Author's details

Name: UMJeremy
Date registered: March 3, 2012

Latest posts

  1. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: What the Church can Learn from the Code Manifesto — July 29, 2014
  2. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Time is Ticking on #UMC Tipping Point — July 28, 2014
  3. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Separating secular and sacred at a Wedding — July 23, 2014
  4. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: The UMC is at its best when Brady and Ashland fight — July 21, 2014
  5. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Will ‘Better’ Catechism stop LGBT Inclusion? — July 17, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Holding the #UMC Hostage 01 – The Setting — 5 comments
  2. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Restricting Marriage is a Justice Issue — 2 comments
  3. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: About that UMReporter Article…[response] – A Methodist Church United for our Daughters — 2 comments
  4. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Is the #UMC the Rebellion…or the Empire? – Unity in Diversity…or Unity over Diversity? The choice is yours. — 2 comments
  5. Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Defeating the Dark Side of Church Metrics #UMC – Measuring transformation or accumulation? — 2 comments

Author's posts listings

Jul 29 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: What the Church can Learn from the Code Manifesto

Original post at

computer-coding-catKayla Daniels is a programmer who happens to be female. Unfortunately, people in her field focus more on her gender than on her programming expertise. Ms. Daniels gave a talk at Laracon (US) this year on her struggles of being a female programmer and not wanting the same sexist culture for her daughter. In response, she wrote a simple manifesto that she hoped more workplaces would adopt and encourage a radically different culture than the one she has lived through.

Here’s her goal:

Through this [manifesto], anyone who looks into our industry–to see what kind of people developers are–will see we are good people, that this a space that is worth being in, that they would want to be in, so that young people looking at becoming developers, be they minority or majority, are never deterred by the community that we are offering.

The following is the full-text of Ms. Daniels’ Code Manifesto. I read it and saw several points of contact with faith communities like the Christian faith. Take a read as if it were a Church worker that wrote it:


The Code Manifesto
by Kayla Daniels

We want to work in an ecosystem that empowers developers to reach their potential–one that encourages growth and collaboration. A space that is safe for all.

A space such as this benefits everyone that participates in it. It encourages new developers to enter our field. It is through discussion and collaboration that we grow, and through growth that we improve.

In the effort to create such a place, we hold to these values:

  1. Discrimination limits us. This includes discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, nationality and any other arbitrary exclusion of a group of people.
  2. Boundaries honor us. Your comfort levels are not everyone’s comfort levels. Remember that, and if brought to your attention, heed it.
  3. We are our biggest assets. None of us were born masters of our trade. Each of us has been helped along the way. Return that favor, when and where you can.
  4. We are resources for the future. As an extension of #3, share what you know. Make yourself a resource to help those that come after you.
  5. Respect defines us. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Make your discussions, criticisms and debates from a position of respectfulness. Ask yourself, is it true? Is it necessary? Is it constructive? Anything less is untolerated.
  6. Reactions require grace. Angry responses are valid, but abusive language and vindictive actions are toxic. When something happens that offends you, handle it assertively, but be respectful. Escalate reasonably, and try to allow the offender an opportunity to explain themselves, and possibly correct the issue.


Two immediate takeaways:

  • Dual values of respect and giving back makes for a powerful place to co-create together. While it can come off as works righteousness when put into a church context, I suspect most churches want the people there to become their best selves and to serve the community inside and outside the church. Rather than an adversarial stance, a respectful arms-open stance gains more truck with a community than damning it.
  • Lifting up gracefulness in online conversations. Programmers converse in asynchronous conversations, so the pushback against angry responses is absolutely necessary in the computer industry. In the church, our worst selves are often on display when we talk around a person, send anonymous (or even named) letters, and argue online. As the administrator of a 3,000 clergy group on Facebook, I’ve seen close to the worst that our own order treats each other online. To embody the same gracefulness that you give people in face-to-face conversations online is a skill that many of us need to continue to learn.

Thoughts? How would your church or ministry context change if they embodied the values above?


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Jul 28 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Time is Ticking on #UMC Tipping Point

Original post at

Both sides of the debate over the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the United Methodist Church are waiting for a tipping point and for their time to come.

