Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Providence of God

This morning my wife was parked along the road visiting a rummage sale.

She was returning to her car (the white Toyota), when it was struck from behind by another car. The driver had been speeding, got distracted, lost control, side-swiped another parked car and then hit our Toyota from behind - pushing it about 30 feet and into the ditch.

No one was hurt.

Ten seconds later, my wife would have been walking behind the car and would have been crushed between the two vehicles.

Fifteen seconds later, she would have been in the car - about to buckle her seat belt.

The Lord gives and takes away.

This morning He gave.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Ideal Sermon

In response to my last post about “self-improvement” sermons, I was asked the question, “What would an ideal sermon look like in your world?”

I don’t think there’s a formula for an ideal sermon. However, I do find that at least some mention of Jesus usually helps it along its way.

If the sermon topic relates to my self-improvement (sanctification), then I would hope that the sermon would not play to my old self-righteousness nature, but rather would point me to the righteousness of Christ in me - my new self. When Jesus is mentioned, I would hope it would be the Jesus who does not condemn me, but accepts me as I am, loves me, gives himself up for me, gives me new life, sets me free, empowers me, blesses me, sanctifies me, etc. In other words, the Jesus who is for me, not against me - the Gospel Jesus. This Gospel Jesus is the death of my old self, and the hope of the new.

Recently, I heard a sermon in a Presbyterian church. The topic was patience - a subject that could easily have been moralized into a typical “how to” sermon - how to become more patient. The pastor skillfully avoided doing this. A significant portion of the sermon dealt with the patience of God - His long-suffering nature. Then it also dealt with our human failures to be patient. In other words, we are not at all like God in this way. We are by nature impatient.

At this point, he could have launched into the “how to” portion of the sermon, which (to me at least) would be telling me how to get my nature to become like God's nature. He began with a few practical tips and tricks that people have found to help (counting to 10, etc.) But then he immediately told us that while such methods may help us in some sense, patience is not something we achieve. It is a fruit of the Spirit, not something we go about “getting” through our own efforts.

In fact, he said this quite bluntly. “We can’t try to GET patience. It is a gift of God.” So the first, last and best thing to “do”, is simply ask God for it. Then, if we recognize it in us, we know where it came from, and we have no reason for boasting, except in our Jesus.

To my way of thinking, this sermon “told it like it is.” It did not hold out the false hope that I could “self-help” my way to becoming more patient through some 5-step program. And it did not lay any new burdens on me. It left me in the care of the Burden-Carrier - the All-Patient One.

It may not have been the “ideal sermon”.

But it was pretty close.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Self-Improvement Sermons

I’ve grown quite intolerant of self-improvement sermons.

You know the ones I mean. They are the “How To” sermons. “How to” be a better spouse, “how to” be more loving, “how to” pray, “how to” be this, “how to” do that. The topics are infinite.

The sermons usually contain 3-5 bullet points. In the more clever sermons, the bullet points all have key words that begin with the same letter. Or the first letters of the main points form an acrostic. Each point has appropriate Bible passages to back it up.

“How to” sermons are most common in the mega-churches. So I’m guessing this is what the majority of Christians are looking for - practical ways to improve themselves and their lives.

I guess this can be beneficial, as long as the Gospel doesn’t get lost in the process. But it’s been my experience that the Gospel does get lost. So at the end of the sermon I am left with one more program to carry out. One more set of items to add to my already long “to do” list. One more area of my life to work on fixing in the coming week. One more burden on my back. It’s like the pastor is saying, “Here. Carry this burden. It’ll do you good - make you a better, stronger Christian. There’s more where that came from. I’ll have another one for you next week.”

I sometimes look around at all the other faces in the pews and wonder, “What are they thinking?” Do they really think they can do all this stuff? Does that guy up front think that he can do it? Am I missing something? Is the Christian faith just one big complicated self-improvement program - a long “to do” list of ways to make myself a better person?

Call me old-fashioned. Or maybe just old. But I can’t buy what the self-improvement folks are selling.

