Jesus Fills out a NCAA March Madness Bracket


Let’s just face it, office production is measurably down today.  Shipments will be a few minutes late.  Invoices are on hold.  The staff will be a few minutes late for today’s lunch meetings.  After processing all of the conference tournament championships from yesterday (my Buckeyes won, in case you missed it!), considering the match ups, perusing conference strengths, deciding which mascot they like better, and listening to the experts’ take on things . . . millions of men, women, and children are busy filling out their college basketball brackets right now.  It is the creme de creme of American sports: 68 teams make the initial cut, but only one will be left standing.  It’s sudden death.  It’s elimination.  It is survival of the fittest.  It epitomizes the American ethos: for better or worse.  And somewhere John Calipari is prepping for the NIT.

I have been filling out an NCAA tournament bracket ever since I can remember.  I’ve probably lost a hundred dollars or so over the years (I’m guessing $5 a year over 20 years . . . pretty big stakes).  Once I’m done typing out this blog entry, I’ll fill out my 2013 attempt.  It always takes awhile to decide whether to pick with your mind . . . or your heart (Buckeyes all the way!)

This year, I find myself knee-deep in studying sports and religion and it’s just got my head all screwed up when it comes to my love of sports.  This bracket is no different.  This morning I started wondering how Jesus would fill out his brackets (I mean, if you Calvinist are right, it wouldn’t be much fun to be in his pool – but, alas, as an Arminian, I do hold onto some hope I could beat his bracket).  This all got me wondering, What if Jesus set out to pick with his heart – who would he want to win?

Steve Nash

Messiah without a beard?

We all know Jesus would be a basketball fan, right?  I mean James Naismith was a freaking chaplain for Kansas!  The game was invented at a YMCA (Young Men’s CHRISTIAN Association!)  With his flowing locks, Jesus was born to be a point guard.  I’ve often wondered what it would be like to play Jesus one-on-one, but we’ll save that discussion for another day.

Today, I’m wondering what his bracket would look like. It seems to me, obviously, it’s going to have a lot to with how you understand Jesus.  If you espouse an “everyone-for-themselves” Jesus who promotes a dog-eat-dog system where the cream will rise to the top, you probably think Jesus is really hoping Duke and Ohio State come through one side and Kansas and Indiana through the other (and obviously Duke and Indiana would be playing for the title!)  If you see Jesus as more of a social activist beckoning the ghost of Walter Rauschenbusch, this is the year the 16 seeds bring home the title, taking down The Man!  [Here‘s a documentary of what it may look like if Jesus happened to follow soccer’s World Cup this way.]  Or maybe Jesus would seek to reward the most godly schools for their commitment to ministry and the “higher call” setting up a Final Four made up of Liberty University, Notre Dame (or would it be Belmont – the Catholics taking on the Baptists, intriguing!), Georgetown and Villanova.  Or . . . maybe he wouldn’t care at all about the Big Dance, and instead obsess with the lower divisions of college basketball – scoping out D2 and D3 action.  Maybe he’d make a good Victorian and not “weary himself with such lusts of the flesh.”

Apparently if Jesus played, it would have been in the 70's

Apparently if Jesus played, it would have been in the 70’s

Here’s one church’s idea for using the NCAA tournament to do some good (digging wells in Africa).  Seems like a good use of what the culture has given us – maybe he’d do that: going church to church setting up brackets to raise money and awareness to the world’s problems.

Maybe he’d protest.  I posted last week about the ills of youth sports and it’s nowhere more heinous than in basketball.  Would Jesus stand for that?  Would Jesus occupy March Madness?

You can tell alot about how you think God wants you to live and interact in this world as a Christian (the old “in the world, but not of the world” paradox) by how you engage this hypothetical conversation.  Richard Niebuhr calls this the “enduring problem” of Christianity in his famous Christ and Culture.  How does the world of sacraments, spirituality, and morality intersect the world of college basketball tournaments, shopping malls, and I pads?  In the end, it’s impossible to know how or if Jesus would care at all about college basketball.  However, as the obsession with this tournament envelopes our culture in the coming weeks, there can be little doubt that the tournament matters to our culture.  Because it matters, we should be looking for ways to celebrate the best it has to offer . . . while at the same time, being aware that all that it has to offer it not the best.





Ke$ha the Prophetess?

If I could go back and hang out with some folks from the Old Testament, I think I would have to pick one of the prophets.  I just love how “in your face” they were . . . not to mention how irreverant and crass they were (inspiring my Twitter handle @Crasslyyours).  Whether they’re lying down on their side for a year, running around naked, cooking dinner over poop, or making little figures out of play dough – these were some weird folks!  I’m trying to convince my wife that not getting a haircut is my God-given calling as a prophet of the Lord . . . and currently that argument is not going so well – at least I don’t cook dinner over the toilet.

Now, I don’t really think Ke$ha is a prophet, but she is weird and she is in your face.  She sings . . . or raps . . . or whatever it is she does, with the swagger and crassness that has almost always been reserved for men.  By all accounts she’s trashy (even if she is super smart – she scored 1500 on her SAT and has an IQ of 140 . . . but apparently missed the health classes on STDs and the effects of alcohol abuse) and annoying as she has turned the $ sign into the 27th letter of the alphabet.  However, she has also captured something in the hearts of adolescents that has made her music crazy popular.  She’s smart . . . and she’s talented.

Her most recent hit captures the heart and soul of youthful zeal and carefree living even in the title, “Die Young.”

Strangely, in kicking the year off with a study of Ecclesiastes, our church wound up humming the words to this Ke$ha song.  OK, we didn’t actually hum the words and I was too much of a chicken to actually play the song (that whole “magic in your pants is making me blush” part made me think it a bit inappropriate), but I read the following lyrics:

Young hearts, out our minds
Runnin like we outta time
Wild childs, lookin’ good
Livin hard just like we should
Don’t care whose watching when we tearing it up (You Know)
That magic that we got nobody can touch (For sure)

Looking for some trouble tonight
Take my hand, I’ll show you the wild, side
Like it’s the last night of our lives
We’ll keep dancing till we die.

Most of the time, churches stay away from the Book of Ecclesiastes like it is the plague.  If you do a little research into Ecclesiastes you find that it’s always been like that.  Even the great rabbinic schools of old – Hillel and Shammai were divided about what to do with it – Hillel thought that the message of Ecclesiastes was so troubling it “defiled the hands.”  At Alum Creek this January, we have chosen to study the book through the prism of transitions.  As the writer looks back at his life, he’s really reflecting on the many changes that have taken place in his life: getting older, his family, his job, etc. and through it all, he’s trying to make sense of it.  Why am I here?

The difficult part of reading Ecclesiastes is that it doesn’t really give a good solid answer.  Depending on where it is you happen to be reading, it can sound a whole lot like a Ke$ha song (though the text does not include “wild childs, looking good” – that is not good Hebrew).  Notice the connection between “Die Young” and this portion from Ecclesiastes 9: 1 – 7

“So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good,
so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them.

This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.”

When we read the Bible, we like the message to come wrapped up nicely with a bow on it (and probably a cherry on top, to boot).  Most sermons are like that.  What I have enjoyed about preaching through Ecclesiastes is that a lot of times there is no nicely-wrapped ending each week.  Ecclesiastes is authentic as it helps us wrestle with the ebbs and flows of life.  As the all too inappropriate SNL sketch tells us, “This here is real.”

