The Wilderness Journey of Faith

worship is like telling stories around a campfire

scripture is like the “trail mix”

disciplines are like setting up camp

the church is like your wilderness caravan

sin is like being lost and alone in the wilderness

Jesus is like the wilderness Trailblazer

Spirit is like the wilderness Guide

Parent is like the wilderness Native

creation is like a wilderness home

salvation is like a journey in the wilderness following the Spirit on the way of Jesus toward home with the Native

consummation is like being welcomed home to a feast

God Is Love

Yes, I’m posting a blog on Valentine’s Day entitled “God is Love.” What can I say? I’m a loser with a very bad sense of humor. If you can get past that though, this is a brief “statement of faith” that I wrote for a class recently. The assignment was just to “sit down and write about what you believe in your own voice” so… that’s what I did. It’s certainly not comprehensive and probably not thought out all that well. But, what I can say is that it has very little to do with Valentine’s Day.

God is the triune Community who is Love: who created all things for love, who is present with all things in love, and who calls and wills and moves all things towards love. This Love is not an attribute of God; it is God. God is Love because God is Trinity: the three Persons – Parent, Christ, and Spirit – who are inseparably united as one in a way that does not diminish the unique otherness of each Person. This triune Community is characterized by movements of equal, mutual, reciprocal self-giving and other-receiving among, between, and within the persons of Parent, Christ and Spirit.

Because God is Love, God is relational and desires to be in relation with another. This desire gave birth to creation. God as Parent, Christ, and Spirit is the maker and sustainer of all things past, present, and future. In creation, God envisioned and then spoke into being a community whose life together would be inspired and shaped by Love in order to be a reflection of the Creator. Just as God is many and diverse, God’s creation is many and diverse. The unique character of created things is good because there could be no relationships, and therefore no love, without it. God gave one creature in particular – the man and woman – a special purpose in this creation: keeping the community, nurturing its multifaceted, interwoven connections, and preserving the diversity of each created thing in order to preserve the image of the Creator.

Because God is Love, God creates space for God’s community-keepers to reciprocate God’s love in freedom. However, the man and the woman rejected their purpose and turned away from Love towards self-reliance as if they could live apart from Love. This act of utter rebellion wounded creation at its core. Instead of Love, there was fear; instead of relation, alienation; instead of community, desecration.

Because God is Love, the Parent, Christ, and Spirit remain present and active in, with, and for creation in spite of the rebellion of God’s community-keepers. This active being of Love within and among creation is salvation. God is the saving God who comes to creation in a form it can see, and hear, and touch. Jesus the Christ is Love born to be the true community-keeper whose life, death, and resurrection made a way for all of creation’s wounds to be healed. In Jesus, Love reigns supreme.

Because God is Love, God creates anew by the power of the Spirit. Just as Jesus was compelled by Love to heal creation’s wounded, fearful heart, the Spirit was poured out over all creation to unite all things together again in Love. The Spirit is open-handed Love who reconciles relationships broken by fear, tears down the dividing walls of alienation, and restores all created things to their place in the embrace of Love. In the Spirit, Love brings new life.

Because God is Love, I am. God loves me and empowers me to love God, myself, others, and all creation. Through Jesus Christ and the Spirit, God has invited me and empowered me to play a small part in a fellowship of community-keepers who embody and enact and reveal the healing and new life Love desires for all creation. This fellowship liberates and embraces those who are suffering from the violence of fear, alienation, and desecration and gives it life for the transformation of this violence into peace and justice. They welcome others into their body of unity-in-diversity and are sent out as witnesses to the Love they have seen, felt, and known in order to make their community more complete.

Because God is Love, there is no reason to fear. Creation has hope because God is gathering all things into Love. The perfect communion of God and creation will be made complete.

Church Renewal & Evangelism: On the Way of the Poor

What is poverty? What does concern for the poor have to do with church renewal and the church’s practice of evangelism?

Poverty is sin because poverty is death. It is the multifaceted evidence of idolatry run rampant in the world through the denial of God’s image, the ignorance of God’s revelation, the rejection of God’s mission, and the antithesis of God’s vision. Describing poverty as sin does not mean that poor people are somehow inherently sinful or idolatrous; this is not about placing blame or ascribing value. Describing poverty as sin is the only way to truthfully name the wounds we inflict on the bodies of others and ourselves when some of us live as if we are gods at the expense of others.

