Prayer

Today’s question comes from Cheri.  She writes: “With the ongoing health issues and struggles we as a family have faced with John (my adult son) I have frequently been amazed and taken aback by the responses of the Christians in my circle as I have shared my prayers and concerns. They responses that prey on my mind fall into two camps. One is the predictable ‘Give it to God’ camp where folks seem to feel that we’ve prayed about this once and should just now leave it to God. It’s like they think I/we don’t have a strong faith because we continue to pray for John’s healing. As John gets worse, not better and I/we are praying for miracles; the other camp crops up. These are the folks that believe that miracles in the grand sense stopped happening in Bible times and what we have now is modern medicine and the comfort of Heaven to come. I believe that praying continuously for healing can be appropriate and that asking God for a miracle for my child, granting that it may or may not be His will, is also entirely okay. Thoughts? Ideas about how to respond to these well-meaning (I trust) naysayers?”

There is much to process from Cheri’s remarks.  Let me pull together a few thoughts in hopes that this will be a jumping off point for further conversation from my readers.  With that said, let me plunge in.

So much conversation about prayer in Christian circles is predicated on two theological beliefs about God.  The first belief hinges on the assumption that God is completely transcendent – or completely separate from – God’s creation.  The second belief hinges on the assumption that the primary purpose of prayer is to change God (or, at the very least, change God’s “mind”).  These two beliefs generate a prayer practice known as intercessory prayer.  Its purpose is to wake God and inform God about what is happening in our lives.  Once we’ve done that we hope we can motivate God to take the particular course of action we want.

While a large percentage of Christians believe this is the only way to think about prayer, there are MANY Christians who understand prayer quite differently.

Such individuals don’t believe that God is completely separate from God’s creation – but rather God in infused in God’s creation and permeates it.  Given that God is fully present amidst God’s creation, prayer then is no longer seen as a way of bringing God up-to-date on what’s happening and trying to lobby God to one’s preferred outcome.  The primarily purpose of prayer, then, is to strengthen the individual’s connection to/relationship with God.  It’s goal is no longer to change God (and God’s mind).  Its goal is now to change/strengthen the individual him or herself so that she/he can deal with the circumstances one finds oneself in.

From this second way of thinking about prayer, it makes complete sense to pray regularly for a loved one (including oneself) since the individual praying needs to regularly connect with the Ultimate Source of Power and open her/himself up to accept the challenges and outcomes that one faces – regardless of the outcome.

As you can see from my brief remarks, so many of our basic theological assumptions – assumptions that sadly too often go unexplored – form the character of our prayer lives.  I can see given some of the theological assumptions your friends make why they might be troubled why you and your family continue to pray even after “giving it up to God”.  However, given other theological assumptions that folks like myself make, it make ABSOLUTE sense for you and your family to continue your regular prayers for John.  And please know that I will continue to pray regularly for John, you, and your family too!

So how about you?  What things does Cheri’s question raise for you?

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To Talk About Faith, or Not to Talk About Faith – that is the question … :)

Today’s question/comment comes from Stevie.  She wrote: “Sharon’s recent question which started, “when asked about my religion…..” made me think. It made me wonder why I dislike it so much when someone asks me about my faith, especially the question, “Are you a Christian?”.  My relationship with God is so personal to me. To me, a question such as that is as intrusive as any other question about my personal life. I could never be part of a faith community where “spreading the Word” is important.  Is it part of my introverted personality…that part of me that makes the number of people I get close to small? Is it because I feel judgment from those who have asked me that because my relationship with God is different from theirs? I wonder.”

There are so many different levels of Stevie’s question/comment.  I will pick out just a few threads and speak to them.  Then I will invite others to share their insights as well.

Let me start by affirming two things you said in your comment.  First, I do think an individual’s personality plays a role in how comfortable she or he is in talking about one’s faith.  Extroverts will certainly be much more likely to talk about things – including faith – than introverts.

