Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sometimes We Are Not Ready for the Angel; Sometimes We Are Not Ready for the Message

The story of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, has long fascinated me. Zachariah was a priest, described by Luke as "righteous in the sight of God." Getting the opportunity actually to go into the temple and present the incense offering was a rare honor. On this day as told in the first chapter of Luke, it is finally Zachariah's turn, and in he goes. He is promptly met by the angel Gabriel, who tells Zachariah that he and his wife Elizabeth (who is, according to Luke, "very old") are going to have a baby (who will turn out to be John the Baptist). Zachariah's response is "How do I know you are telling me the truth?" Perhaps as a sign, and perhaps as a bit of reprimand, Gabriel strikes Zachariah mute on the spot, and Zachariah does not speak again until the baby John is born.

Why would this righteous priest not believe a communication from God delivered to him face to face by an angel?

Perhaps Zachariah was simply not ready for a holy message. Like many of us, he was going through his churchy motions and making his religious noises, but the last thing he may have expected was for God to show up. I think failing to expect God to be in church is a danger for all of us; the phenomenon of tending the altar of God without really seeking God is particularly an occupational hazard for professional ministers, for whom the sanctuary can become routine. For God to honor their - and our - service and actually appear may not be on the radar of those who are simply going about their business.

There may be another explanation for Zachariah's immediate disbelief, however. Maybe Zachariah was ready for a message from God but did not prepare for the message to be personal. He thought God might speak to the nation, not to him. It is one thing to expect God to give a sweeping declaration to all people. It is something else for God to deliver an individual message just to Zachariah.

My thoughts turn to our nation. Ferguson and "I Can't Breathe" have highlighted simmering - and now often boiling over - racial distrust and tension. On one hand, we can look back at the sixties and say how far we have come. We can then look to the future and be optimistic, knowing that things will continue to get better. Comedian Chris Rock has recently reflected this optimism, saying that he expects his children to grow up in a much better racial situation: “It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.”

On the other hand, an optimistic look at coming decades is of little import to those fighting the fight today. Whether the issue is race, socio-economics, or faith, what will happen in the future is distant. That is a message for generations, a sweeping gesture that is doubtless correct and in its own way uplifting but still remote, still impersonal.

Sometimes, we prepare for the general message and are not ready for a personal call. What if God wants me to make a difference in my community, today? What if I am supposed to be part of the answer? What if the angel is speaking a message to me that is about what I am supposed to do, not a broad dictate for the nation over the next fifty years?

This Advent, we hear the Christmas angels sing "Glory to God and peace on earth." That sounds so general, so futuristic, so all-encompassing - one day, God will wipe away all tears and end all strife, and there will indeed be peace on earth.

But what if those angels are singing now to us, individually? What if we are supposed to be making that peace? What if God is calling us (not someone else) to make a change here (not somewhere else) now(not in the future)? What if Christmas ought to be making a difference where we live today and tomorrow and the next day? What if peace on earth really is supposed to begin with me, with my neighbors, with my block, with my community, with my city?

Am I ready to meet the angel, and if I am, am I ready for the angel to speak to me ... about me?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Interstellar - The Father, The Ghost, and The Greatest of These

Warning: This blog contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen "Interstellar" and don't want me to ruin it for you, don't read the rest of this yet. Go see the movie, then come back and read.

And now abideth faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

In her first line of the movie, young Murphy tells her father, "I thought you were the ghost." And the foreshadowing has begun.

I don't know that "Interstellar" is a great movie by most Hollywood standards. I have no idea if it will win many, or any, awards. But it is as imaginative and compelling a telling of the gospel as I have seen. I read a review by Jim Denison, whom I greatly respect and with whom I almost always agree, that was generally negative because the movie does not explicitly mention God and instead speaks a message that humans save themselves. Christianity Today's review had a similar response. With all due respect to both, I think these reviews miss the point of the movie by a mile. The movie never mentions God by name, but it tells the story of Christ in multiple ways. It is a palpable experience.

The setting and plot line of the movie are not really the point of what I take from the movie. (Whether Christopher and Jonathan Nolan are saying all of this intentionally or not is beyond me; the message comes through either way.) Yes, it involves a rocket-powered adventure to save earth from a dystopia of blight, overpopulation, and imminent doom. Yes, there are complicated descriptions of space travel, quantum mechanics, theoretical physics, surrogate biology, survival, exploration, and triggers of evolution. Yes, the film is long and relies on a lot of talking and a lot of crying.

On top of that are the most basic of symbols: dust and wind; fire and water; corn fields and ice fields; an unplayed piano; inscrutible mathematical scribblings; and, of course, the holiest of symbols, baseball. And most of this is set to the music of a dramatic cathedral organ.

It is all an elaborate device, pointing in one clear direction.

