Do We Believe ALL Are Children of God?

1 All God's Children Photo“Do you really believe ALL are children of God?” That sentence began a letter from an anonymous mother of a gay teenager. She went on to explain that she did not wish to cause any problems but she was concerned about what her pastor was saying from the pulpit.

Her son loved the youth group. He was accepted and included by his peers. The pastor, however, had made statements that clearly indicated that her son was at best an inherently flawed child of God, and at worst not a child of God at all, but an “abomination.”

Since she insisted on remaining anonymous and would not identify the church she attended, I could not directly respond to the troubled mother.

Nevertheless, I carried that letter for months and read it in pastors’ meetings. I reminded pastors that the message being communicated by that pastor was “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Yes, there are some who exclude members of the LBGTQ community as “children of God.” But the circle of exclusion is much wider than sexual orientation. Only those who verbally and publically “accept Jesus as savior” are deemed  to be children of God.

I was confronted with the theological underpinning of the exclusion notion in an uncomfortable encounter.  It was in the narthex of a large urban congregation as I gathered for the processional for the 11:00 worship service.

The sermon text for the 8:30 service was 1 John 3:1-2: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is who we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Suddenly, I was confronted by an irate woman who latched onto the sleeve of my robe, turned me toward her, and stridently asked, “Are you going to preach that sermon in this service?”

“Yes, I am,” I responded.

“Then you are going to contribute to people going to hell,” she harshly warned. “Only those who have accepted Jesus as their savior are God’s children.” She then quoted John 1:12, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

“On what basis do you believe ALL people of God’s children?” the persistent inquirer demanded as the processional hymn began.

“On the basis of God’s creation and redemption of all,” I responded while trying to join the procession now in progress. “Read Genesis 1:26-27 and learn the meaning of ‘prevenient grace,’” were my parting words as I moved toward the altar to again proclaim that we are ALL God’s children NOW!

There are biblical passages that support the notion that not all people are children of God. In fact, the verses immediately following the text for my sermon can be so interpreted: “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil. . . The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”(1John 3:8-10)

The question (Are ALL people children of God?) is no idle theological abstraction? The answer determines everything—how we treat others, especially those who are different from us; how the church does evangelism and mission; even how we engage in public policy and political decisions.

As a Wesleyan, I live with the confidence that God’s prevenient (“preventing”) grace is universally present in ALL and that Christ died for ALL. Therefore, ALL have inherent worth and dignity. That includes Muslims and Methodists, Hindus and Hassidic Jews, Baptists and Buddhists, Atheists and Anabaptists, Conservatives and Liberals, Traditionalists and Progressives, Gay and Straight, Friends and Enemies, Illegals and Citizens, Men and Women, EVERYONE!

Yes, I believe we can turn our backs on our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. I leave it to God, however, to determine the ultimate consequences of such disavowal. My responsibility isn’t to judge. My calling is to bear witness in word and deed that ALL are precious sons and daughters of God, redeemed in Jesus Christ.

All evangelism, therefore, is relational. We meet Christ in the other more than deliver Christ to another. Bearing witness to the gospel begins with treating ALL persons as “thou” rather than as “it”, as a friend rather than evangelistic prospect.

I wish I could have talked personally with the bereaved mother of the gay son. I would have told her that “Yes, I really believe ALL persons are beloved children of God, and your son is a precious child of God.”

And, I would like to have had an opportunity for an extended conversation with the irate worshiper who feared that my message was misleading and complicit with eternal damnation of people who don’t profess Jesus as Lord and Savior. I would like to know why she is upset with the notion that all are children of God. I would treat her with respect and dignity as a beloved child of God while cautioning that to accept Christ is to accept those for whom he died—ALL.

 

 

 

Do You Really Believe ALL Are God’s Children?

“Do you really believe ALL are children of God?” That sentence began a letter from an anonymous mother of a gay teenager. She went on to explain that she did not wish to cause any problems but she was concerned about what her pastor was saying from the pulpit.

Her son loved the youth group.  He was accepted and included by his peers. The pastor, however, had made statements that clearly indicated that her son was at best an inherently flawed child of God, and at worst not a child of God at all, but an “abomination.”

Since she insisted on remaining anonymous and would not identify the church she attended, I could not directly respond to the troubled mother.