This leads me to the second thing you mentioned that I wanted to affirm.  The fact that our approach toward evangelism is related to our approach to others things in life as well.  Some people are prone to talk publicly about a variety of things: their favorite sports team; their favorite political candidate or political party; their favorite movie or television show; or their favorite recipe.  Others keep such things to themselves.

While some might think of the ability to talk about things openly as a matter of introversion or extraversion, this issue is larger than that.  For some extraverts were raised to believe not to talk about controversial or “unpleasant” things with others while some introverts were raised to believe that a self-respecting person ought to stand up for her or his beliefs.  I believe this second matter is more a matter of style and background.

Before I get to the two primary theological points I wanted to discuss in regard to Stevie’s comments, there is one final thing that makes talking about our faith so hard in these times.  Starting in the early 1980’s, white Evangelical Christians began to play a HUUUUUUUUUUGE role in American politics.  Who can forget the rise of Jerry Falwell’s ironically named Moral Majority (I say “ironically named” because many Christians felt their group was neither).

This group of Christians spoke in very specific ways about a variety of issues.  As a result, they gave Americans the impression that if a person said they were Christian, it meant the person was anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, anti-immigrant, anti-people of other faiths, anti-fill in the blank.  As a result of their political actions, hundreds of thousands of Progressive Christians stopped talking openly about their faith for fear that others would assume they held these political positions as well.

I want to move beyond these first three areas that deal with social matters, however, and talk a little bit about theology.

There are two aspects of a person’s theology that helps dictate how much – and in what ways – a person talks about their theology.

The first is the person’s view of what some Christians would call salvation.

There are some Christians who believe that only those who profess a personal faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior will be saved (meaning, they will go to heaven and live eternally with God and their loved ones).  Those of a different faith – or no faith – will spend eternity in eternal damnation.

Obviously, folks who hold this theological view have a HUGE drive to talk about their faith as often – and as loudly as possible – because they believe the eternal well being of others depends on it.  They believe in a theological position known as “limited atonement” (i.e. God’s work through Jesus reaches only those who accept or believe in Jesus in a particular way).

Some think these folks are driven by ego or arrogance: trying to win the world over to their “position” or “side”.  While there certainly are some individuals in this camp who fit that description, not all of these folks do.  Many are motivated by a genuine love for others (and a deep-seeded fear about the future of their loved ones).

Sadly, many think this is the only viable Christian theology.  It’s not.  There are many Christians who believe in a form of universalism.  This means that God’s love is so great that it not only encompasses those who love God but embraces those of other faiths and no faith as well.  This belief system is often referred to as “universal atonement” – meaning that God’s work through Jesus fundamentally affected God’s relationship with all of humanity (not just those who view Jesus in a particular way).

Universalists, as you might suspect, have a very different understanding of their loved ones present and future.  They are not worried about their loved ones being damned to hell.  Instead, they are at peace knowing everyone rests in God’s love and care.  One of the challenges of a universalist perspective, I should add, is that it can lead to a tremendous sense of complacency toward those folks who are physically and spiritually hurting – if we are not careful.

I bring this up to say our theology (whether we subscribe, for instance, to a belief in “limited” or “unconditional atonement”) has an even bigger influence on how compelled we are to talk about our faith.

The second theological matter that affects our drive to talk about faith has to do with whether or not we are a creedal Christians.

Creedal Christians are those folks who participate in traditions that tell us there are specific beliefs an individual must learn and internalize.  A sort of curriculum to master, if you will.

For creedal Christians, evangelism comes relatively easy because it is very clear exactly what an individual is to share.  These beliefs are in Scripture and the historic Christian creeds alone.  These folks often have a few Scriptures memorized that they will refer to – and a few talking points – that lead virtually all of their faith-based conversations to the same place.

Non-creedal Christians don’t have the luxury of having things spelled out for them.  While many read Scripture carefully and prayerfully – and know what beliefs are considered “orthodox” as defined by the historic creeds – their primary spiritual focus is on the truth which resonates with their soul.  In addition to Scripture and teaching, non-creedal Christians consider things like their personal experiences and what reason (something many believe to be a gift from God and NOT a threat to one’s faith) tells them in embracing their faith.

