Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who Do We Mean, When We Say God?

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, August 23, 2014

We've been doing a sermon series inspired my conversations with young atheists. For Americans my age, the word “atheist” is an alien word, a harsh, jagged affront to convention and conviction. But many young people nowadays happily embrace the label. Just last week, sitting on the sidewalk at my favorite table outside Teddy's Bigger Burgers on Green Lake Way, a group of teenagers walked past. One of the guys asked the girl in the group, “So, I hear you're an atheist.” Without the slightest hesitation or awkwardness she launched into an explanation which I did not hear because they had moved beyond my hearing. But I was struck with the casualness of the entire conversation. It is that kind of young, casual atheism that has been in my mind as I've worked on this sermon series.

Once upon a time, a few thousand years ago, the king of Damascus started sending raiding parties into Israel, his neighbor to the south. The story as it comes down to us, does not describe any precipitating event for these raids. The way I imagine it, there was a new king on the throne, a young man. His dad, the old king, had died. Now it was the young buck's turn. He wanted to demonstrate his leadership, so he did what red-blooded kings did in those days. He went to war. Not an all-out, win-it-or-lose- everything war. He wasn't that crazy. But still it was military action that would demonstrate his leadership—and bring in some oil revenue (oops. I should have said olive oil revenue.)

The king led his army in a series of cross-border raids. They set up carefully-planned ambushes. Maybe they were waiting for a wagon train loaded with grain or a camel caravan carrying more expensive stuff. Whatever. They would set up a perfect ambush. The secrecy would absolute. The camouflage flawless. Then nothing would happen. No traffic would come down the road. Not even any Israeli military patrol. Nothing. The raiding party would be sitting there, baking in the sun, eating their own provisions. Bored. Frustrated. And very embarrassed. Because eventually they would head home with nothing to show for their effort.

My guess is the king got mad. (You don't want the king mad!) The king tried different places, different strategies. But every ambush came up empty.

Finally, the king called in all his officers and threw a temper tantrum. “Who is the traitor?” he demanded. “Obviously, one of you is leaking our plans to the enemy. It's the only possible explanation. We have tried every possible method of ambush. Every accessible road across northern Israel. Every time we come up empty. It's crystal clear the enemy is getting inside information. So who is it?”

He stared around the circle of his commanders. It was a pretty tense moment. Each officer knew his own innocence, but still . . . What if someone else suspected him? What if someone started pointing fingers just to divert attention? Maybe some of these officers had Israeli slaves, maybe an Israeli wife or mistress—connections that could look really suspicious if anyone pointed the finger his direction.

People were sweating. The king's eyes were bugging out. “Who? Who is it? You might as well 'fess up because I'm going to find out. Someone is spilling secrets to the Israelis.”

Minutes passed. People didn't move. They scarcely breathed.

Then an old man on the king's right spoke up. He was by far the oldest in the group. Old enough to be the king's father. He had, in fact, served with the king's father for decades.

“Sir, we are your loyal servants. We are not traitors. But I can tell you who is passing secrets.”

He had the king's attention. “So? Who?”

“Sir, it's nobody in this circle. It's a prophet named Elisha. He's amazing. Years ago, before you were born, when your father was king, the commander of our army was diagnosed with leprosy. He had a Jewish servant girl who had claimed that if he went to Samaria there was a prophet there who would cure him. Naaman went down there with a load of gold and came back healed. Sir, his skin was like a baby's skin. I would not have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. That's the kind of power this prophet has. There are even stories of him raising the dead. Elisha can tell the King of Israel what you whisper to your woman when your heads are on one pillow.

“So, be gentle with your men, Sir. They are as hungry for victory and booty as you are.”

I'm always amused by what happens next. To me it is strong evidence that the Damascus king was young and brash.

“Go find out where the prophet is and let's capture him!” The king ordered.

It was a fool's errand, but warriors do as their superiors direct. The Damascus special forces headed south to find Elisha.

They had reports of Elisha being in the town of Dothan. They marched through the night and surrounded the town. Surprisingly, Elisha was still there. God had not alerted him to leave. The soldiers were thrilled. The king was going to be really happy.

Shortly after sunrise an old man appeared on a roof top near the city wall. He looked out their direction, appeared to engage in prayer and that was the last anyone in the army saw. During the prayer, the entire army went blind. They could see nothing. The old man had amazing power.

A little later, an old man approached the army asking to speak to the commander. When the commander was located the old man asked, “What's up?”

“We are looking for the prophet, Elisha.” The commander said.

The old man began laughing. “You've got it all wrong. You're in the wrong place. You're chasing the wrong man.” That much was not all that surprising. The army commander did not really think Elisha would really be sitting in a small walled city waiting for the Damascus special forces to surround it. On the other hand, the power of the old man they had seen to blind the entire army suggested the old man must be the fabled prophet.

The old man told the commander, “Follow me. I'll take you where you need to go.”

What could the commander do? He was blind. His entire army was blind. They were in enemy territory. Following the old man sounded like walking into a trap, but the commander didn't have a lot of options. He was in the heart of enemy territory. Blind. Any moment he expected to feel the edge of a sword against his neck.

So the commander grouped his men. Then hands on shoulders, the mass of warriors shuffled down the road, scared to death, wondering when they were going to fall into a pit, or find themselves on the point of a spear.

For hours, they stumbled along. Hot, thirsty, hungry. Then they could tell they were going through something. A tunnel? A cave entrance? A gate? Maybe this was the end.

A few minutes later, they hear the old man's voice. He addressed his God. “Lord, open their eyes!”

Instantly they could see. The view was not too reassuring. They were staring at the tips of arrows notched in drawn bows, raised swords, pointed spears. This was not good. I'm guessing at this point the soldiers were not too happy with their boy king back in Damascus. What did that fool, the king, imagine he was going to accomplish by messing with the prophet?

Up to this point, this story sounds like other ancient tales of warriors and wizards and magic. But this is not a fairy tale. It is not a story of military folly or magic or romance. It's theology. The story sets up a profound moral lesson.

The King of Israel surveying the band of enemy warriors imprisoned in his town square and says to the prophet Elisha. “Shall I kill them? Shall I obliterate them?”

Imagine for a minute that Elisha was not there. Imagine the king asked you what to do. And your job is to tell the king God's will for this moment. What did God want the king to do?

Remember these Damascus soldiers were part of an army that had been practicing naked aggression. Completely without provocation, they have been crossing Israel's borders aiming to do harm and steal stuff. They came from a nation that had been warring with Israel off and on for generations.

These warriors had been captured on an evil, deadly mission. What should the king do with them? What was God's will?



Among the young people I talk to, the label atheist means a commitment to honesty, justice, and compassion. When they call themselves atheist they are announcing their refusal to agree with the institutional church when it damages people or advocates error. It is a sign that they regard human well-being as a higher value than any dogma, including religious dogma.

