Grace Emerges

Saturday, October 27, 2012

One God, Many Paths?

by Brad Duncan

Christians we have a problem. We are selfish and arrogant to keep God for ourselves. We feel justified in this selfishness because we believe it is a mystery why God elected some to receive grace (those that believe in Jesus), and for all others to receive rejection and destruction no matter what they do (because they don't believe in Jesus). We know that salvation of the elect few is contradictory with "God so loved the world" but we just credit God with making the universe this way. Oh well, too bad, lucky for me. I believe the right thing.

Arrogant? We get God, no matter what we do, and they don't get God no matter what they do (except become one of us).

Selfish? We're content as long as we get all the cookies and ice cream. Not enough for you. I'm sorry.

The choice to believe in Jesus or not, is not the choice between good and evil. Its a very different thing, caught up in tradition, ethnicity, culture, history. We are arrogant to think that our circumstances which give us our beliefs make us the elite elect. We are selfish to smugly accept that situation.  Doesn't it bother you to condemn the rest of the world?  Doesn't the pain eat you up at night?

God is everywhere in all things good. God calls me through all of life. Through experiences. Through love. Through joy. Through the majesty of nature, the cosmic and the microscopic.  Through the eyes of a child. As Jesus said, he can be found on the streets, as the poor, naked and hungry reaching out to be fed. God can reach to China or Timbuktu.  Even without Christian missionaries. God is. God seeks. God speaks. God prevails.

We are not the elect, the elite, the privileged. No, we are human. We are the object of an enormous unquenchable love that seeks us out. Yes God spoke through becoming the incarnation, the Messiah, the king, Jesus. But in the process Jesus did not doom the rest of the world. He came to seek and save. And that he did. Even those that don't see it the same way as we do. Why do we have to turn "the way, the truth and the life" into a death sentence?

Christians, the kingdom is bigger that you think. The scale is grander. The shepherd has sheep which are not of this fold. We can't keep God to ourselves. It's selfish and arrogant to try.

I'm a Christian because of my belief in Jesus and my love for God. But I'm not the only kind of God lover in this world.  Yes it's a slippery slope.  Yes that means I need to open my heart to Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, both of which believe in Jesus, but differently than I do. Yes that means I need to open my heart to Jews and Muslims, both of which share my love for the God of Abraham (and also believe in Jesus in their own way). Yes that means that people in the Orient, India, Africa, people of indigenous tribes, those that have distinctly non-Christian paths to see God, may be regarding with love the same God that I am, seeking him (or her :) ), and that God is answering back! And of course there are many Christians in those areas as well. 
If you were God, what would you do when your creation called out to you? 

What about atheists and agnostics? Well, these folks can embrace the good of humanity and creation just as well as any God-lover. I can't condemn or judge the condition of the heart of the atheist, nor can I excuse the cold heart of any God believer.  We just can't draw the lines since they only do harm.

One God.  Many Paths.  Join the FB discussion at The God Article.
The only sane answer is "One God.  Many Paths". What does that make me, a Christian or not?  A Universalist or not?  Maybe this: Christian Universalism on wikipedia.  You can decide for yourself whether people like me are "Christians" as you define it.  For me, I will continue to love God, love Jesus, love the Holy Spirit, and they will love me back.  And I will try to let go of the arrogance and selfishness that come from being the elite elect, the chosen few, in order to make room in my heart for the sheep that are "not of this fold".

Share the cookies and ice cream!

God loves us all.  
Coexist foundation

Sunday, October 21, 2012

No Pain No Gain?

by Brad Duncan

Again, I would like to bring up the flaws with righteousness as a higher priority than love.

It's kind of obvious though.  Right actions and right belief, without right love, are empty and without purpose.  "Righteousness" that is defined as right love is the greater righteousness that Jesus taught.  It doesn't make you right with God.  It makes you the kind of person that God intended when you were created.  It makes the world function.  Families, friendships, communities, and governments can prosper under the concept of love.

Love is in contrast to violence.  Actions without consideration for others.  Actions driven more by selfishness and power.  Actions that leave the person that commits them less of the person that God intended them to be, and leave others damaged by their presence.