Because of the role that personal experience and reason plays, non-Creedal Christians can be much more reluctant to talk about their faith with others.  They are humble and realize their personal experiences – and their set of learnings – could very well be different than the individual they are speaking with.  They don’t want to discount the other person – so they are more likely to not share their faith perspective.

So do these theological pieces mean that evangelical and/or creedal Christians are the only ones who could and/or should share their faith openly?

Absolutely not!  My passion as a universalist, non-creedal Christian pastor is to give people in my faith community the tools they need to feel more comfortable talking about their faith.

I hope to help people realize that we CAN talk about our faith more easily when we realize our opportunities to talk about our faith are motivated by a joy and excitement about sharing our experience of God’s universal love (not fear in talking about God’s impending judgment or a heavy sense of obligation to evangelize in order to punch our ticket to heaven).

We can also more easily talk about matters of faith when we realize all we are doing is sharing our experience and perspective about God in a way that invites others to do the same.  We don’t have to worry about misquoting a piece of prepared Scripture or forgetting a sub-point of a prefabricated set of talking points that were written by someone else.

Those are just a few thoughts Stevie’s question/comment raise for me (he says as he types his 1,432nd word).  What do Stevie’s remarks raise for you?

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Tending to Our Spiritual Life

Today’s questions come from Cheri.  She writes: “What do you do when you feel like God isn’t listening to your prayers? This is not a crisis in faith, it’s a head knows heart hurts issue.  Second Question: How do you motivate yourself to read your Bible and pray when you’ve gotten out of the habit? (Not me – I was asked this week and don’t know how to answer.)”

Two great questions.  Let me start with the first.

One of the things I’ve noticed as a pastor is that lots of us think that we are only in relationship with God when we feel connected – when it feels as if things are going well in our lives.  The flip side of this, however, is that when we don’t feel connected – when it feels like things are NOT going well, we conclude we are not in relationship with God.

When I talk with folks in this headspace, I use the analogy of our human relationships.  I remind them that just because things aren’t going well in a relationship it doesn’t mean the relationship is absent or broken: in most cases, the relationship is still there.  Recognizing that you are still in the relationship – still connected – even during the most distant and difficult times can actually strengthen the relationship in the long run.

That’s how I see our faith.  When we don’t feel God’s presence or care manifest in our lives, it’s a great opportunity to do what the psalmist did: name the pain and pour out your heart to God.  Some of the most powerful words in Scripture are words of lament.  As we head toward Easter, who can forget Jesus’ heart-wrenching words of lament on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46

That process of pouring out your pain and frustration in the hardest times can actually strengthen your relationship with God – as you learn to be more real in that relationship.

The second question raised is a great question about the nature of spiritual practices in general: whether one is seeking to read the Bible more, pray and/or meditate more, or engage in acts of service.

Let me start with two techniques that I recommend, and then finish by making a more general observation.

The first technique I use to cultivate spiritual practice is to set aside a regular time in my day that I devote specifically to that spiritual practice.  I might, for instance, devote the first 20-30 minutes of my day to reading scripture; I might add 10 minutes in my schedule when I go to bed to prayerfully review my day; or I might set aside a portion of my day off to engage in an act of service.  By regularizing the spiritual practice, I’m less likely to get busy and “forget” about it.

The second technique I use to cultivate spiritual practice is building a community around the spiritual practice.  If I want to read the Bible more, I might recruit a friend to do a “read the Bible in a year” program with me; if I’m working on my prayer life, I might seek out a prayer partner whom I can check in with and share how my prayer life is unfolding; if I want to engage in an act of service, I might work on befriending someone at the ministry site to build a friendship with.  My spiritual practices are a thousand times easier to maintain when I’m not going it alone.