It’s not that my self doesn’t need improving. It’s just that I have a radically different view of self-improvement.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Working for God

Recently one of my daughters asked me the question, “What do you think is the purpose of your life?” My first reaction was to say, “I don’t know.”

Of course I couldn’t leave it at that. So I jabbered on about love, ever-changing life circumstances and my aunt Tanna, a seemingly selfless person who seemed to find her purpose in the most mundane of life’s chores - cooking, baking, cleaning, washing and ironing (while raising an orphan child without aid of a husband).

But I never really answered her question directly.

The way the question was worded, it seemed to differ from the more general “meaning of life” question or the “Why are we here?” question. Two words seemed to make the question different. The word “purpose”. And the word “your.” These made it too specific and too personal to answer with fine-sounding cliches. It brought to mind the whole question of vocation, a subject which I have been reading about in Gustaf Wingren’s “Luther on Vocation.”

I suppose it is a little late in life for me to be thinking about such things. My so-called career is mostly behind me. But career (defined as job or primary means of support) is, as Luther saw it, not necessarily vocation, but merely a part of it. I am in the early stages of studying this, and I don’t yet have a unified understanding of Luther’s theology - at least not one that will help me answer my daughter’s question directly. But the theological context for Luther’s thought is quite clear.

Luther’s views on vocation were born, in the main, as a response to monasticism. At first blush, this may not seem relevant today. However, the fundamental flaws of monastic thinking persist today, perhaps now more among Protestants than among Catholics. It is based in the attraction of “working for God.”

As I think about vocation (or “purpose of my life”) , I can appreciate the lure of this kind of thinking. If indeed I am personally called by God to some purpose, I am tempted to elevate that purpose into the heavenly realms. My purpose must be some grand spiritual purpose related to God’s Kingdom - maybe involving some great self-sacrifice. Not on a par with Paul or Mother Theresa, of course, but of the same general stuff. My purpose is to serve God - or “work for God” in some way, be it large or small.

If I travel down that road far enough, I run the risk of monastic thinking, which makes God the object of my vocation. When God is the object, then the focus of my attention is on hearing God’s call, obeying God, carrying out God’s wishes and pleasing God.

All this sounds good and righteous, and in some sense, it may well be. But Luther’s theology of vocation appears to be about none of this. It leaves God in heaven and keeps us and our vocation on earth. For Luther, the object of vocation is not God. The object of vocation is always my neighbor, who is not in the spiritual realms, but in plain sight - perhaps in the next room.

The needs of my neighbor rule the province of vocation. And although God surely puts these neighbors in my life (spouse, children, friends, work colleagues, strangers, etc.), my calling is to love, befriend and serve them, not concern myself with pleasing God. If there is an element of sacrifice in this service, it is sacrifice for neighbor, not for God.

One could say that this is not an either/or situation. For as we serve our neighbor, we are surely also serving and pleasing God. But working for God and pleasing God is not my purpose, since God is already well-pleased with me in Christ. And so my works are not for God, but for my neighbor. To the extent that I forget that, and spiritualize my efforts into the heavenlies, I can actually do harm to my neighbor. Now my neighbor becomes a project - a rung in my ladder to reach God - a means to my personal end. I set out to please God, searching for neighbors to help, meddling where I am neither wanted or needed, ignoring the needs of the neighbors God has already placed in my life.

Luther believed that love discovers for itself what is the greatest benefit to neighbor. And so vocation is always plural (vocations), not just because we simultaneously hold more than one station in life (spouse, parent, child, employee, friend, etc), but because the needs of our neighbors are ever-changing. Thus vocation can never fit into any prescribed program. Each person finds and follows his vocations, his purposes, in true freedom - freedom from any requirement to please God - motivated by the power of mere faith and love.

What this means to me personally and practically is still unclear. Except for this. I cannot answer my daughter’s question about my purpose with a generalized cliché, such as “to glorify God” or “to discern God’s will and do it.”

I would rather answer as I did - rambling on about love, changing life circumstances, and my Aunt Tanna. At least in that convoluted answer, “working for God” was not mentioned.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

What the Bleep Do We Know!?

As a Christian, there are two ways to react to a book like this.

