Monthly Archives: August 2010

An Atheist Who Gets It

A lot of the atheists I run into have a really warped view of the Bible–almost the mirror image of the fundamentalist view. I understand where that comes from–it’s largely a reaction to vocal fundies in the media. But for people who espouse the virtues of rational discourse to dismissively refer to the Bible as a collection of fairy tales about an evil old man in the sky is an absurd a failure to see what it actually is–about as absurd as saying that it is inerrant and never contradicts itself.

Robert Price, an atheist speaking to a group of (mainly) atheists, gives them a better view of what the Bible actually is, and why even a non-believer can (and should) love it.

Listen to it here, on the podcast of the “Point of Inquiry” radio show.

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Finding a New Church Home

At age 38, I am looking for a new church home for only the second time in my life.

Up to this point, almost every time I have moved–about nine times as an adult–I’ve either had personal connections at a congregation in my new town, or I was moving to join a church staff. The only previous time I’ve had to look for a congregation to join was when I left to attend seminary. I found it a surprisingly frustrating experience. I had no idea how easy it was to visit a church, attend worship, and leave without making any sort of a connection with anyone else. Eventually someone from one of my courses invited me to visit her Sunday School class, and I settled into that congregation simply because I finally had some connection to another person, and once I had that, my base of friends grew pretty quickly.

On one hand, visiting churches is easier now. Families of four aren’t as easy to overlook as a single introverted man, and since my children are ridiculously cute, they tend to attract a crowd. And after all my years in ministry, it’s easier than it used to be to find the preacher and chat him or her up after worship. I’m less inhibited about that than I once was.

One the other hand, the field has broadened significantly. Until now, I was emotionally tied to a particular denomination, and now I’m open to almost anything. I even visited a Southern Baptist church last week, which quickly confirmed for me that although I love my dear SBC friends, I’m not going to join them anytime soon. I don’t resonate with the theological impulses or the cultural mores there.

We’ve visited two Disciples of Christ congregations. I’m drawn to them because I know their history well and I think I’m picking up on the culture. One was a disaster, but the other was a real possibility, except that there just really aren’t any other folks our age. I’m not one of those people who won’t talk to someone more than five years away from my own age–I really have strong inter-generational tendencies. But I do want some other 30-somethings (soon, 40-somethings) around, and, more than that, I want a group of preschoolers for my kids to befriend.

We’ve also visited two Methodist churches now, and both of those are real possibilities, if I can get over my antipathy toward pedobaptism. One of them, a church of around 100 in a town of around 1300, I really loved visiting. It had one of the strongest senses of community I’ve experienced, and although the music was fine and the sermon was quite good (and a little daring in ways that I appreciated), what really stuck with me was the laughter. Not from silly jokes or dramatic sketches, but spontaneous moments of real human connection–just people enjoying being with each other, and feeling free enough to let out a chuckle at one another’s foibles and idiosyncrasies. It felt as much like home as anything we’ve tried in months. At first I was tempted to just land there, and I’m pretty comfortable with Methodistism theologically, so I think we will go back there again.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how hard it is to look for a congregational home in a theologically responsible way. I’ve typed and then deleted the phrase “church shopping” a dozen times just writing this out, because I don’t like the consumer-driven mentality it implies and I sure hate church marketing. One of the quickest ways to make sure I never come back to your congregation is to try to sell me on it–how wonderful the children’s program is, how upbeat the music, how relevant the sermon. The last thing I need in my spiritual development is to be pandered to. But still, there is a choice to be made and it needs to be made somehow. No one ever trains people in how to find a Christian community that fits them.

I’m certainly open to learning more, and but here’s what I think I’m looking for:

1) authentic community
2) sacramental centrality
3) healthy balance of involved laity and respect for clerical authority
4) a sense of grounding in the ancient Christian tradition
5) a missional impulse that sends the church into the world, rather than inviting the world inside the cloister
6) a willingness to challenge visitors with a hard calling rather than woo them with the soft sell
7) a group within the church that will join and support me in my pursuit of spiritual disciplines (or, better yet, invite me to join them)
8) emotionally and intellectually engaging worship

I don’t know where that church is. Maybe nowhere near me. But I’m looking….

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Congregations Gone Wild

This editorial hits the nail right on the head. I don’t think I have a single quibble. Here’s a taste:

THE American clergy is suffering from burnout, several new studies show. And part of the problem, as researchers have observed, is that pastors work too much. Many of them need vacations, it’s true. But there’s a more fundamental problem that no amount of rest and relaxation can help solve: congregational pressure to forsake one’s highest calling.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

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God and Grieving

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

C.S. Lewis
A Grief Observed

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Experiencing God

Having said (probably at too much length) that the phenomenon of “hearing God’s voice” is problematic because there is no scriptural precedent or teaching to support it, I do want to mention that I’m not completely closed to arguments from experience. If the people who tell me they are hearing God’s voice were getting messages that, in retrospect, were obviously true and beyond human capabilities, then I think I’d be the first (well, maybe the third or fourth) to say that there’s really something divine at work. But I’ve never seen a clear example of that and I’ve seen lots of examples of messages that turned out to be completely false–sometimes in very damaging ways.

In my single days, two different girlfriends told me that God had revealed to them during prayer that his will was for us to get married. Neither of those marriages happened. I broke off the first relationship, and my girlfriend at the time broke off the second one. I guess according to Susan, I stubbornly resisted God’s will for our lives, but I’ve always wondered what Melissa thinks about that situation now? If God told her in June that we should get married, but she dumps me in December, how does she process that? Does she think God changed his mind? I doubt it. Does she believe that she has disobeyed the revealed will of God for her life–that marrying me is a worse fate than being outside of God’s will for her? Probably not. I suspect that she probably decided that, upon further reflection and longer experience in the relationship, she must have misunderstood what God was saying to her. After all, he speaks in such subtle ways that one could think that he is saying “marry this guy!” when he is actually saying “DON’T marry this guy!” Since he speaks through inner impressions in one’s heart, important words like the emphatic “DON’T” can get lost along the way.