If you are still reading, you have seen the movie, or else you don't plan to see it and so it is ok if I spoil it for you. So here goes: Cooper is a trinitarian figure of the divine. He is the Father. He is the Ghost - if you have seen the movie, you understand. And he is the Christ, sacrificing himself and descending, through immense personal suffering, into the abyss as we see the flames grow in alternating scenes. He rises again, but not before his plunge into the inexplicable unveils the secret to overcome the curse that is taking over the world. It is a secret, a mystery, that he is able to share with the one who maintains - despite her own words and her own feelings - a stubborn faith in him and in his word. She finds the way to listen to him and to understand what he says, and from him she gains what she needs to solve the unsolveable equation.

She maintains her faith because her "dad said so."

Cooper promises her that he will come back. He will come again. She wants to know how and when, and he does not provide details, but he repeatedly says that he will come back. When he is on a distant world and all seems hopeless, he finds a way to come back. There is a literal second coming.

A critical part of the gospel story, of course, is the failing of humanity, of mankind. In the movie, the ultimate failures - deception, cowardice, betrayal, dishonesty, shortcuts, meanness, selfishness - are all portrayed in a single character. He believes that survival hinges on our response to the fear of death, and he relies on his own abilities, since "few have been tested as much as" he has. It is no coincidence that his name is Mann.

There is another character who fails. As Professor Brand dies, he confesses to what is later called a "monstrous lie," and it seems to us, at least for a moment, that Murphy's faith has been tragically misplaced. But we learn - as she learns - that her faith was not in Professor Brand but instead in the truth, in the hope that the unanswerable will be answered. And her faith is rewarded, but only through the unfathomable intervention of her father.

Dr. Denison is dismayed that Cooper says that the "they" who provide the help are really "we," that he and his kind have evolved into a future five-dimensional species that can communicate back to its more primitive self across time and space. But that is a device, a metaphor. Cooper is the Christ figure, and when he says that "we" are saving the world, the "we" is Cooper in all of his dimensions - father, ghost, and resurrected man.

So the movie starts with the hope of a new home and builds on the faith of solving the "problem of gravity." But as we all know, on top of all of this is the greatest of these. There are two critical speeches that make the point of the movie abundantly clear. The first of these, delivered by Amelia in her explanation of why they should choose Edmunds' planet, is her impassioned defense of the power of love. She argues that it is the only thing that reaches across time and space, reaching past its social utility, reaching beyond even death itself, and thus it should be trusted even though it is not measurable. She loses that debate in the moment, but the unfolding of events demonstrates that she is right - Edmunds' planet, where love tells her they should go, is the only one of the three planets that turns out to be what they need. She takes off her helmet and breathes.

The second speech is Cooper's explanation of why Murphy will return to the bookshelf to receive his message - because he loves her and she loves him, and that love will translate the message and obliterate the obstacles between them.

"Interstellar" tells the story of a world that is doomed to die. It cannot save itself. It needs supernatural help, something that, as the movie says, is "not possible ... it's necessary." It is a remarkable movie: birthed in hope, struggling with faith, complicated by the evil and mistakes of Mann, powered by love. It is a movie about the one who is Father and Ghost and, ultimately, the risen, living savior.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

What Hymns Have Taught Me

God in three persons, the Ancient of Days, the Incarnate Word, is the giver of immortal gladness.

This is my Father’s world. In summer and winter and springtime and harvest, the burning sun with golden beam, the silver moon with softer gleam, and the obeying stars join with all nature in witness to His faithfulness and love.

I am prone to wander. I was sinking deep in sin. Sin had left a crimson stain; He washed it white as snow. Seems now I see Him on Calvary’s tree. The way of the cross leads home. He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood. There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. No other fount I know – there to my heart was the blood applied. His blood can make the foulest clean. Are you washed in the blood? You shall be whiter than snow. Why do I sing about Jesus? Because He is my Lord and my Savior; dying He set me free.

Not the labors of my hands can fulfill Thy law's demands; these for sin could not atone. Thou must save, and thou alone. Have faith in God – He cannot fail; He must prevail. It is enough that Jesus died and that He died for me. We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves!

I once was lost, but now I am found. What a wonderful day I will never forget. After I’d wandered in darkness, I met Jesus. He met the need of my heart. My sins were washed away and my night was turned to day. Heaven came down, and glory filled my soul. Floods of joy roll over my soul since Jesus came into my heart. ‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus.

He triumphed over the grave and rose victorious for those He came to save. His marvelous, infinite, matchless grace is greater than all our sin. Now I belong to Jesus, not for the years of time alone, but for eternity. Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it! On Christ the solid rock I stand. I am standing on the promises and leaning on the everlasting arms.

