About A Transformed Faith

All my life I have been a spiritual person, but I have not always been a religious person. In fact, I have had to heal a few scars from religious institutions and individuals.

Over the years, I’ve been able to discover a kind of Christianity that is rooted in community, grace, love, strength, hope, compassion, and generosity.

Now I’m a clergy leader in two small faith communities, both living into new ways of being vibrant, authentic, spiritual places that make a difference in people’s lives.

Divergent Thinking

A mentor of mine once told me that part of my job is to leave the office sometimes and go to the movies, or go for a walk, or go to the lake so that I can get distance from what I am trying to do. It’s like leaving the main floor at a show and going up into the balcony to get a different view, a broader view. I remembered this today because of a book I’ve been reading.

The book is Divergent by Veronica Roth–a young adult fantasy novel about a young woman who doesn’t fit in with the prescribed “factions” in a futuristic Chicago. As I draw toward the close of the book I started remembering things I had heard about divergent thinking before I ever picked up this book. (It has also become a movie.)

Divergent thinking is about being open to the unexpected, making connections between things that are not generally connected, imagining new possibilities. We can experience divergent thinking in brainstorming or stream of consciousness free-writing that we don’t try to direct or control. Divergent thinking is what my mentor was encouraging me to do by leaving my regular work contexts in order to broaden my perspective.

Divergent thinking is needed in our society right now, as so many things shift and change. The church especially needs this. As the world changes, the church cannot be what it was once. But what can it be? How can it evolve and adapt to a new context?

I read today that the average church has 52 members. Can we imagine what a healthy 52 member church would be like going forward, instead of lamenting that it is not a larger collection of people? Can a small community be generative, not just holding on to what they have had or been in the past?

My colleague Kara Root is the pastor of Lake Nakomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN, and over the last 6 years or so, after a 9-month discerning process, her small congregation has centered its life around sabbath, hospitality, and worship.

Twice a month they worship on Sunday mornings, and twice a month they gather on Saturday nights for a more contemplative worship service and take Sunday as a conscious sabbath. Their only rule is that they not do anything out of obligation. On fifth Sundays they worship at a community emergency children’s shelter.

Kara tells the story on video here: http://vimeo.com/93041207. If you want a little inspiration, watch it! She also blogs here at “in the hereandnow.”

I don’t know if she would think of their process at Lake Nakomis as a process of divergent thinking, but I think I would need divergent thinking myself to get to such a creative and different model of how to “be the church.”

Experimentation has been a liberating concept for them as well as for Grace Commons. I’m wondering what next steps are for Grace Commons, but I’m also wondering about next steps for St. James, a more traditional-style church.

It’s often difficult to break out of convergent thinking and into divergent thinking to find things to try. You have to be brave to be divergent, which is also one of the points of this young adult novel I’ve been enjoying. Be brave. Be divergent. And do it together, in community. That’s my takeaway today.

Bride 1 & Bride 2

When my partner and I went to the county clerk’s office to get our marriage license, the clerk asked us, “Do you want to be referred to as spouse and spouse, or bride and bride?”

Thing-One-and-Thing-TwoI looked at my girlfriend and thought of the two t-shirts she had specially made for us. They said, Bride 1 and Bride 2 (like Dr. Seuss’s Thing 1 and Thing 2.)

“Bride and Bride,” I said to the clerk, and my partner, Andrea, nodded in agreement. It had taken a while, but I was getting used to the idea of being a bride with a bride.

Bride one and bride twoAnd now I’m getting used to being a wife with a wife. We’ve been married for a few weeks now and I’m still getting used to the idea that we are family now. I love it, but I’m still getting used to how different it feels. I’m guessing that most newlyweds go through their version of this.

While on our honeymoon, Andrea made me a wonderful lunch while I was deeply focused on a project (organizing our honeymoon pictures, I think) and forgetting to feed myself. When she brought lunch to me, I said, “Awwwww, you’re the best…” and I realized I was about to call her my girlfriend.

I caught myself and got it right by saying instead, “You’re the best wife ever.”

horsebackShe did the same thing a couple days later as we were out and about, getting ready to go horseback riding among the red rocks of a Colorado canyon. She said, “You’re the best wife ever.” She paused and added, “I was about to call you my girlfriend.”

“I know,” I replied, smiling. “I did the same thing last week!”

Getting married has changed things for me. It does feel different than simply making a personal pledge to be committed to someone. And although the “girlfriend” and “wife” labels might seem like superficial matters, they have deep and real repercussions in what they represent.

