By Al Gephart
Players in a worldwide jazz combo, we improvise with God on the theme of love.
I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist Christian home. I am grateful for the sense of God’s Presence that I experienced there, my introduction to the Bible, and to Jesus. At the same time, even as a teenager, I began to have many questions. Questions about the Bible and evolution, about Jesus being God, and about Christianity as the only way of salvation. What about my friends who were not Christian? Or those who chose to attend more liberal churches? Were they all wrong?
Music was an integral, important part of my life, almost from the beginning. It was music more than anything that conveyed and lodged in my heart my early Christian faith. I loved to sing the hymns and choruses I learned at church. Hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine,” and choruses like “Safe Am I in the Hollow of His Hand.”
One chorus I learned at summer camp summarized my early faith, challenged me to live as God desired, and encouraged me to share Jesus with others.
“Let’s be true to Jesus, tho’ a thousand voices from the world may call;
‘Twas He who died to save us, and demands our life, our loyalty, our all.
Since we’ll walk and talk with Him when our life on earth is o’er,
Let us labor now to point the sinner to the open door.
Let’s be true to Jesus, and we’ll reap eternal blessing by and by.”
I say that my spiritual journey is like a music crescendo. By that, I don’t mean what it means to a musician, that I’ve gradually gotten louder and louder over the years. No, I see the crescendo symbol turned on its side. And I imagine it as outstretched arms, reaching out in an increasingly more open and more inclusive embrace.
As I encountered my world as a young adult, questions, new learning, life-affecting experiences continued to stretch those arms and shape who I was becoming.
Often I needed to let go of earlier perceptions to embrace what now made more sense. It was not an easy process. The hold of fundamentalism is strong. There is a fear that letting go may jeopardize your relationship with God. It may also mean that you find yourself out of sync with your family and friends. That was certainly true for me.
My first year in college, I helped organize a group of classmates who met weekly to explore the Bible, to share what was happening in their lives, and to pray conversationally together. It was called Lawrence Christian Fellowship (LCF). We took turns leading our discussions. We became good friends. It was liberating to be in a safe space where we openly discussed doubts and questions. We sang the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” at almost every gathering.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow:
blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Great is Thy faithfulness, Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.
My faith perspective broadened and became less fundamentalistic; more evangelical.
I went to seminary, not thinking I would become a minister, but wanting to continue my exploration of unanswered, haunting questions. I tell people that Fuller Seminary was a liberalizing influence on my life, and it was.
In the first fall, I took a class in Old Testament theology. I learned more about the Jewish roots of Christianity. It challenged me to see continuity rather than division between the Old and New Testaments. For Christmas that year, I went to a kosher Jewish store in Beverly Hills and bought presents for my parents. My mom always enjoyed the Shabbat tray I gave her, displaying it prominently in her dining room hutch.
Seminary gave me tools for understanding the origin and development of Christianity. I was able to study the Bible using Greek, and to some extent, Hebrew. I learned about some of the great Christian theologians — Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Brunner, and Niebuhr. By the time I graduated, I resonated with a contemporary expression of the theology of the Reformers, known as Neo-orthodoxy. I became a Presbyterian, appreciating that denomination’s thoughtful approach to faith and social issues. Seminary was certainly a broadening experience.
Still, I had not yet decided to become a minister. I pursued a Master of Music degree in church and choral music, thinking I might teach music or direct choirs in a university setting. However, something deep inside kept nudging me to consider focusing on church ministry.
In 1970 I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister at the Whitworth Community Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington. My job description included the education, music, and youth programs of the church. My crescendo arms had opened a great deal during those preparation years; much more was yet to come!
One year I helped plan a city-wide interfaith Thanksgiving service. I got to know the rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom. I called him afterward to see if he would be open to teaching a class at our church. “What would you like me to teach?” he asked. “Perhaps something about the Old Testament,” I replied. There was a significant pause. Then he said, “The ‘Old’ Testament?” It suddenly came to me that Jews do not recognize their holy scriptures as “old” in contrast to the “new” writings of the Christian Bible. It was a stretching moment. I have had difficulty referring to the “Old” Testament ever since.