When Jesus said "Give us this day our daily bread" in the Lord's prayer, he probably wasn't suggesting that God send manna from heaven.  He wasn't asking God to favor the elite or those with proper faith by providentially filling their cupboards.  He was asking God to enable society and people to function to share bread and goodness with one another in a way that functions to bring sustenance to all.  God can bring the rain (if we want to view meteorology as God's work) and the crops, but we must harvest it, make the bread, distribute it, sell it, give it, share it, and keep the world from starving.  Jesus was indicating that sustenance is our God-given job.

Loving actions and words are also sustenance, without which all of us will die.  Jesus taught this concept until he was blue in the face.  "Love God, Love Others" he said, and then explained what he meant using the parable of the good Samaritan.  In that parable, those pursuing righteousness (instead of love) refused to help the injured victim on the road, but the Samaritan who was not of the religious elite made serious sacrifices to help the injured man and make sure he was okay.  Righteousness was demonstrated by the Samaritan who didn't care about righteousness, rather than the religious elite who were actually obsessed with righteousness.

Now about the church the implication is this: if we build something that is an organized group of Christians, call it a body, a community, an institution, whatever, and we define the mission of that group to promote right actions and right beliefs in people, then it will naturally overstep love to do so.  It can lead to violence.  (see the recent post by a friend of mine).  Trying to make people better usually harms them.  And we know it, and we are okay with it, because we follow the motto "no pain no gain!".  I don't think that's right.

What's worse?  Claiming that the Holy Spirit is alive in that body (community of believers), causing it to function and leading it to improve the right actions and right beliefs of the body.  That God's goal is to make people more acceptable.  Claiming that God promotes violence instead of love. No, it doesn't work that way -- we are the ones mistreating others, not God.  Certainly God is only going to work consistent with his/her character and bring about real human contact, real human connection, real loving actions.  Not judging.  Not discriminating.  Not hating.  Not love by coincidence but love by intention.  If we say that the Holy Spirit oils the machine, and keeps the system running, then we are saying the Holy Spirit is ascribing to "no pain no gain", to make the people better whether they like it or not, working to bring good out of the pain.

So, again I challenge the church.  Don't make it about the righteousness, claiming that by pursuing God's favor through right actions and right beliefs, that we will achieve a higher purpose of loving people through the help of the Holy Spirit.  No, seek a greater righteousness, that does not seek God's favor, that does not concern itself with acceptability.  Seek a sacrificial righteousness that embraces humanity and tries to participate in it.  Helps the neighbor and the enemy.  Emulate the good Samaritan.  Seek to be like Christ and his teachings, not to curry his favor by saying and doing the right things.  Build your house upon the rock, and it will stand.

Join the revolution that Jesus started!  He called it the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A Prayer for Courage

by Brad Duncan
Dear Lord, help me today to conquer my fear.
The fear that rears itself as hostility toward others.
The fear that causes me to run and hide my light under a basket.
The fear that flees connections with others.
When possible, bring love to conquer fear. But human love often fails.
When possible, bring trust to conquer fear. But human trust also fails.
So when necessary, bring courage to the rescue. Help my courage not to fail.

Hospitality vs. Hostility

by Brad Duncan

Can Christians take a stance of hospitality rather than hostility toward other religions? What are the implications? Can we still hold on to our faith and identity and at the same time lovingly accept the others?

Yes, I'm reading McClaren's new book. So far it's making me think. 

So far, I think Christianity and a desire to help God bless the world (bring good news and good things to the world), is totally incompatible with condemning people of other faiths, other brands of Christianity (as we are so prone to do), non-religious people and atheists. And we can do that without watering down our Christian identity, by believing in Jesus and his teachings rather than the tradition of hostility toward our neighbors.

I'm reminded of all the Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist neighbors I had in graduate school. Lots of traditions from all over the world that I didn't understand, but people were still just people. God bless you all!

I'll keep you posted ...

Monday, October 15, 2012

What Else is Wrong with Righteousness?

by Brad Duncan

I'm continuing to explore the idea that the pursuit of righteousness is the wrong priority of Christians and the Church.  It leads to all kinds of trouble.  Like the legal experts and Pharisees that Jesus corrected in Matthew 5:20, we need to be called to a higher objective than just RIGHT BELIEFS and RIGHT ACTIONS.  Also called "faith" and "works", or doctrine and practice, or orthodoxy and orthopraxy as you'll hear in theological circles.  The concept of righteousness is that these right beliefs and right actions somehow give us right standing with God (or if not, they are a clear sign and result of right standing with God).

