Creator? Redeemer? Sustainer?
I do not know what name to lift up to you God. Not in this moment of prayer. Not to get your attention at this time. Will a pleasant name give my plea a greater hearing?
God who is – I AM. God who claims naught but existence… and hearing – for you heard the cries of your people. God who claims naught but existence and hearing and yet also responds through broken vessels like Moses and Paul, in prophets like Elijah and Jesus, in poets and priests and prostitutes and peons and… and whatever you can lay eye on. God who is, hear our prayers – our cries – our lamentations – our bafflement and our despair, and respond. Because we need you.
“In the beginning… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:1)
Our world knows much of formlessness, void, and darkness. Our world – your world I might remind you – is swirling out of control. (Are there controls on this thing?) Madness seems to have taken over. We are killing each other at obsessive rates. Killing over land, over long held hatred, out of neglect, self-interest… or for no reason at all. God… we are killing. We are killing ourselves.
“Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)
So much hate. I do not know what to do in the face of hate. I feel overwhelmed by it all. I do not know how to look into the eyes of one who sees another human being as unworthy of life. I do not know how to stare deeply into those eyes… with love. I do not know how to love the hate-filled other. To love them in such a way that the only death is the hate and not the other.
“Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 22:34)
We lack the strength Lord to be a gracious people. We are consumed by a need for personal safety. We are consumed by a need to protect our own. We are consumed by our self. We are literally consuming ourselves in the name of our own glory. And the victims of our hunger are legion.
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” (Daniel 1:8)
Our hearts are empty. We care not. Certainly not enough to deprive ourselves. Besides, we cannot get beyond our own hurts, for they are real and true and hardship abounds. We cannot be moved to care for another when we cannot care for ourselves. Where do we go when everyone is a patient and no doctor will come to work? Is there balm for the wounded soul?
“I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37)
But our children are scattered and dying. Hungry and homeless and… what future does this world hold when schools are warzones and warzones are shielded in their bodies?
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Our leaders are as scared as we are – perhaps even more because they can see farther than we can, for all their short-sightedness, from their elevated lofts of luxury. What does a disciple do when then master is aimless, absent, apathetic or amorally removed from the plight?
“I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:10)
Them too – but maybe you are not hearing me, where are you, O God…. How long O Lord… if we die in this wilderness of hate and indifference who shall be left to you of your creations? My God… my GOD… why have you forgotten us… forsaken us…. Whither shall we go – shall we look to the hills? Shall we find you in the shadow of death? The demons have overturned the furniture and made a mess of the homes in our heads… the bleeding will not be stopped… the death-throws of the Beast – if death throws they are – are far too much for our little lives to stand. If you are Alpha and Omega.. we need you in the middle too – where are you, O Lord… my God?
“Be still… know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
I find myself almost out of breath… that is – out of God, out of you. Molded and breathed into and given life, it is death now that I see, that I breathe, that I live. Justice isn’t rolling down, Habakkuk is no more pleased today, does he still stand his watch tower? Do I stand in his place? Do I have it in me? I am out of breath, and our world feels out of time. Oh Ancient of Days – it’s time to appear on scene. At least a little late I might say. Where do we go from here – when just to stand seem more than I am able?
“At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved.” (Daniel 9:23)
I was looking for a little more Revelation.
I am stirred to anger and I am ready for an angry God. We are past the point of words… we need action. Oh God – DON’T YOU SEE IT?!?!
“Hear, O Israel-” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
YOU DON’T GET IT – I’M DONE LISTENING. I NEED YOU TO FIX THIS!
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” (Mark 10:21)
I’m not sure I know what to do with that. Is that an answer? Why won’t you answer me – don’t you know I have your life in my hands…..
“Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:35)
I didn’t mean it, God I didn’t mean it. I’m just frustrated. More than a little lost. More than a little heart-sick for all those whose lives have been thrown to the wind. More than little despairing that we just can’t get this love thing. I’m tired… God knows, you must be too.