I don’t know what to do with Ke$ha’s song and her less-than-stellar message.  At the same time, I hear in her message the same cry from the writer of Ecclesiastes, struggling with the confusion and challenges of being young . . . or old . . . or middle-aged . . . There is something to be said for living like we’re young  Sometimes I think Christians would do well to kick back on a Ke$ha song once and while and just . . . have fun.

Living in the Age of TMI

We’ve all been there: engrossed in conversation with someone when the person that we’re talking with begins to volunteer information of an extremely personal nature.  The setting of the person’s story, more times than not, is a bathroom . . . or a bedroom . . . and if you’re lucky, you can nip the conversational, pre-flowered, bud by inserting the three letters, “TMI.”   TMI, of course, is an abbreviation for “too much information.”  TMI is usually designated for those moments when someone is broaching an extremely private matter and to continue on would merit social embarrassment.  Inherent in this response is the idea, “Hey, some things are best left unsaid – keep that to yourself.”

What constitutes TMI is quite a complex discussion.  TMI in one social setting, is far from out-of-bounds in another.  You may fart freely while among one social group, while squeezing tightly to avoid the embarrassment in another setting.  You may speak freely of your sexual escapades with one or two friends, but that social circle is pretty small for most of us.  Finding a level of appropriateness and comfort for everyone is going to be nearly impossible.  What one groups finds to be appallingly rude, another is going to find prudishly uptight.

While I don’t intend to get off on a tangent of social graces here, the concept of TMI is something that is becoming more and more a point of conversation.  The dual influences of the Youtube generation who feels comfortable with all aspects of their lives broadcast publicly along with the Google/Wikipedia reality where we now have all the information that’s ever been available in our phones in our pockets . . . all the sudden we live in the age of TMI.

I really don’t care what your status update is on Facebook, or your latest tweet is, and I’m guessing you don’t care about mine either.  And yet we read them.  We interact with them.  Twitter has now allowed us to update and broadcast what we are doing just about every second of our lives.  I can’t keep up with my own life, not to mention my wife and kids . . . and then throw in the how-ever-hundreds-other of Facebook friends, and Twitter followers, and there’s just TMI.

I love my Google content reader – it’s been one way I’ve been able to help sift through the vast amount of information that comes my way in a day.  As I come across neat blogs and interesting people, I add them to my reader . . . until, once again, I have TMI.  This influx of information . . . this overload of information . . . will have drastic impact on the kind of people we become twenty and thirty years from now.  Off the heels of the scientific age when we wanted to learn all that we could – our learning was insatiable . . . and now we realize that we can never learn everything.  No matter how small our focus might be, it’s becoming harder and harder to “master” everything.  The reaction to this in our society will be compelling to watch.  A few things I wouldn’t be surprised to see happen:

* An oversexualized/over-exposed generation leads the way to a return toward modesty.  When you’ve already seen all that there is to see, sometimes the sexiest, most attractive thing to do is to cover is all back up.

* Colleges are going to have a harder and harder time maintaining that their accreditation standards mean anything.

* Discernment will be the spiritual discipline of the next age.

* Wisdom will find a new-found appreciation and will be valued over knowledge.

* We will continue to invent, create, and revolutionize the world as each generation becomes smarter and smarter and more adept and creative with the abundance of knowledge they have at their finger tips.

* The world will constantly fight the Babel-ian impulse to build towers and “make their name great.”  [If this reference makes no sense to you, go back and read the account of the tower of Babel in Genesis 11 and see if that doesn’t sound like a timely story for the world that we know.]

Sermon #6: Deconstructing Theology Series

This sermon wraps up our series on Deconstructing Theology, though I will follow it up with a postscript this week with a case study working through a specific issue in light of what we’ve done the past six weeks. I will post that sermon on Monday and be done posting sermons for awhile. I try to reserve this space for other random thoughts, so I’ll get back to those soon. Here’s last week’s installment – thinking about things that don’t “fit” the structure . . .

We began with this video clip from the Today Show accessible here:

Deconstructing Theology #6
Alum Creek Church – February 7, 2010

When All Structure is Gone

Last year, while Mary Beth and I were forced indoors with our newborn (who turned one yesterday!) we spend some time reading through Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically. Jacob’s intention of following the Bible literally is an overstated attempt to obey the laws since he doesn’t leave any room for metaphor or poetry, but the work is still an interesting reflection on obeying the Bible. Have you ever considered what it would take to keep all the laws of the Bible? Jacobs has a Jewish heritage so he is more interested in the Old Testament than the New Testament, which makes his foray into the Law of Moses especially interesting.

One of the most memorable experiences that I remember from his yearlong experiment was his concern over purity. You may or may not know that in the Old Testament, a woman was considered unclean when she was on her period. She was instructed to go to the edges of the community for the duration of that week. The law goes on to instruct that anything a woman touch while she is on her period is unclean as is anything she sits on. (Leviticus 15: 19 – 23). This caused quite a problem for Jacobs as he set out to follow the Bible as literally as he could. He lives in New York City, regularly takes the subway and eats and rests in public places. How could he be sure the seats in which he was sitting would be clean?

His wife, a bit embittered from the weeklong abstinence of touch demanded by the law, took this simple fact to really challenge his commitment.

The no-sitting-on-impure-seats presents more of a challenge. I came home this afternoon and was about to plop down on my official seat, the gray pleather armchair in our living room.
“I wouldn’t do that,” says Julie [his wife]
“It’s unclean. I sat on it.” She doesn’t even look up from her TiVo’d episode of Lost.
OK. Fine. Point taken. She doesn’t appreciate these impurity laws. I move to another chair, a black plastic one.
“Sat in that one, too,” says Julie. “And the ones in the kitchen. And the couch in the office.”
In preparation for my homecoming, she sat in every chair in the apartment, which I found annoying but also impressive . . .
I finally settle on Jasper’s six-inch-high wooden bench, which she had overlooked, where I tap out emails on my PowerBook with my knees up to my chin.

His solution is a creative one – a Handy Seat, which he describes as his “little island of cleanliness.” The Handy Seat was a portable seat that he took with him everywhere he went to ensure his cleanliness remained intact.

I have spent so much time talking about A. J. Jacobs this morning because I believe he illustrates the problem the Jews had with the Mosaic Law well – they couldn’t keep it. Last week as we read about the council in Jerusalem, in the midst of their considering the Jewish implications for Gentile converts Peter stood up and said, “Why should we expect the Gentiles to keep the Jewish laws? Our forefathers weren’t able to keep the laws!” “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are now.” (Acts 15: 11).

We are saved by grace, through faith. What of everything else? What about the way we understand everything else? What about your stance on gay marriage? What about your stance on the environment? What about your stance on communion? What about your stance on salvation, and the salvation of others? What about these questions . . . and what about a million others? Where’s the line? Does grace eliminate the need to seriously address these things?

As we’ve spent six weeks now deconstructing our thoughts and ideas about God and faith . . . where do we go from here? All of our understanding and beliefs are laying on the ground before us in pieces, how do we put it all back together? What are we left with when the structure is gone?

I want to share with you five snapshots from Scripture that don’t’ fit into the structure. I think these snapshots help shed light onto what we are to do when our structure of knowledge and understanding is shaken – when we begin to realize that we don’t know as much as we thought we did and we’re unsure of the way forward.

Snapshot #1 – The Priest Melchizedek

I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on this first snapshot, mainly because there isn’t much to say. We begin in the story of Abraham. Abraham had been called by God and was blessed by God in all he did. He began amassing great wealth and notoriety in the area. Genesis 14 tells the story of two kings coming to see Abraham: the King of Sodom and the King of Salem. It is the King of Salem that brings our attention this morning. Read Genesis 14: 18 – 20.