We’re not just “staying together.” We are family now. Many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have been and are family to each other, even without marriage. You can be married in your hearts–I know this from experience.

But when culture, communities, and the general public reflect, affirm, and expect you to be family, it has an emotional impact. I wish I had better words for this, but I don’t yet.

I wonder if any of you, my readers, have any thoughts about this? How does marriage change relationships?

 

A Love that Enriches

Ani, Nanette -2

Watching my bride sing to me.

As a pastor, I have officiated many weddings and seen lots of emotions between brides and grooms, and some of my emotions mirror theirs.

There was a bride who couldn’t stop crying during her pre-marital counseling sessions. In that case, I think it was because she was so overwhelmed by the reality of being deeply loved and wanted.

There was also a groom who, after the wedding ceremony, stepped onto a patio with his male relatives and broke down sobbing in the arms of one of his trusted uncles. Again, the experience of being married (loved and chosen) was healing a deep pain in him.

There is a little bit of that pain in me.

The love I share with Andrea heals me and I experience a lot of joy because of that love. But I won’t say that she completes me–that’s how I thought when I was younger. I now know that I am complete without her. I had gotten to a point in my life when I knew I could live a happy and fulfilled life without a spouse. Ironically, that was just about when I met her. (God, you are a trickster!)

In my vows I said, “I will ask for what I want, but I won’t expect you to make me happy. I will expect happiness to come to me and to us through sharing our lives together, through experiencing our great communion and our beautiful autonomy.”

laughing

This is how she makes me laugh.

Not expecting her to “make me happy” is the same as saying I don’t expect her to complete me. I am who I am, and she is who she is. Our coming together gives us experiences that we wouldn’t have without each other. That is not completion, but it is enrichment.

My life is enriched by this particular love that we share.

 

Married

ceremony

When I walked into the ballroom where I was to be married, I walked into a crowd of 120 people all standing in honor of me and the ceremony that was about to happen. Their standing gave a sense of gravity to the moment. It felt real and deep. This was important!

The crowd seemed to tower over me, they were so many. I felt small by comparison, but safe and held by their attention and their care. The tears of my vulnerability and my hope for love welled up in my chest and pushed their way forcefully to my eyes.

I was trying to let it all in–their attention, their very presence, the reality of the marriage about to occur–without totally losing it and being lost in weeping. I did the best I could, crying a little, but pushing the tears back down as I processed to the front of the room.

After that my bride came in singing the refrain from All My Life, by K-Ci and Jojo:

All my life I’ve prayed for someone like you
And I thank God that I, that I finally found you
All my life I’ve prayed for someone like you
And I know that you feel the same way too
Yes, I know that you do love me too.

I had no idea she was going to do this! Again my tears came with the feeling of magnitude and love, while my Maid of Honor’s jaw dropped to the floor.

As everyone was seated, we got down to the business of becoming married. To be married in front of 120 witnesses who also gave a verbal pledge to support us in our marriage was transformative. It changed the tenor of our relationship in a fundamental way, strengthening it and validating our intention to make this a lifetime relationship. Our vows took on the authority of the gathered community who affirmed that these vows were worthy and powerful.

The community made it’s own pledge by saying “We Do!” when asked, “All of you who witness this covenant being made between Andrea and Nanette, do you promise to do everything in your power to support and sustain them in their marriage, nurturing them with your friendship and care?”

One couple came up to us later and said that our vows made them love each other morhappy couplee. Another friend said, “these are not the vows of a 19 year old,” by which she acknowledged the life experience reflected in our vows. We don’t expect this to be simple or easy. But we do expect it to be worth it.

I closed my vows with this: “You are my chosen family, my most intimate friend, in and among all the beautiful relationships in my life. I choose you, now and forever, to be my wife, to be my partner in all the joys and sorrows of this life. I devote myself to you, to me, and to this journey.”

My devotion is not only to Andrea, but also to the process of becoming family, which I know will be a journey. The ceremony was just a marker as we enter a new phase of creating family.

And my devotion has to be to myself as well. Andrea is counting on me knowing myself and being honest with her about who I am and what I need and hope for.

I’m counting on her to do the same. It’s a huge act of trust and commitment. And it means so much to have the community support us on this journey of life.

Sacrifice and Healing

Station 11-by Monica J BrownToday is Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus’s death. We enter into a three-day period of waiting for a very bad situation to turn good.

