Human pain and suffering is a constant. It is the low drone note ringing through the stuff of the universe. If one could actually “hear” suffering its sound would be piercing and constant across our world. There is never even a moment where suffering and anguish is extinguished on this fallen earth. But many of us lives years of our lives with our encountering the interior landscape of pain ourselves. And then one day something breaks somewhere and that loud drone cuts to the very core of our souls as well. That something might be the loss of someone so dear and so assumed to be a constant in your life. It might be your own physical suffering or disappointment at a bad decision that wreaks havoc across your life. And then in those very moments that fallenness and twisted nature of our world comes through so clearly. The drone note sounds. Until such time we observe at a distance the pain of others. We wrestle with the meaning of it, yet at a distance. Until the distance evaporates and we become the very subject of this pain ourselves.
What can we learn at times like this? How do we distill some valuable lesson from pain? As a believer in a good, merciful and just Creator how do we see Him in such times?
O pain of loss, O note of melancholy
You indeed have the power to take me to that place again
Where I doubt the very ground of faith on which I stand
But though the pincers squeeze my very soul and breath,
I shall not let evil spring forth from the lips He made
I rise in my inner man to seek Him who cares and bless Him
Who shows His tender mercies daily.
But The Enemy says, “If He cares He will take away all pain”.
And I say, “He has, in the now and not yet”
If pain is finite and reward and pleasure and peace are infinite (the Christian Proposition) then can we really press God to the mat and say,”Why do you allow me to suffer?” and do so with justice?
We live our little lives each day, going to our little jobs in our little town.
We live in our little house and we think little thoughts. What car shall we buy, where should we go for vacation, what shall we eat for breakfast, etc.
The littleness can seem so Big. But there is Something Big in the land of little.
An idea that tells us that although we are Little People who think about Little Things and live our Little Lives, there is something much more.
Something deep within us tells us that when our Little Lives end, and we are then buried in our Little Graves….then Something Big begins.
The Land of Little is not unimportant. It is in living in this Little Land that we may learn about and prepare for the Big…and learn that the Little is not all there is.
A common theme today in many non-traditional evangelical churches goes something like this, “Let’s just focus on Jesus. He is peaceful, merciful and kind, but the Old Testament God is tough, distant, and judgemental.”
Amongst many evangelical churches today, a new ministry emphasis seems to be common. It goes something like this – “We focus on Jesus and simply following Him. He is peaceful, merciful and kind. Whereas the the Old Testament image of God was problematic, we see in Jesus an attractive and appealing persona.”
My church of the last seven years has built its outreach around this very idea. The members and adherents resonate deeply with this “Jesus is all we want to know about God“ vibe that gives the impression that Jesus was a material break from the God of the Old Testament more so than a a fulfillment of the law (as Jesus himself said). In such churches, we encounter an extended recasting of the image of the God we encounter in the Old Testament. Their emphasis hinges on the implicit idea that Jesus was in reality a kinder, softer and gentler version of God the Father. Jesus cares about the heart, they say, while the Father in the Old Testament cared more about adherence to the Law. This ministry emphasis, while understandable in today’s post-modern culture which is afraid of giving offence and thus projecting a certain softness into Christ, contains dangers that can lead us to a theological place we should not go as orthodox evangelical Christians.
A thorough reading of the entire Jewish/Christian Old Testament scriptures reveal that this God vs. Jesus distinction is a thoroughly lazy caricature (as appealing as it may be in our modern context). The deep mercy and heart of God the Father revealed first in the Old Testament scriptures shows tender mercies in almost embarrassing abundance. His heart is moved deeply by the plight of even those who after recurring warnings continue to pursue their own path. He warns through prophets. He weeps and feels pathos over Israel continuing to understand how much He loves them. The deep mine of gold in these writings is weighty and significant. I have read these Old Testament scriptures many times and never fail to leave with a sense of the deep compassion and heart of God the Father. Is it not in Jesus that we now personally encounter this very heart in bodily form? We see Him walk amongst us and suffer. We see him weep over the death of a friend and the hardness of the hearts of those in Jerusalem. We see Him suffer for us. Just like his Father. We can even argue that the very divinity of Jesus is self-evident in that his heart seems to be the same as the heart of God as revealed in the Jewish scripture.