So what kind of trouble does righteousness cause?

In the name of righteousness, American settlers committed genocide to indigenous peoples.  We all know it, and our country still struggles with the guilt of our actions.  The atrocities were endorsed by the Church and the idea of a God-granted destiny for the settlers, those whose BELIEFS made them the chosen predestined to conquer the unbelievers.  I'm not trying to exaggerate here.  In fact this type of religiously-fueled war is common throughout history and in the world today.  I'm no expert on history.  But I'm painfully aware that the cross of Christ has been and is used as a weapon.

Why?  Righteousness.  The idea that we are better.  The idea that someone is below us.  Yes, what I'm saying is that the notion of righteousness leads to elitism.  Elitism leads to prejudice and inequality.

In the name of righteousness, churches have split over and over to subdivide those that are "accepted by God" into smaller and smaller factions.  Each side thought that they are right, and that their differences were worth abandoning the others over.  Church denominations largely hold onto these distinguishing differences today and separate themselves from the other guys.  Now, again I am no church historian, and I hope that by now the riffs have been mended, but it continues to happen today.  Churches argue over righteousness.  As if they can pick a right side and be more accepted by God for their choice.

In the name of righteousness, I know that I myself have looked down on others.  I have perpetrated  institutional elitism.  I have been dysfunctionally righteous.  I have practiced faith and actions to the point that I was pretty sure God was happy with me, especially when you throw in God's grace to cover in case I did it wrong.  After all, I'm only human.  I'm doing the best that I can.  But that "other guy" is not even trying!  He drinks and cusses and surely he's going to hell.  I'd better not talk to him.  Unless he changes of course.  This type of thinking led me down the wrong path.  I didn't see the other guy.  Instead I ignored him.

In the name of righteousness, Christians feel no regret in hating gays or giving them the cold shoulder of apathy.  If we believe they are wrong, we feel entitled to belittle them in every way and reduce their rights to try to make them stop being what they are.  Or maybe ignore them and hope they'll go away. In this way, righteousness is brooding arrogance.

So, to revisit the righteousness of the Pharisees, our attempts at right beliefs and right actions lead to the same fallacy: righteousness that isn't right.  We need to seek something greater.  We need to give up on righteousness of that sort and go back to the drawing board.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Believe, Behave, or Be Free - Repost

[this is a long essay that I am now posting directly on the blog]

Believe, Behave, or Be Free

by Brad Duncan

In the age-old debate about whether salvation through Christ requires faith or requires works, what do you think?.  James Chapter 2 talks about faith vs. works, saying that faith that doesn’t lead to works like caring for orphans and widows is not really faith.  James would seem to support the theory that both faith and works are needed.  However, it seems plausible to consider a different option, an option where salvation through Christ requires neither faith nor works.  What if something else is required, and faith and works are more the outcome of our salvation?

Let’s consider each option separately: Are we saved by faith?  Are we saved by works?  Or are we saved by something else?  

As space allows I will address this question using several key New Testament passages:

  • James 2:14-17, and surrounding passages, discussion of faith vs. works
  • Matthew 25;31-46, parable of the sheep and goats
  • Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-26, the beatitudes
  • Matthew 6:9-13, the Lord’s prayer
  • I Corinthians 13: the love chapter
  • John 3:16-17, the classic gospel passage
  • Luke 4:14-21, the Messiah’s mission
  • Matthew 22:36-40, the greatest commandment
  • Matthew 28:16-20: the great commission

What's Wrong with Righteousness?

by Brad Duncan

20 I say to you that unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5, Common English Bible

I'm full of questions:
  • What is the righteousness of the legal experts?
  • What's wrong with their righteousness?
  • What is this greater righteousness that Jesus is advocating?
In my last post I concluded that the search for righteousness is a mistaken priority of the church, as it often trumps the quest to love.  Love should be the higher priority.  In a previous post I summarized I Corinthians 13 similarly:

"Perfection of self
without love for others
is not worth the effort." 
  -- Paul, I Corinthians 13
And yet righteousness is a hard goal to abandon.  We think of it as a ticket to audience with God, both now and in the afterlife.  We think that to participate in today's work of God in the world, we have to be righteous.

