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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Blessings

Tonight at the Christmas family service my kids will be Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The unplanned baby, all six months and 21 pounds of him, will star as the Messiah!

As I am an emotional sort, I suspect some emotions to flow. Perhaps, most intensely, I will feel the burden of fatherhood. Looking at my baby and thinking about his future, I am keenly aware that The Father/God of Jesus had no such questions. He knew that baby Jesus was going to grow up and fulfill the hopes and promises of Israel. How much harder it would be to celebrate the birth when one knows that the cross looms in the future. The celebration of new life and joy is shrouded, at least in part, by that reality.

The cost to God of making salvation possible is often overlooked by us. I hope you will sing a Christmas hymn or two that includes verses about the Savior. "Nails, spears will pierce Him through... the Babe, the Son of Mary." Tonight, several times in our little church, we will gather in eucharist (thanksgiving) and remember His birth and ponder on what it means. I pray all of you who have spent your valuable time reading my thoughts will be blessed with a deep fullness of the meaning of Jesus.

I will post again after the new year! Blessings in the Only Son, the Sole Source of Life and Blessing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bashing Mary

The other day on our local Christian radio station, some preacher went on an extended diatribe about Mary. He was clearly expressing some pent up anger, probably aimed at Roman Catholics, and he went on and on about her sins.

I understand the need to clarify the unique role of Jesus in salvation. He is God Incarnate. Period. There is no other intercessor between God and humanity. Period. It is in Jesus and Jesus alone that we find salvation. Period. I believe and I preach this message regularly. But....

Here is my question. If Jesus is human (orthodox faith says, fully human) and if Jesus is a good son and Jesus is a man and Jesus has any sense of honor, then what is Jesus' response to people going out of their way to speak ill of His mother. I do not question the motivation of those who do this, but I do think at time there is some disrespect. At some point don't you think Jesus might say, "That is my mother you are talking about!"?

Many self identified "Bible Believing Christians" never refer to Mary as the Blessed Mother. I do not know why. In the Bible, Luke 1:48, Mary's Magnificat states, "all generations will call me blessed." Note the last word, blessed. Just prior to this, Elizabeth, pregnant with baby John the Baptist and filled with the Holy Spirit declared, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?"

I know there are excesses in Marian devotion, but seriously, is the only alternative to ignore her, or only mention her to run her down? Her "yes" to God is, like it or not, a vital link in our salvation. No momma Mary, no baby Jesus. God made a world where human cooperation is needed. I also know that Mary cared for baby Jesus, toddler Jesus, little boy Jesus, teenage Jesus and she was there at the bitter end on the cross. Luke's portrayal is the most positive and touching. A mother's pain in her Son's death is something we can imagine, and many mothers have experienced. She shared in the cross of Jesus, at least in a natural sense, in ways very few Christians ever have or could. Mary is, for that reason, worthy of respect (though not worship).

I have always struggled with the proper mode of Marian devotion. I think her role as a mediator is Biblical (cf John 2) and I think her status is great in the eyes of God. I truly understand why many folks prefer not to talk about  her. I just think it is rude to trash her. Her sacrifices and the price she paid to bring Jesus in the world are the work of God through a human. She said things like "I am the servant of the Lord" and "Do whatever He tells you." She is a role model and a type of Eve, of Israel and of the church. Based on moms I have known, she probably treated the disciples of Jesus like her own kids. In a real sense, she was a "mom" to them (and us). John's Gospel alludes to that in the crucifixion. A pious young Jewish girl, untouched by a male, holy and pure, she is the gateway of the Incarnation. As we gather to ADORE HIM let us spend a brief moment to thank her. It is the respectful thing to do.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Closing up the Atheist Dialogue

Michael provided a rather lengthy response to my last blog entry and I have decided that it is time to move on to themes reflecting on the season. So this will be my last reflections on all of this.

One thing that is clear to me: to believe or not believe is, to some extent, a decision. Clearly for some it comes easier than others. I do not know where I am personally on that scale.  I have never found it terribly easy (once I grew up). Being shaped and formed in the faith in Catholic schools no doubt provided me a wonderful basis, but tons of Catholic school kids have turned their back on the Lord as adults. Interacting with evangelicals over the years of my teens and early twenties increased and broadened my understanding of God, but evangelicals also say things which do not make sense to me, about God and the world. Spending endless hours in prayer and study, service and pastoral care has at times strengthened and at other times weakened my faith. One often asks, "Is it God or a coincidence?"

In the end, I disagree with Michael. I think the reasons to doubt God are less forceful than the reasons to doubt Atheism. Atheism does not take seriously the meaning of "contingent being." By definition God is different from anything else there is. That is why we worship Him. He alone is good. That is why He is the definition of goodness and truth and morality. That is why His commands are to be obeyed. He is the source of all things, that is why we cannot compare ourselves with Him in any meaningful way. Which, in the end, I did not emphasize enough. All talk about God is analogical. Words applied to God do not have the same meaning when applied to us. That is the first rule of any orthodox theology. I sinned by not making that clearer at the start. (Google apophatic theology for more info!)

