Brian McLaren: Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, and Christopher Columbus

This past May we were honored to host Brian McLaren at MCC for a day of dialogue and learning. It was a day I will never forget, and I’m still unpacking and thinking through it in so many ways. 

During the afternoon workshop, one of Brian’s talks focused on his (brilliant and urgent) book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?  Part of this talk speaks to the impact and problem of Christopher Columbus. More and more of us, when learning about the actions and beliefs of Columbus, are becoming uncomfortable celebrating this day that honors his “accomplishments.” While celebrating this man’s legacy is problematic, we must remember all the uncomfortable details. To forget them would dishonor those Columbus and his men mistreated, and potentially doom us to repeating those same atrocities in other ways, on other people, today. 

If you would like to listen to Brian’s talk, you will find it here.

Labels, Walls, and the Divided Church

Our world, particularly here in America, is deeply divided. This division is often expressed through a series of labels:
Democrats and Republicans.
Liberals and Conservatives.
People who see an issue one way versus people who see the same issue differently.

We disagree, we label, and we essentially push those we disagree with aside and write them off as being “crazy,” or some other demeaning adjective. And this isn’t just a problem within our wider culture. This is a problem within the Christian community. A BIG problem. There are, according to some, 20-30,000 plus Christian denominations in the world today. All derived, so we like to think and hope, from the teaching and experience of Jesus. Yet, Christianity is deeply divided on so many issues. And, when we experience a disagreement we often just move to the other side of the road, put up a wall, and start a new church or a new denomination. Sometimes that is a necessary, unavoidable reality. But too often in this separating from one tradition and beginning a new we vilify and condemn the churches and denominations that we leave. Instead of partnering together on the causes we can agree on, we tend to erect massive walls that we hide behind—walls to keep others out, and keep us in.

But, this isn’t a new problem.

In Luke 9:46-50 (CEB) we find this same kind of mentality present among Jesus’ disciples:

An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. Aware of their deepest thoughts, Jesus took a little child and had the child stand beside him. Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me. Whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever is least among you all is the greatest.” John replied, “Master, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he isn’t in our group of followers.” But Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him, because whoever isn’t against you is for you.”

Jesus’ disciples were, like us, trying to label and separate.

This guy isn’t wearing our uniform, he doesn’t have the T-Birds jacket on (Grease reference, anyone?), or the group tattoo/haircut/whatever…there are endless ways we seek to demarcate and separate ourselves from others.

There’s an us, and a them (everyone who isn’t an us)

One thing we often overlook in this passage is what the guy is actually doing. He is performing exorcisms. This begs the question,  Is it better to have more demons in you, or less?

Jesus responds by saying, “Ugh. You guys still don’t get it? We are both working for the same team. We’re all trying to liberate people from the oppression and bondage in which they live!” (My paraphrase)

These disciples have created a divider, a wall, that essentially separates the them and the us. And often, the only way we can define “us” is by defining them (think about this for a second!).

Who are we? Well, we aren’t them!!!

We construct these walls, and they oddly can become sacred spaces. We defend them at all costs. We set up snipers to take out anyone trying to make it to the other side. No wonder that Christianity is a shrinking tradition in the West. Among other issues, the amount of hatefulness and hostility that exists between Christians of different stripes sends people looking for peace, compassion, and community running the other way. We, humans, have ALWAYS been talented at building walls and then guarding them with hostility.

The bringing down of these walls became a metaphor for the writer of Ephesians.

First, a bit of context. The Second Temple in Jerusalem had several courts–areas that were designated for certain groups. Among them (moving from the innermost to the outermost) was the Court of Priests (the innermost), the Court of Israelites (for the males), the Court of Women (want to take a guess?), and the Court of the Gentiles (this was the outermost area, and Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews, couldn’t get any closer to the action).  Acting as a barrier to the rest of the Temple precincts, reserved for observant Jews, was the Soreq. The Soreq was a five-foot-tall stone-wall that surrounded the inner courts of the Temple grounds. It was designed to keep Gentiles out of the inner courts. 

In 1871, archaeologists discovered an inscription that warned Gentiles against trying to press further into the Temple precincts. Written in Koine Greek, it reads: 
“No stranger [foreigner] is to enter within the partition wall and enclosure around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will be responsible to himself for his death, which will ensue.”


Isn’t that heartwarming? Yet it makes much sense of the imagery the writer of Ephesians draws upon when he writes these words about Jesus to a church struggling with the chasm between Jews and Gentiles:

“Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2v14 CEB)

The question they had to wrestle with then–and we must wrestle with today–is why do we keep trying to divide what Jesus brought together. 

