Fear of God, the Grand Canyon, and Aslan

Yesterday’s post, “Why Are Atheists So Bad,” catalyzed a great discussion involving Christians and unChristians on my Facebook page. Discussion is the best result I can hope for from a post. One of the topics of that discussion was the fear of God.

I wrote in the post that Christians who realize they are saved by grace “try to act in ways that reflect God’s love because we are loved, not because we fear.”

A friend of mine responding to the post wrote:

“Fear of God” has always puzzled me. Were I to believe in God, He/She would be part of me, not my boss or disciplinarian. Live a good life, make mistakes, and learn to be a better person from those mistakes. It doesn’t need to be that complicated. I’ve always been suspicious of those that need to be feared. Aren’t they generally bullies?

I replied that for me, “fear of God” is like the fear I had of my parents when I was a toddler. They were a lot bigger than me, much more powerful, and I depended on them for everything. But I did not cower before them. I knew I was loved and trusted they would use that power inays that were good for me.

On a continuum of fear that stretches from respect to terror, my toddler-feelings for my parents – and my attitude toward God today – would be way over on the respect side.

Of course that analogy would not work – and would have the opposite effect – for someone who grew up in an abusive family.

Thinking about it over the past day or so, perhaps a better word than fear would be “awe.” I remember seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. No matter how much I had heard about its majesty and massiveness, I was overwhelmed – awed – at the sight of it. Certainly there was some fear mixed in; it was a long way down and in the gift shop I’d glanced through Over the Edge: Death at the Grand Canyon recounting all the known fatal misadventures at the canyon.

Marveling at the beauty and expanse of the canyon far outweighed any fear of its danger.

It is that sort of awe that captures the posture in which we are called to approach God.

Of course when dealing with the fear of God we can go too far the other way. We can strip God and by extension, Jesus, of power and might, leaving ourselves with a manageable God who can be molded to our purposes.

aslanThat’s what C. S. Lewis was getting at in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, in this exchange about Aslan, the allegorical Christ-figure in the Narnia books:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …

“Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

What are your thoughts about the fear of God? You can use the comments below to continue the discussion.

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Why Are Atheists So Bad?

quoraYou know that saying about how there are no stupid questions? There are exceptions . . .

A Facebook friend posted a link to this query on the Quora  question and answer website:

 This may sound naive, but what keeps an atheist from committing adultery and doing other things that a Christian wouldn’t do because it is a sin?

Where to start?

Let’s begin with the assumption that adultery and other sins are “things a Christian wouldn’t do.”

More troubling than the profound theological error (“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” – I John 1:8),  is the smug superiority inherent in the question. Christians are just better than unChristians. We gather on Sunday mornings to celebrate our transcendent nobility, to rejoice that we are not like those unclean folks outside.

This self-deluded attitude lurks wherever Christians gather. We want to believe that “we” are better than “them.”

As many people who responded to the “naïve” questioner pointed out, Christians consistently – and famously – commit adultery and do “other things” just like everyone else.

The truth is that athiests – and agnostics, and Muslims, and Hindus, and Wiccans, and so on – can be, and are, just as “moral” as Christians. Many unChristians I know live lives of compassion and service beyond that of most Christians of my acquaintance. A person’s professed religion, or lack thereof, is not a great predictor of adultery or “other things.” Christian marriages, for example, are just as likely to end in divorce as those of unChristians.

Both inside and outside the church, Christian identity is misunderstood as being – or trying to be – the “good people.” Actually, the opposite is true – Christians confess that we are sinners, not just in the past but in the present and future, over and over again. That’s why we confess that we need – not just needed – forgiveness.

The Quora question illustrates a fundamental error about following Jesus common to Christians and unChristians:

Christians try to do the right stuff because they are scared of God. That is something atheists do not experience. Therefore, Christians behave better.

You can see that assumption not only underlying the question but also in the Quora responses by unChristians:

One of the things that scares atheists about Christians is that it’s often your fear of God that makes you behave.

