Here and Now, or Later and Forever?

Today’s comment comes from Fabio.  The comment was actually submitted Wednesday – so my apologies for the delay in posting.

Fabio wrote: “More than a question I would like to share a thought I had.  Yesterday I went to the men’s group at my church and I was amazed by how many of us were struggling with some kind of trouble, disappointment, or regret. The common thread was how all of them stated, in different fashion, that despite their current struggles they were saved, that they had hope because they had eternal life. What I thought was that it sounded like someone saying: ‘Despite I’m starving right now, I have a nice saving account for when I retire’. It does not make any sense! They are missing out on the blessing of the here and now! And yes, sometimes the ‘here and now’ sucks, but there’s a blessing also in overcoming difficulties, fight when it’s time to fight and let go when it’s time to let go, always knowing that God, however you interpret God, is on your side. That’s faith, isn’t it?”

Fabio, your comments touched on two important differences between Evangelical theology and Progressive theology.  Let me touch on those differences briefly – and then talk about recent developments among these camps.  (Please note that in the next two paragraphs I will speak in BROAD generalizations.  I will then follow the two paragraphs up with a few words about an emerging trend.)

The first difference between the two camps has to do with the scope of their theological approach.  Evangelicals tend to emphasize personal salvation.  Progressives, on the other hand, tend to emphasize a concept of salvation (or wholeness) that transforms not just the individual – but the world in which the individual currently lives.

The second difference between the two groups has to do with their primary focus.  Many Evangelicals have their attention focused primarily on heaven and the afterlife.  Their time on earth is often viewed as something that stands between them and everlasting peace and joy.   For Progressives, their primary focus is on the life which they are living.  Picking up on the familiar words from the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven” – they want to be active participants in helping facilitate the inbreaking of God’s Kindom/Kingdom/Realm.  That’s why Progressives put so much emphasis on social justice.

So are these theological differences insurmountable?

I don’t believe so.  The emerging trend these days is that each camp is trying to achieve a greater degree of balance in their spiritual lives by paying a bit more attention to areas they have historically minimized.

Many younger Evangelicals, for instance, are moving away from a primary focus on personal salvation and the afterlife and beginning to pay more attention to earthly matters (other than homosexuality and abortion, of course, which some Evangelicals had been obsessed with for the past 40 years).  They have begun to play an important role in conversations having to do with global issues such as hunger, poverty, environmental concerns, and the death penalty.  Some have even begun to get more vocal on matters of human rights: including rights for those of other faiths!  You can a sense of this from the website www.redletterchristians.org.

There is a similar shift occurring in Progressive quarters as well.  Many Progressives are beginning to balance their concern about earthly matters (i.e. systemic change and social justice) with an increased emphasis on personal spiritual disciplines and cultivating contemplative/mystical experiences.  This has added new layers to their spiritual lives.

The challenge then these days is for those in each camp not to argue about who’s right/whose faith is the best.  The challenge is to be in dialogue with each other and learn from each other.

While you might be frustrated when you hear some Evangelical friends talk in language that seems dismissive of their earthly experience (and they might be frustrated with hearing you talk about this world in ways that – at least in their minds – seem dismissive of the Bigger Picture), you can each learn a bit from each other about what gets you through the hard times and incorporate those things that seem helpful – and leave behind those things that aren’t.

So what about you?  What do Fabio’s comments raise for you?

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Parallels?

Today’s second question comes from a new reader, Fabio.  Fabio writes: “What is in my mind right now is something I read years ago in a Christian magazine. It was an article against evolution that compared the struggle of creationism against the mainstream scientific consensus with the struggle of Galileo and his theory about the earth revolving around the sun and not vice versa against the mainstream beliefs based on the Catholic Church’s teaching. What struck me was the blatant hypocrisy of the comparison: did the writer even realize that the creationists have nothing to do with Galileo and everything to do with with the dogmatic, religious spirit of the church? How do we deal with that kind of, in the best case scenario, lack of self awareness; in the worst, pure and simple hypocrisy?”

First of all, let me say, “Welcome, Fabio – and thanks for the great question!”

I learned a method years ago that has helped me engage folks who may be resistant to understanding the difference you are talking about.  The model was called LARA.

LARA is an acronym that stands for Listen (to what the speaker/writer is saying), Affirm (areas that you can agree on), Respond (to what you feel is the misinformation), and Add Information (that helps make your point).

Here’s how I would use the model in the instance you are talking about.

LISTEN: You begin by letting the author/speaker make her or his case (which you already have done by having read her or his aritcle).  When the person finishes, you move on to Step 2: Affirm.

