It's time to stand up and be counted for what we believe in and what we value.
Shortly after the safety pin meme got attention, there was predictable criticism, maybe a little cynicism. But this story from my friend Christy has a message and lesson for us all this week. "A little child shall lead them."
Just days after the election of Donald Trump, the safety pin began showing up everywhere. Borrowed from the Brexit movement, the idea was that it would indicate who was a "safe person” in these days marked by vitriol and public displays of hatred towards entire people groups. As with all things, there were thoughtful criticisms of the safety pin movement as well as thoughtful justifications for it. When our son, Charles, heard about the safety pin, he immediately attached one to his shirt. For a small nine year old with a big sensitive heart and eyes to see, it seemed absolutely imperative to wear this pin.
He insisted it would not only let other kids on the playground know that if they were being teased or bullied he was a safe kid to run to, but that it would also be an important reminder to himself that if he saw anyone being teased or bullied, he should step in and stand beside them, and with them, and for them.
For the first few days it seemed as if the glint of the safety pin was catching my eye on many people in many places. This outward show of support swelled quickly and then faded away just as fast, as most fads do. But for my small nine year old with a big heart and eyes to see, it remained an important reminder of the kind of person he is striving to be in these times. He is so insistent that now more than ever we need to make our kindness known, that nearly two months later, not a day has gone by without this now tarnished little safety pin attached to his shirt.
A few weeks in, he began to worry that people would be so used to his safety pin they would no longer see it, or that he might begin to forget it was there, so he began attaching two— just in case. Just to be sure.
Alongside of eating breakfast and teeth-brushing, fastening these pins has become a daily part of his morning regiment. He even attaches them to his pajamas at night, as if perhaps the people he encounters in his dreams might somehow need him. The pin holes in his shirts have begun to widen and stretch and warp the fabric. But he looks past these blemishes and continues to insist on the necessity of the daily piercing of the pins.
As his mother, I don’t wear a safety pin. I confess, I did for a week or so like many others who were swept up in the passing fad. But I do pray to be open to receiving the spirit of kindness that my nine year old son teaches me daily. I ask for the moral courage to take seriously the hardships that are already unfolding for those around me in these uncertain times. May God give me eyes to see and a heart whose kindness will be willing to step in regardless of the cost to self.
My hope is that a growing number of us will continue to realize - as this nine year old boy has - the kind of people we are called to be in these times. May we enter the spaces of our lives with our eyes wide open and remain steadfast in our conviction to be people who step up and step in, people who love generously in hateful situations and who embody light in dark places regardless of how stretched out we may sometimes feel.
A day to celebrate the life of a great moral, spiritual, and political leader who said
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that... I have decided to stick to love...Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
A day to acknowledge the ugly racism deeply embedded in America's past and present:
Here's the Q:
Six years ago I began to deconstruct the fundamentalism I walked from as flawed but never resolved. I had to learn what community is. Theology gave me words to amend my belief checklist. This process included books/podcasts (including yours). I picked up your new book. The early chapters invoked yep, gotcha - um, as I finished panic set in.
First, I agree with you, Marcus Borg, et. al. how a revised "church" as community must host adult re-education (not just school for kids). "Church" may be culture's only logical resource for relationship training besides a teach/re-teach of biblical interpretation skills. The faith to sustain and motivate a healthier world culture grows from skills! Skills must be taught (and families/schools are less able).
Yet I fear some emerging/convergent presentation tone carries an implementation style risk. You have a You Tube video where you discuss MBTI and personality. Returning after 20+ years in "spiritual but not religious", I'm struck by how church is easier for the extroverts or feeling-oriented (or already socialized). I'm an INTP "why child" surrounded by geeky won't even walk in the door INTJs. Admittedly, our type needs relationship skills (e.g. you whine - I push away) while the "church" may legitimately need our special skills.
I'm fine without creeds (belief test), but less fine when the new approach lacks a new theology. I agree "love" matters as a greatest commandment (yet it's not always that simple). I agree church has a role in questioning comfort zones. If I'm to give up my new checklist, I still need to understand the why of things. If the new "how to be church" emphasis communicates only in terms like put more "feel" into experiential worship, get out there, evangelize and mingle, join the movement, speak up, pray together, share your pain, etc. it literally terrifies away introvert or thinker types (granted - your questions help some).
