Category Archives: Rants

The Church and Singles

Hey, guys:

There’s a lot that I’ve been wanting to blog about, but as the father of a five-year-old, an almost-three-year-old and a nine-month-old who is currently teaching an overload at the college (um, I’m doing the teaching, not the the baby), spare minutes to write are getting hard to find.  But I was in an email discussion among some preaching friends about what the church should preach on Valentine’s Day, and I said:

I’ll just add this: whenever I paid specific attention to married life and romance in my preaching, I spent equal time on singleness, and emphasized the unmarried lives of Jesus and Paul.  Married people tend to get a lot of attention and positive affirmation in churches, and that can leave singles feeling like they aren’t real people yet.  That’s unscriptural and damaging, especially in a culture where most people don’t marry until their late 20’s, and many are between marriages.

On the other hand, depending on the background of your congregation, you might want to make the affirmative case for marriage, given how many secular people don’t see the point of it anymore.  Have to get the secular folks to value commitment and get the churchy folks to honor singleness.

I was asked what it would look like if I were invited to preach a sermon honoring singleness, and my attempt to answer that turned into a rant I thought I would share here.  Disclaimer: this rant is ranty.

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Well, to be honest, my primary impulse is to tear down the idol of “family” which is often used as a synonym for “Christian” or “responsible.”  The biggest place you see this is in the term “family values,” which when used in conversation means “Christian values as I understand them” 90% of the time and means nothing at all the other 10%.  Or, I remember being at a pastors’ prayer breakfast with mayor once when the mayor said he didn’t like all the focus on “the Almighty dollar” in our town and wanted to replace it with “the Almighty family.”  I nearly fell out of my chair, since I was expecting his last word to be “God,” and I think I did drop down a few inches when assembled pastors burst into applause.  But most of them had been focusing on the family and promoting family values for so long that it might not have been a big stretch to just declare the family almighty and worship it.

I think I preached a sermon once called “Can Single People Have Family Values?” that tried to kick some of the stones out of the family altar the modern evangelical church has created.  What I’m afraid this does is create an expectation that real  Christians have spouses and kids, and if you don’t, you are either defective or in a sort of holding pattern while you’re waiting for your real life to begin.  Too many larger churches have singles’ classes that are functionally either “Youth Group 2.0” or not-so-thinly veiled elder-sponsored match-making services.  As someone who was single until 29 and hated that dynamic, I can attest that if you insist on showing up to just a normal adult class, there will be some people who try to gently steer you toward the kiddie table where you belong.  Or, consider this: if you have knowledge of biggish churches, you’ll find a lot of singles’ classes sponsored by a married couple, which is, again, a not-too-subtle hint that either (1) you guys can’t govern yourselves and need a real adult around here or (2) you would benefit from a living example of someone who has successfully gotten married, since that either is or should be your goal.  But how often do you hear about a couples’ class taught or sponsored by a single person?  “Never” is the answer in my experience.  Churches will choose someone who was married at 19 to lead a class of singles in their 20’s and 30’s even though that person has no experience in long-term singleness because we don’t value the experience of long-term singleness.  We value marriage, and they have proven they can get married.  We think long-term singles can learn from long-term married people–and, sure, they can–but we almost never reverse that.  And the fact that married people and single people are on such unequal footing in many churches, with the former always teachers and the latter always students, shows you how far we are from Biblical teaching.

And, as any unmarried preacher knows, you aren’t going to get very in a ministry career until there is a ring on your finger, in spite of the fact that almost all of the New Testament is either about an unmarried preacher (Jesus) or written by one (Paul).

Matthew 19 is one of the primary texts in this regard:

3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’[a] 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’[b]? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

I think it’s worth pointing out to the church that when the disciples say “Sounds like maybe it’s better not to marry!” Jesus doesn’t respond, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t go that far!”  He says, “Yeah, for some people it is–and single living can be done for the sake of heaven,which means it is something that heaven honors and finds valuable, even if earth doesn’t.”  In fact, for several hundred years of the early church, it would have made a lot more sense to name an organization “Focus on the Singles” or to talk about “Single Values.”