In this season we talk about Jesus “giving his life” in order to save us, but what does that mean? I preached about this at St. James last Sunday, and what follows is the core of my sermon, edited for this blog. This is me, trying to internalize some of the content from Greg Love’s book, Love, Violence and the Cross: How the Non-Violent God Saves us through the Cross of Christ.

Given and Taken

On the one hand, Jesus gives himself to the task that God has placed before him, to confront the evil that he sees in the world; to reach out with compassion to broken people and to lead them to wholeness and healing; to build community by his forgiveness and grace.

Jesus lives his life as a gift to the world, aligning his will with God. His life is a gift, but is his death a gift?

Jesus gets killed by the Roman Empire in a gruesome horrible way. I don’t believe this is something that God ever wanted. God does not want us to crucify one another. I can’t believe that God would even want Jesus to be crucified.

And yet, people do kill each other. Crucifixion was common in the first century, and equally brutal things exist today. We human beings behave in horrendous, horrific ways. And somehow God has to deal with that fact—has to deal with the ugliness in our lives, the brokenness in humanity.

Jesus offers himself, yes, but he also gets taken, by violence, by the Roman Empire. God has to redeem that somehow. And God does. Easter happens.

But how can we understand the sacrifice of Jesus’s life? What is our relationship to that sacrifice and how can healing come out of it?

If we turn to Old Testament biblical understandings of sacrifice, we’re turning to ideas developed in a culture different from our own; it is centered around temple sacrifices. We’re challenged to find meaning in the old and bring it into our current setting. The New Testament writers did exactly that, trying to interpret Jesus’s death in light of their scripture.

Gift Offerings, Communion Offerings, Sin Offerings

In the bible there were three ways to make a sacrifice at the temple. You could make a gift offering, where out of your gratitude you would give something to God completely. It would be totally burnt up on the altar.

The second kind of sacrifice was a Communion offering, where an animal was offered up and the blood and fat was burnt up but the meat would stay behind and the people would then eat that with God. They would have a communion meal with God. They would meet God at the temple and have community with each other and with God.

The third kind of sacrificial offering is a sin offering, in which a pure unblemished animal is offered because the “pure” blood is seen to contain pure life. And so the blood has the power, as a representation of pure life, to cover over broken life. This is where we get the ideas of being “washed” in the blood. A whole life, a pure life, can cover over and heal a broken life.

An animal sacrificed as a sin offering was never offered as a substitute for the one who sinned. The animal’s death was not a punishment. Instead, the act was understood more as a transfer of the pure life force of the animal to cover over the impure life of the sinner.

A sin offering was an act of healing in what I would call a magical way. It was not a punishment for sin. It initiated a change in the life of the sinner who then had to turn their life around.

How can we glean something from these ideas which come to us from a different era and culture and how can we develop a new understanding, as people living in this day and age?

And my related question is, however we understand what was happening then, in this week when we commemorate the death of Jesus, how do we participate in the salvation that comes to us through Jesus Christ?

Gift Offerings: Transformation through Letting Go

The Gift Offering, which probably began with the giving of the tithe, comes out of a sense of gratitude and dependence on God. You give in order to release it completely. You get nothing back from that offering, except the experience of letting go, of giving to God completely.

It’s as though we are saying, I have received this and I release it back to you. I give this to you God and it’s a sign of my relationship of dependence on you, of gratitude to you.

This offering is not like what the Prosperity Gospel says. Some Prosperity Gospel people will preach, “plant a seed—give away some and God will pay you back and give you more money or more of whatever you’re offering.”

That’s not what I’m talking about. It’s not giving something so we can get more stuff. It’s giving so we can be changed as people. So we can have the experience of letting go and releasing.

There’s a way that we, in this act of emptying ourselves can experience fullness. When people talk about Jesus emptying himself, giving his life on the cross, he did that not to a point of depletion, but he did it in a way that he becomes, ultimately, fully filled, completely filled with God. In theological language this emptying that Jesus does is called kenosis. Becoming completely empty so that he can become completely filled.

And in our spiritual practices we can do this kind of offering too, in which out of our gratitude we practice letting go and not clinging on to the things that we want to have more of in our life. But realizing that we have enough.

Not only do we have enough stuff, but there is love for us, and there is God for us, and there is community. This gift offering is a kind of devoting of our lives to our relationship with God. We want to give it all.