Because poverty is a systemic degradation of God’s wonderfully diverse creation in part and in whole, it manifests in many forms. First, poverty is experienced as a lack of material goods sufficient for sustaining a decent quality of life. Second, poverty occurs as physical weakness caused by poor health and harmful lifestyles. Third, poverty comes as an experience of isolation from the relationships, knowledge, goods, and services which could lead to a better life. Poverty can also be an experience of vulnerability in which the poor suffer from a lack of margin so that they have very few or no options to respond to life’s difficulties. The poor are those who are marginalized and ignored by others; people to whom no one cares to listen. Finally, poverty is an experience of alienation from the very sources of human identity in one’s life: family, friends, the community, and God.1

While it is possible to make some generalizations concerning these six forms of poverty, one should never assume to understand the depth of pain and suffering being experienced by those in poverty. The only way to really understand poverty is to be poor – this is the way of Christ. When God came into the world as Jesus Christ, God did not merely identify with the poor or stand on their side; in Christ, God was poor – is poor. Jesus was not the son of a ruler, a wealthy merchant, or even a priest. Rather, he was the son of a poor, simple carpenter married to a poor teenage girl. Jesus’ experience of poverty and powerlessness was deepened by his Jewish identity in a society ruled by the Roman Empire. As God, Jesus did not seek power but instead became a servant who gave his life for the sake of others. As a poor man, he was the one anointed by the Spirit to preach good news to the poor and enact holistic salvation for all who are wounded, alienated, and in need of restoration with God, themselves, and others.

If the church is to be the body whose head is Christ, it must learn to walk in the way of the poor. A majority of the church in the U.S. is akin to the rich young ruler who asked Jesus how he could secure eternal life. Jesus’ response is one we need to hear if we want to follow Jesus into the reign of God: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”2 Following the way of the poor means, on the one hand, rejecting the dominant, sinful narratives shaping our society which value money, pleasure, and power for the individual above all else. On the other hand, it means affirming God’s vision of peaceful, just, and loving community in which all are set free by the Spirit of Christ to recognize, honor, and celebrate the goodness of their relationships with God, one another, and creation. The church is alive and renewed to the extent that it experiences the resurrection life of the Spirit who accompanies, guides, and empowers those who seek the self-emptying way of the poor Christ for the sake of the world in all its poverty.

A church on the way of the poor will be freed to rediscover its true purpose in the proclamation and embodiment of the good news of God’s reign for all people. Evangelism is then directed towards the establishment of peace, restoration, and well-being for entire communities and their environments because God desires more than poverty alleviation – God desires shalom for all creation. This kind of evangelism also recognizes the systemic nature of poverty and the interconnectedness of creation which means that poverty degrades all people. Because all are called to the abundant life of God in community, the church should be a place where all people – no matter how rich or poor they are – have a place to know and be known as they participate in God’s mission for the world.

1 Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 67.

2 Mk. 10:21.

Alison on Re-Imagining Substitutionary Atonement

if you have a theory of atonement – something grasped – you have something that people can “get right”, and then be on the inside of the good guys. “We’re the people who are covered by the blood; we’re the ones who are okay, the ones who are good; and then there are those others who aren’t.” In other words, rather than undergoing atonement, we’re people who grasp onto the idea of the atonement. But the whole purpose of the Christian understanding is that we shouldn’t identify too soon with the good guys. On the contrary, we are people who are constantly undergoing “I AM” – that is to say, God – coming towards us [as] one who is offering forgiveness from the victim [Jesus Christ crucified]. And we are learning how to look at each other as people who are saying, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.” Which means that we are the “other” in this package; that we are the “other” who are being turned into a “we”, in the degree to which we find our similarity with our brother and sister on either side of us; rather than: we are the people who, because we’ve grasped the theory have become part of “I AM”, and therefore the “other” is some “them”. If you are undergoing atonement it means that you are constantly in the process of being approached by someone who is forgiving you. That, it seems to me, is the challenge for us in terms of imagination when it comes to imagining and re-imagining atonement.