AFFIRM:  “I hear you feel modern-day Creationists are in a position much like Galileo’s because each party felt like an outsider since they were battling the mainstream thought of the day.”

RESPOND:  “While both modern-day Creationists and Galileo did share beliefs that were considered unpopular, I believe there is an important difference between the two.  Many modern-day Creationists are incredibly hostile to using insights gained from reason and science.  They want to use Scripture and doctrine – in place of reason and science – to make their points.  Galileo, on the other hand, refused to do that.  In fact he wanted to use reason and the scientific insights of his day to challenge beliefs that were grounded solely in Scripture and doctrine.”

ADD INFORMATION:  “So if you want to use Galileo as an example, then it’s important to remember what Galileo REALLY stood for.  Galileo was a many of faith who believed that faithful people should use all of the tools at her or his disposal: including the tools of reason and science with which God has blessed us.  And Galileo believed that a person of faith should be open to changing his or her mind if the information we gather using all of God’s tools reveal new insights.  It would be inaccurate and unfair to use Galileo to support the position of those who would reject the very tools Galileo used – and who would reject a spirit of openness and inquiry – in the name of faith.”

That’s one way you could approach the matter.  I know my readers probably have many other insights to share.  So how about you?  What might you suggest?

 

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Mercy and Grace?

The first of today’s two questions came from Stevie.  She wrote: “You and I had a conversation recently about the difference between God’s mercy and God’s grace. I’m thinking your readers may find your explanation as enlightening and thought-provoking as I.”

There are lots of theological words that many of us use as if they were interchangeable.  Many of these words are not.  Two words that are often confused are the words “mercy” and “grace”.

So what’s the difference?

There are several ways one could talk about it.  Once resource I found talked about the difference in the following way.  Mercy is when an individual does not receive the consequence – or consequences – one would expect. Grace has to do with a quality or characteristic of God: mainly a kindness that is unexpectedly (and undeservedly) extended by God.

So what about you?  How might you talk about the difference between these concepts?

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Dealing With Troubled Relationships

For the sake of confidentiality, I will summarize a question that was sent in.  One of my readers asked for advice about dealing with the former spouse of their child who left a marriage that involved 5 children.  The reader asked specifically for help about dealing with attitudes and responses toward their child’s former spouse.

Let me begin by saying I cannot fully imagine the challenges of dealing with the pain and disappointment involved.  Not only do you have to manage your individual feelings about your child’s former spouse – you have to manage those feelings and behaviors in ways that allow your child and grandchildren the room they need in order to do the same.  My hat is off to you for managing that tricky balance.

I have just a couple thoughts I would offer based upon my experiences.

The first thing that has helped me when dealing with difficult people is to acknowledge and validate my feelings toward the difficult person.  Too often, we think that being a person of faith means we have to like everyone.  I don’t believe that’s the case.  We can believe that the difficult person is a beloved child of God, that she or he has sacred value and worth – and still believe the person is a thorn in our side.  If we try to deny or suppress our feelings, I don’t believe it is a healthy thing to do.  Our feelings will eventually come out one way or another – so why not truthfully acknowledge how we feel.

Once we do that, it moves us to our area of greatest challenge: separating our feelings ABOUT the difficult person from our behavior TOWARD the difficult person.

How do we do that?

I was lucky in that I had the chance to learn this lesson early in life when I started teaching at a juvenile detention center right out of college.  The school in which I taught was based upon a behavior modification system.  Good behavior was rewarded; bad behavior was punished (or resulted in consequences).

What that behavior modification system taught me was that when it came to my interactions with the students – many of whom had done truly shocking and revolting things – I had to focus on how they (and I) acted in any given moment.  In other words, I had to let go of their past behavior and focus on what they were doing in the moment.

When I shifted the focus away from how I felt about the person and moved it toward a focus on how we were treating each other, it created space for those involved to behave in new ways.  The students began to trust they had a chance to gain (or re-gain) my trust, and their behavior often improved tremendously.

I even found my attitudes toward students sometimes shifted dramatically.  I stopped judging them for what they had done in the past, and started seeing positive new dimensions in the individual.  Over time I actually began to feel more positively about students who I had previously disliked.

The other thing a laser-like focus on current behavior accomplished was that it allowed me to treat people fairly.  Instead of worrying about who the “good” person (or victim) and “bad” person (abuser) was in a situation, I could look more objectively at individuals.  Whereas I had previous cut “good” people slack and frequently excused their bad behavior (while lashing out at “bad” people and ignoring their positive behaviors), I now found myself giving everyone the same chance.

