaching built on that kind of schizophrenia, that kind of going against his own character and teachings… it’s just wrong.

A theme woven throughout this entire scene – including the previous and following chapters (13-17) – is the use of the word “know”. It’s all over the place, and it’s referring to that intimate kind of “knowing” a person, not just “knowing about” that person. If you have the time and desire, check it out.

Nobody was asking about people from other religions.

Nobody was asking about going to heaven when they die.

Words often get in the way of reality. Anyone who lives a life of love, sacrifice, humility, mercy, kindness, etc. IS following the way of Jesus. They may put other names on it (like how the same road here in the Detroit area can be called Quarton, Big Beaver, Metropolitan Highway, and still be thought of as “16 Mile”).

I don’t care what name you put on it… if you’re DOING what Jesus taught – whether or not you are aware he taught it – you’re following the way he presented to restore shalom (peace/harmony/wholeness) to this planet. And in that, I rejoice. I would far rather hang with a generous and compassionate Muslim than some angry condemning jerk who claims to be a “Christian” when that person’s actions are nothing at all like Jesus and give Jesus a bad name. I stand by that.

I know amazing Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists who make the world a better place by how they live. And I know far too many Christians who continue to screw it all up with their bitterness, selfishness, and lack of concern for the planet and for future generations… mainly because of crazy things about the future they’ve been taught that were invented in the last 200 years and that would give the early church fathers fits.

Nobody in that time was asking “How do I get to Heaven when I die?” Nobody thought of the word “salvation” as being about them staying out of Hell. Rather, they hoped for a hero – a “Messiah” – to save (rescue, deliver, heal, restore) their nation from the Roman Empire who had them under its thumb. Reading the scriptures without these historical facts in mind will lead you to conclusions and actions unworthy of Jesus.

Again, it’s not what you “know about”, it’s who you “know”, intimately so. Someone you can actually trust, someone who’s been there and felt the abuse of the system for speaking truth to power. Someone who loved so deeply that he changed lives and got killed for it. Follow THAT way… because it’s the truth, and it’s the only place where real life is found… whatever name you put on it.

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Tikun Olam

This is an actual song we used to sing in church when I was a kid:

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver-lined

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder we will never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold!

I imagine a different major faith tradition might word it this way:

I’m satisfied with a marriage arranged
A prayer carpet and some pocket change
But when jihad calls and Allah awaits
I’ll wear the bomb vest and blow through the gates.

I’ve got a virgin just over the blue
And not just one, but seventy two
I know they’ll treat me so very nice
Oh endless pleasure in paradise!

I spot many similarities in the two versions above. For example:

  • Both reveal a radical self-interest
  • Both are willing to endure something in order to get what they want
  • Both view a blessed afterlife as a kind of transaction with God
  • Both reveal a dissatisfaction with the way things are now
  • Both show a disinterest in correcting current problems and injustices

In short, they are selfish ways of looking at life and afterlife. I think they also reveal that contentment here is really a lie – they want MORE, they’re just willing to wait for it.

Another major faith tradition does not share this view. As a matter of fact, the phrase given to their life mission is “tikun olam“… which means “repairing the world.”

I’ve heard fundamentalists and evangelicals condemn other Christian faith traditions as believing that one can “work their way to heaven.” They think that the only work necessary is what Jesus did by dying on the cross and paying their “eternal life insurance policy”. They condemn the notion of a transaction with God… yet they betray themselves because they still view the afterlife as a transaction with little regard to repairing the world now. They look at the trade-off of temporary contentment for eternal gain and like the odds. It’s a gamble they’ll take, a transaction they’ll make.

And the kicker is… it doesn’t really cost them ANYTHING to “believe” such things. Especially not in a first-world country.

Yet Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven as being so valuable that it’s like a priceless pearl… and the one who values it is willing to sell everything just to have the pearl… which means that person is TOTALLY IMPOVERISHED while he or she possesses (or is possessed by) that pearl. This is a COSTLY transaction.

Then when Jesus talks about the values and principles of the kingdom of heaven – this priceless pearl one is impoverished to possess – it includes things like:

  • valuing sacrificial love over possessions
  • valuing patience and humility over anger and violence
  • valuing fidelity and integrity over mere happiness
  • valuing God doing a secret silent work in people instead of manipulating them with guilt, shame, and condemnation
  • valuing private acts of prayer and charity over the spotlight and public admiration

These values are COSTLY. This kingdom will impoverish you at the same time it enriches you.  But this kingdom’s principles are the only hope for a world bent on violent destruction. They are the “inside-out” way to repair the world.

