Evolving Faith: Of Souls and Gardens

What happens after we die?

The answer to that question has been, perhaps, one of the greatest driving forces behind religious thought — and it should come as no surprise the answer to that question has evolved in incredible ways as well.

Back in the days when the Israelites were still henotheists (see yesterday’s post for more on that), the concept of an afterlife seemed to be the furthest thing from their minds. The covenant they made with God was all about the Promised Land here on earth, all about the present. Never once did God demand they do something so they could get into heaven or enjoy an afterlife of any kind — instead, the promises of following God’s Law included things like “so it may go well with you in the land.” In fact, the notion that any human could ever “go to heaven,” which was God’s dwelling place, was absolutely ludicrous to them.

The ancient Hebrew people believed in a state called Sheol after you died — not Heaven or Hell. (“Sheol” is translated in our English versions of Scripture as “the pit” or “the grave.”) The idea that a part of you would continue living after your body perished would have been laughable. Instead, Sheol was the final resting place for everybody – good, bad, or indifferent. It was a place where there was no consciousness, no pleasure, no pain. Sheol was the great equalizer, and their wisdom writings treated it as such. Sure, they would say, you could lie and cheat your way through life and be lazy, but ultimately you’ll end up in Sheol, so what good was it? Sure, you can acquire massive amounts of wealth and lord it over folks, but once you die your wealth will rot — and so will you, in Sheol. Kind of a “you can’t take it with you” philosophy to the extreme.

Of course, in some deeper moments of reflection, that also led to the obvious flipside of the issue: you can live a virtuous life and deny yourself worldly pleasures and do all the good you can, but when you die you will still end up in Sheol. This disquieting line of reasoning is what led the ancient Hebrews to write the incredibly reflective book of Ecclesiastes, where they bemoan everything as meaningless because ultimately everyone ends up dead in Sheol anyways. (“The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? I said to myself, ‘This too is meaningless…’ Like the fool, the wise too will die.” -Ecc 2:15-16)

Now, in Hebrew belief it was possible to reanimate someone who had gone to Sheol. Doing so would cause them to come back as a ghost-like entity, and this was specifically the power held by those who practiced witchcraft. This was also the power that was forbidden several times in the Old Testament Law from ever being used, because when folks died and descended to Sheol that’s where they were supposed to stay. Forever. We see a striking example in 1 Samuel 28 of a witch using this power to call the prophet Samuel up from Sheol. Samuel’s question when he appears is telling: “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” That verb “disturb” literally means “to excite” or “agitate” — or in this context, something akin to “reanimate.” And notice he’s being brought up, from the grave where he was resting, not down from some heaven-like location.

So that was how our earliest faith ancestors viewed the afterlife: in essence, there wasn’t one. As time wore on, however, the unease with that whole philosophy began building… and it reached its apex and boiled over during — what else? — the Babylonian exile.

Just as the Babylonian exile was the catalyst for the shift away from henotheism into monotheism, it was also the largest driving factor behind the development of afterlife theology. It should be no surprise that this was the case, because the very idea of an afterlife is predicated on one foundational principle: justice.

True, we want to ease our pain during the grieving process, and a belief in the afterlife greatly assists in that. But zooming out a bit farther, the concept of justice looms much larger over the development of this theology. We inherently want there to be a difference between what happens to a good guy and what happens to a bad guy. We join with the author of Ecclesiastes in saying that Sheol is not enough. And once we begin travelling down that road, all it takes is one major example of injustice to kickstart our afterlife theology into high gear.

Enter the Babylonians.

The Hebrews were God’s people. They had a special relationship with him. They were the good guys. The Babylonians were the bad guys — wicked heathens who did awful things like oppressed people, sacrificed their children, and went on bloodlust-fueled killing sprees. So when Babylon began marching on Jerusalem, is it any wonder that the Israelites believed they would defeat them? The good guys were supposed to win! Here, now, on earth, the good guys had to win. If they didn’t, everyone would end up in Sheol and life would be, well, meaningless.

