These are the passages that drive me, haunt me and really define who and what I am as a pastor.

I say drive me because to me they seem to be the core of what a follower of Jesus strives to be about.

I say they define me because despite falling far short I really try to live my life by what these passages proclaim. For me this is not a head thing but a matter of my heart, the depths of my soul. These passages help shape who I am.

I say they haunt me because the church I grew up in and the church universal today seems to have forgotten these passages and lives out an existence that is more about exclusion than inclusion, more about money and prestige rather than simple service, more about moral enforcement and judgment rather than sharing and proclaiming grace, more about dogma and creeds rather than openness and an intentional inclusive community.

Because of the aforementioned, the church universal is no longer safe, no longer a place of peace, no longer a place of refuge from the terrors of the world. Hell, it is not even a refuge from the terrors brought about by so-called Christian leaders.

So I am haunted…what would God have me to do? How does one little gay pastor push the church universal back to its roots, back to a time when God, not dogma, were the order of the day?

Frankly, I am pretty content to try and do this with Gentle Spirit Christian Church. We are a church “without walls”. Every day of our existence we try to “walk the talk” and some days we do better then others. Those scriptures I mentioned are a part of our core beliefs. They in fact drive our church.

Yet others and myself have been restless, frustrated and disappointed as we fall short in meeting the needs of the larger community.

This was made so clear to me a few years back when I was at a meeting with a group of clergy who had received a large sum of money to be used to feed the hungry.

We were a good hour into the meeting debating the rules for this food distribution. Rules for how to fill out the paper work, which people get the food, how much and how many times a month. There was even discussion — no, actually an argument — over how much info to keep on file and not mess with people’s privacy.

To that point I had been very quiet and trying to devise an excuse to leave, when one of the pastors asked me what I thought. I responded that they probably did not want to hear what I was thinking. However, I was encouraged to share.

So I told them I was thinking about the story of Jesus when he fed 5,000 people. Of course all these pastors started nodding their heads in agreement. However, I was stuck on the differences of that story and what was being discussed. I wondered who of the disciples went through the crowd that day and had the folks fill out the paper work? Which of the disciples did the assessments of who was in real need? Was there somebody who determined if the folks who got the food were just going from rabbi to rabbi to eat each day?

Some of the “progressive and affirming” thoughts back then and still today offer a different way of approaching our faith.

• Jesus’ central message is about radical inclusion, thus anyone is welcome to participate in our fellowship without judgment or forcing them to conform to our “likeness” or affirm our creeds in order to be accepted. We invite and offer all a place at the table — no exceptions.

• Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma. Faith is about the search for understanding, the raising of important questions, the open honesty of having doubt, and the realization that no one has it all completely right nor does any human hold all the answers. We seek to follow the advice found in 1st Thessalonians 5:21, which is to “seek truth out in all things and hold firmly onto that which is good.”

• Religious absolutes of dogma, legalism and strict doctrine become stumbling blocks and “litmus tests” for who is “in” and who is “out” of the circle of God’s grace. These false tests that Jesus never required get in the way of truly following Jesus and his teachings.

• Following Jesus is counter-cultural, radical and disrupts the status quo. The good news of the gospel is intentional in its inclusion of those who are traditionally marginalized and refused by mainline Christianity.

• The words of Jesus found in the gospels are to be the focus for any disciple of him. We submit the rest of Scripture to the position of “sacred commentary.”

• Recognition and affirmation of the differing belief systems of others, whose faiths offer a way into a relationship with God and call upon them to further God’s love and grace on the earth, is crucial. Jesus revealed this path in the acts and works of the Gospel.

According to Matthew, chapters 5-7, Jesus demonstrated this inclusion on many occasions — including his witnessing and affirmation of the Samaritan woman, whose culture and people were looked down upon for worshipping God in a different way (the Gospel).

In John 4:1-42, Jesus taught and revealed through example. Any “spiritual” or “non-spiritual” person adhering to this way of life are indeed furthering the reign of God and God’s message of radical love and inclusion here on earth. As Jesus said, “Anyone who is for us cannot be against us” (the Gospel According to Mark 9:39-41).

• Creating fellowships and communities that are dedicated to lifting up, affirming and equipping one another for the work the Spirit of God has called us to in Micah 6:8 — active peacemaking, striving for justice and equality for all people and nations, loving those who are labeled by our government, society, and – at times – ourselves, as “enemies,” caring for God’s creations, and bringing hope to the poor and poverty-stricken.

• God created humans with a brain capable of discovery and reason. God does not require us to “check our brains at the door,” along with our coat and hat in order to be a part of the faith. Faith and science are not in conflict; they are in harmony. The Bible is not a science textbook and should never be taken as such. We affirm that if God is truth, then any discovery we make about ourselves, our origins, or the way the universe was created has come from God and should not be viewed as heresy.

• The Church is not simply a four-walled institution, but a ministry without walls that surrounds and encompasses everything and everywhere we go. Our brothers and sisters are not only those who label themselves as “Christian,” but are everyone we meet.

I do not believe scripture to be without error and I also believe that over the years some very important stuff got lost or left out. I think one has to follow the overriding theme of our faith in relation to the “good book — “to do justice, act mercifully and walk humbly with God.” It is following this theme which does not allow me to easily dismiss someone’s belief system just because they do not subscribe to mine.

So on this “Good Friday” as I contemplate my relationship to God, my mind wanders to what would “The Church” look like if the focus of “The Church” was not to spend its time in matters of exclusion and conserving tradition and spent its time in progressing toward God and being intentional in the inclusion of all of God’s creation.

Just thinking.

 


Rev. Paul M. Turner is the Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta. For more information, please visit www.gentlespirit.org or e-mail info@gentlespirit.org.

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