Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I think I am a Universalist...

Coming out of the closet seems to be very chic'. Gays started it, but now everyone is doing it. It seems more and more people are taking a look inside, poking around the dark places, trying to find out who is really in there.

For me, when I poke around, I find a very unorthodox theologian. It makes me nervous to see that staring back at me, but it sure explains a lot.

I suppose this unorthodoxy started only a few years after my conversion. I was 18 and working/schooling at a ministry down in Texas. Some friends and I went to hear a preacher who was known for his hard/no compromise message. He was a talanted speaker, and he had the audience mesmerized. He just didn't seem happy. In fact, I was quite sure he was angry. He went on and on about luke-warm christians and counterfiet conversions.

Then suddenly, he got happy. He started to talk about judgement day. He described in detail the suffering that would be waiting in Hell for those who mocked God and his children. I am not sure, but I think he started salivating at this point. He couldn't wait for sinners to get their portion of this.

I left that night perplexed. I believed in eternal damnation, but I never hoped it on anyone. Is God angry? Does he get as excited as this preacher did about sending people to Hell?

After this, I started to notice how much time my brothers in Christ spent on who was going to Hell. They often said they were burdened over the souls "pouring into the Pit". They would say, "It breaks my heart that my neighbor is going to Hell", but then through conversation I would realize that they did not even like that neighbor. Was it really breaking their heart?

It seemed Hell was just one more item to show others that, "My God is better than your God, my faith is better than your faith".

I started to question Hell. In a previous post, I pasted a letter that I had written years ago to a number of my friends in which I shared my wrestlings.

In addition to the items I put in that letter, becoming a Father has really made me question Hell. What could Kathryn or Jacob do? What could they possibly do that would make me inflict such violence on them?

Brian McLaren's son said, "Dad... either Christianity is true and almost everyone I love is going to burn in Hell forever, or it's not true and life is meaningless."

This is the set of options Christianity presents the world with, but is that the God of Hope?

McLaren says that he struggles with being a pacifist. He says that, more accurately, he is a pacifist sympathiser.

I think that is how I feel about Universalism. I cannot, theologically, completely commit to it - but I sure want to. This quote from Bart Campolo summarizes how I feel lately..

"If indeed faith is being sure of what we hope for, then truly I am a man of faith, for I absolutely know what I hope to be true: That God is completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving, that God is doing all that He can to overcome evil (which is evidently a long and difficult task), and that God will utterly triumph in the end, despite any and all indications to the contrary.

This is my first article of faith. I required no Bible to determine it, and—honestly—I will either interpret away or ignore altogether any Bible verse that suggests otherwise.

This first article of faith was the starting point of my journey back to Jesus, and it remains the foundation of my faith. I came to trust the Bible again, of course, but only because it so clearly bears witness to the God of love I had already chosen to believe in. I especially follow the teachings of Jesus because those teachings—and his life, death, and resurrection—seem to me the best expression of the ultimate truth of God, which we Christians call grace. Indeed, these days I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand him, because I have become so convinced that He knows what He is talking about, that He is who he is talking about, and that He alone fully grasps that which I can only hope is true.

Unfortunately for me, God may be very different than I hope, in which case I may be in big trouble come Judgment Day. Perhaps, as many believe, the truth is that God created and predestined some people for salvation and others for damnation, according to His will. Perhaps such caprice only seems unloving to us because we don’t understand. Perhaps, as many believe, everyone who dies without confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior goes to Hell to suffer forever. Most important of all, perhaps God’s sovereignty is such that although He could indeed prevent little girls from being raped, He is no less just or merciful when He doesn’t, and both those children and we who love them should uncritically give Him our thanks and praise in any case.

My response is simple: I refuse to believe any of that. For me to do otherwise would be to despair.
Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff, remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, God can give my place in Heaven to someone else, and go ahead and send me to Hell. For better or worse, I am simply not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking Him, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility, because, quite frankly, anything less is not enough to give me hope, to keep me alive, to be worth the trouble of believing."


When will Utah repent?

Utah's latest headlines focus on Mr. Warren Jeffs, president and prophet of the FLDS church. The locals are going to have to be patient while I provide some background for the rest of the 5.99 billion people on the planet who have no idea what is happening in Utah.

To understand Warren, you have to go back to Joseph Smith, the founder of all Mormon groups. Here is the Reader's Digest version.

In the early 1800s, Joseph Smith received visions and wrote, plagiarized, or translated (depending on who you ask) an account of Jews coming to America in the BC and their history up until and shortly after the time of Christ. This is called The Book of Mormon.

The book of Mormon reads much like the Bible and is similar to the core doctrines of Christianity. People started to follow Joseph and a movement was born.

