Pastoral Series

What’s Special About Christianity?

This Fall I want us to think together about what it means to be Christian in a culture where other religions not only exist, but are evident, strong, often admirable (or they make you shake your head, the way many Christian groups do…). My question? What’s Special about Christianity?

For centuries, Christians felt “superior.” Some today would insist we still are superior. But the very impulse to feel superior is a decidedly un-Christian mood. Jesus could have vaunted himself as superior to his disciples, but he bent low and washed their feet.

When Christians have felt superior, they have behaved badly. The ironies of Christian history: just a few yards from the place Martin Luther ignited the Protestant Reformation, there is a cemetery where hundreds of Jews were buried – dead because Christian Crusaders, on their way to annihilate Muslims in the Holy Land, stopped off for the night and killed some Jews for the heck of it. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Poisonwood Bible, is a rich exploration of how Christian notions of superiority go bad.

We aren’t superior to others – but we’re not all the same either. Hardly! Christians, Jews and Muslims (not to mention other major religions) believe very different, and frankly incompatible things about God and the point of life. We can ask What’s special about Christianity? without denigrating anybody else, and without the innocuous idea that we’re all the same.

Mister Rogers used to sing a cute little ditty: “You are my friend, you are special.” I want us to explore how to feel special, and at the same time to be friends with people of other faiths – and even Christians who seem frustratingly different. Mother Teresa once said, “I love all religions, but I am in love with my own.” Like each person you love, each religion has its wonders, and its foibles, immense goodness and yet with deep flaws.

Each email will include a prayer. Over the past few months, I’ve discovered that the printed prayers of others have helped me so much. I hope mine can help you.

So let’s begin – with prayer: “Lord, we find ourselves down here in a world of many religions. Sometimes it’s confusing, a little scary, maybe delightful too. Show us ways we can be friends with those who believe differently – and at the same time discover what is special about the Christian way of following Jesus.”


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Blessed are the Humble

To weigh the value of other religions, to befriend those who believe differently, and even to understand what’s at the heart of our own faith, much humility is in order. This shouldn’t be hard for us Christians.

Consider the shrinkage of Christianity – and not just in numbers. A long generation ago, the front page of the Monday New York Times featured summaries of preachers’ sermons from the day before. Churches were being built, not being shuttered like so many today. The only press coverage Christians get today is about reprehensible behavior.

We can erect artsy signs that say “All are welcome,” but so many feel unwelcome – or even worse, they have no thoughts or feelings about church or God at all. Less relevant, fewer in number – we have good cause to feel humble, and to ask questions like “Why bother?” or better, “What’s Special about Christianity?”

It’s helpful to realize that Christianity’s most valiant moments have come when there weren’t many Christians at all. Seventy years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Christians were a mere 1/100th of 1% of the population. After 200 years, Christians were much larger – nearly 2% of the population!
Major religions dwarfed the Church; Christians were ridiculed, shut out of business deals, and even executed. Yet Christianity grew. Theologians wrote profoundly; stories of holy heroes became big news.
In 1948 the Communists made Christianity illegal in China, and expelled or killed all the missionaries. Thirty years later, the number of Christians, all converted underground in constant peril, had grown tenfold.

The humble can listen and learn. The humble aren’t eaten up inside by a judgmental spirit. The humble can feel very special – if for no other reason than they are much like Jesus, our founder, who got annoyed only with the pious believers in his own faith who felt superior.

So let us pray: “Lord, you said ‘Blessed are the humble’ (Matthew 5:5) – and we would be blessed. Give us humble hearts and minds. We ponder Christianity, and confess we’ve been cocky, dull, irrelevant, turned inward, designed to suit me and my preferences more than your glory and your holy mission out in the world. Forgive us – but in a way that keeps us mindful of our desperate need for you, and to learn and grow. Daily, let us recall that you said ‘Come to me, all who are heavy laden… Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart’ (Matthew 11:28-29).”


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Why Christianity grew

How can we explain the astonishing growth of Christianity in the ancient world? In the year 100, Christians were a mere 1/100th of 1% of the population; by the year 200 they made up 2%, and by 300, 50% of the people were Christian!

Sometimes debunkers of Christianity chalk this up to the Emperor Constantine – as if he suddenly declared everyone in the empire must be Christian. But half the people were Christians two decades before Constantine came to power!

Christians had some peculiar, wonderful ideas, and a deep passion for ultimate truth – and we’ll get to all this next week. But outsiders observed that the Christians multiplied, not because their ideas were more persuasive, but because of the unusual, downright revolutionary way that they loved.
Late in the 2nd century, Tertullian explained: “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of our opponents. They say, ‘See how they love!'” Two centuries later, when the emperor Julian tried to stamp out Christianity, he sourly complained, “Those impious Galileans (the Christians) support not only their own poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people laid aid from us.”

The pagan world Christians encountered was cruel. The sick and dying were cast aside. Newborns with defects were left to die. Women had no rights, slavery was common. Cities were overpopulated – and it was the Church that pioneered ways to cope with urban problems, offering hope to the hungry, homeless, widows, orphans, those burned out of their homes, the sick and dying. They cared, even for strangers, even for non-Christians – and not just heartfelt care but practical care. Instead of being a private club, the Church offered a sense of belonging to any and everybody. They loved – and that is why Christianity won the day.