Social justice was not a topic preached or talked about in church when I was growing up. One day, Robert McAfee Brown, a Presbyterian seminary professor, gave a lecture at Whitworth College, which was right next to the church I served. I went to hear him.
In his talk, he said that “God takes sides” and “God has a preference for the poor.” It stunned me. How could God prefer anyone? Why the poor? His address challenged me to look for references to God’s concern for the poor in the Bible. There they were.
“Is not this what I require…to loose the fetters of injustice…sharing your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your home, clothing the naked…”
“The Spirit is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…release to the captives…sight to the blind…and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
“In as much as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me.”
A few years later I read Brown’s book, Theology in a New Key. Brown too had a music background. The book focused on the themes of liberation theology, a bottom-up social view that focuses primary consideration on the plight of the poor and the oppressed. Jesus’ own life is an example of this focus. This was the beginning of my concern for social justice.
It was a new challenge for me to look at life through the eyes of the marginalized. I began to recognize God’s concern for the well-being of people here and now. For a Kingdom (Kin-dom) of peace, love, and justice today, on earth, as Jesus invited us to pray. Salvation wasn’t just about what happens to us when we die.
A trip to Mexico and Nicaragua in the mid ‘80s, visiting impoverished communities, talking with those who had almost nothing in material goods, yet were rich with love, was deeply life-affecting. The trip contributed significantly to my new awakening. It was a huge stretching point that challenged and subsequently altered my worldview.
When a poor one who has nothing shares with strangers,
When the thirsty water give unto us all,
When the crippled in their weakness strengthen others,
Then we know that God still goes that road with us.
(Hymn: Cuando el Pobre)
Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, wrote a book, On Being A Christian in which he said “God’s purpose is man’s wellbeing.” What? I had always thought my purpose was God’s well-being. I imagined God only being pleased when I completely obeyed and lived the way God wanted me to. “Trust and obey,” the hymn said, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey”.
I heard Kung saying that God was on my side, even when I wasn’t entirely on God’s side, and didn’t do everything right. Truly God wanted my joy and happiness in life, and purposely sought to help me have the most fulfilling life that was possible. This was a 180-degree perspective change. Less about divine requirement and judgment; more about God’s love and desire for my well-being and fullness of life.
This change in my view of God’s relationship with me helped get me through one of the most difficult times in my life. After thirteen years of marriage, my wife and I decided to end it. I never thought I would face a divorce. Marriage was a life-long commitment. And besides, for many years I had thought that God had one person in mind for me to marry. I had prayed that I would be led to that person and thought I had been.
In the days following I experienced the most grief and guilt I had ever known. I had lots of questions challenging my faith. After all, wasn’t God in absolute control? Why had God let this happen when I had so diligently sought God’s guidance? These questions persisted, unanswered. I remarried four years later; a marriage now in its 39th year.
In the late ‘70s, Presbyterians initiated a consideration of affirming gay and lesbian persons. I explored the issue and concluded that homosexuality was not a choice. I became an advocate for change in the denomination.
Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live,
Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace;
Here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.
(Hymn: All Are Welcome)
The corporate decision did not happen until 2014, five years after I retired. Little did I anticipate early on that in 2011 our daughter would come out to our family as a transgender person, and that I would be on an entirely new, even more widening, inclusive journey.
In the 1990s Marcus Borg began to write about an “emerging paradigm.” Something new in Christianity was seeking to be born. It is the product, he said,
“of Christianity’s encounter with the modern and postmodern world, including science, historical scholarship, religious pluralism, and cultural diversity.”
He highlighted how Christianity has contributed to racism, sexism, nationalism, and exclusivism. His writings got my attention as they were scratching where I was still itching, addressing yet unanswered questions.
Borg’s books humanized the Bible for me. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and The Heart of Christianity helped me let go of the out-of-this-world view of Jesus I still carried. The traditional understanding proclaims Jesus as a member of the Divine Trinity, purposely sent to die on the cross to atone for the sins of the world.
The view Borg presented was that Jesus was a person, like each of us, a product of a particular time and place. He was a Jewish mystic deeply influenced by Israel’s prophetic tradition. And he was a healer, a teacher of wisdom, a social prophet, and the initiator of a movement. Following his tragic death, Borg said, his followers spoke of him as “the Messiah / Christ.”
