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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

The Gospel of Grace

What is the gospel?

That is what Katie asked the group last week.  We had finished reading Galatians 1 where Paul seems pretty sure about it. He is sure that there is a gospel, and that he has the right one.

Katie asked the group “so what is the gospel?” She then asked “and what is grace?”

We talked about it a bit and then (as I mentioned on the Week 1 Debrief podcast) I offered my working definition:

“The Gospel is the good news that God loves the whole world and did something for us in Christ that we can not do for ourselves.”

I have worked on this a lot over the past 15 years and have grown quite comfortable with it. It includes:

  • good news (literally the definition of the word gospel)
  • the whole world (John 3:16)
  • grace (a gift of what we can not earn)

I would love it even if it just existed in a vacuum and I never talked with anyone about it.

The reality, however, is that everywhere it comes up, people REALLY want to talk about it!

The response follows a typical bell-curve. Most people like it or at least get it. But there is a tail on either side of a small minority who object at some level (but for completely different reasons).

For those who have a very particular understanding of the gospel, my working definition is not specific enough. It doesn’t say anything about asking Jesus into your heart, praying a specific prayer, believing certain things, believing them certainly, or going to heaven after you die.

On the opposite side, for those who hold that Jesus is one way (a path) to God, my working definition is too narrow. It sounds as if Jesus was unique in human history and in religious thought.

This is why the ‘gospel’ conversation is one of my favorites.

What do you think? How would you answer the question? What is your working definition? 

 

[I originally wrote this for PBS but wanted to share it here as well]

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Progressive Bible Stuff

On the eve of tomorrow’s first Progressive Bible Study (Galatians 1) here are some items you might be interested in.

The first is a series of short podcast by some friends who will be helping with PBS

Katie North is up first, then Charlie Jesch is second and finally Brett Stuvland joins Katie and me at the table.

The second is a short post to clarify the ‘I’ words of inerrant, infallible, and inspired

I-Inerrant

art by Jesse Turri

There is something uniquely intense about words that start with the letter ‘I’ when it comes to the study of religion and scripture. It is an unfortunate quirk in the English language that leads negatives – or negations – to begin with the letter ‘I’.

We are talking about infallible, inerrant, and inspired. 

The important thing to know right off the bat is that:

  1. Those words are not interchangeable
  2. Those words are vastly different in intensity

These three ‘I’ words exhibit the most intense aspect of the difficulties when delving into matters of faith. Many people point to words like these as an example of exactly why they are not interested in studying the Bible. It can be both intimidating and infuriating to caught up in these contentious issues.

This is the sort of stuff that keeps some people away all together. For our purposes here, we will be as generous as possible but we will also be clear in our commitment as progressive christians.

 

We live in a unique time of history where those who claim to believe the Bible the most attempt to place two words not found in scripture upon the Bible:

Inerrancy: The idea that Scripture is completely free from error. It is generally agreed by all who use the term that inerrancy at least refers to the trustworthy and authoritative nature of Scripture as God’s Word, which informs humankind of the need for and the way to *salvation. Some, however, have gone further and try to affirm that the Bible is also completely accurate in whatever it teaches about other subjects, such as science and history.

This is admittedly a tough line to hold. The more that one learns about Biblical scholarship or historical criticism the tougher it gets. Inerrancy is an outside idea imposed upon the Bible that the Bible itself and thus has a tough time living up to its claim. It does not, however, mean that the Bible is not trustworthy!! One can trust the Biblical narrative without having to elevate it to the level of inerrant.

Infallibility: This concept is a little simpler says that, “the scripture will accomplish that purpose for which God gave it”.

The characteristic of being incapable of failing to accomplish a predetermined purpose. In Protestant theology infallibility is usually associated with Scripture. The Bible will not fail in its ultimate purpose of revealing God and the way of *salvation to humans. In Roman Catholic theology infallibility is also extended to the teaching of the church (“*magisterium” or “*dogma”) under the authority of the pope as the chief teacher and earthly head of the body of Christ.

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 726-731).

Infallibility is better than inerrancy. Infallible can simply mean that the Bible will accomplish that which it is meant to accomplish. That seems fair enough on the surface.

Here is my contention: Why do we need to assert that it is guaranteed to accomplish the task? Where does that need for certainty come from?

Why isn’t it enough to say that the Bible is ‘inspired’ and leave it at that?

