Suffering and God: Theodicy for DummiesAn online seminar with Dr. Eric Hall
Archives For God
Yesterday I spoke to Dad whose 3 year old boy somehow climbed inside his truck in the Texas summer heat and couldn’t get out again. Dad was asleep taking a nap after church. Jacob was supposed to be down for a nap too.
His Dad still speaks of him in the present tense.
First, it broke my heart to hear his grief and guilt held barely at bay by the willful flat tone in his voice. Later, it pissed me off- filled me a mushroom-cloud-laying fury- to hear how the preaching and teaching of his upbringing- supposedly ‘biblical’ theology- did him damage by telling him that his little boy cooking inside his car could be chalked up to divine sovereignty.
“God has a plan” they told him.
“There’s a reason for everything.”
“Bullshit,” I told him, “a world where everything is the direct and immediate unfolding of God’s will is NOT the world as the New Testament sees it.”
For as often as we read it at funerals, we forget: the reason Paul works to reassure in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus is because there are Powers and Principalities in the world contending against God and working to separate us from him.
Calvinists of a certain stripe often exult in the ‘mysterious’ ways God ordains tragedy to bring about ‘good,’ humble his creatures, display his sovereignty, and call all to repentance and faith.
Listening to Jacob’s Dad speak of Christians telling him to see in his son’s tragic death the ‘good news’ of God’s sovereign plan reminds me of Aristotle who cautioned, in so many words: If the happy expressions on your face don’t match the godawful sentiments coming out of your mouth, you’re batshit crazy.
Or a moral cretin, Aristotle would say.
Worse, the God conjured by such espousals of ‘sovereignty,’ the God who would will a little boy’s death for any reason, eternal or otherwise, is, quite simply, evil.
Evil is not good just because God is supposedly the One doing it.
Better to say- God cannot do evil exactly because God is good.
The ancient Christians believed that not even God- who is goodness itself- can violate his eternal, unchanging nature. God cannot, say, use his omnipotence to will violence, for to do so would contradict God’s very nature.
For God to be free and sovereign, then, is NOT for God to do whatever God wills. For God to be free and sovereign is for God to act unhindered according to God’s nature.
Those who claim “God has a reason for______” suppose 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 death of a little boy trapped inside a hot car, then God has the freedom to will Jacob’s death, no matter how inscrutable and unnecessary his death seems to us.
To which I say as I said to Jacob’s Dad: bullshit.
Jacob’s Dad asked for book suggestions. What theologians could he read to find a different God than the god who supposedly willed his family guilt and grief for the shits and giggles some call ‘sovereignty.’
I told Jacob’s Dad about my teacher during my days at UVA, David Bentley Hart.
In his little book The Doors of the Sea DBH 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.”
Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy not to talk like that to the father. 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.”
And if we mustn’t say them to such a father we ought never to say them about God.
Hart admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun that will one day be revealed to us by a Sovereign God in the fullness of time. He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.
Like Ivan Karamazov and evidently unlike too many of the Christians Jacob’s Dad encountered along the way, Hart wants no part of the cost at which this God’s Kingdom comes. Hart’s siding with suffering of the innocent is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that his 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.’
Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:
The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.
The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.
To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.
A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.
The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.
As Hart writes:
“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”
“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”
“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”
In other words,
if there is indeed a reason for everything,
if there is a reason for why Jacob was lost to his Dad and his Mom,
then there is no reason to worship God.
Not because God does not exist
but because he is not worthy of our worship.
I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.
You can find all the previous posts here.
III. The Son
27. What Do We Mean By Naming God Trinity?
We mean that Jesus is Lord.
That is, we know God to be Triune because we know that Jesus is Lord, to him belongs all honor, glory, and praise otherwise rightly owed to God, and because we know that there exists only by the power of the Holy Spirit a community that witnesses to Jesus’ cross-shaped Kingdom. Therefore, whatever Christians mean by the word God we must mean that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We mean that we can no longer say ‘God’ or ‘Spirit’ without saying Jesus.
Trinity is our rule of speech, insuring that we do not cite as from God or attribute to the Spirit any belief or work that does not conform to the revelation given to us in the Word of God we call Jesus Christ.
By naming God as Trinity, we also mean that we pray as Jesus prayed.
With the Son, we pray, as the Son commanded us, to the Father through the Holy Spirit. So praying, we trust that we are incorporated properly into the story of the God who lives among his People.
By confessing a Triune God, we mean as well that the person of Christ cannot be separated from the work of Christ.
In other words, the existence of the human Jesus is the result of the Father sending the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. God is Triune, then, because the mission of Jesus Christ is God’s own mission. God must be Trinity because the teachings of Jesus do not convey the will of the human Jesus, they convey the character of God.
By calling God Father, Son, and Spirit, we mean that creation itself coheres with the peaceable Kingdom revealed by Jesus on the mount and on the cross.
If God is Trinity then the fundamental reality to existence is peace, for in the Triune life we witness a community comprised of both difference and harmony. If peace is the chief attribute of God and the determinative characteristic of creation, then violence is an intrusion upon the original order of God’s creation- violence is not original to creation.