So I respect my young atheist friends. But sometimes, when I'm feeling a little grumpy, I challenge them. “Just what kind of atheist are you? The most famous atheists in my life time have not been very nice people.”

When they think of atheists, they think of people like Hemant Mehta who writes a blog called “The Friendly Atheist.” Mehta is generally polite. He seems like a nice guy. But I think of atheists, I think of people like Mao Tse-Tung, Stalin and Pol Pot. Mao killed fifty million Chinese in an engineered famine. Stalin killed twenty million people he didn't think were good for the Soviet Union. Pol Pot thought atheism was the best philosophy for his country and killed twenty-five percent of the population in his zeal to prove that his ideas were the very best.

My young friends get impatient at this point. They would never kill people. They would never approve of the kind of barbarity practiced by Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot.

Still my questions are not irrelevant. Historically speaking, atheism has not always been a bright, shining pursuit of truth and justice. Sometimes it is the name of a dark and evil force.

With this as background, let's go back to our story.

What was God's will for the king of Israel as he surveyed a town square full of dangerous soldiers from an enemy country? What would God do with all these bad men?

This is a tricky question. Our gut tells us that mercy is the right answer, but someone else might argue that God is a stern judge and king. And they could quote Bible verses in support of the king's idea of killing the captives.

They could quote Moses' words about Sihon, King of Hesbon:
And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain. Deuteronomy 2:34

Or the report in Joshua about what God's directions regarding the people of Jericho:
And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword. Joshua 6:21 (There was an exception made for Rahab and her family, but other than that . . . )

Or the instructions of the Prophet Samuel to King Saul regarding Amalekites:
Now go and smite the Amalekites, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. 1 Samuel 15:3

If you based your advice to the king on these Bible verses, what would you say? What would be the right answer to the question, “Shall I smite them?”

It is these verses that cause our young atheist friends to challenge us when we say we believe in God. They want to know, just what God do we believe in? The God of hell fire and capital punishment and genocide and the stoning of brides who cannot prove their virginity on the day of their marriage? Is that the God we believe in? Do we believe in the God of Westboro Baptist Church and Mark Driscoll?

It is entirely fair that our young friends ask us this question.

And what is our answer?

We believe in the God of Elisha. Elisha told the king, “If you had captured these soldiers with your own sword, you would remember the rules of war. Captives must be fed. So feed them. Give them something to drink. And send them home to their master.”

The king did what the prophet said. And the story ends—they lived happily ever after. Well, not in those words, but that's the sentiment. Syria quit raiding Israel. Peace was created.

When I tell my young atheist friends about the God I believe in, this is the God I tell them about—the God of peace. The God who forgives. The God whose grand goal is not retribution but reconciliation. The God whose supreme purpose is not appropriate punishment but glorious healing.

The genocide of the Old Testament is not God's ideal. The commandments in the Old Testament to kill people—whether in genocide, stoning for adultery, or blessing soldiers who commit atrocities—these commands do not express the character and purpose of God. Rather they reflect the brokenness of humanity. The highest virtue of religion is to heal that brokenness, to cultivate a vision that is higher and more noble than retribution, condemnation and punishment.

When we say we believe in God, we are declaring our allegiance to God's program to move people away from brokenness toward wholeness, away from anger and alienation toward reconciliation and peace, away from wickedness to goodness, away from fierceness to harmony.

My guess is when we get this right, when we as a people speak the language of justice and peace and live in harmony with the principles of righteousness, our young atheist friends will see what we are doing and will hear what we are saying, and they will say, “Yes. That's what we meant.”

This past Wednesday, I was back at my favorite table on Green Lake Way eating my vegeburger, working on my sermon when another group of teenagers came by. I could hear them coming. They were asking other diners along the sidewalk for a dollar and sixty cents. They needed that much to buy a pizza. No one was buying.

They got to where I was sitting. “Hey, any chance you could give us a dollar and sixty cents? We're that much short for a pizza.”

It was a test. I had wanted the teenagers who walked past the week before, talking about atheism to stop and let me join the conversation. I love getting all philosophical with kids. But, of course, they didn't stop.

Instead the kids who stop are people who are hungry and are looking for money not wisdom. So I walked next door with the kids, had them place their order and put their money on the counter, then I added a couple of bucks to their pile so they could get their pizza.

I didn't know their stories. I don't know how they ended up that afternoon on Green Lake Way, a dollar and sixty cents short the cost of medium pizza. But I had money in my pocket and food in my belly. And the God I believe in says when we have sufficient, we are called to share.


We believe in God, the God of Elisha. The God who helps and heals, who forgives and reconciles, the God who creates peace and harmony. The more deeply we believe in this God and the more consistently we live in harmony with God's glorious ideals, the easier it will be for our young atheist friends to join and say, “We, too, believe.”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Curious Conference

A Curious Conference: An analysis of the Faith and Science Conference in St. George, Utah, organized by Leonard Brand, Art Chadwick and Ed Zinke with the blessing of Elder Ted Wilson

This is a revised version of a piece published by the Adventist Today web site.
NOTE: I did NOT attend the conference or talk to conference attendees. This  report is based on information publicly available through the conference web site at the time I wrote. 

Friday, August 15, 2014, was opening day for the “International Conference on the Bible and Science: Affirming Creation.” The following description is posted on its web site:

The biblical creation is central to the message of salvation found in the Bible and the beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The purpose of the International Conference on the Bible and Science: Affirming Creation is to bring together Adventist educators to explore the creation through both Bible study and study of the creation itself. Ultimately, it is hoped that participants will leave better equipped and inspired to teach about the creation in an informed, responsible and faith-affirming way. Held primarily in St. George, Utah, this conference features Christian speakers and invitees from the global community of faith in the Creator God as revealed in the Bible.

In his opening address, Elder Ted Wilson, president of the General Conference, called on the 350 participants “to be champions of creation based on the Biblical account and reinforced so explicitly by the Spirit of Prophecy.”

This introduces one of several curiosities of this conference. Elder Wilson is quite adamant about the need for Adventist educators to adhere to and wholeheartedly advocate the Biblical account of creation. However, the details of the Adventist interpretation of Genesis 1-9 are in flux.

First curiosity: If we regard the presenters at this faith and science conference as authoritative (and Elder Wilson clearly intends this), Adventists no longer believe God created the heavens and the earth 6000 years ago. Richard Davidson and Randy Younker (and by implication Elder Wilson) believe God created the heavens 14.5 billion years ago. They believe the material of earth coalesced 4.5 billion years ago. They disagree with science only in their dating of the phanerozoic rocks. (To be more precise, in papers presented at earlier faith and science conferences, Davidson and Younker argued that Genesis One gives no information about the date of the creation of extra-terrestrial or pre-biological material, which leaves the conventional dates unchallenged.)

Further, Adventists no longer believe the Flood created all the fossils. Current orthodoxy is that the Flood created only the Paleozoic and Mesozoic fossils. The fossils of the Cenozoic (roughly speaking “the age of mammals) were formed after the Flood.

