Archives For Providence

    14021732_10207304739360375_480901097151863019_n Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the Gospel lection from Luke 13.10-17. The sermon below feels incomplete without the rendition of South Park‘s Satan song “Up There” that preceded the preaching in worship. I owe the Scooby Doo angle to my inter-webs friend Richard Beck and his awesome new book Reviving Old Scratch.

 

When the Comedy Central animated series South Park debuted in August 1997- after a pilot episode the year before became one of the internet’s first viral videos- it created much controversy and met with many indignant complaints for the way it parodied Christianity generally and Jesus particularly.

For example, in the Y2K episode titled “Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesus” (my personal favorite episode) Jesus worries that for the new millennium we may crucify him again and, turns out, Jesus wasn’t so crazy about being crucified the first time.

So Jesus decides to do something cool to distract for us from crucifying him. He organizes a Rod Stewart comeback concert.

And in the pilot episode, “Jesus vs. Santa,” Jesus challenges Santa to a cage fight to settle once and for all, to the theme song from Mortal Kombat, the real meaning of Christmas.

The carnage doesn’t cease until Jesus and Santa are pulled apart by the gay figure skater, Brian Boitano, who teaches them that the real point of Christmas is presents, to which Kyle, the lone Jewish boy in South Park, observes “If you’re Jewish you get presents for 8 days not just 1.”

Naturally, the episode ends with all the children of South Park converting to Judaism.

When South Park debuted 20 years ago this week, it sparked heated controversy. The Christian Childcare Action Project protested that “children’s ability to understand the Gospel would be hindered and corrupted” by South Park.

While the Christian Family Network complained that South Park impeded their work to restore morality to our nation and protect the American family.

Twenty years ago this week, for many Christians, an animated television series posed an ecclesial emergency, threatening to inoculate us against the Gospel.

And, of course, the single cultural force that has done more damage than any other to our ability to speak Christian is a long-running animated TV show.

It’s just not South Park.

It’s Scooby Doo.

I mean, that’s obvious, right?

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     I didn’t become a Christian until I was 17 and, even then, I only did so kicking and screaming. I think my being born again was every bit as painful and drawn out as my initial birth because of Scooby Doo.

     I should’ve seen it coming. GI Joe, which came on every weekday before Scooby Doo, had warned me that “knowing is half the battle” and I knew how every episode of Scooby Doo was going to go. So I should’ve known Scooby Doo was forming me in such a way to make it impossible to read the Gospels rightly.

     Scooby Doo has aired continuously on television since 1969. It’s spun off into dozens of series and 37 films, including three due out this year.

Scooby Doo has been everywhere for a long time so, chances are, you already know all about Scooby Doo. You could probably sing the theme song right now if prompted, and now you’re probably singing it in your heads instead of listening to me.

Chances are, you already know that “the gang” is led by Fred Jones, the blond Hardy Boy lookalike who apparently owned not one orange ascot and white v-neck sweater but an entire wardrobe full and that, despite being a detective, seemed clueless about Daphne, the hot red head in the miniskirt who always played not so hard to get.

Scooby Doo has been around a long time so I’m betting you already know all about it. You know that Vilma not Ellen was the first lesbian on TV. You know that Scooby and the gang drove around in a van decorated with flower-powered artwork, constantly complaining of having the munches…so, no mystery there.

And you probably know that Scooby Doo would often feature crossover guest stars, like the Harlem Globetrotters, and characters from other non-animated shows like the Andy Griffith Show, which is odd and just shows how baked they were because, otherwise, you’d think it would’ve occurred to a team of detectives that the real mystery in Mayberry is “Where are all the black people?”

But that’s the problem, the Gospel-corroding problem with Scooby Doo. 

There’s never any mystery.

Not once. Not in any episode.

Is there any actual mystery.

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     * Every Scooby Doo episode follows the exact same pattern.

The sleuths of Mystery Inc. drive their psychedelic Mystery Machine van into a little town where a rattled resident lets slip how their quiet hamlet has recently been haunted by some ghost, spook, or monster.