Nevertheless, I carried that letter for months and read it in pastors’ meetings. I reminded pastors that the message being communicated by that pastor was “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Yes, there are some who exclude members of the LBGTQ community as “children of God.” But the circle of exclusion is much wider than sexual orientation.  Only those who verbally and publically “accept Jesus as savior” are deemed  to be children of God.

I was confronted with the theological underpinning of the exclusion notion in an uncomfortable encounter.  It was in the narthex of a large urban congregation as I gathered for the processional for the 11:00 worship service.

The sermon text for the 8:30 service was 1 John 3:1-2: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is who we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

Suddenly, I was confronted by an irate woman who latched onto the sleeve of my robe, turned me toward her, and stridently asked, “Are you going to preach that sermon in this service?”

“Yes, I,” I responded.

“Then you are going to contribute to people going to hell,” she harshly warned. “Only those who have accepted Jesus as their savior are God’s children.” She then quoted John 1:12, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

“On what basis do you believe ALL people of God’s children?” the persistent inquirer demanded as the processional hymn began.

“On the basis of God’s creation and redemption of all,” I responded while trying to join the procession now in progress.  “Read Genesis 1:26-27 and learn the meaning of ‘prevenient grace,’” were my parting words as I moved toward the altar to again proclaim that we are ALL God’s children NOW!

There are biblical passages that support the notion that not all people are children of God. In fact, the verses immediately following the text for my sermon can be so interpreted: “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil. . . The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”(1John 3:8-10)

The question (Are ALL people children of God?) is no idle theological abstraction?  The answer determines everything—how we treat others, especially those who are different from us; how the church does evangelism and mission; even how we engage in public policy and political decisions.

As a Wesleyan, I live with the confidence that God’s prevenient (“preventing”) grace is universally present in ALL and that Christ died for ALL. Therefore, ALL have inherent worth and dignity. That includes Muslims and Methodists, Hindus and Hassidic Jews, Baptists and Buddhists, Atheists and Anabaptists, Conservatives and Liberals, Traditionalists and Progressives, Gay and Straight, Friends and Enemies, Illegals and Citizens, Men and Women, EVERYONE!

Yes, I believe we can turn our backs on our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. I leave it to God, however, to determine the ultimate consequences of such disavowal. My responsibility isn’t to judge. My calling is to bear witness in word and deed that ALL are precious sons and daughters of God, redeemed in Jesus Christ.

All evangelism, therefore, is relational. We meet Christ in the other more than deliver Christ to another. Bearing witness to the gospel begins with treating ALL persons as “thou” rather than as “it”, as a friend rather than evangelistic prospect.

I wish I could have talked personally with the bereaved mother of the gay son. I would have told her that “Yes, I really believe ALL persons are beloved children of God, and your son is a precious child of God.”

And, I would like to have had an opportunity for an extended conversation with the irate worshiper who feared that my message was misleading and complicit with eternal damnation of people who don’t profess Jesus as Lord and Savior. I would like to know why she is upset with the notion that all are children of God. I would treat her with respect and dignity as a beloved child of God while cautioning that to accept Christ is to accept those for whom he died—ALL.

 

 

Resurrection Comes in Unexpected Moments

Linda no longer remembers Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. In fact, she has forgotten Jesus and God! Mention of Easter only elicits a blank stare. Talk of Resurrection adds to confusion, even frustration at what seems to her like meaningless chatter.

Dementia erases more than memories of events, people, and experiences. It deletes abstract concepts, including cherished doctrines.  If being “Christian” or a disciple of Jesus means believing prescribed abstract doctrines, people with cognitive impairment are beyond discipleship and salvation.

Such persons, however, can teach us what it means to really know the reality behind cherished doctrines.  Linda and the residents at Bethany are teaching me that “believing” is not the core of Christian discipleship. Discipleship is doing what God does, which is the deepest form of knowing.

Most residents at Bethany have forgotten the stories of the empty tomb. None of them can explain what the doctrines of Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection mean. The words and concepts have been expunged from their brains and vocabularies.

Yet, they know Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection better than many whose cognitive faculties remain intact. They experience the realities affirmed in the doctrinal formulations, and they can be means by which we learn what doctrines really mean in our own experience.