A few quotes from a paper I once wrote about this topic:
Jerome, writing to Eustochium, a celibate woman of aristocratic heritage, encouraged her to realize her superiority over married women: “Learn from me a holy arrogance: know that you are better than they are!” Ambrose provided the corollary: “Those who decide to marry…must of necessity confess that they are inferior to virgins.”

We should also remember that the Lord also taught, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 24.26). In its haste to point out that Jesus did not literally mean “hate,” the contemporary church has neglected to teach that Jesus certainly did mean that family matters are subservient to kingdom concerns, and his disciples may be called upon to leave all those attachments behind. Certainly that was true of those he called during his earthly ministry.

The fact that Jesus taught both that that some are called to be eunuchs for the kingdom and that whoever comes to him must hate his family, and the church has still managed to make an idol of family life shows how powerful this dynamic is.  I think we’ve basically given into the impulse to take what is the norm in our society and declare it the standard that all should strive for.  It’s very reassuring for our married folk to be told they’ve done it the right way.  But the Bible at the very least, presents both married and single life as valued paths, and, honestly, by the time you really absorb Matthew 19, Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 7, it’s pretty easy to make the case that celibate singleness is the standard and marriage is a concession for people who can’t handle the higher calling.  This is a message most of the evangelical church is unable or unwilling to hear, even though it is right there in the Bible. And when a single person reads those passages and notices that they are either (1) never preached or (2) preached with so many disclaimers and caveats that there’s no message left by the end of the sermon, they see what’s going on.  We are going to do what it takes to continue honoring married people above singles even if we have to tape up the mouths and Jesus and Paul to do it.

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Should Tsunamis Bother Me More Than Other Deaths?

My old (at least five years old than I am!) colleague Dan Bouchelle has a thoughtful post on his blog on the topic “Why The Tragedy in Japan Doesn’t Shake My Faith in a Loving God.”  I think it’s fair to say that mine was one of the Facebook posts that prompted Dan to compose this response.  He was the most helpful of my interlocutors on Facebook, and I hope that our interaction proves useful for both of our readers.  You really should read what he has to say.  I’ll wait for you to process his thoughts.  Just click.

Hey, welcome back!  Pretty good stuff, huh?  You could get some book length treatments on the topic of theodicy that would cover the terrain deeper, but for a short-form response to the topic, that’s really about as good as you’re going to get.

I would like to work through his whole post eventually, but I have a busy, busy week ahead and I don’t know when I’ll get to it all.  I do want to tackle the first critical question that he raises, though, which I’ll paraphrase as:

Why do thousands of deaths in one place at one time bother you more than thousands of deaths scattered across the world each day?

Dan:

First, let me give some perspective here. We live in a world where tragedy and death are the daily norm. On this day, like every day, between 150,000 and 160,000 people will die. That is one person every 5 seconds. This doesn’t even count all the victims of tragedies that do not kill the body. There are countless victims of disease, crime, accidents, and abuse every second of every day. Slavery, esp. sexual slavery, is very much alive all around the world. The evil humans will do to each other is mind-numbing if you pay attention. The amount of pain in the world is staggering. Just in the United States alone, one in three women will be victims of sex crimes at some point in their life and one in eight men. Hunger, sickness, you name it, we have it in abundance every day.

So how does this make an argument for a loving God in the face of massive disaster? Well, it doesn’t exactly. But it does say that our problem is not just with the big tragedies but with the daily realities of a broken world. Suffering is the backdrop to all human experience and must be accounted for in every worldview. As hard as it is to face, what happened in Japan did not have much impact on the amount of daily suffering in the world.  If your faith cannot deal with the daily evil in the world, you need not worry about the big disasters. Why do the daily 150,000 plus deaths not create the same concern? Why does the suffering of one displaced family in your city not count as much as any family in Japan today?

I don’t mean to be flip here, but I’m really not sure what this particular line of reasoning accomplishes for the Christian apologist.  It seems to me that there’s one quick and obvious response that takes this off the table: “Huh.  Now that you mention it, that really is pretty terrible.  Not only is the problem as big as I thought, it’s really much bigger, and every day.  Now I have even less reason to believe in a benevolent God.  I appreciate you pointing out to me the fuller scope of suffering in the world.  That’s a lot more evidence for my doubts.”  Really, what do you say to that?

