Saturday, 28 November 2015

Confessions of a Polytheistic Christian

Are we, Christians included, somewhat polytheistic? That is, do we believe in more than one god? Probably not officially, but our actions sometimes seem to say otherwise. Now if you're still here and I haven't rattled you completely yet, causing you to think I've lost my mind or am treading ever closer to heresy, Rethinking Faith and Church welcomes back guest blogger Waldo Rochow to share a few thoughts on this subject.

Accepting the Wikipedia definition of theology as “the systematic and rational study of concepts of God and of the nature of religious ideas...” I’d like to discuss the concept of God with you. (Caveat: I am a layman with no seminary training at all. However, this is a message that was on my heart when I awoke today.) It seems to me that there are three distinct aspects of the God concept that are often confused when people use the word. Regardless if someone is an atheist, a monotheist, or a polytheist, these three aspects of the God concept are relevant.  There is God the Creator, God the Sustainer, and God the Judge.

God the Creator is a pretty easy one to wrap your head around. Was creation some fluke, or was it designed? People are usually pretty polar on this point.

God the Judge is also a pretty easy concept to discuss. You either believe that your actions/decisions while you live have consequences after you die, or you don’t. Again, people usually have a pretty well defined perspective on this which drives their morality.

God the Sustainer is one where most Christians (myself included) have the most trouble. Mike Warnke said “Whatever you turn to in your hour of need is your god.” He went on to describe what eventually led to my understanding of God the Sustainer. If you need coffee to face your day, then at that point, coffee is your god. If you can’t handle stress without cigarettes, then cigarettes have become your god. For some, shopping therapy shows that money is their god. Same applies to alcohol, drugs, sex, and many other sustainers. Even things that may otherwise seem quite positive, such as exercise, can be seen as a god if they are used as a coping mechanism.

Sadly, in my life I have had many gods. While always professing to be Christian, I have often abandoned the Father for a man-made god. Less so now. I am confident that I am making progress toward relegating these gods to the mere role of participant. But as I work through this journey in my own life it occurs to me that many people may not have considered theology from this perspective.
“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” - Exodus 20:5 (NIV)
Do you struggle with an addiction? Perhaps the solution is to view it in the light of God the Sustainer. As long as you are praying to the Father for help, but actively surrendering to another god, why would God the Father intervene? I’m not suggesting that one must quit the addiction before God the Father will intervene. What I am suggesting is that one must acknowledge that this addiction is akin to worshiping another god, and humbly repent of it in one’s prayer for support. The same is true of financial struggles. I don’t subscribe to the prosperity doctrine, but worry over finances is the same as placing oneself in the position of God the Sustainer. How’s that working out for you?

I don’t think that God is satisfied with us only accepting His divine roles of Creator and Judge. He wants us to rely on Him as Sustainer as well. He wants to be our entire God, not just two thirds of it.

I am working towards a place where I can honestly say that I am entirely dependant on the grace of God. Not just God the Creator, because that’s the past. Not just God the Judge, because that’s the future. But also, God the Sustainer, because that’s the now.

May God bless you in your personal journey.

Photo Credit: Michelangelo: The Creation of Adam
Guest Blogger: Waldo Rochow

Monday, 2 November 2015

Goose Theology and the Sermon on the Mount

One thing that never ceases to amaze me, and that I’ve pondered on many an occasion, is this rat race that we call life. Why is it that, of all God’s creation, that those who were created in His image, seem to wrestle with trusting Him with their daily provision and sustenance more than any other creature? Those of us, to whom God has promised to never leave nor forsake, to whom God loved so much that He gave His only begotten Son, to whom all the promises of the Scriptures were made, fret and worry about tomorrow like no other creature in all of creation. Does that not seem strange to you?

Maybe the animal kingdom does worry too in some way and in accordance with their mental abilities to comprehend; I don’t know. I recently read a book by Cesar Millan (from TV’s ‘The Dog Whisperer’) in which he said that dogs live for the “now.” They may have some negative memory of past events, such as an encounter with a bicyclist, but there is no concern with what may or may not happen tomorrow; their lives center on the “now.” However, if some animals do stress out and worry in some way or another, they still seem more relaxed than we humans typically do. Have you ever noticed that?