So imagine the shock when Babylon conquered them, destroyed their cities, and took them captive as slaves. Oppressed, mistreated, and more defeated than we will ever understand, they stood asking: Why? How could this happen? How were they supposed to make sense of this? What was the point of life if the bad guys won?

It was in this context that they began developing an increasingly complex afterlife theology. In fact, the first time anything about an afterlife is directly taught in Scripture is during a vision that the prophet Daniel had while in Babylonian captivity:

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan 12:2-3)

The perfect response to the gross injustice of life is erased with this new, evolving theology of the afterlife. The idea is introduced here that at some point in the future, the dead will be resurrected, and a final justice will be served. The bad guys will face everlasting shame and contempt (not fire, yet…) while the good guys will face everlasting life. Sheol isn’t dismissed or tossed aside — the dead will still reside there, unconscious, until this resurrection — but Sheol is now amended with a rather massive footnote.

Eventually, even if it doesn’t happen in this life, everything will be made right. The meaninglessness is fixed with a future hope to which the righteous can look forward.

But this new amended view of the afterlife introduced a whole slew of new, unintended questions, the primary one being: what determined whether you were resurrected into shame and contempt, or life? Where was that dividing line?

What really happens after someone dies?

Enter the Greeks, who took over Galilee and Judea as part of their expanding empire, and who introduced a more refined set of beliefs about the human soul. According to the Greek philosophers, humans were dual creatures with a body and a soul, one of which is temporal and the other which is eternal. We’ve been interpreting afterlife theology through that Greekk lens ever since.

The idea of this eternal soul, coupled with the Hebrew people’s newfound interest in the afterlife as a way to see justice done, led to a theological explosion of ideas for the four hundred years leading up to Jesus. By the time Jesus comes on the scene there was little in the way of orthodoxy on the subject. Most rabbis at least taught that there would indeed be a resurrection of the dead, but when that would occur was up for debate. Some taught it would happen when the Messiah came and some taught it would happen to individuals shortly upon their death. Others still maintained that there was no resurrection at all. Some rabbis suggested that people spent up to eleven months, maybe twelve if necessary, in Sheol as a place of purification upon their death. At the end of that time, if the dead were purified, they would enter Eden (the everlasting life Daniel wrote about) and if they were not able to be purified, they were annihilated. Others started to teach that there was a place of conscious torment after death for the bad guys, although nobody could come close to agreeing on what would land someone there.

Some rabbis taught that adultery would send you to this new location of “Hell.” Others said denying the resurrection was what got you the one-way ticket there. Still others claimed being an Epicurian philosopher was Hell-worthy. And a larger group of rabbis taught that even if you ended up in Hell, nobody would live there forever. Everyone would eventually be purified and ascend back to Eden.

The Garden of Eden was one of the foundational principles the Jewish people latched onto while they were evolving this new afterlife theology. To them, it represented God’s original plan for creation. To them, God was restoring the brokenness of his creation and making it back into what he originally intended. To them, “heaven” was still God’s dwelling place and humans didn’t go there — but God was remaking the earth into the Garden of Eden for the good guys.

So we went from no afterlife and Sheol, to an amended version of Sheol that included a resurrection, to a confusing heterodoxy of afterlife ideas. This was a massive evolution of faith, and when Jesus stepped into the mix he continued advancing new ideas and thoughts on the subject. This post is already far too long, so we’ll have to save the conclusion of this discussion for another day. The point of this post isn’t to definitively answer the question, “What happens when we die?” — just to show how the answer to that question has evolved over the centuries. (Suffice it to say, however, that Jesus’ ideas on the afterlife look pretty different than the conservative evangelical view of things today.)

The point is this: Scripture is a story. It is a story of a people trying to figure out who God is and what their relationship to him is. It is not a set of timeless principles laid out to be the same from beginning to end. There is a trajectory and evolution that occurs through its pages, and rather than inviting us to use it as a set of doctrinal proof texts or rules, it invites us instead to join in that story. To continue the trajectory. To continue the evolution. We’ll talk more about that idea later this week.

Evolving Faith: One God to Rule Them All

The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one God. Open and shut case. Black and white. Right?