Inspiration: “A term used to designate the work of the Holy Spirit in enabling the human authors of the Bible to record what God desired to have written in the Scriptures. Theories explaining how God “superintended” the process of Scripture formation vary from dictation (the human authors wrote as secretaries, recording word for word what God said) to ecstatic writing (the human authors wrote at the peak of their human creativity). Most *evangelical theories of inspiration maintain that the Holy Spirit divinely guided the writing of Scripture, while at the same time allowing elements of the authors’ culture and historical context to come through, at least in matters of style, grammar and choice of words.”

– Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 731-736). Kindle Edition.

2 Timothy 3:16 talks about scripture being ‘god breathed’ . It should probably suffice for believers to say that we recognize the work (activity) of God in the scriptures and by that same Spirit we come to read, interpret, and apply those lessons to our lives.

 

I would love if Christians would simply be satisfied with believing that the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit and not attempt to make a claim on it that it can not sustain.

 

Where would energy go?

If same-sex marriage, evolution, end-times, and biblical inerrancy were settled issue – where would your energy go?

I have been thinking about this question for the past year as I returned to an evangelical context from 7 years away. For 7 years I attended a mainline (inter-religious) school and worked at a mainline (liberal) church.

I was struck upon my return to evangelicalism at the amount of energy that goes to LGBTQ discussions, defending creation and biblical authority, and end-times prophecy.

I kept thinking:

“imagine all the good that could be done if our energy didn’t go to this”.

So it has been eye-opening to be appointed to a church this summer where our energy doesn’t go to those issues – it turns out that my suspicion was right! An amazing amount of good does get done when your energy is not being sapped by those controversies.

Those controversies are exhausting and they occupy a disproportionate amount of mental and relational energy for evangelicals.

I sort of get why so many evangelical, charismatic, fundamentalist, and pentecostal  young people walk away from the church in their late teens and early 20’s. I get why so many people are now claiming to be ‘nones’ and ‘dones’. If you were raised conservative and then you settled those issues, your faith might seem spent.

I am in the midst of developing a thing for folks who are thinking about faith again as an adult but who want to begin again with those issues off the table. What would faith look like if those 4 variables were changed to givens? Where would your energy go?

I would love to hear from you:

Where would your energy go?
or if you have settled those issue, what has your energy gone to instead?

More than welcome – wanted!

A fascinating part of my last 2 years is the amazing number of evangelical and charismatic pastors that I have been able to talk to who feel trapped by the whole ‘open & affirming’ conversation [or same-sex marriage issue for some].

I hear, on a fairly regular basis, that they wish they could be ‘open but not affirming’ or that the whole conversation would just go away and they could just get on with the business of preaching the gospel or making disciples without this cultural pressure to conform to something they are uncomfortable with or even see as wrong.

On the other hand, I have heard from so many gay and lesbian friends about the sheer frustration and agitation at churches saying that everyone is welcome (come as your are) but it really being code for ‘anyone can come and attend but to be fully accepted or empowered will require you to change and conform to be like us.’

The church that I am now pastoring is not just ‘open & affirming’ but it actually a reconciling congregation that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion at every level of church life, ministry, and ordination.  You can probably imagine how amazing it feels to be able to say with complete integrity that “everyone is welcome here” and know that it is totally true in this place !

This morning I wrote the following post in prep for the weekend:

You may have seen that Vermont Hills UMC’s tagline is ‘a spiritual oasis’.  It has been both fascinating and encouraging to find out how accurate of a description this tagline is.

I’ll be honest: we live in a cynical age and if you are not an accepting and welcoming church, people will grow skeptical of taglines and slogans. You have to be open and affirming of people’s journey and their uniqueness or it will not pass the ‘smell test‘.

It was with great joy that I discovered that VHUMC really is a safe and accepting place – that it lived up to the tagline of being ‘a spiritual oasis’.

Now, no one wants to define themselves by what they are not or what they are against – as tempting as it may be. So we don’t want to state this in the negative or only in contrast to others. We want to be as constructive and as hopeful as possible.

That is why it gives me great joy to be able to say that you are welcome here.

In fact, you are more than welcome – you are wanted!

Part of our transition toward being a conversational community is that we need people of:

  • different backgrounds
  • different journeys
  • different perspectives
  • different opinions
  • different races
  • different genders
  • different sexualities
  • different religious convictions
  • different income levels
  • different ages
  • different education levels and styles
  • different passions
  • different giftings
  • different phases of life

I am delighted to be able to say this about VHUMC and I look forward to exploring this topic together this coming Sunday.

