Tag Archives: Theology

From Inclusivity to Inclusion

Six years ago I made what felt at the time like a strong statement about inclusivity. I railed against the splintered, inward-focused nature of the institutional Christian church, and about the irony of that fact given that the people in that ossified, bickering church profess to follow one of history’s most radically inclusive figures, Jesus Christ.

In that statement I was focused mostly on behaviors – by the things done and left undone by the average churchgoer, and also by the institutional church. I put the onus on each of us as individuals to own the nature of Christian inclusivity and to take proactive steps to ensure it.

But recent events have got me thinking that inclusivity – with all its trappings of open doors, welcoming congregations and affirming practices – still may not be enough.

Let me give you an example. At my church we practice an open communion. We believe the Lord’s Table constitutes an invitation that comes from none other than God, and that it’s not our job to come between the Table and anyone (and I truly mean anyone) who may feel that invitation.

But in the same church that doesn’t bat an eye when I say that during the communion prayer, I also have congregants who instinctively refer to God as Father and to God’s realm as a kingdom – and who no doubt would shift uncomfortably in their seats if I challenged them to pause and really imagine God as Mother rather than Father. Not that I’m saying their worldview is abnormal; most Christians have this construct embedded quite deeply in their spiritual formation.

So I don’t go there, at least not directly – partly because I see God as beyond gender. Like, way beyond. So beyond that it’s almost laughable to me that anyone would argue for a second about whether God is masculine or feminine. Because if there’s anything the bible literalist and the liberation theologian can agree on about God, it’s that the nature of God’s being is mind-blowingly beyond our maximum comprehension.

What that means for me is that I use God’s name as the pronoun for God. God does God’s work in our lives. No one but God can know Godself the way God does. That sort of thing. Once you get the hang of it, the alternative feels jarring.

And for some people it’s not just jarring, it’s a trigger. Consider, for instance, the person whose father sexually abused her. Even if you add the word “heavenly” in front of “father” in referring to God, that doesn’t take away the lightning-strike of reactions that happen within her every time she hears God referred to as paternal.

Speaking of paternal, there’s another word that needs to come into this conversation, and that’s patriarchy. Because when we talk about the historical pronouns for God, we’re talking about so much more than a mere grammatical habit here. The accepted practice of referring to God in the masculine isn’t just the chance result of a binary coin toss two centuries ago; nor is it really the result of some foundational theological insight into the true nature of God.

Rather, our casting of God’s image in the mold of a benevolent space-daddy is a direct, centuries-old hangover from a different time when power was masculine and our relationship to God needed to be portrayed in terms of patriarchal dominance and submission so the church could enforce our obedience.

Yes, we’ve inherited a narrative about Jesus where God is referred to in the masculine. But we also know it’s part of a greater narrative that was subject to heavy editing – we just don’t always know the degree to which that editing was applied to which parts of the narrative. And even if Jesus did refer to God in the masculine, I submit for your consideration that the theological message from Jesus in this instance was more about us feeling God as a loving parent than seeing God strictly as a father figure. The parable of the prodigal proves that. Jesus was, after all, incredibly feminist for his time; it was just another aspect of his radical ministry.

Which makes for a fun conversation at a Saturday morning staff meeting, where I’m dealing the full spectrum of belief: From those on one end who grew up bathed in King James-flavored biblical literalism and patriarchy, all the way to someone on the other end who came our way via a detour through Unitarian Universalism and has been assumed on at least one occasion to be more Buddhist than Christian.

They all fit under the tent, but it means we’ve got some work to do if we’re going to go beyond being inclusive to practicing true inclusion:

  • Inclusivity says “come as you are”. Inclusion means we’re going to meet you where you are.
  • Inclusivity says “our doors are open”. Inclusion means our minds are too.
  • Inclusivity says “we welcome you”. Inclusion means we make you feel as if our house is your house – that in fact, it’s been yours all along.
  • Inclusivity says “we affirm you”. Inclusion means we recognize that we’re not here to save your soul, we’re here to protect it.

See the difference? Inclusivity has become a decoration, and it was a great first step. But it’s a dated notion. Inclusion, on the other hand, is an act, a series of actions, a constellation of activities, where we meet the stranger more than halfway across the table.

If it feels uncomfortable, that’s your human side talking. But when it becomes so ingrained in you that you can’t go back, I dare say you’re actually enjoying a direct relationship with God. Because to God these things are second nature. It’s how you draw the whole world to you. It’s how you live the example set forth by Jesus.

So what I’ve told my staff is, we’re all on our individual journeys. You can refer to God however you like in your private life – in your mind, in your prayers, in your living room. But in church, be inclusive. Be radically welcoming. Make inclusion a verb.

I’ve told them that if they need an example, they can listen to how my husband sings a hymn – or better yet, how he recites the Lord’s Prayer. In his version of it, God goes from being “Our Father” to “Our Creator”, and God’s kingdom becomes a realm. See how easy that is?

And in the process, our understanding of God grows. Our understanding of how God views the souls in our midst grows. And God is able to do God’s best work while we politely get out of our own way.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Mother God and Mother Jesus

As we prepare to honor mothers everywhere this Sunday, may I suggest that we take at least a moment to imagine God’s love in the same way that we imagine a mother’s?

This is not a new thought. In fact, it’s a major thread in a 14th-century book called “Revelations of Divine Love,” (also the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman) whose author, Julian of Norwich, put forth a theology that was groundbreaking for its time in three distinct ways:

  • A view that sin was the product of ignorance rather than evil.
  • A belief in a deeply loving, joyful and compassionate (versus wrathful) God.
  • Specific references to God and Jesus as maternal.

Julian’s writings depicted God’s love as more earnestly encompassing than was typical for her time. She argued against the idea of sin as a truly wicked or malicious act requiring specific forgiveness, seeing sin as more akin to a necessary mistake humans make as they learn and grow to be the perfect beings God already sees them as being. One of her better known sayings is “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” She also wrote, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.”

Personally, I see God as being a bit bigger than actual gender, so I’m not presenting these writings as an instigation to discussing God’s gender. Rather, I think it’s interesting to ask ourselves, in a culture where the gendering of God according to a male/female binary is absolutely dominant, how much that practice might hinder us from appreciating the true nature of God’s love.

