Love must be unconditional, but a relationship cannot be.
~Ysabel de la Rosa


This “Doctrines” category will look at various doctrines and terminology, orthodox and unorthodox, traditional and progressive.  Sometimes we will affirm a doctrine or certain terminology.  Sometimes we will dismantle them.You are encouraged to write comments!

#2 – Most Overlooked Passages In John’s Gospel: Born Again?

This is the second in a series of undetermined length where I’ll be looking at passages that I feel often get “skipped over” when considering the gospel according to John.  If you haven’t read the first one, please, do so before reading this one as this will build off of that one.  You can find it here: Only Son of God?

Today, we consider two more passages, both from John 3:

2 Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. 34 He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

Go to the bottom for more passages to be considered in the future!

Retha hates the phrase.  Well, maybe hate is too strong a word, but she certainly has little use for it.  I don’t know how much time at how many study sessions (a lot) at First United Methodist in Wichita Falls, Texas we spent hearing her complain about the phrase.  For her, there are several problems with it.  One, I interpreted, is that it has been overused to the point of losing real significance.  On top of that, it has become more of a title than anything denoting a real change.  Plus, the phrase never fit her experience.  She didn’t feel any different after receiving the phrase for herself.

The phrase?  Born again.

For Retha, she could never remember a time that she didn’t think – or KNOW – that she was a Christian.  She, like so many others, walked the aisle during a song (probably “Just As I Am”) because everyone else her age was doing it.  She felt it was something you had to do.  She finally came around to believing that she never had to be “born again,” at least not in the way the word was usually used.


Interestingly, the phrase “born again” is not actually in the gospel according to John – at least not in the original Greek.  Actually, as noted in the NRSV translations above, it is “born from above.”  In John 3:31-36, we hear on the lips of John the Baptizer about the one who “comes from above,” who speaks the words from God by the Spirit that is given without measure.  Thus, he is testifying to one whom he says is greater than himself.

What I find amazing, though, is John 3:2-8.  Nicodemus comes, piling it on thick, about how great Jesus must be.  Yet, Jesus responds, not by talking about himself or accepting the compliment but by talking about what others must do:

  • Be born from above as seen in 3:3 and 3:7
    (see the parallel with Jesus who comes from above in 3:31); and
  • Be born of the Spirit that blows where it will, making sounds along the way as seen in 3:5-6, 8
    (see the parallel with Jesus who speaks what God wants by the Spirit given freely in 3:34).

Nicodemus and John the Baptizer make it all about Jesus.  Jesus makes it all about the rest of us who will follow in his footsteps – in his way.  Nicodemus and John the Baptizer want to talk about where Jesus is from.  Jesus wants to talk about where the rest of us should be coming from.  They want to talk about what Jesus will do.  Jesus wants to know what we will do – hopefully things greater than himself.

The great thing is that when we are born from above, we have, by power beyond ourselves, become children of God (see John 1:12). As children of God (as Jesus is son of God), we can do the same works as Jesus and even greater than these (see John 14:12).


Retha would never say that she’s done greater works than Jesus (or even close), but those of us who know her think she’s done about as much as any one person can.  Now well into her 80s and nearing the end of her life, she has only recently slowed down – and not because she wanted to (just ask her kids).  Her body has gotten in the way.

For the 8 years I was at that church, she attended almost every class I offered.  Even if two groups were studying the same thing, she’d often attend both as she wanted to hear other insights.  For a number of years that I was there, she was the one who took our aluminum can recycling to the local food bank for them to sell (the recycling was the idea of much younger and healthier people who were unwilling to take them!).  She volunteered with study groups and her Sunday School class to pack weekend food for at-risk children.  She diligently brought beans to the monthly meal for the homeless when it was her class’ turn to provide the meal.  For most of these years, she has done this while using a walker to help her get around (of course, many would say that walker sped her up!).

I can’t begin to tell you all that she did before I knew her, but I know she has three great kids.  I know she has been a staple at that church since she joined with her husband back in the 80s.  Prior to that I know she taught public school and children’s Sunday school at another church who preached a lot about being “born again” (she once told me she taught the kids there so she could shield herself from the conservative theology!).

The thing that I know is that Retha may not have been “born again,” but she was certainly “born from above.”  Thanks be to God for Retha.

Click here to read the next installment:
Where Are You Staying?

Here are other verses I plan to cover in this series (though not necessarily in this order):

No Comments »

In A Perfect World?

You’ve heard the same shtick, I’m sure. In the beginning, God made everything perfect, then us humans came along and messed everything up. There’s been distress and turmoil ever since, and it is all our fault. Had that “first sin” not come along, we’d still be living in a perfect paradise and all would be well.