What I'm cautioning you to work back into your communication is how to make use of and grow all types of resources towards new church. My response to church reform has been "bring it on". I felt your clear crisis call for immediate action, yet I also felt that anxiety-provoking imperative can feel like "church" pushes against one's personality type. I don't think that is your intent. Such anxiety can make me think if I don't fit the new mold, I don't belong in church anymore, much less anyone like me. I probably need to reread several times, but wanting my cave is my first reaction.
Thanks for your note and your responses to the book. I'm an introvert too, and especially since leaving the pastorate (where, in a sense, I extraverted weekly on Sunday mornings and functioned daily as an introvert as I prepared sermons, counseled, etc.), I sometimes feel the same urge as you do - to find a cave and enjoy some blissful solitude for as long as possible.
I also think you're right - that many churches make it hard for introverts and thinkers. (Meanwhile, other more cerebral churches make it hard for extraverts and feelers.) This is one of the reasons I am a big fan of liturgy. Well-designed liturgy creates space for many different kinds of people, and creates a clear path into participation. At the end of the day, as you suggest, we need to be who we are, and we need to know we're welcomed and accepted as we are, even as we're challenged to grow and stretch.
A reader writes:
I have now finished the Great Spiritual Migration and I have been so moved that I have gone back to re-read Everything must Change. This morning after re-reading the story of the 21 leaders in South Africa I realized something so clearly...Let me tell you a brief story.
When I was young I played baseball. I was an average player, nothing special, just a part of the team. Like most people I hit right handed. But, inside me I believed that I could be a switch hitter. I had tried hitting left handed when practicing with a few friends. I had hit the ball, so I knew it was possible.
I had been hesitant to try hitting left handed in a game since I knew everyone would say what are you doing, you don't hit left handed, you hit right handed. Then one day I just decided to do it. I stood in the batters box and on the first pitch I swung and missed. I was waiting for the manager to call time out or yell turn and bat from the right side, but he didn't. The second pitch was a ball, then on the third pitch I swung and missed again. Guys were yelling from the dugout, what are you doing. The next pitch came, I swung and drove the ball just over the first baseman's head into right field. I stood on first base and looked back at the dugout, instead of yelling the guys in the dugout all were just staring at me. It didn't matter to me what they were thinking, I had just hit a single, left handed.
I think I knew better than to try again that game, but a couple weeks later we needed to move a runner to third base and I was up. I walked up to the left side of the plate. Again, I heard guys in the dugout yelling what is he doing, he'll make an out. On the third pitch, I drove the ball just inside of the first base bag, and into the right field corner. I pulled into second base with a double, scoring the runner from first.
After the game the manager came up to me and said, "I had no idea you could hit left handed, we need to work on this, help you to get better." He had never said that about hitting right handed. That day I became a switch hitter.
The church is like most hitters, it bats right handed. For the most part it does so because that is what it has always done. There may be a few people who want to try to hit left handed, but they know the response from the congregation would be, what are you doing, we hit right handed.
I believe that there are some people in congregations who know, like I knew, that they can hit left-handed and want badly to try. And I think a few have even tried, but it is hard to hang in there when everyone is cheering against you. What is desperately needed are a few pastors and leaders who are willing to say, I had no idea you could hit left handed, we need to work on this, help you get better. If that happened then we would start to see people who are already good right handed hitters, start to bat left handed more often. Then when others saw that it was possible they might try, and in time, more and more of our churches would be filled with people who were switch hitters and had the capacity to spread the good news in ways that better connected with the game situations of life.
Today, I have recommitted to being a better left-handed batter, may it be so for the gospel's sake.
Thanks for this encouraging note and beautiful real-life parable. I hope it will inspire many.
A reader writes:
I hope this finds you well. I met you years ago in Australia, and in 2009 you posted a song of mine, which I had sent you in response to a piece you wrote for Sojourners.
Years after first reading The Secret Message of Jesus, I continue to be impacted by the Jesus’ luminous kingdom-gospel which you describe there and in many of your books.
One image in particular from The Secret Message has stayed with me over the course of time… it’s the metaphor of the kingdom as an “invasion-by-stealth”. I just love this image and what it communicates. So much so that it has found its way into the lyrics of my new song ‘Glimpses’. I’ve written the song to capture how we can catch sight of the kingdom dawning in our midst (even as 2016 closes around us!)
