Refusing the Gangster God

Why did Jesus die?

I was baptized Catholic and then went through a few stages of Protestantism as my mom sought a different expression of her faith. If memory serves me correctly, she had become alienated from the Catholic focus on original sin and persistent guilt. The idea of “if you don’t follow these rules then you will go to hell” was no longer something to settle for. Catholic guilt was the real deal in my family. When my family was going through some rough times the way God looked was alienating.

When my mom married my step-father we joined him in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As she puts it, that church was the first time she heard the Gospel preached and she met God there. It was a powerful experience for her and she has remained Presbyterian ever since. I was just in junior high school so at church, I pretty much just fell asleep.

In between naps, it was there that I hooked into evangelical Protestantism. I found an identity there. Evangelicalism eventually fit. It was my first real faith journey and it lasted from the end of junior high school through seminary. I was a Calvinist, evangelical through my middle year at seminary. However, the fit was never as comfortable as I thought it needed to be in order to fit a solid evangelical mold. I felt out-of-place and as I got more honest about my faith, the friction intensified. So what changed?

Doctrinally, the change came down to one idea: I could no longer accept the notion that God needed to satisfy His own law and its consequences by killing off His Son. The idea that Jesus died to fulfill a legal contract God made with a humanity that didn’t keep up its end of the bargain seemed absurd. It was as if the presence of Jesus himself was relegated to a background status because none of that in itself was meaningful in closing the deal on sin.

God the judge. God the gangster. God made an offer that we couldn’t refuse. Since we refused it we deserved death.

Since we could not possibly satisfy a king and judge like God, God had to suck it up and do it for us. It is as if God was shackled to His own Law. Love is in the service of justice and Jesus serves justice on the cross. Jesus came to die. My exposure to the church Fathers beginning with St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation turned my understanding of God upside down.

Saint John's Orthodox Church of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Old Church

Saint John’s Orthodox Church of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, Old Church

In Orthodoxy Jesus didn’t come here to save us from God’s wrath, He came in order to heal what was broken. The most broken aspect of human life is death itself. That’s the Gospel I heard in the narratives. This was the same God who raised Lazarus, who welcomed prostitutes and tax collectors, gave sight to the blind, and told a man to pick up his mat and walk.

God is a God who heals wounds in spite of the fact that we cut ourselves open every day.

God healed death by dying and rising from death. He did this not to satisfy an immutable Law, but because the very nature of God is Love. God’s salvation is not a legal contract, it is a radical healing of the very structure of nature for it to be what it was always intended to be: undivided from God Himself. As the Paschal Troparion is sung:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life.

Love, Life, Grace. That’s a God for whom I am will to work. That is a God for whom amending my life to get closer is completely worth the effort.

This is something of a preview to what I will be speaking about at the 2014 Wild Goose Festival. Hope to see you there!

Wild Goose Festival 2014

Wild Goose Festival 2014

Lent Isn’t Depressing, Anymore

As one who has life-long issues with depression I resonate with the sentiment that Lent can be a time to feel even worse. As a Catholic and then a Presbyterian, Lent was a time to feel guilty. Guilty for consuming too much, loving too little, giving not enough, and reinforcing the idea that I am a bad person by some mysterious genetic seed given to me by God through the curse of Adam. It’s enough to drive the clinically depressed to madness – or defiant agnosticism. The latter was exactly what happened.

The reward was a ceremony to remember that God is angry with me for sins I have no real say in eradicating. Nothing I do is actually all that pleasing to God because none of it meets up to His standards. In fact, God can’t even look on me without some disdain for abusing the body and mind that are supposed to be in His image, but are so broken that it’s impossible to reflect it. The Good News is that Jesus stands in the way so that God can’t see me at all. Jesus is my protector from the Bully.

Now whether this is good theology or bad, it was what was the logical place that made sense with what I heard in the teaching I had been given. Jesus substituted his life and received the punishment I deserved for my sinful nature. It’s only because he rose from the dead that God is able to love me at all. Lent was about dwelling in that space of guilt that I cannot do anything to relieve since it is only my faith that Jesus is standing there between me and God that gives me hope I can get to heaven. So I prayed and crossed my fingers.