 

IF you are a conversational pastor (as I am) THEN you actually want to hear from people of different genders, stages of life, races, religious backgrounds, and sexualities.  It is not something to be addressed or overcome … it IS the point and the joy of being in dialogue.

If people just repeat back to you what you already believe – that is called ‘an echo chamber’.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of being a conversational church is accepting that we are not all going to agree about everything … and that is not just ‘OK’ but is a good thing!

Tomorrow I will post part 2 of this idea and ask: ” what would our energy go to if this debate was settled?”

Help Progressive Bible Study

I have read and learned a lot about the Bible.
Now I want to read the Bible again.

This has been a long time coming.

For the past 10-15 years I have been growing increasingly unsatisfied with the either/or options that were being presented.

  • Creation or Evolution
  • Catholic or Protestant
  • Democrat or Republican
  • Gay or Straight
  • Married or Single
  • Conservative or Liberal
  • Public or Private
  • Think or Do
  • Talk or Act
  • Faith or Reason

I have come to see that these binaries are not only unsatisfying and impotent but are in reality inaccurate and often deceptive.  If nothing else, they result in a round-and-round series of dead-end debates that lead nowhere and only serve to produce cul-de-sac brands of christianity that where folks in one camp don’t trust and don’t even know how to talk to folks from the ‘other’ camp.

When it comes to reading the Bible, the either/or options seemed to be:

  • one-dimensional black & white literalism
  • reductive dismissal and criticism

Both of those are unsatisfying and impotent.

So over the past 4 years I have been comparing notes with trusted friends and trading ideas with respected thinkers and practitioners. I have tried some new stuff out on Sundays in the pulpit and I have read lots of books about the Bible.

About a year and a half ago I have got to the point where I was tired of reading and talking about the Bible … and I want to actually read the Bible.

I know better than to do that alone … so I went on a journey and I found some fellow travelers. We come from all over the country but we have crossed paths in Portland.

We want to take a classic and give it a twist:

Starting Wednesday September 6th at 7pm we are going to meet in a church basement with Bibles open and read the scriptures together through a progressive lens.

So it begins …

____________

This is one of the blogs & articles that we have been preparing over at ProgressiveBibleStudy.com

I have asked a few close friends to take a look at it and now I am wondering if you will take a minute to help me out before we go public with this thing!

If you get a chance to look at it or to share it with someone who might be interested in the topic, that would mean a lot to us. You can post comments here, on that site, or email us at ProgressiveBible@gmail.com

Thank you ahead of time!

 

Practicing Faith

I’m in an interesting phase of life and faith. My year of being a theology professor is over and I have many reflections that I am processing – both about evangelicalism and about the academy.

Now I am pastoring again, but this time in a wildly liberal post-christian context where I am attempting to do at least two things at the same time:

  1. reach out to non-believing and post-evangelical folks in a compelling way with an invitation to a mature, complex, nuanced approach to faith.
  2. cultivate a vibrant and vital faith in my current congregation.

Focusing on these two things has resulted in a re/turn to two elements that have been dominating my thoughts: the body and the bible.

Below is a post about bodies that I wrote to prepare for church this past Sunday. The person who leads our ‘spiritual practices’ ministry was at the table as my conversation partner.  Later today I will send one about the bible that I could use some help with.

Our bodies matter.  Bodies are key for what gets called spirituality in general and specifically bodies matter in christian worship.

Many people have not thought about it directly but the central story of the entire christian faith is the Christmas story – as story about god becoming embodied. The word (wisdom of god) became flesh and dwelt among us. 

Unfortunately for many in the 19th and 20th century, religion and faith became about what you believe and what you think. It became a mental or intellectual enterprise. For others, religion became about feelings and experience – it changed into a purely heart thing.

The good news is that both the brain and the heart are part of the body!  This is wonderful because when we talk about ‘practices of faith’ or ’embodied belief’ it does not discount the head and the heart ~ it includes and transcends them.

Faith is a whole body activity.

Our bodies matter. They matter to our experience of being human and they matter to our expression of faith.

Our bodies matter to God ~ and the divine is embodied in our practices of faith.