Could it be that the hope of a slowly shrinking Christianity in our culture isn’t slick ad campaigns or catchy worship styles, but the simple, harder but doable practice of caring, loving, finding those in dire straits and becoming family to them?

Let us pray: “Lord, we wish people were astonished by the way we love the hurting, the hungry, the hard to love, the homeless. I want to be in sync with Jesus, who certainly cared for the suffering. I’m ready to stop procrastinating, and to get involved and do something, even if I may not do it all that well. I want to be like the Christians of old.”


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A Changed America

Sometimes I hear older Christians fretting over the tremors and then the avalanche of change in the religious landscape of America over the past couple of generations. Once upon a time (or so we vaguely recall) America was more “Christian.” You could assume most people were churchgoing members, and that public displays of Bible things was not just permitted but encouraged. Now the churches are shrinking, other faiths are growing stronger all around us. How to be a Christian when you aren’t the majority any longer?

Our memory may be faulty. Scholars have tracked church attendance over many decades – and as it turns out, people a century or two ago didn’t go more or less than we do; the trend oscillates up and down. Was there more religious fervor before laws changed, or before science elbowed belief out of the way? It’s hard to say. Many people were quite pious, but others went through the motions, or under social pressure; people still drank too much, cheated on spouses, and clung to abysmal ideas about people of different races.

The earliest Christians harbored no nostalgia about the good old days. They were brand new, and tiny; nobody had heard of them. We may think Christianity gets dissed these days; we may feel sad you can’t have Christian prayer in public. But the first Christians were harassed, beaten, cut off from business deals, imprisoned, and sometimes executed. The other religions had grand buildings, big crowds, and government support. Nobody joined a church because it seemed like a “nice” thing to do; the decision was harrowing, risky, deadly serious.

But then a huge change in the 4th century: the emperor Constantine made Christianity something of the official religion of the empire. Soon, most people were Christian. But were they? If everybody is a Christian, if it’s pretty much the same as having a pulse, does it mean anything? Hadn’t it been somehow more meaningful when it was harder, when a courageous decision was required? We may be nearing a day when to be a Christian is a hard, costly choice – and that may be surprisingly beneficial. Jesus meant us to take this stuff seriously…

“Lord, we see slippage in Christianity’s numbers and place in society. We feel more and more a minority. Show us the blessing in this, remind us of our kinship to the first Christians and their religious world, reveal to us what’s at stake, what really matters, and the real heart of following Jesus – and maybe then we might stem the tide?”


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Tolerance and Truth

Tolerance is a virtue – sort of. Intolerance is a sinful mood. But tolerance is a low-level virtue, nothing more than a baseline to keep us from harming one another. If you merely “tolerate” me, or my behavior, you may still dislike me. I don’t want to be “tolerated.” I want to be understood, maybe even loved.

Tolerance can also mean nothing matters, everything is relative. Live and let live, think and let think: if there’s no absolute truth to cling to or worth standing up for, we might as well all get along.

This is interesting: over time, the early Christians were not tolerated – in a world that was astonishingly tolerant! But one of the reasons was that they themselves weren’t tolerant at all.

They were extremely open to people who were different, or hurting. But when it came to belief, to ideas about God? The Christians insisted there was such a thing as truth, and only one truth. This is what was shocking in the ancient world. Read about Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17, and we see a world that was quite religious. There were many gods, and many were worshipped. Ancient spirituality was infinitely “roomy”; there was always room for one more religion.

So Christianity’s debut on the scene was hardly a novelty. What was curious, and then downright offensive, was that Christianity said You must choose just one! There is only one God, not dozens. And that one God has revealed what is truly true. If you believe differently, what you believe may be fascinating – but it doesn’t happen to be true to ultimate reality. It was this insistence on truth that rankled, and made the Christians the target of ridicule, and then violence.

We have learned – rightly! – to be open, and to avoid arrogance in thought, or feelings of superiority in belief. Is there a way to believe in such a thing as absolute truth without veering into intolerance? Can we find a way to believe in the heart of Christianity (and with deep passion) without being smug? Can we treasure Christianity as truth without being judgmental, and – precisely because we treasure Jesus and the Bible – be more than tolerant but also understanding and even loving?

I think so. Tonight I’ll talk about Christianity’s special ideas, and why what we believe is “truth,” which at the same time compels us to engage others. And so we pray, “Lord, you told us the truth will set us free. Help us to believe in you, and love you, and know the truth, and still love (and not just tolerate) others.”


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What’s Special about Israel’s God?

Psalm 82:1 imagines God (Israel’s God, that is) “presiding in the great assembly, and giving judgment among the ‘gods.” Logically (to us) there can be only one God (by definition). But in Bible times, people thought there were many gods. The question was Which ones will you be involved with? Which ones will you serve? Which ones might deliver for you?

Israel’s God (named Yahweh) was downright weird when it came to the gods in the ancient world. The gods of Babylon, Egypt, and Canaan (1) were capricious, (2) argued among themselves, and (3) had to be accessed through idols.

