Doubt and Dialogue (Recap)

Last Sunday (and I know that this a little late – I plan on doing this on Tuesday from now on), the sermon was titled Doubt and Dialogue.  The scripture was from Mark, with the man with the son who was possessed. The verse that most people remember from the pericope is when the man cries out to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

The man wants to believe, but he’s having trouble.  He’s doubting; all sorts of things.  He’s doubting Jesus’ power, His love, His ability to do anything.  The man says “if you can do anything, please have pity on us.”  “Have pity” is from the Greek word for your gut – where we feel emotions, according to Greek philosophy.  In America, we tend to talk about feeling in our hearts, but for the ancient Greeks you felt things in your gut, just like when we talk about “butterflies” we get before a speech or when we’re with the one we love.  And the man’s doubt is coming from the same place.

What strikes me is that Jesus doesn’t rebuke him.  He calls the boy to Him and casts out the evil spirit.  Jesus, in fact, never rebukes someone for doubting.  He rebukes people for being too arrogant and thinking they know it all – the Pharisees for the most part.

My argument is that doubt is not really the opposite of faith.  I think arrogance is the opposite of faith.  It is when we think we know it all when we get into trouble with Jesus, not when we have trouble believing in His goodness or power.  Doubt He can work with, but if we have walled ourselves off from His touch…He won’t open the door we’ve shut.  He “stands at the door and knocks.”   Arrogance is the problem of faith, not doubt.  We all doubt.  That is part of being human.  Some have even argued that the episode in the garden of Gethsemene is possibly Jesus Himself doubting.  (“If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; not My will but Yours be done.”)  That’s another post, though.

There really are two fundamental reasons that we doubt.  One – we just are having trouble feeling it.  We have trouble putting this into words – largely because that part of our brain and thinking does not use words.  We just…feel the doubt in our gut.  It’s like when we meet someone and we just know they are not right.  You don’t know why – and you certainly can’t elucidate the reason…you just KNOW.  Or two – we think we know about it and don’t believe it intellectually. “No one can beat a four-minute mile!  It just can’t be done!”

This is arrogance.  This is doubt from a place above the act.  Deciding that the miracles in the Bible could NOT happen because miracles just don’t happen is the same thing.  We are so sure – because we are so sure.  Like in the case of a four-minute mile – we knew it couldn’t be done because it had never been done.  Until it was. Currently, the world record for a mile is 3:43.13, by the way.  More than sixteen seconds faster than the time that “everyone” said could not be achieved.  Humans can’t fly.  We can’t run that fast.  We can’t…and so on.  People don’t rise from the grave.  It is the same thing.  It is us being arrogant.  It’s no different at its core than people thinking that eggs are really bad for you – until more studies have been done and now it’s the “perfect food.”  It is us thinking that we know it all, and not allowing for the possibility that we could be wrong.

My point is this- doubt in itself is not a bad thing, but arrogance is.  Jesus wants us to believe in Him, but we have a hard time believing when we come to the Bible and His people from a place held above it all.  We need to humble ourselves enough to doubt our own surety – and be able to talk about it.  The only way forward through doubt is dialogue (unless He shows up and does some sort of a miracle and proves Himself to us – which could happen!  But it seems like it’s pretty rare.).  The only way to get through doubt – is to talk about it.

Do we have a culture of doubt and dialogue in the Church?  There certainly does not seem to be one out in the world – read any political forum on the ‘web!  But we need one.  We need one to be able to grow – in our faith, in our understanding, as disciples.  We need to be open enough to be able to walk into the Church and say – “I am having some trouble with this!  Help me!”  And then be able to talk it out.  We may not be able to solve everything – and sometimes, as they say, we just have to push the “I believe button”, but it moves us forward.

So bring your doubt, and let’s talk it out.

Revelation Recap

 

We’ve been studying the book of Revelation in Sunday school over the last couple months – and we decided to continue it on this blog over the summer.  God willing, we’ll finish!  I thought I would do a sort of re-cap of the first three chapters that we’ve talked about.