The Traditionalist Clock

I try to avoid reading anything from the IRD (a caucus group began by Catholics with the intent of destabilizing the UMC and other Protestant churches). The feeling is mutual: I’m told the IRD’s blog has quoted me or referenced me but never linked to me (until, oddly, last month). So I hadn’t read one of their latest pieces until last weekend.

In prediction of what could happen in 2016, the IRD writes (remove the XX):

Thanks to the 2016 General Conference giving them more proportional representation, the Africans and other internationals have nearly half the delegates at the 2020 General Conference, compared to 41 percent in 2016, making any liberalizing of the sexuality teaching thereafter politically and demographically impossible…organized liberal resistance at the General Conference on sex issues effectively ends, similar to the end of “moderate” resistance in the Southern Baptist Convention after repeated conservative legislative wins.

Some Traditionalists are waiting for Africa to have 51% voting power, thanks to the GC2000 shift to a representative allocation of delegates. Much like the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, through gerrymandering and majority rule they believe it would cement church polity to their liking for decades to come.

There’s one problem with this time frame: Africa is not homogenous. As Taylor Walters Denyer writes in her missiology blog:

  • Africa is a huge continent. To say “Africans believe that…” or blaming something on “African culture” is even more ridiculous than saying “North Americans believe that…” or “North Americans are anti-gay because that is their culture.”
  • South Africa legalized same-gender marriage in 2006. Just saying.
  • In 1995, there was a missionary-pushed motion to have the Tanganyika Conference (part of the North Katanga Episcopal Area) vote to join the Confessing Movement. It didn’t succeed. Again, just saying.
  • While googling “gay rights Africa” leads one mostly to stories of African gay rights leaders being assassinated, there wouldn’t be headlines like this if there weren’t also grassroots gay-rights movements that these martyrs were helping lead.
  • When you examine the places in Africa where homophobia and violence against those perceived to be homosexual or gender queer are most extreme, I suggest you follow the money to see who is funding these campaigns. It will often lead you back to the USA.

While it is impossible to know what Africa and the International community of the United Methodist Church will do with their newfound majority, the scenario of majority-international voting can easily happen in 2020 or 2024 given current demographic trends. The question is: will the African United Methodists vote in lockstep with the Traditionalists or will they vote differently? We’ll know when the time comes.

The Progressive Clock

For Progressives, the time frame is a bit different. Cultural trends in America are increasingly in favor of same-gender marriage as it has become legal for a majority of our citizens in 11 years (with much more work to be done). As we previously examined, the demographics are staggering:

  • „„Today, nearly 7-in-10 (69%) Millennials (ages 18 to 33) favor same-sex marriage, compared to 37% of Americans who are part of the Silent Generation (ages 68 and older).3.GENERATIONAL 320x180 Survey | A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues
  • „„It is difficult to overstate the effect age has on support for same-sex marriage, which is evident even among groups that oppose same-sex marriage. Half (50%) of Millennial Republicans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry, a view shared by only 18% of Republicans who are members of the Silent Generation.

As well, as Jacob Lupfer draws out in his writings on the PCUSA, mainline clergy are generally even more progressive than their age group.

There’s one problem with this time frame: The average age of General Conference delegates is 55 years old, so the big jump between Baby Boomers passing the representative torch to the Gen-Xers will be the time when this clock likely gongs, which may be after the Traditionalist clock gongs. An earlier gong from this clock would rely on Baby Boomers accepting to change the church polity for the sake of mission (and perhaps sustainability) before it is too late.

Regardless, there’s a strong and categorically plausible shift in the future that is more predictable than the Traditionalist clock. Younger Methodists are overwhelmingly LGBT-inclusive and even younger Evangelicals don’t make it as much of a banner-wave as previous generations. My friends who self-define as “Orthodox” have often commented that they support whatever the polity is in the United Methodist Church. If the UMC becomes LGBT-inclusive by General Conference action, they would support it. I suspect that sentiment is stronger than Traditionalists might be willing to admit.

Whose time is it?

The clock is ticking in the United Methodist Church and both sides see an inevitability to their scenarios. The question is “which clock will sound the gong first?”

  • Will the Africans and international community reach a majority first AND vote with the Traditionalists on everything?
  • Will the Progressives’ reach a generational tipping point in America and come to a majority opinion in time to effect either international LGBT inclusion or American LGBT inclusion?

Or will there be a third clock that beats these others?