So then, by confessing a Triune God we profess that God’s act of creation is a bringing about in existence of God’s own harmonious difference and that God’s act of redemption is the Son, through the Spirit, and in faithfulness to the Father returning creation to its original harmony of difference and peace. By calling God Trinity we insist that Jesus’ cross-bearing, non-violent witness works not agains the grain of the universe but with it.
“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” – John 15.26
Some of you have expressed chagrin that I’ve not been blogging as much of late. Partly that’s due to work demands but mostly it’s because the podcast has taken up the free time I’d normally give to the blog.
I don’t regret that or apologize for it, however, because the podcast has allowed me to develop some surprising and life-giving relationships, most notably with Fleming Rutledge. I’m not full of shit at all when I say that I thank God the podcast brought her into my life, and I know from her that she’s equally grateful to have a new usefulness and audience at this season in her vocation.
So here’s our latest Friday’s with Fleming. We recorded it several weeks ago and it was the first time we’d gotten to connect since July. While you’re at it, you can check out Teer’s post, reflecting on our conversation with Fleming.
Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve got lined up with Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Danielle Shroyer, Ephraim Radner, William Cavanaugh et al.
We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.
You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here
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I recently interviewed David Bentley Hart, my man-crush Mt. Rushmore theologian as well as my former teacher. You can find the interview here above from our podcast Crackers and Grape Juice. In it, I mention how DBH taught me as a new Christian and undergraduate that God is the most obvious thing of all.
This is a theme DBH picks up again in his latest book, The Experience of God.
In a nutshell, The Experience of God is a retrieval of the ancient metaphysical definition of God. Like all of his previous works, this is a significant book. Unlike his previous works, this book is accessible for the average lay person- that’s not to say it’s easy reading, just accessible.
Hart reminds the reader of the philosopher Richard Taylor with this wonderful illustration, which in turn reminds me of the Terrence Malick film, Tree of Life.
Here’s the quote from Hart. Imagine, he writes:
“a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere.
Naturally he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there.
More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would absurd.
But, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we’re accustomed.
What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place.
The question would no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds.
It is the shear unexpected ‘thereness’ of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature but of its very existence.
The physical order confronts us at every moment with its fortuity.
Everything about the world that seems so unexceptional and drearily predictable is in fact charged with an immense and imponderable mystery.
How odd it is, how unfathomable, that anything at all exists: how disconcerting that the world and one’s consciousness of it are simply there, joined in a single ineffable event.”
I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.
Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church
If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’
*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal
If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.
Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.
By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.
Heresy #5: Patripassianism
What Is It?
I’ve given it the hump #5 position on this list, but Patripassianism definitely should be ranked #1 on the Silly Assonance Heresies list.
Here’s your clue.
from the Latin = patri– “Father” and passio “suffering”
Any guesses now as to it’s meaning?
That’s right, Patripassianism is a 3rd century heresy which asserts that the divine nature (either in the First Person of the Trinity or in the divine nature of the Second Person) can suffer.
Patripassianism = God Suffers(ed)
Patripassianism = If God Suffers(ed), then God Changes(ed)
I suspect the heretical nature of that claim is far from self-evident for some of you so perhaps an additional, foundational definition is in order.
Impassibility: from Latin
in = “not”
passibilis= “able to suffer, experience emotion”
Impassibility = God is eternally perfect and complete in God’s essence
Impassibility = God is transcendent
Impassibility = God is independent of all things unto God’s self and is not causally dependent on any other being and therefore cannot be affected (caused to have an emotion) by another being.
Impassibility = a first order, ground-level, Reading Rainbow, phonics-like theological maxim of the Church (and the philosophers before them).
Patripassianism, however, was perhaps the logical, if erroneous, fruit of the Church simultaneously contending with the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. After all, if Jesus is the eternal God incarnate and Jesus suffers and dies on the Cross, then does the statement ‘God suffers’ become a theological possibility?
Do the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation render it feasible to claim that on Golgotha God suffers?
Indeed can we now say, as Hans Urs Von Balthasar puts it in a creative, poetic flourish that remains nonetheless stale, slipshod heresy that from Good Friday Eve to the dark night of Holy Saturday God is dead?
Or to give it a postmodern spin (that for its use of ‘I’ as a starting point remains hopelessly ‘modern’ and Enlightenment-bound) can we claim that on Christ’s Cross we see God suffering in solidarity with us?
Who Screwed Up First?
While the lineup of heretics is long in this instance, credit goes to Sabellius, a priest who insisted that the Trinity was ‘economic’ alone; that is, rather than the Trinity being comprised of 3 distinct ‘persons,’ the Trinity named 1 God who acted in time in 3 distinct ways (as Father, Son and Spirit).
Sabellius’ (mis)understanding of the Trinity is a heresy for a different day, but suffice it to show how Trinitarian doctrine is often the keystone for every other Christian belief.
Get the Trinity wrong and it’s easy to wind up with a Son who can’t save you and an angry Father from whom you’d rather be saved.
Because Sabellius misconstrued the Trinity, he was victim to further misconstruing the divine nature, seeing in the Cross the suffering of God.
Following Sabellius, well-intentioned 5th century doofs like Peter the Fuller and John Maxentius held that in the Passion both Christ’s human and divine natures suffered.