I’m learning that Resurrection is more about life in this world than life after death. It is experiencing moments of Resurrection joy, love, beauty, truth, and goodness.  Here are some Resurrection moments I have recently known:

  • A momentary connection between Linda and Michael, our grandson, which elicited a winsome smile and twinkle in the eyes from both

Michael and Linda (2)

  • An unexpected reach for my hand as I sat silently beside Lindalinda and kenneth hands
  • A woman with disabilities who insisted on carrying the cross as we journeyed across the retirement community for “Stations of the Cross”
  • A loud response to the declaration in worship at Bethany, “He is risen!” Residents, including some who seldom speak, replied,
    “He is risen indeed!”Easter_Bethany
  • A blind resident with cognitive loss who immediately sang a rarely sung verse of “Jesus Loves Me”:

Jesus loves me! He who died,
Heaven’s gate to open wide;
He will wash away my sin,
Let His little child come in

And the rest of us joined in the chorus:

Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
Yes, Jesus loves me!
The Bible tells me so.

  • Looks of delight and sighs of awe and wonder as fresh flowers were placed on the altar at Bethanyaltar_Easter2017 (2)
  • The calming voice and gentle touch of a caregiver as she affirmed Linda’s dignity while bathing and dressing her and Linda’s surprising “thank you!”

Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection are inseparable experiences! It’s another way of saying that loving presence and personal connections (incarnation) create possibilities for moments or experiences of new life (resurrection); and reconciliation and glimmers of wholeness emerge (atonement/salvation).

It is those who are sensitive to resurrection moments amid the mundane experiences of daily living who know the real meaning of “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”

Those moments come even among sealed tombs, dark nights, and upper rooms filled with frightened disciples.

We Have Reason to Hope in These Troubled Times

While attending Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, I had the privilege of hearing an array of guest lecturers and preachers. Well known theologians, preachers, and politicians regularly spoke in chapel or the lecture hall. Even President Kennedy spoke on campus only a few weeks before his tragic death.

The most transformative guest during my three years on campus was Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps. He shared his struggles to survive the daily stench of death and the loss of family and friends in the barbaric gas ovens.

Dr. Frankl’s very presence was testimony to courage and hope amid unimaginable cruelty and death. While the holocaust reveals the raw evil of humanity, Viktor Frankl’s life bore witness to the triumph of hope over despair.

Dr. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has inspired countless people for more than half century. He affirms that although we may have limited control over what happens we have freedom to determine our attitude toward what happens. He contends that humans can live with almost any what if we have a why, a meaning amid the circumstances.

I have been reminded over the years of these words from Dr. Frankl: “[Man] is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

We live in troubled, uncertain, and dangerous times. Hatred and harshness, cruelty and crudeness, greed and grossness, viciousness and violence have been normalized. Injustice, prejudice, and exploitation are defended as virtues. Indifference to and scorn for the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, and the immigrants has become public policy.

Cynicism and despair are luring temptations in such a time as this. We can succumb to the temptation and be paralyzed by hopelessness. Or, we can choose the way of hope and action.

This weekend we celebrate the reason for hope! In the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ, God took on all the hatred, cruelty, greed, violence, injustice, prejudice and exploitation humanity can muster. Jesus entered his own death chamber upright, with the prayer “Father, forgive them” on his lips.

Evil did not, does not, have the last word! On Easter God delivered the everlasting “No!” to humanity’s evil! The Resurrection is God’s eternal, cosmic “YES!” to everything Jesus was, said, and did!

Love triumphs over hate! Compassion defeats cruelty and indifference! Forgiveness disarms vengeance! Humility undermines arrogance! Freedom wins over bondage! Life conquers death!

We, therefore, can live these troubled times with our shoulders straightened, our eyes on the future triumph of God’s reign of justice, compassion, generosity, and joy. We know that the decisive victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ!
 

 

Insight from the Sightless and Wisdom from the Confused

“Let’s pray for those who have eyes but can’t see,” requested a worshiper during the Prayers of the People. It was an appropriate petition in light of the Gospel reading from John 9, when Jesus healed a marginalized blind beggar and exposed the blindness of the respected religious leaders.

What makes the petition especially noteworthy, however, is that the petitioner is a man who lost his sight as a child. Additionally, he has lost much of his memory and ability to reason. He now lives in the memory care facility at the Heritage at Lowman.

