Pastor's Blog

Over a year ago some folks suggested that I make my blog more about myself and not so much about theology.  I launched into a chronological biography, but I keep getting sidetracked because I believe the events of my life are not nearly as important as the thinking (including theology) that drove (or accompanied) those events. 

Right now, I’m discussing my flirtation with atheism in the 90’s.  Much of the struggle in my head involved God’s apparent lack of personal involvement in the world.  Despite evangelicalism’s promise of a “personal relationship with God”, I found God to be impersonal and removed from life.  When it really mattered, the God who is supposed to intervene and do miracles often did not.  In fact, many times He allowed horrible things to happen to people – even to helpless babies and children.

The divine silence was often accompanied by evangelicals who had become adept at covering for God with quaint clichés.
                “It mustn’t have been God’s will . . .”
                “All things happen for a reason.  We just don’t know what that reason is yet.”
                “God always answers prayer.  It’s just that sometimes the answer is ‘no’ – or ‘not yet’.”
And one of my favorites:
                “Your friend didn’t die.  She received the ultimate healing.”  (I think this is horrible theology.  But a response will have to wait for another time.)

My atheist friends ripped the veneer off this sort of talk and exposed it as nonsense.  Religion, they said, is just a lie serving as a crutch to help you get through the ugliness of real life, not a courageous acceptance of reality.  Why do you take comfort in a pretty lie rather than facing an ugly truth?

That made sense to me and I explored the merits of a worldview without God.  In the process I ended up ripping the veneer off atheism’s own refusal to face reality head-on (see my earlier blogs), and I decided that perhaps evangelical Christianity was worth a second look – albeit through different glasses.  My flirtation with atheism left me a residual irreverent attitude and approach to many things evangelical.  Some of my churched friends find this distasteful about me.  I can understand that.  Pastors aren’t supposed to be irreverent.  I think, however, they fail to understand me.

My irreverence derives from the story of Job.  God allowed Satan to devastate Job’s life.  Job remained faithful but demanded to know the reasoning behind the tragedies of his life.  Instead of a tender, compassionate response, God stepped up, guns blazing, and argued that Job was too finite and small to understand God’s vastness or the reasoning for God’s actions.  Job responds with a humble zipping of the lip and a willing acceptance of God’s points.

I can’t improve on the wisdom of the book of Job.  The writer is not suggesting that Job’s complaints were unwarranted or unreasonable.  Job’s feelings of pain and confusion are completely understandable.  Sympathizing, then, with complaints against God by a sufferer, however irreverent it may seem, is not unwarranted or unreasonable.  I am not fearful of engaging in it.

On the flip side, the counsel of traditional theology offered by Job’s friends (i.e. we only suffer because we have sinned) is revealed to be simplistic and baseless -- and so I have no qualms about offering irreverent ridicule to those who talk such nonsense.

The author of Job is also suggesting that humanity is unable to grasp God’s mind.  I am – we are all -- too finite, too limited, to grasp God’s reasons for hard things.  But if I can’t grasp His reasoning, I can’t too well defend Him either, can I now?  I don’t believe I’m called to defend every difficult situation, or explain it, or understand it.  I confess that I can’t understand or explain or defend it.  If God wants me to defend some of these things, He needs to provide me with more ammo.  Until He does, He’s on His own.

“But if you don’t answer,” you may ask, “how are atheists ever going to come to the faith?” 

To which I say:  “That’s God’s problem to solve, not mine.”

That’s a little taste of what I mean by “irreverence”.  It’s an irreverence born of faith, not unbelief;  of respect, and not disrespect, for God and the truth.

 

Evangelicals talk about "God things" or "God moments".  I call such things Providence, and reading providence is how I live my life.  In my walk with God I don’t hear voices or see visions, nor do I seek or ask for miracles or signs.  God is welcome to intervene with miracles any time He wishes.  That's up to Him.  Until He does, I read Providence.  I believe that God is always working in, through, and behind the ordinary circumstances and events of life.  To walk with Him, I look at my options, try to avoid folly and sin and try to make the wisest choices.  The choices I make set up the next series of events, along with whatever else Providence adds to the mix – and I make the next choice.

One of the first providences I remember reading had to do with my choice of college.  I had been accepted at Penn State for architectural engineering, but several people suggested, independently of each other, that I demonstrated the gifting necessary for the ministry.  I took that as a Providence that I ought to at least look at career options in ministry.  It was March 1978 and I would be graduating high school in June.  It was late to change course from Penn State.  I knew nothing about Bible colleges or ministry preparation.  The leaders of our youth ministry recommended Bob Jones University in South Carolina.  They happened to be taking a group of prospective students to tour Bob Jones that month and I signed on for the trip. 

