Jun 5 2017

This I Know 2.02 — Preaching from the Gospels

As I mentioned in my last post, one of the great things about liturgical churches is that they typically rely on the predetermined Scripture readings for their preaching texts. This gives them the option of a sermon based on the Old Testament text, the Epistles, or the Gospels. Growing up, I heard a lot of great sermons from the Gospels. In the 40 or so years following my evangelical wanderings, I can recall very few such sermons, aside from Christmas and Lent/Easter. I’m sure there were some others (there had to be, right?), but none that I remember as well as those I heard in my youth. (Think of that; I actually listened and remembered a lot of what I heard…)

From my experience over the last 40 or so years hanging out with non-liturgicals (let’s just call them evangelicals), it seems that evangelicals don’t really like to preach from the Gospels, unless it’s to preach about hell or the end times (usually out of context). To me, it makes sense. For one thing, it seems easier to fit the Epistles into a Western, modern mindset.  Paul, the most prolific of the NT writers, wrote very logically, and addressed a lot of issues which could be made pertinent to the local church. Although, Paul is not a modern writer and is more Jewish than many people realize, so there’s also context issues in many interpretations of his teaching.

The Gospels, on the other hand, are not as thematically organized and are more Jewish in their storytelling. They deal a lot with Jewish culture and politics, and are so rooted in time and place that it’s perhaps harder to translate into Modern America.

But wait–on one hand you have a bunch of letters by someone who only met Jesus after he had died and resurrected. On the other hand, you have 4 books full of the actual teachings of Jesus. What do you think you’d rather hear about? What is more important to understand?

I always pick Jesus. The author of Hebrews even starts out by telling us that Jesus is the only pure image of God that we have. And John starts out his Gospel by saying the same thing. Everything else, OT and Epistles, should be read having a good knowledge of Jesus. But, unfortunately it’s often the other way around in evangelical churches (yes, I’m generalizing… I can’t address each church individually…). My perception, based again on my years of experience, is that often people interpret Jesus through their understanding of Paul (or occasionally the OT, which causes LOTS of problems). The result is a lot of very bad theology.

Another thing about preaching on Jesus’ life and teachings is that it’s very hard to get around what Jesus says, like “Give what you have to the poor” or “always take the lowest seat” or even “do your good deeds in secret.” This is all so unAmerican that it just doesn’t sell well. We could go on: “I don’t condemn you.” “Be healed.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60).

The Christianity I learned as a child was based on the stories about Jesus, and his parables and teachings. This is how I learned who God was, by understanding the nature of Jesus. Going forward, it is my intention to go through some of the major teachings in the Gospel that still influence me.


May 26 2017

This I Know 2.0

About 8 years ago I started writing a series titled This I Know, revisiting the things I learned as a child that I still believe today. The title, if you haven’t guess, comes from the song Jesus Love Me, which just happens to be my foundational belief. Everything I know and understand about God, life, the universe and everything (going one better than Douglas Adams) is based on this presupposition.

As an aside (which I tend to do a lot), I believe we are all presuppositional. That is, we all operate on certain foundational beliefs that are invisible to us for the most part, forming a sort of basic operating system. Philosophers tend to be more aware of their presuppositions than others, because that’s typically what they think about for fun. Some deny that they are presuppositional, but (no humor intended) that’s because of their presuppositions. Yeah, that response tends to drive them crazy…

Anyway, I don’t go around all day focused on the fact that God loves me, because I’d never get any work done. But, how I look at everything, how I react to people, how I live my life, assumes that God loves me and that he is looking out for me–not that he shows me preferential treatment–but that I am important and have individual value. I can say “life is good” because the fact that God loves me is foundational to everything else.

Now, Descartes claimed that all knowledge comes from knowledge of the self–I think, therefore I am. However, I wonder if knowing that God knows me (and cares for me) is more instinctive, and therefore known at a deeper level than a mental awareness of self. Just a thought.

The Lutheran in Me

I was raised Lutheran, which is a darn good way to be raised. That means from an early age I was not corrupted with crazy notions like the rapture or double predestination. I said one of the creeds every Sunday, heard the pronouncement of absolution (forgiveness), and heard a lot of sermons based on the Gospels (the Lectionary is truly a gift). Basically, going to church was a theology lesson. And, Lutherans believe that God loves us, and therefore we should love others because God loves them, too. Pretty simple.

As I think back to what I was taught about who God was and what it meant to be Godly or Christlike, I realize how very little that has in common with contemporary Evangelical teaching. Seriously, it’s like a different religion. I don’t even recognize the Gospel in a lot of what I hear from folks like Franklin Graham or Jim Dobson.

Another aside: Martin Luther actually coined the term “evangelical” (in German, of course) to refer to his movement within and without the Roman Catholic Church. I am actually rather offended that today’s so-called evangelicals have hijacked and perverted the term.

What the Future Holds

Over the years I have attempted to revive the “This I Know” series, but have always become side-tracked. It’s my hope that I can actually revive it now, revisiting the Christianity I was taught, and still hold to, because I think it’s so vary needed. We’ll see.