Communion Offerings: Transformation through Relationship

The second kind of offering is the Communion Offering. This is what we’re doing with the Lenten Soup lunches at St. James Church. The person bringing the soup also eats the soup, right along with everyone else. We do this every week at Grace Commons when we share a meal after our Spiritual Practice. This kind of offering has a goal of building connection. It’s not about building palaces or building fortresses. It’s about building connections and building community. This is what a communion offering does.

Now Jesus embodied that in his life all the time, in the way that he offered himself to the world. The way that he sat and ate with sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, people with illnesses, and all kinds of people. He ate with everyone.

Jesus was always offering his life to create this communion, this community. And of course at his last meal he gave us the new commandment to love one another as he had loved us and as he loves us now in a new form, and to share the communion meal.

So we do these communion meals ritually in a church, but we do it in our lives too. I invite you to think about how you can make more communion offerings in your life. Would it be inviting someone or a family to your home to dinner? Or maybe it would be going to someone’s place and bringing something to them, sharing dinner with them. How can you offer yourself and your resources toward the building of relationships? The more you do it, the more you might be transformed.

Sin Offerings: Transformation through being covered with Life

The third kind of offering is the sin offering. The question I have about this is how does a whole life, a wholesome, full life, cover over a broken life? How does pure blood heal bad blood, when we get bad blood in us?

Bad blood is when we begin to be filled with envy or greed or shame or fear or pride or arrogance or righteousness. How could pure blood heal that? How does a broken life get lifted up in healing?

The sin offering covers the brokenness with wholeness, we can become “covered in the blood” as many gospel songs proclaim. A similar idea that might help understand this is that we become clothed in Christ at our baptism. This is another form of “covering.”

In some traditions, people act out being clothed in Christ by wearing all white at their baptism. A more extreme expression of this is when people get baptized naked. They leave behind their old clothes, get baptized, and when they rise out of the baptismal waters they get white robes, symbolizing they’ve now put on Christ.

But more metaphorically, how do we get clothed in Christ? This getting clothed in Christ is not accomplished by acting like we’re more holy. It’s not an attempt to look like we’re more Christ-like. It would be a mistake to get self-righteous about it—that would be a way to stick with the bad blood and not get the new blood.

Getting clothed in Christ is not to hide the truth of who we are and pretend that we are like Christ. It’s to discover who we really are inside. When we clothe ourselves in Christ it’s to help us to realize that when God looks at us God sees the beauty of Christ in us. God sees the image of God in us. Because God created us with that image imprinted on the very core of our being.

The idea of getting clothed in Christ is meant to help us find and remember who we really are. Because we forget who we are. We forget that we’re precious, that we’re beloved. We forget that we have the image of God in us somewhere.

A sin offering is a call to heal our lives, in whatever way we need to do that. We may need to confront the shame and the fear and all those bad blood things I named above.

We have to become aware of those parts of ourselves that are broken or weak and get the help we need to heal ourselves. Whether it’s through trusted and trustworthy friends, or whether it’s through counseling, or whether it’s through prayer practices, or through getting books that could guide us through these kinds of healing processes.

To make a sin offering is to attempt to turn our lives around. When a pure animal was offered as a temple sacrifice, that wasn’t enough to fix the problem. That wasn’t enough to cover over the sin. You don’t just keep covering and covering and re-covering the sin again and again.

You have to change something underneath. And so with the sin offering there is a call to re-pentance, a call to re-thinking what you are doing, how you are living. That’s what repentance is. Repentance involves re-turning toward God. It’s re-aligning your life. And the sin offering calls for that kind of realignment. In that re-turning toward God we are being transformed from the inside out.

Paul said, It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And that’s about being changed from the inside out. That’s about inviting Christ and the awareness of Christ into us. And finding the deep deep love of God for Christ and in Christ, in us!

God said to Jesus in his baptism, “You are my beloved son.” If Christ lives inside us, then we too are beloved. We are beloved of God. And so putting on Christ can help us realize that true deep identity of ours.

The pure life of Christ covers us—not to hide us, but to heal us. Wholeness calls to wholeness and Christ draws out the beauty that is in us.

Hold on to that hope, as we journey toward Easter.

Sacrifice and Substitution?

I received two notes last week on the day I posted about “Restoration not Retribution.” The first one was from a man who beautifully and articulately described his Christian faith in God and Jesus, along with the Christian practice of communion and its meaning in his own life.

He just couldn’t believe that Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins or that God would demand such a death. And so he worried that he might not be Christian. I think his experience and concern is a very common one. The idea that Jesus sacrifices himself in place of us and pays our debt to God has (unfortunately) become synonymous with Christianity for many people.