So back to my questions: what is the righteousness of the legal experts and Pharisees, those that were the religious elite of the day?  Their righteousness was: RIGHT BELIEFS and RIGHT ACTIONS.  They had to hold to a specific set of beliefs as a part of their faith system, and this made them part of the club.  Not only that, they had to do all the actions and requirements of their religious tradition.

And what was wrong with this righteousness?  As we see play out so many times in the story of Jesus and his disciples, their righteousness often lacked TREATING PEOPLE RIGHT -- or RIGHT LOVE.  They were content to fulfill the requirements of religion, but turn their noses up at love.  Whatever spiritual and mental gymnastics that led them to conclude that this was going to make them right with God, was gravely mistaken.  Thus Jesus points it out.  Their righteousness wasn't right.

What's the greater righteousness?  In the context of this passage and the entire ministry of Jesus, you see that he expounded on how to treat people right, as opposed to how to be righteous.  While it may be legal to lust after your neighbor's wife, it shows the wrong condition of the heart, and a lack of respect for your neighbors.  While it may be proper to fight enemies, it shows a lack of love, acceptance and willingness to forgive.  The greater righteousness is TREATING PEOPLE RIGHT -- or RIGHT LOVE.  Examples abound of this concept in the gospels.

What do you think ?

Related posts:
What else is wrong with righteousness?
The system doesn't love
Inspiring repentance
God works for good, and so should we

Monday, October 8, 2012

The System Doesn't Love

by Brad Duncan


I'm sorry for a convoluted thought process on this one, so bear with me while I try to explain it and bring some meaningful conclusions.  I've been struggling lately with my own life and purpose.  What I have been doing all these years?  Anything useful?  Anything meaningful?  What have I invested in?  As a Christian I have invested in the functional community of believers called the Church, whether serving coffee, holding babies, or playing keys in a rock band on the stage.  Here's my struggle with what I've invested so much effort in.  Two things really:  1) The system doesn't love people, but loving people is supposed to be our God-given job.  2) On the other hand, the system tries to make people better, but making people better is God's job, not ours.  So, I wonder how much of my investment in people was in trying to make them better, rather than loving them.  Indirectly.  By focusing my effort on the structure.  On the way things should be.  On teaching them. On correcting them.  By enforcing righteousness.  By plugging in as a cog in the machine that just keeps running, never minding that this machine is made of people.

Of course at times this participation in the system produced genuine friendship, genuine compassion, genuine community.  But as I think back this often occurred by coincidence, as people working together to keep the child care running could talk and become friends and support each other.  Certainly loving those kids was the good stuff!  Certainly bringing people together that have common interests can bring about genuine relationships.  That's when the meaningful stuff happened.

And of course this participation in the system was meant as an offering of time and effort that would be pleasing to God, as we do God's work, building God's kingdom, keeping the machine running for God.  But it seems strange that in doing this work, the meaningful stuff seems to happen on the fringes, by coincidence.  As people come together to worship God together, occasionally they notice each other -- they engage with each other and some connection forms.

We're all there with good intentions.  Trying to live with purpose.  We all want it to matter.  We all want God to be pleased with our effort.  We want the system to love people and do good things, so that we can just keep in investing in it to bring about God's work.  So where is the disconnect?  We want the system to love people, but it can't.

The System Doesn't Love

What I am suggesting is that our God-given job is to love people, to build community out of relationships.  To meet needs using the context of meaningful connections with people.  But this should not happen as a coincidence, as a result of people coming together to do functional roles like singing in the choir.  Rather, this should happen as the first job of the church.  The system itself is overhead, like in a way that any non-profit organization must have some overhead administration and facilities in order to function.  But the meat is people, going about God's work of loving other people.  Like in a non-profit foundation where the majority of the resources goes into the actual cause (e.g., curing diseases, building orphanages, etc.), the investment in the church should be directly poured into loving people.

The system we are building is not going to do the loving for us.  We can't just hire staff and pay them to love everyone.  We can't just invite everyone into a big meeting and love them from the stage, through the speaker system and into the chairs.  We can invest in the system, but it just can't do the actual work!  

