A Progressive Pathway

October 19, 2008

Barry Gosper

St Luke’s Day

 

I would like to share something of my spiritual and theological journey this morning in relation to the scripture reading from Luke 4:14-21. In particular the quote from Isaiah 61 where Jesus says “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

It’s interesting to note that Jesus chose both Galilee and the local synagogue to commence his teaching. Galilee was an area north of Palestine. The name itself means circle. It was called this because it was encircled by a diverse range of cultures and nationalities. As a result of this it had a progressive reputation amongst the more conservative parts of Palestine. The population at the time of Jesus was similar to that of New Zealand today. The Galileans themselves were the Highlanders of Palestine. As a group of people they enjoyed change and were always ready to follow innovative leaders.

 

This is the land in which Jesus started his ministry. He began in the synagogue. The synagogue was the real centre of religious life in Palestine. Although there was only one Temple, the law stated that wherever there were ten Jewish families there must be a synagogue. The Temple was designed for sacrifice; the synagogue for teaching. The synagogue service combined three different aspects. The worship part in which prayer was offered, the reading of the scriptures which was translated from the original Hebrew into either Aramaic or Greek and the teaching part which was shared by members of the congregation. It was here that Jesus took the opportunity to express the intention of his ministry.

 

The scripture passage talks about how Jesus was praised by everyone. The event took place prior to the controversy later associated with his radical teaching. However, once Jesus started to imply that God had favour for the Gentiles as well as the Jews he met plenty of opposition within the congregation and ended up having to leave town to avoid being inflicted with some serious physical harm.

 

Although the people had welcomed some of the new teaching of Jesus, which they had given him praise for, they weren’t ready to accept or tolerate some of the extremes of this teaching. Jesus seemed to be implying that the concept of God’s love was for everyone. And not only love for everyone, but an unconditional love which did not favor or exclude. What a thought!

 

When I think about my own past, there was a time when I would have been clearly in the same camp as this angry congregation which confronted Jesus about his extreme and somewhat inclusive teaching. My conservative Christian background taught me very clearly that the Christian message was primarily for those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. It was for those who were prepared to renounce the evils of their sinful nature to embrace the purity and holiness of God. This could only be gained from following the explicit teachings of Jesus. However, I have now come to appreciate that the interpretation of these teachings of Jesus were very selective. My church clearly believed that they could only be interpreted through the eyes of an Armenian, Wesleyan theology.

 

When I look at this passage of Scripture today I see it through different eyes. I think one interpretation of it could be that the good news to the poor is about social justice and giving a voice to those who have been excluded and condemned by the religious conservatives. To proclaim release to the captives could be about freeing up the restrictions placed upon spiritual belief by the so called authorities within the wider church. Recovery of sight to the blind might be about opening our eyes to the truths of the gospel message rather than the contrived separatist notions of Evangelical Christians. And to let the oppressed go free, could be about giving people permission to explore their own spiritual pathway without the confines of having to adhere to or believe the dogma and doctrine of any particular religious authority.

 

When did this theological journey start to change for me? I think it has been over a period of years. However, there have been some significant events in my life that created opportunities for a shift in thinking. One of these took place at the start of this new millennium. Our church leadership had concerns about the continuing decline in attendance and membership of our churches throughout the country. As a result of this Patricia and I were given the opportunity from our leadership to establish and develop a new church centre as a strategy of growth. We were exited about this prospect and our vision was that this new church would be a place of safety for those who wanted to explore the whole concept of faith and God within an open environment. It would be place that would allow us to engage with the surrounding community without sensing the need to convert people to our way of thinking or believing. Our leadership had allocated a large budget to this venture and it appeared that we had their permission to explore different ways of doing and being church. These were exiting times for us.

 

As part of my preparation for embarking on this new venture I had been going to a professional supervisor who was in the process of exploring different and more creative ways of delivering her service. She had grown up in a fairly conservative Christian home, her father the local minister of a Methodist church. However, over the years she had grown tired of what she perceived as the shallowness of Christian thinking and had moved away from organised religion to explore her own spiritual pathway. When I met her she was about to embark on a different way of doing supervision. Her concept was to invite three separate groups of people, from a diverse range of professional backgrounds, to be involved in a combination of individual and group supervision.

 

Each group was made up of six people and her idea was that we would meet with her once a month for individual professional supervision and once a month for group supervision. The six people involved in my group included two psychologists, a university lecturer, a natural health provider, a massage therapist and myself. I was the only minister and the only person involved in any form of organized religion. In fact, the others in the group hadn’t had much formal or social contact with church clergy before.

 

I must confess that initially, I saw this as a golden opportunity to share my interpretation of the gospel message to these non-churched professionals. Although I enjoyed the company and open discussion with my fellow group members, I would often feel the need to enlighten them to the truths of the Christian gospel. However, during the following months, I began to appreciate the diverse range of spiritual journeys experienced and expressed by these interesting and gifted people. What had been a form of tolerance of other faith journeys for me became an appreciation and acceptance of other ways of thinking and being.

 

As a group we would spend two or three weekends a year staying at a place called Castle Hill on the West Coast of the South Island. It was a beautiful location surrounded by mountains, streams and native bush. Together, and individually we discovered many ways of experiencing God in this magnificent environment. This overall enriching experience was an invaluable aspect my preparation for someone about to explore a new concept of church.

