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Friday, July 30, 2010

Dare I Ask?

Why is it that you're not supposed to ask hard questions in church?

One of the themes of our class this week has been how important it is for us to ask and wrestle with tough questions about God and our faith. But, by and large, churches and other religious institutions (i.e. seminaries) have become places where you are expected to toe the line and nod in agreement. If you ask about something that might challenge orthodoxy, you are viewed as weak or a trouble-maker.

Our professor told a story about his first experience in seminary. Having an undergraduate degree in literature, he entered seminary with a different lens. In one of his first Bible classes, he realized that the story of Sampson and Delilah fit ALL of the historical parameters for a fable, and so he asked his professor about this. Rather than addressing the question or even acknowledging the tension, the professor blew him off and encouraged him to pray. This led to a fairly quick exit from seminary for our prof. (He says the second time around was much better.)

Here's the dilemma for me. We believe that God is truth and the source of all ultimate truth. So, when we start to ask really good questions, Christians should believe more than anyone else that this will lead us toward God. And yet most Christians fear that asking hard questions will lead us away from God.

I want to reject this. I want to reject that my faith only makes sense when I blindly follow what I have been taught. I need to believe that I can ask the hardest of questions, and if my motives are good, these questions will draw me deeper into the Father's heart.

So, I ask again: why are churches the last place where you can ask a hard question?

May you know today that faith is not belief in the absence of doubt, but clinging to God in the midst of it.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Prayer as Theology

Class started today with an interesting statement- "the way that we pray tells us more about our theology than anything else." The central beliefs that we hold about God, both expressed and unexpressed, are most evident in the kind of prayers that we most often pray.

And then we were challenged with this question, "If I pray for a safe trip, am I more likely to be safer?" How we answer this question begins to give us insight into our God-image. I tend to think that if God has ever once in all history answered this prayer (which so many of us pray), then yes, we are more likely to get home safer. But, that tells you more about my math than my picture of God. :-) How would you answer the question?

For many of us, listening to our prayers will reveal how incredibly me-focused we are...God help me...God bless me...God give me a good day, a good test, a trip, etc, etc, etc. Without realizing it, we turn God into a cosmic traffic cop who exists to make our commute better than the world around us. What was suggested in class today was that we use prayer to help us manage the anxiety of our day more than we do to help us know God or come under his authority in our lives. This kind of praying also sets us up for an unhealthy dualism- if my prayer is "answered" and things go well, God is for me. If things go wrong, then God must be against me or angry with something I have done. Our professor told a story about praying as a child for a snowstorm so school would be canceled. The next day, sure enough, the ground was covered and school was axed. But later that day he heard about a family who had died on the roads because of the snow- and he felt responsible!

Here's where the rubber really meets the road: we will worship the God we imagine, and this is the God we introduce to others! How often do we get involved in selling an image of God that will make your life better? If you read between the lines, this is often our appeal to Christ- come to Jesus and your life will get better. Really? Is that really who God is?

So, I ask you- if you pray for a safe trip, are you more likely to arrive home safely? Why?

Let the discussions begin...


Monday, July 26, 2010

I Know God! Uh, Maybe Not...

Well, friends, it is on to a new week of class and a whole new round of thinking. This week's class is "Self In Community". I invite you to share the journey with me through some posts this week. I have no idea what this class is about- something to do with self and community. When I get the picture, I'll let you know!

We did a thought-provoking exercise in class today. The professor had us make a list of names/images of God used in Scripture. We took at least 15 minutes giving suggestions while one of the students wrote them on the board. Our list easily contained 50 items, and could have included many more. Then, in reflecting on the whole list, we were asked to consider which ONE of these was God. (Hmm- none of them and all of them is the best I could think of) And then we were asked how many of these were metaphors. (Hmm- pretty much all of them!) And finally, the kicker question- How many of these images are YOUR image of God?

Here was the point for me- with a list of over 50 images of God, I have three, maybe four of them that are really central to my way of knowing and approaching God. If I'm honest, I have easily a dozen of these images that I rarely if ever think about, and I have several more that I try NOT to think about when it comes to God. So if my image of God is formed primarily by 3 out of 50 God-images in Scripture, how accurately do I know God? It's not that my image is flawed- but perhaps wildly incomplete. This leads me to a few conclusions:

1. We need to have much more humility when we speak of God. He is far bigger and far greater than we can fit into our concepts of deity. In many ways, it is very freeing to begin worshiping a God that is far greater than I can imagine.