Here’s the passage of yours which inspired me:"If you get a glimpse of soldiers in camouflage uniforms sneaking through the forest, if you notice planes from an enemy country flying high above you, if key political leaders in your country disappear or are mysteriously assassinated, you might suspect an invasion is coming… But what if this kingdom that is invading is a kingdom of a very different sort? What if the invasion is one of kindness and compassion rather than force and aggression? What if sick people start getting well suddenly and inexplicably? What if rumors spread of storms being calmed, insane people becoming sane again, hungry people being fed, and dead people rising? Couldn't this be the sign of a different kind of invasion--the coming of a different kind of kingdom?"
I put it this way in the first verse:
I am catching glimpses
Of a new order
A silent incursion
Into the land
A secret invasion
From over the sea
I hope you enjoy the song (and trust you won’t sue me for copyright!) I’ve now finished a new CD of songs about the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
Thanks, Eden - another gorgeous song. "Glimpsing your new order" - that's beautiful.
Here's the song. I know my readers will love it, and I hope they'll pick up your new CD.
This is a good way to start 2017.
A reader writes -
Just finished The Great Spiritual Migration and feel so relieved and inspired. Relieved because having been brought up in a brethren chapel and been steeped in evangelical traditions - it is a relief to know that the journey of transformation and migration my wife and I have been on in last few years is not madness or heresy. Thank you so much for articulating what our hearts and minds have been nudging us towards.
I've actually been reading this whilst floating down the Mekong river crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam. It's been weird and challenging literally floating by so much joy and pain, vigor and entrapment, wealth and poverty, hope for future and immense sense of recent tragic past. The reality of floating by on a privilege of opportunity, able to step off and back on, dip in and out of such contrasts has been humbling and a very real metaphor whilst reading your book of my own search for meaning, justice, mercy and compassion, over and above belief systems which simply no longer feel authentic or real to me.
I will certainly be re-reading your book very soon and inviting others to join in on the journey.
Thanks for these encouraging words. I'm pleased to think of The Great Spiritual Migration being read in Cambodia, a place dear to my heart.
From Luke's Gospel:
About that time Emperor Augustus gave orders for the names of all the people to be listed in record books. These first records were made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Everyone had to go to their own hometown to be listed. So Joseph had to leave Nazareth in Galilee and go to Bethlehem in Judea. Long ago Bethlehem had been King David’s hometown, and Joseph went there because he was from David’s family.
Mary was engaged to Joseph and traveled with him to Bethlehem. She was soon going to have a baby, and while they were there, she gave birth to her first-born son. She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him on a bed of hay, because there was no room for them in the inn.
That night in the fields near Bethlehem some shepherds were guarding their sheep. All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you, which will make everyone happy. This very day in King David’s hometown a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord. You will know who he is, because you will find him dressed in baby clothes and lying on a bed of hay.”
Suddenly many other angels came down from heaven and joined in praising God. They said:
“Praise God in heaven! Peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.”
After the angels had left and gone back to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.” They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying on a bed of hay.
When the shepherds saw Jesus, they told his parents what the angel had said about him. Everyone listened and was surprised. But Mary kept thinking about all this and wondering what it meant.
As the shepherds returned to their sheep, they were praising God and saying wonderful things about him. Everything they had seen and heard was just as the angel had said.
Some of my favorite Christmas music ...
Merry Christmas, my friends!
I read with interest Nick Kristof's NYT interview with Tim Keller. I'm a big fan of Nicholas Kristof, and I have a lot of respect for Tim Keller, who generally presents one of the better contemporary expressions of the traditional Evangelical theology in which I was raised.
This interview centers on a very personal and very pastoral question: "Pastor, Am I a Christian?" The answer, no doubt, depends on how one defines the key term. For Tim, Christian identity is primarily defined by a list of beliefs, as it was for me in my upbringing:
... if you don’t accept the ... foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.
There's a lot we could debate about this, such as, for example, whether boundary-set thinking is a better approach to matters of the Spirit than centered-set thinking. But Nick's question and Tim's answer raise the deeper question of what the term Christian really means these days.
Nick quoted my book and then offered his own reflection:
“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”
... McLaren advises worrying less about whether biblical miracles are literally true and thinking more about their meaning: If Jesus is said to have healed a leper, put aside the question of whether this actually happened and focus on his outreach to the most stigmatized of outcasts.