We aren’t told much about Melchizedek and, for the most part, is an unimportant character in this story. He is mentioned again in Psalms and Hebrews which is very interesting, but for our purposes here, we just want to note one thing about Melchizedek – who is he? Not only is he a king – he is also a priest. Where does his priestly credentials come from? The priestly line through Aaron won’t be established for a long time. The extent of our knowledge of God’s working in the world are through Abraham and his family. Where does Melchizedek go back to? What is the nature of his priesthood? How many are blessed through his work?

Obviously, these are all questions that we can’t answer, and that is exactly the point. We don’t know. What we do know is that God was working in a way that we are completely unaware of and that completely does NOT make biblical sense.

Snapshot #2 – Celebrating Passover (Numbers 9: 1 – 14)

Two years after Israel is led out of Egyptian bondage, as they continue their traveling through the desert, it is once again time to celebrate the Passover. The Lord tells Moses it’s time to celebrate the Passover and all the preparations are made. Read Numbers 9: 6 – 8. Some of the Israelites had a problem. Many of them were not ritualistically clean as required by the Law of Moses prior to participating in Passover. There were some families that had funerals recently and had come into contact with dead bodies. What were they to do? Must they be excluded from this celebration? Moses inquires of God. Read Numbers 9: 9 – 13. Here, a very noticeable and obvious exception is made to one of Israel’s most fundamental laws.

You can interpret this text as an extremely rare exception to the norm . . . but you have to ask the question, why was an exception allowed? On what grounds is the appeal granted? Was God feeling nice that day? Had he not thought that far ahead? Or, was there a higher law He could appeal to?

Snapshot #3 – Finding the Book of the Law (2 Chronicles 29 – 30)

A similar situation comes about in 2 Chronicles when Hezekiah uncovers the Book of Law that was lost long ago. Upon finding the book, they realize the temple has become unclean, and Hezekiah had it cleaned and purified. Read 2 Chronicles 29: 35b – 36. With the temple back up and running, the regular worship of the community could begin. Central to the religious way of life for Israel were their festivals and they had just missed Passover. Passover was celebrated in the first month and it was now the second month.

Read 2 Chronicles 30: 1 – 6. The leaders consorted and determined that it would be good to go ahead with Passover. They sent letters out throughout the nation inviting everyone to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. This was to be the greatest Passover celebration ever.

Upon the arrival to the city, many people had not been ceremonially cleansed. Read 2 Chronicles 30: 13 – 20. Again, the question remains, why the exception? Was God so excited to have his people back in conformity that he gave them a little leeway on how they went about the celebration? I can envision a group of devout old Israelites sitting on the outskirts of the party pointing and saying, “You know they haven’t been cleansed? What is this world coming to?”

Snapshot #4 – The Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11: 27 – 30)

Read 1 Corinthians 11: 27 – 30. 1 Corinthians 11 is a passage that we often read before taking the Lord’s Supper. It speaks to the seriousness of the Lord’s Supper. But, have you ever known anyone to get sick because they weren’t observing correctly? Paul indicates that that is exactly what is happening in Corinth at the time. Have we not experienced that because we have never done so inappropriately? Was that just something that happened back then?

Again, we can’t answer those questions, but we’re left with the idea that there is something going on here that is out of our typical experience and understanding of God and of the church.

Snapshot #5 – Deathbed Salvation (Luke 23: 32 – 43)

And we come to the final of our snapshots – on the cross of Calvary. Jesus is crucified between two thieves. Read Luke 23: 32 – 43. Of all the snapshots, this one is most difficult to fit into our structure. This criminal is given the promise of eternal life right here on his deathbed. He probably wasn’t a Jew. He didn’t know the Torah. He wasn’t circumcised. He wasn’t baptized. He wasn’t religious.

Yet this final professional of belief in Christ brings him the promise of eternal life. There are a few questions glaring back from this text. Was this a one-time exception? Granted, this is a unique, never to be duplicated event, but is there nothing timeless we can glean from this episode? Does this not say something about our attempt to figure things out? Doesn’t it provide us with at least a small dose of humility to realize that God is going to do what God is going to do, and we should be careful about telling people what God is like, or what God is going to do, and simply stand back and testify to what he is doing and what he is like and what we’ve seen – just as Paul and Barnabas do in their explanation of the Gentiles inclusion in Christ?

The passage of Scripture that is on the front page of the bulletin brings us to a fitting conclusion to this series. The questions the prophet asks reflect the same question we’ve been asking throughout this series, “What do you want from us? How do you want us to be your people? What are the rules of church?”

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Sacrifices and offerings were all commanded by God. They were the “right” way
to do things. But there was a better way. There was a higher way. There was something that was more important.

I subtitled this series “Unlearning the Rule of Church.” I’m afraid we’ve spoken in far too many places in establishing the rules of church. We have become more concerned with “doing church” right than with living out the kingdom right. If I were to pray Micah’s prayer in this setting this morning, I think it would sound like this:

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I ensure my singing is done in the right way, without instruments, and from the heart? Will the Lord be pleased if women are excluded from all forms of public service during our assembled times? Shall I present my certificate to him – baptism by immersion upon the age of accountability? Maybe I should be baptized seven times – just to be sure. Must I keep track of my how many times I celebrate communion? Should I insist that everything that happens during a two-hour window on Sunday mornings at the church building is exactly perfect – exactly the way that I want it?”

The answer that comes so boldly and powerfully to Micah screams from the pages to our ears this morning . . . “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Perhaps as poignant as what is said, is what is not said. No sacrifices. No burnt offerings. No temple rituals. Justice. Mercy. Humility.

In a similar vein, Paul ends his letter the Philippians with a memorable teaching:

“Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent of praiseworthy – think about such things.”

Sermon #3 in Deconstructing Theology Series

Here’s Sunday’s sermon from our deconstruction series . . .