Capricious: these gods were moody, lashing out in anger over not much of anything, bestowing blessing on the wicked, or on the righteous, pouting for months on end. They could not be “trusted,” they were unreliable; you tried to placate them, but there was no personal relationship.

Arguing: the gods Judaism and Christianity encountered bickered among themselves. Peering down on hapless mortals, Ea would wish to be merciful, but Enlil would want to hurl down thunderbolts, Marduk would push for famine instead.

Idols: Israel’s God was the only divinity in history to insist “No graven images” (Exodus 20:3). Ancient people were not foolish enough to believe the statue or golden image was really divine. But the way the sculptors depicted the gods tells us what their religion was about. The gods were never imaged as daffodils or field mice, kittens or puffy clouds. Instead we see muscular bulls, mighty lions, and the blazing, unviewable sun. These gods were all about power, victory, fertility, riches and plunder, the crushing of foes. Idols inspired awe, and frightened everybody.

Israel’s God could not be captured in stone or golden images, because God’s heart was not about riches or power. Israel’s God could not be seen, but only known by words, commandments given in love, promises made that God would not be capricious but trustworthy. This God didn’t want to crush anybody, but was zealous to lift up the poor – a shocking, revolutionary notion back then (…and today…).

The gods of Babylon, Egypt and Canaan were impressive. But perhaps we can understand why Israel’s religion was appealing: an invisible God who could be trusted, who was profoundly personal. True religion isn’t about favors for the elite, or placating or manipulating some impersonal god to do our bidding… which is why the one true God says “You shall have no other gods.”

Prayer: “We praise You for being a trustworthy God, a God who loves personally, who doesn’t echo society’s pandering to the rich and powerful, for being beyond all the fakes. We will place no other pretender gods before You.”


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Church and State

The practice of ancient religion, for the average person, was about fending off disease, helping crops to grow, insuring safe travel. Much of the ancient religion the Israelites and then the first Christians encountered was really magic and fortune-telling.

Religion was largely about money: the banks in ancient cities were the temples. Religion was highly s-xualized – and Dionysus, the god of wine, functioned as a divine sponsor of drinking and revelry. Any of these (prayers for health, safety, pondering the future, money, s-x and alcohol) sound familiar today?
Ancient religion was not about conversion, or salvation. The goal was not character change, or improvement; the Jews were the first and only religion (until Christianity) focused on morals.

What did ancient religions have in common? They were about buttressing the government, keeping citizens in line, establishing a divine aura around the power and politics of the emperor. To worship Marduk was to be subservient in the realm of King Hammurabi; to sacrifice to Osiris was to declare allegiance to the Pharaoh.

The Pharaohs came to vaunt themselves not as lieutenants of the gods, but actually as divine themselves! Daniel and his 3 friends refused to bow down to worship the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar – and were thrown into the fiery furnace for their civil disobedience, for their lack of patriotism.

By New Testament times, the real competitor Christianity faced was the religion of the empire, the cult of the state. Caesar declared himself a god; citizens were expected to engage in city-wide worship services lauding Caesar. This the Christians would not do – and it cost them respect, business, and their very lives. When the Bible says “Christ is Lord,” we need to hear how subversive and unpatriotic that was – for this implies “…and Caesar isn’t!”

What’s special about Christianity? From the beginning there has been a dogged refusal to cozy up to any government. It’s in our DNA to be a bit revolutionary, to keep our distance and not bless any earthly power – for we know the fallen, broken nature of all humanity, and the perils of power that can only be wielded wisely by the one true God.

Americans seem to cherish the “separation” of church and state – and yet we see religious folk blessing governmental policies that are alien to what God is about; we see politicians pandering to evangelicals to win votes, and this nonsense that the church’s job is to support our government. The Israelites, and then the Christians were wary, even critical of those in power, and would have been appalled by a bland civil religion that lamely wraps a spiritual blanket around the government or consumer society or the status quo.

“Lord, You are captive to no political party or single nation; remind us how to be revolutionary.”


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What we Share with Other Religions

Ten days ago, we considered the way Christianity refused to settle for being just one more spirituality in an open-mindedly tolerant religious world. Christians claimed there was one truth, and that you had to choose to be a Christian and give up your old beliefs and way of living.

But this does not mean Christianity had ideas that were 100% unique, none of it ever heard of before, absolute truth cordoned off from all other thinking. Interestingly, for a faith claiming to be the truth, Christianity shared many truths with the non-Christian world; Christianity borrowed and adapted much from other religions.

Christians treated the Jewish Bible as Scripture; the heroes of faith, and patterns of living were shared so deeply that most of the first Christians never thought they weren’t Jews. But all through the Bible: names for God, and ideas about a holy life, were snagged from neighboring faiths. Styles of worship, music, poetry, wise sayings we find in the Bible had ancestors in other religions, from which Israel simply adopted what was lovely and constructive. When Solomon built his temple, he secured the best architects and builders with experience from other religions.

When I was in college, I took a religion course where we learned that many other ancient cultures had sacred stories about a worldwide flood. Fundamentalist students got upset; the professor sneered, declaring he had debunked the validity of the Bible’s flood story. But I mused to myself that, if there had been a widespread flood many centuries ago, you would expect all cultures to remember, and to cherish the tale of survival. All cultures had sagas of the creation of the world – and so not just Jews or Christians, but all people have harbored an unshakable belief that God made everything.

