Why does Christianity, the faith I believe and the way of life that has given me purpose and direction, so often play on the wrong side?
Jesus taught us not to condemn, not to “cast the first stone.” Why, then, are so many Christians typified as judgmental, critical, negative, and hypocritical? Why did the life and teaching of a man who died on a cross—actually practicing what he preached about turning the other cheek—become associated with religious people who seem too happy to justify war? Why do followers of a man who said God cared for every wildflower and common sparrow often careless about God’s creation?
In other words, why do we so often miss the point, and do so with such amazing gracelessness?
My books have chronicled my grappling with these questions. I didn’t start writing with answers in mind; rather, the questions drove me to write, and whatever answers I found emerged in the writing process.
So far, two discoveries have helped me begin not only to answer my nagging "miss the point" question, but also to begin imagining what to do about it.
First, Christian faith is at heart not a system of belief, not a list of abstractions to be defended, certainly not a list of rules to be followed. Rather, it is a story, and a way of understanding the human story–where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going. Christian faith goes sour when it misunderstands or loses track of its inherent story, but it germinates, grows, blossoms, and bears fruit when it is believed and lived as a vital narrative of Creator-and-creation in an ongoing relationship.
Second, Jesus’ life and message make the most sense in the context of this unfolding story. To try to fit Jesus into some other context guarantees that we will miss the point. In short, Jesus (as I have come to understand him) came as a Jewish man with good news: God was inviting everyone, beginning with his fellow Jews, into a new way of relating, understanding, working, praying, and living. His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit were ways of making that message visible and possible in our world.
That sets the stage for the journaling experience I would like to invite you to participate in. For those familiar with my writings, these prompts will relate primarily to The Story We Find Ourselves In (second in the “New Kind of Christian” trilogy), A Generous Orthodoxy, and The Secret Message of Jesus. But you really don’t need any familiarity with my books, so long as you have a basic understanding of the biblical story. In this journal, I'll guide you through the entire course of the biblical narrative. Each time you come to the journal, feel free to write as much or as little as you like, and to interact with other people's journals. You can also post photographs or any images you like that help your journaling experience. Every few days we'll encounter a new part of the Bible story, moving from God's great Beginning to the Consummation of all things. I hope that your journaling on this overview of the biblical narrative—told in seven episodes, with three or four prompts for each episode—will be as helpful to you as it has been to me. I look forward to seeing what you have to say.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters . . . .(Genesis 1:1)
1. If possible, get outdoors, into some corner or place where you can experience the goodness of creation. Describe in detail one simple facet of creation that you can see or feel.
2. Remember one of your favorite places and moments when you could sense the goodness of creation. Describe that goodness. Why is its memory important to you?
3. You and your body are part of creation. Describe some aspect of creation that you see in yourself. This isn't bragging—it’s being grateful and aware!
4. Write your reflections on creation in the form of a prayer or psalm, echoing Psalm 8, 19, or 104. Remember that nobody in the history of the universe has been given exactly your perspective on creation’s goodness: you see things in a way nobody else has ever seen.
Episode 2. Crisis: Unsatisfied with the immeasurable gift of being created in God’s image, unwilling to live within limits as God’s creatures in creation, we want more—to be gods ourselves, living without limits, setting our own rules. We reach for knowledge and taste its bitter fruit—alienation between man and woman, brother and brother, humanity and creation. We live on the edge of self-destruction, riding the rising tide of our own flood of evil, trying to build great and prosperous cities that mask our own spiritual poverty.
The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.(Genesis 6:5-6)
5. Where in the last 24 hours have you most seen human evil at work? Express your sadness, outrage, despair, or frustration at what you’ve seen.
6. Focus on a powerful experience you have had as a victim of evil. Tell that story. Why is remembering it important for your life?
7. Focus on a powerful experience you have had as a perpetrator of evil. Tell that story and why remembering it is important in your life.
The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country,
your people and your father's household and go to the
land I will show you.
I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
So Abram left, as the LORD had told him . . . . (Genesis 12:1–4)
8. When have you felt in some way contacted by God? How have you received a sense of calling for your life? Tell that story.
9. Sometimes we feel that a sense of calling like Abram's is missing in our lives, or that it's not articulated well enough. Write a prayer or other expression of desire for a clearer sense of mission.
10. Take the calling of Abram above and paraphrase it into terms that apply to you. What do you have to leave? Where do you need to go? What will you become? What might God want to do “through you"?
Episode 4. Conversation: Abraham leaves his home in Ur and journeys west to Canaan and settles there. Isaac and Jacob live in the land, but a famine forces Jacob's sons to flee south to Egypt, where their rejected brother Joseph forgives them and provides for them. The Egyptians enslave them for 400 years, until Moses follows God's call to lead them to freedom. Because of unbelief and disobedience, they wander 40 years in the desert until Joshua leads them to resettle Canaan. Even after being miraculously liberated, the people forget God and worship the little idols of the surrounding nations. Eventually they seek a kingdom with a king like the nations around them; but of their many kings, only a few are good, like David. Although prophets call them back to faithful living, they lapse into civil war, and eventually, they are conquered and carried off as exiles to Babylon. After 70 years in exile, Nehemiah leads them back to Canaan to rebuild under the eye of their oppressors.