God bless a mother’s love, and God bless mothers everywhere.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Ten Reasons to Own Your Faith

Writing these days seems to be somewhat challenging for me.  Then my editor over at “Whosoever” the Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge re-posted an article I wrote for them and in looking it over even though it is almost 2 years old it is worth looking at again.  Hopefully this will jump start my writing and folks will hear from me every couple of weeks.  So without further delay;
Since it is the start of the year and everybody seems to be doing a list. I thought I would jump in with one of my own. Please understand, I am writing this from my point of view as a follower of Jesus. If that is not the path you follow I pray after you have finished reading some of the arrogant sting of the so-called Christian faith will have been removed. The Creator of this universe is far bigger then any self described human made faith or set of beliefs.
Now it has been said my writing style is not the warm comforting and cuddly stuff but rather more “in your face,” “take it or leave it style.” This list will be no different.
For far too long the institutional church has taken the position they own the faith and simply rent it to us. They give us traditions, pronouncements, laws and creeds and if we do not live by them since we are nothing more then renters we get evicted, or as the Roman Catholic Church has done for centuries ex-communicated.
A quick read of Matthew 23 makes my point about the institutional church pretty clearly. To my brothers and sisters in the clergy all I can say here is if the shoe fits…
It is pretty apparent Jesus knew and said the everyday people were being sold a bill of goods. They were being forced to rent their faith.
So without further delay, here are the 10 reasons to own your faith rather then rent it.
10) There is no “Hell” to be sent to.
The institutional church has used this bogus concept for centuries to keep our fear button pushed in all the way. Hell by translation and definition is a “state of being” not a place. Further, it is a state one places themselves in through their own action. By definition “hell” is the total absence of God. God’s biggest desire is to be in relationship with that which God created. It stands to reason, then, that God never wants to be totally absent to us. Why else would Jesus warn of that “blasphemy of the holy spirit” was only unforgivable sin? The only way that could be accomplished is if one was totally absent of God to begin with. That absence would be our choice, our action, not God’s. Own the fact that when we die we will be with God. Further, all the biblical discussion around hell is simply drawing a picture of what it must feel like to be totally absent of God not a place to be found on a map or geological survey.
9) Forgiveness is the only way to experience total freedom.
The only way to stay in a relationship with God is to forgive as God forgives us. To be in relationship with God is to be in relationship with those whom God created. It is only through setting aside our anger, our hurt feelings, and our indignity that we find our happiness, peace and our dignity.
Remember the first words of Jesus from the cross were, “Father, forgive them.” If he does not do that then there isn’t any resurrection, dead is dead. If we do not find a way to forgive there is only death and destruction to follow. Own your life, don’t rent it and lose it.
8) God is a lot more creative than God gets credit for.
I remember a great piece of theology from one of the original Star Trek shows, where aliens explain to Captain Kirk why they appeared as humans rather then their natural state. They said, “We appeared to you humans as you would understand us.”
It certainly explains why there are so many different faiths, races and cultures. Everyone and everything is at a different place of understanding and learning and God meets us wherever that place or understanding is. Own the fact that God is greater then the limitations we place on ourselves by renting our faith.
7) Our relationship with God is far more important then any sin we commit.
I think the best example of this being true is in the story of the “Prodigal son” from Luke 15:11-32. Jesus tells this story to give us an idea of what God and heaven are like. There are three very important points here: 1) the son desired to be in relationship. 2) “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.” 3) “But the father wasn’t listening” Get it? When we desire to be in relationship with God, God runs to us, finds us embraces us, our shortcomings (sin) don’t matter. Own your relationship with God, don’t rent from sin.
6) The Bible is not the infallible, inerrant word of God.
“The Bible has been used for centuries by Christians as a weapon of control. To read it literally is to believe in a three-tiered universe, to condone slavery, to treat women as inferior creatures, to believe that sickness is caused by God’s punishment, and that mental disease and epilepsy are caused by demonic possession. When someone tells me that they believe the Bible is the ‘literal and inerrant word of God,’ I always ask, ‘Have you ever read it’?” Episcopal Bishop John Shelby
The Bible contains an understanding of the will of God, but parts of the Bible do not reflect God’s will. Every injunction, instruction, prohibition, etc. in the Bible needs to be analyzed carefully to determine whether it was directed to a specific culture at a specific time and place, or should be applied to all cultures and all eras.
Further, the Bible was written by individuals to promote their own evolving spiritual beliefs. Many of the authors were severely limited by culture and their lack of scientific knowledge. I believe that it is important to recognize that many biblical passages contain factual errors and that many do not reflect accurately or consistently the will of God. Of course, in order for one to know this or conclude this, one has to do the hard work of studying the Bible for oneself. Own your Bible; don’t rent it from the church. In addition, this means one needs to read a variety of scholarship on this collection of sacred text as well. This can be a difficult challenge since many people are like lightning and take the path of least resistance.
5) God is all about inclusion not exclusion.
We only need to look as far as the life and ministry of Jesus to see that everyone is invited, some may choose not to come but everyone is invited. There are some who would say Jesus was exclusionary and cite the story of the rich man. However, over the years, the story has gotten twisted into meaning that wealth is bad. In reality it was about the heart. Where was this man’s heart in relationship with God or his riches? God, or Jesus, didn’t exclude him – he excluded himself. This is what makes owning one’s faith a difficult task, it requires we take responsibility for our choices.
4) No one can be denied a place at the Lord’s Table.
This has been a major point of power and control the institutional church since it has assumed the power to say who is in and who is out. Jesus said “as often as you do this, do this in remembrance of me.” There are no strings attached to this, no dogma, no creed, no formula for belief, no magic words. Just a simple act of memorial designed to remind us what we have been taught by Jesus. When one owns their faith they can never be denied a place at the table. It is only when we rent our faith we get tuned away.
3) God is a “Chess Master” not a “Puppet Master.”
Over the years Fundamentalism has turned God into the ultimate magician. God will fix that, do this, and heal this or that. This alone has set up the war between faith and science. God created us with a mind and the ability to think. As we learn and grow we can, and will, do more things that seem astounding. Jesus is quoted at one point saying, “These things I have done you will do and even greater things.” Yup, that will happen when we use our God-given brains to think.
God is not a puppet master. If anything, God may be a chess master. This game of chess is a little different. God is not interested in taking our King, because God has already given us God’s. So it is all about the moves that are made in the game (life). We make a move; God makes a move in response. This is the way we prepare for our next spiritual step. It is called growth. Growth does not come without experience, choice and the consequences of those choices. Owning one’s faith lets us take responsibility for our actions without playing the blame game or having a puppet master.
2) “Do not commit murder” applies to the courts, the state, the feds and most assuredly all people.
Jesus could not have been clearer when he is recorded as saying, “Let the first one without sin cast the first stone.” Sin is recognized as any thought, word or deed that separates you from God. Well who has not done that? There is no twisting this folks; we are not supposed to be in the business of killing folks. We can give all the excuses we want, however it is pretty clear renters of the faith can justify killing, owners of the faith cannot. Couple this teaching with the whole concept of forgiveness and my point is made.
1) Ultimately we will be measured by who we feed, dress, give drink to and/or visit, not by some “sinner’s prayer.”
I am amazed at the smoke and mirrors the institutional church has used over the years. They have come up with all kinds of rules to be obeyed, directives to be followed and even prayers to be said to get into heaven. This completely ignores what the man they claim to follow said about the subject. Read Matthew 25:31-46 for yourself, but suffice it to say when one owns their faith this will be the focus of their life rather then a whole host of things which grab us now.
So as we move through how can you (we) have a much better year despite the challenges? Tearing up the rental agreement we have with our faith and taking ownership of it would be a good place to start.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

The Road to Irrelevance

Since the earliest days of Christianity, one thing we Christians have proven ourselves great at is splintering ourselves seven ways to Sunday, so to speak. We profess to follow Jesus the Christ, who wanted to draw the world to him – but in our day-to-day practice, at best we seem to be sending mixed signals to the stranger in our midst. At our worst, we look downright stuck up.

