I wrote this a few years ago for ordination in the United Church of Christ. It was not good enough for them. Much of it still holds true today.
A Theological Refection
Robert M. Giannamore, MDiv, MS, NCC, LPC
Our faith journeys take many forms. I have lived the last 26 years either pondering ministry or actively working in some sort of ministry. I have moved from the bible thumping Pentecostal like preaching and praying 18 year old to now a 41 year old father of four. Whereas I once proclaimed, I now ask why and how and work to help others explore why their life is the way it is. This usually is exploring their mental health life but also reaches at times into asking the really difficult question about why they believe what they believe. I love laughter, and I really think as I have grown older that we take ourselves too seriously.
My grandfather gave me a bible when I was 14 or 15 years old. I remember it was an old bible and I am not sure whose it was before I got it, I believe that it was a Revised Standard Version and it had all the apocrypha in it. I remember that I read through it cover to cover and remember being particularly drawn to the Psalms and the Proverbs. So much was I drawn to these books, that I wrote down passages from both books in a small notebook and then took these notes to school where I shared them with my friends. In time, a small group of us formed in the school library before school each morning and we would talk and discuss these verses and other things that teenagers talked about in the early 90’s. One day on the way to school, I was struck by this overwhelming need to go to confession – I was Catholic at the time and the next Sunday, I found myself in the confessional and during my penance prayers, I received my first call to ministry. This call has been constant and reaffirmed over the last 24 years by friends, family and through many conversations with God.
So why be a minister? I feel called to help people understand their life path with a spiritual connection to a metaphysical reality, in our case, we call this reality God, others call her Allah, and still others, Abba. As I have grown older, and as I have worked with an increasingly acute population of mentally ill youth and young adults coming from very broken homes and very broken societies, I have gained patience and an even stronger desire to share Jesus’ love and God’s grace through preaching and teaching.
I have considered myself a contemplative since I was 18. The life of prayer is something that I never abandoned and is something that I bring with me from my time as a Catholic considering monasticism. In college, Buddhism entered my life and greatly enhanced my Christian experience. Today, I consider myself a modern day contemplative and identify my ministry as such. I would also say that my counseling practice takes on an air of contemplativeness. The older I get, the more I feel a need to share these skills and this way of life in a way that is apart from the secular work that I do as a therapist.
My journey as a monastic, a therapist, a husband, parent, and minister has taken me from the Catholic Church to The United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ.
I want to tackle several major points in the following paragraphs: theology on God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, Atonement, and Resurrection. I would further like to address the state of humanity, salvation and the nature of the church. I will finish by addressing the institution of ordination and where I feel my place is within this institution. I tend to geek out throughout the following sections and it gets fairly deep, but bear with me. The essence of what the following says is I love the Trinity, think salvation is for everyone and God is good but not as unapproachable as some would think. So here we go.
I love God, talking about God, arguing about God and letting you know that my God loves you no matter who you are or where you are on this journey called life. Today, we live in a world where who God is largely determined by who you are. My belief about God has changed as I have gotten older and the events of 9/11 forever changed my view of God. Prior to 9/11, I was really into penal substitutionary atonement or the idea that Jesus was sacrificed by God on the cross for our sins. After 9/11, I could not stomach all the “Christian” rhetoric that God let this terrible event happen because of people’s sins. I also could not stomach the idea that Muslims were really as bad as people made them out to be; I went to high school and college with the first wave of Saudi Arabian refugees of the first Gulf War era, and I found many of these people as my friends. As I have grown up and watched our children come into mine and my wife’s life, my views of God and God’s beautifulness changed even more
The more people I work with, the more conversations I have about who God is and how God functions. I love to consider the arguments of those who say that there is no God. God at God’s simplest self is a metaphysical reality that has no definitive proof of existence. God on the other hand is an insistent presence, a presence in my life that I have experienced over and over again; a presence that I have tried to walk away from, do my own thing, and every time, God has asked me, invited me to come, to be. I feel that this presence is love. Therefore, on one hand, I would say that it is possible for God not to exist if someone does not have an experience of the metaphysical, the experience of the insistence of God. Jurgen Moltmann offers that “God cannot be proven, neither from the cosmos nor from the depths of human existence. He proves himself through himself. His revelation is the proof of God given by God. No one reveals God but God himself alone”(Moltmann, p 54). On the other hand, I feel that God is love. Love is the essence of God and is the purest proof that God does exist. Love is surely tangible.