For when we treat others the way we really would like to be treated…

When we are willing to turn the other cheek and suffer more unjust abuse…

When we refuse to objectify and hold in contempt those not like us…

When we truly believe and live like “we are all in this together”…

then hearts change…
then homes change…
workplaces change…
communities change…
states, regions, and nations change.

The world changes.

The word “salvation” in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is so very broad. It is not limited to “getting out of hell” (if hell even exists). It is suggested that a better, broader translation than “salvation” is actually “restoration”. God is interested in restoration…

  • God wants to restore us to the kind of people he intended from start.
  • God wants to restore our relationships with others so we live in harmony, not animosity and suspicion.
  • God wants to restore our relationship with our Creator so that we don’t live in fear, guilt, and shame, but in love and acceptance.
  • God wants to restore our relationship with creation so that we act as the stewards we are intended to be.

In essence, God wants us to work our way to heaven… not in the “Sweet Bye and Bye”, but right here on earth. Earth will be Heaven. Heaven will come to earth. When?

Well… that’s up to us. Are we so short-sighted that we want a quick transaction and to escape to silver-lined mansion (or 6 dozen virgins) and leave the earth in shambles? If so, we don’t intend to pay the price necessary for heaven – our sweat equity as we help repair the world. We just want what we want and are willing to wait a little while to get it. Because in the end it’s all about ME.

And if that is your position… if those are your desires, then call yourself whatever you want… except “one who desires what God wants”. You’re not following Jesus, you’re not entering the costly narrow gate into the kingdom of heaven that restores the earth so that IT is heaven. You’re just a mercenary willing to let the world go to Hell (if it even exists) while you get what you want.

Tomorrow is Easter. For Christians it is the pivot point of human history. It is where the fear of death is put to death. It is where the one who ransomed us from the enemy demonstrates his power over the enemy, which emboldens us to do what we must. And what did his followers do mere weeks afterward? The lived in harmony. They prayed together and shared food and burdens together. They sold possessions they didn’t need to help others who lacked. They affected real change in the real world in real-time. And the impact of that spread throughout the known civilized world… and beyond.

Yes, in time many no longer wanted to pay that cost and turned the mission into a mere religion that cost nothing and promised a good pay-off in the end. But you know – deep in your heart you know – this is not why we were created… we are meant for so much more than this. We are meant for… tikun olam.

The Flaw

What is the rational basis for nations and kingdoms? What gives anyone the right to draw lines on a map and say “This is MINE – and I will KILL YOU if you try to take it from me”?

Yes, I understand the notion of people pooling resources together to provide infrastructure for a civilized society. Though one would think that everyone would see that as a self-interest that is in everyone’s best interest… and one would think that everyone would do their fair share so that those who have less don’t bear a greater percentage of the burden. And one would also think that we don’t need an emperor to dictate these things that should be axiomatic to all people.

Why do we, as the human race, insist that millions of fellow humans don’t have the right to healthy food and clean water? Why do we insist by our very actions that it is totally acceptable that millions of fellow humans simply starve and die, that it’s not our problem? Why do we think it is acceptable to export fizzy drinks around the world, but not the basics of life?

Why do we allow people to set themselves up as rulers and lords over others, and then allow them to deny the basics to “their own people”? Why do we squander the lion’s share of our finances on weapons of war? I ask that because that is what we actually do – take a look at the national budget.

What if everyone in the world actually agreed to live in peace and we all refused to allow anyone to usurp power over us? Certainly there is a realistic need to address those who refuse to live honorably toward their fellow humans… but if no one lacked what they needed, and no one demanded to amass untold riches at the expense of the rest of the human race, it wouldn’t take the majority of the national budget to deal with the rebellious… would it?

The more I consider the lyrics to John Lennon’s song “Imagine”, the more I see the simple wisdom in it. And the more I see just how primitive our thinking still is.

And for all you who will point to a book and say the reason for this is that everyone is essentially evil because your book says so… I say poppycock. Yes… poppycock. Because that’s nicer than the word I want to use.

I think the systems we have selfishly built and viciously protect are a “societal machine” that produces the very results we see all around us. The flaw is in the design itself.

I think it’s time to tear down that machine and design one better suited to healthier results for everyone. I don’t anticipate it will happen anytime soon… but just imagine it, won’t you? Because in the end it takes that kind of vision – the seed of a towering idea, planted deep in the soil of the human heart – to propel us forward to a better future. And isn’t that, in the end, the kingdom of God?

Lost My Faith?

