What a Fellowship!

donating_clothesEditor’s note: A few weeks ago Beth Fogg told me such a good story I insisted she write it up and submit it for publication.  She did.  She wrote it up and sent it to me.  So, I’m publishing it here and hoping you will find it as encouraging as I did.  Thanks for sharing, Beth!

I am privileged to be one of the many people who gather in the basement of Richmond’s First Baptist Church on Wednesday mornings for Community Missions.  There we gather as a team of volunteers to pray for each other and for our guests as we prepare for their arrival.  Then we welcome our guests with a brief time of devotion and prayer before working together to meet the needs of our homeless and near-homeless brothers and sisters for hot showers, clean clothes and food.  It has become a real community for me, and is one of the highlights of my week.

It is a place of trust and caring.  We all pray for each other, joke with each other, and love each other.  The fellowship is real.

On a recent Wednesday, two different guests brought something for us.  One guest brought a bag of clothing, newly washed and neatly folded, that she no longer needed.  She wanted to share back with others who have needs.  Another friend brought a bag with a variety of items to donate back, including about 20 washcloths.  We had just been discussing that we were running low on washcloths when the gift arrived!

I can only recall one previous time that I received a gift from a homeless person.  It is a humbling experience.  As a person who has more than she needs, I am motivated to come closer to the spirit of the early Christians described in Acts 4, as they made sure that none of the fellowship was in need.

I am thankful to be part of a church that shares love with our neighbors and receives it back from them!

–Beth Fogg

Freedom Isn’t Easy

Hal-SmithBack in 1984 I got fired from my job.

I had only been married a year.  I had a wife at home who was depending on me for income.  I didn’t know what to do.

So, I called my dad, and he said, “Son, I believe everybody should get fired at least once, and spend at least one night in jail.”

That didn’t really help much, but it was an interesting thought.  A few years later, when I was in seminary, I thought I would try that other thing dad mentioned, spending a night in jail.  I had a friend at seminary who was just crazy enough to try it with me.  So, what we did is go to the county courthouse and sit there all morning waiting for the judge to work through his other cases.  When everyone else had gone he looked at us and said, “What are you here for?”

I said, “May I approach the bench, your honor?”

He said yes.  I came up and said, “My friend and I are students at the seminary.  We think it would be a good experience for us, as future ministers, to spend at least one night in jail, so we’ll know what it’s like, and so we can have more understanding and empathy for people who find themselves in such unfortunate circumstances.”

He said, “You want to spend a night in jail?”

“Yes sir.”

He laughed and said, “Well, I’d love to accommodate you boys, but the truth is, my jail is full.  We got three inmates in cells built for two.  You might go over to the next county and see if you have any more luck.  And so we did.  We spent all afternoon in another courthouse, but at the end of the day the story was the same.  They didn’t have room for us.

So, I still don’t know what it’s like to spend a night in jail, but maybe some of you do, and maybe you know that for all the things you could complain about there are some things that are not so bad.  I heard someone trying to look on the bright side once who said, “Well, at least you get three hots and a cot!”  And what he meant was three hot meals a day and place to lie down at night.

And some people seem to be more comfortable with that than with freedom.

In our Old Testament lesson for this Sunday God’s people have escaped their slavery in Egypt, they have been led out into the wilderness by God’s mighty hand, but there, in the wilderness, they begin to miss the comforts of their old life.

“Oh, that we were back in Egypt,” they moaned, “and that the Lord had killed us there! For there we had plenty to eat. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to kill us with starvation” (Exodus 16:3).

Freedom isn’t easy for any of us, but God seems to believe it’s worth it.

I hope you will join us for worship at 8:30 or 11:00 this Sunday at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, in person or via our LIVE webcast at www.FBCRichmond.org.

–Jim Somerville

 

Are we supposed to be afraid of God?

holygrail049Sunday’s sermon touched on some questions I’ve been getting in “Talkback,” my weekly question-and-answer sessions with First Baptist Church’s adult Sunday school classes.  This excerpt deals with one of those questions.

