Monday, September 23, 2013

Theistic Evolution

Evolution is a rats nest of arguments and emotions in the Christian world. I've heard sermons and teachings on how terrible and undermining it can be to the Christian message. In more recent years, I've viewed these kinds of teachings with no small amount of eye-rolling and irritation.

It started years ago. I got to a place in my walk with Christ when I realized: I don't care if God created the world in six days or six trillion. It's the same God to me, and however he did it is fine by me. I harbored a mistrust of science and scientists in general, believing they were too sure of their interpretations of data, which seemed to change drastically every decade or so. I still carry such suspicions, but I've come to accept that the current science on any given topic is, for the most part, our best understanding so far, and this includes evolution. I have no trouble incorporating that notion into the mystery of creation, the majesty of design, and the supremacy of God's plan. Viewing it all with the very hand of God in mind, it's amazing.

Over a year ago, a man gave a sermon in which he mentioned evolution, claiming it was destructive and offensive to God. "If we came from monkeys," he said, "then there's nothing special about us." In my mind, the plan of God in the Bible does indicate that there is something special about humanity, but this man was claiming that our connection to apes made us somehow less special, less than human, less than--if you will--children of God. When he said that, I thought, "No. If we came from monkeys, that just means there's something really special about monkeys." This opened the door to me for all kinds of thoughts--amazing thoughts--about our connection to the world, the blessedness of all of creation, from stars and planets and black holes to algae and fungus and lizards and apes... and us. Does it bother you that we're "just monkeys." Because it amazes me that maybe even monkeys aren't "just monkeys."

But I couldn't stop there. Amazement is a good place to start, but then the theology was begging to be explored. I went to Utah's Natural History Museum and explored the geological scientific reconstructed history of earth. I encountered dinosaur bones and ancient human tools with fresh eyes and wondered about what it all meant. And this disturbed me for a while, and still does. Because what does it all mean? It's one thing to marvel at God's creation, the progression of new life after new life, but what do hundreds of millions of years of evolution really mean? Can we believe that they were all really just a long convoluted path to get to us? Humans?

And then more thoughts disturbed me. What about the ages and ages of animals, of predator and prey, of life and death, of eating and being eaten, an endless cycle of creation and destruction, of ice, fire and flood? What did it all mean? And what does it do to the actual message of Genesis. Forget the seven days and the sabbath (important in its own right) and think about what the creation story of Genesis really means. It means God created humans to be like himself--special. It means that God gave form and order to a chaotic mass of atoms. He made the heavens and the earth. And it means that he found it all to be good. But what do we think of that message in the light of evolution? I found myself at a loss. I don't know what that means. I don't know what God was doing with those hundreds of millions of years. And what of the garden of Eden story. If we know now that plants and animals were dying, were devouring each other, were caught in cycles of violence, went extinct and were lost to memory, what does that do to our understanding of sin. We say that death comes from sin, and that sin came to the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Sure, it might just be a story, and maybe Eve wasn't really made from Adam's rib, and they didn't actually walk in a real garden completely content, but the story still has a meaning without all of that being exactly true. The real question is, what is that meaning really? And what is the meaning of evolution? Are they in conflict? I have not seen anyone tackling these questions. Theistic Evolutionists seem content to rejoice in their newfound amazement at God's marvelous plan with evolution, while the rest of the Christian world rails about the literal interpretation of what they consider a completely perfect book. Neither side seems ready to even think about all the implications that embracing evolution might have, and whether those implications are worthwhile or not.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Time With God

In my last sermon, I talked about the principles to keep in mind as we work on this messy life of discipleship and life with God. Now I’d like to talk more specifically about the methods we employ to reinforce these principles. I’ve been involved in different churches with different philosophies. Some stress bible reading and prayer. Others stress service and giving. Different churches suggest different avenues of life with God, many of which are amazing and good, but many of us wonder where to start. Some of us have done it all and still feel like children of faith, so what do we have to fall back on.

