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.

A Poem

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To My Atheist Friends (while looking at pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope)

Look at these:
Aren’t they amazing?
These are pictures of deep space,
the far reaches of the universe
and what can be seen in every dark corner
is light.

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Towering nebulae,
whirling galaxies,
clusters of stars so dense
they dazzle the eyes.

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There is an ancient text that claims:
“God is light.”

Work with me for a minute:
Imagine that it’s true,
that all the brilliant beauty in those images—
is God.
That He, or She, or It, is a luminous, swirling, benevolent
Presence
That fills the universe,
and touches every dark corner
with light.

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And then imagine that here—
on this tiny blue-green planet—
among humans who have evolved slowly
over millions of years
some humans
have been especially sensitive to that
Presence,
in love with the light,
listening for its low vibrations,
and that they have tried to put into words
what they have heard and seen,
tasted and touched.

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Imagine that other humans—
not so sensitive—
have found meaning in those words,
some sense of connection
to something they cannot name,
so that they have gathered up those words
and written them down
on tablets, scrolls, and in books.

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Suppose that’s what the Bible is,
the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita:
books full of words that bear witness
to some greater presence
by those who have heard the low hum
of the heavens, singing,
by those who have seen the light
and called it by name?

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It doesn’t mean that they got it all right—
this is testimony, not Truth—
but suppose there is a kind of truth there
for those who can hear it
and Good News (if you want to call it that):
The news that we are not alone:
That there is a luminous, swirling, benevolent
Presence
Watching over us,
Nurturing our slow growth
and stuttering evolution
over eons,

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Believing in us
Even when we can’t
Believe in ourselves,
And touching every dark corner
with light.

–Jay Green

What Are You Going to Do Now?

Partners

Inez Cocke was already at church when I arrived yesterday morning (Inez is one of our most faithful volunteers.  She had probably been there for hours.  I often suspect she actually lives at church and has a cot somewhere in the basement).  But I walked in and said hello and after some friendly banter she asked, “What are you going to do now that your mission trip is over?”

Wow.

I hadn’t really thought about it like that.  I knew that we had come to the end of our year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA, but in my mind the mission was still going on, only in a different way.  Instead of trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, by ourselves we were going to start working with other churches, individuals, agencies, and organizations in a mission called “Kingdom of Heaven Times Two,” or, as I like to say it, “KOHX2: Bringing It Together.”

I gave Inez an example: I told her that some of our deacons have been working to renew our friendship with First African Baptist Church in the hope that we might work together to do something remarkable in Richmond, to show this city what true reconciliation looks like.

She seemed pleased by that.

“There’s always something going on around here,” she said, smiling, as if she knew that she would still have work to do when she showed up the next morning, as if she knew that our mission—God’s mission, really—won’t be over until his kingdom comes, and his will is done in Richmond as it is in heaven.

KOH2RVA: Day 299

Book Buddies 2Tomorrow will be Day 300 of First Baptist Church’s year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

How are we doing?

Well, the Kingdom hasn’t come, not yet, not entirely, but there have been many times when heaven touched down briefly, just long enough to encourage us. I sometimes think about that remarkable picture of the sixth-grade boy from the housing projects in the East End reading to one of our privileged preschoolers at First Baptist and realize that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been on this mission—if one of our members hadn’t been thinking about what she could do to help bring heaven to earth.

But that’s just one example. There are hundreds more, literally. So many of our members have been involved, and in so many ways. When I flip through the pictures I’ve posted on my blog in the last 299 days the stories come rushing back right along with them until I am almost overwhelmed by God’s goodness and grace and a glimpse of what is possible when his people put their shoulder to the wheel and push in the same direction, toward the coming of his Kingdom.

So I’m putting together a slide show for our closing celebration on Sunday, September 8. It’s going to feature dozens of those pictures and a song called “Heaven” by Michael Gungor that says, “I don’t know but I’ve been told, heaven is coming down to this world.”

There are days when I can believe it, and this day may be one of them. Why not seize the opportunity to do something on this day that is picture-worthy, story-worthy—one of those things that will stay in your memory forever as an example of how heaven can come to earth and sometimes does? And then do this: take a picture, write up the story, and send it to me at somerville@fbcrichmond.org. Who knows? It may be the Day 300 example of how “heaven is coming down to this world.”

KOH2RVA: Day 225

jail barsI went to jail last Friday.

It’s the fourth time I’ve done it on this year-long, every-member mission trip. I do it because I’m haunted by that verse from Matthew 25 where Jesus says, “I was in prison and you didn’t visit me.” So I go to jail to see Jesus, or at least some of his brothers. I went on Friday, and I took Tyler Forrest with me.

Tyler is a relatively new member of First Baptist Church. He’s a young man, a strong man; he works as a personal trainer at a fitness center. I saw him up in the balcony one Sunday morning at the 8:30 service and the next thing I know he was coming forward, saying he’d like to join the church. He said (and I quote): “This is the first church where I felt the Spirit.”

So, last Sunday I challenged the church once again to “get off the bus” and onto the mission field and as I was standing at the back door, shaking hands, Tyler came by and asked, “How do I do that?” I said, “Why don’t you come to jail with me on Friday?” and he said he would be glad to.

I knew I’d found the right man for the job.

Turns out Tyler knew somebody in the Richmond Jail. “Not a bad guy,” he said. “Just somebody who got busted for selling drugs.” So we drove down together on Friday, made our way through security, and ended up in the chaplain’s office, where we were greeted by Father Alonzo Pruitt, an Episcopal priest, and my friend Mike Kelly, “Michael Patrick Kelly,” he reminds me, a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic who works out at the same place I do: the Jewish Community Center.

It’s in interesting world we live in.