Sometimes, in my Talkback sessions, someone will ask about that biblical expression, “the fear of the Lord.”  “Are we supposed to be afraid of God?” they ask.  No.  That’s not what the word fear means, not in that context.  It means something more like “awe,” or “reverence,” or “profound respect.”  But you can see where the word came from, can’t you?  From an experience like this one at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19): where Moses went up to receive the Ten Commandments and the people trembled in fear before the mountain of the Lord.  And when the writer of Proverbs said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (9:10), he had something like this in mind, where you have such reverence, such awe, such profound respect for God that when God says, “Thou shalt not” do something then “Thou dost not” do it!  And this really is what wisdom is all about in the Old Testament: it’s about listening to God, and doing what he says, so that your life will turn out well.  If you don’t believe it just try not listening to God, and not doing what he says.  Try murdering and stealing and lying and cheating and worshiping idols and dishonoring your parents and then tell me how your life turns out.

That’s why these are not the Ten Suggestions, but the Ten Commandments; it’s because God doesn’t want our lives to turn out badly.  That’s why he put “the fear of the Lord” in his people all those years ago: so they would sit up straight, and pay attention, and do what he said.  But as I said in Talkback last Sunday we seem to be losing that, and it’s not only in the way we treat the Bible.  I think about how we come to worship these days, or how we don’t come to worship.  This place, for example, has been consecrated as a sanctuary.  It has been set apart for the worship of God.  When we come here we come to meet with him.  And yet we sometimes saunter in, talking and laughing with others, unwrapping a fresh stick of chewing gum, as if we were coming to a basketball game.  Where is our reverence?  Where is our awe?  And when it comes to Jesus, we talk about him as if he were an old friend, or at least someone who used to be a friend.  And maybe when that happens what we need more than anything else is a healthy dose of Transfiguration.

Because on that day Jesus went up on a mountain with a few of his old friends and something happened.  His face began to shine like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light, and suddenly Moses and Elijah were standing there with him.  And poor Peter!  Can you imagine?  Where only moments before there had been Jesus, a dusty carpenter from Nazareth with bread crumbs in his beard, now there was this angel of light.  “Rabbi!” he stammered. “It’s a good thing we’re here.  Do you want us to build three shelters, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah?”  He didn’t know what to say.  But no sooner were the words out of his mouth than a bright cloud settled on the mountain, just like the cloud that settled on Mount Sinai all those years before.  And there may have been thunder and lighting, there may have been the sound of a trumpet, the whole mountain may have trembled just as it did back then but one thing is certain: a voice spoke from that cloud and the voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  And that’s when they fell on their faces in fear.

I don’t mean “reverence” or “awe.”  I don’t mean “profound respect.”  I mean fear—good old-fashioned fear, where you have trouble breathing, and your heart starts to pound, and your chest gets tight, and your legs begin to shake.  There was a belief in those days that to look on the face of God was to die, and there they were, those disciples, looking on the face of God’s Beloved in a blaze of glory so bright it burned their retinas.  My Bible says they were overcome with fear, but when I looked up that word in the dictionary it said that to overcome is to overpower, or overwhelm, and when I looked up that word it said, “to bury or drown beneath a huge mass.”  So picture, if you will, Peter, James, and John buried beneath a huge mass of fear, flattened by it as you would be flattened by a tidal wave breaking over your head, or by an avalanche that chases you down a mountain, catches you, and buries you beneath tons and tons of snow.

They thought they were goners.

Who knows how long they lay there like that, trembling, terrified, wondering how it would feel to die, or if they would feel anything at all, when Jesus came to them and touched them?  I tried to picture it, and realized that if they were lying face down on the ground Jesus, in order to touch them, would have had to stoop down to their level, he would have had to reach out, put a hand on their shoulders, and say what he says next, which is, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”  And Matthew says when they looked up they saw no one there but Jesus alone—that same dusty carpenter from Nazareth with bread crumbs in his beard.

He’s not someone we have to be afraid of, but he is someone we disciples have to listen to.  How about it?  Have you done anything recently simply because Jesus said so?  Have you not done anything simply because he said not to?

