“In your Church, Lord…” – A Pastor’s Prayer.

Dear God,

My heart is wrenching in angst and sadness this morning.

Cynicism, suspicion, prejudice, and violence seem all to abound in the the hearts of those who say they love you, Lord.

They abound in your church, Lord, where the opposite should really be the reality.

In your church, Lord…

In your church, Lord, we choose to put our faith in weapons of war as our answer to problems in our world, exchanging violence for violence in a seemingly endless cycle. All the while we ignore the ‘sword of the Spirit:’ your Word, who says ‘Blessed are the peacemakers!”

In your church, Lord, we even mock those who long for peace, and we reject the Prince of Peace as we do.

In your church, Lord, we deny women their full humanity, and we embody the idea that women do not bear the full image of the divine.  We do this each time we make a joke at a woman’s expense, or when we assume that we can define a woman’s role in the church and the world.

In your church, Lord, racism is rife.  Sure, we say that do not see skin tone, or make assumptions based on the color of a person’s skin; we say that none of that matters. But watch how our defenses get raised when we are faced with the challenges of diversity in the church.  We feel threatened by difference and react with fear instead of perfect love, which casts out all fear.

In your church, Lord, we are guilty of profound arrogance.  We believe that our individual life experiences, the lessons we have learned and the conclusions we have come to, are the final word in all things.  We lack humility and the desire to grow and have our lives transformed to your ways.

In your church, Lord, we have rejected the extravagant, quite scandalous, and unconditional nature of your GREAT love, instead choosing only to appear to love when people have been deemed worthy; when they have learned to talk like us, look like us, believe like us, fit in with us.  Only when we have judged a person acceptable in our sight; only when they deserve to have it do we fully and extravagantly share our watered down version of your ‘love’ with them.

 

My heart hurts, Lord.

This is your church.

And you have called and ordained me as one who will lead in your church.

But right now I feel like I am failing miserably when I see this reality around me.

My frustration is palpable.

But my faith remains in you, because only you have the power to transform lives.

 

So, Lord…

Where our faith is misplaced, and put in the wrong things and places, help us return to you.

Where we have stopped striving, hoping, and working for peace in the world, help us by reviving our dead hearts and expanding our small minds.

Where we think that another human being is less than us because of their gender, bring us to repentance and teach us in your way: the way in which ALL people can be called by you to ANY vocation or station.

Where the poison of racism lives and thrives within us, obliterate it, Lord, and transform your church.

Where arrogance has blinded us to new things and to continuous maturing and growth in our lives, open our eyes so that we might see, know, and experience your powerful transforming grace!

Where we have fenced you in, and tried to put a boundary on your GREAT love with our own limited understanding, forgive us and flood our hearts with your ever flowing and never ending rivers of love.

And in me, Lord…

Show me where I am wrong.

Show me where I have misunderstood.

Show me my prejudice.

Show me how I have boxed you in.

Forgive me for the angst, bitterness, and frustration that feels so rife in me right now.

Transform my flawed, broken life. Guide me so as to walk in your way more and more everyday. Transform my life to make it more like Christ’s life; to bear his image and likeness in all places and conversations.

Sanctify me, because I know that even as I point the finger within your church, I also must own the fact that I too am the church.

So, Lord, hear this prayer today, and transform your people.

Amen

 

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The Bible and Science: Can they Live Well Together?

Below is the sermon I preached today. Throughout the summer, I have been preaching a series of sermons based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. The previous few weeks have been spent overviewing the Old and New Testaments, and discussing what we mean when we talk about the Bible being “inspired.” Today we started the second half of the series, in which we will tackle some of the big questions that arise out of the Scriptures. Today we looked at the area of science and the Bible, and asked whether or not they can live well together.

I ad-libbed the beginning of the sermon, basically stating what is written above, and also making the people of my church aware that I am uniquely unqualified to speak with any authority on science, having royally failed GCSE Biology…

After that, I pretty much stayed on the script below. The Scripture reading for the day had been Genesis 1:1-2:3

Science fact and the bible

The Bible & Science: Can They Live Well Together?