Michael misunderstood my statement that I am glad that atheists do not act consistently with their (un)beliefs. It isn't because they should be immoral. It is because atheism means life is meaningless. Nothing really matters. Humans are an accident. Life is an accident. Beauty and goodness are accidents. If there is no God, then as the teenagers say, "whatever..."

The eternal God created time and space and populated it with all manner of living things. He also withdrew, giving His creation room to live. I believe that human dominion (Genesis 1) is real and that, for the best of reasons, God chose to make a world which includes all manner of mysteries and challenges. Is God in time, now that He created it? I do not know. I do personally think that, based on Scripture, He has enterred time to communicate with us. I believe He intervenes and touches our lives. Some call that a God of the gaps and equate it with primitive superstition. Perhaps. Certainly every claim made by Believers is not true. But I have wondered at times, how would God act in the creation if He existed. When I ponder that I realize that His approach, a more secretive and un-obvious approach, makes sense if He has entrusted the work to us. I worship Him as Lord of time and space. I worship Him as good and loving. It is a gift to do this and it is a choice I make. I choice I make over and again each day, sometimes several times a day.

The atheist dilemma is that they live in a world without hope. I still think that one cannot simply write off the hunger for God. I believe it is the finger print of our Creator. Nor do I think you can ignore the resurrection because resurrections just do not happen. After all, isn't that the point! No, in the end, belief is a choice. Living faithfully is a choice. A difficult challenging choice, but a choice. I do not think Believers are better because they believe. I do think we are blessed. And being blessed is what I want to write about next.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Questions for an Atheist

For most of a week I have tried to seriously and respectfully offer some repsonse to the comments of an atheist. I have admitted to struggling with my own doubts. I have not offered anything near a clinching argument that God can and must exist. On the other hand, I do think that the atheist position is also one with more than a few weak points. It is that which I would like to address as I close this series out.

One glaring issue is the question, "If there is no God where did all of this come from?" I think that it is only fair to ask, "if a perfect, self sustaining, eternal God is ruled out as source and creator, how then does one explain the eternity of matter?" Matter is constantly in flux and something which constantly changes does not have to exist. Why then does it exist? If the universe could 'just be' why is it impossible to think that a Divine Source could 'just be'?

By extension, on what grounds does an atheist determine that God is answerable for His failures? If there is no God then certainly there is no morality. (This is CS Lewis' main point) I do not deny that many atheists are moral and that some atheists have been humanitarians. This is no personal attack on them. However, it is an attack on the idea of moral right and wrong in a world of blind chance and accident. On what grounds does morality exist? While we may have personal preferences, we can not say anything is moral or immoral. Atheist too often speak in a way that assumes the condition of a world where there is a God and there is a moral core. [I am glad of this. If atheists were consistent then the world would be a worse place.]

I am no scientist, but I have read numerous books which raise interesting questions. One of them is the Law of Thermodynamics. In simplest language, things tend to run down, to disintegrate. How is it that evolution creates advances if the world is running down? Another question, how does evolution create an ape which can do physics, higher math, or create a symphony? The ability to stay alive and avoid saber tooth tigers hardly seems sufficient reason to explain the brain's leap to that level of function. There are additional, more complex questions (like the multiple mechanisms involved in evolution which raises questions on how it can work). None of them prove there is a God, but they certainly raise some doubts about doubting!

Probably the most interesting, to me, is the question of dissatisfaction. If the natural world is all there is, why is their such an aching and longing in the human soul? Why are we never completelysatisfied? From whence the desire for God? The atheist may respond, the desire for God is no proof there is one. This is true, but it is certainly evidence which cannot be brished away. We are hungry, food exists. We are thirsty, drink exists. We are tired, sleep exists. We are lonely, people exist. Most every need/desire has a fulfillment. Why would a world devoid of God generate, spontaneously, a need for God? Why do some of us feel a need to worship, if there is nothing there?

There are so many other questions which should cause an atheist to ponder: why is there beauty? How did joy come to be? What of the bonds which draw us together? I think that the atheist position has plenty to answer for and it is difficult to hold with surety.

Once more, I am not saying any of this proves God is, but it does prove that a sincere atheist has his/her own set of issues to wonder about. It is simply not smarter or more courageous to doubt God. It is not more human or humane to reject the idea that He exists. It is not more logical or rational to posit a Godless universe, here because it is, which somehow generates by sheer accident lower life forms which then, by sheer accident, developed into antelopes, aardvarks and ants (just to name the A's). I have my doubts, but an atheist should, too. And if it is possible (even probable) that there is a God, all sorts of things follow.

As for Jesus, His resurrection also enters the mix. Strange goings on indeed, if the world is not the creation of an unseen God! So I will continue, in my deeply flawed way to try to know, love,  and serve the Lord and await the Day of Unveiling.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Response to an atheist 3

I wanted to conclude this dialogue with Michael today. I am very appreciative of his willingness to publicly discuss this issue on this blog. While acknowledging that some have found this ponderous I do want to share I have had several e-mails indicating that it is helpful. With such a small readership I still have a wide diversity of reactions!!!

