In this world

Jesus said the kingdom was not of this world, and the Church decided he meant it was other-worldly, that salvation was about a life beyond this world.

Jesus’ words, however, focused on this world. The kingdom of God (by whatever name we call it) has its origin in God, not in this world, but it is very much about life in this world. Jesus taught us how to live – to be fully alive – in this world.

Biblical words and images of “salvation” are about this world – freedom, healing, justice, compassion, and life. Wherever we experience these things, we experience salvation. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth.” How do we live here and now, in this place, in this day? That is the question of salvation.

No Longer Christian?

After 50 years in pastoral ministry (now retired), I find myself wondering where I belong. I hear daily stories of what “evangelicals” say and do, and I want nothing to do with most of it. I think Jesus wants nothing to do with it.

I’m reading a book by Sarah Augustine, called “The Land Is Not Empty,” about how Europeans, often under the authority of the Christian Church, stole this land from indigenous people and sought to destroy them. The stories the people tell to this day bring me to my knees in lament and repentance for what people who look like me have done.

I continue to listen to stories and learn how white people, thinking Christian scriptures authorized it, enslaved and lynched and denied the humanity of Black people. And in the last few years, I have seen how people continue to do it.

The Church as an institution, a tradition, a religion, a culture, a power in this world has been responsible for so much evil. Confession, lament, repentance must come if there is hope for its future. Christians – evangelicals – traditional Catholics – not all, but so many – refuse to acknowledge what “we” have done.

I follow Jesus. I choose to love God and others. But do I want to be “a Christian”? Some days, I don’t know.

This world IS my home

Through the centuries, the Christian Church taught people to focus on a life to come after this “earthly” life ends. In many circles, about the only thing that mattered was whether people would go to heaven when they die. Everything else was not important.

Jesus, however, taught us how to live in this world. The good news was that the kingdom of God had come here – was now a present reality in our midst. Whenever Jesus used language about what happens beyond this world, he was making a point about how to live here and now in the kingdom of God.

From beginning to end, Jewish and Christian scriptures reveals a good creation and God’s desire for a world of peace and freedom, justice and health, and love for God and one another. God works in and through us to live so that world may become a reality.

Creating Community

My heart’s desire is for community which is committed to love, freedom, healing, justice, and life. As a Christian, I believe these five aspects of community are the same as “salvation” in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I also believe that all faith traditions honor these essential realities of community – indeed that people who claim no faith tradition honor these reali

My hope is that people will learn together from each other, encourage one another, and empower each other to a life in all its fullness.

Shalom and Jesus

The community of God is open to people of all faiths and no faith. Use the language of your tradition as you talk about things. As a Christian, I “see” life from a perspective rooted in this faith, and I understand this faith at its best when it comes from Jesus’ life and words.

Shalom is much more than peace. It is being fully alive and “whole.” When Jesus speaks of “salvation” and “the kingdom,” he includes freedom, healing, justice, and love in a life that is now. What I write fcomes out of that understanding.

Compassion and Homosexuality

In 2004 I wrote Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church. I might edit the language some. For instance, I wouldn’t today use what now feels like an outdated and inappropriate term such as “homosexuality.” On pp. 82-87, you will find the following section I wrote:

God’s call to compassion moves me in directions I would not have gone in the past. As a leader in the “older son” community, I confidently taught an interpretation of the scriptures which said that sexual intimacy between persons of the same gender was sinful and unacceptable. I voted for years against every effort to say otherwise. After my “new birth” experience, as I began to grow in the ways of compassion, as I began to listen to the stories of people who are gay and lesbian, the Spirit moved my heart and mind to walk a different path on this journey.

I heard people say consistently that just as I had known from childhood that I was attracted to persons of the opposite gender, they had known they were attracted to persons of the same gender. They had the same desires and feelings I had, but in a different way. My memories of being attracted to a girl go all the way back to first grade, to a little girl who rode the same school bus. In the third grade, I had my first real “love” who I walked with after school. I remember girlfriends in sixth grade, in ninth grade, and on through high school and into college. I even remember some of their names. Other people saw all those relationships as cute when I was younger and acceptable as I grew older.

What must it be like for people whose attraction from those early years is for someone of the same gender if almost no one thinks it’s cute or acceptable? Many of them had learned, as I had, from church and culture that same-gender sexual intimacy (commonly called homosexuality) is sinful. They struggled against their feelings and desires. They felt them as normal for them but were constantly told they were abnormal, even sinful. Many tried to change who they were. They dated and even married in heterosexual relationships and found themselves in despair, for they knew it felt wrong for them.

