Archives For God

CalvinismDebate_BannerTo prove that I’m not completely a narcissist- or that I’m at least sufficiently self-aware to pretend that I’m not a narcissist- I thought I would offer you a few nuggets from others that have come my way and proved fruitful for my own reflection:

Brian Zahnd is a pastor, author and blogger who, like me, has been deeply influenced by David Bentley Hart and the work of the early Church Fathers and Mothers. Brian recently represented what I’d call the ancient view of God and the atonement in a debate with Calvinists sponsored by Christianity Todayzahnd-photo

Don’t let the Calvinists’ propensity to machine-gun scripture citations fool you into thinking they’re making an argument, and don’t let it fool you into missing how deeply biblical Brian’s argument is itself.

The videos are long and, if you’re a theology nerd, that’s wonderful. Listen while you make dinner.

 

 

 

joel-victoria-osteenjpg-0ed2c611ec193324-760x506Anyone who’s known me for about a fruit fly’s lifespan knows that I feel about Joel Osteen the way I do genocide, testicular cancer and Verizon wireless.

His toothy grin, his Dapper Dan hair, his swarmy, snake-oil salvation sales pitch repel me. His dilution of the cross to a gospel that might as well come with a ‘brought to you by the Pax Romana’ sponsorship announcement offends me.

Every summer several dozen people find one of his books in their beach rental, snap a picture and email it to me. Just this week that many people forwarded me the press release about Joel O’s new show on Sirius Radio (seriously? WTF?!).

My antipathy over Joel Osteen is no secret.

So for all the crap I dish out about Joel Osteen, it’s an odd Jesusy sort of joke that I find myself in complete agreement with Joel Osteen’s well-appointed wife, Victoria.

Victoria recently told worshippers at the Osteen’s Rhode Island-sized church:

“When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself…”

Christians and critics all over social media quickly piled on her comments, pointing out that Victoria Osteen’s understanding of God left little room for ‘take up your cross and follow me.’ One ‘defender’ of Victoria Osteen argued that her comments were simply missing a qualifer, that she should’ve just said ‘when you worship Him, you’re not [just] doing it for God.’

Nearly all the criticism of Victoria Osteen sees her as dispensing what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace,’ the promise of happiness rather than the call to holiness.

Likewise, all the criticism I’ve read of Victoria assumes the truth of the very premise Victoria upended with her comments:

that our worship, devotion, works, faithfulness etc please God.

The critics of Victoria Osteen- and they are legion- seem to believe that our worship of God makes God happy.

That is, Victoria’s critics imply that we, through our act of praise, effect God’s disposition, that our worship of God changes God.

Unwittingly (I imagine), Victoria Osteen was merely rephrasing (however clumsily) a very ancient and foundational Christian belief:

God, by definition, does not change.

Of course, our worship isn’t for God in the sense that our piety brings about a happy change in God because God doesn’t change.

‘Happy’ isn’t really a word that can do the heavy lifting when it comes to God, but, without change, God is eternally, ceaselessly loving towards us because God just is Love. It’s idolatrous to suppose that God is a god whose disposition changes like ours does; it’s even more grave an error to think we can bring about that change.

Victoria Osteen is absolutely right that our worship isn’t for God in the sense that it adds anything to God or changes God in any way.

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While many quickly denounced Victoria’s comments as antithetical to the Gospel, she has at least one esteemed ally; namely the most famous theologian of the Christian Church: St Thomas Aquinas.

In the Summa Theologica Thomas reasons his way through the question ‘Whether God changes?’

Thomas believed almost everything we say about God relies upon that God not to be a being bound in time, a being that changes.

For Aquinas God’s immutability is logically connected with God’s eternity.

Before Aquinas can establish that God is eternal, however, he must demonstrate that God is immutable for only if God is pure actuality- there is no potentiality in God- can God be considered eternal.

The implication of God’s immutability is a logical consequence of what Aquinas has already proved in Q’s 1-8:

God is pure actuality- all things are present and actual in God at all times.

God is the cause of all things and holds all things existence at every moment of existence.

God is not caused by any other being but is Being itself.

Anything that undergoes change is, by definition, moving from potentiality to actuality, for ‘change’ implies that is present now in something was previously missing or absent.

But no-thing can be missing or absent from God- in fact, God creates from no-thing.

Therefore:

God cannot undergo change.

To change is to acquire something new; but God has the fullness of perfection already and therefore cannot acquire anything new.

God is pure actuality and therefore He cannot change in any way; God is the fullness of perfection, so there is no way in which God could change. Loving us, for instance, does not change God, make God more loving, because God is LOVE.

Love is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

Or put Mrs Osteen’s way, our love and worship of God does not effect God because love (including love for us) is not an attribute of God but is full and always complete already in God.

The irony is that those who accuse Mrs Osteen of violating the gospel themselves violate the first commandment.

