What is the Purpose of Preaching?

“What is the purpose of preaching?”

This is a question I was asked a number of times by my mentor and friend during our weekly meetings years ago. While I think it was a question intended to initiate thought on the topic, I also felt that it was a question that he too asked. Regardless, this question has stuck with me over the years.

I imagine that it is a question that many people would answer in different ways. The sheer volume of books that are about the topic indicate that there is no agreed upon one way or purpose behind preaching. I don’t even really feel that I know the answer to that question today.

While I don’t feel that I have what constitutes a complete answer, I have managed to come up with a few thoughts over the years.

The first of these thoughts is that a sermon is a reflection of life. What I mean by this is that a sermon should reflect the messiness of life. Far too often sermons I’ve heard tend to be prepackaged and engage life more from the vantage point of life as it should be, rather than life as it often is.

This can be done a number of ways in my mind. You can include stories from real life, both our own and from other sources (books, magazines, articles). Nothing reflects real life like a story from real life.

Even if you don’t want to invest the time in collecting stories, simply reading many of the stories in the Bible will present you with a picture that is not always an image of the ideal. Take the story of Abraham that I’ve been going through for some time. You have a story that presents a man of faith and trust in God alongside of doubt, lying, struggle, and selfishness. Simply making an effort to put the people of the Bible in the light they are presented can present a reflection of real life.

In addition to these, another way is to avoid overstatement, unless you’re trying to use hyperbole or a similar technique. I don’t think a sermon reflects life if we are making statements that don’t really reflect life, even spiritual life.I know Jesus employed hyperbole at times, so I think that’s fair, but too often I don’t think we’re really using hyperbole. We really believe some of the conflated statements that are placed within sermons, and that has troubled me over the years. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficult statements that come out of the Bible, we just have to be careful how we try to connect everything.

Moving on to my second thought regarding the purpose of a sermon, is that it leads more to God and the Bible than to answers. What do I mean by this? I’m simply meaning that too often sermons can come out as a list of what to do or not to do. Sometimes these lists can be answers that more reflect the person who is preaching the sermon than it does the conclusions (or sometimes lack of conclusion) that the Bible presents.

I think that the best sermons lead people to some answers, but maybe they lead to more questions than they do answers. I think in these cases the sermon itself doesn’t quench a thirst and hunger for God, but fuels it. Do we trust people to be able to wrestle with God and the text of the Bible? Or do we feel that we have to force feed the answers from the pulpit? Of course this often assumes that the one preaching has all the correct answers.

As I’ve already alluded to, most sermons that provide too many answers tend to be very moralistic in nature. It is more about doing the right actions and avoiding the wrong ones. As I’ve said elsewhere I worry that our focus on morality can hinder our focus on God and his grace. So continually hearing sermons on morality can too easily reduce our faith into rules to follow.

My third and final thought is that sermons will also bring light to the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is another phrase that can mean a number of things to different people. The way I’m using it here, is simply the work of God in the lives of the congregation: individually, corporately, as part of the larger local community, and beyond.

A sermon, in my mind, will seek to reveal God and his kingdom and challenge people to see God at work in the world around them. This is definitely connected to the first thought of a sermon reflecting life. If we adequately, by God’s grace, reflect life and reveal the kingdom of God, then we present the reality that God does really intervene in this world. He is present, even in ways we don’t understand, which is often the way God intervened even in the lives of those recorded in the Bible.

I think that the best sermons will try to give you glimpse of the kingdom of God within the messiness of real life, and have you hungry for more. It will challenge us to look beyond just ourselves as well, and see how God is at work building his kingdom around us. This moves us from simply trying to adhere to a moral checklist and challenges us to bring attitudes of grace, forgiveness, and humility into the world around us. That is a big challenge as I don’t think many of us do these things well naturally.

Those are my three ideas. As I said I doubt they’re comprehensive. They’re simply the best answers I’ve thought of over the last few years of thinking about this question. My thoughts are that the purpose of preaching is to reflect life, to lead us to seek God and His word more than simply seek after answers or morality, and finally to bring light to the Kingdom of God that is at work around us. Anybody else care to share what they think the purpose of preaching is? Feel free to share or to disagree with or add to my own thoughts.

