A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives. What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

Here in America

The speaker began with these words, “Regardless about your political leanings regarding health care, here in America we privatize profits and socialize risk.”  He was referring to the recent government bailout of banks that are “too big to fail.” His comment has been rolling around in my head ever since.

It is interesting to think of socialism as a system designed to keep the rich wealthy.  Many people see socialism as a system designed to give lazy people a free ride.  Come to think of it, that may be true.  Wealth is no more an indicator of hard work than poverty is an indicator of laziness.

I suspect that when we get to heaven folks will not be debating the merits of capitalism verses socialism.  I find it hard to believe that Jesus would even have an opinion on which is the better system.  From what I can tell, the only question that will matter is, “How did you treat the least of these?”

When we create systems that exclude and devalue our fellow human beings, we are crossing to a place that is in opposition to the Christian faith.

Laws that deny strangers and immigrants hospitality are at best wrong and at worst evil.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, those who gain access to heaven are the ones who included the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner.  I am not sure that this is easy to do.  Occasionally, people in lists like this can be scary and dangerous.  They might even threaten our security and personal safety.

In spite of all the potential pitfalls, we are not call to build walls of protection around ourselves.  We are called to step out in faith and do the difficult and uncomfortable thing.  We are called to welcome, to feel, to create a space at the table and to be hospitable event if the intention of the other is evil.

Jesus was a communist

Last week, I attended a gathering of urban church leaders. The afternoon session began with sharing.

The first pastor to share started with these words, “Jesus was a communist.”

It certainly got my attention. I do not normally think of Jesus in quite that way.

When I hear the word “communism,” I first think of Stalin. Some historians claim that this guy is responsible for killing more people than Hitler. Placing Jesus in this camp seems wrong.

But as the pastor started unpacking this idea, I began to wonder about Jesus’ political leanings.

Would Jesus have voted for the Democrat or Republican candidate? (This question by itself assumes a lot: Would Jesus have come to earth as an American? Probably not.)

Would Jesus have supported the Western ideas of capitalism and individuality?

As this pastor continued sharing, he reminded us that scripture has a bias toward the poor, the immigrant and the widow. He then went on to suggest that capitalism and individuality do not easily make space for the poor, the immigrant and the widow.

If we define communism as a system that puts the needs of the community ahead of the desires of the individual, then it becomes possible to define Jesus as a communist.

Jesus was known for putting the needs of others ahead of his own.

Jesus was known for including the outsiders and outcasts.

If being a Christian means being Christ-like, maybe we all have to become a little less capitalist and a little more communist.

Just thinking…