The world’s religions are not identical. Not all beliefs are valid; we can believe we’re onto something special in Christianity. But God wants us to notice, and to celebrate, the good we have in common with all of God’s people all over the earth. God has bestowed wisdom in more places than just the churches.
Thomas Merton, who wrestled deeply with and learned much from Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, yet remained as intimate with Christ as any saint, took a large view of God’s revelation: “All that is true, by whomever it is said, is from the Holy Spirit.” He also believed the other religions not only teach us things we need to know, but actually rekindle a recollection of much in Christianity that we have forgotten – as we will see come Monday.

“Lord, we celebrate Your activity in all places. Make us learners, not narrow isolationists.”


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How we Learn from Other Religions

I don’t know too many people more passionately attached to Christianity than I am. And yet when I am around faithful folks of other religions, I feel in my soul a kind of interfaith envy. I see something beautiful, something “special,” and I wish I had what friends who believe very differently have – or I realize what we Christians have forgotten about ourselves.

Every time I converse with my friend Rabbi Murray Ezring, as I will tonight, I find myself (1) incited to a secret wish that I were Jewish, and (2) strengthened in my sense of why I am a Christian follower of Jesus. How can it be both?

It’s no surprise Judaism has much to teach us: Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, we share Scriptures with them, and the “Father” God Jesus prayed to was and is the God of the Old Testament. We’ve joined the Ezrings for Passover in their home – and we Christians just don’t have anything nearly so cool as this evening-long celebrative reading (and eating!) of the stories of the Bible. But we could…

I think about the Sabbath. The Jews remind us how to mark time and discover its sanctity, and how a day of rest, a day for God, invigorates all of life and makes us holy. What the Jews do with their Sabbath reminds us of how we might cherish our holy day called Sunday.

We can learn much from Islam. When Will Willimon was Dean of the Chapel at Duke, a Muslim student asked him, “Why don’t the Christians here ever pray?” He was in the habit of stopping at prescribed hours during the day, kneeling, and praying – and he never saw Christian students praying anywhere at all. When do we pray?

Eastern religions: once in a while someone will tell me they are abandoning Christianity for Buddhism – “because they have silence and meditation.” Christians have silence and meditation! But we busy Christians have forgotten, and perhaps adherents of Asian religions might help us shake our amnesia and become quiet before God.

Zen Buddhism teaches us that at the very center of our being there is nothing, that poverty of the soul is God’s glory in us. This is what Jesus was trying to tell us! The Tao master Chuang Tzu wrote, “All the fish needs is to get lost in water. All man needs is to get lost in Tao.” We believe this: God isn’t one more object in our world; God is everything.

“Lord, the other religions aren’t our foes – or Yours. Show us what we might learn from others – and remind us what we’ve forgotten, or neglected then in our own faith.”


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The Worst of other religions – and ours

This evening will mark the feast day of St Francis: he died on this night in the year 1226. Seven years earlier, he had found himself in the Middle East with bloodthirsty Crusaders battling the savage Arab army of Malik al-Kamil. St. Francis saw the worst of Islam, and found himself in the camp with the worst of Christianity – and then he boldly crossed no man’s land toward the Muslims with the best of Christianity. Unarmed, speaking gently of God’s love, vulnerable and risking life and limb, he befriended the sultan, and bought peace.

So much of the time, we size up a religion based on its worst representatives – that is, when we are sizing up somebody else’s religion. We would resent it if we Christians were dismissed as mean and violent because of Christians who’ve behaved badly. But think of the Holocaust: most of the Gestapo were churchgoing Lutherans and Catholics, and the vast majority of church leaders heiled Hitler with everybody else. In America, we’ve had cross-bearing Klansmen who’ve prayed and sung hymns before terrorizing African-Americans. Crusaders slaughtered Jews and Muslims, thinking their victories assured them a place in heaven. Loads of Christians in every town have been just plain smug and petty in their faith.
When we study other religions, we cannot avoid noticing evil perversions – largely because this is what the press will cover, and due to the political and security implications. This is true nowadays of Islam – but also Christianity. We read about priests abusing children, or clergy misconduct; we feel the menace of the violent edge of militant Islam.

But we can also look to the noble heart of other faiths, and our own. Recently I finished a book about the biblical Israelites and the other nations (and religions). The writer concluded that the biblical prophets claimed that the people of Israel could not and need not sit in judgment on, or try to fix what was wrong with others; but they could repent and become better and truer to their own faith – and that this was what God asked of them.

“Lord, we see the dark side in other religions – and we shudder; and sometimes we see their holy side, and we rejoice. Shine Your light onto our own faith, expose what is dull, vapid or even a problem to other people. Help us go deeper, to be truer, better, and holier, so when others look at us, they will see not the worst of Christianity, but the very best, the most faithful witness to what Christ offers not just to us but to the whole world – like St. Francis did.”


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True Faith does not equal Sincerity

Back in the 1950’s, President Eisenhower once declared, “I don’t care what a man believes, as long as he is sincere.” That pretty much captures how we Americans have felt for the past generation: any kind of spirituality must be good because it’s…. spiritual – right?

