Sunday, October 13, 2019

Is God on My Side or Am I on God's Side?

All this talk about "thinking" I've been doing, it seems to me, boils down to a simple either-or option. It is one or the other. It can't be both.

Do I allow God's ways (God's truth, God's thoughts) to shape the way I think OR do I use God (i.e., the Bible, the church) to validate what I believe, that is, how I think?

Throughout human history, we humans have claimed that God is "on our side." In our theological debates, in our stances on moral issues, in our political positions, in our wars - we claim our position is God's position. In other words, to disagree with us is to go against God. Our confidence that God is "on our side" frees us from having to examine what we believe or listen to what others believe. We avoid genuine dialogue opting, instead, to dig in and defend our position while attacking the other's. The inevitable outcome is division and alienation.

This claim - or, should I say "false claim" - is more about us than it is about God. We like to be "right." We like being certain.

This desire for certainty is a part of merit-based thinking. "Being right" is another form of "being good." It reflects our effort to be acceptable to God based on what we do. This "being right" mentality does not know grace and, consequently, does not reflect a spirit of grace.

A key indicator that God's truth and God's ways are shaping our thinking is grace. We live with a spirit of humility as we trust God's grace, knowing our relationship with God is not based on being good or right. We relate to others with grace, expressed in unconditional acceptance and forgiveness. We value people more than rules or laws, relationships more than "being right," reconciliation over division. We understand that living out of grace is what it means to be "right."

Sometimes, when we think we are "right" because God is on our side, we are actually wrong because we haven't gotten on God's side. God's truth and God's ways of grace haven't shaped our thinking ... and it shows in our attitudes toward those with whom we disagree.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Thinking Theologically, Not Politically

It seems to me, thinking theologically is a lost art today among those who call themselves "Christian". Yet, thinking theologically lies at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Thinking theologically is allowing our understanding of who God is and of God's ways to shape how we think and what we believe. Consequently, the nature of God and the ways of God (the Kingdom) shape what we do and how we live.

The failure to think theologically results in us living out of our old, pre-Christian ways of thinking.  In other words, being a Christian hasn't changed us significantly. We are simply a religious version of our former self. Our lives and lifestyles reflect little significant difference from our previous life ... or from those around us, for that matter.

The lost art of thinking theologically is the by-product of the current focus on beliefs. We can "believe" something - an intellectual exercise - that never touches our heart, much less transforms it. What we believe may even be theologically correct, i.e., orthodox, but it does not translate into practice, i.e., orthopraxy. Doctrines and beliefs seldom transform. The experience of grace does. Beliefs that do not lead us to love as Jesus loved are rooted in faulty thinking, not theological thinking.

The starting place for thinking theologically is the character of God as reflected in the life of Jesus and his teachings of the Kingdom of God! What we believe is to be shaped by the character of God and Jesus' teachings of the Kingdom. Note: The starting place for thinking theologically is not the Bible ... and certainly not what we believe! Thinking from the perspective of the character of God and the ways of God (the Kingdom) moves us beyond using the Bible to defend our beliefs, i.e., "The Bible says ..."

Today's political climate is evidence of this lost art of thinking theologically. It seems to me that many of those who call themselves "Christian" today think more in political terms than theological terms. For example, I have been called a liberal preacher. "Liberal" is a political term that people use when they do not agree with what I (or other so-called liberal preachers) proclaim. Calling me or others "liberal" is a way of dismissing what we teach without engaging in dialogue and theological thinking. It is a way to avoid examining what they believe in light of the teachings of Jesus. Their belief, not the teachings of Jesus, become the standard of what is right or wrong.

Thinking theologically is rooted in a teachable spirit. It expresses a humility that knows there is always more to God and God's truth than what I know.  It is part of a commitment to grow in one's understanding of the ways of God and, thereby, in Christ's likeness.

How we think governs how we live. The Spirit of God challenged and changed the thinking of Peter, Paul, and the early church in Jerusalem. That change in what they believed resulted in a change in how they lived. They moved from being in step with their culture - a religious culture, at that! - to being out of step with their culture but in step with the ways of God.

