Monthly Archives: March 2017

Defending Coffee Bars, Trend Setting Sermon Series, and Couches

A recent widow writes in response to contemporary church culture with respect to coffee bars, sermon series, and couches. “When church leaders sit around and discuss how they can reach people, I don’t think they have the widow in mind. I don’t think they have the cancer patient in mind. I don’t think they have the children who are growing up without a parent in mind. I am not paying attention to the church décor when I walk through the doors. I don’t want to smell fresh brewed coffee in the lobby. I don’t want to see a trendy pastor on the platform. I don’t care about the graphics or the props on the platform. I am hurting in a way that is almost indescribable.”

And I get that, totally massively get that…

The thing is, dealing with such grief is far outside the domain of the church. I mean I totally get the expectation of such that maybe the church should be there, after all it does funerals, and pastors can and do provide wise council in times of grief. In addition, when one consider Galatians 6:2 in isolation… bear one another burdens seems an entirely reasonable expectation for the church with respect to grief matters, that is until said verse is read in context.

Bottom line, grief ministry is beyond the scope of practice for most churches. Sure, they will have a trained pastor with a few units of clinical pastoral education. Maybe a few might have a Stephen ministry… but the average person in the pew is not equipped for such, and this is where one often runs into a jam really fast.

Consider that there are hundreds of things believers can say to a grieving person, and nearly every one of them, short of a few, is ill advised, Such includes badly chosen prayer verbiage… more than a few times, I thought, are you really going there??? Its really easy to get frustrated by such when it happens over and over and over… and yes, knowing that said folks have the best of intent helps mitigate some of the harm, it is still is a very sucky place to be in when you sort of wish you could rain down fire instead.

 
Personally, I leaned on friends of all faiths, and found lone rangering in the church environment to be the most helpful. I worshiped corporately, but outside of coming in late and leaving early, I kept my distance. I’ve heard similar stories from other widowers. Jesus is the answer… but his followers, not so much.
 
That being said, grieving is an individual thing… for some, they really need the close and upfront support of a community of faith… but then they will have to figure out other ways to deal with the counterproductive approaches of church folks. I don’t know how one would go about this. The other side of the coin, is that maybe the church needs to do a better job of equipping its members to approach widows and widowers, but it seems the only way to truly learn it is trial by fire, and that’s not so great either.
 
And while the coffee bar, dimmed lights, sermon series,  or even a trendy couch on a stage likely won’t bring folks to Jesus, the probability of them going counterproductive is exceedingly low. I wish I had a better answer.

Christian Unity and Uniformity of Beliefs

You know trouble is on the horizon, when someone says, the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it without truly thinking things through. The Bible says a ton of stuff for sure… alas man’s leaning towards self-deception, man’s inability to see things clearly, and our old Adam zest for power muddies the water a great deal when it comes to how we interpret what the Bible says. 33,000 is a figure often quoted as to the number of distinct Christian belief systems… and yet within those belief structures, when you start asking questions at the pew level, you will often find even greater diversity.

Did God intend for potentially millions of different interpretations of the scriptures?

Genesis 11 suggests God has issues with too much like minded thinking. Ie, God’s confusion of languages and scattering of peoples with respect to the construction of the tower of Babel.

And yet, we have Jesus prayer for unity in John 17…

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one,Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

So what gives with this… is God changing his tune, or do we have something hosed up in how we are reading this?

I think the answer in part is the trinity.

One issue in The Shack film, is the bit where in papa had the marks of the cross. For theological nerds, this heresy known as patripassionism is problematic as it makes the Son and The Father one, rather than 2 distinct persons. Ie, within the teachings of the trinity, Jesus is God, the Father is God, but Jesus is not the Father, nor is the Father, Jesus. For many folks though, this distinction is probably glossed over… on the surface it seems we theological nerd types may as well be arguing over how many angels will fit on the tip of a pin.

But this is key… the Father and Jesus are distinct persons. Consider John 17:22-23 taken to an extreme, is Jesus suggesting that we are to be God in the above text too?

And while I don’t necessarily think God’s plan was to have millions of interpretations of the scriptures, I think its also pretty clear his thoughts on being one do not equate to 100% uniformity in beliefs either. Consider the later part of Galatians 3 where Paul talks about oneness in Christ, there is no Jew nor Greek…. and yet Romans 11 is pretty clear that he didn’t throw the old covenant away with the bathwater either.

Its also helpful to ponder 1 Cor 13, where it talks about us seeing dimly, and the passing of gifts, ages, and time as well as growth in Christ.