We put all sorts of words on the marquee out front – open, welcoming, inclusive – but let a neighbor present themselves and we send a million overt and subtle signals about what we’d like to see if they intend to stick around beyond a single Sunday.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Is the average congregation – the average Christian – truly open to the disruption posed by someone whose dress, manner, career, socioeconomic status and life choices might be worlds apart from the norms in play in the church building we call our spiritual home?

We say we’re inclusive, but is there an actual behavior behind the preaching? Or is that practice so practiced that it leaves no room for the real?

Are we the two salespeople in the Rodeo Drive boutique in the movie “Pretty Woman” who are so convinced they can spot a good customer that when Julia Roberts’ character shows up ready to spend (lots of) money, they shoo her away because she doesn’t fit their preconceptions?

Change Rodeo Drive to the average neighborhood church and that boutique to a front-row pew, and those two salespeople could just as easily be two Baptist ladies in their Sunday finery, clutching their pearls and shooing away an Anglican who has clearly stumbled into the wrong building. Or vice versa.

After all, we’ve got centuries of splintering to preserve here. The Baptist denomination owes its very existence to pivotal (I’m joking here) early questions of how Christians should be baptized: Should they be dunked? Sprinkled? Half-drowned? And part of the Anglican church’s founding included a fight with the Roman Catholic church over divorce.

If that’s how we are to each other, can you imagine what we must feel like to a stranger? The word inclusive doesn’t exactly come to mind.

Contrast this family bickering with the approach of Jesus, who was interested in all seekers, not just those who agreed with him. The examples of his radical inclusivity are myriad:

  • There is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, whose people were despised by the Jews of the day for their ways of worship and their ancestry.
  • The story of the tax collector, shunned from his society because of his overbearing collections and swindling.
  • The story of the Roman centurion, a symbol of the foreign domination of Israel.
  • The story of the adulterous woman, unclean and despised in her own society because of her acts.
  • The story of the unclean woman, who Jesus healed in an instant by acknowledging the depth of her faith.

What all these people have in common is that they were despised in their own societies. But Jesus, without hesitation, ministered to them or healed them outright. They were outcasts to everyone but Jesus, who roundly condemned the snobbery of those who couldn’t be bothered to see their humanity.

By the way, these snobby pearl-clutchers weren’t limited to the folks you might call the “in” crowd of their day – they included the Pharisees, whose disdain for the lower classes was (and I am not making this up) part of their religious practice – which to me is all the more despicable, because as people of God they should have known better.

Jesus had no patience with it all – the Rodeo Drive types, the Pharisees and their ilk. One of my favorite stories comes from Jesus simply making an observation about who is blessed and who, on the other hand, might have a problem:

He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’

Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ ”

Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.” Luke 18:9-14

Jesus saved some of his strongest words for the complacently pleased ones, calling them vipers and whitewashed sepulchers – implying a pretty outer image but an inner death.

Today it does not seem that much has changed except the labels we use to exclude rather than include.

We’re oh-so-willing to point out the speck in another’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own. We pounce on the transgressions committed by followers of other religions and conveniently ignore the ones done in the name of our own. We’re institutionally conformist when we should be transforming. We’re exclusive rather than inclusive.

And these are all just way stations on the road to irrelevance – all of it leaving us blind to the beauty of the diversity of God’s creation.

Need proof? Decades after MLK spoke of “the most segregated hour in America”, not much has changed about late Sunday mornings. In fact, it’s not just the most ethnically un-diverse hour in America, it’s also the most sexist. Not only do we struggle more often than not with the role of women in the church, but our very language continues to subjugate the feminine. We also still prefer that the homeless and hungry line up at the back door for a handout rather than come in the front door and join us as prodigals.

Sexual minorities feel uncomfortable/unwelcome in cis/hetero-normative mainline congregations, and straight folk feel uncomfortable in the pews of queer churches.

The price of non-inclusivity being non-diversity, we miss out on differing viewpoints, and we risk having a skewed perception of the world. We lose the ability to meet the needs of the world because we’re disconnected from the actual lives of those most in need. Not knowing the stories of the people we profess to care about, we make up stories of our own, and we make up ministries based on those stories.

We self-congratulate while not knowing the actual truth. We become people of words, not deeds.

Perhaps a level-set for us might be to remember that to God, each soul is utterly equal to the next soul. Each life is equally sacred and worth saving. Each person is equally beautiful and worthy of love. God doesn’t focus on our shortcomings; God focuses on our potential.

Not only are we more alike than different, but our differences provide perspective more than discord. It’s harmony we should fear; it’s artificial and its sibling is complacency. And what exactly was complacent about Jesus’ ministry?

The irony of all this is that these values – diversity and inclusion – come to us from corporate America. It’s in that world of cutthroat competition that leaders promote inclusivity because they know that not having a diversity of viewpoints could cost them their bottom line.

I’ve often said that the institutional church of today, with its power-grab for souls branded by denomination, can feel uncomfortably like a corporation. I used to think the church and the corporation were hard to tell apart in their behaviors. Now it seems to me that the average job interview might be a more inclusive experience than the average Sunday service.

So what does inclusion look like? For starters, we’re given the example of the shepherd, who isn’t focused on the sheep in plain sight, contentedly grazing; instead, the shepherd’s concern is with the one that’s gone astray and must be coaxed back into the fold.

Every. Soul. Matters.

If you walk into church this Sunday and what you see doesn’t match that vision, then you know what to do.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Ten Reasons to Own Your Faith

Since it is the end of the year and everybody seems to be doing a list. I thought I would jump in with one of my own. Please understand, I am writing this from my point of view as a follower of Jesus. If that is not the path you follow I pray after you have finished reading some of the arrogant sting of the so-called Christian faith will have been removed. The Creator of this universe is far bigger then any self described human made faith or set of beliefs.

Now it has been said my writing style is not the warm comforting and cuddly stuff but rather more “in your face,” “take it or leave it style.” This list will be no different.

For far too long the institutional church has taken the position they own the faith and simply rent it to us. They give us traditions, pronouncements, laws and creeds and if we do not live by them since we are nothing more then renters we get evicted, or as the Roman Catholic Church has done for centuries ex-communicated.

A quick read of Matthew 23 makes my point about the institutional church pretty clearly. To my brothers and sisters in the clergy all I can say here is if the shoe fits…

It is pretty apparent Jesus knew and said the everyday people were being sold a bill of goods. They were being forced to rent their faith.

So without further delay, here are the 10 reasons to own your faith rather then rent it.

10) There is no “Hell” to be sent to.