To Laugh at the Impossible

What if we were told by God that something impossible was going to happen in our lives? That something against the laws of nature or probability would occur? Would we believe such a thing or would we laugh? To be honest, I’d probably stick myself in the laugh category. It is so easy to be skeptical of things that seem beyond my comprehension that I would probably laugh either thinking that it was a joke or in derision.

I would not be the first to do so. As we saw last week in Genesis 17, Abraham laughed when God said that Sarah would give birth to a son. We see this play out again this week, only with Sarah now laughing in Genesis 18:1-15.

The story sets us up with the Lord appearing to Abraham. This appearance of the Lord is connected to the arrival of three men. How these two realities connect is uncertain. People have very different takes on it. Walter Brueggemann in his commentary basically says that it is enough to say that it is the Lord and move on. John H. Sailhamer in his commentary on Genesis goes into great detail and focuses on it a lot more. However, I am more in line with Brueggemann on this. How exactly these three men are the Lord isn’t really very important to the story, the main importance is that they are.

Abraham appears to know this or is just very hospitable and prepares a meal and rest for his guests. While the three men eat, they inquire about Sarah and say that this time next year she will have a son. Sarah hears this and laughs. She can’t believe what she hears. That’s impossible.

At this promise and declaration of the Lord both Abraham and Sarah have now laughed. Dwelling on this reality has two effects on me. First, it makes me suspicious of those who declare Abraham and Sarah as people of great faith, but never go into the struggle that they faced to be faithful to the difficult to believe promise of God. I’ve already talked a bit about this, but I think we do a grave disservice to fellow believers when we gloss over the doubt and struggle of faith in our own lives or the people whose lives are presented in the Bible.

The second effect is that it makes me rather suspicious of those who want to peg people from an earlier age as willing to believe anything. It’s a fairly popular thought that religion was only developed from superstitious people in the past who believed anything that they were told. These last two chapters cast doubt upon such claims.  Abraham and Sarah are recorded not as people willing to believe anything no matter how impossible it is, but rather as people who come up to the limitations of the natural world and have a hard time believing in things beyond that limit.

Both of these approaches are ones that I am not very comfortable with and seem to go against what you read here. They seem to me to be overstatements that have their own agendas. One seeking to marginalize doubt and the place of questions in the faith. The other seeking to marginalize belief and faith in God in general.

As Brueggemann says, “Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity.” Faith will include a struggle, anyone who tries to say otherwise is selling bad goods.

Ultimately the response God gives to Sarah is something we all have to wrestle with. God replies to Sarah with a question. “Is anything to hard for the Lord?” What is interesting about the text is that we are not given a response to this question. Sarah simply denies laughing, even though God points out again that she did indeed laugh.

Yet this question is still something that we all must wrestle with. Do we believe that anything is too hard for God? It is a question that I want to say yes to. I do believe that nothing is too hard for God. Yet at the same time deep down I struggle with that idea. I struggle because believing in things beyond the natural world is looked down on in our modern, scientific, materialistic world. I struggle because of times where if God could do anything, why didn’t God stop this or change that.

These struggles don’t change my answer, but they are a struggle to fully embrace the idea that nothing is too hard for God. The positive thing though is that God doesn’t seem too hung up about our struggle to believe. Even with Abraham and Sarah, their struggle and their laughter at the “impossible” didn’t change God’s plan. They still received Isaac despite their laughter of disbelief when it was proposed.

So even it we struggle all is not lost. I think that often like Abraham and Sarah our lives are a mixture of faith and lack of faith. We may trust and have faith in the God we have sworn to follow, but still laugh in disbelief when dealing with the details of what God has planned for us all. It may be something large like a son at an advanced age, or it may simply be that God would use us in a meaningful way. Even in these times of struggle and doubt, the question of God is before us all.

Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It All Falls Apart – Genesis 3

After reading the first couple of chapters in Genesis it is not hard to realize that we’re not living in those same conditions. We are not in an idyllic paradise and shame and guilt are not unknown. We have lost paradise, but how does this happen? What is the reason behind this? Genesis 3 presents us with the story that a number of people call “The Fall.”

You Snake!

We start off Genesis 3 being given a portrait of the serpent. The picture we’re given is that the serpent was a crafty creature beyond any of the other animals God had made. This is meant to be a contrast to the human pair who were naked (which could also be used to mean innocent) and unashamed in Genesis 2:25. So much for the humans ruling over creation eh?