Into the late 19th and early 20th century, the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the father of ‘Process Theology,’ postulated that God- likes his creatures (if you’re not an assbackwards creationist)- evolves over time as God interacts and relates to his creatures. God changes- ancient heresy wrapped in flattering ‘modern’ garb.
Another Patripassian is Jurgen Moltmann, a post WWII German theologian. In the wake of the holocaust, Moltmann felt convicted that the only plausible Christian confession was that on the Cross we see the eternal God shedding himself of eternity to suffer in solidarity with his oppressed creatures.
An understandable, humane, empathetic but ultimately ill-conceived conjecture about the Cross.
How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?
If you read the Bible’s descriptions of God’s anger, wrath and changing dispositions towards his People as literal rather than as part of Israel’s and the Church’s testimony to their relationship with and experience of God and thus figurative descriptions, then you’re a Patripassian in the hands of an Angry God.
If you think of the Trinity in terms of Nouns and Attributes (Father who is Sovereign, Son who Redeems, Spirit who Anoints) and you do not think of the Trinity in terms of Verbs (God who is eternally ‘fathering’ the Son in the friendship of the Spirit) and thus you forget that there was NEVER a time when God was NOT like God-in-Christ, then you’re a Patripassian who needs to memorize the Nicene Creed.
If you assume that for God to be ‘loving’ God cannot be ‘unchanging,’ then you’re either a Patripassian or poor philosophy student who’s confused dispassion (as in transcendence of) with unpassion (as in lack of).
The former is the only news good enough to pin our hopes, the latter is nothing. Literally nothing.
What’s more, if you assume a loving God must change then you’ve not taken the next logical step to realize that God must also then be affected by sin, suffering and evil, which opens another morally revolting can of worms (more below).
If you, like Calvin before you, posit that God planned the ‘Fall’ in order to reveal God’s glory, then you’ve introduced deficiency or ‘need’ in to God’s essential nature and you’re a Patripassian who needs to reread Colossians 1.
Likewise, if you think, like the other JC before you (Jean Calvin) that God requires suffering and death in order to manifest certain of his attributes then you’re a heretic who has forgotten the most basic of Trinitarian beliefs: that God is eternally, perfect and complete unto himself and doesn’t ‘need’ to do anything to reveal anything ‘more’ about himself. He is now, forever will be and always has been already ‘more.’
If you believe that God changes as a result of his everyday interactions with us, then you’re not far from asserting that God is the direct, efficient cause of every moment and event in time- that ‘everything happens for a reason.’
While this might seem romantic on the set of Lost, it can develop a nasty aftertaste when you realize you’re on the same logical ground as Pat Robertson holding forth in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Like Pat, you’re suggesting that every innocent’s suffering, every misery, every cruelty in our world in some way furthers God’s good, redemptive ends in history, which may give you a morally intelligible universe but it comes at the expense of a morally loathsome God.
You apparently believe in a God whose nature is established not eternally but in time through commerce with evil, and that doesn’t sound like Jesus.
Better just to admit you’re a heretic and repent.
If you need an anthropomorphized God rendered on your own terms and insist that, like any good boyfriend or girlfriend, any God worth loving would change as a result of his relationship with you, then you’re a heretic who would make God more determined by possibility than by actuality.
That is, you’ve not quite comprehended 1 John 4’s proclamation that just IS LOVE.
Fully, completely, essentially, perfectly.
God doesn’t change because, unlike your boyfriend or girlfriend, God doesn’t need to change. Doesn’t need to become more perfect or more loving.
If you think that Jesus had to die in order for God’s wrath towards sinners to be ‘satisfied’ then you’re really suggesting that Jesus’ death on the Cross effects a change in disposition in God towards humanity.
You’re suggesting that the Cross changes, the otherwise eternal, God’s feelings.
God’s affected by something we do, kill Jesus.
So even though you’d likely think yourself more orthodox and definitely more biblical than the lot of us you are nevertheless a heretic, tripping over the most elementary of ancient principles: God’s apatheia.
For, as David Bentley Hart likes to argue and the entire Orthodox tradition with him:
A God who suffers or otherwise changes can never be a God who is love, even if at the end of the day, God proves to be loving.
Only One who is already eternally and fully within himself ‘love’s pure light, who is in and with all things but remains above and free from all things, only that One can be considered a God of Love.
With a capital, uneraseable L.
Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today
Mainline Pastors Preaching Funerals
Everyone After Any Death, Accident or Tragedy
Most Contemporary Christian Songwriters
Memorize the Nicene Creed, especially the ‘true light from light’ part.
Look at a picture of Jesus and say out loud: ‘God has always been like Jesus.’
Vow. Promise never to say again:
“God did this…”
“___________ died, got cancer….”
“….For a reason.”
Instead remember: God would never do that because God has always been Love.
To 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 Today.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
I think that’s patronizing. I also wonder if it’s wrong.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
It 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.
*For those non-church members out there, ‘Dennis Perry’ is the Sr Pastor of Aldersgate. Senior = Old
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.
I scored higher than that in People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive Survey.
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.
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
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.
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.
Richard Friedman, a clinical psychiatrist, asks that question in this article in the NY Times. He says: “This syllogism won’t win any prizes in logic, but it accurately describes a curious paradox of human behavior: the allure of unpredictable romantic partners.”
