Archives For God

Jesus for President

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Tonight, while millions gather around their televisions for the presidential debate, I will be at a church meeting, struggling with several lay leaders to fine-tune (not in vain, I hope) our Sunday coffee fellowship.

That we’ll be immersed in the tedious chores of church life during such a significant national event seems almost a cruel joke to the pastor and political junkie in me. To the Christian in me, though, spending tonight focused on church life, even the mundane parts of it,  seems like the perfect counter witness, a reminder that the Church is neither red nor blue, nor red, white, and blue, but is a transnational People whose primary citizenship is to the Kingdom.

The Church isn’t a people who have political positions. The Church isn’t a people who participate in politics. The Church is meant to be its own politics. An alternative community. The Church is meant, as Israel was called, to be a ‘light to the nations.’

Instead all too often the reality is that we have blue churches that are alternatives to red churches and red churches that are alternatives to blue churches but few churches committed the cruciform way of Jesus as an alternative to every hue of the world’s politics.

As Shane Claiborne puts it in Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals, Christians on both sides of the aisle have so fallen in love with the state, we’re so used to practicing our faith in the world’s most powerful nation, that it’s killed our imagination:

     ‘We in the church are schizophrenic: we want to be good Christians, but deep down we trust that only the  power of the state and its militaries and markets can really make a difference in the world.”

It’s of course true that both political parties have legitimate perspectives on serious issues and that engagement in those issues is an appropriate concern.

But deep down, Claiborne’s right. And, I wonder, if the Church is in decline in America because we don’t really believe in the product we’re selling? Or is it because we believe in America more?

Either way, Claiborne’s right.

We’ve turned Christ’s Kingdom into some pie-in-the-sky-after-we-die realm because we don’t really believe the way of Jesus can transform this world. Or maybe we believe it but, deep down, we know that way comes at too high a cost to the positions we hold dear or the lifestyle we enjoy.

The result is that we can’t imagine what it means to be a People whose very life together points to the only thing that can truly transform the world.

Our reliance on red/blue categories, on market-based solutions, on policies has muted our imagination as Christians.

As evangelical leader, Tony Campolo puts it: “Mixing the church and state is like mixing ice cream with cow s*&$. It may not do much to the manure but it sure messes up the ice cream.’ 

 

And so tonight as millions watch the candidates volley memorized soundbites back and forth, I will be at church waist deep in a conversation about coffee hour, my own small prophetic counter-witness to Christ’s Kingdom.

 

 

Are Atheists Blind?

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Even after I became a Christian, I found the traditional, philosophical arguments for God’s existence to be dry and unconvincing: ‘God is that which no greater can be thought; God is the first cause of all that is.’

To my mind, there could never be satisfactory ‘proof’ for a God as paradoxical as the one we find in Jesus Christ. Still, if I were to attempt an apologia for God I would point not to the human genome or the Big Bang but to Beauty.

That we’re all imbued with an aesthetic, with an appreciation, love for and visceral need to create beauty- even as we define it in a diversity of ways that is itself a kind of beauty- has always seemed, to me at least, the best argument that there is a God from whom we owe our existence.

I understand the purely ‘natural’ explanation behind the blue glow that shimmers over mountaintops, yet there is no ‘natural’ explanation for why I would find such an occurrence radiantly beautiful. In other words, there’s a sense in which its grammatically incorrect for Christians to use the word nature. It’s created, all of it, and as created it’s all gift that should evoke gratitude and enjoyment.

As a former atheist and recovering cynic, I think I’m correct in saying that atheism’s biggest drawback is how boring it is. In trying to prove what isn’t, atheism too often misses out on what IS in all its splendor.

This weekend we continue our fall sermon series, ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas,’ with the theme of creation as a signpost to the Almighty.

As the Psalmist puts it, this week we’re exploring how the ‘heavens declare the glory of God.’ This is same principle is what theologians and ethicists refer to under the category ‘natural law,’ the idea that creation itself bears the fingerprints of the Creator and from those marks we can deduce certain beliefs.

Here’s a beautiful essay by David Bentley Hart on leaving the mountain that towered above his home:

For two years, we have lived in a forest on the convergent lower slopes of two mountain ranges, and above a shallow wooded ravine that descends to a narrow streambed on our side and rises up on the opposite side towards the high ridge that looms above our treetops to the west. During our time here, that mountain has been a commanding and magnificent presence for us, seeming at times almost impossibly near at hand, at other times forbiddingly remote, but always silently, sublimely watchful.

Nearly every morning, no matter the season, it is mantled in clouds, sometimes so heavily that it disappears altogether behind opaque walls of pearl-gray mist.