Now a lot is made out of the serpent. The serpent is commonly associated with Satan or the Devil. Now admittedly there is no explicit connection made between the two here. This connection is usually made by connecting Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 to this story. These may very well be proper connections, but a lot of time went between these two stories.

I also imagine that a good part of trying to connect it to something supernatural (but not above or on par with God) is that I haven’t met many serpents who can talk and have tempted me to disobey God. It certainly seems like something more is at work here than just what’s being presented at the surface. Does that mean for certain the serpent was Satan? No, but does it rule it out either? Personally, I don’t think so.

Did God Really Say?

The serpent comes upon the woman and asks “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?'” Now this is the point that most Christians really rally around, that the worst thing to ask is if God really said something. While there is a degree of truth to that, I think the danger lies when we ask that while skewing what God actually said for our own purposes, which is what the serpent is doing here.

There is a divide between asking this question in a subversive manner and asking this question in an inquisitive manner. I know that on my journey of faith I often wondered where we found the basis for our belief that something is wrong to do. So asking “Did God really say playing cards/dancing/drinking/etc is wrong?” isn’t necessarily bad, because it can be asked to gain insight and understanding. I feel that we don’t always do a good job at discerning the intent behind questions and often assume the worst and maybe even point to this passage to vindicate ourselves.

Now, the serpent asks this question and doesn’t even present what God actually told the man and woman, which was “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). He instead presents this as if God had not allowed any tree at all to be eaten.Trying to present God as one who keeps the man and woman from doing things rather than focusing on what God does allow.

The woman tells the serpent that there is only one tree they can’t eat of or else they’ll die. The serpent then counters by saying that the woman is wrong. They won’t die if they eat the tree, instead eating from the tree will make them like God. This is again playing up the idea that God is keeping this from them. This is all it takes for the woman to reevaluate the tree, eat of it and get the man to eat of it as well.

Once they eat of it their eyes are opened, they realize their nakedness and seek to cover themselves up. John H. Sailhamer in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Genesis frames this whole exchange in an interesting way by saying, “Ironically, that which the snake promised did, in fact, come about: the man and the woman became ‘like God’ as soon as they ate of the fruit. The irony, however, lies in the fact that they were already ‘like God’ because they had been made in his image (1:26).”

Hide and Seek With God

God enters the scene in 3:8 and once the man and woman notice this they run away and hide. This prompts an exchange between the man and God. God seeks out the man and the woman and I believe offers a chance for confession and repentance.

Why do I believe that? Well because all God does is ask questions. Here he casts no blame and doesn’t pronounce any judgment. The ones who cast blame are actually the man and woman themselves. The man instead of taking responsibility for his own part blames the woman and indirectly God for giving him the woman in the first place.  The woman comes out blaming the snake, but does admit to eating the fruit. Neither strike me as really seeking forgiveness, but rather trying to put the bulk of the blame on another person. I could be wrong on this, but that’s my take.

Anyhow, God curses each of the individuals after asking his questions and the chance of repentance now lost. The snake is told that he will crawl on his belly and eat dust. Sailhamer doesn’t think that it has to mean the snake once walked on all fours, but that “The emphasis lies in the snake’s ‘eating dust,’ an expression that elsewhere carries the meaning of ‘total defeat.'” So it seems that the whole curse of the snake is centered around the idea of defeat, and specifically defeat at the hands of the woman’s offspring.

For the woman and the man there seems to be some difficulty added to things they were to enjoy in the garden. For the woman one difficulty would center around being fruitful and multiplying as was presented in Genesis 1:28. Greatly increased pain in childbirth would now be a factor.

In addition there seems like there would be added difficulty in the relationship between the man and woman. I wonder if this is a adding difficulty to the notion that man and woman would be one flesh as presented in Genesis 2:24. Instead of oneness, there would now be contention and battles for power. It doesn’t mean that they would not become one in marriage, but that this oneness will now be more difficult to achieve.

With man the first focus is regarding the land. Instead of being able to freely eat of  any of the trees in the garden (Genesis 2:16) he is now going to have to toil and work for the crops. The second focus is the life of the man himself. Instead of living eternally, he would one day return to the ground that God formed him out of. The idea that man would surely die by eating of the forbidden tree is coming, even if not immediately.