“My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8)
God may our hearts be broken… broken open to one another. Broken up by you and for you and with you. May our hearts be kindled and may our anger be healthy. Angry at killing, not killing angry. Angry at systems of homelessness, violence, power and dominance, ignoring the widow and orphan, at imagining there is no room in the inn… But not angry at the homeless, the violated, the least and the lost. May our hearts be kindled. May our compassion grow warm, yes, and tender. May seedlings of hope be scattered in the wilderness and the rocks and roads and the urban slums and the rooftops of palace and stable and may the sprout up. May we protect them for them are a hard won and precious gift. May we honor them for their roots go deep into the marrow of the earth connecting pole to pole – person to person, and their leaves are absorbing the starlight of different worlds and in their veins lies the life blood of heaven and hell.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Just help me see the hope… for all the rest is all too easy to be consumed by.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
Make it so. So be it. Amen
“Don’t Mind Me While I Rip Out This Page”
Sermon by Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church
June 29th, 2014
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
After this reading, do we say: thanks be to God?
Don’t mind me while I tear this text right out of my Bible (sound of tearing paper). Haven’t you wanted to do that before? Not just this text but lots of texts, haven’t you wanted to rip them right out and never read them again? The Bible is not a comfortable book to read. And don’t worry that was just last week’s bulletin I ripped so we’re okay.
One of the things that really scares me is that someone might preach this text nonchalantly. You know that somewhere out there at this very moment this text is being preached straight up and literally while being unassaulted by the horror of it all – as if God tests us this way, and that isn’t something we should question. That scares me. I don’t know what we do with texts like these that paint a less than stellar picture of God. A horrible picture of God. And us.
I do think that I am amazed this story, and those like it, are still in the Bible. I mean think about it, they have to be able to fix this one. The editing room floor is a good place to start. This story was passed on for centuries in oral tradition and written in scrapes and fragments and pieced together and translated and re-translated. Surely in all that re-scribing of the text we have had ample opportunity to smooth out the edges. As much as I dislike this text I have to say I am amazed by the forerunners in faith who continued to keep stories like these in the Bible, after which we do say: this is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. There has been plenty of time to alter scripture to be more palatable, more marketable, a better story to get people on board.
Several years back – probably about 6 years now – I was watching a Chicago Bears game. I am a Chicago sports fan and no matter where I live I always will be. I’m a diehard fan of the Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Bears. So I was watching a game and Nate Vasher – who was a cornerback for the Bears and one of my favorite players at the time – intercepted a pass. I’m sure we were losing at the time; we have done that a lot. And he intercepted the pass and we all got excited and then he fumbled and lost the ball back to the other team and in my frustration I pounded my fist against the ground. What I would come to learn soon was in that moment I fractured my wrist. Now two things about such injuries when you are a preacher… first, shaking the hands of everyone after worship with a fractured wrist is really painful. It is particularly so when you have a lot of ex-Navy folk who want to make sure to give you a good firm handshake. Secondly, when you get that wristed casted you get asked A LOT what happened. And I would tell people – because I have this honest streak – that I was in this alleyway and saw a little old grandmother being mugged and I stepped in…. ok, I would tell them what really happened and – now I’m sure you’ve done this and so have I –they’d respond, “really???” And I’d want to say, “No, I just made that up because it makes me look so good.”
It occurred to me back then that I should make up a better story because people would like it better, and so would I. And I remember that every time I read a scripture story that is hard to understand, or particularly one that is violent and oppressive like this story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son at God’s command. I think of that because I realize that they could have written a better story, if this was just about what they had wanted to write. There is something deeply faithful about the sacredness with which we have held to stories of God and God’s people and in which we have been unwilling to make God or ourselves look better in the telling. As we go through Genesis this summer you will notice that the first families of faith aren’t really reputable people. Abraham’s winning and faithful characteristic is that he says yes to everything and questions nothing. In other times and places this would have made him complicit with evil (and one can and should argue that here in this particular story). Abraham, the yes-sir / yes-ma’am, is considered a hero of faith because he is on the side of God and we presume the side of God is good. Jacob lies, steals and cheats his way into the story – and does those to his own family. But we will tell his stories as our stories of faith and it is from his lineage that we get Israel and our own forerunners in faith. These aren’t lifetime movies or hallmark specials. The Bible is not a family friendly book. Do you remember last year when the History channel did the Bible miniseries? One of the early critiques I saw was that it wasn’t fit for children to watch. I remember thinking, “well duh!!” The bible has rape, murder, genocide, anger and petty jealous – this from God’s side of the story. One should not engage scripture unless you are ready to get real. Surely we are clever enough that we could have come up with a better story. But somewhere in these texts we have sensed a holy wrestling with God. Somewhere in these texts there is an unfolding story of who we are in relationship to God and who God is to us. And if we have learned nothing from these texts we ought to learn to cut ourselves a break when we get it wrong. Because the people have always gotten it wrong.