I can remember the conversation really clearly.

We had just played a game of rugby together, and now here we were in the club house, enjoying the usual post game festivities. I was stood with Jack and Phil. They were two young rugby players who were barely out of high school at that time. Phil was at university studying law. Jack was also at university where he was studying to become a doctor. It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A Lawyer, a Doctor, and a Reverend are standing at the bar…

We were standing there together and had been carefully dissecting the game together, when the conversation started to take a different slant. The boys knew what I was doing with my life – training for the ministry – and they knew I was a man of Christian faith. It was almost like they could not help themselves that day. They were hungry for conversation about the Christian faith.

Jack, the medical student, took a very common approach in making his point to me. He was/is a scientist by nature. He has learned the ways of objectivity; of hypothesizing, experimenting, and proving beyond doubt. For Jack, my faith in an unseen deity was just too much, and he began to question my faith and belief. We ended our conversation that day when I reminded young Jack that thus far, as far as I was and still am aware, no scientist had ever proved beyond doubt that no God exists, and until that became the case, I would continue to put my faith in God and in the Christian tradition.

The conversation that day was one of many conversations of that type that i have had over the years, with various people, in which the discoveries of science and realities of the physical world are set forth in an attempt to crush faith. Perhaps you have had similar conversations with family members, neighbors, colleagues or friends.

This gulf between scientific discovery and theology and religious belief has been around for literally centuries. Back in 1616 the Holy Office of the Roman Catholic Church condemned the view that there earth moves around the sun as false science which was contrary to Biblical teaching.

“It has come to the knowledge of [the Church] that the Pythagorean doctrine – which is false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scripture – of the motion of the earth, and the immobility of the sun…is now being spread abroad and accepted by many.”

Galileo himself, who had been teaching this “preposterous” idea that the earth moves around the sun, was asked by the Church to cease teaching such things. However he was courageous and kept going with what he utterly believed to be true. But, in 1633, he was summoned to appear before the Grand Inquisitor in Rome. He was found guilty of teaching falsehood, forced to recant what he knew to be true, and placed under house arrest for the remaining eight years of his life.

The gulf between science and religious belief has been around for a long long time. They are seemingly incompatible with each other.

But that doesn’t work for us. It can’t. Right?

We use science every single day. We need science every single day.

When we first moved here and my back was in bad shape, I needed a doctor who had studied the sciences; who knew his way around my nervous system and my spine. When I found that doctor who said he could help me, I was glad that he had studied, and that he did know what he was doing. And because of his knowledge and ability – I haven’t looked back, in terms of back pain and sciatica, since then.

That’s just one example – you all have your own examples, I am sure. So it is fair to say that we do use science every day and we need science every single day.

But we also need God. Humans do not live by proven, objective facts alone. We are not objective and emotionless beings. We have feelings and thoughts. We are moved in ways that are sometimes inexplicable. We seem to have this God shaped hole in our lives, that no amount of knowledge or science or stuff can ever fill.

We need facts and figures and objective proof. But we also need love and relationship, faith and belief, and feelings too.

So for there to be such a gulf between the world of science and the world of the bible and theology and faith, is not such a good thing.

And, therefore, we have an important question to ask and answer this morning:

Can science and the teachings of faith as they are found in Scripture live well together?

Of course, for us, the biggest way in which the seeming incompatibility of science and Biblical faith manifests itself is in the questions that arise over the beginnings of everything: the questions about creation.

That day that I was talking to Jack and Phil, the biggest question they had was around the bible’s creation narrative. And still, to this day, it is the biggest question on the lips of most people I meet who have questions or doubts about Christianity.

So how do we handle it?

How do we handle the fact that the Scripture dates the birth of creation at around 6000 years ago, and, in Genesis, accounts for creation by saying that God made the earth in 6 days. How do we handle the fact that the Bible says those things about creation, but most scientists in the world believe that the earth is around 4.75 billion years old, and is the result of something that we call “The Big Bang” In the Bible, humans, as we know them, are formed on the 6th day of the creation process. However, in science, the earliest humans (as we understand humans) are dated to around 200,000 years ago and have been evolving ever since.