It seems Michael's main objection to God is really centered on Divine culpabiilty for evil in the world.

First of all: The problem of evil is NOT theoretical. Sometimes Christian apologists make an error in treating it as such. For people who have experienced severe suffering or watched others suffer, the issue of evil is overpowering and wondering about responsibility is overwhelming. In the end, those shaped by the (children's version) story of the Garden of Eden have a hard time understanding how eating an apple justifies mass starvation, murder, rape, torture and all the other results. [I think Genesis is much deeper than this, but I have to admit many popular versions of Christians are not too much deeper than this.] Hence, Michael's statement (to paraphrase) that IF there is a God then God owes us an apology, must be heard, acknowledged and respectfully refuted (or sadly affirmed).

I am not foolish or arrogant enough to think I can answer this issue. However, I have wrestled with it myself, sometimes personally with the heart and other times dispassionately with the intellect. I want to share a few things which I hope are helpful (if not for an atheist, than for a struggling Believer).

1. I read this in John Chrysostom and it made sense: much of the problem of evil and suffering has to do with our own perspective. He wrote about God's Providence while slowly dying in exile for his faith. A renowned preacher and Bishop, his last days were spent shivering and sick, pondering the mystery which he was living/dying into. His point is, therefore, not simply words. It is his shared faith. We must admit that there is a subjective element to all of this. Perhaps some of our complaints against God are not legitimate. In reality, our perspective very much influences how we understand something. His point is, IF we could see things from God's perspective, some of what we call evil may be not so bad as we think. This does not answer every aspect of the question, but it is certainly true about some things.
2. The nature of a creation, if it is material, has to be recognized. Only God is perfect. Contingent beings are not God. Therefore anything created is not perfect (in the sense that God is perfect). Diversity causes some problems. I do not think we ponder enough, that the cost of a creation is the possibility that the diverse entities may cause damage to each other. A rock rolling down a hill crushes a flower. Is it the rocks fault? Should God have made a creation without rocks (or flowers)? Some might argue uncrushable flowers would be better, but would such a flower ever adorn a dinner table, hat or a lapel? Once a creature with limits is created, those limits produce the possibility for some sad thing to happen.
3. Human evil is a direct result of freedom. If we are free to love, we are also free to not-love. While some evil in the world is a result of nature being nature (a tsunami or earthquake or fire) much of the evil we see is human created. Does God owe us an apology because some people chose to use their talents to wreak havoc? Or is God supposed to intervene (miracle = breaking the laws of nature)? Should God limit freedom to prevent suffering? What then of human responsibility? Would the human person grow in an environment where God was always there to rescue us from our choices?
4. What is the purpose of life? What is the point? Maybe we are supposed to obey first and ask questions later (not something I am adept at, unfortunately!). My sense of things is God has given over to us a great deal of autonomy. We were created to be Lords over the creation. Why did He do this? The Bible does not explain. In fact, both OT and NT seem to indicate that God does not feel compelled to answer us. Perhaps this is part of the answer. Remember who we are and remember who God is. [Admittedly not a real compelling argument for an atheist...] I was taught that life on earth was meant to "grow a soul" and become what we are meant to be. [what about dead babies, children, etc.???] The struggles are the stuff out of which God shapes us into our future self. It does not make it understandable, but it does remind us to keep pushing.

In the end, LIFE IS A MYSTERY. Even really smart people cannot figure it out. Does God owe us an apology? Not since Calvary. God embraced it all. He shared in it. This will be the theme of my Christmas homily. Whatever else an atheist, or anyone, wants to say about God, if Christianity is true (it is!!!) then God has paid the price for creation. And if God owes us an apology, my guess is we will get one some day. Perhaps the more pertinent question is, "If I exist, do I owe God an apology?" My belief is that we humans have much more to apologize for than God does. Of course, I am guilt ridden. [But maybe, we should all be guilt ridden?] And I trust that God is merciful. I cannot write anything to make Michael, or any atheist, have a conversion. I can say, I understand you pain, your struggle, your questions, brother. I do not know why I believe, except the Christian faith seems believable. I now I have lots of doubts and questions. I also know, that some day I will find out, or disappeat into earth. I am betting on Jesus!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Response to an atheist 2

Yesterday we looked at the question of "Divine Need" and Perfection. Michael responded to that. Today I want to pick up on the penultimate point he makes and then finish up with his key concern, God's culpability, at the end of the week.

Quoting Michael, "Christopher Hitchens has said that he not only disbelieves in God but would not want a god to exist, since it would mean we would be under continual surveillance.--- as he puts it, "a sort of celestial North Korea"

I think such an admission is heroic honesty. Too often, atheist arguments against God's existence bandy about numerous psychological reasons for faith. Religious people are thought to be weak and in need of a daddy in the sky. Faith is criticized as a sort of sedative to calm jittery nerves when facing death and suffering. By extension, the critics paint a portrait of the noble, courageous atheist, willing to look the darkness in the face and soldier on. Atheism is often protrayed as the more intelligent option and certainly the choice of those with the guts and grit to live in the real world.

