“Born again, again” by Bob Melone – Introduction, part 3 of 3

22 12 2015

Bob

In the late 90s, I read Marcus Borg’s “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” which planted the seeds to many of my questions.  But the urge to ask was squashed, and I refused to allow myself to venture out into the waters of doubt.  Tillich believed it ventilated faith; but in my worldview, doubt only destroyed faith!  So I would not go there.  The church wouldn’t allow it.  The church wouldn’t stand for it.  And so I pushed everything down, deep inside, and continued doing what I had always done, pretending that the faith of my childhood was perfectly logical, intellectually credible, and without any inconsistencies!

Looking back through Borg’s book today, I’m intrigued at my markings – and how those at the beginning attempt to refute Borg’s assertions, while those at the end are starred, as if to say “Hey, this is good stuff!”  Questions marks are everywhere . . . until chapter 4.  That’s where I apparently began to understand a little bit about how the compassion of Jesus was at the heart of his life and ministry; and how Jesus-like life-styles unite and include others, while an emphasis on belief and doctrine only serves to divide and exclude.  And that is not to say that beliefs are unimportant.  But just as we’ve all known people who believe the right things and yet to do not behave in God-like ways, so too have we all known people who believe differently than we do, and yet still DO manage to behave in God-like ways.

For a long time, I was convinced that it was the beliefs that were most important.  Behavior was critical; but because we embrace the Protestant doctrine of justification by FAITH, as opposed to WORKS, there has to be more to a life of faith that how we behave . . . doesn’t there?  Faith without works is indeed dead, but works are simply not enough, right?  We need faith!  And faith is about believing . . . facts, statements, propositions!  Our creeds make this pretty clear.  For our ‘statements of FAITH,’ used week after week in most Presbyterian worship gatherings, begin with the words, “I believe . . .”  So that’s what we’re taught, consciously and unconsciously: faith is believing!

But what if our “Faith Alone” theology has gone too far in reacting to Roman extremes?  What if we in the evangelical church have now become so consumed with preaching ‘right doctrine’ and getting everyone to believe all the ‘right things’, that we have now actually gone to the other extreme and are missing out on the transformative life-change that is at the heart of Jesus’ message?  What if when Jesus is quoted as having said that he is the way, the truth, and the life – what if his point was less about some intellectual truth that people needed to accept and more about a way of life that people are called practice?

The “I believe” statements in the great creeds of our church are about giving our hearts to certain tenets, not just our minds.  Mental ascent to a set of truths is indeed an important part of our journeys, for if our faith is not intellectually credible then it is not worth hanging onto!  But knowing and living are two different things.  And faith should be more like a verb than a noun.  It something we DO, not just something we possess!

All of these thoughts were spinning around in my head, and before I knew it, questions were popping up all over the place.  Borg says, “the notion that our life on earth (being) primarily about meeting God’s requirements so that we may have a blessed next life . . . (was) foreign to Jesus”  (p. 85); and all of a sudden, that made perfect sense to me.  What if faith really is less about getting to heaven, and more about the way we live here on earth?  What if Jesus’ own words, about being known, NOT BY OUR BELIEFS, but by our fruit, really was true?

These kinds of ‘what if’ questions were slowly deconstructing a faith that was at the heart of my life and ministry, and for several years they sat simmering, and percolating.  In addition to Borg, McLaren’s “A New Kind of Christian” gave me not just permission, but encouragement to ask all of my questions, so that I might deal with all the ‘forbidden’ thoughts and ideas and perhaps even begin to find new life in them.  I discovered that such wrestling was vital to any authentic spiritual journey, and critical to the development of any faith worth embracing.

McLaren’s story brought me to tears over and over again – as page after page I found his story (or “Pastor Dan’s” Story!) to be my story!  I too was questioning “the stock answers to questions I was supposed to be convincing others of!” (p. 12) and one by one the bricks in my solid, sturdy, and strong Christian wall were being chiseled out of place.

Ironically, much to my surprise, through all of this, God seemed to be getting closer than ever!  My walk with Jesus seemed to be expanding.  My heart for the world around me was growing.  My appreciation of Scripture was deepening.  And my love for others – particularly those with life-styles and beliefs that were different from my own – was broadening my horizons and revealing all kinds of fresh vistas.  It was in fact nurturing within me an evangelical zeal that I had not felt for a long time.  My life truly had become new, and only now am I able to look back on the experience and realize what was taking place.

In John’s Gospel, attempting to answer a question from Nicodemus about obtaining ‘eternal life,’  Jesus says that one must be born again.  I thought that had happened to me when I was a teenager.  But now I know that it is something that must happen to us, and in us, over and over again.  It is not something that occurs in our lives but once.  The power of the Spirit’s presence within each one of us involves the realization that God is always working and moving, calling and wooing, leading us on and guiding us forward.

Upon reflection, I know without a doubt that something new was taking place within me – something holy, and from God.  Things were shifting and changing, morphing and growing.  I was being born again, again; and my life, my faith, and my ministry were never going to be the same.

I once heard someone say that ‘shift happens.’  And thank God it does; for I’m afraid of what my life would be without it!  This ‘shift’ was all over the place at Stone House Presbyterian Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, and I was loving it!  My faith was growing wings, and my commitment to the Body and its mission was developing in ways that I never thought possible.

Now . . . I tell you all of this not because I think that my journey is somehow unique, or any more special or important than your own.  Rather, I tell you all this because I’ve discovered that I am not alone on this journey.  Many people have similar stories, and yet too often we keep them to ourselves.  We’re afraid to ‘come out of the closet,’ fearful that we’ll be chastised for backsliding.  In too many places, people with stories like mine are being thrown out of the Body, and condemned to some place in the afterlife where is supposedly weeping and gnashing of teeth.  We told that we’re watering down the Gospel, being too politically correct, abandoning the Bible, or worst of all, thinking too much!

But friends, none of that is true . . . at least not for most of us on this journey toward a new kind of Christianity.  We are eager to grow not just a new kind of Christian, but a new kind of Church!  And my simple hope is that in reading my story, you will begin to own your story, and not be afraid to share it with anyone who will listen.  In the words of Doug Pagitt, don’t be afraid of your ‘flip,’ for there is more than one way to talk about matters of God, and faith, resurrection, and new life!

Further, my hope is that in the telling of our stories, we really will be able to create a new kind of Church, one that, borrowing the words from President John F. Kennedy, “looks ahead and not behind, that welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, and that cares about everyone.”

Following Jesus is a great adventure, and our journeys need to be told.  So for what it’s worth, here’s mine.  I hope and pray that hearing about my being born again, and again, and again, will help you to experience a similar rebirth . . . again, and again, and again!


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