Scooby and the gang then commence an investigation, examining clues and interviewing locals. Eventually- every time, every episode- contrary to common sense and all the previous episodes, Vilma will suggest the gang split up. Always a bad idea.

The gang will then encounter the ghost or monster in a hair-raising way, but eventually, after a suggestive hit or two of Scooby snacks and a comedic chase scene, they’ll nab the creature.

And always, every time, Scooby and his friends will unmask the monster, revealing- every episode, no exceptions- it to be not a ghost or a monster but someone from the town using the monster to scare people away from noticing their shady, criminal, very much human, activity.

At the end, unmasked, the crook will always walk off in cuffs grousing “…and I would’ve gotten away with too, if it weren’t…”

Fred, Vilma, Daphne, and Shaggy- they should drive a trippy van called the Secular Enlightenment Machine because there is never any mystery.

Every monster is just a man in a mask.

All Scooby Doo has to do, we’ve learned in every episode since 1969, is peek behind the spooky mask to learn what’s really going on.

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     Whether Scooby Doo has shaped us or whether Scooby Doo reflects us, we try to read the Gospel the same way.

We try to look behind the spooky, supernatural covering of a text to figure out what’s really going on.

And so when we came to the Gospel text where Jesus exorcises a Gerasene demoniac, who’s been left to wander a graveyard in chains, we pull away the spooky mask and we say that what’s really going on is that Jesus healed a man with a severe mental illness.

Or when we come to one of the many Gospel texts where Jesus heals someone of an unclean spirit, we try to pull away the mask and we conclude that what’s really going on is that Christ healed someone of epilepsy.

We try to pull away the mask on a text like today’s from Luke 13, where a daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, and we expect to discover that what’s really going on here is that Christ has healed her of an inexplicable paralysis.

Demons and devils- they’re just monster masks, we say.

And like in Scooby Doo if we but pull off the mask and peek behind it we’ll discover the human problem behind the spooky story, the mortality behind the mystery, the simple explanation behind what’s really going on.

Spirits and Satan- they’re just symbols, we say.

Except, by definition, symbols can never be pretend or make believe.

By definition, symbols (bread, chalice, cross,) always point to something real.

And that’s the problem with trying to pull away the spooky mask to see what’s really on in the Gospel behind it.

Because even if demons and devils, spirits and Satan, are just masks to you, even if you don’t think they’re real, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did.

“This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan [with a capital S no less] has bound for 18 long years.” 

      Go back and look at today’s text.

That’s not the Pharisees attributing Satan to her paralysis. That’s not the Chief Priests saying she’s been bound by Satan. That’s not the disciples or Luke implying it.

That’s red-letter.

That’s Jesus saying that whatever has ailed this woman is because Satan has bound her in his captivity, and you don’t need me to point out that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to say that if it wasn’t also true, in less obvious ways, about all the rest of his listeners.

Which, includes us.

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     Thanks to Fred and Vilma, we think we have to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.

You can’t Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel.

Because when you pull away the monster mask, you tear off too much of the Gospel with it.

Call it what you will:

Devil

Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says here

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point. “The Devil,” as Richard Beck says, “l is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together.”

     The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him.

Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.

To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” 

When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…” 

You can count up the verses.

More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.

And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary, the monster behind so many human masks.

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     Our impulse is to Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel, but we can’t.

The mask can’t come off because it does the Gospel comes off with it.

     If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.

No Devil, no Gospel.

Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.

It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.

According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.

The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place. It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

     According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story.

     There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama.

We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan.

And the battlefield runs through every human heart. Obviously, I realize that likely sounds superstitious to you. Fantastical.

But you tell me-

Take a look at the suffering and poverty and violence, the oppression, the hate, the exploitation splayed out all over your newspaper pages every day. And you tell me it doesn’t require an almost willful fantasy not to believe the human race is captive to some other Power, in rebellion still against God.

Genocide isn’t wrong; it’s evil.

So, you tell me the monster masks scripture gives us aren’t the best explanation for what’s really going on in our world.