Which clock will gong first? We’ll know when the time is right and the Holy Spirit sets our hearts together towards God’s dream for the United Methodist Church.


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Jul 23 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Separating secular and sacred at a Wedding

Original post at

This is a brief post as I’m at a conference. But I found it in my notes and thought it would be helpful for folks. 


I recently went to a speech by Bishop Gene Robinson, retired bishop in the Episcopal Church. In his speech, he offered a novel way of doing a wedding that honored the religious ceremony while also reminding the attendees of the sacred/secular divide.

Briefly, clergy that officiate weddings are acting as agents of the state, deputized to do a civic duty (binding two people in marriage) wrapped in a religious observance (Christian worship through the ceremony).

However, for a number of clergy, their definition of marriage does not match their civic culture. Even with the domino effect of state after state legalizing marriage equality, many clergy are still in mismatched situations and don’t want to be agents of the state. And some are not considering marriage equality at all: they just don’t want to be agents of the state.

So what to do for church members who want to get married?

A Proposed Order of Christian Marriage

Bishop Robinson offered up how he came to do weddings:

  • The wedding party would meet on the front steps of the church, literally the dividing line between the world and the church, the secular and the sacred. A separate Justice of the Peace would administer the vows and declare the couple partners in marriage. The clergy would be there too to witness and support the couple.
  • The church would start the organ or harp or musicians and the wedding party would process into the church. They would sing Christian hymns, do whatever liturgy or vows or rings exchange that they want, and celebrate the couple’s love for each other in the context of worship. The priest or clergy would officiate like they normally do, without doing the officiating legal aspect.

The procession and doing the two separate vows cements for both the couple and the congregation that there’s a difference between officiating the marriage of two persons and blessing of the marriage of two persons in the context of Christian worship. All the elements of a traditional wedding can be done in a way that satisfies secular and sacred understandings of a wedding.


Thoughts? How does this solution strike you to help separate the civic and spiritual aspects of Christian marriage?


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Jul 21 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: The UMC is at its best when Brady and Ashland fight

Original post at


The West Wing’s Team of Rivals

In the series The West Wing, the Season 5 episode “The Supremes” deals with the death of an arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Brady. The Bartlet Administration (Democrat) has to choose a replacement justice that will be confirmable by the Republican-led congress. Even though he is supremely impressed with liberal Judge Lang (played by Glenn Close), President Bartlet is close to choosing a more moderate judge.

During Bartlet’s musings, he is visited by a crotchety former justice who remembers when the best law was decided by the Supreme Court:

Justice Mulready: Who’s at the top of the list [of Supreme Court nominees]?
President Bartlet: Brad Shelton [sees his expression] You don’t like him?
Justice Mulready: He’s a fine jurist. And in the event that Carmine, Lafayette, Hoyt, Clark, and Brannagan all dropped dead, the middle would still be well tended.
President Bartlet: [Chuckling] You want another Brady.
Justice Mulready: Sure. Just like you’d like another Ashland, who wouldn’t? The court was at its best when Brady was fighting Ashland.
President Bartlet: Plenty of good law written by the voices of moderation.
Justice Mulready: Who writes the extraordinary dissent? The one man minority decision whose time hasn’t come but 20 years later, some circuit court clerk digs it up at 3 in the morning. Brennan rallying against censorship, Harlains jeremiad on Jim Crow…
President Bartlet: There are 4000 protesters outside this building, worried about who is going to land in that seat. We can’t afford to alienate all of them.
Justice Mulready: We all have our roles to play, Sir. Yours is to nominate someone who doesn’t alienate people.

Presuming that the best law is written in contention, the administration comes up with an idea: what if we convinced another judge to retire, and then we could nominate two polar opposite judges: one liberal, one conservative. This “team of rivals” approach of President Lincoln’s yielded a strong cabinet to navigate the intricacies of the Civil War, so in The West Wing episode, the proposal ended up being acceptable to all involved. The model of two rivals (Brady and Ashland) searching out the best form of law became the depicted best makeup of the Supreme Court.

Team of Rivals or Too Many Rivals?

The metaphor of Brady and Ashland is one I’ve been drawn to: as our church and society becomes more polarized, what value is there in keeping different voices together? Is the best church still found in contention?

