For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘kingdom of God

My friend Rachel Small at Occupy Wall Street.

If Jesus were here today, it seems obvious he would be sympathetic to the Occupy movement. The Gospels detail his life’s work speaking out against the unjust economic systems and unfair distribution of wealth; railing against the burden of oppressive debt, taxation and extortion from the lower classes to line the pockets of the rich; attending to healing and building a new model of community; trying to change the same old conversation with subversive tactics of protest; revealing the collusion between wealth, power and violence; and taking sides with the poor, outcast and rejected. Among my progressive clergy friends, there have been multiple postings of a graphic saying, “Jesus is with the 100%.” While Jesus loved both rich and poor, he refused to comfort or coddle those who made exorbitant profits by oppressing the poor.  As my friend Rachel’s sign points out, Jesus’ own prayer aligns itself clearly with the stated hopes of the Occupy movement.

Jesus’ life and ministry was most fundamentally about inaugurating a new way of life. It was about building the kingdom of God here, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Early Jesus followers were simply known as “The Way,” because they lived a way of life caring for the poor, forming new community and trying to do things differently. Beyond the notion that Jesus would have supported the Occupy protesters, this idea of “The Way” is the stronger connection between the Occupy movement and the heart of Christianity.  Occupy is not a Christian movement, but it is a movement about a way of life. The daily General Assemblies, shared leadership and direct democracy, sharing of goods and managing of community needs are all about incarnating in practice the ideas and visions of the community of protesters. They do not just carry signs and march down streets to encourage people to their cause—they are embodying the community they want to build by practicing a new way of doing things and being together. That’s an awful lot like our Savior and his followers.

I spent some time at our local Occupy movement, downtown in our city bordering on the south and midwest. I discovered that the experience shared even more parallels to the church—including some of its struggles. Ours was a small group, about 20 in all. When I arrived, they were in a meeting. The small, handwritten sign at the center of the circle indicated that this was an education session, which lasted every day from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., with the General Assembly at 7:00 p.m. I stood at the edge of the circle for nearly 30 minutes, and felt completely lost. No one spoke to me, no one invited me to sit with them on a blanket (the ground was muddy), no one even acknowledged I was there. There were words I didn’t understand and strange hand gestures that left me puzzled. Everyone else clearly knew one another very well. The entire time I was there, I imagined that this is exactly the experience that many of these people would have if they walked into our churches for Sunday worship. It was humbling.

When at last someone stepped away from the circle (I couldn’t interrupt, didn’t know the proper hand gesture to be recognized to speak, and couldn’t wait five hours for a break in the action), I followed him and introduced myself. I chose not to start with my clergy title (after all, I did not come representing my congregation), but just my name and my interest in offering support—food, blankets, supplies, whatever was needed. He seemed displeased that I had bothered him, and said they had everything they needed. He did at least take my card when it was offered. I had planned to stay longer, but I felt so uncomfortable that my nerves took over and I left. I’ve been trying to renew my courage to return. Again, a humbling experience.

So, as Jesus-followers today, where do we fit in with the Occupy movement? When I first started writing this post two weeks ago (it’s taken me a long time to sort through my thoughts), there was little or no church presence at the Occupy movement, here or anywhere else. Many of the Occupy participants were (are) openly hostile to religion, especially Christianity, because they associate it with the harm of the radical, prosperity gospel, anti-sex, anti-body, anti-intellectual right wing version of our faith. In this short time, some of that has begun to change. In other cities, the progressive Christian community has rallied to organize itself in support of the Occupy movement, offering spiritual support, communion services, even processing a giant golden calf as a religious symbol of condemnation. (In the interest of full disclosure, many of these folks are my friends, and the links are from their own Facebook posts.) This clergy support work has been welcomed by Occupiers in Boston, New York, San Francisco and many other places.