But not all spiritualities are good. There are plenty of religious thoughts that are just plain false – or harmful. Very sincere people have hurt others, and their own people. Even the truest possible heart of Christian belief can be misused, and twisted into a blunt weapon or a tool of manipulation.

How would we assess the validity of a given religion, or even something believed within a religion? What makes truth true? And how would we distinguish what is in sync with the real, living God versus what is a made up fantasy? How can we discern what is beneficial to people versus what corrosively erodes the human spirit in the name of piety?

There are ways to test the worth of religious thinking, and to ask if a set of beliefs are sufficient; that is, Can they explain the beautiful and yet also the most sorrowful aspects of life in the world? Simplistic thinking, like “Do good and God will bless you, do bad and you’ll get the opposite,” doesn’t actually pan out. We need beliefs that are as complex as life itself, beliefs that can deal with brokenness and then bring hope, beliefs that work not just for people like me but for everybody, rich and poor, healthy and sick, local and far away.

I’m firmly convinced that there are four peculiar, “special” things about Christianity that pass these tests, help us understand happy and horrible circumstances, enable us to be better people, and provide hope during the darkness and even beyond death itself – and not just for me but for all of humanity.

Let me add this: sometimes when we see religion gone bad we think the problem is too much religion. Moderation, a bit less religious zeal: that’s what the world needs. But religion gone bad is bad religion, whether it’s intense or casual. We are called to have much faith, to get deeply serious about what is life-giving and sustaining, the radical following of Jesus that ushers in goodness and beauty for us and for others. A tepid faith, a bland religiosity, is too trivial to matter. God, the good and living God, is everything.
So what are these four “special” aspects of Christianity? #1 is coming Thursday.

“Lord, heighten our sincerity – regarding what is good, true, and special about the faith You’ve given us.”

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Special Thing #1 – Incarnation

What is special about Christianity? The Incarnation: we believe that God “became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Other religions do not believe this; in fact, Jews and Muslims shake their heads, puzzled, pointing out the absurdity, the sheer impossibility of God somehow being just a small person. This is the scandal of Christianity, our odd peculiarity.

Logical definitions of God involve a laundry list of in- and omni- words: infinite, invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, ineffable… The Bible tells us God did something even greater than all the greatest attributes our language can muster. As Martin Luther taught us, God became small for us in Christ, showing us God’s heart, so our hearts might be won. God was too much love to dwell in remote, heavenly transcendence. God wanted it to be personal with us – as personal as a mother cradling her newborn infant. Knowing the tender wonder of childbirth, God said I’ll do that, I’ll be that, and perhaps they will then know me, and even love me.

Risky for God to do such a thing. Infants are entirely vulnerable: they can’t fight or defend themselves; control of their destiny rests in the hands of others. God put God’s self into our hands, yearning for love. Small children can evoke a gentle tenderness in even the most muscular, gruff people; God wants tender care from us.

God could have become something we admire, or fear, or obey – like a general riding a stallion, a king sitting on a throne, a tycoon jangling gold in his pocket. God could have been married, or tall, or a father. But instead, God came as an infant, because that is the one thing all the people God wanted to reach had in common.

The beauty of this? We need not be scared of God; we are invited to love – and even to remember being small ourselves, back when we were young children, or maybe just yesterday when somebody made you feel small, and you felt in some peril, and you had to depend on others. God says I know that feeling; I know you and I love you, not at a distance, but from the inside, and I want – with you! – the kind of intimacy a baby enjoys being held joyfully in its mother’s embrace.

This is special, lovely, and helpful. But there’s another aspect to this God becoming small by taking on flesh – as we will see come Monday.

“Lord, how wonderful, risky, and engaging of You to enter into our human world! We praise You, and long to know more of Your heart, and love You more deeply.”


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Special Thing #1 (part 2) – Crucifixion

The idea of God becoming flesh was a bit jarring and intellectually ludicrous – and yet in the ancient world, pagan mythology featured tales of the gods coming down to earth. What was utterly appalling, and laughably absurd, was the Christian insistence that this God in the flesh suffered, and died – and as a convicted criminal. This is the very soul of the Christian faith, not shared or even deemed rational by any other religion.

Skeptics and atheists have declared “God is dead.” In the crucifixion of Jesus, we witnessed the suffering and death of God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16). Jesus loved the wrong people; he took on the powers of his day; with courage he marched into the teeth of mortal danger – but instead of crushing his foes, he let evil do its worst to him. Now, when we ponder the crucified Jesus, in agony, rejected by his closest friends, misunderstood, mocked, even forgiving those who just executed him, we see clearly into the tender heart of God Almighty. What wondrous love is this?

Whatever we suffer, pain, illness, fractured relationships, any misery, even death itself, God bears that with us, and for us; God knows the darkness from the inside. Jesus even cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” – so this God in the flesh even experienced what it is like to feel abandoned by God.
Rick Lischer tells of his son’s bout with incurable cancer. They entered a church where a crucifix of Jesus hung over the altar. The message this church was sending to this young man, skinny, discolored, gaunt, and to his numb, bent father was this: “You are no freak, and we are not freaked out by your suffering.” Because God entered fully into our suffering and dying, we need not be ashamed to suffer, and we need not be frightened of death.

