Monday, June 4, 2012

Sources of Salvation

By Dr. Jessica Gray
Director of Faith Development Ministries

My father is a Southern Baptist minister.  He has three brothers and one sister.  All of his brothers are also Southern Baptist ministers, and his sister married an ordained minister.  People sometimes ask me what my grandfather did for a living.  He sold insurance.  But you could say that ministry is really my family business.

I was literally raised in church.  We went to church every Sunday without fail.  It was easier to get out of school than it was to get out of going to church.  I learned the lessons of my church from as long as I could remember.

In evangelical churches, the most important thing about ministry is saving souls.  This is the “gospel” – the good news.  There are many simple ways to explain how someone can be saved.  This is usually called a “plan of salvation.” The one I remember best uses a color system:

Black – We are all sinners and are destined to die and be punished for all eternity.  Romans 3:23 - For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God;

Red – Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  Red is for his blood. The red cancels out the black – kind of like in rock, paper, scissors, the paper covers the rock. 

John 3:16 - For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

White – We can be saved if we accept the first two ideas and develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our sins are washed away, and we are made white as snow. 

Blue - We show our commitment through baptism.  The baptism doesn’t save us, but it makes a statement to the world.

Green – We grow through following God’s direction for our lives.  Green like the plants grow.

Gold - After we die, we will be rewarded with heaven.  It doesn't matter what our lives are like now because someday we will walk on streets of gold.

I’m sure this is very familiar to some of you.  Others of you may have never heard of this sort of “plan of salvation.” Some of you may even be wondering, “Why do we need to be saved?”  But when I was a child, this all made sense.  We were bad.  God was good.  Because he loves us, he gave us Jesus, who died so we did not need to be punished.  Instead we would be rewarded.  It was all I needed to know.

I believed this plan of salvation entirely.  Accepting Jesus was the one true way.  I shared it with others. As a teenager, I went on mission trips to share it with people in other countries.  It was the most important thing in the world.  If I didn’t tell them, then they were going to die and be punished forever. 

This lasted until the summer after I graduated from high school.  I went to a missions training in Papua New Guinea.  It was the most tribal place I could imagine, and I wanted to reach those at the “ends of the Earth.”  This training was intensive, and it asked college-aged students to think about important theological questions relating to missions.  One specific assignment changed my life forever.  As missionaries, we were asked to reflect on the “Destiny of the Heathen.”  In this case, the heathen were defined as people who had never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus and the plan of salvation.  What happened to these people?  Were they punished through eternal torment because we failed to get the message out?  Our teachers pointed us to scriptural passages and encouraged us to pray and reflect on this question.

One of the passages, the passage that changed my life, was Romans 1:20:   
20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

According to my interpretation, this passage was saying that all people are accountable, even if they have not heard this specific “gospel.”  God’s eternal power and divine nature could clearly be seen in “what has been made” – in the natural world.  This brought up all sorts of questions.  People could know God through something other than Jesus?  God might be bigger than the box I had him in? He might reveal himself to people in different ways?

I decided to explore other ways of thinking about God.  I took world religions courses.  My spiritual search took me to a Catholic mass, a Jewish Passover seder, Buddhist meditations, Hindu temples, and eventually, Wiccan circles.  I found God in each of these places. 

Eventually, I found Unitarian Universalism – a spiritual tradition that includes many of the things I love about church –community, Sunday School classes, worship – but also allows for many spiritual sources and even encourages questions and diversity of thought.
But I still felt the need to come to terms with my Christian heritage.  I no longer believed that Jesus was the only way to know God, but there was some element of truth in the plan of salvation.   So I made an effort to reclaim it.
Many Unitarian Universalists have a problem with the concept of sin.   I don’t believe that we are born sinners, but I do believe that there is evil in the world and some of that evil is caused by people, especially broken relationships between people.  The definition of sin I remember most clearly from my Christian heritage is “missing the mark.”  The image is of an arrow that reaches toward a goal but falls short.  And the punishment?  Ultimate separation from God.  According to the Christian plan of salvation, we miss the mark on our own, but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ bridges that gap.  We are no longer separate.

But as Unitarian Universalists, if we don’t believe in eternal punishment and damnation, then why do we need to be saved?  Saved from what?  It has nothing to do with an afterlife.  A lot of people live in hell on earth.  We live disconnected and isolated, separate.   We allow our fears to conquer our joy.  We live in misery, hopelessness, despair.  These are the things that come when we lose our connection.  When we “miss the mark,” it’s like the batteries are not quite connected.  There may not be anything wrong with those batteries.  But there is no flow either.  No spark of electricity.  How, then, can we be saved from this disconnection?

My reclaiming of the concept of salvation relies entirely on you!  Your personal definition of God.  In Alcoholics Anonymous they speak of the “God of my own understanding.”  In Spirit Play, we teach about “The Spirit of Love and Mystery that Some People Call God.”  Since God is so much bigger than any one human box, the sources of Divinity are limitless.  This is the Gospel of Unitarian Universalism – the good news.  Through our own personal relationship with the God of our own understanding, we can be saved. And the reward is here and now.  Paradise now.