Death and Exile

One aspect of this story I’ve never quite realized before, is the idea that the fall breaks God out of his rest. He makes garments for the man and woman. As Sailhamer says “After—and because of—the Fall, there was more work to be done.” I never really thought about it from the vantage point of God and his rest, which we were to be a part of, being interrupted by the fall.

I’ve always thought of this act as being a sacrifice. In place of the immediate death of the man and woman, animals were killed to literally cover them as clothing after their disobedience. Maybe that isn’t something that is to be taken out of the situation, but it certainly seems fitting to me.

If this was a sacrifice, it was not enough to have the human race escape the death that God placed as punishment. What is interesting with how it is described is that the death of the man and woman was due to God exiling them from Eden and the tree of life. It isn’t something naturally within man or nature that keeps them alive, but something that has to be accessed externally. This is a different angle than is often the way I feel that immortality is presented regarding the world pre-fall by many Christians.

Summary

Tempted to become like God in ways we weren’t meant to be, humanity was separated from God and life was made harder due to their disobedience. After being tempted by the serpent, being made in God’s image wasn’t enough, the man and woman sought more. The price for that was separation from God, increased difficulty in life, and eventual death.

Any thoughts about Genesis 3 you have? Questions? Disagreements? Comments? Feel free to leave them below.

Final Thoughts on The End of Our Exploring

The End of Our ExploringI can’t remember exactly when it was, but it was either in late college or early on in seminary that I realized the importance of questions. So when the offer to get a review copy of a book about questioning came up on the blog Mere Orthodoxy I took it because who wouldn’t be happy to get a book that only cost a review of it. It seemed like a book that could be very interesting. Most books are content to give prepackaged answers from a popular figure, so a book on questioning kind of bucks that trend. So how does this book go about talking about questions?

This book is ultimately about learning to question well. We live in a day where questions are viewed as important, but it sometimes seems like answers are less important than the questions that are being asked. Questions are also viewed in some circles as a challenge to authority and therefore heavily discouraged and squashed when they do arise. Anderson deals with both of these issues and ultimately seeks to have us ask good questions and to teach those around us to ask good questions, instead of being afraid of questions.

At this point it should be said that Anderson is focused on questions centering around Christianity and faith. This isn’t so much a manual on questioning across any discipline, but more of how questioning should function in our faith. I’m just saying this because Anderson comes unapologetically from a belief in Jesus Christ as central to his faith and also his questioning (this should be picked up in the subtitle A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith). This needs to be realized because Anderson is honest about where he comes from, he is not working from any idea of a “clean slate” in regards to his questioning.

In fact if there was one point all people should take away from this book it is to learn to question our questions more. I think we all too often assume a “clean slate” or that we’re asking our questions from a neutral starting place. The reality is that we ask questions based on our experiences past and present. It isn’t that hard to believe that our questions would be influenced by those aspects of our life. It probably isn’t hard to believe  that the answers that we’d accept would be influenced by that as well. The idea of not coming from a “clean slate” or neutral starting point isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something that I think we have to be aware of if we are seriously asking questions. Are we really wanting well thought out answers? Do we just want the answer that will make us happy? Will we then reject any answer that doesn’t fit the assumptions that we already hold? I think these are important questions no matter where you are in life and is a main point in the early chapters of this book.

I think another point of The End of Our Exploring worth noting is his emphasis on questioning in a community. He talks about the need of a community to pass along its traditions and the questions that go along with that tradition, which I think is a great insight. As he puts it on page 129, “When the questions are forgotten, tradition ossifies into a rigid, hardened legalism that everyone must accept even if no one can remember why.” I’d call this aspect questioning with the past and present church community that we’re in.

He reinforces his idea that later on page 175 where he says, “Our local church communities, instead of on blogs or at conferences, should be where the hardest questions about the Bible are pursued (rather than passed over.)” While I agree with this sentiment, it’s possible that he could be read as saying that the church is the only place these questions should be discussed. I don’t think he is really saying that, but if he is I’d disagree with him a bit. I’d call it one of the places we should be asking the hardest questions but not the only one.

