We come to You and to each other and we lament…


Excerpts from the prayer service at the Garden Church today for those who were killed Wednesday evening in the  Emanuel AME Church, in Charleston, South Carolina

O Holy One,
We gather to mourn and lament, to cry out, to shake in the wake of another act of violence, another slew of images of death and brutality, another story of black people and white people, hatred and violence, racism and the cries for a just world.

We gather to lament Lord,
Though part of us wants to move on, run away, brush it off,

We stop and lament.

We come to you and to each other and we lament the nine lives that were violently ended Wednesday evening as they gathered to worship and pray.

We come to you and to each other and we lament acts and systems that further racism and violence, valuing the lives of some more than others.

We come to you and to each other and we lament places where violence and division tear apart families, communities, relationships and places inside each one of us.

We come to you and to each other and we lament the ways we have turned from you and from each other and we confess our need for healing and compassion, renewal and peace.

We come together to remember.IMG_0842

And to plant in remembrance of those who died and for those who keep living.


As each plant is being planted, we sing together. O Lord hear our prayer, o Lord hear our prayer, as I call come to me, o Lord hear our prayer, o Lord hear our prayer, come and listen to me.

We remember and mourn for:

  • Cynthia Hurd, 54, a manager with the Charleston County Public Library system.IMG_0849• Ethel Lance, 70, a retiree who recently worked as a church janitor.IMG_0845 • Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, a South Carolina state senator and pastor at the church.IMG_0851 • Susie Jackson, 87, a longtime member of the church.IMG_0853 • Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49, former Charleston County community development director.IMG_0854 • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, age unknown, a church pastor, speech therapist and a high school girls’ track coach.IMG_0855 • Myra Thompson, 59, a pastor at the church.IMG_0847• Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74, another pastor at the church.
    IMG_0857• Tywanza Sanders, 26, a 2014 graduate of Allen University.

IMG_0848And we plant sage for wisdom. For honesty. For the willingness to repent of the ways that we participate in violence and division.


We come before you and we offer our prayer of confession and receive your assurance.

Before God, with the people of God,
We confess to our brokenness;
To the ways we wound our lives,
The lives of others,
And the life of the world.

God who forgives us and urges us to forgive others,
We claim Your unending love,
Your continuing call to renewal and change,
And your constant presence with us on the journey.

You are loved.
You are forgiven.
You are never separated from the expansive love of God.

O Lord hear our prayer, O Lord hear our prayer, when I call, answer me, O Lord hear our prayer, O Lord hear our prayer, come and listen to me.

And now, may the One God of Heaven and earth, God of Compassion, God of Justice, God who created and loves all, the God who calls us to move forward in making a more just and compassionate world be with us all. Amen.

11651184_10155741290850711_494062978_n-1–Rev. Anna Woofenden, the Garden Church in San Pedro, CA 6/19/15

#GivingTuesday at the Garden Church

We are committed to feeding people…in mind, body, and spirit. 

On this #GivingTuesday, will you join us in making a difference in the world as we re-imagine church and engage in innovative ways to bring more heaven, here on earth?

Online fundraising for Seed Money for The Garden Church

Dear Garden Church friends and family!

Part of re-imagining church is re-imagining our funding sources and methods. The way the world works is changing, and the funding for new expressions of church aren’t primarily coming from our institutions any more.

Instead, we have the opportunity to build a community of support made up of individuals who share our passion. We believe there are people all over who want to be part of doing something to make the world a better place—perhaps including you!

We need to raise $2,000 a month for the next year from our Cultivation Team. That’s 200 people giving $10 a month, or 100 giving $20, or 50 people giving $40—you get the idea. Give what amount is right for you, monthly for the next year, and be an essential part of the team that is re-imagining church and bringing more heaven here on earth. (If you’re wondering why the bar graph says more, that’s because razzo counts one-time and monthly gifts as the same. We are recieving and appreciating both! And our overarching goal is $2,000 in monthly pledges).

We are so incredibly grateful for the stories and pledges that have been rolling in from across the world over the past few weeks as people are joining the team.

Today is the last day of our three-week crowd-funding goal. Will you join with others from across the globe to ensure the Garden Church has the support it needs to grow and thrive serve in this start-up season?

