Who Am I?

Are You Saved?

Posted: June 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I listened to the following from Molly Sabourin in one of her podcasts quite a while back. Somebody uploaded it to youtube with visuals. It’s timeless and beautiful.

Molly’s words require no elaboration from me. They are haunting and beautiful and stand easily on their own. Still, I have sought for words to express how I reacted when I first heard this in her podcast. There was a profound sense of affirmation and proper orientation. My heart sighed, “Yes!” as tension I had carried for so long melted away. I’ve had many interactions with Christians and experiences with Christianity, both positive and negative, throughout my life. All of those were “legitimate” in the sense that they all infomed the first thirty years of my process of conversion. I don’t discount one in favor of another. The events and decisions that led to my Baptism at age six or seven were not somehow false or invalid because my identity did not begin to truly become intertwined with Jesus of Nazareth until my early thirties when I generally consider the process of my journey to have reached the point where the language of conversion is the only language that fits.

However, as many Americans who wind their way into or within Christianity often do, I reached that point in my journey in a tradition which attempts to reduce the broad, rich, and varied use of the concept of “salvation” within Christianity to a single event at one specific point in time. They want to use the metaphor of a wedding rather than the biblical metaphor of a marriage. They want to make salvation about an intellectual decision that you make fervently and sincerely enough for it to stick in that instant. And as far as I’ve been able to discern, “salvation” is reduced to an answer to the question, “What happens when I die?”

That was never a particular concern of mine. To the extent that I considered it at all, I was perfectly satisfied with my childhood and adult belief in the transmigration of souls blended with a later developing belief that some might remain pure spirit as a form of kami. I wasn’t worried about the caricature of “hell” you encounter in American culture in general and more seriously in evangelicalism because I didn’t believe in it. (I still don’t believe in either the funny cultural parody or the more serious evangelical caricature of hell which the culture rightly parodies. But that’s a discussion for another day. I do believe in the power of death (hades) which Christ has defeated. And I do believe in the reality of the experience described by the metaphor of gehenna that flows from the eschaton of the narrative of the Christian story. Pick which you mean by the English word drawn from the name and realm of the goddess Hel.)

As N.T. Wright and others have pointed out in detail, the Holy Scriptures also say fairly little about what happens in the interim period between the time our bodies sleep and the resurrection of the dead. There are just a few words here and there. Instead of the deep and multi-faceted concepts of salvation found in our Holy Scriptures, much of evangelicalism has reduced salvation to a single facet that does not ever seem to be the primary focus of the New Testament. And in so doing they have crafted a framework in which my own personal story simply won’t fit.

Molly captures in her words so much of the way the story and person of Jesus of Nazareth had reshaped and reformed my own personal story and identity in something more like the full richness of the scriptural usage of the concepts of salvation. In one sense, all humanity was saved when Jesus united the human and divine natures fully, in their entirety, and lived the life of a faithful human being; was crucified by the powers as our ransom; and broke the power of death over humanity in his Resurrection. Because of Jesus, it is no longer the nature of man to die. In Christ we find our salvation.

In another sense, I am working out my salvation today in this life with fear and trembling. I see as though through a mirror, darkly. But as best as I am able I am pressing forward, running the race, and trying to learn to obey the commands of Jesus as I try to follow him. In this sense, I can hardly say I was saved at some earlier point in my life. I’m still alive. While it seems incredible to me at this moment that I would ever do anything but follow Christ, it was once just as incredible to me that I would. If over the course of my life I turned to a different spiritual path and followed other gods, in what sense would I be “saved” in the particular Christian sense? I continue to be in the process of being saved. As with marriage, this is a process and a life. We follow a personal God of perfect relationship. How could it be anything else?