I ask one more thing of you Abraham, who I have drug all over the ancient near east. Who I have kept waiting for my promises to come true, who I have watched have his family split in two at odds with each other, who has done everything I have asked. Now I ask you to take this child, whom you love and you longed for, this child who you went through so much for, take this child and kill him as an offering to me.
I want nothing to do with that God.
I will not stand up here and tell you to believe in that kind of God. I will not stand up here and play mental gymnastics to explain how this story is okay, because it’s not. What I will do is ask a hard question of us: Is there good news in this kind of story? Is there any redeeming quality to this story?
After seminary and before I pastored my first church I felt a calling – an Abrahamic kind of journey calling – to spend an extra year as a hospital chaplain doing a chaplain residency in downtown Atlanta in a program that could have you working as many as 100 hours a week when you were the weekend chaplain. 1,000 bed hospital with 2 level one trauma centers and a children’s hospital across the street as the only chaplain on overnight shifts. It was a hard year – an emotionally difficult year. There were nights where all you did was death. I recall one weekend shift that from start to finish I walked with nine different families through the death of a loved one. Nine deaths without sleep… when you do that you begin to feel more than a little ashy.
In the midst of that journey you are doing residency work to look at yourself and your interpersonal baggage and how you work with your 6 colleagues and their baggage and that is draining as well. And in the midst of that my wife and I were in year three of trying to have our first child. Now it’s hard to feel the sting of that now because… well now we have four kids. But at that time we were doing the 28 day rollercoaster of did it happen, did it happen, no it did not. And we were in year three of this rollercoaster and like so many who have fertility challenges we had to watch other people be excited about new kids and then news stories about people who had so many kids they didn’t want and on and on and in the midst of that you wonder, “why on God’s green earth can we not have a child?” This journeying took us to doctors and eventually me to what became radically successful reproductive surgery. But I wasn’t there yet…
All three of these streams came together in Holy Week – itself an emotional time. And I remember being in the conference room with the other resident chaplains and our supervisor and we are talking about stuff and it all just broke inside me.
I started sobbing. I was experience the very real death of God for me. And I was experiencing the dilemma of what it means to be the spiritual care for people when God was dead to me. What, and how, can you mediate death with people when you yourself are feeling that God is dead? How can you provide spiritual care when you have no spirit and feel dried up inside?
And all this comes pouring out and these wonderful people who I work with who were friends and comrades in a hard journey began to utter – sorry I can’t sugar coat it – all kinds of crap. Theological platitudes. Nice sounding hallmark cards. How it was going to be okay, how it would all work out according to God’s plan… all the stuff we had been trained to never say, because there is nothing you can say in that kind of moment. And as my colleagues – who I love to this day because we went through a kind of formative hell together – because my colleagues were saying all this I was now feeling worse… its like heaping up ash on someone who is already burned up inside. And then they left…
And I said to my supervisor who was still there – and I’ll never forget this part – “Robin, they’re so unhelpful. And I’m learning how to be a better chaplain right now. And I don’t want to learn from this. I don’t want to learn like this…”
And she didn’t say a word.
I could imagine. (If I’m doing any theological gymnastics I’m warning you it’s about to happen.) I could imagine a well-meaning writer trying to get someone into the angst of that moment saying I was being tested by God.
I could imagine, because I heard and watched and participated in my colleagues who are good and faithful and caring people heap all kinds of theology onto the hell I was living on my Mt. Moriah moment, so I could imagine afterwards saying something like this is the word of the Lord… thanks be to God… and attributing all kinds of motives and causes and results from this story. I could imagine trying to tell it faithfully and mucking it all up. Because there isn’t a good way to tell those kind of stories. It is so easy to try to domesticate those kinds of stories. But we all have these kinds of stories. That’s my point here.. the point is not my story. But our stories. Because if we learn nothing from Abraham we have learned that on the 10th time and the 11th time, and I’m sure on the 12th time when it seems like we have it all together (finally) something else happens that we find ourselves tested and tried and strung out as we stumble into a Mt. Moriah hellish kind of moment. And I look back on it – on my version – and I ask, “Did God put me (do that to me) there to learn something?” And the answer, I believe, is no and the answer is yes.