With deep gratitude and joy for all that is and for all that is to come,
Anna and the Garden Church team

“With every tree, there’s this incredible network of beauty. There are the limbs, the branches. And we see all of this springing up from the ground. Also, underneath the ground, there is an equally intricate network of roots, of support.  This system that keeps the tree upheld…I decided that I want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of growing something new, growing something beautiful. ”  -Carol Howard Merritt, Author 

Watch Carol share more: 

Join us in this work today! 

A Sermon for the Garden Church

A sermon about Word, the Bible, and how as we want to consciously choose to engage it as a life-giving, rich, deep, wide text that points to loving God and loving our neighbor as we form a community and re-imagine church.

Audio complete with train whistles and the sound of the wind!



Rev. Anna Woofenden
The Garden Church
San Pedro, CA

Helen Keller–A Woman of Faith and Action

Earlham School of Religion Worship, March 14, 2013

Audio: Helen Keller Sermon 3.14.2013 Woofenden
(Thank you to Jessica Easter and David Johns for lending their voices)


“I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.” ― Helen Keller

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” ―Helen Keller

“Happiness does not come from without, it comes from within” ― Helen Keller

“Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.” ―Helen Keller

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ―Helen Keller

“Love should not be viewed as a detached effect of the soul, or an organ, or a faculty, or a function. Love involves the whole body of conscious thought—intention, purpose, endeavor, motives, and impulses—often suppressed, but always latent, ready at any moment to embody itself in act. It takes on face, hands, and feet through the faculties and organs; it works and talks, and will not be checked by any external circumstance once it begins to move toward an objective. Love, the all-important doctrine, is not a vague, aimless emotion, but the desire for good united with wisdom and fulfilled in right action.” –Helen Keller

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart” ―Helen Keller 

A young child.

A water pump.

A child who is blind and deaf.

A teacher who persistently spells.


Into the hand of the child.




In an attempt to communicate as the icy well water pours over the child’s hand.

These may be the familiar images that arise when you think of the woman whose life story we explore today. Helen Keller.

This iconic story of overcoming the loss of physical sight and hearing has become a beloved tale of resilience and perseverance as this frustrated child becomes able to communicate, attends school and college and travels the world as an advocate for those with disabilities. Helen Keller the poster child for the blind and deaf.

Images you might not be so familiar with: Helen Keller the Swedenborgian theologian and Helen Keller a prophetic voice for social change. It is these two I want to bring forward today.

But first…beginnings.

Helen Keller was born in 1880, an energetic, curious, and alert child.  At age two she suffered a serious illness that left her completely blind and deaf. Keller spent the next few years of her childhood struggling to communicate and connect with others, going into rages and tantrums of frustration with her inability to interact with the world around her.

In looking back at this time of life, she writes, “Truly I have looked into the heart of darkness, and refused to yield to its paralyzing influence.”[1]  Helen’s life changed dramatically when she was gently and firmly taught by her teacher and guide, Annie Sullivan.  It was Annie who opened up the world of language to Helen, and through language gave her the ability to connect to ideas, people, and life around her.

Helen was an inquisitive child, asking questions and wondering about everything. She writes: “As a little child I naturally wanted to know who made everything in the world, and I was told that nature had made earth and sky and water and all living creatures. This satisfied me for a time, and I was happy among the rose trees of my mother’s garden, or on the bank of a river or out in the daisy-covered fields.”[2] Keller learned quickly and was a voracious student. Alexander Graham Bell had assisted Keller’s parents in finding her teacher Annie Sullivan and later recommended Perkins School of the Blind as a next step for her education and growth.

As she soaked up her studies, she began to ask more questions, questions about God and Jesus and religion and justice. “I inquired about God, and again I was baffled. Friends tried to tell me that God was the creator, and that he was everywhere, that he knew all the needs, joys, and sorrows of every human life…I was drawn irresistibly to such a glorious, lovable being and I longed to really understand something about him. I persisted in asking questions about God and Jesus ‘Why did they kill him? Why does God make some people good and others bad? Why must we all die?”[3]

It was during this time of questioning, while at Perkins School for the Blind, Helen was introduced to the writings of 18th century mystic and theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg by John Hitz, a colleague of Alexander Graham Bell’s, whom she later would call “the foster-father of my soul.”[4]  Hitz gave her a Braille copy of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell when she was fourteen years old. Hitz warned Keller that it might not make sense to her at first, but that it would in time “satisfy (me) with a likeness of God as loveable as the one in my heart.[5]

