Zechariah 7:9-10

“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’

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Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

God Is Good. He Just Has To Be. – or – Plugging My Ears, Closing My Eyes and Screaming LA, LA, LA, LA…

So here’s a question we’ve probably all grappled with at one time or another: How much, and to what extent, does God interfere with our lives. Growing up I was assured that God had “a plan for my life” (in my strict, Calvinist church, God pretty much had a plan for everything).  This was bolstered by that verse about all things working together for the good of those who love God.  If some tragedy befell a member of our congregation, we were comforted with the assurance that it was all a part of God’s master plan.

I always found these words rang somewhat hollow. They were somehow disconcerting and they did little to salve the emotional pain I was experiencing.  The explanation naturally begged the question of whether God initiated the bad stuff to bring about something better.  This is where we tend to reach a theological impasse.

I have a friend who went through an ugly divorce – lies, unfaithfulness… the works. A few years later he met a girl who had been through a similar situation.  They connected on an amazingly deep spiritual and emotional level and now they are planning to get married.  He writes with relief and thankfulness that this was God’s plan all along – that God made him go through the suffering of the first marriage to lead him to this deeper, more loving second marriage.

While I don’t want to diminish in any way the joy my friend has found, this scenario sends my mind spinning in vicious theological circles.  Could God initiate an adulterous relationship?  Couldn’t God have just gotten these two together in the first place(he is supposed to be able to do anything) and if so, why would he choose to put my friend through so much pain?  And finally, where do the ex-spouses and adulterers fit in to this picture?  What is God’s plan for their lives and how does this sin that he may or may not have initiated fit in?

Another acquaintance recently went through the traumatic experience of a miscarriage.  Her church friends, in an attempt to be supportive, assured her in notes and phone calls that this was all part of God’s plan, that the child was with God now and that it would all work out for good eventually.  I couldn’t help but wonder if these notes were any comfort.  After all, the mother doesn’t want her child to be with God, she wants the baby to be with her.

Then, of course, we could step back from our personal lives and look at natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile or Hurricane Katrina.  While I think most of us would stop short alleging that these events were the judgment of God upon these people, some of us might feel theologically obligated to say, albeit reluctantly, that these natural events were part of God’s master plan.

I am going to go ahead and lay my position out there, theologically debatable as it may be:  God did not cause the divorce, the miscarriage, or the natural disaster.  My claim is based on three of the most widely held definitions of God.  1) God is love.  2) God is life.  3) God is light.

Perhaps all three of these fall under the category of God being ultimately “Good”.  The creator of good.  The definition of good.  The embodiment of good.  It is impossible for God to ‘sin’ and I would suggest that it is impossible even for him to initiate sin in humankind. If God is love, he cannot inspire adultery.  If God is life, he cannot cause the death of an unborn child.  And if God is light, he cannot initiate the darkness and destruction caused by disaster.  All of these things are alien to God, the opposite of God and his Kingdom.

But God does intervene in our lives.  I believe he initiated my friend’s new relationship.  I believe he will give my other friend a child to love.  And I believe that there have been and will be countless stories of love, compassion and faith in the midst of crisis emerging from disaster-stricken parts of the world.

Now I can anticipate the objection that this diminishes the sovereignty of God.  I can also anticipate people throwing all sorts of Old Testament passages at me about plagues, wars, famines, etc. that seemed to be initiated by God.

I’ll admit I don’t have a defense here.  All I can say is that I find it far more comforting to believe in a God who is all-good than a God who is all-powerful. In essence, I am reverting to the God of my childhood who comforted and protected you when bad stuff happened, rather than the mysteriously sovereign, rationally confounding God produced by countless hours of study, debate and theological reasoning.

This reversion to a childlike definition of God brings back another character from childhood who is often forgotten and seldom discussed: The Devil.  Who is he?  What role does he play in all of this?  I think that’s a subject for a different post, but for now I’ll take this stand:  God can bring good from a bad situation, but God can’t make a bad situation.  That’s somebody else’s job.

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 4:50 pm  Comments (1)  

The Cruelty of Calvinism – or – If We Go Around Acting Like We’ve Got Free Will All the Time, What’s the Point of Believing in Predestination?

I remember being 13 or 14 and sitting on one of the curbs at the edge of the parking lot of our church and having a heated discussion with my Sunday School teacher about the doctrine of ‘predestination’ which he had elaborated upon as part of a series on the five points of Calvinism, which my church wholeheartedly believed in.