Jesus loves me; this I know for the Bible tells me so. We come to the father through Jesus the Son, fairest Lord Jesus, the fairest of ten thousand to my soul. You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart! I stand amazed in His presence and wonder how He could love me. He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own. I am filled with His goodness, lost in His love. This is my story: Oh, how I love Jesus.

There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord. Holy Spirit, breathe on me until my heart is clean. I need thee every hour. Open my eyes that I may see glimpses of truth you have for me. Open my eyes – illumine me, Spirit divine. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage. Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me. Have thine own way.

How firm a foundation is laid for our faith in His excellent word: Holy Bible, book divine. Words of life and beauty teach me faith and duty; beautiful words, wonderful words of life.

We’ve a story to tell to the nations. Make the message clear and plain: Christ receives the sinful. Rescue the perishing. Let others see Jesus in you. Sing the wondrous story of our redeemer, who paid the debt and made us free. Send the blessed gospel light from shore to shore and let it shine forever.

Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling “Come home.” Arise and go to Jesus. Jesus, ready, stands to save. Though millions have come, there is still room at the cross. Just now, throw open the door and put your hand in the nail-scarred hand. Let Jesus come into your heart. Only trust Him. Jesus is merciful. Jesus will save.

Jesus: sweetest name I know. Jesus is Lord of my thoughts and my service each day. Just as I am, I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so wherever He leads. I surrender all to my blessed Savior. There’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey. We will follow the steps of Jesus wherever they go. I am weak, but God is mighty, and whatever I do and wherever I am, He leads me. Like a shepherd, He leads us. He has bought us, and we are His. Hold us who wait before Thee near to the heart of God.

Take time to be holy. Speak often with your Lord. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace. Just a closer walk with Him. Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and see what God has done.

Just when I need Him most, He is near to comfort and cheer. He hides my soul in the cleft of the rock and covers me there with His hand. Oh, what peace we often forfeit and what needless pain we bear because we do not carry everything to God in prayer. When I am sad, to Him I go. Pass me not, O gentle savior; open wide your arms of love. As He promised, I find perfect peace and rest. Gushing from the rock before me is a spring of joy.

Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight: the clouds will be rolled back as a scroll. The trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend! I have trophies that I will at last lay down. When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! In mansions of glory and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Him. We shall gather at the river that flows by the throne of God and we shall meet on that beautiful shore in the sweet by and by. I will be there when the roll is called up yonder. I will sing the wondrous story of the Christ who died for me with the saints in glory gathered by the crystal sea. I am bound for the Promised Land! Made like Him, like him we rise. Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.

Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God… but, children of our heavenly king may speak our joys abroad! Rejoice. Bring forth the royal diadem. Crown Him with many crowns, lost in wonder, love, and praise. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Glorious is His name! O how marvelous, o how wonderful is my Savior’s love for me. Tell of His excellent greatness. O for a thousand tongues to sing! Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day. Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say “It is well with my soul.” The body they may kill: God’s truth abides still. Love so amazing demands my soul, my life, my all.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Benevolence of God

I had an enlightening discussion with a friend last week. She is of a different faith, or at least a strongly different version of my faith, and we were discussing our respective beliefs. Hers is a works-based rewards system; while she says that "faith in the gospel" is one keystone, she affirms that her religion teaches that what happens after death is based almost entirely on our earthly behavior. In her world, irrespective of one's faith, if one's actions have been "bad" during life, the afterlife will be, at least for a while, undesirable.

She then asked me what happens in my belief system if a Christian acts badly. My answer was that God still loves us, that we are still His irrespective of our actions, and that Heaven awaits us. I explained that just as her children will always be her children no matter what they do - they may move out, be kicked out, deny their birth, or be disowned by their parents, but they will still be the biological offspring of her and her husband - so too are Christians the children of God who will live forever with God. To be sure, we should "act right" and "do good" and behave and serve and live in much the same way her church teaches her to live, but our motivation to do so is not in order to earn anything but rather becaues we are changed people who are obedient and who want to live up to the standards set for us by God. When we fail to do so - and we all fail - God still loves us, accepts us, and indeed welcomes us.

I talked to her about conversion, a concept foreign to her. I told her that we believe our actions change once we enter into relationship with God because we are changed, that we transform into new creatures. I had clearly confounded her at this point. The idea of the old becoming new, of our literally changing as we are "converted" into a child of God was foreign to her. That we behave differently than we did before not out of fear but rather out of love was met with silence. The thought that God's love for us is not altered by our many mistakes and intentional failings stopped her short.

She paused, and then she said, "Well, your God is a lot more benevolent than mine."

That got me thinking. How often we take the most basics for granted. I have written before about our tendency to overlook the love of God. It is one of the first things we learn in Sunday School, probably right after we learn that God created the world. 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. Yet until we meet someone who does not understand God the same way, we can (and often do) fail to treasure this most basic characteristic of the Father.

