Do the Rich Get to Heaven? Dave Ramsey Says Yes.

“When you start putting limits on the power of the cross and limits on the power of grace that is extended to us from the Father through the son, based on someone’s wealth, then that’s Gnosticism – the worship of spirit versus materialism versus the worship orthodoxy,” Ramsey said. “So what that means is that someone just doesn’t understand the Bible.”

We might be very quick to pick out where Dave Ramsey is just wrong here. He doesn’t understand what gnosticism really is, neither is he clear about materialism or orthodoxy (big “O” or small “o” – your choice). But I’m not posting this to complain about how wrong he is.

I’m actually defending him a little. He is right. There is nothing in any of what Jesus says that tells us wealthy people can’t “go to heaven.” If we want to read about camels and rich men that way, we are as guilty as he of reading agendas into the bible. We do know that it is “hard” for the wealthy to find God.

Ramsey tries to do too much. He swings his “defense” with the bible too far and stumbles.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matt. 19:23-24

The point of the passage isn’t really wealth. Wealth is a symptom, not a cause.

When we are rich it is harder to give up all of our comforts for the purpose of resisting temptation and seeking holiness by following the commandments. Jesus’ point is always rather clear – wealth is dangerous because it can easily become an idol to pull us away from God. Living without idols is hard and when our idols give us comfort and satisfaction in the world we live right now, it is all that more difficult to wake up and let it all go. Living without that false comfort and hope is what the saints call “dispassion.”

As with so many other places in the bible, idolatry is the real problem. Material wealth is but one idol among many. Gratification in any material comfort is dangerous – delayed or instant. The good news is that Jesus also consistently presents clear behaviors to counteract idolatry vis-à-vis love. This is the kind of love that asks us to sell everything we have if we need to in order to follow Jesus (Matt. 19:21).

It’s a good test. Make a list of any material attachment you have and be honest: Are you willing to give that away in order to meet God? If not, you may just find a source or two for feeling spiritually “dry” or “inadequate.” These are spiritual wounds. When the rich young man sees his own wounds, rather than take the right medicine for healing, he responds with sadness. He wasn’t mourning his condition, but began to wallow in self-pity. These little wounds in spiritual growth are where we can put together plans of action to work with God to heal them. That’s called working out your salvation.

The real heresy with being rich is when love is not put in the very same breath as wealth.

For without love, wealth is nothing.

So my little question to Dave Ramsey is an old one: Dave are you willing to sell all of this and give to the poor?

SOURCE: http://coolsprings.com

Dave Ramsey’s Mansion in Tennessee
SOURCE: http://coolsprings.com

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Biblical Literalism is Scientific, but Not in the Way You Think

The argument assertion goes something like this:

Number 1:

  • Evolution has never been directly observed.
  • It is based on of a theory created by one man (Darwin).
  • Therefore it is not science.

Number 2:

  • The probability of the ordered universe emerging out of chaos is infinitesimally small.
  • You can’t get the order of the universe without direction.
  • Therefore a Designer must have made it that way.

Let’s table the fact that what we see here is a total lack of understanding of what the scientific method is, what a hypothesis is, and how all of those observations and predictions create theories. The scientific method is in itself a process of creating order out of chaos.

If you can stomach it, this fellow goes through the tired assertions of the above argument. Not to mention he is basically calling his atheist interlocutor stupid which is ironic since the supposed atheist seems to understand 5th grade science better than Mr. Feuerstein.

Literal readings developed when both German biblical criticism and science began challenging the construction of knowledge itself. The process by which knowledge is created in ways not related to God gained traction as research based education grew. LIteral readings of the text emerged as a response to the growth of a more or less agnostic presentation of knowledge through science and rationalism, but did so in a strange way. Fundamentalism, and similar evangelical streams of religious thinking, actually made a move to make the bible more scientifically relevant. That is to say, the bible was based in observable fact even more so than science. It is like an epistemological pissing contest.

However, this fundamentalist understanding of knowledge relies on a Baconian scientific system that rooted in pure observation. Science is not in itself the problem. The hypothetical testing process is what, and still does, have the biblical literalist sort in a tizzy. They argue that because you can’t “see” evolution, it is a faith claim and therefore not science. Yet faith in God is formed out of experience and belief in the authority of the bible as a testimony to actual events people witnessed. Because it is authoritative by divine mandate, it is more “factual” and based on “observation.” See how that move works? It argues that a literalist reading of the bible is more scientifically valid than the science of evolution! How’s that for irony.