“This is my Son, the Beloved; in him I am well pleased,” God said.

“Listen to him.”

–Jim Somerville

 

What would Paul say?

shannon-ordinationHere’s a post from guest blogger Ann Carter, on mission in Greece where she and her teammates are administering aid to Syrian refugees.  She reports on a very special service that occurred over the weekend. 

How many Baptist Deacons have been ordained in Greece on a site where the Apostle Paul actually preached? Not many, I would wager. But Shannon Harton was ordained as a deacon at the Saint Paul Tribune last night. After spending the day serving refugees awaiting resettlement in Camp Veria in northern Greece, the First Baptist team serving with Shannon ordained him as deacon in the dark, amidst the sound of traffic, at the place where it is believed that Paul preached to the Jews of Berea.

Note: Shannon was ordained at roughly the same time his five fellow candidates were being ordained in the sanctuary of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Since he couldn’t be here, for that service, we asked Associate Pastor of Christian Compassion, Steve Blanchard, to conduct a service there, in Greece, just for Shannon.  Shannon is in the center of the picture above.  A statue of the Apostle Paul stands just behind him.

Deacon Ordination services are always special – a time when individuals are called out in service and leadership – through blessing and the laying on of hands, they are set apart to be the hands and feet of Christ in their congregation. Everyone who was ordained today is living out their faith in ways that are personal and authentic to them. It is exciting to see the way God works so uniquely in our lives.

It is especially exciting for one of our deacons to be ordained in the midst of service to “the least of these” in a place where Paul preached the good news of the hope we have in Christ.

From the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Thessaloniki, Greece (a mere 45 miles from where we sit) this is our prayer for all those who were ordained today:

“We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you” (I Thess. 1:2-4).

Gospel Storytelling

tim_lowry_1_mariposa_2015We’ve got a big storytelling festival coming up at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on the weekend of January 27-29.  It’s called the “Hearts Afire” Festival, and it’s going to be amazing, featuring some of the best storytellers in America (like Tim Lowry, above).  But it’s also a good analogy for what happens when you pick up the Bible and begin to read.

For example:

There’s a kind of storytelling festival going on in the first four books of the New Testament.  One at a time Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, step out on the stage to tell us their stories of Jesus. All of them are stories about the same person, but all of them are different, and that can be a little confusing. For example, we’ve just come through the season of Christmas, where we’ve heard two different versions of the Christmas story—Matthew’s and Luke’s. Sometimes we get the details mixed up, and think the shepherds and the wise men ended up in the same nativity scene (nope!). But maybe we could do better than that in this new year. Maybe we could let each of these Gospel storytellers tell the story of Jesus in just the way he wants, and maybe we could be grateful for the differences.

I sometimes say that if there has been an accident at a busy intersection, the investigating officer will be grateful if there were four witnesses, one standing at each corner.  That gives him four different perspectives on the same event.  And even though there was only one accident, and his final report will tell only one story, it will be informed by four different stories, and because of that he will have a better, clearer picture of “what really happened” than if there had been only one witness.  In the same way we should be grateful for the four different perspectives we have on Jesus, and the four different witnesses who provide them.

Matthew, for example.

This is Year A in the three-year lectionary cycle, which is Matthew’s year.  From now until Advent we will spend more time in the Gospel of Matthew than any other Gospel.  For that reason today might be a good day to let him step out on the stage all by himself, and tell his version of the Jesus story, or at least the beginning of it.

