Wednesday, June 23, 2010

God Does Not Have a Plan for Your Life (at least not specifically) (Dialogue Column 6.22.10)

I originally wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of St. Joseph, MO.

It’s always nice to have retired ministers who come to church; they bring along interesting reading materials. Recently, Rev. Ray Grienke, retired United Methodist minister who attends occasionally with his wife Bev, passed on to me a column written by a Methodist writer. This writer laid out a nice argument against what he called “Calvinist” trends in American religious thought that preach a God who has determined the fate of every human before their birth and even before creation. He went on to argue in favor of what he considered the Methodist (“Wesleyan”) position of God granting us free will to accept or reject the grace of God. Often I’ve shied away from such circular theological arguments (to me they always inevitably put the actions of God into a box and resemble attempts I’ve seen to wrestle greased pigs), but in this case, I felt the author had a point, a God who determines everything ahead of time has a lot to answer for, given the state of the world these days.

Questions surrounding how much control an all-knowing and all-powerful God has over Creation and humanity have filled countless books and consumed students and scholars for lifetimes, but the academic debates have some real-life consequences when they filter down to the pews. Often I have heard “God’s will” invoked to explain what someone either does not wish to face or what is beyond explanation. I’ve bit my tongue to stop blurting out, “It wasn’t God’s will for you to lose your job. You chose to not show up for work!” Or, I’ve bit my tongue and held back tears as I’ve heard a grieving person declare, “God won’t give me more than I can handle.” Sometimes, it is preferable to believe God caused the death of someone (no matter what that says about God’s character) than to have no explanation for why someone you love is dead. Furthermore, in a culture like ours that is rich beyond measure compared to most of the world, a theology where God ordains things ahead of time can easily lead to a belief that God has chosen some to live lives of affluence and others to suffer lives of poverty. Why should a millionaire go against God’s plan?

The debate over how much God determines ahead of time goes back at least to the writers of our scriptures. For Christians through the centuries, the most vexing questions concerned who gets into heaven. Around 400 C.E., Augustine formalized what had heretofore been vague, namely that God’s grace is only given to some and not all, but it wasn’t until the reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) that the doctrine of God predetermining some for heaven and others for hell solidified. (Presbyterian friends of mine who know Calvin far better than I tell me this is an oversimplification—too which I reply, “I would hope so!”) A theologian called Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) wrote against the doctrine of God predestining some for salvation and some for damnation, and so ever since the extreme positions have been labeled (mislabeled?) “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” respectively. Meanwhile, most theology preached exists somewhere in the mushy middle.

Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I was taught that God gave me free will to choose whether or not I would become a Christian and be saved, but at the same time, I was assured that God had a specific plan for my life. Both ideas caused me a considerable amount of consternation. What if I didn’t really, really, really mean it when I chose to become a Christian, does that mean I’m not going to heaven? What if bad things are happening in my life, are the bad things part of God’s plan or did I somehow deviate from God’s path? How much and in what way is God involved in my life anyway? Although I continue to struggle with the particulars, I’ve settled into an understanding of God at work in the midst of the decisions we make as free beings. I choose to believe that much that’s wrong with the world is the result of mistakes I and other human beings have made, while the other tragedies and stuff beyond our control is the price of being in a universe where free beings exist. I choose to believe that God is at work responding to and in the middle of all of this messiness, always working for good in the midst of circumstances that are often bad.

For those who prefer their world to be less messy and less mysterious, my way of understanding God’s activity in our lives is bound to be disappointing. But I prefer a more mysterious God to a God who decides specifically who will suffer on earth and burn in hell for eternity. I believe God’s plan for all of us is to love and be loved in this life and the next; exactly how that works out for each of us is a mixture of grace, free will and mystery. I may not be a Methodist, but I do agree with the “Arminian” leanings of Susanna Wesley, wife of Methodism’s founder Charles Wesley, who wrote, “Tis certainly inconsistent with the justice and goodness of God to lay any man under a physical or moral necessity of committing sin, and then to punish him for doing it.”

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, June 17, 2010

I Thought The Power Team was Bad

This past Sunday in my sermon I shared about a phone call I received last week from The Power Team.  In addition to the pushy and smart-alecky tone of the representative/salesperson which I didn't care for (he seemed to think that since our church was not interested in The Power Team we were not interested in reaching the "lost" and "unsaved."), I also don't care for the theology they represent.

