Archives For Wrestling with Doubts

You’ll find that Christians who make the case that being committed stewards of God’s earth is part and parcel of what it means to being a Christ follower rarely use verses from the Gospels for support of their conviction.

This is primarily because the Gospels have little directly to say about our responsibilities to and our relationship with God’s earth.

I won’t deny that at times that can feel like a problem.

Neverthless, if you read the Gospels with a wider and more whole vision of what is being communicated and if you seek to understand the Christian faith within the context of the whole Bible and the threads and frameworks you find in it, then I believe there is solid enough ground for our convictions.

Interestingly, the lack of explicit statements on almost any social issues by Jesus can be frustrating for anyone looking for clear guidance on those issues. For centuries, Chrisitan thinkers have had to extrapolate and conjecture, often with great creativity, about war, economic systems, slavery, democracy, abortion, and the other hot-button topics of any particular time.

So how are you and I to think about how the Good News and Jesus relate to how we relate to God’s earth?

In this and future posts to come, I’m going to tackle that question by diving into John 3:16. In the course of those posts I will tease out some threads that do relate to what a whole Christian faith is and do relate, at least indirectly, to what the Christian faith means for our relationship with God’s earth.

It’s an iconic verse that people know by heart and which appears at sporting events and many other venues, even under Tim Tebow’s eyes. There’s the assumption, in fact, that this single verse captures the very essence of the Gospel.

Max Lucado’s book of this title affirms the idea that John 3:16 presents the heart of the gospel.

When I actually began studying it a few weeks ago, however, things became more complicated. There is much more depth and nuance to the verse than is usually assumed. In fact, there’s a fair amount of disagreement about the meaning of the verse within some Christian circles. This all makes thinking about how the verse relates to our relationship with the rest of Creation challenging and intriguing.

I will begin the John 3:16 odyssey by calling your attention to the imperative at the center of the verse – “believe in.”

David Pawson has a different take than Lucado on what John 3:16 actually communicates.

David Pawson’s book, Is John 3:16 the Gospel?, has some insights that are very useful and other assertions which I would heartily disagree with. One of his useful insights is about these two critical words.

Too often the Christian faith is assumed to be about assenting to certain creeds and dctrines in an intellectual way. Pawson asserts this would be the right thing to think if we were called to “believe that.” “Believe that” conveys the acceptance of some sort of fact in an abstract, analytical way.

But what the verse asserts makes the difference between perishing and having life is whether you believe in Jesus. Here’s what Pawson says what that really entails:

“And believing in someone means two things: that you trust them and that you are willing to obey them.”

So I would assert that the essential calling of the Christian faith is to trust in the Jesus we find in the Gospels – his words, his actions, his death, his resurrection, and how that all fits within the context of the rest of the Bible – and to obey Jesus in how we live.

That means putting the whole weight of our convictions and the decisions we make and what we value on the God we experience and understand through Jesus with the guidance of what Christians call the Holy Spirit.

I don’t hear faith explained this way very often.

Nor do I hear enough churches helping their members in very tangible ways to translate trust in Jesus into obedience in the daily habits of their lives.

In The Divine Conspirancy, Dallas Willard articulates the state of affairs like this:

“Whatever the ultimate explanation of it, the most telling thing about the contemporary Christian is that he or she simply has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life, and certainly not that it is in any way essential.”

When the Christian faith is reduced to a static, dogmatic, theological affirmation that is seen primarily as the price of admission to the life we will enjoy AFTER our deaths, then it is easy to understand why Christians have been able to do crazy, cruel, violent things to people and to God’s earth throughout history.

When the Christian faith is understood as the dynamic foundation for the lives we live every moment beginning here and now on this earth, then the way Christians will relate with people and other living things around them can’t help but be very different.

John 3:16, I believe, is calling us to this second understanding.

One of the greatest temptations for a Christian is to give up one’s integrity as a Christian in the service or pursuit of power.

Sad to say, we saw two Christians do just during the vice presidential debate last week.

And the irony could not be deeper because both Indiana Governor Mike Pence and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine gave eloquent expressions of how their Christian faiths have formed their lives and character.

While Kaine incessantly interrupted Pence at every possible moment with criticisms of Donald Trump, Pence actually had no defense for Donald Trump’s character or behavior.