I think I had the same reaction to it as most kids do when they are first confronted with this doctrine: That’s not fair.  If God gives everyone the choice to follow him or to reject him, that’s fair.  But if God has already picked the people who will at some point make the artificial ‘choice’ to believe in Jesus, then leaves the others to burn in hell, that’s not fair.

My Sunday School teacher explained that it was fair because we all deserve to burn in hell.  So God picking some of us in his mercy to save was actually unfair to him, not us – it was a demonstration of what a loving God he really was.

But if he was such a ‘loving God,’ how could he leave anyone to burn in hell eternally?  I understood that he was God and he wasn’t obligated to save anyone.  But if he had the power to save anyone and everyone, why wouldn’t he do so?

This question provoked the most disturbing answer: “For his glory.”  Those three words stick in my mind to this day.  The idea is that without condemning the majority of people to hell, us lucky ones couldn’t fully understand the mercy he had bestowed upon us and hence, would not give God the respect and glory he deserved.

But why do we all deserve to go to hell?  Well, that was the first point of Calvinism (in case I’d forgotten): Total Depravity.  Basically, this means that because Adam and Eve ate that apple, we are all born into sin and thus, deserve to burn in hell for all eternity.

But wait.  If God predestines all things, didn’t he predestine Adam and Eve to eat the apple?  Right.

So what I’m getting from this conversation is that God decided to make some creatures to impress with the fact that he is God (besides angels, which he already had, and whose express purpose was to worship and glorify him).   Then he decided that the best way to make these creatures glorify him was to create an artificial test that they were bound to fail, but that would give him the excuse to roast them in fire for all eternity.  Then he would save a select group of these people who, when they saw what happened to their peers, would bow down and thank God eternally for not roasting them.

Hmmm.

This was not the way to look at Calvinism at all, I was told.  My pastor once used the analogy of a child who had been kidnapped and a father coming to rescue him.  “Would the father say, ‘Son, I’m here to rescue you, but you have to do something first!’.  Of course not.  The father would come swooping in, scoop the child up in his arms, and bring him safely home.”  This analogy made sense at first but the more accurate (and appalling) analogy , I contended, would be a father who had two sons kidnapped.  He comes to the rescue, scooping one child up in his arms, but leaving the other behind because he wants the one he rescued to fully understand how important the rescue was and how awesome the father was for rescuing him.

My Sunday School teacher left the church shortly after our conversation in the parking lot that day.  I wasn’t told why, but I’ve always thought it was a direct result of the theological impasse we had come to while sitting there, tossing pebbles at trees on the edge of the property.

That’s almost certainly not the case, but the point remains that the theology of my church never sat well with me and now, 15 years later, I’m finally calling it out in a (semi)public way.  Predestination makes no sense.  It’s a logical deduction theologians have made based on the assumption that God is all-powerful.  However, all evidence that I can find points to a literal ‘battle’ between good and evil – not some artificial narrative God made up to pointlessly point out the fact that he is God to his own creation.

Starting with Genesis 1, Adam and Eve are given the ‘choice’ to eat the fruit of the ‘knowledge of good and evil’.  They become ‘like God’ knowing the horrifying difference between the two – something God has known about for a long time already.

Then we have Israelites who are called over and over again to repentance.  They are punished and rewarded for the ‘choices’ they make.  All of the prophets’ pleading and begging and threatening is pretty pointless if God is just gonna smite whoever anyway.

Then we have Jesus who came into the world so that “WHOEVER believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”  This passage gives the impression that Jesus died for everyone, and that everyone has the freedom to choose to accept his sacrifice.

Then we’re called on to go around and let everyone know about this and offer them the choice to accept God’s forgiveness.  My pastor used to decry the “hyper-Calvinism” of certain reformed churches that didn’t believe in evangelism, but isn’t this belief the logical conclusion of Calvinism?  What’s the point of witnessing when God has already selected the people he will save?

A silly argument that I’ve heard over and over again is that by asking us to make the choice to believe in Jesus’s saving grace, we are diminishing God’s power and taking credit for our own salvation.  Ridiculous!  Did we live a life without sin?  Did we die a horrible, horrible death?  Of course not.  All we did was believe that God did this for us.  This is heroic equivalent of grabbing on to a life guard when he swims out to save us from drowning.  In my opinion, it is much more insulting to God, much more a diminishing of his power, to suggest that he would need to create people with the illusion of free-will to torture and spare from torture just so he could feel good about himself.