Although Tim and I may differ on some matters, I fully agreed with his point near the beginning of the interview:
If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.
The question is "what is truly integral" to Christian identity?
In the Evangelical/Fundamentalism of my upbringing, as long as you held to each item on the list of "foundational beliefs," you were safely in. You might be violent, unreflective, willfully ignorant, factually incorrect, science-denying, misogynist, greedy, lustful, prideful, spiteful, ignorant, racist and selfish, but if you held the right beliefs, you were going to heaven when you die, and in comparison with that, nothing else mattered much.
This interpretation of "what is truly integral" to Christian faith is related to something else Tim said ... something that I used to say as well:
Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection.
Again, this understanding is at heart of the belief system that many of us were taught from childhood, namely, that Jesus' only real value is in solving the problem of original sin by being killed on the cross to appease a wrathful God. This understanding was critiqued succinctly just this week in a rhetorical question posed by Greg Boyd in a Tweet:
How did "God so LOVED the world he GAVE his only Son" evolve into "God so HATED the world he had to KILL his only Son?"
As we approach Christmas, it's a good time to reflect on why Jesus was born and why it matters. It's a good time to note that according to the Gospels, Jesus himself gives a number of reasons for the "main point of his mission" - from bringing people to repentance or radical rethinking (Mark 2:17) to seeking and liberating or healing the lost (Mt. 19:10), to serving people and setting them free (Mt 20:28), to speaking the truth (John 18:37), to being a light (John 12:46), to preaching the good news of the revolutionary kingdom of God (Mark 1:38), and more. Yes, a meaning-rich and world-changing suffering and death were among those many reasons (Jn 12:27), but it's a mistake (a popular mistake) to let that one reason silence all the others.
If Jesus had said, "By their beliefs you will know them," it would be one thing. But he said it was by their "fruit" (Matthew 7:20, see also Galatians 5:22-23) and above all by their love (John 13:35) that his disciples would be known.
That's why I think that if Nick had asked Jesus, "Rabbi, am I one of your followers?" he would have received a different answer than he received in this interview. The answer might not have been a simple "yes" or "no" - but may have involved a new set of questions:
Do you love the least of these - the poor, the prisoner, the sick, the outsider, the outcast, the enemy?
Which do you love more - the earth as God's creation or money that can be made from exploiting the earth?
Would you rather be known for defeating, humiliating, or destroying your enemies or making peace with them, so they become neighbors and friends?
Do you just want to use correct words about me, or do you want to follow my example and live my teachings?
Is love - for God, self, neighbor, other, enemy, and the earth - your highest aim and deepest desire?
With our global politics so highly charged this Christmas season - by a resurgence of white nationalism, by renewed talk of a nuclear arms race, by tensions between democracy and demagoguery, by concerns about real and fake news, by our need for a better option beyond dead religion and deadly religion - I have a feeling that the issue of Christian identity is going to matter more and more in the months and years ahead.
I think Nicholas Kristof is asking exactly the right questions, and I hope we'll all keep our hearts open for the best answers.
A reader writes:
I don't expect you to respond to this, but I'm hoping that you will get the chance to read it and know that you have given me hope where there was confusion and despair.
At 26 years of age I became a Christian. My childhood and early adult years were spent in a spiritual whirlwind of a cult and the occult, so Evangelical Christianity literally felt like a God sent, as the answers were all in black and white. Heaven and Hell. Us and them. This offered a lot of security after the kind of spiritual confusion I had grown up with.
About 25 years ago I was sexually abused by a pastor in an Evangelical Baptist church.... When the abuse happened, I had been a Christian for about 8 years. Spiritually I was really struggling and in retrospect I know that I hadn't sorted out my past and the impact it had on me. I guess all this confusion made me ripe for the picking and after the abuse I left the church and have not returned since. (Yes, I did come forward and disclosed the abuse to the senior church leadership. A big cover up ensued, and I was consequently re-abused by the church.)
Recently, after sorting through a lot of my childhood abuse issues in therapy, the abuse in the church reared its ugly head and I have begun to try to find some peace around it. Through that process I have felt God calling me back to Him, but I have changed so much in the past 25 years and Evangelical Christianity is no longer a fit for me. This has been quite frightening for me to break away from what I formally believed and start a different way of being Christian, as you say.