I remain thoroughly flummoxed that these new “Jesus Churches” (now, before you protest, all churches are indeed Jesus’ church, but my use here is a mnemonic for the churches I referred to in my opening) take such a mentally lazy approach and in doing so leave harmful impressions. Harmful? What is the harm you ask?
The harm is the same type of harm we do when we do not fairly represent the full truth about someone who is so material to our lives. We create an unfair accounting of that person that misleads others. If we do this in a human context then we leave people feeling like they are knowledgeable about someone when they do not know that full person in a complete and fair way. So how dare we, the Church of God, paint this fuzzy and incomplete picture to those who walk through our doors. To reach such incomplete and lazy conclusions about the very God we serve seems to me inherently weighty and indeed serious. To then build a church and style of worship and engagement around an emphasis on the second person in the Godhead with the subtext being “Boy are we glad it is not just God the Father we serve” is indeed doing violence to a proper and full image of the loving and just and compassionate God whom we serve. If you fail to see a full convergence between God as revealed in the Old Testament and Jesus as He walked amongst us and His Spirit as he convicts and comforts us, then something has gone seriously awry with our theology.
Before you protest, I am not at all arguing that Jesus should not be seen as the key to unlock a better understanding of the full mysteries of God the Father. I am also not arguing that Jesus was not the object to which much of the Old Testament was pointing. What I am arguing is that this same Jesus is “Just Like His Father” and not to be seen as God 2.0 or a “nicer and better” version. This is a toxic and untruthful fancy that a full reading of the Scriptures will not allow.
How can otherwise well-informed Pastor-Teachers miss what is as clear as the nose on your face (if you immerse yourself in the Scripture)? Is this mental laziness or has it become convenient and even helpful to these Pastors who want to embrace a Jesus who is somehow hipper, cooler and “good” with their culture of effortless Christianity?
I urge these Pastors-Teachers to look deeper into this and to be very careful to make sure they leave their congregations understanding this – that this same Jesus is just like His Father in all ways. Period.
Now, there is a pretty darn good answer than I would propose is accepted by an overwhelming majority of Christian theologians whether Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox. But the answer given by the pastor was essentially, “Since Rabbis had to be male to teach and, secondly, if Jesus came as a woman who would be dismissed since he would have not “power” to lay down”. Hmm. Did I just hear that? No – rewind and listen again – wow, indeed that is his answer. I am gobsmacked.
I won’t write a long post on what almost every orthodox Christian theologian would posit as a better answer, but it is not too dissimilar to the answer once would give if asked, “Why is God the Father presented as a Father and not a Daughter…and the answer goes absolutely nothing like the answer Bruxy gave.
I will graciously assume the pastor “misspoke” (isn’t that would politicians say) ….because if this is his first and best answer, I would be worried.
As parents would any of us ever dare characterize the story of our family as the story of how we set rules for our children and relished catching them breaking these rules so we could punish them? A sort of mini-morality play ? Would would be happy once we leave this earth if our children recall the history of our lives by speaking mainly about the rules we taught them and tried to enforce? I would say not. Yes these matter, but they are not what parenting is about – they are necessary but not existentially why we parent.
As against this, the better narrative for parenting is that of a love story between a man and woman yielding children whom we love and cherish. The rules are necessary, but do not create the arc of the story. Rather, the arc of the story is our love and its derivatives. In the future we would surely be most happy happy if our children and their children fondly recall the love we had for each other and them.
Analogically, this is where we have gone off the rails in the Christian church so much in out history that it makes many people question the very endeavour of our faith itself.
The majority of folks who “experience” church fail to be taught and shown that the story of God and His creation is first and foremost a grand love story. It is most definitely not a morality play. It is indeed sad that much of our “brand” has been deeply tainted by this twisted narrative which misses the truth of God’s character by a wide margin.
I can most confidently say that Our God reveals Himself as the Lover of the Universe. The very Lover of our Souls. If we read the Scripture remembering this we read it in the most appropriate way. Our Lord acts more like a lover in His passion and desire than some dispassionate rule-giver. And yet the church – or so much of the church historically – has interpreted this Grand Love Story as a morality play. Shame on us. God Have Mercy.