The system can't love people.  God can.  People can.  But the system can't.  Look, I love the people that I have met through the church as we've partnered together to keep the church running.  I still love those people and I'm not complaining about them.  I'm just saying that those connections happened indirectly.  Lots of wasted effort was spent on other things, that probably didn't connect to real people at all. I just cringe at the thought that 90% of my life around other believers has just been overhead!  Only 10% of actual meat!  Where did it all go?

The System Tries to Make People Better

Here comes the hard part.  The lack of loving effort is not due only to inefficiency, unfortunately.  As a church, we do believe in love.  But we have conflicting priorities.  There are other things that we have traditionally invested significant resources into besides loving people, so loving people has been second or third priority.  Leaving it to result as a side-effect more than a main effect.  What on Earth could be more important than loving people?  What took over the highest priority?

In a word, righteousness.  Ask yourself what is the purpose of the Church or individual churches you have participated in, and you will probably find something written down about making people better and about pleasing God.  Or pleasing God by making people better.  It's probably worded more nicely than that, but it all comes down to right actions and right beliefs.  These are the staple components of any religious system.

The system can try to do this.  The system can offer structure, instruction, roles and purposes for individuals that function to create a collective social environment.  The system can teach and enforce behaviors that are considered pleasing to God, like how to participate in group worship, how to study and work at being a Christian.  How to pray.  How to believe.  How to respect authority and follow leaders.  The system can function through the efforts of people, to keep the machine humming.  To create righteousness.  To make offerings to God.  To be a beacon and a light for the world.  To show the way.

While these purposes seem noble, isn't it God's job to speak to peoples' hearts?  Isn't it the role of the Holy Spirit to instruct believers in all manner of righteousness?  Doesn't worship of God just mean acting in honest relationship with our maker, recognizing our humble station but our divine origin?  

The system can't worship.  The system can't connect.  It can't transform lives.  It can't do these things, but it tries.  In fact, the system often tries to take God's job by standing up to defend God in the public forum, fighting for righteous actions and beliefs, in order to make the world a better place.  But what makes the world a better place?  Do right actions and beliefs make the world a better place?  Is this our God-given mission?  

No, we're trying to take over God's job when we try to transform people in God's honor.  We are assuming the role of judge and jury, of teacher and truth.  The system can't do these things.  Why?  Because the system doesn't care.  The system doesn't love.

The Purpose of the Church

Can we change our vision statements and goals to read something like "Love God by Loving People"?  Any other purpose is missing the point.  Any other purpose that places doing what's right above loving people is totally contradictory!  Hypocritical!  Loving people IS doing what's right.  How can some other righteousness be more important?

So back to me....  Have I invested in what really matters?  Thinking back, I've done plenty of judging.  I've enforced social norms by pressuring people to conform.  I've taught lessons, many of them on right behavior, right beliefs, and how to discern correctness.  I've helped the system run.  I've been a cog in the machine.  I've sought righteousness rather than humanity.  I've also been the victim of the machine a few times in my ancient history.  Judgemental stares, lack of understanding, valued as a worker rather than a person, when I was really crying out for someone to care.  We're all human and I don't fault people for being ugly sometimes, but it just seems that we were encouraged by the system we had built, to act like that!

Maybe it mattered, but as a I think back, the stuff that mattered happened mostly by accident.  In the future, I want the good stuff to happen on purpose!

1) The system can't love people.  So we must do the work.  Do the loving ourselves.  This is the job God gave us when the church was established.  This is the gospel.  This is the good news for all people.  God's love reaches mankind through the arms and fingers of other people.  Love with skin on.

2) The system can't make people better.  So we must stop trying.  Let God do that job.  This is NOT the job God gave us.  This is God's job.  The gospel is NOT about being better so you can come to God.  The gospel is good news that an active God wants to relate with you.  God will do the hard work of refining our hearts, bringing maturity, and opening our eyes to see the truth.  These things are matters of the spirit.  The domain of a spiritual being.  No skin required.

Love: job of humans.  Righteousness: job of Holy Spirit.

Let's focus on what matters and the job at hand.  There are a lot of people to love out there.

Thanks for listening!  I hope in the end it came together and made some sense.