Second curiosity: In his inaugural address, Elder Wilson famously urged Adventists to refrain from reading non-Adventist authors in areas that touch on theology and spiritual life. This conference features presentations by non-Adventists, including John Baumgartner, Kurt Wise, Marcus Ross, and John Whitmore. Most of the other presenters are well-known, long-time stalwarts of Adventist creationism. The only new voices at the conference are these non-Adventists.

Third curiosity: Ed Zinke, one of the organizers of the conference scheduled himself speak seven of the nine days of the conference. These are not seminar or breakout group presentations. They are plenary sessions. His prominence in the conference program is problematic he has not held a pastoral, faculty or elected position in the church in years. I have to wonder how the conference participants who are actually involved in the life of the church will respond to being instructed by a someone who lives and thinks completely outside the accountability structures of the church. Especially in light of Elder Wilson's strident advocacy of accountability.

The other dominant voices at the conference are Leonard Brand, Art Chadwick, Joann and Richard Davidson. Each of these four plus Zinke spoke every day of the conference (except for the field trip days when there were no plenary sessions). This concentration of content delivery in a very small group of friends is highly unusual for a conference with academic or scholarly pretensions.

Fourth curiosity: Secrecy. This from the conference web site:

Resources provided for invitees to the International Conference on the Bible and Science: Affirming Creation (ICBS) are solely for the use of those who received invitations to attend this conference from the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and actually do attend the conference. By accessing these resources you are stating that you are an invitee to the ICBS with permission to access and use them.

All resources linked to from the “ICBS – Materials for Invitees” (http://fscsda.org/icbs/icbs-program/) website remain the property of the conference presenter who provided them. They are made available solely for the private use of invited attendees of the Faith and Science Council sponsored “International Conference on the Bible and Science: Affirming Creation” held in Las Vegas, Nevada, and St. George, Utah, August 14-25, 2014. Those who are not invited attendees may not access these materials and may not be provided with either links to these materials or the passwords necessary to access them. These materials may not be redistributed in any form or via any media without the express written permission of the person who provided them to the conference organizers. By clicking on any of the links in the “ICBS – Materials for Invitees” (http://fscsda.org/icbs/icbs-program/) website, you are acknowledging reading and agreeing to these terms.

This secrecy was apparent even before the conference began. There was no general announcement that the church was going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to gather educators for this conference. In May, I was in the field with an Adventist geologist and met a couple of the organizers at an outcrop in southern Utah. We spent a couple of hours together. They carefully avoided the slightest mention that they were in the area scouting sites for the Faith and Science Conference.

I will refrain from speculating about the reasons for the secrecy, but it is an “in your face” feature of the conference.

A final non-curiosity: If you wish to know the content of the presentations at the conference, all you have to do is google the presenters. They are well-known and their views are readily available.

As of August 21, 2014, you could find the complete schedule here: 



Friday, August 8, 2014

God and Atheists, Part 2: Human Experience

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
For Sabbath, August 9, 2014

Wednesday evening I peddled my bicycle the few block from here [Green Lake Church] to Teddy's Bigger Burgers. I locked up my bike, ordered my usual vegeburger and fries, then headed back outside to my usual table on the sidewalk. It was a glorious evening, warm and sunny. The sidewalk was busy with people pushing strollers, walking dogs, or headed to one of the restaurants in the neighborhood.
At some point I looked up and noticed way down the block at the corner a couple embracing, then kissing.
A few minutes later I noticed them leisurely walking up the block toward me. They were both fit. Maybe they had run around the lake together. She was tall, red hair, a rich smile on her face. He was muscular, just a bit shorter than she was. Obviously happy. They stopped at the bike rack opposite me and he began turning the dials on the cable lock on his bike, explaining to this beautiful woman why he preferred combination locks to keyed locks. He was in no hurry and as he continued talking and messing with his bike, I turned my attention back to my burger and fries, smiling at the magic of romance.
Only romance would fool a guy into thinking a beautiful woman was interested in a lecture on the relative merits of combination versus keyed bike locks. Only romance or motherhood, would prompt a smart woman to acted interested in said lecture. But that's what romance does. That's what love does.

One of my physician friends likes to talk about romance in terms of hormones and brain chemistry. The brain can sustain the fiery intensity of romance only so long, he says. It's his way of explaining away “the truth” of love as seen through the eyes of young lovers.

A few months ago I listened to a psychologist seated next to me at a dinner table explain that fMRIs show that the brains of people in love are “disordered.” That was her word. She went on to speak dismissively of the starry-eyed dreams of lovers. I think the older people at the table were supposed to nod their heads and wisely agree that romance is an exercise in insanity. But I wasn't persuaded. I'm a hopeless, shameless romantic. Obviously, what we see through the lenses of romance is not objective. But that does not make it false or undesirable. Human life purged of the magic and charm of romance would not be an improvement. And the language of hormones and brain chemistry, and electrical activity in the brain function is utterly inadequate for conversation about the human experience of love.

Given the neighborhood where I was eating my vegeburger and witnessed the charming scene I just described, it's possible the red head was neurologist and the muscular guy was a psychiatrist. If that's who they were, let's imagine listening to either of them describe their afternoon to their respective friends.

They would have at their disposal all the language of science to describe their afternoon, but I doubt we would words about hormones and pheromones. We wouldn't hear about mate selection in pursuit of the propagation of genes. Instead we would hear the language of love and romance and friendship—the only language remotely adequate for this wonderous human experience.

It is the same with spirituality.

You can study human spirituality using various scientific tools—neurology, biochemistry, psychology, sociology. These scientific disciplines can give us useful insights. They can identify various predictable correlates with spiritual experience, but when you sit down to talk with someone who has had a direct experience with God, the language of science quickly becomes utterly inadequate. The concrete language of science can at best describe only pieces of the experience. And all of the pieces together do not equal the experience any more than an analysis of hormones or a map of electrical activity in the brain is adequate for talking about love.

Which is a long way round to get to today's scripture, Acts 9

Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord's followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them--both men and women--back to Jerusalem in chains.
As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?"
"Who are you, lord?" Saul asked.
The voice replied, "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone's voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink. [Act 9:1-9 New Living Translation, accessed through Blue Letter Bible.com]

This story of Paul's encounter on the Damascus Road sets the stage for us to understand the most influential missionary in the history of Christianity. Paul had been a devout, brilliant, implacable enemy of the Jesus People. Then traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to continue his crusade against these corrupters of religion, he had his own, personal encounter with the Risen Jesus. He changes course 180 degrees and becomes a Christian preacher.

The early Christian church was founded by people who had dramatic spiritual experiences. The church grew because of the attractive force of dramatic personal stories. People experienced miraculous healings. They experienced ecstasy and had visions. The early Christian Church was not a club of Bible scholars and philosophers. It was filled with people who had direct encounters with the divine that was persuasive and attractive.