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     Look- we’ve all been watching Scooby Doo since 1969.

There’s no way I can convince you today to stop trying to look behind the monster masks in these spooky stories. There’s no way I can make you believe in the Devil if you don’t already.

But maybe, I can show you why we need him, why, without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.

Because-

When we Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel

When we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama

When we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us)

What happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.

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     Just a few weeks ago, I received an email in my inbox, from someone I do not know. Sometimes having a blog has its downsides. The fact that the sender still has a hotmail address tells me plenty about them.

Anyway, the sender felt compelled to email me to tell me that he believed “God gave me incurable cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.”

Nice, huh?

After I dug my fingernails out of the wood of my desk, I snarled the same four-lettered expressions you’re wearing on your faces right now.

But step back from the nastiness of it and it’s not that unusual of an assumption. I have cancer and the sender of the email assumed there must be a reason (from God) that I do.

A few days after I received that email, a woman came up to me, here in the sanctuary, after the 9:45 service.

She’s has a kid my son’s age. She lost her husband a a couple of years ago after a long illness. Only weeks after her husband died, she found out she had a serious form cancer. After surgeries and treatments, she’d thought she’d beaten it.

She came up to me after worship a few weeks ago to tell me goodbye. Her cancer had come back and it had spread. She was going home to her family, she told me, so that they could care for her daughter after she died.

Crying, she wondered the same question she’d asked when she was first diagnosed: Why is God doing this to me?

Not nearly as nasty as the email but it was the same assumption.

After I hugged her, before I could even get out of the sanctuary, a man came up to me and wept in a stoic sort of way, telling me how his college-bound daughter had fallen into addiction yet again.

And he put it into different words, but it was the same question with the same assumption lurking behind it, like a face behind a mask: Why is God doing this to us?

We talk like this all the time.

The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-

LIFE HAPPENS

-and we think God must be punishing us.

That this is happening for a reason.

That this suffering is because of that sin.

That God is giving us what we deserve.

Life happens and we want to know why: why is God doing this to me?

We speak like this all the time, as if there must be a direct, causal, 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every event on earth and in our lives.

There’s a reason for everything, we say.

But think about it- a world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world where there is no gap between the already of what Christ has done and the yet of what Christ promises still to do.

     A world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world already exactly as God would have it be.

     But that’s not the world as scripture sees it.

But you can’t see that world when you reduce the cast of the Gospels’ salvation story to two, God and us.

If there’s only two characters in the drama, then of course God must doing X, Y, or Z to you. There’s no else to blame.

The world as the Gospels see it is not a world where everything is exactly as God would have it be or where everything that happens to you is because God willed it upon you.

There is a third character in the story.

The world as the Gospels see it is a world still in captivity to the Principalities and Powers, still in rebellion to Sin. Still in bondage under Satan. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.

The world of tumors and tragedies, addictions and atrocities, is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ will but a world still alienated from him because there is Another, an Adversary, always contending against God.

     —————————-

     “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for 18 long years.” 

Notice, unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t say God gave her her illness. Unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t blame it on God.

You may not believe in the Devil, and I can’t convince you today.

But you need the him.

You need the Devil to remember that whatever you think God is doing to you God isn’t. God isn’t your Accuser. God isn’t a kind of Satan. God doesn’t cast blame upon you or dole out to you what you deserve.

      You may not believe in the Devil, but, trust me, I hear enough people ask ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ to know that you need to recover that third cast member in the salvation story.

You need to get Satan back on the stage.

You need the Devil to remember that God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve- God responds to the crosses we build with resurrection.

You need Satan back on stage in order to remember that if there’s a reason for everything in our world and in our lives then, as often as not, those reasons are NOT God’s reasons but Another’s doing.

You may not believe in the Devil, but you need him.

You need him in order to remember that no matter what your life looks like, when God looks upon you God sees a prodigal child for whom he’ll never stop looking down the road, ready to celebrate.

You need to stop trying to look behind the mask.