First, a couple of ground rules and background.  Revelation (or the Apocalypse) literally means, in Greek, “that which has been revealed.”  Apocalypse is a transliteration of the word in Greek – the word itself actually has nothing to do with what we think of when we hear the word “apocalypse,” meaning a terrible and possibly world-ending disaster.  The book is, however, at least in some way about the End Times.  It was written in the early second century AD (or possibly very late first century), by a man named John, who was a disciple of Jesus.  The author may have been the same man who wrote the Gospel of John and the three letters of John, he may have been different.  Tradition holds that they were the same man. Continue reading

Culture

What is “culture,” anyway?  We have started this series about Christian Culture in church…what am I talking about?  Merriam-Webster defines “culture” as “a way of thinking, behaving, or working” which is not bad as definitions go.  But what does it mean to us?

Andy Crouch, the author of a wonderful book called Culture Making, says culture has something to do with “making something of the world” – that is, what you “make” of the world around you.  It is what you DO with the stuff around you – the idea of being able to make an idea or a thought or a product etc when presented with the stuff of being around you.  Clotaire Rapaille, a French author and marketing expert, wrote a book called The Culture Code in which he boils down a people’s beliefs about certain ideas to a single word or phrase through extensive research.  For example, he argues that for Americans “perfection” means “death” – that is, there IS no perfection this side of death so we might as well not strive to make it in our products.  He says that is why we buy products and then two years later throw them out and buy new ones that are “better” and “new and improved.”  For Rapaille, culture is a set of beliefs about the world that are ingrained and impossible to change.

The underlying beliefs and assumptions about everything that IS.  Most of the time, we don’t even know that we think in a certain way – we don’t see it because everyone around us thinks basically the same thing.  Not about issues like immigration or whether Jesus is the Son of God or not – but about things like time.  Time is a fascinating…thing.  In the words of the Doctor, it is a “ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff.”  But that’s not the way we think about it.  Not really.

We, as Americans, are future oriented.  That is, we think about the future as it is coming and try to prepare for it.  We assume that it is going to be different; and almost certainly better (although that particular assumption appears to be changing – note the proliferation of apocalyptic scenarios that we read and watch).  We see time as a vast, unlimited freight train barreling into the future where flying cars and economics of prosperity and equality are unlimited.  “You can’t stop the march of time.”  Time is also capable of being broken down into units – days, hours, minutes, seconds are all clearly defined; and for most of us defined not only in a length, but in value: “time is money.”  “That’s not worth my time,” and so on.  We don’t think about it – because that is the way it IS.

But it’s not that way for everyone.  And it certainly wasn’t always the way people thought about time.  Time tables and schedules have not always been around.  In fact, for most of our time (see!) here on this earth, people have been more present or past oriented.  It’s only the last hundred years or so that we have shifted our focus.  For ancient societies (like the one that is assumed in Scripture), the present was and will always be, until the “end” when Jesus will return and re-make the heavens and the earth.  Time was divided more into days, seasons, and years – not minutes and seconds.  The past was better than now (generally the age of heroes and giants, see Genesis 3-6 or so) – but “now” was unchanging:  other than a few minor changes like who might be in charge, nothing really was going to change in the foreseeable future.  It will be like today.

Culture is the unknown way you look at the world.  You don’t even KNOW that you look at it that way, until someone comes along that doesn’t look at it in the same way.  To take a simple example, what do you call a single dish entrée that contains several different ingredients such as meat, pasta, and vegetables that is served in the deep dish it was baked in?  If you’re from Minnesota – it’s a “hot dish” and you probably were surprised when someone you met called it a “casserole.”  You never even considered that there was another word for it.  Culture is like that.

So what does that mean for the church?  And Christian culture?  Part of my point in this series is that Christian culture means the same thing it meant almost 2000 years ago.  We aren’t “American Christians” – or we shouldn’t be.  We are Christians who happen to live in America.  There are ways that we do things that are distinctly American – but we are Christians first.  THAT is our culture.  We need to form Christians…and our church should reflect that culture.  We are citizens of heaven before we are citizens of any other place here on earth.   No matter what else has changed, that hasn’t.  How do we become Christians first – and Americans second, knowing that even in talking about all this, we are looking at Christian culture from an American worldview.