I wish Jesus had said something about homosexuality, but he did not. In all the Bible, there are only a handful of references. I returned to the scriptures and read books on all sides of the question of whether such relationships are right or wrong. And I have come to an understanding of scripture that God desires love and faithfulness to the other person in a relationship, but that the Bible is silent on whether people of faith can live in a lifelong relationship with a person of the same gender.

The creation stories, in Genesis 1-2, focus on the creation of a man and a woman, made in God’s image and given responsibility for the rest of creation. The necessity of two people being able to “increase in number and fill the earth” requires them to be male and female. Jesus understood this story [see Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12] to mean that God intended two people to continue in a faithful relationship throughout their life together. Jesus was responding to a question, asked out of the hardness of some men’s hearts, about whether men should be allowed to divorce their wives for just any reason. These texts do not speak about homosexuality but about the importance of a mutual and faithful commitment to the other person, just as God is faithful to us.

The story of Sodom [Genesis 19] is often used to condemn homosexuality because the men of the city wanted to have sex with these two angels who looked like men. But sexual orientation is not the issue. Rather the story at that point is about violence and rape, perhaps even about the ancient tradition of hospitality. Then and now, heterosexual men commonly use homosexual rape as a tool for achieving power and dominance over strangers, in war and in prison, for instance. Lot even offered his daughters to the men, believing he could appease their violent lust for power, but the angels prevented that. There is nothing in the story remotely similar to committed gay and lesbian relationships.

Ezekiel 16:49 offers another view that the sin of Sodom was that the people were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned and they did not help the poor and needy. Those are sins prevalent in a heterosexual society and have nothing to do with sexual orientation. Prohibitions against homosexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20 are surrounded by prohibitions against a number of things which are usually accepted today, such as creating hybrid plants, wearing clothing with multiple fabrics, eating steaks cooked “rare,” trimming our hair and beards, and getting tattoos. This “holiness code,” as it is commonly called, also permits some things which are normally condemned today, such as polygamy and slavery. If the scriptures allow us to understand any of these laws to be no longer applicable – such as polygamy and slavery laws – are we not free to reconsider all of them in the same way?

Romans 1:26-27 is the only text to include women in the discussion of same sex relations. The question for us is whether what Paul describes is in any way the same thing as a committed, monogamous relationship between two persons of the same sex. What Paul talks about is how people have refused to glorify God, their Creator, and to be grateful to God, and to worship God. Rather they turned to idols, to “gods” of their own making. In that day people commonly visited temples dedicated to the worship of various gods, and that “worship” often included sexual relations with temple prostitutes, both men and women. In the context of this chapter, many people agree that the sexual relations described here were in the context of idolatrous worship and are not descriptive of committed same-gender relationships.

In the New Testament [1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10], two Greek words at the heart of the current debate probably refer to men who regularly engaged in sex with young boys for their own pleasure. That is pedophilia or pederasty, not just homosexuality, certainly not what gay and lesbian Christians experience. Both verses are in the context of describing how some people continue to abuse other people, to refuse to worship God, to be unfaithful to people and to God, to treat other people and themselves without respect or honor. Gay and lesbian Christians would as quickly condemn such behavior as anyone else.

Given this too brief discussion of these scripture texts, is a person’s sexual orientation even a matter of concern to us in the church? Our concern is to be people who worship God, who are faithful to God and to people, who do not abuse but rather respect and honor other people and themselves. Our concern is to encourage faithful, committed relationships of love and grace and faith. If gay and lesbian persons live such lives, the scriptures seem silent on the question of their sexual orientation.

Compassion and Abortion

In the context of Texas’ new abortion law, here is something I wrote in 2004 … “I am pro-choice as well as pro-life because I know that the “best” or “right” choice is not always open to us.”

Compassion calls us to be life-giving in all we do. And I struggle with that. I am pro-life because God is God of the living. God created all life, and we are responsible for encouraging and preserving life. Human beings do not come to life just at the moment of birth. Abortion – even natural abortion like an early miscarriage – always means a human being, even in the form of a fetus, has died.

Life-giving responses to pregnancy would never make abortion a first choice; indeed, it would always be a final choice. It certainly is for the forming infant. Yet life-giving responses to difficult or unwanted pregnancies may demand choices which fall between the first and the final choices available to us. The life of the mother, both as a physical necessity and as a matter of living responsibly and with dignity, may elicit a compassionate choice for her which would end the pregnancy.

I know that many pro-life advocates reject abortion under any conditions. Some demand that it be called murder. I also know that Jesus never spoke about abortion. So we don’t know what he would say. I also know the Bible does not talk about medically-induced abortions. So we have no direct word from scripture about the matter. Compassion for the woman and for the unborn child might well lead us to decisions which a rigid pro-life position does not allow.