The question still remains: what is our role as faith communities and Christians in the Occupy movement? I think part of our confusion stems from the fact that we are not at the center of this movement. For the last 200 years in the United States, churches have been the nurseries of movements for social change—abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, fair labor practices, temperance, education reform, on and on. Clergy have been on the front lines of shaping, inspiring and leading movements for social justice. I am a veteran of many protests, and as a clergy person I am used to being on display up front to add moral authority to the cause. Yet the Occupy Wall Street movement happened without us. This is new territory, and, like me hovering outside the Occupy meeting’s circle, we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We might even be dealing with a bit of a bruised ego over the whole thing—I showed up to offer my help, but no one wanted it. In order to connect, we must be willing to be outsiders instead of insiders, to be uncomfortable and take time to learn how things go.

There is an old joke about the radical French intellectual that hears the people marching in the streets and responds: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going so that I can lead them.” I am concerned that this will be the approach of the progressive church to the Occupy movement.  Many of us have years of experience in social movements, and it will be tempting to show up and offer ourselves as experts and leaders. I admit that one of my desires after my visit to the local Occupy site was to offer advice to them—about how to welcome newcomers, about how to respond to offers of assistance, about how to incorporate outsiders. I’m still not sure what to do with that impulse. I believe that wisdom might be helpful to the cause, but I also believe it is arrogant of me to step in as a newcomer and offer unsolicited advice about how to do things.

One of the great dangers facing the Occupy movement is whether or not it will be co-opted and assimilated by big money players like unions, the Democratic party, Move On, and others—or whether it can hold its own and do things a new way. One of the great successes of the movement so far has been its ability to change the conversation, to break open the dialogue in a way that those well-established players have not been able (or willing) to do.

While we aren’t as big a player as we’d like to be, I think that Christians may try to co-opt the movement in the same way. We should avoid the temptation to say to the Occupy folks, “Yes, you’re saying just what we’ve been saying all along, what Jesus has been saying for 2,000 years.” What usually swiftly follows this is an invitation to worship, or to join in something we’ve already planned that might interest them. We might even be tempted to think that this movement might be a way to connect with progressive young people and engage them in church. I’m not sure that is a bad thing—I do believe in evangelism!—but I also see an arrogance in it. It is definitely a good thing to show up and demonstrate that Jesus and his followers are not necessarily who you think they are, that Christians stand with the poor and the protesters, and that our faith motivates us to action against oppressive empire. It would definitely be a bad thing to believe that our churches are keepers of the vision protesters have been seeking all along, that going to church is a way of engaging the movement, or that we might hope to sign people up for our next progressive Christian rally.

In other words, I believe we should show up to listen far more than speak, to learn far more than teach, to support far more than guide. We can, and should, simply be one of the 99%.  What it means to be followers of Jesus is to do what’s right, without caring about whether or not we’re recognized for doing it. “The Way” we follow is about incarnating love, justice and peace—not promoting the church’s voice or even promoting  Jesus.   Brian McLaren wrote a similar thought this week in a piece entitled “Why I’m Joining the Occupation.”

I’d especially encourage Christian leaders to do so . . . not as a representative of your church or denomination, but as a human being . . . not to co-opt or control, but to contribute and to learn. As someone who’s had a lot of control (more than I realized) for a lot of years, I’m finding it a wonderful gift to simply be a participant, one voice among many, learning and listening and learning some more.

For this reason, I’ll be going back to Occupy again. Because it’s where Jesus would probably be hanging out today. Because it’s the right thing to do, not just as a Christian but as a human being. Because it’s good for me to know life as an outsider, and because I know that all human movements and institutions have their flaws. Most of all, though, I will go back because I am one of the 99%. I am also afflicted by and implicated in the unjust system the Occupiers call out, and I want this body of mine to be a part of incarnating a new way of being. My prayer remains Jesus’ prayer: “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, by Rob Bell, HarperOne, 2011, 202 pp.

Last Easter, a friend of mine used Rob Bell’s inspirational sermon from sometime around 2006, which was originally called “The Cross,” but soon became known as “Love Wins.” (You can purchase it from www.marshill.org, but I found a podcast here.) I found that catch phrase, and the accompanying stickers, a great summary of Easter faith, and immediately knew it would be the title of my Easter sermon this year. Back in early February, I planned it out. I put it on flyers. I even ordered 276 “Love Wins.” stickers to pass out to the congregation on Easter morning. (That’s nearly 100 more than we needed, but they were cheaper in bulk.)

