Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What in the World is God Doing? -- Acceptance vs. Exclusivity

The emerging generation ("Millenials") has a much more inclusive approach to friendships and doctrine than their elders in the typical evangelical church. The Barna Group's research has identified exclusivity as one of the top 6 reasons that young people leave evangelical churches. So last Wednesday Linda and I talked about acceptance and exclusivity with some of our church's college-age members in our weekly "What in the World is God Doing?" Bible study.

We studied Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman, found in the fourth chapter of John. First, some background: the Samaritans claimed to be the true followers of Abraham, but they also incorporated some elements of pagan practices into their monotheism. This syncretism angered the Jews, who rejected the Samaritans' truth claims on the basis of their own possession of and adherence to the unadulterated Scriptures. Jews would go out of their way to avoid having any personal encounters with Samaritans, even adjusting their travel plans to avoid meeting any.

How does this relate to us? The evangelical fervor for "traditional values" and "America's Christian roots" often mirrors the Jews' feelings about the Samaritan assault on the truth. We may not cross the street to avoid meeting an openly gay person, but we may harbor an inward hostility toward the gay community. So the way Jesus dealt with the Samaritan woman can guide us in our relationships with "outsiders." Let's take a look at our Lord's way.

Jesus Treated the Samaritan Woman as a Friend

The fact that he was chatting with a Samaritan woman astonished his disciples (v. 27), both as a result of her ethnicity and of her gender. Maybe we evangelicals should astonish the folks around us by hanging out with LGBT friends once in a while.


Jesus Did Not Denounce, He Asked Questions

Jesus did not agree with everything the woman said. However, he did not denounce her, her behavior, or her beliefs. Instead, he asked questions. He started by asking for a drink, which lowered the barrier of mistrust and, at the same time, allowed him to slip in an insight about spiritual life ("Whoever drinks the water I give ... will never thirst"). Then he posed an incisive question ("Where is your husband?") that helped her to see her need for God's help.

Jesus Set Aside the Minor Issues

Once the woman realized that she was talking to a teacher who could answer her questions, she wanted to find out where he stood on the number one issue Samaritans and Jews argued over:

"Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

But Jesus refused to get dragged into this controversy:

"Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."

In heaven, Jesus explained, we will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, so where we worship now is not the critical issue. I believe Jesus would have a similar outlook on many of today's burning issues. In the perspective of heaven, your stance on gun control is peripheral (we won't own guns in heaven); likewise your view on how to interpret the Constitution (we will be in perfect submission to our heavenly King), on tax policy (we won't be paying taxes in heaven), etc.

Jesus Focused on Relationship and Hope

Once Jesus had developed a rapport with the woman, he didn't back down from speaking the truth ("salvation is from the Jews"). However, he emphasized that God earnestly desired a relationship in Spirit and in truth with her:

"A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks."

And he presented himself as the fulfillment of the hope of her religion:

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

We should have the same focus as Jesus. We must help our friends--liberal or conservative, LGBT or straight, Muslim or Jew, Mormon or Hindu--know that the hopes they harbor are fulfilled in Christ. Let's help them feel our acceptance, sidestep the peripheral issues, and have a life-changing encounter with Jesus. If we are patient and accepting, they can begin the journey of faith; and we can trust that our Savior will not neglect to lead them and transform them in His time and in His way.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Doubt: Seedbed of Despair or of Spiritual Growth?

I am no stranger to doubt.

Since my late teens I have from time to time lacked a strong conviction about the Christian faith. At one time or another, I have seriously entertained notions like:

Maybe it is all just atoms and physics and chance.

Is there really a heaven?

If there is, why won't God accept my unbelieving friends and family if he loves them so much?

The purpose of this confession is not to sow confusion amongst my fellow Christians. And I'm not going to give you 20 answers to those questions. Instead, I want to encourage any readers who have struggled with these or similar notions that you are not alone. Moreover, you can use your doubt as an opportunity to grow spiritually. I'm confident of that because I am no spiritual giant, and yet I have managed to grow as I've dealt as honestly as I can with doubts. Or rather, God has grown me.

A Story from the Gospels

You have no doubt heard evangelical Christians talk about the evils of doubt, as I have. Doubt is unequivocally a sin in the view of many pastors and leaders, and I refer my readers to this free online book for a primer from this perspective. If you are doubting, this view goes, you should just shut the devil's voice up (that's what doubt is) and get strong enough to believe with all your heart. Once you're strong in belief, you'll be free of doubt and have all the answers you'll ever need. Just believe and stop doubting already!

Alas, many of us do not seem to possess the kind of brain that can just suppress thoughts and arguments that rattle about our skulls. We have to deal honestly and try to get some sort of answers for life's persistent questions.* Is there hope for us?

Let's read about the man sometimes referred to as the patron saint of doubt:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” - John 20:19-25

I can so identify with Thomas. I don't need enthusiasm, I need evidence! Fortunately, the story does not stop there:

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” - John 20:26-29

"Stop doubting and [just] believe" is the message you so often hear among Christians. But we need to see the rest of the story. As in: if Thomas was doubting, why was he even present when Jesus appeared a week later?

