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.

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.


labyrinthLast week we walked the labyrinth at Grace Commons, contemplating the burdens we carry with us into Lent. We picked up a stone as we entered and carried it with us as we wound our way toward the center of the labyrinth.

Such a simple act, but so powerful. If you’ve never done it, you can’t imagine how it could touch you. Even I, who have walked a labyrinth so many times, was surprised when I felt myself drop into a different state of mind, carrying my stone, focusing my eyes down on the winding path, walking slowly, brushing past many other people on the path.

Suddenly, the vulnerability that I was feeling in my life rushed to the surface of my consciousness and I felt the fatigue in my shoulders. I didn’t have words for this and I didn’t need them. I felt the small stone in my hands, and I noticed all the sensations in my body. I felt tears come to my eyes as I relaxed and allowed myself to feel what I felt.

But I was not alone in that. “We are on a journey together” was not just an idea at that moment. It was something that we entered, lived, embodied.

When we arrived at the center of the labyrinth, we left our stones there in a tight pile, and picked up instead an unlit candle to carry back out. Another person described afterwards how her attention shifted when she carried that unlit candle and went out from the center of the labyrinth. She began to focus on new possibilities.

Our vulnerabilities are an essential part of our human experience. While our culture tends to want us to cover them up, to act like everything is fine and we are all doing “great,” Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to acknowledge our vulnerabilities, to enter into a vulnerable space with God at our side.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night of his arrest Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Foot washing was common in Jesus day, but it was the servants who washed the feet of guests, not the master of the house, or the master teacher.

For many of us the idea of letting someone touch our feet, let alone wash them, is uncomfortable. Why is that? Pause here and try to understand that in yourself.

For me, I think the discomfort comes from the radical vulnerability of letting a part of our body that we usually keep covered get uncovered. It’s hard to imagine letting someone touch and wash a part of our bodies that is less than perfect, possibly dirty and probably smelly. And I have one really messed up toenail, too.

I don’t want people to see that part of me that is messy and out of control. I don’t want to burden them with any discomfort they might feel about my feet. And I don’t want to feel the discomfort of my own shame.

Imagine Jesus rushing right in to address and transform that feeling. There is no shame in letting others care for us, Jesus shows us. There is no shame in letting God love us in spite of our dirty feet and our perpetual failure and lack of perfection. In fact, this is how we have a relationship with God; we let God wash us. We let God nurture us.

God invites us into an intimate space where there is honesty about who we are and what we feel. We don’t need to hide from God. In fact, God is trying to coax us out of hiding and convince us to let Her care for us.

If we can allow that vulnerability, it will make us so much stronger in the long run.

Let Lent Be About Love

red flower in ashYesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day to remember our mortality and begin our 40 day journey toward Easter.

It seems like a good idea to acknowledge our vulnerability as human beings. We are so breakable. And I mean that physically, spiritually, and morally. To be marked with a gray ash sign of the cross harkens back to days when grieving people covered their heads in ashes. If you think about it, that is such a powerful metaphor of grief. On Ash Wednesday, we grieve our losses, and sometimes we grieve our mistakes.

Grieving our losses comes from a place of love. We grieve the loss of what we have loved, and sometimes of the things we have taken for granted. Sometimes it is a person we have lost and sometimes it is our own health. We are mortal and finite, and to have a beginning means to have an end. Sometimes it brings us sorrow and grief, but it is all wrapped up and intertwined with the amazing gift of life and our capacity to love, to know, and to be known.

The traditional words, when receiving the mark of the cross on our foreheads, have been “Remember that you come from ashes and to ashes you shall return.” It is a sobering thought and we grieve our losses.

But sometimes we grieve our mistakes, and that’s a whole different thing. Some of our limitations don’t have to do with our mortality, but with our humanity. We are creatures, after all, who have impulses of self-protection that sometimes short-circuit our generosity, our honesty, our trust, our openness. Suddenly we find ourselves “bending” the truth, keeping the bigger piece of pie (literally or metaphorically), slamming shut the gates of our hearts, being snippy (or worse) with our loved ones, and rude to people we don’t know or don’t notice. This is something to grieve!

Grieving our mistakes comes from a place of love, if we let it. Grieving our mistakes means we want something different. We want something better. And so it means turning toward the grace and compassion of God which is buried somewhere deep within us. It means letting go of what we have done, letting go of our guilt and our grief and letting God love, forgive and welcome us in to a fuller embrace.

Let Lent be about love this year. What is the newness you are longing for? What would it take to begin practicing that in your life?

God continually calls us to re-think (re-pent) and re-turn (turn again) to God. In turning again toward the God of Love, we turn away from our brokenness (or we pass through it) and journey on toward the new life of Easter, the hope of beginning again, the blossoming of a new season. And that’s what Ash Wednesday can begin. It’s the first step, and only the first step, on a fruitful journey to greater wholeness.