One of the podcasters I have been following for years, Trip Fuller insists that our God is as nice as Jesus. He often tells this story about a woman who was an atheist before she met Trip:
If there’s a God, She’s a mystery. As a Christian, I believe that mystery is revealed in Jesus. Whenever I hear someone – even Christians – talking about God and they seem to be full of hate, judgement, and anger, I think of Jesus on the cross who said “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If that’s the mystery being revealed, then any image of God needs to match it or you should ditch it. God has to be as nice as Jesus. If not, we are ignoring the most important part (Fuller, p. 42).
Our God is a pardoning God and I believe in God’s love abiding in me, in you. I feel that our God is not an evil force that sits upon a throne high away from her people judging with malice and anger. This may at times have been the God of the Old Testament; however, I feel that the God that Jesus introduces is a God of compassion, working actively on behalf of his people, introducing a new interpretation of God’s love. For God, love is seen in the salvific and redemptive acts of God.
I have always been drawn to the book of Psalms. I feel that the Psalms offer a beautiful glimpse of the salvific and redemptive acts of God and it is for me the Psalms that support my understanding of how God acts on behalf of humanity. “The Psalms highlight various forms of deliverance. The Psalms speak of David’s personal salvation from his enemies, Israel’s deliverance as a nation, David’s personal deliverance from sin, and an expectation of future salvation with a Messianic hope”(King, p. 17, nd).In the book of Psalms, salvation is an event that points to the presence of God for the Hebrew people. It is an example of God’s insistence as pointed out by Caputo.
I want to close this section on God before it gets too complicated and windy with a thought from theologian Roger Olson, God is in charge. I love this. I also love the notion that God has a purpose for our lives rather than a plan. I am a father, I love my children, and usually I am in charge of my children. And my children have a wonderful and beautiful purpose for my wife and I. Despite all of this, I am limited and it is not a limitation that I can control. My kids will grow up, become independent and formulate their own plans. Their purposes will change. Even I will go away at some point. God, God has not gone away. God was with the Israelites, God was with Jesus, God was with the first Christians and God is with my children.
I am in love with Jesus. He makes me smile. I could see him as one of my trail running friends. That’s another story. Just because you were 18 once and you ran a lot in the Army does not mean that you can randomly sign up for a 31 mile race when you are 34. Since I have done that in 2010, I have ran close to 30+ ultra distance marathons from 31 – 62 miles, it has brought a new meaning to running the race ahead of you. Jesus perhaps is, in my opinion, one of the most divisive characters in history. At the most simplest explanation, Jesus was a person who on one hand was and is an apocalyptic prophet who preached non violent protest to an occupied people and on the other hand, he is and was a homeless dead Jew. Through Jesus, God becomes for the Jewish people of first century Jerusalem and surrounding areas and for us a liberating God, a God who through Jesus speaks up against a system that impoverishes people and keeps them in a state of dis ease. It is felt that how we understand Jesus is framed in part in how we understand the atonement. The theology too, that we apply to our understanding of Christ also shapes our beliefs. For me, life in 2018, the world, and especially most recently in the United States, is seeing a regression in civil rights and transgressions that may have been hidden in the past. It has been observed that these transgressions are becoming more exposed. I feel that our world needs to see Jesus as a presence that sets us free from the bondages of self doubt, guilt and shame. Our world needs a Jesus who is a liberator.