You need to get Satan back on stage.

Your salvation drama is incomplete without a cast of three.

Because when you pull away the mask, you tear off the very best good news there is:

When you look upon a face of suffering you do not see the face of God.

You see the face of his Enemy.

 

 

 

 

 

Hot in my Inbox:

I received a message from someone whom I do not know- but the fact that they still have a hotmail address tells me plenty about them- who felt compelled (called, really: ‘God laid it on my heart…’) to tell em that God gave me cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.’

And no, the email was not from Donald J. Trump.

It’s an outrageous, offensive comment, but it’s the sort that’s really not distinguishable from John Piper’s contention that the 35W bridge collapse in the Twin Cities, killing 13, was “merciful” display of God’s sovereignty. The only difference is that Piper’s perspective bears the sheen of authority when delivered from the pulpit , his weathered edition of Calvin’s Institutes in his righteously angry hand. If fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then how is God wreaking havoc in order to punish his sinful creatures any different than God doing so to display to his sinful creatures his awesome and manifold sovereignty?

My initial response to the message, which I will argue with anyone was the most authentically holy and Christian response, was to snarl in disgust at my inbox: ‘F@#% you.’ 

My second response, after I dug my finger nails out of the wood of my desk, was to think of the Gnostics, those most sympathetic and substantive of the early Christian heretics.

In an earlier post I ventured that Piper’s steroidal strain of Calvinism, which insists on seeing direct, causal 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every contingent event on earth, as a form of pantheism, for it renders the world nothing more than what it appears. Everything in the world, supposedly, in part and in toto, every tumor and every tragedy and every fortuitous parking spot and inexplicable story of survival, is the direct expression of God’s SOVEREIGN will. This is a kind of pantheism, I suggested, in that it collapses the will of God into the world so that they’re now inextricably linked and necessary for either to be intelligible, making creation no longer a gratuitous gift and God no longer good.

What’s remarkable, truly, about this dread sovereignty is the incredible distance which it has traversed beyond the the vision of the New Testament.

A world where every contingent event is the direct outworking of God’s will is, necessarily, a world exactly as God would have it be. In such Calvinism, then, there is no already/not yet gap of eschaton for if everything is God’s will everything is already already.

Quite apart from Piper’s rabid strain of Calvinism, both John’s Gospel and Paul’s corpus see with the Gnostics the world (cosmos) as it is as in captivity to the principalities and powers. The world, as both the Gnostics and the New Testament see it, is not as God would have it. They world is fallen, though Sin and Death have been defeated the vestiges of their power remain. Humanity, though redeemed and freed, lives as that old guy from Shawshank, still in rebellion and alienated from God. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.

How odd then that John Piper et al would attribute the misery of this world to the dread sovereignty of God rather than, as the New Testament does to the fallen cosmos in thrall the (defeated) principalities and powers. How odd that heretics like Gnostics understood, to an extent too far for orthodoxy, that the world of tumors and tragedies and bridges collapsing is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ direct sovereign will but a world still alienated from its redeemer, groaning in labor pains, insisting against its new birth.

Morgan, Teer, and I discussed this and more in our latest Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast.

This rant brought to you by the unholy and asinine commentary from the Gospel Coalition video above wherein three hyper-Calvinists exult in the way God ‘ordains tragedy in our lives in order to display his sovereign glory over our lives.’

It’s hard for me to exaggerate how morally loathsome I find this strain in Calvin’s theology and the manner in which it gets amplified by those who claim his tradition. No doubt it can feel a kind of “comfort” to think that the peculiar suffering or tragedy that’s been visited upon you is in some mysterious way the outworking of God’s plan. As someone with incurable cancer I can sympathize better than most with the temptation to take comfort that my particular suffering is not without a divine reason.

Such “comfort” is understandable but consider at what cost my personal comfort is purchased: all the innocent children suffering and dying down through the ages in order to manifest God’s ordained script.

A strict view of divine sovereignty as this may render us a morally intelligible  universe in which we can conceive our part yet it also gives us a morally reprehensible god.