Because God IS a god who unsettles us, God is a god who tries to break us out of unhealthy patterns and idolatrous myths and practices and God puts us in places to try to understand the deep resources of life in a world that has a lot of death, a lot of hurt, and a lot of harm. And sometimes that feels cruel… is cruel. And sometimes we aren’t really sure how much God is involved in all of that but we do know – on some visceral level – that God is in it all somewhere. And in this midst of that hard challenging news… I also think there is a thread of good news to this story.
The thread of good news is that when we end up in those moments – God is right there with us. You hear that in the end… and then Abraham saw a ram. The Hebrew words for saw and provide have the same root. God/Abraham saw a ram, and God has provided it. God provides a way of life. “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
We will end up in Mt. Moriah moments. We will end up in hellish places that it feels to us that God has led us to dead ends. We will end up in moments where we aren’t sure if God is worthy of our belief, and we will end up in moments where our life or the life of one that means more to us than our life is at risk, and in those moments you cannot get rid of the existential angst, the anguish, and the feeling of death. But you can hear a word that you are not alone. That God is with you working in that hell to provide a way out… a way to life.
On the mountain of the Lord, in the midst of hell, in the challenge that will come in each and every one of our lives – the Lord will provide. Amen.
–Charge and Benediction (call it addendum 1)
The Supervisor of my chaplaincy, her name was Robin, is a beautiful soul. And she would always say we have to live in the tension. Life pulls us into difficult places; we get caught between different truths, between challenge and adversity, a rock and hard place. And as chaplains, as Christians, we are called to live in the tension of those moments. We are not called to resolves the tension but in the midst of that tension to be a presence of love and care. I cannot resolve Abraham’s story. I am not called to. But we are called to enter these stories free of our go-to theological platitudes and full of love to remind ourselves, our neighbors, and the world that even in the midst of hell God is with us and that you are – we all are – the object of the greatest love that ever was, is, and ever will be. So go into the world with whatever peace you can muster. Amen.
I received an anonymous-ish email from a group of friends wanting to engage questions that had been previous shut down by the churches they had tried to ask them in. I share their questions here, and my attempt at first responses because I think we all carry questions, doubts, and fumbling attempts at answers. And we need to be willing to offer them up in order to let others know their questions, and their fumbling attempts at faithfulness, are not alone. We are all a lot like Peter, trying to walk on water to prove we are much more confident than we really are… let us be as willing as Peter to be wrong in an endeavor to walk more deeply in the way of Jesus.
I feel a need to add two thoughts before I address the individual questions:
1) Poor Christianity / Theology / Church practice can easily lead to one questioning Christianity as a whole. In such questioning however I think we need to take care to separate two things out from each other as best we can (and it isn’t always easy): the stated “Truth” of Christianity as spoken by a particular church or person, and the validity of any faith in the way of Jesus Christ. This is to say I think there is some really garbage Christian theology (yes, very judgmental of me – an impulse I try to check but lets face it some things really are garbage and I can be as judgmental as the next person regardless of my attempts not to be) out there but that doesn’t mean that garbage is the fault of Jesus and the way he attempts to lead us in faithful relationship to God and one another… its reflective of the abusive or non-substantive way that those person/s articulates that faith. Does this difference make sense? I do not mean that you cannot criticize Jesus, God, or the way of life we are invited to as disciples of Christ. Criticize away – even the Bible does. But those criticisms are different from criticizing a particular church’s articulation of faith.
2) That last gets at a difference in some ways between faith and religion. Christianity as a religion is problematic (and I say that as one very invested in it). It creates institutions that seek to promote themselves and defines themselves apart from the movement of an itinerant preacher like Jesus and his first followers. The second part of that is that the life of faith is a matter of constant interpretation. It is a dynamic rather than static thing. My answers then are conditional. They are how I interpret the teachings of God and God’s people. Others can take those same teachings and interpret them differently. Some do so in a way that they believe their interpretation is flawless and normative (that all people should believe the same way). I am not one of those people (maybe occasionally but not usually). Its possible I would answer these questions differently next week than I will today… its certain I would next year.
Now to the particular questions themselves:
1) Why did God seem so mean in the Old Testament? Why would a loving God demand the death of so many people: Exodus 35:2, Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 and 22: 13-21, Leviticus 20:13? Why did all the firstborn children in Egypt have to die just because their king was stubborn? Numbers 16: 41-49-death just for complaining? Deuteronomy 13: 6-10, kill family and friends just for having another religion and speaking about it with you?