…it’s because we are undergoing being forgiven that we can forgive; and we need to forgive in order to continue undergoing being forgiven. But remember: it’s because we are approached by our victim, that we start to be undone. Or in Paul’s language: “even though you were dead in your sins he has made you alive together in Christ.” Someone was approaching you even when you didn’t realize there was a problem, so that you begin to discover, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.”

…What Jesus was doing was opening up the Creator’s vision, which knows not death, so that we can live as though death were not. In other words, we’re being given a bigger heart. That is what being forgiven is all about. It’s not, “I need to sort out this moral problem you have.” It’s, “Unless I come towards you, and enable you [to] undergo a breaking of heart, you’re going to live in too small a universe, you’re not going to enjoy yourselves and be free. How the hell do I get through to you! Well, the only way is by coming amongst you as your victim. That’s the only place in which you can be undone. That’s the place you’re so frightened of being that you’ll do anything to get away from it. So if I can occupy that space, and return to you and say, “Yes, you did this thing to me. But don’t worry! I’m not here to accuse you. I’m here to play with you! To make a bigger space for you. And for you to do it with me.” And of course the way he acted this out before his death was setting up the last supper, in which he would give himself to us so that we would become him.

…We can imagine retaliation, we can imagine protection; but we find it awfully difficult to imagine someone we despised, and were awfully glad not to be like – whom we would rather cast out so as to keep ourselves going – we find it awfully difficult to imagine that person generously irrupting into our midst so as to set us free to enable something quite new to open for us. But that’s what atonement is about; and that is what we are asked to live liturgically as Christians.

excerpts from “Some Thoughts on the Atonement” by James Alison.

My Credo

[At the beginning of last semester, I had to write a personal Credo for my systematics class. The Credo expressed my belief in the Trinity, creation, humanity, the Bible, sin, and grace. Last week, I began the spring semester, which means another systematics class and another Credo. This one expresses my belief in Jesus Christ, salvation, the church, the Holy Spirit, and the “end.” These Credos are like snapshots; they express my faith “right now” (or a few months ago) in 400-600 words. I would probably change some of the things I said in my first Credo after taking my first systematics course and I’ll probably want to change some things in the Credo I wrote for this semester, but that’s the whole point. What would you say in your Credo?]

I believe that God exists as a single, completely unified Trinitarian plurality – Parent, Child, and Spirit. In this Trinity, God is revealed as a community of mutually indwelling persons engaged in an eternal, ongoing act of self-giving love. This God is active, creative, holy, good, just, and full of steadfast love. I believe that God is always on the move with a purpose: the Parent sends the Child to redeem the world; the Child and Parent send the Spirit to empower the Church, which is sent into the world to enter and receive God’s Kingdom.

I believe that God created all that is seen and known along with all that is unseen and unknown. This act of creation was an outpouring of God’s infinite, creative love. It is a good gift in which God is pleased. While it is separate from God, Creation serves as a reflection of its communal Creator as it reveals complex, interdependent relational webs amongst its creatures and their environments which are characterized by trust, care, and nurture.

I believe that human beings are God’s creative masterpieces. They are creatures, but they are set apart from the rest of Creation because they – male and female – are made in God’s own image. God takes delight in these image-bearers and calls them very good. I believe that human beings are created for perfect communion with God, others, and all of Creation. This communion reveals the goodness of God which evokes continual praise and adoration from all God’s creatures.

I believe that sin is any attempt to live life on human terms in opposition to God. Human beings are always prone to sin. This tendency infects every human individual and every human system. Sin causes brokenness and suffering as it corrupts the goodness of all Creation by leading it towards death.

I believe that Scripture is composed of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments found in the Bible. It is inspired by God, but this inspiration does not disrespect the humanity of its authors. It is the authoritative narrative to which every follower of God must be committed. Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it reveals and points to the Word of God.

I believe that grace is God’s unmerited favor secured for all Creation by the perfect life, sacrificial death, and miraculous, embodied resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is the Child of God. In Jesus Christ, grace is freely available for all who would receive it. For those who would receive it, it is the present-day power of new creation life that overcomes sin and death. While remaining free, it commands complete surrender and obedience to the work of God.