For all of Pence’s calm, reasoned, and sincere statements, you can’t read the Bible without coming to the conclusion that Donald Trump epitomizes an incredibly long list of attributes that are the exact opposite of those Christians are called to have. They are fruit of a heart turned away from a humble relationship with God.

To support a person like Trump in something minor would be problematic but to faithfully and energetically partner with a person like Trump who desires to be the leader of the United States is a whole different matter. I can only explain Pence’s decision this way – like any of us, he has his weaknesses and one of his is a commitment to the success and power of the Republican Party and its interests that enables him to rationalize his full partnership with Trump. I believe there is also a hypnotic quality to Trump’s comfort and confidence with power to which Pence and many others around the country unconsciously respond.

It would have said much more about Pence’s faith and about Christianity itself, however, if he had declined the invitation just as Daniel declined to bend his knee to the power of Nebuchadnezzar.

The worst thing is that the more Pence wears his Christian faith on his sleeve as he campaigns with Donald Trump, the more he taints Christianity for people who are not believers. If a Christian can ally himself with Trump and all that he stands for, then why would any rational person want to become a Christian? What exactly does the Christian faith stand for?

Kaine has some issues, too.

He has accepted the nomination with Hillary Clinton who cannot help herself from lying,untruths, and half truths. She also has a troubled relationship with power that can be seen in her history, her policies, and her tight Wall Street connections. While her issues may not be on the level of Trump and she’s clearly far more professional in her service and civic-minded in her policies, her failings are still serious.

Then there was Kaine’s response to Pence’s comments about partial-birth abortion.

For most of the debate Kaine used clear and concrete language, especially when criticizing Donald Trump. But you could hear the rhetorical shift when he began speaking about abortion.

Here is an excerpt of what he said:

“This is pretty important. Before Roe v. Wade, states could pass criminal laws to do just that, to punish women if they made the choice to terminate a pregnancy. I think you should live your moral values. But the last thing, the very last thing that government should do is have laws that would punish women who make reproductive choices.”

Do you hear the sudden shift to rationalization through abstraction?

“Terminate” is a Latin word that suggests something you do with a contract in its cool, antiseptic, abstract tone. “Pregnancy,” also Latin in origin, is pleasantly and rationally removed from the reality of what the word refers to – a developing human living inside the mother’s body in a world of intimacy, warmth, and shared fluids. When you use words like “terminate” and “pregnancy,” the actual violence of an abortion sounds so clinical and reasonable. Like the removal of a wart.

And there’s some rhetorical chicanery going on. The term “reproductive choices” is a contradiction. When there is an embryo/baby in the womb, reproduction is already an accomplished fact. Abortion has nothing to do with reproduction. Life, both human and nonhuman, is not a choice. It’s something we must seek to live with and make nuanced choices about.

Kaine should have had the guts to speak plainly.

In this context, reading Windows to the Womb by David Chamberlain is a revelation. Chamberlain shares findings of recent science that reveal how rapidly babies develop in the womb and how much evidence there is for their emotion and engagement with their environment

window-to-the-womb-image

Audible crying can be detected in the womb as early as 21 to 24 weeks gestational age. Evidence indicates babies in the womb can hear things outside of the mother’s body as early as 14 weeks. Spontaneous movements by the embryos, as opposed to reflexive movements, are happening before ten weeks.

This passage about the movements of young embryos was particularly paradigm-shifiting for me:

“Observers saw little embryos stretching in exactly the way people of other ages stretch – always at a slow speed, beginning with the head moving backward followed by trunk arching and arms lifting! One reclining ten-week fetus, legs semiflexed and body quite still for a few minutes, brought hands up and placed them behind the head as if relaxing in a hammock. Can you imagine these gestures with a sign of satisfaction following the explosive growth and mastery of new movements?”

I want to be clear. I am not saying there are not situations in which abortion is tragically justifiable.

Abortion can, like capital punishment, be the purposeful and nuanced use of power to do something that is normally abhorrent because there is a larger societal good at stake. Are there be situations where the tragic necessity of ending a baby’s life in the womb might be the relatively least awful thing to do? Yes. But the tragedy and awfulness of what must be done should not be ignored or evaded.