If you've never experienced The Power Team, you're in for a treat.  It's a group of guys that look like pro wrestlers who do evangelistic rallies and their schtick happens to be feats of strength such as tearing phone books in half, smashing through blocks of ice, chopping cement blocks with their hands and blowing up rubber hot water medicine bottles with their amazingly strong lung capacities. 

I"m sure that in their rallies they mention that their own strength is nothing compared to the power of God to defeat sin (at least I hope so), but to me their message is all about human stength and abilities.  The focus is inevitably on the stunts and not upon God.  This seems far from the humble Christ who took the form of a servant and humbled himself on the cross.

Well, my encounter with The Power Team has inspired out youth director, Andrew Kar, to scour the internet looking for information about them.  He recalled seeing an episode of The Daily Show (WARNING: the segment features Christian men rolling around on mats in homoerotic positions) that featured The Power Team as well as a ministry in Tennessee that uses mixed martial arts (as in Ultimate Fighting cage matches) to lure men to church.  After watching these Christians rolling around on the mats in provacative poses punching each other, suddenly The Power Team doesn't seem so bad any more.

Join this “Band” of Heroes! (Dialogue Column 6.15.10)

I wrote this originally for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), St. Joseph, MO

This week at Vacation Bible School we are learning along with the children about what it means to be a hero in God’s eyes. The heroes we are talking about are mentioned in the Bible, but we do not even know their names. Yet, these unnamed heroes do great things for God and demonstrate that God seems to enjoy working through those without power, fame and money. In my Sunday sermon, I spoke about the host of heroes I have known in churches throughout my life—many whose names I have forgotten—who have demonstrated God’s love to me and therefore have kept me in the church, despite the arrogant words and actions of so many Christians.

I was planning on writing something today about being one of God’s heroes and in doing so I was going to quote from my favorite sermon by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The Drum Major Instinct.” (You can read the full text on-line or even listen to the audio of King delivering the sermon.)  Reading it over again I realized once more what a perfect expression of Christianity this sermon is, and how superior it is to anything I could write. There is not room to include it here in full, but it deserves to be read more than once a year (or less) on the MLK, Jr. holiday—maybe we should read it every day and be reminded of how God desires to work through ordinary people like you and me. Here are a few excerpts of King's inspiring sermon:

This morning I would like to use as a subject from which to preach: "The Drum Major Instinct." And our text for the morning is taken from a very familiar passage in the tenth chapter as recorded by Saint Mark. Beginning with the thirty-fifth verse of that chapter, we read these words: "And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came unto him saying, ‘Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire.’ And he said unto them, ‘What would ye that I should do for you?’ And they said unto him, ‘Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.’ But Jesus said unto them, ‘Ye know not what ye ask: Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ And they said unto him, ‘We can.’ And Jesus said unto them, ‘Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of, and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.’" And then Jesus goes on toward the end of that passage to say, "But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all." . . .

Now very quickly, we would automatically condemn James and John, and we would say they were selfish. Why would they make such a selfish request? But before we condemn them too quickly, let us look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first. Of course, the other disciples got mad with James and John, and you could understand why, but we must understand that we have some of the same James and John qualities. And there is deep down within all of us an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first. And it is something that runs the whole gamut of life. . .

There comes a time that the drum major instinct can become destructive. (Make it plain) And that's where I want to move now. I want to move to the point of saying that if this instinct is not harnessed, it becomes a very dangerous, pernicious instinct. For instance, if it isn’t harnessed, it causes one's personality to become distorted. I guess that's the most damaging aspect of it: what it does to the personality. If it isn't harnessed, you will end up day in and day out trying to deal with your ego problem by boasting. . .

And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends up trying to push others down in order to push himself up. And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities. You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up. And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. . .

But let me rush on to my conclusion, because I want you to see what Jesus was really saying. What was the answer that Jesus gave these men? It's very interesting. One would have thought that Jesus would have condemned them. One would have thought that Jesus would have said, "You are out of your place. You are selfish. Why would you raise such a question?"

But that isn't what Jesus did; he did something altogether different. He said in substance, "Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you're going to be my disciple, you must be." But he reordered priorities. And he said, "Yes, don't give up this instinct. It's a good instinct if you use it right. (Yes) It's a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. (Amen) I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do."