God's love does not mean that God does not hate sin, that God likes it when we misbehave, or that we have a license to do as we please (despite my friend's comment that if she believed as I do, she would act quite differently in this life than she does - I think (hope) that she was speaking tongue-in-cheek). God's love does not lessen our obligation to obey or to look out for other people. Those Christians who live indiscriminantly because their "fire insurance is paid up" are missing both the point of following Christ and the present realities of abundant life.

But the fact remains that God loves us so much that He accepts and welcomes us in spite of ourselves. He offers an irrevocable gift. We enter into a relationship that means, in the language of the verse most of us memorized before any other, that we "will not perish."

How benevolent is your God?

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Questions God Does Not Answer

Journalists famously ask "Who?," "What?," "When?," "Where?," "Why?," and "How?" Too often, we approach religion as though we were journalists, asking questions that are unanswerable and feeling cheated when we do not get the answers.

I heard a sermon recently about Jesus's famous miracle of feeding five thousand. This preacher's interpretation, which is not new, was that as Jesus encouraged everyone that there would be enough, a miraculous bout of generosity struck all those there, who opened their personal lunchboxes and knapsacks to share with those around them. This interpretation is starkly different from the "sho 'nuff miracle" interpretation that teaches that Jesus touched the five loaves and two fish and miraculously multiplied that meagre meal into enough for all the eaters, with twelve basketsfull left over.

Let's look at the actual scripture, from Matthew: Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. Interestingly, neither interpretation is clearly established - or obviously denied - by the scripture.

We are clear on the "Who?" question - it is Jesus. We are clear on the "What?" question - feeding the hungry. In this instance, we know the "When?" - shortly after the execution of John the Baptist. The "Where?" question is explained, sort of - in a solitary place near a body of water, presumably the Sea of Galilee. And we can study the "Why?" question - we can debate about it, and we may come to some rational conclusions.

What is strikingly missing from the discussion is the "How?" question. We are not told. What we are told is that there is a problem, and there are some raw materials, and there is Jesus, and then the problem is solved.

Think about the creation story, as I have discussed before. We get the "Who?" (God), the "What?" (creation out of nothing), and the "When?" (in the beginning). We do not get an answer to "Where?" directly, but the extrapolation is "everywhere." The "Why?" answer is once again one for study and discernment. But there is - to the distress of many and despite the protestations of some - no discussion of "How."

There are a very few miracle stories in scripture where the "how" is given some lip service. Exodus tells us that the Red Sea was parted with a wind. First Kings tells us that Elijah's food was brought by ravens. And if we want to stretch it, we can say that the gospels tell us that the blind man was healed by some dirt and spit. So, there is some mention of means in these stories, but I challenge anyone to recreate the miracles - we do not really know "how" even when the story gives a little hint.

On the other hand, there is no indication at all of a "How?" in these stories: every kind of animal finds its way to the ark; Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt; Sarah becomes pregnant long past her childbearing age; the plagues rain down on Egypt; water comes from the rock; Aaron's rod buds and blossoms; the donkey speaks; the fire consumes the soaked altar; the lions' mouths are closed; the fiery furnace is survived; the fleece is wet, then dry; the virgin conceives; water becomes wine; Jesus heals; Jesus passes through the crowd unseen; Lazarus arises; the coin is in the fish's mouth; Jesus is transfigured; the disciples are able to speak in multiple languages; and on and on and on. And in not one of these stories is there a hint of how it happens.

And does that matter?

It is not just the evolution/creationist battle that focuses on the "How?" to the detriment of "Who?" and "What?" Debates over miracles characterize many late-night discussions and have led far too many away from the faith.

The Buddha taught that there are certain questions that are "non-edifying" - asking them serves no purpose, and the answers would not be helpful even if they were ascertained. Frederick Buechner applies this idea to Christianity, noting how many times God does not answer questions directly. Perhaps the easiest example to recall is from the Book of Job. Job cries out for chapters and chapters, asking God to explain the cause of calamity that has befallen him, demanding that God answer both the "How?" and the "Why?" that captivate him. Instead, of course, God does no such thing. Buechner argues that God could well have answered the questions, but what good would that have done? Could Job have understood the divine mystery if it were laid out for him? Sitting across from the empty chairs that once held his children, would he have even wanted to work through the logic of the supernatural forces at play?

Instead of providing the answers, of course, God shows Himself to Job. And that is enough.

When Adam and Eve are hiding in the garden, God comes looking for them. When the fiery furnace is opened, a Fourth Person is seen in the midst of the flames with the three Jewish boys. When the water becomes wine and withered hand is restored, Jesus Himself is there. When the tongues of fire appear, the Holy Spirit arrives like a mighty wind.

