Saturday, January 28, 2017

Muslim and Christian

He sat across from me. His son was doing graduate work at the university. He came to the United States to visit his son and he wanted to talk to me. His son was actively involved in our church even though he did not give up his Muslim faith. He was interested in learning about Christianity. He was well liked and respected in our church and the wider community. His father wanted to meet me because his son had talked so much about our church. His father brought me a book of poetry from a famous poet in his country. We talked about religion, God, and religious freedom. This he did not have in his country so even though he was interested in Christianity he was not able to investigate it. As we talked, I was aware that both of us had very similar religious hopes and convictions. We were both seeking the same will of God for our lives, it seemed. Our religious desires were one. We shared a common faith and belief in God. He was a Muslim and I was a Christian. Yet, it was clear that we shared a common religious bond.

I know that if we got down to discussing particulars there would have been many differences. I know that some Christians believe Muslims pray to a different God than they do. I know Muslims and Christians share a history of violence in many parts of the world. I know all of this and more. Yet, that one afternoon I remember thinking we are two individuals seeking after God. There is more that unites us than divides us and God can figure that out.

Today he would not be able to visit me in my office. His son is worried about being deported as he continues his studies here in America. Our president has said no more refugees from his country are permitted to come to America. Temporarily, visas needed to come to America are being held up, too.  It is not supposed to be permanent but we all know how these things go.

I am very fortunate to have had these few hours with a man my age who had children and a wife he loved and was seeking after God as I was. As he prays for me, I will pray for him and his family.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The hiddenness of God

Last night at a small group in our church we watched a youtube video featuring a youth minister in Germany interviewing several teens to twenties in a park. He asked them questions like, Do you believe in God? Why or Why not? What do you believe in? Do you go to Church? What do you think of Christians?

No one believed in God. One believed in Odin. Several were atheists or at least agnostics. One believed in science and most of them thought believing in God was too much of a stretch of logic. God did not make sense, Miracles cannot happen, they said. Yet when asked what the world needs most right now and if they had the power what would they do. They said things like peace and end all wars, justice for all, accepting others no matter how different they are.

I was struck by their reactions to the question of belief in God. Stone, cold stares with not even a flickering awareness of God's reality. That's it, God was not real to them, at all.

Some with their facial piercings, tattoos, and Gothic dress made clear that they thought there was nothing out there with them or for them. They were on their own in a pretty dark and cold world.

It's not just youth culture. I read in the NY Times a weekly piece that follows artists like poets, writers, tv producers, Broadway actors and playwrights and others as they go about their Sunday routine. I don't think I have ever read where one of them included church although a college basketball coach did once. Youth may be more verbal about their struggles to find truth than older adults who demonstrate their agnosticism by their lives. God is not a real thing for them. They have coping skills honed over the years to deal with the dark and cold world.

I thought of a section of Karl Barth's dogmatics where he discusses the hiddenness of God. He quotes many of the early church thinkers like Iranaeus, Anselm, Augustine, and others. Anselm wrote, "How far removed are you from my vision, yet I am near to you. Everywhere you are present and I see you not. In you I move and have my being yet I cannot come to you. You are within me and about me yet I feel you not. You are hidden from my in your light and blessedness while I walk in darkness and misery...the sinful senses of my soul have grown rigid and dull, and have been obstructed by their long listlessness."

Barth says there was agreement in the early church that to know God was to conceive God in his incomprehensibility. Yet, that is not a bad thing. Confessing God's hiddenness ( and our inability to know God on our own) is the first step to faith in God's revelation in the Scriptures and in Christ. By ourselves we can know very little (Barth and Augustine would say nothing) truly about God

This reality that was so acute in the early church has largely been eclipsed in the modern church today. Listen to the music we sing, the prayers that are prayed and the sermons that focus on us as much or more than God. The mystery, the majesty of God, the sense of the difference between us and God is mostly gone.

Chrysostom who was known for his preaching in the early church said this:" We call God the inexpressible, the inconceivable, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the one who is superior to human speech, who surpasses human reason, who is inscrutable to the angels.....invisible to the human rulers, and who is known simply to his creation by his only Son and Holy Spirit."

Don't know if it would preach today but we could use a dose of it.

In our recent week of inaugural activities we heard from clergy and politicians who promised God's protection for us now that we are on the right track. One famous clergyman from a famous clergy family professed his belief that the election of this new president was a sign of God's intervention in our history.  A good solid dose of the thinking of our early church leaders might make us stop and think before we speak, might serve to make us humble before God.