Let’s just say that weekend was not one of the best of my life.  I was disappointed with the school.  Bob Jones was definitely not  for me.  It looked like I’d be going to Penn State for architecture.

When I got home my parents excitedly shared with me that while I was away in South Carolina, a group of missionary kids from Baptist Bible College of PA had spent the weekend at our church and led a youth group retreat.  One of those missionary kids had stayed at our house – slept in my bed while I was at Bob Jones – and my parents were quite impressed with him and thought it might be worthwhile for me to look into Baptist Bible College.

There were some odd things about this little series of events.  First, I hadn’t heard ANYTHING about the coming of these missionary kids or this youth group retreat.  To this day I have no idea how that happened.  I was very involved with our youth group.  But somehow this event was never on my calendar.  Second, our church had never had a connection to Baptist Bible College and didn’t have one at that time.  Our pastor was a Lancaster Bible College grad and our youth leaders supported Bob Jones and Word of Life Bible Institute.  How that missionary kids team found its way to our church that weekend I still don't know.  To my knowledge, that particular weekend is the only weekend that Baptist Bible College ever had a connection with my home church.

The unique oddities involved intrigued me.  I trusted that the entire arrangement was of God, and we set up a visit to BBC in April.  Even at that late date, the college welcomed me for a visit.  I sat in on a class on the Psalms led by a professor who ended up becoming one of my favorite teachers.  He was weighty and deep and yet wonderfully practical.  I drank in every word that he said.

Furthermore, the campus of the college was formerly Catholic monastery.  The Catholic architecture created a familiar atmosphere for me, and the biblical teaching I heard fed my soul.  Everything about Bob Jones had seemed foreign, cold, and unwelcoming.  Everything about BBC fit me.  I didn’t agonize in fasting and prayer about the decision, worrying about whether I was "in God's will".  I “read the providence“, applied to the school, and was accepted.  I took the acceptance, even at such a late date as a providence, and began my college career there in September 1978.

That is the first providence I recall reading -- the first of many that have led me up to this very day.

The sterile hospital room was quiet except for the occasional beeps and clicks of the machinery that kept the motionless patient’s heart pumping and lungs expanding and contracting.  The dear soul had no brain activity.

I was standing out in the hall with the family as the doctor tried to tell them in soft tones that there was no hope.  Proper etiquette wouldn’t let him say that absolutely.  Doctors always leave a pinpoint of hope and family members want to grasp that point of hope, want to grasp anything,  rather than make the decision that no one ever wants to have to make.

I’ve been with families in that situation more than once.  And somehow there always seems to be a well-intentioned evangelical that shows up to break the weighty silence, spurring everyone on to faith in a God who raises the dead and to continue in fervent prayer for a modern-day miracle.  There was such an evangelical in this case – several, in fact. 

This poor family, torn between the grim facts and their faith in God, looked with pleading eyes to me to weigh in.  I said something to this effect: “The God who does miracles is on the throne.  If we allow the doctors to turn off the machines, we will find out if God wants to do a miracle.”  After some deliberation together, the family decided to trust God and turn off the machines. 

There was no miracle.

Perhaps my counsel seems unsettling to some.  It was based on a simple distinction between ‘miracle’ and ‘providence’.  If you wanted the machines kept on, you weren’t trusting God for a miracle.  You were hoping for a providence.  But a miracle really was what was needed in a case like this one.

My approach to the Christian life is simple.  Expect providence.  Make responsible decisions using the knowledge and wisdom you have at hand and trust God to work in, through, and behind the ordinary processes of life.  God can intervene and do a miracle if He wishes.  We have no promise or guarantee that He will do so.  That decision is entirely up to Him.  It’s up to us  to trust God’s decision.

I don’t know why some evangelicals expect God to do miracles every day.  God never promised that.  If miracles took place every day, they wouldn’t be extraordinary.  We’d see them as ordinary, as commonplaces, maybe even as the workings of nature.  The whole point of miracles is that they don’t happen every day.  Their rarity is part of what gives them their character as ‘miracles’.

One of the key biblical terms for “miracle” is the word “sign” (Greek semeion).  A sign doesn’t draw attention to itself.  Rather, a sign points to something else, and the important thing is not the sign but what it points to.  The signs done by Jesus were not merely about getting people healthy;  Jesus left many ill people in their stricken conditions.  The signs He did were cases specially chosen by the Father, cases that would confirm the authority of Jesus and the truth of His message to the people that needed that confirmation.  It would seem that a miracle done today should serve the same purpose.

My faith doesn’t need miracles.  The resurrection of Jesus is enough.  I’m perfectly happy to see God working providentially – what people call “God things” or “God moments” – in, through, and behind the ordinary processes of my ordinary life.

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