 We choose to behave in an appropriate manner because it’s the right thing to do, not out of fear of going to hell or being denied heaven.

This is something Christians can’t seem to understand, living as they do with big dad in the sky running their lives. You fear punishment

 The unfortunate implication of your questions, is that you as as a Christian, only behave because you believe god is watching you. If so, that makes a law abiding or ethical atheist, morally superior to a Christian.

It is true that many Christians, misunderstanding the Gospel, live in constant fear of God’s punishment. Their picture of an angry, judgmental God waiting to smite them leads them to act in angry, judgmental ways toward those who do not believe as they do.

But the truth about following Christ is that we try to act in ways that reflect God’s love because we are loved, not because we fear. God is not waiting to smite us; God has already forgiven us. Comprehending the gracious loving God who suffered and died to show us how much we are loved leads us to act in ways that are gracious and loving, even toward those who do not believe as we do.

Realizing that we receive love and forgiveness as gifts rather than earning them with our obedience leaves no room for superiority, only humble love for God and others.

The Quora question and responses reflect what I have identified before as my biggest misunderstanding when I was an unChristian, unfortunately a misunderstanding many Christians share:

I thought Christians tried to do the right thing and avoid the wrong things because they wanted God to love them and forgive them.

Now I know that followers of Christ try to love God and love their neighbors because we are already loved and forgiven.

And forgiven, and forgiven, and forgiven . . .

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If You Want to Change the World . . . Don’t Make Your Bed

Admiral Willam H. McRaven gave the 2014 University of Texas  commencement address. Admiral McRaven inspired the graduates – and many who have who have heard the since-viral address – to change the world by following lessons he learned in Navy Seal training. The speech became so popular that it spawned a book.

Most of Admiral McRaven’s advice  is indeed inspirational and certainly worthy of the respect the speech, and the admiral, have garnered.

It is only his first instruction that I cannot follow or endorse.

I am not a morning person. Admiral McRaven puts great stock in starting the day by making one’s bed.

Not me. I know I’m not alone.

As a public service to other non-morning people, I gave the beginning of Admiral McRaven’s address a quick edit. I hope you night owls will find it just as inspirational. My corrections are in italics:

If you want to change the world, start off by making your  staying in bed. If you don’t make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day hit the snooze alarm at least one more time. It will give you a small sense of pride and will encourage you to do give the snooze alarm another task push and another and another. By the end of the day that one task completed extra sleep will have turned into energy for many tasks completed, especially late at night.

Making your Staying in bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right sleep in, you’ll never be able to do the big things right stay awake after lunch.

And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is unmade. That you left unmade. And an unmade bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better because you will sleep in again and not waste time pointlessly making your bed that you would just unmake again at night.

(Also, the cat[s] will appreciate not being displaced.)

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Nassar Survivor’s Wake-up Call to the Church

A couple of days ago I read a Huffington Post article about the first woman who had the courage to step forward and publicly accuse US Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of abuse.

Rachel Denhollander, one of 150 survivors who testified at Dr. Nassar’s trial, is quoted in the article saying, “Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse . . . It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.”

Denhollander describes the shame-provoking assumption among congregants and leaders in her church that she had done something to open herself to abuse, as well as the implication that she should have forgiven her abuser more quickly.

Ashley Easter, an advocate for abuse survivors is also quoted in the article:

Many churches hold poor interpretations of Scripture that imply the victim is somehow at fault for dressing or acting a certain way ‘immodestly,’ that speaking up about abuse is ‘gossip’ or ‘slander,’ and that forgiveness is moving on without demanding justice for the victims. These stances are a stark contrast from Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized.

We have to do better.

First, we who are the church must confess that we have often missed the mark in the past. Not only have we held women complicit in their own victimization, we have been too focused on reconciliation and rushing survivors to forgiveness that will make us more comfortable, rather than acknowledging and sitting with the pain of women who have been victimized.