In secular society, we only have to look at Congress and its polarized factions being unable to get anything done, and an increase in landslide counties supporting the status quo. In the United Methodist Church, we only have to look at the “Do Nothing General Conference 2012” and the failed Call To Action as an example of what happens when you exclude reasonable voices from the table.

In an increasingly polarized group, for minority values and efforts (which are often progressive), change comes in two forms:

  1. Eventual tipping point of minority opinion over majority opinion either through demographic attrition or societal change.
  2. Pragmatic ideological opponents who get together to solve the problems in a novel way.

Schismatics don’t want a Team of Rivals

I believe it’s fear of both of these sources of change that drives the schism discussion in the United Methodist Church.

  1. For traditionalists, there’s a strong fear of change. The Baby Boomers who are retiring do not share some values (especially about LGBT equality) with the Millenials and younger Gen-Xers. Traditionalist advocacy groups oppose any form of compromise on the topic of LGBT inclusion, but may not be able to hold back the younger pragmatic traditionalists for long (ie. Hamilton, Slaughter, Rasmus). Change is coming and is inevitable if the UMC remains in its current state. However, if the UMC splits and segments off these disparate voices, then that might buy a few decades of church they recognize.
  2. For progressives, they know that history and demographics are on their side but the tipping point is too far in the future for their satisfaction. The progressive caucus groups have tired of the moderate piecemeal approach to justice (“justice delayed is justice denied”), and see that approach sustained by pragmatic progressives who are willing to compromise too much. Change is too far in the future. However, if the UMC splits, then that accelerates justice becoming fully embodied in segments of Methodism, which at least allows some parts of Progressivism to obtain the church of their hopes and dreams.

Nevermind the caucuses…what about LGBT persons? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag that perhaps is informed mostly by region. From the series of LGBT voices responding to “A Way Forward,” those from the Northeast (Massachusetts and New York) were most strongly opposed to AWF, whereas those in the South tended to be most appreciative of it. To those whose tipping point to a safe(r) church has already passed (unofficially), they oppose the piecemeal approach of AWF. To those who see safety and honoring their full selves to be so far away, AWF allows for pockets of resistance against the deeply Traditionalist south. I can’t presume to speak for LGBT persons: I’m just reporting what’s been written into me so far.

In summary, for the schismatic Traditionalists and Progressives (and many LGBT folks), breaking up the UMC allows both agendas to be satisfied: they can spin off from Brady or Ashland, leaving them to walk down the road to their own ruin or reign, and they both get the church they want.

Or do they?

Rivals coming to Consensus?

I think the hope for the UMC lies in the weathered churches and people that have gone through the fire and emerged on the other side.

The reality is that many churches don’t fall neatly along ideological categories and they view the current discussion about schism in the United Methodist Church with serious concern. In Amy Frykholm’s article on Schism in the United Methodist Church, she notes that schism would disproportionately hurt those churches that have done the hard work of Brady and Ashland:

To get to the point where two national churches could be formed, the church as a whole would have to allow individual churches to choose which newly formed organization they will join. There are no signs that this will happen without a bitter battle. And, as some point out, not every congregation or every United Methodist can be so neatly divided. The ax would fall hardest on congregations that have worked to bridge divides and maintain diversity in their pews.

Far from being mushy moderates, such churches could show what it looks like when the best of both sides is brought up. Like Brady and Ashland sharpening each other, the best way of being church might be formed in the crucible of ideas and polity. Unlike the rest of society that is becoming more ghettoized, the United Methodist Church has the potential to not only model unity in diversity, but also novel ways of being church to sustain us through the wave of secularism.

Maybe that’s Methodism’s gift to the world: not buildings or books or celebrity pastors, but a quiet method to life together that forsakes the ghettoization of the world around us.

And when one side feels like they have lost, they may write the extraordinary dissent, one that might be picked up in the future if the pendulum starts to swing again.


So, your turn:

  1. Do you think the best form of church will come from a team of rivals coming together or separate churches that seek out their own futures?
  2. Who ARE the churches that do not fall neatly into one side or the other and have done the hard work of bring progressives and Traditionalists together in ways that honor both?

Discuss. Thanks for your comments!

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Jul 17 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Will ‘Better’ Catechism stop LGBT Inclusion?