I don’t believe most of what I was taught in the fundamentalist and evangelical circles in which I was raised.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.Lost and Confused Signpost

I don’t believe the Bible is what they told me – the inerrant, infallible, perfect revealed Word of God. The scriptures refer to Jesus, not the scriptures, as The Word of God, and in many other places “a word from God” did not require scripture but some other kind of divine connection.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I don’t believe in the rapture, tribulation, and literal 1000 year millennial kingdom they passed on to me from the twisted imagination of a 19th Century Plymouth Brethren pseudo-scholar named Darby.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I don’t believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch or that Genesis is to be taken literally (including the creation account). There are enough other scholarly perspectives that make more sense to me now.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I don’t believe that the primary reason Jesus died was to bear the wrath of God on my sins (and everyone else’s). If Jesus does what the Father does, then he never acted like that.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I don’t believe that God chose/elected certain people for his favor and others (if not most) for judgment and destruction. Again, we don’t see that in Jesus (though we do see him inviting anyone who is willing to follow him).

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I don’t believe the good news (gospel) is a few simple steps I have to do in order to go to heaven when I die and avoid eternal conscious torment in a fiery hell. People have disagreed for millennia on how to interpret those few passages that may (or may not) be about heaven and hell, and Jesus was focused on a kingdom/society/community where shalom is pervasive, not on the afterlife.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I’m unwilling to ascribe with certainty to man-made teachings like the Trinity and the Virgin Birth. Maybe it’s the case, maybe not, but there’s no way anyone will ever be able to prove it.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I can’t blindly support the modern nation-state of Israel as God’s re-gathering of his people who can do no wrong. Israel has always done plenty of wrong, and there were plenty of prophets to tell them so.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I don’t believe the modern 501c chartered corporation known as a “church” is analogous to 1st century community gatherings of followers of Jesus. God doesn’t need buildings, paid staff, air-conditioning, PowerPoint, rock shows with smoke and lights, and a fill-in-the-blank piece of paper so folks can follow the 3 easy steps of the week.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I don’t believe it’s my job to try to convert people to a religion or a confession or any other agenda. Salt doesn’t try to win people over, neither does light; they just are what they are and have an impact intrinsically and effortlessly.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my faith.

I don’t believe that “faith” is a wish, nor is it a collection of traditions and teachings to which I mentally ascribe. Faith is a confidence (despite physical realities) that emboldens one to take risks based on a higher reality that can’t be proven by scientific means. Faith is it’s own evidence.

So no, I haven’t lost my faith.

Maybe my religion, but definitely not my faith.

To Hell with it

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
1 Corinthians 15:56

…I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. …I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.
Romans 7:7-10

The fundamentalist/legalist approach I was raised under treated so many things as “taboo”. The guilt, shame, and fear they induced included many “modern” things like – believe it or not – pinball, playing cards, movies, women’s pants, men’s hair over the ears, facial hair, and many other ridiculous items. To Hell With It

In my experience, their focus on what you should NOT do merely encouraged many people to try it (unless they live in fear of breaking the rules, which is no way to live… after all, the apostle John wrote that “perfect love casts out all fear” and the apostle Paul wrote  “God has not given us the spirit of fear”. Nonetheless, fear was the driving force for people who were supposed to be “free indeed because Christ set them free”.

Instead, I think they should have been encouraging and inspiring people with the values and principles and benefits of the kingdom. When you are focused on good, inspiring things, you end up being too busy doing what you LOVE to have any time to think about trying forbidden fruit and worrying that if you did try it you would be rejected and unloved by your community.

It doesn’t matter what faith tradition the fundamentalist/legalist you are from (even non-Christian)… in the end it’s the same spirit and the same response. So…to HELL with fear, shame, guilt, manipulation. Let’s choose the freedom of LOVE.

Harmony

Jesus wanted people to be united, to live with each other in harmony.

Harmony

You can’t read his most famous “sermon” (Matthew 5-7) without seeing that.
You can’t read his last prayer with his followers (John 17) without seeing that.

He never asked for us to create a religion, much less numerous “denominations”.  It’s poetic that such efforts splintered into tens of thousands of variations that can’t agree with each other.

The one who didn’t defend himself before the religious & political powers-that-be also
never asked us to defend him. It’s poetic that such efforts always backfire and make matters worse.

He called his physical brothers and sisters – Jews – back to the spirit of the law… which can be reduced to this:

Love God and Love others.

He also said we should love others as we love ourselves, so self-loathing has no place.

He was one who surrendered his whole life to God… which is the meaning of the Arabic word “Muslim”.

He was the living example of what it means to live a life of love, patience, mercy, and truth… truth that often burns like a light, exposing our inner darkness… not to condemn, but to draw into the light.

The world doesn’t need your religion. It doesn’t need your politics or your pet doctrines and dogma.

The world needs your sacrificial love. It’s the only thing that will unite us and help us live in harmony.

No Sales Pitch Required

So many sales pitches… so many voices… so many things to discern… it’s really quite overwhelming.

