Surprised by mercy: my train-wreck conversion story

I was invited to share an occasion when I was surprised by mercy. It was August 2002. I had just rushed my ex-girlfriend to the emergency room because she slit her wrists in a bathtub. I was a severely depressed, chain-smoking mess. And I discovered the gospel of mercy that I proclaim today when I opened Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved in a small group gathering where everyone other than me was a lesbian. I only remember Tanya and Pat by name, but if that group of lesbians had not been spiritual mothers who embraced and nurtured me in a time of crisis, I would not be a pastor today. I realize that talking about this will probably cause my Board of Ordained Ministry to have some questions for me, but God has commanded me to testify about the train wreck experience by which I discovered the true gospel. Because it was only in the fellowship of the despised that I could learn mercy the way God wanted me to understand it. Continue reading

Talking atonement with the confirmands

Our youth pastor invited me today to talk about atonement with our confirmation class. As you know, I am very passionate about offering a better explanation than the Four Spiritual Laws of how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reconcile us to God. I’m not very good at turning confirmation lessons into silly activities with cotton balls and papier mache. So what I offered them was pretty simple: a single sheet of paper with a brief description of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection at the top and then seven different concrete problems that Jesus’ atonement provides a solution for (realizing that’s not an exhaustive list). I gave them scripture passages to read and had them try to answer based on the scripture how Jesus’ atonement addressed the stated problem. Continue reading

Why name him Jesus?

In Matthew1:21, Gabriel says to Mary, “”You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” What does this sentence mean? We think it’s obvious. “Saved” means not going to hell. And that’s because we’ve adopted a story of salvation handed down to us by people who could not imagine needing a savior in a this-world, right-now kind of way. But when the Hebrew Bible talks about yeshuah (salvation), the word that cognates into Jesus’ name, it is never in the context of the plight of eternal damnation faced by the abstract everyman of Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws that have defined the last half-century of evangelicalism. Yeshuah usually describes very concrete situations of desperation, often on the battlefield, in which the Israelites were rescued by God. When the black slaves in the American South heard about Jesus, they knew intuitively that they were one with the Israel God sent a messiah to rescue, the same intuition which continues to occur for poor people throughout the Global South. The awkward thing for privileged Westerners like me about acknowledging this other dimension to the salvation that Jesus brings is that it shows God to be in solidarity with the people who have been stepped on by our privilege, which has to be part of the reason why we either want to make Christmas into a Norman Rockwell painting or else ensure that Jesus is safely strapped to His cross and bracketed into an abstract atonement equation as soon as He hits the manger hay. But is that clean, abstract salvation really the yeshuah that Jesus was named for? It’s relevant to look at how the word is used in the Hebrew scriptures by which the term was defined for Matthew’s original readers .

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Is God a capitalist? (John Locke and the Romans Road)

One of the theories Doug Campbell advances in The Deliverance of God is that the “Romans Road” account of salvation which has dominated American evangelical Christianity for the past half-century cannot really be blamed on Martin Luther or John Calvin. The Romans Road is paved through the reconfiguration of the Reformers’ theology to fulfill the “decision for Christ” salvation formula of Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and all the sidewalk pamphleteers of the Four Spiritual Laws, who are more indebted to the 18th century political and economic philosophy of John Locke (and others like him) than the Reformation itself. In other words, the debate is not where we think it is: John Calvin vs. Jacob Arminius over the question of free will. They have both been repurposed according to a set of 18th century British presumptions about capitalism, rationalism, individualism, and liberal democracy. Continue reading