In fact, as Methodists our entire history is built around a series of these embodied practices called ‘methods’. It is literally where we got our name from! Now unfortunately, much of this has been lost over time. It is time to have a conversation about why bodies matter and why the practices of faith are not just a head or a heart issue but a full-bodied experience.

 

Is Church a Supplement or Complement?

Week 3 of being back in the pulpit and this past Sunday we introduced an element of conversation to our gatherings. There are several things I love about this addition:

  1. While I appreciate so many things about evangelical and liturgical worship, I worry that it has become a one-directional stage performance – a spectacle that encourages people to be spectators.
  2. When everything is pre-planned (and even scripted) it may lose its element of sincerity and deep engagement.

Now, admittedly, the above two concerns may not always be the case – but I am under the conviction that the situation is far worse and that I have actually understated the seriousness of the issue!

In a society of spectacle, the form of the church service has not changed but its power has. In an agrarian society of a previous century the form of liturgical worship would have provided a certain function. The 20th century brought most places in N. America through an transition of industrial and then into a technological society. In post-agrarian (and even post-industrial) communities, the liturgy (or the order of service)- even though it has not changed –  has changed the role that it functions in people’s life.

Here is how I think about this change:

When life in an agrarian era is relatively consistent and even predictable, the church service is an exciting highlight with big music, ideas, and relational connection.

Then something happened in the 20th century and the church started playing a different role in people’s lives. 

Life got busy and society got unpredictable. Some might even say chaotic. Life in the 21st century can be exhausting, confusing, overwhelming and even discouraging. The result is that people wanted their mainline churches to be stable, predictable, and comforting. In a word – safe.

What this has led to is an interesting dilemma for the 21st century:

“Is the church a supplement or a complement to people’s week and life?”

I have posed the question to lots of people who both go to church and those who no longer do so. The overwhelming answer seems to be that church is a supplement to people’s lives.

Life is hectic and unpredictable – so church is a nice break from that.

What I am hoping for is an engagement when we gather as the church that is not a vacation from the chaos of life but one that prepares us for it. I don’t want church to be a supplement to life, I want church to complement your life.

When it comes down to it, I am hoping that what we do when gather as the church is to practice faith together so that we are ready for the week ahead and the life of faith. We want to create space to engage new ideas and wrestle with challenging issues.

In a digital age, people want a place to ask hard questions, wrestle with new concepts, try out new things, and most of all to contribute something of value.

3 Questions about ‘Change’

Can you help me as I get ready for Sunday?

This will be my 3rd service at Vermont Hills UMC – but it is the first gathering that will be built around conversation. The first week was a holiday weekend so I just introduced myself casually. Last week was a big communion week. This week we are moving the communion table and replacing it with a coffee table.

Would be willing answer 3 questions for me as I prepare to facilitate that conversation:

  1. What is the biggest change that you have seen in society during your lifetime?
  2. What has changed the most for you in the past 20 years?
  3. What is one change that you would undo if you could?

 

My three answers would be something like:
1. The role of religion in public life.
2. Discovering Second Naïveté mid-preaching career.
3. TV in the living room and iPhones at the breakfast table.

I would love to hear your 3 answers.

Tomorrow Morning I Return To Pastoral Ministry

 

The year of being a visiting theology professor is 3 weeks from coming to a close.

It has been wonderful and I have learned so much. My students have impressed me at every turn … except for a growing concern about the local churches that they come from .

This have given me a desire to get back into local church ministry. The Lord has heard my prayer and She had attended to my cry. 

SO here we go …

Tomorrow morning I return to the ‘pulpit’ for the first time in a year.

AND I return to being a Sr. Pastor for the first time in 10 years.

I am so excited. 

1) I want to thank you for your prayers, notes, and support as I prepare to transition back into pastoral ministry. It has meant a lot (and it apparently worked)

3) I begin tomorrow with a shortened service  (due to the holiday weekend) and then we go big next Sunday July 9th with a full communion service.

I will be transitioning the church toward a 2.0 model (video link) and need conversation partners.  Check out our new website for details http://vermonthillsumc.org

Reimagining-VHUMCSo if I could ask a favor:

If you know any progressive or post-evangelical friends who are looking for a church in Portland, please send them along! This is going to be a fun adventure creating a different kind of church that integrates:

  • Liturgical Worship
  • Embodied Practices
  • Critical Conversations

Let the adventure begin.

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