Sunday, June 27, 2010

what is the gospel

What Is The Gospel

There was an article in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette a couple of weeks ago – Greg shared it with a few of us – that sparked an interesting discussion. The article focused on a very large and influential Christian denomination in the U.S. and the article opened with this statement…

"Saying that 6 billion of the world's 6.8 billion people are lost and headed for hell, the SBC on Tuesday called for a 'new tidal wave of evangelistic and missionary passion”

Over the next couple of days, Greg, Jeff Moore, Keith, Nathan, Mark Edwards, and myself tossed around the implications of such a statement. Do we believe the statement? How do you come up with those types of numbers? Are they accurate? If they are accurate, how do we respond?

Lots of interesting ideas were tossed around but one of the questions raised was, for me, the most significant – with the deepest implications for the church universal and for our community here.

The question is this: What is the Gospel?

As a product of the SBC, I have a pretty good idea how they define the gospel; at least how they define it institutionally. The gospel I was taught was that God became a man and died to pay the price for my sins. That his blood was a substitution for the blood I owed for my sins and ultimately for my connection to the sin of Adam. The gospel was that I needed to accept this gift and profess my allegiance to Christ in a public way. We heard this good news – and – if we accepted and believed, we walked an aisle and made a public profession of our faith. The hope, we were told, was that when we die we will go to heaven to be with Jesus. Or… that he would someday come back to earth and take us to heaven with him. Until then; we tried as hard as we could not to sin… not to cuss or lie… not to cheat or steal… not to watch R-rated movies or listen to SECULAR rock and roll music. The attached moral code varied slightly but the core of the gospel was the same. Accept Christ – enter into a personal relationship with him – and someday leave this wicked world behind to spend eternity with him in heaven.

This is the gospel that most of us heard… it is the Gospel we have been encouraged to spread… but is it the gospel that Jesus came to offer?

This question; “what is the gospel” is pretty vital if we have any hope of unpacking the SBCs statement regarding evangelism. Unfortunately, too many traditions filter this question through a strict denominational grid. I am reminded of the old joke about the man who has gone to heaven and is receiving his welcome to paradise tour from saint peter. After seeing beautiful villages and homes full of communities of saint playing and living together, he spots an area with high, prison-like walls and razor wire. He asks peter to explain and peter responds, “shhh… those are the missionary Baptists… they think they are the only ones here”.

You could easily substitute the Church of Christ’s, the Assemblies of God, 7 Day Adventists, Nazarenes, take your pick. The point is simple – most of us were taught that the gospel is not only to be told in a very specific way but is also to be accepted in a very specific way. I wish I had access to the methods used by the SBC in order to arrive at their 6 billion lost number – and I’d be doubly interested to know who was “left behind” in order to arrive at that number. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.1 billion Roman Catholics in the world and another 240 million eastern orthodox Christians. Just these two combined – with no protestant Christians counted – exceed the SBCs estimate of those who are currently “heaven bound”.

That said… I am not interested at this moment in tearing down these numbers or focusing on denominational bias and prejudice. I prefer to again look at 6 billion question at face value. Full disclosure – I need to reword or paraphrase the question to get to my point so, here it is:

Is it possible that the gospel – the good news of Christ’s kingdom – is not reality to 6 billion of the world’s inhabitants?

All of this leads me back to the question the SBCs comment sparked in me: “What is the Gospel”

Instead of asking what definition the SBC or other denomination might offer – let’s see what Jesus said. Gospel means good news and when Jesus first speaks in public – it is to declare the good news (or gospel) that he was born to proclaim.

Jesus is in the synagogue – he is asked to open the scrolls and read. He chooses Isaiah and reads the following words:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed"

You see - I don't have a hard time believing there are 6 billion that have not received the gospel (or good news) so long as we let Jesus define what, in fact, the gospel is:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed"

As John the Baptist awaited his execution he needed hope – he needed to ask the same question we ask this morning… “What is the gospel”… he needed to know if the messiah had come – if the kingdom was really among us.

Luke 7:20-23 (New International Version)
20When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?' "… 22So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 23Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

What do you hear…? What is the gospel Jesus preached? Was it a conversion experience? A new moral code? A new religion?

Or was it the new and long promised coming of the Kingdom of God?

What is the Gospel?

Jesus said this. The Gospel is:
• Good news for the poor
• Freedom for Prisoners
• sight for the blind
• hope for the oppressed
• healing for the sick, the blind, the lame
• cleansing for the leper
• Life instead of death.

