Sometime in 2005, I stumbled across the online episode of NPR’s This American Life.  Ira Glass was introducing the episode, Heretics, and Russell Cobb's story of Bishop Carlton Pearson: black Pentecostal sensation; pastor of the exploding multiracial Tulsa mega-church, New Dimensions; and heir-apparent to the Oral Roberts evangelical dynasty.  But Pearson, just as he was soaring toward the top, became a heretic; he stopped believing in hell.  He'd come to realize that the doctrine of hell was inconsistent with the mercy of God.  A God who would damn anyone to an eternity in hell was, in his words, "a monster," "worse than Hitler."  He began preaching that everyone, without exception, was already saved.  The Bishop became an immediate pariah.

In 2005, I was entering a season in my life and my ministry when such a leader was intensely interesting to me.

I was a pastor, but, unlike Pearson, I'd never put much stock in hell.  It wasn’t that Pearson stopped believing in hell that gripped me.  It was a line he used at the end of Russell Cobb's interview, where Pearson called his message “the gospel of inclusion.”  While hell wasn't as central to my church's faith experience as it was to Pearson's, the exclusionary nature of Christianity was.  And I was coming to the point where I could no longer hold to a religion that could exclude anyone from its experience of God.   

I was dabbling in the "gospel of inclusion" and testing where it might lead.

A man shook my hand as he left worship one Sunday and said slyly, “So what you’re saying is that Christianity is an opt-out religion rather than an opt-in religion.”  ‘Yes,” I said tentatively, “I suppose I am”--not knowing if the man was for or against what he thought I was saying.  “That seems a good way to put what I think Jesus was about.”  Another person once winked at me after a sermon and said, “If people really understood what you are saying, I wonder what would really happen around here.”  But aside from some who were sensitive enough to what I was preaching and praying, my inklings were subtle enough not to get me branded as a heretic.

Over the next decade, I found myself returning to that This American Life story of Bishop Pearson probably a half dozen times.  During that decade I had to deal with my increasing spiritual compulsion to speak my mind about what I thought the gospel of Jesus was really about especially with regard to the LGBT community.  I would have to make tough decisions about my convictions, the way my convictions would affect people who saw things very differently from me, and what these convictions could mean for my leadership in a traditional church.  (I explored that journey more fully in my 2015 book, A Table for All: How I Came to Understand the Gospel Means Full Inclusion of Gays and Lesbians.

Bishop Pearson became for me a partner in that journey; his story reminding me to stay true to the Jesus I knew, to face my fears, and realize what it all might cost.  When I was afraid, confused, riddled by doubt, and harassed by fundamentalists, I returned to that 2005 NPR story.

There were costs, but many gifts as well (some really remarkable and brave people); I wouldn't do it any other way.   

Bishop Pearson's story is now the new Netflix, acclaimed movie, Come Sunday

Last night, Patty and I sat down to watch it.  I was surprised by the emotion it triggered for me, the sleepless night I spent afterward.  It reawakened both my feelings of gratitude for Pearson’s life, the faithfulness the journey required of me, as well as the pain and suffering I, and others, experienced along the way.

Come Sunday follows closely that 2005 story about Bishop Pearson.  I commend it.  It’s well acted and sensitive to all the players in the story.  It’s about religion without being preachy.  And it shows the real humanity of all those involved.  A remarkable film.  What’s more it’s a critically important piece for this cultural moment.

Religion, despite its many problems, is here to stay.  Religion will play a vital role in either the absolute collapse of the human experiment on the earth or its transformation into a more benign or even beneficial presence on the planet. 

The story of Bishop Carlton Pearson is a sign of the needed transformation of religion and a witness to the enormous courage it will take by those called to give birth to new religious expressions that serve the greater wellbeing of the world.

Pearson gave me courage when I felt terribly alone and yet compelled to help lead Christianity out of its adolescence and toward a maturity fit for the 21st century.  

I’m immensely grateful for this sensitive and timely film.  

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AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
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A single word shapes Good Friday; a single word describes the Cross of Christ.

Sacrifice.