The cross for Borg was the cost of love fully expressed. Jesus’ life and teaching challenged powerful, unjust, and oppressive systems. He became a threat to those in leadership positions. As a result, powerful people conspired to kill him. They crucified him, thinking he would no longer influence the nation.
However, Jesus rose again in the witness of those who felt his presence with them. They continued to follow his Way, attracting others to join with them. Borg’s books significantly contributed to my taking a huge, broadening step in my understanding of Jesus.
In 2003, now serving a church in Tempe, Arizona, we focused for a month on the relationship between religion and science. Our theme was “An Unavoidable Challenge: The Church in an Age of Science and Technology.” Throughout history, there are many ways that the church and science communities have been antagonistic to each other.
I learned during that month that those who sought to integrate science and religion did so through the lens of process theology, which arose after the discoveries of evolution and quantum physics. I was intrigued by this approach and began vigorously to explore it. Surely, I thought, truth is truth, whether found in science or religion. We need both for a comprehensive world and life perspective.
I attended summer seminars in Claremont, CA where classes in process theology were offered by theologians including John Cobb, Marjorie Suchocki, Catherine Keller, and Bruce Epperly. In the afternoon full-length international films were viewed followed by discussion of moments of transformation depicted in them. I met others at these seminars who were on a similar spiritual journey as I was. These were rich experiences of discovery for me.
I read and I read. John Cobb, David Griffin, Jay McDaniel, Bruce Epperly, Catherine Keller, Rabbi Artson, Philip Clayton, and Thomas Oord. Even Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, whose philosophic writings were quite a stretch for a voice/music education major.
Further, I explored some who espoused similar perspectives to these leaders in process thought, but who did not claim to be in the process camp. Richard Rohr, John Haught, Matthew Fox, John Philip Newell, and the poetry of Mary Oliver come to mind.
The more I read, the more I resonated with the process perspective. Over and over again, it answered long-held questions. It resonated intuitively with how I experienced life. Though it challenged earlier orthodox views, its perspectives on God, Jesus, creation, and salvation made great sense. I found myself saying Yes.
Yes to a different view of God’s relationship with creation:
Process theology espouses life as an ongoing series of events, each related to and influenced by the past. In each moment God is present as a Luring Presence. Each moment is also freely, creatively determined by each entity.
In an inter-connected universe, we are influenced by all that has gone on before. The process approach resonates with Martin Luther King’s words:
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This view challenged my Sky-God, omnipotent perspective that imagined God residing in heaven somewhere, sitting like Lincoln in his big chair in the Lincoln Memorial. With absolute, almighty power God looks out on creation and intervenes in human affairs to answer people’s prayers and to accomplish the divine will. Above, beyond, and distant, it pictures God separate from me, and only now and then present. Such Presence depends on the depth of my faith and my obedience.
How different to perceive God ubiquitously present and part of each moment of your life, not as a controlling power, but as a Presence of Love luring you to make choices freely that lead to wholeness and fullness of life, and to exciting new possibilities.
It is a view that understands God as incarnated in all of life, in all human and non-human entities. In fact, there would be no life outside of the Presence of God. Only a chaotic universe of elements.
Process theology does not perceive creation as a collection of material objects, but rather as a community of inter-relating subjects, each with the potential for relationship. It challenges us to be mindful and care-full of our relationship with the non-human as well as the human.
Brian McLaren notes:
“I so still dare to believe there is a You to address in the universe, a Presence, a Love that loves through all loves, a radiant and holy mystery, the Spirit of life and creativity, the Wisdom woven into the pattern of the universe, the ‘still small voice’ that beckons creation, including me, toward love and maturity.
I can’t help but see that You shining through in the face of Jesus…and through the lives of holy, compassionate, and wise people I meet everywhere. That You that I encounter in life is far better than the He many of us were taught in church.” (Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned)
Yes to a different view of Jesus:
Traditional Christian beliefs are based on a substance understanding of the universe. Jesus, I learned early on, was made of two different substances – human and divine. It is a zero-sum perspective: the more you have of one the less you have of the other. For most of my life, I espoused a more divine than human Jesus.