He, like the man in the Scripture, is doubly marginalized. He is locked in a world of darkness and his ability to remember and reason has been severely limited by a form of dementia.  Yet, it was this sightless man with cognitive confusion who grasped the insight and expressed the wisdom in the Jesus story.

He wasn’t the only one! During the “homily,” I asked, “What are some things that blind us, even though we have eyes to see?”

“We are too busy with other things,” responded a woman who periodically battles frightening hallucinations.

“Prejudices,” called out an African American whose mental confusion has not blinded her to the experience of discrimination.

“Privilege” was another identified form of blindness, being blinded by the bubbles in which we live.

Then came the most pointed declaration: “We are blind when we don’t see people for who they are, children of God!” And the people said, “Amen!”

We talked about and sang the hymn “Blessed Assurance” having been written by a blind woman, Fanny Crosby whose insight was deepened by physical blindness.

We shared that John Newton had been freed from spiritual blindness though he had sight.  He declared, “I once was blind but now I see,”  a verse in perhaps the best known and most sung hymn in our society, “Amazing Grace.” We joined Newton’s praise of Grace that opens blind eyes by singing the hymn,

We paused to pray, using the hymn “Open My Eyes, That I May See.”

Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me;                               place my hands the wonderful key                                                                                     that shall unclasp and set me free.

Chorus: Silently now I wait for thee,                                                                                      ready my God, thy will to see.                                                                                               Open my eyes, Illumine me,                                                                                                        Spirit divine!

The service concluded with “Be Thou My Vision,” accompanied on the flute:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;                                                                           naught be all else to me, save that thou art                                                                      Thou my best thought, by day or night                                                                             waking or sleeping , thy presence my light.

As I greeted each worshiper, I paused to look into their eyes.  Some were unfocused. A few were now closed in sleep.  Others had that stare as though seeing into another world. I saw sad eyes, lonely eyes, longing eyes, smiling eyes, tear-filled eyes. Most of all, I saw loving eyes, eyes yearning for love and eyes filled with love.

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the petition by the sightless and cognitively confused resident at Bethany, “Let’s pray for those who have eyes but cannot see.”

God grant that the blindness created in us by our preoccupation, prejudice, and privilege be healed by the One who entered the world of the blind and ostracized, opened their eyes, and welcomed them into community.

I Have Given up Labels

I’m giving up labels! I flinch every time I read or hear these words in referring to people: “Progressive,” “Evangelical,” “Conservative,” “Liberal,” “Orthodox,” “Revisionists.”  Immediately upon hearing or seeing them, I sense ideology, partisanship, and divisiveness rather than theology, cooperation, and community.

Labels can be helpfully descriptive when they are precisely defined and modestly employed.  Yet, when used prescriptively as a means of categorizing, condemning, and disengaging from others, labels become vicious and outright sinful.

Labels tend to reduce people to categories to be resisted, demeaned, and perhaps eliminated.  They blur our vision of others and force them into ideological boxes.

We live in a society and in churches polarized by labels.  United Methodism is in danger of splitting over labels as members are lumped into “progressives” or “revisionists” and “evangelicals” or “orthodox.” In so doing, the denomination is mirroring the broader polarized society which lumps people with the same or similar labels and categories.

Labels invariably over simplify issues and diminish people.  No issue can be defined in a single word and no one can be reduced to a category.

Progressives can be evangelical. Evangelicals can be progressive. Liberals can be conservative. Conservatives can be liberal. Orthodox can be revisionists. Revisionists can be orthodox.  Even Democrats can have republican ideas and Republicans can embrace democratic principles.

Words are critically important. Words do shape our relationships and influence our treatment of others.  Labeling another as “enemy,” “foe,” “heretic,” “threat,” “terrorist,” “alien,” “criminal,” and a multitude of other offensive names, leads us to behave negatively toward the other. Dehumanizing is the first step toward rejection and violence.

We aren’t saved by words any more than we are saved by works. But words and works motivated and shaped by grace and used grace-fully heal, reconcile, and transform persons and societies.

Jesus was never impressed with labels as tools for categorizing and excluding folks. He was always turning the tables on those who pushed people into boxes and labeled them as unworthy or outside God’s circle of redemption. He welcomed “outcastes and sinners,” commended a “pagan” Roman soldier for his faith, extolled a “Samaritan” as the model of neighborliness, and promised a “thief” a place in paradise.