You sure you don’t want to start with something a little lighter? 🙂 I can’t really answer for God. God had a bad day? I’m not being flippant here. I wish I could answer this better and I will try a bit. Ultimately? I don’t know. There are dark and violent aspects to most spiritual traditions. Why? On some level I believe that is three-fold. One – God is Holy (that means basically… OTHER) and we cannot fully comprehend God and there is some aspect of fear before that which exists on such a different level of being that we are insignificant before God. I think articulations of such Holiness become full of fear, capriciousness, and yes death as a way of making real the different order of being between creation and Creator. Second – I believe Scripture is as much a human document as a divine document. That is I would not consider the Bible to be the dictated and inerrant word of God. Humans wrote it and when we write a story – divinely inspired or otherwise – the story takes on our character. So I believe God, even in Scripture, looks something like we imagine God to be as much as it is the revelation of God. I believe some of the violence of God is the tellers of the story projecting their own violent ways onto God. Third – the Bible is, as you mention earlier, a pre-scientific story. In such a world where so many causes of effects in the world were not seeable and knowable were thus credited to God. If someone couldn’t have children it was God punishing their sin. If someone died for unknown reasons it was an act of God… so was weather and the growth and fall of nations. So I wonder at times how much bloodshed is credited to God that wasn’t much more than the brokenness of creation. I can’t answer that… and yes there is danger (some would say an unacceptable one) of relativizing scripture in this way. And yet it works for me and somehow in the mix of all these things I believe I cannot understand the violence of God in these stories but I can stay in relationship with God. You might say – I extend grace to God just as God has done toward me.
2) If “Ann” was raised in a different culture and a different religion, upon her death, do Christians really believe she will go to Hell forever? If so, she was raised to believe her religion was right just like a lot of Christians. Why should she be punished forever for that?
Or another scenario:
If somebody was raised in an abusive home, grew up living a hard life, died early a sad broken person, never became a Christian. Would that person really go to Hell? If so, how come? They were abused and had a horrible emotionally crippling life, too broken down to accept anyone’s love, let alone believe in God and all because of their family members choices.
Hell. Again, some would answer yes to your questions. I do not agree with this. I believe Jesus died and descended into Hell by way of freeing creation from it. That is to say – I believe Hell, beyond the hell we create here on earth, to be an empty place. I’m a border line Universalist so I believe God desires to save all people, and who am I to say that God will fail. If such a place as Hell exists I would imagine its more likely to find people who knew full well what God desired of us and instead chose to turn that message to their own gain to the detriment of God’s people. Jesus keeps his greatest rebuke for the Pharisees when they become rooted in their own power and control. If there is such a place as Hell I believe it would be reserved for those of us who act in this way rather than in forgiveness and love. Read the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. You notice something? The sheep don’t know they are sheep. They don’t remember doing good things. They just did them. I bet you a fair number of those sheep had no clue about Jesus at all… but they lived in the same way as Jesus and thus got the point Jesus was after – live in love for one another. And the people who were goats? They wanted to do right by Jesus. The problem is they were saving their right for just Jesus. They were looking to do good only when they thought they would get something from it. And that didn’t work for Jesus who tells us the point is to see me in those who are least. Love your neighbor when that neighbor most looks like someone you DO NOT want to call neighbor.
I do not believe there is a place with Pearly Gates called Heaven and a place full of eternal fires called Hell. Not that tangibly at least – maybe its true, who knows – only God really. But I do imagine that the people you describe were welcome into God’s loving embrace, that were at peace, blessed, and made whole- and I take a comfort in the belief that the same will await me one day whether I’m aware of it or not. This is the Gospel. It’s a very religious thing to try to put gates around such love…. I firmly believe God would rip such gates down and look at us with that look that spoke a thousand words: still you do not understand grace.
3) The bible was written so long ago. The world and people have changed so much since. Technology, science, medicine, people’s concepts of life have come so far. Is the bible still relevant? Why is there no new teachings/ideas to keep up with all the other changes?
I believe Scripture operates as myth (yes this would be a scary word to Scriptural literalists but that’s their problem not mine). That is they are deep and abiding stories that seek to understand the life of God in the midst of God’s people. I am not a slave in Egypt. But I can understand what it means to be a pawn in systems that are so big I am voiceless and powerless. I am not an exile in Babylon but I can understand what it means to be forsaken even by God. I am not an unnamed woman who has hemorrhaged blood for 12 years becoming more and more hopeless and isolated. But I can feel the good news of having one who sheds titles given to him like Prince of Peace, Savior, and Lord and also stops what he is doing to acknowledge me because he thinks I am important enough to stop on his way to “important people’s aid” to speak directly to me and welcome me back into the community. These stories don’t need technology and science to speak their truths. They do require the work of interpretation to find how they speak to us and our context. That was always true, and always will be. And I believe God prefers it that way because it requires us to participate in the story telling even as listeners (though too many people wish “experts” would just tell them what to do… to this I believe God says: no).