Lately I’ve been meditating again upon something Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount. Unless you’re new to Christianity, I’m sure you’re familiar with it. He said,

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. 
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6: 24-34; NIV)

As I reflected on that, I also found myself thinking of all the rat-race stress that so many of us find ourselves in, and wondered why we even tolerate it. Oh, I know why we do it: there’s lifestyle choices, there’s providing for families, sometimes it’s a case of keeping up with the proverbial Jones’, and the realization that sooner or later we had better be building our retirement nest eggs, etc., etc., etc. Basically our societal mores and values dictate that this is the way we do life in the western world. But is that where our primary focus should be? Jesus said, “the pagans run after these things” and those who worry about them He called people of “little faith.” Does that mean that I’m being “pagan,” or “pagan-like,” when I do likewise? Do I only have a “little faith,” as opposed to one a little bigger? Am I serving money? Perhaps so, and especially if doing so trumps first seeking his kingdom and his righteousness. But then again, if I’m serving money, then Jesus says that I cannot at the same time be serving God. Or am I missing something here?

I was chatting with a friend of mine who many years ago used to be a Roman Catholic priest. As it turned out he had wrestled with similar questions in the past and came to the conclusion that, no matter how society prioritized what they deemed as important, he would stick to his own priority list. He had five groupings in which he put his life’s activities and values. Rated from most important to least important, they are: (1) God, (2) Spouse, (3) Personal Health, (4) Rest of Family, (5) Job/Career. Some might argue that priority order, but the more I think about it, the more I think that he hit it right on the mark.

He argued that where we often find ourselves getting into trouble is when we mix up that priority. What many of us often tend to do, and it seems like many employers expect that we do, is to place the Job/Career grouping into the number (1) category (God’s category). Sure, the employer’s catch phrase is often “Life-Job Balance,” but whose standard are they measuring that balance by? No doubt it’s by their standard. And it is there that we often tend to worry; if I insist on my priority list over my employers, I could soon find myself looking for a new job. But even there, I believe that Jesus would say to us, “Why do you worry?

In the same way, if my relationship with my wife is in it’s wrong priority slot, my marriage will suffer for it. If I do not place her higher than even my own physical and/or mental health, I’ve probably violated my marriage vows to her. My friend confessed that until he rectified that in his own life, he too struggled with that section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that we looked at above. Perhaps I too have allowed my priorities to get a little screwed up and need to revisit my own priority list. Perhaps we all do.

I thought about all these things as I walked my dog around a neighborhood lake, and then paused to look at the geese just taking it easy there in the water. Did they know something that apparently many of us have forgotten (assuming that we ever really knew it in the first place)? Unlike many of us, they certainly didn’t seem stressed or burned out. Perhaps, not having to deal with serving money, serving and trusting God comes more natural to them. Dinner would present itself at just the right time, and in just the right place. Likewise, a place to nest and bed down for the night will be found when it’s needed. God would see to it. Perhaps the lesson of the geese is that they really know that it is our heavenly Father who feeds and cares for them, and they instinctively know how to rest in that. Is there a lesson in that for us too? Hmm, I wonder.

For further reflection:

  • Despite often giving lip service to the contrary, and if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, do Christians still tend to “serve two masters?”
  • How much do we really worry about tomorrow? Is that reflected in where we’ve placed our jobs/careers on our priority lists?
  • What do you make of Jesus’ reference that it is “pagans” who worry about these things, and when Christians do so, it is a sign that theirs is only a “little faith?”
  • Though the animal kingdom still has to “work” for its food too (hunting, foraging etc.), do you think that they somehow trust God in it better than most humans do? If so, why do you think that is?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Chasing Francis: A Book Review

Of all the books I’ve read over the past couple years, the one that has had the most profound effect on me is this one: Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale by Ian Morgan Cron. It is a historical/fiction that tells the tale of Chase Falson, a New England mega-church pastor who suddenly finds himself in the position of questioning his faith; his faith in God, his evangelicalism, and even the Bible itself. When his world and the church he was the founding pastor of began to unravel, the elders told him to take some time off and go away for a while. After calling his uncle Kenny, a former conservative Baptist who converted to Catholicism and then went on to become a Franciscan priest (an interesting journey to say the least), Chase takes him up on his invitation to go visit him in Italy for a while.

While in Italy, Kenny some other Franciscan Friars take Chase on a spiritual pilgrimage in which they retrace the steps of Saint Francis of Assisi. Though dead for over 800 years, Chase soon learns that the Middle Ages of Saint Francis was not that dissimilar to his own in that both were an age of transition and people were fed up with the old way of following Jesus. Francis lived in the gap between the Middle Ages and the pre-Renaissance, which was the early days of modernity; Chase lived in the gap between modernity and post-modernity. People from both eras felt anxiety from living in a rapidly changing society in which the church was progressively seen as having become irrelevant. Both were looking for fresh new and relevant ways to follow Jesus.