They make God in our image or at least insist upon a god in our image: God must be like us so that we can love Him.

Her husband still makes me throw up a little in the back of my mouth every time I hear his voice, but his wife is absolutely right.

When you come to worship, don’t think you’re doing it for God.

Don’t think your praise pleases God.

Don’t think your devotion changes God’s mood towards you because God- literally and logically- cannot love you any more than God already does love you.

When we worship, we’re not making God happy. Rather in worship, prayer, faithfulness etc we’re participating in the eternal happiness of God called Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

St Thomas AquinasNo.

No, God cannot do whatever God wants.

The notion that God can do whatever God wants is called ‘Sovereignty’ by Calvinists.

The notion that God is free to do whatever God wants is called heresy by the ancient Christians.

For a few weeks now, I’ve been running with this pericope from an essay by the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic. Behind the doctrine of immutability is the more foundational doctrine of Divine Simplicity; that is, God is not composed of parts whether spatial, temporal, or abstract. To be composed of parts, the ancient Christians held, implies that God is not the Composer.

Another way of putting it is that God is Simple in that there is no distinction between God’s Nature and God’s Will.

Or, to channel Forrest Gump, God IS as God DOES.

And God cannot DO in contradiction with who God IS.

The ancient Christians held that the categories we call Truth, Beauty or Goodness exist outside of our minds, cultures and languages. They are not merely relative concepts or words we attach to things in this world with no reality beyond this world.

They derive from the universal, eternal nature of God.

What we call ‘Goodness’ derives from the eternal, unchanging nature of God, whose Being is Absolute Goodness. In addition, God does not change.

So:

If God is Perfect, Immutable Love then God cannot do something that is unloving.

If God is Perfect, Immutable Goodness then God cannot do something that is not good.

Not even God, the ancient Christians believed, can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will evil, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature. Unknown

For God to be free, then, is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.

As creatures made in this God’s image, therefore, our freedom is necessarily freedom ‘for.’ We are free when we are unhindered and unconstrained from acting towards the ‘Goodness’ in which we all move and live and have our being.

The heresy that says God can do whatever God wants is called ‘nominalism.’

In contradiction to the ancient tradition, nominalism argues that God has no eternal nature which limits, controls or guides God’s actions.

God is free to do whatever God wants, and those wants are not determined by anything prior in God’s character.

If God wants to will the collapse of a bridge, God has the freedom to will the bridge’s demise, no matter how many cars may be passing over it.

If God wants to break his promise to a People, by all means. What’s to stop God?

If God wants to give someone cancer or, on a different day and in a different mood, something better then God can.

According to nominalism, God can do whatever God wants and, by extension, whatever God does is ‘good’ simply because God does it.

It’s God’s actions in time and space that determine the ‘good’ not God’s eternal being.

Whereas ‘freedom’ in the realist mind refers to God acting in harmony with God’s eternal nature, ‘freedom’ for the nominalist refers to God’s ability to be pure, arbitrary will.

God’s will is supreme over God’s nature. Freedom, for God, is the freedom to will.

And as creatures made in this God’s image, freedom, for us, is the freedom to will. To want. To choose. Independent of and disconnected from the Good we call God. Freedom is for freedom’s sake alone.

Thus enters the atheist’s familiar conundrum:

Is something good because God says or does it?

Or does God say/do that which is good?

A Christian answers that it has to be the latter.

God is absolute goodness and God does only that which is good (all the time), and if it ever seems to us like God is not all the time good then the problem is with our perception of God not with God’s character and action.

 

He Wants Hesed

Jason Micheli —  May 8, 2014 — 4 Comments

DESIGNI’ve been invited to write a monthly column for the website Practicing Families. It’s focus subtitle is ‘Real Faith, Real Life, Real Grace.’ In other words, how do normal families in the ‘normal’ world practice the faith in their homes and pass it on to their kids.

As someone who gets paid to be a Christian, I’m probably the last person who should be writing on this subject. Nonetheless, I’ll try. If you have any questions about or any experiences you’d like to share about ‘the spiritual life and kids’ I’d love to hear from you.

I encourage you to check out Practicing Families.

As a teaser of things to come, here’s a reflection I wrote about the grace-filled lesson I learned from picking my son up from school. If you like this, then check out my eBook: Jesus is like Gandalf & 9 Other Things My Boys Have Taught Me about God.

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A week or two ago I was late picking up my youngest son, Gabriel, from school. On my way to my car, I got waylaid by a tear-stained church member who proceeded needed to dump about 3 decades worth of marital anguish on me.

It was the kind of encounter that, even when you don’t actually enter the conversation, it’s tricky to make a clean exit:

‘I’m sorry you’re in the midst of an emotional and spiritual crisis, but, my, look at the time! I’ve got to run. Call my secretary and have her put you on my calendar for a more convenient time. In the meantime, I’ll pray for you. Bye!’ 