And nearly every evening, as the sun descends below its ridgeline, the whole mountain is briefly crowned in purple and pale gold, and the southwest horizon, where the ridge descends, is transformed into a gulf of amethyst, rose, and orange.

When the darkness falls, moreover, there is none of the dull rufous pall that the glare of city lights casts up to hide the stars in heavily populated areas.

On clear nights, the sky becomes a deep crystal blue for perhaps half an hour—and then the sky becomes an ocean of stars.

Here in our shady submontane seclusion, cool breezes constantly blow down from the peaks above, and through the southern pass, even during the hottest months of summer. The soughing of the trees rises and falls as the gusts strengthen or weaken, but never wholly abates, and the sunlight—reaching us through the filtering leaves—incessantly flickers and undulates around our house. The birds are so numerous and various that their songs blend inextricably together, and only occasionally can one momentarily recognize a particular phrase—a goldfinch, say, or a cardinal—before it merges back into the larger polyphony. Then only the short, sharp staccato of the woodpeckers is immediately recognizable.

Just now, however, the more dominant music here is the oddly sweet mixed chorus of the woodland frogs, especially at night, but throughout the day as well. The rain this spring, here as in much of the country, has been heavy and regular, and so the ditches are full to overflowing, and gleam like silver when viewed at an oblique slant. The smaller depressions at their edges, also full of water, catch the reflections of overhanging leaves, and the green mingles with the gray of their silt in such a way that they often look like pools of jade. When one comes nearer, however, all the standing water is quite clear and filled with small black tadpoles. Next year’s frog choruses will be louder.

Life abounds under the brow of the mountain. All the woodland creatures one would expect, great and small, are here—deer and black bears, glistening black snakes and tawny foxes, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and owls and Blue-Tailed Skinks, and so on. The butterflies at the moment are becoming quite plentiful; there are Black Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, but also Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies, and a host of others. And azure and emerald and opalescent beetles and flies are now appearing as well.

The mountain ridge can be reached by foot, if one is willing to make the effort. The best passage to the top lies northwest of our house, and one must follow it first down into the ravine, into its green depths, through the shadows of its deciduous trees and immense Loblolly Pines, over carpets of moss and ferns and creeping juniper, and across the narrow stream that just now is coursing quite vigorously. The best path—not the easiest, but the most idyllic—lies across a small waterfall created by a thick tangle of oak and Asian Tulip roots over a minor subsidence in the soil. Mountain laurel is extremely plentiful in the ravine, and at present is in full blossom. Bronze and golden box turtles lurk in the shade and by the water.


The ascending slope from there is quite gentle at first, and only becomes an arduous climb at a few places. In all, it takes only about two hours to reach the ridge if one keeps moving. If one sets out well before dawn, and arrives at the top in time to see the sunrise, one will find oneself walking as much in the clouds as through the trees, and there is a brief period (twenty minutes or so) when the sunlight first reaches the ridge, at a sharply lateral angle, and one is all at once passing through shifting veils of translucent gold. Unfortunately, it is an effect that no photograph can capture: invariably, it is not only the rich aurous lambency of the scene that is lost, but the impression of depths within depths, layer upon layer.

In any event, I can do none of this any justice. To describe the place with anything like the detail or lyricism it merits would be a long, and perhaps interminable, task. I have relied on pictures simply because I do not quite have the words right now. In a week, we will be gone. Family responsibilities necessitate our moving to a larger house—one very pleasantly set in a grove of tall tress, but not watched over by our mountain. I simply feel as if it has been a rare privilege to live here for the time we have had, and that I ought to pay some tribute to the place before leaving, out of some sense of honor or natural piety.

So one last photograph. I actually took it soon after our arrival here, as my son (age ten at the time) was watching the sunset for the first time from our porch, over the small open glade to our southwest. But at the moment it seems to capture something for me, a mood at once of delighted wonder and deep sadness. It comes as close as I can at present to expressing the farewell that I want to wish this house and that mountain. It is a melancholy with which I suspect we are all familiar at some level, as individuals and as a race, something that haunts us and of which my sadness is only a fragmentary reminder—the feeling of having lost paradise.

You can find the article here.

Last week I performed a wedding along the Potomac River in the late summer afternoon sun. Lucas, the little ring-bearer predictably and adorably forgot to process down with his pillow so as the bride marched to ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ the congregation could all hear Lucas’ mother whispering/shouting: ‘Lucas, Lucas get down here right now.’

The bride’s sister played a tender clarinet solo and, being a professional musician, it was impeccable.

The bride’s friends read tender texts from Kalil Gibran on the nature of love.

The couple’s friend spoke tenderly about their love and wished them well with the advice that all will be well ‘if they just keep loving each other.’

It was all beautiful, tender, romantic and COMPLETELY unrealistic.

As all weddings almost always are.