Plenty of religions believe in life after death, and so do we. But ours has an edge: it was the God in the flesh who suffered terribly out of an abundance of love for us – this is the one God raised up from the dead. The resurrection, for us, isn’t a mere continuation of life beyond the grave. It is a healing, a vindication, a redemption of what has been suffered. No denials, no escapism, but an embrace of bodily suffering as having a place in God’s ultimate plans for us and for the universe. All our loss, pain and darkness are enveloped into the loving, healing arms of the God who raised Jesus from the tomb, and all is made well, it all finds meaning and purpose.

“Lord, we cannot fathom the depth of love You spread to us by enduring the cross. Thank You that You are closer to us than our own tears and pain, and that You redeem it all.”


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Special Thing #2 – Grace

The heart of Christianity is our sense of the grace of God. “By grace you have been saved… This is not your doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Our salvation is not by stacking up good deeds, and salvation is not achieved through ever deeper states of spiritual mysticism. It is all grace, unearned, unearnable, all mercy, sheer gift, love you can’t outrun.

Jesus’ best story was about a wayward son being enfolded in the loving arms of the father he had despised, disappointed, and wounded (Luke 15:11-32). The father didn’t demand he shape up first, or re-earn his place. He loved, and there was nothing the rebel lad could do to lose it or gain it.

You don’t choose grace; you don’t really even accept it – since God’s tender, loving grace isn’t deterred by those who try to bolt, or shove God away. Frederick Buechner pointed out you can’t bring it about any more than you could bring about your own birth. The God who fashioned the universe loves you more deeply and intimately than any parent or lover; God loves you unconditionally – yes, even you. Knowing you better than you know yourself, God loves – so your true self is free to emerge, butterfly-like.

Unconditional love need not lead to bad behavior. If I am loved irrevocably, no matter what, I guess I could recklessly misbehave – but not if I understand the love. Grace moves me to love boldly in return; only grace can motivate me to be a better person.

In fact, this grace that is peculiar among the religions is the grace of God. It is God’s active presence, and transforming power in our lives! God’s grace looks like Jesus – touching, inviting, challenging, cleansing, forgiving, comforting, empowering every person to realize whom God made us to be. It’s not a mushy love; it’s powerful.

Grace is something we enjoy with others. On Christmas Eve, I could stay home and raise a candle alone, and it would be pretty. And since there are like a thousand candles being raised in the sanctuary whether I’m there or not, it doesn’t depend on me. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world: the beauty, the joy of being part of something glorious I didn’t and couldn’t create or pull off myself.

“Lord, the very word ‘Grace’ is amazing, puzzling, astounding, and unfamiliar apart from You. I once was lost, but now am found. All I can say is Thank You; I am obviously Yours.”


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Special Thing #3 – a social revolution

Christianity has been, since its inception, a social revolution. Jesus was unimpressed by social standing; if anything, he exhibited a pronounced bias toward the poor, the marginalized, the people society despised. Some of his followers were people of means – but no special favors fell to them because of it.
The first Church in Corinth was a curious mix of rich and poor, and Paul scolded the rich for assuming what they assumed before they became Christians – that they got the best seats, they curried special favor, they ate the finest foods. There was to be an equality, a sharing of resources, a dissolving of barriers. There were to be no haves and have-nots among the Christians: “No one said any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they shared everything in common. There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32).

But why? To be close to God, we cannot remain closeted off from the others in God’s family. We grow in faith and love when we befriend, break bread, and bear burdens with those from whom society would keep us apart. God is a warrior for justice and good for all people – so how could we lazily remain unengaged?

This egalitarian impulse is at the heart of our faith. We share this with Judaism – for it was from the Old Testament that the Christians learned to welcome the alien, the stranger, the outcast, to care for widows and orphans. Given our DNA, stratifying people into castes – class distinction, or social exclusion – is abhorrent to us Christians.

And yet we Christians have forgotten who we are in Christ’s eyes. We hang with those like ourselves; we enjoy benefits that we’ve earned or lucked into, and either pity or blame those who have little. We are segregated by race, and economics on Sunday morning. We avert our gaze from our society that blesses some while denigrating others; we don’t know people who are different, and become as self-interested and rancorous as the rest of society.

But then at times we rediscover our vocation. The churches have occasionally led the rabble-rousing, as in the Civil Rights movement. We’re the peace party, we’re the champions of the rights of the marginalized – and not surprisingly, faithful Christians are tagged with ugly labels in our society that too blithely settles for social stratification, and prefers a status quo that benefits one group while crushing another.
“Lord, remind us that You were (and are) a revolutionary; we are ready to meet Your beloved children we do not yet know.”


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Special Thing #4 – Love

And finally we come to the fourth “special thing” about Christianity. When we are at our best, when we are true to our Lord and the mission we are in no position to abandon and remain faithful, we love.

But everybody loves, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists – right? When we began this series, I pointed out that in its infancy, for the first few hundred years of Church life, outsiders observed that the Christians loved – not just parents loving their children or lovers smooching. In a cruel world of despicable conditions among rising urban populations, where there was no social net, the Christians tackled hunger, homelessness, sickness, the elderly and abandoned. They did something.