I would place importance also on questioning and inquiring with those who don’t readily agree with us as important aspects too (not saying that all our church communities will agree with us on everything, but there is probably at least more common ground than not). He seems to as well since he has a whole chapter dedicated to that kind of questioning too. The reason why I think that this idea of communal inquiry is important is that it helps us run into the questions of others. This helps us sharpen our own questions, help others question well, search for answers, and look at the answers we already have when we disagree with them. However, I’d say we need both questioning within our own church community/congregation, but also with others that may be outside that community. I think this is important so we don’t become ingrown and over confident in our questions and answers, but also because our lives are often more than just our church community or at least should be. So the types of people we are inquiring with should reflect that to some degree.

The ideas of questioning our questions and inquiring within a community are two ideas that really popped out at me in the book. I do wonder though if there is that much difference between Anderson’s idea of community inquiry and the current focus on dialogue, at least in terms of practice. Yes he may be calling for a search for answers based on some authority, but I’m not so sure it would look that much different either. Regardless, I think that searching for answers within a community is important whether you call it inquiry or dialogue. I also think that Anderson is right in saying that some authority has to be recognized to get anywhere with this process. I guess I just wonder if he doesn’t play a bit of semantics at the same time.

I think this book does more right than wrong. I think Matthew Lee Anderson does a great job at bringing up the issues around questioning. I may wonder about some of his thoughts or if he’s just playing with semantics to make a differentiation, but overall the content is solid. I’ve also heard that the grammar is not the greatest in the book in places, but I’m not a grammar nut so I can’t speak on that too much. I did notice that one of his many footnotes didn’t make sense so there does seem to be the possibility of errors and editing that could have been done better.

Who do I think would enjoy this book? Honestly anyone who wants to take questioning of their faith seriously. This book is somewhat easy to read, but moderately hard to digest. It may surprise you how easy the book reads, except for maybe when you hit a big vocabulary word like ossifies. While the sentences by themselves may be easy to read they form ideas that take a little bit of thinking through when put together. This may not be a super easy read for everyone, but if you’ve been experiencing doubt and have questions about the faith this may be a good book to read. Not because it gives you the answers, but because it might help you sort out how you should be questioning.

To finish up here, I’ll leave you with the analogy that I keep coming to about this book. It reminds me of a beautiful tapestry. If you look too close you’ll find that the edges are maybe a bit frayed or not quite stitched just right, but it doesn’t really take away from the final picture. There are little statements I’m not sure I agree with here and there, the random footnote typo, or whatever, but it doesn’t take away from the book’s message or the insight that is within. This work may be frayed around the edges in places, but the picture it presents is not undone because of it. Maybe it would have been even better without the flaws, but it can still be appreciated and admired for what it is.

When “What Ifs” Backfire

I few weeks ago while grocery shopping I found myself playing the “what if” game. Are you familiar with that game? It’s the one where you begin pondering how your life would be different if you had made different decisions.

“What if I was less awkward and quiet growing up?”

“What if I pursued a different major in college?”

“What if I was working somewhere and not staying home with my kids?”

“What if…. (I’m sure you can fill in the blank)?”

It feels like once you start asking these questions they never stop. It is like the rainstorm that starts slow as you feel one or two big drops hit you on the head, but then before you know it you are getting poured on and are surrounded by raindrops. Once you let those first questions of “what if” land on your head, it seems that they just keep pouring on you and weighing you down.

Asking these questions aren’t typically a good thing for me, because I often start asking these questions when I feel small. When I feel insignificant. When I’m really not sure what I’m supposed to do with my life. However, as these questions almost drown me with their weight, I realize that they often make me feel worse. They make me feel like I’ve made a wrong turn. That I’m not where I’m supposed to be. That I’ve failed someone, maybe even everyone.

However, the other day in the midst of my “what if” rainstorm, something else struck me. Why is it that when we ask “What if” we often imagine ourselves happier, more successful, or that life in general will be better (whatever that means)? What if the answers to my “what if” questions actually made my life worse? This thought has stuck with me since that day and takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of asking “what if?”

It is strange how I always asked these questions assuming that if I had made changes in the past that I’d be better off now. I think that is what most people who ask “what if?” think. If everyone thought they would be worse off making other decisions we probably wouldn’t play the “what if” game so much. Until the other day it had just never crossed my mind that I had no way of knowing that following my “what ifs” would lead to a better life.

Of course add to this that the “what if” game is pretty futile as it is. I mean no matter how hard we want to we can’t go back in time and choose differently. I think we all know that, but we still dream that we could have had a better life. I guess I’m just not so sure of that anymore. I’m not saying that I won’t ever play the “what if” game again. That I won’t get drowned in a storm of “what ifs.” What I do know is that I haven’t been so prone to ask those questions since I’ve realized that there is no guarantee that my “what ifs” would have turned out any better than where I am now.