One can be put off by the often obvious “We can be as gods” new age/eastern religion philosophy that seems to run as a subtheme throughout the book, often masquerading as “a new way of thinking.” Or one can be surprised and encouraged by some of the many possible hidden truths which the authors suggest, recognizing that their discoveries are entirely consistent with what Christians have long believed about the relationship between the physical and spiritual dimensions of reality.

It is an intriguing book from both vantage points.

The authors argue that scientific dogmatism and religious dogmatism have taken turns stifling each other’s work - giving rise to an unnecessary and harmful hostility between the two. It is now time to recognize that the physical world and the spiritual world intersect to such an extent that the paranormal is just as real as the normal. Examples of this are found throughout the book, making for some fascinating reading.

Unfortunately, the book sometimes seems to devolve into just another “power of positive thinking” self-help, “change your paradigm” sermon, dressed up in a blend of spiritual and scientific garb. This, however, is not without value. I think there are some important truths in their particular version of positive thinking, as they explore the actual power of faith, the subconscious connections between people (even in different times and places), and the ultimate importance of a reality that we do not see.

All these are basic ideas consistent with a Christian worldview, though the centrality of Christ as a unifying figure is obviously missing.

I learned some new things reading this book. Not necessarily a new philosophy of “doing life”, but a new appreciation for the way science is apparently expanding its investigation into the non-physiscal universe. It is interesting to note that not all scientists fall into the traditional categories of evolutionist or creationist thinking - presupposing the non-existence or existence of God. Some remain open to either possibility. And this apparently opens up whole new dimensions of experimentation and investigation.

I doubt that science will necessarily discover God or prove His existence to anyone’s satisfaction. God seems to want to reserve this task to himself. But the persistent yearning of the human spirit to know more and more (whether good, bad or sometimes ugly), comes through loud and clear in this book. And there is a certain intellectual humility evident in the title that carries throughout the book.

It is most certainly true that we know less than we think we know.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Barren Rocks and Smiling Cornfields

There seems no question that, if God exists, then Nature itself is certainly one of the revelations of God. To be sure, man has instinctively sought God in Nature more than anywhere else. Whether through pantheistic worship, Thoreau-like contemplation, or even agnostic science - we look for God (or to be god) through understanding the majesty and mystery of the natural world.

But, as Andrew Jukes points out, the revelation of God in Nature is veiled and hidden - just as he is veiled in Jesus and Scripture. Nature contains the same kind of inherent inconsistencies, such that one can be led to question whether, in fact, the Natural world was indeed the work of a single God. Or was it, after all, a result of mere chance - or, worse, the handiwork of competing gods?

Andrew Jukes goes so far as to suggest that Nature seems to misrepresent God, saying,

Does it not seem also to contradict itself, with force against force, heat against cold, darkness against light, death against life, its very elements in ceaseless strife everywhere? On one side showing a preserver, on the other a destroyer; here boundless provision for the support of life; there death reigning. Are there not here exactly the same contradictions and the same difficulties which we find in Scripture? Either therefore we must say, Nature is an inconsistent and lying book, and therefore we will not believe the testimony either of its barren rocks or smiling cornfields; or else we must confess some veil or riddle here.” (Restitution of All Things, p 10)

The history of science demonstrates that the reality of nature is indeed veiled, containing hidden contradictions that conceal the truth of it. The classic example of this is the rising and setting sun, whose movement was obvious to all for thousands of years. And yet it took a higher faculty to reveal that the sun does not move. Or does it? We still speak of the rising and setting sun. This is what most of us non-scientists can actually see and know, though we also know (by faith?) a contradictory truth - that it neither rises nor sets.

Such a paradox (now apparently resolved) is but one of many in Nature. The discovery of such a grand contradiction does not cause scientists to give up on science, declare Truth unattainable, and reject the natural world as some kind of fantasy. Dare I say, in their persistence to continually seek the truth about the physical world, they are an example to all of us who seek the truth about God

We are all dealing with revelations of a God hidden by the same veil. And yet this is a God who makes Himself known, in His good time and manner. The difference between the scientist and the theologian is that the scientist has limited himself to a single revelation. The theologian has more than one. But all the revelations are under the same veil.