I think to really get your head around Jesus and how to deal with the many interpretations of his death and its meaning, I feel we need to look at atonement theories, but commenting on all the ones that exist could be a dissertation in itself. I would like to briefly look at one that I have been most interested in for some time, the last scapegoat theory posited by Rene’ Girard. Jones (2012) posits the idea that original sin and total depravity were not issues that Jesus ever took up. This idea feels reasonable because it was never God’s intention for his creation to be depraved in the first place. It is reiterated several times that God saw God’s creation was good. Adam and Eve were not deemed sinful until after they fell under the spell of the serpent and were condemned. It is my belief in the goodness of God that shapes my understanding of God’s salvific and redemptive works and therefore God’s role in Jesus’ death. Rather than demonstrating that God was vengeful and angry with humanity, Jesus’ death “amidst common thieves is his ultimate act of solidarity with every human being who has experienced godlessness and god forsakenness. In other words, every human being”(Jones, 2012). Rather than showing humankind that God is vengeful, wrathful and angry, Jesus as God’s presence in human form presents to us that God suffers with us.
Jones further offers “Christ, the son of God, is the ultimate “scapegoat”—precisely because he is the son of God, and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty”(Jones, 2012) (Scapegoating was the basis for all Hebrew sacrifices, these sacrifices became the source that stimulated the desire for God’s intervention in times of celebration, want or need).”In Christ, God becomes the one who is rejected and expelled. That is, the scapegoat is not one who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices”(Jones, 2012).
How about the Jesus found in the scriptures? What do we find there? Two scripture verses come to mind when I think about the origins of Christ, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son”(John 3:16) and “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). I like the idea of changing the wording of John 3:16 to “For God so loved our unawareness that he brought Jesus into the world to expose our unawareness”. Jesus came to expose our unawareness to the ways we bring shame, guilt and doubt to those we attempt to share the gospel with. Jesus exposes how this unawareness alienates us with the living God and creates a relationship with God where we falsely believe that we can appease God with lofty words and placated promises. Jesus shows us that God is not a God who is our personal butler that will shoo away the bad things in our lives; rather, Jesus shows us that obstacles are opportunities to grow.
To explore these passages further I feel that Jesus did and does a great job of showing us our shortcomings. Prior to Jesus coming around, God had made numerous pacts and creeds with human kind to maintain the connection God had with God’s people. After the failure of all of these pacts and creeds, something had to be different, something radical. Incarnation was the radical solution. Incarnation simply is God taking on flesh through Christ. It is to be noted that I feel that the Jesus event and the claims about Jesus made were not unique to the history of the ancient world. Jesus was only one among many who were claimed to have wisdom, magical powers and prophetic abilities. The Incarnation solution was radical in that Caesar and other rulers claimed to be human and divine, but it is felt that these designations were null because they were human made decrees. Nobody ever claimed that Jesus was divine, it was God’s insistent presence in Christ and later revelations and theological discourse through the church councils that it was determined to be so. Furthermore, it is felt that we need to put aside our late 19th, 20th and early 21 century understanding of sciences and physics and rely solely on the possibility of the insistence of divine mystery in understanding how Jesus became divine and fully human and how he was able to transcend beyond a human bodily death and burial.
Jesus’ death on the cross exposed the brokenness of a broken worship system and caused an awareness of the barbarity of the sacrificial system. This became particularly alarming to Pontious Pilate when he declared Jesus’ innocence to the Jewish people. Jesus so upset the early Jewish people because he exposed their reliance on this broken system, this corrupt, one sided system where the rich stayed rich and the poor were seen as outcasts. Jesus would have a lot to say today. Jesus then and Jesus today liberates us from a reliance on such systems and forces us to look at the reality of our actions. Through Jesus, we are pointed to where we have not loved our neighbor. Jesus calls us out for our reliance on systems that shame, guilt or take away the rights of others. A great example of this is seen when Jesus reprimands Peter for wanting to build a tent during the transfiguration story or when Jesus reprimands Peter when Peter proclaims him the Christ. Mark is quite good in maintaining the messianic secret. Peter misses the mark when he rightfully identifies Jesus but wrongly asserts his power and places himself, a student, in a position higher than Jesus. You see, the Jewish, Hebrew and us modern folk get too comfortable telling God what they wanted and it is felt that they would offer sacrifices perhaps at times to appease their worried souls of the guilt they may have been feeling. Jesus in this instance reminds us that we must stay behind God and let God lead. Jesus shows us that we are terrible at listening to God and just be.