When Helen began reading Heaven and Hell, a new opening in her spiritual life began.  “I was as little aware of the new joy coming into my life as I had been years before when I stood on the piazza steps awaiting my teacher. Impelled only by the curiously of a young girl who loves to read, I opened the that big book… My heart gave a joyous bound. Here was a faith that emphasized what I felt so keenly… The words ‘Love’ and ‘Wisdom’ seemed to caress my fingers from paragraph to paragraph and these two words released in me new forces to stimulate my somewhat indolent nature and urge me forward evermore.”[6]

Helen’s engagement with Swedenborg’s teachings was life-long; she avidly read and wrote about her spiritual journey and how God shaped her after this first encounter with the writer.  “It has given color and reality and unity to my thought of the life to come; it has exalted my ideas of love, truth and usefulness; it has been my strongest incitement to overcome limitations.”[7]

It is clear from Helen’s writing that her faith was core to who she was and from it her life arose. When we look at her legacy and her phenomenal life-long mission to help those who were blind, deaf, or disabled, her work for the emancipation of women and the equal rights and care for all people, we can see the threads back to her theological grounding.

Helen’s ability to live fully, despite her disability is one that has been greatly admired by many. Her physical disabilities gave her much she could have complained about, or fallen victim to, but instead she chose to approach her life’s limitations as teachers and opportunities for internal change.

She credits her approach to challenges to her spiritual path. She states, “Long ago, I determined not to complain. The mortally wounded must strive to live out their days for the sake of others. That is what religion is for—to keep the heart brave to fight it out to the end with a smiling face.” [8]  She saw her challenges as opportunities for growth and internal transformation as she took to heart Swedenborg’s teaching that “Limitations of all kinds are forms of chastening to encourage self-development and true freedom.” [9]

Helen knew in her own being that God had called her to important work to do in the world, and that she needed to continue to do her own internal work in order to follow this call to bring reformation to others.

She writes about feeling like Joan of Arc at times, willing to follow the voice that says, “Come” through any hardship or struggle. As her life progressed, we see her moving through the obvious struggle of functioning without hearing or eyesight with incredible strength, tenacity, and dedication to internal and external reform. Keller scholar Dr. Ray Silverman remarks that Keller “saw herself as a social reformer devoted to relieving human suffering.” [10]

The reform that Helen fought for was often expressed as a need for external outcome, such as women’s right to vote and economic equality. Her spiritual writings, however, called for a reform of the spirit as well.  She spoke up for educational systems that were not exclusively focused on the intellect, encouraging compassion, consideration, and empathy as worthy educational goals.[11]

Seeing the need for systems to be transformed strengthened her commitment to be a voice for internal transformation; she believed that transforming individuals would contribute to changing society as a whole. She drew heavily on Swedenborg’s teaching that humanity without love and pity is “worse than a beast,”[12] and spoke to the recklessness of the power of thought when it is used for harming others. She called for reformation of the human spirit, and a spiritual vision where love, wisdom, and useful service prevail.

Throughout Helen Keller’s writings and speeches, she shares that the overarching message that she drew from the teachings of Swedenborg was one of God’s love for all people—regardless of their religious beliefs and allegiances. Having read the many volumes of Swedenborg’s writings, she sums up her reading of his central theology with three ideas: God as Divine Love, God as Divine Wisdom, and God as Divine Power for use.”[13]  She shares her vision for this eminence of God’s love for all people as she reflects who God is by saying, “Such teachings lift one up to a mountain summit where the atmosphere is clear of hatred, and one can perceive that the nature of the Divine Being is love and wisdom and use, and God never changes in God’s attitude toward any one at any time.” [14]

Helen’s life, teaching, and writing was a continual outpouring of this love from God to all people as she became a sought-after voice for social reform. Silverman touts Keller’s widespread engagement with these movements.