You can try to account for all these stories using various psychological and sociological descriptions and explanations, but in the end they fail to tell the story. It's like describing a rainbow in terms of wave lengths of light and diameters of rain drops. You haven't said anything about the why we rush to grab our cameras.

We are sitting here today because of experiences people had 2000 years ago, and because the experiences did not stop happening 2000 years ago.

I sat down yesterday in Starbucks to finish my sermon. I noticed a book on the table next to me, “Living with a Wild God” by Barbara Ehrenreich. It grabbed my attention. I thought Barbara Ehrenriech was an atheist. I asked the woman at the table if she had read the book. She had. She found it difficult to read, but fascinating. “You can have a look, if you like,” she said motioning to the book. I picked it up and read the blurbs on the dust jacket and the description on the inside front cover.

Then I got on line and read several reviews. I was right, Barbara Ehrenreich was famous as a curmudgeonly atheist. And yes, this book was about her teenage encounters with God. They did not fit any of the categories of experience people she knew talked about. A couple of times she had tried to talk about them, but people thought she was crazy. So, for decades she had ignored those encounters. Finally, she went back and looked again at the journals she had kept in those days, trying to make sense of experiences that did not fit any of her secular categories.

Here is Barbara's description of one of those encounters:

The world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive beatific merger with the ‘All,’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze.

The book is not a conversion story. Barbara still does not have confident, helpful language for talking about what happened. But honestly confronting her own experience has led to a late-in-life admission that rationalism and scientism are not adequate for describing her own life. The fullness of her humanity cannot be accounted for without resorting to language of God and spirituality.

Late in the book, Barbara writes: “It took an inexcusably long time for me to figure out that what happened to me when I was 17 represents a widespread, if not exactly respectable, category of human experience.”

To which one reviewer responded: “It took Ehrenreich so long to learn that her visions were a part of human experience not because the visions were so foreign, but because human experience was altogether foreign to her, too.”

(NY Times Book Review: “Vision Quest,” a review of ‘Living With a Wild God,’ by Barbara Ehrenreich. By Parul Sehgal. April 25, 2014)

Just as love and romance are essential to the richest, sweetest experience of humanity, so religion and spirituality are essential to living fully human lives. And the language of God and spirituality are necessary for rich, meaningful conversations about these kinds of experiences.

When we use the word atheism to describe insistence by young people that we be honest about unanswered questions, it has powerful appeal. Our religious answers don't always work. Just as some people have rich experiences of the presence and favor of God, others have devastating experiences of the absence or inaction of God

Just last week I met a woman after church who needed some financial assistance. She told me her story. For 40 years she had worked, bought groceries, paid her rent, went on vacation. Then three years ago the business she was working for closed. No problem. She figured she would get another job. But it didn't happen. Now she's on the streets. Where is God, she asked. “I prayed,” she said. “And prayed and prayed. But either God won't help me or he can't.”

I winced when she said that. I felt the sting. Her experience seems to contradict the promises of God we celebrate here at church. When atheism is a label for our willingness to hear this kind of story and not discount it, then atheism is a label worthy of respect.

But atheism falls apart when it imagines we can account for the entire range of human experience without invoking the language of God and spirituality. There is far too much human experience that can only be explored and celebrated through the language of God and spirituality.

In fact, the very commitment of atheists to the pursuit of truth and justice makes most sense against a background of the reality of that fiery presence Barbara Ehrenreich experienced decades ago.

So to my atheist friends I offer this:

If you have not had a direct experience with the divine, we will not ask you to pretend. We share your commitment to honesty. We will not pretend that your lack of experience of God is evidence of bad character or bad judgment.

On the other hand we will encourage you to respect the stories of others who have had such experiences. Don't pretend that psychology, sociology and neurology can provide adequate language for the entire human experience. Don't narrow your world to things that can be counted, weighed and measured with a tape measure or micrometer. Don't imagine that a world without romance is an improvement.

In church we celebrate the reality of God. We honor the stories people tell. We prize the stories of God's involvement in the world. We love the stories of the fiery presence.

We also respect the stories of God's absence. For those who feel the weight of God's absence, we join you in your longing.

Remember the couple I saw on Green Lake Way? The beautiful woman and muscular guy. The guy was unlocking his bicycle and talking about why he preferred combination locks to keyed locks. The next time I glanced their direction, he had his lock stowed, his bike away from the bike stand and was preparing to get on and ride away. That much was entirely unremarkable. It was the woman who caught my eye. She was standing there looking at him getting on his bicycle and I instantly saw she was wanting one more kiss. Her body language was as eloquent and unmistakable as a movie scene. He was utterly oblivious. They had had a wonderful time running or playing ball or frisbee across the street at the park. The date was over. He had kissed her good down the street. Now he had places to go, things to do. He was preparing to ride away, but she wanted another kiss. To me sitting ten feet away, it was plain as day and sweet as jam. I'm thinking, how can he not see it? He throws his leg over his bicycle and calls over his shoulder, “Love you.” And was stopped in his tracks. She said something. I didn't hear her words. I saw the effect. He planted both feet and opened his arms.

I was not watching chemistry or neurology. I was watching love.

And when we come to church or climb a mountain or sit on a park bench and open our hearts, we are not chasing an illusion. We are not merely activating a fossil neural pathway, we are opening our hearts toward a reality called in English, God. We are longing for the kiss of the divine.


May you not be forever kept waiting.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Questions My Kids Ask

Questions My Kids Ask
By John McLarty
Article for Green Lake Church Gazette
August 2014

Occasionally I have the honor of conversation with people young enough to be my children. They ask hard questions, good questions.

Why would a good God—who knew the future and was perfectly free—create a world in which most people would be lost? Did God deliberately decide that the loss of most humanity was an acceptable price to pay to acquire the kind of world he wanted for himself?

Did God create rainbows to encourage our faith and fossils to test our faith?

How can a good God (who is omnipotent, omniscient, and ubiquitous) be reconciled with suffering which is visible, palpable and randomly distributed?

Since most religions claim we are right and all those others are wrong, why should the claims of any religion be taken seriously? How can we prove the Bible is true? How can we prove the Bible is the best (or only) source of information about God?

Would a good God really condemn to eternal hell fire people whose primary “crime” was an incomplete or incorrect opinion about Jesus?

Why should I reject science, which has demonstrably increased longevity, in favor of religion which promises eternal life (but offers no proof)?

Some of the young people asking these questions call themselves atheists. Others call themselves Christian. Whatever label they apply to themselves, the questions are significant. All these questions evince a deep regard for justice and truth. Young people ask these questions because of they care about goodness. Their questions are an expression of their active moral compasses, their lively sense of conscience. So, they deserve our respect.

Why would a good God—who knew the future and was perfectly free—create a world in which most people would be lost? Did God deliberately decide that the loss of most humanity was an acceptable price to pay to acquire the kind of world he wanted for himself?