In truth, I was only a few minutes late. The crossing guard had just left his post. Teachers cars still filled the parking lot. A few parents lingered on the playground chatting.

I wasn’t that late. It was just a few minutes.

But to Gabriel those few minutes were everything.

Because up until that day he’d always been able to rely on me being exactly where he expected me: By the tree, next to the flag pole.

Before that day I’d always been steadfast.

And- I know I’m projecting now- but, seeing the scared, lonely expression on his face when I finally came for him, it reminded me of the first day we spent with him. It reminded me of our ‘Gotcha Day’ (which for him, at the time, was experienced as ‘Leftcha Day’) the Easter afternoon when baby Gabriel looked around for his foster mother only to discover she’d left while he was playing with these two strangers on the floor of the hotel lobby.

Here’s one of the things my kids have taught me.

You won’t read this in a What to Expect When You’re Expecting book. I doubt it’s been a featured theme on Super Nanny.

And, I admit, it sounds minimalist but I daresay any child of divorce- including this one- would beg to differ with you.

Here it goes:

80% of parenting is just showing up.

Being there.

Being there when they expect you.

Being there when they need you.

And being there even when they don’t think they need you.

Believe it or not, Hebrew has a word for this ‘I’ll meet you by the tree, next to the flag pole every day’ kind of love.

It’s called hesed.

It’s a love based in a covenantal relationship, hesed is a steadfast, rock-solid, I’ll-be-there-no-matter-what faithfulness that endures:

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love (hesed) for you will not be shaken” Isaiah 54:10.

Hesed is the kind of love that persists beyond any sin or betrayal to mend brokenness and graciously extend forgiveness:

“No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love (hesed).” (Lamentations 3:31-32)

Hesed, as any first semester Hebrew Bible student knows, is how God loves.

Like other Hebrew words, hesed is not simply a feeling. It’s an action. It intervenes on behalf of loved ones and comes to their rescue. It’s often translated as “mercy” or “loving-kindness.”

Those translations mask how hesed is meant to convey an unswerving, reliable loyalty in every instance.

Not just in the dramatic Exodus, Burning Bush moments.

Every moment. 

Hesed is love that can be counted on, day after day and year after year. It’s not about the thrill of romance, but the security of faithfulness. Hesed is the promise that

‘God’s steadfast love endures forever.’

Hesed is Jesus’ promise:

‘Behold I am with you always…’

I first learned the word hesed in college. I learned to decline the Hebrew in seminary.

But it wasn’t until I had kids that I really discovered what hesed means.

Before I had kids I worried that parenting meant always having the right answer, always knowing exactly what to do or say, constantly doing everything according to the books so that I would rear healthy, loving, secure, gifted children.

Now I know that not only was that naive, it was unnecessary.

Because if hesed means that God’s love clings to us steadfastly through every moment of every day, then that means no moment of every day is without grace.

There is no moment of any day, in other words, that isn’t made sacred.

Just by God showing up and being there.

With us.

And if that’s how God’s love works for us, then ditto for how our love works with our kids.

Something as mundane as meeting my boy by the tree next to the flagpole is as holy as Moses by the Burning Bush.

 

20130521_TORNADO-slide-HIJ2-hpLargeThe death toll in Oklahoma, many of them children, prompted me to repost this reflection from the summer.

I’ve been rereading David Bentley Hart’s little book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? It’s a life-changing kind of book.

In it, David Hart recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife  and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.

In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”

In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders: If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say? 

 

Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:

“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Or “It’s okay, God is mourning too” which is only a more sensitive-sounding but equally deficient explanation precisely because it still attempts an explanation.

Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy to talk like that to the father (though my experience tells me Hart would be surprised how many people in fact would say something like it).

This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:

“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

Silence is the best thing to (not) say when there’s nothing to say. 

Hart goes on to reflect on The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God. Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry.

Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.

What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering. He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.

Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering.

Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.

Ivan just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.

So, Ivan doesn’t so much disbelieve God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan. He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes.

When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan. I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.

The irony, I suspect, is that Ivan’s siding with suffering of the little ones is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that Ivan’s compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true, Hart says then, isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

Hart’s axiom shows, I think, how only God-talk that’s centered in the crucified and risen Christ passes the test.

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Someone leaving church Easter Sunday asked about my boys, musing ‘I bet you’ve learned all kinds of things about God from them.’

And that got me thinking.

Which got me writing: Top Ten Things My Kids Have Taught Me About God

#6: Jesus is like Gandalf

A few weeks ago my boys watched the first 5.5 hour installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. The movie seemed to last longer than Coldplay’s last album, but it did elicit a debate of almost ontological urgency:

Could Gandalf, the staff-wielding, death-conquering wizard of Middle Earth, defeat even Jesus, the sandal-wearing carpenter from Nazareth?