Here’s the problem. The Bible never says that God created a world that was perfect. (more…)

No Comments »

From Babel to Pentecost to Now

The Christian event and celebration of Pentecost has long been seen as a reversal of the story of the “Tower of Babel” as told in Genesis 11:1-9 where God “confuses” the languages of the people trying to build a tower into the heavens.

This morning, I was re-reading a book by Delwin Brown where he interprets this story:

[T]he story is theologically profound. It does not say that God separated the people into different linguistic groups as a punishment – not at all. The diversity imposed on the human race was a safeguard, a protection against the illusion that we are or can become like God. God intervened when uniformity became excessive. 1

As I thought about this in relation to Pentecost, I realized that Pentecost (as read in Acts 2:1-18) is not a reversal of Babel, though it does change the rules of the game.  The story of Babel was about doing away with uniformity while promoting diversity.  Pentecost, however, does not do away with diversity; rather, those seeking to share the good news of hope reach out to people different than themselves, meeting them where they were to share the news.  The human response to diversity was to build walls of separation, saying in effect, “You’ve got to learn to speak my language if you want to communicate with me or if you want what I’ve got to give.”  Pentecost said, “Okay, I’ll speak your language.  You don’t have to speak my language for us to communicate – for me to share this message, for me to give you what I have.”

In Pentecost, diversity is not abolished.  It is not seen as a dividing wall.  Whereas in Babel, diversity is forced, in Pentecost, uniformity is not forced.  Diversity is accepted, and those following the guiding of the Holy Spirit become more diverse to share the love of God.

In so many of our churches (and in life in general), we want harmony.  We want everyone to get along, and we assume the means by which that is to happen is to have uniformity – for all to be in unison.  But let’s think about a musical ensemble.  Would the Eagles have been as popular had they always sung in unison?  Wasn’t a large part of their appeal the beautiful, yet diverse, harmonies that they created?

Anyone who has tried to sing in harmony with others knows it is not easy (nor are relationships with diverse people – just ask the Eagles).  Yet, the results are beautiful.  Having a diverse meal of language, thoughts, ideas, and theology, I believe, makes us more beautiful people – as individuals and as communities.

  • Why do you think we are often afraid of diversity – especially within our faith communities?
  • What do you think about the idea that the Holy Spirit leads people to become more diverse to reach out to more people?
  • How might the Spirit be guiding you to be more diverse?
  • What kind of difference would be made in your faith community if it were more willing to speak the language of those outside that community?
  • Do you think it would help the growth of your community – in number, in love, and in knowledge?  Why or why not?

1.  Delwin Brown, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious (New York City: Seabury Books, 2008), pg. 65.

No Comments »

It’s Not Just Forgiveness


They gave me, at the tender age of 15, a learner’s permit.  I filled out a form, and there it was.  So long as a licensed driver over the age of 18 rode in the car with me, I could drive anywhere, anytime.

Essentially they were saying, “You haven’t proven yourself in any way; yet, we are giving you this freedom and responsibility of getting behind the wheel of a potentially dangerous piece of machinery.  Good luck.  Practice hard.  Take Driver’s Ed this year, and come back in a year for a simple driving test.”

Didn’t they know that I felt a need – a need for speed?  Didn’t they know I had a full-time 4×4 pickup with a 350 V-8 under the hood?  Didn’t they know that I would actually drive occasionally without that licensed driver?  (At least I never drove myself by myself to my Driver’s Ed class like my friend Matt did).

What they did in that instance was to empower me – to give me grace – to handle the big responsibility of looking out for myself and others on the highways and byways.

I believe God empowers me – gives me grace – to handle the big responsibility of looking out for myself and others on the highways and byways of life.

Yet, it seems that the majority of the time that I hear the word “grace” used in church or in pop and Christian culture it simply means forgiveness – no more, no less.  Some will say something along the lines of, “Even before you sin, God has forgiven you.”  You might hear someone follow up with something like, “Since you’ve been forgiven, you have a responsibility. . . .”  Seldom, though, do I hear, “You’ve been given grace, and that is a big responsibility.”


Let’s be honest.  The guy had skills.  He was able to unify a large number of people behind common goals.  To people who were hurting economically and emotionally, he gave hope.  A group of people, who seemed destined for destruction, rallied together behind this charismatic leader to make things better for a majority of the people.

I could be talking about Jesus.  I could be talking about the Apostle Paul.  Sadly, I’m talking about Hitler – yes, Adolph Hitler.

He had gifts for administration, leadership, and exhortation.  In a sick way, he was an evangelist who shared what seemed to many to be good news, and he equipped the Germans for the building up of Germany.

He was given great responsibility with great gifts that he squandered for selfish gain.  Just think what he could have done had he used these gifts for God’s kingdom instead of his own.