Deconstructing Theology #3
Alum Creek – Jan. 17, 2010 – Alum Creek

The Grain of Salt: Learning to Ask Questions

Every once in awhile, a line is uttered in a movie that jumps off the silver screen and is forever etched in the psyche of popular culture. Often times one or two lines of dialogue from a movie forever represent an entire film. Before we get into the lesson this morning, I want to hear from you some of the greatest movie lines of all times. Some of my favorite:
· “I see dead people.” – The Sixth Sense
· “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” – Dirty Dancing
· “I feel the need, the need for speed.” – Top Gun
Who remembers this line? “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
That line, obviously, comes from the Wizard of Oz, one of the many famous quotes from this movie. As we move into our third lesson in our series on deconstructing theology, this scene becomes a very good starting point for our discussion. We began two weeks ago by asking some questions about the way we think. We acknowledged that our knowledge, our perspective, is circumstantial. There’s not getting around that. We think the way we think because our environment, our training, our personality, our tradition, our teachers, and an infinite number of other things affect what we know in addition to affecting the way we know what we know. In acknowledging this reality we came face to face with the fact that we could be wrong – about a lot of really important things, and thus, should always ask the question, “What if we are wrong?”
We looked to Paul and saw that his call for transformation of the mind in Romans 12 was really a call to acknowledge that we have been wrong. Paul states that transformation happens by the renewing of your minds . . . and the renewing of your mind is an ongoing process of stating, “Well, I’m wrong about this,” and then subsequent growth from righting the wrong.
Last Sunday we pressed on further by calling for some cognitive humility – confessing to others that we don’t have all the answers. We saw that Job was completely undone by not just the undoing of his life, but by the undoing of his mind. What happened to Job didn’t fit in his box – his understanding of things, of God. We will never be able to grow until we are readily able to admit, “I don’t know.”
But . . . is that allowed? Aren’t some things just given? Aren’t some areas just the way they are because they are?
David Dark begins his book The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by telling the story of a small tight-knit community. The community is close and they watch each other and take care of each other. Anyone visiting from the outside would quickly notice their blatant and constant affinity to “Uncle Ben.” It was very common to hear members of the community say, “Isn’t Uncle Ben awesome?” Even in tragedy, the locals acknowledge, “It just goes to show you how much we need Uncle Ben.”
At the beginning of each week there’s a meeting at the largest house in the town where the people get together and talk about the events of the community and each family. They talk about Uncle Ben until a bell rings and all the people get up from their seats and moves to a staircase that goes to the basement. The entire community descends the staircase where they see an enormous, rumbling furnace. There is a man in black overalls with his back to them. They wait in silence until the man turns around.
He turns and his face is slightly contorted with anger and he yells at the people, “Am I good?”
They respond to him in unison, “Yes, Uncle Ben, you are good.”
“Am I worthy of praise?”
“You alone are worthy of his praise.”
“Do you love me more than anything?”
“We love you and you alone, Uncle Ben.”
“You better love me, or I’m going to put you . . . in here” – he opens the furnace door to reveal a gaping darkness – “forever.”
Out of the darkness can be heard sounds of anguish and lament. Then he closes the furnace door and turns his back to them. They sit in silence.
Finally, feeling reasonably assured that Uncle Ben has finished saying what he has to say, they leave. They live their lives as best they can. They try to think and speak truthfully and do well by one another. They resume their talk of the wonders of Uncle Ben’s love in anticipation of the next week’s meeting.”
The Uncle Ben in this story shares a striking resemblance to the God that so many have directed their worship. They live their lives the best they can. They do good to others. They acknowledge their shortcomings. They pray, read their Bibles, and attend church services. And all along the way . . . they are completely paralyzed by fear. The God that they serve is Uncle Ben . . . the who threatens fire and damnation to the one who looks behind the curtain . . .
If your image of God resonates with the Uncle Ben portrait there is no place for questioning. Fear stymies questions. It extinguishes all hope of growth. It does not allow for transformation. It forces us to walk on eggshells hoping not to get anything wrong. It creates an environment of insecurity and unease – far from the peace that God promises His people.
There’s a great parable in another movie that I want to show you, it’s a very brief clip from the movie Bridge to Terabithia. The movie tells the story of two 10-year-olds, Jess and Leslie, who find a magical land in woods surrounding the homes. One day as their play date was rained out, Jess bemoaned the fact that he wouldn’t be able to return soon since he had to do chores the next day, and the following day was Sunday and he would have to go to church. Leslie asks to come along to church, but Jess is sure she won’t like it – after all, she’ll have to wear a dress. Listen to this amazing exchange the two of them have (with Jess’ little sister) on the way home from church.
[Play Bridge to Terabithia clip (]
“You have to believe it, and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” What an incredible quote! If you have an Uncle Ben picture of who God is, then you have to believe. You can’t take a chance. It must have been what the philosopher Blaise Pascal had in mind when thought through what is now known as Pascal’s wager. Basically, he asserted that the existence of God cannot be determined, but if there is a God and he can condemn you to hell forever, it’s better safe than sorry. If you work your whole life believing there is a God and turns out there’s not, you’re not out nearly as much if the opposite proves to be true.
At this point I have to ask you the question, “Is this the God of Scripture?” Does the Bible portray a God who demands dogmatic precision and theological perfection? Is He the kind of God who will zap you if you miss too many answers on the final exam? Is our God really a “better safe than sorry” God? Is there really no room for error? Does it really have to be either/or when eternal torment is at stake?
Obviously, if our God is like that of Uncle Ben in the story we just read, the answers are always going to have to be pretty straightforward. But . . . what if God isn’t like that? What are the implications of a God who is different than Uncle Ben?
The Bible is full of stories of men and women who were forced to ask some very difficult questions . . . questions that called into question all that they have ever believed. This morning, quickly, I want us to consider two especially relevant stories from the Book of Acts.
As chapter 7 comes to a conclusions in the Book of Acts, we are told that, as Stephen was lying dead on the ground at the hands of Jewish leaders who had stoned him, a man named Saul stood giving his approval. Saul was an up-and-coming Jewish leader who was working his best to eradicate a Jewish sect of false teachers who were followers of a man named Jesus. He knew all the answers to religious questions. He had been trained in theology. He knew who God was. He knew who he was.
Then . . . Acts 9: 1 – 9.
What do you think those three days were like? What do you think he was thinking about? I bet a lot of the same questions we’ve been asking: What if I’m wrong? How could I have been so wrong?
The story of Saul is one we have grown up hearing. We talk about it all the time to the point where it nearly becomes dull to us. But we must not allow that to happen to us. Listen to the story. Saul is standing there watching some of his friends throw stones at a man who is tied up so that he wouldn’t run away. And they threw stones until he died. He watched every gory detail. And then he and his friends went back to the place where they were staying and had dinner and joked and went on their merry way.
And then . . . in just the matter of weeks, days, this same man is out promoting the very Gospel that he had been out to kill with force. He had been completely and totally wrong. Now, he was left with the ominous task of convincing others in the Christian movement that he wasn’t attempting to simply infiltrate the group and turn on them all.
And if the story of Paul doesn’t make the point well enough, another chapter over and we learn of the great Apostle Peter and his strange vision.
Read Acts 10: 9 – 23.
Something major was about to change for Peter as well. He knew that the Jews were the exclusive people of God. This was still their understanding after Christ was resurrected. The Christian movement was a Jewish one. Peter knew this. They all knew it. But now the vision . . . Cornelius . . . read verses 34 – 38.
And then what happens . . . challenges you a bit, too, doesn’t it? Read verses 44 – 48. This is a problem for those of us who have grown up in the Churches of Christ. We all know that the Holy Spirit comes on us at baptism – as it does to those who are baptized on Pentecost in Acts 2: 38 and at other places in Acts. But here, this is not what happens. They receive the Holy Spirit . . . then they are baptized.
But this is another time, a unique time, with the apostles and all that you may wish to argue . . . and maybe so, but in moving away from the Uncle Ben image of God . . . it becomes less important to argue the case for the proper practice of baptism and defining who is in and who is out and more important to simply revel in the glory of God’s goodness revealed to us. To rejoice in all that God has done and is doing.
Last week we spoke of the difference between putting up fences to bound our practices and define the boundaries of our pastures versus digging a deep well for all to come and drink from, knowing that no one will venture too far away from the spring and well of life. With fences up all around the property, some questions are off limits. In that kind of atmosphere, there are some things you just can’t ask. They are too threatening to the man behind the curtain. But with the God of Scripture, no questions are off limit. Yahweh is no deceiver hiding behind some great production. “Come and seek me,” he asks us, “I have nothing to hide.”
Paul was forced to ask incredibly penetrating questions. “How could I have been so wrong?” Peter is left with the far-reaching implications of his visions, “This changes everything!” And both men leave their ‘Aha’ moment changed forever. Forever. There was no going back. It’s as if the boundaries that they were so focused on maintaining kept them from standing back and seeing that outside of the boundaries were acres and acres of more property in the fold of God, but they couldn’t see them because their attention was so myopic.
What are we afraid of? When changes come? When new beliefs take hold? When new ideas prevail? What are we afraid of? If, indeed, Uncle Ben is our God, there is much to fear. But if our God is too complex to box in, if He’s too diverse to be defined, if He’s too deep to fathom, then we are left with nothing but questions. David Dark’s words are helpful again here:
God is not made angry and insecure by an archaeological dig, a scientific discovery, an ancient manuscript, or a good film about homosexual cowboys. Nor would I imagine God to be made angry or insecure by people with honest doubts concerning his existence. God is not counting on us to keep ourselves stupid, closed off from the complexity of the world we’re in . . .
Leaning on our own understanding of God in this way is idolatry, an inappropriate and unfaithful dependence on our pictures, concepts, and broken ideas that can’t hold life-giving water. Nothing we claim to know or have hold of or pretend to believe as children or as adults places us on the winning side of God’s affections . . . Standing firm in our beliefs will often take precedence over seeing what’s in front of us.
If we never ask questions, we allow ourselves to stand before the great Wizard of Oz and never realize that the one we’ve cast as God is nothing more than a fraud. Our questions force us to delve deeper. Our questions tell us that we don’t have to be afraid any more. God isn’t afraid of our questions. God likes our questions. God wants our questions.
Read Psalm 100. God is not the God Jonathan Edwards describes having us dangling like spiders above the pit of hell held in place by a “slender thread” ready to knock us in for every doctrinal ineptitude.
The psalmist rescues us from such a God. Our God is to be worshipped with gladness. Our God is a god that can be known. Our God is one who is worthy of praise and adoration. And our God is a God who welcomes our questions.