Not so fast…

In the primitive cultures of the ancient world — the setting in which most of the Bible was written — religion (oftentimes with little to no differentiation from superstition) was paramount. The religious orthodoxy at the time included a pantheon of gods who controlled everything. Human civilization at the time was tribal, and these gods belonged to, or ruled over, individual tribes. Each group had their own god, and it was their responsibility to ensure they worshiped him correctly and stayed on his good side.

Enter the Israelites, who believed the same things in their early days. For instance, a passage in Deuteronomy describes this primitive belief system to a T:

“When Elyon [God] divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the numbers of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, Israel was his allotted inheritance.” (Deut 32:8-9)

There is an incredible amount of theology packed into those two sentences, so let’s unpack it carefully. First, we see the existence of two gods: Elyon and Yahweh. (These names are translated as “God” and “LORD” in English.) We explain that today by saying Elyon and Yahweh are actually the same God, or they are two persons of the Trinity. But let’s look at this from the perspective of the ancient people who wrote this: there was clearly a supreme deity named Elyon and another deity under him named Yahweh.

In fact, there are more gods than just those two, evidently, because we see Elyon here parceling out the entire world and giving deities certain tribes to rule over. This is not only compatible with ancient pagan beliefs, it is the exact same. If you look at ancient Canaanite writings, for example, you’ll find they believed in the same pantheon of gods with one supreme god ruling over them all. The name that the Canaanites ascribed to this supreme god? Elyon – just like the Israelites.

And so here we see, in early Hebrew thought, echoes of the same beliefs as the cultures around them. Now, even though these cultures believed there were many gods, it wouldn’t be fair to label them as polytheists. In polytheism, there is a pantheon of gods, each of whom are to be worshiped by everyone – and each of whom is over a particular area of life (sun gods, water gods, war gods, harvest gods, etc). That stands in contrast to the ancient cultures we are talking about here. They didn’t worship all the gods they believed existed; rather, they worshiped only their specific tribal god to the exclusion of all others.

This belief system is more accurately called henotheism. In henotheism there are many gods, but you are to be concerned with, and worship, only one of them. There is one god per tribe who controls everything in life. In the case of our Israelites, the supreme God Elyon saw fit to assign Yahweh as their god, and so they would worship Yahweh.

This henotheism is reflected in the earliest laws the Israelites followed. For instance, the first of the ten commandments has Yahweh telling Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Notice what Yahweh did not say: not, “There are no other gods,” but, “You shall have no other gods…” Yahweh himself seems to implicitly acknowledge the existence of this pantheon when setting out the basic rules of relationship with his people.

There are more explicit references to multiple gods throughout Scripture, of course, if we don’t gloss over them or ignore them. Psalm 82 has a supreme God standing “in the assembly of the gods,” and goes on to say “In the midst of the gods he renders judgment.” Exodus 15 has Moses and Miriam leading the people in a song, one of the verses of which goes like this: “Who among the gods is like you, Yahweh? Majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” Again, notice they are not declaring Yahweh the only god, they are declaring he is better than all the other gods! Psalm 89 echoes that idea with this line: “Who in the skies can compare to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the sons of gods, a god who is honored in the assembly, who is more awesome than all who surround him?”

In Psalm 135, they sing this: “I know Yahweh is great; he is above the other gods.” In Psalm 95 they sing, “Yahweh is the great god, the great king above all gods.” And in Psalm 97, they even sing about the other gods worshiping Yahweh.

Henotheism at its finest.

There can be little to no doubt that the early Israelites believed, just as their neighbors did, in multiple gods. But eventually, Judaism (and Christianity) became a highly monotheistic faith system. When and how did the shift occur?

The shift from henotheism to monotheism took place during and after the Babylonian exile in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. At that point in time, Jewish writings became highly monotheistic in nature, including these passages from the second half of Isaiah:

“Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.” (Isaiah 43:10)
“This is what Yahweh says — Israel’s king and redeemer, Yahweh almighty: ‘I am the first and the last, apart from me there is no god.'” (Isaiah 44:6)
“Is there any god besides me [Yahweh]? …No, I know not one.” (Isaiah 44:8)
“I am Yahweh, and there is no other. Apart from me, there is no god.” (Isaiah 45:5)

How are we to explain this abrupt transition? Suddenly, a culture who had believed in many gods now only believed in one and declared all the other ones to be fakes, even mocking the idea anyone could have ever believed they existed (see the remainder of Isaiah 44). So what changed?