Original post at

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A few months back, it was requested that our community define two things:

  1. Under what scriptural authority do progressives determine that women can be ministers, that divorcees can be leaders, and that LGBT persons can be clergy or be partnered? We addressed this in the post “The Church, not the Bible, determines Sin.”
  2. If authority is given to the Church to determine what is sin, how do you serve within the Church when you believe it is wrong? We outlined two such ways of living in the post “What if the Church is Wrong on Sin?

Those are both excellent additions to the conversation as they give scriptural warrant to a faith tradition to loosen traditional Christian stances on minority groups, while also negotiating how to live within a faith tradition that isn’t in sync with your values.

However, there’s still a lingering aspect that bears examination in light of the previous two posts: How do you get more alignment in the church along ethical teachings in a systemic way? If what the corporate body believes is so important, how do we get more uniformity along ethical questions?

Mark Allan Powell, a New Testament professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, wrote an article in Ex Auditu (19:2003, 81-96) that we’ve been using for our conversation. Let’s see what he has to say on this topic.

The Need for Catechism

Powell addresses this question of how to systematically deal with changing ethical considerations in a faith context:

“The divisive ethical issue is symptomatic of a fundamental problem, perhaps a failure at entrance (catechetical) level to articulate its confessional theology as a hermeneutical approach to ethics.” (pg. 94)

In a similar vein, United Methodist superintendent Sky McCracken, in his Facebook comments replying to the Schismatic 80, claimed several times that “poor catechism, and failure to make disciples who make disciples is the root cause” of the United Methodist Church’s troubles. I’ve seen similar comments elsewhere as conservative evangelicals seek to see how it is there is so much diversity on this topic in their heretofore uniform churches.

Catechism refers to the ways how a faith tradition articulates and transmits its values, methods, and beliefs. In early Christianity, the beliefs were memorized by the devotees as a prerequisite for baptism. Our Creeds work very well as question and response test before baptism, which they might have been used for. Today, parents go through catechisms before they baptize their children, newcomers to a faith tradition go through new member classes, youth go through confirmation, and Mormon high schoolers go through seminary. There’s a process by which any faith tradition molds and shapes devotees so that when they become “part of the whole” they reflect the whole’s values.

So for Powell and others, the problem is on the Church’s desk: the Church isn’t keeping the doorway narrow and effective enough to maintain a common theology to address ethical questions. If the catechism process of baptism and membership was strengthened, then we’d have less of these ethical debates within the Church. As a recent evangelical Catalyst article says:

If baptism is no longer a journey into death and resurrection, if baptism is merely a symbolic ritual tacked on to worship at the end of a perfunctory “membership class” — and membership in a declining institution at that — then we no longer have a functioning catechumenate. Instead, we simply have a series of failed educational programs.

Catechism and LGBT Identity

Throughout this series, I’ve found Powell’s hermeneutic to be powerful (binding and loosing) but some of his conclusions rub me the wrong way. This particular point about catechism falls short when it come to the debate about the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church.

Catechism is less applicable when people enter into a faith community before they have determined their orientation, or perhaps are partway through denying it. No matter how rigid the doorways and how robust the self-examination, an intrinsic identity like orientation or gender identity will always go through, not left behind like a baptismal garment. It carries through, and then forces the ethical question later in life.

In this context, the reason why the LGBT question is so powerful and important in the church is that it changes the ethical question. The decision is how a faith’s hermeneutic applies to “us” not to “them.” No matter how strong our confessional theology is–the result of the catechumenate process–the ethical question will still come up regardless. We are not automatons who never change after we walk through the door: our identity in Christ is forever, but our beliefs about how Christ would act change over time.

When it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, a stronger catechumenate process and confessional theology will not eradicate the LGBT debate from our churches because it is an intrinsic identity that endures and forces the church to determine what to do with “our” people who are hurting from an oppressive polity towards LGBT persons.

LGBT Inclusion Because of Confessional Theology

Or will it? Could a better catechumenate process actually help with this conversation? Here’s one last Powell quote:

“Disagreement with the church’s ethical teaching might be symptomatic of fundamental disavowal of the confessional theology in which the ethical teaching is supposedly grounded.” (pg. 94)

Absolutely not. It is through my confessional theology of knowing Jesus Christ and believing that God interacts with the world through a Wesleyan model of grace that I can affirm an ethical teaching in opposition to the Church’s. It is through my seeking orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthokardia (right heart) that I can affirm LGBT inclusion. It is through my robust examination of Wesleyan theology, Methodist history and doctrine, and classic Christian theology that I do affirm LGBT inclusion.

