Monday, August 25, 2008

Jesus, Inclusivism and Dogmatism

For four or so lonely centuries there had been no prophetic word from the Lord to his chosen people Then, out of the desert of silence, a wild man stepped into Israel’s history. His message was as shocking as his appearance. Calling for a radical change of vision, John the Baptist proclaimed not only that the kingdom of God was at hand, but that he had been sent to prepare the way for the Lord himself.

The religious leaders of the Jews could not fathom what was happening, so they sent delegates to ask John who he was and why he had come. John’s response was simple and clear. I am not the Christ. I am not Elijah. And I am not the expected prophet. I am a witness, a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (See John 1:19ff).

“Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
“I baptize in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” “After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me… I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him.” He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He is “the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God” (see John 1:25-2-34).

For John the Gospel writer, the incarnation of the Father’s Son himself was the most staggering event in all of history. He sees John the Baptist as the last of the great prophets, the final herald sent by the Lord to shake the world from its slumbers. Great as the Baptist was, the gospel writer sees him as a chosen witness to something far greater. “There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. He came for a witness that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light (John 1:6-8). The fact that the Baptist was a mere witness is the writer’s way of letting us know that something extraordinary is happening in the coming of Jesus.

Note John the Baptist’s witness to Jesus.

• He is the Lord himself (v. 23).
• He is present, not absent, and you do not know him (v. 26).
• I am unworthy to untie his sandal (v. 27).
• He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (v. 29).
• He is a Man who has a higher rank that me, for he existed before me (v. 30).
• He is the One upon who the Holy Spirit himself descends and remains (vv.32-33).
• He is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit (v. 32).
• He is the Son of God (v. 34).

In an age of political correctness, inclusivism. and relativism many can scarcely relate to the Baptist, and certainly not to the gospel writer who is using him to wake us up to the utterly unique reality that Jesus brings into being. After all, how could one person be the Lord himself, the Lamb of God, the anointed One, the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit, and the Son of God. So we quietly pat John the Baptist on the head and tuck him away as a fiery, but misguided simpleton. The problem is that the witness of John the Baptist is the foundation of the New Testament and the heart of the early Church. There simply would be no New Testament, no early Church, no Christianity, and no life without Jesus Christ and the utterly unique life that he brings to the human race.

These days, and indeed throughout the history of the Church, there is serious temptation to fudge on the uniqueness of Jesus. Who isn’t tired of religious bickering, dogmatism, and the ubiquitous ‘us-them’? But does the uniqueness of Jesus necessarily promote exclusivity, intoleration and dogmatism. Historically speaking, belief in the uniqueness of Jesus has lead to all manner of arrogance, division, mistreatment, and even to bloody wars. So it would seem that if we believe that Jesus is the Father’s Son, the Lord, the anointed One, and the Savior, then we are drawing a line in the sand which necessarily creates and promotes a ‘we are in, they are out,’ black and white mentality, within which a dogmatic, intolerant spirit thrives. While I am all for toleration and inclusiveness, I don’t think we have to throw out the truth of Jesus Christ to have them.

The witness of the two John’s to the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ is not the basis of exclusiveness, but the foundation of real inclusivity and tolerance, patience and love—and dogmatism. As the unique and only Father’s Son, as the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained, as the One anointed with the Holy Spirit himself without measure, Jesus is the One who has established a real and abiding relationship between his Father, the Holy Spirit and the whole human race. He has included us in his unique relationship with his Father. He has included us in his unique anointing in the Holy Spirit. He has included us in his unique relationship with all creation. The vision of the apostles is that Jesus’ own relationships—in which we have all been included—would come to personal and abiding expression in us and in our relationships.

Strange as it may sound, those on the right and those on the left, within the Christian community, are actually kindred spirits at a fundamental level. Both operate with the assumption that Jesus has not included the human race in his own life. On the right, this assumption takes the form of a hard and fast line between those who are in and those who are out. On the left, this assumption takes the form of promoting inclusivisim without, and even against, Jesus.

What is the basis of being inclusive, or of being exclusive? From my perspective, the two Johns are shouting to us across the centuries that the Father’s Son, the One in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are sustained, the One anointed in the Holy Spirit has come, and he has included us in his own life. So in Jesus we have a reason for being both inclusive and dogmatic. He has included the whole human race in his life. If we must be dogmatic, then let us be dogmatic about the inclusive humanity of Christ. If we must be inclusive, then let us see Jesus as the real basis for our inclusive spirit. The truth is, the very identity of Jesus commands us to both dogmatism and inclusivism. So let us stand with the truth of Jesus that he has embraced the whole human race and given us all a place in his own life, and live accordingly.

Stop and think. Jesus is the Father’s only Son. He is the one anointed in the Holy Spirit. He is the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created and are constantly sustained. He is the lamb of God who has put all things right. And he has given us all a place in his world, and indeed in his own life and relationships. The Church is called to be the place within this world of confusion where this reality is taken with the utmost seriousness. It is the uniqueness of Jesus that gives (or should give) the Christian community the freedom to embrace, to relate, to tolerate, and to love, knowing that Jesus has embraced us all, and that the Holy Spirit (sent through Jesus ) is steadily at work doing what none of us can do—give people eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus himself.

It is hard not to be haunted by the Baptist's words: "Among you stands one whom you do not know." When we finally meet Jesus I suspect that none of us wiil say, "I overestimated you and your place in the whole scheme of things."