Let me first repeat what I’ve said before: a method is not a guarantee of success, any more than having the right tractor is a guarantee of a bountiful harvest. Even less is your method in any way a measure of your success. Success, in this life with God, actually comes from God. It says in Mark 4:
“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

This is not the full story, but it is a major part of it. We need to remember first and foremost that growth comes from God. We can’t manufacture it. We can only nurture it. For this reason, I believe that our first priority is to go to God. Spend time with him. Talk to him. Sit still and try to listen to him. There are two sisters who are friends with Jesus, and in one of the stories in the gospels, the two sisters, Mary and Martha, choose different ways of relating with Jesus. Martha works her butt off to make sure everything goes perfectly, just like a dutiful hostess should. Mary lazily sits at Jesus’s feet and gets to just listen to the things he says and spend time with him. If you think about it, Mary’s not being a very good sister or a very good host, but when Martha comes in to scold Mary for just sitting around, Jesus contradicts her. It was in fact Martha who was too concerned with doing, and Mary who had chosen what is better.

This story is clearly not meant to teach people to be lazy and skip out on their chores. But it is setting a higher priority. Sitting still, listening, waiting, and spending time with God come first.

My college professor, Scot McKnight, said some things about the Sabbath that I really appreciated. He said that in our Western culture we think of the Sabbath as a time to get ready for the work week. We’ve moved Sabbath to the beginning of the week, and made it about gearing up for the all the work that needs to be done. But when the Jewish rabbis talked about the Sabbath, it was not something to get you prepared for what’s next—it was the day that you looked forward to. You work all week long, and then finally—the holy Sabbath: rest; joy; deep, luxuriating breaths; time and more time; time to spend with God, worshiping and celebrating. In our culture we’ve idolized work. We’ve prioritized doing above all else. But the way of Jesus prioritizes stillness, rest, listening, and quality time. Our time with God is something to look forward to. And yes, it should help us get through all the work we have to do. In fact, the more work we have to do, the more we need to spend time with God. But let’s not forget that our time with God is the time to look forward to. Psalm 42:2 says, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” Our souls are thirsty, so we need to give them time to drink.

With all this in mind, then, my first method for growth and discipleship is to spend time with God each day. Can you spend time with God while doing the dishes? Yeah. While at your job? Sure. Playing games, running a marathon, chatting with friends, walking your dog? Yes, of course. God is all around us and I encourage including him in all your time, all your activities. But there is something refreshing and foundational in taking time out of each day to be still, to do nothing, to quiet your mind and just listen. When you take time out of your day to be with God alone, there is both great joy and great power in that.

Let me delve deeper into this time with God, because I think a lot of us are confused. A lot of us might see this as a chore or a duty. We might sit still and pray and meditate and read the bible and journal and do all the things that we’ve been told should help, but we sit in confusion, and our stillness turns to frustration. Our prayers feel hollow. Our souls feel empty. They don’t always feel thirsty, nor do they feel like they’re getting a drink. Are we doing it wrong?

Well, to put it a little too simply, yes. Yes we’re doing it wrong, because we’re doing it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude or disposition. There are different ways of spending time with God. I personally feel a strong benefit from meditation and often from prayer, but it might help some to write down their thoughts or to read a passage from the bible or from another inspiring piece of literature, and some might prefer to go for a walk. The important thing is to employ the method that works for you and then work to fix your mindset. Our mindset, our attitude, our disposition: these things are what make our time with God worthwhile. It’s very much like if you spend time with another person. Not everyone you meet is someone you’re going to want to open up to. And you might not want to spill your guts to someone every time you meet them, but this is not just any someone. This is the one who made you and who loves you unconditionally. You don’t always have to talk, but you do have to open your heart. You do have to believe that this is a person that you like, a being that you trust. We come to God with the mindset that our whole selves are laid bare before him. If we don’t, we end up doing the same thing we do with people we don’t even like. We put up walls. We don’t let them in. We emphasize our personal space, and maybe we stick our foot out a little so they can’t creep too close. We’re uncomfortable. Sometimes you find yourself feeling that way about God. If so, it’s important to figure out why you feel that way. Chances are, you’re either believing something about God that’s not true, or you’re hiding something from God that he already knows, but you don’t want to talk about, or both of these. 