The best theory is two things changed: one gradual, and one shockingly abrupt. First, what gradually changed was that culture was growing up. Humankind began learning things and understanding things and acquainting themselves with knowledge their ancestors didn’t have. And as knowledge increased, there became less and less of a need for superstition and ancient forms of religion. Many cultures were outgrowing henotheism, and the Israelites were one of them. (There’s a reason, for instance, that there are only a handful of henotheists remaining today, including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most other cultures have moved on from that ancient way of understanding the world.)

The more abrupt thing that happened was the Israelites were defeated by the Babylonians and taken into slavery by a major world empire for the second time in their history. To say this was a big deal would be an understatement of epic proportions. From a henotheistic perspective, being conquered and oppressed by the Babylonians meant one thing: the Babylonian tribal god was more powerful than the Israelite tribal god. And that fact made for some uncomfortable philosophy: Maybe Yahweh wasn’t the greatest god after all. Maybe all the other gods in Elyon’s assembly didn’t worship Yahweh. Maybe Yahweh wasn’t more awesome than all the other gods that surrounded him. Maybe when Elyon was doling out the deities to the various tribes around the world, the Israelites got the shaft.

Earlier in Israel’s history, this was exactly how they understood military defeat. Check out 2 Kings 3, for instance, where Yahweh supposedly told the Israelites to go to battle with the Moabites, and that he would deliver the army of the Moabites into their hands. At first, the battle is going great — in fact, Israel is about to win, but then the king of Moab throws a hail Mary and sacrifices his own son to the Moabite tribal god Chemosh. After that sacrifice, Scripture records there was such a divine anger burning against Israel (implied: Chemosh got some extra fuel and motivation from the child sacrifice) that the Israelites lost the battle and went home defeated. Oops. Did Yahweh lie? Or was he just outpowered by a rival deity in the pantheon? The Israelites needed to make sense out of a shocking military defeat in a battle they should have won, and so they went with the latter. This was a henotheistic way of viewing the world.

In the context of an utter and all-out embarrassment like the Babylonian exile, however, you can see how henotheism quickly falls out of favor. Being conquered by Babylon was likely the final death knell for henotheism and the catalyst for ushering in monotheism. Nobody wants to believe they were assigned a deity who couldn’t protect them, so one of the best alternatives is to say there’s actually only one God and he allowed you to be conquered to teach you a lesson. It wasn’t that Babylon’s god was more powerful, it was that Babylon didn’t have a God at all and Yahweh willed this whole thing to happen for his divine purposes.

And once you believe that, then you start looking for those lessons you were supposed to learn. Enter Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and the rise of the Pharisees — prophets and events which close out the Old Testament and usher in the New.

So does the Bible teach there is only one God? Is our faith heritage one of monotheism? Eventually. But that wasn’t always the case. For thousands of years, our faith heritage was built on the back of henotheism and a belief in the existence of many gods. That could either be earth shattering and foundation-shaking to you, or you could be saying, “So what?” at this point. Either way, to me this seems vitally important to understand on a couple levels. First, it puts us into closer contact with the identities of those who came before us in this journey… of those who paved the way for us today. We’ve got to understand who they were and what their trajectory of belief was in order to better understand ourselves. And secondly, it’s important because it necessarily colors the way we approach, read, and understand Scripture. It helps us answer the important question, “What is the Bible?” in a better way that will perhaps not leave us with as many disappointments. But we’ll get into that in another post later this week.

Evolving Faith: A New Series

Somebody once told me, “I don’t trust anybody who believes exactly the same things they did ten years ago.” That idea seems good to me, partly because I’ve left a lot of beliefs behind in the past ten years, and mostly because it accepts and expects that people grow.