  • It begins in an interesting way, with the genealogy of Jesus. If you’ve ever been asked to read it aloud you know how hard it is to pronounce some of those names.  You may wonder why Matthew started his Gospel like that.  But I think he wants us to know that this is not a new story, but the continuation of a story God has been writing from the very beginning, from the time he called Abraham and promised that through him the nations of the world would be blessed.  I think Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise.   And so he tells us that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and fourteen generations from David to the time of the Exile, and fourteen generations from the Exile to Jesus, the Messiah.
  • And then he tells us how the birth of the Messiah took place, and his version is very different from the Christmas story we usually hear. According to Matthew Joseph and Mary didn’t travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem: they already lived there, though not in the same house.  But after Joseph had a dream telling him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife he did take her—he married her—and brought her into his own home, but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.  So, no stable, no angels, no shepherds in Matthew’s Christmas story: just a newlywed couple having a baby at home.
  • And then, after a year or so, they got a visit from some magi from the east. Jesus would have been a toddler by then, a beautiful brown-eyed boy clinging to his mother’s skirts, staring at those wise men. We don’t know how many of them there were; there might have been two, there might have been twenty.  But they came bringing gifts for the new king of the Jews after learning from Herod’s wise men where that new king might have been born, and following a strange star that came to rest over his house.
  • And can I pause long enough to tell you how much I love the image of that star shining over that house? Because this is the story we tell on the Day of Epiphany, January 6:  we tell the story of the wise men coming to visit Jesus.  All they had was the light of that star to guide them to his house, and I can almost see the starlight shining on his beautiful face, reflecting in those big brown eyes.  But in the same way the days get longer and longer at this time of year, the light that shines on Jesus gets brighter and brighter on these Sundays after Epiphany; we see him more clearly for who he really is, so that by the time we reach the end of this season—Transfiguration Sunday—his face will be shining like the sun!  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back to King Herod, and not to tell him that they had found the child, but to go home another way.  And when Herod found he had been tricked he was furious.  He rounded up his troops and sent them to Bethlehem, to kill every baby boy under two years old.  But Joseph was warned in a dream to get up that very night, to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and that’s what he did.  Good old Joseph.  Good old faithful, obedient Joseph.  When Herod died he brought his family back to Israel, but when he heard that Herod’s son was on the throne he kept moving, and settled his family in Nazareth.  That’s where Jesus grew up.  That’s where he learned his father’s trade.  And that’s where he was when he got the news about John baptizing in the Jordan…

(for the full sermon from January 8, 2017, click HERE)

Eulogy for a Tiny, Bright-Eyed Bird

Purple FinchOn Thursday, November 10, I got word that a 15-year-old girl in the church’s youth group had taken her own life.  I jumped in my car and went to the hospital where I found her mother in the waiting room.  I hugged her and hugged her, not knowing what to say and thinking it might be best not to say anything.  But on Tuesday, November 15, we held a memorial service for her daughter in a sanctuary full of grieving friends and family members and a few hundred tearful teenagers, wondering how such a thing could happen to one of their own. This is what I said:

Last Friday morning I went running with my friend Wallace Adams-Riley, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church here in Richmond, and as we ran I told him what had happened the day before, Thursday, when I got the news about Kat.  I told him the whole sad story and he was a good pastor to me.  He listened, and consoled me, and promised to pray for me today, because he knows how hard it can be to try to find just the right words in times like these.  But when we finished our run he asked, “What was her name again?”  “Fink,” I said.  “Kat Fink.  I’m sure it means something beautiful in German.”  “It does!” he said.  “I had a friend in college named Fink.  It means ‘finch,’ you know, like the bird.”  And I did know the bird.  Finches are some of my favorites.  They are tiny birds with bright eyes and beautiful voices.  I thought, “How perfect for Kat, who seemed so fragile, so vulnerable—like a little bird—and yet who had those bright eyes and that beautiful voice.”  And then yesterday I looked again at the verse I read at her baptism, the one Bart read earlier from Matthew 6: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…. Look at the birds of the air; are you not of more value than they?”