Can we prove that God, the Prime Mover and Creator exists ? I propose that the answer is “no” in the sense that God, by definition, exists outside of the knowable and measurable physical universe. Believers will immediately recoil and argue that I am giving up too soon. I disagree. To one whom chooses to resist probabilities and likelihoods, no argument can be sufficient. I believe that at best we can continue to make strong arguments that our universe points to the likelihood of the existence of God and then leave the matter at that. So is there no value in apologetics and the like ? Indeed there is, but our measure of the effectiveness of such things must be humble . We need to remember that what we continue to do when we are asked to give a reason for the hope we have is to remind people that what we believe is supported by a great weight of facts and pointers and indicators and thus seems at least as reasonable (frankly more) than the negative proposition. And that is perhaps as far as we can go without looking desperate for affirmation (if I may put it that way). I suppose it is great that our world contains folks like William Lane Craig and Ravi Zacharias, but I do not rejoice in this in the sense that we can slide into arrogance if we drag out our favourite apologist and say to the non-believers, “How dumb can you be not to see this”. I know what you are thinking already. You believe I am effectively ceding the fight to the non-believers. You are wrong since I believe we need to continue to declare what we believe. I only want to make sure we stop before we go over the cliff. Think about that for a bit. So I indeed believe that apologetics adds weight to the balance of probabilities and is a noble thing to do (to a point), but that is as far as we can and should go with out arguments and attitudes. To look at an atheist in astonishment and proclaim, “How can you ever deny that God exists” is not an attitude or position we can and should take. Since a priori if someone has chosen to reject the mass of reasonable evidence and pointers as I call them, one cannot be made to believe in God (or anything for that matter) in the face of denial.
With that caution and rather annoying preamble behind me, I am now going to do what you clearly do not expect me to do. Today I would like to add (yet another argument) for the existence of God (as a personal prime mover) that I hope adds more weight to our side of the scale and perhaps for some is an argument somewhat less easy to counter than some of the traditional arguments put forth. I called it the “argument from personal significance or sovereignty”. At the end of this essay perhaps you will understand what I mean by this currently obscure phrase.
In modernity we seen a trend emerge that is at its peak perhaps in our age. I am referring to the belief Western civilization holds that individuals matter and that their opinions, emotions, privacy, etc are weighty and important. Derivatives of this belief include things like the correct move to stop workplace harassment, bullying in schools and the like – but the common thread is this idea of personal sovereignty. All of these are valuable and build upon a belief that is far from self evident for those who presume away the existence of a Personal Creator who not only creates but creates order and justice in the universe. Eject this and the ground upon which this entire enterprise rests collapses in on itself. But let me keep my argument very narrow at this stage. The “argument from personal significance” says that what an individual thinks and feels seems to matter a lot to the modern world. In fact it has become perhaps the single most important talking point for modern society. Schools, workplaces and churches are scolded and even sued when individuals are not treated this way. It has come to be accepted as fundamental to free society that if an individual “feels” mistreated or abused or not valued, etc then something has gone awry. Yet, I argue, this is so far from self evident in a naturalistic universe. It is in fact not what anyone would expect to be value in a universe where we literally are the product of physical processes and time. I would now like to turn this argument around on itself. Looked at this way, I am arguing that the very fact that when we speak to someone one on one about their hurt or abuse or related things we indeed “feel” a weight about that person that is not due to someone who is only a temporary and random assortment of atoms.
As I continue on my journey in Christ, I long for the “otherness” that I believe a church gathering should provide. My family and I now attend a non-traditional church which offers much and in many ways drew my family in with its approach and focus. This church has been a blessing. This church meets in a movie theatre and is very focussed on small groups. Neither of these things are an issue with me at all…so please do not imagine they are. But increasingly I cannot help but feeling like something very important is missing.