That leaves me to address the Holy Spirit. If Jesus and God are in your face insistence, it is felt that the Holy Spirit is the silent, quiet insistent presence of the Trinity. It is felt that a lot does not need to be written about the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is. The quiet insistence of the Holy Spirit is it’s presence in all things; it is the ruach, the breath of all things in our life. “The Spirit is not Jesus’ “possession,” but “is the power of indestructible life.” In a similar way, we too can and should request that the Spirit of God would empower us to work for justice, to love, to work for healing, and to suffer on behalf of others. But if the Spirit didn’t turn Jesus into Superman, she won’t turn you into a super hero either. But she will empower you to suffer” (Roberts, 2015). It is the Holy Spirit that gives us the courage and strength to do the impossible things that God asks us to do.
Humans really do try and do impossible things. Looking at our human condition and our response to the insistence of the Trinity it is felt that in this life, human kind is troubled. A darkness pervades, a darkness that leads people into a sinful relationship with others in God’s creation. This darkness overwhelms many people’s lives and takes on a manifestation that is specific to each person; no person’s sin is the same as the next. I feel that sin is the absence of the love that God has for God’s creation in our actions. It is an alienation and fracture of the relationship between humans and God’s created world, we let guilt, shame and malicious words and actions torment those around us.
The Eightfold Path of Buddhism lays it out precisely when looking at sin, it is the absence of right speech, right view, right intention, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. It is allowing sin to control our spirit, to not allow Jesus to dwell within us. It is our failure to allow the Holy Spirit to move us. It is our human condition to use our freedom poorly. Despite our sinful actions and our alienation from God, one thing remains constant in this whole struggle we call life. That is God’s love. God’s love abides regardless of our sin, regardless how lost and broken we are. Regardless how impossible the task we are attempting to undertake or overcome.
God’s benevolent love for all of creation is not a “Get out Jail Free” card. We are not free to do what we want. Moltmann offers “in the modern world, however, people understand freedom very differently. They consider freedom to be the individual’s independent rights of disposal over his or her own life and his own property; and they see collective freedom as the sovereign disposal of political bodies, people or nations over their own affairs.” Here freedom is viewed as an individual’s (or a nation’s) `right to self-determination’. Here freedom means rule over oneself” (Moltmann, 1992).
What does it mean to rule over one’s self? For me, it means to be ever mindful of where you came from and to be always in an attitude of prayer and compassion. I feel that this is a throwback to my days contemplating monastic life. I find being in an attitude of prayer and compassion makes me mindful of those I have shortchanged or to those I was not a beneficial presence to. For me, repentance often comes in the form of serving. I serve because I am a sinful person and by God’s grace and Jesus’ love, I have been freed. Serving is in the DNA of this writer as this writer was brought up surrounded by grandparents who lived with an attitude of servant hood. It is my belief borrowed from the Eastern philosophy of Buddhism that it is our mission in life to live in such a way that we strive to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings. Jesus tells us both in word and practice to go, serve, love and live in a way that reflects God’s love; specifically, God calls us to heal the sick, care for poor and feed the hungry. Also, in Christ, no one is turned away and God’s providential and loving grace offers love, care and support to all who come to sit at God’s feet. Being in a constant attitude of prayer and compassion has the direct effect of causing me to be faithful.
I feel that being properly faithful requires a certain maturity of character, and one that few ever truly achieve completely. I feel that a mature faith is cyclical and one can easily pass back and forth between these stages of faith throughout the life span. Our faith life should be liberating and a mature faith and one that is accountable. Moltmann offers a “liberating faith is a faith that takes us personally captive. The truth that makes me free is the truth to which I myself assent because I myself understand it, not because tradition and custom compel me. Personal faith is the beginning of a freedom that renews the whole of life and ‘overcomes the world’, as the Gospel of John says (John 16.33)” (Moltmann, 1992). Today, it is felt that there is a great divide between the notion of being faithful and being religious. It is felt that one cannot truly be religious without being truly faithful.