Mike led us up to a cell block on the second floor where “his” guys were waiting. They seem to be in some sort of program where you get special treatment for good behavior, because they were exceptionally well-behaved. They applauded as I came into the room, which made me feel a little embarrassed. I’m not a hero. If I were a hero I would be there every day, like my friend Mike, and not just when the guilt gets the best of me.

I didn’t want to be “preachy,” so I told them that funny story about the time I set the outhouse on fire while my brother Ed was still in it. When I was finished I told them that if they wanted to hear me preach they could tune in to Channel 8 at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. And then I asked if I could say a prayer.

I prayed that they would know the love of God, that they would feel it in their bones, that they would be reminded daily how precious they were to him, and that there was nothing they had ever done or ever could do that would put them beyond the reach of his love. And then I said “Amen” and was getting ready to say goodbye when Mike asked the men if they had any questions. They had a few, mostly about the story I had told, but then one of the men on the front row looked up at me and said, “Thank you for the prayer.”

And that was the moment. That’s when heaven came to earth. I could tell that something in that prayer had touched him and I imagined that it had been a long time since anyone told him he was loved. And maybe that’s why Jesus shamed me into visiting the Richmond Jail, because he knew that man was in there, and needed to know God’s love.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

On the way back to church Tyler and I had plenty to talk about. I don’t know if he will make jail ministry his “way” of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, but he might. I saw him bump fists with the guy he knew in there, and in his own way he reminded him that he, too, was loved by God.

That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Going down to the city jail and pouring out a bucket full of God’s love? I’m not sure I would have done that if we hadn’t been on this mission trip, but I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad.

KOH2RVA: Day 220

sunriseI’m sitting in my room at Graves Mountain Lodge, in Syria, Virginia, watching the sky getting gradually lighter in the east. It’s the last day of a three-day staff retreat, and I’m almost sorry to see it end.

We’ve taken the time in these days to share our stories, to tell each other how things are going for us and what we’re struggling with. It always amazes me, when you take time for such things, how much there is to share. It seems that everybody is dealing with far more than you would know, which means that everybody is pretty good at keeping most of those things to themselves, most of the time. But the Bible tells us to “bear one another’s burdens” and that’s one of the things we’ve focused on during this retreat.

It’s been holy.

We’ve also been talking about the missional understanding of church, and I’ve tried to sum it up by using a phrase I learned from Alan Hirsch, one of the leading voices in the missional church movement. He says: “The church is not the goal of God’s mission, but the tool of God’s mission.”

That’s profound, and it represents a profound change in thinking. If Hirsch is right about that it means, first of all, that the church doesn’t have a mission, God has a mission, so that instead of asking, “What should we do?” we begin to ask, “What does God want us to do?”

Yesterday I said that I think God made the world and everything in it, that he loves the world and everything in it, and that it breaks his heart to see the world so lost and in such ruin. I said that I think God’s mission is to redeem all of creation. That’s why he sent his Son, but as Alan Hirsch and others add, that’s also why he and the Son sent the Spirit, and why he, the Son, and the Spirit sent the church.

If that’s true, then I can almost picture God—like a patient gardener—using Richmond’s First Baptist Church as a tool to redeem this part of his creation.

Do you see how different that is from thinking of the church as the goal of God’s mission? If it’s the goal then our job is to get everybody out there in here—get them into the baptistry, into a good Sunday school class, and into the habit of regular worship—and if we could do that we could probably do it while the world around us was going to hell. But what we learn from the story of Jesus is that God loves the whole world; he doesn’t want any part of it to go to hell. Paul says that the whole creation groans, awaiting its redemption (Rom. 8:21-22).

This morning, from where I’m sitting, the creation is not groaning, it’s singing. The sun has just come up over the mountains and the birds, the budding trees, and the gurgling brooks are rejoicing. But this afternoon I’ll be back in Richmond, beautiful Richmond, where there is still much work to be done, and where God may need a tool just like First Baptist Church to do it.

And where he may need all of us to help.

KOH2RVA: Day 132

baseballThere’s snow on the ground in Richmond this morning. Not much, but enough to slow things down a little, and that’s hardly ever a bad thing.

It’s given me some time to think, and I’ve been thinking about some of the comments my friend (and First Baptist member) Eddie Stratton made on my blog yesterday. Eddie was talking about how the church in America today needs leadership—lots of it—and wondering how we’re going to get it if people aren’t called to lead. He was talking about the altar calls he used to hear as a boy, when pastors would sometimes ask if anyone was feeling called to the ministry, or to the mission field, or to some other version of “full-time Christian service.”

You don’t hear that much anymore.

But sometimes a pastor will do this: sometimes he will ask the entire church to join him on a year-long, every-member mission trip as if he assumed that every Christian is called to ministry, and that the best way to fulfill God’s mission in this world is not to have a few “professionals” doing ministry for us, but to have all of us doing ministry together.

Listen to what David Lose says:

We need to question the entire model of ministry where the pastor performs the faith each Sunday to the delight of an adoring and inspired audience. Rather, pastors need “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 3:12-13).

Lose is a preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he was talking about baseball, where the sport has come to depend on a few star players to get people to come to the stadiums or tune in on television, rather than depending on the kind of solid, reliable players who can get on base and help the team win games. He said it’s been like that for too long in the church, and we need to change the model in order to “win some games.”

I agree.

We can no longer expect people to come to church just because we have good preaching or good music. And we can no longer afford to let people who have given their lives to Christ sit on the pew and watch the “professionals” perform. If God’s mission is going to succeed it’s going to take all of us, working together, both inside and outside the church, and not only on Sunday morning.

Listen up, followers of Jesus: you have already been called into the ministry. I know there’s some snow on the ground this morning, and that might slow you down, but you can’t let it stop you. It’s time to roll up your sleeves, get to work, and remember:

This is not a spectator sport.