Huh. Maybe Powell is onto something. Like my take on Powell’s work, it’s the hermeneutic that I believe is enduring and powerful in my Wesleyan tradition. The confessional theology and application of that theology on ethical stances yields my embrace of full inclusion.

Maybe Powell is right, but the catechumenate pedagogy needs to change. Like the goal of college isn’t depositing knowledge but teaching people how to think qualitatively. The goal of a math class isn’t to remember logarithms but to know how to reason quantitatively. Maybe catechesis is teaching how to live holistically, body and spirit. By teaching how to think and see and feel, we’ll have a robust church that can stand the test of time and can properly weather any ethical questions from inside or outside.

In that sense, perhaps I do stand with Powell and McCracken and hope for a better catechism. I hope for one that seeks to teach how to live rather than simply what to believe…and that could truly be a way forward for churches seeking LGBT inclusion.


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Jul 14 2014

Hacking Christianity :: Rev. Jeremy Smith: Do All Faiths Go To Heaven or Just…One?

Original post at

cannon-beachThe following is an adaptation of a sermon given on July 13, 2014 in a Christian context. You are welcome to comment on where on the Chart of Soteriology this sermon would fall.

Scripture: John 10:1-16

A Muddled Question of Heaven

This month we are looking at questions brought up by our laity, and today’s question is “Is heaven for believers of all faiths?” and “When Jesus said in John 10 ‘I am the gate. No one gets to the Father except through me,’ what does that really mean?” The question, I think, has three instigators.

First, scripture. It was requested that we look at this specific bible verse. We’ll do that in a few minutes.

Second, our hymns are often contradictory when it comes to a clear understanding of what heaven is all about. Flipping through the hymns you have different ideas. “To God Be The Glory” talks about “how greater will our transport be when Jesus we see” as Heaven is where we are wisked away off this earth. St. Francis’s hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” says “And thou, most dear and kindly death, waiting to hush our latest breath” seems to personalize death into a friend or a welcome release. Charles Wesley depicts Heaven as an afterlife where our merits are counted when he writes “Till we cast our crowns before thee / Lost in wonder, love and praise,” from “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” Finally the hymn “Shall We Gather At The River”…that ain’t a river!

But third and finally we get really personal about our beliefs about heaven when it comes to Funerals. When we wait in that room with the bereaved and the deceased, what we do think has happened? Is the person in the casket still our uncle Carlos, or is the body a shell that used to contain him? Is Carlos in heaven looking down at us, or is he still in this room until we are done remembering him and then he goes to Heaven? Will he be reincarnated? Will we see his spirit as a ghost? Where is heaven anyway, is it a place with a coordinate, longitude or latitude? A place beyond the stars, the firmament, or perhaps another? Why didn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson find Heaven in the Cosmos series?

Scripture, Hymns, and Funerals bring up this question about what heaven is like and who it is for. When we try to answer the question, we typically fall into two contradictory categories.

  • Progressives sometimes have a more “everyone is worshipping the same God” type of understanding.
  • Traditional Christianity claims basically what the Scripture passage reads today: Jesus is the gate, it is narrow, no one gets past the gate except through Jesus. Jesus is the shepherd, not the hired hand (in other words, false shepherd). Only those sheep who respond to the Shepherd will be kept from harm. Everyone else we mourn because they won’t be in heaven with us.

What does “I am the Gate” Mean?

With so much going on, questions of what happens when we die, what Jesus did for us, atonement, eschatology, the end times, heaven, hell…let’s focus on two parts of the question.

  1. First, what did Jesus mean by the image of the Gate.
  2. Second, what difference does what we believe about the Gate mean for our life today regarding religions other than Christianity?

In the Scripture, Jesus says he is the gate. That no one gets to God except through Jesus. Heaven is a gated community, just like those jokes with St. Peter standing at the Pearly Gates checking people in. You’re either in or you’re out. There’s two points that are really really important.