Sermon #2 in Deconstructing Theology: Unlearning the Rules of Church

Here’s yesterday’s installment. What do you think?

The Idol of Certainty: When ‘I Don’t Know’ is Good Enough

I’m not exactly sure about the complete makeup of our audience this morning, so I’ll try to speak the next several minute in a bit of code. If you do not follow the code . . . don’t be alarmed, we’ll explain it all a little bit later. I want to begin by discussing the pandemic ruse of little children in Western culture about one Kris Cringle. Take a moment and decipher the code . . . pandemic . . .ruse (trick . . . deception) . . . Kris Cringle . . . got it? OK
I don’t know how everything went down when the ruse was exposed to you, perhaps by your parental units, but all children get to a certain age where they begin to ask challenging questions. They begin to figure things out. There is a bit of unraveling that each child has to go through. What about this and what about that? The big hang up before I could see the light was . . . let’s see if I can be diplomatic again . . . I was very skeptical about the financial capacity of my legal guardians to afford the commercial offerings with which I was given each year – got all that . . . by the way, if your kids are following this discussion, it’s probably time to let the cat out of the bag, Mom and Dad. Although it might be cool to see if you could get a snipe hunting expedition out of them before they get older. In any case, I can still remember trying to rationalize and think through things when it was all crashing down around me.
The fact is we all go through some kind of rite of passage when it comes to some of our childhood fantasies . . . there are others, but I think we’ve risked enough already. In any case, Donald Miller tells a very humorous story on his investigation of this current ruse that I felt is relevant to our discussion this morning. It happened in the bathroom, so be forewarned of some bathroom content. Donald was at a mall to see the big guy, and, before he got in line, he walked into the bathroom. As he stood at the urinal, who should walk up beside him, but the big man himself. Donald’s retelling of the event is worth repeating. . . .
“I remember being at the mall when I was eight and seeing [him] relieve himself in the men’s restroom. I was excited because we were going to see him that day, but I didn’t want to disturb him as he was hardly in his element. I watched him, though, his red suit, his white beard coming down his belly, his loud echoing belch coming off the walls, his spread-legged stance and the way he looked straight up at the ceiling as [he finished up] (original is “shook the dew off the lily, as they say” but I won’t read that]. It was quite an honor to stand next to him and use the big urinal and act like it was nothing substantial to be standing next to him, as though I didn’t even believe in him the way my friends Roy and Travis Massie no longer believed in him. I believed in him, though. . . . edited for reasons of exposing the secret . . .
[Him] In the bathroom was a very tall man, younger than you would think, a bit depressed in the eyes and unshaven under his beard (if such a thing was possible). [He gave his familiar laugh to me,] (ho, ho, ho) zipping up his fluffy pants. I didn’t say anything back. I just stood there and peed on my shoes. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows, shrugged his shoulders and walked out.
That is when I realized the most terrible thing I’d ever realized: [HE] doesn’t wash his hands after he used the bathroom. How awful, I thought to myself. And I was horrified. All those little bacteria, the little flus and colds and cancer bacteria that grow in small villages on a person’s hands if he doesn’t wash them. I could see in my mind the village of bacteria on [his] hands; a kind of Tim Burton version of the microbial North Pole; all the textures and contours of the villages correct, but the colors off; grays for greens, blacks for blues, lots of coughing, lots of mad cows.
I washed my hands and joined the family already in line. I watched [his] dirty hands grab kids to pick them up and set them on his knee. I watched as he patted their backs and, heavens no, their heads. It made me want to throw up, if you want to know the truth. I asked my mother if I could skip my meeting, and she told me I could go across the aisle to Ladies’ Underwear and sit quietly on the floor, which is what I did, sitting there quietly on the floor, pointing women toward lingerie I thought might fit them best, trying to be helpful, trying not to think about the fact that Him, of all people, doesn’t wash his hands.”
Maybe your experience of revelation was similar to this, maybe it wasn’t. We laugh and joke about it now, but when we are faced with that mind-blowing revelation, it’s not the best day of our lives. It’s tough. We get thrown off our equilibrium. It’s like we’re inside a box and the box has been shaken up and turned over multiple times and we have no idea whether we’re on our heads or our feet. “What?” We ask ourselves. “How could we have been so wrong?” It’s a grand revelation that begins a series of dominoes falling on top of the next ones.
And the more confident of that reality that you were, the “righter” that you were . . . the dumber you feel. The harder it is to take. And that may have been the first time when you were that wrong, at least that wrong – and we think to ourselves, we will never be this wrong about anything ever again. But we will be. We all live a lifetime coming to terms with various things that we just knew to be true . . . but aren’t. I’m not sure you can ever get used to that.
And sometimes, I think that what people most want out of their church experience is to know, for a fact, that they are right. They want to know that, at least about one thing in their lives, they can hang their hats on their doctrine, on their belief, and know that beyond a shadow of a doubt, they’ve got it nailed down, they’ve gotten it right. It’s comforting. Reassuring . . . not to mention a little good for the ego.
So, maybe that’s why you’ve come here this morning. For answers – right answers, anyway. Perhaps you’ve come here to sing the right songs, sung the right way, and hear the right message preached, preached the right way.
And in your defense . . . through the years . . . the church has become very good at being answer providers. Give us your questions, we’ll give you the answers. You leave happy because you got an answer to your question and we’re happy because you asked us a question and we still feel needed in society. But last week we looked at how the church’s answers haven’t always been right. They were experts of astronomy assuring everyone that the earth was the center of the universe . . . and . . . yeah, they had Scripture’s support for that. And we share in that same question . . . “How could they have been so wrong?”
I wish I had more answers. I really do. I wish the Bible gave us more answers. I wish the Bible would be more direct and specific at times. I wish God himself would come down and whisper the answers to the test questions in my ear. I wish that, when my son asks me “Dad, why did Jesus have to die on the cross for me?” I had a better answer to give him. I wish I didn’t have to stammer and stutter through something that is at the core of my faith.
There’s an old story in the Bible that teaches about someone who wish he had more answers. Many people believe that the story of Job is the oldest text in the Bible. It’s one of the most compelling stories in all of literature. The story of this fine, upstanding citizen, who has everything taken from him. Job, you may recall, had things figured out pretty well.
Read Job 1: 1 – 5.
Job was deeply religious. He watched out, not only for himself, but his entire family, offering sacrifices for their behalf and purifying them after feasts. You have to imagine that Job had a pretty good hold on things. He didn’t ask a lot of questions as he may not have felt the need to.
He was the guy you went to when you wanted advice, when you had questions. And then the tests begin . . .
In the first test Job loses his wealth and his children.
In the second test Job loses his health and his well-being.