After I read scripture from 1 John 4 about God being love, I launched into my wedding homily. I don’t reuse homilies from couple to couple but I do repeat a few key points, and my aim in the wedding sermon is always the same: to quash the sentimentality that so often renders wedding ceremonies ‘beautiful’ without being truthful.

Because of course, as any (happily or unhappily) married person can attest ‘just loving each other’ is empty, naive advice. Marriage is work and risk. Marriage is sacrifice- that’s how Jesus, an otherwise single dude, can be an example of the love between husband and wife.

Were it as easy as ‘just loving each other’ marriage wouldn’t be a vocation that required vows to enter.

This is part of what I told that couple:

Marriage is a high-risk adventure, for a life lived together can expose the worst in people, all the intricate flaws that come with human nature.  No matter how many times we have sat in chairs like these and listened to people like me announce “Dearly Beloved,” these are daunting promises to make. Marriage is risky business. Today the two of you are not just saying ‘I do’ to the person standing next to you; you’re also saying ‘I do’ to whomever or whatever that person is going to become- something that is unknown and unseen to the both of you. That is the risk you take today, but as far as the church is concerned it’s a beautiful risk. It’s an act of faith.

It’s this commitment to the unknown- at least in my view- that make weddings the beautiful gesture that they are.

It’s this same commitment to the unknown, this act of faith, that appears to be waning. According to the NY Times, for example, lawmakers in Mexico proposed the creation of short-term, renewable marriage contracts with terms as brief as two years. Which I guess makes marriage less a sacrament and more like a Best Buy service agreement.

Here’s the article from Sunday’s paper.

For our sermon series, this weekend I’ve been thinking about Justification by Faith Alone (vs Works). There’s no way to talk about Justification without talking about Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

Because the Gospel is God’s declaration to us and because this is a grace that is totally outside of us to which we can only respond with trust, there is no discernible interior change in us.

God looks on us with favor. God declares the Gospel to us: ‘For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.’ And the only response possible to such a promise is trust.

What Luther understands happens in justification then is that God chooses to see Jesus when he regards us. And God always does choose to see Jesus when he looks upon us. For Luther, even after we’ve responded in trust (even after we’ve had faith for a lifetime) we never cease essentially to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Fundamentally, sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’ Properly understood (and logically) Luther does not have a doctrine of sanctification, whereby God’s grace works within us to grow us in holiness. Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, emphasized this point by using the term ‘vocation’ rather than ‘sanctification.’ Christians have a calling in the world even though living out that calling does not effectively change or heal our sin nature.

Thomas Aquinas (and John Wesley after him) would argue this point. While admitting our sanctification can never be complete this side of heaven and so we retain a proclivity to sin, they would argue that once we respond to God in faith we truly do begin to heal. Wesley would even make the plain point that Jesus’ teachings seem superfluous if our nature never heals sufficiently that we can live out those teachings. Jesus’ teachings, for Wesley, were attainable expectations for Christians, but for Luther-convinced of our permanent sin nature- saw such an expectation as a depressing command (‘Law’ in Luther’s terminology as opposed to ‘Gospel’) we can never meet.

To be fair to Luther, his doctrine of ‘simul iustus et peccator’ wasn’t intended to recommend Christian passivity in the face of sin. We shouldn’t just resign ourselves to our sin nature; however, many of those who followed after Luther argued precisely this perspective.

 

By Grace Alone?

Jason Micheli —  September 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

For our sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs. Works).

In Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of grace, grace begins with God. On that starting point there’s no difference between the Catholic perspective and what Luther fleshes out in his re-formation.

The second procession of grace, sanctifying grace, is grace that is in us. But how do you know if you have sanctifying grace? That question starts to get at Luther’s criticism.

The third procession of grace, according to Thomas, is our response of faith, hope and love that sanctifying grace makes possible. Again, if you don’t really have sanctifying grace- if perhaps you’ve deceived yourself and only thought you did- then necessarily you can’t possess genuine faith, hope and love.

Thomas’ formulation of grace, though it boasted a pedigree that went all the way back to the church fathers and though there appears to have been no other reformation era critics of it, in Luther’s mind placed for too much on us.

Whereas Thomas believed sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us in baptism and through the sacraments, Luther re-conceives grace’s movement.

Grace, first of all, names God’s favor, loving inclination, towards us. This is where Luther and Thomas agree. Second, grace is a Word addressed to me, a declaration. For Luther this declaration is the Gospel. Rather than a gift God implants within us, this Word God declares to us is the gift. Third, this word-gift is what enables me to respond in faith.