We must apologize to women who have been re-victimized by the very churches they have counted on for help and support.

It is essential that we acknowledge the ways patriarchal systems of “male headship” within churches and families have given men license to mistreat women.

Finally, we must care for survivors of abuse the way Jesus responded to marginalized individuals he encountered (see especially the Samaritan woman at the well) – with empathy and unconditional love.

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Strength in Weakness

This line from the State of the Union Address has me thinking this morning:

“Weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.”

Those words remind me why Christianity – faithfully following Christ – is so counter-cultural.

That line is not particularly “Trumpian.” It could have been spoken by any Democrat or Republican president in my lifetime. It seems to make perfect sense, not just on a national defense level but in the “real life” world in which we dwell.

BUT, to take just one example from the twelfth chapter of  Second Corinthians:

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Could you imagine any president saying that in a State of the Union Speech?

Neither can I.

I don’t imagine Strength in Weakness would be a popular political platform, nor would it be a successful subject for a self-help book.

It’s diametrically opposed to the idea of self-help.

“What do you mean I can’t help myself?”

It’s also not the kind of message church-growth types suggest. Don’t people want to come to church and hear how God wants them to have Your Best Life Now, or to be successful with “God’s Ten Steps to Prosperity” or something?

The Theology of the Cross is a tough sell. It rejects everything that looks to the world like success, and redirects us to a savior lifted up for our sake.

Jesus on the Cross embodies power in weakness. There can be no more powerful illustration of God’s love for the world.

To follow Christ is to follow him to the cross. It is the only way to the empty tomb.

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A Few Moments at the Manger – A Christmas Eve Sermon/Monologue

 

a few moments at the manger(A podcast of this sermon is available here.)

Worship Assistant: A few days ago, one of Pastor Dave’s Facebook Friends posted a clip from a 1980 television special called “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.” In the program, Mr. Krueger, played by Jimmy Stewart, imagines himself visiting the baby Jesus. That inspired Pastor Dave to rewrite today’s sermon. The new title is, “A Few Moments at the Manger.”

(Pastor Dave approaches the manger. He leans down.)

Hello. I’m Pastor Dave.

Just Dave.

David.

But you already knew my name, didn’t you?

I’m sorry, but I don’t have a gift like those other three dudes on their way. That’s not what’s really important, right?

You’re the gift.

(Pause.)

 It blows me away to see you like this. You’re a baby!

I know that’s obvious.

What I mean is, you’re like every other infant. No radiant beams streaming from your face. No halo. You’re helpless. And defenseless. You have to depend on those two imperfect parents sleeping over there for everything. You have to depend on them to eat. And for protection – and you’re going to need that! You have to depend on them to be held and hugged, and to be changed.

Not that I like to think of my Savior having his diapers changed. But you’re not going to do it yourself, are you?

I guess what surprises me about your being like other infants is that sometimes we think of you like some kind of a Super Baby. You should see some of the pictures people have painted of you – you look like a little man in a manger.

But you’re a baby.

(Pause. Kneel.)

And you’re God.

Infinity wrapped in a beautiful little package. Everything was created through you. You had everything. You’ve given it all up, all that power and privilege, to be here with us.

You must love us so much! To become one of us. To save us. To show us how much we are loved.

And you didn’t wait. You didn’t wait for us to earn your love or to deserve you coming into our world. You just gave yourself to us, and to the world.

Thank you.

Thank you for being here.

Thank you for being (Hand on heart) here.

You’ve always been here.

When I was just a baby myself, you were there in my baptism. You gave me your word you’d always be with me.

You’ve been with me through the worst times of my life. You were there when I fell in love and married Karen. When I held my baby for the first time, you were there. And you were there when I adopted my son.