Process theology is built on a relational view of the universe. Creation at its deepest level is not matter; it is inter-relating energy. It is possible, in this perspective, for different energies to exist together, at the same time. It may even be true that the more you have of one the more, not less, you have of the other. For example, the more open you are to the Presence of God within you the more human you become.
This is how I began to understand Jesus. As he “grew in wisdom” (Luke 2:40, 52), he responded to the lure and call of God in ways each of us can do. The “Light that enlightens everyone” illuminated him. Similarly, it seeks to illuminate us. And just as the Word/Logos became flesh in him, it seeks to become flesh in us.
In other words, Jesus was not a two-substance freak from outer space; rather, he was a human being just like me, who grew in love, and increasingly gave himself to the Lure he heard. Perhaps his experience was not too different from my own. I also experienced a sense of call, even as a young person, that I just couldn’t shake, even when other voices sought my attention.
John Cobb writes in Christ in a Pluralistic Age, that Jesus surrendered himself to the Divine Lure to the extent that his ego became one with it. He was one with God. What is most significant to me is that potential lies within each of us. (John 17:20ff). Jesus is not different in kind from us; only different in degree, and the particular context in which he lived out his Call.
Anna Case-Winters notes about Jesus (God Will Be All and in All):
“If we do not see ‘true human being’ in him, then his life cannot serve as a model for our own. If God’s presence in him is ontologically different from God’s presence in the rest of us, then we cannot be expected to be like him.”
Finally, a view of Jesus that made sense to me.
Yes to a different view of salvation:
In earlier years I viewed salvation in transactional terms. It went something like this: I am a sinner, powerless ultimately to save myself. God sent Jesus to live a sinless life. His death on the cross would be the perfect sacrifice God required to atone for my sins. He would be my substitute. If I believed in him, which is the required transaction, God would forgive me and accept me into heaven when I die.
To be honest, I believed this dogma for many years, but often wondered—How could this be the way of a God of love? It is the thrust of many hymns that speak of Jesus’ death on the cross. It remains the central view of salvation of most Christian churches.
Process theology helped me move from a transactional view to a relational perspective. It understands salvation as an ongoing journey of moments of transformation. God is present in my life as a continuous Lure toward truth, goodness, beauty, and love. Jesus, for me, manifested that Lure fully in his time and place.
I am transformed into the image of Christ and “saved” as I give myself to that Lure, as I seek to follow the Way of Jesus. I continuously become a new person, “born again” not just once and for all, but again and again and again. (2 Cor 3:18f) I too, to an increasing degree, become Christ, an incarnated Presence of God in the world.
Spirit, spirit of gentleness, Blow through the wilderness, calling and free,
Spirit, spirit of restlessness, Stir me from placidness,
Wind, wind on the sea. (Hymn: Spirit)
Richard Rohr describes this salvation journey as a process from order to disorder, and then to reorder. It is, he says, a nonstop flight, called by some “enlightenment,” “exodus”, “nirvana”, “heaven,” “springtime”, even “resurrection.” Happiness is the spiritual outcome; the result of resilience persisting through the experiences of disorder, moving on to increased growth, and maturity.
As regards heaven, I have decided simply to entrust myself into the Love of God, whatever that may mean beyond this life.
Yes to a different mission for my life:
For many years, a major life focus for me was seeking to convert others and to help them become Christians. Jesus was, after all, the only Way to God, to truth, life, and ultimately, to heaven.
How freeing to perceive God present in all people, and to let go of seeing others as objects for conversion to Christianity. My journey has been a gradual move from a view of Christian exclusivity, to greater and greater inclusion of other faith traditions. I now look for the gifts others offer out of the diversity of their religious perspectives. There is, I believe, that Lure to truth, goodness, beauty, and love in the depths of every person. Interfaith dialogue has become an important part of my life.
This does not mean that I accept everything others espouse. And in some people, the Divine Light seems almost entirely extinguished. Scripture notes, however, that the darkness never completely overcomes it. This is one reason I am against capital punishment.
God, like a tracking “Hound of Heaven,” continues to pursue us and never tires or gives up. God leads me to join, with an ever broader, more inclusive community of others, to become co-creators with God in an evolving, more loving and just world, where all are fed, have adequate shelter, and opportunity to fulfill their lives.