Just a few weeks later, Rob Bell published his latest book—Love Wins. And all hell broke loose. I’m guessing most of you have heard about the controversy. Bell has been villified among evangelical preachers, with Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary here in Louisville leading the way. This battle between preachers has captured media attention, and been featured in the New York Times, USA Today, Courier-Journal, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

While I am not unwilling to talk about hot theological topics, opening up an already politically charged conversation about heaven, hell and salvation on Easter morning, when the congregation is packed with visiting extended family (many of whom regularly worship in local evangelical churches, but come with mom on Easter) and C&E Christians, was not what I had in mind. But I had all these stickers. And flyers, already printed. I was excited about “love wins” as an Easter message of hope and new life overcoming death.

So I had to buy the book and read it in time for Easter, and then negotiate a theological controversy on Easter morning without preaching a 20-30 minute expository sermon. In the end, I think it turned out pretty well, and gave me a chance to talk about my beloved United Church of Christ and our commitment to welcoming all the people and all our questions. Here’s what I said:

In the book, Bell questions the classical evangelical understandings about hell and wonders how, if God loves us so much, God could then condemn us to eternal punishment just because we didn’t get the message in time. He asks questions about heaven, about salvation, about resurrection and grace. In the end, he concludes, love wins. Always. Eventually. Not without judgment or justice or consequences, but love wins.

So, before I could preach my pre-planned Easter sermon, before I could give you all these items I had ordered, in bulk, I had to go and read the book. And I did, cover to cover, and I did not find anything in it that was either new or objectionable—and Bell himself says as much. He covers familiar debates that have existed throughout the history of Christianity in a new way. We in the United Church of Christ have always believed that faithful questions are more important to faith than unquestioned certainty. You can doubt the existence of heaven or hell, question the resurrection of the body and God won’t cast you aside and neither will we. That’s why our welcome is wide and we generally err on the side of love over judgment, grace over purity, mercy over punishment—because we believe that we are all sinners, no one knows all the answers, but in the end, with an Easter God of resurrection, love wins. I’m not sure exactly why this controversy has gotten so heated, except that some people really cling tightly to their need for eternal damnation. As Doug Pagitt, one of Bell’s friends, wrote in his defense: “Is it possible to overstate the love of God? Is it really possible to tell as story of God that is more graceful than God actually is? Is it really possible to give God too much mercy credit?”

On this Easter morning, when life has overcome death, when the stone has been rolled away, when the powers of destruction and violence are defeated, I would say absolutely not. Love wins. (You can hear the full sermon here.)

As for the book itself, I don’t have much to add beyond the brief review I offered in the sermon. As a member of the mainline, progressive wing of Christianity, I don’t really know what all the fuss is about. Bell’s book covers terrain we have been discussing for 200 years. In the pulpit, I did not anticipate most of our folks would find it objectionable or controversial either. Many found it exciting and refreshing to name those questions publicly on such a high holy day.

However, especially here at the borderlands of the Midwest and the South, single-digit miles from the Southern Baptist seminary of Albert Mohler, we are surrounded by people who have never heard these questions before, or by those who have dared to ask them in the open and been shunned for it, or those who secretly ask but fear losing family, friends and faith for giving voice to their doubts. All around us in our community are people who have rejected God because they reject those beliefs about God. People stumble into our church all the time, led (I believe) by the Holy Spirit, seeking to find faith and community through their questions and doubts. People come with fear about going to hell, even though they aren’t sure what they think about hell.

Bell’s book is worthwhile not because it offers new information or different perspectives or deeper explorations, but because it presents a lifeline to anyone who wants someone to hold their hand while they explore those questions, to reassure them that this is not new territory, that someone else has walked this path and lived, with faith, to tell about it. It’s a resource I can offer to those who ask, tentatively, fearfully, about heaven, hell and salvation for all the people.