  1. First, Jesus is talking to his Disciples. Over and over again in Scripture he wants the Disciples to see the Father (to see God) through him. To make this claim for the Disciples is a bit different than making this claim applies to the millions of people on other continents that no Galilean could possibly reach by the end of their lifetime.
  2. Second, Jesus did not claim to be a wholly separate path in John 10. He claimed elsewhere in the Gospels that the presence of God within him. Over and again he said his life and words reflected the values of God, that we could see God in him. There’s the promise of salvation being offered to those Disciples whose path before them was starched clean by the Pharisees and rendered almost impassible, and Jesus was claiming that God was seen through not only purity codes or sacrifices in the temple, but also in the way how Jesus moved and lived. Jesus says that he has “other sheep that are not of this fold” that already belong to him. The God known through Christ is also known to others.

Let’s be clear: Jesus isn’t saying “different strokes for different folks” or that all religions are valid. What he’s saying is that there are other paths to God but he doesn’t say which (a list sure would have been nice!). What matters most is that Jesus makes the determination.

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of the New Testament at Vanderbilt (really! It make sense if you think about it), interprets the Jesus is the Gate to mean exactly what Jesus says he is himself the way, and he is not dependent upon our Scripture interpretation to decide who he can admit to the kingdom. She imagines Jesus saying in her book The Misunderstood Jew:

“I am making the determination, and it is by my grace that anyone gets in, including you. Who are you to argue that I choose who I want, whether they followed me or not?”

Climbing a Mountain

An illustration that has been convicting for me about this question of the Gate comes from Eric Elnes’ book The Phoenix Affirmations published in 2006. In it, Eric spent time with Christians in India who were living in a way that preserved the integrity of both Indian culture and Christian tenets of faith.

One of the spiritual directors likened the variety of religions to climbing up a mountain. Each tradition has discovered a unique route for reaching the top. While they are climbing the mountain, the traditions cannot necessarily see each other through the brush and the angle of the mountain. Individuals within the climbing parties may not even be aware that others are ascending the mountain. They think they alone are making the climb, and may be surprised when they reach the top and find more people there.

I find this to be a helpful image that I hope you take home and chew on for two primary reasons. First, it helps us value diversity without minimizing it. Progressives tend to see all faiths as basically the same when they really aren’t.  As former Bishop of Canterbury Tom Wright says in his book Surprised By Hope:

“There is a world of difference between the Orthodox Jew who believes that all the righteous will be raised to new individual bodily life in the resurrection and the Buddhist who hopes after death to disappear like a drop in the ocean, losing one’s own identity in the great nameless and formless Beyond.”

The image of climbing a mountain gives integrity to other paths without challenging our own.

But second, it doesn’t lessen the value, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ or our evangelistic call to share Christ’s story. Christ is the climber who went up the mountain before us and has come down to show us the way. We have a promise and a gift offered to us. If we are on this journey on our side of the mountain, great, we follow it. And if we meet fellow climbers who don’t seem to be on their own trail, we show them a better way. And it won’t be until we reach the top, following Jesus on his own time, will we know if ours was the only way, or it there are more people to celebrate our journey with.

Elnes writes:

“Jesus not primarily concerned with what we believed about him. He acknowledged that some wouldn’t believe God was present in him. He hoped that they would recognize God in his works. It is the way of Jesus, and not Jesus as the way, that is crucial. In emphasizing Jesus as the one who saves the world, we’ve made his way of living insignificant, if not irrelevant.”

So what do we do with this understanding? How do we make Jesus’ life and promise of the gate change our behavior in this life?

Why Beliefs about Heaven Matter

We tend to make practical sense out of the afterlife by using two emotions: fear or reward.

Like teaching a child through punishments, fear of punishment is a highly motivating thing. Every October in the Bible Belt, Hell Houses spring up that are like haunted houses but they depict different levels of hell, show what sort of situations would send you to hell, and after you’ve walked through depictions of suicide, abortions, following other faiths, drunk driving…at the end there’s a ton of counselors who can help you accept Jesus into your emotional teenager heart. Having walked through a few of those in my obnoxious teenage days, I can tell you that fear is an short term effective and yet not lasting way of getting someone to know Jesus.

Likewise, a theology based on rewards gets lasting results but not life-changing ones. We replace a relationship with God based on fear to one based on manipulations by reward. Like gold stars that signify our attendance at Sunday School, we earn our way into heaven as if we are part of the Starbucks Rewards program. It’s a more consumeristic relationship with a God. Brian McLaren critiques this when he writes

“God gives us a transformation plan not an evacuation plan.”