Kat was of so much more value than they.  I think about the words of Psalm 139 and how they describe her.  The psalmist says, “It was you, Lord, who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  And so was Kat, fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet here we are at her memorial service, and many of us are wondering why.  Why did this have to happen, and what could we have done to prevent it?  I’m reminded of that story from John 11, where Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died and Jesus goes to the funeral.  It was there, John tells us, that “Jesus wept,” because he loved Lazarus so much.  Lazarus’ sister, Martha, comes out to meet him and says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  A little later her sister Mary comes out and says the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Can you imagine how that must have hurt?  And yet it’s something we all do at a time like this; we all begin to say, “If only.”  “If only I had been there.”  “If only I had called her.”  “If only I had been a better friend.”  But I want you to notice what Jesus does in John 11: he says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.”  And she says, “I know he will, on the Resurrection, at the last day.”  But Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection, and the life.  Those who believe in me, even if they die, will live.  And everyone who lives and believe in me will never die.”  What Jesus is saying to Martha is that he is not responsible for Lazarus’ death; he is responsible for his life.  And I say to you—all of you who are thinking “if only”—you are not responsible for Kat’s death.  Kat was responsible for her death.  But Jesus Christ is responsible for her everlasting life.

He is the Resurrection.

“So, why did she do it?” you ask.  “Why did she take her own life?”  We may never know, but our best guess is that Kat suffered from an illness we call “depression.”  If she had died of cancer we would still be sad, but at least we would understand, wouldn’t we?  We know how cancer works.  But depression is different.  We don’t understand it all that well, but we do know that there are different kinds and different levels, from feeling depressed because you got a bad grade on a math test to feeling unending, unbearable mental anguish for no reason at all.  I don’t understand it all that well, but I understand it better after more than a year of counseling a woman in our church who suffers from severe depression, and sometimes contemplates suicide.  She’s been very honest with me about it, and she’s asked all the right questions.

When she asked, “Is suicide an unforgivable sin?” I said, “No.  According to Jesus the only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”  When she asked, “Is suicide ever an option? I said, “No.  Matters of life and death belong in God’s hands, and Gods hands only.”  When she asked, “What should I do when I’m tempted to commit suicide?”  I said, “When you feel your hand reaching out to do harm to yourself, use it instead to pick up the phone and call me, and if I don’t answer call 911 and say, ‘I need help.'”   Not long ago I got that call from her, and I was able to help, and I was so proud of her for calling.  But still she talks about pain that won’t go away.  She talks about wanting to do whatever it will take to make the pain stop.  But mostly she talks about this feeling of being down in a hole, a deep, dark hole, with no way out.

One day I asked her to describe that hole and she said, “It’s deep.”  “How deep?” I asked.  “So deep you can’t see any light at the top,” she said.  “How wide is it?” I asked.  “About wide enough to stretch out your arms,” she said.  “What are the walls made of?” I asked.  “Dirt,” she said.  “Do they go straight up or do they angle?” I asked.  “They go straight up.”  “And what’s the floor like?”  “It’s dirt, too,” she said, “And some gravel.”  Her answers were very specific.  They made me believe she had spent a lot of time in that hole.  But then I remembered something I did once when I was a boy and I told her about it.  My mother had plucked a chicken (some of you may know what that means), and she asked me to bury the grocery bag full of feathers in an unused part of the garden.  So, I went out there with a shovel and began to dig.  The dirt was so soft that I soon had a nice sized hole, but it was also so soft that I kept on digging until I had dug a proper grave for those chicken feathers.  I buried them, but then I moved over a few feet and began to dig again.  I dug most of the rest of that day, until I had a circular hole about six feet across and about six feet deep.  When I stood at the bottom I could stretch my arms out and almost touch the walls on each side.

The next day I dug a tunnel out of the hole and up to the surface, and then I covered the hole with some old boards and a tarp, and shoveled loose dirt on top of it until you could hardly tell it was there.  I dragged a bale of straw in there from the barn and scattered it on the floor of my hole until it was warm and dry and sweet smelling.  I cut a niche in the wall, put a candle in a quart jar, lit the candle, and put it in the niche.  And then I took my sleeping bag down there, and a pillow, and a good book, and a snack, and I wish you could have seen me, lying on that sleeping bag, my head propped up on a pillow, surrounded by sweet smelling straw, eating a snack and reading a book by the light of that candle.