The Practice of Prayer

prayerLast night at the Wednesday night Lenten service – which is much more like a class than a full-on service – we talked about prayer.  Not just how to do it, but how to have a real active prayer life.  We watched a quick clip from War Room (a fabulous movie- you should watch it!).

Prayer, at its basic level, is communicating with God.  It is two-way – that is, God talks to us too!  We need to listen.  So often, we tend to fold our hands and bow our heads and give a prayer from our hearts – and then immediately get thinking about other things right after the “Amen.”  In the West, we immediately migrate towards what is called kataphatic prayer – prayer of words and speech; us talking to God.  We need more apophatic – prayers of feelings and silence, where we listen for God’s voice in the stillness of our hearts and minds.

I suggest a beginning practice of prayer – if you’ve ever read or heard a class about Eastern Meditation, this will sound familiar.  Start with a place and a time – it doesn’t have to be complicated or for too long – but a place where you can focus on God.  Someplace where other things won’t distract you.  Pray at a time when other things won’t distract you.  Spend a minute or two in silence and just focus on the presence of God – He is always with you.  Think about Jesus; think about what He has done and continues to do for you.  Think about the Spirit; think about how the Spirit fills you and speaks to you.  Then…pray.

One way to pray is by using other people’s words – find yourself a prayer book.  We Protestants don’t have a lot of them that aren’t used as worship books – but there are plenty out there.  I love to use the prayers of the Desert Fathers, personally – when I can find them online.  [I’ve had real trouble finding a collection to just open up and read…]  I also like some of the collections of Celtic Prayers from the early church in Britain – Celtic Blessings: Prayers for Everyday Life by Ray Simpson is good.  There are LOTS of prayer books!  The wonderful thing about praying someone else’s prayer that has lasted so long is that they so often speak exactly what we would LOVE to say but don’t have the words.  The Fathers and Mothers so often can speak to the Lord in a way…that we just don’t know yet.

Start with these.  Start for just a few minutes – focus.  Read the words slowly – out loud if you don’t feel too silly.  Think about what you’re saying.  Focus.  Don’t lose heart – because you will lose your focus.  Stuff will intrude.  Be prepared to fight to talk to God!  The devil doesn’t like it when we get to know our Lord like this!

But stick with it.  Eventually, your time with the Lord will increase – and you will get to know Him better.  I like to say that in reading the Bible you learn about God – in prayer you meet Him.  [Not a perfect saying, because in learning the Bible you meet Him as well, but in a different way than you do in prayer…]  You’ll get past the words from the past – but hopefully you’ll still love them! – and you will start to communicate with not only your words but your feelings and thoughts; and you will commune with God in ways you never thought possible.

Prayer from the Darkness

jonah-beach-whale-168772-print.jpgThis Sunday, we’ll continue our series on Jonah through Lent….

When last we left out intrepid “hero” he had just been swallowed by a “fish” – in the past I have argued vociferously that it couldn’t have been a whale because the word is “fish”!  Rather pedantically, if I am forced to be honest!  However, after some thought and my recent reading (listening, actually) Moby Dick – I have come to the conclusion that most people in the real world thought whales were fish in the “olden days.”  Certainly in the 19th century – why not in the 7th BC?

The bulk of chapter two of Jonah is a prayer by Jonah, sitting in the belly of the whale.  He is giving thanks that even though he had gone “down to Sheol” he had been saved.  He describes the sensation of sinking, wrapped in seaweed, towards the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea…and being swallowed.  He was there for three days – a foretaste of Christ.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus says that the only sign the people will get will be the “sign of Jonah.”

Jonah’s prayer, while honest and true – is only the beginning of his journey.  He had experienced a real near death experience.  The prayer reads like that – he died and came back (again, a reference to Jesus!).  From the depths of his despair and darkness, he prayed – and it was answered, after a fashion.  God didn’t let him die – but he made him wait in the darkness and horror for three days.  God made him wait until the fish “vomited” him up on the shore – probably near Joppa where he started.  [As we’ll see in the next chapter, God then starts over – He calls to Jonah and gives the EXACT same call.]

