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Preaching a God you do not like

May 10, 2011 1 comment

I suppose if I did the math (and I did do the math) a person who is my age has had 1,836 Sundays.  I was a camp counselor for 6 summers: that’s about 300 campfire times.  I’ve also had chapels at both college and seminary.  That’s 7 years of chapels making roughly 910 chapel services.  Then there are all the worship services after that which break down to probably 750 where I’ve preached or participated in leading worship.  A rough total of about 3,800 corporate worship services.  I’m not trying to brag.  I know my heart, and I could have used twice that for sure.  But I want to make a point with the number.

I have never once heard a preacher, including myself, say the thing I want to say this week.  “I don’t like the God I see in this passage.”

Why is that?  Well, it’s either because the person preaching does like the God they see in the passage, or they’re afraid of admitting what they feel, or it’s just taboo to be honest in that way from behind the pulpit, or church politics would usher them out the door afterwards, or they are stuck on the idea that a worshiper must be in a perpetual state of praise.  I understand all that.  I do.  But the fact of the matter is that this week I’m preaching on Genesis 22.

It’s where God asks Abraham to take his son, his only son, Isaac, the one he loves and sacrifice him on an altar.  What kind of a person does that?  What kind of a God does that?  This is the son God promised an old barren couple.  This is the son who is to be the beginning of a world-wide blessing.  This is Abraham’s flesh and blood.  What kind of misuse of power is this by God?  Why test someone like that?  I don’t like the God I see here.  I would not want to go out to lunch with this God.  This kind of God should not expect my love and gratitude and worship.

You might be thinking, “Yah, but God supplies a ram before Abraham can go through with it.”  So?  The boy was bound, laying on a pile of wood, and the knife was on its descent toward his lifeblood and it’s supposed to make it OK that God stopped him at that point?  Not for me.  I don’t like it, and in this story…I don’t like God.

I have to be able to say that.  I have to be able to say it in church on Sunday because of the kind of faith community we want to be.  We desire to be a place of authenticity – where you can be yourself and honestly engage scripture and the living God who breathed life into both the words and into us.

Pastors are given a big responsibility – be honest with God’s word and with God’s people.  And while I have great love and respect for Bill Wayland, my boyhood pastor, camp chaplains, college chaplains, seminary speakers, Perry DeGroot and others who have preached God’s word to me in the past, I’m hoping to break the cycle in a healthy way.  I don’t think any of them ever lied to me, but they protected me, and I’m not sure that’s a service to the hearer.

I’m no homeletics professor, but I know this: preachers are not only teaching God’s word, they also are teaching how to honestly engage God.  And in a church plant I’m surrounded by people who can sniff a half-truth better than most.  And if I ease past something like this, I’ve lost them…and I really shouldn’t be surprised if they never came back.  People are looking for a lot of things: comfort? yes. inspiration? yes. But they also look for truth – and not the “we can stand in the face of the world holding this truth to their noses” kind of truth.  Sometimes just a little “I don’t like the God I see in this passage” kind of truth goes a long way.  It’s permission, basically.  Permission to feel what they feel – or maybe just what I feel.

This story may not show a God I like, but it’s the God I have, and…the God I dearly love.  I think I may need to end there both today and on Sunday.

Handles

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I had a great cup of coffee this morning with Adam Nelson.  He’s one of our worship leaders.  Senior at hope, great musician, and wonderful person.  One of the things we talked about was frustration he has felt in the past over certain songs that he’s needed to lead at various worship gatherings.  Not necessarily at Embody.  I understand his frustration.  Some Christian songs can be trite or shallow or not overly creative and lacking in musicality.  Then there are the songs that don’t really click with me…some old and some new.  Personal preference, right?

Two stories for you: one mine and one second-hand.  Second-hand first.  Seminary professor recalled his experience as a seminary student in a class with a cynical professor (Not WTS, by the way).  The professor was talking about the church’s regular obsession with “Just Jesus And Me” type of theology.  You know the type – where there’s no thought to a full community of believers.  It’s easy to fall into, and can be quite comforting at times.  Anyway, the professor was making fun of the song “I Come To The Garden Alone” and singing it in a mocking nasal voice.  Kind of mean, I think, but…anyway.