The veil often frustrates me. But it teaches me that God himself decides when, where and how He will be found. That is part of what makes him God (and me not so much).

Maybe that's the point of the veil.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Humanity of Scripture

Andrew Jukes begins his little book “The Restitution of All Things” (1867) with a refreshingly honest look at the nature of Biblical contradiction. Obviously, the Biblical text which tells of the many who are eternally lost seem to contradict those texts which speak of the reconciliation of all. So prior to embarking on his own explanation of this riddle, he offers his view of the nature of Scripture.

He begins with Christ, who is the primary revelation of God. The nature of Christ, he argues, is not (in principle) any different from all other revelations of God, in that “the divine is revealed under a veil, and that veil a creature-form.” God is both hidden and revealed at the same time - in Jesus first, but similarly also in Scripture, Nature and Providence. These four revelations of God, he asserts, all contain apparent contradictions because they are both natural and super-natural, human and divine - God hidden in the humble.

Jukes maintains a high view of Scripture, ridiculing those who would pick apart Scripture to prove its human origin. Of course it’s human! He compares all such efforts to picking away at the flesh of Jesus (even to the point of killing him) just to prove He was human.

He writes about Scripture “…it has humbled itself so to come for us, out of the heart of prophets and apostles; in its human form, like Christ’s flesh, subject to all those infirmities and limitations which Christ’s flesh was subject to - thoroughly human as He was; yet in spirit, like Him, thoroughly divine, and full of the unfathomed depths of God’s almighty love and wisdom.”

When I am confronted with Biblical contradiction, the human side of Scripture, my first instinct is to run away, to deny, to reject or to attack. These riddles make me angry, doubtful, anxious, and fearful. Why couldn't God have been more clear and logical? What is the point of presenting us with such difficulty?

Jukes reminds me that the human and contradictory Jesus, the perfect (yet veiled) revelation of God, had a similar effect on people. And people asked the same kinds of questions.

Jesus was not what we expected of a Messiah.

And Scripture is not what we expect of a divine message.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dark Conversations

Twice during the last week I found myself involved in conversations that ”went dark.” To me, a dark conversation has three characteristics.

First, the subject matter is some specific evil in society. Like sexually transmitted diseases, dishonest politicians, bias in the news media, random gun violence, war, poverty, high taxes, bad schools, welfare abuse, etc. The possibilities are infinite.

Second, the focus is on judging the people involved - their irresponsibility, stupidity, inconsideration, selfishness, incompetence, hypocrisy, ignorance, bad behavior or just plain evilness. This sometimes takes the form of anecdotal one-upmanship. Like, “You think that’s bad. Just the other day I was in a grocery store line and you’ll never guess what this lady was buying with her food stamps!”

Finally, the conversation has a turning point. Either it degenerates into extended whining about more and more injustice in the world, with lots of shaking of heads and “Tsk, Tsk’s.” Or, it turns toward talk of one or more of the pat solutions - all of which are political. That is to say, government must do something - change a law, create a new one, or enforce an old one. In other words, "There oughta be a law!"

At this point, the conversation runs the risk of going even darker, as disagreement arises regarding the proper legalistic solution. Or, if all parties are in political agreement, it can darken into now judging the political opposition - those who are too stupid or evil to see the solution as clearly as we do.

Eventually, someone puts the conversation out of its misery by changing the subject. (“So how ‘bout them Brewers?”) Often, that person is me. I like a good, dark conversation as much as the next guy. But there comes a point...

I’ve been trying to figure out ways to end these conversations without involving a sports team. Like I could say “There but for the grace of God go I. I could see myself buying Twinkies with food stamps.” That might stop the conversation. Or at least refocus it.

Or, I could say, “You know what Ghandi said -‘Be the change you want to see in the world’." That might redirect the conversation.

On the other hand, I could just end up sounding trite and sanctimonious.

Better stick with the Brewers. At least until they start to lose. If that happens, don’t know what I’ll do.