Even though I know that I can’t go back and change things, it is the idea that I may not have wound up any better off that has shaken me out of asking “what if” so much. I’ve come to realize that we are never certain of our decisions and how they’ll turn out, even looking backwards. Always asking “what if” stops us from appreciating what we do have. It also inhibits us from doing what might need to be done to provide more meaning and substance to our lives. This is where I want the focus to be, not on the “what ifs” but on the decisions I’m making or need to make for the future. Even if I’m not always certain of the outcome of those decisions any more than I am of the “what ifs” of the past.

What about you? Do you play the “what if” game? If you do how have you snapped out of it?

Coming From the Outside In

Have you ever entered a situation that is already in progress and you have to sort out what is going on? At first it can be pretty difficult. There may be terms used that you don’t understand, assertions that are established that you don’t understand the reasoning behind, and even worse is that often people are progressing in that situation while you’re still trying to get a grasp. In many ways this is my experience with the church.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever said it here, but I did not come from a religious family. The only member of my family that I knew for certain was religious was my great-grandmother who was Catholic and I was scared of her, so she wasn’t much of a influence on my faith. I remember asking my parent’s about why we celebrated holidays like Easter, and while it was known to be religious in nature nobody really knew what it was about.

So when I came to faith in my late teens, I had to enter a church for the first time. I was nervous and the image of churches I had in my mind was a hive of judgmental, hypocritical people. Thankfully, that was not the first impression I wound up getting of the the church I went to. Granted the type of person I was even before coming to faith would have been hard to judge too much against. I was the nice guy, the one who hated to get into trouble, and the one that teachers adored and subsequently compared my brothers to (sorry about that guys).

However, I was still coming from the outside in, and it became apparent fast that I didn’t necessarily understand all that was going on. I got the hang of things pretty fast, but during the first couple of years I hadn’t really questioned much of what I was taught. I was simply absorbing, figuring out this new world and getting some sort of foundation to even begin to compare to. I enjoyed the direction of my pastor and his wife who I often consider my spiritual parents in many ways.

Over time though, I ran into Christians who believed different things about certain topics. I had both of my foundations as a person and as a young Christian to begin wondering about some of these topics. I heard how some talked about drinking as if it were a sin, yet that ran counter to my reading of the Bible and of how most of my family treated alcohol. I heard of opinions about gambling, rock music, dancing, and other things being sinful or evil, and wondered where the understanding of these things came from. Yet these topics were unimportant enough to me at the time to ask anyone about, I mean these weren’t all necessarily opinions of my home church, I had simply run into these opinions.

It wasn’t until I started dating Kristen, the woman who would become my wife, that I started asking these questions. You see, unlike me she was an insider. Her parents and grandparents are all Christians, she went to a Christian High School, and she was intelligent so clearly she’d have the understanding I lacked as an outsider. So she became the one I asked questions to:

“Where does it say that drinking is a sin in the Bible? I see that drunkenness is, is there something I’m missing?”

“Why is gambling wrong?”

“Why is dancing wrong?”

“Why are certain styles of music evil?”

I wish I could say that she knew the answers to these questions, but most of the time she didn’t. I still don’t know the Biblical arguments against a number of these, and I’m not sure if there really are. I have arguments against certain kinds of behaviors in these categories, but often to brush aside things like gambling or dancing as sin wholesale doesn’t interest me too much. Even after all the questions I asked her while dating , my curiosity is still there, and she is still my sounding board. Due to this, she tends to cringe when I utter, “Can I ask you a question?” She never knows if it will be about what she wants for dinner, or if the church underestimates the danger of pride.

Despite being a Christian for about 13 years, having an undergraduate degree in Christian Ministry, and having my Masters of Divinity, I still feel a bit of an outsider. I love questions, and tend to ask questions about the various viewpoints Christians espouse. Some of the views are ones I’ve already mentioned, others are based on how we baptize, how we view creation, what theory we hold to about the end of the world, or other issues like this. They aren’t necessarily all questions about challenging authority, but more often wondering if there is only one way to view these issues and what people do about those with alternative views. I know big theological terms, but would rather talk in ways that people will understand than toss a bunch of jargon at them, not that I don’t think they are useful sometimes, but often I think churches use a lot more jargon than we think.