Part of the difficulty in the reformation debates is the confusion of terms. Thomas and Catholic theology in general use the term ‘justification’ to name the entire process of God’s favor towards us, God’s sanctifying grace and our response. Luther and the reformers after him instead use ‘justification’ to refer exclusively to God’s inclination and declaration to us. Our healing and response tend to get treated separately as ‘sanctification’ or ‘vocation’ or, in Wesley, ‘perfection.’ So, often, when Protestants accused of Catholics of ‘works righteousness’ it’s because Protestants thought Catholics were speaking of justification when, really, Catholics were talking about sanctification. And when Catholics thought Protestants were eliminating any role for works of faith and making faith totally passive it’s because Catholics thought Protestants were speaking of sanctification when, really, Protestants were speaking specifically about justification. That both sides tended to be led by stubborn, recalcitrant men didn’t ameliorate the confusion.

What’s essential in the divergence of views is how, for Luther, there’s nothing inside me that is different or changed. There’s nothing inside me that empowers me to respond to God with faith, hope and love. Luther did believe that eventually our trust in God would create a new life but that new life would never be the basis of our justification. It would never be why we’re pleasing to God.

Again, this gets back to Luther’s spiritual crisis. For Luther, what’s important is that we don’t look within ourselves to determine if we’re saved.

For Luther, looking within is the problem because, basically, inside we’re messed up. Within us, no matter how much we trust God, is a whole stew of conflicting motives. Obviously this is an incredibly autobiographical insight on Luther’s part. According to Luther if we want to know how we stand before God we look, not within, at the promise of God.

Justification, then, in this classical Protestant formulation is objective (in that it depends not on our apprehension of it) and it is passive (in that it God’s act outside of us).

 


A Sermon on Genesis 1

     June 9, 1993:

The first date. My first date with the new girl on the swim team, who would eventually become my wife.

6/9/93: The opening date of Steven Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park film.

The first movie in which Ali and I held hands.

At the point in the movie when the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld gets his face eaten by a whatever-raptor- at that point in the movie on June 9, 1993 I leaned over and whispered into Ali’s ear: ‘Of course, it’s all a hoax. Dinosaurs never actually existed.’

Of course, Ali had only just met me. She didn’t know I was being sarcastic, and I could tell by the look in her eyes that what I’d just said might disqualify me as a future boyfriend.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis, when it comes to creation, it seems like dates are always at the heart of the matter.

Dates like November 24, 1859:

The date Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and threw the bible-believing world for a Copernican loop.

Dates like July 21, 1925:

The date a jury in Dayton, Tennessee found high school teacher, John Scopes, guilty of violating the Butler Act, the state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools.

When it comes to how and when it all began and how that beginning squares with the beginning of scripture, it seems like the debate’s always about dates.

     Dates like 4.5 Billion:

The number of years ago, according to scientific consensus, the earth was born with a bang.

     Dates like 2.5 Billion:

The best scientific guesstimate for when life first opened its eyes in the primordial ooze.

It’s always about dates.

Dates like 6,000:

The date that creationists say God first flicked on the lights and started it all according to the step-by-step sequence in scripture.

Dates like May 28, 2007:

The date that the $27 million Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky, a museum where visitors can find a life-sized T-Rex, who apparently forgot he was a carnivore, cavorting in the Garden with Adam and Eve.

It’s all about dates.

Dates like September 24, 2012:

As in, tomorrow. The date I’ll likely get a handful of emails angry at me for lacing my comments about that museum with sarcasm.

Dates are everything.

Dates like April 1992:

The date I portrayed William Jennings Bryan in the Governor’s School production of Inherit the Wind, the stage version of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

April 1992– that was almost exactly 3 years before I became a Christian. Playing William Jennings Bryan, the famed biblical literalist, I had to learn to say:

Yes, I believed Joshua literally commanded the sun to stop.

Yes, I believed there literally was morning and evening before God created the sun on the 4th Day,

Yes, I believed the Earth was literally only thousands of years old not millions or billions.

April 1992, 3 years before I became a Christian, that was the date I became convinced that in order to invite Jesus into your heart you literally had to check your brain at the door.

That believing in God required you also to believe that centuries of science were all a deliberate hoax.

Or, worse, God deliberately deceives us.

And in April 1992 I decided that such a God literally wouldn’t be worth believing in.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis, when it comes to how and when it all began and who or what was behind it, it seems like dates are always at the heart of the matter.

Which is funny.

Because there’s one date that seldom gets mentioned: 1849– 10 years before Charles Darwin spoiled everyone’s fun.

1849:

That’s the date Austen Henry Layard excavated the ruined Library of Ashurbanipal in Mosul, Iraq. In the ruins of that library, Austen Henry Layard discovered the original creation story.

Maybe you know it.

It goes like this:

In the beginning, when the earth was without form and chaos and dark waters covered the face of the deep, god brought forth life.

On the first day, there was light. Light that emanated from god and god separated the light from the darkness.

