Friday, August 27, 2010

Reconciling Homosexuality and Church Unity: Is it Possible?

John Shuck, on his blog yesterday, wrote about Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, and the ongoing ecclesiastical trial underway because of her choice to officiate at a number of same sex marriages. Personally, I have no problem with her choice. In many ways, I admire her willingness to minister grace to these believers who have often been rejected and marginalized within their very own communities of faith. This is a very unfortunate situation that certainly needs to be resolved.

With this said, however, I think that there is a larger proposition here, embedded in this extremely controversial and polarizing subject, that troubles me greatly. Every time I contemplate same sex unions being embraced by the church, and the installment of Gay and Lesbian believers into ecclesiastical positions, such as pastors or Bishops, etc, my mind always takes me to the opening verses of Ephesians chapter 4:

"I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (vs. 1-3; NRSV; emphasis added]

 Paul's subject here is unity; his tone is one of utmost urgency. The, "I beg you" disposition adds extreme weight to the matter. If you haven't heard anything I've said up to this point, please, I beg you, do not miss this! This is an injunction of unequaled importance to the Apostle Paul.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I believe in God!

I apologize for interrupting our discussion of liberation theology. We will get back to it soon. My health has precluded me from sitting at the computer for any length of time so I have not been able to devote my time to it as I had planned. 

With that said, I do want to speak briefly about something that has been bugging me. I've been in allot of physical pain lately. Today, in an episode of excruciating pain, I went and sat in our van, listening to some Christian music my wife had in the CD player. Usually, I am not much of a music fan; I am an NPR junkie, to be honest. But, as I sat there listening, there was a song playing by Casting Crowns that was talking about being forgiven, needing help to get through the night, feeling as if you were one mistake away from being the man you used to be.... that song soothed my soul. I felt God in that moment of despair. 

I am liberal, there is no doubt about that. But, regardless of what I may or may not believe anymore, I do believe in a transcendent God who is active and involved in the world that I live in. I see her everyday. It grieves me that in this day and age, to be religiously "liberal", essentially means that you have to somehow be religious without believing in the reality of God. I read blogs everyday that may have the tone of being religious, but deny, by their very words, any possibility that God exist. As if God is a crutch for weak people who can't think for themselves. 

My family has been going through a financial crisis because of my recent disability and being unable to work. We've had people, who had no idea what we were going through, buy school supplies for our children. Just a few days ago, a man I have not seen in a very long time showed up on our doorstep with two checks totalling 500 dollars. I don't care who you say did all that... it could of been Jesus, Buddha, Mohammad, etc, but from where I am sitting, it was God. It was a manifestation of the divine, the ultimate principle, if you will, in our lives. A reminder that we are not in this thing alone. 

So, no matter what you may think of me or what I write from time to time, let there be no mistaking that I believe in an active, living, and sovereign God. A God who can change our lives and make his presence known in the simplest of things!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Brief Interruption: What is simple faith?

My wife and I are often at odds over theological issues. I'm liberal, whatever that means; she's theologically conservative. Over the past ten years, these opposite poles have led to some interesting discussions, and few heated arguments. 

This evening, we were discussing a recent post by John Shuck, a fellow CC blogger, regarding life after death. While I did not agree with John's ideas, some of my own less than conventional thoughts found their way into our conversation. The great theological divide between my wife and I once again became apparent. 

Upon thinking of this, my mind turned to a proclamation we make at the Eucharist table. We are United Methodist, so I take this from the hymnal, Word and Service 1 [p. 10].

Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.
Us theological types enjoy pushing the envelope. I enjoy challenging those around me to think about their faith, often to their demise, I must admit. Being right can have its disadvantages: such as sleeping on the couch, getting the silent treatment, or watching someone you love grapple with ideas that they would of never willingly been exposed too had you not been pompous enough to enlighten them.

My faith has undergone some serious challenges over the years. To say I've experienced a "crisis of faith" would be putting it mildly. I've laid so many things aside, only to pick them back up again. Others, I've discarded altogether: virgin birth, the inerrancy of scripture, hell, etc, to name a few. People who know me, especially my wife, find great difficulty in accepting these things. So, I struggle at times to find common ground, not just with people I love and care about, but with sincere believers who genuinely do not feel the same way. I used to think it was my job to change them; if its reasonable for me to feel or think a certain way, surely I should pass it on, right?

Well, no, it really isn't. It's not necessary for us to change everyone, make them think the way we do. It is incumbent upon us to find some common ground for love and fellowship. Tonight, as I pondered my wife's words, those three affirmations above come to mind and while I acknowledge that we have a philosophical/theological divide, there is also an unbreakable unity in those three, unambiguous statements.