Again, this all boils down to what our starting point with Scripture is.

Do you remember last week we talked about what it means to say that Scripture is the inspired word of God?

When we discussed that I said that inspiration is not the same as dictation or composition.

When we discussed it, I said that inspiration is not the same as perfection.

Last week we said that the words contained in Scripture are words that were inspired in the hearts of the writers by the power of the Holy Spirit. We said that these inspired words are living and breathing and that they continue to inspire you and me today. Hold that thought for a minute while I say the next couple of things I need to say.

You see this problem; this conflict; this thought that we must choose either science or religion in life, only comes about if we take a literalist understanding and view of Scripture. By literalist view, I mean taking each word of the Scripture as literally dictated by God; taking each word from Genesis and understanding it as God’s account of precisely how, and how long ago God created the world and everything in it. The problem that arises when we take a literalist view of Scripture is that it creates a conflict for us when science suggests anything other than what we are reading in the Bible. It puts us in a position where we must believe one and reject the other.

Now I might be preaching to the choir here, and this might be a church in which no Biblical literalists exist, but the polls would suggest otherwise. In 2012 Gallup reported that 46% of Americans indicated a belief that God created human beings, fully formed, not evolved, less than 10,000 years ago. This poll would indicate that. potentially, almost half of us here today would happily adopt a literalist view of creation.

Of course, that is okay – but it presents its own problems in the face of science.

In the Genesis account that we read today we read a specific order of creation as it is noted there.

Day 1. Light and darkness
Day 2. An atmosphere
Day 3. Dry land and plant life
Day 4. Sun, moon and stars
Day 5. Fish in the sea and birds of the air
Day 6. All other animals and, lastly, human beings
Day 7. Rest.

This order is fine, but it presents a problem when we think of some of the things that we definitely know and have proven to be true in the world. Namely the fact that Genesis 1 teaches us that the earths atmosphere, dry land and plants were created before the sun. But we know that it is the sun’s gravitational field which makes the earth’s formation possible. We know that sunlight is needed in order for plants to grow.

Is science wrong? In this case it certainly is not wrong. Did God give us a deliberately misleading account of creation? If that is the case, then God is not very nice at all. Right?

But, friends, what if Genesis was never actually supposed to be a science lesson? What if the purpose of the creation accounts in Genesis was not to communicate the specifics of our origins, but rather, to teach us something about God instead?

This passage in Genesis 1 is an absolutely stunning passage for sure, but it was never meant to form the basis of our science lessons in school. Rather, I think, the these accounts, like the rest of the Scripture are inspired so that they might keep on inspiring humans to a greater existence. Friends, Genesis 1 is not a science lesson – it is poetry. It is poetry written so that humans like you and me, will see and begin to ponder and fathom the greatness of God. Genesis 1 is not science. It is theology. It is a statement that says there is a God, and this God is good. There is a God and this God created all things. There is a God and God’s creation is good. There is a God and God made humans, male and female, in the image of God. There is a God who has given the gift of life – and it is a precious gift. There is a God, and God is the rightful creator and ruler of all things.

Genesis 1 is not a science lesson, friends. It is a theological poem which reveals, from the get go, that God is God and we are not. These inspired words were written to inspire in us thoughts and reflections on the greatness and goodness of God. They were never written in order to develop in us a knowledge and understanding of our origins.

Of course then, there is the other account of creation in Genesis 2 and 3, which is completely different in so many ways from the account in Genesis 1. God makes everything, yes, but everything is made in a different order in this account. Man is made first and then the Garden is planted. And in this story there is much more detail and instruction for man from God. We learn about the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil in this account. And we learn that humans were not to touch it. We learn in this account that God walked with humans in the Garden. We learn that humans were made for relationship when God declares that it is not good for the human he created in his image to be alone. And then we learn the story of the fall of humanity.