My faith has evolved in countless ways since 1998 when it became the most important thing in my life, and through the magic of the internet I know I’m far from the only one for whom that is true. I was originally taught back then that all truth was timeless; once you landed on truth, it was a Very Bad Idea to ever move again. Evolving faith was viewed with suspicion at best, and charges of backsliding and heresy at worst. So finding stories all over the place of people experiencing the same questions, doubts, and journey I am experiencing brings me comfort and peace.

Recently, I’ve begun finding those same stories of evolving beliefs in a rather unlikely place: the pages of Scripture. Turns out, not only is it okay and expected that our individual faith stories grow and change, but our entire faith heritage is actually built on that foundation! So this week, I will be exploring how the ancient Jewish people and early Christians shifted their understandings of God in some pretty dramatic ways — and how those shifts found their ways into the pages of Scripture. I think a lot of times we miss the forest for the trees when we approach the Bible, and stepping back and viewing its contours from a distance reveal some potentially remarkable things.

The first post will go up tomorrow, with one following everyday this week. The topics are just inconsequential ideas like monotheism, the afterlife, and morality. You know, light and easy stuff like that. To start with, this morning I want to introduce what might already be an uncomfortable idea to you: many of the truths about Christianity and God haven’t always been truths. Following God, whether as a part of our Jewish or Christian heritage, has undergone shifts as the culture shifted around it. It seems to me you can choose to do one of two things with that idea: fight against it or accept it. And if you come to accept it, you have two more choices: to believe that means the Bible cannot possibly be true, or to believe that means the Bible is more true than ever.

For me, I am living in the beauty of the latter.

So I invite you on this ride with me this week and look forward to some incredible discussions and dialog!

Evolving Faith: A Reflected Riddles Series
Tuesday: One God to Rule Them All
Wednesday: Of Souls and Gardens
Thursday: Biblical Morality
Friday: What Does it Mean?

God and Sin

The empire of evangelicalism is built on the idea of a holy God who cannot allow sin in his presence. It then uses fear and control as mechanisms to convince people that only they have the solution to this dilemma.

But… as we read about Jesus in the pages of Scripture, we see Jesus, who was God, do exactly that: allow sin in his presence. Furthermore, he not only allowed sin in his presence, he went out of his way to welcome sin into his presence.

Therefore, one of two things must be true: either Jesus is not God, or God can and does indeed allow sin in his presence.

We are so focused on the the holiness of God that we forget the very essence of God: that he is sacrificial love. God’s holiness does not demand that sin be cast out of his presence because his love demands a relationship with the sinner.

Sin is not the main problem or the ultimate enemy; death is. We are not fighting to overturn and end sin, we fight to overturn and end death. Even if there were miraculously no sin in the world tomorrow, death would still exist. And so we aim not to convince with fear and control, but to set free with life and love.

Because that is what we see Jesus doing on page after page of our story, and what we, as his disciples, are to imitate.

On the Need For Artists

The world lost an incredible woman this morning when Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. She was a poet leader whose inspiring works were matched only by her inspiring life.

The extraordinary outpouring at Maya Angelou’s passing reminds us that the world is not clamoring for more theologians or more men standing at podiums dispensing answers. No, the deepest desire and yearning of the world is for artists: poets and writers and painters, sculptors and actors and musicians who can cut through the noise of life and make. us. feel. Artists who speak to what it means to be human and inspire us to be better.

It strikes me that Jesus wasn’t a theologian. He never dealt in big words or complex theories, never got bogged down in the minutia of religious argument. He simply told simple stories to simple people, and yet his stories had deep, meaningful impact. He made a habit out of answering questions with questions, inviting people to be curious and explore rather than dispensing answers from on high. Jesus cared more about systemic injustice than systematic theology.

May we follow in Maya Angelou’s footsteps — indeed, the very footsteps of Jesus! — and dream of a better world, then join God as creative artists to make that dream, the Kingdom of God, come true.

Actually, Homosexuality is a Gospel Issue

After World Vision announced its decision to expand their employment practices to include married gay couples, a lot of Christians lost their ever-loving minds.