SnakeOilSay you want to get the news – whether TV, paper, magazine, or online. Try finding a source that provides the full, circumspect story. You can’t. Instead, the facts are filtered through the biases of the source you choose. Any facts to the contrary are ignored, vilified, or otherwise disregarded. So maybe you are wise enough to also take in news from the polar opposite news source in order to fill in the blanks and read between the lines…only to find that the facts they present and the ones they negate from the other side just leave you more confused. So then maybe you at least turn to the Daily Show to watch Jon Stewart skewer both sides for their hypocrisy, but you are still left without the whole story (though you’ve enjoyed some laughs in the process).

Or maybe you looking for facts on health, nutrition, disease prevention, etc. Again, every source is selling their angle, whether it’s take a pill, eat certain foods, stick pins in your face, have your spine adjusted, consume a small dose of the disease to fight it off, or whatever. In this case, the medical/pharmaceutical profession is able to leverage the government and police to try to coerce your choices, while other avenues speak to your heart, your wallet, your mind, your fears, your hopes, etc. But everyone is selling something, and it’s hard to get to the truth.

Worse yet, try getting the straight facts on things related to the church and the Bible. Good luck. There are a myriad of perspectives, all claiming to be right, accurate, historic, orthodox, and God-approved. And most of them want to sell you books, music, and collect your weekly dues. And the same tactics used by the other professions are used here – fear, uncertainty, doubt, coercion supposedly in the name of Jesus. Or good advice intended to manipulate you and keep you in line, spending your money in all the approved places.

Recently, I’ve had my fill of self-assured know-it-alls tell me all the things that are wrong with me and what their one right solution is. I’ve experienced every form of manipulation at their hands. And in almost every case, they tried to use logic and reason from a very limited foundation to show how right they were and how wrong everyone who opposed them was. But none of their arguments and apologetics moved me in my heart, where I know things most deeply within. And as Bill Mallonnee so eloquently sang, “Reason – she’s still the Devil’s whore.”

I believe that the highest knowledge is that which we know in our hearts and have experienced personally. It is that kind of knowledge that we actually own and can stake our lives on. Everything else is just theory for the mind to assert or dissent, without any real power or substance. I believe this is tightly connected to the concept of faith – not a theological confession or wishful thinking, but rather a serious risk one is willing to take based on something known “in the heart” that will likely never stand up to rational scrutiny. As the writer of Hebrews said, “Faith is the SUBSTANCE of things hoped for, the EVIDENCE of things not seen…without faith it is impossible to please God.” And once you have endured the risk of faith and come through to the other side, that experience of the reality of God’s provision, care, love, etc. can never be taken away from you. You now have knowledge you can own and stake your life on, having endured the risk.

I can never really KNOW for certain if God is a tri-unity, if things evolved or were directly created, or if Jesus was actually God in the flesh and born of a young woman who had never had sex. These things can only be asserted or affirmed, but they cannot be KNOWN. And even if they could be known… so what?

That’s the problem I have a lot of this so-called biblical knowledge – there is no real point to it, no benefit to bless the world. Instead, it’s just another thing for some people to feel “right” about, which allows them to propagate their “us vs. them” mentality and sell lots of product.

And on top of that, Jesus didn’t spend time talking about that kind of junk. Instead, Jesus’ conversations had more to do with things that actually affect our lives and the lives of those around us…

– Let go of anger and condemnation
– Be faithful and loyal to your spouse, friends, family
– Speak the truth and keep your commitments
– Give, pray, worship, and serve quietly
– Let your good works shine and bring glory to God (not to yoU)
– Trust God for your daily and future provisions
– Trust God to change other people in his time
– Be willing to make sacrifices for the good of others

Those things are pretty straightforward. We don’t need an 8-part series with DVDs and workbooks to understand that. We just need the faith, time, and opportunity to work it out in our daily lives as these principles and values become intuitive over time with God’s help. These are the things that matter. These are the things that transform relationships, that transform society, that are the answer to the prayer “May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth…”

I find this way of living to be in harmony with God’s design in creation. I see it to be consistent with what actually works to promote peace and restoration and health and growth, compared to more self-centered approaches to living. And I’m fully aware of the failure of self-centered living… I’ve experienced that in abundance. It resonates with my experience and observations. It rings true in my heart of hearts.

I suspect this is the path through the din of the many voices vying for my “time, talents, and treasure”: to let all voices fade but the one deep within us, to look for the harmony with God’s existing design, and to do so without experiencing the fear, uncertainty, and doubt with which the sales people are trying to manipulate you. And when all else fails, to sit back, relax, and enjoy the freedom of uncertainty. No sales pitch required.