And he transformed the situation by giving a new definition of greatness. And you know how he said it? He said, "Now brethren, I can't give you greatness. And really, I can't make you first." This is what Jesus said to James and John. "You must earn it. True greatness comes not by favoritism, but by fitness. And the right hand and the left are not mine to give, they belong to those who are prepared." . .

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness. . . it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Scapegoating in St. Joseph (Dialogue Column 6-8-10)

I wrote this originally for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), St. Joseph, MO.


1 : a goat upon whose head are symbolically placed the sins of the people after which he is sent into the wilderness in the biblical ceremony for Yom Kippur

2 a : one that bears the blame for others b : one that is the object of irrational hostility

I returned from visiting my in-laws in Atlanta last week and promptly picked up the St. Joseph News-Press. Unfortunately, not a whole heck of a lot had changed during the past week. “It’s Your Call”—the section of our paper that prints anonymous comments left on the newspaper’s answering machine—continues to be a forum for the most ignorant and slanderous arguments our community has to offer. I often wonder why the ¬News-Press continues to showcase the irrationally negative voices of people too cowardly to sign their name to a letter to the editor (aren’t the comments on the News-Press web site enough?). The popular topic right now in “It’s Your Call” seems to be the immigration debate and the ones making their calls are scapegoating in full force.

From the pages of the News-Press to the halls of Washington, illegal immigrants are the scapegoats this election year; not even the ineptitude of BP can avert the anger towards workers who are in the country illegally. Certainly, there are legitimate issues regarding national security, social service costs and businesses employing undocumented immigrants during a time of near 10% unemployment, but none of these issues, in and of themselves or even corporately, are enough to explain the levels of vitriol, paranoia and xenophobia being spewed around the nation. Could there possibly be another explanation?

I would offer that the explanation is an easy one: power. Human history is filled with examples of majority groups demonizing, dehumanizing and scapegoating minority groups. Let the less powerful minority bear the blame for the collective failures of everyone and direct all anger and hostility towards them. That way the majority bears no responsibility for society’s ills; it gets to feel good about itself and look down upon someone else. For those who wish to capitalize upon this shameful human tendency for political or economic gain, scapegoating a minority is an easy and cheap way to gather power.

A specific case of scapegoating has occurred in the proposition to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants who are born on U.S. soil—a proposition endorsed by our representative to Congress, Sam Graves. These politicians could not have focused their attack on a more defenseless population. Who better to attack than children who had no say whatsoever in where they were born? Who better to attack than children who dare not speak publicly for fear of having their parents taken away from them by immigration agents? Could these politicians not find any puppies to kick or kittens to strangle?

Never mind that denying citizenship to people born on U.S. soil is unconstitutional, that’s not the point anyway. The point is to galvanize public anger over a problem with no easy solutions for political gain. I’m not sure which is worse: the politicians from the right who scapegoat the people with the least power—people only looking for a better life for their families OR the politicians on the left who have no backbone and refuse to offer any real solutions because they value their reelection over the demands of justice. It is far easier for the politicians who represent us at the local, state and federal levels to either do nothing or scapegoat than it is to actually ask the hard questions and look for real answers, such as:

Why is it that most companies in our country refuse to voluntarily adopt a system that uniformly checks documentation and identification with a government database?

Why is it that consumers demand goods at lower prices even if it means they were produced by exploited labor either in another country or by illegal workers at home?

Why is it that so many American manufacturing jobs went south of the border thanks to NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements but the flow of undocumented workers coming north has only increased? Weren’t these agreements supposed to help us and them?

Why is it that Mexico, a country adjacent to the largest economy in the world, has remained a hotbed of political corruption, smuggling, drug trafficking, and economic dysfunction? Is it possible that some of our nation’s policies might have had some influence?

Why is it that there are so few people concerned about illegal immigrants who are non-Hispanic? Could it be that things like skin color and language really play a bigger part than we care to admit in this debate?

From our scriptures, we are taught that God has a concern for the “alien” and “stranger” among us. We are taught that when we offer even a drink of water to those whom society calls “the least of these” it is the same as doing it for Jesus. As Christians, we cannot give in to scapegoating. In fact, the command for us to love our neighbor as ourselves demands that we speak up for those who lack the political power to speak for themselves. This election season let us demand that our leaders ask the tough questions and seek real answers rather than scapegoating for easy political gain.

Grace and Peace,