And yet, people can have a intense need for certainty. Struggles with the mysteries of faith can become really hard at times…  The whole bit about working out your salvation with fear and trembling is not really applicable to the dude the Samaritan found alongside the road, the pilot who came within seconds of death, or the husband whose wife just died in his arms. In those times, Jesus is reaching out, just as he did for Peter, but it may not feel like such…

And while we do have certainty in the resurrection… the error is one where in we take said certainty from beyond the scriptures into our personal and/or tribal interpretations of said scriptures. Consider what could happen if one built their faith on rapture theology, and then learned about Darby later in life where in things start to unravel. And while basing ones relationship on the rapture is an extreme… building God into an exclusive box of ones own making generally doesn’t work out too well.

And for the box rattling that The Shack film brings about I am grateful.

Ponderings on “The Shack” Film

So I watched The Shack last night… what a fascinating film. Unlike a lot of films which go off into lala land theologically or others in trying not to offend go Christian cliche crazy, The Shack dived in with gusto. Granted, as an act of fiction, there was a fair bit of creative license, but in general, I found nothing worth getting bent out of shape over. Alas, I can understand that others may well have a bird, as films generally do drive public theology… and if that happens, significant challenges to some belief structures may come about, and most certainly questions, perhaps uncomfortable ones will be raised.

One of the biggest issues and an overwhelming theme presented in the film is theodicy, (the problem of evil). In a nutshell, if God is all good, and God is all powerful, then why does evil exist? This is an uncomfortable question… the scriptures are really dim, so glossed over responses like Genesis 50:20 which really don’t address it at large are pretty typical. Such works in Sunday school… being most youngsters aren’t going to get hit with a need for that question straight on, and even if they do, the glossed over stuff is likely enough for them to get by. The challenge is that outside of Sunday school, and more typically later in life… that question can become very real, with the most common results being to reject God’s goodness, His all powerful nature, or even His existence.

It is a tough question… theologians have been pounding on it for centuries and a number of theories are possible, most with a heavy dose of philosophy, most remaining within the bounds of the scriptures, and only a few going off into theological lala land. Craig Smith presents a list of common theories, as well as where he felt “The Shack” aligned.  I agree with his conclusion that “The Shack’s” means of addressing the problem of evil seems to fall within the confines of scripture.

One of the most visible controversies is how the trinity is portrayed. While I agree with the objections as concerned trinitarian heresies… I’ll counter this with the fact that its really really easy to slip into such when trying to explain it, even more so when you step away from the creeds of the early church. I remember a buddy doing a survey of US evangelicals years ago… 70% proudly proclaimed they were trinitarian and in the next question denied Mary as the Mother of God. Now, some might argue this is being too picky… but then again, Nestorianism was named for this heresy. Thus, when The Shack steps into Patripassionism (that the Father died on the cross) and a form of modalism (when the Father changes persons)… is it really that huge a deal for a fiction film?

the trinity
The Trinity in a graphical representation

Granted the trinity is important, and that deviations from such have historically proved problematic. Ie the early church dudes mostly wanted to keep folks on the right path as illuminated by the scriptures when they identified these heresies. And yet, theology should be accessible, but egads, we’ve got a kazillian latin word combos and names to identify said heresies. Add in that today’s average Christian’s doesn’t even participate in Bible studies, I don’t know what the answer is… but I do know its pretty easy to end up with a lot of glazed eyeballs if discussions get too deep in this.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1617 - 1682<br /> The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities ('The Pedroso Murillo')<br /> about 1675-82<br /> Oil on canvas, 293 x 207 cm<br /> Bought, 1837<br /> NG13<br /> http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG13
The Pedroso Murillo

Another controversy was the use of an African American Woman, A Jewish Carpenter, and an Asian woman to represent God and a bit later a Native American. Since we are created in the image of God, trinitarian issues aside, I see nothing wrong with this representation. God is not male nor female and exhibits both gender attributes. Casting an old white European dude as God and a European Jesus and leaving the Holy Spirit as a dove while perhaps traditional in some sense, would not have really aligned with the scriptures or history. I think character representation was a great call. I also think it really cool that Sarayu, a Hindu name which means flow / wind was also brilliantly chosen to say nothing of the fact that the Holy Spirit is of the female gender from a linguistic pov.

 

An interesting thing to ponder with the film is the almost exclusive  focus on God’s love leaving His wrath and justice aside. Consider the following bits:

  • We were never put on this earth to judge. We were put on this earth to love and find joy. Evil wins when we judge.
  • “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

Such has echoes of the Christus Victor or even Eastern atonement theories… and while scripture supports many atonement theories, some in the US often only ascribe to one, namely PSA (Penal Substitutionay Atonement). Ie, Christ’s bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.