In reality, there is a lot of ongoing pain in the world that, for most of us, becomes a sort of background noise that we become accustomed to.  But there are some things that I do tend to track in an ongoing way: global economic injustice, human trafficking, third-world starvation, what the fat-cat investment bankers on Wall Street did to the rest of us with their risky schemes.  More than most, I think I’m tuned in to the larger, systemic problems.

But even if I weren’t, I think it’s a little dodgy to set rules for what people are allowed to be troubled by, and I think it’s completely legitimate to say that certain enormous tragedies raise questions in a more urgent way, or even raise different questions than the ongoing suffering in the world.

Let me give you an analogy.  Picture  the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which I confess I haven’t read in twenty years, so I could be off on the particulars.  At any rate, picture a farm full of sentient, talking animals of various kinds; except instead of working out political theory, these little piggies and horses are grappling with theology. Here’s their story:

They believe the following:  (1) A loving, benevolent, but unseen farmer with ultimate power created their farm, as well as all others on the world.

(2) His care for them is really far too large for words to express.  He provides their food and their shelter, in his unseen ways.

(3) For deep theological reasons, he allows all animals to choose whether to love and follow him, and he doesn’t interfere with free will.  He also doesn’t interfere with the natural processes of sickness and death, or, for that matter, the work of the butcher and the glue-factory man.  But one day he will make everything right, in a restored cosmos without sausage and without steak.

The animals, with a very few exceptions, are pretty happy with this teaching.  It forms the core of their weekly worship, which takes place on Thursday, for reasons humans can’t figure out.  When the butcher comes, they remind the surviving animals that God loves them, but he won’t stop the butcher.  When a beloved mare passes away in old age, they sing out that their friend is now experiencing at least a taste of the restored cosmos that God wants for them all to have someday.  Keep believing, they say. Hold on.

But one night lightning strikes the barn. Most of the calves and ponies burn to their deaths in the resulting fire, and the ones who remain are badly wounded and in great pain.  The fire spreads to the hen house, where all of the chicks are lost.

Then they cry out: “We understand that you won’t stop the butcher, and we know you won’t stop old age.  We were able to believe that you loved deeply but had to let those things happen.  But it’s hard to believe that you love us and won’t stop lightning.  Lightning has no heart, no soul, no afterlife.  There’s nothing to be lost by crippling its power, and everything to be gained.  Now that we’ve undergone this tragedy, we have to rethink whether it ever made sense to believe in your benevolence at all.  Even the butcher would have put out the fire, if he could have.”

The problem with a tsunami is that it makes some of the standard Christian answers either obsolete or much more of a stretch to believe than under normal circumstances.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a person to say: “I believed in a benevolent God who seldom intervened, but now I’m being asked to believe that God is powerful, benevolent and never intervenes.  Or worse, if I believe my pals at church, he helps rich Americans get promotions and big houses, but won’t stop a quarter million poor people from dying in one day when the tsunami hits Sumatra.”  I really don’t see how it’s inconsistent to say I can deal with sickness, old age and even murder, but I am having trouble believing in a God who does nothing at all–especially when the Biblical story is that he loves us, provides for us and is always working for our good.  That doesn’t match the reality of the world around us.

It occurs to me that Dan is also going to wind up arguing with the prophets. (Which is fine–I like to do that myself.)  They clearly thought that the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians raised much bigger questions of God than did the common losses of each day.  I don’t recall anyone in the Old Testament saying “The loss of our entire nation shouldn’t trouble you if the ongoing losses of the decade before didn’t.”  No, it was the guys who were presumably closest to God who themselves raised the question.  They wanted to know why God was doing this?  Where is he? Has he deserted us?

In that case, the answer was, essentially, that Judah had rebelled so badly that this was the only way that God could wake them up and bring them back to righteousness.  I don’t think anyone other than Pat Robertson is likely to say that the same reasoning holds in Japan, but I guess it would at least be a shot at a Biblical answer.

For those who would say that tsunamis shouldn’t bother me more than any other kind of loss, I would pose a related question:  Is there any conceivable tragedy so large that it would be legitimate–not just understandable, but theologically, philosophically, intellectually justified–to question whether a benevolent God exists?  Let me give you a worst case scenario.  I mean, literally, the worst case I can think of.  A massive comet slams into the eastern seaboard of the United States.  The impact kills hundreds of thousands instantly.  Massive tsunamis kill millions within minutes.  Debris in the atmosphere clouds the sun, causing a global ice age within months.  Things spiral out of control.  This threatens to become a global extinction event, not just for humans, but for everything alive bigger than a cockroach.