Wanna walk toward Easter together?

You may also be interested in my Ash Wednesday blog post at Patheos from two years ago: I am topsoil and to topsoil I shall return.

Marriage Matters

These are the words I spoke today in support of changing the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to allow for same gender marriage equality in our denomination. The overture passed at the Chicago Presbytery by a large margin and will now be sent to the national General Assembly for debate and vote this summer.

As you read it, read slowly, allowing yourself to contemplate the questions I ask here. I think that’s part of what makes it meaningful–my invitation to you to think about the meaning of marriage in your own life.

I know that not everyone can relate to this, but many, many people who are making decisions about marriage equality have had the opportunity to be married themselves. I hope this testimony meant something to them.

~ ~ ~

My testimony today is a personal one, because our theology and our polity have personal implications.

I’m preparing for my wedding, which will be on May 3rd, and which gives me great joy. On that day the State of Illinois will consider it a Civil Union, but on June 1st, with Marriage Equality, it will become a marriage, and my marriage license will be back-dated to May 3rd.

Any of you who have walked down the aisle in a wedding dress, I want you to remember what that felt like. How did it feel seeing your beloved waiting for you, looking at you coming toward them?

And if you, on the other hand, stood waiting, watching your beloved walk toward you, looking luminous in her wedding dress, what did you feel? Did it matter that you were going through this ceremonial act? Did you tear up on that day, or get a lump in your throat, or a flutter in your stomach? Can you remember?

antique trainMyself, I cried when I first put on the wedding dress that was the dress for me. It is my wedding dress and I will be married in it. I’ll walk toward my beloved and she’ll walk toward me.

We’ll make public vows about how we’ll be faithful to each other, committed to our home, to our families, to our neighbors, and to our God.

Marriage matters. It provides a foundation of relationship and mutuality in our society. It sets an expectation of fidelity and commitment. It’s about love and companionship and affection. It’s about letting my life become our life.

Family matters. Love matters. Marriage matters.

And the church can work for it or against it.

A Dynamic Faith

Baptismal Song

“Baptism” by Shawna Bowman

About ten years ago I got an email about Grace Commons (then called Wicker Park Grace) that said this:

Before our discussions I naively thought that Christianity was a one dimensional theology with minor shifts in beliefs across denominations; and I definitely thought that it did not coincide with my own world view. However, after each discussion I feel a deeper connection to Christianity as a dynamic faith and feel an overwhelming sense of well-being and connection.

Christianity as a dynamic faith! That was such a great way to describe what Grace Commons was about–trying to reengage the dynamism that has been Christianity since its beginnings. Libraries have been filled with the conversations, the longings, the struggles, convictions and explorations of this faith.

Unfortunately, far too often, Christianity has been locked up in a box and presented as simplistic and one-dimensional, as the person who sent me this email said!

A dynamic faith is a faith about which we think. It engages both our hearts and our minds. It changes and deepens as we change and deepen, because we become more equipped to live what we believe, and to discover what we believe based on how we’re living.

A dynamic faith changes us. And a dynamic faith changes as we change. Hopefully, as we grow, we grow wiser. That, I think, is what we’re all trying to do.

Listen to Your Life

veggie stand

Road-side veggie stand in Massachusetts

“Listen to your life.
See it for the fathomless
mystery that it is.
In the boredom and pain of it
no less than in
the excitement and gladness:
touch, taste, smell your way
to the holy and hidden heart of it
because in the last analysis
all moments are key moments,
and life itself is grace.”

-Frederich Buechner

I have two more days of my sabbatical, as I return to my church work on Sunday, September 1st. There is a lot that I am still doing on these final two days…continuing to purge, organize, and clean my house; writing on my fiction project (a young adult novel); making improvements to my blog, celebrating my just-announced-yesterday engagement to the love of my life (yay!), and practicing deep breathing through it all.

I have been listening to my life for 10 weeks, and contemplating how I will remember to listen to my life when the responsibility of a full-time job with two faith communities hits me on Sunday.

My life depends on my capacity to keep listening to it. This means listening to my body–noticing when I am hungry or tired, or when I am breathing only shallowly. It means listening to my emotions–noticing what I am feeling and what happened to trigger those feelings. And it means listening to my spirit–noticing when I am in need of silence, nature, blue sky, love.

My life depends on listening to my life. Because when I don’t listen, life begins to seep out of me. When I don’t listen to my life, I begin to lose it. I begin to forget who I am, or why I am here.

Not that I’m always sure of who I am or why I am here. But when I listen to my life, I do a lot better job of living it.