Wondering why it is we’re so often drawn to people whose love is inconstant, Friedman cites a study a colleague conducted that involved giving participants water and juice and watching on an MRI how those drinks affected the reward circuits of their brains. The experiment showed that the water and juice elicited greater activation in the reward circuit when the reward was unanticipated.
Friedman concludes by saying
“These data might explain, in part, the paradox of people who complain constantly about their unreliable lovers, but keep coming back to them, time and again.”
What I find interesting is that sentence right there could very well a description of the God of the Old Testament or, for that matter, the Father of Jesus’ parable, ready to embrace a prodigal who fails to return his father’s love.
Friedman’s contention is that we’re hard-wired to seek out unpredictable love, love that won’t always be returned, love that will surprise us, love that requires us to take risks and risk our own vulnerability because it might not be reciprocal.
That doesn’t make us gluttons for pain or disappointment; we’re addicted to the hidden pleasure of inconstant love.
Friedman’s interested in how our brains make us that way.
What I wonder, theologically speaking, is if our brains make us that way because we’re made in the image of God who himself takes delight in the risk posed by loving us.
On Thursday afternoon this week, I found myself in what you might describe as a ‘sour mood.’ Or, as my wife likes to put it, I was ‘man-strating.’
First, early on Thursday I received an email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named here in the congregation, my own personal Caiphus. For some reason, he felt the need to email me to dispute Dennis’ sermon from last Sunday.
You know, the sermon that was written by and preached by NOT ME. I mean if I’m going to start getting blamed for Dennis’ sermons too then he’s got to step up his game. Specifically, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wanted to dismiss the Pew Trust statistics Dennis shared with you, about the percentage of people in their 40’s and 30’s and 20’s for whom church is not relevant to their lives at all.
His email was succinct: “I come to church every Sunday. If other people don’t that’s not my problem.”
That’s when I started manstrating.
Right after reading his email, I got in my car where I discovered that every single radio station was playing a campaign commercial, the kind explaining how this Tuesday is the most critical date in the history of human civilization and unless Barack Obama/Mitt Romney wins the earth will stop spinning, America will cease to exist, and the Death Star will reach full operational capacity.
Driving in my car, my mood worsened.
When I got home Thursday afternoon, my phone rang. And rang. And rang…don’t you love phone calls this time of year? Barack Obama’s campaign called me 3 times, asking for my vote and my money. Mitt Romney’s campaign called me 2 times, asking for my vote and my money. George Allen and Tim Kaine followed with robo-calls of their own, asking for my vote and my money.
So when my phone rang for the 8th time, I was full-on manstrating.
‘Is Jason Micheli there?’ the voice on the other end inquired.
‘No, he’s not here,’ I lied, ‘can I take a message?’
‘My name’s Matt. I’m calling from Princeton Seminary.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘this is Jason.’
‘But I thought you said…’
‘Never mind what I said. How can I help you?’
He then explained that he was a seminary student and that he was calling on behalf of the Bicentennial Campaign, soliciting gifts…and testimonials from alumni.
He tried to grease the sale by telling me all the new things going on at my alma mater, and then he asked if I would make a gift to the campaign.
I said sure. He said great. I said okay. He asked how much. I told him.
And he said: ‘Times are tough, huh?’
That’s when my mood turned truly foul.
‘Look kid, maybe no one’s told you yet what you can expect to make as a pastor but I’m not Bill Gates. Besides, you should’ve called earlier. I’ve already given money to Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, George Allen, Tim Kaine, NPR and the Rebel Alliance.’
He sounded confused.
‘Well, um, would you like to share any thoughts about how your seminary education prepared you for ministry? We’d like to compile these and publish them in the alumni magazine.’
And instantly my mind went to that email from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, sitting in my inbox, still waiting for a reply.
And I knew this was one of those moments where a grown-up could choose to bite his tongue and not resort to petty sarcasm. But I’m not one of those grown-ups.
‘Sure, Matt, I’d love to share my thoughts. Here goes: Princeton Seminary prepared me exceedingly well…to maintain a church for church people.’
I could hear him typing my response.
‘In fact, Matt, why don’t you suggest to the trustees that they can slow down, delay the Bicentennial for several decades, because based on how Princeton taught me to do ministry it must still be 1950.’
‘That’s not the kind of feedback we were looking for’ Matt said.
‘Of course not, but its what you need to hear.
Princeton Seminary taught me to pray the kinds of prayers church people like, to preach the kinds of sermons church people like, to plan the kind worship services that church people like, to manage the kind of church that church people like.
But seminary didn’t teach me how to do any of those things in a way that makes church relevant and life-changing to an unchurched person.
And that’s the future, Matt. And the clock’s ticking. It’s ticking faster than any one in church wants to believe.’
Those Pew statistics Dennis shared with you last week- about how with each new generation the church plays an ever-shrinking role- those aren’t just numbers.
They’re people with names and stories. People God loves.
That’s why this week I sent our youth director, Teer Hardy, out into Alexandria and DC, to find some those people behind the numbers and hear their side of the story.
I wish I could show you the video he shot. If we were in the National Cathedral, I could show you the video. But since we’re in this sanctuary, you’re just going to have to listen. Here’s one of the responses (Cue Audio)
My name is ___________________.