It seems to me that thinking theologically is a vital part of being a faithful follower of Jesus.

But, then, this blog about thinking theologically may just be my liberal thinking!

Or is it?

Sunday, September 29, 2019

God's Plumb Line

The prophet Amos based one of his "sermons" on the image of a plumb line (see Amos 7:7-9). A plumb line was an ancient construction tool used in building stone walls - of a house, of a wall around the city - to insure the wall was perpendicular to the ground. A wall that was not properly aligned was at risk of deterioration, crumbing, and collapsing. 

Amos used the image to communicate to the people of Israel that their lifestyle was "out of alignment" with the ways of God. Their out-of-alignment lifestyle put their nation at risk.

Could we benefit from using God's plumb line in the issues facing the church today? to check the alignment of our thinking and beliefs? How does what we think-believe align with ...

  • the character of God - God's merciful and gracious nature, God's nature of self-giving, servant love
  • the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus as a reflection of God's character
  • grace and forgiveness, the way God relates to us
  • the ways of the Kingdom that Jesus taught and lived: all are beloved children of God, relationships are based on grace and forgiveness (rather than merit), power is used to serve, material wealth and possessions are a form of power to be used on behalf of the powerless
  • the transformation of heart and mind that we call spiritual growth (as opposed to a focus on proper belief and behavior)
  • loving as Jesus loved. 

Note that I do not speak of the Bible as God's plumb line, although many Christians do. "What does the Bible say?" is their mantra. They use the Bible to validate their beliefs. This practice is being used  by some in The UMC today to validate their position on LBGTQ issues, forgetting how the Bible was once used to support slavery and to deny women voice and leadership in the church. It's not enough to appeal to the Bible. The better test is "Does it align with the character of God?"

At the end of a plumb line is some kind of weight that, because of gravity, sets the line taunt and straight. It is what makes the plumb line functional. That "weight" in God's plumb line is the character of God.

Does what I think and how I believe align with who God is?

Monday, September 23, 2019

What Do You Think

What do you think? Or, rather, how do you think?

The Apostle Paul frequently wrote about "the renewing of the mind" (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:22-24). He exhorted the Philippians to "put on the mind of Christ" (Philippians 2:5-11). "Set your mind on" says the letter to the Colossians (Colossians 3:2).

For Paul, the renewing of the mind - the transformation in how/what we think - was the heart of the spiritual transformation process. Learning the ways of God is foundational to spiritual development.

The renewing of the mind has two dimensions: (1) unlearning the old way of thinking as we (2) learn the ways of God that Jesus taught.

In Romans 12:2, Paul wrote "stop being conformed to the pattern of this world" (personal translation). His thought: we have been trained to think by the values of the world in which we live. We naturally think from that perspective. It is how we think. It is what we think. Until we recognize and identify this way of thinking, we will unconsciously live out of it. It governs what we do.

This unlearning occurs as we "put on the mind of Christ," that is, as we learn the ways of God that Jesus taught. This learning a different way of thinking is the work of the Spirit in our lives (John 14:26). (See Acts 10 for a record of this Spirit-led shift of thinking in the life of Peter.)

These two ways of thinking are at odds with one another. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD" (Isaiah 55:8).
  • We have been trained to think in terms of us-them. The ways of God embrace all as beloved children of God. All are embraced and included. 
  • We have been trained to think in terms of merit, judging the other according to how they measure up to our thinking and expectations. As a result, we barter acceptance in exchange for conformity. We dole out condemnation and rejection to those who fail to conform. The ways of God teach us to relate out of grace and forgiveness, the way God relates to us. 
  • We have been trained to use our power against others, for our own benefit. The ways of God call us to use our power to serve others, addressing their need and fostering their development. 
  • We have been trained to use material possessions as a status symbol and as the basis of our sense of security. Consequently, we amass things and never have enough. We always want "more." The ways of God lead us to use our material possessions on behalf of others, particularly the poor and those who have little. 
  • We have been trained to think from the perspective of scarcity - there's not enough for everyone. Consequently, we make sure we have "ours". The ways of God teach us to think from the perspective of abundance rooted in God's faithfulness, goodness, and provision. 
These two ways of thinking and living are diametrically opposed to one another.