I think there are lots of new teachings. We simply have ceased to call these teachings a part of the Bible. Another day we can talk about how the Bible came to be but for today your current questions are enough and I think its enough to say: the canonical content of the Bible is closed but the process of mining these stories by the power of the Holy Spirit for a message to us today is a constantly open and occurring and necessary. God is Living. Nothing is done or over.
4) Why do so many Christians and churches use fear as a tactic to sell Christianity? Hell is often used as a threat to freak people into going to church/being a Christian. Many times I’ve been told “what if you’re wrong, you’ll burn in hell forever. It seems wrong to believe in a religion just in case because you don’t want to burn in hell.
If someone has a faith that they believe is necessary for salvation, and if someone believes that this faith is perfect and untarnished and must be defended to stay that way… I guess they will do anything to protect it and anything to make other people to adopt it. I came across a thought from Carl Jung (psychologist) the other day, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.”
If you think that Heaven is the destination we are all aiming for and that a certain belief in Jesus is the only bridge to get to it – you will do all sorts of things to make sure people do, and you will live in a constant worry that you are still on the bridge. Such things place a great deal of dependence for salvation on our will, choices, and life rather than on God. And I must say it mystifies me. Shaming people into good works is not itself a good work. And you cannot create love by guilt or by force. If God is love, you have to move people to love by living love. An author I like named Eugene Peterson says we must not simply ask What would Jesus do, but How would Jesus do it. So all I can really say is – I agree with you. I don’t understand fear as a motivator to Christianity, and Hell as a threat (like the naughty and nice list of Santa Claus). And no – belief as “hedging your bets” is not really a life forming faith. Its empty words.
5) Why do we pray? If it changes Gods mind then he is not sovereign. If it does not change Gods mind then it doesn’t seem to have a point.
A question for you: If God chooses to change God’s mind… does that mean God isn’t sovereign? It is still God choosing to do something by God’s own will… even if the suggestion didn’t originate with God.
A second thought. I believe there is a cathartic (and thus healing) effect of voicing our challenges, hurts, and laments. So even if God is not some doctor in the sky at our beck and call (and I don’t believe God is) merely “talking it out with God” can itself have healing effects. I think prayer is best understood as a conversation with God. We may make it about our wants and needs… but it is meant to be a conversation of clarification. We discern what God’s will for us, we speak our will to God… we hopefully find some solace and togetherness in the conversation. It doesn’t mean we get what we want. It doesn’t mean its clear and easy – when is conversation ever clear and easy? Maybe it is amongst good friends… a reason to practice prayer regularly so we get better at that particular conversation. So I guess what I want to say to you is… what do you understand prayer to be about?
6) We have free will, but it seems like a joke. We either accept Jesus and go to paradise for eternity or refuse and upon death be damned to hell forever. How is that freedom of choice when it is the same as having a gun to your head?
Do we have free will? Is this a given? To some degree I would agree with you and to some extant I would not. I certainly would not agree with the next sentence. That is a particular articulation of one interpretation of Christianity. It does not speak for me or mine. I think there is a bigger question of free will – which I’m not sure you are asking – about is our will ever really free (we are after all products of our environment, of systems around us, of our parents… etc. We aren’t nearly so free as we imagine). I think here you are still wrestling with this second sentence. If this is the sum of Christianity what is the point… and in that case I would say: I don’t know. I reject it and so I’m not even interested in discovering what would be the point of such a thing. I know the world of which you speak and are wrestling with (recovering from?) and how it speaks its Truth of Christianity. All I can say is that it is not the only way of understanding Christianity and it isn’t mine and it bugs me to hear it because I know how much abuse has been done in the name of Christ by such articulations. “God is love, those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” I John 4:17 (might be 16 I’m getting lazy and not looking it up at the moment… you’ll find it – and trust me I’m not making it up.) If these words are true. (And I believe they are.) Gun to the head theology is anathema. A loving God would not extort devotion. Such a God invites us to understand that the only way we love God is by being loving people towards ourselves and each other… all others.