So after all this time I still feel like a bit of an outsider, and in part I’m okay with that. In part I don’t want to forget what it was like to be a new believer walking into a church for the first time. I want to think about how what we say in church will sound like to a new believer or a non-believer. I don’t do this perfectly, but I don’t want to stop trying. I also want to be careful of pride. When we think we, or the group we’re affiliated with, has all the answers, pride can be so dangerous. We can treat those who believe different than use pretty terribly. Again not something that I do perfectly, but I’d rather ask questions and try to understand than simply dismiss a thought. Maybe these things don’t make me as much of an outsider as I think, but sometimes it certainly feels like it.

The Battle Against Death, Part 4 – Any Answers?

This will be the final part of my reflection on death that has been ongoing for the past month or two. I started thinking about all this because of current debates on gun control, and the semi-recent debates about health insurance. It was the idea that these things were part of a battle against death. This led me to look towards the Bible and see if I could get any consistent themes about what it says about death. The three that I found were that physical death is inevitable, the Bible views death as more than just biological, and God is ultimately the one who defeats death. However, the question I have to tackle here is how does the Biblical view of death help us figure out how to fight against death?

This is a difficult question to answer in some ways. We are all coming to this question at different places. Some people could care less about the Biblical view of death, so they think that the Bible has little to say about fighting death, either spiritually or physically. Some of those may even think that the Bible is part of the problem. On the other extreme there are those who propose that the Bible has every answer, be it about diet, how to pick your spouse, how to parent, how to exercise, and the list could go on.

I don’t feel like I fit any of these camps, I’m a Christian and want to try to reflect on what can be gleaned by what the Bible says about death and how to fight it. I think the Bible has a lot to say about how to fight death, it does talk about issues of food, marriage, parenting, money, but not always in very detailed ways. You’re not going to find Jesus marketing a diet plan so you can lose weight or be healthy. The Bible doesn’t tell you that you and your spouse need a date night. Tips on how to potty train or when your child can do chores are lacking. We can come up with some things due to principles that are presented and stories that are told, but sometimes these details are up for debate.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that the Bible is all up to debate and has nothing solid. It is just not as comprehensive as some people like to make it. The Bible speaks clearly about worshiping only one God, not casting idols, honoring parents, speaking against murder and hatred, being truthful to and about our neighbors, engaging in fair business practices, seeking justice impartially, and also talks quite candidly in places about sexual ethics. Even with some of these pretty clear teachings there are still room for questions. Does the commandment to not murder, mean that war is wrong? Does the idea of being truthful and not bearing false witness against our neighbors simply mean not lying? What exactly does honoring parents look like?

So if things that are talked about fairly clear in the Bible still allow some questions, what do we do about issues that are not quite as rooted in Scriptures. For those who are Christians and care about what the Bible says on ethics and how we should live, often this comes from trying to develop an underlying ethic and building on that.

To give an example of this lets look at gun control. I’m just making general arguments here, I’m not trying to be comprehensive, but rather showing how two viewpoints can derive from the Bible. For those who think that the commandment to not murder means to never take a life, gun control could look like a way to do this. Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, and his own turning away from violence in his arrest, trial, and crucifixion adds to this idea of pacifism and that taking a life is never a good thing even at the danger of our own demise. So if all killing is to be avoided, then the need for weapons is not a high priority and gun control could be a way to express this. Add the consistent theme of God being the one to take vengeance, and you get a little more of a reason to not worry about trying to take the life of another.

On the other hand, if  you look at the teaching to not murder, you can say that it doesn’t mean that killing is completely wrong. The command says do not murder, so the intent is for the crime of murdering another human being. So it doesn’t apply to self-defense, the death penalty, or to times of war. We see this interpretation lived out in the wars of Israel through most of the Old Testament. Exodus 22:2-3 also adds to this on the area of self-defense saying that “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed.” It is pretty easy to take this as a solid foundation for the owning of a weapon that would allow us to protect ourselves in such a circumstance. From that it isn’t much of a jump to thinking that owning a gun is a good idea for the protection of family. People who view things this way also tend to view Jesus’s words on turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemy to be about issues different than self-defense when your life or the life of others nearby are threatened.