Part of the challenge in this renewing of the mind is an internal resistance to changing the way we think. (See Matthew 16:21-22 for an example of this resistance in Peter's life.) We function as though what we think is "right." Our sense of identity is tied to being "right." Thus, we are resistant to looking at a different way of thinking. We automatically reject anything that challenges what and how we think. We look for that which confirms what we think. (This unconscious process is so common that social scientists have given it a name: confirmation bias.) We attack those who think differently, calling them "liberal" or "right wing." These labels are our way of dismissing the other as "wrong" while reassuring ourselves that we are "right."

This internal resistance affects the way we read the Bible. Our inclination (practice?) is to go to scripture looking for what we already believe and for validation of that belief. Think of how often we appeal to "the Bible says." A better question than "what does the Bible say?" is "does this thinking align with the character and nature of God, with the teachings and ministry of Jesus, with the mind of Christ?" Is it Christ-like? (See my blog: Asking a Better Question, April 1, 2019.)

This reality of an automatic internal resistance to changing the way we think raises the question: how teachable are we? How willing are we to allow the Spirit to challenge and change what we think?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The True Self

In Ephesians 4, the biblical writer (Paul?) instructed his readers to put off the old self, to put on the new self (Ephesians 4:22-24). The author's image of changing clothes depicts the essence of the spiritual journey. It is a journey of inner transformation and change. The spiritual journey is about the interior life - the condition of the heart.

We live out of what is inside ... out of what is in our heart. The condition of the heart determines what we do and how we relate. As the heart is transformed, what we do and how we relate changes, as well.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic, referred to the new self as the true self - the person God originally created us to be and is now recreating us to be. The true self is who we are in Christ.

The true self (new self) has two dimensions: (1) who God created us to be when God knit us together in our mother's womb (Psalm 139:13-14) coupled with (2) how God is recreating us into the likeness of Christ.

The true self includes our uniqueness - who we are that no one else can be. As we grow into our true self, we joyfully live out of our gifts and abilities in an area of passion to make a difference in the life of another in Jesus' name. True self = gifts + passions + ministry in Jesus' name.

The true self is also who we are with a transformed heart. The true self is the product of God's work, of the Spirit's work in our life. The biblical writer said the new self is created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness (vs. 24). The true self reflects the likeness of God, the character of God. The true self is who we are as we mature spiritually.

Thus, the true self exhibits the fruit of the Spirit. The true self lives out of joy and peace. The true self chooses to love as Jesus loved.

The new self stands in contrast to the old self. The biblical writer described the old self as "corrupt and deluded by its lusts" (vs. 22 - think of "lusts" as hungers). The old self is the self-serving self, the one that lives out of a what's-in-it-for-me spirit. I speak of the old self as the constructed self - the self we created by conforming to the expectations and demands of some social group (family, church, school, friends, community, society.)  The old self or constructed self is who we became in order to gain attention or acceptance or affection or approval from that defining group. (These four - attention, acceptance, approval, affection - are our emotional hungers that unconsciously govern our lives.) In other words, our old self is who they create us to be. (As adults, these original groups give way to a fraternity/sorority, country club, service organization, business associates, etc.)

Our old, constructed self is based upon external conformity to the expectations and social standards of our "homies." Note: it is focused on the externals, not the internal - behavior, not the heart - what we do or don't do, not what is deep inside. Our old, constructed self depends on self-effort, resulting in trying harder to do better. It naturally involves comparing - comparing ourselves to the standard of expectations, comparing ourselves to others. It produces us-them thinking - who is acceptable, who is not; who's in, who's out. It naturally involves competing, leading to better than-less than thinking. It naturally involves judging leading to merit-based thinking. "S/he doesn't deserve ..." "It s/he would only ..., then ..." It naturally involves using power against others, bargaining acceptance and approval for conformity while threatening rejection and condemnation.