We should pay attention to how we make sense of the world. Watch how this way of constructing knowledge persists even in post-fundamentalist thinking where the process remains the same, while only the content changes. A kind of self-pity emerges because when one system is destroyed, no alternative means of knowledge construction is there. I call this the depressed liberal. You have new content for what you believe, but you no longer have a viable structure to make sense of all of it and manage it. Thus, the blanket term “postmodern” is thrust upon it as an explanation for something that isn’t even there.

Here is where science and religion converge. Science is an act of refining and making more precise what we know about the world down to the smallest building blocks of nature. The practice of knowing God is a disciplined program where one comes to understand oneself in relation to God down to the smallest fraction of time and through the most mindful of behaviors. In both, a kind of awareness develops about the cosmos and how everything is somehow intelligible and mysterious at the same time.

While Feuerstein and his ilk see this relationship between two understandings of reality as a war, I see it as a dance.

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

Palin Pisses on Baptism

“Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:4

Suggesting or pronouncing that baptism is a form of torture sounds absurd at best and down right heretical from most theological positions among Christians. In fact, I am not sure if it has been said in the modern age.

Sarah Palin has now used baptism as a metaphor for torture amidst cheers at a recent NRA rally.

Let’s give her some slack; she was trying to make a joke. We all make bad jokes. If this came out of the mouth of Bill Maher, Louis Black, or Louis C.K. we might be offended, but expect to be offended since these are comedians. The difference is that she made this leap not as a comedian, and at an NRA rally. She engaged the audience and they lapped it up like parched dogs. I give her credit for that. But she also revealed utter theological ignorance and an ironic lack of conviction for her faith.

I haven’t spoken to or heard from any Christian who thought she was clever or amusing. The reaction has been quite the opposite. Pundits all over the map are registering really bad reviews for her near sadistic rant.

Here’s the snippet of what she said:

“They obviously have information on plots to carry out Jihad,” she said at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting on Saturday evening, referring to prisoners. “Oh, but you can’t offend them, can’t make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen. Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”

This statement should alienate her from any Christian who takes sacraments seriously. Baptism is perhaps the most universally revered of the holy mysteries of Christianity as it marks the initiation of one’s life with God and the Christian community.

Baptism was certainly important in her own religious upbringing. Ms. Palin became a Christian as a member of the The First Assembly of God in Wasilla, AK. The Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination of Christianity, believes that one is baptized after the initiate declares a pronouncement of faith in Jesus Christ, and encourages a Baptism in the Holy Spirit, a sign of which is speaking in tongues.

Ms. Palin has never been shy about her faith, offering often loud and convicted statements. Baptism played an important role in her own life as told in Charisma Magazine in 2009.

“It was so cool growing up in this church and getting saved here, getting baptized by Pastor Riley … my whole family getting baptized,” she told the congregation, just two months before her vice presidential nomination.

With these pronouncements, her language at the NRA rally takes a rhetoric of fear, violence, and hatred up many notches. Her faith preached from the pulpit of the gun is now scarcely recognizable from what it may have been.

Here is another comparison. The above image is an infamous photograph called Piss Christ (1987) taken by Andres Serrano. Here a Crucifix is submerged into a beautifully colored container of urine. Lovely. This work of art drew the ire of many, but the loudest voice was from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in the United States; a conservative Catholic organization. The Crucifix Serrano used in the photo is distinctly Roman Catholic.

“I would argue that ethics should dictate that you don’t go around gratuitously and intentionally insulting people of faith,” (Bill) Donohue told the Guardian. “I don’t care whether you’re Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or whatever you might be.”

Whether it’s pissing on a Crucifix or telling us that a method of torture is like being baptized, Christianity was just mocked by one of its supposed champions.

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.

Church: I Know How You Will Die

GravestonesCongratulations on the new organ. I think it is wonderful that you have an old building with lots of history. You have a legacy and have had a physical fixture in town for a century. These are important parts of your saga and it is good to remember them. You have a long memory and a wonderful tradition as a critical member of the town.