You’ve been with me through the most challenging times. Even 30 years ago when my dad died and I didn’t believe in you, you were there in my family and friends and even in that pastor I gave such a hard time. He forgave me, and you did too. There is nothing I could have done to cause you to break your promise to me.

You didn’t leave me alone when I rejected you. I even denied you existed, but you kept showing up in other people and in situations that I know now were more than coincidences.

I gave up on you, but you never gave up on me.

Thank you.

You were there just a few years ago when my mom died. I knew you then. I knew you wouldn’t let go of her, that your promises to her and to me are not limited to this life.

And earlier this year, when I was so sick, you walked with me no matter how frustrated and even angry I got about not being able to do the things I wanted to do, not being able to do what I thought I needed to do. You never left my side, and even carried me through some of that. When the doctors made it clear what a close call I had, I knew no matter what I was safe in your arms.

Safe in your arms . . .

Look at your arms now! They are so tiny, so pudgy. But you’ll grow. You’ll grow into a boy and then into a man, a man who will feed thousands with a little bread and a few fish. A man who will give hope and healing to hurting people. A man who will even raise some folks from death.

Then you’ll defeat death and save the whole world.

That’s so hard to believe looking at you now.

But that’s what you came for. To save us. To forgive us.

To forgive me.

Even though you know more about me than my name. You know everything I’ve done, everything I’ve thought and said. You know those things I’m not proud of, the things I wish I could take back. You know I’ve been cynical and selfish, that I’ve been an insensitive jerk sometimes.

It’s hard for me to  even be here with you knowing all that. I’m embarrassed.

But knowing you love me anyway, knowing you forgive me . . . it’s more than I deserve.

I can never repay what you’ve done for me.

But you know that, too. And yet here you are, doing it anyway.

(Pause.)

 I better go. The shepherds will be here soon.

Thank you.

I love you.

Welcome to our world.

Welcome to your world.


(Stand and face the congregation.)

 Friends, during this Christmastime in the midst of everything else that is going on, I invite you to spend a few moments  of your own at the manger . Maybe not as literally as I have, but take some time to consider, to ponder, what the birth of this child means for you. Christmas is not just an event that happened 2000 years ago. It is not confined to December 24 or 25. God in human flesh, God with us, is a reality every moment of every day. Christmas means we are never alone, we are never unloved, we are never unforgiven. And there is nothing we can do to mess that up. The angel said to the shepherds that a Savior has been born for you – this child is for you.

And if you are like I was, if you don’t believe any of this is true, even if you don’t believe Jesus ever existed . . . I invite you to also spend a few moments at the manger pondering this question – “What if it’s true?”

What if it’s true that God loves you so much that God became one of us. What if it’s true that the infinity of love in the universe was contained in a baby in a manger, and what if all that love is for you?

What if it’s true?

AMEN

(Sermon preached December 24, 2017 at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Millersville.)

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“Fear Not” – The Angels’ Prescription for the (White) American Church

Angel of the Revelation

“Angel of the Revelation” by William Blake

This time of year we sing “Joy to the World.” But if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that too often what we bring to the world is fear.

The Washington Post published a prescient article this week by Charles Mathewes, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.  “White Christianity Is in Big Trouble. And It’s Its Own Biggest Threat” echoes some of the stuff I’ve written in this blog about the “We’ve met the enemy and he is us” state of American Christianity.

We Christians  complain a lot about perceived external threats to faith, like Starbucks coffee cups and taking prayer out of schools and Sunday morning sports leagues. But until we address the self-inflicted popular perception of Christians as judgmental hypocrites who hate LGBT folks, Muslims, and anyone who doesn’t meet our standards (sorry, “God’s standards” as we interpret them), Christianity is going to continue to be not just increasingly ignored but actively shunned by growing numbers of our neighbors – particularly those who are younger.

An organization or group known for what or who it opposes rather than what it supports might bolster the passion and parochialism of its members, but ultimately will further isolate those adherents behind a wall of spite.