I’m 33. I’m married and have a 1 year old boy. I work full-time.
As a 30-something, how relevant is the Church to you in your life?
At this moment, not very much. I guess it’s been almost five years since I worshipped in a church, besides a few weddings. Some of my earliest memories are of going to church during Advent.
I miss that element in my weekly life, of worshiping and belonging to a community. Part of me would like to have that resonance of faith in my daily life, but most churches don’t seem to have someone like me, someone my age, in mind. Your question could easily be turned around, couldn’t it? How relevant is someone like me to your church?
When you hear the word ‘worship’ what comes to your mind?
The word ‘worship’ doesn’t immediately lead me to think of institutional religious practices.
To worship, to me, is to reframe my attention away from everything I typically pay attention to as a full-time working mother, and turn to God, experience awe, gratitude, connection to other humans. I could attend a formal church service and never experience any of those things, but I do experience them in other ways and places.
What assumptions or habits do churches have that are an obstacle to someone your age?
I think there is a risk of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. I think churches sometimes try to pander and make themselves appear relevant to a young audience. People my age and younger are a lot savvier now. We’re marketed to all the time; we can tell the difference between a sales pitch and a genuine interest in us.
This is someone who grew up in church and is open to being a part of another one.
But did you hear what she said?
People like her won’t return to what they left if it’s the same exact thing they left before.
Now it’s easy to write people like her off. You can say ‘it’s not my problem.’
I could steer you towards plenty of people who would agree with you.
You know where they’re all at this morning? That’s right, in dying churches.
And Methodism’s got plenty of those. Churches who love their way of doing things more than they love their mission to reach new people.
Churches where perpetuating how they do things is their mission. Churches who feel no urgency until the day comes they can no longer pay the bills.
But, just in case there’s still some of you who want to dismiss the statistics and not be bothered about the strangers in the street who don’t think Jesus can change their lives, we solicited some other interviews too.
My name’s _____________________. I’m 24 and work full-time.
What about how churches do worship fails to resonate with you?
I think everyone is at a different place in their lives and everyone has a different perspective. I know that my ideas and opinions about things have changed, and I would be amazed if they didn’t change again. Sometimes it feels like churches want new and younger people so long as we don’t come with our own opinions and needs. We’re expected to sign on to exactly how they like to do worship. In that sense, it’s not much different than children’s church when I was a kid.
It’s difficult for me to accept someone else’s preferences if I don’t get the feeling that they’re open to someone else’s way of doing things too.
This other response come to me by way of Facebook:
My name’s ____________________. I’m a Graduate Student.
I think my faith is in a transitional phase. In college, I found Christian groups to be radical and extreme and it made me doubt the beliefs I had learned my whole life in church and youth group. It left me feeling that the Church just isn’t all that relevant to real life.
Worship sometimes feels like a passive ritual to me. You show up, listen, then go home. It doesn’t impact my day to day life.
Those two people. Guess where they came from?
They grew up here at Aldersgate. They’re ours. Yours.
So, even if you think we don’t have a responsibility to reach as many new people as we can, at the very least you should agree that we have an obligation to people like these two.
After all, you’ve made promises to them.
Remember? When they were baptized- you promised to do whatever it takes to nurture their faith.
If we’re not willing to create the kind of church that will be relevant to them when they grow up, then, frankly, we should stop baptizing them when they’re babies.
If we’re not willing to adapt how we do church, we should stop baptizing children.
Because every time we baptize, we vow to do everything it takes to make them a saint.
Shirley Pitts can tell you- John Wesley understood this.
Remembering the saints is something we do. Once a year.
Producing saints, Sunday after Sunday, day in and day out- that’s our Christ-given great commission.
This is what you need to remember.
Dennis and I- one of our three goals for the coming 18 months is to raise the number of people in worship by 10%.
Round it up to 100 people if you want.
Before you nod your heads and say ‘that’s a great idea!’ remember the Ezra chapter 3 catch:
We can’t say we’re going to build a new temple and think we can do so by replicating how we’ve always done things before.
Because how we do things now will net us what we have.
We’re making worship our number one focus this year and our goal is 10% more people worshipping God with us.
To get to that goal, we’re going to have to be creative, take risks, value people over preferences, we’re going to have to examine all our assumptions, we’re going to have to get more basic/more essential, and change.
And if you think I’m talking about worship style or music style, you’re missing the point. For example:
Most of you would be very reluctant to invite an unchurched friend to worship with you. I understand that reluctance, but it’s got to change.
Many of you can’t talk about Jesus or use religious language in a normal conversation with your peers. I was like that; I understand that, and we’ve got to change that.
Many of our members are involved in all kinds of activities in the church without ever worshipping with us. I understand that’s an ingrained part of the church culture, but it’s a part of the culture that’s got to change.
Other than acolytes, we don’t have our children or youth involved in worship, serving communion, reading scripture, helping to plan, leading prayer or ushering. I understand that might sound chaotic. It’s still gotta change.
Many of you don’t know the names of the people you sit near in church every Sunday. I DON’T understand that and it’s definitely got to change.
Many of you think worship is something Dennis or I or Andreas or Jason or the band or the choir offer you, and you receive- rather than something we collectively offer our larger community on behalf of God.