Once again, this helped transform the way I viewed people.  It allowed me to take the “good” people off their pedestals and see their less than stellar behavior as well as give the “bad” people a change to do good things.

My world was changed forever because of those lessons I learned in my early twenties.

Of course it’s easier to apply these principles when dealing with one’s students than it is to apply their to a child’s former spouse (and the parent of one’s grandchildren).  But I believe the principles can be equally effective.

When you focus on the current behavior – and treat all parties fairly – you can accomplish many things simultaneously.  By giving the former spouse a chance to positively interact with you and your loved ones – they might eventually come to understand that you aren’t harboring grudges and might start being more positive around you.  By seeing your child objectively (instead of casting your child in the role of victim), you can help your child identify and address the issues that your child needs to look at.  And by using the principles around your grandchildren, they will see that you are a fair and open presence to both of their parents.  They are less likely to feel as if you are forcing them to take sides and might appreciate you more.  You can accomplish all of these things simply by focusing primarily on the behaviors of those involved – and not just on your feelings about those individuals.

And when your feelings bubble up, I’ve found that screaming into a pillow (or some other way of getting out those negative feelings) can be tremendously helpful as well.

Those are just a couple of thoughts I had based upon my own life experience.  So what about you?  What words of advice would you offer based upon your own experiences?

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What’s On Your Mind?

Since I have chosen to write only in response to a question or comment, I thought I would get things started today by asking, “What’s on you mind?”

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Out of Many, One?

Today’s question comes from Beverly.  She writes: “What’s on my mind today is a discussion I was involved in elsewhere about how the biggest political conflict we face in this country today is between the belief that we must adopt a single, unified culture and belief system in order to get along and be able to trust each other, and the belief that the best thing for our country is to learn how to get along and work productively with people of different cultures and beliefs. In short, most of what we’re fighting about is whether people should be forced to adapt to one dominant “American” culture (and which it should be), or whether people should be forced to adapt to a multicultural nation in which their right to live as their culture dictates ends where others’ right to do so begins.  Does your faith perspective suggest any answers for how this conflict might be respectfully resolved with a minimum of forcing anybody?”

Thanks for the great question Beverly.  It is always such a rush to receive questions from readers and better understand what’s on peoples’ minds!

I see a lot of parallels between the political/social question you asked, and the dynamics in faith communities (particularly in Christian faith communities).  In order to address the question, let me back into it a little by sharing a theological approach that has helped me over the years.

In much of her literature (and the literature that has sprung out of the Course in Miracles movement), Marianne Williamson suggests there are two basic choices that people face when considering how to lead their lives: they can choose a life of love, or a life of fear.

Her theological perspective challenged me to think about what it is that motivates people to choose a life based on fear.

Of course, there are many, many reasons why people make such a choice.  Let me focus on just one that I encounter a lot as a spiritual leader.

Many people in our society are raised to believe that if something is true, then it means there is only one way to live out that truth.  To put that into a Christian context, a Christian might believe that baptism is important and conclude that the only legitimate form of baptism are those performed when an individual over the age of 13 and dunked – or immersed – in water.  Any other form of baptism, they believe, is WRONG!  In a secular context, people believe that there is only one way to value life.  There, such people believe, the laws of our country must be written to reinforce that one belief.  In that case, it means to take away a woman’s reproductive choice.

Because of their that approach – if something is true, there is only one way to act on it – people are pushed into living lives of fear.  They are required each day to fight to defend the ONE correct expression of truth.

If a human being goes on a deep spiritual journey, however, many will come to realize that human beings are limited.  And given our limited capacity, none of us have the ability to comprehend the fullness of Truth (note the capital T).  It certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t a single unifying Truth; it means our finite human condition keeps us from fully grasping it.

This spiritual realization breeds in us a profound spirit of humility.  That sense of humility makes it is easier to lead a life of love – since (to use a traditionally Christian concept) you can extend grace to others and allow them to live into the Truth in a way that fits their experience.

Of course, there are practical challenges to living this humility out.  How can we as a country exist – or how can a religious tradition exist – in ways that allow us to both honor the diversity AND create a sense of unity that brings us together?

This is where our form of governance comes into play.

I believe very strongly that communities are healthiest when we organize ourselves in ways that allow for differences.  In doing so, we can help people realize that the space we extend to others is a form graciousness that can bind us together.

Let me give you an example of what I mean from a faith context.  I was raised in the United Methodist Church, which is governed using an Episcopal system.  In Episcopal systems, decision makers gather and vote on church policies and procedures.  At the end of the vote, one perspective wins and all other perspectives lose.  Every local church is then forced to live by the winner’s rule.  This form of church governance breeds a culture of fear – since each side is TERRIFIED of losing and being forced to live by “the other sides’” values.