Monday, January 23, 2017


It's a new day under a new administration and there is a new language to learn.  Beside alt-right, now we have alt-facts. These facts, truth be known, do not have to line up with other facts. That is two facts can be the same but different and yet both true. So, Obama's inaugural crowd can be larger than Trump's while at the same time being smaller. You just have to know if your talking about the facts or the alt-facts. The Woman's March on D.C can be larger than the crowd at Trump's inaugural while at the same time be smaller. Simple math, it's an alt-fact. Alt-facts can come in handy. You many think you know the facts but you don't until you've heard the alt-facts. I think we will be learning a lot about alt-facts in next few years. Kinda fun like a new math.

American Carnage

Carnage is not a word I expected to hear as a new president took the oath of office. I expect to read it in a book about the civil war as an author describes a battlefield littered with the bodies of the blue and grey. I expect to hear it in a news report after a terrorist attack in a bustling public place. Or looking at the horrific impact on human life after a mass shooting.

I admit to feeling a little creeped out as I watched a scowling President of the United States talk about his take on the nation he was elected to govern in terms of carnage. Carnage that summed up the terms of four living presidents who had preceded him in office. 28 cumulative years of presidential experience and public service brushed aside as if worthless. Dozens of new colleagues sitting behind him who contributed to the messes our country is in because all they did was talk, talk, talk and took no action.

Our previous president ran on a platform of hope but there was precious little hope in view last Friday. The new president did not look hopeful. Looking out on scenes of crime filled cities and rusted  out factories and people living miserable lives he had accepted a heavy burden to turn this country around. He has said he believes he is the only one who can.

Not all of us are scowling today Mr President. We see plenty of things to be grateful for even if you don't. A small mission team from our church returned from a trip to Uganda the night before the inauguration. There they visited staff from a ministry that works with refugees from other countries. Uganda's borders are porous, one member of the team said. They accept anyone who is fleeing the violence of war, the carnage which many have experienced personally. Our team led a retreat of spiritual respite and community building. They experienced the hospitality of the local people in their homes and at meals. Many of the staff of this ministry are former refugees themselves and they have so much gratitude and joy in their lives now. They share whatever they have. They know carnage, experienced it firsthand, but now they experience a different reality and generously share it.

I suppose the view from the penthouse of the Trump Tower in NYC or a lenai overlooking the ocean at Mar-a- Lago looks different.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Inaugural Prayers

The Trump Inaugural has announced the people who will leading in prayer - sixty to ninety seconds each which will cut down on the sermonizing while praying. There will be several Christians and one Rabbi. One woman. One man who is the self acclaimed leader of the largest African American "congregation" of which many may be listeners or viewers. The woman espouses what has been called the Prosperity Gospel which means that God wants to bless you with riches. She points out that those who give generously first to her ministry will gain God's greater blessings.

One man who will be praying is the son of Billy Graham, Franklin Graham. Billy Graham was a great friend of presidents and his friendship was used by some like Nixon for political advantage. Billy Graham was said to be shocked when the Nixon tapes appeared. He admitted to being naive. Franklin has stepped into his father's shoes. He said God intervened in our election and made Trump president. So, it wasn't just Putin. God put a halt to the atheistic, godless swamp that Obama, Hillary and Bill and others who are not conservative evangelicals were leading us further into. Like Trump Franklin sees this as a "drain the swamp" moment under the supervision of God.

Taken aback by the arrogance of someone who claims to know the will of God in our national election, I returned to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. It bears reading as we inaugurate our new president. In the midst of our nation's civil war Lincoln acknowledged that both sides read the same Bible, prayed to the same God with each side invoking God's aid against the other. The Almighty has his own purposes, said Lincoln. It may be God so willed this horrible war to measure out his justice and it may be that God wills it to continue until, 'the judgments of the LORD," are fulfilled. Lincoln did not know what God was going to do. He did know as he said another time that it was more important to be on God's side that to assume to know He is on our side.

I don't know if the election means God answered Trump's prayers or Hillary's. Obviously, Trump won. But God's purposes are vast and far beyond my understanding. Already, voices in the church are waking up and sounding an alarm that certain works of justice cannot be assumed in a Trump presidency and there is work in the trenches to do. That's a good thing.

I don't pretend to know what God's will is in terms of our election. But, I do know what Jesus said at his inauguration.