They didn’t mail in charity, but they cared physically for hurting people; they included them in their own lives and homes. The anti-Christian emperor Julian the Apostate complained, “Those impious Christians support not only their own poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people get no aid from us.”
This was a novel practice. In those days, the rich endowed public games and marble buildings – but the Christians were determined to embrace the outcasts and focus their energy on those in need. And why? This wasn’t just what Jesus told them to do; this was precisely what Jesus did. And they had come to a theological awareness that they too were impoverished, in soul if not in body. When we love, we are close to Jesus. When we love, we actually love Jesus himself.

Perhaps we can see how these “four special things” are intertwined, how they really are just one thing. Jesus. God gave us a direct look into the heart of God. An infant in his mother’s arms, a healer, a teacher who turned society’s values upside-down, a revolutionary whose friends were rich and poor, sane and insane, admired and despised, holy and decadent, prostitutes and rabbis, fishermen and tax collectors.
We call this determination to deliver hope to any and everybody Grace. And if Grace is real, the known world shifts on its axis and nothing is ever the same. We find ourselves at lunch with a stranger who’s no stranger than we are. We feel God’s sorrow over what’s broken in our world, and we do something. We discover a deep humility of soul, that will never have enough days to offer up our thanks and praise to God. We feel special – not superior, but as special as a newborn infant, which is where God wonderfully chose to meet us.

“Lord, Christianity is a great mystery, with marvelous treasures, and some bumbling fools who’ve lost their way. We would meet Jesus again, and know the grace, and let it take on flesh in our lives, and in our world.”


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Quick to hear, slow to speak

When we think about the relationship between Christianity and other religions, we usually forget the wisdom featured throughout the Bible: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). “Show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2).

Or these: “Let every one be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). “Listen and accept instruction that you may gain wisdom” (Proverbs 19:20). “He who belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent” (Proverbs 11:12). “If one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).

Once upon a time, Christians felt obliged to speak first, and assumed everyone would listen. In today’s noisy, fragmented world, nobody listens to much of anybody – and Christians have embarrassed themselves over the years in so many ways that we barely have a shred of credibility left. If early Christianity thrived because they loved, it might be time for us to love – and the first disposition of those who love is to listen.

What might we learn from other religions? What might we learn about ourselves if we listen to someone who believes differently? What wonders would we stumble upon if we were open, and willing to test our ideas in robust interactions with others? Jonathan Sacks, in his marvelous book The Dignity of Difference, wisely suggested that “in our interconnected world, we must learn to feel enlarged, not threatened, by difference… The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation.” Can we see God in the face of the stranger (as Jesus said we can, and even should)?

What would it be like to sit down over a meal with someone Jewish, or a Muslim, or an atheist, and listen, ask, share, question, laugh, and learn? You’d be compelled to gather yourself and know even more about what you believe, you’d stretch and grow – and you’d make a friend of another child of God, which would be pleasing to God. You might even find a way, with loving respect, to make a good case for your own faith – maybe the way we recommend a movie or a restaurant.

At the end of the day, if anybody is going to listen to us, it will be because we are humble, and have bothered to care enough to listen – and finally because what we say we believe has made a genuine, healthy, beneficial difference to us. The hope of Christianity resides in our people, in changed hearts – which we will turn to on Thursday.

For today, we pray, “Lord, teach us how to listen, and to be hospitable, to be enlarged by differences, and even then to share respectfully.”


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All Saints

What’s special about Christianity? Sometimes we oversimplify and trivialize the life of faith into a kind of Trick or Treat spirituality. We dress up like Methodists or Catholics or Baptists, hold out our bag, and ask God for a little something or another.

But Halloween is the eve of All Saints. On November 1, the Church recalls those who have died, and we declare our belief and hope in eternal life – a sort of Easter in Autumn. We also think of the saints, God’s special friends, those we would mimic, women and men who have fulfilled God’s vision for all of us, and thus can teach us best what’s at the heart of Christianity.

When I reflect on the saints, I imagine God showing off, as if God says “Look at St. Francis!” and “Whoa, how about Mother Teresa! Good days work when I made her!” I wrote a whole book about the great saints – the official ones and some you might have known yourself. I also did a little blog series a few years back entitled “Heroes Found Faithful.” Think with me about a few of these heroes.

Albert Schweitzer, the world’s preeminent organist, and also a renowned professor and scholar, resigned his faculty position in Strasbourg, and globe-trotting organ tours, and enrolled as a medical student, and spent the rest of his days as a missionary doctor in sub-Saharan Africa. Why? He had talked eloquently about Jesus, trying to persuade people to be part of the Church’s grand mission – but then “I decided I would make my life my argument. I would advocate the things I believe in terms of the life I lived and what I did.”

Cynical about the church, Dorothy Day re-entered after having a child out of wedlock, began publishing a newspaper out of her own kitchen – rabble-rousing against racism, workplace injustice, and poverty – and also dished up mulligan stew in that kitchen for the homeless and hungry off the streets. A person of deep prayer, she asked, “Does God have a set way of prayer, a way that He expects each of us to follow? I doubt it. I believe lots of people pray through the witness of their lives, through the work they do, the friendships they have, the love they offer people and receive from people. Since when are words the only acceptable form of prayer?”