So we have the same question, but two different answers. So it is no wonder that when we step out of the foundation of the Bible that we find mass chaos on what to do on gun control. And I’m only giving two possible arguments on either end of the spectrum from the Biblical foundation.

So where does it leave us? I wish I had solid answers. In part, I think we’ve become a nation, and perhaps a Western culture, full of know-it-all’s. People believe that their answer is the only right one and belittle any other opinion there is.  I’ve seen people that that want to place the United States as better than any other country or that Canada or that any given European country is better than the United States. That Republican is better than Democrat or vice versa.  It is easy to see people try to use pictures and stats to bolster their own opinion, but do very little to promote heavy thinking or invite true dialog on the subject.

Thinking about that reality, leads to perhaps the most disheartening thing about this reflection is that I don’t think there are many answers. Death is inevitable, and as a Christian I believe that that death is more than just biological death. When we fail to listen to anyone but our own voice we are agents of death When we hate another for how they view life we are agents of death. When we try to reduce God to the very outskirts of life we are agents of death. When we fail to see our own sin and rejoice in it instead of repent from it we are agents of death. So I ultimately trust that God is the one who will be victorious over these two types of death.

It is not intentional that I write this final post on Good Friday, it is merely the time that I sat down to finish it. However, the significance of it is not lost on me. Today is the day we celebrate the crucifixion of Christ. It is the day that Jesus Christ died for the death and sin that is in all of us. It is this day when the defeat of death began, even if it wouldn’t be realized by Jesus’s disciples until a couple days later, and even if that defeat isn’t fully realized still today. However, that is where I put my faith, that one day the death that we so easily promote will be gone for good. That the struggle to figure out what is best on this world will be over. Until then, we do our best to struggle for answers and hope that what we do will be towards the fight against death, and not aiding death in its battle against us.

Another Year in the Rearview Mirror

This could be an overused image this time of year, but since we spent the first day of 2012 driving from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts it seems like a fitting title to look back to 2011 and forward to 2012. Trying to reflect on the past year is sometimes difficult. Things blur and mesh with previous years to such a point that it is sometimes hard to remember what happened this year and what did not.

Overall it was a year that has been marked with frustration. Maybe not overwhelming frustration, but a nagging frustration. The type where you think it is gone but it continues to reappear. Maybe it is a certain question you are asked, or something you think of and then that frustration rears its ugly head. The source of this frustration is mostly just not knowing what we’re supposed to do. Not knowing what God wants us to do or where he wants us to be. It’s a frustration that comes from being in a holding pattern, but not really wanting to be in one. Mostly because you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to do and therefore wind up wasting a lot of energy worrying and not enough on actually living where you are.

Despite the feeling of the year being frustration, it really hasn’t been a bad year event wise. My wife Kristen and I moved closer to the church we’ve attended since we’ve been in Massachusetts, which has been really nice. Kristen also started a new job, which was nice, even though that hasn’t been an entirely positive thing, it is better than the job she left. I’ve been getting to stay at home with our son Ryan, which has been a lot of fun. Admittedly staying home with him is also part of the frustration, since that wasn’t really the way we were planning things.

Perhaps the worst thing is that as I look back in the rearview mirror to 2011 it seems that a lot of it is really coming with us into 2012. We’re still not entirely sure what we’re supposed to be doing. Is there a job out there for me? Am I supposed to be staying home with Ryan? Are we supposed to be staying in Massachusetts? Should we move closer to family? Is there some other unknown thing we’re supposed to be doing? How will we know that? How do we invest and live life where we are without all these questions interfering? These issues are still there. The nagging frustrations of 2011 are poised to become the nagging frustrations of 2012.

At the end of it though I do feel thankful. While there is a frustration that pops up every so often. We are not struggling the way that many do. We’re able to live comfortably with only one of us working, we have a warm place to sleep at night, we’re part of a community that that we enjoy being a part of, and we’re both able to have a big part in our sons life. While it may be easy to dwell on the uncertainties and frustrations what we have to be thankful for outweighs the frustrations. That doesn’t always make it easy, but it does help gain some perspective and that is useful to have regardless of whether it is the beginning of a new year or the middle of a year.

So here’s hoping that your 2012 may be better than your 2011.That you will grow and learn more in the new year and also that the world doesn’t end next December. Because let’s face it that might make for a pretty bad 2012 for a lot of people.