But absolute freedom to have an abortion at almost any phase of fetal development has become an issue where the Democrats have been seduced by the sirens of freedom and power.

In fact, both Republicans and Democrats have incoherent, contradictory positions around the question of abortion when you look at the larger framework of their thinking. Democrats have a long tradition of speaking up for the oppressed and those exploited by those with power. But when it comes to the baby in the womb who is the ultimate example of powerlessness and vulnerability, they suddenly embrace the Republican rhetoric of freedom and individual choice as absolutes.

Republicans, on other hand, passionately advocate for freedom, choice, property rights, and the power of corporations to do what prospers them without the hindrance of regulation. They do so, at their most extreme, no matter how profound and violent the impact of freedom, power, and corporate rights on the vulnerable, including the unborn, local communities, and the living things of which God has made us shepherds.

And yet the Republican Party selectively finds concern for the powerless and vulnerable when it comes to a baby in the womb and selectively wants to deny freedom and property rights to the people within which the babies exist – women.

I believe the world hungers for coherence, integrity, and goodness. This is why the choice between Trump and Clinton is so galling. This is why Pence and Kaine were also disappointing. As ambassadors for their Christian faiths they should be able to speak and act with whole truth, consistent love, and wise caution about power.

My sense is that people are ultimately hungry for a whole faith that will truly transform their hearts so that every fruit they bear is good and full of light. People are looking hard, too, for a whole faith whose followers hold onto it with integrity and coherence even when doing so puts them at odds with the powers and principalities of this world.

Why aren’t there more Christians whose lives point to the way that offers all that?

 

Where are the Stories?

Nathan Aaberg —  September 30, 2016 — Leave a comment

I just had a powerful literary experience.

I listened to James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown read by Will Patton.

This crime/mystery novel is set in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina and features Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Detective Dave Robicheaux and a cast of many other unique characters.

james-lee-burke-the-tin-roof-blowdown

It is harsh, brutal, and shattering. There were days when I could only listen to about 30 seconds and then had to wait until the next day to listen to a bit more because some of the scenes were so life-like in their rawness and so full of potential for tragic violence.

Yet, the story, especially with Will Patton’s skillful reading, is simultaneously eloquent, poetic, and richly layered. It is filled with wonderful evocations of the beauty of New Orleans’ bayous and live oaks. And there is a deft Christian sensibility to it as well.

Through the book, the tragedy of the impact of Hurrican Katrina on New Orleans, particularly on the most vulnerable, went from being abstractions that I had carefully inventoried away in back shelves of my mind to tangible, heartfelt wounds painfully etched in my imagination through details and characters and subplots of the story.

Where are the stories like this of our destruction of God’s world and the communities that depend on it?

Where are the stories of Christians perpetrating this?

Where are the stories of Christians trying to heal and shepherd God’s living world?

I want to read those kinds of stories. I realize I want to write them.

Would they make a difference?

In a sermon on Sunday, the pastor of the church I attended that day told the story of how he had learned to adjust his response to the usual question that seatmates on a flight ask each other – “So what do you do?” Before he made the adjustment, he had always answered directly, “I’m a pastor.” He found the conversation faded out shortly thereafter.

To create a different (but still truthful) context for a longer dialogue with fellow traveler he has begun to answer differently. The essence of his new response is this, “I’m with a non-profit that builds hospitals, feeds the poor, cares for orphans, helps people live more meaningful lives, and builds community.” The pastor said this typically generates enthusiastic curiosity. People want to learn more.  I gathered they want to talk further even after he later made clear what that “non-profit” and his role actually are.

That story struck me for several reasons.

In our world today, Christianity and the Church, for so many reasons, have a connotation that is negative or at least unsettling.

And how powerful and compelling it is when people can see, both in individuals and communities of faith, the good fruit that comes from giving one’s heart and life to God.

Yet, there is something missing in that pastor’s description of what his “non-profit” does. Can a person or organization bearing good fruit in human communities out of love for God and our neighbors ignore the state of the earth? Or even contribute to its further degradation?