Hitchens, on the other hand, has admitted to his own psychological motivation. He desires to live an autonomous life, freed of the scrutiny of any God. [Alert, Hitchens has many other reasons and arguments as well. His is not simply a petulant rejection of God.] The reason this is important, to me, is because it serves as a reminder that ALL of us, believer or not, has a mixture of motives for our beliefs.

There is research connecting ones faith in God to one's relationship with one's father. There are needs based motivations which lead one to believe (or not). Social influences play a factor. Self image and self understanding have a part to play. Like all decisions and choices, faith is driven as much, or more, by non-rational factors as it is by reason and thinking.

For some the spectre of judgment is viewed so negatively that, at least in the Hitchens quote, the assumption is that an all knowing God must be like North Korea. I find such a comparison to be very telling. I also submit that there is an alternative. Judgment can also be an affirmation. Don't all of us need, want, require that another pass judgment on our work? Is asking, "Did I do a good job?" not an important part of being human? An all-seeing God may produce some anxiety as we look at our failures; yet it is of solace for those who hear God say, "Well done, good and faithful servant." Even more important, as we face the travails of a broken world, where do we turn for hope of salvation. The watchful eye of God can be understood as a benevolent observer. The God of the Torah says, "I see your travails. I hear your cries. I know your suffering. I remember my covenant with you." Surely comfort can be mixed with fear in facing Judgment.

Hitchens prefers a world where there is no accountability. One can choose to live as one sees fit. I would argue that most unbelievers, fortunately, adopt a way of life which is contrary to their stated (un)Beliefs. They frequently act in a way that is moral and good, as if the world did make sense and as if there were SomeOne who provides a moral core by which we are to conform our behaviors. Faith, at least traditional Christian faith, demands right actions and morality. It places demands upon us. Yes, there is comfort, joy and hope, but, faith does not allow us to escape life in all its brutality and ugliness. However, faith does provide a rationale for our values... If one wants to value human life, to see the poor and needy as somehow different from a chimpanzee or an ocelot, then God is a context and criteria for making such a leap. This will be something to expand in the days ahead.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Response to an atheist

I continue to review and respond to Michael's questions:

He states, "The first is that my principal objection, as an atheist, to the idea of God is that if God is here, we should not be. If he is God, he is perfect, omnipotent, omniscient and transcends time. If those things are true, there could be no reason, not only for him to create , but to *do anything at all.*

I can understand the argument. I remembered discussing this very thing in philosophy classrooms in the late 1970's and theology classrooms in the 1980's. In the end, I think the answer is one word: "Love."

God did not create us because of any lack in Him. He did it because He desired to provide us an opportunity to exist. Michaels' assumption, 'because God is perfect" therefore "He cannot need or want anything." This is a fair statement, based on philosophical assumptions about God. There are many logical reasons to believe this. BUT, the God of revelation is different from the 'god' of speculative human reason.

Herein lies the difference in our thoughts. Michael states that "a perfect, omnipotent being for whom all time is now"  is unable to need or want. Probably, one answer, is simply to say, "It is a mystery. Stop talking and worship." [I personally think that is the message of the book of Job and places in Isaiah.] I think it is logical and reasonable to say, "The mystery of God is beyond our meager intellectual capacity." But the problem is, our theologies impact our activities (lived faith). I have heard complaints that all of this stuff in the blog lately is too difficult. Perhaps. But in the end, even simple people have theories and make statements about God. Even simple people need to address their assumptions, beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs.

I believe that God has the ability to choose. I do not think God created us to worship Him (as I heard the Bible Answer Man tell a young boy yesterday on the radio). The idea that God needs worshippers seems to be the sort of thing that Michael's arguments would address.

I think the question really is, 'what does perfection mean?' Why is it that we need to think that a perfect God in a timeless state could never be a God of love who chooses to create, out of sheer grace, a world where there is beauty and goodness, and freedom? I believe that God desires that others enjoy the wonder of life, of love, of service, of joy. It is His nature (something Greek philosophy did not include in its pondering, to any large extent) to love. This is also the scandal of Christian faith.

God made time. God made a universe. God enters that universe. From the Beginning, He comes and goes (see Adam and Eve where God comes at the cool of  the day and cries out, "Where are you?") From the beginning God has chosen to limit Himself (WITHIN CREATION) as part of the cost of this love. To be in relationship with creation has cost God something. The cross is no accident, it is a revelation of what it means to be God in relationship with a limited, concrete, material, in-time creation.