I believe that Jesus Christ is God: the absolutely unique Trinitarian person who exists as God in eternal, mutual relations with God the Parent and God the Spirit. I believe that Jesus Christ was born into this world as a Jewish baby in a small, Palestinian village during the time of the ancient Roman Empire. Existing simultaneously as both truly God and truly human, Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah of Israel who accomplished God’s work of salvation for all creation.

I believe that salvation is participation in the life of the Triune God for all eternity. This life is the experience of shalom: the peace, justice, reconciliation, healing, forgiveness of sin, and restoration for all creation revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. This reality of salvation can begin in the present by all who would receive the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ whose sacrificial death and victorious resurrection has defeated death and inaugurated a new reign of life.

I believe that the church is the body of Christ in history. The church is a community of all those who have made Jesus Christ their way to truth and life. The church is a public, social, communal embodiment of salvation; an imperfect demonstration of the way of life which only makes sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection. The church is a pilgrim people: citizens of this world who strive to love the world as God has loved it, but whose ultimate citizenship lies in the new creation world which is coming to life even now.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is God: the absolutely unique Trinitarian person who exists as God in eternal, mutual relations with God the Parent and God the Child. The Spirit is the power of God at work in the world bringing about the new creation. The Spirit indwells the church to be a people of shalom. The Spirit gives gifts to empower and build up the church. The Spirit is comforter, guide, and advocate for those who seek the salvation of God.

I believe that the future belongs to God. The sin and suffering of the world will be eternally damned and God’s reign will be experienced for all time by all people, places, and things in a new creation which perfectly reflects the glorious life of love witnessed in its Triune Creator. I live with hope because God is on the way.

Reflecting on Structural Sin and Suffering

Growing up as a member of a Southern Baptist church in rural Alabama, I heard all about sin: smoking, drinking, partying, and the like. In my embedded theology, sin was an individual’s decision to disobey God’s commands and suffering was the intended consequences of these sinful actions. I began to question these ideas about sin and suffering as I visited places like Honduras where suffering was widespread but no one individual could be blamed. I realized that individual sinful actions were similar to the tip of an iceberg; a much greater evil was concealed in darkness below the water’s surface. This greater evil is known as structural sin.

The individualized focus of my embedded theology of sin is woefully incomplete. Since, as Clark Williamson notes, human beings are created as persons defined by relations to each other, God, and creation,[1] sin and suffering are always both personal and social. Alienation – “the refusal… to acknowledge the Creator and to love the neighbor” – is revealed as sin’s essential quality when human beings are properly situated within God’s communal vision for creation.[2] As Serene Jones has argued, this alienating sin is not merely individual acts but a comprehensive state of being that orients the life of all people and societies in opposition to “God’s will for our flourishing.”[3] Enveloped in this sinful reality, we grossly distort every dimension of our created nature and form “interlocking structures of various forms of oppression”[4] that transform our good diversity into evil division. All created things involved in these sinful structures suffer from the loss of God’s abundant life offered to all creation.

In order to understand and faithfully respond to the suffering caused by the evils of structural sins, I must examine this suffering as it occurs in specific historical contexts among specific individuals and groups.[5] I have witnessed this suffering most distinctly in the life of my friend Bob.[6] He is a poor, African-American man in his early sixties with mild schizophrenia. He lives in rural Sumter County, Alabama, only a few miles from my hometown. When I met Bob, he was living in a dilapidated mobile home with no electricity or running water. As I came to know him, I discovered an interwoven triad of structural sins – poverty, racism, and the stigma of mental illness – that caused immense suffering in his life. He was trapped in deeply rooted poverty: 2010 US census data reported a startling 35% poverty rate in Sumter County.[7] His humanity was degraded by the force of what Delores Williams calls “white racial narcissism.”[8] He was treated as if he were violent, incompetent, or immoral because of his illness.[9] These evil structures alienate Bob from his community, his family, and even from his own talent. He is a creative man who loves to write poems but the multiplicative forces of these structural sins utterly devalue Bob’s creative ability and deny him any opportunity to share his work with others.