Respect for the woman demands that we at least consider the circumstances of the pregnancy, the irresponsibility and perhaps abuse of the man involved, the potential consequences of giving birth, and similar factors. Compassion for the unborn child might mean considering what kind of life that child would have and sometimes suggest that ending the pregnancy is more compassionate, more life-giving, than giving birth.

Compassion often leads to difficult choices. The poverty, abuse, and violence of our world make it impossible at times to choose what normally would be best or right. I am pro-choice as well as pro-life because I know that the “best” or “right” choice is not always open to us. It is not always a possibility. Sometimes life has become so complex and difficult that we must make choices we don’t want to make.

I am also pro-choice because the choice is not mine to make. I am not that woman, and I cannot judge her heart. Many Christians who call themselves pro-life also supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq where over 1,200 Americans – not to mention perhaps 100,000 Iraqis, including unborn children – have died as I write this. Can such an invasion ever be the “best” or “right” choice? Even for people who supported the military action, surely it was not the first choice. If they believed there had been some other way, would they have thought the U.S. should have invaded? I hope that most pro-life Christians would give a negative answer.

Pro-life principles, to be consistent, must respect the lives of all people. How can we support a ban on abortions and support an all-out military invasion of another country, knowing that it must result in destruction and death for many people? How can we support a ban on abortions and support the dissemination of automatic weapons and the state-sponsored killing of other human beings in prison? Compassion is pro-life. But pro-life is something more than a narrow opposition to abortion. Compassion is life-giving, desiring life for all human beings. It makes us willing to do whatever we can to save lives and to make those lives we save as safe and strong and stable as possible.

pp. 79-82 – “Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church.”

Only one thing is most important

The question of my heart and mind has always
been: “What did Jesus say was most important?” That
question guides my interpretation of scripture. And in my
reading of church history and doctrine, that has been the
central question – if not always the only question – of the

As Christians we take the name of Christ, of Jesus,
saying in effect that the way of Jesus is our way, that the
words and life of Jesus guide us in all our decisions.
What, then, is most important according to Jesus?
Is there one thing, above all else, by which we make moral
decisions and value judgments in this life? I am convinced
the clear answer is “yes.”

The most important thing is love. Nothing is more
important than the love of God and of one another.
That’s what I learned growing up in church.

Matthew’s gospel tells the story this way. An
expert in the Jewish law, with its more than 600 commandments and a multitude of interpretations, came to
Jesus and asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” I can see Jesus answering
without hesitation because he lived his whole life this way :
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is
the first and greatest commandment. And the second
is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law
and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:34-40]

I preached the same message 51 years ago that I
preach today. If we love God and each other, we fulfill the
other desires of God as well. All other laws and commandments
of religion, if they come from God’s will, are
summed up in this one thing. After extensive reading,
study, preaching, teaching, and testing it in life and in the
church for three decades, I am convinced more than ever
that this is true, that this is the central message of Jesus.

Jesus is not the only one who said it, however. He was quoting
Moses, according to the tradition, from Deuteronomy 6 and
Leviticus 19. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Rome:
[All the commandments] are summed up in this one rule:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm
to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the
law. [Romans 13:9-10]

In 1 John, we read these challenging words to the
church: Whoever does not love does not know God,
because God is love….If we love one another, God
lives in us and his love is made complete in us….God
is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in
him….Anyone who does not love his brother, whom
he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.
[See 1 John 4:7-21]

Love as the all-encompassing moral value is the
word of Jesus to us, the Word of God. This is the message
of the New Testament, and I believe of the whole Bible.
All things are determined by our willingness to love God
and to love people. Our moral choices, our cultural and
religious values, our individual decisions – all are to be
formed by this one supreme rule: To love God and one

From Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church
pp. 25-28.

He really said that?

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says:

“Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone
takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back….
If you do good to those who are good to you, what
credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’
expecting to be repaid in full.”

And then the clincher:
“Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to
them without expecting to get anything back.”
And why would we do this seemingly impossible
thing? Because God “is kind to the ungrateful and
wicked.” [See Luke 6:27-36]

God is good to all people, not just those who love God.
The kindness, mercy, forgiveness,
and love of God go out to everyone regardless of
their moral character or level of faith. And we are called to
live the same way.

Jesus directly contradicts a major theme of the
Hebrew scriptures
, saying that God does not seek revenge
on “ungrateful and wicked” people. God does not
withhold good gifts from people because they are not
people of faith. God is kind, loving, and generous to all.