This is a critical question, so think about it with me carefully: what does the fact that Thomas was hanging out with the other disciples tell us about doubt?

Two Principles for Dealing with Doubt

The first thing we can learn from Thomas' story is that the church must be merciful and very, very patient with those who doubt. After all, the other disciples didn't kick Thomas out, right? And I doubt that they were shouting "Stop doubting and just believe!" at him all week. They were practicing, instead, the kind of mercy and patience that Jesus had demonstrated when Nicodemus brought all his questions to Jesus late one night. Indeed, one of the other eleven in the room later wrote:

"Be merciful to those who doubt." - Jude 22

Secondly, we see that the one who doubts must not just give up. Thomas kept hanging around the community of faith. He was willing to give God a chance to answer his questions. Doubt is not an excuse to just run away! The kind of doubt that the Scriptures warn against is the kind that people use as an excuse to just go off, be selfish, and reject hope.

A New Definition of Faith

The Greek word that we translate as faith in the New Testament is pistis. The interesting thing about this word is that it has very little, if anything, to do with intellectual assent. Instead, it refers to faithfulness. A Scriptural view of faith equates it to being faithful, not to suppressing questions. This is why James talks about faith as inevitably producing good works: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds!" (James 2:18) Faith is not intellectual assent, it is a faithfulness that bears fruit.

This new definition of faith demands a new definition of doubt. We usually equate doubt to wanting answers to tough questions, but that is not what the Biblical admonitions about doubt refer to. If doubt is the opposite of faith, then the doubt the Bible warns us against is faithlessness.

Are you willing to try an act of faithfulness in the midst of your questions? Are you willing to hang out for a while with the convinced believers until you encounter Christ? If so, you may one day find yourself evangelizing south Asia, as Thomas did!

God Can Use Our Anguished Questions

Usually we equate doubt with anguished questions, but we have just seen that the Bible defines doubt somewhat differently than we do. To maintain clarity, then, I'm going to use the term anguished questions in place of doubt. And the conclusion of the matter, for me, is that God can use our anguished questions to rebuild us.

We saw this in the story of Thomas: once he encountered the risen Savior, he knew he had received the answers that he needed...and not just for himself, but for the world around him.

We also see this in the story of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We all know about her beautiful and radical ministry to the poor, but it was only with the posthumous release of her letters that we learned of her decades-long struggle with serious questions. She often wondered whether God was listening to her, or even if there was a God. But she did not let her doubts lead her into faithlessness. Instead, she actively pursued the ministry of mercy to which God had called her, in the company of the faith community to which God had called her. And as she did so, she realized that she was encountering Christ, just as Thomas had. Her encounter was a bit different, though; she was encountering him as she ministered to "the least of these." God gave her the grace to see, in the face of the poor, Christ's face. God used her hunger for his light in the midst of her darkness, for his presence in the midst of her loneliness, to help her encounter him in her daily work with the poor.

I hope to have the occasion to share a little more of my own story soon. In the meanwhile, I encourage you to let God write yours, just as he wrote Thomas' and Mother Teresa's.

* Are you reading this, Guy Noir, Private Eye?

The New Physics and the Doctrine of Heaven

Are you familiar with the traditional song children sing about heaven?

"Heaven is a wonderful place,
Filled with glory and grace.
I want to see my Savior's face!
Heaven is a wonderful place!"

For readers not versed in American children's music, enjoy this YouTube video rendition (sung by the Pistoia Gospel Singers of Italy) and then come back....

That was fun, wasn't it? Throughout the ages, Biblical scholars have thought of heaven as a place somewhere out there in "the heavens," and mostly definitely not under our feet. (That's where hell might be.) A place where the River of Life flows, and the Tree of Life bears fruit all year long. A place where we meet our Savior.

This sounds like a mythical place to the average scientist. What does physics have to do with heaven? It turns out that string theory has spawned the notion of a multiverse, a set of parallel universes alongside the universe we inhabit. Parallel universes are similar to our universe, but differ in that their constants in physics equations may not be identical to ours. There is no reliable way to communicate information from one universe to a parallel universe, according to physicists, but it may be possible to travel from one universe to another via a black hole, if physics author Brian Greene is right.

Could it be that heaven is a parallel universe? If so, how does God transfer the stuff of which we consist into the universe: do angels accompany the spirits of the departed to the nearest black hole, then carry them through? Angels could probably create a small black hole for a fraction of a second, I reckon, so maybe they wouldn't have to travel to the center of our galaxy to do the job! Fun to think about....

The New Physics and the Nature of Man

Physicists have been dealing with a tricky duality for some time: is an electron (or some other baryon) a wave or a particle? In some situations it is easier to think of it as a wave, in others as a particle. Ultimately, though, it is both–especially if some variation of super-string theory turns out to be accurate.

In the same way, you could say that we humans are both matter and spirit, and you can no more cleave the 2 aspects asunder than you could cleave an electron’s waveness and particleness apart. (Don’t do a spell check on those words, I just invented them.) Of course we don’t have a mathematics-based set of equations that unites soul and body, unlike the physicists…but then why does all reality have to be explained in terms of math?