But you are dying.

I saw the wonderful people of your community aging and holding on to that legacy as they should. They have the longest memories of your house and its tradition to pass down to the younger generations. It is they who will take their place as the elders of the community. But as I sat in your pews, I saw one young person for at least every three of your elders. A legacy cannot be passed on if there are no recipients of your memory.

Who will hear your stories to tell their children and grandchildren?

Sociologists have been telling us that church attendance is decreasing due to a simple demographic fact. If a society does not replace itself by about 2.1 persons for each generation, it will die out. Some factors that affect mainline denominations is that families produce fewer children if at all. Their evangelical counterparts do a much better job of making babies and raising them in the church.

You don’t have enough people to sustain your beautiful physical architecture. More importantly, you don’t have enough people to receive your spiritual wisdom and witness to the Good News.

If the population is unsustainable because you don’t have enough kids who have been brought up in your church, you must have more immigrants from other cities, religions, and people who are longing for something greater than themselves.

There are people all over the world yearning for a spiritual experience. There are people who want to be part of something bigger and more magical than the mundanities of life. People are isolated in jobs they are unhappy with, stressed from too much homework and after school activities, going through divorce, recovering from addictions, facing bankruptcy, and struggling immigrants literally looking for a place to call home.

Many people have this yearning totally unaware of the message that we are healed, we will be OK, and we can help each other make it through what seem to be unmanageable conditions in life. People truly do desire spiritual healing and a sense of the divine. People are seeking purpose and how to make all of life more meaningful.

Even if the media shows how nasty people can be, and they certainly can, the goodness we see from ordinary people is astounding. Running up into burning buildings, serving soup to the homeless, driving drunk and high people home to keep them safe, spending time with disabled kids or those without families are common actions by the people of this society. Deep down people want to be good and want to be part of a society that helps them to be good and helpful to others. But for those who struggle to help themselves manage their own lives, helping others seems like too much to ask.

This is where you can step in. You don’t need a new program or ministry of outreach. You don’t need brochures or fancy websites. You don’t need door-to-door proselytizing. People don’t want more marketing. We have all been conditioned to associate marketing and advertising with lying. With the American legacy of televangelists and hateful messages delivered by so-called Christians, marketing will repel those you want to invite.

These are all just facts of our society you just can’t control. You cannot change any of this.

What you can change is to be a place where people can find help and healing from the travails of life. Listen to others and talk about how you found peace and healing in the church. Give people phone numbers and then call them. Call not to invite people to church, but just to see how they are doing. Send a note or two. Not a note with a mug, brochure, newsletter, and envelope for giving. But a note to acknowledge that you saw them, remember them, and are happy they are alive.

We are naturally attracted to both charisma and to those who we feel are responding to our needs.

I write this because I entered the doors of one of your churches this morning. I came in with my two boys. I fit the role of a single dad. My kids were restless. It was a new place and they may have been intimidated. I brought them there because the service would have been familiar to them. We were immigrants. We were looking for a room, a place to stay. No one said hello to me or them. I grabbed what I thought was a bulletin and the only words spoken to me were, “That’s the church history, this is the bulletin for today.”

I pulled my boys out of the church because they were making too much noise. You watched me have a “team meeting” with them in the foyer where the greeters ironically stand. I had come through a different entrance where no greeters stood. You didn’t even hold the door open for me as much as hold it so it did not make noise when it shut. I came back in and my boys started laughing before getting restless and cranky again. Quite a ruckus. You looked at me a couple of times and smiled. I was starting to get frustrated and realized I could not control the situation. I left the building with them. I may never come back.

The irony is that you were celebrating your 100th anniversary and rededication of the building. You shared a story or two of the church’s early days in 1913 and used the same order of worship from back then. Nicely done.

But you missed the point. I am not sure if you talked about looking forward at all because out of necessity, I missed most of what you had to say.

I am writing this to tell you that the future was in my arms. Those two restless boys are all you have left if you want another 100 years of life.

I may never come back. If I don’t, I am taking a part of your possible future with me.

A simple “Hello, I can help you with that” would have attracted me for another week. Instead I was invisible and felt only apathy.

Perhaps what you celebrated wasn’t a 100 year anniversary

I may have witnessed the beginning of a long and drawn out funeral.