I entered the communion of the Eastern church a couple of years ago. For the first Lent in which I participated there, I learned that this was not a season to feel guilty, but a season to heal. It is true that I am broken. I have depression, I have been a hopeless drunk, I have a fantastic list of sins that could rival Martin Luther’s. I am imperfect and often feel an unbridgeable gap between my sometimes sordid state of mind and the source of my being in God.

Lent is now about accepting that I have these issues, but these issues are not me. Lent is about focus. It is about honesty and confession. It is about making my life transparent before God and practicing love, justice, and mercy in the world. It is a time to focus on being compassionate and patient towards even those I resent. In fact, it is a time to heal those resentments and apologize to those I may have harmed in the past year. All of these actions are actions of healing myself, my relationships with others, and my relationship with God. My work means something now. I participate in my salvation, rather than close my eyes and cross my fingers that I am not one of those predestined to hell.

The point is that I have a choice to squeeze through the briar patches of life to meet a God who continuously walks through them to meet me in the middle where there is a garden of life.

Lent is about life, not death.

As Monica Coleman writes in her reflection that inspired this post:

Lent gives me the chance to look for those opportunities.  It gives me a season – every year – to turn over rocks, crouch down and look under the bed, sweep together the remnants of my last year, of my life, of the current day in search of whatever beauty may be there.  It’s my chance to look for the life that can be found in the midst, or something after, death.

Being a Person, Having a Voice

Personhood is social, or it is nothing: “To be myself, I need you.” – Kallistos Ware of Diokleia

James Loder was my adviser and mentor at Princeton Seminary. His life’s work was to imagine how the Spirit of God grounded and transformed the human person – the human spirit. His radical vision was that the Spirit of God and the human spirit worked in a mysterious loop. It is in the intersection of the two spirits that human creativity is present and blossoms.

To be human is to be in a relationship. It is to have a face and to look upon others not with covetousness, jealousy, envy, pride and the like – but with charity and love. As we love others, we become more human. This is a theological lens for the experience of having that voice to speak the truth to others.

So we have here a boy with a learning disability. He is a person, but has no voice. But when the creative and self-transcendent truth of who he is in community with others blossoms, the blessings on those who gaze back at him are profound.

Each of us has a spirit. Each of us has a creative self always aching to be born new every day. When we experience our selves in the midst of others, we experience the truth of who we really are.

I Don’t Know God

Let us accept that we do not know the whole mystery of God and we do not know about His infinite love. – Bishop Anastasios of Albania

I know plenty about theology. I spent many years learning about and teaching religion. But I am no theologian.

The early church recognizes theologians not merely head knowledge, but by heart knowledge. When they use the term intellect they are not referring to an abstract academic exercise. The intellect is that part of a person encompassing the heart, the mind, and the soul. It is the part of us that yearns to be in communion with God. It is this that God calls to be a part of Himself.

Developing the intellect takes time and strenuous effort. It takes a disavowal of how the world is. Faith in the effort to practice love, compassion, and striving for virtue is not in vain. All of these serve the goal of experiencing the world as it should be – united to and in full communion with God. This union is the true knowledge of God.

Theologians are who they are because they have come closer to this knowledge than the great majority of the human race. They are saints that we may follow their examples lest we latch on to the hottest academic trends.

I now accept that I am a profound distance from these saints which is only dwarfed by my distance to God.

I am not a theologian. But with help and effort I have a good chance to be close to one in this life.

We are all given this chance by the very nature we share in whose Image we were born.

Seeing all this and spurred to emulate his achievements, I was continually prompted to question him. “How, like you, can I acquire a pure intellect?” I asked. And he replied: “You have to struggle. The heart has to strive and to suffer. Things worth striving and suffering for do not come to us if we sleep or are indolent. Even earth’s blessings do not come to us without effort on our part. If you want to develop spiritually you must above all renounce your own will; you must acquire a heart that is sorrowful and must rid yourself of all possessions, giving attention not to the sins of others but to your own sins, weeping over them day and night…

Abba Philimon (Philokalia Vol. 2)