When I received this book as a Christmas present in 2013, I couldn’t put it down. Before I knew it, I had read it through twice; the second time with pen in hand, as I so often do, underlining and jotting notes in the margin. The book circulated to a few others to read and then found its way back to me for a recent third reading.

Why such an interest? I’m not Roman Catholic; while I once did, I no longer even call myself Evangelical; nor am I liberal in my theology. What spoke to me the loudest was that in many ways, the story of Chase Falson is also my story. No, I didn’t go on a spiritual pilgrimage to Italy, although as a youngster travelling with my family, I have been to that fascinating country. What spoke to me was that I too was once a senior pastor, albeit of a smaller church, who became disillusioned with the church and asked many similar questions. I too wondered if this was all there is, as evidenced by such early blog posts as If the Horse Dies, Has Hollywood Invaded the Church Service?, and Tithing: Is It Christian?. I think that what makes this book so important is that in today’s world, many are asking the same questions and leaving the church. The irony, though, is that in leaving the church most are not leaving Jesus. I remember reading of one person who suggested that people were “leaving to preserve their faith,” and in the process rediscovered it in a fresh and new way. That’s the story of Chase Falson, and that’s my story. Perhaps it’s yours too.

Regardless what church tradition we come from, there’s a part of Francis that we probably all can relate to. The author says, “Francis was a Catholic, an evangelical street preacher, a radical social activist, a contemplative who devoted hours to prayer, a mystic who had direct encounters with God, and someone who worshiped with all the enthusiasm and spontaneity of a Pentecostal.” In another place the author says, “In fact, Francis has been called the ‘first Protestant’ because of his reform from within the body of the church.

Another wonderful aspect of this book is the church history lessons woven between pilgrimage wanderings of Chase, Kenny, and the others. In some ways, parts of the book could be used as a tourist travel guide of the Italian countryside that once was home to Saint Francis. We read of chapels and famous churches, of picturesque landscapes and narrow cobblestone streets that haven’t changed much since Francis’ day. We read of gourmet foods, and that wonderful Italian coffee by which all others pale in comparison: espresso; but also of compassionate people feeding the poor in soup kitchens and delivering food into the back dirty alleys to those barely alive.

However, the one part of the story that probably had the greatest impact on me, and actually brought tears to my eyes, was a scene in a hospice for men dying of AIDS. Chase and Maggie (another character in the book) were being given a tour of the facility on what turned out to be “bath day.” While Maggie was visiting others, one of the volunteers enlisted Chase’s help with bathing what was left of a man by the name of Amadeo. After they lowered the skeletal Amadeo into the tub, and much to Chase’s shock, the volunteer handed Chase a rag and said, “Would you mind washing his genitals.” Recounting the event afterwards, Chase said to Maggie, “I think I became a Christian.” In the margin of my book, all I could write was, “WOW!” The concern for the dignity of the less fortunate and the sick and dying is a theme that runs throughout the book. It was the concern of Saint Francis of Assisi, and it remains the concern of the Franciscans who follow his ways today.

What does it mean to be a Christian? Whatever other baggage we attach to our particular slant of Christianity, is not being a Christian first and foremost caring for others with the love and compassion of Jesus? How often don’t the Gospels record Jesus as saying, “I have compassion for these people” (for example: Matthew 15:32)? Jesus also said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. … Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25: 40,45; NIV). Has the modern church downplayed that part of Jesus’ message? I wonder sometimes. What does it mean to be a Christian? By the time Chase Falson returned home from his Italian pilgrimage to face the church he founded, he had a different answer to that question than he did before his crisis began.

Thomas Merton once said, “If the you of five years ago doesn’t consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.” I’ve seen that in my own life already; the “Me” of today I would definitely have called a heretic back in my seminary days. Having said that, I cannot help but think that God is once again preparing to move me in yet another direction in my own spiritual pilgrimage. What will that look like? I haven’t a clue, but I do believe that God’s word will always accomplish that for which He sent it (Isaiah 55:11). Who knows, maybe I too will adopt a few more Franciscan ways. As for Chase Falson, in the end, things didn’t turn out at the church as he hoped it would, but we’re left feeling that Chase had peace as he ventured out on the next chapter of his spiritual journey.

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale” by Ian Morgan Cron. I enjoyed it immensely and highly recommend it. Peace and Blessings. “Grazie, Signore.”