Thanks to this whole uproar over World Vision, the hypocrisy of the modern, western Christian majority has been laid bare for all to see – and the resulting chaos is not pretty.

Here’s why: after World Vision announced their policy change, thousands of Christians canceled their World Vision child sponsorships. In the first day, over two thousand people abandoned children. In the following days, thousands more followed suit. In other words, conservative Christians were so upset about gay people serving children, they more or less said: children need clean water, education, food, and medical supplies. Unless those things are provided by gay people. In that case children don’t need anything.

The counter argument from the conservative evangelical camp was quick: just because we are giving up on these specific children doesn’t mean we can’t go sponsor other children through other organizations. That logic, of course, is faulty, distant, and remarkably impersonal — as shown by several bloggers who pointed out that children are not merchandise, like cell phones and used cars, that we have the luxury of simply “trading in” for a different model.

Not only did Christians treat children – children! – as merchandise, they also treated them as bargaining chips, pushed to the middle of the poker table in order to force World Vision to fold. Entire denominations of churches, including the Assemblies of God and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, threatened to pull child sponsorships if World Vision continued on with the new policy.

Facing this incredible backlash, World Vision blinked and reversed course. Many evangelicals expressed their happiness at the reversal. Russell Moore, President of the Ethics Committee at the SBC, even declared it time to “rejoice.”

Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s take a look at the scoreboard. Gay people: demonized. Children: dehumanized. Evangelicals: celebratory.

That pretty much sums up what’s wrong with the western “church” – and why so many prominent authors, speakers, and leaders have publicly divorced themselves from evangelicalism after this train wreck. I can’t blame them. A big part of me wants to as well.

The idea of abandoning a child who needs support over a doctrinal difference with those providing the support is unfathomable to me, and I still cannot understand at any level of humanity where anybody would think that was okay… least of all people who claim to be following Jesus. My wife and I supported a little girl named Ivis for several years. We chose her because she shared a birthday with one of our sons. We received letters from her, pictures from her, drawings that she had made. She told us about her life, her family, her home. She asked us about our pets, our boys. We developed a relationship with her. When we found out she no longer needed support, we switched our support to another little girl named Lizzi and have been supporting her for several months now.

I cannot fathom a universe in which we would walk up to Ivis or Lizzi, look them in the eyes, and tell them, “Sorry. I know you need food and medicine and schooling and clean water. But the people who give those things to you? They hire gay people now. So we’re going to have to take those things back — oh, and this relationship? It’s over.

This whole uproar has conclusively proven something that I have fought so hard not to believe for the past several years: apparently, Christians can be as big of jerks as the world says we are. Apparently, a wide swath of us actually do care more about doctrine than people, more about purity than love. And apparently, there are a lot of Christians who just cannot get over their obsession with sex and what happens in other people’s bedrooms.

The Gospel Coalition and the Southern Baptist Church both put out statements on the issue, declaring homosexuality to be a “gospel issue” and therefore, non-negotiable. To bend or compromise would be to negate the gospel itself.

The argument, of course, is ludicrous. But here’s the surprising twist: in what may be the first and only time I’ve agreed with anything written over at the Gospel Coalition, I actually do think that homosexuality is a gospel issue. Just not exactly how they meant it.

The gospel is infinitely bigger than simply separating the world into sinners and saints, the hellbound and heavenbound. The gospel is about all of creation being put back together, with agape love holding it all together and redeeming everything. Therefore, how we treat gay people (and all people!) is very much a gospel issue.

If we think whether or not someone is gay is more important than whether a child eats…

If we stand idly by and watch as a segment of humanity is demonized and persecuted, or worse, actively participate in those actions…

If we do not stand up for gay teenagers, among whom suicide rates are skyrocketing because of the abuse they face from their peers as well as from religious groups…

…then we are not only not living out the gospel, we are denying the very thing we claim to be defending.

If we do not possess the ability to even extend common human decency, then we are far worse than unbelievers – for even the “sinners” do that. We are called to do so much more… to extend the very selfless love that Jesus extended to us.