It isn’t miraculous that people who agree can get together and chant their slogans, create an us and seek to vilify the them who are different. It’s miraculous–the work of God–when people who have divergent opinions and interpretations can occupy the same space and drink from the same cup and eat from the same loaf.

The reality is that we get to choose our responses. When people are hateful and hostile, we are left with a choice. We can choose to return their hate and hostility, to treat them as we’ve been treated, or we can choose to tear down the walls and seek peace and understanding.

As Jesus said (admittedly about a different issue, yet I think the underlying meaning applies here), What God has joined together, let no one separate (Mark 10v9).

When the Church Cries Wolf: a few thoughts on Christians and persecuton

My son is at the age where he will sometimes claim an illness to get out of things he doesn’t want to do. When he doesn’t want to eat dinner, it’s blamed on a stomach ache that magically disappears when talk of dessert begins. And, when he does this, I tell him the story my parents told me in such situations, the story of “The Boy Who Cried, ‘Wolf’.” I won’t bore you by telling the story here, but the gist of it is that when you falsely claim something–a stomach ache for example–it becomes harder and less likely that people will believe you when you actually mean it. 

I bring this story up because I think this is happening–and has been happening–among some Christians–for a while now. From displays of the Ten Commandments on court-house lawns to the “Happy Holidays” greeting to fears of government incursion on church policy, the cries of persecution are being raised by more and more Christians in America. For the record, as a white-middle-class-straight-American-male-pastor, I don’t feel persecuted in the least. Claiming such a thing, living where I live, seems preposterous, and an insult to the millions of Christians, past and present, who are being persecuted around the world. However, let’s assume for a moment that those claiming persecution are correct. Let’s assume that Christians in America are being persecuted and mistreated. How should we respond? Should we become angry and rude? Should we seek to marginalize those who we feel are marginalizing us? Should we seek to grab whatever power we can and use it to further our own position? 

Thankfully, Jesus actually spoke to this issue in his teaching that we call “The Sermon on the Mount.” In his pronouncement of blessing (rendered “happy” in the CEB) upon the poor, the weak, and those pushed to the edges of society Jesus includes those who are persecuted, or “harassed.” Let’s allow these words from Jesus to be instructive in our respond to feelings of persecution:

Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you. (Matthew 5v10-12 CEB)
“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you  so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matthew 5v43-48 CEB)
Jesus says, to those being harassed, insulted, and falsely spoken of, to respond with love toward our persecutors and enemies. We do this, Jesus says, because this is what God is like, this is how God treats all of us, and this is what it means to be a child of God in the world. Perhaps the real issue is not that many Christians feel persecuted. Perhaps the real issue is that for so many of us, so often, when we feel this way we seek to respond the conventional way that everyone responds (by getting even, inflicting upon others what they’ve inflicted upon us, etc.), and not in the Kingdom of God way that Jesus calls us too.
The ultimate task we have is to take Jesus so seriously that we seek to embody his teaching in our own lives, relationships, and communities. We cannot do this by “crying wolf.” We can only do this by imitating and enacting the message of Jesus–the message of love, compassion, and peace–in the most unloving, indifferent, and hostile situations.
May we seek to make this prayer of St. Francis of Assisi our own:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

We’re all human…

I read these piercing words from Paul in Romans 2v1 this morning:

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (NRSV)

Wow. That stings. This is the biblical equivalent of that saying we often hear, “Every time your point your finger at someone else, three more are pointing back at you.”

This condemning/judging of others comes so natural to us for lots of reasons:

It takes the focus off of us and our shortcomings.
It makes us feel better about ourselves if someone else screws up.
It allows us to be one of the ‘insiders’, those who are allowed in the group because our moral purity is acceptable. Conversely, it also means that those we condemn are placed on the outside.

And Paul doesn’t mince his words. He doesn’t soften the blow. He calls us, in all our arrogant self-righteousness, out on the carpet.

Now, before you push back, I should let you know that I’ve been in Christian communities my whole life. My grandfather was a pastor. So, I’ve heard (and given!) these excuses/defenses for being judgmental before:

“We can’t judge, but we are called to fruit inspectors.”
“I’m not judging you, God is.”

If we are honest, then we will admit that 99% of the time, these are simply excuses that seek to cover up gossip, self-righteousness, and sometimes a crippling sense of our own failure, so we need a scapegoat to place all that guilt/shame/blame onto.

My job isn’t to judge you. 

I love how Paul puts it in Galatians 6v1-2:

“My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (NRSV)

Notice the tone of this. 

Bearing another’s burdens with them.

This isn’t a judgmental condemnation, this is simply one flawed, struggling human being helping another carry their load. 