When the questions come, God is there. And the need for the answers evaporates.

I don't know how the food got multiplied for 5000+ people. Perhaps it was divine magic. Maybe it was mass generosity. Maybe the laws of physics work in ways we cannot grasp.

Why does it matter? There was a need, there was Jesus, and there was satisfaction. Isn't that enough?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Praying for Lost Keys

Gena almost did not make her plane this morning, and I shifted into prayer mode.

Gena had a 6:30 a.m. flight. I travel all the time, and I confidently told her last night that Sunday mornings are easy, and since she was not checking bags, she would be fine getting to the airport at 5:45. In fact, there were a multitude of airline-created and airport-signage-created issues, and sure enough, USAir was paging her to get to her gate within three minutes or she would miss her flight.

I was getting cell phone reports every few minutes, and in between those calls, I was praying for God to intervene with the airline, the airport, the other passengers in the security line, the TSA agents, and anyone else God could think of to get her on the plane. It worked. She made the flight.

There are no atheists in foxholes, nor are there Christians in need who are not willing to offer up a quick demand. When the crisis of the moment arises (as Frank Lewis would say, nearly all of these are not really crises - not even close), we who know God are quick to pound on his proverbial door and ask Him if, pretty please, He would stop the normal turning of the world so that our mistakes will not come to their natural fruition. I am a big pray-er when I lose my keys. I know that God knows where they are, and I bug Him about showing them to me. When I can't find my car in the parking lot, or when I have misjudged traffic between where I am and where I need to be, I start praying fast and furious.

The purpose of this blog is not to indict our lost-keys-prayers. I believe God wants to help us with little things - after all, His eye is on the sparrow. My point is different -- now that Gena is safely buckled into her seat, I am struck by how often praying for the relatively insignificant but immediate takes precedence over praying for the crucial but ongoing. How often do I really pray for world peace, for wisdom for national leaders, for deliverance for the poor? How often do I take the time to pray for the spiritual salvation of those who are lost? For that matter (lip service aside), how often am I really involved in heartfelt conversation with God about the long-term welfare of my children, of their future spouses, of my wife?

But I almost never forget to bless the food in front of me.

Is the issue that we don't think God can handle the big things, that He is limited to finding our keys and easing our headaches? I don't think so. I think the problem is not that we don't think God can handle it, but rather that we talk ourselves out of thinking that God wants to handle it.

Pastors and theologians tell us that, since we trust God with the little things, we ought to be able to trust Him with the big things. One response to that syllogism is that I am not sure our lost-keys-prayers are really evidence of trusting God so much as they are foxhole cries when we do not see any other immediate answer. And that is a shame.

God is in fact able and willing to hear our requests, both big and little. He does in fact answer prayers, and He is in fact concerned with the welfare - both immediate and ongoing - of His children and His world. In the immediate, we call on God without letting our all too human distrust get in the way. For the ongoing big stuff, though, we have time to consider whether or not God is really concerned with our little lives, if people deserve what is happening to them because of their own bad choices, whether or not we should take responsibility ourselves for our situations, and whether we should be bothering God with our earthly problems.

Perhaps we should learn something from our crisis-mode selves. Perhaps our kneejerk response to lost keys and almost-missed flights should remind us what we know deep inside - that we are wandering children who need the daily help of our Father.

I am glad Gena made her flight. Now, I am going to take some time to think about, and talk to God about, how God can help in Syria and in my kids' lives and in my marriage. I am going to pray for some people, by name, who need to feel the touch of Jesus. Keys are not the only lost things in the world.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

If Easter Does Not Make Us Happier, What Is the Point?

Easter is here again.

This has been a crummy week for my son. He broke up with his girlfriend. He did not get chosen for a volunteer position he really wanted. He did not get a part-time job he really wanted. He is well-qualified for both, but they did not happen.

This has been a crummy month for one of my daughters. She is grounded. She is going through one of those times when she does not feel as if anything she does pleases me. I am tough on her, and she selectively hears my words, and what she understands is frustrating.

This has in many ways been a crummy year for my other daughter. She did not get the parts or solos she wanted. She has been asked to do a myriad of behind-the-scenes things, for groups both at school and at church, that have not produced any credit and that have prevented her from doing things she would rather do.

As far as Gena and me, well, it hasn't been the greatest time either. Her health has had a series of issues. There are a number of things in my life that are tough right now.

And Jesus rose from the dead, and nothing in the previous four paragraphs has changed one bit.

Why do we Christians care so much about this resurrection if it does not solve our day-to-day problems?

To be sure, many Christians do believe that Easter makes us happier. The presence of Christ provides, so they say, their best life now. Prosperity is promised to those who walk the walk and talk the talk.

My experience teaches differently.

