The Heart of the Christian Faith

Moana’s lyrics in the movie’s climactic scene better represent Christ’s words on the cross than most strands of Christian expression today.

I’m going to try and tie several things together to express what I think is deeply lacking at the heart of those expressions. I don’t have the time to do justice to the kind of post this topic deserves, but the notion herein is so central to what I believe is at the heart of Christianity that I feel compelled to share at least this disjointed set of thoughts that may in some way point toward the message we, the church, so desperately need to hear and proclaim.

  1. An Article – I recently read an article connecting healing from a history of abuse with the message of the movie Moana. The entire article is well worth reading, but the point that stuck out to me so profoundly was the recognition that naming and accepting the trauma of our past is an absolutely vital part of finding healing and wholeness. If we cannot look into the eyes of our past as it actually happened rather than how we desire that it would have been, we will never be able to find joy in who we are and will become. The article closes – “You are not defined by your darkest hour. You are greater than what has been stolen from you. It is never too late to heal. It is never too late to make a fresh start. It is never too late to have your heart restored.” Great movie, incredible article.
  2. John 3:14-16 – “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I can’t recall a single person ever quoting John 3:16 while adding what comes just before as opposed to what comes after. I’d also be surprised if you could change the nuance of a message any more deeply than by reading two verses ahead of 3:16 as opposed to the 2 following verses that are so often quoted. I preached a sermon a while back on the passage in Numbers to which verse 14 refers. Far from the “believe your way into salvation” message that is so easily implied by 16 and following, the imagery of 14 forces us to see that salvation comes in the confrontation with our most profound brokenness. When we stare into the heart of darkness, sin, betrayal, trial, and tragedy we find the love by which we are created and made new.
  3. Vulnerability – Brené Brown is one of my absolute heroes. Her research gives language to express aspects of the faith that we do not even begin to address in the Christian circles in which I’ve taken part. I wrote a far more thorough post about why I find her work so valuable as it relates to faith, but I’ll summarize the relevant point here. Most of the church-y words and slogans we use are a means to hide as much as they reveal. We put words up as a shield so that we don’t have to experience the vulnerability of exposing our wounds and feeling powerless over how others respond. To claim that the cross is the center of our faith is to claim that God’s vulnerability is the source of and model for our lives. Jesus Christ became vulnerable so that we might find life in Him. For our lives to give witness to a cruciform life is to expose the imperfections that we so desperately want to hide from the rest of the world. We are restored when we are truly seen.
  4. Parable and Truth– The human mind has absolutely no meaningful grasp of truth or how to tell if a particular message guides us toward the truth or steers us away from it. I don’t mean that to be a critique of any particular strand of Christian thought – more an indictment on virtually everyone’s inability to have the conversations we think we’re having and our lack of appreciation for modern day parables. Something profoundly important happens when we know we’re listening to a story that isn’t supposed to report on events that actually happened – we are forced to give up the illusion that we have a truly objective and common way to speak of God or the world as they are. The stories we tell ourselves quite often define the reality we see at least as much as anything coming from the outside world. To know truth, sometimes we are required to hear it through the lens of unfamiliar or uncomfortable stories.
  5. Stories that Form – Americans right now are seeing with unprecedented clarity that the stories that wrote us form us in ways that make it very difficult to change our perceptions. This reality leads us to act in ways that harm others and even our own self interest. The way to overcome the faulty and problematic narratives of the world is not to prove the objective problems within a given narrative, but to offer a more compelling and truthful account of what life is and what life is for. To do so can’t happen with simple truisms or catchy slogans. Change only happens through the authentic, vulnerable relationships by which we come to see our lives in the light of a different story.
  6. Sin and Evil – Sin and evil are two sides of the same coin. Sin is the way we have broken the world. Evil is the way the world breaks us. To speak of sin and evil primarily from a perspective of ‘punishable offences’ or ‘punitive justice’ or ‘criminality’ never creates the space to see that before we are or do anything, we are God’s children. There are no individuals and thereby no actions that can be objectively and meaningfully defined as sin or evil until after we understand ourselves to be a particular part of the created world and human community. How we are formed by God’s creation is more basic than who we are as an agent of change. Therefore, what actually makes a difference is whether our lives and actions embody the relationship that God is or become sin that breaks the world and evil by which we are broken.
  7. The goal of modern medicine is to get out of life alive – Stanley Hauerwas has shared a variation of this quote in a multitude of writings and interviews, one of which can be found here. With getting out alive as the increasingly common understanding of our goal in life it becomes impossible to come face to face with our greatest source of vulnerability – our own mortality. If any of what I have shared about vulnerability is correct, then the quest to live forever cannot help but entail the rejection of being fully embraced as the imperfect, broken, struggling self that we all are. Rejecting that embrace means rejecting the story of God’s quest to know and redeem our broken bodies. To even fight the darkness of sin and evil is ultimately to refuse to accept our mortality. The way to salvation is not by combating that which makes us imperfect but by experiencing a love that is far more powerful than anything we could think, say, or do.