Begun as I pressed stop on the DVD player, the debate continued upstairs, occasionally interrupted by the gurgling and spitting of their toothbrushing.

On the one hand, Alexander noted, Gandalf defeated the whole Orc Army at Helm’s Deep- pronounced ‘Him’s Deep’ by X.

‘Yeah but…’ Gabriel countered with his Socratic logic, ‘Jesus DEFEATED (with emphasis on the -ed) the Devil AND came back from the dead.’

‘But God raised Jesus from the grave’ X replied, as though the better question in question was whether God could beat up Gandalf.

‘Duh, Jesus IS God.’

Omitting the therefore, Gabriel continued: ‘If Jesus is God, Jesus could beat up Gandalf, Ironman and Batman put together. Jesus is awesome.’

‘And he loves all of us’ X said, sidestepping his rhetorical defeat.

This is but one ‘for instance’ of a conversation thread that runs like a seam through our life together.

On some days, the discourse turns more speculative:

‘If Jesus was a tribute in the Hunger Games, do you think he would win…without killing any of the other tributes?

Or would he volunteer to die for them and defeat the whole HG system?’

On other days, the conversation turns on a casual observation:

‘Joseph is kinda like Alfred. He’s not Jesus’ real Father but he takes care of Jesus just like Alfred took care of Bruce Wayne.’

Maybe this is all a consequence of my boys having a preacher for a father. But I don’t think so.

Maybe it’s the predictable result of my having given each of them the Action Bible, a graphic novel version of scripture replete with square-jawed men and women with hefty…ahem…endowments.

It could be either but I tend to think it’s because they’re kids.

Jesus says in the Gospel that if we want to have any chance of comprehending, knowing or getting close to God then we need to become like little children. 

Usually we interpret that as meaning we need to become innocent like children are innocent. Unflinchingly kind as children are kind. 

Read: Naive. 

I think that’s patronizing. I also wonder if it’s wrong.

imagesTo the little children in my house, Jesus is just one freaking, kick-@#$ awesome dude.

He hangs out with the wrong people. He upsets the right people. He likes to party. He has magic powers. He takes all our cooties and puts them on himself. Bad guys are out to get him and even when they kill him and it looks like Jesus has lost…

HE COMES BACK.

BAM.

To my boys, Jesus is as contrary as Tony Stark. He’s as complicated as Bruce Wayne. He’s timeless in a Wolverine way and still, somehow, he’s as unremittingly kind as Superman.

Plus, there aren’t any love interests to mess up the plot.

In other words, he’s a superhero.

And superheroes, with the exception of the Flash, are never boring.

Yet BORING, God forgive us, is exactly what so many of us grown-ups make Jesus.

To my boys Jesus is on par in the interesting category with Nick Fury; meanwhile, most adults- to say nothing of most pastors- turn Jesus into a bland, bearded version of Bill Moyers, someone so nice and unoffensive it’s impossible to imagine why anyone would ever want to kill him. 

But here’s just one reason why people like us would want to kill someone like Jesus: 

Jesus says between you and me and my boys, the Kingdom of Heaven goes to them every time. 

superhero JCAnd Jesus said:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

As a parent, I know full well that kids aren’t as innocent as we like to pretend, and anyone who’s spent time on a school bus or a playground knows they’re not automatically and reliably kind to everyone.

But tell any kid about a dude who walks on water, brings a little girl back to life and dropkicks death’s door and they’ll think that dude is awesome. 

Every time. 

So thanks to my kids, I now wonder if this is what Jesus meant about how we grown-ups need to change.

Because in my house, to “become like children” is to think Jesus is kick-&^% awesome.

So awesome, in fact, it would never occur to them that they should be hesitant, reluctant, or embarrassed to tell someone else about Jesus.

That would be as silly as being shy to tell your friends how cool Captain America is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

swarte-465Here’s a ribbing from the Almighty, courtesy of Jay Martel at the New Yorker, turning the tables on our navel-gazing and self-important doubting…

Here’s my problem: I don’t believe in people. To me, human beings and their world are nothing more than the product of our collective imagination, a sad manifestation of our need to feel important beyond our actual existence. I also can’t help feeling that our lives would be better if no one believed in people; only then would we be able to truly deal with our problems without nursing the delusion of a universe that’s completely dependent on us.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers to the questions we all have about life. Why are we here? Why are we all-seeing, all-knowing and immortal? How are we able to be everywhere at the same time? I don’t pretend to know. I do know, however, that these questions are not made easier by believing there’s a planet of people somewhere out there who depend on us to land their planes safely.