There’s no getting around the fact that the Cross of Christ is about sacrifice.  But it’s not about appeasing an angry deity.  When the Cross of Christ is turned into that, it’s a deformity, a travesty, and is terribly misleading.  No, the Cross of Christ is not about appeasing; it’s about revealing . . . revealing something we all know.  We all know that love is free, but it’s never cheap.  Love always costs something; love might cost us everything. To participate in the healing of the planet, to live in relationships that are honest and that help us grow into wholeness, to work alongside others for justice and transformation, we have to make sacrifices.  Love costs us.  Rumi once said, “Gamble everything for love”; it’s always worth it.  

As part of my Good Friday meditations, I was thinking about the Cross of Christ this afternoon.  I noticed the Ethiopian cross in my office.  As I looked at it, I noticed it looked more like a key than a cross.

Then I realized that the Cross of Christ is just that—a key.  It’s the key to living well, loving without reserve, thriving because we dare to love in the face of hatred; love in the midst of suffering; love when others give up; love when people build walls; love, even when our love is refused or ridiculed or trampled on; love, even when it seems foolish.  

The Cross of Christ is the key to life because it points to love, and the sacrifices love requires to open the doors of our hearts.  

The Cross of Christ is the key to the wholeness, the unity, the wellbeing which is what God is up to in Christ.  The Cross connects what we separate at our peril, the opposites that foster division, brokenness, alienation, and injury.  The Cross, as a symbol, joins heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, spirit and matter, North and South, East and West, top and bottom, right and left.  

The Cross of Christ shows us the key to wholeness, harmony, wellbeing.

That key is love.

And love, though free, is never cheap.

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AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman

Religion, and the spirituality that keeps it fresh, holds the power to transform our lives.  Take Holy Week, for example.  Holy week is an ancient practice of soul-care.  It is, at its core, a mapping of the human journey—from our grand entrance, through ups and downs of our lives, into suffering, death, and final transformation.  Holy Week aims to teach us to walk our journey with courage and hope, no matter what may come our way.  Holy Week is a crash course in being human, and being human well. 

I don’t know where else we can go to school ourselves in what it means to live well.  There are, of course, classes and books and teachers—many of them quite good and helpful.  But over the course of my life and ministry, I’ve come to more fully appreciate this ancient practice as some of the best soul-care available, some of the best teaching on living and dying well that we can find anywhere.  What’s more, it’s an annual ritual that we do together.  Over and over, in the course of a life, we come to this annual renewal of our understanding and practice of what it takes to live well.

So I write to invite you into Holy Week.  I invite you into all of it, all eight days.  Here’s a little map for your journey:

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AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman
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Most of us avoid the descent into our inner lives because we fear we'll meet more darkness there than light.  And often we do.  It's easier to stay outside, on the surface of things, and ignore the depths.  Some of us have no guide for the inner journey toward healing and wholeness.  

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the modern world's most insightful, spiritually-grounded, and beloved poets.  I love the way he bridges the two worlds, inner and outer, sacred and secular, and always invites me into the depth of soul I need in order to come more fully alive.   

He gives me courage to enter the labyrinth of the soul.  

His poetic vision is a helpful partner to anyone who wants to integrate their lives more fully.

Here's a sonnet that invites us into the courage it takes to enter our inner lives and face the pain and suffering we'd rather avoid.  

It's a poetic exploration of the themes Dr. Donald Kalsched, the eminent psychoanalyst, explores in his work on trauma, how suffering blocks our life energy, and what it takes for the soul to emerge into the fullness of life.  

Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows have a wonderful translation of this sonnet, as does Robert Bly, and Robert Hunter.  I've lived with Rilke for awhile and with the ways this poem guides not only my own inner journey but also my healing work with others.  And so, I've rendered it myself.  It's impossible to take a poem over from the German into English without allowing the language to dance in new ways.  This rendering is true to the spiritual vision of the great poet, attempts to offer some sense of the lyricism of the German, while drawing it through my own soul's experience and into our new setting.   

 

Sonnets to Orpheus, No 9

Rainer Maria Rilke, translated/rendered by Chris Neufeld-Erdman

 

Only you, who dare to lift the lyre

inside the inner labyrinth and maze,

will find the pathway back into the light

of endless gratefulness and praise.

 

Only you, who on death's bitter flowers

have slept and fed,

will sing a living song

to what was given up for dead.

 

What shimmers on the pane between the worlds

will quickly slip away;

internalize what you behold.

 

When born of these two realms

our words and ways

become more valuable than gold.

 

 

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AuthorChris Neufeld-Erdman