The institutional church has used this bogus concept for centuries to keep our fear button pushed in all the way. Hell by translation and definition is a “state of being” not a place. Further, it is a state one places themselves in through their own action. By definition “hell” is the total absence of God. God’s biggest desire is to be in relationship with that which God created. It stands to reason, then, that God never wants to be totally absent to us. Why else would Jesus warn of that “blasphemy of the holy spirit” was only unforgivable sin? The only way that could be accomplished is if one was totally absent of God to begin with. That absence would be our choice, our action, not God’s. Own the fact that when we die we will be with God. Further, all the biblical discussion around hell is simply drawing a picture of what it must feel like to be totally absent of God not a place to be found on a map or geological survey.

9) Forgiveness is the only way to experience total freedom

The only way to stay in a relationship with God is to forgive as God forgives us. To be in relationship with God is to be in relationship with those whom God created. It is only through setting aside our anger, our hurt feelings, and our indignity that we find our happiness, peace and our dignity.

Remember the first words of Jesus from the cross were, “Father, forgive them.” If he does not do that then there isn’t any resurrection, dead is dead. If we do not find a way to forgive there is only death and destruction to follow. Own your life, don’t rent it and lose it.

8) God is a lot more creative than God gets credit for

I remember a great piece of theology from one of the original Star Trek shows, where aliens explain to Captain Kirk why they appeared as humans rather then their natural state. They said, “We appeared to you humans as you would understand us.”

It certainly explains why there are so many different faiths, races and cultures. Everyone and everything is at a different place of understanding and learning and God meets us wherever that place or understanding is. Own the fact that God is greater then the limitations we place on ourselves by renting our faith.

7) Our relationship with God is far more important then any sin we commit

I think the best example of this being true is in the story of the “Prodigal son” from Luke 15:11-32. Jesus tells this story to give us an idea of what God and heaven are like. There are three very important points here: 1) the son desired to be in relationship. 2) “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him.” 3) “But the father wasn’t listening” Get it? When we desire to be in relationship with God, God runs to us, finds us embraces us, our shortcomings (sin) don’t matter. Own your relationship with God, don’t rent from sin.

6) The Bible is not the infallible, inerrant word of God.

 

“The Bible has been used for centuries by Christians as a weapon of control. To read it literally is to believe in a three-tiered universe, to condone slavery, to treat women as inferior creatures, to believe that sickness is caused by God’s punishment, and that mental disease and epilepsy are caused by demonic possession. When someone tells me that they believe the Bible is the ‘literal and inerrant word of God,’ I always ask, ‘Have you ever read it’?”

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.

The Bible contains an understanding of the will of God, but parts of the Bible do not reflect God’s will. Every injunction, instruction, prohibition, etc. in the Bible needs to be analyzed carefully to determine whether it was directed to a specific culture at a specific time and place, or should be applied to all cultures and all eras.

Further, the Bible was written by individuals to promote their own evolving spiritual beliefs. Many of the authors were severely limited by culture and their lack of scientific knowledge. I believe that it is important to recognize that many biblical passages contain factual errors and that many do not reflect accurately or consistently the will of God. Of course, in order for one to know this or conclude this, one has to do the hard work of studying the Bible for oneself. Own your Bible, don’t rent it from the church. In addition, this means one needs to read a variety of scholarship on this collection of sacred text as well. This can be a difficult challenge since many people are like lightning and take the path of least resistance.

5) God is all about inclusion not exclusion

We only need to look as far as the life and ministry of Jesus to see that everyone is invited, some may choose not to come but everyone is invited. There are some who would say Jesus was exclusionary and cite the story of the rich man. However, over the years, the story has gotten twisted into meaning that wealth is bad. In reality it was about the heart. Where was this man’s heart in relationship with God or his riches? God, or Jesus, didn’t exclude him – he excluded himself. This is what makes owning one’s faith a difficult task, it requires we take responsibility for our choices.

4) No one can be denied a place at the Lord’s table

This has been a major point of power and control the institutional church since it has assumed the power to say who is in and who is out. Jesus said “as often as you do this, do this in remembrance of me.” There are no strings attached to this, no dogma, no creed, no formula for belief, no magic words. Just a simple act of memorial designed to remind us what we have been taught by Jesus. When one owns their faith they can never be denied a place at the table. It is only when we rent our faith we get tuned away.

3) God is a “Chess Master” not a “Puppet Master”

Over the years Fundamentalism has turned God into the ultimate magician. God will fix that, do this, heal this or that. This alone has set up the war between faith and science. God created us with a mind and the ability to think. As we learn and grow we can, and will, do more things that seem astounding. Jesus is quoted at one point saying, “These things I have done you will do and even greater things.” Yup, that will happen when we use our God-given brains to think.

God is not a puppet master. If anything, God may be a chess master. This game of chess is a little different. God is not interested in taking our King, because God has already given us God’s. So it is all about the moves that are made in the game (life). We make a move; God makes a move in response. This is the way we prepare for our next spiritual step. It is called growth. Growth does not come without experience, choice and the consequences of those choices. Owning one’s faith lets us take responsibility for our actions without playing the blame game or having a puppet master.

2) “Do not commit murder” applies to the courts, the state, the feds and most assuredly all people.

Jesus could not have been clearer when he is recorded as saying, “Let the first one without sin cast the first stone.” Sin is recognized as any thought, word or deed that separates you from God. Well who has not done that? There is no twisting this folks; we are not supposed to be in the business of killing folks. We can give all the excuses we want, however it is pretty clear renters of the faith can justify killing, owners of the faith cannot. Couple this teaching with the whole concept of forgiveness and my point is made.

1) Ultimately we will be measured by who we feed, dress, give drink to and/or visit, not by some “sinners prayer.”

I am amazed at the smoke and mirrors the institutional church has used over the years. They have come up with all kinds of rules to be obeyed, directives to be followed and even prayers to be said to get into heaven. This completely ignores what the man they claim to follow said about the subject. Read Matthew 25:31-46 for yourself, but suffice it to say when one owns their faith this will be the focus of their life rather then a whole host of things which grab us now.

So as we move into 2012 how can you (we) have a much better year despite the challenges? Tearing up the rental agreement we have with our faith and taking ownership of it would be a good place to start. Count with me now 10, 9, 8…

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Taking Ownership of Our Faith

If you live in Georgia the story of Shorter College and the faith statement one is required to sign is about a week old. There has been no shortage of opinions concerning this “goodie-two shoes” approach to controlling people’s lives.

I guess as a private institution they can have any rule they want. With that said, the college has absolutely no business in people’s bedrooms. They choose to quote the Old Testament for the reasoning for this rule…I believe that in the Old Testament polygamy seemed to be acceptable, stoning wives for adultery was the law of the day and marriages for the most part were arranged. Shorter University is certainly on a power trip of the worst kind.

Yet there is a deeper and far more dangerous issue which is occurring in regards to this faith statement that people are being forced to sign.

In fact, it is just not Shorter College and their homophobia; it is a “Church Universal” problem from almost every main-line traditional church to the most conservative, evangelical church. This dangerous issue happens to one degree or another in each and every organized congregation.