I grew up hearing preachers quote three statements by Ellen White, the Adventist prophet, that implied more than ninety-five percent of humanity would burn in the lake of fire. Similarly gloomy opinions can be found across Christianity. When I googled “How many will go to hell?” The first piece I pulled up was titled, “Billions of People Are Going to Hell.” The author figured that at least ninety-nine percent of humanity would be burned in hell. Other sites offered similarly depressing assessments. This is not the universal conclusion of Christian preachers, but it is not rare.

As a teenager, I unhesitatingly believed what I heard about the difficulty of being saved. Getting into heaven was certainly harder than getting into Harvard (current acceptance rate >5%). I resolved to be part of that tiny remnant of good-enough people. I cultivated a devotional life. I rigorously observed Adventist rules regarding snacking, movies, caffeine, slang, flesh foods, mustard, fiction, smoking, alcohol and drugs. I am happy for the discipline and structure of that childhood religion. However, I emphatically reject its gloomy picture of God and humanity. Is it really possible that God created a system which he knew would be a disastrous failure for most of humanity? No! Not if God is good.

If I knew I carried a gene for a severe disorder that would doom ninety-five percent of my progeny, I would not have had children. You would probably make the same decision. And we are not more tenderhearted than God. When our children ask, “Would a good God accept the damnation of most of his children as an acceptable price for acquiring the world he wanted?” we know the answer is NO! We don't have to do fancy exegesis. We don't have to know Hebrew and Greek. We don't have to argue the merits of varying translations. The answer to that question is NO! When our children ask this question, we should commend them for seeing clearly.

Did God create rainbows to encourage our faith and fossils to test our faith?

Nature is not a book of tricks. Rainbows really are caused by the interplay of raindrops and sunlight. We can remember the words of Genesis and find reassurance of God's beneficence in the splendor of the rainbow, but we don't imagine that rainbows are a magic show. Fossils really the result of natural processes. They are not a tricky test given by the great teacher in the sky to see who is willing to ignore the evidence available to their senses. The God who created rainbows and inspired the Bible prophets is the same God who was present at the creation of the fossils. Physics and chemistry may seem to be more accessible to our understanding, and less controversial than geology, but the rocks don't lie. We cannot expect our kids to believe in God and God's Book and disbelieve God's rocks.

How can a good God (who is omnipotent, omniscient, and ubiquitous) be reconciled with suffering which is visible, palpable and randomly distributed?

Across the centuries Christians have offered various explanations of suffering. Adventists have given special attention to a narrative explanation called “The Great Controversy.” These explanations can be helpful, but every explanation asks us to skip lightly over huge imponderables. How do we calculate the weight of pain? Until we have lived long in that gray space where praying for the release of death is easier than asking for healing we ought to speak very humbly and quietly in our attempts to make good sense of suffering. I think our children will have greater respect for what we do say if we acknowledge there are some questions beyond any possibility of answer in this life.

Since most religions claim we are right and all those others are wrong, why should the claims of any religion be taken seriously? How can we prove the Bible is true? How can we prove the Bible is the best (or only) source of information about God?

Many Christians devote a lot of energy to insisting that our way is the only right way to speak of God. We would do better to invite people to do taste tests. Come and experience God with us. Experience for yourself the value of our religion. If someone tries our religion and finds it useless, why would we keep insisting it is the perfect religion for them. On the other hand, if we persuaded a person intellectually that our religion was the best and they never actually lived it, what would be the value of our persuasive effort? Winning arguments is difficult. In the realm of spirituality, winning is probably pointless. Instead, let's invite people into the sweetness of our life with God. Encourage them to experience God for themselves. Let's offer our testimony about what we believe and how religion works for us. If this is not attractive, there is little to be gained from argument.

The New Testament offers many anecdotes illustrating the power of direct experience: Jesus' first disciples (John 1:46), Pentecost (Acts 2), Cornelius' household (Acts 10), the Blind Man of John 9. When we invite people to make direct experiments in spirituality we are in line with the New Testament. Trying to establish a theoretical basis for the superiority and uniqueness of Christianity is misplaced effort. Rather, let's exhibit its attractiveness and invite people to test its effectiveness. If the Bible is the living Word of God, we don't need to argue the point, we can simply invite people to read it for themselves. Their experience will be far more persuasive than any words we can offer.

Would a good God really condemn to eternal hell fire people whose primary “crime” was an incomplete or incorrect opinion about Jesus?

No. God is concerned with justice more than with ritual or linguistic precision. Certainly there are texts in the Bible that could be cited in support of a very narrow view. People can be saved only if they meet certain criteria—faith, works, compassionate care for the needy, keeping the commandments. Fortunately, there are also passages that speak of the openness of God to all humanity. There are formulas for salvation in the Bible. Yes, of course. These Bible formulas are not to be construed as constraining God—as though God himself could not operate outside a simple formula he gave for our edification. Rather these Bible formula are best understood as aids to humans for cultivating spiritual and moral life.

Why should I reject science, which has demonstrably increased longevity, in favor of religion which promises eternal life (but offers no proof)?

This question offers an open door for exploring the complementary value of both religion and science. It appropriately presumes the value of life. But how do we know life is better than non-life? Science cannot even speak to that question. Scientists are humans, of course. They have human values and valuing life is a fundamental human value. Science provides tools for furthering life and for ending life, for easing pain and causing pain. But science itself offers no language or taxonomic categories for valuing life over non-life. When we talk of the value of life we have moved into the realm of religion and spirituality or at least into esthetics. When we ask how can we extend life and ease suffering, most of the time we will find our answers in the tools and insights of science, but when we ask why should we extend life and ease suffering, our answers will have the ring of religion. Appreciation of life will lead us to respect both science and religion. Neither on its own is sufficient for responding to the wonder of life.


When we give proper respect to the questions asked by our children, we are likely to gain for ourselves clearer insights into God. Together with our children we may discover better ways of speaking of God and better ways of honoring the incredible gift of life. We will learn to work together not only to extend life, but to enrich it.  

Church and Young Atheists

Church and Young Atheists: Part one in a series, God and Young Atheists
Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, August 2, 2014

Texts: Colossians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:34-40
Luke 10:25ff
Mark 12:28-34

Erica attended Auburn Adventist Academy. She graduated from Walla Walla University—an Adventist school—and moved back to Seattle. A few months ago we met at Starbucks in Pioneer Square to catch. on life. She asked about my kids and the animals at our house. Then it was time to find out what was going on in her world. She was working for a non-profit, making a little money and a big difference in the lives of her clients. Her boyfriend was similarly employed. She was happy.

I had heard through the grape vine she was an atheist, so I asked about that. She explained she didn't really know for sure there was no God. She just found it easier to say she was an atheist than to try explaining all the complications in her mind in regard to God. Church people had been good to her she said. It's just that she couldn't believe everything she was supposed to believe. So she called herself an atheist and no one hassled her about the details.