On the second day, god created the firmament; god created a dome to push back the waters and god called it sky.

On the third day, god gathered the waters in one place so that dry land could appear.

On the fourth day, god created the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky and named them.

And day six god created humankind to do god’s work and on day seven god rested and exalted in celebration for what he done.

Sound familiar?

And this work of creation- it all begins, when Marduk, a young warrior god, slays his mother, Tiamat, the goddess of chaos, with weapons of wind, lightening and thunder.

And with one half of Tiamat’s carcass, Marduk creates land. With the other half of her body, Marduk fashions the heavens.

And then Marduk declares:

“Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.”

And then from the blood of a slain god, Markduk creates man and woman.

To be his slaves.

As he reigns in Babylon.

When it comes to how and when it all began, it’s all about dates.

Dates like 2,000 BC:

The date this creation story, this Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, was first written down, and probably it was spoken long before that.

2,000 BC: which is, roughly, 1500 years before our creation story in Genesis.

Take a guess where we got our story.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis it’s all about dates.

Dates are everything. But can be easy to forget.

So pay attention, here’s another date for you: 587 BC.

587 BC:

The date that’s the 9/11 of the Bible.

587 BC:

That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple, and left the Promised Land in smoldering ruins and carried God’s People back to Babylon in chains.

     587 BC:

The first year of the Babylonian Captivity. The first year Babylon tried to do what any captors do to their captives:

Convince them that there’s no plan or purpose or point to life.

And thus there’s no hope for yours.

Convince them that this world is a dark, violent, eye-for-a-tooth place.

And thus it’s naive to expect anything but suffering to come your way.

Convince them that its written into the fabric of creation:

That we’re made from the blood of victims.

Thus, don’t be surprised if someone makes you their victim.

The world is the way it is because the gods are who they are.

It’s all about dates.

Dates like 586 BC and 585 BC and 584 BC and every year for the next 50 years.

Those are all the years of their captivity that Israel didn’t give up faith.

Those are the dates that Israel, despite their suffering, refused to worship Babylon’s gods.

Because Israel already knew who God was: the one, true God.

That God had heard their cries when they were slaves in Egypt.

Israel already knew the capital G God.

And so in 586 and 585 and 584 and for years after that, they didn’t bow down to Babylon’s story.

They co-opted it.

They took it and they changed it.

To stick it in the eye of their captors.

Because they knew:

There’s only one God.

There was nothing before creation but God.

God created from nothing.

And because God created out of nothing, this world: it’s gift.

You and I: gift.

Everything around us, every living thing, your neighbor, even your enemy.

Gift. All of it. It’s all good.

It’s all given just so God can share his life with us.

Israel Babylon’s story and made it their own.

Because they already knew:

You and I- we’re not made from the blood of victims.

We’re not made to fight and struggle with each other.

We’re made to reflect this God. We’re made in God’s image.

We’re made to give and to love and to listen and to forgive.

And to share our life with God.

And if we’re made to share God’s life

Then you can’t say life is pointless.

Because it couldn’t have a bigger POINT.

God’s people took Babylon’s story and they made it their own.

Genesis 1-

It’s not an explanation of how it all began.

It’s good news to captives.

It’s not a step-by-step description of how it all happened.

It’s a prophetic profession of faith. It’s a slave song.

It’s a defiant declaration that no matter how things seem now our God is good and what he’s made is very good. So don’t give up hope that one day soon he will reconcile whatever is broken in this world.

Dates are always key.

Dates like September 2003.

That’s the date of the first local clergy meeting I ever attended.

There’s lot things seminary doesn’t teach you. ‘Don’t ever go to local clergy meetings’ tops that list. At this meeting, it was all middle-aged fundamentalists and me.

We met for lunch at a BBQ joint. At the beginning of the meeting, the chair, a Brethren pastor ironically named Christian, passed around a petition to the local school board to teach creation science (whatever that is) in the schools.

It wasn’t even a matter of discussion. Christian just assumed we’d all sign it.

And all of them did.

When the petition got to me, I said: ‘Uh…yeah, I’m not signing that.’

‘Why not?’ Christian asked.

‘Because it’s…umm…stupid.’ I said.

‘You don’t believe in evolution do you?’ he asked.

And I replied, in love: ‘Well, I used to believe in evolution but you seem to have successfully remained in the stone age so who knows.’

He frowned and told me I’d never make it in ministry by being sarcastic.

‘We’ll see about that’ I said.

I handed Christian the petition, sans my John Hancock.

And he said: ‘You know, Jason, if a literal reading of Genesis falls away so does the entire faith.’

And the thing is- I knew he was wrong.

And I could prove it because I knew the date.

I love dates. I’ve always been good with dates.