Copyright oracorac, flickr.com

Our family drove to Florida a few months ago. If you’ve ever made that journey, you know that the highways in Georgia and Florida are lined with billboards advertising pecans. Both J and I have mild allergies to nuts, but B loves them and seems unaffected. So, to pass the time, we were pointing out the billboards and asking him, “Hey, B, they have pecans! Wanna get some pecans?” His consistent reply was “Eww, yuck! No.” We assured him they were good and he would like them, but he refused. It became a repeating pattern: “Look, B, more pecans ahead! Good stuff! Don’t you want some pecans?” followed by “eww, yuck! No.”

We finally relented in pointing out the billboards, and another hour or so passed in the car. B spontaneously said, “I can’t believe you guys wanted me to eat that pee in cans. Yuck. Pee in cans. I wouldn’t like that at all.”

As hilarious as that moment was, and as revealing as it is about how I say “pecan,” it got me thinking about vocabulary. Since the advent of Willow Creek and other “seeker churches,” there has been an ongoing conversation about how the church’s extensive insider vocabulary can be intimidating, confusing or exclusionary for newcomers. Words like narthex, doxology, anthem and chancel have been replaced in some churches with less fancy (and more secular) terms like foyer, praise song, choir song, and stage. Other churches continue to use the traditional words, but make the effort to explain their meaning on a regular basis.

A church map to help orient newcomers, filled with words I don't even know.

We may be doing a better job of explaining those words, or putting things in terms people can understand,  but what about the more important words of our faith? Are we taking the time and energy to explain what we mean when we talk about forgiveness, resurrection, disciple, Passion, trinity, sin, prophet, Kingdom of God, grace, or the Body of Christ? In my experience, many of the people in our congregations, whether newcomers or lifelong members, have only a passing familiarity with these words. For example, I recently used the word Messiah in teaching a class.  While most of the class knew that referred to Jesus, that was the end of their understanding. They understood it as another name for Jesus, not a theological proclamation that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a savior for the world.

It’s easy to teach people to understand that the narthex is the foyer, but how can we teach them that disciple does not just to refer to the original twelve men, but to all who seek to follow Christ—and what that act of following means for our lives? Are we explaining that forgiveness, both human and godly, is more than saying “it’s fine, no big deal”? Do our references to the Kingdom of God include a clarification about where that kingdom resides, and our access to it? When we talk about grace, are we sure that people are hearing about the power of God’s love and forgiveness, or are they just thinking about a formulaic table prayer?

I wonder whether our preaching, teaching and evangelism sometimes resemble our car game: “Look, Jesus died on the cross! Forgiveness from sin! Grace! Want some? They’re good–you’ll like them!” It’s no wonder we hear, “eww, no, thank you,” because people don’t even understand what it is we are offering. Let’s be honest with ourselves. To those who do not know the vocabulary of our Christian faith, talk about sin and death on a cross, even with the promise of forgiveness and grace, is about as appealing as pee in a can. If we want to get past the “eww, yuck,” we need to find a way to explain what we’re talking about.

Our church is in the early stages of a major renovation of our basement, transforming it into a ministry center for community and church programs for the future. One Saturday, we spent the day going through all our old stuff, deciding what to keep, what to trash, and what to label “free to a good home.” By the end of the day, we had a great big pile of old chairs, empty filing cabinets, a coat rack, a baby changing table and assorted other stuff. Many of the church members looked over the pile and said, “That came from my house! I gave it to church when I didn’t need it anymore.”

Our Youth Room, like so many others, is home to many old couches and mismatched chairs.

I have often questioned why churches inherit so much of people’s old junk. Why should we think our leftovers, cast-offs and no-longer-good-enoughs are fine for God’s house? Do our mismatched, outdated sofas and beat-up armchairs send the message that God’s church is important and valuable in people’s lives? While we might enjoy seeing familiar pieces from our homes in the church, how does it look to an outsider who doesn’t recognize them, and just sees a bunch of old stuff no one wanted anymore?