No call to conversion. No call to religion. No sort of conditions at all. The gospel – the good news – is that his kingdom is here. Now… Among us.

So again we ask… are there billions who have not received the gospel?

• 1 billion of the world’s children live in poverty
• Political prisoners – and criminals. Christ does not specify?
• Cancer
• Alzheimer’s
• Birth Defects
• MS
• Malaria
OUR Lepers:
• In Sub-Saharan Africa - 22.4 million infected with HIV virus
• in 2008 1.4 million died and another 1.9 million became infected
• 1 million with AIDS in US.
• ½ million deaths

And all around, through disease or oppression or violence, we live in a world marked by the sting of death.

Is the gospel real to those who have never seen or tasted the deliverance that Jesus promised? Have they even HEARD the good news?

” I was in Uganda last month. While there I saw, if not hell, some of its suburbs. The stories are familiar to us all - dying children, slums beyond description, systemic brokenness that robs hope. So many of those questions popped into my head - How could God allow this sort of thing? What kind of god could allow children to live like this?

It isn't a new question for me or for any of us. It is among the world's oldest questions I suspect. But as I thought about it something clicked. God isn't allowing this suffering. I am. You are. We are.

I will focus on Africa's suffering. Africa finds itself where it does today because of a billion or more decisions that people made... individual decisions. A decision not to invest here. A decision to buy a slave there. A decision to drive an unfair trade deal here. A decision to pay diamond miners pennies. Billions and billions of decisions like this have been made over the centuries. The result? Africa today.

Is that God's fault?

I think not. Because at every moment those decisions were made God was whispering for people to do the right thing, the just thing, the merciful thing. But we chose not to listen.
God has done his job. We haven't done ours.

I used to think the suffering question was a serious head scratcher, a truly troubling thing - the best evidence against God. No more. I think it is largely an excuse to make ourselves comfortable in our complacency by blaming God for the suffering we aren't spending our lives addressing.”

~ David Kuo – J-Walking

Again… I don't have a hard time believing there are 6 billion that have not received the gospel (or good news) so long as we let Jesus define what, in fact, the gospel is:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed"

We should absolutely be preaching and DOING this message - just not sure there is anything in this mandate about conversion or that any sort of conditions are attached. As followers of Christ - our great commission is to preach THIS gospel. Trouble is, many in the SBC and other denominations, while not completely ignoring this call, put it tertiary to a primary goal of conversion to a belief system. It seems to me that Jesus put it the other way around.

It would seem that there are certainly billions who have not seen the reality of this good news – this gospel. So long as there is oppression, poverty, sickness, captivity... the work of the gospel of his kingdom remains incomplete.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Imago Dei – Our True Selves 04.25.2010

Imago Dei – Our True Selves

Imago Dei… the image of god. Even in English, the phrase feels very liturgical… very “high church”. It’s the kind of phrase that should be uttered in hushed tones – with one eybrow raised slightly…


We see it all around us… in nature… in a starry night or a fierce storm. We see it in the ocean or in a mountain stream. We see it in a painting by Rembrandt or in Mozart’s Requiem. We see his image in beauty. But what if these things are a prism – what if his image passes through these things creating awe and wonder and beauty? Where them does his image, once the light passes through and is separated by creation’s prism… where does the image rest?

the answer is simple and yet unbelievably profound… it rests in YOU

Genesis 1:26-27 (The Message) 26-28 God spoke: "Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth." God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God's nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them: "Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth."

God created the heavens and the earth. He created a prism. Then he released his own nature – his own self - through the prism of creation and reflected his nature into the one he created to bear it. Into humanity.

The narrative of the Genisis story is the narrative of the history oh Israel and ultimately, of humanity.

Creation – Blessing – Failure – Restoration

Throughout the old testament we see this story repeated – this cycle repeated again and again. We see his image and we see humanity struggle against it – even cover it up. We see his face and then we see the glory fade. We see nations born and nations in captivity. We see fire in the sky and manna on the desert floor – we see rebellion and hatred. The image grows more dim but is never fully extinguished. And we see the image not only ion prophets and kings… we see his image in prostitutes and harem girls – in shepherds and slaves. The image of god reflected in his most beautiful creation.

But the cycle continues – the prism is ill-used. It becomes dirty and distorted. The light still gets through but the image is harder to see. It is time to begin again… By going back…

John 1 (The Message)
1-2 The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one.
3-5Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; the darkness couldn't put it out.
9-13The Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life he brings into Light. He was in the world, the world was there through him, and yet the world didn't even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn't want him. But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.