Helen did indeed carry the banner of social reform to all, and fought valiantly to raise consciousness about the plight of the handicapped. But Helen’s social reform did not stop at combating preventable blindness.”[15]  Silverman goes on to outline Keller’s work with the suffrage movement, speaking up for social injustice and against racial prejudice and corrupt politics, denouncing business greed, and openly speaking against the horrors of war.[16]

She shares her draw to see God in all religious paths when she writes: “Instinctively, I found my greatest satisfaction in working with men and women everywhere who ask not, ‘Shall I labor among Christians or Jews or Buddhist?’ but rather say ‘God, in thy wisdom help me to decrease the sorrows of thy children and increase their advantages and joys.'”[17]

She writes about being told by “narrow people” that those who are not Christians would be punished. She describes her soul being “revolted” as she considered the possibility of the wonderful people she knew who had lived and died for truth as they saw it ending up in hell. Helen was able to reconcile her Universalism with her Christianity through Swedenborg’s teachings on the symbolism of Jesus Christ. “I found that ‘Jesus’ stands for divine good, good wrought into deeds, and ‘Christ’ symbolizes Divine Truth, sending forth new thought, new life, and joy in the minds of all people, therefore no one who believes in God and lives right is ever condemned.”[18]  She went on to write often about this view of salvation and how it informed her life, action, and teaching.  Helen’s theological understanding of God being one who created and loves all people came to life in her work, as she advocated for those who were not being seen by society at large.

Through Helen’s beliefs and her own disabilities, she becomes passionate about issues of equality and the care of all people.  According to Dennis Wepman, author of one of the many biographies of Keller, she had been long distressed about poverty and its effects on American children. She had also become a staunch suffragist—an advocate of women’s right to vote”.[19]  Joan Dash, another Keller biographer, connects Keller’s actions for justice to her own experience of feeling on the margins. “When she visited the foul-smelling slums of New York, she was reminded of her hopeless and powerless existence as a child,”[20] which spurred on her work to bring hope to those who are suffering.

As we hear stories of lives such as this one, I notice it is easy to write ourselves out of the story. The person we look to is in some other realm or possibility. We tell ourselves we can’t expect to be one of “those people” who leaves an impact on the world. We draw a line between ourselves and the mothers and fathers we look to for inspiration. Helen Keller’s story calls us each to action and contemplation, work and theological reflection in our own lives and ways.

Her words echo with us…

“I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.” 

We are only one. But we are one. I am one. You are one. You cannot do everything, but you can still do something.

Helen calls us to live a life of action and a life of beauty and contemplation.

Helen Keller’s life calls us to do. Arising from our faith in a loving God, to do something that we can do in the world.

She calls us to give bread to those that are hungry,

Stand for those that are oppressed,

Serve a God of love,

And bring the beauty of the fragrant roses to the world.

2013-03-14 12.03.57

[1]  Helen Keller and Ray Silverman, How I would Help the World (West Chester, Pa.: Swedenborg Foundation Press, 2011), 7.

[2] Keller, Silverman, and Keller, Light in My Darkness, 22.

[3]  Ibid. Page 23.

[4]  Keller and Silverman, How I would Help the World (West Chester, Pa.: Swedenborg Foundation Press, 2011), 28.

[5]  Ibid. Page 29.

[6] Ibid. Page 32

[7]  Ibid. Page 11.

[8]  Ibid.

[9]  Helen Keller , My Religion. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1927), 144.

[10]  Keller and Silverman, How I would Help the World, 35.

[11]  Ibid. Page 42.

[12]  Ibid.

[13]  Emanuel Swedenborg and Jonathan S. Rose , The New Century Edition of the Works of Emanuel Swedenborg (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000), 298.

[14]  Keller and Silverman, How I would Help the World, 77.

[15]  Dennis Wepman, Helen Keller (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 33.

[16]  Keller and Silverman, How I would Help the World, 18.

[17]  Ibid. Page 10.

[18]  Keller, Silverman, and Keller, Light in My Darkness, 88.

[19]  Wepman, Helen Keller, 68.

[20]  Dash, The World at Her Fingertips : The Story of Helen Keller, 129.


Speaking Christian: Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg signing books

“Salvation.” “Sacrifice.” “Redemption.” “Righteousness.” Where do these words take you?  I, like many in today’s culture I believe, have some negative and specific connotations to what might be preached or assumed in the rest of sentences that contain these terms.  In modern culture these words often are associated with a strand of Christian thought that is founded on the core belief that all are damned to everlasting hell, save those who profess that Jesus died for our sins and believe in him. The term salvation becomes a marking point, are you in the club of the “saved” or are you outside it?  Jesus’ sacrifice becomes one of substitution, him instead of us, at the hands of an angry “Father-God”.  Redemption takes on the form of litmus test for our eternal passport and fails to connect to the possibility of a life-giving transformation starting now. And righteousness, well righteousness is something we seem to know Christians are going for, but most will walk around the block to avoid, having most commonly experienced the word with the term “self” before it.