In a cave in Mongolia a man huddles alone with his four-year-old daughter.  They haven’t seen or heard from anyone in months now.  He believes that they are the last ones alive in Mongolia, and possibly on Earth.  And he is dying.  Food is scarce, and what they have he gives to his child.  He is fading fast, and knows that he won’t live more than a few days more, maybe a week.  And when he dies, his daughter will be be utterly alone in the world, destined to starve, too.

Is it justified for him to question whether God both exists and loves humanity?  Is global extinction sufficient reason to question whether there is a God after all?  If not, then I think we are pretty close to discovering that the atheists are right, and there is no evidence that will make the devout rethink their faith.  It’s unfalsifiable, and really not an intellectual position as much as a personal preference.  If global extinction actually would count as a better reason to question God than everyday suffering, then we have to answer the question of scale.  Where is the line between “okay, this still fits the Christian worldview” and “hey, now, wait a minute–I didn’t sign up for this!”  If there is a line somewhere, eventually, no matter how far out–if at some point the bodies stack up high enough that you agree it’s now reasonable to rethink God’s nature and existence based on tragedy–then let’s stop telling people what they should and shouldn’t be troubled by and deal with the other issues. This one doesn’t really get us anywhere.

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Tsunamis and the Irksomeness of Prayer

This is the continuation of a conversation that began with my frustrated (and none-too-gently worded) outburst on Facebook that I’m not going to pray for Japan because the best thing that God could have done is prevent the tragedy to begin with, and if he’s not interested in doing that, I don’t see the point in trying to talk him into helping with the clean-up.  Yes–shocking, I know.  Please feel free to assign me whatever label seems fitting.

One of my friends wrote something in response which prompted me to write a string of sentences too long for Facebook, so I’m posting it here, with everyone’s names omitted or obscured so I don’t implicate innocents in my own heresy.

Your comparison of the church’s explanations for God’s lack of visible activity to the explanations that allow children to maintain belief in a non-existent Santa Claus—which I denounce as heretical and well beyond the bounds of civil discourse, and for which I label you a heathen and miscreant—gets close to what is troubling me.  Everyone’s belief system is internally consistent.  It might have huge gaps, it might be based on error, it might pointedly fail to notice certain phenomena and it might consign a great deal of important questions to the category of unknowable mystery, but it’s internally consistent.  This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Anarchists and Fascists, Hindus and Buddhists and Christians whether fundamentalist, evangelical or liberal.  I once preached for a church that had two members who were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Their beliefs were irrational, but completely consistent.  One dropped by my office on a pleasant Monday, complaining of having been shot by a spy who had taken over the body of one of our elders.  I was willing to go along with the idea that the elder in question was an enemy agent bent on destroying the church—it explained a lot of what I had experienced, too—but it was obvious that my troubled friend had not actually been shot.  When I asked him to show me the wound so I could help him bandage it (because I’m sneaky that way) he told me that it was a new kind of bullet whose wounds closed immediately, leaving no trace.  Completely internally consistent.  There weren’t in cracks in his worldview; or if there were, they didn’t last long before an explanation was devised.  The human mind is remarkably good at resolving inconsistency.  That’s even true for very troubled minds.  Actually, it’s probably especially true for very troubled minds.  Healthy people can temporarily carry inconsistent conclusions around before they find a way to resolve them, but they will resolve them, eventually.