In the New Testament, the Greek word that is translated “grace” is the word CHARIS (or a form of that word).  One of the Greek words often translated as “spiritual gifts” is the word CHARISMATA – notice that the root word is CHARIS – grace!  The abilities God gives us to DO, to LIVE OUT our faith, is grace.  I’ve seen the term CHARISMATA also translated “grace-effects.”  God’s grace causes the effect of doing.  As we have seen, we can use these abilities to do (using these elements of grace) for good or evil.  We have a choice to make and a responsibility to accept in receiving this grace.


I believe that the point of most of Jesus’ teachings was to empower his listeners.  Not everyone that he reached out to and taught were the worst sinners in the world who simply needed forgiveness.  Many, by no fault of their own, had been labeled outcasts.  Lepers and others with illnesses or physical maladies certainly fall into this category.  Plus, a prevalent theology then was, “If you are not doing well financially, you must be doing something wrong.  Otherwise, God would be blessing you with wealth.”  Thus, people who had lost their land would fall into this category.

Have you ever thought about what happens in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?

  • Matthew 5:  The beatitudes make hearers reevaluate labels as do his teaching on salt and light.  He next reinterprets aspects of the law to help his hearers live out a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
  • Matthew 6:  Then we hear how to give alms, pray (which apparently includes forgiveness), and fast.  It’s important to see that giving alms and fasting helps people to not store up treasures as does praying only for a days worth of bread at a time.  These help one to serve God and not wealth, and through living these out, one will not worry but will be striving for God’s kingdom and will to come upon the earth
  • Matthew 7:  Don’t judge until you’ve first removed the log in your own eye!  Don’t force your ideas on others until they are ready, but don’t let that stop YOU from asking, seeking, and knocking for more information!  Do to others what you’d have them do to you, but know that doing all of this is not necessarily easy.  Pay attention to the fruit produced by others, but don’t assume that just because they do great things that they are to be trusted or followed.

Then, in Matthew 7:24, we read, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (emphasis mine).

Essentially, Jesus says, “I’ve given you the gift, the grace, of knowledge, but you have to act on that.  You have to live it out.  I’m not doing it so you don’t have to.  I’ve told you how to do it; now I’m going to show you.”

I’ve also come to believe that Jesus told parables primarily to get his hearers to think.  So many of them had essentially been told that they didn’t have a voice, but Jesus was trying to help them find it.  I also think that it was used as a community-building tool.  Let me explain.

Let’s say Bob and Tom – two total strangers – are listening to Jesus teach.  He tells the parable of the Good Samaritan and then leaves.  Well, it just so happens that Bob and Tom have to walk home by the same route, and they begin talking about that parable.  Before you know it, a friendship has formed in which each helps the other strive for God’s kingdom and justice.  The friendship brings together two (or more if you include family) in the name of Jesus, thus, bringing the Spirit of Christ into their midst.


I hope and pray that we can move away from the idea that grace is only about forgiveness.

What I hear in the midst of the Gospel is that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God who is love.  We are to be imitators of that God, loving as Jesus loved, being willing even to die for others.  As God has taken an initiative in reaching out to us, we need to do likewise in taking an initiative to live out the grace-filled responsibility given us by God.  We don’t have to prove ourselves before we do this, either.  We can just do it with God who is enabling us  both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure!

I believe God empowers us – gives us grace – to handle the big responsibility of looking out for ourselves and others on the highways and byways of life – and sometimes that does include accepting and giving forgiveness.


For more on the next-to-last paragraph, read:

  • Psalm 139
  • Genesis 1
  • 1 John 4
  • Ephesians 5
  • Philippians 2

You’ll find phrases from each of these passages in that one paragraph.

No Comments »

D-I-V-O-R-C-E and the C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N

“Can I talk to you,” I asked, a bit sheepishly (I’ve always been a bit shy).

“Sure,” was the response.

I was considering a call to vocational ministry, and a few mentors had advised that I should ask to hear call stories of others that I knew who were in ministry or going into ministry to help me discern my own call. This was the intent behind my question.

“I know that you have recently decided to go into ministry and that you’ll be starting school soon. I’m wondering if I’m called to ministry, too, so I was hoping to hear your call to ministry to help me understand my own.”

“You can’t be a minister. You’re divorced. The Bible is clear that a minister should have but one wife. You couldn’t manage that relationship; how can you manage a church?”

A bit perturbed but trying to stay positive, I responded, “Okay, but I’d still like to hear your call.”

The glare along with immediately seeing his back moving further away from me as he walked off told me that was not something I’d be hearing.


A friend of mine was a minister of another denomination. He had been married, but his wife decided that marriage to a minister was not something to be envied or lived. So, without seeking any counseling as a couple, she left.

That particular denomination would allow a minister to remain in ministry following divorce, but only so long as that one remained unmarried. So, when he found the love of his life, he was forced to make a decision: drop her, forget ministry, or change denominations.