This old, constructed self is a fragile self, easily threatened by that which is different and those who are different. We protect it through ridged beliefs and positions. We attack and demonize anyone who does not align with our beliefs and positions.

The old, constructed self cannot love as Jesus loved. It is too busy protecting its fragile veneer. It does not know inner peace or joy. It lives with anxiety and fear, anger and resentment. Love, joy, and peace are only possible as the Spirit transforms our hearts, setting us free to be who God created us to be ... the new self, our true self.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Healthy Spirituality: The Antidote for the Constructed Self Syndrome

The antidote for the constructed self syndrome in church life is simple - simple, but not easy. The antidote is healthy spirituality.

Healthy spirituality is about one's personal relationship with God. Note: relationship, not belief in. One can believe in God without ever opening one's life to God. Relationship is about getting to know God and allowing God to know me - up close and personal. It is about allowing God to share my life and, in doing so, to shape it.

Healthy spirituality always leads to transformation - the transformation of heart and mind into the likeness of Christ, i.e., spiritual growth. It involves putting off the old self (the ego-based, constructed self) and putting on the new self (the true self), Ephesians 4:22-24. At the heart of this process of transformation, Paul says, is "being renewed in the spirit of your minds." He makes the same point in Romans 12:2 - "be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Healthy spirituality always involves growing in my understanding of God and God's ways. It involves growing in my knowledge of God.

Healthy spirituality involves putting on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5) - learning to think and live from the perspective of Christ's self-giving, servant love rather than from the inherent self-serving spirit of the ego. And therein is the challenge.

The self-serving spirit of the ego is our default nature. Here's how this self-serving spirit works.

We were created with four primary emotional needs: the need to be safe, to belong, to be capable or have power, to be valued. The flip side of these four needs is fear - fear that these needs will not being met. We unconsciously live out of fear - fear of being hurt, of being rejected or abandoned, of being inadequate or powerless, of being less than and no good. The way we deal with these fears is by constructing an identity designed to get one of these four needs met. This one need is our primary emotional need. (The primary emotional need is different for each of us.) We operate out of the belief that if this one need is met, the other three will be, as well. We construct this identity by conforming to (or rebelling against) some external standard of right and wrong. As I have said before, this conformity always leads to comparing ourselves to others, resulting in feelings of being "better than" or "less than." Our relationships are governed by these comparisons as we live out of an us-them mentality. The result of this merit-based effort is our constructed self - our self-serving, ego-based self.

Healthy spirituality leads us beyond this constructed self with its ego needs and underlying fears. It leads us to find our sense of identity in our relationship with God, not in our merit-based conformity to some external standard. It leads us to find our peace in God's faithful love. It leads us to find our sense of belonging and value in God's claim on our lives as God's beloved child. It leads us to find our sense of ability (power) in who God created us to be, in the gifts the Spirit has given us, and in the Spirit's presence in our lives. Another way of saying this: healthy spirituality leads us to rest in and live out of grace. Living out of grace, we have no need to compete or compare. We can embrace all as God embraced us, with grace and forgiveness. We move beyond "better than - less than," us-them thinking.

But the ego-based, constructed self does not surrender without a fight. The way the ego seeks to win is through deception. It dresses itself up in religious garb ... by conforming to religious expectations. That way, it doesn't have to die. It just creates a religious veneer. It has the appearance of spirituality without the reality - without the transformation of heart and mind.

The constructed self syndrome in the life of a congregation is evidence that the ego has been successful in its deception. It has not died, just gone undercover. But a good dose of healthy spirituality will lead the ego-based identity or constructed self to die so that the true self - the person God created us to be - can grow.  

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life (their constructed self) lose it, and those who hate their life in this world (who the world has shaped them to be) will keep it for eternal life, John 12:24-25 (NRSV). 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Symptoms of the Constructed-Self Syndrome

Religious practices often get co opted by the ego. When they do, the life of the church suffers.