2. We need others to help us see God. I am constantly amazed how different God looks through other people's lens. And yet, how often do I surround myself with people who think just like me? If we want to grow in our knowledge and love of God, we have to willingly seek out Christ-followers who have a different perspective. This can begin to fill out our picture of God.

3. We need to continually be passionate seekers. The moment we think we've cornered the market on God and got him figured out is the moment we need to start over again and realize how little we know. I have been challenged through this seminary experience to read church fathers, men who are revered for their faith, and see how frequently they expressed their inability to know God fully. Somehow, in their confession of ignorance, they were free to continue pursuing a fuller reality of God in their lives.

So, how about you? What images make up your picture of God? Have you ever had an experience where you realized how little you actually knew?

May you know that God is bigger than your imagination, and may this draw you to continue pursuing His glory and splendor-


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Reflections on Church

Today, we moved beyond looking at the Spirit to considering the church and the sense in which God created the church to be on a mission. I've had so many different ideas for a blog, that I decided to just jot down some of the basic insights I have found challenging and refreshing. Feel free to respond to anything you'd like- I love hearing from you!

1. God's mission in the world is NOT to save people. God's mission is to create a new humanity- the people of God. While it is accurate to say we must all choose Christ, it is not accurate to call our faith personal. The idea of a "personal faith" is not only foreign to Scripture, but to the first 1500 years or so of Christian tradition. To be saved is to be brought into God's family, the church. Only as part of God's people are we able to experience his plan for us.

2. Being the people of God has less do with behavior and more do with relationship. When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, the ultimate falling was a loss of relationship with God. As a result of the fall, they gained the knowledge of good and evil. This was not God's intent! God desired a people that lived only on His word; knowledge of God and not knowledge of laws/rules! To become the people of God is to come under the rule of God in our lives by re-establishing relationship with Him through Christ.

3. Salvation is more than a moment. From a Biblical point of view, salvation is the process of coming completely under God's rule and living in His Kingdom. While this process must have a beginning, it will not find completion until we enter heaven. In other words, we should place a little less emphasis on "crossing the line" and a little more emphasis on continuing to place our lives completely under His rule.

4. We gather in community because of our bond as the new humanity; the people of God. “The community is not to be visualized basically in terms of ‘natural’ bonds of gregariousness but in terms of God’s act. Before we say any of these terms we should first think: God’s purpose, his promise, his calling.” (Minear)

5. Following Christ means NOT that Jesus exists for us, but that we exist for Him. We have created a kind of faith that says Jesus is here to make my life better. Sorry, but that's not true! Jesus is here to make you and I into a new kind of people. This will only happen as we re-orient our lives around Him and His word.

6. There are times when the church needs to close the doors. Luther once said, "God doesn't sleep with his bride in public." In other words, there are times when the church needs to gather in intimate fellowship with only the church "membership" (those who are committed to Christ). It is through these times of intimate worship that the church can be formed and strengthened to have something to offer the world. (I think our new worship nights have become a beginning expression of this.)

7. Churches lose sight of love over little things! Did you know that the largest split in church history (catholic and orthodox) occurred over one word- filioque? The word means "of the son" in Latin, I think. Basically, because the Catholics added the word to their creed, the Orthodox church took off. Now, I know that some theologian will explain exactly why that was such a big deal (as we spent a good hour on it in class), but my point is obvious. If we are to be a witness to the world of a new humanity that has been transformed by relationship with God, then we have to get over our pettiness! We need to be on a mission- in our own churches! We need to strive to BE the people of God so that the world can see the Body of Christ. This is the heart of true evangelism.

Well, there ought to be something there for you to chew on! I just summarized two days of theology, so you should thank me. :-) No, seriously, I hope you'll push back on anything here that strikes you as unique.

May you be willing to THINK on your journey today! God gave you a brain- so use it! When we begin to understand faith and church from God's point of view, it really makes sense. You have a reasonable faith- get to know it! Blessings-


Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hi, Hi Birdie

We had a humorous moment today in class. Yes, humor and theology can go together. We were having a discussion on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, and our professor was discussing how we find it difficult to communicate with or pray to the Holy Spirit. In his words, "I can talk to Jesus, sure, but I don't know how to talk to a bird!"

If you think about our conceptions or ideas of the Holy Spirit, none of them really invoke a warm, relational feeling. The Bible depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove (bird), fire, wind, breath, or even a ghost. We have a difficult time even imaging the Spirit as a personal being as we do with God the Father or Jesus the Son.