I say this all as someone who still believes that homosexuality is a sin. I’ve read all of the arguments and contextualizations and articles explaining why it’s not, but I can’t convince myself that I can take that leap and remain intellectually honest. But I also understand this: believing something is a sin does not give me the ability, the opportunity, or the right to be a douchebag.

Jesus has called me, called us, to love. Unconditionally, without pause, without question and without demands. His earliest followers declared that loving other people (which requires us to first see them as people!) to be the fulfillment of His “law.” And therefore, I concur: the complete and utter inability of the Church — a large or at least highly vocal portion of it — to truly love gay people is a gospel issue. And it’s one that must be resolved.

Of Holidays and Citizenship

‘Tis the season for gentle snowfall, sipping hot cocoa by the fire, hanging lights, and… fighting a fierce and bloody war to defend the holiday of Christmas.

That’s right, it’s officially War on Christmas TM time, boys and girls. And that means leaving no stone unturned in the search for things to be offended by. No baby Jesus on the courthouse lawn? Persecution! No “Silent Night” at the kid’s Christmas program? To arms! Calling it “winter break” instead of “Christmas Break”? Battle stations, everyone! Someone wish you “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?” It’s a horseman of the apocalypse!

We’ve even moved beyond those traditional theaters of war this year into the realm of not-so-subtle racism, with Fox News battling suggestions of inclusivity by making sure everyone knows the “verifiable fact” that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white.

Look, I get it. I really do. Drawing battle lines, creating a “them” for “us” to rally against, engaging in a war… it makes sense. It does. We do it because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Morally superior. It gives us a (twisted) sense of purpose and calling, something that feels worthwhile to accomplish. And it allows us to create a separate group of people, whom we can blame everything on when anything goes wrong. Drawing battle lines creates a built-in scapegoat for all our problems and issues.

Underlying it all is the unspoken assumption, our expectation, that our civic leadership endorse and embrace our specific religious belief system. Until they do, and do so wholeheartedly, we will continue to find (or create) reasons to be upset and offended.

Unfortunately, all of this runs contrary to how I read the narrative of faith in the Bible. That narrative, to me, majors on a theme of inclusivity, not exclusivity… a theme of tearing down walls rather than building them, erasing battle lines instead of drawing them. It centers on an idea of loving everybody (even regardless of what holiday greeting they use), and beating our swords into plowshares. To give up the battle in favor of gardening. To stop destroying and start creating.

Along with that, this narrative teaches me something about who I am as well, and it couches it in terms of citizenship. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul writes at one point, not in this world. For Paul, this was a direct contrast to his Roman (read: privileged) citizenship. For us, let’s make some folks uncomfortable: We are not citizens of America. We are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven.

There’s no dual citizenship here. There’s no foot-in-both-worlds possibility. When we choose to become citizens in the Kingdom, we renounce our citizenship in the world. We renounce our American citizenship.

We’re not “Christians first, Americans second” — we are, essentially, no longer Americans.

That idea has far reaching implications on a number of levels and issues. But during this time of year, the holiday season, what it means to me is it does not matter whether or not civic leaders legitimize the symbols of our faith — the symbols of a rival and competing kingdom.

It does not matter where we may or may not be not allowed to place images of Jesus… after all, the image of our Creator is borne by all of us in flesh and blood, not in plastic light-up made-in-China dolls.

It does not matter what holiday greeting you receive in a checkout line… after all, Jesus’ most valuable lesson was that Christians ought to demand privileged status in society and be offended when we don’t receive it. Or the exact opposite of that. Whatever.

Loving God and loving people, sacrificing yourself for the sake of others, is what being a citizen in the Kingdom of God is all about. And doing that most assuredly does not require putting a label of “Christmas” on everything or having a white baby Jesus doll on a public lawn.

Heaven and Nature Sing

We like to think of heaven, at least subconsciously, as being “up.”

After all, that’s the direction Jesus went when he ascended into heaven, right? He was “taken up” and his students were left with their mouths hanging open, “gazing up into heaven.”

But that’s not all of the story. In fact, that misses a central plotline in the story.

