On faith, hope and love...

Yesterday my reflections centered on the way people of faith use words when disagreeing with one another. It was implied that my critique centered upon those individuals seeking to live into the compassionate alternative to the status quo manifest in Jesus Christ. As a rule I don't speak for - or even to - the wider culture. From my perspective, I haven't earned the right to be trusted: I am still learning to pay my dues through acts of solidarity and partnership on behalf of the common good. 

This is an essential given the arrogance of Christendom's past. Like my mentor in ministry, Ray Swartzback, used to tell me: "As a straight, white man you have to earn the right to be heard - and your credibility isn't portable. Every place you go requires earning it again as a servant of justice and love." I get brother Ray's insight. I affirm it strategically. But more importantly, I honor it theologically. The living, wounded Body of Christ in the 21st century must be different, albeit connected and humbled, because of our history. My writing, speaking, music-making and activism is guided by Ray's reworking of Christ's words before the Last Supper where Jesus knelt and washed the feet of his disciples as a servant. I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. 
At this stage in my life I know that I get this wrong at least as much as I get it right. The ancient rabbis used to teach that we should hold two notes in our left and our right pockets. In one the note reads:  You were made just a little lower than the angels. In the other: Remember, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. The poet Rumi writes in much the same vein:

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.

It lands left.

I ride after a deer and find myself

chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.

I should be suspicious

of what I want.


It is painful, hard and complicated for contemporary Christians to shift gears. We have, after all, 1600 years of being top dog to confess, let go and move through into something new that is yet emerging. Still, now that Christianity is being disestablished throughout the United States - and is truly disestablished for those of us who used to be known as the Protestant "mainstream" - we have been given a fresh start. Sadly, when many reflect on what this new day for our tradition might mean, all we can muster is a return to our former dominant status. As Douglas John Hall writes, "we assume that the only way into the future for Christians is a repetition of Christendom past - only better, stronger and bigger!" In doing this we're left being as snarky and mean-spirited as popular culture and/or as empty of alternatives as worn out secular humanism.

Hall goes on to synthesize what I sense to be the challenge for people of faith
in the West at this moment in time: unless we "discover ways of conducting our life and our mission that differ radically from the Christendom form of the church that has dominated throughout most of Christian history, we shall be doomed in the future to be part of the world's problem, and not its solution." (http:/ /www2. ptsem.edu/uploadedFiles/IYM/YCCL/Hall-Finding.pdf

That requires of me at least the following:

+ First, I must train my utilitarian nature and obsession with fixing and/or changing things to learn the practice of contemplation. I need to take time to listen and think. As they say in the realm of spiritual direction and friendship: now is the time to take a long, loving look at reality. Hall writes "...original, deep, critical, theological thinking —is the conditio sine quo non - the condition without which the Christian movement will not find its way into the uncertain future." Simply stated: now is the time for me to hurry up and slow down so that I might do nothing except ponder reality through the lens of love and trust. "Be still... and know that I am God" is the rule of the day for me.


+ Second, my everyday walking around life - as well as my professional and public activity - needs to offer evidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ is grounded in hope, reconciliation and compassion rather than moral or ethical rules. The liberal church in the United States has a long history of shouting about how bad, corrupt and immoral others are because we have substituted exhortation for spirituality. Spirituality is how I live and share the love of Jesus. Exhortation is finger pointing no matter how well intentioned. Spirituality is embodied and incarnational and guided by love; exhortation is almost always saturated in shame. And in 21st century America, no one listens to our cries of DO THIS or DON'T DO THAT! Why should they? "Activist preachers who believe that their congregations are just waiting every Sunday to be told - once again - what they must, should and really ought to be doing, simply have not heard the deafening WHY? that is being shouted (silently, of course) by the polite people in front of them." (Hall) As those who began the Protestant movement knew all too well, "gospel precedes law." What I am called to embody is how grace matters in my life while leaving the rest to God.

+ And third my prayers are to be guided by three words:  faith, hope and love as everything else is merely commentary. Faith means trust - it is not power in the traditional sense - but rather an antidote to hubris. Faith not only recognizes and embraces doubt, it gives us permission to live with uncertainty. Hope points to the future recognizing our existing failures and even despair.  Hope does not shy away from human or ecological suffering; rather it holds this suffering tenderly trusting that even death is not the end of the story. And love, as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote "is the revelation of the fact that the final power of God over man (sic) is derived from the self-imposed weakness of God's love." Hall closes one essay with an extended quote from Tillich that has juice for me.


When we look at the misery of the world, its evil and its sin, especially in these days which seem to mark the end of a world period, we long for divine interference, so that the world and its daemonic rulers might be overcome. We long for a king of peace within history or for a king of glory above history. We long for a Christ of power. Yet if He were to come and transform us and our world, we should have to pay the one price we could not pay: we would have to lose our freedom, our humanity and our spiritual dignity. Perhaps we would be happier; but we should also be lower beings, our present misery, struggle and despair notwithstanding. We should be more like blessed animals than women and men made in the image of God. Those who dream of a better life and try to avoid the Cross as a way, and those who hope for a Christ and attempt to exclude the Crucified, have no knowledge of the mystery of God and of humankind.

Hall writes:  a theology of the cross is a theology of faith - not sight or certainty - a theology of hope - not consummation but trust - and a theology of love - that is often the polar opposite of traditional power politics. Most of Christian history has been about a theology of glory. "And if you want to understand what the theology of glory is, you just have to turn this ordering of the virtues around: it is theology of control and sight - not faith - of consummation - not hope - and of politics and power - not love." 

My work - and calling - and critique is addressed to those within the community of faith who seek to live into Christ's Cross and its radical alternatives. More than ever those wrestling within the Christian family are being asked to bury our inner snark for a season or two; find ways to speak with more love and clarity even when we disagree; and trust that God knows more than we could ever imagine. Without this, I sense that we're just part of the same old arrogant Christian bullshit that the world is discarding at record speed.

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