When I finished telling that story this woman was smiling at the very thought of turning a hole into such a happy place.  I said, “Maybe you could do the same.  Maybe, the next time you find yourself in that hole, you could get comfortable, find a good book, light a candle, and have a snack.  And maybe you could let that candle be a symbol of God’s presence.”  And then I told her, “That’s why we light the candles in the sanctuary.  Every time we have a service in there we light the candles to remind us that God is present.  And God is present.  There isn’t anywhere we can go that God isn’t present.  Psalm 139 says: “If I make my bed in Sheol (which is really nothing more than a hole in the ground), you are there.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  As it says in John 1: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.”  And in Psalm 23: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for God is with me.”

God is with us.

And Kat…is with God.

–Jim Somerville

Is There a God?

justinRecently I preached a series of sermons on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion.”  This was Question #2–“Is There a God?”–and I preached it (as I did all these questions) with the help of a “conversation partner,” sitting at a table in the same place where the pulpit usually stands, having a conversation about one of the most important things of all.  I hope you will enjoy it and learn from it.

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Jim:           Welcome back to this series on “The Seven Most-Googled Questions about God and Religion,” and again I have asked a member of the Millennial Generation to join me as a conversation partner as I understand that it is these young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 who are doing most of the Googling.  Today I have with me Justin Williams, a brilliant musician who teaches orchestra at Clover Hill High School, and who played the violin for us here just a few weeks ago.  Justin is married to the former Roxanne O’Brien, who is also a gifted musician and a member of this church.  Welcome, Justin!

Justin:      Thank you.

Jim:           Justin the question we are asking today—“Is there a God?”—has been a real question for you, hasn’t it?  Tell us a little about that.

Justin:      Yes, I was a very devout Christian in college: maybe a bit too legalistic, but I considered myself a true believer, a lover of God, and a witness for Jesus.  But some of the questions I ran into like the problem of evil and the accuracy of the Bible were hard to answer.  I began to read books like Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel, and Evidence, by Josh McDowell, but realized that unless you assume the Bible to be true, many of their arguments are unconvincing.  So, I read on.  I read a book by William Craig called Is God Real?  I read Francis Collins’ book, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.    I even read the Richard Swinburne trilogy, Is There a God? etc.  But in each case I found their answers relied on poor reasoning or creative but misleading analogies.   There were too many questions and I wasn’t finding good answers for even the best resources.  I ended up doubting and finally disbelieving most of what I had been taught.

Jim:           Wow, that’s quite a journey, Justin.  Thank you for being so honest with us.

Justin:      Well, that’s just where I am.  I am still open to discovering truth and changing my mind but I’m not still searching for an answer to the “God question.”  I don’t need the concept of “God” to explain the way things are in the world, and even if I were convinced that God was real and the Bible was true, I would have a hard time serving a God who does some of the things recorded in Scripture.  I mean, really, have you read some of the Old Testament? 

Jim:           I have!

Justin:      That said, I love First Baptist Church!  Roxanne and I tithe to the church each week and I love what you’re doing here.  I’d like to be a part of it when and where I can fit in. 

Jim:           Well, thank you.  I love this church, too, and one of the things I love about it is that it is a safe place to ask questions like this one: “Is there a God?”

Justin:      Wait, Dr. Somerville…

Jim:           Yes ?

Justin:      I don’t think you heard me.  I’m not asking that question any more.

Jim:           Right, but there may be some people here who are, and if you can believe it the journey you just described is a journey that many thoughtful Christians have taken.  It’s just that their journey didn’t end there.

Justin:      OK…tell me more.

Jim:           Do you see this beautiful visual aid I’ve brought?

Justin:      Yes, it’s gorgeous.

Jim:           Thank you!  I made it myself.  These are Tinkertoys, and when I was a kid we had a huge set of Tinkertoys.  I used to get up on Saturday mornings and make structures taller than I was (of course, I wasn’t very tall back then).  But for our purposes today I’d like to let this little structure represent our “framework of understanding.”  You see, I grew up in a Christian home, too.  Mine may not have been as conservative as yours but when I asked my mother, “Who made the world?” she would say, “God made the world.”  She may not have known it, but in those early days she and my dad were helping me build my framework of understanding, and, back in the 1960’s, most of the people I encountered shared the same understanding.  If I asked my neighbors or my Sunday school teachers who made the world they would say the same thing: “God made it.”  So, when I went off to school for the first time, I took my framework of understanding with me, and I was fine, until somebody said, “God didn’t make the world,” and that didn’t make sense.