 


Jun 19 2015

This I Know 2.0 – An Unapologetic Apologetic 

Over my nearly 60 years of life, I have had only a handful of revelations that have had a lasting impact on me. I can recall specific details about each experience and by and large they were fairly mundane, but the specific epiphanies would change how I saw things from that point on. I mention this only to provide a little background on one I had perhaps 5 years ago.

As with the others, this was not a Damascus Road experience; rather, it was more of an Emmaus Road revelation, like having a mist lifted so that you see more clearly where you are already walking. And, as much of my brilliant thoughts do, it came while I was thinking about something entirely unrelated.

My revelation was simply this: I still believed in the same God I believed in as a child.  

That’s it. 

It may seem underwhelming to you, but 5 years or so later, I am still aware of this reality. It is now foundational to who I am. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that I have simply maintained my death-grip on my childhood beliefs, because that’s not true. My theology has changed over the years – several times, in fact. I have been around the block, so to speak, more laps than most. While I, out of youth and ignorance, was impacted by various pop theologies and trends over the years, I have maintained my simple belief in God, and that Jesus loves me, this I know. I have rejected more doctrines and beliefs throughout my life than many people have ever encountered. Many were illogical in some form or other, some were stupid, and a few were just bat-shit crazy (that’s a common theological term). 

In spite of traveling in and out of various evangelical, charismatic, sometimes wacky, ancient liturgical, emergent, and often boring intellectual Christian churches and groups, in spite of moving from moderate to conservative to something else, and in spite of being led through a morass of theological trends, I believe in the same God I believed in as a child. 

I’ve had many, many people try to talk me out of it. I’ve been dispensationalized, fundamentalated, legalized, charismatized, jeopardized, and tribulated. I’ve gutted my library of trash theology more than once. And in the end, I believe in the same God I believed in as a child. 

Now, smart atheists will tell me this proves that religion is a product of our environment, that if I grew up believing in Some Other God, that’s who I’d believe in today. Granted, exposure is an obvious factor in belief. Paul says this himself in Romans 10:14, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” However, I know many, many people who believe differently today than they did as children. Tons. So, I’d have to say that while I truly appreciate the fact that I was raised a Christian, I’d have to say that what I believe today is not because of what I believed as a child (I believed in Santa Claus then, too).  

Now, I have heard and read many testimonies of people who have rejected the beliefs they were raised with, and as a result they have concluded that they don’t believe in God. Some of them even have blogs where they love to talk about what they no longer believe. This unbelief in God is an understandable leap of logic, I guess, but generally I find that it’s lazy as well as illogical. I hear these stories and think, So what? I reject those things, too, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God. You don’t reject all pizza because you don’t like anchovies.  

So back to the profundity of my revelation, specifically related to current belief and unbelief trends. When people are leaving the church and faith in droves, is it perhaps because they were never taught the truth about God in the first place? When the illogic and absurdity and hype and the control-freakism of religious traditions come crashing down, is there anything left to believe in?  

For me, there was. I rejected dispensationalism and God was the same. I rejected legalism and God was the same. I rejected penal substitutionary atonement and God was the same. I rejected literalism and God was the same. I rejected wacko-ism and God was the same. And in fact, not only was God the same, but it was specifically because God was the same that I rejected these errant beliefs.   

If I had to pick a theme song, I think it would be Sting’s If I Ever Lose My Faith. My faith is not in science or progress, or in a church, or theology, or, as odd as it sounds, even in the Bible. My faith is not in a political system or the definition of marriage. I don’t care if evolution is true or if there’s life on other planets. My faith is in God and the truth of the Gospel, that Jesus loves me, this I know. The same God, and same Gospel, I was taught as a child.   


Nov 24 2011

Thanks, part 2: Keeping on the Sunny Side

We all know the analogy about the half-full glass—or is it half-empty?

It is a fact that two people can look at the same set of facts and come away with much different ideas. The facts didn’t change; the difference is how the people interpret the facts. One of my favorite songs has become the old Carter Family classic, Keep on the Sunny Side:

Well there’s a dark and a troubled side of life.
There’s a bright and a sunny side too.
But if you meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.

Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we keep on the sunny side of life.

However, I think the difference between half-empty and half-full is more than simply keeping a positive attitude, or looking at the sunny side. I think it has to do with being thankful—or not.

We live in a culture which is increasingly focused on what we don’t have, and on the importance of equality as being defined as having what everyone else has.  The goal of advertising, politics, and even entertainment is to tell what what we don’t have, and to make us believe that we need something that only someone else can give us.

As the Colonel on MASH used to say, it’s horse-hockey.

The Bible tells us we have been given all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). We have enough, and that’s a lot to be thankful for. Of course, if you want something other than that, you’re on your own. Being thankful for what is in your glass—or even that you have a glass in the first place—is a choice. It requires adjusting your focus.

There is “a dark and troubled side to life,” and we shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist. However, there is also a sunny side. When you keep on the sunny side by focusing and being thankful for what you’ve been given, you can still see the dark side, but it never looks quite as bad.