I meet more and more young people like Erica. They grew up going to church. They used to believe, used to pray, to read their Bibles. Now they consider themselves atheists. Some of my young friends are quite confident that science gives a completely sufficient description of the forces and causes operating in the universe. There is no need for God. Others are not so certain. The most obvious characteristic of their thinking is questions.

I thought it would be good for us as a congregation to think about these young people. How should we respond to their questions, to their lives?

Let's begin with a curious congruence between what these young people tell me and the words of the Apostle Paul.

At the beginning of the book of Colossians we read these words.

We are writing to God’s holy people in the city of Colosse, who are faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. May God our Father give you grace and peace. We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. which come from your confident hope of what God has reserved for you in heaven. You have had this expectation ever since you first heard the truth of the Good News. This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace. (Colossians 1:2-6 NLT)

Grace and peace. . . . We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. The Good News that came to you is . . . bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives.

Paul had never met these people, but he had heard about them. And from what he had heard, it was clear the religion of these Christians in Turkey was not merely a set of dogmas or Bible interpretations. Their shaped their lives. They were good people.

When I talk with young atheists, one thing that jumps out at me over and over is their affirmations of the church. They remember going to church and being treated well there. The people at church they knew were good people.

Of course, you can find horror stories. Church leaders and church people have been sexually and verbally abusive. But I only hear about this in the news. I do not hear about this from the young people I know. They may think of themselves as atheists. They may find church irrelevant or uninteresting at this point in their lives, but when they tell me about their direct, personal experience of church, church was a good place, populated by good people.

You have done a good job representing God to your young people.

Speaking to you as representatives of the world church, I say, “Thanks.” Thanks for being kind. Thanks for teaching Sabbath School classes and involving young people in the life of the church. Thanks for learning the names of the kids who sit on the same row you do in church. Thanks for taking kids out on your boat, for taking them camping and for involving them in feeding the homeless. It is because you have shown the kindness of God to these young people that they are willing to sit down at Starbucks and articulate their questions and uncertainties. Because of the goodness of people like you, church is not a scary place. Because of you, church is seen as a wholesome community of good people. You make God look good.

As we consider how we can best respond to the atheism of young people who have grown up in our churches, let's take satisfaction in knowing that most of these young people have seen good things in church. Church is not “the problem.” These young people do not struggle with faith because you have failed. You are not to blame for their crises of faith.

When I talk to people in their fifties and older, I frequently hear stories about damage they experience in church. Church in their youth was not a safe place, not a welcoming place. But happily, I do not hear those kinds of stories from people in their twenties and thirties. Which brings me to my second point. In responding to our young atheist friends, we should pay attention to what they say. They are not processing great failures by the church to care for them as persons. Rather they are pondering deep, haunting questions that lie at the very core of religious and theological conviction.

The gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all recount conversations between Jesus and a questioner who asks the great big question. If the conversation had happened today, the question would have been something like, “What is the meaning of life?”

In that society, the question went like this, “What is the greatest commandment?” “What is the highest human obligation?”

Here's the way Matthew tells the story: a conservative religious scholar asks the question not to seek understanding, but as a secret attempt to make Jesus look bad. Of course, Jesus wins the day by giving a wise, incontrovertible answer. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with your entire being. But you can't stop with one commandment. There is a second right up there with the first. And that second commandment is love your neighbor as yourself. answers well this way: A Pharisee tempted Jesus by asking what is the greatest commandment? (Matthew 22:34-40)

The Gospel of Luke also pictures the questioner as someone out to score points in a debate with Jesus. This time the question comes out like this: “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” Interestingly, Jesus does not immediately answer the question. Instead he asks the scholar for his understanding of the Bible. What is his answer to the question. The lawyer gave the classic answer Jewish thinkers drew from the Books of Moses—Love God and love your neighbor. Jesus said, “You've got it right. Do that, and you're good to go.” Since the lawyer hadn't actually been looking for insight, he refused to accept this as the answer. Nothing can be that simple. So he asked the complicated question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then told a story that confronted the lawyer with the stark challenge of a moral choice. The real questions are not theoretical definitions, but am I willing to take moral action? Will I do goodness? (Luke 10:25ff).

In both Matthew and Luke, the questioner is morally suspect. The purpose of recording the story is to show the wisdom and goodness of Jesus. Mark does something very different.
In Mark's story, the questioner is also a scholar. But instead of setting out to trick Jesus, he asks his question because he has been impressed with the answers Jesus has given to other questions. This scholar engages in conversation for the purpose of seeking understanding. He asks Jesus the same famous question, “What is the most significant commandment?” Jesus answered with his famous summary, The first commandment is love God with your entire being. The second commandment is love your neighbor as yourself.

Now notice what happens. After hearing Jesus' answer, the scholar, says. “Yes. That's right. Because surely there is only One God. And to love God with one's entire being and to love one's neighbor matters more than the performance every possible religious ritual.”

The scholar asks a real question.
Jesus gives a real answer.
The scholar sees the wisdom in Jesus' answer and affirms it.
Then what happens next? Jesus affirms the scholar. “You are not far from the kingdom!” (Mark 12:28-34).

This story provides a model for our conversations with young atheists. When we talk with young atheists, there is little value in attempting to prove that we are right. In the stories of Matthew and Luke Jesus is shown to be right, but where does that leave the questioner? The questioner is wrong and lost. But in Mark, the questioner is shown as an honest seeker for truth. The point is not proving that Jesus is right, but that he leads questioners to toward the kingdom and blesses them in their journey.

Let's learn to copy Jesus. Let's not aim to make ourselves look good. We don't even need to work to make the church look good. Rather let's learn to hear our young friends. Let's honor their quest for truth.

Most of the time when you ask young people why they are atheists, they will tell you about their commitments to truth and justice. When they voice these values, we can say to them truthfully, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

When we listen carefully and respectfully to our young friends, they will help us sharpen our own thinking. We will create the kind of community that they themselves dream of inhabiting.

Many of the young atheists, I know are single or without children. If we continue to respect their spiritual journey now, while they questioning and searching, it may well be that when they have children and look for a community that will help them teach their children compassion, integrity, justice, peace, and wisdom, they will decide that the church is just the kind of community they have been looking for. They will once again claim their place in this visible expression of the family of God.



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Questions My Kids Ask

Article for Green Lake Church Gazette
August 2014

Occasionally I have the honor of conversation with people young enough to be my children. I meet these young people inside and outside the church. They ask hard questions, good questions.

Why would a good God—who knew the future and was perfectly free—create a world in which most people would be lost? Did God deliberately decide that the loss of most humanity was an acceptable price to pay to acquire the kind of world he wanted for himself?

Did God create rainbows to encourage our faith and fossils to test our faith?

How can a good God (who is omnipotent, omniscient, and ubiquitous) be reconciled with suffering which is visible, palpable and randomly distributed?