While I’ve found those techniques helpful, there is an underlying issue that can be the elephant in the room.  The most important determiner I’ve found for myself is answering a key question: why do I want to engage in the particular spiritual practice?

If I’m reading the Bible just because I think it’s important; or if I set aside time to pray because other good Christians I know do that; or if I volunteer at a food bank because the pastor talks a lot about doing that sort of thing in her or his sermons – I can almost guarantee the effort will eventually fail.

If I adopt a spiritual practice because I truly believe that the spiritual practice will bring me closer to God – and provide me with nurture that I need and can’t get anywhere else – then a person is MUCH more likely to maintain the spiritual practice.

Those are just a few of my thoughts in regard to Cheri’s excellent questions.  What thoughts do her questions raise for you?

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What’s On Your Mind?

It’s been a while since I received a question. I’m wondering what’s on your mind.  Drop me a question and let’s start a conversation!

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Jesus Loves Me …

Today’s question comes from Sharon.  She wrote: “When someone asks me what I believe, without going into a 90-minute dissertation, I like to say, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Maybe simplistic, but true. My question for you is, since you are interested in creedal/non-creedal beliefs, do you think my statement is a Creed?”

Sharon, first let me say you are in good company when you respond to questions about your beliefs in the manner you do.  When asked how he would summarize the essence of his Christian faith during a 1962 visit to the United States, Karl Barth – considered by many to be the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th Century – responded exactly as you do: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  So much for being simplistic 😊

Now to your question about whether or not your response should be considered creedal.

This question is a little more complicated than a yes or no answer.  My “It depends!” response is built on how a person approaches the “Jesus” referenced in the song.

If a person approaches Jesus by suggesting it is one’s beliefs ABOUT Jesus that are most important – then I think that person is taking a creedal approach to their Christian faith.  And please note when I say “beliefs about Jesus” – this can come from more than one theological direction.

If you believe, for instance, that a person MUST believe that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, born of a virgin mother, died and experienced a bodily resurrection in order to be a good Christian – this would be creedal approach from an Evangelical or Traditionalist perspective.

If you believe, on the other hand, that a person MUST believe that Jesus was human (not divine), that his birth happened in the usual way, and that the only way to understand the resurrection is as a metaphor – this would be a creedal approach from a Progressive perspective.

Both approaches – in my mind – are equally creedal.

So how can you hold a Jesus-based faith in a non-creedal way?

Rather than defining things via your beliefs ABOUT Jesus, a non-creedal Christian can lead with her or his RELATIONSHIP WITH/OR CONNECTION TO Jesus.  This approach moves beyond rigid doctrine and allows individuals to have different experiences (or understandings) of Jesus.  It is that generosity of spirit – a generosity that allows, and even encourages individuals to see things differently – that is the hallmark of a non-creedal approach toward Christian faith.

So what does Sharon’s question raise for you?

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What’s On Your Mind?

We are well into another week.  What’s on your mind this week?

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Missing Stairs

Today’s question comes from Beverly.  She wrote: “The #MeToo movement has me thinking about what one article I read called ‘missing stairs’: people in a community who are known for their tendency to say and/or do hurtful things, but because of their contributions or status in the community, no one wants to ‘make a fuss’ about it. So instead community members pass on warnings to those most vulnerable: ‘Oh, don’t pay it any mind if Mary makes racist jokes. She’s just too old to know better.’ ‘Bob? Yeah, he likes to flirt with the young girls, but he doesn’t mean anything by it. Just steer clear of him if he bothers you.’”

“What is the best way for a loving community to deal with such “missing stairs”? How do you honor someone’s contributions and history while holding them fully accountable for hurtful behavior? How do you protect vulnerable members of the community without allowing them to be painted as “the ones who got Mary and Bob in trouble”? Is there a way to create a just reconciliation? And what do we do if that doesn’t work?”

That’s a great series of questions for the time we live in when many of those who hold leadership positions seem to incessantly model hurtful and inappropriate comments and behavior.