After the storm of events, the only thing he has left is a wife who tells him to curse God and die, three friends who are going to spend the rest of the book trying to convince him that he obviously did something wrong to deserve this punishment, and many, many questions:
· “Why didn’t I die at birth as I came from the womb?” – 3:11
· “Why should light be given to the weary, and life to those in misery?” – 3: 20
· “Why won’t you leave me alone, even for a moment?” – 7: 19
· “What have I done wrong?” – 13: 23
· “Who can create impurity from one born impure?” – 14: 4
· “Where do people find wisdom?” – 28: 12
What was happening to Job didn’t fit in his way of understanding. That, perhaps, was
the cherry on top of his trial – he didn’t understand it. Notice how so many of the questions begin from the lips of Job . . . Why? He just wanted some answers. He wanted to be able to understand it. He wanted to place it into some kind of frame of reference, have some bearings about the whole thing. Anytime you are around someone who is experiencing a devastating tragedy the question they are quickest to ask is, “Why?” “Why is this happening?” If he had an answer it would make the pain at least a little more bearable. Job really makes this clear in the questions he asks in chapter 31:
– “Have I lied to anyone or deceived anyone?”
– “Have I refused to help the poor or crushed the hopes of widows who looked for me to help?
– “Have I been stingy with my food and refused to share it with hungry orphans?”
– “Have I put my trust in money for felt secure because of my gold?”
– “Have I looked at the sun shining in the skies, or the moon walking down its silver pathway, and been secretly enticed in my heart to worship them?
– “Have I ever rejoiced when my enemies came to ruin or become exited when harm came their ways?”
– “Have I tried to hide my sins as people normally do, hiding my guilt in a closet?”
“Just tell me what I’ve done!” comes the plea from Job. In tragedy we often focus
solely on the emotional aspect because it is so important and so fragile, but there is also a cognitive or rational aspect that has been effected – a side that says, “This doesn’t make sense.”
And then God speaks . . .
Read Job 38: 1 – 7.
And on and on God goes justifying His position as the God of the universe. The final chapters of Job are perhaps the most emotive of the entire Bible. The entire book has been building and building to this moment. Questions flying back and forth. Accusations flying back and forth, and then, finally, comes an answer . . . but not really an answer.
Job first responds with these words from Job 40: 3 – 5:
“I am unworthy – how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer – twice , but I will say no more.”
In other words, Job is finally moved to saying, “I don’t know.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to say, “I don’t know.” Have you seem that commercial where the guy can’t get, “I love you” out of his mouth to his girlfriend”? That’s how I am about saying, “I don’t know.” Really, that’s how we all are. But being a parent has made it a little easier. Clark is full of questions, and I try to shoot back as many answers as I can, but he always gets to a question where I finally have to give in and tell him, “Clark, I don’t know.”
I think that the church is a lot like that when it comes to saying “I don’t know.” It’s almost as if we feel like telling someone “I don’t know” exposes us or lets them down. After all, we are Christians, part of the church, and we are supposed to be answer people. In reality, however, I think a lot more people would care more about what we had to say if we said, “I don’t know” more often. I like this quote from Donald Miller, which he writes just before the story we opened with:
“The very scary thing about religion, to me, is that people actually believe God is who they think He is. By that I mean they have Him all figured out.”
I know it is a lot more appealing for me to stand up here and give you all the answers. However, it is a lot more realistic to stand up here and tell you that more times than not, “I don’t know.”
This doesn’t mean that we jettison all the things that we believe. Instead, it means that we preface our beliefs with . . . this is how I understand God for now – but I’m certainly open to new ideas and new conversations. Consider some of these difficult questions:
· Does a person who has never heard about God go to hell?
· If a person isn’t baptized but shows all the fruits of the spirit in their lives, are they a Christian?
· What’s the “biblical” role of women in Christ’s church?
· What does the Bible teach about homosexuality?
· Are all people from other faiths hell-bound?
Imagine the difference in starting a conversation on these matters in humility stating,
“I really don’t know, I have some opinions . . . but I’d like to talk to you more about it” instead of, “I’ve got a pretty good idea, but you can try and convince me otherwise.”
I know this probably scares some of you to death because it speaks so contrary to everything you’ve ever heard in churches your entire life. Doesn’t the church have any authority? Isn’t there any truth to hang our hats on? I want to close with this story I ran across in my reading this week that I think speaks volumes for a new understanding of the identity of the church.
In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences up around their properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighboring farms out. This is a bounded set. But in rural communities where farms or ranches cover an enormous geographic area, fencing the property is out of the question. In our home of Australia, ranches (called stations) are so vast that fences are superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a well, a precious water supply in the Outback. It is assumed that livestock, though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die. That is a centered set. As long as there is a supply of clean water, the livestock will remain close by.”
We are so preconditioned by the idea of putting up doctrinal fences all around us, that most of us have never thought about another way. When there are fences erected, absolution is the stated case. We are stating, “We are right, absolutely, and there is no room for discussion.”
“But there are some things we know we are right about,” comes the response. Let’s make those the well at the center of who we are that keeps us together. Read 1 Corinthians 15: 3 – 8. Paul shares with us what those things are. As a church, let’s place these things at the center of who we are and anchor there, and leave some room for those who may differ on the other things.

I lost my footnotes on the copy – the Santa story comes from Donald Miller’s book Searching for God knows what and the ending story from Hirsch and Frost is from The Shaping of Things to Come.

A New Year, A New Sermon Series

2010 has kicked off and things have changed for me a bit (again) at Alum Creek. Effective the first of the year, I am back to being the only paid minister on staff. For about a year and a half I have been working alongside Anthony Whitley and have been greatly blessed in that relationship. I will miss working beside him for sure. Fortunately, he’s not going anywhere, but his work responsibilities have made his position at Alum Creek impossible.

So . . . as I press on into a new year, full of possibilities and new challenges and all that, I have worked towards a new sermon series that I kicked off this past week. I wrestled with whether or not this series would best fit into a sermon setting, but have been encouraged by ministry peers that it is very much the kinds of things we should be talking about in our gatherings on Sundays.

In 2009, I greatly benefited from having the year’s worth of Sunday morning foci already determined and in the same way I have set the themes for this year. I am excited to kick off this year with a series that I know will be a challenge for many. The series is entitled “Deconstructing Theology: Unlearning the rules to church.” I wasn’t crazy about using the word “deconstructing” because I figure that isn’t really helpful to a lot of folks and to others it brings to mind connotations that aren’t helpful. However, in the end, I felt as though it was accurate enough. I hope it brings to mind thoughts of building construction more than esoteric philosophical presuppositions.