The important thing here is to keep in mind the principles that I went over n my last sermon—primarily, the principle of awareness. Spending time with God (if we can manage to be still and really connect with him) can help us to become aware of God and of our own attitudes, dispositions, and thought patterns. This awareness alone is sometimes enough to hold back that temper or work harder at kindness and generosity when the opportunity arises. But let me also present a warning here. If you are new to this, and you start meditating or praying every day, you are going to feel some resistance at first—hard resistance. If anger is a problem in your life, it’s going to seem like you’re getting angry all the time. If you’re proud or selfish, you’re going to experience those problems all the more. As they say, sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better. This is a natural outcome for a couple of reasons. First of all, sometimes our minds prefer the status quo. It’s like when you start going on a diet, and for the first couple of days you feel really extra hungry all the time. Your brain is trying to get your body to stay the same, and you may have to force it to change. After the first few days, the diet might become routine and the hunger pangs might leave you alone. Secondly, if you’re increasing your awareness, you are suddenly opening yourself up to your true state of mind. It may feel like you’re getting angry more often, only because you notice it that much more. Your awareness, and your connection with God, are bringing your faults and struggles to the forefront of your attention.

It is vital at this time that you apply the principle I mentioned in my last sermon: do not give up. You need to turn things around in your mind. When we try to change and meet such resistance, we often take it as a sign that we’re on the wrong track, that what we’re trying out just isn’t going to work. We might think we were better off before. Don’t believe it. Also apply the other principle, be malleable. Be changeable. Try to think of these experiences as opportunities instead of hardships. Your connection with God has brought you an opportunity to overcome a chronic problem in your life. You’re seeing something for what it is and has been for some time. Embrace this chance that you have to turn things around. Rejoice, because God is working in your life. It is not a sign of failure or a misstep. It’s a clear sign that you’ve stepped off the wide and easy path in search of the narrow one. Stepping off the path we’re used to is always going to feel difficult. Learn to enjoy the challenges that come your way, and don’t give up.

Hopefully, this has helped a bit. I do not recommend any one method as a blanket prescription for all Christ followers, but I do recommend a daily time with God. Feel free to experiment. Try out different things. The important thing is to renew your mind, quiet your heart, and enjoy your time with God. It is a blessing that many followers of Jesus have experienced, and from which anyone can benefit. There are, of course, many things that God’s people can do to live in discipleship, most of which are obvious, but I suggest a daily time with God as the best place to start. After that, let him guide you into the work that is right for you.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

It's Messy

Last time, I talked about discipleship, and how we all seem to be struggling with it. We all seem to be stuck in our ruts, making the same mistakes over and over, wallowing in guilt and insecurity. I myself have experienced these issues over and over. Sometimes I pull away from them. Sometimes I get deeper into despair and fruitlessness.

I don’t want to over-generalize. I think it is very helpful for us to remember, that not everybody is in this sorry state of helpless struggle. I myself sometimes read passages in the Bible that speak of overcoming and the power to live life with God, and I wonder why none of us are really there. But there’s yet another false assumption. Though many of us do struggle, a few people, scattered among the churches, are actually doing really well. They are actively involved with God and thriving in the way of Jesus. They have their own struggles, too, but let’s not get into the trap of believing it’s utterly hopeless and pointless to even try.

But here we are, many of us struggling day after day, sometimes doing well, and sometimes horrible. And many Christians are out there looking for the magic key that will make their spiritual lives take off. We want a formula, some kind of pill would be nice. A simple A + B = C, which equals new life in Christ. And you’ll hear sermon after sermon and attend conference after conference and read book after cheesy Christian book that will try to tell you the secret, the magic formula that will make it all better. These formulas range from a simple “trust in Jesus” to some complicated steps you have to take. And you try one thing after another, from daily devotions to small groups to service projects to incense burning, to anything you can think of to change your way of life permanently, but they often grow stale and ineffectual.

Perhaps you’ll think of this as bad news, or maybe it’s good, but the fact is that there is no formula. There are always steps you can take that will help, but nothing guarantees growth. There’s no magic key to making it all work right. It’s a messy life filled with ups and downs and we can’t flip a switch and become the complete people of God we’ve been longing to be. There is no switch. It’s just… life.