When will a pastor like him or you and me be able to say, “I’m a passionate member of a non-profit that builds hospitals, feeds the poor, cares for orphans, helps people live more meaningful lives, protects and renews nature, and builds community?” When will preserving and renewing God’s earth be part and parcel of what it means to live a Christian life and what a church sends out its members to do?

And picking up on the theme of the last post, what can I do to shorten the time between now and then?

More solemnly, is that transformation even possible?

I ask that last question because I fully realize how challenging a dream and a calling that is. What is needed is a new mindfulness of the value of Creation to God that is integrated into worship, culture, and the lives of Christians. We should have a hunger and a thirst for righteousness and justice for all that has breath. Christians and the Church should desire with all our hearts to be wholly holy.

That doesn’t happen overnight, especially when there are hundreds of years of history and tradition that lead believers and churches in the other direction.

I had a good conversation several weeks ago at another church with a friendly couple after the service. When they asked what I do, I told them of the non-profit I work for that, among other things, promotes sustainable farming. They were very interested. As the conversation unfolded, I learned that the husband had written a dissertation on the linkages between certain farm chemicals and Parkinson’s disease. Farm workers and families living close to fields where those chemicals were used were shown to be at higher risk for developing that debilitating disease of the central nervous system.

I later brought up the link I saw between the Christian faith and how followers of Jesus should treat and care for God’s world. The couple seemed genuinely surprised to hear me say that there might be a linkage. “I hadn’t thought about that before,” one said.

I fervently pray that there will be a day when anyone who hears the assertion that one of the fruits of the Christian faith is a mindful, loving stewardship of the world will, because of the teaching they have heard and the actions of Christians they know, have this quick and automatic response:

“Of course! How could it be otherwise?”

 

©2010 Gospel Gifs

©2010 Gospel Gifs

It began with a breakfast with one of the pastors of a church that I’m considering having our family attend.

It was a warm, wide-ranging, honest conversation. There was much that he said about his church and how he said it that appealed to me. I eventually mentioned my convictions related to Christianity and God’s world. To my relief, the pastor didn’t disagree with me but said several interesting things.   One was that his wife had long desired for her faith life to include God’s earth and that she had had profound spiritual experiences with youth and other believers in the outdoors.

This sounds even more promising, I thought.

The next was not so promising. There had been a person at the church who had been very focused on the same things I am. Because he had been zealous and militant about them, however, the congregation had been turned off by him and by his message. Out of zeal and intolerance, he shut down any effort by the congregation’s members to enter into an open conversation about the topic and to explore all of its implications. Even the pastor’s wife, who would otherwise been energized by the idea of adding this dimensions to the church’s life, ended up being scarred and turned off by the experience.

By this story I believe the pastor was being as open and honest as he could be about what the congregation’s posture was toward the whole range of topics related to how we live in God’s world. I should not, in other words, expect great excitement or interest. Instead I should tread carefully on the topic as it would have some painful memories and emotions associated with it.

I must say that, to his credit, he did not dissuade me from my convictions nor did he suggest that the church would reject any dialog on the topic.

And this is where writing this piece becomes more difficult.

The obvious conclusion is that this is a cautionary tale about the damage to a church family by a believer who comes on too strong and with too much judgmental fervor on any particular topic. A person shouldn’t join a church in order to change it. The church’s traditions and approach to the faith should be honored and respected. And one’s sensitivity to one element of the Christian faith and Christian community life should not be expected to become the primary focus of a church one joins.

Zealotry is antithetical to being a contributing member of a faith community.

But where does a strong commitment to a whole conception of God and the life God wants us to live end and zealotry begin? What are we to do when we are convinced that the integrity and witness of the faith are compromised by how the church is treating (or ignoring) a particular issue?

Let’s consider an extreme example. If you were looking for a church to join in the South in the early 1800s, would you only be looking for a church with the right beliefs and with a warm, friendly congregation? Or would you also be considering what was believed at that church about the compatibility of slavery with God’s purposes? Would you pay attention to whether the church did or did not warmly welcome African Americans to participate as well?

The fruit that a church bears out of its beliefs and convictions says a great deal about those beliefs and convictions.

In the end, I realize that I’m torn between the desire to find a church home for my family and my desire to find a church where a consideration of God’s world is part of its spiritual and cultural fiber.

So does that conviction make me a zealot?