If Melissa, a devout Christian woman who sincerely believes in the importance of obeying God’s voice, can completely misunderstand him on a matter as important as whom to marry, it seems to me that we need to look pretty skeptically on these “messages.” It also seems pretty clear to me that in the vast majority of instances, what God seems to tell someone is more or less exactly what that person wanted to hear at the time. In June, she wanted to marry me; in December she didn’t. God’s words in her heart tracked along with that pretty conveniently.

In the greater scheme of things, no harm done, I suppose. But there are instances where the belief that God is speaking and working in imperceptible ways does cause harm. In two situations that I have been close to, a young woman (one in her forties, one just past thirty) fell ill and died after a protracted stay in the hospital (one week; one month.) Both times, friends and family rallied around to “lift the woman up in prayer” and both times, every tiny improvement was taken as a sign that God was responding to prayer and healing the woman. The people close to her went for days or weeks trusting and proclaiming that God was gradually working a healing miracle, right up until the day that the final breath came.

I can tell you, it’s pretty awkward being the only one in the waiting room who doesn’t break out into applause and amens when some dear brother or sister proclaims that God is healing our friend–especially when you are the preacher! But on both occasions, the situation was pretty much what I thought it was–a beloved person was almost certain to die, and the collective response of the church was to ignore reality, clinging to the slim hope of a very unlikely recovery and calling their wishes “God.”

I’m not going to be critical of those people’s reaction in the moment. The were heartbroken and hesitant to accept reality, and I understand that, even though I’m not wired that way. But I am going to be critical of a modern church culture that, rather than emphasizing that because of the coming resurrection, we can face death–our own and that of our friends–with the genuine biblical hope of renewal and restoration, leaves families grasping for signs that God has given their friend a reprieve. And I am not happy when I interact with ministers who encourage such superstition rather than balance it. To me, that’s theological malpractice, if there is such a thing.

I could go on and on, but those examples illustrate them phenomenon well enough. In every case, sincere, devout, prayerful people were completely wrong when they claimed that God was saying or doing a certain thing, and in every case, they assumed he was doing just what they wanted him to do. They put their own hopes on display and called them God. That’s not really idolatry, but it is on the same supermarket aisle.

If I had any countervailing examples–some occasion where a bit of knowledge was given far beyond human wisdom that turned out to be true–I would say so. But I don’t. And I’ve been down this road a lot, as a lifetime church-goer and a minister. People tell me a lot of stories. Whenever someone says “God told me…” it winds up being either irrelevant or harmful.

It is usually regarded as either cruel or unspiritual to try to try to burst to bubble of the God-listeners in this way, which is part of why I’m blogging about it in such clear terms. Church folks who resist the tide are looked down upon or subtly disregarded, so maybe it’s worth it to know that there is at least one random blogger out there who is troubled by this, too. It’s not good for church communities to let the last word go to whoever claims most emphatically to have heard from God. Theological reflection is harder–but more firmly grounded–than that.

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God Can Do A Lot of Different Things

So, if you’ve been tracking this blog, you already know that I get a little grumpy about folks claiming they hear from God all the time. My biggest concerns with the whole “hearing from God” phenomenon are that (1) there’s no biblical precedent for it, (2) it redefines the voice of God as an inner impulse or coincidental sign that is immeasurably tiny and meager compared to the overwhelming kinds of ways in which God is actually depicted as communicating in the scriptures, and (3) it substitutes the firm foundation of a scriptural grounding for an ongoing quest to figure out what God wants of me in a way that smacks of pagan diviners looking for a sign to determine what the capricious spirits want of them each day. I consider that a step backward from the Christian tradition toward the more primitive cults that preceded it.

One of the most frequent responses to my line of thinking is something like “couldn’t God communicate through these subtle means if he wanted to?” That came up in the comments in the previous post, and I’m glad it did. It can from someone who is pretty clearly thinking about these issues in an open and healthy way, and they reminded me that I need to address that question specifically.

It reminds me of when I was a single preacher-wanna be back in seminary. I was good friends with the administrative assistant for the graduate school of theology, and I would drop by her office to chat between classes sometimes. Occasionally the conversation would turn to the latest person I was dating, or whom I wished I was dating (but striking out with), and Lynell would say “Don’t you think that God is big enough to choose your spouse?” My typical response was “God is big enough to pick up this whole building and shake it until we all fall out.” The question isn’t what God is big enough to do, but what he is likely to do, based on what we know of him from the scriptures.

In other words, saying “but couldn’t God do [this thing that I want him to do] if he wanted to?” is a response that could apply to anything, including thousands of things that the person who says that would never agree that God was doing. God could send me messages through the arrangement of letters in my alphabet soup. God could decide what the next step of my life will be based on this week’s “Dora the Explorer” map. God could consider tomatoes an abomination, such that he will damn to hell anyone who willingly eats one, and doubly damn the fast food workers who put tomato slices on my sandwich even though I told them not to. In my crankiest moments, I briefly hope that is true.

Sure, those are absurd examples, but “couldn’t God do that if he wanted to?” supports them just as well as it supports “couldn’t God decide to speak into my heart in subtle ways?” If we’re going to move away from having a Biblical foundation for our practice, it’s going to be hard to know where to draw the line. I understand that for a lot of people, God sending them signs makes a lot of sense, but, again, the Christian tradition says that we aren’t really supposed to relying on what sounds good according to our own reasoning. That’s the whole point of having the mind of God revealed in scriptures. We don’t need to try to work this out for ourselves.

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