I guess that, in many ways, is the point. Beyond any of the ways we have chosen to divide the world up (race, religion, economics, politics, sports rivalries), when all that gets stripped away, we are still human. We are still made–all of us–in the image of the Sacred. 

One of “Those” Days…

Yesterday was one of “those” days. I’m confident you know exactly what I mean.

One frustrating situation after another.

The kind of day that makes you want to throw in the towel, and go off all alone, find a dark room, and sulk. 

Yep. That was yesterday. 

But something interesting happened last night. While sulking, focusing of the negative, on what I had to worry about or feel angry about, I received a text message.

This text was from someone who probably had no idea how bad my day had been. Yet the words in this message totally changed the game for me. 

They were encouraging.



I woke up this morning a brand new man. Without even realizing it, those words, that I read and re-read more than once, had somehow actually changed my disposition. 

Which brings me to my point: Words matter.

They can heal or wound.

Build up or tear down.

Give life or take it. 

The writer of Proverbs puts it like this:

Pleasant words are like a honeycomb,
sweetness to the soul and health to the body. [16v24, NRSV]

And, the reverse is just as true:

Rash words are like sword thrusts… [12v18, NRSV]

So, today, let’s think deeply about what we are saying to each other. Let’s ask how these words we are about to speak will affect those who hear them. Let’s offer the gift of encouraging, hopeful, live-giving words. 

Trust me, they make all the difference on one of “those” days.

SOTM: the Beatitudes

Yesterday at Morgantown Community Church we began a journey through the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7] that will span six months and four different series. Our first series is an exploration of the ‘Beatitudes’, or as Frederick Dale Bruner calls them, “Jesus’ surprisingly countercultural God-bless-yous to the people in God-awful situations.” 

There is so much I’d like to dig into each week, but time won’t allow for all of it. So, here on the blog, I’ll try each week to post some of the ‘cutting room floor’ quotes, ideas, etc. that didn’t make the Sunday teaching. 

Today, we hear more wisdom from Dallas Willard on what the Beatitudes actually are:

“The Beatitudes simply cannot be ‘good news’ if they are understood as a set of ‘how-tos’ for achieving blessedness. They would then only amount to a new legalism. They would serve not to throw open the kingdom—anything but. They would impose a new brand of Phariseeism, a new way of closing the door—as well as some very gratifying possibilities for the human engineering of righteousness…The Beatitudes are human ‘lasts’ who at the individualized touch of the heavens become divine ‘firsts’.”

an honest assessment of how we read the bible…

photo (1)

I talk about the Bible a lot. So, it stands to reason that I also hear people talk about the Bible a lot as well. One of the phrases I hear often in such settings is some variant of the following:

“I just believe the Bible.”


“I’m just telling you what the Bible says.”

Statements such as these imply that our personal opinions, context, background, worldview and all such things are divorced from our reading of the Bible. We approach the Scripture without bias or presupposition, and objectively make pronouncements about the meanings of the text.

The issue with this is simple: That is not possible!

We are human beings. We live in a particular context, have a particular worldview, and that colors our interpretation of the Bible.

And let’s be even more honest, we are all interpreting the Bible.  There is no divine manual of interpretation that fell from the sky that gives us a clear ‘this is what it means’. We all interpret the Bible, and that interpretation is an opinion. This opinion may be shared by some [and not by others], but that doesn’t make it less of an opinion.

To claim that we somehow stand above the fray and offer an unbiased, unopinionated interpretation just isn’t accurate. Or honest. That claim is seeking unquestioned authority and obedience to our interpretations. And, some opinions/interpretations are better than others. Some are more true to the text. But they are still interpretations.

That’s the key, actually. The Bible must be interpreted. We wrestle with what the Bible means–when it was written and now–because we want to live as true to the vision and way that are set out there as we possibly can.

But let’s be honest, none of us approaches the Bible as a clean, objective slate. We bring our experiences, our views, what we’ve heard or been taught…we bring a mixed bag of bias and opinions that make us anything but completely objective.

There is much wisdom in these words from Thomas Talbott, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Willamette University:

“We don’t read the Bible the way it is; we read the Bible the way we are.” 

He is not disputing the claim that there is truth to be discovered, or that some readings of the text aren’t better or more accurate than others. He is disputing the idea that we can just tell people ‘what the Bible says’ without making interpretations, which are filtered through our views, opinions, and ideas.

This wrestling with the text and its meaning is one of the things I love about the Bible and being in community with others. The Bible, though more, is not less than an invitation to carry on an ancient conversation about the things that matter most.

Read it.
Study it.
Discuss it.
Immerse your life in it.

But let’s not assume we somehow offer an unbiased interpretation.