After the class a young female student approached him with the power of righteous anger in her voice and eyes.  “Don’t you ever make fun of that song again, professor.  When I was a girl I would go into my back yard and sing that song every night after my father molested me.  It was all I had to hang on to, and don’t you ever make fun of it again.”

Another story: mine from last Sunday.  I was pretty excited because we were going to sing a song that Alex just loves.  He listens to the CD every night as he goes to sleep and sings the song over and over.  I hear him humming it or singing it at the oddest, most random times.  I told him we would be playing it on Sunday and he was excited.  As we ran through it in rehearsal I looked to him at his new drum expecting to see a big smile.  He was shaking his head and frowning.  After we made eye contact he left in the middle of the song to talk with me.

“The song isn’t right, dad.  It’s all different.”  He’s on the verge of crying.  I can see this is VERY serious for him, and so…it is for me, too right now.  I say, “What’s wrong with it?”  “Everything!” he says emphatically.  “Give me something specific, Alex, and maybe we can fix it.”  “Everything, dad.”  “Can you pinpoint something for me?”  I’m trying not to smile because this is the most important thing in his world right now and I don’t want to minimize it or trivialize it.  “Think of the whole song…and that’s what’s wrong with it, dad.”

Eventually we pointed out three things that were different between what he listened to every night and what we were offering up that particular morning. 1. The instruments sounded different. (I gently explain that the CD was produced in a studio with more and different instruments)  2. The melody changed in one spot. (our worship leader explains she had to change that because his CD is with a boy singing and she can’t hit those notes, so had to change it a little)  3. The song starts differently…more quietly.  I’m so relieved, because here is thing we can change.  “Can we change that, Christina?” I ask.  “Of course, that’s a great suggestion.”

Alex isn’t into Sunday School, and doesn’t jive with sermons so much yet, but the music…the music is his connection to Christ right now.  It’s his handle on the faith.  And he takes it very seriously.

The young seminary student had a horrific upbringing with heinous crimes against her, but one song (no matter the theology) was her connection to God.  It was her one handle on the faith.  And she took it very seriously.

I think it’s only Christian to allow everybody to have their handles and not force our handles upon them.  To give space for someone who needs a certain style or song or organ or guitar.  Who do we think we are if we are going to force someone to hold on to faith with handles other than their own?  Jesus reaches out to each of us as individuals…all together.  Sometimes we come to the garden alone, and other times we enter that holy space holding hands with each other.  Each at our own place and with our own needs.

Communion Police

December 7, 2010 1 comment

I’ve begun asking some questions about communion or The Lord’s Supper.  I know what my professors at seminary would say, and I respect them a lot, but is there something beyond what we can explain in textbooks?  I would venture a guess that many of my professors would probably say, “yes.”

In a church plant you have to walk some fine lines when it comes to church order and practical theology.  There are certain rules and ways of practicing the institution of communion that make good sense and make for a healthy life together as a church.  They can,  however, make things tricky in our setting.

For instance, when you create a welcoming space for worship where those who don’t believe are welcome to participate in the life of the body without believing, it can sound odd to then say, “everything but this.”  Now, you can say, it’s like a carrot, but at the very least it’s tricky.

There’s a part of the liturgy that invites all people who are baptized and members of a Christian church to participate in the meal together.  Confession time: I don’t say that.  I say something like this: “If you believe Jesus is the Son of God and put your faith in Him for salvation, you’re welcome to participate.  If not, that’s OK, because that’s where you are right now – you can feel free to come foreward also and receive a blessing.”

We don’t have communion police, and I don’t withhold the meal from those who I know to be questioning those very things.  I understand there are many who might say we are eating and drinking condemnation upon ourselves, but my hope is this: that there is something mystical in the elements or in the act of coming forward or in making the move with the feet and hands and mouth that creates a connection with Christ.  Is there something in the this non-Christian taking that step?  I think God blesses that and meets them there – somehow.