 

Throughout the four years Patricia and I were involved in this new church development, my theological thinking changed a great deal. I no longer placed much importance on the concept of sin, or non-believer, or in fact, on the whole notion of salvation as interpreted by my church leadership. This, I believe, was one of the contributing factors in my leadership loosing some confidence in my ability to carry out this project in a way that would suit their expectations. Over time our funding for the project was dramatically reduced to a stage that made it almost impossible to resource. The end result was closure of the venture after a relatively short space of time.

 

However, despite this major disappointment, my theological journey didn’t stop. I had only just begun. It was to further develop when we came to Auckland. After running a local church and community centre in West Auckland we transferred to the Bridge Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Centre in Mt Eden. A part of my responsibility here was to help set up a new Rehabilitation Centre in Manukau. This included establishing contacts with other agencies and groups within the South Auckland community. One of the outcomes from discussions within these community groups was to identify the need to establish a place where people from various backgrounds, particularly those in recovery from alcohol and drugs, could meet to explore the whole concept of spirituality and faith. This was the place where my new understanding of Luke 4:18 was to flourish: the poor... the captives... the blind and the oppressed were responding to an interpretation of the reported words of Jesus that began to heal the wounds of their childhood church battering.

 

Like other groups of people within the community, many of the clients we were working with in the Bridge Programme had harmful experiences of organised religion and church. They weren’t opposed to the concept of a God, just opposed to those people who claimed exclusive ownership of God. As I had responsibility for leading and teaching the Spirituality component of the Bridge Programme at Manukau I saw this as a great opportunity to again explore and develop a different concept of church. The Mt Eden Bridge Centre had been running a Recovery Church for a number of years which gave us some idea of a starting point for this venture.

 

Our vision for the new church was that it would be a place where people could come along and explore the idea of a God and faith without getting bogged down with doctrine and dogma. We promoted the idea that this church would be a place where you could belong before you believed.

 

A number of clients who had recently completed the programme, helped me create such an environment. The worship style was fairly contemporary and the theological teaching quite open-ended. It didn’t take long for the church to grow as people found it to be a safe place to explore God and spirituality, without having to adhere to any particular form of Christian doctrine. I enjoyed being involved, and appreciated the freedom I felt in developing such an open church. However, the strategy of the leadership within the church began to focus more on getting people saved and converted to a more conservative form of Christianity.

 

Although this new recovery church continued to grow, I started to feel more restrained in my exploration and development of a more liberal theology.

 

In this regard, one of the crunch points for me was to attend a spiritual retreat arranged by our church for leaders currently involved in social work activities. The retreat involved a week’s teaching relating to the writings and theology of a Bible scholar who lived and practiced his ministry in the late 1800’s in England and the USA. I found the teaching to be outdated and irrelevant to today’s context. One of the only redeeming features of the week was the opportunity each of the attendees had to share something of their own spiritual journeys. I found these sharing times interesting and encouraging.

 

When it came to my turn to share I didn’t hold back any of my progressive thinking in relation to faith and my experience of God outside of the context of an Armenian Wesleyan theology. Although I had a real sense of freedom about sharing my theological journey I sensed that the leadership within the organization felt very uncomfortable with my liberal views. Again, I think there was a growing lack of confidence from the movement’s leadership in my ability to carry out my responsibilities within an appropriate theological context. The end result for Patricia and I was an offer from the leadership to lead a small local church and centre in a remote setting on the West Coast of the South Island. Out of harms way! Although some aspects of this offer were a little tempting for me, it just wasn’t practical or appropriate for us as a family to accept the appointment. So we resigned from this stage of our journey.

 

During the months prior to our resignation I had been reading a number of books from such writers as John Spong, Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong, Lloyd Geering and other heretical scholars and teachers. These people, along with my increased involvement at St Matthew's, have contributed to my progressive theological journey, which is still in process. I think that it would be fair to say that I have become increasingly comfortable with the uncomfortableness of uncertainty. As the words in our liturgy describe, we leave behind the certainties of the past.

 

In Marcus Borg’s book entitled ‘The Heart of Christianity’ he talks about two forms of Christianity today. Firstly, he describes what he calls an earlier paradigm of thinking which has been shared by most Christians in Western culture. This form of Christianity views the Bible as the unique revelation of God, emphasizes its literal meaning, and sees Christian life as centred in believing now for the sake of salvation later – believing in God, the Bible, and Jesus as the way to heaven. Christianity is seen as the only true religion. Borg then describes what he calls the ‘emerging paradigm’ of Christian thinking which is the product of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism, and cultural diversity.

 

Like Marcus Borg, the earlier way of thinking and believing no longer works for me. It’s time to move on and to share a gospel message that demonstrates love and encourages hope. For me, the words of Jesus in Luke 4:18 give new meaning to the idea of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, giving recovery of sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. I think that any organization that calls itself a church, but attempts to prohibit our progress in this journey of faith, needs to re-evaluate the true meaning of church. I look forward to moving on in my faith journey in this sacred and inclusive environment of free spiritual exploration. In the words of Marcus Borg’s wife, Marianne, I am a ‘lover of faith, seeking a faith to love.’ (Borg, M. 2003)

 

Borg, M. (2003) The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a life of faith. New York: Harpers

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