Let me better define this “otherness” I feel like we all long for. In short, I feel like many churches of the kind that I attend seem to boil our faith down to “just follow Jesus because he is your friend and not too demanding and not religious at all”. (And while you are at it make sure you remember that he Old Testament God is now gone and replaced by the new and friendlier version of God we find in Jesus). In fact Jesus came to abolish religion (how illuminating to learn that this was in the Father’s mind when he planned to send us His Son). It is all feels very much like a big wet spiritual kiss, but is it true ?Well – it is indeed true in the same way you could describe Beethoven’s 9th symphony as a collection of specific notes notes – that indeed it is – but then holistically it is far, far more. So I conclude that in my church (and others like it) we play a few notes of the symphony rather too loudly (it is a legitimate note or phrase, but a note does not make the song) and refuse to play many of the other notes needed to complete a full picture of what it is we are called to and called from (and what this means to our daily lives).
Churches need to attempt to communicate and model an all-encompassing view of the greatness and holiness and the wide and deep love of our immensely merciful Saviour. We need to deeply hear this story and how He invaded history and how he worked at first through Israel and now through the Church, etc. I believe this weekly gathering needs to take us out of the “usual” into a mode where we are properly challenged and encouraged and exhorted to live for Our Great God and Saviour in this fallen world. We ideally need to leave church feeling like we have been confronted with the “Other”. We need to see that the humanity of Jesus which helps us understand that we have a Saviour who is touched by the very feelings and infirmities we are, but that the Creator and Father is also so much “other” that is beyond us and would make us fall down on our knees in fear and worship and awe (if He revealed himself in other than the humanity of Jesus). This is not at all about old fashioned hell-fire preaching. It is rather about being reminded of the incredible gulf between us and Our Great Lord and yet also of His merciful and immense redeeming love and how that should provoke us to joy and service. It needs to feel significant and weighty. It needs to feel much more than the way I feel when I attend classes or watch a self-improvement show (think Oprah or variants). Sadly and rarely does my church (and many others) rise to this high standard – or even appear to be trying perhaps because they feel it would alienate seekers? (Is the regular Church gathering about seekers?).
I cannot shake the feeling that many churches are not far from providing much of what we can experience from watching Oprah and spiritual variants (using “Oprah” as a proxy for any number of entertaining self-improvement shows).
When we gather as a body of Christ we should fully expect to be confronted with the “otherness” of God and shaken to our core. We should (as the early church did from day one) expect to gather around the Lord’s Table to remember his physical life/death and re-present him as food to our souls. We should expect to pray together. We should expect to read Scripture together. We should expect to sing from our hearts (rather than listen to the “canned worship music” as we gather). We should expect to be shaken and encouraged and challenged to our very core . We really should not settle hearing a message that is entertaining/amusing enough and mildly convicting enough, but not really of any deep emotional and spiritual impact.
In the typical evangelical gathering I feel as if far too little time is spent on Scripture and communal worship and prayer. Rather what I see is a professional group of very nice and competent people deliver a rather entertaining form of something that for me has become a caricature of what I believe church worship and fellowship needs to truly be.
I crave the “other” as I journey further along in my walk with the Lord. Am I alone? Perhaps its just me ? Dear Lord speak to my heart and illuminate me further if it is…
Caricatures are something the church should not trade in. Yet as both a businessman and a Christian I am too often amused and dissapointed at the caricatures of “business” and “capitalism” that are freely offered as easy targets for many evangelical and liberal churches. Almost always these caricatures are presented by the teacher or pastor and then they proceed to extol the virtues of Christ in contrast to these caricatures as if the way of Jesus is at odds with allowing us to engage in capitalism rather than doing something really “holy and useful” (like being a pastor…or social worker…or teacher…). Before we move forward, let’s understand that the word “capitalism” like the word “religion” can have pejorative overtones. In the context of this article I mean “capitalism” in the plain sense of a system of exchange of goods and services done in the context of a free or semi-free society.