In any case, I feel as though I’m shooting the moon a bit, but the risk, I think, is worth taking. When we’re all done with this series, I hope that our folks have though through their beliefs a little more critically. I hope that we can approach each other with a little more humility when it comes to our beliefs and that we’ll be quicker to listen instead of incessantly talking. I hope that we will allow for more diversity of thought, but also praxis as a group of Christians. Maybe it will be helpful, maybe it won’t. You can help be the judge. I will try to post each one here in text format and, if you’re really bored, you can listen to the sermon in the sidebar of my blog. I trodding on a bit of new ground and would appreciate comments from anyone as to your reactions to this material – helpful of blasphemous? Here’s installment #1 (a bit more choppy than usual as I was preparing this over the holiday in various places and then crammed a bit Saturday night):

Deconstructing Theology #1

Alum Creek – Jan. 3, 2010

Under Construction: Honestly Confronting our Belief Structure

What if you’re wrong? Is there a more challenging or difficult question to ask yourself that that one? What if you’re wrong? And I’m not talking about what if you picked out the wrong movie to watch or blouse to buy or football team in your bowl selection pool. I mean, what if you’re wrong about the really important stuff? What if you’re wrong about everything? Now . . . of course, we all know that you’re not . . . but what if you are? Everything . . .

This morning we set out on a new series of lessons that will span the next eight weeks. Those of you hungry and thirsty for something deeper, something more challenging – here you go. I guarantee you’ll be challenged . . . .or double your money back. I guarantee that at times you’ll disagree with some of what you’ll hear said . . . and I hope to prove to you that that is good and downright healthy to hear things you disagree with. I guarantee you’ll think about things you’ve never thought about before – and hopefully longer and harder.

For those of you not so excited about the deeper things, I also share with you a challenge . . . hang in there, take a chance, work to grow. If all you ever hear only affirms what you already believe, then you will never grow.

Over the next several weeks we’re going to dabble into the deep waters of philosophy, theology, and reason. It’ll be a fun journey that I’m sure some of you will enjoy . . . and, I’m equally sure, some of you won’t. In either case, hang in there with us as we hit the ground running this morning by asking two very challenging and introspective questions:

  • What if you’re wrong?
  • How do you know what you know?

We begin with the first question . . . What if you’re wrong.

Galileo came into a time in the world when you didn’t have to ask that question, “What if you’re wrong.” In many ways it was a freeing time because you didn’t have to worry about being right – the church told you what was right and you just had to fall in line with them. The church had final say in all things scientific. The answers were already given for you.

And in this world where the church had the final say . . . and the church had all the answers . . . Galileo is led to a very scary place. The Bible, as he knew it, was wrong. He actually began as a theology student, later turning his attention to science, but always maintained a prominent place for faith. He gave his daughter to be a nun in the Catholic Church. His path of discovery was not one of rebellion . . His path of discovery was one riddled with challenges, humility, and obstacles.

The Bible, he was told by church scholars, teaches that the universe revolves around the earth. Copernicus, however, had proposed that perhaps the sun is at the center of the universe and the entire cosmos revolves around the sun. It’s more than obvious to us now, but in Galileo’s time, this was hippie, way out there stuff. It was more than some way out there wacky idea, it was downright heresy – blatantly against the teaching of the church.

This was no simple bullet point for the church’s teaching on astronomy – this was foundational to all their belief structure. It wasn’t simply their basis for space mobiles that hung in church offices, it was the substance of their philosophy stemming from Aristotle. To challenge this belief of the church wasn’t to challenge their science textbooks . . . it was to challenge everything they knew to be true. And, as you know, this led to a great deal of trouble for Galileo. We don’t have time to get into all of the intricacies of the church’s relationship with Galileo, but suffice to say, Galileo, wasn’t completely reconciled to the Catholic Church until 1992 when Pope John Paul II issued a declaration expressing regret how the situation with Galileo was handled. Perhaps it’s been awhile since you’ve had a history class and you’re following all the way here. Galileo died in 1642. That’s right, it took the church 350 years to acknowledge that they had been wrong. Turns out the church doesn’t like being wrong any more than the rest of us.

What if you’re wrong? Galileo asked an entire generation of the world’s population to ask themselves that question.

What if you’re wrong is the question that is at the heart of all that faces people as they consider the Gospel. In Romans 12, Paul asks us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. What exactly does it mean to renew our minds? To be transformed? Changed. To begin to think differently. Differently than what? Different than we used to? Different than other people do? Transformation is an ongoing process. We never arrive. We never circle the wagons around what we believe and put down stakes and say . . . we’ve done it. “What if we’re wrong?”i s a question we must ask of ourselves constantly. It’s at the heart of transformation.

“What if I’m wrong” is a question full of humility. “What if I’m wrong” is a beginning point. It’s a conversation starter. It’s a relationship starter.

In considering this question, we’re faced with a question that is a bit of a prerequisite to the other: “How do I know what I know?” How do you think? In philosophy, this is called “epistemology.” Big fancy word, but basically it asks the all-important-question: How do you know the things you know? We spend a lot of time talking about the things we know, but seldom do we consider how we know them. In this series we’re going to do some thinking about thinking. Think about that.

I’m guessing this beginning conversation isn’t connecting with several of you. You’re out there thinking, what in the world does this have to do with anything. Just give us some Bible. But, you see, that’s just it . . . I can’t give you just the Bible. I can give you my understanding of it. I can give you my perspective of it. And even if I could give you just the Bible, you couldn’t receive it as such. You could only receive it through your experiences and your perspectives. Through your glasses. A lot of you may want to rush out and argue away the implications of this. “We can’t believe this or else . . .” and off we go drawing a million different conclusions. Let’s stay away from the implications and think through this. Let’s see it for what it is. I want to work through a passage this morning and instead of really camping out on the meaning, let’s explore the way in which we perceive the meaning of this text.

Read 1Timothy 2: 6 – 10.

Now this is one of the more peculiar passages in the New Testament. We don’t have time to go around and ask each one of you for an interpretation of this passage, and we’re not really going to concern ourselves with the meaning of the text as much as we’re going to consider how we would go about determining the meaning. Consider the many aspects that impact the way we are going to “know the things we know.”

  • Gender
    • Do you think that men and women are going to read this text the same way? It doesn’t concern men, for the first point, so I wouldn’t imagine they would be quite as interested in it as a woman would be. This is just me, but I know that I’m going to read through here and when it says “for men” I’m really going to pay attention, but when it begins, “I want women” . . . I’m just not as tuned in. It doesn’t affect me. Whenever there are generalizations made, “All women . . . all men . . .” we tend to really pick up our ears to what’s being said. Why is this? Because it is true? Or . . . perhaps whether we are male or female determines a great deal of how we know what we know.
  • Tradition
    • What have you been taught this passage means? Should you dress up to come to church? Should you not draw attention to you? What did your parents teach you? What did your Bible school teachers and preachers teach you about this text? What we have learned from others forms a great deal of how we know what we know.
    • Perhaps you’ve heard the old preacher story about the woman who was teaching her daughter how to prepare the Christmas ham. The first step, she instructed her daughter, was to cut two inches off the ham, before placing it in the pan. “Why do you cut two inches off the ham, Mom,” the daughter asked. The mother had never thought to ask the question, and didn’t know the answer. “My mother always cut two inches off.” She called her mom and asked her the same question, “Mom, why do you always cut two inches off the ham before you cook it.” My mother always did, she instructed. Fortunately, her mother was still alive in a nursing home, and she called her up to ask her. “Mother, why did you cut the two inches off the ham before cooking it?” Because the pan was too small!
    • The story could have just as easily ended by the grandmother telling the granddaughter that she cut the two inches off the ham and brought it to their neighbor who was in need (a more valiant reason than the other) but the point is . . . . if we don’t know that reason, we live in ignorance and do not avoid fulfillment.
    • Sometimes, the traditions we get passed down to us aren’t as clear as we may suspect them to be. We sometimes are passed down things in the name of what’s “true” or what is “truth” and not realize they are simply part of tradition.
  • Education
    • Consider how differently an ultra-liberally trained woman on the West coast would read this passage compared to a man raised in a super-traditional, woman does the women things around the house person would. What about someone educated in ancient near eastern culture? What about someone who didn’t graduate college? High school? Middle school? Think about how differently someone who was trained in school in China versus Western Europe versus the United States versus Africa would understand this passage. Our education background is going to have a great impact on how we know what we know.
  • Unending other options . . .
    • Personality
    • Think of the ways that our personalities so dictate the way we view the world and the way we understand things.
    • Family background
      • What ethnicity are you?
      • Where were you raised?
        • In the city
        • In the country
        • In poverty
        • In wealth
      • Birth order
      • Parenting style you received?
        • Did you get spanked?
        • Did you get abused?
        • Did your parents send you to Time out?
        • Were your parents good and loving?
        • Were your parents neglecting and hateful?

