The Cross & You – Bring your Doubts

What does “the cross” mean? This phrase is a popular one in Christianity. The symbol is proudly displayed on all kinds of popular media – from clothes to album covers without any perceivable link other than marketing. The popular Evangelical meaning is, “Jesus died for my sins!” However, this has become challenged in scholarly circles and is pretty irrelevant to most people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. Yet, this was the phrase that defined “the cross” many of us learned growing up in church. Even in my Christian college there was little alternative to this summary, even though there was growing tension with it.

Many doubt the validity and power of the cross. Honestly, the doubts and debates are warranted. Within the Church people have been pushing back against the message that says, God punished his Son for our sins. One popular push against the popular understanding of the cross (called penal substitution) is that it is untrue and inconsistent with God’s nature. Another is that it doesn’t match the rest of the Biblical narrative. It is a very polarizing narrative. Some continue holding on to it as the only way to understand the cross, Jesus and God. Others have been completely rejecting the cross, Jesus and/or God because he is viewed as vindictive and petty.

Our reactions and thinking, and others, is not simply between us and the cross, or Jesus, or even God. Much of it has to do with the God’s people – the Church. Think how this picture this particular understanding of the cross as God’s tool against Jesus has influenced the Western Church and Christianity. For example, many describe the Church judgmental and power-hungry, which are characteristics of a violent and vindictive people and their God. Unfortunately, these characteristics naturally fit with the character of a Father who would crucifies his Son for himself. The result has been popular methods of witness to God & his story (evangelism) justifying the use of manipulation to produce fear in us and others. Honestly, they are methods characterized more by abuse, violence, and power, than love, self-emptying and humiliation.

Truly there are many factors contributing to this, but one in particular is the popular understanding of the cross. A result of this “cross-ology” (Atonement narrative) is doubt and skepticism. Popular culture has a growing skepticism toward Christianity presently, as well as its past. It is not simply outside but inside the church too. This is our world today. Many know nothing about the cross other than trite and truncated slogans. It is little more than a fashion symbol, hijacked from its meaning, depth and iconic status.The biggest loss is not that culture is skeptical and ignorant about the cross, that’s normal. No, the biggest tragedy is the loss within the Church of knowing Jesus through his cross. To begin to recover some of this we begin with ourselves. What are your doubts about the cross? How is it relevant to your life? Or was the mystery lost by Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ?

I want to affirm the gift skepticism has brought to the Church. If questions cannot be asked then we cannot discover answers and truth. The dangerous side of skepticism is when asking questions to avoid finding answers, rather than asking to find them. Jesus, God, the Church, Tradition, and the Bible can stand up to questions – good, difficult questions. There are not always easy answers, nor always clear direct answers. What we find may be simple, but it is not simplistic. Thus, when we ask about the cross, there may be more than one answer, but more than that is that there are many ways to look at. Here are a few popular, long-standing and quickly summarized ways to understand the cross.

Christus Victor/Ransom – Jesus through the cross liberated humanity from sin by overcoming Satan and evil. His life to free humanity from the bondage of sin and death culminated in a battle at the cross. Through his death and resurrection he won the decisive victory restoring all creation.

Sacrifice/Reconciliation – Jesus willingly and purposefully lived his life fully for others. Teaching and demonstrating a life in the Kingdom of God, which challenged the powers of the day. In the end, those in power chose to kill him and he gave up his life to death as a sacrifice to continue restoring/reconciling all that was lost and broken.

Example of Love – Jesus life, teachings and death are the ultimate example of love. He is a model of pure love, who did not even need to protect his own life.

Scapegoat – All societies seek to scapegoat someone to restore peace to society. An ancient practice that typically preys on the weak and vulnerable – those on the margin of society are sacrificed for the benefit of others. Jesus at the cross became the ultimate scapegoat sacrifice to end all scapegoating – as he rose from the dead to tell his own story. The victim never gets to tell their side for they never have a voice. Jesus gives a voice to all victims at the cross and through the resurrection.

New Covenant – Through the cross of Jesus a new community was freed to love, pursue justice, hospitality, and the creation of peace and wholeness (shalom) in all of creation. Prior it had focused on law and duty. The cross frees us from that.