When Jesus came to earth (down to earth?) it was a miraculous moment because heaven — the vast, unreachable heaven, was colliding with earth. It was a collision which had occurred only a few times ever before, and never lasted long. This time would be different, though: this time, heaven would remain on earth.

Jesus came to institute the kingdom of heaven on earth. That’s the narrative of the good news stories written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He didn’t come to whisk people away to some far off land, or to make us pine for a place we couldn’t yet be.

He taught us to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He taught us that heaven was like yeast, slowly working its way through a batch of dough. He taught us heaven grows on earth like a plant grows from a seed.

In other words, heaven on earth started small, with the birth of a baby boy, and now it continues to grow, to work its way through a weary world. It grows and spreads with every decision we make to bring life instead of death, love instead of hate, peace instead of war.

And it grows and spreads by the power of heaven’s King even while we sleep or do nothing or screw up.

This advent season, look around you. You’ll see lots of pain, brokenness, injustice, and hurt. These are opportunities to grow and spread heaven on earth. And look around you some more. You’ll also see lots of joy, love, peace, and hope. These are evidences of the truth: when Jesus ascended, he left heaven here on earth for us.

If you’re looking for heaven this holiday season, don’t look up — look around you.

Practical Holiness

At the church where I have the privilege of serving as the Teaching Pastor, I lead a teaching team of incredible people who sharpen one another through our deep friendships and shared wisdom. This team just got done teaching a series that we entitled “Practical Holiness” — and these teachings continue to blow me away with their poignancy, their truth, and their grace. So much so I wanted to make sure I share them with you.

For this series, we took some of the main themes from the 22 New Testament letters and taught through them in six weeks. Together with a lead-in sermon on language and a night cap from Revelation, I challenge you to find eight weeks of more powerful, life-giving teaching than this! In these eight weeks, four of our seven teachers taught from the stage – but make no mistake, every member was integrally involved in crafting the messages and none of them would have been as good as they were without everyone’s perspective and wisdom.

I could not be more proud of our team, so I am shamelessly plugging our teachings here. If you’re looking for a good way to spend several hours, may I recommend the following:

Words – The Power of Life and Death
Matt Coulter, 9/29/13

Practical Holiness
Matt Coulter, 10/6/13

Spiritual Gifts
Matt Coulter, 10/13/13

Adam Coop, 10/20/13

Matt Coulter, 10/27/13

Holy Spirit
Matt Coulter, 11/3/13

Tanya Engel, 11/10/13

Once and Future Hope: Revelation
Heath Underwood, 11/17/13

Getting it Wrong

I was struck with an incredibly humbling thought this afternoon while reflecting on advent.

When Jesus came to earth in the familiar Christmas scene as a baby in swaddling clothes, almost nobody expected it.

Why not?

The religious leaders thought they knew what the Messiah would be all about. They interpreted scripture in a way that pointed to a king, a political ruler, a revolutionary who would end the oppression of Rome and – finally! – grant Israel freedom and peace.

Their history colored their interpretation. God’s people had been subject to oppression and slavery for most of their existence. (And for the rest of their existence they had been embroiled in a bloody civil war.) The prophet Daniel foresaw a Kingdom of God which would come about during the reign of the Roman Empire. The prophet Isaiah said “the government would be on his shoulders”. What the people wanted, needed, was a removal of Rome and the advent of God.

Instead, they got a baby.

Only it wasn’t “instead”. Not really. Because that baby was exactly what the people wanted and needed: freedom. Peace. A way out of oppression. A way forward.

They just couldn’t see it because the religious leaders had interpreted things through one particular lens while God was operating in an entirely different way.

The shepherds – furthest removed from educated leaders – did see it. They saw it because they had a personal experience with God and his messengers that led them to a different interpretation of their story. Essentially, the mission the angels gave the shepherds was: go tell everyone the religious leaders are barking up the wrong tree.

It’s a mission that Jesus himself continued throughout his life.

And yet, today when we stack personal experience against educated, conventional theology we err on the side of mistaken religious leaders time and time again.

This advent, may we remember and be humbled: Sometimes religious leaders, with all our educated theological interpretations, can still be so very wrong.