Like most of us, I was raised by parents who believed in the existence of people. Before every meal and every bedtime, we would sit quietly, “listening” to their prayers, and every Sunday morning I was awakened early so we could all go sit on our heavenly thrones for an hour, pretending to be worshipped. How ridiculous that all seems now! At the time, though, I never questioned any of it. In fact, for most of my teens, I spoke to a person named Moses who I believed was completely dependent on my advice. I now realize, of course, that this was nothing more than a delusion I needed in order to break free of my cloying parents and their needs.

As I grew, persistent questions nagged at me. I asked my father: If we have ultimate power over peoples’ lives, why can’t we just make them perfect and alleviate their suffering? That way, they wouldn’t need to pray anymore, and we wouldn’t need to listen! My father shook his head with a long-suffering look as if he’d caught me playing with his best lightning bolts. He explained to me that of course we couldn’t intervene in peoples’ lives like that, because then how would they grow and become purer souls? It’s hard to believe that I actually believed this. Absolutely crazy—the idea that we created people just to torture them!

After rejecting my parents’ faith, I dabbled in different forms of people-belief. For a while, I believed that people became happier when they killed animals for me. Then I believed that I buried a gold tablet for people to find. I even flirted with even flakier religions, believing that the peoples’ sun wouldn’t rise in the morning if I didn’t haul it up with my chariot (I was on anti-depressants at the time). Then, at perhaps my lowest point, I imagined that I had a son who I sent to the people to do with as they wished—some kind of bizarre loaner, I guess.

Then I had a breakthrough: Why did the people I believed in need me so badly? If I truly had dominion over every aspect of their lives, as I was led to believe, why were they so screwed up? I was familiar with the arguments of theologians—that somehow peoples’ sorry existence was further proof of their need for me. But I just couldn’t buy it anymore.

Since throwing off the shackles of believing in people, it hasn’t been easy living in a culture where everyone seems to think they’ve talked to some guy in a desert. When I recently tried to get medical help for my now-senile father—who actually believed that dead people with wings had come to live with him—I was told that my father was “comforted” by this delusion. When will we realize that there is nothing comforting about ignorance?

I’m frequently asked: Don’t you sometimes, late at night, at your lowest moments, wish that you were worshipped? When the chips are down, when you feel completely worthless, don’t you wish you could hear the prayers of billions of people asking you for help and comfort? And I would not be completely truthful if I didn’t say that sometimes, I do. After all, I’m only a god.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2012/12/atheist-god.html#ixzz2GlohxKR0

Slaughter of the InnocentsI started this blog six months ago and the first post then was about another mass shooting. The one in Colorado.

I was in Guatemala until the Sunday before Christmas. I missed both the media coverage and the national grieving that occurred after the Newtown shooting- though I was greeted at the Guatemala City airport with a copy of Prense Libre, the Guatemalan newspaper, whose cover story reflected on why American culture is unique in producing spree killers.

Because I away before the holiday, and missed whatever grieving and theological wrestling my congregation did while I was away, it felt a little odd to return to church on Christmas Eve and celebrate.

I’m only now processing it.

Here’s a theological reflection from the NY Times by Father Kevin O’Neil, Maureen Dowd’s, priest:

When my friend Robin was dying, she asked me if I knew a priest she could talk to who would not be, as she put it, “too judgmental.” I knew the perfect man, a friend of our family, a priest conjured up out of an old black-and-white movie, the type who seemed not to exist anymore in a Catholic Church roiled by scandal. Like Father Chuck O’Malley, the New York inner-city priest played by Bing Crosby, Father Kevin O’Neil sings like an angel and plays the piano; he’s handsome, kind and funny. Most important, he has a gift. He can lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them. When he held my unconscious brother’s hand in the hospital, the doctors were amazed that Michael’s blood pressure would noticeably drop. The only problem was Father Kevin’s reluctance to minister to the dying. It tears at him too much. He did it, though, and he and Robin became quite close. Years later, he still keeps a picture of her in his office. As we’ve seen during this tear-soaked Christmas, death takes no holiday. I asked Father Kevin, who feels the subject so deeply, if he could offer a meditation. This is what he wrote:

How does one celebrate Christmas with the fresh memory of 20 children and 7 adults ruthlessly murdered in Newtown; with the searing image from Webster of firemen rushing to save lives ensnared in a burning house by a maniac who wrote that his favorite activity was “killing people”? How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?

The killings on the cusp of Christmas in quiet, little East Coast towns stirred a 30-year-old memory from my first months as a priest in parish ministry in Boston. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her.

They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief. The question in their hearts then, as it is in so many hearts these days, is “Why?”

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.

Implicit here is the question of how we look to God to act and to enter our lives. For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

 

 

Kirk-Cameron-Mike-Seaver-growing-pains-2It will surprise about no one, I expect, that I loathe those Left Behind novels, the serial fiction that imagines the Rapture (while simultaneously imagining it is in any way a Christian reading of revelation).