And yet, Jesus himself told his followers that it would be good if he went away, and the reason he gave was that if he went away, the Holy Spirit could come. Think about that- Jesus, who had a real, physical body and was talking face to face with his friends, said the best thing he could do was leave so the Spirit could come. I don't know about you, but that tells me the Holy Spirit is pretty important.

Perhaps you, like I, might confess that you don't really know how to approach the Holy Spirit. How do you picture the Spirit? Is He as central to "God" as the Father and the Son, or have you allowed him to be less than significant in your relationship with God?

I'd love to hear from you. May you experience the fullness of the "shy member" of the Trinity today-


Monday, July 19, 2010

Getting in the Spirit of Things

To open class today, our professor shared with us some of his theological convictions to set the tone for the class. I really appreciate his openness- most of our profs play it really close to the vest and leave you guessing where they really land theologically.

For our prof, he finds the foolishness of the Cross as the starting place of theology. In his words, we have to embrace that we are basing our entire system of belief on something that world finds foolish. And in this foolish cross, we find the most accurate and complete picture of who God really is. He is a God that loves us so much he has given himself on our behalf. Any theological conclusions we draw must align with this.

In order to know God, we must respond to this foolish cross by following Christ in his death. Rather than a physical execution, we must experiencing a death of our old, sinful self which we call the flesh. As our flesh dies, and only when it dies, we can experience the joy and power of new birth.

And now here's the point he landed on that has me thinking tonight: in light of all this, why do we think we can manage the flesh? My prof stated, and I would agree, that even in our churches we have come to believe that we can clean up our old self and manage our flesh well enough so as to have a good life. This is a false, and misleading, assumption. As the apostle Paul wrote, "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do." (Gal. 5:17) In other words, if we want to experience the fullness of God in our lives through the presence of the Holy Spirit, then the flesh has to go. We don't manage or clean up our flesh. We let it die on the cross with Jesus and humbly wait for him to bring us to new life- life in the Spirit.

What do you think? How do we know if we're just trying to manage the flesh rather than allow God to kill it on the cross? What does it look like to be brought to new life? I have some ideas, but I'd love to hear yours. I would encourage you to spend a few moments meditating on Galatians 5:16-26. Powerful stuff!

May you know the power, and the foolishness, of the cross on your journey today.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Straining to Hear...Nothing

In one of the books I am reading for tomorrow's class, the author frequently brings up the value of silence in a church service. (Liturgical Theology, Simon Chan) I had to chuckle a bit when I thought about this, because it seems like at our church everyone starts to get nervous if there is silence for more than 2 seconds! But how can I blame them? I feel the same way! I immediately wonder, "what's going on? Why is no one talking? Am I forgetting something?"

Let's admit it- in general, we are not comfortable with silence. In our iTunes, Zune, Bluetooth world, we don't know what do with it. Silence feels so out of place it is actually deafening. We rush to fill the silence with something, anything that keeps our brains in tune.

As I embark on two weeks of study, I find myself in a unique place. Away from the office, the kids, and all my routines, I am confronted with a great deal of silence. I have already experienced more of it in one night than I can recall in any recent week. (or month) And so, realizing that this silence may be common in the next two weeks, I am trying to give in to it and allow it to have a formative effect in my life.

Have you ever done the science experiment where you stir up sediment in a jar of water? As long as you keep the water agitating, all the particles spin around and the water is cloudy and dark. Only when you allow the water to stop spinning do the pieces of sand and rock begin to filter to the bottom and once again, in silence, the water becomes clear. You can see what before was only a mist. I think this can be the value of silence in our lives. We are so busy that everything spins around and the good, the bad, and the ugly of our lives are just one big blur. But in silence, we agree to let everything stop spinning. We wait for it all to sift to the bottom of our heart (or soul) and we can evaluate what belongs and what does not. In silence, we gain clarity.

I think this is why Jesus so often went away by himself to pray. The gospels say that Jesus often sought out solitude. Why would someone who had such a clear sense of purpose in life need any solitude or silence? Because Jesus knew that in silence, God could continue to make clear the next step.

So, for the rest of this month, I am attempting to enjoy silence. This will not be easy for my over-active, fill-up-every-inch brain, but I will try. And Lord willing, I will tell you how it goes!

How about you? What role does silence play in your life? Can you be comfortable in it? If so, tell us how you got there!

Peace on you and your journey-