Joseph added teachings, outside of the Bible and the book of Mormon, which came off a bit strange to some. Some groups left (or were forced to leave), but still believed the Book of Mormon to be true even though they felt Joseph Smith had strayed. Polygamy, plurality of gods, jealousy of Mormon prosperity, and Joseph's unilateral power caused all kinds of civil problems. Joseph was assassinated and the core group splintered.

Different groups settled in Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc... almost all of these groups abandoned polygamy (some deny it ever happened during the time of Smith) and the teaching of plurality of gods, and settled into a more traditional Christianity that included the book of Mormon.

Meanwhile, a group of Mormons followed Brigham Young (called Brighamites) out West. The migration West was severe and difficult, which built a unique sense of purpose to this splinter. The Brighamites officially took on the name - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This name is actually shared with a number of other groups who have no affiliation with the Utah church.

The Utah LDS church practiced polygamy unabashed. The most unique teachings of Joseph Smith were clung to, and the territory grew. Utah grew to statehood size, but the rest of country was nervous about giving statehood to a mini-theocracy awash in polygamy.

Prior to gaining statehood for Utah, the LDS church officially denounced polygamy. This caused a number of LDS church members to break away from the Utah LDS church, feeling that they gave up "the principle (polygamy)" due to political pressure. The Utah church said politics had nothing to do with it.

One of the largest polygamist splinter groups is the FLDS church, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Warren Jeffs is the president of this group presently. He is the stereotype of every religious leader who leads a group of nearly unquestioning followers. To be on his badside is to put you out of the graces of god... so the thousands in his church pretty much do whatever he says, even to reassigning of wives to different families and forcing underage girls to marry old men. Warren Jeffs wives number in the forties. There are all kinds of predictions as to what will happen to the FLDS church now that Jeffs will be spending a good long while in prison.

I think the hardest thing for the Salt Lake LDS group to come to terms with is how to juggle the polygamy question. They want to condemn the FLDS group while maintaining the legitimacy of the practice when their founders partook in it. In fact, in theory, they still support it. They believe God the Father is a polygamist with multiple wives (this point is contested, see comments below) who would like to see his children participating in this, just not right now. So it is a complicated dance on a tightrope to distance yourself from the practicers and practice of polygamy while not disavowing it. Tricky.

Unfortunately, America goes to the Middle East to liberate women and children of oppressive regimes, but we allow tens of thousands to remain captive and oppressed within our own land. Check out the trailer for the movie Banking on Heaven to get a glimpse of what life is like for people in these communities. Entire cities exist, where polygamists reign and women and children are seen as chattel.

I have heard the testimonies of women who have escaped from these oppressive communities and have struggled to rebuild their shattered selves. Boys are rejected within homes because they are a threat to older males who seek to acquire more wives. Prophets assign wives to men based on loyalty or reassign their wives as a punishment. Girls are forced into marriages, even young teenagers. As an example, a 19 year old girl was forced to marry Warren Jeff's father, who was 83.

I believe that the sin of Polygamy has never been truly repented of in Utah. Utah looks the other way, weakly justifies it, and quietly props it up; instead of calling it out and rejecting it as the sick and depraved sin that it is. Therefore, polygamy has remained a thorn in the Southwest to this day.

I see Utah as a land of beauty with a gaping wound. This wound will continue to fester until the day it's people become of one heart and reject this sin for time and eternity.

This article actually has sat unpublished for months; I wrote it when Jeff's was first arrested. I was concerned about possibly offending some with this article. However, while reading more news stories lately about Jeff's, I felt compelled to post this. What he has done and what he stands for is no small part of Utah. The circumstance of his community does not sit in a bubble; it has connection and history in the establishment of Utah.

Part of the reason I decided to post was a conversation I had with some friends visiting from Michigan recently. I started talking about Jeffs. They were stunned and one said to me, "You mean polygamy really does happen here?"

The truth is, most of the country has no idea the practice of polygamy goes on here nor how rampet it is. To me, this shows how effective Utah has been in quieting this indiscretion. When the faithful tell the stories of Joseph Smith, polygamy is carefully stepped around. But if there is a need to edit polygamy out of the movies about Smith, if the Utah LDS church does not want polygamy connected with them when Warren Jeffs is in the news, then isn't polygamy something that should be called what it is (sin) and not merely ignored?

I do not write this article to offend; I am not sure that it would cause offense. But if it does, I would be interested to know which part was offensive.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

To expand on my previous blog...

This comment is not about Ted Haggard per Se', but about the responses I have heard from the Christian community. The most common one I hear is "This is a good reminder that we should not be placing our hopes or faith in any person, but in God".