The “Church” does not want you and me to own our faith. The “Church” requires you and me to either rent or lease our faith. Sadly, that has been the situation for a very long time.

Remember when Jesus chastises the Jewish leadership in his day:

Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

“Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’

“Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.

“Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”

I would encourage the reader to read the rest of the chapter as Jesus has hit the nail right on the head.

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2023&version=MSG

Think about when one signs a rental agreement. There are always lists of things that can you evicted from the property. If there are problems with the property the owner may listen and respond or they may not…if you are not happy, too bad…move out.

Sound familiar? Think really hard, isn’t that what belonging to a church is all about? What is really sad and dangerous is what this does to the individual person of faith.

The “Church” has a list of those things that keep us in good standing as far a renting your faith from God. Screw up enough of them on the list and we are told our relationship with God is no longer valid. Think I am kidding? Consider:

My partner’s father was a hard working man with twelve children. The family was Episcopalian. With twelve children to support and a stay-at-home wife, it required him to work an extra job. The extra job kept him from coming to church very often.

When he suddenly died at the age of fifty-seven from a massive heart attack (probably from working much too hard) the church refused to conduct the funeral or give him a proper burial because he was not in good standing.

What about if we don’t confess prior to participating in “Holy Communion”? We can be refused the host and drink. Don’t take Communion for long enough and we are considered outside the faith.

Are we baptized? If not, then our relationship with Jesus is not valid with God.

Be outside the proscribed norm for the understanding of sexual orientation, the proper participation of sexual activities or not follow the proper definition of gender identity and we are told our relationship with God is not valid.

Another problem with renting instead of owning is there is no reason to invest, grow or improve what is being rented. Why? Because it is not ours, it can all be taken away in an instant…so why bother? How many empty pews are there on Sunday morning these days? People have given up, walked away or found all these rental agreements set forth by the “Church” to be irrelevant to their everyday lives.

Not to be outdone, “The Church” has taken to a marketing campaign to fill it’s quota of rentals not because it cares about our spiritual needs and relationship with God but because… well, please just read Matthew 23. The methodology is even more heinous then in Jesus’ time… PowerPoint presentations, full orchestras, only the best of the best singers, grand buildings, and huge congregations complete with pastors who are nothing more than snake-oil salesmen convincing you if you buy their product you will be saved and if you don’t buy it there is a place reserved for you in the fiery pit of hell.

Shorter College is a perfect example.

The “Church” has had it backwards for a very long time. Jesus taught and lived in such a way that it was clear it was about owning our faith with God and not renting it.

People who own something invest in it. They make an effort to improve it, place value and priority in it. People, who own it, protect it with their lives. Ownership does not allow for one to just walk away and replace it on a whim. When Jesus said the greatest love we can show is by laying down our lives for another…that doesn’t happen with a rental faith…that only can happen when we own our faith.

I have come to understand our job as persons of faith is not about the conversion of souls…it is about the protection of souls. Our job is not to figure out why one has a need and how bad they were to get to this needed place but rather simply meet the need.

Not once did Jesus ever tell someone how screwed up they were but rather treated them as owners of their faith and met the need in measure with their faith.

In today’s world, if we dare to take ownership of our faith, we will be told we are crazy, misfits or rebels. If we dare to claim that our relationship with God is ours and we will no longer allow for guilt trips to be laid upon us or told how and when to practice our faith, we will be called heretics, scandalous or worse, perverts.

When we own our relationship with God rather than rent or lease it, this gives us the ability to understand that maybe by accident or maybe with intentionality, the “Apple” company had it exactly right theological-speaking when they wrote:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

When we own our faith we can then live out the meaning of these words found recently on the internet: http://queen7d.deviantart.com/art/The-Choice-is-Mine-135928929

“I choose…to live by choice, not by chance;
to make changes, not excuses;
to be motivated, not manipulated;
to be useful, not be used;
to excel, not compete;
I choose self-esteem, not self pity;
I choose to listen to my inner voice(God), not the random opinion of others.”

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Our Spiritual Titanic

If there is one thing that is sure as the rising or setting of the sun, it is “Christians” do not like to be called on their crap.

After my last blog I have caught more then my share of grief from folks who think the “Christian Faith” is the one and only answer in the universe. Therefore, there is nothing “they” could do that could be considered terrorism. They hide behind theology that says the only way to God is through Jesus the Christ. They measure a person’s worth by whether they are “saved” or not. They say they help those who are hungry, homeless or on society’s edge because it is the right thing to do. However, lurking behind that hypocrisy is the real reason: To win souls for Christ.

It is precisely this kind of arrogance, questionable traditions and just flat out power and control issues that have left churches empty, churches struggling to pay the bills and worship services looking more like a Hollywood production then actual worship.

Where does this come from? Simple…it is the mis-reading, mis-interpretation or mis-translation of some of the sacred text. The two most often quoted are John 14:6…

 

“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

 

This is not a bible study, but let it suffice to say, to use this for the basis of no one getting to God outside of Jesus is to take the quote out of context. In fact one needs to read the entire 13th and 14th chapters to see the context of this remark. Here is a hint; nowhere did Jesus ever utter these words in public.

And Mark 16:15-18

 

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

 

Here is the footnote you find in most bibles concerning this verse: [The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.]

So the centerpiece for justification for killing, threatening people with someplace called hell and the general thought of “my way or the highway” are based on a mis-interpretation and an “add on” long after the fact.

This is serious stuff because the approach to faith is from a point of judgment rather then relationship, which is the complete opposite of the Gospel Jesus proclaimed.

Really, you say? Try this…

A couple years back I got a phone call from one of the local pastors or maybe it was an email, inviting our church and me to join them on a “prayer walk” through Piedmont Park. The purpose of this prayerful walk was to call on God to “take back midtown” from the drug dealers, prostitutes and bars. I have been accused of being arrogant in my day but sorry my first thought was…and who the hell are you to decide midtown Atlanta needs saving?

Of course this Pastor and I ended up in a rather testy conversation about the attitude and the approach of the Church. His position in a nutshell was, the only way to be saved was to have Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and once that was done in massive enough numbers drugs, prostitution and the bars (source of lewd and awful behavior) would go away. I assume this would be because more and more of the converted would be so appalled by the drugs and prostitution that they would force the police to arrest and prosecute the offenders, sending off to jail the offending element of society.

I am not sure what the outcome for the bars would be; I suppose they would go from alcohol sales to the sale of soft drinks thereby ending lewd and awful behavior.

Nowhere in this conversation was there anything said or raised about a concern for the individuals and what their stories were, just the desire to wipe out perceived sin and bad behavior via walking around a park looking and sounding like a bunch of circus freaks.

My theology on the other hand, has always been a field of dreams kind of thing. In the movie the theme was “build it and they will come”. I adjusted the theme to say, “Walk the talk and they will come.” This has nothing to do with winning souls to Christ, but rather simply living out Christ’s one and only command; “Love one another as I have loved you”.