If suffering, tragedy, death, and evil were constitutive of God’s ordained plan then they would be constitute God’s very nature, his essence. I can concede that such a god might exist, but I cannot lie and hold that such a god would be in any way worthy of worship, for he may prove loving on occasion or even ultimately but he would not be Love itself.

With the ancient Church Fathers, I believe God, by definition, is the only necessary Being. God alone is sufficient unto himself. As Trinity, God is already the fullness of love, joy, beauty, and- most important in this case, peace-with-difference. Peace not violence is the most fundamental reality to God and to God’s creation. Thus the violence of suffering wreaked upon creation has no part in or origin from God.

The self-sufficiency of Father, Son, and Spirit is such that creation is completely gratuitous. We add nothing to God. Our faithful adoration does not add any joy to God because God is already and always the fullness of joy. Our sins and wickedness do not add any anger to God because God is already and always the fullness of love. There is no incapacity within him by which we can change God. This may not flatter us, as David Hart quips, but it does glorify God.

Because God is sufficient unto himself and unaffected by anything outside himself, God has no need to employ means contrary to his nature (the violence of suffering visited upon his creation) in order to fulfill the project of his self-realization in history, such as the dunderheaded Calvinist belief that God ordained the Fall in order to display his glory in our Redemption. God is, simply, incapable employing means contrary to his nature.

Instead sin, suffering, evil, and death, as the Church Fathers held, are manifestations of creation’s alienation and rebellion from God. They are privations in God’s creation; they are not products of God’s will. Indeed it’s more accurate to say that we see God willing suffering in our lives and so interpret scripture that way because sin, suffering, evil, and death have blinded us to the true God.

As DBH writes:

“If it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”

Perhaps it appears that this view, which is not at all novel but entirely consistent with the received tradition, gives me nothing to say someone suffering, for example, incurable cancer. “This is happening to you for no reason” can admittedly sound like a cold comfort. But the fact is, the truth is, there is NO reason. To ask ‘What kind of God sanctions _______?’ is to make a foundational error in supposing God is the primary causal agent behind ________.

To believe that God is the primary causal agent behind, say, my incurable cancer is to confuse the Christian belief in Providence with Determinism.

Determinism: God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass in the world, as the proper and necessary means to achieving his ends.

Providence: God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things towards his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operation of grace.

In other words, God does not will suffering and evil but may permit it rather than violate the autonomy of the created world he’s made to love him in freedom just as Father, Son, and Spirit love one another in freedom.

Providence works at the level of primary causality. Providence maintains the belief that God is totally transcendent of creation, within which secondary causes, like cancer, work within the freedom God has bestowed upon the world. Yet, Providence assures that no consequence of our freedom will undermine the accomplishment of the good God intends. Providence is not to believe that every event in this world is the outworking of God’s will or even an occasion for God’s grace.

How odd it is that atheists and strict Calvinists alike should both think that Christians are to draw an absolute one-to-one connection between the will of God and the every moment conditions of life on earth.

The effect of seeing a single divine will working on all created things in every moment and contingency of their created lives (with no room for the operation of the freedom in which God has created them) is to see the world in unChristian terms. That is, the world is nothing other than it appears- the world is, in all its parts and in its sum, the expression of God’s will.

To define ‘sovereignty’ as one-to-one connection between the will of God and every contingency of life collapses the will of God into the world such that there is now no distinction between the two.

In fact, such a collapse of the divine will into the created world makes the world not only unfree and completely arbitrary it makes the world necessary to God. If the world is necessary then God did not make it ex nihilo out of sheer gratuity and thus life is not gift and God, by all reasoning, would not be the Good.

When you confuse Providence and Determinism, the transcendent gets collapsed into the creation. “God” is no longer the name we give to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” God is just the totality of all that is. God is, as DBH asserts, a brute event, sheer will (the point of my post on nominalism).

There is no longer any creation apart from which God stands as transcendentally other.  Indeed because it’s no longer gratuitous, the world is no longer ‘creation’ it’s just the world.

