God IS Great – The Hitchens Challenge

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The trouble one encounters in reading God is Not Great is the Voice. After watching and listening to Christopher Hitchens speak, the words peal off of the page in his contemptuous English sneer. Your mind processes the words, sentences, and paragraphs but, all the while, your MIND hears the voice surreptitiously attempting to corner you for interrogation. Certainly, you agree with me about all of this god silliness, don’t you? You’re not one of those believers are you? – leering pompously over his glasses for assent from the sycophantic atheists in the distance who lap these prickly rants up. Hitchens is far more erudite than Sam Harris and even a bit less irritable but their two recent works are similar in theme and tenor. Both plow the same ground, germinating from the casual assumption that there is no God of any stripe and that the religious people of the world range from simply ignorant to downright evil and dangerous.

I agree with Mr. Hitchens as he observes that much evil is promulgated in the name of religion. Religious practice is a human endeavor and unlike the hopes of the progressivist dream, humans cannot be perfected. To indict broad swaths of people through the actions of a few adherents should cause us to examine Hitchens’ general arguments more closely. To argue that evil practitioners of a faith are representative of the whole requires that we move our examination to a lower strata and ask, are the theological foundations of the religion inherently wicked? Once established, the follow up question is whether or not a person roots their evil in this theology. Does the pederast priest locate his acts in the Bible? If not, intellectual honesty in making ones argument requires a separation of the man from the belief. Hitchens consistently fails to kick over this stone since it threatens to trim the broad brush with which he paints.

This broad swath extends to Mr. Hitchens’ presentation of God in general. He would have the reader accept his expansive definition of ‘god’ as being the same deity represented by all of the faith groups he excoriates. The enlightened reader will see through this facade immediately. Without a careful evaluation of the apologetic for faith traditions one might be tempted to step into this trap but the thoughtful reader will not. Simple logic (which Hitchens demands we practice on nearly every page) leads one to conclude that all views of God cannot be true. If one is correct, the others then must be false according to the apologetics of each.

The final pages of God is Not Great provide a reading group guide composed of 19 questions meant to gauge your assent to Hitchens’ arguments. I propose that we examine these one by one and see how they hold up. It might be that we discover that God is great while people, in their fallen state, are not. The two should not be confused.

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You, Theologian : Where We Begin

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As we accept our call to be theologians, the next logical question is to ask what that means. Many in the Christian community will default to the image of the sequestered scholar, surrounded by mountains of books and poring over the scattered papers piled before him. Theology, in this narrow view, is a field with high barriers to entry, only to be approached by a select few while the rest of us wait to receive their wisdom. Nonsense. This stereotype is not only damaging to the faith, it is flat out wrong. Go look in a mirror Christian. There is a theologian. Regardless of background, social group, education, or denomination even, you and I are called to be theologians and our theology is formed in two ways. One is by our experience of being a Christian. This is known as our embedded theology.

Our first order theology comes from the Christian environment that surrounds us. This environment, usually our church and this immediate community, usually drives what we believe about our faith. Since every church believes itself to be living by Christian principles, the initial framework of how we think about faith is organized on a similar framework to that which guides our church. The practices, stated doctrine, and general atmosphere give us some idea of what it means to be a Christian. We trust that those who developed the doctrines and traditions knew what they were doing and this confidence tells us we can accept these things without too much worry.

This is as far as many believers will ever go. If our church teaches it, regardless of the initial reasons, it’s good enough for us. Embedded theology works well for a while but some cracks in the firmness of the foundation begin to show when it is challenged. The first challenge often arrives in the form of a comparison between our church and our neighbor’s church. We may worship within a tradition that has a dry tradition toward alcohol and so we live as teetotalers. One fine summer day our neighbor Ed invites us over for a barbecue. Ed and his family are Christians who go to a different church but we still look forward to some fine fellowship. Knocking on the door brings Ed quickly to answer it, swinging the door wide with the hand that isn’t gripping his beer. Beer! Your embedded theology sends a message to your brain: smile, but watch this guy carefully since you know that no Christians use alcohol.

The barbecue is fine and later, as you nurse your third cola, you get a chance to talk to Ed alone. “Say Ed,” you say. “I noticed you drink beer.”

“Yep, I have a couple now and then. Why?”

You don’t want to lecture (but secretly you do) so you put a big smile on your face and say “Well, my pastor speaks against alcohol at least once every couple of months. I was just wondering how often yours does.”

“I’ve only heard him talk about it once.” Ed replies and takes the last sip of his beverage. “He taught us that the Bible talks about drunkenness but doesn’t say we must not drink alcohol. Didn’t Jesus drink wine?”

So it seems that some Christians do drink alcohol. How can the Bible teach both things? We trust our embedded ideas but often find them quickly challenged.

Second order challenges are much more difficult for this type of theological thinking. Imagine the family of the child who wandered away at the beach and got too close to the surf. She was swept out of reach of her searching parents and they lost her. How will the shallow theology of our community answer this tragedy. Why did God take the child? Were the parents secret sinners who were being punished? Was the child herself punished? Embedded theology is usually to fragile to deal with something like effectively. To come to grips with a loss like this requires a depth in the answers. It requires an intentional approach to theological questions. It requires that we practice deliberative theology.

Deliberative theology begins work right where we are by setting forth to reflect upon our embedded convictions. We question the beliefs that we have taken for granted and seek to place them among the spectrum of Christian belief on a subject. The deliberative approach looks into the various positions and seeks to understand that which is most satisfactory. Sometimes this is easier said than done since seeking answers outside of our narrow understanding can lead to challenges that we would rather not face. Beloved traditions and beliefs can be toppled in an instant and many will retreat to the shallow end of the pool when this threat becomes too real.