That being said, there are a few principles to hold on to and a few practices to master, which should help greatly in living life with God. Jesus often used agricultural metaphors, and I think it is in part because life works a lot like working the land. You need to work hard and give your crops lots of attention, if you want them to grow, but you also need rain and sunshine and good soil. You might be the hardest-working farmer alive, but if there’s a drought, you’re going to have a tough time of it. A farmer knows these things and has always historically sought God or gods for his/their blessing to send rain and sun and everything they need for the crop to survive. We do the same in life, knowing that times of drought or flood may come, yet seeking God for his help nonetheless—and at the same time, we must do our part to live by the principles we hold dear.

First of these principles, in my mind, is that this is a life with God. More than trying to do your duty to try and curry favor with God, more even than trusting in God to take care of you, The way of life following Jesus is about living life with God. There are a lot of us who struggle with this, and it could take many sermons to tell people all about life with God, and if you’re asking yourself, “what does that even mean?” then you’re not alone. To me, living life with God is about quieting my mind and my heart. I acknowledge that there is a divine power all around me and in me and I try to adjust my disposition to be open to that divine power. It’s not always about talking or doing certain things, but it is about an awareness. Learning to cultivate that awareness can take a lifetime in itself, but that’s the gist of it.

Next of these principles is to be malleable. Sometimes it’s hard for us to recognize if God is trying to tell us something or if we’re just arguing with ourselves. Whatever the case, it’s important to remember that God is involved in some way, and so we need to be ready to change our hearts and minds at any moment. If you’re like me, you’ll have found yourself in emotionally destructive or divisive cycles. You’ll be angry and think you have every right to be. You’ll get depressed or bitter or selfish or proud or abrasive or rude, and it always feels logical, natural, maybe unavoidable. Usually, it is none of these things. And so we need to affix in our minds that we might be wrong at any time and be ready and open to changing our minds and attitudes. You’ll often find if you can maintain this openness to correction and readiness to shift gears, that you’re going to encounter less and less of these cycles anyway. But it is again about awareness. We need to cultivate awareness of ourselves, of our emotional states and of our disposition. If we don’t, we’ll most certainly fall victim to these little traps.

Next is a simple idea that everyone knows but tends to ignore or forget: Don’t give up. For me realization hits maybe a month later, when I realized I got tired of trying, got stuck in a rut, started thinking, feeling, talking and acting like none of it mattered anymore. And I look back and wonder how I got to where I was, because I didn’t notice. But my state of mind and life tells me that somewhere along the way I did give up. We don’t always recognize this for what it is. We might just call it a rough spot. But again, the issue comes down to awareness. Do you know when it is that you’re hitting a wall? Can you tell, when things start going south? If we maintain an awareness of where we’re at, we can intercede sooner in the process.  But this in itself requires vigilance. Sometimes it seems like a catch 22, but hold onto the principle, Don’t Give Up, and that should at least help.

Finally, the last principle is possibly the most important: Grace. First, have grace for yourself. Too many Christians get bogged down in guilt. It is certainly better to humble yourself than to exalt yourself, but the way of Jesus was never intended to keep people in a perpetual state of miserable shame and guilt, constantly beating our breast and begging God to forgive us for our feeble attempts to do good. Give yourself some grace, and give others some, too.

In my last sermon I talked about the fact that we sometimes mistake the method for the goal. The goal, if you might recall, is to be like Christ, bear spiritual fruit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.), and live life with God. There are many methods we can employ to attain this goal. But the methods are not the goal themselves. The methods we use can help us support the aforementioned principles, which should help us reach our goals.Since this is already running long, I'll focus on methods in my next sermon.

For now let me sum up:

It's a messy life with God. There is no secret formula for getting it all right. All we have is the goal of new life in Christ. Attaining this goal requires that we hold on to certain principles and cultivate an awareness of God and of ourselves. 

If you find that you go through a whole day without asking yourself how you're doing, where's God and what's he doing, or any type of question that might cultivate your awareness, then in my opinion, that's the place to start. 

I'll end with a favorite quote of mine from C.S. Lewis:

"The gods cannot speak to men face to face, til we have faces."

A little cryptic, I know, but try to puzzle it out. Or just read the book ("Til We Have Faces").