It was a hard process for our church to get rid of this stuff. We did not want to devalue the gifts of old furniture and equipment over the years, or show disrespect to those who gave them. Nor did we want something that is perfectly functional to go to a landfill, simply because it will not look right or function well in our redesigned space. As good stewards, we did not want to be wasteful, and delight in giving a second life to things that might have otherwise gone into the trash. We did not want to reject something just because it was old, or worn, or didn’t match–which is probably why we ended up with so much stuff in the first place.

And yet, it is important that our new space look, well, new. We want to communicate to the next generation that we are building for them, and speak to their tastes and technologies. We want to invest our best, so that the vibrancy of our facility matches the vitality of our ministry. We have placed a high priority on doing things the right way (rather than the cheapest or easiest way), so that they are built to last. The beauty, newness and contemporary feel of the plans for the redesigned space speaks to our belief that God has a future for us, and a generous spirit that proclaims a sense of new life. We want our renovated space to communicate God’s abundant and warm welcome, and give us spaces that are beautiful and functional to serve the community. We want everything to be the best we can make it, because God deserves the best we have to offer.

Both those desires—the steward’s desire to reuse and make do, and the builder’s desire to make all things new—are good and godly, and they live in tension with one another in the church.  The church of Christ is a bunch of mismatched, broken people, a community where cast-offs and not-good-enoughs are welcomed and loved and made whole again. Christ’s love can be made known no matter how old or unstylish our furnishings, and perhaps our collection of old stuff matches our collection of quirky, battered people coming together to serve God and love others.

Heavenly Banquet (Image by GodSpeak)

And yet, I think of the heavenly banquet Jesus describes. For the outcast and forgotten, the people that others have considered trash and old junk, God has prepared a beautiful meal and a beautiful table. The food and wine are luxurious and abundant, table set with silver and gold befitting a king and queen. Unlike the world’s table, this table of plenty and beauty is set for all–whether or not you deserve it, or can afford it, or qualify as “polite company.” Why should we not offer the same care and beauty in creating the church space? Not to build a club for ourselves or people like us, but to invite people to taste and see the glorious abundance and new life of God.

I think we in the church live within this tension all the time, in all kinds of ways. At its best, the church is a collection of broken, mismatched, imperfect people who are loving and giving our best for God, to create a place of beauty and hope so the rest of the world’s broken, mismatched, imperfect souls might come to know God’s abundant love.

What do you think?

Highlighted passage: Romans 15:4-13

This week is all about hope, a word that has endured a lot of attention in recent years. When the Obama campaign used “Hope” as its campaign theme in 2008, those who supported the campaign rallied around hope as our solution and salvation—even when the campaign never clearly defined what we were hoping for. Of course, as is natural in a political struggle, opponents of the Obama campaign attacked not only the candidate, but the campaign theme. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and others began to mock the concept of hope as a way of mocking the Obama campaign. Hope, they said, was “an excuse for not trying,” a flimsy, lazy concept that replaces the real work of improving the world.

Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, as Christians, the concept of hope remains critical to our faith. We are a people of hope. Especially in this Advent season, we talk about hope in God’s coming into our midst with love and new life and salvation in the form of a tiny baby in Bethlehem.

The kind of hope we Christians practice does not resemble the hope of politics, whether from the right or the left. It is not some vague sentiment that things will get better, that everyone will be happier, that life will be easier. The passage from Romans tells us what we are hoping for: “grant you to live in harmony with one another … that together you may with one voice glorify God.” We are hoping for unity among human beings, so that all creation might praise God with one voice.

Neither is hope an excuse for inaction or laziness, believing that things will get better without your help or involvement. It is not a wish that we toss half-heartedly into a fountain with little faith in its eventual fruition. Again from Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Hope is instructive, it shapes us and encourages us to undertake the challenging work of living in unity for the praise of God.