I was thinking about the colors of my childhood plan of salvation, and I decided the UU plan of salvation should be represented by a rainbow.  We like rainbows in this tradition – rainbows for diversity, rainbows for equality, rainbows as the promise of a better future.  Rainbows always remind me of the Hindu chakra system.  Chakras are the seven basic energy centers of the body and they correspond with the colors of the rainbow and various aspects of life.  So this is my rainbow plan of salvation:

Red: We begin with the color red, the color of the root chakra, the element of earth, the foundation and base of all things.  Red is the color of life.  Our UU salvation begins with our first breath.  From the very foundation of our lives, each person has inherent worth and dignity.  No one is born a sinner.  We are each our own spiritual authority, so the first source of UU salvation is based on our own direct experience of mystery and wonder.  We each have inside of us everything that we need to bridge our separateness by recognizing the wonder in our world.  But this is only the beginning. 

Orange: The color orange represents the sacral chakra and the element of water.  This chakra is about relationships.  While we each have inherent worth by ourselves, no one is an island.  We interact with each other.  And as Unitarian Universalists, we choose to interact with justice, equity and compassion.  We treat each other with respect.  A great many prophetic men and women have taught us how “to confront the powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love.” Gandhi.  Mother Teresa.  Martin Luther King, Jr.  And our own UU heroes and heroines, like Francis David who said, “We need not think alike to love alike,” or Clara Barton who founded the American Red Cross.  There are so many names we could name of men and women who teach us ways to bridge our separateness. 

Yellow: The color yellow corresponds with the solar chakra, the element of fire, and the force of will.  It reminds us of our determination in the face of challenges.  As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to accepting one another and encouraging each other toward spiritual growth.  As a non-creedal faith, we have many different ideas about truth.  But we choose to work together and encourage each other instead of creating an “us” against “them.”  As I found, there are many paths up the mountain.  There is wisdom in every world religion.  Eboo Patel, a Muslim young man who founded the Interfaith Youth Corps, says that we may have different ideas, but we are better together than we are apart.

Green: The color green corresponds to the heart chakra and the element of air.  It represents inspiration, compassion, and reaching out to others.  In Unitarian Universalism, this is our free and responsible search for truth and meaning.  This is the key, the very center of the principles.  We are each free to search for truth wherever we may find it.  We are responsible to ourselves and to each other.  We are responsible to our heritage.  The original source of both Unitarianism and Universalism are the Jewish and Christian teachings.  We honor Jesus Christ as one way to find salvation.  We learn from the scriptures, the stories, and the teachings “which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” 

Blue: Blue is the color of the voice chakra and indigo is the color of the vision chakra.  The ability to speak and the ability to see.  These various shades of blue remind me of how we work together.  In our congregations we follow a democratic process so that all people have a voice. And we reach out beyond our congregation, building our vision of a better world.  Right here and now.  This connects to the humanist teachings of reason and scienceHumanism focuses on this current life rather than an unknown future.  Together we commit ourselves to be the change we want to see in the world.

Violet: This brings us to the final chakra, the crown, represented by the color purple or violet.  The crown represents our connection to thought and spirit.  Our connection to God.  If we are saved through our connections, then ultimate salvation is found within the interconnected web of all existence of which we are a part.  Everything I do affects you.  Everything you do affects me.  We have the opportunity to celebrate the sacred circle of life and live in harmony with the rhythms of nature. 

We are born knowing our own salvation, but sometimes it’s easy to forget.  It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our own problems instead of reaching out to another person.  We get busy, and we forget to notice a beautiful sunset or to stop to take a breath of fresh air.  We feel bad about ourselves, and so we say something or do something to make someone else feel bad, too.  We forget to care.

But then the beauty of this world reminds us!  In the middle of loneliness, the phone rings because a friend just wants to talk.  We receive a random act of kindness or a smile from a stranger.  We take a moment for a walk in the park and find a vision of transcendence through nature.  We read the wisdom of great teachers from many sources.  And in these moments, we are saved from our own selfishness.  We are saved from our fears.  We are saved.

This is a continual process.  Just like breathing.  If you stop breathing for a while, you don’t decide never to breathe again.  You breathe deeply.  You savor your breath.  You appreciate it all the more.  So when you slip into a dark place, paralyzed by fear, don’t give up.  Salvation is waiting all around us. 

And so I have a challenge for you – look for it!  Look for the moments of connection.  Look for the moments of transcendence in your life.  Look for your own sources of salvation.  Be grateful for them.  And then share them with others.  This is as good a gospel as any – share the good news of the wonderful things in your life.

I am very grateful for the many sources that make me who I am.  I am glad that I was raised in a Southern Baptist home by my very genuine Christian parents.  Their faith continues to be an inspiration to me.  I know I experienced God through the Christian teachings.  I am grateful for that missions course in Papua New Guinea – the one that taught me to question and opened my mind to new possibilities.  I am glad for every spiritual experience, every moment of transcendence I have had since then.  And now I am grateful for you, for this journey of faith we are taking together.  Let’s go share some gospel!