Justin:      Right!

Jim:           I talk about it like this sometimes: if I go outside and a bird flies by I say, “Right.  Birds fly.”  I have a place to hang that experience on my framework of understanding.  But if I go outside and a cat flies by I either have to say, “I didn’t really see that,” or I have to re-build my framework of understanding to include the experience of flying cats.  And we really don’t like to re-build our frameworks.  We’re very protective of them.  It’s easier to justify our old understanding than to accept a new one.  So I might say, “That cat didn’t really fly; someone just threw it across my field of vision.”  Does that make sense?

Justin:      Yes.

Jim:           So, when we go off to school with the framework of understanding our parents helped us build in our conservative Christian home (what some people would call our “Christian worldview”) it shouldn’t surprise us that not everybody will share our understanding.  It often happens for young people when they go off to college: they encounter different views, different understandings.  Their pastor always told them that the world was made in six days but their science professor tells them it evolved over billions and billions of years, and maybe for the first time in their lives they are presented with conflicting voices of authority.  They have to decide: “Which voice will I listen to?”  And if they choose to listen to the science professor it can be very empowering.  It can make them feel that they have finally grown up.  The only problem is that they have to decide what to do with their old framework of understanding.  Can they just rearrange their Tinkertoys to accommodate this new concept?  Or will they have to take the whole thing apart and start from scratch?

Justin:      Yep.  That’s where I was in college.

Jim            If it’s any comfort to you, some of the most brilliant people I know have been in that same place.  A scholar named Marcus Borg, whose writings I have appreciated, grew up in a comfortably conservative Christian home, but struggled with doubts in early adolescence.[i]  Those doubts turned to disbelief in college and by his mid-twenties he would have described himself as an atheist.  Only later did he realize that he didn’t have to replace his Christian worldview with a secular worldview, but he did have to replace it with a different kind of Christianity, and it started with his concept of God.  His old concept was something he calls “Supernatural Theism,” (which sounds amazing, doesn’t it?  “It’s super, it’s natural, it’s supernatural!”).  It’s the concept we find in much of the Bible: God is a supernatural being who made the world and everything in it and who is now “up there” somewhere, above us.  Borg says that if you had asked him in childhood what God looked like he would have pictured his old Lutheran pastor, Pastor Thorson, standing in the pulpit shaking his finger (and apparently he was a finger-shaker).  Or maybe someone like Santa Claus, who “sees you when you’re sleeping, who knows when you’re awake; who knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”  The message Borg got, even in childhood, was that if you are good, then, when you die you get to go to heaven, but if you are bad, well, “you better watch out”!

In biblical times that concept of God worked pretty well.  People who lived back then didn’t know what we know now.  They believed the world was mostly flat, and that the sky was a hard dome over it, like some of the big sports arenas today.  The stars were like little lights fixed to the underside of the dome and the sun and moon moved on tracks from one side to the other.  All the human action was going on down here, on the floor, but God was up there somewhere, in the skybox, watching.  And that was mostly comforting.  God wasn’t very far away.  But during the Enlightenment we learned that the world wasn’t flat, it was round, and there wasn’t a hard dome over it, there was a universe!  If God was up there somewhere he wasn’t anywhere we could see with our telescopes.  He must be very, very far away.  Some theologians solved the problem by saying God was transcendent, he was “radically other,” you couldn’t get near him if you wanted to, while others suggested that God was immanent, that he was very near, but only through your experience of him, only “in your heart.”