And more than anything, that mindset has to change.
Look, I know change bothers people.
I’ve been at this long enough to have habits I’m afraid to change.
But what I want to bother you more, what I wish I got emails complaining about, what I wish I got emails complaining about, is how our community is filled with lost coins, lost sheep, lost children and how we’re not laser-beam focused on getting them here so they can embrace a Father who’s waiting for them.
I want that to bother you because Jesus made it very clear: it bothers God.
I was still on the phone with Matt from Princeton when another call beeped in.
It was probably another campaign calling me for my vote and my money.
But at least it snapped me out of my rant and Matt said:
‘That’s a good point Mr Micheli, but transitioning a church into the future- don’t you think that’s your congregation’s responsibility too? Don’t you trust that God can equip your people with the necessary gifts?’
I told him he must get very good grades in seminary, and he chuckled gently.
And then the little jerk asked me for more money.
But he was right.
Building on our foundation for a new future is a gigantic, God-sized calling. And it belongs to all of us. Together.
Ezra says the leaders who build the new Temple after the exile are the grandkids of the ones who remember how things used to be.
Ezra says, at first, everyone thinks their idea to build a new Temple is a great idea.
But Ezra says some have a change of heart when they realize the new Temple won’t be the same as the old.
Some refuse to give their money to it, Ezra says.
Others opt out Ezra says.
But others, those who are old enough to remember what was 50 years ago, Ezra says they weep.
They weep, but they’re still there. They’re still there when the new Temple is dedicated. They’re still committed. They’re still contributing. Because of what God did for them in the past, they’re still invested in the future of what God’s doing.
And sure when the new Temple is dedicated, Ezra says you can’t distinguish the sound of celebration from the sound of grief.
But that’s okay.
Because as messy as it is, that’s what it sounds like- celebration and grief, that’s what it sounds like- when God’s People take the next faithful step.
Psych, not really.
Yesterday, I posted about the ‘Behind the Veil‘ video making the internet rounds. I commented that I was surprised to hear Mormons baptizing in the name of Trinity, which made me wonder if the video was authentic or a campaign year smear video like the ones out there smearing the President.
So here’s the answer straight from an old friend, Shauna, speaking for all Mormons everywhere, which I guess ironically Mormons can do.
Shauna: Well, I can tell you the video is legit. I couldn’t watch the whole thing A) because I’ve been to the temple and done and seen all those things and don’t need to watch it B) the tone of the printed commentary was driving me nuts! Mormons 100% believe in the trinity, just not in the way it’s defined by the Nicene Creed. It is our first Article of Faith – We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.
Jason: Except, as you guys define it, it’s no longer the Trinity as Christians have defined it 🙂 At least I’m pleased to find out A) something I didn’t know before and B) it’s not some sort of 2016 Anti Mormon film flying around out there. All of which gets back to my original Billy Graham’s a theologically deficient political opportunist point.
Shauna: As for temple work done for those who have died, three things 1) we don’t “use children” any worthy member over the age of 12 can participate in baptisms for the dead; 2) the church does in fact have very strict policies for submitting names of those who have died, you have to be related, you have to have permission from the closest living relative, and you can’t submit the names of celebrities or Holocaust victims and 3) we believe that the spirits of those who have died maintain their agency; we perform the work for them and they are free to accept it or reject it as they choose, same as they could here on earth
Jason: You should post on my blog sometime.
Shauna: Like a question and answer? The answer I should give is, “Answers to all your questions can be found at mormon.org,” but let me know what you have in mind. You have an interest in understanding, many others do not. I once had a “friend” insist that we worship idols in the temple. He read it somewhere, so of course it must be true, and would not believe me when I told him, other than furniture, there’s nothing to see but lots of flower arrangements and religious paintings (mostly from the Bible). And I have to add that (having known you in high school)I have an impossibly hard time taking you seriously!
United Methodists are technically a tee-totaling tradition. It’s our heritage, and in some ways I think it’s a missional hurdle. You can blame prohibition largely on the United Methodist Women- just ask Ken Burns- and you can blame Mr Welch of juice fame (a Methodist) for why we have to imbibe that terrible syrup during the Passover of Our Lord.
Of course, racism and slavery are also a part of at least one half of our heritage so preserving the past isn’t necessarily all pearls.
Which is to say, I home brewed beer as a student in seminary before it was trendy or hip to home brew (or home brew as a seminary student). It made me feel monkish.And, no, I didn’t tell the ordination committee about that hobby. All in all, my yield tasted pretty good, excepting one flavor that was called ‘Englishman’s Nut Ale’ which tasted like, well, an Englishman’s nuts. Ten pounds later, however, I turned in the towel for other hobbies.
Jeff Cook, via Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog, has a great post, merging cerveza and the ontological argument for the existence of the/an Almighty.
- Beers that exist are greater than beers that do not exist, and as such existence is a great-making property.
- If God exists, God is the greatest conceivable being.
- Let’s assume the greatest conceivable being does not exist.
- If (3) than there is something greater than the greatest conceivable being.
- (4) is a contradiction, so (3) is false.
God exists and we know this because of great beers.