Marcus Borg in his book, “Speaking Christian: Redeeming Christian Language” examines these words and a few others, going back to the original language, time and context and then moving forward into today’s language and context and shedding light on the language of Christian theology and life.  I had the opportunity to spend last Saturday at Christian Theological Seminary, engaging in these ideas as Dr. Borg spoke on this topic.  I was challenged and inspired by his reflections and prophetic message of redemption and hope. Redemption and hope not merely for individuals, but for the Christian movement and message, for the country we live in and for the world as a whole.

I’ll share here a summery of my notes for the day on each of these words and their implications. These notes reflect my hearing of Marcus Borg’s ideas. Where I give a direct quote, these are from the printed notes that he handed out, the rest has gone though the filter of my hearing and writing. At some point there’s a blog post in me that will share my personal and theological thoughts and reactions from these ideas. But for today, I’ll focus on attempting to share a glimpse through sharing some of my rough notes from the talks. If these ideas pique your interest, I recommend getting his book, Speaking Christian.

The term “salvation” and the concept afterlife have been linked in Christian and religious conversation. Salvation has been made to be about gaining a “positive” afterlife.  It has become a normative thought that this is the point of all religions—to ensure a happy eternal resting place.  Borg would argue that the goal of the Christian life is salvation—but not primarily about before or after death.

The words “savior” and “salvation” is not one that is found exclusively in the New Testament, and certainly not only in reference to Jesus Christ. The term is used extensively in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and we see it particularly around the story of the Exodus and the stories of the Babylonian Captivity.  In these instances the term “savior” has nothing to do with the after-life. It refers to liberation from oppression. “The Lord has become our salvation” “God is the savior who brought us out of Egypt.” Nothing to do with the afterlife, nothing to do with sin.  The word “savior” appears in stories of the exile more than most any other place. For the most part refers to deliverance from enemies and illness. Liberation from bondage, escape from exile, etc. In the New Testament these uses continue. Deliverance from enemies, liberation from bondage, etc. Sometimes they look at forgiveness of sins and the afterlife, but these are not their primary biblical meanings.

The best single English synonym for “salvation”—“transformation”. Transformation of ourselves and the world. It’s about personal transformation and transformation of society as a whole. Salvation can be experienced as healing—a salve. Salvation is a healing ointment. Giving the transformation from blindness to seeing. In Eastern orthodoxy—primary definition of salvation is enlightenment. Jesus came as a light in our darkness, etc.

This speaks to the idea of living people who are dead inside—salvation being the transformation from death to life. Moving people from pre-occupation and anxiety to presence and compassion. Salvation is about the individual transforming and also the transformation of the world, transformation from a world justice to a world of justice. Transformation from a world of war to a world of peace.

Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal Life
“Kingdom of heaven” appears only in Matthew’s gospel—not in the others.

Culturally we’ve thought this is about an image of the after-life.  Borg claims that Matthew is not talking about this—this is revelation around the name of God.  This is out of the Jewish tradition of not writing the most sacred name. “Heaven” is the substitute for “God”. “Your kingdom come on earth, AS it already is in heaven.”

“Heaven is in great shape, EARTH is where the problems are.”—John Dominic Crossen

1st words of Jesus—Mark (earliest gospel)—about the coming to the kingdom of God. Transformation of this world.

“Ask any 100 NT scholars around the world, what was most central to the message of Jesus, all would say ‘the kingdom of God’”–John Royman

Borg claims that “the Kingdom of God” is about the transformation of this world. “This world” refers to the humanly created world of societies and cultures, not referring to the natural world. “This world” when referred to in the Bible was referring to the cultural system at the time.

Four Features of the Ancient Domination System (empires, kingdoms, etc)
(Note: there are modern and post-modern domination systems as well.)

  1. Ruled by a few—monarchy, aristocracy, etc. 1-2%
  2. Economically unjust—ruling class commonly acquired most of the wealth. Acquired through taxation, slavery, etc. from the agricultural production of the peasant class.
  3. Chronically violent—wars—primarily started from one ruling class to another ruling class for the wealth.
  4. The wars were religiously legitimated. Kings ruled by divine right.

Core tension in scripture—the Lordship of Domination of Lordship of Christ?God’s dream—What are you passionate about? God’s dream is the kingdom of God, the transformation of this world.