So I gave him the date: 1313 BC, maybe the most important date.

1,313 BC (approximately):

That’s the date of the Exodus. The date God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. The date Israel started reciting their Credo: ‘The Lord heard our voice and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…’ 

     1313:

That’s the date, about 700 years before Israel found themselves slaves in Babylon co-opting a creation story.

1313 vs. 587:

In other words, Israel’s faith in God the Deliverer preceded their faith in God the Creator.

Just because it’s first in your bibles doesn’t mean it was first in Israel’s life with God.

Their Exodus experience is older than the Genesis story.

Their exodus was their genesis.

You can’t say a literal reading of Genesis 1 is necessary for faith because the Jews believed in and had a relationship with and worshipped this God before they ever had this story.

Israel didn’t need a literal creation story to prove that God existed. How silly is that?

They already knew God existed.

Because they knew God.

Because God had delivered them.

Here’s one last date: September 6, 2012.

A couple Thursdays ago. That’s the date I sat in my office and spoke to a woman here in the congregation. A woman who could barely get the words out.

A woman who described her life as pointless, trapped.

A woman who told me she couldn’t swallow that God loved her because she couldn’t like herself.

Here’s the dirty little secret every pastor knows: she’s not alone.

I can name more people like her than not like her.

So hear the good news:

It’s not about dates, not at all. It’s about deliverance.

So if you think your life has no purpose

If you think you have no value

If you feel trapped in a relationship that will never change

If you’re convinced you’re a captive to your past

If you don’t like the person that stares back at you in the mirror

If you’ve had your hopes exiled and are on the downward side of happiness

If you get out of bed every day thinking today won’t be as good as yesterday

And tomorrow will be worse

I want you to know:

No matter how things seem.

Our God is good and what he’s made, everything, is gift.

And that means you’re given to this world as a gift too.

And that means:

The way things are isn’t the way things have to be.

Isn’t the way things always will be.

Because from the very genesis of our faith-

Our God is in the habit of rescuing our present

And redeeming our past

And delivering us into a new future.

Because our God is good

And he won’t rest until things are ‘very good’ again.

Question: ‘Dad, did God make dinosaurs too?’

Answer: ‘God made everything.’

Question: ‘Well, why doesn’t it say in the bible that God made dinosaurs with everything else?’

Answer: ‘Go brush your teeth.’

Whenever the family and I go someplace like the National Zoo or the Natural History Museum, I have a little game (read: annoying habit) of embarrassing my wife. Looking at the skeletons of dinosaurs, say, or an evolutionary chart in the ape house I’ll loudly say something like: ‘Of course, if you actually believe in that Darwin nonsense’ or ‘Naturally, it’s all a conspiracy by liberal humanists.’

It only adds to my wife’s embarrassment (read: irritation) when my mock pronouncements are actually met with ‘Amens’ from overhearing bystanders. I admit I’m always a bit surprised by them too. I can only imagine what sort of experience a zoo must be to those who don’t believe in the underlying premise behind every cage and exhibit. It must be a maze of lies and misinformation to such people, begging the even more problematic question of why, if evolution etc isn’t true, God has created a world seemingly designed to mislead us.

My boys have started trying to juxtapose dinosaurs (which they love) with God (whom they love). I take a less sarcastic angle with them and try to make sure I don’t say more than the bible tries to say.

Creation is our worship theme for the coming weekend and its got me thinking of those people I always run into at zoos and museums. And I’m wondering where you fall on this topic?

Do you think the Genesis account is literally true? Do you think its something else? How many creationists are out there actually?

On a related note, here’s NPR’s story about an evolutionary themed Dr Pepper ad that’s provoked complaints from Christians.

 

Some Wise Pastoral Counsel

Jason Micheli —  September 12, 2012 — 1 Comment

This comes from a good friend of many years. He recently received some sound advice from a friend, advice I think that’s on target for just about all of us. Disregard my friend’s cheap shot about my cynicism.

 

Hey Jason–I know you don’t check your fb emails all that regularly, but I wanted to share something very interesting…that if you can put your cold-hearted cyncism to the side–you might appreciate. smile I have been on this spiritual journey as of late…having children and being married has caused me to really reflect even more so that I normally do. I even went to a fellow minister to get some guidance and counsel because not having a dad, especially not a Christian father, and even though I counsel families–I’m not very good at taking my own advice. I write all of that to say that in meeting with my friend–he pointed out that I am approval/performance driven (ouch) I can be critical and non-accepting of people because I am critical and non-accepting of me. So…your blogs have really hit a nerve because, though doctrine is important, I am learning to love–to rest in Him.