To become truly faithful, we must focus on a path of being rightly mindful, rightly thoughtful, having right concentration, have a right understanding, using right speech, engaging in right action, pursuing a right livelihood, and engaging in right effort (Remember this from earlier in the paper? Those Buddhists have a great way of explaining things). I feel that one can gain these elements of a faithful life through the engagement with a community that prayerfully considers what Wesleyan’s would call the Wesley Quadrilateral or reason, experience, tradition and scripture. I feel that much of the ridiculousness that we see sensationalized today in the media and much of the worshiptainment that is popular today is lacking largely in these elements. To be faithful and to learn how to be faithful, we need an ecclesiastical community that is grounded in the elements that I have mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. An ecclesiastical community must include in some form or another elements of worship, food fellowship (communion in some form is part of this food worship), scriptural study, and mission.
The church is “an expression of God’s destiny for mankind. The Christian church demonstrates this principle in it’s celebration of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, where the fellowship of each individual Christian with Christ becomes the basis for solidarity of all Christians with one another”(Pannenberg, 1977, p 16). In living in solidarity with all other Christians, we must commit to a life of mindfulness and learning and it is felt that the church needs to be our central gathering place to rehearse the skills that we will need each week to carry out Christ’s call to make disciples. The mission of the church has never changed, however the demographics of our churches has. The Christian church has done a very poor job of keeping up or in many cases, just plain refusing to adapt to the changing needs of our ever increasing global world. It is felt that this has caused a major cancer in the church and has caused a slow death to many major and minor denominations over the world.
In the Western tradition of Christianity, we have a very stale understanding of what church is and what we do. We seem to understand it as something that we do only once a week and occasionally do a mission project or two. We may even go to church during the middle of the week and sit on a board or two. Pannenberg, quoting Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, offers “The Church is a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind” (Pannenberg, 1977, p 151), In the Eastern tradition of Buddhism, one has the tradition of the sangha, the community in which one practices the work of being a Buddhist. I like the word practice. It has a sense of action; a sense of togetherness that I feel is lost in our Western individualistic identities. In our churches today, we need to be a sangha that practices prayer, studies church history, scriptures and theologies that form our faith and occasionally engage in sacramental worship. “One’s practice is what one does to assure that the heart of one’s religion is also one’s own heart; it makes sure that one is personally plugged into whatever it was that got this religious tradition going and that keeps it going. Practice, more concretely, is all the things that a Buddhist or a Christian does to keep connected with the experience of Gautama or Jesus, and to make sure that the energy of this experience grows, adapts, applies, and holds tight in all the rough times of life” (Knitter, 2009).
In Acts chapter 2, it is offered that the early church was a place full of the Spirit, devoted to the apostles teaching and growing daily their numbers (The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrapha, 2001). I feel that worship needs to be the engine that drives the local church and must be inspiration for even the smallest of churches to devote themselves to Christ’s call. I feel that the key to the post modern church is to adopt a pre Christian attitude to worship.
If worship is the central gathering for the believers of Christ, then preaching and prayer must be the primary language we speak to promote the Gospel and the changes we seek to make in this world. Trost (2007) tells us that the preacher preaches not of his own thought and will without basis but founded in the words of divine Scripture (p. 173). For worship to embody these elements of prayer and preaching, one does not necessary need a Sunday morning service. In the pre Christian days of Acts 2, worship was done in houses, in mission, on the corners, in the coffee houses if they had them back then. Today, too, adopting a pre Christian attitude and change of perspective allows us to see the men’s breakfast at the local diner as worship; the deaconanate meeting and all the other times we get together in community and gather in a spirit of prayer, compassion and love.
I feel that one of our primary languages of worship to convey our love, appreciation and concerns to God our Creator is prayer. “Prayer is asking God for help while at the same time God is asking us for help, each petition intertwined with the other over the fate of a contingent world.”(Caputo, 2013). Caputo would go on to say that prayer is “the risky business of disturbing the present with the prospect of an unforeseeable future and the memory of an immemorial past, with the chance of the event” (Caputo, 2013).