A far too brief attempt to tie these thoughts together and express the heart of the gospel message – whatever we have done and whatever has been done to us, we are defined not by the failure of our humanity but by the embrace of our God. God became sin so that we might see nothing can separate us from the love that is stronger than death. We are loved. We are accepted. We are enough. There is no other foundation on which to stand. There is no more important aspect of our relationship with God and one another. There is no hope, no life, no joy; no justice, no mercy, no mission; no holiness, no salvation, no redemption without God’s radical embrace of exactly the frailty and failure we fear most; without God’s radical embrace of death itself on the cross.

Our greatest problem is not that we are too sinful or evil. Our greatest problem is that we have no idea what it means to know and be known by a love that has no bounds and never ends. Until we experience the embrace of community as God is in Trinity and desires in creation, we’ll never know what sin and evil break or how to then seek forgiveness and healing. In the climactic scene, Moana sings these hauntingly beautiful lyrics that might as well be Jesus’ words from the cross:

I have crossed the horizon to find you.
I know your name.
They have stolen the heart from inside you.
But this does not define you.
This is not who you are.
You know who you are.

To look upon the cross is to confront our greatest shame and deepest wounds; and to hear the voice of God respond: I am yours, you are mine.

Raft or island

Is Jesus the only way to heaven? Before attempting an answer, we must ask a prior question. Is the life of God that was poured out and perfected upon the cross strong enough and deep enough to effect the salvation of the whole world? The former question is problematic if we cannot answer the latter with a certain and emphatic ‘Yes!’

To answer ‘no’ is to imply that we see Jesus as a life raft tossed into the ocean, which must be found and utilized by a drowning person. If that were the case, then I would have trouble blaming anyone for a desire to multiply the rafts so that more and more persons might find rest in their quest to stay afloat – and that is often how the more liberal voices come across when justifying alternative religions as paths to salvation. On the other side, more conservative voices that require the unique particularity of Jesus come across as cruel in their comfort with the notion that many will drown even if they never had fair access to the limited number of rafts available.

Beginning with the latter question points to the possibility that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus reveals to the whole world that God has made an island in the midst of the ocean; an island big enough to give rest to all the world; an island with food and water to satisfy every need and shelter to protect from every storm. If that is the case, then arguing over what brand is printed on your life preserver necessarily points your answer in the wrong direction.

Perhaps some will refuse to leave the ocean, preferring the fight for survival to the fear of the unknown. But it remains much more faithful to the Christian story to understand that Jesus is not one small life raft in an ocean full of lost and drowning souls. We may think we are doing the world a service by trying to find more boats, whether inside traditional Christian understanding or not, but God in Christ by the power of the Spirit effects a wholly different plan to end our struggles in the ocean. As Jesus was raised upon the cross, so God has raised up the dry land to save us from our drowning and make possible a new life shared in harmony with all creation. Starting with that affirmation changes the meaning and possible outcomes of the former question entirely.

Where I’m From

I’m from the land of boxes and straight lines; 
with a place for everything and everything in its place.

I’m from a place of safety and love; 
accepted, empowered, embraced, sent forth.

I’m from a voice that shattered simplicity;
asking when, not if.