Since most religions claim we are right and all those others are wrong, why should the claims of any religion be taken seriously? How can we prove the Bible is true? How can we prove the Bible is the best (or only) source of information about God?

Would a good God really condemn to eternal hell fire people whose primary “crime” was an incomplete or incorrect opinion about Jesus?

Why should I reject science, which has demonstrably increased longevity, in favor of religion which promises eternal life (but offers no proof)?

Some of the young people asking these questions call themselves atheists. Others call themselves Christian. Whatever label they apply to themselves, the questions are significant. All these questions evince a deep regard for justice and truth. Young people ask these questions because of they care about goodness. Their questions are an expression of their active moral compasses, their lively sense of conscience. So, they deserve our respect.

Why would a good God—who knew the future and was perfectly free—create a world in which most people would be lost? Did God deliberately decide that the loss of most humanity was an acceptable price to pay to acquire the kind of world he wanted for himself?

I grew up hearing preachers quote three statements by Ellen White, the Adventist prophet, that implied more than ninety-five percent of humanity would burn in the lake of fire. Similarly gloomy opinions can be found across Christianity. When I googled “How many will go to hell?” The first piece I pulled up was titled, “Billions of People Are Going to Hell.” The author figured that at least ninety-nine percent of humanity would be burned in hell. Other sites offered similarly depressing assessments. This is not the universal conclusion of Christian preachers, but it is not rare.

As a teenager, I unhesitatingly believed what I heard about the difficulty of being saved. Getting into heaven was certainly harder than getting into Harvard (current acceptance rate >5%). I resolved to be part of that tiny remnant of good-enough people. I cultivated a devotional life. I rigorously observed Adventist rules regarding snacking, movies, caffeine, slang, flesh foods, mustard, fiction, smoking, alcohol and drugs. I am happy for the discipline and structure of that childhood religion. However, I emphatically reject its gloomy picture of God and humanity. Is it really possible that God created a system which he knew would be a disastrous failure for most of humanity? No! Not if God is good.

If I knew I carried a gene for a severe disorder that would doom ninety-five percent of my progeny, I would not have had children. You would probably make the same decision. And we are not more tenderhearted than God. When our children ask, “Would a good God accept the damnation of most of his children as an acceptable price for acquiring the world he wanted?” we know the answer is NO! We don't have to do fancy exegesis. We don't have to know Hebrew and Greek. We don't have to argue the merits of varying translations. The answer to that question is NO! When our children ask this question, we should commend them for seeing clearly.

Did God create rainbows to encourage our faith and fossils to test our faith?

Nature is not a book of tricks. Rainbows really are caused by the interplay of raindrops and sunlight. We can remember the words of Genesis and find reassurance of God's beneficence in the splendor of the rainbow, but we don't imagine that rainbows are a magic show. Fossils really the result of natural processes. They are not a tricky test given by the great teacher in the sky to see who is willing to ignore the evidence available to their senses. The God who created rainbows and inspired the Bible prophets is the same God who was present at the creation of the fossils. Physics and chemistry may seem to be more accessible to our understanding, and less controversial than geology, but the rocks don't lie. We cannot expect our kids to believe in God and God's Book and disbelieve God's rocks.

How can a good God (who is omnipotent, omniscient, and ubiquitous) be reconciled with suffering which is visible, palpable and randomly distributed?

Across the centuries Christians have offered various explanations of suffering. Adventists have given special attention to a narrative explanation called “The Great Controversy.” These explanations can be helpful, but every explanation asks us to skip lightly over huge imponderables. How do we calculate the weight of pain? Until we have lived long in that gray space where praying for the release of death is easier than asking for healing we ought to speak very humbly and quietly in our attempts to make good sense of suffering. I think our children will have greater respect for what we do say if we acknowledge there are some questions beyond any possibility of answer in this life.

Since most religions claim we are right and all those others are wrong, why should the claims of any religion be taken seriously? How can we prove the Bible is true? How can we prove the Bible is the best (or only) source of information about God?

Many Christians devote a lot of energy to insisting that our way is the only right way to speak of God. We would do better to invite people to do taste tests. Come and experience God with us. Experience for yourself the value of our religion. If someone tries our religion and finds it useless, why would we keep insisting it is the perfect religion for them. On the other hand, if we persuaded a person intellectually that our religion was the best and they never actually lived it, what would be the value of our persuasive effort? Winning arguments is difficult. In the realm of spirituality, winning is probably pointless. Instead, let's invite people into the sweetness of our life with God. Encourage them to experience God for themselves. Let's offer our testimony about what we believe and how religion works for us. If this is not attractive, there is little to be gained from argument.

The New Testament offers many anecdotes illustrating the power of direct experience: Jesus' first disciples (John 1:46), Pentecost (Acts 2), Cornelius' household (Acts 10), the Blind Man of John 9. When we invite people to make direct experiments in spirituality we are in line with the New Testament. Trying to establish a theoretical basis for the superiority and uniqueness of Christianity is misplaced effort. Rather, let's exhibit its attractiveness and invite people to test its effectiveness. If the Bible is the living Word of God, we don't need to argue the point, we can simply invite people to read it for themselves. Their experience will be far more persuasive than any words we can offer.

Would a good God really condemn to eternal hell fire people whose primary “crime” was an incomplete or incorrect opinion about Jesus?

No. God is concerned with justice more than with ritual or linguistic precision. Certainly there are texts in the Bible that could be cited in support of a very narrow view. People can be saved only if they meet certain criteria—faith, works, compassionate care for the needy, keeping the commandments. Fortunately, there are also passages that speak of the openness of God to all humanity. There are formulas for salvation in the Bible. Yes, of course. These Bible formulas are not to be construed as constraining God—as though God himself could not operate outside a simple formula he gave for our edification. Rather these Bible formula are best understood as aids to humans for cultivating spiritual and moral life.

Why should I reject science, which has demonstrably increased longevity, in favor of religion which promises eternal life (but offers no proof)?

This question offers an open door for exploring the complementary value of both religion and science. It appropriately presumes the value of life. But how do we know life is better than non-life? Science cannot even speak to that question. Scientists are humans, of course. They have human values and valuing life is a fundamental human value. Science provides tools for furthering life and for ending life, for easing pain and causing pain. But science itself offers no language or taxonomic categories for valuing life over non-life. When we talk of the value of life we have moved into the realm of religion and spirituality or at least into esthetics. When we ask how can we extend life and ease suffering, most of the time we will find our answers in the tools and insights of science, but when we ask why should we extend life and ease suffering, our answers will have the ring of religion. Appreciation of life will lead us to respect both science and religion. Neither on its own is sufficient for responding to the wonder of life.