And finally, in another broad scriptural sense, I will one day stand before God with my true self fully revealed in his light to myself and all others. There is no account of that final judgment in the Holy Scriptures that does not describe it as a judgment over the totality of our lives — over who we are with no lies and no deception. God is love and light, but so pure that no shadow of darkness can persist in his unveiled presence. The question will not ultimately be about what God thinks of me. The ultimate answer to that question was the Cross. God loves me. The question will be, “Do I love God?” I pray that I grow in the grace and love of God so that through Jesus my answer is, “Yes!” For this reason I pray, “Lord have mercy.” But a lasting life in a resurrected body continuous, yet discontinuous, with my present body and in some sense like our Lord’s in his Resurrection working within a restored and healed creation that has been made new and is overflowing with the unveiled glory of the Lord marks the fullness of the Christian story of salvation.

That is our hope. Nothing less.

The Didache 16 – Do Not Engender Bitterness

Posted: June 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 16 – Do Not Engender Bitterness

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Do not remove your hand from your son or daughter; rather, teach them the fear of God from their youth. Do not enjoin anything in your bitterness upon your bondman or maidservant, who hope in the same God, lest ever they shall fear not God who is over both; for he comes not to call according to the outward appearance, but to them whom the Spirit has prepared. And you bondmen shall be subject to your masters as to a type of God, in modesty and fear.

I’ve been around American evangelicalism long enough to know how many in that tradition will interpret the first sentence above. Does it help you at all to know that it is also interpreted “Do not remove your heart”? How about the caution in the next sentence against enjoining anything in your bitterness? Ring any bells with what Paul tells fathers in Ephesians? Sigh. I really don’t have anything I feel like saying. I would be “preaching to the choir” as they say in Baptist circles. The ones who actually need to hear what I might say never would, even if it is part of the way of life.

Christianity was already putting limits on the treatment of slaves in the first century. In Roman culture the head of the household held the power of life and death over children, over wives, and over slaves. It’s hard for us to imagine today. To be fair, in some part these limits did flow from the limits God had worked to place within Torah and within the life experience of all Jews. Christianity just took it to its conclusion in Jesus. Eventually the Church would hold that no baptized Christian could be a slave to another man. While there were issues with the treatment of serfs and other peasants beholden to the Lord of the manor, slavery as such had almost vanished in the West before the introduction of African slaves in the early modern era. It was a huge step backwards for Christians and took centuries to correct. My own denomination, the SBC, was formed in a schism in support of slavery.

Again, sigh.

Thoughts on Emergent

Posted: June 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve read Julie Clawson’s post, Disappointed with Emergent?, and followed the replies with a fair degree of interest. I’ve thought about what I might say in a comment and it’s never really seemed to fit the focus and flow of the discussion or be something I could say succinctly. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided to write my own post at a tangent to her post and the rest of the broader discussion on the topic. I’m not involved with Emergent in any way, unlike many of the others who have posted. So my thoughts will be from a somewhat different perspective.

I became aware of Emergent probably about five years ago or so. It impinged on my consciousness not through a book, a search, particular sorts of questions, or anything like that. Rather, I was introduced to this particular conversation by a friend.  That friend had grown up, I gather, within the more or less typical southern evangelical conservative culture. There are the sorts of ups and downs we tend to expect in those stories, but it does include some ways of treating fellow human beings as a young man, flowing in some ways from that particular culture, that do still weigh on his conscience. Personally, while I can listen and accept that he is telling stories from his personal history, I cannot connect that person to the man I have come to know. I suppose that’s not surprising, really. Though I see myself as continuous with the person I was twenty years ago and more, I do know that so much about me has shifted so much that in some ways I’m hardly the same person at all. To one degree or another, that’s probably true of most of us. From what I understand, Emergent and related conversations had done a great deal to remold and perhaps even preserve the faith of my friend. I don’t want to speak too strongly, but I think he encountered it at a time where trying to continue to do what he had always done was no longer really possible.