I’m pleased to say he has joined the rest of us “heathens” in the United Methodist Church!


As I think about “the Church’s” approach to divorce, the first thing that frustrates me is this. According to Jesus the only unforgivable sin is blaspheming the Holy Spirit (see Mark 3:28-29), and yet, “the Church” has taken it upon itself to essentially insist that divorce is not forgivable. The Apostle Paul can persecute the church (maybe even kill Christians), and that can be forgiven. He can do ministry now, but not someone who has been divorced.

The typical reason given by “the Church” for this is found in 1 Timothy 3:

2 Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) (NIV, Italics Added)

That’s all well and good, but think about. Not even God has been able to manage us human beings. Despite all of God’s wooing, we keep turning away. Consider Isaiah 50:1:

This is what the LORD says: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away? Or to which of my creditors did I sell you? Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away. (NIV)

Even the LORD has gotten so upset with God’s people that God divorced them! If even God cannot “manage us,” why is it that “the Church” thinks we can “manage” our spouses who are the same wayward people that not even God can manage!

Of course, the next response from “the Church” is a quote from Matthew 5:

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (NIV)

“Unless the spouse has committed adultery with another person, there are no grounds for divorce,” “the Church” says.

There is something important to consider in thinking about this passage (along with other similar passages), though. God, in speaking through the Hebrew prophets, often says that the Israelites’ lack of commitment is “adultery.” Just read the book of Hosea, and we read that God sees that the Hebrews, in breaking their covenant with God, have become adulterers or prostitutes. We see this even in Hosea 1:2:

When the LORD began to speak through Hosea, the LORD said to him, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the LORD.” (NIV)

In the full biblical context, then, adultery / prostitution is not simply having sex with another person. It is also departing from one who loves you. For sure, God is willing to take them (us) back, but God does not force us (manage us?) to come back. God is not any less God because people turn from God, and ministers are no less ministers because someone has turned from them.

Can we, please, get back to the message of Jesus and accept all who are called to ministry and willingly serve together to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven!


Thoughts for Advent: It’s a Beginning. . .

Have you ever thought about the purpose of worship? What about when we worship – the day or time of year?

Jesus was Jewish, so it is important to think about our Jewish heritage here. In Judaism, the Sabbath is observed starting at dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday – the last day of the week. Think about the first story of Creation in Genesis 1. God is said to have labored six days and rested on the Sabbath – the seventh day. Part of the purpose of worshiping on the last day of the week is to look at the week that has just passed and to give thanks to God for the blessings received that week. This is an important aspect of worship that we often overlook with our more future-oriented outlook both within Christianity and as a culture.

Within Christendom, worship is most typically held (obviously not always the case) on Sunday, not Saturday. Why? It is a weekly reminder of Easter SUNDAY. Rightly understood, the Sabbath has not been moved to Sunday; rather, Sunday is a day to worship and be reminded of the gift of Easter. On top of that, though, because worship is held on the first day of the week in this scenario, it is a preparation for living out the life of faith in the week to come. It is an opportunity to become re-focused on the goal of the Christian life.

I think it may be partially because the New Year follows Christmas, that we tend to focus in December (the time of Advent and Christmas) on what has gone on in the previous year. It’s the last month of the year; it’s a time of ending.

The problem is that we are basing this off of the Gregorian calendar not the Christian liturgical calendar. In this calendar, the New Year begins four Sundays prior to Christmas Day – the first Sunday of Advent. It is a time of remembering the birth of Christ, but it is also a preparation for the coming of Christ again.

Often, this second coming is envisioned as vision of rapture – Jesus coming down out of the sky. Let’s consider this another way, though, using these passages of Scripture:

  • For where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them. – Matthew 18:20
  • 37 Then the righteous will answer the Son of Man, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40 And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” – Matthew 25:37-40
  • Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

When we really listen to these passages, we see that Jesus returns all the time – when we gather together, when we serve those in need. Advent, then, is the time that we should be preparing ourselves (and allowing God to prepare us) to bring forth Christ into the world through our fellowship and service to others. As a parallel to Mary’s story, Advent is the time of our pregnancy where our calling from God grows in conviction in preparation for being birthed into action after Christmas.

It is important to remember and cherish our past blessings, so it is fitting that Thanksgiving falls the Thursday before the first Sunday of Advent. Let us change direction and focus, though, during this season of Advent, looking for how we will bring Christ into the world.

  • How might God be calling you to bring Christ into the world in the coming year through your Christian fellowship and service to those in need?
  • Knowing that you are but one member of the body of Christ, who might you invite to share in those actions?


The above devotional is a response to the great discussion we had at the 1st Session of the 2011 Advent Study, Christmas is Not Your Birthday, inspired by the book of the same name.

Originally posted at on December 2, 2011.

No Comments »