Besides the terrible theology of the books, the films are guilty of reviving Kirk Cameron’s acting career, a sin by itself for which the authors should be left behind to perdition.

Even though the books are wrong in their interpretation of scripture, they are-surprisingly to you perhaps- appropriate to this Advent season. 

At the end of the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer I pray over the Eucharist, it says: ‘By this meal, make us one in Christ and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes back and we feast at his heavenly banquet.’

Whether we know it or not, every time we share communion we’re praying for Jesus to come back.

The direction of our hope is not our departure, it’s his return. 

A major theme of our Christian hope centers on the ‘parousia’ (the second coming) of Christ. It’s this second coming that Revelation prays for when it says ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ (22.20).

Traditionally, the season of Advent- the season before Christmas- is about the parousia, the second coming of Christ, not the first.

This is why the assigned scripture for Advent worship is so often taken from Old Testament apocalyptic passages and harsh passages from John the Baptist.

To many modern Christians, a hope in Christ’s return seems antiquated and irrational. Too many Christians do not know what to make of this hope if it’s not to be cast in the fantastical way contemporary apocalypticism paints it.

But as theologian David Tracy rightly warns: ‘Without the hope of the Second Coming, Christianity can settle down into a religion that no longer has a profound sense of the not-yet, and thereby no longer has a profound sense of God’s very hiddeness in history.’ To lose hope in the Second Coming, in other words, is to accommodate the faith to the world’s status quo.

It’s to grow complacent with the way things are and lose our faithful restlessness with what can be because it will be. 

So if it’s an important hope, as Tracy suggests, what does it have to teach us? The doctrine of the Second Coming first of all grounds Christian hope as hope in someone

We don’t hope to ‘go to heaven’ when we die if what we mean by that is a vague, billowy by-and-by. Confronted by the problems of the world, we don’t hope in abstractions or concepts like justice or freedom or peace. We hope in Jesus. Our hope for things like peace and justice and freedom only find their coherence in our hope for Jesus’ reign.

The doctrine of the Second Coming means our hope for the future is not an unknown hope. The future is not totally unknown to us. Because the future is Jesus’ return, we’ve already seen it in Jesus’ life and death.

If Jesus is the fullness of God revealed in the flesh, then there is nothing about the future we haven’t been given glimpses of in the Gospels. The future will not be at odds with the forgiveness, grace and mercy already shown to us in Christ. 

The doctrine of the Second Coming affirms that God’s final purposes will be consistent with what God has already done. Jesus Christ, who was perfectly faithful unto the Cross, will not abandon us or creation in the future.

We need not fear judgment because the Judge is the Crucified Jesus.

And that Judge has already been judged in our place. 

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Sermon based on Nehemiah 8.13-17

*For those non-church members out there, ‘Dennis Perry’ is the Sr Pastor of Aldersgate. Senior = Old 

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A few weeks ago Dennis threw a lot of numbers at you, data, from the recent Pew Trust Survey on Religion, the one that found that 20% of Americans now identify themselves as ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion.

But for me it’s a different Pew Trust Survey that’s gotten stuck in my craw: The Pew Trust Survey of Religious Knowledge. It’s from 2010 and contains 16 multiple choice questions.

You can still take the survey online. For the record, I got a perfect score.

Here’s what the survey found:

40% of Americans can correctly identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as books called Gospels. Not too bad, right?

Even better, 72% correctly answered that someone named Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea.

However, 55% of Americans- presumably not in Alabama- think the Golden Rule (Do unto others…) is one of the 10 Commandments.

But here’s the better-pay-attention-now number:

16%, only 16% of Americans know that Christians believe ‘salvation comes to us by faith alone’ not by anything we have to do or prove or be.

Just 16%

I scored higher than that in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Survey.

16%

More people follow Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher on Twitter than know the basic claim of the Gospel:

that a gracious God died in your place and the only way you participate in that salvation is through faith that changes you from the inside out.

16%

It’s a scary number.

And so this week I decided to test out how accurate that number really is; I decided to conduct my own little ‘experiment.’

Like previous ‘experiments,’ my wife call it a bad, jerky idea.

You might call it shamelessly trolling for sermon material.

I just like to call it ministry.

Friday afternoon I decided to take a guided tour of the National Cathedral, posing as one of the 84% who apparently don’t know our Story.

After paying my ‘suggested donation’ of $10, I walked into the sanctuary to the Docent’s desk where I waited for the next tour to begin.

Waiting with me was a slim couple in their 40‘s, speaking what sounded like Swedish to each other, along with 4 other couples, with sullen preteens in tow. They were all wearing sweatshirts and t-shirts and hats that said ‘DC’ or ‘FBI’ on them. So obviously they were from somewhere else.

A man in a crewcut and an Ohio State Buckeyes sweater looked at me and said: ‘My name’s Gary.’