Reconciliation – Jesus incarnation, life and death on the cross reconciled the broken relationship between the Divine and the human.

Each of these has much more depth and detail to them. Essentially, we need to see that the Jesus’ death on the cross is multi-faceted. Think of a diamond. Depending how the light interacts with it and the angle from which it is viewed changes what one sees. Like the diamond, it’s not the historical event of Jesus’ death that changed. Rather, because a cross held Jesus the historical event has an inexhaustible beauty to be seen and reflected upon anew forever. It can handle our doubts of the explanations given to us in the past, and not because it is an untrue archaic myth with no relevance for today. On the contrary, it can handle questions, because our questions are not really about a cross. It’s about who that particular cross held – God. The doubts and questions we bring to God are a reflection of us. They are equally doubts about ourselves, others and the world.

This is what Lent is about – embracing and exploring our doubts and skepticism. A popular tradition of Lent is to fast. When we fast, we discipline ourselves not in order to alleviate our guilt. We use a discipline (or a practice) to approach Jesus and the cross honestly, and openly. The fast is not to become a better person – we earn nothing through it. We journey through Lent to know Jesus through a truer awareness. Likewise, we are given a better awareness of our self, others and all creation too. This is the gift of Lent, to re-see and re-think the cross for in it we begin to see with greater clarity and truth Jesus, ourselves, others, and our world.

Easter Celebration!

EasterInvite

 

Friends, come party with us! Every year we like to celebrate Easter Sunday (the pinnacle of the year for Jesus followers) by throwing a big party.  We cannot think of a better way to spend this great holiday! So, we will spend the day together eating, drinking, hunting easter eggs, listening to live music, playing yard and board games, and drinking and eating some more.

And since we like to eat, ‘big’ usually translates into ‘big food’. Once again, we will have some nice thick steaks, as well as some grilled seafood and a vegetarian option (TBD). The main dishes and side dishes will be provided. We are asking you to bring an appetizer (if you plan to come at 11 or so) or a dessert, and your favorite celebratory drink to share.

We’ll have appetizers at 11, an Easter egg hunt at noon(ish), and lunch around 1.

Please join us. And feel free to invite family and friends. But, either way, please RSVP so that we know how many steaks to buy. Hope you can join us this Easter Sunday!

The Cross & You, Bring your Doubts

What does “the Cross” mean? This phrase is a popular one in Christianity. The symbol is proudly displayed on all kinds of popular media – from clothes to album covers without any perceivable link other than marketing. The popular Evangelical meaning is, “Jesus died for my sins!” In particular, I am referring to a very specific usage of this phrase that is called Penal Substitionary Atonement, which in short says, “We are all sinners. God hates sin and has to punish it because he’s just. Jesus is the only sinless one. Jesus took our place on the Cross and was punished by God for all sin (or all the sin of the elect).” The short-hand for this is, “Jesus died for my (our) sins.”

However, this has become challenged in scholarly circles and is pretty irrelevant to most people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. Yet, this was the phrase I learned as a summary of “the Cross” growing up in Church. Even in my Christian college there was little alternative to this summary, even though there was growing tension with it.

The doubts and debates are warranted. They say it is untrue and inconsistent with God’s nature and the testimony of the Biblical narrative to say God punished his Son for our sins. Still, this is the narrative many either hold on to or many more have rejected because it pictures God as vindictive and rather petty. I think the major issue is how this understanding of the Cross has influenced the Western Church and Christianity. For instance, the same character of the Father who crucifies his Son, vindictive and violent, has become the character of our churches including our methods of evangelism. Research today has shown popular portrait of the church is judgmental and power-hungry. Likewise, popular modes of witness to God & his story (evangelism) justify manipulation and are based on producing fear. These too have been characterized by abuse, violence, and power.

There are many factors contributing to this, but one in particular is the popular understanding of the Cross. It is therefore understandable how “Christians” doubt much of Christian Tradition. Equally, popular culture too has a growing skepticism toward Christianity present, as well as its past. This is the world you and I live in. A world of skepticism toward our Story – not simply outside but inside the church.

We begin with ourselves. What are your doubts about the Cross? How is it relevant to your life? Or has it lost its mystique with Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ?