I’m open to persuasion (maybe too open, some would say) and I’d be happy to reassess this conclusion, but it looks to me like what most Christians say about the work of God in the world is exactly what they would say if there were no God at all.  Well, no, he doesn’t intervene to prevent tragedy because (1) he honors our free will, (2) he wants us to learn from our suffering, (3) he works through the church to love and comfort people, (4) the age of miracles has passed.…etc.  Well, no, there’s no obvious sign of his existence because (1) you have to have the eyes of faith to see it, (2) he doesn’t want to coerce anyone’s faith, (3) faith does mean believing in the unseen, after all….etc.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.  Several times I’ve been in a situation where a young (under 45) person was dealing with a potentially fatal illness or accident, and, inevitably, every possible sign of good news was taken as evidence that God was healing the beloved person.  Most of the time, the patient eventually died, and when he or she did, the new story was that “God has answered our prayers by healing our friend completely, and taking them into the presence of Jesus.”  No one ever seems to notice that just yesterday, death would have been seen as a complete failure on the part of God to give us what we were asking for, which was full, physical, right-here-on-earth healing.  Once death comes, it’s like we all agree to forget what we really wanted, and act like that’s what we had in mind all along.  No one says (even me, although I’m thinking it) “just two days ago, the consensus was that the new test results meant that God was healing our beloved!  Either God was just toying with us, (in which case, he’s a sadist more deserving of rebellion than worship) or we were interpreting ordinary, natural fluctuations as divine intervention without sufficient cause to do so.  We were prayerfully, honorably, reverently wrong.”

Well, it’s a new kind of bullet, you see.  Not one that you’ve heard of before.  This is the kind of bullet that leaves no wound.  This is the kind of healing that looks just like death.  This is the kind of love that looks just like apathy.  This is the kind of intervention that looks just like stillness.

Once you decide to accept the truth of Christianity, you learn to make these little adjustments.  Nothing can disprove the faith, because either we’ve already got an orthodox reason why it looks (to people who don’t have the eyes of faith!)  like God isn’t doing anything or we announce that we don’t need to try to defend or explain God anyway, and it’s ultimately a mystery.

But if you step outside of the internally consistent Christian worldview (of whichever variety) and ask: what about other ways of viewing the world?  If I adopt the mindset of an atheist—just to try it on for a second and see how things look—it turns out that’s it’s internally consistent, too!  It also accounts for everything I see.  It also explains the world.

And, as everyone now knows, I get a little frustrated on occasion (just a teensy bit, mind you) with pious pronouncements in the wake of horrific tragedy.  This week, I’m even frustrated with prayer.  Not yours or D—’s or anyone else’s, but certainly with mine.  I look at the images coming in from Japan and start to try to form some petition to a God that, if he exists, certainly could have stopped it all from happening, and I don’t even know what to say.  His kind of caring is so different and alien from anything that I know as caring that communication seems impossible.  (Yes, I know, we have an answer for that one too–the Holy Spirit will intercede on my behalf, with groanings I can’t hear.)  What I want to pray is for him to undo the whole mess, and maybe give us that unshakeable Earth that the psalmists are always singing about.  But we all know that that isn’t going to happen, so we’re left praying for things that we can’t see either fulfilled or unfulfilled, or things that are sufficiently vague that we can interpret the evidence to fit our desired outcomes—comfort, peace, healing.  If you’re the kind of person who is calmed and made peaceful by prayer anyway (i.e. the polar opposite of me), then your outcome is sure from the start.

I’m more like the pastor that Annie Dillard describes in Holy the Firm except not so obviously full of Jesus.  She writes:

There is one church here, so I go to it. On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world–for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all–in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.

I’m having my own outburst at the moment, “Lord we bring you these same petitions every week!”  And yet this week looks like last week, and like the one before that, and the one before that, and on and on and on for as far into the past as we can see.

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The Wrong Definition of Having Faith

I’ve been wanting to comment on a certain strain of American evangelical culture for a while now and haven’t been sure how to get into it, but Mike Cope broached the topic, so I’ll take this as my opportunity to jump in.  He’s commenting on Jason Boyett’s new book O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling, and I’ll re-quote part of the book Mike quoted:

“When you live and work within the American Christian subculture — especially the less liturgical, more conservative, evangelical, megachurch sub-subculture — you hear a lot of people talking casually about the intimacy of their relationship with God. The way they tell it, they get frequent, distinct impressions from the Holy Spirit. They get personal promptings from Jesus. They get very specific answers to prayer and detailed directions about even the most trivial aspects of their lives.

“I’ve heard someone tell a friend, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night and thought of you, and it was definitely the Holy Spirit wanting me to pray for you right then and there.’ I’ve overheard a middle-aged woman say, ‘It was totally a God thing that my flight got cancelled, because I got to share my faith with the lady next to me. Talk about a divine appointment!’