So, if that is the commandment of Jesus, and I don’t mean to sound too critical here, but damn doesn’t it make more sense to find out why folks are using drugs or to find a way to end the need for drugs? How about finding out why people are selling themselves or buying services from others? How about visiting a watering hole and getting to know people and listening to their stories? If we follow that command, would we not take this approach because it is not about saving a soul but rather healing that soul from destructive behavior? Oh wait, that is too risky, one might get sucked into the sin if they actually make contact with those sinners or worse if you are seen, people will assume you are a druggie, prostitute or bar whore. So, instead we will just pray for God to do something…

If this was from a mainline, charismatic type of church it would be bad enough, but this was coming from a gay pastor and a gay affirming church.

Of course the problem with “save the sinner” kind of theology is that it requires people to do good things to save souls and correct the perceived sinfulness of the world. As opposed to doing justice, acting mercifully and walking humbly with God because it is the correct way for them to live out their faith and follow what the Creator desires. (Micah 6:8)

This “save the sinner” approach causes one to say and think, “You are worse than me and I going to save you for me, God, and country”. “I am saved and now I am going to save you”.

I have had several pastors who are involved in homeless ministries and feeding programs say the church is there to “save souls”. Really? They are not doing this ministry because these people have a need and deserve shelter and most assuredly need to eat? These church programs are doing this to “save” people rather than doing an act of justice and meeting the need?

So, folks feed the hungry not because it is the right thing to do, but because they are looking to save souls, to get a convert in their trophy case. They want to stand before God and say “see how many souls I saved”. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say: “I feel so sorry for those people, I just want to introduce them to Jesus and save their souls.”

Wow, I think my response to that would be, “save your own damn self and leave me be.”

I would also be remiss if I didn’t also mention that “saving souls” is not what will save you; rather it’s having a relationship with God that will save you.

When I was part of a board of a non-profit they received a gift of $100,000.00 to feed the hungry. We sat in this meeting for over two hours coming up with the rules for handing out the food. Designing ways that we could make sure we were not being abused or taken advantage of. Also laying out what the criteria was for someone to get food and how much.

I was asked by one of the pastors to share my thoughts as I had not said a word up to this point. I indicated they might not want to hear what I had to say, but I was encouraged to share.

I said that this reminded me of “Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000”. Most the pastors nodded their heads and even chimed in that that is what we could name the program. I said, “However, let me finish. You see I am wondering which of the disciples went into the crowd of 5,000 and got the proper paper work filled out? Which disciple determined whose need was real and whose was irresponsible? How did they determine who was just following Jesus around so they could eat?”

A pastor sitting next me offered this advice, “Paul, I understand your idealism, but this is the real world and we have to be responsible with this gift or God will take it away”.

My response was, “Well, if you don’t just simply meet the need, then you will lose the entire ministry”. This non-profit closed their doors for good a couple of years ago.

The real problem with the Christian traditional church is that over the years it is majoring in minors. Jesus is quoted at one point, observing:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

Matthew 23:13-15 (New International Version)

So, the solution? Spend some time with this: “Love one another as I have loved you”. What does that command mean to you? If you follow it will your life be different?

For me, following this command allows me to sum things up with a thought from a friend of mine that captures the truth and heart of my faith and belief: Here’s my personal take on my Christian beliefs: I refuse to tell you that your religion (or lack of religion) is wrong, and I refuse to insist that you change if what you believe works for you. I’m convinced in my heart that God (however God appears to you) loves and embraces everyone: queer or straight; white or black or polka-dotted; believer or non-believer; liberal or conservative.

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Giving Love A Chance

A blog or 2 back I wrote and published a piece entitled “Forgive Me if I Don’t Raise a Toast”.

This was in response to all the over the top partying and Super Bowl like mentality of the killing of Bin-Laden.

My observation of the art of blog writing is one never knows where or what is in the mind
of someone who makes a comment. Some blogs get a lot of response and others get a
sum total of zero.

This particular blog got exactly one comment from a reader who read it at “The GA Voice”. The comment said; “You ask me to “forgive you”…. sorry, I refuse. He got much less than what he deserved. I wish they could kill him once for each life he took.”

While readers are certainly entitled to their opinion and when one allows for a blog such as mine to be published, it is expected that some strong opinions will be expressed.

However, this one stopped me in my tracks and has been playing on my mind all this time.

First of all I am not sure if this person thinks of himself or herself as a Christian or a
person of faith but if they are then the refusal of forgiveness for a different outlook on the
subject hits me as terribly sad. Especially since one of the main themes of Christianity is
forgiveness as well as most other major faiths.

I am also pretty sure if one does the body count of people who have been killed by the
United States in the hunt for Bin-Laden it most assuredly surpasses each life lost on that
awful day of 9-11.

The anger and absolute hate expressed in the comment is bone chilling. Am I surprised by the response? No. This is the world we live in, where an eye for an eye is the reality. Yet my point then and now is that it can and should be different. We cannot keep doing what we are doing and expect to survive much less live in peace and security.

Let me remind the reader of two quotes from the previous blog:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…. The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation”. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength To Love, 1963

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Jimi Hendrix

I guess this where I am going to go from “preaching to meddling”.

If we are going to call ourselves Christian or at minimum an ethical and moral people, then we owe to ourselves, our friends and our families to consider that we need another
starting point.

Love is not something one just reads and feels. A rather well known Christian writer says,

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 New International Versions)

Love then is something one does. The problem with this passage and the whole concept
of love is not that it is too difficult to understand; quite the opposite, it is too easy to
know exactly what is being asked of us. The problem is being willing to do it.

If we were far more intentionally doing what this passage states it would revolutionize our
relationships in our homes, our churches or places of faith and in society as a whole.

Fifteen verbs reveal what makes this a tangible concept and not some pie in the sky
philosophy. We can see what love does and does not do. Hell, if we just become
intentional about the seven “do’s” the world would be a better, safer place.

1) Love is patient. How does this description translate into actions? Our church had a full-blown drunk showing up to service every week for three years. He was loud and rude. Offers of help were ignored. Yet the congregation continued to love him, hug him, feed him and let him know “it gets better”. The patience of the congregation paid off when 6 months ago Stanley had his last drink and he has said over and over again this
congregation saved his life.

2) Love is kind. There was once a person from my early ministry days who decided I was a heretic. They were very intentional in trying to get me fired from the church. They explained to me their actions were motivated by a love for me. Needless to say most of us hope we never had a “friend” like that. Love acts kindly; it does not work for the detriment of another. Acts of kindness come from recognizing a need of someone and
attempting to meet the need without strings attached.

3) Love rejoices with the truth. Ever notice that most arguments have little to do with veracity and more to do with winning? It has been said quite accurately there are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth. As a people of faith we owe it to ourselves to seek the action of that third side…the truth. It is not always easy to get at because it means we must really listen and respond rather than hear and re-act.