Over the generations, as the darkness fell and the image grew dim – humanity forgot the beauty of the image. In fact the beauty was so forgotten – such a distant memory – that when Christ came as the fully perfect image of god… most of humanity missed it. but not all…
the passage tells us that some did see it – some did recognize the image that lived in their own core.

Have you ever dressed your self based on your eye color or your hair color. Have you ever noticed that someone with blue eyes… when the wear a blue shirt… the color in their eyes sorta “POP”?

When Christ came – when the incarnation was perfectly displayed – the image of god that still flickered in mankind was awakened. The closer we came to his flame – the brighter our flame began to burn. The image awakened and the world began to change. But not in the way we might have thought.

What if we are changing – not into someone else – but into who we truly are. What if our redemption is not about making us less human – but about making us MORE human?
Follow me here… The cycle of creation – blessing – and failure is not a process of rejecting our divine spark in favor of our humanity. Our fall came as we rejected our TRUE humanity which IS our divine spark.

The incarnation – the coming of this “2nd Adam” was the beginning of the establishment of god’s kingdom, his perfect rule on earth. As heaven and earth kiss – as his kingdom comes – we who are being changed take off those things that make us less human and as we become MORE human – his image becomes more visible. THIS is the image that will draw all men to the feet of Christ. We communicate the gospel not with our “otherworldly obsessions” but by our true humanity.

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is
the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true
identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true
character. Love is my name… To find love I must enter
into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God.

~Thomas Merton.

The mystery of God…

So much of my Calvanist training has taught me again and again of my depravity and utter unworthiness before God. I still believe that this is our trouble but I no longer believe that this is our true nature. We are… not who we may have become… we are what HE made… Image bearers of the living God. It is his image in us that frees us to be fully human…. Just as HE became fully human – and – this is huge… HE IS STILL FULLY HUMAN.

To be made in his image is to love – as he loved

To be made in his image is to give mercy – as he gave mercy

To be made in his image is to look like him. To care about what he cares about. To BE like him.
Isn’t this what humanity – at it’s best – looks like? Isn’t this the kind of humanity that inspires us and sometimes humbles us?

Where is his image? Where is the IMAGO DEI? Look around you. It’s in your kids, your spouse, your friends. It’s in your overbearing boss or the coworker you try to avoid at lunch. It is in the beauty we can see, if we look hard enough, in even the most damaged examples of humanity. It is in YOU

One day we will see him – see his image face to face – but for now we only see that image in a mirror. A dim reflection… maybe. But we do see it. It is visible.
And it IS beautiful.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

sunday's child

Have you ever been to a family gathering… maybe a holiday like thanksgiving or Christmas? maybe a birthday party for a friend or family member? Invariably – at these types of gatherings, we usually notice that someone is missing… someone who we expected to see. someone we WANTED to see.

we feel something in this absence. it’s not the same as a coworker who calls in sick on the day where you have a crucial project to complete. that feeling is frustration – maybe even anger. and yet… we feel something in the absence. we feel that the gathering, while still enjoyable or fun or exciting… is somehow LESS than it could have been – less than it SHOULD have been. and the more the missing person means to us – the closer the bond – the greater that feeling seems to be.

we’ve all felt this… sometimes we’ve even been the missing person. it’s not the end of the world. it doesn’t ruin the party… and yet we notice.


love is connection. these gatherings – when they are best – are little markers of the communities we are born into – or the communities we chose. if someone we love is missing the picture is not quite right. like a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing. mostly we see the picture complete – but – it is tough NOT to notice that one missing piece. at least for some of us.

families… all communities are, by nature, sacramental. Sacraments – in general terms – are simply ways to mark significant or meaningful events. we celebrate birthdays and weddings – funerals – graduations – retirement – anniversaries – the list goes on. we observe the sacraments because something in us needs to mark these events in community – with others who care about the things we care about… who love the people and things we love.
the church has many sacraments – high church and low. we baptize – we take communion – we mark those events on our spiritual journey that matter. but maybe the deepest and most mysterious sacrament is Sabbath.