One of my favorite articulations of Christian hope is from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He delivered those words on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol to a foot-weary crowd at the end of a five-day march to Montgomery. They had endured great suffering and made great sacrifices for the cause of civil rights.  His speech was entitled, “Our God is Marching On!” King was inspiring hope in answer to the rhetorical question, “how long?” How long must we wait for justice? Not long, he said, because God is in charge, and God will not let hate rule forever. That’s what Christian hope is.

Christian hope is the quiet, determined confidence that God’s promises will prevail, that God is in charge of the universe and God’s love will not end in failure. Christian hope is what inspires and sustains real action to help build God’s kingdom here on earth. Like praying for peace, praying with hope moves the one praying into deeper commitment to a life of love.

Ours is not an unfounded hope. It rests on a firm foundation—the legacy of God’s saving action and fulfilled promises throughout history. We hope in God for the future because we have known God’s faithfulness in the past. In Romans, Paul points to “the promises to the patriarchs.” God promised Noah that the earth would never again be destroyed, and God delivered on that promise. God promised Abraham offspring and land, and God delivered on that promise. God promised the Hebrew people deliverance from Egypt, and God delivered on that promise. God promised sustenance in the wilderness, and God delivered on that promise. God promised that Jesus would be raised from the dead, and God delivered on that promise.

We can look to the past and see God’s faithfulness because God’s promises come true over and over again. Our hope is founded in a God who acts to save us time and time again, and we therefore believe God will act to save us again now and in the future. That’s what hope is–determined confidence that the same God that answered the prayers of our ancestors will answer our prayers as well. God promised that we will have new life, and God will deliver. God promised that the end of this world will be with God, and God will deliver. God promised that peace and justice will reign, and God will deliver.

Daniel Burnham, the late 19th century architect responsible for the design of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that inspired the City Beautiful movement, said the following:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

Advent reminds us of God’s biggest promises: that peace and justice will prevail, that human beings will live in unity, that new and eternal life are possible, that we will be saved from sin and destruction. It is a season for robust hope, and for letting that hope inspire big plans that provoke and inspire action now and in the future, for the future. After all, our hope rests in a great God, who fulfills promises and leads us in the path of unity, peace and justice. We worship an all-powerful, all-loving God. We need to make plans and dream dreams and set hopes that are worthy of God’s greatness. Any less than abundant hope is not worthy of the greatness of our God.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-filled, Open-armed, Alive-and-Well Faith for the Left-out, Left-behind and Let Down in Us All, by Doug Pagitt, Jossey-Bass, 2008, 242 pp.

I think I have finally found what I’ve been looking for. Not the faith that Pagitt describes—I found my way to a Christianity worth believing a long time ago, and have been living it for close to 20 years. But I finally found a book that describes it in a concise, approachable, passionate, inviting way.

I had my spiritual crisis with Bible, God and church when I started college. The things I had always believed about the inerrancy of the Bible, the demands of God for Jesus’ blood sacrifice, strictures of gender and sexuality (including the gender of God) no longer made any sense. After years of struggle, I found a faith rooted in the earthly, embodied Jesus who calls us to build the real life kingdom of God by using our bodies in earthly work of peace, justice and service, welcoming all.

In my ministry, I frequently talk with people facing a similar spiritual crisis to my own—they are questioning long-held beliefs about atonement, salvation, scripture, Christology and more. For years, I have been searching for a book to share with them to help them see that there is another way, that to reject much of that theology is not to reject Christianity or a life lived with the God of Jesus Christ. I have bought and read all kinds of books in this arena—John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Peter Gomes, Diana Butler Bass. While many of them are great books, none quite fit. They were either too intellectual, too theological, too angry, to directed at church professionals or not enough about the personal life of faith.

A Christianity Worth Believing has finally given me the book I’ve been looking for. Pagitt intertwines his personal story in and out of faith with theological questions and concerns. That transforms the book from being a theological treatise trying to make an intellectual argument into a spiritual journey that connects with anyone who has ever questioned their beliefs while still trying to hold on to faith and Christian community.