For us as well, sometimes we need to get to our lowest point before we’ll come back to God.  We get into the worst circumstances and only then can we face the despair before we can proceed.  God allows us that time.  One of my favorite bumper stickers of all time reads like this: “Going in the wrong direction?  Don’t worry, God allows U-turns!”  The unfortunate thing is that we so often don’t even realize that we’re going in the wrong direction until we hit rock-bottom – until we die, metaphorically speaking.  Perhaps not even so metaphorically, if we’re talking about our spirit.  Jonah shows us that God is there in the despair and the darkness. 

Regardless of what we have done – or what has been done to us – God is there.  For those who have suffered from depression, or anxiety, or any other number of psychological and physical ailments – God is there.  In the darkness, He waits.  He waits for us to call on Him.  And then we need to return. 

Jonah’s journey towards Nineveh begins again with the prayer – he gets to start over.  Just like the Prodigal, when he realizes that he has been caught by his own darkness; in the despair he returns to his father.  Sitting in the dark, not having anything to eat.  Sitting in the blackness, surrounded by the stink of his circumstances.  Both Jonah and the Prodigal decide to return to God…through their despair and depression, in the depths of their horror and pain, they grasp the one thing they hope might work, and begin the road to redemption and healing.  I know that almost makes it sound easier than it really is – I understand. But the road needs to start somewhere – and just like the Prodigal and Jonah, there will be more difficulties along the road. 

Lent is the boot camp of our spirit.  Here we find it at our darkest…when we realize just how broken we are.  From the bottom, there is no way out other than up.  We can’t get out alone – which is the beautiful thing about Christianity: it is the only faith in which God Himself comes in order to help us out of the whole we have dug for ourselves.  [and as far as depression and so on goes, I understand that it wasn’t our own decision…but it is still a part of ourselves and not God.] 

Christ Himself comes and waits in the Tomb, in the Darkness and in the Depths…proclaiming His Truth to the captives.  This is a necessary stop in the journey from our own darkness through the pain into the joy of redemption and the sunrise of Easter.  Please don’t neglect it.

Reading the Word

bibleTonight at our Lenten service we’ll continue our series on Christian practices – the spiritual disciplines.  Last week we talked about fasting; tonight we are exploring reading.  Specifically reading the Bible – God’s Word for us.

There are many many different reading plans out there – this is not one of them.  If you’d like, I’d be happy to discuss a plan with you personally, but not tonight.  Mainly what I’m talking about here is different methods to reading – philosophical pedagogical strands of thought about HOW to read the Bible.

But first a couple of preliminaries.  Translations.  Your translation is pretty important.  Unless you’re a serious scholar and read the original Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic, you’re going to be reading a translation of the Bible.  Which one do you pick?  One that is theologically accurate and reads well, that you can understand.  It all depends.  I have my favorites, other have theirs.  The King James is perhaps still the best known translation – some denominations would go so far as to say that it is THE translation; the only one that is real and true.  I love the way it sounds, but, as one of my friends has said – I speak King James English too.  If you’re not good at Shakespearean English, you won’t read the KJV very well.  The New International Version is today’s current best-selling translation; and it is pretty good.   I personally think it overly simplistic but that’s a personal reflection.  I personally use the New American Standard Bible.  It is a good translation that still has a majesty in the Psalms but can also be understood pretty well.

One place I look is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was formless and void….and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep.”  If the translation wavers too far from that I have problems with it. Especially where it says “the Spirit” – if it says “a wind” (because the Hebrew word can technically be translated either way) I would argue you don’t want that translation, because it moves away from the idea of the Trinity – a fundamental doctrine of Christianity.

Once you’ve gotten your translation that you want, how do you read?  Do you just skim and try to get through it as fast as you can?  That’s the way many people do – especially if you’ve never read much before.  If you’re aiming for spiritual growth, you might want to consider another way.