God loves his created beings and enjoys them. God gives them one rule. God tells humans they can enjoy everything in the garden except for one thing – they are not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately though, Adam and Eve are humans. When they see a “Do Not Touch” sign they immediately want to touch what they are commanded not to touch. When they are told not to eat the fruit of one tree, they immediately want to eat the fruit of that tree. They hear the serpent whispering in their ear all the reasons that they ought to try the forbidden fruit…

As Adam Hamilton says in the book – this is not ancient history. This is your story, and it is my story too. Which of us has not heard the whisper of the serpent in our ears, beckoning us to do what we know is wrong? Which of us has not been Adam and Eve, eating the forbidden fruit, feeling ashamed, and blaming someone else for our mistake; for our sin?

Again, I want to say to you, that like the different account in Genesis 1, I do not think that this account in Genesis 2 and 3 was meant to set the curriculum for any science class on the origins of the universe. Rather, this second story, like the first is a story, is told in order to engender a deeper meaning. This story is told in such a way that it is to be a defining story for our lives.

And that’s what it is.

Friends, the Bible was not written to be a science manual. The Bible was written to point our hearts and minds to a loving, merciful God; the Bible was written to speak to us about the existential realities of our lives; the Bible was written to help us understand that there is a good, good God who created all things, and included in that creation the human minds that have the ability to investigate, discover, understand and apply scientific knowledge in our world.

After my surgery in 2014, a friend approached me and, tongue in cheek, said the following words (or words to this effect):

“Well, Charlie, isn’t it great what science can do?”

I believe the implication was that my religion had not helped me with my back pain and that science had.

I replied by saying that science is absolutely wonderful, and that I was (and still am) grateful to God that created minds, greater than mine, exist in this world to understand how gamma backs like mine can be fixed.

Can science and Biblical faith exist together?

Absolutely they can.

Absolutely they should.

They were always meant to exist well together.

If you have made science and Biblical faith an either or option, I wonder would you let me set you free of that this morning? Your Christian faith is not threatened by science, and neither is science threatened in any way by Christian faith. The two ought to live well together and give their very best to one another, because when they do, the world around us is better for it.

The Church of Johnny

My way2

So I had an experience this week, one which has stuck with me and caused me to reflect a lot.

I was in a local hospital visiting with a church member on Monday afternoon. He was in a room which had two beds, which is not uncommon in some settings locally. I made my way in. passing the individual who occupied the other bed, and I visited with my church member. The time then came for me to leave and on my way past the other bed, the individual sitting in it, who had obviously worked out that I am a pastor, asked me if I would say a prayer for him. Of course I said I would and I stepped over to his bedside. The following conversation then took place:

Me: What’s your name?

Patient: Johnny

Me: Hi Johnny. I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Charlie. Where are you from?

Patient: Felsmere/Sebastian.

Me: Wow, you are a long way from home. I have a good friend that lives down there, I know the area a little. Do you have a local church family down there?

Patient: No. I have not gone to a church for a long time.

A slightly awkward silence then took place, lasting around 5 seconds before the patient looked up at me and said this:

“I go to the church of Johnny. I pray every day and I believe in God.”

I assured Johnny that he was not alone and that there are many, many other people in the world like him who believe deeply in God and who pray regularly but yet do not belong to a local church. I then proceeded to pray for him before saying good bye and walking out of the room.

I encounter folks like Johnny very frequently. They have no connection to a local church either because they never have done so in their lives, or because they have become disillusioned with the local church or with God, and they have given up on church attendance/membership as a means of expressing any faith they have left.

This is, of course, troubling to me in some ways. I am a pastor and therefore I do very much believe in the local church, and I believe in being part of a local church as a vital aspect of maintaining healthy faith. Does this mean that I blindly affirm all that happens in local churches? No way. I am more than happy to critique local churches and admit oftentimes the local church can make a real mess of living out the Christian life. That said though, I also know that in most cases the local church also does the very best job it can of professing and witnessing to the love of God in both word and action in the local communities where the church exists. Any criticism of the local church which does not also affirm the brilliant work done by people of faith through the local church, is not worth listening to, in my opinion.