Speaking of the illusion of free-will, there is, of course, what we call general revelation.  One of the first things we understand as children is that we have the option to behave or misbehave.  One question my brother and sister-in-law ask their daughter that demonstrates this is: “Are we going to make good choices today?” Arguably, the first way we understand our faith is that God is the ‘good guy’ and Satan is the ‘bad guy’ and that they are fighting with each other.  We get to choose which side we want to be on. Also arguably, pretty much every single book, movie, television show, and video game ever created carries the theme of good vs. evil and the choices people make with regard to them.

What we come to understand, however, is that we can’t be good on our own.  We will inevitably choose to act selfishly, to hurt others – even, and especially, the ones we love.  We do all deserve to burn in hell when you come right down to it.  That sounds offensive to a lot of people, but I challenge those people to look back and remember the most selfish, shameful thing you’ve ever done and see if you don’t feel like casting yourself into hell at that point.  And that’s where God steps in.  In the person of Jesus he lived perfectly, then credited that perfection to our account through his sacrifice on the cross.  All we have to do is repent and accept his forgiveness.  There are plenty of people who choose not to accept him, obviously.  But we all have a conscience and we all know we’ve failed at being good; that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’

But he has offered us salvation.  All we have to do is accept his mercy.  It’s pretty incredible and God gets all the glory he wants and deserves.

Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 6:06 pm  Comments (3)  

Strange Comfort – or – No, this isn’t a quote from ‘The Shack’

Speaking of God the Father, I came across this passage a few months ago that really stood out to me as showing something of the true character of God. It’s when God meets with Elijah at a particularly frustrating point in his career as prophet in Kings 19.

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”

I’ve meant to write about this one for a long time but have never really been able to fully grasp it. I really don’t have much to say about it except that I find it tremendously comforting and hope, maybe, you will too.

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Proverbs 2:3-5

…if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,

4 and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,

5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.

Published in: on September 14, 2009 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

To Walk Justly and to Love Mercy – or – How Dog the Bounty Hunter Helps Me Make Sense of God

So lately I’ve been depressed (and by lately i mean for the last ten years or so) as I consider the fact that no one seems to share my understanding of Christian faith. With all the various denominations and the myriad churches in the world, I feel like I ought to be able to find a group of people who espouse the faith and understand it exactly the way I do. I’ve visited dozens of churches, participated in numerous bible studies, and read lots of books but nobody’s precise view of faith, it seems, lines up exactly with my own.

Until now.

Last night I watched an episode of ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’. Dog is a real-life bounty hunter who, with a team of family members, travels the country and gets paid to bring wanted criminals into custody. Dog is a total badass. He looks like Mickey Rourke except about 6 inches taller, 50lbs. heavier, and sporting a platinum blond mullet, the likes of which I’ve never seen paralleled in my 28 years.

Hot on the tail of a particular felon, Dog, his wife, two sons, and a few other team members strap on bulletproof vests and load their black suburbans with guns and other weaponry.  “Let’s go get this asshole,” Dog says (or something to that effect – there are plenty of bleeps in the show).  Then his wife says, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”  When Dog responds with a blank look, his wife says matter-of-factly, “We didn’t pray.”

The family proceeds to circle up, join hands, and Dog prays for blessing and protection upon themselves and their targets.  “In Jesus name, Amen,” Dog says. Then it’s off to get those mother f-ers.

This pre-attack prayer was definitely unsettling, especially if you’ve never seen the show and don’t know that this is how the group routinely operates.  But as the hunt progresses, one gets to witness this seeming paradox in action.

At one point, while Dog is searching an apartment complex for his target, he stumbles upon a couple having a domestic dispute which has worked its way out onto the balcony of the building.  Dog feels it is his duty to intervene.  He questions the couple, the woman holding a 1 year old baby all the while.

“Did he fucking hit you?” he demands.  “Did you fucking hit her?”  He turns to the man.  Then his tone suddenly shifts.  “Don’t you love her?  Isn’t she important to you?  Look at her.  She’s beautiful.  How could you hit a woman like that?”

The discussion goes on for a while and Dog refuses to leave until the couple hug one another and the man vows to give up drinking and never to hit his girlfriend again.  “Cause if you do, I’ll come back and beat the shit out of you,” he concludes.  And he’s serious.  He gives the woman his card so she can call him if her boyfriend gets out of hand.  He vows to personally return and beat the shit out of this man.  But for now, the couple is reconciled.

Dog is by no means inconspicuous.  His crew seems to be as much about style as they are about substance.  This is evidenced most clearly in Dog’s wife, who sports a camo tank-top, leather pants, stiletto heals (in which she is surprisingly agile) and a pair of hot pink handcuffs to top it all off.  The crew role into a housing project 12-strong in shiny, black suburbans and proceed to make a big scene and I wonder how they ever catch anyone being so noisy.