“I’ve heard musicians credit God with having written their song lyrics. I’ve heard businessmen give God credit for finally coming through with the promotions for which they’d been praying. I know a few people who don’t hesitate to reveal that God told them to quit their jobs and go into full-time ministry.

“One Sunday I overheard someone give this breathless recap of a worship service: ‘The Lord totally showed up in church this morning. When we got to that key change in “Breathe,” you just knew God was moving.’

“You’ve heard this kind of talk too, maybe coming out of your own mouth. Please understand me: I’m not telling you — or them — to stop. I’m pretty sure most of those kinds of statements express a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives. That people talk this way is not what bothers me.

Unlike Boyett, I am asking them to stop, and I’m not at all sure those statements reflect a sincere and real faith in a personal God who is intimately involved in our lives.  I think it reflects a sincere and artificial faith that mistakes predictable responses to certain stimuli as the work of God.  Far from being more spiritual, I think that people who are always going on about the latest thing that God has said to them are less spiritual.  One of the keys to authentic life with Yahweh is not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I take to mean, in part, not acting as though your own thoughts and purposes necessarily have divine approval.  If it’s wrong to falsely proclaim that God has damned something, surely it’s also wrong to falsely proclaim that he has blessed something.  I’m not going to be as generous about this stuff as Boyett is.  We seriously need to knock this stuff off, and we definitely need to stop sending the signal that that real Christians hear from God on a regular basis.

Why does it bother me so much?

1)  It’s unbiblical.

Search the scriptures are closely as you can.  You aren’t going to find any instances of God leading someone through a coincidence, or a gut feeling or an intuition. That never happens. No one ever tries to discern God’s will for their lives. His general will is communicated through the scriptures, and if he has a specific mission for someone, he sends a message that can’t be missed–an audible voice, an angelic visit, something like that. As soon as someone says “God laid a message on my heart” they have departed from all Biblical precedent. You can, of course, argue that not every Christian practice needs to have Biblical precedent, and for some matters, I would agree. But on the central question of “how does God communicate with people?” I’d sure like to see a verse or two that supports our practices.

2) It “defines divinity down.”

Another problem with hearing from God every afternoon is that when your way of hearing from the Lord is completely indistinguishable from the routine products of your own imagination, the experience of God has became so meager and small that the glory of God is inevitably diminished. Frankly, I’d much rather worship a God who communicates clearly through overwhelming personal encounters, but rarely, than a God who works in my life exactly the same way coincidence and personal insights work for atheists.

We’ve gotten used to speaking about the presence of God and the voice of God in casual ways that don’t knock us down to our knees (and that certainly doesn’t line up with the biblical testimony). I’ve often thought about that when I’m in a worship service where they sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord”

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see You
I want to see You

To see You high and lifted up
Shinin’ in the light of Your glory
Pour out Your power and love
As we sing holy, holy, holy

The sounds great to sing, but do we realize what we are asking for? When someone sees God high and lifted up, it isn’t a fun or casual experience, and you don’t leave feeling good about yourself. Just ask Isaiah.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

One of my big pet peeves is when some human person cleverly designs a worship experience for maximum emotional impact through dramatic lighting and moving song selections, and then, when it is over says something like “God really showed up and showed off tonight!” This bothers me because a) nothing happened here that doesn’t happen in secular concerts or movies every day and b) if God had decided to show up and show off, you wouldn’t be telling me about it over dessert at Chili’s. You’d still be in the sanctuary shaking with fright, and we’d be on our way there to bring you a clean pair of pants.

3) It’s a pagan worldview in Christian language.

In Deuteronomy 30, when Moses has finished passing on to Israel the commandments that God gave him (with an audible voice and written tablets, not a warm feeling in his heart), Moses says:

The LORD will again delight in you and make you prosperous, just as he delighted in your fathers, if you obey the LORD your God and keep his commands and decrees that are written in this Book of the Law and turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

In other words–I’ve just laid out God’s will for you. It’s really clear, and now you all know it, and there’s no need to worry about how you are going to know what he wants. He’s told you up front.