7) What’s the point of Satan, why did God create him if he knew what he would do? Why does God bother letting him exist now?
What the point? Maybe we should start with who (or what) is Satan? Hasatan (in Hebrew) mean the accuser. Early in Scripture Satan is not necessarily an adversary to God. Satan is like the prosecuting attorney. Satan is the “devil’s advocate” of God’s heavenly court. Only later do we begin to think of Satan as an actual force or advocate of evil. This is probably for many reasons… Judaism does not start out monotheistic but becomes so – so we have to eliminate non-God god-like beings. Also we have to understand why God’s will doesn’t just happen and sometimes rather than blame ourselves we scapegoat Satan. Other times there is such palpable evil that can’t help but give it a name and agency… Satan. Lastly I think there times we don’t want to believe things of God and so we actually split God into two beings: God the good, and Satan the bad (aka bad-god). I think this is more about us and our child-like need to make the world black and white (even God) than it is really a truth of the nature of God. But what do I know – I have no special insight to such things. Satan is. Satan is not. I believe both of these things to be true. I could say more here but it would get confusing (as in I would begin to confuse myself) and I’ll hold off for now. All of these question require a bit of give and take in conversation so we’ll see what you do with that first foray.
8) What/who is God? He’s not really a man with grey hair and beard, wearing a robe, sitting in the clouds, right? If not what is he, what does he look like or resemble?
Well, you began and end with HUGE questions. Do I get to say I don’t know? There are many answers to this question and none of them is right and none are probably wrong and absolutely none is the full answer. We talk about Jesus Christ as God’s self-revelation – he gives us insight into who and what God is. But the whole of God? It would be like asking if we could find a place from which to view the whole universe… which, if scientists are right, is growing – at least until it starts shrinking – so how could we ever do such a thing? Even if for a moment we glimpsed the grandeur of it all – in the next moment it would be more than it was, and in truth we lack the faculties to even “see” it. Such is God I think. There is a mystery to God we cannot fully comprehend. And yet in all that majesty God chose to descend into human form out of desire to be in relationship to us. Little ol’ us. God wants to know us, and be known by us. What does God look like? I believe God looks like you and your husband and your friends sitting around asking questions, God looks like a gay family member who has been hurt and psychologically abused by the very people who profess to be devoted to love, God looks like a child whose eyes are full of wonder, God looks like the sky on a clear night where you stair up into an abyss and you are pretty sure there must be someone like you on some other world who is staring back at you right now. (okay maybe that’s just me.) To quote it again, “God is love.” We have a need to turn God into a person, but God is more than that, and pursuing God as some external object we can catch and hold onto is, in some way, to try to control God – who is infinite – by making God less. This is why to say God is love works so well for me (though it wasn’t my idea) – you cannot hold love. You cannot even fully define it. But you can feel it, and you can see it when it’s happening. So that I can see something and say – God is in that. But it is very hard to come up with some objective definition of God apart of the life of God’s creation.
This may feel wholly (and holy) inadequate. But I’ll let that stand as a first response. Please question my responses; let me know where they don’t work – what the problems with them are, or what further questions they inspire. And we will go from there. Like I said – next week I would probably say something different!
- Snake handling. Yes thank you longer ending to Mark, because of you we get this, “And he said to them, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mark 16:16-18)
- Too many genealogy nuts! You know how every family has one of those people who tracks down all your great-great-grandfathers and mothers? Well Jesus had two of those. Matthew and Luke. Too bad they got different results. I mean they are good up to David but after that it all goes awry and they can’t even agree with who Joseph’s father was. (compare Matthew 1 with Luke 3)
- Speaking of family issues exactly what came first the chicken or the egg? I mean, Adam or Eve? You see we make a lot of Adam being created first but that is actually in the second creation story (Genesis 2) while in the more well-known creation story in Genesis 1, the one with the days of the week, Adam and Eve are actually created at the same time. So which is it? Do we actually know how all this happened, is the Bible just guessing, is this a multiple choice test?
- Pretty much everyone commits adultery! We spend a lot of time on sexuality but we are usually careful in our application of such standards (making sure to apply them to others not ourselves). Jesus isn’t. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 and following) he is quite clear. Anyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery. Then something about plucking out our eye. Really? They will know we are Christian by our eye-patches. (Keep reading if you really want Jesus to speak to you on divorce as well… yes more adultery – we have quite the theme going here.)