The suspect is not at home.  But they talk to the building’s superintendent who tells them how the man beats his wife and comes home drunk all the time.  The suspect happens to cruise by.  A chase ensues with no success.  Then, finally, on a hunch, Dog decides to lead the entire brigade right back to the housing project, theorizing that the suspect will try and grab some stuff from his apartment before taking it on the lam.

Everyone in his family thinks he’s crazy, but he turns out to be right.  The suspect, along with his battered girlfriend and child are cornered in the parking lot.

Dog’s sons do the dirty work. “Get on the ground! Put your fucking hands in the air!”  And Dog’s wife has a few choice words for the suspect.  Her tirade lasts quite a while but can be summarized as “you are a worthless, wife-beating piece of shit.”

But after all the physical rough-housing and verbal smackdown, everyone sort of calms down.  Dog gives the suspect a cigarette and starts up a conversation, reassuring him that he’s doing the right thing by facing the music.  His wife counsels the suspects girlfriend on places she can go to get help, how she can turn her life around.  And the episode ends with Dog riding in the backseat of the Suburban with his suspect, giving him advice on how to turn his life around and what kinds of jobs he can get when he gets out of prison.  Dog admits that he, himself, is a convicted felon and tells how he was able to make something of himself.

I think that what I like about Dog is that he is so human in so many ways.  He is decidedly Christian and he has the desire to do good in the world.  He talks about how he wants to get at these suspects before the police do because he wants to talk to them.  He has a message to deliver, and it’s that you can be forgiven and you can turn your life around.  At the same time, he has the ability to get really pissed off at people when they do bad stuff.  And he has no qualms giving these people a good thumping if he deems it necessary.  The shift back and forth between these modes is bizarre and unsettling.  One minute he’s pinning someone to the ground calling them a motherfucker. The next minute they’re hugging (you’d be surprised how many people end up getting hugged in this show).

But when I think about it, I can see a lot of Dog in myself.  I am a Christian and as such, I strive to be Christ-like, which means being humble, merciful, forgiving and loving.  But when I read certain unsettling stories in the news such as the story of the kidnapping and 18-year imprisonment of that little girl in California this past week, I am filled with rage. Dog’s foul language seems not to jive with his Christianity, but when I read about these people, the same words leap to my mind.  I want to see those people pay.  I want to see them punished for the evil they’ve done.  Perhaps these dual drives reside in all of us, but unlike most of us, Dog lives them out on a daily basis.

But perhaps, also, this explains something about God.

Personally, I have always struggled to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the Jesus of the New Testament.  I know a lot of Christians and non-Christians who have also had difficulty with this issue.  They just seem so different.  One is often angered and prone to strike out in wrath.  The suffers humbly and turns other turns the other cheek.  One demands sacrifices for atonement.  The other boldly forgives peoples’ sins. How can they be the same person?

In a way, Dog solves this confusion for me.  Watching him display these conflicting impulses from moment to moment helps personify it, makes it relatable.  And, strangely, it’s comforting for me to think of God as being a lot like Dog.  He cares about us and loves us.  He wants what’s best for us.  But when he sees the horrible crap that we do to each other he gets pissed.  And he has no qualms about laying a righteous beat-down on your stupid ass when you get out of hand.  But, like Dog, he’s always ready to hug us, to welcome us back into the fold, to accept our repentance, give us another chance and love us no matter what.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 12:10 pm  Comments (3)  

Job 13:3

But I desire to speak to the Almighty
and to argue my case with God.

Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 11:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Welcome to Sword Drills – or – Disclaimer.

Welcome to Sword Drills.  I am not a pastor, theologian, or biblical scholar.  Just a person of faith with serious hopes and doubts, observations and aspirations.  This blog is not meant to preach at/to people.  It’s just a way for me to share all my crazy thoughts on faith.

Posts promise to be all over the map.  They may even contradict themselves.  But I think all of us have been all over the map and contradicted ourselves from time to time.  In a way this blog may more closely resemble the makeup of a true spiritual journey in that way than many books or websites that are more closely edited or ‘message-oriented.’

Anyway, I hope you’ll take it with a grain of salt.  I hope you’ll identify with something you read here.  Maybe get a new insight or at least a laugh out of it.  Thanks for reading.

-Jon

Published in: on May 1, 2009 at 3:18 pm  Comments (4)