This plurality of suffering in our world demands the kind of prophetic response that Walter Brueggemann describes as a criticizing “rejection… of the present order of things” and an energizing “anticipation of the newness that God has promised.”[10] However, the criticizing work of the prophet must begin in silence, as Dorothee Soelle has argued, in order to respect those who have suffered.[11] In this silence, sufferers are given the freedom and space to grieve and bear witness to their pain on their own terms. This grieving functions as potent criticism because it announces that “things are not alright” in the world.[12] According to Abraham Heschel, the prophet takes up this grief and amplifies it in order to express God’s rage on behalf of those suffering in “silent agony.”[13] Through the prophet, God condemns the suffering of the status quo and calls the church to repent from their idolatry and subsequent refusal to live and work towards justice and mercy for the oppressed.[14]

While criticism is the starting place for prophetic ministry, Heschel notes that nearly every prophet “concludes with a message of hope.”[15] Because God is faithfully involved in creation, prophets proclaim that God’s mercy and love will have the final say – not sin and suffering.[16] They sing new, hopeful songs in anticipation of the alternative reality promised by the God who is present in suffering.[17] In these songs, prophets give voice to a new moral imagination that envisions “new ways of living and loving.”[18] As faith in God is renewed, resources for survival and building a new quality of life are revealed in the midst of suffering.[19]

As a person answering God’s call to ministry in the US, my first response to the reality of structural sin is to see clearly my own participation in it. I lived the first 18 years of my life in a small, rural town in Alabama where white racism towards the majority African-American population was an everyday reality. However, I have never considered how this racist “social body” may have influenced my own “assignment of meaning and significance” to racial others.[20] I have failed to see this sin clearly because I have refused to see it in myself.[21] As a result, I have remained “unstirred” and therefore unable to raise a prophetic voice that criticizes the racist consciousness and imagines alternative, subversive ways of being that dismantle racist structures and embody God’s communal vision.[22]

My complicity in a racist society calls for confession. “In confession,” Bonhoeffer writes, “the breakthrough to community takes place.”[23] Racism, like all sin, has desired to keep me isolated and unable to engage in full fellowship with the African-American community.[24] It has taught me to fear and belittle racial others. Racism has led me to believe that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to Caucasians, are always looking for an excuse to avoid work, and are unable to manage responsibility. This socially-mediated pedagogy of racism has led me into the sin of homogeneity that seeks uniformity over unity-in-diversity and the sin of apathy that blinds me to the suffering of my African-American brothers and sisters. As a result of participating in a racist society, I confess that I am a racist.

The church’s response to God’s vision for justice in the world should also begin with a confession of complicity. Unfortunately, this response is problematic for many Christians in the US because they have reduced the social sin of racism to overtly racist individual actions. As a result, many claim no responsibility for “causing” racism and therefore see no need for confession. These people deny their participation in what Dr. King called the “inescapable network of mutuality.”[25] However, once racism is understood as a social sin, Christians of all colors move beyond blame and create safe spaces for confessing their complicity in racist structures. This communal confession can empower prophetic ministry in the church that overthrows sinful structures and embodies God’s vision of justice in creation.


[1] Clark Williamson, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Human Nature and Sin” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 165.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Serene Jones, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Human Nature and Sin” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 149.

[4] Eleazar S. Fernandez, Reimagining the Human: Theological Anthropology in Response to Systemic Evil (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2003), 35.

[5] Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1986), 51.

[6] I have used a fake name to protect the identity of my friend.

[7] “Sumter County QuickFacts from the US Census Bureau,” http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/01/01119.html, (accessed November 9, 2012).

[8] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 88.

[9] Corrigan, Patrick W., Amy C. Watson, and Victor Ottati,”From whence comes mental illness stigma?,” International Journal Of Social Psychiatry 49, no. 2 (June 2003): 142.

[10] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 3.

[11] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 69.

[12] Brueggemann, 11.

[13] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 5-6.

[14] Kyle D. Fedler, Exploring Christian Ethics: Biblical Foundations for Morality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 119.

[15] Heschel, 14.

[16] Felder, 136.

[17] Brueggemann, 68.

[18] Felder, 137.

[19] Williams, 203.

[20] Mary Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: body, race, being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 8.

[21] Williamson, 161.

[22] Heschel, 31.

[23] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper Collins, 1954), 112.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Martin Luther King, Jr., Trumpet of Consciousness (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 68.