Lectio Divina – literally “Divine Reading” – is a way of reading where you read a short passage slowly (and if possible out loud!) several times.  You read it once, slowly, pondering and praying.  You read it again, and ask yourself a question – usually something like “what phrase speaks to me and why?”  You read it again and ask yourself “what is God calling me to DO or BE through this passage?”  You’ll never read through the Bible in a year doing this – but it is a useful and ancient method of reading.

Induction Method – a method that has been suggested relatively recently (like in the last 50 years).  The inductive method really aims at understanding; it requires several different highlighters and a period of time to go through the passage several times.  Often, the method asks you to highlight the subjects of the passage (which is usually a chapter of the book) in one color, highlight the verbs in another, and so on.  It will have you define who is doing what and why, where and how; and then ask you to arrive at a main point and message of the passage.

Either way, you get a great message and point from it.  Reading the Bible should always be approached with prayer for the Holy Spirit to guide you, and from a point of view of subordination.  I’ll say a lot more about this tonight – but for now, remember that the Bible is the Word of God – we don’t get to explain things away lightly or decide we don’t like something and ignore it.  Understanding is often difficult, but it is always worth the struggle!

Run!!

This last Sunday at the church, we heard the message of Sandra – a friend of mine who also happens to run marathons with Team World Vision. Last year Allen and I ran the Twin Cities Marathon and raised money for clean water for Africa – and this year we thought we’d try again to form a team here at our little church. The results, for me, were amazing!

Not only was Sandra warmly welcomed here, but as she preached I really felt that our congregation was with her on her journey from “non-runner” to three-time marathoner. She did a fantastic job. But when we ended our worship service and she had asked people who were interested in joining the Twin Cities Team World Vision – there were twelve people who came down and signed up!!! After the meeting, my wife and I talked and prayed – and we are signing up as well!! SO – as I count it, from our little church there are 14 runners. Not all of us are planning on doing the full marathon. My guess is that a couple of us might get hurt and have to withdraw, but I am so excited for what God is going to do through our witness. I also, as a pastor, am excited to see what happens in people’s lives as they train for a marathon with Jesus running at their side.

Because that’s what it’s like. It’s hard. In fact, on some days it’s absolutely horrible. Last year I hurt my knee and I had to take a few weeks off from running – the day I came back to join a group run we were supposed to run 12 miles (if I remember right, anyway…something like that.). I was hurting. But people ran the whole way with me – when I know that they could have run faster; yet they stuck it out with me and I finished the 12 miler. A couple months later – I took off too fast in the marathon (which, in case you didn’t know, is 26.2 miles) and I ran out of steam around mile 20. Allen caught me and we finished the race together. One of the best moments of my life. I am not ashamed to say that I cried a little when we crossed. The whole way – it was like Jesus was cheering me on; He was with me, saying to not forget what we could do together. Sometimes it was just Him and me, but much more often it was as part of a wonderful community of Christian runners. And that community just got bigger!

It’s not all about the running. The cause we run for is important – clean water for hurting communities in Africa. The average (one way!) walk to get water in much of Africa is about 6km. It’s about that. It’s also about community – because people NEED community in Christ. It’s about friendship. It’s about faith – because on a hard run after you’ve eaten too much the night before and not had enough water (like so many of us!) sometimes the only thing that keeps you going is faith that someday you’ll finish that run. And faith that He will never ever abandon you.

I have read – a LOT – that God will never ask you to do anything you can’t do. I disagree. With every fiber of my being I disagree. He purposefully asks you to do things that you can NOT do by yourself. He demands obedience and calls you to things that no one could do alone. He helps you. That’s the only way you do it. And that’s part of the point – to have faith that together…God and you can do anything. He agreed a long time ago to not speak to “the people” directly (Exodus 20:19ff). He always, ALWAYS uses someone else to speak for Him – and that’s you. God is calling you – YOU – to speak on His behalf. Do it with words. Do it with your feet. Do it any way you can. He will never let you go. Even when it hurts.

For those of us who signed up – I pray this post helps. For those of us who didn’t – I pray that this post encourages some other way to speak and do for Jesus. I’m excited to see what comes of it!