I want to affirm the gift that skepticism has brought to the Church. If questions cannot be asked then we cannot discover answers and truth. The danger with skepticism is asking questions to avoid finding answers, rather than asking to find them. God, the Church and its Tradition, and the Bible can stand up to questions – not always with easy answers nor always clear cut. For instance, when we ask about the Cross, the answer is there are many ways to look at. Here are a few quickly summarized (these are summary statements and not intended to explain them. Also none of these makes sense a part from the inclusion of Jesus’ incarnation, life, resurrection, and ascension):

Christus Victor/Ransom –  Jesus through the Cross liberated humanity from sin by overcoming Satan and evil. His life, death, and resurrection become the great victory restoring all creation.

Sacrifice/Reconciliation – Jesus willingly and purposefully gave up his life to death as a sacrifice to restore/reconcile what was lost and broken.

Example of Love – Jesus’ death are the ultimate example of love.

Scapegoat – Jesus at the Cross became the ultimate scapegoat to end scapegoating and give voice to all victims.

New Covenant – Through the Cross of Jesus a new community was freed to love, pursue justice, hospitality, and the creation of peace and wholeness (shalom) in all of creation.

Reconciliation – Jesus death on the Cross reconciled the broken relationship between the Divine and the human.

Essentially, the Cross is multi-faceted. Think of a diamond.  Depending how the light interacts with it things change. Like the diamond, it’s not the the Cross event that changed, but so much is going on because this cross held Jesus that it has an inexhaustible beauty to be seen and reflected upon. In other words, it can handle our doubts with the explanations we’ve been give, not because it is an untrue or archaic myth with no relevance for today. On the contrary, it can handle questions, because it’s not about a cross. It’s about who that particular Cross held – God. The doubts we have and the questions we bring truly reflect more of us than God.

This is what Lent is about. In Lent we fast and discipline ourselves not to alleviate our guilt to approach God and the Cross like always before. Not to become better people. We journey through Lent to know a truer awareness of our self and to see Jesus, God, and his Cross through a truer lens. This is the gift of Lent, to re-see and re-think the Cross for in it we will begin to see with greater clarity and truth God, ourselves, others, and our world.

“Prescribed” God Encounters

We can discover and engage with God in innumerable ways. As we’ve discussed the last couple weeks, each one of us has unique ways we can communicate and connect with God. Some of these are consistent practices in our lives, some we haven’t even discovered yet, and most fall somewhere in between. Further, we have discussed how each one of these ways we connect with God fall into three categories: law, discipline, and practice. Laws are those things we do because we ‘have to’. Disciplines are those things we do because we know it’s good for us. And Practices are those things we do naturally, habitually, and with desire, because we cannot imagine life without them. Spiritual practices are those that have become part of our regular rhythm of life.

As we move towards life with God – life in the kingdom – it might be overwhelming to know even where to begin. With dozens (perhaps hundreds) or different ways we could connect with God, what practice do I select to begin?

One good place to begin are the places in the Bible where we find some ‘prescribed’ ways of connecting with God. These aren’t prescribed meaning we are commanded to do them so much as they are prescribed as natural, fundamental ways we all experience God. In other words, it is very likely that every one of us encounters God in one of the ways ‘prescribed’ in the Bible.

Three of these we find highlighted in Psalm 19: creation, knowledge/Scripture, and practice/righteousness. These are three fundamental ways we connect with God in our daily lives.

Creation

Summary: God created all things, and created them beautifully. The entirety of creation speaks God’s name. There is nowhere we can look, where we don’t see his face in creation. From the mountains to the oceans, from Wall Street to Prospect Avenue, from insects to elephants, and everywhere in between, God speaks to us of his of his love and character. Every time our eyes and hearts see creation as the workmanship of God, we discover God in a new way.

Examples: Walks through the neighborhood; spiritual retreats at a state park, monastery, or other place outside of the city; the discipline of ‘noticing’; looking for God in people or pets; silence and solitude; _________________________; _________________________

Scripture 

Summary: The written words in the Bible carry weight and meaning that brings to us the voice of God in new and unique ways every time we read, hear, discuss, or reflect on them. The stories reveal to us God’s mission and kingdom. The Psalms remind us of God’s posture towards us. The epistles tell of God’s character. And the Gospels show God’s unending love. Every single word in scripture is a word spoken to us by God.