Sovereignty, so construed, becomes indistinguishable from pantheism because God, who is only Will, is inextricable from and constitutive of the natural world.

12744280_1713461858909999_5768302360489547677_nI was the guest at the most recent Pub Theology gathering. Since its Lent, the topic I was given was Faith and Suffering. I apologize for how much I say ‘um.’ The poem I shared during the event is included below.

 

“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”

Lord let me suffer much

and then die

Let me walk through silence

and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue

let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green

so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it

and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly

as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane

bumped by a bumblebee’s head

– by Anna Kamienska

315409-Quran-1325508661-507-640x480

It’s an easier question for Muslims to answer than it is for Christians…

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Dear Pastor, 

     We’ve never met. I don’t attend your church (or any other for that matter). I’m not what I guess you’d call a practicing Christian, but I do believe in God. A friend of mine who goes to your church told me you were taking questions for your sermons so I thought I’d write you with my question. 

     My husband and I have been married for fifteen years, and our marriage has been a real struggle for at least a dozen of those years. We’ve tried several different counselors over the years but counseling has never amounted to more than a short-term fix. Now I’m wrestling with whether to give the marriage another chance or to end it. 

     I don’t want to put my kids through a divorce but neither do I want to keep exposing them to a marriage that isn’t what it should be. I think I know what the Church says about divorce, but I also know how far we are from the vows we exchanged. I don’t want to know what you think I should do. I’m not looking for advice exactly, and at this point I certainly don’t need more counseling. What I want to know is: how do I know what God wants me to do? 

     How do I know God’s plan for me?

She ended her note with a PS: Maybe no one else has a question like this, but I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

She was wrong, of course. About her question.

In so many words or sometimes in those exact words, people ask me that question all the time:

Should I give my son another chance, or should I stop bailing him out of trouble?

Should I kick my daughter out if she won’t stop using or should I not?

Should I tell my wife the secret that may prove the last straw or shouldn’t I?

Should I do what my parents what me to do with my life or should I do what I’ve always dreamed?

Should I tell my parents the truth about me or should I stay in the closet?

Should I let my doctors try another procedure, or should I help my family say goodbye?

Should I or shouldn’t I?

What am I supposed to do?

How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know God’s plan?

Should we? Or shouldn’t we? They sink their teeth into Jesus with the question.

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and in what may be the Gospel’s strangest coalition the anti-Roman Pharisees ally with the Herodians, Roman collaborators, to trap Jesus with a question which was hotly disputed in first century Israel: is it lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the emperor or not?

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied by Rome on every adult registered in the census. The tax was levied to pay for the Roman occupation of Israel, and it could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor and on the other side the inscription: ‘Caesar is Lord.’

It’s a dicey question.

For the strictly observant Pharisees, not only did the tax pose the insult of forcing Jews to pay for the army that was occupying them against their will, the tax also violated the Torah.

It broke the commandments: ‘You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself any graven idols.’

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean. It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

So for the Pharisees and other Jews, the tax was theological TNT and had ignited not a few messy rebellions in Jesus’ day.

The Herodians, on the other hand, were civil servants of King Herod- Caesar’s stooge in Israel. Not only did they not have a problem with the tax, they lined their pockets with the cash extorted from it.

For the Herodians at stake wasn’t idolatry but their livelihood.

Therein lies the trap.

If Jesus says ‘pay the tax’ he risks offending his followers while saying ‘don’t pay’ would be tantamount to revolution. The Herodians would then have all they need to march off to the King and out Jesus as a threat.

No matter how he answers, Jesus is guaranteed at least half the crowd will be out for his blood.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus? Pick your poison.

By asking for the coin, Jesus makes clear he’s not carrying one and that the Pharisees are- even though carrying it made them the sinners they accused him of being.

Jesus looks the coin over and then pronounces: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.’ 

Which means….?

What exactly?

All who heard Jesus’ answer were ‘amazed,’ Mark says.

Confused is a better translation.