In a congregational system, while the denomination gathers together every few years to pass resolutions – every local community is empowered to live into those resolutions as they see fit.  Back in 2011 in Tampa, for instances, delegates from our denomination gathered to debate a resolution about affirming the right of LGBTQ parents to adopt children.  During the floor debate, there were a variety of perspectives voiced: including some who were adamantly opposed to allowing LGBTQ persons to adopt.  But when the final vote was taken, the delegates unanimously affirmed the right of LGBTQ persons to adopt.

Why?

Because our form of governance stresses that no individual or local church will be forced to live into the policy in a particular way.  There is no one winner.  Some delegates went home to their local churches and became strong advocates for the position.  Other delegates went home and continued to teach that the best homes are those led by opposite gender parents.  Everyone in the room, however, not only heard one another’s values and concerns: everyone felt respected.  It was a powerful spiritual moment to experience!

So how might that generous, congregational way of being be used at the national stage to deal with matters of politics and policy?

Whether we are liberal, conservative, or moderates, we have to shift our attitude and our approach.

When I talk with my friends who are strong “Pro-Life” advocates, I tell them I am a strong “Pro-Choice” advocate for two reasons.  First, I tell them I am Pro-Choice because I believe a woman, her family, her health provider, and her spiritual leader are the best individuals to make this most intimate decision – and not the government.  And second, I am Pro-Choice because I believe that no individual should be forced to live by another’s values.  A “Pro-Choice” position allows those who are “Pro-Life” to live by their values and never try to terminate a pregnancy.  This way of being creates a win/win mentality (rather than a win/lose mentality), and makes it easier to life a life of love instead of a life of fear.

Same thing with a delicate issue like Religious Freedom Acts (RFA).  I tell my friends that I am opposed to all current RFAs because they create a win/lose dynamic.  I do not want one’s religious beliefs to become a weapon used to deny others service.  As a Christian, I believe I am called to do what Jesus did: extend love and service to everyone across all boundaries.  And by extending such hospitality to others, I am assured that others won’t be allowed to deny me services due to their religious beliefs.  In other words, opposition to RFAs as currently proposed creates a win/win environment which, in turn, makes it easier to live a life of love.

Same thing with issues of multi-culturalism.  America has become the amazing place it is today because it has a long history of allowing people from around the globe to come here and bring with them the best of their cultures.  My family’s ancestors – who immigrated to this country from Germany and Norway – brought with them many wonderful traditions that strengthened the communities in which they lived.  I oppose attempts to limit cultural expressions today because such attempts seek to end this long and rich American tradition.  We are better and stronger when we live – and learn – from one another.  This is one more example of what it means to embrace a win/win perspective.

So while it is easy to get sucked into movements that support a win/lose mentality (especially with those that seem to represent “our side”), I would encourage us all to look for attitudinal ways that we can move toward a win/win mentality.  Ways in which we can better articulate the ways in which our country is made better and stronger when we not only allow for differences, but celebrate them.  Ways in which these celebrations of difference are brought together with conscious attempts to affirm our similarities as well.  That is our challenge.  By doing so we can leave behind lives of fear (about losing), and embrace lives of love!

Those are a few of my thoughts on this important question Beverly raised.  How about you?  What do you think?

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What’s On Your Mind?

Hi there!  We have a few new readers added this week.  I wanted to reach out to everyone and see if anyone had any spiritual questions they would like me/us to chew on.  Just a quick word about the blog and our blog community.

My readers cover a HUGE theological spectrum.  We have readers who identify as Catholic and Evangelical; Atheist and Agnostic.  As the motto of The United Church of Christ (UCC) says, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!”

As I respond to questions that are submitted, please note one thing that I try to model.  I never try to position myself as an expert since I am a clergy person.  Instead, I simply share my faith perspective.  That’s how most spiritual leaders in non-creedal religious traditions such as the UCC conduct ourselves.

I typically end every one of my postings with an invitation to readers to join in the conversation by asking what they think.  It is my hope that my readers will adopt the same approach.  That instead of trying to position themselves as the singular expert – or as the official spokesperson for God – they will simply speak from their heart and their experience and receive what others readers might share in response.

In this way, we here at pastorcraigsmusings can offer the world a taste of what it so desperately needs: a model of how people from radically different places can be in conversation and authentic dialogue with each other while they extend and receive respect.

With that said, “What’s on your mind today?”

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