Everlasting Life

“Everlasting life” (used primarily in John). John 3:16

Greek phrase “everlasting life”  = “the life of the age to come”.  Sounds a little bit different from heaven.  In John, “eternal life” is already present.  John 17:3 “This IS eternal life: to know God.” To know God is to already participate in the life of the age to come. Is it more that to know God in the present? Yes, but it starts now. The life of the age to come is not about an after-life, it’s about now. This does not deny that it may continue into the after-life. But it’s primary meaning is now. Salvation is now. And salvation is not yet. Experience of God in the present and the transformation of the world. “Know God and change the world’

Mercy & Righteousness
We hear these words a lot in church settings, in our prayers, scripture, etc.

The problem, the most common meaning of these words in modern English is not the biblical context or intention.

Mercy/merciful—presuppose a situation of wrong-doing, where a person of power has the power to punish or not to punish.

Clemency. Parent give mercy on child punishment, etc.

Situation of wrongdoing here someone is entitled to punish.

Note how this understanding fits the common understanding of the heaven and hell Christianity. Presupposes that we’ve done wrong, God will punish, Jesus will intercede for our forgiveness.

Borg suggests we exchange the word “mercy” for the word “compassion”: this word does not pre-suppose a situation of wrongdoing.

Which word to use? Compassion or mercy?  Depends on the context. If there’s a situation where there is a broken agreement, wrong-doing, etc. then yes, use the word “mercy”.  But in many contexts, this word gives us the idea that there has been wrongdoing and that there is a punitive God who is ready to punish.

Compassion—feeling with, feeling the suffering of others, acting in accord with these feelings.  In both Hebrew and Aramaic—associated with the word for womb, and the feelings a mother has for the children in the womb.  God is a God of mercy/compassion –WOMB-LIKE: creative, nourishing, encompassing, love for children, willing your children’s well-being, caring for them, willing to let them go, fierce dimension—compassion can become like a Mama Bear. Compassion is not a soft, woosy virtue.

We are called to this to others as well. Called to be compassionate of others.

Blind beggar—Bartamaus—“have mercy on me”.  Bartamas was not a sinner needing forgiveness, he’s not calling out for mercy, he’s calling out for compassion.

Story of the Good Samaritan—“which of these three proved to be a neighbor?”  (note, the story starts out with the question, who is my neighbor?, never answers the question, ends with how to be a neighbor). Ends with “the one who shows mercy”.  Not a sinner, but a victim. Better translation—“the one who shows compassion”.

Sermon on the Mount—“blessed are the merciful”.  Gives a very narrow meaning to that passage. “Blessed are the compassionate, for they will receive compassion”.

“Be merciful, as God is merciful”.  “Be compassionate as God is compassionate”. Some newer translations are using this.  See how it broadens the meaning immensely? This verse is the most compact version of Jesus’ theology in the NT. “God is compassionate (who God is), be compassionate (our response and we are defined by). What a contrast to the view of a punitive God—God’s gonna getcha unless you get it right. God of wrath. God who must be appeased, offering an adequate sacrifice.

This set up creates two very different forms of religion.

  1. If we see God as punitive and we can appeal to Him as mercy.
  2. If God is compassionate and therefore we can be compassionate.

Actions have consequences. Don’t confuse these consequences with “God punished that person”.

Does God ever punish anyone? OR Do we live in a world of consequences? And is God all loving?

Righteous and Righteousness

These words occur 100’s of times in the Bible.

The problem, again, is their most common, modern English meaning.

When you hear someone called “righteous”, what do you think?  Self-righteous, etc. If we hear someone is righteous, we probably want to stay away from them.

Very few positive associations. What do people hear when they hear this word in the context of scripture.

Now to redeem the words “righteous” and “righteousness”.

In the Bible, these words very often refer to “justice”.

Amos, “Let justice flow down like waters and righteousness flow like an everlasting stream.”  Hebrew poetry—synonymous lines. The general rule that this passage illustrates that “justice” would be a better translation than righteousness.”

Now, “justice” has some issues too. In the Bible, “justice” rarely has the connotation of punitive punishment. God’s justice—one part—is about the fair distribution of God’s earth. We are but tenants and sojourners on the earth. Economic justice—everyone will have enough. This is not about charity, charity is good (the giving of our surplus to those in need). Charity is about individuals giving out of abundance. Justice is about the way the system is put together, justice is about how everyone should have enough of the material basis of life. Everyone should have enough. This should not be depending on the generosity of individual charity. Doesn’t mean that everyone gets the same.  God’s passion for justice in the bible—everyone have the basic needs of life.  Daily bread. Food for the day. This is what the kingdom of God is for.