Jesus doesn’t answer their question but raises another question: What belongs to Caesar? What belongs to God?

Jesus has already made abundantly clear in his ministry that everything comes from and so belongs to God.

If God is the One from whom all blessings flow, then what really and truly and finally belongs to Caesar?

Nothing, right?

So if everything belongs to God and nothing ultimately belongs to Caesar, then should they pay the tax or not? If everything belongs to God then what does it mean to give everything to God?

Should we or shouldn’t we? Which is it Jesus? How do you know what God wants you to do?

brian-boitano

The first time I can remember anyone asking me that question- I was a college student at UVA. A girl named Rasha was friend of mine. She was from Jordan. She was an English major and a committed Muslim.

It being college, she and I were about the only religious people either of us knew on campus. Probably for that reason, we talked religion a good deal of the time.

We were both at a costume party one Halloween night. She came dressed, ironically, as a Catholic nun. I’d come to the party wearing what I thought was (self-evidently) a pirate costume. I had the black boots, crushed velvet tights, flowing white blouse and earring for the part. It turned out, however, that an eyepatch or sword were essential pirate accessories. Not recognizing me for a pirate, everyone mistook me for the Olympic figure skater, Brian Boitano, thus marking the last time I’ve put on a Halloween costume.

I was busy sulking and listening to a scratched House of Pain CD when Rasha just came up to me and asked: ‘How do you know what God wants you to do?’ She wasn’t looking for advice or counsel. She was curious.

‘I just read the Gospels for a class,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know how you Christians ever know what God wants you to do.’ 

I asked her what she meant, and she said:

‘Jesus never gives a straight answer to people’s questions. I think that’s the biggest difference between the Gospels and the Qu’ran.

Muhammad tells us exactly what God wants on every possible question, sometimes in more detail than I want, but with Jesus…it’s like he wants to leave you searching for the answer.’

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It took a Muslim to bring Jesus into focus for me, to notice how Jesus has this annoying habit of evading a straight answer to our questions.

Instead Jesus almost always responds to our questions by provoking other questions. He insists on answering our questions with unexplained stories. Even when it seems Jesus gives an answer to a question, as soon as you turn it over you realize just how slippery an answer it really is.

‘What’s God like?’ the disciples ask. And Jesus responds with a story of an old lady sweeping her house for loose change that fell behind the sofa. A simple question about divorce, and Jesus answers by talking about committing adultery in the heart. A straight-forward question about the difficulty of forgiveness, and Jesus answers by raising the degree of difficulty and offering no concrete advice on how to accomplish it. A predictable question about what the Kingdom is like and Jesus answers by telling us we have to become children without saying what that means or how we do it.

And ask Jesus about taxes and he answers with:‘Give to Caesar that which bears Caesar’s image; give to God that which bears God’s image.’ 

You bear God’s image. You’re made in the image of God. You’re God’s.

That just begs a whole other question:  What does it mean for you to give yourself to God?

Should they pay the tax or not?

It’s like Jesus knows if he just gives us the answer then you and I would be quite content to have just the answer.

And not have him.

So, to this question and so many others Jesus answers in a way that forces us to pursue him, to follow after him and ask another question and then ask another, to wrestle with who he is and what he means.

As much as we’d like God to give us the answer to our every question, the answer God gives us for everything is Jesus.

God doesn’t give us ten more commandments. God doesn’t give us more law or rules to obey.

He gives us a person to follow.

Where we want to have the right answers from him, he wants us to have a friendship with him.

Should I give my marriage another chance, or not?

Should I kick my daughter out or should I not?

Should I tell my wife? Should I tell my parents?

How do I know what God wants me to do?

How do I know God’s plan?

The fact is most of the questions people ask in my office lack easy answers. And any honest pastor will tell you: few of life’s questions come with neat chapter-and-verse Gospel answers.

But that’s the way it has to be. Listen up: this is the part where I offend all you closet Calvinists and all you fans of the TV show Lost.

As much as each one of us likes to speak of ‘God’s plan for my life’ that’s not something Methodists have ever believed.