4) Love always protects (some translations say “bears all things”). No insult or betrayal should sidetrack love from the pursuit of its end. The prophet Hosea of the Old Testament pictures God as faithful to Israel but Israel turned to other loves. In the story God asks rhetorically if God should just let Assyria rule over Israel. Then God answers God’s own question: “How can I give up on Ephraim?” The heart of God for the person of
faith is where we learn to love and continue loving despite rejection, trouble and heartache. One has to wonder what might have happen to Stanley had love only been a concept and not an action.

5) Love always trusts. Love creates a climate of trust. There are people who are very suspicious because they have never had the opportunity to trust or be trusted. A climate of trust is put into place when people say what they mean and mean what they say. Some would say it is “walking the talk”.

6) Love always hopes. For the Christian the very fabric of the faith says separation from God, death and evil have no real or lasting power. It follows then we as a people know that separation from God, death and evil of an individual can be transformed by a life-altering encounter with God. For the Christian this translates to understanding in our soul who and what Jesus taught, lived and died for. For me personally the real power of what is called the “Gospel” is the good news of a second chance, a third chance or as Jesus once said seventy times seven. Therefore even in depravity there is hope.

7) Love always perseveres (in some translations the verb here is “endures”). The verb means to conquer. Jesus’ entire ministry was based on this concept. When the disciples didn’t get it, he didn’t give up he persevered. When the religious leaders didn’t get it, he didn’t give up he persevered. When he was denied, betrayed, arrested and sentenced to death he didn’t give up he persevered. The love he taught and lived carried all the through to his last breath from the cross.

So here is my challenge to the readers of the blog. Since the way of the world has not been terribly successful, since the whole eye for an eye thing has not been all that…let’s give love a try.

If that won’t work or seems to radical how about this: Rev. Richard J. Fairchild in a sermon he delivered a few years back had this advice, “In the wonderful little book called “Pocketful of Miracles”, which is a daily devotional and spiritual growth guide, the author (Joan Borysenko), writes:

Shakespeare said, “Pretend a virtue if you have it not”. Most of us are still locked up in the petty, self-centered concerns of our egos. Nonetheless we feel the ancient longing of our soul to move beyond ego to union with the divine. It doesn’t matter if our motivation for Divine Union falters, or if selfish concerns predominate. If we just pretend the virtue of longing for God and being of service to others, eventually those virtues will arise spontaneously.”

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Just Thinking

This being Holy Week I have been spending a lot of time wrestling with what it means to be an independent, affirming progressive Christian.

If you have followed my blog or preaching, the you are familiar with those scriptures which drive me both as a person of faith and a pastor.

As long as I can remember these words of scripture have rested in my soul:

John 3:16
Micah 6:8
Matthew 22:34-40
Matthew 25:31-40
James 3:17
John 14:1-4
Romans 8:31-39

These are the passages that drive me, haunt me and really define who and what I am as a pastor.

I say drive me because to me they seem to be the core of what a follower of Jesus strives to be about.

I say they define me because despite falling far short I really try to live my life by what these passages proclaim. For me this is not a head thing but a matter of my heart, the depths of my soul. These passages help shape who I am.

I say they haunt me because the church I grew up in and the church universal today seems to have forgotten these passages and lives out an existence that is more about exclusion than inclusion, more about money and prestige rather than simple service, more about moral enforcement and judgment rather than sharing and proclaiming grace, more about dogma and creeds rather than openness and an intentional inclusive community.

Because of the aforementioned, the church universal is no longer safe, no longer a place of peace, no longer a place of refuge from the terrors of the world. Hell, it is not even a refuge from the terrors brought about by so-called Christian leaders.
So I am haunted…what would God have me to do? How does one little gay pastor push the church universal back to its roots, back to a time when God, not dogma were the order of the day? See, can any of us remember a time in which dogma did not rule our lives?

Frankly, I am pretty content to try and do this with Gentle Spirit Christian Church. We are a church “without walls”. Every day of our existence we try to “walk the talk” and some days we do better then others. Those scriptures I mentioned are a part of our core beliefs, they in fact drive our church.

Yet I and some of those around me have been restless, frustrated, and disappointed as we fall short in meeting the needs of the larger community.

This was made so clear to me a few years back when I was at a meeting with a group of clergy who had received a large sum of money to be used to feed the hungry.

We were a good hour into the meeting debating the rules for this food distribution. Rules for how to fill out the paper work, which people get the food, how much and how many times a month. There was even discussion, no actually an argument over how much info to keep on file and not mess with people’s privacy.

To that point I had been very quiet and trying to devise an excuse to leave, when one of the pastor’s asked me what I thought. I responded that they probably did not want to hear what I was thinking. However, I was encouraged to share.

So I told them I was thinking about the story of Jesus when he fed the 5,000. Of course all these pastors started nodding their heads in agreement. However, I was stuck on the differences of that story and what was being discussed. See, I wondered who of the disciples went through the crowd that day and had the folks fill out the paper work? Which of disciples did the assessments of who was in real need? Was there somebody who determined if the folks who got the food were just going from rabbi to rabbi to eat each day?

I have a friend who is a pastor in “The Progressive Christian Alliance”

There was a point in time I was working with him to get this movement in Atlanta off the ground.

Some of the “progressive and affirming” thoughts back then and still today offer a different way of approaching our faith.

• Jesus’ central message is about radical inclusion, thus anyone is welcome to participate in our fellowship without judgment or forcing them to conform to our “likeness” or affirm our creeds in order to be accepted. We invite and offer all a place at the table – no exceptions.

• Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma. Faith is about the search for understanding, the raising of important questions, the open honesty of having doubt, and the realization that no one has it all completely right nor does any human hold all the answers. We seek to follow the advice found in 1st Thessalonians 5:21, which is to “seek truth out in all things and hold firmly onto that which is good.”

• Religious absolutes of dogma, legalism, and strict doctrine become stumbling blocks and “litmus tests” for who is “in” and who is “out” of the circle of God’s grace. These false tests that Jesus never required get in the way of truly following Jesus and his teachings.

• Following Jesus is counter-cultural, radical, and disrupts the status quo. The good news of the gospel is intentional in its inclusion of those who are traditionally marginalized and refused by Mainline Christianity.

• The words of Jesus found in the gospels are to be the focus for any disciple of him. We submit the rest of Scripture to the position of “sacred commentary.”

• Recognition and affirmation of the differing belief systems of others, whose faiths offer a way into relationship with God and call upon them to further God’s love and grace on the earth, is crucial. Jesus revealed this path in the acts and works of the Gospel. According to Matthew, chapters 5-7; and demonstrated this inclusion on many occasions – including in his witnessing and affirmation of the Samaritan woman, whose culture and people were looked down upon for worshipping God in a different way (the Gospel). According to John 4:1-42), As Jesus taught and revealed through example, any “spiritual” or “non-spiritual” person adhering to this way of life are indeed furthering the Reign of God and God’s message of radical love and inclusion here on earth. As Jesus said, “Anyone who is for us cannot be against us” (the Gospel According to Mark 9:39-41).