But Michael's point, "God does not need" is vital to remember. God does not need us. Ever. Yet He made us, because He is love. The psalmist asks, "What is man that you should care for him?" What, in deed?
We are privileged to know, love and serve God. We are invited into relationship with an Infinite and Perfect Being. We are even allowed to blog about Him (and not be smote!). But in the midst of all the speculation and thinking we must stop to pray, to praise, to love and to serve. I am going to do that now.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Response to Query on God and Time 2

Continuing on Michael's comments:

Michael's fourth point is that IF God does not already know the future, then all He has is "educated guesses" about the future. I do not think this is a problem. Recall yesterday we pointed out that God's knowledge is beyond our understanding. He is not simply the smartest guy you'll ever meet; His intellectual insights are not just different in degree from ours but also different in kind. The human insight into the future (the capacity to predict) can be pretty accurate. Read some of the recent findings in the field of Economics. Humans are predictably irrational as one author has boldly written. We can "know" the future without having seen it, in many cases. Once, as a child, I poured salt into water. My mother told me that I would not like it, and she was right. She was also right about Underwoods Deviled Ham. In fact, there were countless times that I wanted something and she told me that I would not like it and she was right. So the future is NOT an impenetrable thing. We can project with some accuracy.

God's insights are based on an amount of data which we cannot imagine. He probably sees endless possibilities. I find it impossible to think and write about. But there are millions and billions of 'moving parts' involved in creating the future. Quantum Physics postulates an eternal number of parallel universes springing out of the possibilities. Mind boggling stuff there. At any rate, because God can make predicitons about the future (based on His knowledge of the present and past) and those predictions are often spot on we can assume that He is trustworthy. This is, I think, the reason why there are so many biblical quotes about God knowing the future. He can be confident in saying what will happen. It is why things often happen in accord with those words.

Some may notice that I said "often" rather than always. One disturbing aspect of the OT is that things do not always end up happening the way a prophet says that they will. This is a gnawing, worrisome aspect of Bible study. One way to deal with it is to simply place it under the rubric of "not yet, in the future." I think this is accurate, but I do not think it is a fair reading of  the text. I believe that there are times where the promises do not materialize for other reasons. Some day God will recreate all things (after the final judgment) and all will be in accord with His promises. Right now, our role as co-creator of the future impacts how things turn out. [Alert: God could do it differently but has chosen not to!] Many unfulfilled promises will be fulfilled once God changes things.

I am not sure how it will all come to pass. The nature of time is much more complex (circularity for example) than we can know. In the end, it is each of us struggling to make sense of things, here and now, and using them as a basis for trusting (or not) that there is a God and that that God means us well. Reflecting on things beyond our capacity reminds us why God is awesome and worthy of praise!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Response to Query on God and Time 1

I want to thank Michael for an extensive response to my last blog post. I will respond to him for sake of further clarification. I am not a specialist and think some of what I say will turn out to be faulty. But it is fun and worthwhile to think about such things, if for no other reason than they reveal how little we know, which can open us to worship.

I quote from Michael here, then respond below: "I noted this line of thought in your presentation last night and wanted to ask you about it. Here is what I am wondering: if God does not know the future, wouldn't we have to also say the following: 1. That God is as much inside the flow of time as we are?"

My response. We need to be careful about our God talk. One approach many theologian embrace is to differentiate between what is known as ontological (God's being and nature) and economic (from the Greek oikonomia referring to the economy of salvation, i.e., how God works among us). While this is not the only way to approach God talk, it is helpful.

Who is God? How does God work? What can God do and not do? etc. These kind of questions are fodder for speculative theology and philosophy (and Physics). The qualities of God are based on our human minds' capacity to understand and express something about the eternal God. Hence, the idea of God contains within it a recognition that God is outside of time (He supercedes all things). Michael asks a valid question, but he is in the realm of onotolgy and God's inherent qualities. However, once we have identitied qualities of God (all knowing, all powerful, outside time, etc.) the next question is 'how does this perfect God deal with the world?'

That is the realm of theological "economics" (how things work, not money!) A fundamental teaching of Christianity is incarnation. Incarnation is based on kenosis, or self emptying. (cf Paul/Phillipians:Though He was in the form of God He did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, rather he EMPTIED Himself and took on the form of a slave). First rule of Christology, Jesus is HUMAN and DIVINE. The Word became Flesh. Baby Jesus is a real baby, not God faking like He is a baby. Jesus' self described limitations, including ignorance, are a result of His humanity.

My question is, once God creates a universe, does He also have to, in some ways, "empty Himself" in order to interact with that universe? I would say 'yes.' God communicates through the prophets, hence human language is employed, or images, or other concrete things. We do not experience all of God, but a diminished "piece" (to speak metaphorically). In fact, the OT makes it clear, "No one can see God and live." (So God let Moses glimpse His backside; perhaps another metaphor?). My question is this, "Does God enter time to engage His creation, and, if so, in the process of self emptying, does He enter into Time as we know it? This is a choice of God, so it tells us something about Him (sacrifical Love) but also hides something (We encounter God in a diminished form).

If Almighty God is working with us in this time and place, then is it possible that Time is real even for God at those moments? If time is real, then IF the future is unformed, THEN there is a sense in which God would not know every detail about every future event.