Pagitt addresses almost all the same theological concerns as the other authors (with the exception of a section on gender and sexuality). Instead of emphasizing history and biblical scholarship, he talks about how he experiences God as loving and living, and how he tries to practice loving and living with God. It changes the entire tone from one of intellectual speculation about faith to an account of a real, living relationship with God and with other people trying to follow God. Pagitt does offer some history and scholarship, mostly around the influence of Greek culture on the Jewish Jesus. I thought the way he traced the most troubling issues back to the Greco-Roman dualistic world view a little bit too simple to account for everything, but it was accurate and insightful. I wouldn’t have liked the book nearly so much if he had tried to make an exhaustive Christian intellectual history. He gives a brief explanation about the roots of a particular belief to show us it is culturally bound and we can let it go.  Then he tackles the far more important task of explaining the good news of Jesus in a way we can understand.

God on one side, humanity on the other, separated by sin and death. Christ is the bridge--add another line to make it a cross and the drawing is complete.

One of my favorite sections in the book was the chapter called, “Down and In.” After describing the classic drawing about the gap between God and humanity, and the accompanying theology that the sin and death that can be overcome only by Christ’s sacrifice, he labels that image of God as “up and out.” The “up and out” God is perfect and removed, and unable to love us fully because of our imperfection. Pagitt replaces that theology with a God that is “down and in,” a God who is engaged in the world and loves us even in our sinful condition. He describes people who give up their faith in response to a life crisis because they have only known an “up and out” God: “They haven’t been given a picture of God as one who cares, who listens, sustains, cradles, cries and is right there with them all the time.” (p. 110)

Pagitt’s book connects us with the “down and in” God because his writing itself is down and in. It does not remove theology from context, but places the questions about belief squarely in the center of an earthly life seeking to be lived with God. He confesses to the struggles and mishaps of his own life, and invites us to join with God in partnering to live and love and work together to build the real-life kingdom of God right here and now.

Pagitt’s book is a great starting place for those facing a crisis of faith with the “up and out” God, or any of the traditional “fundamentals” of Christianity. Rather than just presenting an alternative theology and assuring us that there are other Christians who believe this way or think this way, Pagitt shows us that there are other Christians who actually live this new faith with passion and love for God. When you read it, you can’t help but want to be part of that exciting Christianity worth believing in. I think I’ve finally found the book I’ve been looking for. I can’t wait to start sharing it.

First Christian Church, Columbus, IN. Designed by Eliel Saarinen. Photo by revjmk.

The First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana is an imposing edifice of concrete block, one of the first churches in the country designed with contemporary architecture. Like most churches, the front is adorned with an enormous cross, the dominant symbol of Christianity and the central fixture of many Christian churches. What is unique about the cross on the front of First Christian Church of Columbus is that it is off-center.

At first, I did not notice. My eyes and brain gazed at yet another enormous cross, and assimilated the cross to its rightful place at the center of the building. Even when someone pointed it out to me, I still had to look at it for a moment before I could take it in.

What does it mean to decenter the cross?

The cross is not neutralized or hidden on the face of the church. Indeed, it dominates the front face of the building. Neither does the cross, though enormous and prominent, overwhelm the other facets of the church. The off-center cross invites attention to the space around it.

The decentered cross has the effect of making room for something more. The cross is monumental, but it is not a fixed point upon which all else focuses. Situated slightly to the side, the cross seems to make way for the resurrection. It beckons you to notice the empty space around it, and the church life it announces. The decentered cross is not the end or the goal or the center—it is the beginning of new life, an opportunity for God’s resurrection and a call to sacrifice in order to build the Kingdom of God on earth.

The decentered cross reminds me that the true power of the cross of Christ is that it decenters us. It displaces us from our self-centeredness and challenges us to look toward the needs of others. It replaces strength with weakness and violence with peace. It overcomes the power of fear and death.

The cross of Christ is always decentered, and decentering. It always points beyond itself to the resurrection, and it always upsets the balance of power. Whenever I contemplate the cross, I feel God’s pull dislodging me from selfishness and returning me to wholeness. Decentered and decentering, always.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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