Both of those theologies see God more like a blacksmith hammering us into rigid conformity in some way, but God is depicted in scripture more as a potter shaping us carefully into someone useful.

There’s got to be a better way to think about heaven than through fear or promise of reward. And our inspiration comes from a very unlikely place.

In 2006, one of the hit comedy movies was titled “The Break Up” starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn. It depicted a happy relationship between two 30-somethings that starts to unravel. She asks him to buy twelve lemons for a centerpiece she is making; he only buys three. She doesn’t see why he wants to watch Sportscenter or play video games to relax. Many of us have been in relationships where there is just a disconnect or it becomes that way. But right in the middle when they are in another argument, there’s a gem moment. Jennifer Aniston wants Vince to help her do the dishes. He tries to procrastinate, let them soak in the sink, you know, for 2 days. She gets annoyed.

Vince says “Fine, I’ll help you do the dishes.” Jennifer replies: “That’s not what I want. I want you to want to do the dishes.” Vince says “Why would I want to do dishes?” Partners are looking at each other at this moment as this has likely happened in your houses.

This scene encapsulates what I believe: we are not called to fear hell or seek rewards in heaven based on what someone asks of us. We are called to want heaven to take place right now. People go door to door asking “If you died today, where would you go?” whereas based on the text of Jesus as the gate, the better question is: “If you live through today, what kind of life will you live tomorrow?” Heaven is not a status update on Facebook, it is a process of going up the mountain in a healthy and holistic way for everyone you meet.

It is important that we think about what Heaven really is about because our beliefs shape us. One of our church members sent me an email that I got permission to share. Here it is in her voice:

“Several years ago my 5-year-old granddaughter asked me, “Grandma, are you a Christian?”  I said that I was, and she responded, “Whew!  That means you’ll be in Heaven when I get there.” I was immediately struck by  the importance she placed on my “being there,” her confidence that I would be there her confidence that she would be there And, then, I felt the responsibility of living my life in such a way that I was definitely going to “be  there” for her.”

What struck me was that what we believe about heaven impacts how we live in this life, and my challenge to you is that by living your life a particular way, heaven can be made real here on earth.

Closing Call to Action

I’m persuaded that when Christians live as graciously as Jesus, we imitate God and participate in God’s work in the world. Wesley’s sermon, The General Deliverance, argues that humanity cannot be saved without the rest of the Creation – we are all in it together, all humans, all creatures, everything. All those rough edges in your life: in your family, your school, your neighborhood, your work, your aging parents…all those areas are not waiting to be taken up into heaven, but are waiting for someone to bring heaven to them. And perhaps that someone is you.

Salvation is in the journey. And the key sustenance on this journey up the mountain isn’t water or food or shelter…it is Humility. Humility that we know our way is up the mountain all the way to the top, but we don’t know for sure about other paths. By living a life that reflects God in both love and humility, it changes things. Sharing dialogue with people of other faiths is less a debate over who is right or wrong and more a sharing of the joy and wisdom gleaned from our climbing experiences.

In closing, an imaginative story of a conundrum in heaven. Peter is in charge of the gate of heaven while Paul is the key administrator, keeps the numbers. Paul starts coming to Peter telling him that there are more people in heaven than he is admitting through the gates and he can’t understand how this could be. Peter sends him off to find out why. Then Paul comes back to Peter saying “I found out the answer – it’s Jesus, He keeps sneaking people in over the wall”.

Jesus may be sneaking people into Heaven that the church is not ready to accept. Jesus may be sneaking Heaven into our world in ways we are not ready to accept. My hope is that we seek to climb the mountain with grace and integrity, inviting others to journey with us, and celebrating with whoever we find at the top.

Glory be to God. Amen.


Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker write in their book Saving Paradise:

“Eternal life relates to how life is lived on earth. The concrete acts of care Jesus has shown his disciples are the key to eternal life. By following his example of love, the disciples enter eternal life now. Eternal life is thus much more than a hope for postmortem life: it is earthly existence grounded in ethical grace.”

Go forth now and know that God who created you, Jesus who redeemed you, and the Spirit who sustains you will be with you always, and may that bring you peace. Amen.

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