[Now a disclaimer: when I have the temerity and audacity to talk about God knowing, I am way above my pay grade. Goodnesss gracious how can any person imagine a Being Who simultaneously can know about every event in the entire cosmos???? With respect to that gap (between what I can understand and reality) it is tempting to just shut my mouth and write about Albert Pujols! However, to never broach the subject, even if out of humility, could lead one to decide talk of God is not important. So we soldier on!]

My point being, we need to differentiate between what God can do (in theory) and what God is able to do in light of the creation He has formed and the rules of that creation. It is fair to say, "God cannot..." in the second sense without negating "God can" if He had chosen to make a different kind of creation.

That, to me is the key issue. Not what God is or can do, but what God IS DOING in the real world/universe which He constructed and in which He is lovingly redeeming all things.

Michael continues: 2. That "eternal" wouldn't mean he transcends or contains time in some way but only that he is longer-lasting than anything or anyone else--that he was simply here earlier and could remain longer than everything else in creation? 3. That if this is the case, he could not have created time, since he is inside it like everything else?
In light of what I have said above, the second point is mute. God is eternal and it means more than really old. And God can create time from outside BUT choose to enter it. The question is, once God enters time, what happens. IF the future is not already laid out like unread chapters of a novel, then the blank pages would still need to be written. God, having enterred into time, has give us co-authorship responsibility. He continues to work in and through and with us. But we still share in the creative process and until we act the future is unknown (and unknowable) because it does not exist already, it has not yet happened.

Okay, I am off to hospital visits. I hope these reflections are of some use. I will engage Michael's other points in days ahead.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

What is status of 'the future'?

Got an email from a theology classmate about yesterday's blog. In light of his input I wanted to explain my beliefs a bit more.

Yesterday in Bible study we read the final chapter of 2 Kings. In it, the epic journey of God's People lies in ruins. The descendents of the slaves freed from Pharaoh's cruel hands entered the Promised Land with a covenant promse from God. "If you obey, I will prosper you; if you disobey and act like the former occupants (Caananites, etc.) then I will treat you as I treated them and wipe you off the face of the map."

2 Kings ends with a small remnant of Jews headed back to Egypt. The journey has come full circle. The Kingdom of Israel is no more. The Davidic monarchy is in exile, under the thumb of the Babylonian king, never to rule again. The rich land is now in the possession of another Empire. The promise has been kept, a promise of destruction for sin.

The book of Jeremiah, ironically, contains much more detail and information. Chapters 24 and 25 (of 2 Kings) are found, in toto, in the book of Jeremiah. They seemed to have been lifted and copied there. Or perhaps, whoever penned the book of Jeremiah also penned 2 Kings? [I assume it was a group process, but I am not ancient scholar so its best I not embarass myself!] At any rate, in Jeremiah, God makes an offer. The remnant is invited to remain in the land, to live there faithfully, under the rule of the Babylonian King. If the people do so, says Jeremiah, they will be blessed. However, the decision to go to Egypt will be doom. That decision will result in destruction, even annihilation. The people will be no more.

Consistent with the ongoing narrative (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings) the people declare that whatever God says they will do. The reader is weary hearing this empty pledge again and again. God also has grown weary! No sooner do the people make the declaration of obedience then they reject the words of Jeremiah and decide to go off to Egypt; never to be heard from again in the Biblical literature.

God offers the people a choice. Their choice will create (or better, co-create with GOD) a future. In Deuteronomy God says, "I offer you Life of Death, choose Life." Some claim that God has not really made such an offer. He knows what the people will do, He knows what will happen, in some real sense, they tell us, God is the author of their decision. In such a view, the narrative is, at some level, a sham. God's words are devoid of meaning in any normal sense. His offer is not an offer at all, because in the end His choice is to lead the people to destruction. [and I am very aware that there are verses throughout the OT which fits this model] However, I think that God is not playing games. I believe the offer is real. I believe that the people of Judah stand at a crossroads. I believe that two opportunities lie before them, two genuine options. I believe that the choice can be made for either.

I also believe that God has granted humans 'dominion' in His creation. He has made a world where His own divine perogatives are somehow diminished and withdrawn. God is not present, from the begining of Genesis, all the time. He comes and goes. He has created an empty space, a place where humans can live and choose. That is how love is possible, after all (and I have written on this in the past). Puppets cannot love, even if the puppet master makes them say and do things which sound and look like love. Because God is not controlling (by His own choice) every detail of every event (He could if He wanted to but chooses not to for the greater good of His creation); therefore, we live in a world where every detail of the future is not cast in stone. God still has a plan, a final destination, in mind. God is still at work, most often in a clandestine manner, barely discernable for those who seek Him, totally hidden from those who do not. So God is present and active, but He is also absent and removed. After all how could he intervene if He is already controllling everything?

The key point, as I see it (and I am no great intellect so this may be something I should not even dare to address) is that the future is yet to be written. The choices made and the events which take place inform the future possibilities. The future is fluid but God is ever shaping it into the desired outcomes (i.e., Salvation, Justice, Peace, etc.) which He seeks. Some day He plans to bring it to a close.