How we think about God and Christ matters, but being Christian doesn’t depend on believing in substitute sacrifice. Some people will disagree with me about that, and that’s okay. I also disagree with them.

The second note I received that day was from a respected colleague, also a Presbyterian pastor, who felt that my piece had a quality of “slap down” of people who do understand Jesus’ death as a substitute sacrifice. I took his critique seriously. Even though I need to keep writing what I am writing, I need to be more thoughtful about my tone.

I reread my piece from last week and did edit one short sentence in which I regrettably called the ideas I was taught as a child “ridiculous.” It did imply, although I wasn’t thinking about this, that people who believe those ideas are also ridiculous.

Writing from my own pain led me to be too extreme in my language. So I edited that sentence to say that the ideas “seemed crazy to me at the time.” That might still seem too judgmental, but I don’t yet know a better way to say this and convey the emotion I have about it. Part of my emotional reaction to it is from being told that I am not Christian because I don’t believe those ideas.

The other great point that my colleague made was that we need to be presenting the alternative theologies, the different ways to think about and understand the crucifixion and resurrection. I agree! And so I promised him that I would keep working on this as a project.

Lent and Holy Week, and even the Easter season seems a great time to continue reflecting on some of the many ways Christians can understand God’s saving work in the world.

Last week I wrote, “If you don’t accept the idea that sacrificial substitution works as a mechanism in the universe, then this explanation of God will never make sense to you either.” I got this idea from Greg Love, a professor at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

love, violence and the crossProfessor Love (whose name fabulously reflects his work), wrote a book called “Love, Violence and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ.”

He systematically works through eleven different ways that Christians understand God’s work of salvation. As part of that he talks about the “strengths and weaknesses” of each theory and why different theories make sense to different people.

I was lucky to get to study with him for a week in January this year, with a group of pastors from around the country who gather each year for intensive bible study.

Professor Love made the point that to believe that Jesus died as a substitute for us on the cross, you have to believe that substitute sacrifice “works” as a concept. This helped me understand myself better– I don’t believe in this larger paradigm. It was helpful to name that.

In his book, Professor Love divides the eleven theologies about salvation into three categories. The first category is Penal Substitution, in which God saves the world through violent means as Jesus takes the punishment we deserve. Salvation happens through redemptive suffering and through paying a debt owed.

The second category, which includes 4 different models, God saves the world through love, service, and community embodied in Christ in his life and resurrection, and in the Holy Spirit after the resurrection. Salvation happens not in or through the death of Jesus, but in the life that happens before and after the death.

The third category, which includes 5 different models, the salvation happens through the work of Christ and the cross plays a role–but Jesus does not substitute for us, and God does not require payment for our sins. God is understood as nonviolent and unambivalent in God’s love for us.

One of the things I found helpful in the book was Professor Love’s explanation of the multiple kinds of sacrifice practiced in biblical times. Biblical sacrifices included gift offerings, communion offerings, and sin offerings. Understanding these biblical practices can help us understand how the New Testament writers interpreted what happened to Jesus.

That’s about all I can squeeze into one blog post. But I hope you’ll follow along with future posts! And take a look at that book…

Restoration not Retribution

The first time I encountered the season of Lent a friend of mine invited me to attend his church. I was not a Christian, I thought. I had left the church of my childhood, renounced it, because I had learned that being a Christian was primarily about ideas. And they were ideas that I couldn’t accept. They seemed crazy to me at the time. That the death of someone I never knew could somehow save me from a danger I didn’t face.

If you don’t accept the idea that sacrificial substitution works as a mechanism in the universe, then this explanation of God will never make sense to you either. Not in the way it was presented to me, anyway. I don’t believe that there is a God who requires payment. My God is not that commercially driven. She is not a pay-per-failure kind of God.

God does not ticket us for parking in the wrong place. We have the civil authorities for that, and they do a pretty good job of it. God, on the other hand, wants love, not restitution. God offers restoration not retribution. But I didn’t think that this God was present in Christian churches, until that first Lent.

BreadedIt was a strange land, that sanctuary I went to with my friend. They spoke a language I didn’t know and sang songs that sounded odd to my ears. But they invited me to share a meal with them and it was an invitation extended to me without reservation and without requirement. This bread is for you, they said. This cup is for you, they offered.

And the meal began the relationship, with that community, with that culture, with that God—who turned out to be a God of restoration and love. Who knew you could find that God in a Christian place? It was news to me.