Jesus, both before and after His resurrection, did not promise our best life now. In fact, He said quite the opposite. He promised a life of being perplexed, hard pressed, persecuted, struck down, and carrying death around with us day to day. He told us to take up our own crosses. He commanded us to spend our time feeding sheep.

Nowhere do I find a promise for happiness, for problems to disappear, for the crummy days to vanish.

So again, what is the point?

"Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There I will see them."

Those three sentences from Matthew 28:10 are the point.

Do not be afraid. Death is not the end. Death has been conquered. The point of Easter is that we are on the winning side.

Go and tell. We know the secret. The point of Easter is that we have something to tell.

We will see Christ. It is not temporal happiness, but it is eternal joy. It is eternal life. The point is that we shall see Jesus, the one who died.

Crummy days continue, even crummy months. Health issues arise, things we deserve don't come, and events in our lives continue to infuriate us.

But Christ has arisen from the dead, the firstfruits of them who sleep. Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.

That is the point.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Believing in God: A Defense of Intellectual Assent that "God's Not Dead"

"Intellectual assent" is getting a bad rap in many of our churches today.

To be clear at the beginning, let me rush to assure my fellow moderates, not to mention my progressive readers, that I do not think that what many call a "saving faith" is achieved with pure head knowledge or a recitation of some sentences. When Jesus tells Nicodemus to "believe in" Him in John 3:16, our interpretation is affected by the English language's lack of a verb form of the word "faith." Jesus is telling Nicodemus that whoever "faiths" Him will have eternal life, and the best our translators do with that is "believe in."

The illustration I most often use (members of any Sunday School class I have taught can skip this paragraph - you have heard it multiple times) involves my grandmother, Mimi, who lived near a naval air station and saw airplanes fly every day for years. She believed that airplanes could fly. She saw them. People flew on airplanes to visit her. She was not stupid. She knew airplanes could fly. She believed that fact absolutely. Yet, Mimi would not fly. She would not set foot on a plane. Irrespective of her intellectual assent - her head knowledge of the facts - Mimi did not believe in airplanes.

Saving faith requires more than head knowledge, more than a creedal statement of "belief." Faith in Christ is a heart event, a soul event, a complete being event. "Believing in Jesus" is not a compilation of good works or a result of any particulat action, but it requires following Jesus. It is more than simple acceptance of the historicity of the cross and the resurrection. It is more than opening a gift. It is a giving of oneself to God through Jesus Christ. Even the thief on the cross did more than say "I agree."

Saving faith changes us, transform us, turns us into disciples. It requires more than intellectual assent to a set of facts.

That said, intellectual assent to the very existence of God is critical. Because we (correctly) denounce mere intellectual assent as sufficient for salvation, we tend to poo-poo the necessity of acceptance of facts altogether. We want to say that there is nothing we can "know" religiously. I have discussed this more specifically here.

The new movie "God's Not Dead" brings a variety of perspetives on the question of intellectual assent. As movies go, this one suffers from what many "faith movies" have in common - uneven acting, hyperbole in characterization, and, perhaps most directly, the problem of dealing with real-life spiritual issues in a two dimensional message delivered by strangers, people with whom we have no personal relationship. Still, the movie avoids a lot of easy answers. It addresses deathbed confessions, the power of prayer, finding God in the little things, and - in its central plot point - the intellectual aspect of Christianity. Can thinking people accept the existence of God?

The movie will raise the hackles of some who will think that it teaches that intellectual assent is sufficient for salvation, especially in a short quote from Franklin Graham that is featured in one character's story and in the denouement of the story of the central villain, a philosophy professor. I don't want to spoil the story for those few of you who might go see the movie, but suffice it to say that attempting to describe anybody's theology based on a ten second sound bite is always dangerous. I do not believe that is the point of the movie.

Defenders of the movie will champion its hero and his debate with his philosophy professor. They will proudly stand with him in proclaiming their "belief in God."

This blog is not a movie review, really. What I want to address instead is whether those of us who people our churches really believe in God. We would largely reject the vicious atheism of the film's philosophy professor, who clearly has a hidden agenda and is so personally involved in the issue that his attack of the lone vocal Christian in his class borders on the maniacal. If honest, however, many Christians in their private moments will admit to being troubled by some of his arguments. If Russell and Hawking and Rand and Dawkins and so many other smart people are atheists, are we ignoring good sense and just believing in magic? Philosophy and science and mathematics search for proveable answers to their hypotheticals and reject the supernatural. Do we?

Even longtime church members get uncomfortably silent when the topic of discussion turns to the mystical, the spiritual. Too many, I fear, jump to participation in programs and espousing philosophies without first deciding for themselves if they really believe the supernatural, the extrascientific, the non-mathematical.

To say that intellectual assent will not save you is a far cry from saying that intellectual assent is unimportant. If we do not start with believing in the fact of God, it is hard to see how much of the rest of what we call Christianity will follow.