Our freedom can work in league with our Heavenly Father, or we can choose to oppose Him. In the end, we are held accountable for our decisions and our behaviors. Within the confines of time, there is a sense in which 'we will just have to see what happens.' Yet, we can still be confident that God will find a way to achieve His intended goals. It is not necessary for Him to micromanage every detail in order to make that happen. The cost of human freedom is manifest in the cross. Literally, loving us is killing God! Yet, He has the power to overcome sin and death (resurrection) so Life conquers Death. That is why we can have hope.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

God's Desire

Having reflected on 2 Peter last week from Morning Prayer, I was surprised to see the same reading, though expanded, in our Sunday lectionary. In teh additional verses, Peter points out that time is relative. What seems like a long time to us, is not experienced in the same way by God. He makes the point rather dramatically, "for God a thousand years are like a day and a day is like a thousand years." This is the foundation of his response to the 'scoffers' who mock the Christian belief that the Day of the Lord is near.

That mocking continues into our own day. It has teeth. It is not a question which I can easily brush away. Peter's explanation, that "God is not slow, He is patient" really does address the issue of the long delay. It also raises another issue, one which my kids asked me at dinner a few nights ago. Does God know the future?

I think there are certainly places in the Bible where that is implied and in some cases claimed. However, there is a difference between predicting the future and knowing the future. I am able, based on my insights, to predict accurately any number of things when dealing with my family or friends. I know how most people act in certain situations, so I can predict that if there is a large explosion in the Mall, many people will run away. Predictions are based on solid information. It is possible to read the Scriptures and see God is doing just that. He knows people's hearts so He is making accurate predictions about what they will do next. [NOTE: I say this may be what is going on]

The reason why I am even asking these things is because I am unclear that the future "exists." As a child, I thought of life as a movie (on a projector, remember I am old). One reel contained all the past. This is the stuff that we have already seen. The other reel was the future. It had not been seen yet, but it was already there ready to be seen at some future point. The present was the individual scenes being projected on the screen. Each brief moment  flashes before us after having been 'stored' in the future as it heads to be 'stored' in the past. In such a view, all times are the same (past, present, future) in that they are all on the film. BUT, what if the future is blank? What if it is like an improvisation that is shaped by the past/present, but has not already been set? what if the present is constructed on the spot?

This question may seem silly, but it is important. If the future does not already exist as something which we are just waiting to see, then God may not know the future. Not because of any lack in God, but because there is no future to know! He would have ideas about what will happen, based on all He does know, but He would also be open to surprises as things turn out better (or worse) than expected. In other words, sometimes things work out differently than expected. [In my reading of Genesis the last weeks, there are places where God has regrets about creating humans. This is certainly difficult to reconcile with most explanations of an all knowing God. What is the revelation here? Perhaps God thought we would be better than we ended up being? Is that a problem for faith and worship?]

So God's plan to intervene in the world in the final judgment is part of the future, but maybe the time and place has yet to be determined. Maybe God is making decisions each day about the future based on what is going on here and now. Perhaps the Lord planned to end the whole thing soon after Jesus, but because of His desire ("as Peter writes, "not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance") for all to be saved He keeps putting it off?

Many years ago I taught with a woman who had suffered financially because of her decision to teach in a Roman Catholic school. Each year she told me,"I really have to leave, I have to make more money, but I do not want to leave until this class graduates." We would laugh that each year a new class became the one she wanted to wait for! Is Peter telling us that God is doing the same thing?

Perhaps such thoughts are too sublime for me to contemplate. I do think it is worth a thought or two, however. IF the creation is a work in process, a situation where God is constantly engaged with us, allowing us to share in creating the future, then perhaps we have a bigger part to play then we realize. It means our lives have value and our choices have impact. It means we need to pray more for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It also means we actively shape (with God) our future.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Hey Jude

There are few books of the Bible as short and pointed as Jude. It is interesting for lots of reasons. One has to do with the discussion of authorship. Who is Jude? Who is the James which he identifies as his brother? Like most ancient literature numerous theories abound. Some argue that the letter is from a later time period and engages in the common practice of pseudonymity (writing in the name of a famous figure from the past to give the writing more authority). While disturbing to a contemporary mind (we tend to ignore that lots of books have ghost writers, that politicians have speech and letter writers, that bosses have secretaries, etc.) in ancient times many books are obviously written using this literary device.

Others think Jude actually wrote the letter and that James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem, is his actual brother. A very good case can be made for that position. In such a case, this letter is quite amazing.

Scholarly debates about time and place and authorship are always, at best, unprovable theories, however compelling and reasonable. With that in mind, the more significant reason to read Jude is the content of the letter. Jude is concerned both with doctrine and behavior. In many circles one is led to believe that doctrine is a barrier to real faith (does this drive the 'spiritual not religious' crowd?) and that Christians ought to pay little heed to dogmas and teaching. It is telling that even in the very first group of Jesus' followers there were some who no doubt adopted such an approach. The letter of Jude is a stunning rejection of such a position. In large part this is because, as Jude makes crystal clear, doctrine produces behavior. Much of the current debate in my Episcopal church is very much about doctrine and morals/behavior. The traditional beliefs, expressed succintly by Jude, are under attack.