Lord Jesus, beloved and faithful Son of the Father, have mercy on us in our darkness. Holy Spirit give us the Baptist’s eyes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Keys to Marriage?

Last week I was having a conversation with a young couple and they asked me what I thought were the keys to a good marriage. My immediate response was that I did not know since I have only been married for 26 years. We had a good laugh, and then they said, “seriously, what are the really important things that make a good marriage.” I asked leave to ramble for a moment before I gave them a more direct answer. Then I told them about my friend Ken Blue’s statement. “There is nothing better than a good marriage, and there is nothing worse than a bad one.” This is the dice we are all wired to roll. Somewhere inside (the new covenant written on our hearts) we all know that we are made for life and that life, real life, comes in relationships. So we fall ‘in love’ and get married and all is well. Then we wake up (probably gradually) with a pain that is more brutal than an August day in a Louisiana swamp. Then we find 101 ways to avoid our pain. When our coping mechanisms quit working we face the crisis of our lives.

My parent’s generation did the English ‘stiff upper lip’ thing and just ground it out. There were probably as many miserable marriages then as there are now, but ‘divorce’ was a brand that few were willing to accept. My generation throws in the towel way too quickly, in my opinion, reloads and remarries the same problem all over again, postponing the crisis for a few years of ‘love.’ These days ‘divorce’ is almost a status symbol. But splitting up is not like trading cars. There are ties and connections—body, soul, emotional and many other connections—that get ripped apart, and that hurts like hell, even if the bonds have been dying for years.

But, I told my young couple, there is something about a covenant, about an unconditional commitment, that creates the space and freedom for the proverbial ‘shit’ to hit the fan. Our wounds, as my friend Bruce Wauchope says, come through relationships, and so does our healing. But if we break up and move on, we may be being counter-productive, post-poning our own healing. Don’t get me wrong, the Holy Spirit is a redeeming genius. He takes whatever relational mess we give him and works endlessly to bring healing and life. I love that about the Holy Spirit. So in the genius of the Holy Spirit splitting up is a real opportunity for grace and healing—and so is staying together. The disaster we bring on ourselves in either case is the steadfast refusal to look at ourselves. We can stay together because it is the right thing to do and continue to blame everyone in the universe for our pain, and never find the healing we crave. And we can get divorced and continue to blame everyone in the universe for our pain, and never find the healing we crave. The critical thing, as I told my young friends, is that whether we stay together or split up, each person must be willing to face the mirror and have his or her fundamental way of thinking shattered and recreated in the light of life. And if that is the only way forward—and it is since we are fallen and all blind as bats—then why not hang on and go through it together?

In my experience such a commitment takes two, and it takes the real hope that there is one who knows love and loving who dwells within us all. So, theoretically speaking, the first key to a good marriage, if there is such a thing, is willingness to look at yourself, and willingness to have the Holy Spirit (He is the Spirit who loves us and is passionate about us coming to experience real life) reveal your own issues to you and lead you into healing. Forget blame. Accept that you are in the dark and need help. Realize that if you don’t find healing for yourself there will never be happiness in your marriage. Ask the Holy Spirit to bring revelation and healing to you. This is the way of life.

There is always hope, because Jesus is in all of us, and it is his love that drew us together, and thus submission to his Spirit allows his love to flourish in us. But, blind as we all are, this is a lesson that takes a long time to learn.

Now, within this personal willingness to submit to the Holy Spirit, there is a willingness, to enter into your partner’s way of seeing, and especially into his or her way of seeing you. I am not saying that you have to agree with what you see when you see with their eyes, but real relationship means that you enter into their way of thinking. This requires openness to communication. Communicate, quit blaming and listen. Intimacy is all about feeling what your partner feels, seeing what they see, even if what they feel or see is not necessarily ‘right.’

This is the heart of the gospel of the not-angry-but-Trinitarian God. The Father sent his Son into our darkness to experience our life—and our god—with us. While never agreeing with us or our way of seeing his Father at all, Jesus submitted to our darkness and suffered from our bizarre judgment. There and then, the Triune God met us as we are and established a real relationship with us in our darkness. Now the light of Jesus—his knowledge of his Father’s heart—is within us, and not a person on the planet can escape the crisis of vision that Jesus’ presence creates. When we enter into our partner’s way of seeing—and into their way of seeing us—the same crisis emerges. It is a crisis of communication and healing and intimacy, or a crisis of self-defense and rebellion.

As a freebee, I will throw in two words from my Dad. The first is what he passed onto us as the eleventh commandment, “Thou shalt not take thyself too seriously.” Enough said. The second is related, but more crude, so hang in there. When I was a teenager he would sometimes ask me if I had a case of ‘seeitus’ (pronounced c-eye-tus). He steadfastly refused to define what seeitus meant. True to his word, he finally told me what it meant when I turned 40. “‘Seeitus,’ he said, “is the attitude that develops when your optic nerve gets crossed with you sphincter muscle and gives you a shitty outlook on life.”

So, what are the keys to a good marriage.
(1) Know you have issues and ask the Holy Spirit to bring healing to you.
(2) Quit blaming others.
(3) Thank Jesus for sharing his experience of love and loving with you.
(4) Communicate your feelings.
(5) Don’t take yourself too seriously.
(6) Listen to and enter into your partner’s way of seeing, especially into their way of seeing you.
(7) Remember the 11th commandment too often.
(8) Pray for a cure for ‘seeitus.’
(9) Laugh.

There is surely way more to be said, but it is late and I am only 49.