We’re foolish if we think that these unique situations and realities do not impacdt the way that we understand the world around us. As we set out to consider how we know the things we know, we have to realize that a great deal of the way we see the world is set for us. I would liken it to body shape. You can work out all you want to, eat healthy, take care of yourself . . . and in all settings you’ll be better off than if you hadn’t done these things. But, none of these things is any more powerful than your genes.

We must come to terms with the fact that setting out to find the “truth” is going to be a tall order. We must realize, first and foremost, that truth its elusive, perhaps even impossible to find. In acknowledging this, we affirm that the pursuit of truth must be accompanied by humility. No one has a corner on truth. We should never become static in our approach to finding truth – as if we have it all settled. Instead, we should be slow to speak, and quick to listen. And once in awhile, someone is going to come along and challenge our understanding of truth. Someone will come along and force us to ask that incredibly difficult question, “What if I’m wrong? What if I’m all wrong?”

Isn’t it interesting that it was the church that stood in Galileo’s way of revolution? Are we naïve enough to believe that we would be on his side? All of us think that we would be Galileo, but Galileo stood largely alone. The next several weeks we’re diving into the deep end, but, I promise you, you won’t drown. We’ll need to hang onto the walls for awhile, but, give it some time, and it will be an incredible feeling once you push off the wall and take a swim.

What is Truth?

This is a great article reflecting on the current global warming debate especially in the context of the Copenhagen summit. This question summarizes well his concerns here: As the amplification of human opinion becomes more democratic, is suspicion of the excerpt and the intellectual – a long-held trope in American society – going viral?” Access article here.

Hopeful Fruit #2 – The Passion for the Sacred Text of Churches of Christ

Perhaps it is one of the most enduring qualities of the Churches of Christ that we have managed to be unapologetically Bible-focused and Bible-centered, while at the same time remaining outside the limiting circles of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism [Richard Hughes argues that this may no longer be the case for much of the movement in his Reclaiming a Heritage (a great read for any reader of this blog!) ACU Press, 2002 – see especially chapter seven entitled: “Why Restorationists Don’t Fit the Evangelical Mold; Why Churches of Christ Increasingly Do” Another topic for another day]. In compiling the “Heart of the Restoration Series,” ACU Press was quick to release a work centered on the place of the Bible in our heritage [volume 2 in the series is entitled God’s Holy Fire: The nature and function of Scripture, 2002.] Gospel meetings, mission statements, sermons, and classes echo from congregations of Churches of Christ the world over with the message of “Back to the Bible.” Any study taken upon by her students inevitably begins with the question, “What does the Bible say about that?” Stated simply, there aren’t many groups who know the Bible as well as our people do, and to not recognize that as a hopeful fruit would be disingenous and a disservice.

Brightly hanging down from the branches of the Churches of Christ tradition is their abiding love for the story of God. I remember sitting in Bible classes learning the books of the Bible, the 12 Tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles, the chronology of the Old Testament . . . just about everything that’s in those 66 books, we covered it. Bible bowls, Sunday school, lectureships, Vacation Bible School, and Gospel meetings still retain the undeniably Bible-focus even today. From the smallest, most rural congregations to the largest suburban megaplexes among Churches of Christ, these churches love to teach the Bible.

Among members of Churches of Christ, a person’s age, education, and life situation all are considered secondary to how well she or he knows the Bible. Bible knowledge is often directly equated with spirituality – the more Bible you know, the more spiritual you are. Quoting Scripture is sometimes seen as paramount to a spiritual gift. These latter case points illustrate some worms that lay underneath the skin of a perfectly healthy piece of fruit, but shouldn’t take away from the fact that Churches of Christ hold steadfast to the biblical text.

It is widely held that children within Churches of Christ are not learning as much Bible as they did in bygone days. Biblical literacy across denominational boundaries is suffering and the Churches of Christ are certainly not immune to this phenomenon. However, there remains, by and large, an incredible commitment to teaching our people the Bible. While there may be a general laxity in the general audience when it comes to the biblical literacy, it also should be noted that scholarship in Churches of Christ has gained an increased audience in recent years and is more widely respected by the broader theological community than ever before (could this be evidence of an increased Evangelical leaning??)

While the commitment to being biblical and Bible-people should be seen as hopeful fruit, the good fruit has not come without potential worms. Often, in Churches of Christ, the story about God has been elevated to a higher plane than God Himself. Bibliolatry has become the golden calf for many in Churches of Christ – this excessive emphasis on the bonded leather and gold-tipped pages to the neglect of the mysterious Creator and Savior of all that is in existence. Too often we have bound God to the ink on the pages instead of allowing Him the freedom to work apart from the Scripture itself (we seem to have overlooked Paul’s point in Romans 1 all too often).

Just as damaging, we have often married our love and emphasis of the text to our love and emphasis of “necessary” antiquated interpretive devices. The thoroughly modernistic hermentuic evolving from Enlightenment philosophy is often valued equal to the text it seeks to interpret. Churches continue to be taught the interpretive system of command, example, and necessary inference both directly and indirectly. The limitations of this foundational philosophy has been exposed over the past several years (see the work of Michael Casey, John Mark Hicks, along with others). Unfortunately, for many in Churches of Christ their love for the sacred text is married to their love for their interpretation of the sacred text. The certainty demanded of foundationalism has created skepticism of alternative voices and a myopic view of the hand of God. As the Churches of Christ engage the world of postmodernism, nothing has been more harmful to her cause than the lack of place for alternative voices and this begins at the table of biblical interpretation.

I believe we must reinvigorate our love and passion for the story of God, and not find ourselves so committed to one interpretive device or another. Instead, we need to find our way beyond the need for certainty and past the place of answers, as very difficult as that is going to be. If we will once again fall in love with the text and, in the spirit of Psalm 119, meditate over it, take it to heart, allow it to sink into our very ethos . . . and allow part of God to be revealed in the text, but not limited to the text. Our churches should be filled with people who love the text and love to learn about the text and engage in long discussions about what the text means. Churches of Christ must become a place where conversation is encouraged and facilitated instead of streamled monologue and uniform teaching dominate the floor. May diversity abound and the unity of the Spirit be what unites us instead of the unity of thought and homogenous hermeneutics.