I’m from the place where the light broke through;
slowly at first, then quickly.

I’m from a world turned upside down so that I could find my place to stand;
it took becoming blind for me to finally see.

I’m from a world that grows with each passing day;
confronted by grace, challenged by sight, comforted by abundance.

I’m from the school where I learned everything on day one;
and then everything all over, each new day.

I’m from a place where love overcomes;
pushing boundaries, shattering expectations, creating more than my feeble mind can comprehend.

I’m from persons and peoples that I will never know fully;
but theirs are the stories that wrote me.

Where I’m from is who I want to be and where I hope to lead.

Forgiveness as an inherently communal act

The notion that I must forgive others or be condemned by God is inherently individualistic. The kingdom is based on presence or lack of relationship, not individual culpability and guilt. That there must be an I to do the forgiving is given within the context of relationship, but to focus on ‘me’ as though it could be defined and judged apart from ‘you’ is already to miss the point of the gospel.

To say that Christ gives ‘me’ forgiveness is in the same way to strip the relational aspect of forgiveness from the process of transformation. I can’t just ‘get’ forgiveness from sin – forgiveness is a change in my relationship with God, which cannot be defined in terms of what I deserve or get. Forgiveness is only definable in terms of mending or breaking relationship.

Forgiveness, in both directions, is an act of community before it is a choice by individuals. That churches often view forgiveness in the opposite direction both harms the offended, who already bears the greater share of the burden to forgive, and the offender, who is rarely taught the gift of vulnerability.

To think of forgiveness as an individual choice is like thinking of peace as a lack of fighting. Peace is not a lack of fighting – peace is the embodiment of God’s love in community. Forgiveness is not the absence of a grudge – forgiveness is the embodiment of God’s love in relationship.

To assume forgiveness is individual choice creates the space in which it is possible to justify both staying in an abusive relationship as a requirement of God’s call to forgive and choosing to let brokenness fester beneath the surface in the rush to pretend forgiveness has already been achieved. Both outcomes create deeper brokenness in the attempt to pretend that the hard work of healing relationship has already taken place.

Vulnerability and mistakes

I’ve never been comfortable with the catchphrase “God makes no mistakes.” It’s not that I think God makes lots of mistakes, but that I find the phrase to be fairly useful for defending pretty much anything and entirely useless for changing anyone else’s mind. The phrase is not meant to open up possibility as much as it is meant to end conversation. For those who have been harmed by the words and actions of others, especially by hateful religious rhetoric, I can easily see why this kind of statement is a valuable and perhaps even necessary shield. But it never felt quite right to me.

I recently listened to a talk by Brené Brown called Listening to shame that gave language to the uneasiness I felt. Guilt, Brown says, means I’m sorry I made a mistake. Shame, on the other hand, means I’m sorry I am a mistake.

We all fail. We all fall short. We all make mistakes. The reality of guilt is at the heart of the Christian faith. But the only place shame is possible in a life of faith is in those moments when we make the mistake of thinking that we could or should be anything more than exactly the imperfect children of God that we already are. And in those moments when we are guilty of thinking that we ought to be God instead of love and submit to God, forgiveness is there to wash away the feeling of shame.

Spoken from a position of weakness, to proclaim that God makes no mistakes is to hide the reality that I feel like I am a mistake. Heard from a position of power, to proclaim that God makes no mistakes is a meaningless truism.

In either case, the statement acts like an impenetrable wall to keep a deeply felt shame out of the conversation. If you’ve been harmed into wondering if you are a mistake, why would you expose that deep wound? If you don’t understand what it’s like to be so deeply marginalized, how could you respond with the care and empathy necessary for healing?

I say all this not to place blame or suggest the phrase must be dropped, but to remember that when we talk, we’re quite often not having the conversation we think we’re having. Most of the words we use hide as much as they reveal. We have to hear the words behind the words to create the space for healing and relationship. And to hear that message requires vulnerability.