Then he just stared at me, waiting for me to introduce myself.

So I said: ‘Dennis. My name’s Dennis Perry.’

‘You from around here?’ Gary asked.

‘No’ I said, ‘I’m from Harrisonburg, Va.’

At the top of the hour, the docent arrived and using her ‘inside voice’ gathered us together.  She had silver rimmed glasses and long, silver hair.

She was wearing a purple choir robe, for some reason, and a floppy satin hat she’d apparently stolen from Henry the 8th.

Maybe it was the silliness of her outfit or the stone confines of the church but it felt like we were all at Hogwarts and she was Professor Maganachacallit, showing us to our respective houses.

She began by telling us how much the largest stone weighed: 55 tons. She told us the original cost of all that brick and mortar: 65 million. She told us the number of stained glass windows: 231.

What she didn’t tell us, I noticed, was anything about why the church was there in the first place.

As the walking tour began so did my “experiment” in which I, Dennis Wayne Perry, pretended to be a complete ignoramus.

Fortunately, it’s a character I know well and can pull off convincingly.

For example, at the famous Space Window, the stained glass window containing a piece of lunar rock, I said loudly: ‘I didn’t know the moon landing was in the bible.’

Gary from Ohio squinted and said with authority: ‘I think it’s predicted in the bible, you know, like a prophecy.’

And when we were standing near a window showing Moses holding the 10 Commandments, I pointed at the window and said: ‘Wait, who’s that guy holding those tablet thingeys?

Sure enough the Pew Survey must be accurate because about 3/4 of our group all mumbled: ‘Moses.’

But Gary from Ohio whispered to me: ‘It’s Jesus. Gotta be Jesus.’

The tour continued and all along the way Dennis Perry, ignoramus extraordinaire, kept asking questions.

And while it’s true no one in the group necessarily thought that, say, Abraham’s sacrificial son was named Steve, as I speculated aloud, it’s also true no one in the group had enough confidence in their own answers to argue with me.

In the Bethlehem Chapel, I asked why Jesus is born in Bethlehem, to which the only response I got was from one of the sullen seventh graders: ‘Because otherwise we’d have to celebrate Hanukkah and Hannakah means less presents.’

Fair enough, I thought.

But standing in front of a gold crucifix, I pointed and asked innocently: ‘Who’s that?’

Several murmured ‘Jesus.’

But it wasn’t clear whether by ‘Jesus’ they were identifying the carpenter on the cross or the idiot named Dennis.

‘I don’t get it,’ I said, ‘why’s he on that cross?’

A middle-aged woman clicked a picture and said ‘He got crucified because he wanted us to love one another.’

‘That doesn’t make any sense. Why would anyone kill someone for that?’ I said.

She just shrugged her shoulders and said ‘Dunno, that’s what I’d always heard.’

Gary from Ohio said: ‘He died so we can go to heaven, Dennis.’

‘Really? How’s that supposed to work?’ I asked.

And while the docent pointed upwards at the scaffolding and construction, Gary from Ohio blushed: ‘I’m not sure.’

After 50 years of God’s People suffering captivity in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to the Promised Land armed with a vision to rebuild the city walls which Babylon had laid to waste.

The work took several months.

But it wasn’t until the wall was complete that it sunk in:

God had delivered them from captivity.

Even though they hadn’t deserved it.

God had redeemed them.

And they’d taken him for granted.

That’s why, not long after the last bit of mortar is spread and the trowels are put away, the people- all the people- with no goading or prompting from Nehemiah or Ezra or any of the priests, the people flash mob Jerusalem.

They realized what they needed more than anything else- more even than the bricks and mortar they’d just finished- was God.

So the people gather at the Water Gate and the prophet Ezra reads the Word of God to them.

While listening at the Water Gate they hear Ezra read about a festival, a holy day, that God had commanded them to keep: Booths.

The Festival of Booths was meant to remind Israel of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and how God had provided for them every step of the way.

God commanded them to construct Booths once a year to remind them of the tents they lived in as they were making their journey from slavery to freedom.

The booths were meant to be a visible, tangible reminder of a salvation they did nothing to earn or deserve. That (the booth) was meant to function just like that (the cross).

Did you catch the end of our passage?

Nehemiah says Israel had not celebrated Booths since the days of Joshua.

In case you don’t know your bible, Joshua’s the one who picked up where Moses left off and led the people into the Promised Land.

Hundreds of years before Nehemiah.

This good news of salvation. Their core story of redemption.

They’d forgotten it. What’s more, they didn’t realize they’d forgotten it.

And you know what’s scary for us?

What’s scary for us is that that means, for generations, God’s People had said their prayers, and done their rituals, and built their sanctuaries, and they’d even worked against injustice and poverty.

For generations they’d done religion

Without celebrating their core story, their Gospel.