We had come to know each other well enough that he knew my background and knew it was about as far from the story of the evangelical suburban childhood as you can get within our shared American context. While the forces of modernity that shaped and formed the Reformation still largely shape both the liberal and conservative branches of Protestantism, I was molded and formed culturally, spiritually, and practically within the postmodern whirlwind. I’ve been a Christian for about a decade and a half within the context of an SBC church. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. They are great people. I love many of them. But I’ll never think, approach life, approach God, or practice the spiritual dimension of my life as many of them do. I’ve tried on a lot of it to see what would stick and relatively little has. Yet these are the people who finally brought Jesus of Nazareth to me in a way that actually took root. I will always honor that.

I think as he came to understand my background, my friend was a little curious. After all, the Emergent conversation has spoken a lot about the postmodern or post-postmodern culture and the way it relates to Christian faith and understanding.  Again, I can’t really speak to the motives or thoughts of another, but I do think he wondered how someone like me would react to things within the emerging conversation (whether people were actually associated with Emergent or not). He pointed out a few articles on the Ooze to me. (I’ve never been fond of forums, so I never have read all that much there unless someone pointed something out and asked me to read it. If it doesn’t come to me in the form of email, text, or full text in my RSS Reader, the odds of me following something over time are vanishingly small.) He loaned me A Generous Orthodoxy to see what I thought of it. He pointed out some of the main voices in the conversation and I quickly found others on my own. My cultural and spiritual shaping were deeply pluralistic and relativistic. Those have both been altered by and through Jesus of Nazareth, but they very much remain my default position. They are a constituent component of the lens through which I perceive reality. It was strange to me to hear evangelical voices at least attempting to communicate and approach God in ways that were often akin to my native mode.

I thank him deeply for that. And not really for introducing me to the specific voices that he did, as much as by expanding where I looked to try to understand the God of this thing called Christianity. I was mostly reading Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, Brother Lawrence, St. John of the Cross and similar voices from the past. On the more modern side, the only two I read a lot of works by were C.S. Lewis and Max Lucado. (Yes, Max is the prototypical evangelical. But he’s also a great storyteller. And he tells stories about a God you might actually want to know and worship. I find a lot of people knock him simply because he isn’t other than who and what he is.) Notably, if I had not encountered this conversation, I don’t know if I would have stumbled across Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and Scot McKnight at all. And it was through Scot McKnight that I discovered modern Orthodoxy and that there actually were still people today who believe stuff about God and Jesus and humanity similar to what  those who lived and wrote in the first millenium of Christianity believed. I was becoming discouraged because it seemed that nobody actually still believed the stories and descriptions of God and tales of what it meant to be a human being that I found most interesting, provocative, and compelling. And it didn’t seem like many I heard today were actually describing the God I encountered and whom I thought I was getting to know.

Would I still be Christian if I had not encountered those modern voices above and others like them? I don’t actually know the answer to that question. I do know that my faith was wearing awfully thin. Even for me, it’s hard to constantly be among people who see God in ways you don’t and never will. I’m pretty used to not fitting in. That’s the story of my life. But a decade of it wears on even me, especially when the God most often described is the one that’s pretty typical in conservative evangelicalism. Further, I was questioning if I had done the right thing introducing my children to this environment and allowing it to shape them. (In all honesty, that remains an open question in my mind. You do the best that you know how to do at the time when raising kids and pray you don’t screw up too badly.) I didn’t learn anything about postmodern culture, of course. I’m as much a face of postmodern formation as any other you’ll find. But I did find a Christianity worth continuing to believe, perhaps not directly in Emergent, but certainly through the process and connections engaged in its conversation.

So am I disappointed with Emergent? No. I find it wryly amusing that some apparently expected some sort of revolutionary movement from the organization. There’s not a lot of room for revolution when threading between Scylla and Charybdis, though some engage in it nonetheless. Emergent says valuable things in a context where they often are not said. That’s useful. And it helps people navigate the fractured chaos that Christianity has become in ways that do not destroy faith. That’s valuable. Disappointment implies expectations. And expectations tend to tell us more about those who hold them than they do about the target or focus of those expectations.

Or at least so it seems to me.