The cross is God’s creative act of vulnerability. Through the cross, God creates the space in which the source of all life and power becomes vulnerable to the point of death. And in doing so we are invited to experience the love and grace that reside underneath every word and form of religion. That God would commit such an act is the definitive response to guilt and shame. That God invites us into the life made possible on the cross means that vulnerability is the definitive shape of God’s mission to love and transform the world.

Church is the invitation to participate in God’s mission. Church is the name of God’s vulnerability brought to life in the ordering of human community. Church is the shape of life in the pursuit of vulnerability. Church is the vulnerable space wherein we seek to expose the heart of God to the world. Church, therefore, cannot be about right beliefs or perfect morality or theological precision.

More often than not (and especially in the public facing world of social media) it is much easier and much more safe to speak from behind the shield of a catchy slogan rather than expose the woundedness we feel. If you hear such a slogan and it ignites a deeply felt outrage inside of you, that is a message worth hearing.

If it ignites outrage in agreement, ask yourself what is deep within you that needs to hear and believe these words. If you cannot name the source of shame that compels you to use that slogan as a shield, the shame of what’s inside may never release its grip over you. I pray that you would find someone in your life who is willing to sit in vulnerability and help you find the means to let go of the lie that shame is speaking.

If it ignites outrage in opposition, ask yourself what that slogan might be hiding. If you are not creating the space in which someone feels safe and loved enough to express the vulnerable words beneath the words, you are likely making the problem worse. Don’t allow your guilt to fester into shame. I pray that you would learn to embody the vulnerability of God that enables you to hear another child of God.

As long as our words are a means of asserting power rather than embodying vulnerability, we will never create the space wherein we experience the cruciform shape of God’s love and in which healing takes place. We will make mistakes, but we are not mistakes. To speak this reality is to remember that at the heart of the Christian faith is the vulnerability of our God. By the cross of Christ, God creates the vulnerable space in which we are invited to give up the illusion of perfection and embrace the new life God is and makes possible.

Canonicity

Why is the canon of scripture the way that it is and can a book ever be added to it? I don’t really care for the ‘standard’ spectrums, which tend to offer things like either “God set the canon” or “people arbitrarily decided.” This leads to the follow up options regarding whether adding is possible which vary between “Add a word and God will strike you down” and “the bible is one book among others that all have something to share.”

I find the distinctions unsatisfying primarily because they take such a static view of writing and faith. The kind of answers I tend to hear assume writing and story are things that exist and we can choose whether or not to think the Bible is the complete and final set of written God stories. Even asking the question in that manner makes God’s current and future presence and action irrelevant. Offering either answer as though it were complete is like doing physics problems about a uniform object on a frictionless plane in a vacuum – no matter how right the theoretical answer, the problem you’re solving doesn’t actually exist.

Wherever I might be labeled on those spectrums about scripture, I don’t believe we have access to the words that give life without the constant presence and action of God that shapes our minds and hearts. I’d rather try to understand the dynamic way scripture and faith have been passed on in order to ask how that process enables us to now experience the presence and action of God. To do that is to study, embody, and then transform the traditions through which the faith has come to us.

Worship is life

Worship is not different in kind from life – worship is life with the singular focus of telling the story of God. To assume that there is a proper distinction between religious and moral laws is to ratify the distinction between worship and life. It is to reify the bifurcation between theology and praxis. It is to do violence to the coherence of a life of faith. To decide how we ought to act, we should never ask “is that a moral law or a religious law?” The question should be “is this kind of action necessary if I am to live as a witness to the life God is and makes possible?” We either facilitate relationship or we stand in God’s way – it makes no difference what we happen to think we’re doing when that happens.

Separation of worship and life is but one manifestation of the project to separate the religious and secular – it might make some academic pursuits easier to offer such categories of thought but the divide isn’t real. The divide is at best a temporary mental exercise but more often it becomes a lie to suppress the incoherence of our lives or to convince ourselves that we can be the authors of our own life and destiny.

When claiming to speak from a “biblical point of view,” it is especially important not to divide religious law from moral law. To presume a distinction between the two is to inhabit a world different than that of the Bible and thereby separate any potentially “biblical” argument from the world presumed by all the men and women whose lives are documented in the Bible.