The long and short of it is, I wanted to say thank you for your book The Great Spiritual Migration. You have given me hope and helped me to understand that there are a lot more people like me out there, that I'm not going to hell for questioning the church and a literal reading of scripture, and that God truly is an inclusive God of love.
Thanks so much for writing and sharing your story. I'm honored that the book has been helpful.
I hope that all church leaders who read your story will be sure that they have a written plan for handling abuse, and that they always get outside help from legal and counseling professionals ... the number of times that abuse is covered up is unconscionable. Thanks be to God that you are healing. I know many readers of this blog will join in praying for you today.
Hate crimes, post-truth, bullying, kleptocracy ... there's a lot of ugly stuff going on out there. But never doubt that good people will "not be overcome with evil, but will overcome evil with good."
As an example, a friend of mine has embarked on a project to make quality household goods from 100% recycled materials. If you're looking for a Christmas gift, here are some with meaning ...
I was warmly welcomed by an amazing array of churches during my US book tour this fall.
These are congregations that readers of my books would enjoy. Here they are ... if you visit, tell them I sent you!
Immanuel Presbyterian Church
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral
San Francisco, CA:
Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church
St. Luke's Episcopal Church
LA Area (Encino) CA:
Bethel Encino ELCA
San Diego CA
Sojourn Grace Collective
Cathedral of Hope
La Salle Street Church and OPEN Network
First Baptist Church
Old South Church in Boston
First Baptist Church in Newton
New York, NY.
The Riverside Church
New York, NY. (Manhattan and Brooklyn)
Spencerville, MD. (Baltimore-Washington area)
Cedar Ridge Community Church
For more links to excellent churches, click here:
... here are some ways I can help.
My new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, would be a great gift for people who are deeply committed to Christian faith ... and equally, those who have been driven away, lost interest, etc.
My previous book, We Make the Road by Walking, gives a fresh overview of the Bible and Christian faith, emphasizing themes of peace, justice, care for creation, and reconciliation.
And my earlier books, especially Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, Everything Must Change, and The Secret Message of Jesus, are more relevant now than even when they were written. In particular, Naked Spirituality is a great book for people who want to deepen the contemplative dimensions of their spiritual lives.
Along with writing books, I write songs, and you can give a download of some songs I wrote during my sabbatical, called Songs for The Great Spiritual Migration. These are simple but meaningful songs geared toward group singing in your church or fellowship group.
Another option that would be a great gift for people who enjoy yoga ... a downloadable video series called Twelve Simple Words that integrates yoga with the "spiritual postures" I describe in Naked Spirituality.
A reader writes:
I just want to send you a short note to thank you for all you do in the name of Jesus. My husband enjoys your writing and agrees with what you preach and he introduced me to some of your books. I read "The Great Spiritual Migration" and am half-way through "A New Kind of Christianity." You mentioned in your book that you have many critics. Let me just say that I am not one of them, but rather an advocate of the gospel message about which you preach and write. My husband and I recently left our church of almost 20 years because of the evolution of the changing of our hearts and understanding of what Christianity is all about. We could no longer attend a church which focuses on legalism, biblical literalism, exclusivity (like who goes to heaven vs. hell), sin management, and condemning the LGBTQ. We are grateful to God that we've found a church that preaches God's message of unconditional love, grace, acceptance/inclusivity, transformation through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the kingdom of God hear and now.
It's a blessing to know that we are not alone in our different way of interpreting the bible and living out our faith as Christians.
We hope and pray, for the sake of our children and the generations to follow, that more and more Christians will explore their faith beyond what is so commonly preached and taught in churches and spoke about in Christian circles (that being the Greco-Roman biblical narrative that you frequently refer to in your book) and be bold in Him and share/voice their different interpretations of the bible and different views/perspectives of what being a Christian is all about. I believe that if people had a more open mind to the eternal possibilities of who God is, that would draw more people to Him and not away from Him, that more and more of God's children/creation would choose to live in Christ, a life more abundant, liberating, joy-filled, and peaceful, and would strive to be the people that God created and intended them to be.
May God continue to bless you and your callings in Christ,
For others looking for a more open and forward-leaning faith community, you'll find good options here.
And if your church isn't yet on this list/map - please sign up!
Friends in DC/Baltimore area - your region is a leading contender to be a "hub city" in the new School of Convergence Leadership. Want to learn more? There will be an information meeting tomorrow (Thursday), 2-3 pm. Check it out!