This is really, really great news, because it means they don’t have to do what the pagans do, which is read tea leaves and animal entrails to try to figure out what the gods want, or search for signs in the heavens, or–worst of all–go to some witch or necromancer to see if the souls of the departed have any insights. One of the incredible plusses of the biblical tradition is that everything we need is set down in print.

Have you ever noticed that when Jesus encounters someone who isn’t hip to God’s agenda, he never says “you need to spend more time seeking God’s will for your life”? Instead he points them to the Bible. “Have you not read….?” This is one area where the Judeo-Christian tradition is in sharp contrast to the surrounding culture of the ancient world. Having written scriptures is better than having to search for signs of the divine will, and it’s a move backward (and one that mystifies me) to leave the assurance of a scriptural grounding for the uncertainties of analyzing your gut feelings.

I once heard someone say “Faith isn’t believing that God will do whatever you want him to do. Faith is believing that God will do what he has already promised to do.” He never promised to pick out your college, or your spouse, or your job, and whisper the answer to you. He didn’t promise “divine appointments” or messages laid on your heart. No matter how much we might want those things or how great we think they are, it doesn’t seem to be the way that God prefers to operate. And it causes all manner of practical problems. But more on that later, maybe.

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More On the American Patriot’s Bible

Greg Boyd rants so I don’t have to.

And I mean rant in a good way.

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No Voices in My Head

If you’ve never stumbled across Bill MacKinnon’s article titled No Voices In My Head, now is the time to go take a look.  You really ought to read it all–it’s not long–but here’s the take-away:

It is curious to me that if someone in a typical evangelical church stood up and said an angel spoke to him and told him that God wanted him to be a missionary to Africa , we would be very skeptical at best.  Yet if that same person stood up and said that he “just really feel led to go to Africa to be a missionary”, the “amens” and applause would be deafening.  Yet the former is biblical and the latter is not.

So, should we be looking for angels or burning bushes?  No. Moses wasn’t looking for one.  We shouldn’t be looking for anything.  What we should do is read our Bibles.  You want to hear God speak?  If you have a Bible, you have thousands of years of God-inspired instructions, messages, exhortations, rebukes and praises right at your fingertips.  Why do we think we need more than that?  God’s will for your life is written there.  God’s instructions for living are there.  To want them piped directly into your brain is just foolishness and laziness.  Worse, it opens you up to the worst kind of doctrinal errors.

If God wants to send me on some particular errand, he knows where to find me.  In the meantime, I have more than I can handle just trying to live out the clear teachings Jesus left for us.

The idea that I need to interpret vague signs or inner nudges to determine the will of God isn’t just unscriptural, it’s markedly anti-scriptural.  Remember this great passage from Deuteronomy 30?

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

One of the reasons for Israel’s praise was that God had made his wishes completely clear-primarily through the ten commandments, but also through all the detailed provisions of the covenant code.  Unlike the capricious pagan gods, you didn’t have to go to an oracle or read sheep’s entrails or look for patterns in the tea leaves.  God had already spelled it all out.

The composer of Psalm 119 opens with:

Blessed are they whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.

2 Blessed are they who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart.

3 They do nothing wrong;
they walk in his ways.

4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.

5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!

You can find this sentiment all over the Bible.  What you can’t find is someone kicking themselves for not seeking out the subtle cues that would lead to “God’s perfect plan” for their life.  It’s just not in there.

Or read this from the opening of the letter to the Hebrews:

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.

With all that as background, you have your work cut out for you if you want to claim that proper Christian devotion requires listening for God someway other than the revelation of Jesus recorded in the scriptures.  And yet, I’ve been in a lot of situations similar to what Bill MacKinnon has apparently experienced, where people who regularly hear God speak to them (or so they say), are not-so-subtly exalted as spiritual exemplars above the poor shmucks who have to be content to just read the Bible and do what it says.

When the scriptures say that what God wants from you is has been clearly recorded, what attracts people to a form of religion that emphasizes the vague and ephemeral?

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!?!

abughraib200

The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

Seriously–love your enemies, turn the other cheek, ‘vengence is mine’ says the Lord, do not return evil for evil–what do people think that means?  I don’t get this at all.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some Christians approved of torture, or even a substantial minority, but I’m just dumb-founded that church attendance is positively correlated with a pro-torture stance.  We are failing at some pretty fundamental spiritual formation somewhere.

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