Consider the layers of meaning when “justice” is substituted for “righteousness”.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice and they will be filled.”

Hunger and thirsting for righteousness—sounds like individuals trying to live up to a higher moral standard. Now justice…!
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice sake” This happens a lot. Being persecuted for being “righteous”? We don’t see this so much.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s justice. God’s kingdom IS (amongst other things) about distributive justice.

Give us this day our daily bread. (Enough food)

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. (Debt-forgiveness. To avoid starvation. These where the two biggest daily issues for people in Jesus’ time.)

Righteousness—as the word is used in individual moral rectitude.

Justice—about individuals, societies, nations are just and fair.

The heart of justice in compassion. Justice is the social form of compassion.  Or the social form of love is justice. Love is the heart of justice.

Think of the differences between a Christianity shaped by righteousness and mercy compared to compassion and justice.  Righteousness & Mercy—about measuring up to God’s requirements.  Compassion & Justice—it’s about loving what God loves, the WHOLE of creation.  “For God so loved THE WORLD.”  What would it look like to have a Christianity that sees the primary purpose of engaging in the world with justice and compassion.

What does it mean to be Christian and American?  Claims to be a Christian nation. What does this look like?

The US has extreme income inequality:

Recommends the book: “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett on income inequality.
Some highlights: US has by far the greatest inequality. Also, the: highest rate of prison inmates, lowest life expectancy for a developed nation, highest rates of mental illness. We not only have the greatest rate of income inequality and it’s growing. In 1974 the top wealthiest 1%  make 7% of the annual income. 35 years later in 2009 the top 1% is making 24% of the annual income.

Between 2002-2007 60% of the total income growth of wealth went to the wealthiest 1%. 50% of the total $$ involved in the federal tax-cuts of the last decade (missed this number—it was disturbingly high though) went to the wealthiest 1%, not spread across the middle class. AND we borrowed the money to do that. Borrowed a trillion $$ to give it to the wealthiest 1%?  Why aren’t the other 99% outraged?  Median (half above/half above) household income in the US has basically been constant for 30 years. People in the middle, not any better off. $50,000 a year (adjusted for inflation).

All of this to help us to see—this is a very difficult country to be in the bottom 40% of the income range. And yet, we are the largest Christian country in the world. Why? Because we’ve been focused on a Christianity that’s been focused on individualism, focus on salvation being about after death, punitive God, etc. and not focused on justice and compassion.

War. 5% of the population. We have ½ of the world military spending. It seems that we as a country are determined to be as powerful as the rest of the world put together. The US navy is as powerful as the next 13 navies combined. $161 billion navy budget (double what it would cost to have national health-care, which apparently we can’t afford). US air force, most powerful air force in the world. Know who’s second? The US navy air force. We’re the most Christian nation in the world, and yet we, have declared the right to pre-emptive war. It’s pretty clear that we’ve been doing this for years, but now we’re open about it. WHY in the most Christian country in the world, weren’t there thousands of people in the streets saying “THIS IS WRONG”. There is a brand of Christianity that endorses these war-based theology. “What I’m hoping is that Christians who don’t see things this way will become as noisy and vocal as the people who do. Start at the local level and have this ongoing conversation. Conversation. Adult education. Not the pulpit, but in conversation. Settings where people are able to talk about this, etc.”

Language about the death of Jesus and Easter
The death of Jesus—in “common Christianity” or “heaven and hell Christianity”, dying for our sins, satisfying the debt we owe to God, etc. Substitution atonement. This is what was portrayed in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”.  So many hold substitution atonement as the underlying truth and underpinning of Christianity—throughout Christianity (evangelical and protestant) even if people don’t like it, we still hold it as a underpinning. The word “sacrifice” brings up these images and concepts.

Substitutionary atonement is not biblical and didn’t come up in the 1st 1000 years of the church.  In 1098 a man named Anselm wrote a book that said—“humans because of our sinfulness owe a debt to God, in order for this to be paid, the debt needs to be paid, from the human side, but humans are sinful, so humans can’t pay it, only a sinless human could, offer up as a perfect human sacrifice, so God has to become human, so God became human so that the human sin could be paid.”  Logically brilliant and deeply perverse. This is the FIRST time that we get a view of the idea of the death of Jesus is the payment of sin. 1000 years after Jesus walked on earth. This idea did NOT come from Christ’s life on earth.