I’m holding the cup and as each person comes forward I’m praying for their faith and for the efficacy of Christ in their life.  What happens in holy Communion?  I’m not sure, but I’m praying for some miracle in the lives of those who participate.

Ebay, my moral compass

September 13, 2010 2 comments

Let me begin this post by saying that I love my son.

Now let me say that I gritted my teeth a whole bunch tonight.  Dana is out of town on business, and I remembered last minute that I had not made arrangements for Alex after school while I went to a class I’m auditing at Western Seminary.  So, midday I called a friend who was willing to pick him up from school and drop him off at our childcare provider until after my class.

When I came to pick him up I learned that he had been, for lack of a better word, horrendous.  He caused a lot of damage with his sharp little tongue in his brief hour and a half.  Enough so that I had to count much higher than 10 frequently all evening long.

It’s painful for me.  Yes because I hate knowing that my son will have to learn the hard way about his mouth.  Yes because I can see myself in him at that age (I helped a lot of Sunday School teachers retire).  Yes because this is my friend who cares for my children on a regular basis, and I hate that my child, whom she loves dearly, would return harshness for the love she gives him so freely.

But mostly it’s painful for me because I feel a bit like a failure.  It’s my pride, if I’m honest.  Of course I want my child to grow into the calling he’s received.  Of course I want him to show love in the face of hatred and peace in the face of hostility and honesty in the face of deceit.  But if I’m honest, I am unfortunately concerned too much for the name he carries with him to school and amongst friends: Daniels.  It reflects on me.

I see myself here.  I see what you are probably thinking: Come on Daniels!  The kid is 7 and you need to get over yourself.  Quit being a prideful, arrogant jerk.  Ok.  Well-repremanded.  Just thought I would be honest with you and say that I do not miss the larger thing here (and yes, it’s about me again – no need to point out my excessive navel-gazing): I carry a name with me inside and outside the house, in my job and in my parenting: Christ.  “O to be like Thee.”

In Germany a couple lost custody of their 7-month old child after jokingly trying to sell him on Ebay for one Euro.  Ebay, thank you for being a moral compass for me today.  Without you and the poor jokers who learned a tough lesson, I might have made the same mistake today.

Beginning and End

May 10, 2010 1 comment

Ray Weiss Accepting His Award

I saw two ends of a spectrum today.  I started with going to a dinner to honor distinguished alumni from Western Seminary.  One of the persons honored was Rev. Dr. Raymond Weiss.  There’s a long list of things he has done (pastor, missionary in the Middle East, professor, etc.).  Here’s how I remember him: he was a professor of mine at Northwestern College and more importantly a retired minister who gave me my “Piety” exam for East Sioux Classis.  Today I approached him and thanked him for the latter of these.  My thanks went something like this: “I never felt more loved and cared for by the classis than in the middle of those piety exams…thank you.”

Directly after the fancy schmancy dinner I walked to Western’s graduation…sorry…”commencement”.  Here well-trained, bright-eyed, big-planned, humble, excited, called, and gracious students became graduates of Western with a Masters of Divinity degree (which sounds absurd to master such a thing).  They are on the first few steps of the path that Ray Weiss is completing.

Why am I telling you this on a blog about planting a new church?  Because I hope that Embody can be a place where people learn how to finish well.  I hope that I will be a person who finishes well.  It’s one thing to follow Jesus…it’s another thing to follow him to your grave without straying from the path toward the end.  It’s a totally beautiful thing to walk closely with Jesus until the final breath and speak His name with my final exhalation.

Ray Weiss…he’s a distinguished alumn of Western Seminary.  He has a plaque for his wall now, but to me, the words on the plaque should read: A Long Obedience In The Same Direction.  Ray…I want to walk that way.  I want to show others how it’s done.  Thanks for leading the way.

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