This will cause conflict, as some in the exclusive PSA camp integrate it with the Gospel itself, completely ignoring the other major theories of atonement. In such a worldview, “The Shack” would be presenting a totally different Gospel. So yes, some heartburn over this within the exclusive PSA camp is going to happen…

The thing is, atonement theories are a complex and somewhat tricky thing to get ones head around. In isolation, its easy for a single theory to put God in a box by selectively downplaying parts of scripture counter to its focus. Such happens whether its Ransom, Satisfaction, Christus Victor, PSA, Moral Influence , Recapulation, Scapegoat, Government, Eastern, or any of a multitude of minor theories. Folks digging into this may well find its a fruitful experience as their worldview will expand, but its likely to be uncomfortable for some.

Theology aside, the Gospel in and of itself is pretty simple and readily accessible to all. Paul hits on this pretty explicitly in 1 Col :15-23

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

 

Contextualizing Biblical truths through stories and even film to make them accessible to the masses is a very good thing as it can bring new people into the fold, it can encourage those already in the fold, and it can even bring about greater depth through the discussions that result. Its a film which is well worth seeing.

On the Hating of Christians

In John 15:18-24, Jesus talks about how the world will hate the disciples, just as it first hated him. On first glance, I’m thinking why would the world hate Jesus, I mean the Gospel’s a pretty powerful thing, it makes no sense. Or maybe it does… Jesus had a lot of hard words to say to religious folks, he up ended their power structures, he rolled the temple money changers, he stopped a woman caught in adultery from being stoned, he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton, he worked on Sunday. In other words, he convicted a lot of religious folks that they really weren’t all the righteous. Beyond that aspect… why would he be hated? Verse 25 gives us a clue in this in that it is fullfillment of what is written in the law. That he would be hated without reason.

As such, hate at some point or another should be expected, folks don’t like to be called on the carpet.  Alas, care is also needed in this… Christian’s should not expect to get a free pass from the world when they do heinous things. Psalm 35:19 is instructive in this…

Do not let those gloat over me who are my enemies without cause; do not let those who hate me without reason maliciously wink the eye.

An old buddy of mine lives in Ireland, and his wife shared a news clipping a few days back… and the commentary was filled with hate for Christians. Probably some of the most intense hate I’ve ever encountered which prompted me to crank out this blog posting. The thing is, in this case, the hate of the world was not only reasonable, it was more than justifiable. Christianity did many horrendous things in ages long past… folks may have started out with seemingly good intentions, and then as time passed, they found it expeditious to do more and more evil, so that good would come… except good never came, rather evil enveloped Christianity. And in the case of the news clipping where 800 babies were buried in a septic tank by nuns as little as 50-60 years ago… to say nothing of what appears to be a failure to provide food and medical care, thus leasing to the demise of said children, its plain and simple evil. Considering there were many such homes, with some saying there may be as many as 7000 victims… Well, the world is going to condemn such actions in a huge way.

Sure, the scriptures tell us to flee sexual immorality, but there is NO excuse whatsoever to cast unwed mothers and their babies aside, much less to separate them and deny them food and medical care. I don’t care how much of a prude or sexual control freak one is, there is no place for actions done in the name of Christianity or even humanity for this.

And yet, you have the apologists for such actions saying well, abortion is much worse… but unlike Jesus, where he convicted religious people of their sin and was hated, the world doesn’t see abortion is worse, as many don’t see an embryo as really human. And yet, anyone can see that an unwed mother and her baby are just as human as the pope… and yet by the actions of those Christians,  the unwed mother and her baby must have been considered less than human.

I think its a similar deal with the hate experienced by the anti-biracial marriage folks of the past, or the anti-gay marriage folks of the present. The world says, hey you want to get married, go for it, where as some Christians say wait a minute, this isn’t right… and if it was left at a theological disagreement, there would be no hate in the matter. Alas, a small minority of Christians ie Fred Phelps types go off the deep end, where no fruits of the spirit can be found and hate abounds. Sadly, this small number of folks polarizes things and builds hate up on both sides.

I mean, its crazy making that parent child relationships end when a kid comes out gay and marries his partner. There is no loving God or loving one’s neighbor when a parent child relationship gets destroyed and/or a church or synagoge gets a bullet hole in if after being willing to marry a bi-racial or gay couple… and lots of innocent folks on both sides get caught up in it. Its going to take a long time to rebuild some of those relationships. Alas, I think Psalm 69:4 may be useful  in such… but it is a hard thing to handle too.

Those who hate me without reason outnumber the hairs of my head; many are my enemies without cause, those who seek to destroy me.
I am forced to restore what I did not steal.

Bottom line, hate without reason is what Jesus was talking about. Ie hate due to someone being convicted of sin, leads said convicted folks to hate the messenger… after all its a large part of why folks back then hung Jesus on the cross. Alas, this is much different than hate directed at the messenger for the damage the messenger created apart from the message. There is no get out of jail free card for that.