As I journeyed more into process theology, I began to look for those outside of the process community who held similar views, but who didn’t speak of process theology explicitly. For example, I discovered John Philip Newell, a fellow Presbyterian in the Church of Scotland, and a scholar of Celtic spirituality. I started using his prayers for personal meditation and in worship. Prayers like:
You are above us, O God,
you are within.
You are in all things
yet contained by no thing.
Teach us to seek you in all that has life
that we may see you as the Light of life.
Teach us to search for you in our own depths
that we may find you in every living soul. (Sounds of the Eternal)
Yes to seeing beauty in the world:
Last, process theology has helped me to look for beauty in the world. There’s the beauty of nature; the beauty of a well-executed basketball play; the beauty of a small helicopter flying around the surface of Mars; the beauty of compassion shown to a stranger in need; the beauty of negotiations for peace.
I now look intentionally for evidence of beauty in the flora of our backyard, in the birds and butterflies that migrate seasonally, and in the eyes of strangers seeking refuge at our state’s border. Likewise, I search for evidence of truth and goodness as I read the daily paper. Process theology has not only widened my outstretched arms, it has also opened my eyes further to see beauty in the world.
Mary Oliver writes
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Phyllis Tickle held that “Every five hundred years or so religion undergoes a significant paradigm shift.” Evolution, quantum physics, and new technology has made the pluralism of our world more evident and has put Christianity into shift mode. Something is certainly happening. Change is in the air.
Process philosophy and theology has helped me to deal with these changes. It has offered a third option between blindly going on with an earlier perspective I don’t really believe as I once did, and entirely throwing out my faith in God and my trust in the Way of Jesus, as many have done. The process perspective allows me to feel secure in the Love of God while letting go of orthodox tenets that no longer make sense.
I recognize that God is behind my questions and my doubts drawing me forward to a broader, more inclusive worldview. I don’t fear having them; rather I listen to them as a Call of God to me in the moment. What I hold to today is open to review tomorrow, for life is an ongoing process. It is a never-completed, lifetime adventure of discovery with God. I’m sure there is still more arm-stretching to be done.
The church of Christ in every age Beset by change, but Spirit led,
Must test and claim its heritage, and keep on rising from the dead.
(Hymn: The Church of Christ in Every Age)
At this point in my journey, I resonate with these words of Ilia Delio.
I believe in one God, one human family, one planetary community, one body, one love, uniting all in beauty, for God’s infinite love is infinite, fecund and beautiful.
I believe I am entangled with all earth life and all living creatures,
I believe this future is the relational unity of all things in God,
I believe this earth has a future entangled with God,
I believe the heart of God is love.
Beliefs guide us, faith strengthens us but love—well, love is the core energy of life. Where there is love, there is no death, only future. Love raised Jesus from the dead; love heals and makes whole. It is time to stop talking about the risen Christ and begin to love in a radically new way. The power in our midst to reimagine a new world is love. (Not Yet God}
For much of my life, I imagined God as the Great Composer in the sky. God left us the music for a good life in the texts of the Bible. Our job was to discern the score and play our part as close to God’s intent as we possibly could.
Process theology has given me a new image. It is of a jazz combo in which all of us are members. God initiates the theme of love, participates, and interacts with us. We improvise together, adding our unique take, and create in the moment what has never been before.
So as fellow musicians, let us grab our horns or warm up our voices, listen for God’s lead, and for the contributions of others, and then improvise our part, adding in our time and place to this evolving song of love.
“This is the day of new beginnings; God is making all things new.”
BIO The Rev Al Gephart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, USA. He holds a masters degree in church and choral music from the University of Southern California, and a masters degree in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He served two congregations in Washington State, Whitworth Community Presbyterian Church and the Redmond Presbyterian Church. For seventeen years Al was the pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona, retiring as Pastor Emeritus in 2009. He is chair of the Interfaith Dialogue Committee of the Arizona Faith Network, and chairs the Christian Path of the Process and Faith program, a multi-faith network for the common good. Al is married to Betsy Wells-Gephart, recently retired as a lactation consultant. They have two daughters, Eryn Wells and Anna Gephart, and a rescue dog named Tulla. They live in Tempe, Arizona