If unwise speech can lead to a confusion of the Spirit, it is wise then to consider one’s word’s before they are uttered. I feel that prayer should not be superfluous. Prayer needs to be concise, not a begging of God to change things or placating God by saying his name in every other line of our verbal prayer. Prayer simply needs to be us asking for God to intervene and offer divine guidance. When we ask God to change things for example, say the healing of a dying loved one, and the loved one dies, we easily can turn to God and blame God for this loss. If we however come to God humbly and ask for God’s divine intervention and divine will to reign and then with a prayerful attitude, let God be, we have no one to blame.
If prayer is our language, the bible needs to be one of our guidebooks. I really like the Wesleyan quadrilateral as a means of measuring the viability of a source for Christian formation. With the quadrilateral, you have scripture, reason, tradition and experience. I feel that scripture is a means to help us understand how the ancient people understood their relationship with God. I do not take it literally, but do feel that it needs to be an ever present guide in the decisions we make each day. Dr. Lizardy- Hajbi asks Marcus Borg the question: “In what ways do you envision faith formation as the very essence of the identity, culture, and program life of congregations and other related ministries?” Borg replies that “One of the central tasks of a congregation—maybe the most important task—is Christian formation” (Lizardy – Hajbi, 2011). Borg points out what he calls the three “A’s – achievement, affluence, and appearance. In looking at these elements, Borg feels that our culture reinforces these values and that faith formation must be focused on re-formation and re-socialization. Borg concludes “This includes education, bible study, Christian practices (especially prayer), and worship. Without those things, there really is no church” (Lizardy – Hajbi, 2011).
I would concur with Borg’s observations and feel that in conducting faith formation; the church of today must step away from modernist approaches to education, worship, bible study and other pre- Christian practices, and embrace a postmodern approach in step with the ongoing cultural changes. Looking at a postmodern approach, Lizrardy-Hajbi, (2012) identifies technology, generational changes, vocabulary/language shifts, Intergenerational and Family-Centered Movements, finances as major movers in the way today’s young people and young families approach church. In making church relevant for this population, Lizardy – Hajbi suggest that “The emerging movement helped Christians from a variety of contexts to (1) encounter wider Christian traditions that have come before and (2) consider ways to reappropriate these traditions in creative, authentic, and culturally accessible ways” (Lizardy-Hajbi, 2012). It has been my experience that a church that follows traditional, modernistic, hard theological approaches to faith is often filled with a large core of members 65 and older with a small fringe of young people, mostly those children who have not come of age. It has been observed that younger people are often but not always consumed with the current culture and seek meaning and identity outside of the church. Christian faith formation must help these people find a faith formation that according to Borg who is noted earlier “must be focused on re-formation and re-socialization” (Lizardy – Hajbi, 2011).
So who orders and manages this work of the church, the teaching of the masses? I feel that this is the role of the ordained minister. As with other forms of evolution in the church, I feel that the role of the ordained minister has now for the most part moved back to the tent maker pastor discussed by Paul. Our churches are dying and we now need dynamic pastors who can be independent in running a house or small church community and holding down another job. The ordained pastor then has to be able to put his or her ego aside and understand that it is their role to manage, guide and lead but not be in control (If God is not in control, how the pastor can be in control?). The ordained pastor has to be a business manager, an administrator an educator and a promoter. It is the role of the ordained minister to help the people learn to lead and establish communities of faith that reflect the community’s personality, not the pastor’s.
It is the ordained pastor’s job to help the church community interpret the wider churches mission for their community’s needs and how to reach out to the global community. I feel that over the 20 years away from high school, I have gained a lot of skills. From my monastic background to 8 years in the military, to being a father and a long distance runner I have gained wisdom, patience and a love for people that gives me motivation to reduce suffering through service and teaching. I have a lot of weaknesses too. My experiences with The United Methodist Church have left its scars and I have grown more cynical in my years. Mindfulness keeps me centered. At work, on the back of my name tag, I have a patch that represents the three monkey’s proverb – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. When my cynicism becomes too much, I turn to this proverb and tell myself that there is a reason for the way things are and may not necessarily be my reason to understand. At the end of the day, I love and I desire nothing more than to share this love and my love for theology and philosophy with the church and its people and help bring Christianity into the next century.
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