(See pages 24-25 in Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church.)

What Did Jesus Say?

            Jesus never spoke directly about abortion and homosexuality. He did say a great deal about life and love. He taught repeatedly about care for the poor, the danger of wealth, the abuse of religion, and the way of com-passion and mercy for the weak, the rejected, and the enemy.

So what does Jesus say and what would Jesus do? This question has always been the heart and soul of the Christian church. What Jesus said and did is our authority, the gospels are our primary source, and the Spirit of Jesus is our continuing guide in life.

Some people will object by saying that all scripture is our authority. I believe that as well. But the scriptures do not speak with a single voice about behavior and attitudes, about what is moral, about what is right and wrong.

Jesus goes beyond what the Hebrew scriptures said, and that was “the Bible” of Jesus’ day. At times Jesus even contradicted them in what we have called the Sermon on the Mount. Quoting from the Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament), Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said….” And then adds, “But I say to you….” [See Matthew 5]

In every example, Jesus moved beyond the traditional interpretation of the scriptures. He saw that the people had focused on outward forms of behavior and made that focus the most important thing while ignoring inward attitudes of heart and mind which Jesus said were more important.

People knew that murder was wrong, but Jesus said not to be so angry that we would curse someone. He told us to go and be reconciled with someone we have offended before we go to worship God.

Jesus goes beyond outward rules of behavior (do not murder) to deal with relational concerns. What we say and how we say it are also important. God cares whether we have offended someone, and if we need to be reconciled with another person, at least as much as God cares about our worship.

People knew that adultery was wrong, but Jesus said not even to look with lust on another person. [He said a woman because he mostly spoke to men; but it applies to all, even though men commonly wrestle more with it than women.]

Jesus honored the covenant of marriage with strong words for people who commit adultery, but he went beyond what scripture said to emphasize emotional and mental faithfulness as well. When a man looks at women with lust, he wants to dominate and use them for his own satisfaction. That happens within marriage as well. Faithfulness to another person grows out of love for that person and cannot be contained only within legal and physical boundaries of marriage.

People knew that breaking an oath was wrong, but Jesus said not to take an oath, not to swear, at all. Rather, simply be honest in all that we say.

Traditional interpretation of scripture has most often stayed in a narrow valley of understanding, focused on the outward limitations (do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not swear). Jesus takes us by the hand to lead us out onto a broad plain of understanding God’s intentions by turning our attention to what is inside of us, our attitudes, motives, unspoken desires. God desires simple, honest relationships of love for one another.

People had been told to limit their revenge, to take only an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But Jesus said not to take revenge at all. Do not respond in kind to someone who is treating you violently or unjustly.

Scripture allowed limited revenge for injustice and violence done toward us – eye for eye and tooth for tooth. Many Jewish people of Jesus’ day felt justified by the scripture to pray for revenge against their enemies, to seek it on their behalf, even to take it into their own hands.  Unfortunately, the same interpretation of scripture leads many Christians today in the same direction.

Jesus said the scriptures were wrong. God’s desire is for peaceful response, although directly confronting the abuser. Nonviolent resistance involves engaging “the enemy,” the unjust or violent perpetrator. Peacebuilders today often call it “the third way.” Rather than running away or passively accepting the abuse or injustice, and rather than fighting back with similar violence and injustice, we find a third way of loving our enemy in open challenge to their dominance and authority.

People had been told to love their neighbor, but were given permission to hate their enemies. Yet Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Follow the example of God, he added, who sends rain on all people, both evil and good at the same time. Go beyond loving only those who love us, for even the most despised of people will do that.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus goes even further. “Give to everyone who asks of you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back…. If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full.” And then the clincher: “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.”

And why would we do this seemingly impossible thing? Because God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” [See Luke 6:27-36] God is good to all people, not just those who love God. The kindness, mercy, for-giveness, and love of God go out to everyone regardless of their moral character or level of faith. And we are called to live the same way.

Jesus directly contradicts a major theme of the Hebrew scriptures, saying that God does not seek revenge on “ungrateful and wicked” people. God does not withhold good gifts from people because they are not people of faith. God is kind, loving, and generous to all. The implications of Jesus’ teaching form the foundation of what this book claims as core moral values for Christians.

I grew up in churches and in a home where the Sermon on the Mount and all of Jesus’ teachings were foundational for life. When I began to preach in my early 20s, I read the scripture and interpreted it according to what Jesus said and did. When I read passages, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, which made me wonder about the moral values of the people in the story, I would ask, “What did Jesus teach? What did Jesus do?”

From Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church, pp.20ff