When we give proper respect to the questions asked by our children, we are likely to gain for ourselves clearer insights into God. Together with our children we may discover better ways of speaking of God and better ways of honoring the incredible gift of life. We will learn to work together not only to extend life, but to enrich it.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Worship

Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, July 26, 2014

Texts
Exodus 20:1-6. A conservative translation.
Revelation 4:1-11 (the entire chapter)


Synopsis
In worship we affirm and celebrate an astounding hope: God will win. Peace, well-being and happiness will triumph. This is incredible! We are not blind or unfeeling. We see tragedy and injustice. We weep at the hurt. Sometimes, we get angry at God for the mess in God's world. Then we come to worship and join the saints across the millennia and God, too, in dreaming of better things. In worship, we rekindle our hope that ultimately peace will flow like a mighty river. Beauty and goodness will be as common as beach sand and rain. In worship we savor this unbelievable truth, allowing its sweet influence to shape our souls and fuel our own participation in the purpose of God.




The first Friday night of my freshman year at Southern Adventist University I was sitting in the university church. The place was full. You could feel the electricity of a thousand, maybe 1500 students, alive with dreams and ambitions, full of confidence they could master the knowledge and skills necessary to change the world and build careers. For many of the students, all this earthy expectation was connected deeply with God. We believed God had plans for our lives.

I had my own dreams. I was going to be a doctor doing research on the unique physiological challenges divers faced when they spent a long time working at great depth. Or I was going to be a minister who help people bridge the chasm between the ordinary life and God. My dreams of making discoveries in medicine were connected to the stories of the greats of medical history—Pasteur, Fleming and Salk and Sabin. My dreams of ministerial greatness were fueled by the stories of Fernando Stahl, the Adventist missionary and social revolutionary who improved life for the indigenous people of Peru, David Livingstone, the missionary/adventurer/explorer in Africa, and Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer who broke the stranglehold of the medieval Catholic Church on the minds and souls of people in Europe.

Doctor or preacher, I would join a stream of noble humanity. My work—whether furthering knowledge of physiology or helping people experience God—would become part of this grand work of God through humanity.

Sitting there in church at the very beginning of my college life, it was easy to dream these dreams.

Then the organ began the introduction for the opening hymn for the evening worship service. Full volume. Pounding bass. A thousand college students stood and sang the words:

1. For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

2. Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
thou Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
thou in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

3. O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
and win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

4. This verse was not in the Adventist Hymnal
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

5. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

6. From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

As we sang I felt myself to be truly part of that countless host. I, we, the thousand students in that university church, the Adventist doctors and nurses working as missionaries in Africa, the Albert Schweitzers and Mother Teresa's of the world, the Mohammad Unases and Paul Farmers of the world—we were all part of the grand stream of humans participating in the Kingdom of Heaven. We were all part of the work of God in the world.

Singing that hymn that evening was perhaps the closest I've ever come to Pentecostal ecstasy in worship. I felt my connection with good people, God's people, all across the ages. All the doctors who have worked to ease suffering and enhance health, all preachers who have inspired people to hope and to pursue wisdom and goodness.

As I've gotten older my understanding of the value of human work has expanded. Caregivers and IT professionals, plumbers and fashion designers, biologists and electrical engineers, chemists and hair stylists, moms and dads, aunts and uncles and grandparents—all us are indispensable agents of the Kingdom of Heaven. Each of us touches life, enriches life in a unique way.

And when we gather in worship, we affirm that our work, our lives, are part of the grand dream of God of a world that will one day be free of pain and sorrow, a world where peace will flow like a river and beauty and goodness will be as common place as sand and rain. In worship we dream together of the day when the happiness of God and the happiness of humanity flow mingled in a mighty, unbroken current.


A couple of weeks ago I was visiting with a young man. We were talking about God and faith. We explored questions about who's in and who's out when it comes to God's eternal plans.

I told him I no longer worried about damnation. If I, as a father, could not imagine damning my children for their imperfections and failures, how could I imagine that the heavenly Father would damn his children because they had failed to grasp just the right idea about faith or had failed to transcend some deeply-rooted character flaw.

“But now, you're just doing anthropomorphism.” My young friend protested. “You're ascribing human characteristics to God.”

“Guilty as charged.” I said. “And that is what Christianity does. It takes the grandest, most beautiful attributes of humanity and says God is something like that, only better.”

God is like the best father who ever existed. Only better.
God is like the best mother who ever existed. Only better.
God is like the most skillful, compassionate psychiatrist who ever help people find sanity. Only better.
God is a brilliant engineer, only smarter.
God is a wise governor, only wiser.
A generous philanthropist, only more generous.
A musician, only capable of stirring our souls even more deeply.

We believe that at the heart of the universe there is goodness, wisdom and compassion. But it's unbelievable. So we come here to worship and in worship rekindle our faith.

Some of us come with a buoyant, confident faith. When we sing here, we are singing the same song our heart sings all week. Others of us come barely believing anything good. Our hearts are crushed with what we read in the news or what has happened to our friends. Our own lives are so full of pain, we vacillate between wishing for healing and praying for death.

We come here and worship.

We turn our attention once more to the incredible Christian affirmations of God. We celebrate the richest, sweetest, grandest affirmations about God imaginable. We let go of our arguments because they merely touch the front of our heads. In worship we believe with our gut, with our bodies.

We believe God would rather die than live without us.

The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. That is the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to me. And to my friends whose mental illness whips them from sanity to insanity, from appropriate behavior to violence, from speaking blessings to spouting curses. Their situation is hopeless. Maybe medication can dampen the swings. Maybe hospitalization can contain their illness. In worship, we say theirs is the kingdom of heaven. God has good plans for them. And God is able to accomplish those plans. In worship we hope again, even for hopeless people.

And we know that our hope is the hope shared across two thousand years of Christian hoping.

And our theology, our religious theory, takes us back another two thousand years to Abraham, so that in our worship we are keeping company with the hoping saints across 4000 years of time. Adventist theology pushes our worship connection back another 2000 years to Adam and Eve. In our worship we are joining 6000 years of human hope and confidence in God.

The world is full of pain and tragedy. Yes. We are not blind. We are not unfeeling. We weep at the hurt. We get angry with God for the mess in God's world. Then we come to here to worship and join the saints across the millennia and join God, too, in dreaming of better things. We sing of hope and promise and the triumph of love.

Here, we insist God is committed to the ultimate triumph of shalom—peace, well-being, happiness. And God will finally get his way.

Here, in worship, we insist that justice ultimately looks like reconciliation and redemption.

These things are unbelievable. When we pay attention to the news, sometimes listening to the stories of our friends, this all seems like foolishness. For some of us, our own personal pain threatens to drown out this happy song. Our experience whispers hopelessness.

So we come together in worship to sing again about hope. We sing together about the triumph of the community of God—our community. We come together again and again, stubbornly fanning the flame of hope.

Yes, the struggle is fierce and long. Sometimes our arms grow weak, our hearts become faint. So we come again to worship. We join the song. Our hearts are made brave again and our arms strong as we sing Alleluia.