Through all these experiences, the people argue, wonder, rage, encourage, pray, listen, doubt, believe, and otherwise express in a thousand different ways the wonder and agony of life in this unfolding story with God. The Scriptures preserve a record of this dynamic conversation with and about God. The voices of priest and prophet, sage and poet, leader and common people come together in an honest, inspiring, and sometimes troubling conversation across generations—a conversation into which we are invited today.
All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God maybe thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16)
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.(Romans 15:4–5)
11. Imagine that you were invited to contribute to an anthology entitled "Life with God in the 21st Century." Your only assignment: to share an honest paragraph or two about what it feels like to be you, in relation to God and God’s story, today.
12. It surprises people to discover how often in the biblical conversation doubt and rage are expressed to God. Read Ecclesiastes, for example, or Psalm 88. You might discover how expressing doubt and rage to God are actually acts of faith by composing an outpouring of your own questions or frustrations in faith to God.
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.(Mark 1:14–18)
13. If you were to write a creed expressing your personal confidence in Jesus, what would you say? Start each statement with the word, “I believe.” If you don’t have much confidence in Jesus, instead express your questions about Jesus with a series of statements beginning with "I wonder."
14. Find a Bible and read Matthew 5–7 (the most concentrated example of Jesus’ teaching that we have). You can also read them online. Take a paragraph or two and render them in your own words, imagining that Jesus were speaking these words today.
15. If Jesus were to show up today, where do you think he would be born? What would he be like? What would he say, and to whom? What would he get in trouble about? How would he be killed? How and to whom would he reveal his resurrection?
16. Think of a group of people who have been harmed in the name of Christianity. Write a letter of apology to them on behalf of Jesus.
Episode 6. Church: Jesus' followers start spreading their message around the world, creating communities of faith, love, and mission called churches. They want their good deeds to bring light to all, demonstrating the kingdom of God in the name of Jesus. They bring together rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, women and men, rich and poor, and they spread their way of life across the world. They make many, many mistakes, too, but God patiently forgives them and teaches them.
Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Matthew 28:18–20)
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common.(Acts 2:42–44)
17. If you have been part of a church or other faith community, choose either a positive or negative experience that has impacted you. Then (without identifying names, if you plan to share your entry here) write that story, and explain why it is important for you to remember.
18. Describe what an ideal Christ-centered faith community might look like situated in your town or city. Let your idealism run wild.
19. Write a thank-you letter to your current faith community. Ignore problems and weaknesses for now, and instead focus on ways that this community helps you and provides enrichment, challenge, and blessing to your life.
20. Think of a specific friend of yours who is not currently practicing a living faith. Imagine that this person came to you and asked for guidance: "I respect you and your way of living. I’m hoping I can learn about God and faith from you because I’m searching for answers. Would you be my spiritual mentor?" Write the first things you would share with this friend.
"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'"(Matthew 25:21)
Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.(I Corinthians 15:58)
21. If you knew that every risk and sacrifice would be worth it, what would you do to make a difference in the world? What specific injustice or problem would you address? What fledgling project for good would you launch?
22. Think of some small thing, a random act of kindness, that you could do today as an expression of "the work of the Lord"—the kind of thing about which you would hear God say, "Well done." Do it, then come back here and write the story of your experience. (If you've been in an experience like this recently, go ahead and write about it now.)
23. Think of a big thing—an injustice, a problem, a global crisis—that matters to you. Imagine that you gather a group of friends to tackle this injustice. Write a paragraph or two that might be written in your obituary if you actually fulfilled this wild dream of doing good.
24. Many people think the biblical story is consummated with individuals going to heaven after death, or history ending so an eternal state can begin after history. They have no hope for human history and creation itself. But what if that is a misguided understanding? Imagine the world a thousand years from today if, instead, the biblical story consummates in God’s will being done on earth—heaven coming to earth to save creation instead of disembodied souls going to heaven. What would the earth look like if that process made progress in the next thousand years? How can this kind of "sanctified speculation" affect our lives today in contrast to a less hopeful scenario?
I hope this overview of the biblical narrative has stimulated your imagination, and your faith, too. I often think of writing as a first small step of action—a kind of spiritual discipline that says my invisible thinking needs to be manifested visibly in the real world. Encoding my response in visible words is a first step, hopefully, leading to the more important expression of my response beyond words—in action, relation, generosity, sacrifice, and service. In that way, we begin by understanding the biblical narrative, and then we extend it in our own lives, into our own future, and make possible its extension into, to quote Archbishop Oscar Romero, “a future not our own.”