Neither of those answers was very satisfying to Borg.  He kept looking, and found that before the Enlightenment some Christians were comfortable talking about a God who was transcendent as well as immanent; one who was not only “up there,” but also “right here.”  Borg uses the word panentheism to describe this view, and that’s going to take a little explaining.  If you look at the Greek roots pan means “everything,” en means, well, “in,” and theos is the word for God.  Panentheism means, literally, “everything is in God.”  It’s different from pantheism, which means everything is God, and which has been denounced as a heresy.  No, panentheism simply means that everything—including the universe—is in God.  And that’s a pretty big idea.  Are you still with me, Justin?

Justin:      Sure!  Nothing I love more than Greek words.

Jim:           Me too!  So, one of my favorite theologians has described panentheism by talking about the way a baby exists inside its mother’s womb.[ii]  In there it may be aware of its mother’s heartbeat, the distant murmur of her voice, the fact that it is surrounded by warmth and love and sustained by the nourishment she provides, but it may not be aware of much more than that.  The mother, on the other hand, is texting on her smartphone while picking out paint swatches for the nursery.  She’s out there in the world, and fully aware of everything.  Now, suppose that we are like that baby, reaching out with both hands to get a better understanding of who God is and what God is like, but not doing a very good job.  We are limited by our ability to apprehend and our capacity to understand.  God is bigger than we are.  And yet we cannot deny the reality of our experience.  There’s something there, something all the world religions attest to, something William James once identified as “The More.”[iii]

Justin:      OK, but now you’re raising one of my questions: what is the evidence for God?  How do we know we are “in” God and not just in the solar system or in the universe? 

Jim:           Good question.  A lot of people point to the universe itself as evidence.  They say that it couldn’t exist as it does if there were not some intelligent mind behind it.  That may be true, but I don’t think it has to be.  The universe is big enough, and complex enough, that we could actually be the product of random chance.  It’s possible.  And then there’s the Bible.  Our call to worship from Psalm 19 insisted that “the heavens are telling the glory of God!”  But if you don’t believe the Bible, if you don’t think it’s true, then that’s not very compelling evidence, is it?  Some people might say, “Well, you can’t know these things, you just have to accept them on faith,” but that often seems to be only another way of saying, “In order to be a good Christian you have to believe unbelievable things.”  So, we end up with experience, and experience is admittedly subjective, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Look at love for example.  I’m assuming that at some point in your life you’ve had an experience of something you would call love.  You might even say that you love your wife (and if you’re smart, you will, because she’s sitting right there).  It’s hard to come up with evidence of your love.  You might have said at one point, “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think of anything but Roxanne,” but that hardly qualifies as evidence.  Someone who had never been in love might think you had insomnia, or an upset stomach, or a weird obsession with people who play the French horn.  But someone who had been in love would read your experience in a different way.  She would say, “Oh, that’s easy.  You’re in love.”  And there are thousands, probably millions, maybe even billions of people who would agree with her diagnosis.

So, if there are billions of people in the world who say, “There is a God,” you would want to take them as seriously as you would want them to take you.  Their experiences may be different, they may not talk about them in the same way, or in the same language, or in the same religious tradition, but if billions of people are saying, “Yes, there is something More than we can see and hear and touch; there is a spiritual reality just as surely as there is a physical reality,” that would at least serve as a good starting point.

So, Justin: I know I haven’t answered all your questions.  You had a great question about communication, for instance.  You said, “If God is God why doesn’t he do a better job communicating?  I mean, I’ve got my cell phone right here!”  I loved that, and I’m going to get to it in a later sermon, but for today I’d like to leave you with this thought: maybe your old way of thinking about God needed to be dismantled.  Maybe you were exactly right to pull those Tinkertoys apart.  But maybe, someday—when you’re ready—you can add to your framework of understanding a new understanding of God: not so much as a supernatural being who is “up there” somewhere, but as the loving Presence who is both “up there” and “right here,” the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.[iv]

—Jim Somerville and Justin Williams, ©2016

 

[i] All of this is from The God We Never Knew (HarperCollins, 1997).
[ii] Jurgen Moltmann, according to Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, pp. 156-7.
[iii] In the last chapter of his classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
[iv] Quoting from Paul’s speech in Acts 17.