But back to the Church of Johnny and why it troubles me.

The Church of Johnny is the church of the individual. It lacks any sense of family or community. In the church of Johnny, there is no sense of life together, or loving one another. There is only life in Johnny’s way, lived out on his own. Spirituality in the church of Johnny is a spirituality made up by Johnny as he is going along through life. Whatever feels right in the moment is what is right. There is no sense in which anyone can question the spirituality of the church of Johnny. There is no-one to question it, because in the church of Johnny there is only Johnny. In the Church of Johnny there is no accountability of thought or action. The single member, Johnny, is the sole arbiter of all doctrinal statements of belief which the Church of Johnny adheres to. There is no-one to question you or your thinking in the Church of Johnny. The church of Johnny is the very epitome of the rampant individualism which is tearing western civilization and culture apart, as millions of Johnnys all over the world sing along with Frank Sinatra and do life “My Way…”

You might be reading this and thinking that there is absolutely nothing wrong with life in the Church of Johnny.

Respectfully, I disagree. Let me illustrate why by telling you a little more about the man I went to hospital to see that day.

He was an 89 year old man. He had been married for over 60 years, raised 4 children, who in turn had raised their own families. This man had served in the US Navy, and then worked on Cape Canaveral, helping to send humans into space. He loved his family, bluegrass music, and his garden. He was a Christian man and had been a regular (weekly) church attender throughout his lifetime. He had been a member the church where I pastor for over 30 years. He was a gentle soul who loved God and knew that God loved him. He was a treasured member of our church family. He loved the people of our church and they very much loved him too.

As I spoke with him that day, it was very clear to me that he was approaching the end of his life. We talked about how that felt, and he told me that he had absolute peace. He told me he knew God, who is the creator of all things, and that he knew he would be okay. That day he embodied ‘eschatological hope;’ actual peace and hope, which, I believe, is only found in God’s love through Christ and the Christian community. His was a spirit which was at peace with the world, and with life.

He passed away three days later.

As I walked away from the hospital that day I reflected on the experiences of the two men I was talking to.

The member of my church was completely at peace and utterly bereft of any fear of what the future might hold. In his pain, he had peace. In his struggle for breath, he had peace. In the thought of the end of his life he had peace. His was a peace which was born in his faith in Christ and in his experience of the Christian community.

Johnny, on the other hand, appeared to lack any peace. His life was not in danger that day – he had had a relatively routine surgery that morning, and yet he still felt fear and discontent, and he appeared to have no sense of peace.

Both men were believers. My church member professed his faith in a loving God, and Johnny told me he too believed in God.

Both men were men of prayer. My church member was faithful in prayer, and Johnny told me that he too prayed every day to God.

And yet…both men seemed to have very different levels of peace within their souls. My only conclusion that day and since was to note the difference in the ‘belief experience’s the two men. One stands alone, developing his own beliefs about the world and about God; he is utterly dependent on his own thoughts for any sense of spiritual security. The other stood in the fellowship of Christian community, and has his beliefs about the world and God shaped in the context of that community. His sense of peace and hope is found in Christ; born in the 2000 year old Christian tradition; lived out over a lifetime in Christian community.

And this is where my problem with the Church of Johnny lies – ultimately it lacks any depth to its foundation, and when the fragility of life comes to the fore, the Church of Johnny collapses and is found wanting. It offers no real hope, and no lasting peace.

As I reflected on my brother’s life when I was preparing his funeral service, I couldn’t help but think that when my time comes to leave this earth, I want to do it with all the peace and all the hope that my brother, Dean did. The only place I will find that peace is in the divine love of God, made manifest in Christ and Christ’s church.

The Church of Johnny might be great in the here and now; it might offer the illusion of personal freedom and spiritual autonomy in one’s life. But ultimately it is foundationless, and, at in moment of fear, worry or desperation, the whole structure could, and probably will, in most cases, come crashing down, and I find that deeply saddening.