For John Wesley, God isn’t just the All-Knowing Maker of the Universe. He’s also Love. More so than Power or Providence or Almightiness, in Jesus Christ God defines himself- binds himself, by Love.

Sure, if God wanted God could be in control and have a step-by-step, micro-plan for your life.

But instead God chooses to love us and God invites us to love him in return and God gives us the freedom to live our lives and struggle with our choices and wrestle with our decisions in a way that honors and reflects that love.

The bad news is that that doesn’t make your life any easier. The Good News is that you don’t have to get everything right. You don’t have to get everything right.

God’s not looking down waiting to see if you get every decision in your life right according to his pre-prescribed, mirco-managed plan. He’s waiting to see if you’ll love him. God doesn’t have a plan for your life; God has promise: if you will be his People he will be your God.

Always.

In Sunday’s sermon on Job, I made the claim that “God does not have a plan for your life.” I said it clearly and without qualification so my listeners would hear me.

Apparently I succeeded, as all week I’ve been bombarded by pushback. Allow me to flesh it out a bit so you don’t think I’m a heretic or that your life is nothing but a chaotic nightmare.

The best exposition of this question comes from St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica; in fact, all other thinking about God’s plan- what theologians call providence- owes to Aquinas.

Aquinas tackles the issue in Question #22, Answer #3:

God provides for everything but does God provide directly for everything?

Were God to do so, it might seem to remove all causality from created things- none of us would be responsible for our choices and actions- and would also seem, for example, to make God directly responsible for evil.

To answer this, Aquinas distinguishes between providence and governance. Providence involves the “idea or planned purpose” for things, governance involves the execution of this planned purpose.

Aquinas argues that God’s providence is universally direct but that his governance is executed indirectly through intermediaries (that is, the beings that God has created).

Think of Genesis 1. God creates us so that we might enjoy God as Father, Son and Spirit enjoy one another. God is the primary, first cause of creation and intends us towards an ultimate goal, the Kingdom. As part of that goal or ‘plan,’ God gives dominion of creation to Adam and Eve.

Aquinas’ idea is that God acts as universal cause, laying out the plan for all creation to one day share fellowship with God in God’s Kingdom. As part of that creation, God creates true secondary agents who execute- or sometimes not- that plan.

For Aquinas this is what ‘predestination’ means. God creates us with an End (destination) in mind before (pre) he creates us. 

This could not be more different from the notion that God has determined all our choices and moments of our lives prior to our birth.

Aquinas uses the image of an arrow being shot at a target. The arrow clearly has been shot by someone (God) and is obviously intended towards a target (the Kingdom). However the archer’s intent and the natural trajectory of the arrow are not the only things acting upon the arrow. A sudden gust of wind, someone knocking into the arrow, can frustrate the arrow’s journey. 

God, in other words, is the first cause of each of us and all that is, but the freedom God sows into creation and the agency God gives us over creation also means that there are ‘secondary causes’ impacting our lives for good and bad all the time.

Think of Jesus in the Garden praying to discern the Father’s will. God clearly intends an outcome to Jesus’ life. At the same time, for Jesus’ act of obedience to be freely offered the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. It’s not predetermined. Jesus could have chosen a fate other than the cross and so do we, all the time. In a very real sense our entire lives are lived in that Gesthemane moment.

We like to speak of ‘God having a plan’ for each us and typically what we mean is that every moment, every triumph and tragedy, coheres to an elaborate, divinely ordered script for our lives. It either makes our lives seem more interesting or it soothes us to know that our lives aren’t as contingent as they feel.

But even though the ‘God has a plan’ thinking has seeped into Christian speech, it is not Christian.

God doesn’t have a plan for each of our lives because God has a Plan- with a capital P- for our lives.

God’s Plan is for us to love God as Jesus loved the Father.

To so love requires our lives, our choices, our actions to be free and contingent.

Maybe that sounds scarier (it was for Jesus) but it’s also potentially more beautiful (it was for Jesus).