My church, The Meeting House (Toronto), is like so many others in its perhaps unintended tendency to caricature “business” and “capitalism” unfairly. Our gifted pastors have indeed also traded in such caricatures. To be fully fair to both Bruxy and Tim, they do not spent much time railing against capitalism nor is is a pet issue of theirs. To their deep credit they are almost always focused elsewhere in their teaching and in trying to build the body of Christ to impact our world. God bless them for this and it is why I continue to be a fan of The Meeting House. I do not wish to imply that either of these men spend too much energy on this topic. However, when over the years they have taught on topics that touch on “capitalism” they trade in some pretty strange caricatures rather than truth. And even when not dealing with this topic explicitly there is a tinge of this “capitalism is bad so be really careful since it is opposed to the spirit of Jesus” stuff going on in their teaching. I recall Pastor Bruxy once saying something about how our economy is based on competition so it somehow cuts in contrast to the job of being a Christ-follower. He then implied that the less of this you involve yourself with the closer we move towards the unselfish ways of Jesus. Shame. This sort of “this must be the second best thing you can do with your life” thinking is based on a very limited and poor understanding of the topic of business and capitalism. However, it is too common with Pastors who have been fortunate enough (in some way, but not really) to be able to stand beside the capitalist economy and proffer easy criticism based on an incomplete understanding. I cannot imagine how Bruxy feels about Paul lowering himself to sell tents in the corrupt mercantile economy of his day just to pay the bills. How much closer to Christ Paul would have been if he took those hours and preached more and taught more? You will say that this is not what Bruxy is teaching and that my comments are unfair…but it is indeed at least implied and is a corollary to the philosophy he implicitly supports. And if he claims it is not, then he certainly does not do enough to warn against the dangers of assuming he believes this to be the case (if in fact he does not).
Is business/capitalism somehow “bad”? Most folks forget that although we speak about capitalism as a competitive enterprise what is really experienced by those engaged in it is that it is built on creativity, co-operation and teamwork and not on competition. No one says, “I want to compete” — rather they say, “I want to create and build something of value”. In short — there is nothing whatsoever about the work of imagining products and services, creating them, and then selling them that is wrong in any way. Such activity engages the capabilities and creativeness of human beings in a way that is clearly from our Lord. God created something. God saw goodness after he created. We cannot be faulted for following the example of our God and creating and admiring the goodness we create in time and space. At the core, this “creating” is what capitalism rests on — and so we should not paint capitalism with a brush that gives it such a dark and foreboding hue. There are indeed abuses and human greed present in capitalism that feed the pejorative senses that infuse the very word “capitalism “ today (as they are also present in pastoring and teaching), but these abuses do not make the art of creating and selling things some sort of anathema to those who attempt to follow Jesus. These abuses are not the principles on which the core enterprise of business is fashioned. Those of us fortunate enough to be engaged in this line of work clearly understand this…while also understanding that sin marks all human activities and so we must always be separating wheat from chaff whether we are business people or ministers. The existence of “chaff” does not imply that the enterprise of planting seeds is somehow misguided. The existence of “chaff” reminds us that anything we do in a fallen world is imperfect and needs redemption. But this is a very different thought than the one that implies that “business” is somehow build on a fallen philosophy at its very core and is a less-good way of spending your life until you are freed to do something really useful in this world like teach (more facts to Christians that do not even yet apply the simple ones they learned as a child — a topic for another article on teaching vs preaching/motivating).
When these caricatures are presented in my church, I have to imagine that since an overwhelming majority of the congregation is employed by a business, that after hearing these sorts of messages or comments the congregation concludes something like this — “Well, I guess Bruxy/Tim are making a good point, but I have to pay the bills so God will just have to understand or forgive me”. I am sure they must also think that perhaps one day (when they have paid off their mortgage) they can do something really pleasing to God. This is an awful shame. The end result of this teaching is to load guilt on the congregation who do not truly follow Jesus in a radical enough way to quit their crass and capitalist job, move into a smaller house with ten other people and wake up every day feeding the poor and homeless. Shame.
I do indeed want to be fully and thoroughly fair to these men (and many others) whom I deeply respect and fully appreciate. But I want to urge them to search their minds and hearts and make sure they are not being patently unfair to those of us employed in creating and doing things of value for financial exchange. There can be nothing wrong with this in and of itself and it should never be cast in the bad light that it is by churches such as The Meeting House. In fact this “creating” process funds all of the so-called more “pure” things that are required for a good and just society like law and order, social assistance, education, healthcare and dare I say also preaching and teaching about Jesus.
If you think that my observations are unfair or too harsh, I would posit the question another way and ask when did you last hear a sermon on the great privilege and value of creating a business that employs people and creates things that make the world a better place?