Christ has died. He was a human being, lived in a specific place at a particular time and is forever a fabric of world history. There is no negating that Jesus was an extraordinary man who lived in first century Palestine, who identified with the outcast and oppressed, because he was one himself. His life meant something then; it means something extraordinary now. 

Christ has risen. My library is filled with hundreds of volumes written about this man, most of which were penned within the last century. Churches have been erected all over the world in testament to his ongoing presence and impact upon humanity. I don't care if you believe in a bodily resurrection, it really does not matter to me. But he lives on, and his influence upon life and culture, whether for good or bad, is of the such that the Western world has never seen or duplicated. 

Christ is coming again. This affirmation may be a bit more difficult. But, in the end, what we are saying is that his influence has no end. I believe in a consummation of this age. I believe that things will not always be as they are. Thus, the blessed hope that Paul talked about. 

So, for all the contention and discussion, these three affirmations are for me, what it means to posses a Christian world view. Sure, there will be many who disagree. But these are three simple affirmations that I believe all Christians should be able to gather around the table for discussion. And, yes, the discussion should start here. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pondering Liberation Theology: Defining the Church's Responsibility to the Poor -Part 2

Recently, I have been acquainting myself with the fundamentals of Liberation theology. In some of the books I've read, I've come across some powerful ideas. I want to take some time here to communicate some passages from Raymond McAfee Brown's book: Spirituality and Liberation (The Westminster Press, 1988). 

Here, Brown continues to summarize Gustavo Gutierrez's understanding of genuine spirituality, this time from Gutierrez's first major work, A Theology of Liberation (esp. pp 36-37 and 176-181): 

"Liberation when radically understood includes liberation. We can make our point by calling once again on Gutierrez, who, as the practitioner of a life in which spirituality and liberation cannot be separated, has particularly compelling credentials. We need to call attention to only a single point made in his first major work, A theology of Liberation (esp. pp. 36-37 and 176-181). If this point is clear, the cause for inclusiveness of spirituality and liberation has been established. It is Gutierrez's contention that liberation has three levels of meaning but that no one of them is properly understood unless all three are simultaneously affirmed.

The first level is liberation from unjust social structures that destroy people. These structures may be political, economic, or cultural, they may grow out of warped attitudes based on race, class, nation, or sex, and they may also (as Gutierrez has personal reason to know) be embodied in church structures, operating in concert with any of the others. The attention of liberation theologians has been strongly focused on this level, since it is the most immediate barrier to full personhood that their constituencies face, and it has thrust many of them into conflictive situations.

The second level with which liberation is concerned is more subtle but equally devastating. It is liberation from the power of fate, from the sense that one's station in lie is foreordained, and that not only is there nothing one can do about it but it would be presumptuous and arrogant even to try. If one is born rich, that, too, is the way it is meant to be. Good news to the rich, bad news to the poor. Result: apathy or despair among the poor, and exhilaration among the rich who are determined to keep things that way. The counsel to accept whatever cards fate deals serves as a magnificent justification for the status quo, a fact not lost on the rich and powerful.

For hundreds of years, the church played a major role in supporting this position, by the simple device of substituting "providence" or "the will of God" for the pagan concept of "fate." Accept your lot without complaint, the sermons went, and God will reward you in the afterlife.

The liberation message on this second level is that things need not remain the way they are, that the biblical God  is working actively for justice and seeks to enlist all people in the struggle. The operative word is hope.

The third level of liberation is liberation from personal sin and guilt. This is not an add-on to the liberation agenda, inserted late in the day to forestall the critics, but has been there from the start, as any examination of the literature will show. Critics who fail to see it testify only to their own myopia. If the third level receives less quantitative treatment than the others, this is for the good reason that it has always been the central if not exclusive message of the institutional church, hardly in need of new champions, whereas levels one and two have only infrequently been acknowledged as part of the Christian agenda. Even so, the quantitative as well as qualitative attention given to such matters in Gutierrez's writings is impressive. Prayer, Bible study, worship, Eucharist, and (as we have seen) grace are central to his understanding of liberation." [pp. 121-123]

Tomorrow, we will let Brown sum up all that's been said thus far. Then, we will try and make sense of it ourselves. 



Monday, August 16, 2010

Pondering Liberation Theology: Defining the Church's Responsibility to the Poor -Part 1

Recently, I have been acquainting myself with the fundamentals of Liberation theology. In some of the books I've read, I've come across some powerful ideas. I want to take some time here to communicate some passages from Raymond McAfee Brown's book: Spirituality and Liberation (The Westminster Press, 1988). 