Sounds easy, but difficult to understand that I am ok with me…that love and grace can be uncondtional from God and I, in turn, can share that same unconditional love and grace with others. That when I see my sin…it isn’t for me to be condemned, but to draw me to the holy, merciful, loving, gracious God… to cry out to God and thank Him, praise Him, adore Him, worship Him. To submit to His grace is counterintuitve to me…but I think a lot of Christians struggle with this.

Just when did we define/reduce Christianity to ideas and beliefs? Why is it we frame our faith in terms of rationality and intellect? Isn’t it about love and desire instead? Our language for the faith of Christ so seldom resembles Christ’s own language.

Stop and consider how today most Christian congregations put the sermon (the rational exposition of scripture) at the center of their worship. Consider how we send our children to something called Sunday School. Reflect how often we describe Christianity in terms of its utility: what it can do for me. Reflect on how we want to explain the sacraments and think of them ‘as symbols.’

When I was a student in seminary my wife taught at a school for children with autism. Sometime during the course of a year, while I was deep in my study of theology, Ali pointed out, rather pointedly, how we tend to define Christianity and construct worship in a way that excludes people like her students from ever being considered complete Christians.

That is, she meant, we make Christianity a rational, thinking endeavor. Her students couldn’t do that.

But they could love. They could love God and desire Christ’s presentation of the Kingdom.

We tend define the essence of Christianity with a summary of doctrines, and we tend to think doctrine and beliefs come first and then these beliefs find expression in our love and worship.

But that ordering doesn’t jibe with scripture and it doesn’t jibe with the history.

Some dusty, fancy-sounding terms:

Ekklesia.

This is the Greek word for Church. What’s it mean? ‘Called out assembly.’

Who we are first and foremost is a People called from the larger population as an assembly of worship (love).

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

This is Latin phrase theologians use. It means the ‘rule of prayer, the rule of law/belief.’ This phrase is a summary way of saying that our worship determines our beliefs. Our worship precedes our beliefs. What we think and believe about God flows from, not to, our love God. In other words, the invitation to worship is a better beginning point than a street-corner tract.

Orthodoxy.

Most often this word gets used to distinguish right beliefs from wrong ones but that’s not actually what the word means. Orthodoxy means ‘right praise.’ So when we distinguish heretics from everyone else what’s really at stake isn’t beliefs or thoughts but our worshipping God wrongly.

Our beliefs flow out of our love of God. Beliefs are what we discover through worshipping God. Beliefs are our reflections on the God we’ve come to love. And any one can come to love.

We are creatures made to love. To desire God and God’s Kingdom.

Here’s a post I wrote for Tony Jones featured in Patheos’ Open-Source Theological Conversation, in which ‘Progressive’ bloggers respond to Tony Jones’ challenge to write something- anything- about God. 

What the Gospels Are NOT About

To say the Gospels aim at telling a story from beginning to end with a single, primary ‘point’ is also to argue that there things the Gospels are not (primarily, least) about.

I’m reading NT Wright’s new book, How God Became King, in which Wright argues that for most of its history Western Christianity has missed the plot and point the Gospels writers intended to convey in their story. The story the Gospels tell, Wright says, is one in which God in Christ becomes King of Earth as in Heaven. This is why the Gospels give so much space to Jesus’ Kingdom teaching. Ascension then is less denouement than climax.

But if this is what the Gospels are about then the Gospels are not about other, commonly assumed things:

Going to Heaven

The Gospels tell a story not where people go to heaven when they die but where God’s people pray for the Kingdom of Heaven to be brought to Earth.

Jesus’ Ethical Teachings

The Gospels do not tell a story of Jesus the Teacher whose career was upended by those who didn’t like what he had to say. Jesus was not, as we like to think today, a 1st century Jewish analogue to the Buddha or Ben Franklin. Jesus wasn’t offering a teaching as we think of it, as a set of ideals or precepts. Jesus’ teachings were a part of his Kingdom announcement: that through him a whole new world was drawing near.

Jesus, the Moral Exemplar

In the same way the Gospels do not tell teachings, the Gospels do not tell a story primarily about a Jesus whose perfect holiness, faith and love show us how we should live and be. If this were the story the Gospels tell then they’re failures, Wright says, because none of us can possibly hope to live according to his exceedingly perfect example. The Gospels cannot be reduced to Jesus showing us how its done.

Jesus, the Perfect Sacrifice

This is the most difficult assumption to undo because the notion of Jesus dying for our sin is the single most common definition of what Christians mean by ‘gospel.’ But if the Gospels aim to tell the same story that Paul tells then they fail because it’s not at all obvious the Gospels are trying to tell a story of Jesus, the victim without blemish, dying as a sacrifice for our sin.