Contrary to Kant, every philosopher I know believes that beers that exist are greater than beers that do not exist. It would be offensive to humanity, the Rolling Stones, and your grandmother to deny Premise 1.
Here’s the complete post.
Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Job. Two notes so this makes sense. I’ve always thought the beautiful poetry of the Book of Job hides the scandal of Job’s emotions and masks the piety of his friends. For that reason, in this sermon, I rewrote the friends’ dialogue to make it sound more contemporary. Additionally, I asked two actors to reenact the dialogues during the course of the sermon. Thanks to Bailey and Elliott!
Many months ago, around supper time, I was in the Emergency Room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother, who wasn’t much older than me, as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.
She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end and have just come up for air.
She was smoothing her boy’s cow lick with her hand.
Every so often she would shush him, as though if she could just calm him down she might convince him to come back.
It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had gone to see the Nats lose to the Braves.
I still had my hat on and popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like pastor or a priest.
So when the mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get a hold of her husband and left me with her boy and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest.
She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.
She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: ‘It’s going to be alright.’
‘What?’ I said, stunned.
I’ve been a pastor for 11 years.
And in that time I can’t tell you how many ER’s and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.
I know people in this congregation who’ve been told- by other people in this congregation- that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.
I know people here who’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that their spouse’s or their child’s death must be part of God’s plan.
I know people who’ve written God off entirely because some Christian tried to console them with talk of ‘God’s will.’
Most of us- we don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say.
Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage.
For days Job is mute with disbelief.
But when Job finally does speak, his friends aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.
“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born! My life would’ve been better if I’d died in my mother’s womb. Why did God give knees for me to rest on or a mother to nurse me if God was just going to do this to me now?”
Anger is almost always what follows grief’s numbed silence.
Yet, ironically, anger is probably the most taboo emotion among Christians.
Because anger doesn’t just claim that this situation is painful, anger claims that this situation isn’t right– that what has happened should not have happened.
That kind of anger can be frightening because it calls our assumptions about God into question.
So when we’re confronted by that kind of raw, righteous anger very often our reflex is to make it stop. To silence it.
That’s how Eliphaz reacts to Job.
“I’ve been praying for what to say to you, and the Lord finally put the right words on my heart.
Have you forgotten everything you used to tell others?
You were the one to encourage people in grief. You’re the one who talked about comfort and hope. But now it’s your turn, now you’re the victim, and…what?
That’s not you. Where’s your faith?
I know you think you’re a good person and you don’t deserve what’s happened to you, but remember what scripture says: ‘we’re all sinners and fall short of the glory of God.’
I understand how you feel, but this isn’t like you: to be angry at God. Have you listened in on God’s calls and come away with his plans? What do you know that we don’t?
You know what scripture says: “God’s ways are not our ways.”
God works in mysterious ways. We can’t understand why God took them from you; we can only take comfort in knowing your kids are with him right now in heaven.
Remember what Jesus says: ‘I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.’ Maybe…maybe it was just their time to go home to HIM.
Don’t throw away your faith now when it could really help you.
If I were you- I’d put that anger into prayer instead. Throw yourself at God’s mercy. Look to him for help and he’ll answer all your prayers. I know it.“
Job: “If my sorrow were put on a scale, it would outweigh the sands of the ocean. And now you have turned against me too.
My anguish frightens you. But show me how my feelings, MY feelings, can be wrong? Can’t I tell right from wrong? If I’d sinned, if I’d done something to deserve this, wouldn’t I know it?
God has broken my heart and now I can’t even speak honestly with my friend.
You’d rather argue away my despair. I’ve heard enough of your ‘consolations.’
Eliphaz is genuinely concerned for Job, but at the heart of what he says is fear. He’s afraid not just of what’s happened to Job; he’s afraid of Job.
Part of what’s troubling about Eliphaz is how it’s not clear at all who he’s trying to comfort: Job or himself.
Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation, knows the temptation to put a lid on it.
Because Eliphaz is so uncomfortable with what Job says, he presumes to speak for Job. He puts words in Job’s mouth and tells himself he’s just helping Job find his true voice.
Eliphaz reminds Job of who Job used to be, the beliefs Job used to have, so that Eliphaz doesn’t have to deal with who Job is right now.
The words he puts in Job’s mouth are cliches. Platitudes.
Whatever your intentions, when you speak in one-size-fits-all platitudes, when you say:
God has a plan.
God’s ways are not our ways.
God never gives us more than we can handle.
With God all things are possible.
God must’ve needed him or her in heaven.
It’s going to be alright.
When you speak like that to someone who’s suffering, what you’re really doing is signaling to them what’s out of bounds:
what they can say and what they cannot say
what feelings they can express and what they absolutely must not express.
You censor their grief, and you make it worse.
And so when there’s nothing else to say, do not resort to one-size-fits-all platitudes. Because just like one-size-fits-all clothes, they never fit.
Bildad, Job’s second friend, is less concerned about finding words that fit Job’s situation and more concerned with fitting Job into his belief system.
“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!
“Be sensible. Stop. Stop ranting and stop filling our ears with this nonsense.
Should the laws of creation- the laws of God– all be changed for your sake?
God protects the righteous and punishes the wicked. The bible said it; I believe it, and that’s that. Maybe you are innocent. Maybe you don’t deserve the pain you’re in, but can you really be sure that your kids didn’t do anything to deserve what they got?