Here, Brown is summarizing Gustavo Gutierrez's understanding of genuine spirituality (from a book entitled We Drink from our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People.): 

"He would  be reminding them and us that his title comes from a comment of Benard of Clairvaus, that the place from which our spiritual nourishment comes is the place where we think, pray, and work; we begin our spiritual journey where we are, and not somewhere else. If the Latin Americans' "own wells" are located within the liberation struggle to which they are committed, our North American wells will likewise be found in our own situation, as we struggle, for example, with the affluence we so often use exploitatively. In either case, the life of spirituality will be located in the midst of the world's turmoil, rather than in safe havens of disengagement.

This cannot be done, Gutierrez would continue, with an individualistic spirituality, and we would call attention to the important subtitle of his book, the Spiritual Journey of a People, as the reminder that spirituality must be communal. To show that this conviction is not idiosyncratic to himself, he might cite the comment of John de Gruchy from South Africa, another continent where oppression and struggle are daily companions of the Christian:

"The Christian life, while intensely personal, is always communal...The privatization of piety is not part of the Christian tradition and it undermines the Christian life... Christian spirituality is, therefore, the spirituality of Christian community. But it is not Christian community lived in isolation from the world." (De Gruchy, Cry Justice, p. 25)

Having rooted spirituality in the immediate human situation, Gutierrez would then explore the riches of the biblical and historical traditions, in order to pave the way for five interconnected marks of the new spirituality of liberation. They are worth some attention,  because they are as true for us in our situation as they are in his.

The first of these is Conversion: A Requirement for Solidarity, and it involves a break with the past and the setting out on a new path that is both personal and social. Conversion involves both an acknowledgement of individual sin and a recognition that ours is a sinful situation, containing structural causes of injustice. So conversion will involve the option to live in solidarity with those who attack sin on both levels. Hunger for God and hunger for bread go together.

A second characteristic is Gratuitousness: The Atmosphere for Efficacy (which we might render in less cumbersome fashion as "Grace: The Basis for Action"). God's gracious love is the source of everything else, including our own ability to love. Such love starts with the concrete need of the other, not with "duty" to practice love. Drawing on Bernano's theme that "all is grace," Gutierrez reminds us that grace provides beauty for our lives, "without which even the struggle for justice would be crippled." Prayer expresses our faith and trust in the gracious God, a "living dialog" that becomes the touchstone of life. There is always "a twofold movement": a full encounter with the neighbor presupposes the experience of grace, and Christ, as our way to God, is also our way to neighbor.

The third note is Joy: Victory Over Suffering. Gutierrez does not gloss over the reality of suffering, be he also insists that the last word is "the joy born of the conviction that unjust mistreatment and suffering will be overcome." Such joy can be found even in a time of martyrdom, for to defend the poor easily leads to suffering and death. Martyrdom "is something that happens but is not sought." And Christians must never create a "cult of death." The only joy that can ultimately sustain us is "Easter joy," a joy that "springs from hope that death is not the final word of history." Those who encounter the cross are led to experience the resurrection.

The fourth mark is Spiritual Childhood: A Requirement for Commitment to the Poor. The task, as Gutierrez frequently remarks, is to be "with the poor and against poverty." The demands are severe: One must assume "voluntarily and lovingly the condition of the order to give testimony to the evil it represents." To do so will provoke opposition from the privileged, who are not enchanted when those within the church "disassociate themselves from the injustices of the prevailing system." Commitment to the poor means looking on the world of the poor "as a place of residence and not simply of work," sharing in exploitation, inadequate health care, and all the rest but also making new friends, experiencing a new kind of love, and developing "a new realization of the Lord's fidelity."

The fifth mark is Community: Out of Solitude. To be with the poor will mean going through "the dark night of injustice" oneself, enduring ostracization, fear, weariness, cowardice, and despair, not to mention having to make crucial decisions when "nothing is clear." This is when we move "out of solitude" and into community. God does not call us to remain in the desert but to pass through it on our way to the promised land. As we are drawn more deeply into community, we find foretastes of the promised land, even in midst of the desert, places where the death and resurrection of Christ are remembered, and where the Eucharist becomes a point of departure and arrival. The mood is celebration.

Throughout, Gutierrez has been describing spirituality. Throughout Gutierrez has been describing liberation." [pp. 118-121]

Tomorrow, we will look at Redefining Liberation.