“Not since the days of Joshua” means that for a long time they’d just been going through the motions without having their hearts changed by this story of a gracious God who had saved them and asked only for faith in return.

This is from Jamie, a colleague, who’s recently returned from serving as a missionary:

“I always think it’s interesting when people pat us on the back for being missionaries to Latin America. Perhaps they think we were doing something difficult because they don’t know that in Latin America there’s a bleeding-Jesus-in-a-crown-of-thorns bumper sticker on every bus, taxi, and pizza delivery scooter. 

     You can easily engage nearly every person you cross paths with in a conversation about God or Jesus or Faith or whatever. It’s really not hard. 

     In Latin America, “Jesus” is generally a familiar and comfortable word – not an instant conversation killer.

     I’ve been back in the NorCal suburbs for a whole three months now, and all I can say is that ministry is way harder here than it ever was in Latin America. 

     Being an agent for Love and Grace in a place where people truly don’t recognize their own need is really tough. 

      I believe Jesus has competition in the American suburbs like no place else on Earth. Everyone here is surrounded by so much shiny new stuff, it’s hard to see the Light. 

     Here, depravity is hidden behind tall double doors, and the things that separate us from God often come gleaming, right out of the box. The contrast between Dark and Light has been cleverly obscured by the polish of materialism and vanity. 

     This place is overflowing with people who have full closets, full bank accounts, full bellies… and empty hearts. Here, poverty is internal, hunger is spiritual, and need feels non-existent. 

     But it’s there.

     Behind the facade of perfection in suburban America, past the fake boobs and fancy cars and fat paychecks, and at the bottom of aaalll thoooose wine glasses, there’s a need so desperate, a loneliness so great, and a brokenness so crushing that you can practically hear the collective cry for Redemption. 

     I’ve only just returned from Latin America, and now for the first time in my life, I feel like maybe I’m supposed to be a missionary…”

As our Cathedral tour ended, the docent encouraged us to sign the guest book. I couldn’t resist so I did.

Under ‘name,’ I signed Dennis W Perry.

Under ‘from,’ I put Harrisonburg, Va.

And under ‘comments,’ I wrote:

“You treat this place like a museum when you’re surrounded by a mission field”

The thing is- that’s a comment I could leave in any church in the country.

This week I sent you all a mass email, saying our theme this weekend would highlight our mission and service ministries.

And probably many of you came here this morning expecting me to tell you about what we’re doing in Guatemala and the difference we’re making in hundreds of lives there and how we can do more.

Or maybe you expected me to tell you about how our church serves the poor along Route One and how we can do more.

And we can

do more.

But if the term ‘mission field’ only refers to places like Guatemala or homeless shelters, we’re not really clear about what our mission is as Church.

The fact is- the poverty that can be fought with food drives is NOT the only poverty Jesus cares about.

As Mike Crane told me this week: “Aldersgate’s doing a great job serving the poor here and around the world but there are thousands who are spiritually poor, who don’t even realize what they’re lacking. And, just like the song says, Mike said, they’re not too far from here.

Some are as close as these pews. Some have been doing religion for years but haven’t yet let the Gospel into their hearts and let it change them from the inside out.

And that’s a kind of poverty.

These last few weeks we’ve been throwing a lot of numbers at you.

Data.

20%

16%

Here’s another number I want to grab you: 63%

That’s the percentage of people in a 10-mile radius of Fort Belvoir who currently are not a part of any church.

63%- I want that to change.

So listen up.

Here’s the God-Sized-Ante-Up-Let’s-Stop-Playing-Church-And-Find-Out-If-We-Really-Believe-in-the-Holy-Spirit-Vision:

Our bishop has asked us, as in, us, to consider planting a second congregation- a satellite congregation- in the Ft Belvoir region in the next 18 months.

Because every study shows- and the Book of Acts shows- the best way to make new Christians is to start new churches.

But I’m not talking about bricks and mortar; I’m talking about extending the ministry of this church, south.

I’m talking about people from here willing to imagine new ways to reach people there with the Gospel.

I’m not talking about starting yet another church for church people.

I’m talking about creating a worshipping community to reach the kinds of people who might need a different kind of church in order to meet Jesus.

Nehemiah says, when the people make booths and rediscover this God who saves us sinners, Nehemiah says they rejoice.

They’re changed.  That’s what we’re about. That’s what I want.

For you. For my kids.

For the 84% who don’t know the Story behind that (the cross).

And for the 63% not too far from here.

If we do this, if we discern that this is where God is calling us, then it can’t just be owned me or Dennis.

It’s going to take all of us.

And specifically, we’re going to need a team of 40-50 of you to commit yourselves to it.

The how/when/where/what/who questions are still down the road.

And you’ll be hearing more about.

But the first step?

The first step is probably for us to build ourselves some booths and rediscover the Gospel for ourselves.