In 2006, Charles Roberts killed 6 Amish children in Pennsylvania. The next day, the grandfather of one of those killed spoke to a crowd outside the school: “Do not hate this man. He has a father and a mother. He has a wife and children. He is in the hands of God.” The Amish baked food and delivered it to the family of the shooter, and raised money to help his children. They were saying, “We will forgive. We will love. We will follow Jesus.”

As we befriend other religions, we notice saints who aren’t Christian. Gandhi, a lifelong Hindu, once said “I like your Christ, but your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Missionaries who knew him remarked that he embodied Christ more fully than any Christian they had known.

If Christianity is special, the wonder will be in our people who can be like Christ – by living in compelling, beautiful, Christ-like ways. Before we think about converting anybody else, or condemning anybody else, we’d be wise to get our own house in order, and ask if we have become palpably Christian people ourselves…

“Lord, thank you for holy people who show us the way.”


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Jesus said, I am the Way

We’ve spoken of Christianity and other religions in an open way – but didn’t Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6)?

Email has the same problem as the Bible: you never can pick up tone of voice, or facial expressions. When Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life,” were his words punctuated, firm, brows furrowed, using his hands to narrow the scope? Or was he tender, hands outstretched, his heart almost breaking?
We Christians have this notoriously bad habit of taking the words of the Bible and twisting them into a barbed wire fence, to protect ourselves and shut others out, instead of letting God’s Word manifest itself as a window flung open, the arms of God’s love embracing us. What prompted Jesus to say “I am the way, the truth and the life”? and what might it mean for us?

Consider the context. Jesus is not delivering a dogmatic lecture or conducting a discussion group on the relationship between Christianity and the world religions. He has just finished an ominous dinner, his last with his beloved friends, the room thick with fear and sorrow. He has just washed the confused disciples’ feet; they are dazed, forlorn, dimly aware he is about to leave them, and they don’t know whether to cling doggedly to him or flee for the exits. To his companions riddled with gloom, Jesus begins: “Let not your hearts be troubled… I go to prepare a place for you.” But they plead with him: “We do not know the way.”
By “way” they don’t mean the one and only thought pattern that purchases salvation; they mean a road, a door, the literal path where Jesus is going. And Jesus, typically (just as he had said “I am the light of the world” to people groping in the dark, “I am the bread of life” to people hungry for bread, “I am the living water” to those with a gnawing thirst in their gut) says “I am the way. Stay close to me, I am the road, the door.”

I do not believe Jesus was slamming the security gates of heaven shut to keep the riffraff out. I believe he was comforting the hopeless by saying “Don’t despair: there is a way, you aren’t stuck down here with nothing but your own resources, I am God come down to carry you on the wings of grace to your destiny.” When we listen to Jesus, when we follow him, when we gaze into his heart and mind, we see clearly the character, heart and very being of God. Jesus is not only the way, but also the truth (in a world of lies and deception) and the life (in the realm where death seems to trump in with the final word).

But how could Jesus conceivably be the way for those who reject him, or don’t know him – or are just really fuzzy about him? We will try to think about this on Thursday.


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Dare We Hope?

All religions are not the same; not all paths to God are valid. Through the centuries, Christians have believed that Jesus is the pure, eternally intended revelation of God, the embodied mercy of God. Philip asks him, “Show us the Father,” and Jesus did so by simply standing there, but then by washing their feet, praying in Gethsemane, forgiving his executors, extending mercy to a common criminal, dying, ushering us into the presence of God. He indeed is the way. “No one comes to the Father but by me.”

But notice: Jesus did not say “No one comes to the Father but by that person’s faith, spirituality, moral rectitude, right thinking about God, or Church membership.” We get confused, and think salvation comes by my stellar decision for God. We are saved by God, not by our religiosity, however noble. We are saved by grace, the free, unmerited favor of God. If this is so, was Jesus saying that only Christians who think the right things about him are saved? Wasn’t Jesus extending his arms as wide as the world – as wide as the cross? and that is precisely why he is the way?

I do not believe Jesus intended to define ultimate truth about salvation in John 14:6 – although I do believe he is the full, definitive truth about God and the way God saves people and the world. But how then do we think about people who don’t believe in Christ, who embrace other faiths, who could care less?

Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote an insightful book called Dare We Hope that All Will Be Saved? He does not claim that everyone will be saved; but he says the Christian (if you have even the faintest grasp on the depth of God’s love) has no other option but to hope every person will be saved. No one is dispensable; we never look at him or her or them and say “They are toast.” We believe passionately in Jesus; therefore we see even the most vehement unbeliever as someone loved profoundly by God who we hope will save that person. We cannot know, and do not need to know the destiny of another person. But we hope: any hint of condemnation is banished by Love.

And might it be that Jesus is the way even for some who don’t accept him – for all sorts of odd reasons? from never having heard about Jesus to only hearing about Jesus from vile (or dull) people? In his classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, “The truth is, God has not told us what His arrangements about other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” Is this nonsense? Perhaps – but we hope not; we are the people Jesus taught to hope, to have pure hearts, to get so close to him in his mercy that we become mercy and hope ourselves.

So let us pray, “Lord, we hope for others just as we hope for ourselves. We bank everything on your love and mercy that exceed all our imagining.”


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