Sadly, we discover our need for a more intentional approach to theological thinking when the deeper tragedies of life occur. Our embedded beliefs prove unsatisfactory to answer the questions we have and we embark on a quest to understand. When we are prepared to set aside simply believing what we are told to believe and to make the effort to understand why we believe what we believe, we finally grow and mature as Christians. We see God as more than just Daddy. We seek out a deeper knowledge of His revealed nature and character. The result is a more satisfying faith and a more complete worship. We are living out our calling.

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Day 16 in the School of Prayer : Persevere!

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 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’ ”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)

Persevering in prayer is one of our most common struggles in our life of communion and petition. Though our spirit may be strong, our flesh is weak and we are easily dissuaded from continuing in prayer by the delay that we perceive in receiving our answer. We grow quickly tired and discouraged when God does not immediately address our petitions. We even begin to doubt that our prayers are heard; our faith grows soft around the edges.

It is faith alone, however, that overcomes our doubt and weakness. Faith reminds our hearts that we trust completely in God’s promise that he will answer our prayer. The parable that Jesus offered does not show the widow giving up. She believes in the righteousness of her petition and will continue to bring it before the judge until she can no longer make the journey to the bench. At that point she will likely enlist her neighbors and friends to carry her petition. She will not give up because she believes her cause to be right. Is our prayer aligned with God’s will? If so, it will be answered, even if we must be made to wait.

The farmer does not expect a harvest from a single seed. He does not prepare the ground and then drop a single kernel into the earth expecting an immediate harvest. The farmer plants hundreds or thousands of seeds in anticipation of their maturity. He is long suffering, knowing that must receive a full season of sun and rain before that harvest comes. There are no shortcuts.

And so it is with prayer.

Advent Benediction of Rejoicing

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As Mary knew, may you also be blessed to know,

the joy of anticipation, the joy the change to come.

 

The prophets shouted God’s promise,

‘Be glad and rejoice with all your heart;

The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.’

 

You are blessed in knowing that the Bright Morning Star,

would come,

did come,

and will come.

 

Be blessed, community of faith,

rejoice and share the news and the light of the Star!

God’s greatest blessings on you.

Amen

 

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Day Five in the School of Prayer

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[In which we follow the Andrew Murray classic With Christ in the School of Prayer]

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)

On the mountainside, the Lord urges us to pray with confidence, assured that the Father hears our prayers and answers them. There are three answers that we are taught to expect as we embark upon our prayer life: Yes, No, or Not Yet. Jesus teaches that  we are to be persistent in our prayer, petitioning the Father until we receive an answer. Ask, seek, and knock and the Lord promises it will be answered.

Our petitions must be properly formed. James 4:3 says “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” This is why we sit at the feet of Jesus in the school of prayer, to learn to pray properly for the things of the kingdom first and foremost and trusting in God for all else. It is up to us to take the lessons to heart.

Murray concludes

Let us no make the feeble experiences of our unbelief the measure of what our faith may expect. let us seek, not only just in our seasons of prayer, but at all times, to hold fast the joyful assurances: man’s prayer on earth and God’s answer in heaven are meant for each other. Let us trust Jesus to teach us so to pray that the answer can come. he will do it, if hold fast the word he gives today: “Ask, and ye shall receive.”

Psalm 47 How Awesome is the Lord Most High

image Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.

How awesome is the Lord Most High, the great King over all the earth! (vv 1-2)

The liturgist repeats the words of psalm 47, for the first time calling all nations to worship Yahweh for He is sovereign of everything, not just Israel. If they do not know Him now, one day the word will reach them and his Lordship will be apparent to all. All of this psalm concerns itself with praise for the Lord Almighty. He alone is God and is to be worshipped as such.

The modern reader must place this liturgical psalm in its proper context so as not to misinterpret verse 5. It reads:

God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets.

This should not be read as God being anywhere lower than as ruler of the Heavens and Earth. This prayer would have accompanied the movement of Yahweh’s symbolic throne up into the Temple before the final shouts of praise and honor arise from the worshippers.

For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.

God reigns over the nations; God is seated on His holy throne.

The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; He is greatly exalted. (vv 7-9)

The current ‘Kings of the earth’ would do well to reflect on this fact.

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It’s the Little Things – Christian Hypocrisy

image You lifted your hands in praise, eyes closed as you sang from your heart, reveling in God’s presence. As prayer was led, your head bowed in reverence as I’m sure you poured everything out to the Father. Your voice could be heard affirming the pastor as he preached the message and you were among the first to the Lord’s Table to partake of the bread and wine. Everything about you told the surrounding body how devoutly you take your faith and I’m certain that you are regarded as a model Christian within the congregation.

But the damage had already been done.

Did you stop to think before you drove into the church parking lot against the one-way sign? Sure, there was probably going to be little outgoing traffic at the beginning of service and if there was you could just pull to the side but that’s not the point. The polished chrome fish on your tailgate marked your allegiance for all to see out on the road. All the people around you on the busy boulevard also watched your shiny fish break the law just to take a shortcut into the church parking lot. They saw the real you and saw a hypocrite.

Sadly, you also made all of us out to be hypocrites.

You see, we proclaim a relationship with Jesus Christ that goes beyond the church walls on Sunday morning. We claim that our lives are constantly being molded and modified by the Holy Spirit. We claim to live in submission to others, sometimes boldly saying that we have a better way of life that we would like to invite others to share. We claim all of that and even try to live it out.

Only to have it destroyed by one small moment where one of us demonstrates that we’re really no different from the rest of the world.

When one of us demonstrates this in the small things (like following the traffic laws) it reflects on the whole Church in the larger things.

 

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