Look, I know it’s terrible now. But if you just give it over to the Lord, commit yourself to HIM, you will get over this. God never gives us more than we can handle.
In fact, you should use this as an opportunity for the Lord to teach you something. It’s like the bible says: ‘we should rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.’
See this as a chance to grow closer to God. That’s what will get you through this- not shaking your fist at the sky.”
How kind you are to me! How considerate of my pain! What would I do without a friend like you? And the good advice you’ve given me?
Who made you so tactful? And inspired you with such compassionate words?
I know: God’s workings are mysterious. But don’t make my suffering worse with your beliefs.
Tell me, who’s done this to me if not God? Why do you have to hurt me now too with your answers?
You honestly think I’ll get over this? I’ll get past this?
You want to know what really makes me shudder? That you don’t understand me at all and aren’t willing to try.
You can say whatever you want to excuse God, but I will never agree with you.
It’s easy to write Bildad off as insensitive.
But we’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad is the only person to believe that there’s a reason behind our suffering.
We’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad’s the only person to assume that God causes our suffering to teach us a lesson or to punish us.
And Bildad is hardly the only person who would back that up with scripture, chapter and verse.
But hear me: to think God causes suffering to punish you for your sin does in a very profound way nullify the cross.
Because in Jesus Christ we see that the way God punishes sin is to suffer it in our place.
It’s true that you can learn and grow from suffering but that is not the same thing as saying God makes you suffer to teach you a lesson.
When St Paul writes that “suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” that’s Paul reflecting on his own experience.
That’s different than taking Paul’s words and imposing them on someone else’s experience.
For Bildad there’s a disconnect between what he thinks he knows about God and how Job describes his experience.
So Bildad feels the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it.
But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend- to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.
What do you say when there’s nothing to say?
Instead of saying ‘God must be teaching you a lesson’ how about saying ‘You have something to teach me. Tell me what you’re going through. I want to learn what you’re feeling. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me.’
Zophar, Job’s final friend, has a certainty that masks a possibility too frightening to consider.
“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!
“I’ve heard enough.
How can you be so blind? You say you’re innocent. You don’t deserve this, but how can you understand God or fathom HIS wisdom?
We’re finite and HE’s infinite. We can’t see things the way God can see them.
I know how you feel now. But you’ve got to believe God has a plan, a plan for every one of us.
I know it can be hard to see now, but everything happens for a reason. God’s behind everything. Nothing’s accidental. Nothing’s random.
If I were you, I’d open my heart to God and trust that one day you’ll understand why God’s done this.”
“It seems you know everything. It must make you feel better for there to be an answer for everything.
But I’m not an idiot. Who doesn’t know such things?
Even a child knows that the whole world is in God’s hands.
But your comfort is hollow. Would you say anything to get God off the hook? Is your piety more important than your friend?
Don’t think God won’t judge you for your empty lies.
If God has a reason for what’s happened to me then I deserve to know it. God may kill me for my words but at least I’m speaking the truth.”
I’d bet 3/4 of you at some time or another have said something like: ‘God has a plan for____________.’
And even if you’re never uttered that at the wrong time, you believe it. You think it’s true- that God has a plan for each of us.
Notice, both Job and Zophar think its true.
Both of them believe Job’s suffering is a part of God’s larger plan. Zophar just assumes that means Job deserves what’s happened to him and Job knows that he doesn’t.
But both of them assume a world of tight causality, a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will.
And maybe Job and Zophar (and you and me)- maybe we assume that because the opposite is too frightening.
Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel.
Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question ‘Why?’ has no answer.
Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us with out warning, for no reason and from which no good will ever come.
It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, (as though we were characters on Lost) but the logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster.
Pay attention. Write this down.
God doesn’t have a plan for your life.
You’re not just an actor in a life that’s already been scripted.
God does not will suffering in your life because it fits into his cosmic blueprints for you.
Because God’s Plan, what God Wills, is for you in freedom to choose to love God and with your life give him glory- which you could never do if every moment of your life was predetermined and micromanaged.
What do you say when there’s nothing to say?
For God’s sake, don’t say God has a plan.
Try saying ‘there’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.’
The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: ‘What?’
She blushed and apologized. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say’ she said.
But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said: ‘When his mother comes back in here, don’t. say. anything.’
At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.
And the scary thing for us?
What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse, and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial- at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.
It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.
I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain sometimes we push people away from God.
And I’ve stood at enough gravesides and bedsides to know: that the only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, is suffering without God.
And for that reason, here’s my last piece of advice: when there’s nothing to say, say nothing.
The author of the book whence we got the idea for this series argues that Christianity’s unique claim is that ‘not all suffering is bad.’ I’ve already mentioned how I think this book is crap (yes, it seems you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover). I’ve come clean about disliking this book but this week it’s different. This week I find its positive treatment of suffering to be both morally repugnant- and the god implied therein- and a profound misunderstanding of the Gospel, in which Death and Sin are the enemies God battles and Christ’s cross is the ‘sacrifice to END all sacrifices.’
The author’s clumsy, tone deaf theology reminded me of an analysis that is the exact opposite in sensitivity: 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.’