I don't disagree with that, but what I am not hearing is the suggestion that perhaps we should be saying that a little louder before the fall rather than sighing about it after.

We want celebrities and heroes to worship. The same drive that pushes people to read People magazine exists within the people of God. We have the same drives, but I think God expects us to resist rather than go with the flow.

Ministries love to have a celebrity figure. Do you believe some of the national ministries would fare as well as they do financially if they did not have that core personality at the head? Many of these ministries structure their entire foundation on getting people to put their hope and faith in that person.... oh, and on God too, of course.

The simple truth is, it would not benefit most ministries to downplay their core personalities (even if that were to mean elevating Christ). Western Capitalism and Darwinism have permeated our ministries. Encouraging people to follow a personality increases the ministry wealth and power base. Ministries rise and fall based on how well they are marketed. John the Baptist said, "He must increase, and I must decrease." I believe the unsaid maxim in many ministries has become, "He will increase as I increase!"

I think we need to go back to the scriptures. Paul repeatedly warned against this kind of behavior. He even got a little sarcastic about it and chastised the Corinthian church for getting all excited about those "Super-Apostles". He admonished them "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." He later in the letter told them not to elevate him either and concluded "So then, no more boasting about men!"

One last reason I think we build up men goes back to the Old Testament. God wanted to talk to the Israelites, but they wanted Moses to go talk in their place. It is in our history to want someone else to take the lead, the responsibility, the risk. God so wants us. He wants us to want him. But we always want to settle for a simulacrum or proxy.

We can have so much more! Hebrews 10 says "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith".

God wants you! You can go directly before him! No prophet, pastor, priest... or celebrity... required!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Christianity and Homosexuality

If you haven't been watching the news lately, one of the prominent members of the Christian Right has had to step down from his ministry. I didn't know much about Ted Haggard, which shows how little I know about the world of the Christian Right nowadays.

The most blaring issue that faces him at the moment is that, while opposing gay marriage on the one hand, he was soliciting gay sex with the other.

Maybe this should be a call for the Christian Right to get off the gay issue... Is this really what Christ wants his church to be about? Our biggest rep is that we are anti-gay?

I remember the first time I realized that the Christian Right had the wrong motivation on the issue of gays.

Bill Clinton was either running for office or had just become president. I was watching Chuck Colson address a group of pastors on C-Span. He was speaking to a group of about two thousand. Colson was talking about the amazing success they were having in prison ministry and about the number of changed lives that he had personally seen. The crowd nodded and listened politely. Colson was very into what he was talking about, but his audience did not seem to share his enthusiasm. At the close of his speech, he made a few political comments. At the time, gays in the military were a big anchor around Bill Clinton's neck, and Mr. Colson made reference that gays had no place in the military.

I was flabbergasted by what I saw next. All two thousand men stood up simultaneously and began to applaud and cheer. This issue got the crowd fired up. I knew then that I would probably never understand or share the views of most folks I share my religion with. The Lord of Glory changing the life of a prisoner gets tepid responses while any issue with gay attached to it brings out the saints and their checkbooks in record numbers.

The Christian Right's overall reaction to the gay community brings to light what I have suspected for a long time. We don't want homosexuals to come to Christ for their benefit, we want them to come to Christ for ours. Our lives would be so much more pleasant if gays came to Christ. Then we wouldn't be bothered by gays! In fact, we don't really care if they come to Christ at all. We just want them to stop acting gay!

I know taking this view will probably get me a rep of being soft on sin... but I really don't think I care anymore. All we see again and again are that those who squawk loudest about the sins of others end up laying a big egg themselves.

I always get little, pithy, forwarded emails that circulate among Christians decrying the state of America. These usually tie our ungodliness with gays and liberals. It ends with some comment that if you are a true Christian and an American, you will forward this email. I have yet to see any of those emails talk about the fact that America's problems are driven by churches caught up in personal wealth building, with divorce rates as high as the community at large, and that our houses of worship tend to be houses of gossip and back-biting. Anybody seen those emails yet?

We are not known by our love. Ask the man on the street for a description of a Christian and you will hear: judgmental, harsh, prideful, hypocrite. I think Jesus wanted a response more like: Well, I am not sure I believe in God, and I am not sure about Jesus; but I have to admit - those Christians sure do love and serve people in kindness.

I think some of this will come about when we quit hero-worshipping the leaders of our churches. One of the most telling things about Haggard was a picture I saw inside his church. One of the walls had a 15 Ft framed photo of his face along with one of his quotes. Who authorized this? Does his congregation really find this self- aggrandizement acceptable?

It is of no benefit to Christian leaders when their community puts them on such a pedestal. Men who preach the Word are meant to be servants, not idols. We magnify their falls when we allow them to be put in such high towers.
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