I detect that a number of church members and so-called Christians do not in fact belive in God. If they do, that belief has little effect on their lives, missions, priorities, and plans. Here is what I mean:

Belief in God requires intellectual assent as to the existence of a supernatural, more-powerful-than-you, authoritative, personal entity. If you do not believe in the truth of any of those four attributes, you do not believe in God. We can disagree about the nature, form, gender, level of concern, and means of communication of God. But anything less than supernatural is simply created. Anything of equal power is only inspirational. Anything not authoritative is merely to be considered. Anything not personal may be an amorphous supreme being but will not require following - it would simply be a historical artifact to be acknowledged, much like Mimi's airplanes.

If you say you "believe in God" but then reject what God says or demands if it "does not make sense" to you, then what you believe in is a set of religious constructs from which you can pick and choose according to what makes you feel good, or accords with your understanding of the world, or is what you have come up with on your own. Perhaps you choose to "agree with" what other really smart people propose and defend. Whatever ... you have made yourself, your feelings, your intellect, the intellect and persuasiveness of others, and your perception to be gods. You rely on them rather than on outside authority. This is, of course, the essence of what is now called "post-modernism": the idea that there is no truth ; thus we are all in charge of forging our own authority. (Hear me well - I am not for a moment suggesting that belief in God requires you to accept whatever some preacher or teacher or self-proclaimed authority tells you God says. I absolutely defend your right to challenge any other human being who claims to know what God is saying to you.) My point is that to reject what you know God wants solely because it does not make sense to you is a telling indicator of your lack of intellectual assent in the existence of God. You are not really analyzing what you are being told; you are rejecting the authority, and thus the divine existence, of the teller.

If you say you "belive in God" but then reject the hard things you feel called to do because you "cannot do" them, then your belief in God falls somewhere behind your belief in good intentions limited by human failings, age, disease, and inefficiency. I saw a great Facebook exchange last week on this exact point. A friend of mine (who in my estimation shows great insight and belief in God) posted the following in response to the death of Fred Phelps, leader of the despicable actions of Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas: "Fred Phelps has died. I hope people picket his funeral with signs that say 'God Loves You.'" In turn, somebody commented: "It is almost more than humanly possible for some to acknowledge and speak this, even by carrying a sign at his funeral." My friend of great insight responded: "I'm glad Christians aren't called to what's humanly possible."

Christians who give lip service to God in a hymn or litany and then spend the rest of their so-called worship service, not to mention the rest of their week, discussing philosophies, internet how-to lists, politics, and social work are not demonstrating a belief in God. Belief in God separates us from the culture. It demands a focus on something higher than even really outstanding intentions of praise and worship, innovations for justice, help for the poor, and defenses of personal dignity. (Those things are not wrong of course, but when they become the purpose rather than the byproduct, they become the thing in which we believe.)

I believe the hesitancy in our current culture to say "Jesus" or "God" except when cursing is, at least in part, due to a weak belief in God. It is easier to discuss things we are sure about, like philanthropy, service, and kindness. We know what those things are and how they will be accepted. Saying "Jesus" out loud makes too many uncomfortable, as though they were talking about believing that the magician really did saw the lovely assistant in half.

The intellectual is, for me, the tipping point of faith. Once I accept the factual existence of God, the rest of faith comes naturally. If there is a God, then I have little choice but to worship and obey that God, for I am quite sure that I am not godlike. I know there are others who can accept the existence of God and still choose not to worship or obey Him, but I do not understand that calculus. The area of doubt for me is always at the point of intelletual acceptance of the existence of God - when I am once again assured of His being, I know how the rest comes together.

I suspect that is true for more of us than admit it. I do not think the existence of storms and earthquakes make people get mad at God and thus decide not to follow; the problem with human suffering is that it makes us doubt that there is a God at all. We then combine the problem of evil and suffering with the intellectual proclamations of the philosophical atheists and scientific humanists of the world, and we can quietly question the existence of God. It becomes much more comfortable to look to the church as a place of comfort, a group of friends to provide us community, and an outlet for our good-hearted impetus to help others rather than as a gathering of those who agree in their belief in the existence of the supernatural.

We say we believe in God. That starts with the facts. it is time that we acknowledge the value of intellectual assent.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why I'm Not Leaving the Church

I saw yet another one today. Another article, or blog, or commentary from a maturing, committed Christian announcing that she is "leaving the church" and promising in the title to explain why. Facebook connects me about once a week to another Generation Xer announcing that she or he is "leaving the church."  Somebody else who has discovered that Jesus is > the church, that what they heard (or think they remember having heard) from the church as a youth was not in fact what they now understand Christianity to be, that (oh, no, you're kidding) the church includes all sorts of people who do not practice what they preach.