- Lions, and Tigers, and Bears – Oh My! Okay more like Levitical Codes, mythical beasts, and murderous happenings. I mostly steered clear of this one because it’s the stuff that populates other such lists. But yah – no eating shellfish, or playing with pig skin, and watch out for Leviathan and unicorns, and don’t forget not to mock adults after reading the story of the 42 children slaughtered by two she-bears for mocking Elisha (2 Kings 2:24). We read all this… and there is a lot of it, and then we say, “This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” Whatever we mean when we say that after reading things we mostly or completely ignore.
- God forgets God’s own rules. Peter has a vision that reprimands him about not eating “unclean” food. God’s rebuke: “The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15) The challenge? It was in Leviticus 11 that God forbid Jews from eating these things. So Peter didn’t call them profane, God did. Only apparently God has forgotten that – or changed it and neglected to tell poor Peter until making a public display of it.
- Speaking of unfortunate people just trying to help. Helpers shall be executed! At least in one case. 1 Chronicles 13 and 2 Samuel 6 tell the story of poor Uzzah who is killed for daring to touch the Ark of the Covenant. Must have come as a big surprise for him because he thought he was steading it so it wouldn’t fall over. Be careful about doing a favor for God apparently – at least that was David’s take-away that day.
Bonus Round for good measure:
- The worst recruiter ever. I have to add 8 because these are texts I spend a lot of time with in my journey. It doesn’t matter where you start looking; Jesus is horrible at the recruiting game. Give away everything you own and only then can you start following me? (Luke 18:22) Family too… and the dead… and pretty much everything (Luke 9:51-62). The rewards of this will be great in heaven… if you get past the part about being sent as lambs among wolves (Luke 10:3) with pretty much nothing to call possessions (a challenge to anyone who thinks prayer will get you material wealth). In fact Jesus takes all and offers a life filled with persecution and prohibitions seemingly (there are other voice of course – thankfully – but that the point really). Worst deal ever!
So what in the world is the point of this? Why start (and really this is just a flash in the pan, a first set of musings about the outrageous that exists in Holy Scripture) a list that seems to discredit the Bible? The point is that we live in an age (and probably every age shares this) that is very confused about the Bible. On average we aren’t very literate in what is in there, and we think a lot is there that actually isn’t thanks to good Christian storytellers like Dante and his contemporaries today. We are prone to leave much, if not all, the interpretation up to “experts” which further distance us from reading and knowing and exploring ourselves. We don’t realize how many different texts there are or the translational challenges that exist to create anything close to an “authentic” version. And we pick and choose which parts we really believe God said… because honestly DON’T handle poisonous snakes – just don’t do it.
But… but all this aside we then say things like: “Well the Bible says…” or “Its very clear the Book of Genesis/Mark/Revelation/Whatever tells us…” or, for that matter, “This is the word of the Lord.” As if that is all that there is to say, it’s that clear and that definitive and that final.
Please don’t get me wrong. I love scripture. The Bible is a unique and authoritative voice in my life. But not because “I said so” or its divine equivalent. It’s far more complex than that. It’s like Jacob wrestling with the angel. (Genesis 32) I’m as much put out of joint by it than I am given an identity, purpose, and direction. Abraham was instructed to kill his son, but that isn’t a warrant for you to do the same. The Bible says many many things. It contradicts itself. It corrects itself. It has fluid understanding of what it means – just look at almost any interpretation from Paul of the Old Testament and you will have to admit he does strange things with it.
The church has an ages old crisis of authority when it comes to scripture. It is all too common to claim someone is abandoning scripture when it’s just that they interpret it different from you. Peter abandons scripture… because God tells him too. The Bible is as much about the group of people listening to it as it is about the group of people speaking and the Holy Spirit dwells in both parts of that equation. The Bible isn’t simply true because it was dictated by God. It is true because it is the living testimony to the living God. Its truth comes in those moments when the community of faith – wrestling with direction and identity – is put out of joint by it and named by God through it. So tread carefully – sandals off for we are on holy ground – when you are discerning how the Bible speaks to you, to us, today. And be careful how you measure a verse to the chapter to the Book to the whole arc of Scripture before you say, “The Bible says…” because somehow this merry band of outrageous texts IS the Word of God, just as somehow this merry band of eclectic and crazy people IS the Body of Christ. We need to be treated with care – with respect for the whole voice and with caution that we don’t just pick who to listen to because that is the most convenient truth for our lives.
Thanks (most days at least, sometimes I’m far more put out of joint) be to God!