Jude says that he is writing to those who are called, who love God and are kept by Jesus. This threefold identification (so often the Bible writes in threes) remains a wonderful description of the church today. God initiates things, we respond, hence the term 'called.' The fundamental relationship with God is love. Jesus says that summarizes the law: Love God. If we are called to love, God's response, in Christ, is to save. The image of Jesus 'keeping' [safe] His children is best expressed in the Good Shepherd. We are in His care, this gives us hope, especially when it feels we are in danger.

Jude is frustrated, he wants to write about the shared salvation he enjoys with this church. He wants to accent the positive, but circumstances make it impossible. There are men, fake Christians, who have 'snuck in' and seek to mislead the church. His words resonate in our own time. "They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord."

Wow!!!!! Reading these words this morning, my stomach gave a twist. Such words cannot be spoken in the "Church of Toleration and All-Things-New." Such words are derided as hateful and judgmental. Yet, they are spoke by someone recognized in the early church as speaking with apostolic authority. Someone closely related to the first bishop of Jerusalem and related to the Lord Jesus Himself. Is it possible that such a person had so terribly misunderstood the Savior that he wrote in error? Is it possible such writings were collected and revered by evil men seeking to oppress and harm others, people who hijacked the church in the earliest times and led it, in error, to say the opposite of what Jesus intended? I think not. These words, harsh as they are, are a reflection of the mind and heart of Jesus, they are revelation of God Almighty Himself.

There are many who being nicer-than-God reject the unique status of Jesus. They say things like "He is our way to God" or "He is a way, but God has other ways." Many say Jesus is a great man and teacher, but merely that. They deny Jesus our ONLY sovereign and Lord. What was true from the beginning is true now. Inside the church there are those who do not believe.

There are many who being "more-up-to-date-and-kinder" would claim that Jesus means freedom. They talk about "advances" in understanding and advocate an "improved" morality. In the end, it sounds like license, the same problem Jude addresses almost two thousand years ago.

Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As much as many of us would love to withdraw from the debates, God's Word just draws us back in. We need to be aware that the godless have always been among us, that those who deny Jesus or 'reform' (de-form) morality through license wil always be with us. True Freedom is freedom to worship Jesus and live in obedience. The call of God, the call to love, can and will transform us into His image. Grace leads to righteousness, holiness and obedience. And God provides the means in Christ.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Peter's second letter, read at morning prayer today, really expresses most wonderfully the spirituality of 'advent people' which we have looked at this week. As I read and prayed over these words today I was keenly aware that this text has probably been the basis of my own thoughts and beliefs about which I have written lately.

Peter begins by saying the day will come like a thief in the night. The obvious reference to Jesus' own words are a reminder that there is an unknown quality to the end. In every age the (evil) behaviors and the (stressful) conditions are present which make it a possibility that "this is it." However, even if possible, the actual event will come quickly and at a time we do not expect.

The judgment will be consumptive. Peter uses the image of destructive fire which will lay all things bare. God's piercing glance will see all and know all. The use of fire reminds one of the concept of purging purification/judgment after death embraced by some Christians.

Peter then provides a rhetorical question which very much demands an answer: Since everything is going to be burned up and destroyed, how then should we live? In our own times the word "perspective" is used to summarize this question. Keeping things in perspective means to measure the value of things. Peter asks us if we are using all our energies to pursue things which are destined to pass away. One hears echoes of Isaiah's lament, "Why work for food that does not satisfy? for drink which does not quench thirst?"

He then provides his answer in the form of an exhortation: you ought to live godly and holy lives. That is the advent spirituality. The holy and godly life puts us at odds with the natural inclinations which dictate most of our values and behaviors. To be shaped by God values is to be transformed.

Peter says such a way of life directs our attention to "that day" when God establishes His reign. More interesting, to me, is Peter says it will also speed its coming. The Greek word means to long for and to speed. Translations made by experts translate it either way. One choice is the word 'hasten' which can contain both senses. I often say (because I believe) that the Lord is waiting until the earth reaches critical mass in its desire for the Kingdom. This may be wrong. Many would say I am an idiot to claim such a thing. Yet, I do think there is a theme of God drawing near to those who long for Him and withdrawing from those who do not. Is it not possible that the church's role in the world is to cry out "Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!"? That word, maranatha, is Aramaic and is found in the first language of the church. The words were probably the initial prayer of the first believers. They longed for Jesus (friend, teacher, rabbi, Master, Lord) from a position of intimacy. We are numbered among those second generation Christians who (somewhere in the Bible) are told, "though you do not know Him, you love Him." We have a "faith like" theirs, without the initial enfleshed companionship which they enjoyed.

The Advent spirituality is a church, united in hunger for the Lord, aware of the limits of this world and its destiny, aware of the kind of people that they need to be. It is a holy church and godly. It cries out for the Kingdom and in its prayer and its actions it not only longs for, but actually motivates the coming of the Kingdom. Such a church is needed in dark times. It is the perfect church for today!