• Creating fellowships and communities that are dedicated to lifting up, affirming, and equipping one another for the work the Spirit of God has called us to in Micah 6:8: active peacemaking, striving for justice and equality of all people and nations, loving those who are labeled by our government, society, and – at times – ourselves, as “enemies,” caring for God’s creation, and bringing hope to the poor and poverty-stricken.

• God created humans with a brain capable of discovery and reason. God does not require us to “check our brains at the door,” along with our coat and hat in order to be a part of the faith. Faith and Science are not in conflict; they are in harmony. The Bible is not a Science textbook and should never be taken as such. We affirm that if God is truth, then any discovery we make about ourselves, our origins, or the way the universe was created has come from God and should not be viewed as heresy.

• The Church is not simply a four-walled institution, but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything and everywhere we go. Our brothers and sisters are not only those who label themselves as “Christian,” but are everyone we meet.
I do not believe scripture to be without error and I also believe that over the years some very important stuff got lost or left out. I think one has to follow the over riding theme of our faith in relation to the “good book”…”to do justice, act mercifully and walk humbly with God”. It is following this theme which does not allow me to easily dismiss someones belief system just because they do not subscribe to mine.

Now what is interesting, there are some who will not even discuss or think about what is written here. Rather, I will simply get an email (s) stating I am a heretic or worse and I shouldn’t call myself a Christian.

Which sort of makes my point does it not?

So on this “Good Friday” as I contemplate my relationship to God, my mind wanders to what would “The Church” look like if the focus of “The Church” was not to spend its time in matters of exclusion and conserving tradition and spent its time in progressing towards God and being intentional in the inclusion of all of God’s creation…just thinking…

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.

Love Triumphs Over All

Here is a thumbnail sketch of what I think is wrong with the modern day church…”hell”

The modern church teaches hell, lives in hell and promotes hell. In fact the whole premise of the church has become do as it says or experience the fear of a God who will send you straight to hell.

The Church will fight to the bitter end anyone who does not fear God will send them to hell if they do not live in one accord to their traditional rules, polity and dogma.

The most recent target of the wrath of the Church is Reverend Rob Bell a pastor and author who has achieved rock star status in the Christian world, whom they say is preaching a false gospel. As near as I can tell the entire furor is simply because Rev. Bell says essentially that love trumps everything else including hell.

As reported by Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

“On Saturday, in a blog post on the popular Christian website The Gospel Coalition, Justin Taylor blasted Bell’s new book, out March 29, for teaching “false doctrine”:
I’m glad that Rob Bell has the integrity to be lay [sic] his cards on the table about universalism. It seems that this is not just optimism about the fate of those who haven’t heard the Good News, but (as it seems from below) full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism.
Universalism, in its broadest terms, preaches that everyone goes to heaven and that there is no hell. Critics say it represents a break from traditional Christianity, which they say holds that heaven and hell are very real places. In most Christian circles, universalism is a dirty word.”

First, let me say I probably will not cause as much of a stir as Rev. Bell, because I am just one small voice in an ocean of millions…he is the pastor of a church of 10,000 or so.
So here it goes. I not only agree with Rev. Bell but would also take it one step further and say there is no physical hell one is sent to by God.
Further, I believe for those of the Christian faith, Jesus is the Christ. I also believe God appears and speaks in many other visions, physicality’s and spiritedness for the many and varied creations in the universe.

I will not spend this blog writing a defense for my rather pluralistic belief; suffice to say I don’t think God is nearly as limited as the traditional Christian Church has made God to be. So to think there is only one way to be in relationship with God would be akin to saying there is only one way to have sex.

The Christian Church for two thousand plus years has kept it adherents in line with the threat of people being sent to hell. If anyone has dared to stand up to this weak theology they have been ridiculed, written off or at the end of the day called a heretic.

The main-line traditional church over the years has come up with so many rules and requirements just to be served Holy Communion are to have made it irrelevant for most.

In fact the church has spent so much time telling people all the things that will keep them from a God, a funny comedic line has become all too true for some; “If I am going to hell I am going to enjoy my time getting there”.

RBS, does not fear a place called hell because it is not a place, but rather a state of being. Further, God does not send one to hell, one chooses that destiny for themselves.

For the believer, the only path to this state of being called hell or if you will “the total absence of God” is to choose to not have a relationship with that which created us. I dare say the choice to be in relationship with God can and is often made in an instant, as the testimony of those who have died and or had that “outer body experience”. For the vast majority of folks their lives have changed for the better and there was no fire breathing God screaming “you didn’t do it my way”. In fact, the stories are just the opposite.

The Christian Church has capitalized on the people’s apathy and fear of being responsible for their own relationship with God. Why, because we are afraid of making a mistake or worse. People have often said to me, “Pastor, what if you are wrong?” My response is, “I am not wrong! God is about “agape”, unconditional love! To believe otherwise after reading the “red-letters” is to buy into the power and control of the institutional church.

I don’t know about the reader, but I need a moving, powerful and intimate relationship with the Creator of the Universe, not a puppet master relationship with the traditional church. In fact if one reads about Jesus closely enough they will see that is what Jesus life, death and resurrection was calling us too, a full, powerful and intimate relationship with God!

The Christian Church has missed the point of Jesus, which was to place people in a position of having a full and intimate relationship with the Creator.

Yes, Jesus spoke of hell but always from the point of view of what it is to be out of relationship with God. That is something we choose not God. God’s choice according to the teachings of Jesus is always to be in relationship with us. In fact as Rev. Bell has suggested love trumps all!

Read the story of the Prodigal Son…love triumphs!

The women caught in adultery…love triumphs!

The paralytic lowered through the roof…love triumphs!

The woman at the well…love triumphs!

The tax collector…love triumphs!

I could go on and on. However, I know some are already asking what is it that God requires for this unconditional love, for this relationship to be strong? We know what God requires, “to do justice, to act mercifully and to walk humbly with God.”

God’s love, not anger is what brings us home…gives us heaven in death and gives us peace while on this earth.

Just how do you think you know that RBS? You are nothing more than an inconsequential pastor with a small group whom dares to call itself a church, so how do you know?

I know because just as Dr. King said, “the arc of history is long, but it always bends towards justice.” There is only full justice when acts of love rule the day!

I know because at the core of my beliefs reside these truths:

John 14:1-4
John 3:16-18
James 3:17-18
Micah 6:8
Romans 8:31-39
Matthew 25:31-40
Matthew 22:34-40

Yup, there are those who will consider me a heretic or preaching a false gospel…but hey, love triumphs over all!

Rev. Paul M. Turner

About Rev. Paul M. Turner

Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church, Rev. Paul M. Turner grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He and his husband Bill have lived in metro Atlanta since 1994. He is the editor of the Seeds of Hope blog whose posts from 1999-2005 are at http://whosoever.org/seeds/ -- and which now resides at http://gentlespirit.org/topics/blog/seeds-of-hope/.