Proving Jesus’ Divinity

Many assume that the purpose of the Gospels was to prove Jesus’ divinity. The Gospels though don’t try to prove his divinity, they simply presuppose it. Getting back to what Wright sees as the Gospels primary story, the Gospels’ understanding of Jesus’ divinity is wrapped up with the Kingdom Jesus ushers in to our world.

 

For the past decade atheist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have been answering that question with an emphatic, poorly-informed, orchestrated-for-the-media ‘No.’

According these New Atheists (self-proclaimed ‘Brights’) religion is bad for us, leading to ignorance, subservience and conflict. Of course, those charges are not without merit and while they have ample historical evidence to draw from it’s curious how they refuse to level the same charges against a different straw man, say ‘the state.’ There’s ample evidence there too.

Now, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a group of cross-disciplinary scholars are attempting to shift the debate. Rather than asking ‘Does God exist?’ they’re trying to apply evolutionary theory to answer the question ‘Is it helpful to believe God exists?’ In other words, might there be a good produced by religious belief that would explain how faith evolved as a component to our worldview? Does belief in God lead to stronger or more peaceable societies? Does religion foster stability in families thereby perpetuating the race?

Some of the experiments performed by these scholars yield interesting, if unsurprising and inconclusive results. For example, one study found that the belief that ‘God is watching over you’ tends to make people more generous with their money. Another study suggests religious people may treat strangers more fairly.

All this is good, I think, if it means the debate about God’s existence can shift from the cartoonish broadsides of people like Richard Dawkins.

On the other hand, reading the article in the Chronicle, I can’t help but think what an incredibly modern, American premise lays behind the study. What’s really important here, now, isn’t whether God actually exists or whether what people of faith believe is actually, you know, true. Instead all that matters is religion’s utility. Does it make us happier more productive members of society? In this sense God’s no different than the 3-in-1 kitchen tools I see hawked on television at 3 am.

As interesting as the studies may be, I can’t help thinking, to my chagrin, that even if he’s a jack#$%, at least Richard Dawkins knows the stakes in the debate; that faith matters matter.

Last week Tony Jones diagnosed liberal/progressive Christians with a god-talk problem. They simply can’t talk unabashedly or robustly about God, Tony says and I suspect rightly. Liberals are savvy and comfortable with the disciplines of deconstruction: womanist theology, liberation theology etc. I wonder how much this comfort has to do with the fact that such deconstruction is welcomed by and practiced in the secular academy; therefore, liberal Christians don’t have to be singled out as, you know, Christian. Liberals can talk about Jesus too; after all, Jesus was a historical person whose teachings can be applied to political issues and whose suffering and compassion we can relate to (we presume).

But God, Tony argues, is a different matter. Liberal Christians just can’t bring themselves to utter a ‘Father (gender exclusive language) we just’ prayer. Liberal Christians can’t say ‘God just laid it on my heart to…’

In some ways, talking about God eludes the safe strictures of a focus bent more towards critique or historicity. There’s really no need to talk about God then, unless one believes in him.

Tony coupled his diagnosis with a dare of sorts. For liberal/progressive Christians to write something- anything- about God (not Jesus) before high noon, 8.15.

While I’d want to wriggle out of the liberal/progressive modifier, especially as it applies to theology, I suppose my membership in the United Methodist Church puts me, professionally if not theologically, puts me in that camp.

So, here’s a few thoughts about God and that most worn-out of debates: creation.

Creationism isn’t in the Past-Tense

One of the things that really irritates me in the juvenile debates about God’s role in creation is the extent to which it relegates creation to an historical happening.

I don’t particularly care whether my sons learn in school that God created the world in seven days or whether God created the world through unseen forces. I’m not particularly worried that one perspective or another diminishes God’s role in creation because I hope by the time my sons take biology they will already know that ours isn’t just a God who created, ours is a God who creates.

When we profess in the Creed that God is the Creator of heaven and earth and a few beats later when we confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re testifying that God’s creative powers don’t stop or cease to exist after Adam names a cow a ‘cow.’

By professing that God is Trinity we’re identifying God as the Holy Spirit too, the Spirit Jesus promises to send his people after he’s left them. This the same Spirit that takes a faithless idiot like Peter and turns him into a fearless preacher of the Gospel. It’s the same Spirit that upends a tyrant like Saul and makes him Paul. It’s the same Spirit that Jesus breathes on to his disciples; the same Spirit that, reversing the Babel story in Genesis, gives birth to a community- the Church- that transcends every linguistic and cultural barrier.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, for Christians, every believer is a new creation, every church is a new creation and every place of reconciliation from Selma, Alabama to Soweto, South Africa is a new creation.

Why argue about evolution?

By calling God the Creator and by naming God as Trinity, Christians don’t just believe God created once upon a time.

Christians believe God creates. Now. Today. When Christians say Jesus saves, we’re really saying God creates anew.

In us.