"The Spirit of the LORD is upon me to preach good news to the poor, and to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the LORD"S favor."  (Luke 4:18-19)

Consider again the closing words of Lincoln's address: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace among ourselves and all nations."  That may rightly be said to be the will of the LORD.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Bible Says

A good friend asked me about how I approached Biblical Interpretation. I was raised in a fundamentalist church environment. The Bible was God's Word. It is inspired, inerrant and supposed to be taken literally. That is, there are 7 days of creation, Noah built an ark and all the animals fit on it after a worldwide flood wiped out humanity, etc. It was a book like no other.

It mainly told about Jesus who was God's Son sent to us to save us from our sins. If we accepted Jesus into our hearts we were assured of going to heaven when we die. If not, there was hell, the place of the devil hotter than any desert and people who go there burn forever.

The Bible was a battleground. Christians were always fighting atheists, scientists, liberal Bible scholars, and secular schools and educators. The seminary I ended up going to was founded in part by Dr. Harold Ockenga who wrote, The Battle for the Bible. If you were a Christian and believed in the Bible as God's inerrant Word you were always under attack. I went to school and Sunday School and youth group and church. I heard about evolution but I filed it under Secular Religion. I didn't do too much reading of the Bible because I had been told what it said and the most important thing was I had accepted Jesus. What else was there to know?

After a long and winding course I began seminary. I attended an Evangelical/Reformed seminary although I had not decided to become a pastor. I wanted to learn more about the Bible, Church History and Theology.  One of the first courses I took was called  Interpreting the Bible. How hard could that be? I already knew how to do it. It knocked my socks off and was the most important class I took in three years there. I found out that we (Christians) did not have 100 % certainty in the original documents of the Bible. There were no original documents extant (it was called) from the time of the Bible. What we had were copies of copies. But, not to worry for text critics were working hard to determine what was in the originals and they were 99% certain that they had. So what we had was very good probability of the original text but not complete certainty. Not to worry #2 - what we were not totally sure of did not affect any of our doctrines. The inerrancy of Scripture applied to the originals not to all the copies. So, one of the pillars of my rationalistic faith was secure. Then, we started hearing about oral tradition and how no one wrote down the Bible at first. Of course not, it was an oral culture and the books and tools to write with were hugely expensive. Then, we heard about how much poetry was in the Bible (metaphors, using imagination - a no, no from where I came from), and how different the four gospels were and where the sources of the gospels came from, and how some Evangelical scholars were even whispering their doubts about Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and whether Job and Jonah were real people or characters in a story.

At the same time I was having my theological bell wrung by a study of early church history. For a thousand years, I discovered Christian Bible interpreters used an allegorical method to interpret Scripture. They did not take all Scripture literally but showed how it pointed to a deeper spiritual meaning. Most of my colleagues and teachers were uneasy about this method because it meant the text could mean anything any one wanted it to mean. Still, some pretty brilliant teachers like Origen used it faithfully and pointed out that Paul did, too.  My professors taught the historical/critical method for Bible Interpretation. The Bible text cannot say what it could not have meant to the original hearers. Allegory and deeper meanings were out. Yet, many of my professors, devout believers, would say things like, I was reading the Bible and God said, or God showed, or I heard or saw.....a deeper meaning possibly?

As science began to make more inroads into culture and the church, I was reading Genesis 1-2, the Psalms and most of the Prophets as poetry. Taking the Bible literally meant reading it as it was meant to be understood. The Jewish understanding of story was different from mine. Genesis was true and told us what creation means if not how it happened.

Origen (b 184) devoted his life to the study of Scripture and his writings on the Bible were massive. But, his purpose was to say that we need to know the Bible for personal fellowship with God. It is his word to you so read it. This love of Scripture was true of other great Bible Interpreters like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth. Augustine taught that the Psalms show Christ to us. Luther was wildly inventive in some of his Bible interpretations. Calvin was a careful craftsman handing the word of God. They were not trying to prove it was God's Word or explain away supposed contradictions. I saw over the years as I read the works of these early interpreters that there is no one way to interpret the Bible that is the correct one. The important question is not what does God's word say but what does it say to me.

The person who has helped me the most is Karl Barth. Barth is a skilled expositor interacting with many years of church tradition, and loves God's word and teaches it with Christ at the center. He followed Kierkegaard's insistence that there is an infinite, qualitative distance between God and us. God's word is God speaking to us. You don't have to be a scholar to get what God is saying to you. You have to be humble and faithful which is God's gift to you, as well. We need to pay attention to what is there rather than get bothered by a lot of academic questions. For Barth, reading Scripture is a matter of reading it, praying over it, trusting the Spirit's work in granting understanding and then doing what it says. It is a book like no other and it requires a humble, engaged reading that hears the voice of God in the word.