I learned an important life lesson in my very first job out of college.  I taught in a school located in a juvenile detention center, and the school used a very strict behavior modification system.  The system was built on first teaching the students the rules of acceptable behavior.  Next, the students were taught the consequences for breaking a rule.  So when a student acted outside the bounds of appropriate behavior, our conversations with the individual would go something like this …

“Stan, what is the rule about talking in class?”

“No talking in class without permission.”

“What were you doing just now, Stan?”

“Talking in class without permission.”

“What is the consequence for breaking the rule about talking in class without permission, Stan?”

“A loss of 5 behavioral points.”

“So, what is going to happen now to your point total?”

“I’m going to lose 5 behavioral points.”

In most cases, it was the students that doled out the consequences – not the teachers.  The beauty of that strict behavioral modification system was that it focused all of us on two things – and two things alone: (1) the rules (or what was defined as acceptable behavior); and (2) the consequences for breaking the rules.  That’s it!

Of course, the students would always try to divert our attention away from a conversation about the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules.  They would often try to make it personal by saying things like, “You just don’t like me!” or, “You are out to get me!”

No matter how many times they tried to divert attention away from the rules, however, we were trained to always keep our focus.  And that approach worked like nothing I had ever experienced before.

Of course, a behavior modification isn’t perfect (as nothing or no system ever is).  But it was a powerful tool of transformation in the lives of those who could not otherwise be reached!

As a result of that experience, I believe the first thing an individual in a position of leadership and the group must do is maintain a laser-like focus on their definition of appropriate behavior.  It shouldn’t matter how much power or history the offending individual has with the community.  The ONLY thing that matters are the defining values, principles, and rules of the group.

That’s why – when it comes to the #MeToo movement – I make it clear that as a Progressive I hold those in the movement I tend to see eye to eye with (people like Charlie Rose, Al Franken, and Garrison Keillor) to the same standards to which I hold leaders on the far Right.  NO ONE gets a free pass: no matter how much I like or agree with them on other matters!  This approach has helped me maintain credibility with those on the Right who see I don’t hold double standards in my approach.

And when someone lashes out in frustration and attacks the “missing stair”, it is critically important that the individual and/or group uses those same principles to protect the “missing stair”.  Only when everyone within the group understands that the rules are the rules and will be applied fairly to EVERYONE, do those rules take on added authority.  Even the “missing stair” will begin to respect the rules a bit more when she/he experiences first hand the benefit of the rules/principles.

This leads me to a second point about how to protect the most vulnerable members of a community against a “missing stair”.

When folks are living together in community, it is crucial that members don’t expect the individual targeted by a “missing stair” to be the one to call out the “missing stair” on her or his offense.  A group shouldn’t, for instance, expect an African-American member of the community to call a “missing stair” out on her/his racist remark.  Nor should the group expect a lesbian member of the community to call out a “missing stair” on her/his homophobia.

Such a dynamic would send two painful messages: (1) that the directly affected individual is the only one who cares about the slight; and (2) that the offensive remark was offensive only because it hurt Mary’s feelings – and not because it violated bigger principles.  There are no words for how powerful it is when someone from a social location NOT directly affected by the remark stands up and calls the “missing stair” on her/his inappropriateness.

And in to your final question about how you can stay in relationship with a “missing stair” and perhaps even achieve reconciliation – here’s my thought.  The group makes it clear that the arms of the community are always open – to those who are willing to live by the values and principles of the group.

If an individual decides not to respect those values or principles, it is the individual who is removing themselves from good standing in the community.  And when the individual is willing to live by those guiding values and principles, the group will be ready to embrace them: no matter how many times they have struggled to do so in the past.

In other words, it is never the community that is excluding individuals.  It is always the individual who chooses whether or not to step outside the bounds of community.  And it is always the individual who decides whether she or he wants to come back into community.  The power (and responsibility) lies within the individual – and the community honors and respects her or his decision.

Those are just a few thoughts I had in regard to Beverly’s excellent questions.  What things do Beverly’s questions raise for you?

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