Came out of a concept of peasant and master. And then the great plague, seen as Divine punishment, this idea grew and grew.  “Jesus died for the sake of our sins is less than 1000 years old.”

Yes, there is sacrifice language in the Bible BUT “Sacrifice was NEVER ABOUT PAYMENT FOR SIN”.

Animal sacrifice—gift to God and a meal.  In the NT, done in the temple in Jerusalem.  Part of the meal goes to God (up in smoke), part is eaten by the people. Now it is a meal with God.

Sacrifices of Thanksgiving.
Sacrifices of Petition—something’s wrong and you ask God for help.
Sacrifices of Purification—“impurity” could be acquired by a person in a number of ways. Impurity was not always about sin. Woman impure for 40 days after giving birth, then offer up a sacrifice of purification. Nothing sinful about giving birth. So even a sacrifices of purification isn’t sacrifice for sin. It’s a ritual of purification.
Sacrifice of Reconciliation—Community making up with God and share a meal with God.

“I don’t know if any of these tell us about the death of Jesus—but what’s important here is that NONE of these examples are about substitutionary atonement.” This idea is NOT in the bible. Nowhere do we see sacrifices being about the animal sacrifice INSTEAD of the person in the context of sin and punishment.

Sacrifice was about a sacred offering up to God. Did Jesus get killed because of his sacrifice to God? Sure in terms of offering up your life to God, but not because of sin and punishment.

Romas 12—present yourselves as living sacrifices, do not be conformed to this world (the culture of the domination system), be transformed by the renewal of your minds. Difference between dying FOR others and dying INSTEAD of others.

Firefighter rushes in, saves baby, then dies in the fire. Sacrifice. YES. Not because God lit the fire and needed at least one person to die in it.  It’s about offering up ones life, not about substitution or a payment.

Think about these people—sacrificed their lives because of their love for others. Life and death of sacrifice. Dietrich Bonhoffer (executed by the Natzi’s a month before WW2, executed because his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler and his love for others). Martin Luther King—died because of his love for others. His love for his fellow African Americans, his love for what America could be. Archbishop Oscer Ramero (El Salvador in 1980). Brought radical voice against the ruling elite. Worked for the oppressed. Was shot while giving the benediction by a governmental sponsored assassin.

All examples of sacrifice—out of love and care.

Another point: Jesus didn’t just DIE—he was KILLED. Assassinated. “the son of man must go to Jerusalem….” Not to die for the sins of the people, to be mocked and killed.  His death was a result of the passion he had for the people.

Christians—only major religion who’s founder was executed by the ruling authorities. Buddha, Moses, etc. nope.  What is about Jesus? Was there something that the authorities were really not pleased by?  This is a profoundly subversive religion that challenges THIS WORLD—the way the world commonly is. The convention, the authority did not care for this. Conventionality is the antithesis of Christianity.  Crucifixion—only for one thing—systematically challenged Roman authority–subversion to the Roman authority.  You didn’t get crucified for murder, etc.   Jesus was challenging the authority.

To be born again is the point. Dying of an old way of being, being born into a new way of being.

N.T. Wright—Origin of Christianity—the tomb really was empty is his emphasis. Getting at the point that something happened to the corpse of Jesus, there was no Easter, etc. This has been the foundation of Christianity.  Arguing about whether the tomb was really empty seems like a distraction. This might be rather irrelevant to the truth of Easter.

The question is not “was the tomb empty”—we don’t know.

But we can be very clear about what Easter MEANT to the followers of Jesus.

Can we stop talking about factuality—and start talking about what the story MEANS.

The need for factual and material equaling REAL is a modern hang-up.

Meanings of Easter

  1. Jesus continued to be experienced after his death.
    1. Visions
    2. Experiences of Jesus
    3. Still happening
    4. Continues to be a figure of the present, not just the past—no longer a figure of flesh and blood—Risen Christ
    5. Jesus is Lord

They experienced him not just as alive or a ghostly figure of the past, but as present and living.  Follow Him, He is Lord, and the Lord’s of this world are not.

Much more could be said on each of these topics and I have a number of reflections coming out of the talks. Maybe these will get blogged at some point soon. But for now, I’ll get these notes up before any more time passes. I’m interested in any thoughts or conversations that they stir in you.