The ego-based self (the only self most of us know) is a constructed self. It is built using self-effort to conform to some external standard of right-and-wrong, good-and-bad, acceptable-unacceptable. That standard generally reflects what "society" and/or family - the world in which one grew up - said was good-and-bad. Comparing and competing are inherent to the constructed self. We compare ourselves to others, focusing particularly on those who don't measure up to the standard to which we conform. This comparison produces an us-them mentality. Judgement and condemnation are always players in the constructed self (even though Jesus said, "do not judge so that you may not be judged," Matthew 7:1). Judging and condemning the other gives us an unconscious sense of being "better than" them. We feel good about ourselves at the other's expense. Shame lurks underneath the spirit of judgment and condemnation. We shame the other, communicating that they are basically flawed and no good. This shaming tendency reflects the shame that lives deep inside us, generally outside of our awareness. We fear that we are flawed and no good.  (Shame was often used in our formative years when we failed. It was used to motivate us to be better. BTW: shame never works as a motivator. It only cripples.) This comparing and competing, judging and condemning, segregating into us-them categories produces an ego-based identity - a sense of self that is defined by "the good' we do and "the bad" we don't do.

Naturally, religious practices offer a ready-made standard for comparing and competing, judging and condemning - for constructing a sense of self with a religious overtone. Churches and church life become the natural arena for this constructed self, dressed in religious garb, to live out its identity.

Churches and church life are often victims of the constructed self syndrome. The symptoms are predictable.
  • Some standard of measurement (unstated expectations) permeates everything. It may be proper belief (about the Bible, about sin, about God) or proper behavior (morals or "reverence in worship" or mission support) or proper ritual (the right way to worship). Rules and policies (what we can do, can't do) govern the life of the church. 
  • Conformity - doing the right things, in the right way - is expected. Thus, a spirit of performance, particularly in worship, creeps in. Appearances are important as are meeting expectations of what people want/like. 
  • A reserved sense of evaluation is the prevailing emotional tone. Criticism and complaint, judgment and condemnation are often expressed about failure to measure up to expectations. Criticism and complaint, judgment and condemnation become power-plays to control what happens and how. This spirit of judgment excludes any sense of joy or expression of creativity. 
  • Acceptance and approval are conditional, tied to how well one conforms to the expectations and norms. The congregation struggles to offer God's kind of radical hospitality.
  • An us-them spirit is the norm. Belonging is limited to those like us - who think like us, look like us, act like us, value what we value. Those "not-like-us" are often targeted for condemnation as unacceptable, undesirable, less-than ... or, even, sinful. 
  • Relationships tend to be more social than spiritual. We enjoy being together and find ways to do so, but seldom share honestly of our spiritual struggles. 
  • Leadership is restricted to those who are committed to the way we do things. Leaders function as managers, protecting and maintaining the status quo. 
  • We openly express pride about our past. We often speak of "the good old days." We continue to do what we have always done and how we have always done it, assuming that is what is pleasing to God (because it is pleasing to us!). There is little hunger for "more" spiritually. 
  • Clinging to what we have always done and how we have always done it, we resist anything new or different, anything that disrupts the comfort zones we have created for ourselves, i.e., change. We interpret the introduction of change as criticism, meaning "you're doing it wrong."  
  • We ask God to bless what we are doing rather than ask how we can be a part of what God is doing. 

When church life becomes infected with the constructed self syndrome, it becomes a reflection of the culture rather than a reflection of God. It dresses the world's ways in religious garb rather than embodying the ways of God (the Kingdom). It uses God to validate who we are and what we do rather than allowing God to shape who we are and what we do.

The constructed self syndrome is a never-ending battle in church life. Its only antidote is healthy spirituality.

Is God on My Side or Am I on God's Side?

All this talk about "thinking" I've been doing, it seems to me, boils down to a simple either-or option. It is one or the othe...