Examples: Reading the Lectionary texts each morning; Making use of the Vade Mecum; Reading the same scripture every day for a week/month/year; Spiritual conversations; _____________________; _________________________

Practice/Righteousness

Summary: Each time we participate in God’s kingdom work in the world, we have the privilege of connecting with God in a unique way. God is with us during our acts of justice, righteousness, and mercy, and we learn about who God and his love for creation. We experience God in simple acts, like intentionally choosing to hold our tongue or to speak words of kindness or encouragement. We experience God in ‘bigger’ acts, like serving the poor, or giving away something we love to someone who needs it more. Every time we practice righteousness, we rediscover God.

Examples: Volunteering with a nonprofit; Discipline of giving; Practicing empathy/active listening; Giving something up for lent; Abstinence (from anything); Neighboring; _____________________ ; ____________________

The Journey of Spirituality (2015 Feb)

The Journey of Spirituality: 

The Law, Spiritual Disciplines, & Spiritual Practices
By Jason Phelps

Is the Law, Spiritual Disciplines, & Spiritual Practices different? Are they the same thing? For instance, fasting or the Sabbath fits within each of these. What is the relationship of these?

I propose these three be viewed as a natural progression. Maybe God began with the Law for those in the beginning stages of life with him. The Law still is holy, authoritative, and beneficial to life. However, it does not contain the whole of life with God. It is a full life with God, but not whole. Is this how Jesus understands the Law in the Sermon on the Mount?

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

He places the Law in its proper context. But he does not abolish the Law (see Matt. 5.17-20).

The Law then was given for the earlier stages, as we were in need of stability in more tangible forms. We need literal, practical, and clarity for growth with God. This understanding seems to fit with stages of development articulated be Piaget’s cognitive development, Erikson’s psychosocial development, Kohlberg’s moral development, and Fowler’s Stages of Faith. The Law fits perfectly for those in early stages of development. Not that it is limited to simply the early stages, but it does fit well there.

Progressing from the literal and clear commands of the Law. The Spiritual Disciplines has more critical reflection about those things we do in the Law. They construct their understanding on the narrative, which supports the Law (not the other way around). The tasks we engage, which were perviously commanded, are now disciplines we intentionally engage in as they help us move toward the vision in the narrative of life with God.

Spiritual Practices refers to the myriad of activities routinely done and relied upon in one’s life-with-God. At this stage we no longer need the Law, for our life is basically the Law. In other words, our routine life is found within the Law. The progression follows that what the Law commanded, and we willingly engaged in through Disciplines, we now regularly do or practice.

As a practical example, the Law commands a Sabbath rest. Every six days one relents from all work and on the seventh day they rest. This is a simple and practical command. In the beginning stage, I obey the Law as payment or my end of the covenant. It is my duty to obey and give the Lord his due for he rescued me and calls me his child. This is what is meant at one level when we say, “Jesus is Lord!” Rest on the seventh day is due to the Lord for his love, mercy, and grace. It is my payment to God.

At some point, I learn of my creation in the image of God. My purpose is live a life in participatory-union with God. The Law was given to assist me in this journey. Ravished by this vision I want to intentionally partner with God in my re-creation. I am struck by the corruption deep within my life, and am sadden by how driven I am to earn people’s approval. Thus, I passionately and intentionally engage in the spiritual discipline of Sabbath. This causes me to rest in God’s approval of me, and ween myself from the never-ending rat race of seeking other’s approval. At this stage, I willingly engage in this discipline for the purpose of becoming the person who rests in God’s approval and ceases to earn other’s approval. The discipline of Sabbath is simply a means to the ends of a vision of life-with-God.

Finally, at some point along this journey, I discover after several hard days of work in a row, or a long season with an intense project, I need to take a day or more to simply stop and be with God. In fact, I find I cannot even go an entire week, but I find myself routinely resting for brief moments most days, and at least one day every week. Then again, I don’t even count — it’s just life. It now adds up to multiple days once or twice a year. At this stage, the Sabbath becomes a regular spiritual practice in my life. I purely engage in this practice because of the regular connection with God I experience through it. It is no longer payment, nor passion motivating my regular and active engagement, but simple purity of life with God.

Grace and peace fam.