Zealots tend to be oblivious to how intense and disruptive their narrowly focused convictions are. They are not forgiving. They are not practical. They don’t see the whole set of values that need to be brought to bear on any situation.

And Jesus clearly did not make concern for Creation a litmus test on whether a person was worth loving and being with. Jesus did not even explicitly preach that concern for Creation was a fundamental element of following Him. You’d be hard pressed to find many churches throughout history that have given concern for God’s creation much standing.

In the end, however, I don’t think I’m a zealot. I do question myself. I respect the fact that there are many virtues and priorities that guide the Christian life and that we, as individuals and churches, must try to find paths that get everything as right as possible which is a difficult task. I don’t expect any church, all of which are composed of imperfect people like me, to get everything just right for my tastes or even to be in full accord with all that God expects. I am open to discussions about my convictions.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that a whole Christian faith includes concern and consideration for God’s world.

So what do I practically do in terms of finding a church? Here are the choices I see:

1.  Keep looking until I find a church where there is a consideration of Creation and where key elements of the faith are also taught.

2.  Look for a good, welcoming church that fits our family and focuses on other key elements of the Christian faith.  If it is considerate of Creation in even small ways, that’s a bonus.  If it doesn’t, I should just accept the community as it is while being ready to encourage the church (to the degree it’s willing), to gradually integrate its faith life with compassion for God’s earth over time.

3.  Team with others to start a new church or ministry which believes, among many core things, that its members should bear good fruit in their lives from their faith and that the good fruit should include kindness and mercy toward God’s world.

The first option, I fear, would essentially mean that my family would not be going to church or would have to travel very far each Sunday. I’ve visited the websites for many of the churches in the area over the past five years and it’s nearly impossible to find a church where Creation is even on the radar screen in terms of how the church defines its beliefs and what matters.

The second option is probably the most realistic in terms of finding a church fairly soon and in fairly close proximity to home. I’m sensitive to the fact that if everyone expected to find a church that was perfect and that lined up exactly with each person’s finest nuance of beliefs and principles we’d end up with millions of one-person churches. Some effort must be made to focus on the essentials of what a Christian church should be. One of those essential points is worshipping God with joy and awe and gratitude for God’s grace through Jesus Christ.

The reality is that all of the weight of centuries of unconcern for Creation expresses itself in the theology and messages and culture of today’s churches. And what’s more, the culture of our civilization exerts a strong gravitational pull upon our churches. That culture assumes that nature is strictly there for our purposes and must essentially accommodate itself to us. That dominant culture deems it subversive that people (much less communities and governments) would voluntarily moderate their desires and their convenience to allow God’s earth to flourish. In light of those factors, the odds of finding a church with a whole faith are very, very small.

The best that can be hoped for is to help move a church incrementally towards a concern for Creation in ways that make sense to the church community. The zealot can, as the pastor’s story revealed, do more damage than good to the church and to the righteousness that she wants to inspire others to pursue.

The problem I have with the second option is this: after more than a decade of meditation and learning and prayer I cannot escape my conviction that a whole faith inspires a conversion of our spirit into compassion and hunger for what is right in every aspect of our lives.  Not showing compassion and not trying to doing what is right and just for God’s Creation actually impairs and taints the rest of all that we try to do.

Life is short. Time is short. Time is against the natural systems of God’s earth in the face of what humanity is doing. People are being harmed by what is done to God’s earth. Living creatures are being cruelly harmed and destroyed on an epic scale by what is being done to God’s earth. We are dishonoring God by failing to be the shepherd-like stewards of what God has entrusted to us.

So that leads me, reluctantly, to look hard at the third option.

A radical option. It also sounds challenging on a multitude of levels. Could a church or ministry like that be created without losing other essentials of the faith along the way? And what would my children’s experience be? Would I be in any way competent to do so? Could I handle the criticism that would come our way? Would anyone actually show up???

I need to wrestle more with this. I feel untethered, unrooted, and hungry for community with other followers of God. But I see the world in a different way and am unwilling to go along to get along. Perhaps this is how the prophets felt? On the other hand, perhaps there are more nuanced options and opportunities I haven’t considered?

I know I must decide and move forward. I’ll share the journey here with you and welcome your wisdom.