Jesus’s disciples were very label and category conscious.  They observed a man with the wrong labels and group loyalties casting out demons. Offended by his apparent “orthodox” or “progressive” associations, they told him to stop. He doesn’t fit their labels and categories. Jesus, however, had a much broader understanding of God’s activity. Jesus admonished, “Do not stop him . . . Whoever is not against us is for us”(Mark 9:38-41; Luke 9:49-50).

There are labels we might try using more often, especially in speaking about and with those with whom we differ: “brother,” “sister,” “child of God,” “friend in Christ,” “colleague in Christ’s ministry,” “sinner redeemed by grace,” “wayfarer on the way to God,” “citizen of new heaven and new earth,” and “beloved partner in ministry.”

We would do well to pause before using labels and meditate on Jesus’ caution in the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount:  “You shall know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:20-22).

What are the fruits? They are summarized in the Beatitudes—humility, meekness, hunger for righteousness, mercy, integrity, striving for peace, magnanimity, and courage. Paul describes them as “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatian 5:22).

So, I’m giving up labels! I hope to spend more time and energy nurturing “fruit of the Spirit” in myself and others than putting others in simplified categories with restricting labels.

Is Love a Practical Way Forward?

My blog, “Schism Is a Failure of Love and Leadership,” sparked considerable discussion. Many thoughtful questions and challenges merit continued reflection on my part and additional discussion across the church.  (https://shiftingmargins.wordpress.com/2016/10/12/schism-is-a-failure-of-love-and-leadership/

On the surface, the call to love seems piously superficial and naïve. One respondent indicated, my suggestions are more like “a sermon than a practical solution to our current divisions.”  I would argue that sermons are “practical.” Otherwise, we dismiss the “Sermon on the Mount” as impractical and naïve.

The comment reflects a serious problem. Legislative mandates, organizational directives, and juridical penalties have come to have more authority than liturgy, theological reflection, and spiritual discernment.  Our liturgy, theology, and discernment have tended to become instruments of legislative coercion, bureaucratic maneuvering, and judicial threat.

It is appropriate to revisit Jesus’s farewell discourse in John’s Gospel. Two statements of Jesus have largely been ignored:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) and his prayer “that they may all be one” (17:20).

Admittedly, we suffer from a cheapening of the term “love,” thereby reducing it to sentiment that “we just get along.”  “Getting along” isn’t a bad thing in this age of vitriol and polarization. However, to love as Christ loves us is far more radical than being “nice” to one another.

What does it mean to love as Christ loves us? From the words and actions of Jesus, love is more than a sentiment. It is a revolutionary and dangerous way of being in the world.  Loving as Christ loves may very well get you killed!

To love as Christ loves us means to shift the margins of our concern and preoccupation from the centrality of the privileged and powerful to the vulnerable and powerless.  Throughout the biblical witness, God’s preferential presence and mission are among the “orphans, widows, and sojourners (immigrants).”  (https://shiftingmargins.wordpress.com/2016/07/22/shifting-the-margins/)

Jesus moved the center of God’s reign to include the outcasts, the poor, the sinners, the children, the sick, the imprisoned, the infirm, “the least of these.”  To love as Christ loves us is to join him among those whom Charles Wesley called “Jesus’ bosom friends.”  It means to see and nurture the divine image in everyone and to challenge the systems, policies, and practices that diminish the inherent worth and dignity of all God’s beloved children.

Love is an action more than a sentiment or emotion or intellectual construct. Love seeks, includes, nurtures, gives, helps, supports, serves, corrects, and promotes the wellbeing of the beloved. It is inseparable from justice and the dogged effort to overcome oppression, exploitation, and cruelty.

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus’s priority was that his disciples would love as he loves and that they would be “one” in expressing that love in the world.  What would it mean for us to respond to those priorities?

It would mean at least this: we and the church would turn our attention and presence to the most vulnerable, neglected, powerless, and despised in our congregations and communities. They would be the center of our concern and presence.  Preoccupation with church growth, preserving doctrinal purity, labeling one another as “progressive” or “evangelical,” and denominational triumphalism would move to the margins. The love of Christ would become central and would make us one!

 

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