The reasons tend to repeat themselves: the writer grew up in the church and did not really understand/ connect with/ grasp the intricacies of the love of Jesus while attending children's Sunday School or singing in youth choir, so the church is obviously not the place to be now that the writer has matured to a point that agape is finally real; or there are way too many hypocrites in the church (and yes, I love the Facebook post going around that says that staying away from church because of the hypocrites is like staying out of the gym because of the fat people); or that the writer feels that the church has failed in so many ways that the writer can no longer be a part.

I am not here to fight with any of those people, but those reasons do not - to me - justify leaving the church.

The fact that we, as youngsters, did not grasp from the church all of the depth of the forgiveness of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, the wisdom of the prophets, or the purity of Christ that demands our constant obedience may have been the fault of our church or our youth group ... but it may not have been. It may have been a result of our own immaturity, our own inability as young Christians to grasp yet how high and how deep is the love of God. I don't think many of us blame our third grade teacher for our failure to grasp calculus at the age of 9. That analogy is not exact, of course, but it bears thinking about. And even if your adult church has not shown you Jesus as you think He deserves to be shown, it strikes me as dangerous to throw out "the church" with the bathwater of particular failings in teaching or worship or evangelism or fellowship.

The fact that you are in church with people whose religion seems false to you, or who do not act like you believe Christians should act, or who have hurt you personally is tragic. I wish every one of our churches was made up of nothing but repentant sinners who were constantly striving to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God. My experience of (now over forty) years as a church member teaches me differently. What I have grown to see is that even the best of churches (and I have been a member of some great churches) includes many, maybe mostly, struggling selfish people who often miss the mark and may even go days without thinking much about the mark. And, truth be told, that description applies to me far too often. Do I think people should leave the church because I am such a failure at this thing called a Christian walk and yet I still darken the door?  I hope not.  I hope people don't blame the whole church for my brand of error.  I can't handle that pressure.

I have friends who have not published blogs or articles on the subject but have nonetheless left the church for one of these reasons and/or because they have been personally hurt by the church. These friends include ordained ministers. Their hurt is real, and the perpetrators of the hurt should be ashamed of themselves.

But I am not leaving the church. Here's why.

First, I take seriously the scripture about the church's being the body of Christ. I know that can apply to the church universal, and those who "do church" in their "daily life" and who do not "need a 9:00 service in order to go to church" may be able to function as a part of the body of Christ... but I cannot. I need the formal church. I am woefully poor at being the arms of Christ to hug everyone who needs to be hugged on my own. I am a miserable failure at being the eyes of Christ to see every need that must be met by myself. I stink at being the feet of Christ, going where the gospel needs to be taken, alone. But as a part of my church, I can help the body of Christ accomplish all of those things.

Second, I think the Charles Wesley was onto something when he penned the hymn "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing."  I need to stay in church because corporate worship is critical to my well-being. I think God likes it too, but I need it. I need to find so many others who have experienced the grace of God and desperately seek more of it, and I need to join with them in confession and praise and adoration and song and prayer. I need to see the symbol of baptism again and again. I need to share communion with brothers and sisters, who hand me the bread and the cup and say "This is the body of Christ, the bread of life.  This is the blood of Christ, the cup of grace.  Thanks be to God."

Third, I know - because I am there multiple times a week - that the church is getting a bad rap. Without denying any individual story of hypocrisy or abuse or failure or hurt, I can nonetheless point to example after example after example of good that is done in the world only by the church. Even the worst church I have been in (and I have been a member of some not-so-great churches) has consciously reached out to help its community, to tell about the love of God, to share the gospel. Even churches going through splits (been there) still find a way to look beyond their own problems to seek the face of the Creator. To leave the church would be, for me, to leave the best vehicle I know to affect the world for good.

Fourth, I don't think the church exists to make me happy. (I wrote about this at some length in my book In the Court of the Master, and you can buy a copy to read my views on this in more detail.) I think the church exists to make God happy and to reach the world, and if my church is not tickling my particular fancy right now, then so be it.

Fifth, the best way to fix a broken church is to stay a part of it, to influence it from within as a caring and participating and giving member, not to walk away and announce with superiority that "the church" has it wrong and is no longer worth my time.  Some churches move so far from the gospel, or are led by individuals who have moved so far from their calling, that serious church members may well need to leave those particular churches.  That is a far cry from leaving "the church" period.

I do not for a minute think that any church in particular, or the institutional church as a whole (a) is perfect; (b) has a corner on God; (c) is doing even most things right; or (d) does not repeatedly fail to be what God calls us to be. I do not judge those who do not believe they can continue to be a Christian in the church and thus have left or must leave.

But I cannot leave the church. It is where I met God, and it is where I meet God, and it is where God continues to speak to me.