Mr. Mathewes begins his essay by writing about the Alabama Senate Election, and the votes of White Evangelicals in that election (overwhelmingly for Roy Moore). But that is not the crux of the essay. Don’t get caught up in the politics. Christianity’s identity crisis may be reflected in political rhetoric and activity, but those are symptoms, not the disease.

The key is later in the essay when Mr. Mathewes accurately identifies the root cause of the negativity that describes too much of Christian faith in our country. He pinpoints the underlying emotion behind the intolerance, judgment, and hate that defines Christianity and Christians for so many outside the faith even though Jesus said it is love that will identify his disciples.

Fear.

Mr. Mathewes writes:

But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear. . . . And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity — love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” says the first epistle of John.

We fear what we do not know.

We fear who we do not know.

As we hunker down in our bunkers of self-satisfied religiosity, it is inevitable that we Christians begin to feel not empathy for, but rather fear of, those “others” we become convinced threaten our privileged position. We barricade ourselves from interaction with those who are different, and we fill in the blanks of our ignorance with fear-filled assumptions about their nefarious motives.

  • Same gender couples who wish to get married want to destroy marriage.
  • Muslims and others who wish to express faiths other than Christianity want to abolish the worship of Jesus.
  • People of color who remind us that Black Lives Matter have an anti-white and especially anti-police agenda.
  • Those from non-European cultures who desire to acknowledge and maintain even some of their heritage want to destroy the American Way of Life.
  • And so on.

“Why can’t they just be more like us,” we say about . . . everyone who is different than us.

But as we cower in our safe segregated sanctuaries of the status quo we must ask . . .

Who would want to be like us?

We exhaust ourselves and alienate others trying to maintain – or go back to – a mythical monoculture that has always been nothing but an illusion maintained by ignoring those outside its boundaries.

What are we afraid of? That we will have to share resources and power we have always gained and kept in proportions greater than our numbers? That we might be confronted with the unpleasant consequences of majority-favoring systems on those left out and left behind? That our opinions might be challenged and we might find out that we have been – gasp! – wrong about some things?

Are we ultimately afraid that Christianity cannot compete on a level playing field of theologies and non-theology?

We harm not just our own credibility but the claims of our faith when we proclaim that Christianity is the Truth, and then we act as if our faith is as fragile as a dead, dry autumn leaf.

As we gather in our churches on this Christmas, perhaps we should pay special attention to the angel who visited the shepherds.

When that angel appeared, those shepherds were terrified. Who wouldn’t be? Biblical angels are not the cute little cherubs with chubby cheeks and dainty wings, but rather God’s warrior-messengers. To have one of those daunting dudes show up in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, accompanied by God’s light show (“The glory of the Lord”) would do more than startle even the bravest among us.

The first words that angel spoke to the shepherds were these:

“Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m not here to smite you.” The angel didn’t say that, but I would imagine that was the underlying message addressing the shepherds’ anxiety about the angel’s intent.

Then the angel said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for people who believe and do the right stuff.”

That’s not exactly right, is it?

Let’s try again.

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.”

Why do we Christians spend so much of our time, energy, and resources in ways that cause others to fear rather than to rejoice?

Is it because too many of us are afraid ourselves?

But . . .

“Do not be afraid.”

The angel’s words are for you and me.

At the end of the Christmas story in Luke 2, the shepherds are no longer afraid. They have traveled to Bethlehem and seen the Miracle in the Manger.

On their way back, they can’t keep what they’ve experienced to themselves. They get out into the world, among people different than themselves.

They just can’t help but share that “good news of great joy.”

The Good News about Christmas provokes the shepherds to make a journey from fear to joy.

Too often we manage to get that backwards.

Mr. Mathewes can have the last word:

If we are Christians, we must believe that we are safer in God’s hands than in our own. We should take no care for the morrow, but preach compassion and mercy to all, without distinction. If we do that, they’ll know we are Christians by our love — rather than our fear.

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