"In the Jewish world-view something strange begins to happen. Cycles of festivals are markers on the bigger framework. Think of a bicycle wheel, which goes round and round; each time it goes around it moves the bicycle forward along the line. So every Sabbath is a turn of the wheel but also another step along the road from the first Sabbath on which God rested, to the final one, the rest for the people of God." ~N.T. Wright

Sabbath is a sacrament that marks the cycle of our week – it marks a fresh start – a day to regroup – to put last week away and renew hope for the week to come. it is a day to cease “doing” and to concentrate on “being”

"Like most people, I work and think too much. Sunday morning can be a fast from a constant concern for productivity. If I let go of my need for agreement on everything that happens in church, I can sit and rest in the sermon, I can sing and be moved by the chorus of voices, regardless of the song. The sanctuary really is a refuge from the hecklers and hucksters in workaday consumer society. It is non-productive space. For me, it can be a deliberate time set aside to meet God in the present moment, but only if I can let go of the need to have everything my way." ~aiden enns

Sabbath is, in some ways, a chance to check out – but NOT to be alone. Sacraments – no matter where we found them, are almost always experienced in community. In families. We seem to know, deep in our being, that things worth marking need to be marked with those we love. I have never been inclined to celebrate my birthday alone. I once spent a thanksgiving alone – worst day of my life. sacraments are little celebrations… and Sabbath is celebration. celebration of the coming rest of God – when his kingdom is fully experienced – when heaven and earth finally kiss and embrace. it is also a celebration of remembrance – like a birthday or an anniversary.

The Sabbath is a reminder of the two worlds--this world and the world to come; it is an example of both worlds. For the Sabbath is joy, holiness, and rest; joy is part of this world; holiness and rest are something of the world to come. ~Abraham Joshua Heschel

but Sabbath is not a solitary celebration. it is not a private marker. we have those to be sure – Mary hid the things she heard in her heart – but Sabbath is a celebration that needs community…

"The soul cannot celebrate alone" ~Abraham Joshua Heschel

celebration requires community – we need to celebrate with others who care – who love the things that we love – who celebrate the things we celebrate. when we hear stories from the bed project – we celebrate. when we think about lora and adam’s wedding… we celebrate. and our celebration is made more meaningful by those we celebrate with. the soul cannot celebrate alone…

but, as bishop wright explained – Sabbath is the turning of a wheel and there is a cyclical rhythm. we need community to celebrate Sabbath – but also, as Dallas Willard says:

"You can’t have community without Sabbath." ~Dallas Willard

Sabbath needs community – but it is also a place where community is born. it is where we connect in real and practical ways as we visit over coffee – catch up on each other's lives – yes it is practical connection – but it is so much more. when we join our voices in prayer or song – when we take the bread and the cup – we are bound together more deeply than we could ever imagine. it is supernatural – it is mystery – it is, as my charismatic friends used to say, a “GOD THING” it is, if you can get this, the kind of bond that caused john the Baptist to leap in his mother’s womb in the presence of the unborn Christ-child. it is a bond of heart and soul and spirit. it is the bond that makes us one just as jesus and the father are one. and it is the way the world will know that the father sent jesus… and that he sends us.

the Christian church long ago moved their Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday – from the last day of the week to the first. I am not going to get into the history of that change, however… I think it may be significant for us…

Sabbath is not an end… it is a beginning.

Last week – after we all floated the buffalo river - during that half awake/half asleep time last weekend, I had a kind of vision – or at least a picture. I have been thinking a lot about Sundays and I guess the float worked its way into my thinking. I saw the church as a river – like the Arkansas river. The part of the river over in Colorado – near the source – is wild and thrilling. It cut the royal gorge and is some of the best whitewater rafting in the country. But as the river moves downstream – it widens and flattens. The land around it flattens – it becomes less a source of fun and entertainment and more of a source of commerce – usefulness. Maybe our Sunday gatherings are those wild and thrilling waters of the source but they must move us toward something more useful – more connected to meeting a whole ecosystem of needs. Maybe it is in the delta that we build beds and feed the hungry and house the young women at Miss Beverly’s House. Maybe it is the inertia that begins in the Sunday headwaters that moves god’s mission forward in the flat plain of the delta.

Sabbath is our headwater – but we can’t anchor here – we must flow down river and allow these waters to make the deserts fertile… to be joined by other rivers with other waters. to give life and health… to be useful. and… the delta waters – if you know anything about rivers – are still filled with currents – still unpredictable – the power of the headwaters still lives and breathes in the delta – but it becomes deeper – more unseen – but always churning and pulsing below the surface.

on the buffalo – we were not all able to make it. if you weren’t there… we had a blast – but it was less than it could have been. we missed you. it’s like that every time we go to the river – every time we put our canoe in the Sabbath waters. we are glad for those who join us – and we deeply miss those who could not. we come to the water to celebrate – to enter into Sabbath – but we need each other to make the celebration complete.