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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Church news, 10/21: Job questions, God answers

We continued our study of Job in the Oct. 11 and 18 worship services. The Oct. 11 message considered major challenges in the Book of Job that bear on a core question of life: Why do the righteous suffer? Or, to quote the title of a popular book, "Why do bad things happen to good people?"

In the 23rd chapter, we see Job both complaining and searching. He admits being in a state of bitter complaint and yearns to approach God and lay out his argument as a defendant would before a judge. Job believes his reasoned argument would result in a verdict of acquittal for him, but he despairs he will not have the opportunity to stand before the Almighty in this way.

Fr. David pointed out that some might see Job's attitude as lacking in humility. However, Job's righteousness is shown through his trust: he trusted God to hear him and to care for him because he remembered his former blessings.

This wasn't easy under the circumstances. Job is bearing his afflictions, the scorn of his wife and also of his friends. "The problem with suffering," Fr. David said, "is that you feel all alone, even though the Lord is always there for you. There are two voices you can choose to listen to -- the voice of the accuser ('You must have done something to deserve this.') or the voice of the Holy Spirit ('I, the Lord, will never leave you nor forsake you.') Job doesn't waver in his trust, and his faith will be stronger once he receives the answers he seeks."

Continuing the series on Oct. 18, we considered God's answers to Job. Job now has what he sought -- a chance to be face to face with the Almighty. But rather than pleading his case like a defendant before a judge, he is as any person would be under these circumstances: awestruck and mute. "I lay my hand on my mouth," he says. "...I will proceed no further."

Fr. David pointed out that when God says, "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" it's Job's friends being spoken of, not Job himself. "Even as a faultfinder, God is there for the purpose of Job's salvation and purification," he explained. "Job comes to a place of humility. He's brought to his knees by the realization of God's power, sovereignty and love, as anyone would be in his situation. His appropriate response to God's questions is, 'Who did I think I was?' He realizes God has a plan for him."

Part of that plan was much bigger than Job could ever see. Because of the traditional order the books of the Bible are in, we forget that Job's story actually occurs early in history. If we put the Book of Job in the correct chronological spot, it would fall between Genesis chapters 11 and 12. It's significant that Job probably spent more time in God's direct presence than any other person other than Adam and Eve, whose conversations with the Almighty in the garden are not recorded for us. So Job stood in our place early in time to give us insight into what an encounter with God is like.

In addition, there was a more immediate plan for Job, and that was to be the intercessor/priest for his friends. He represents them before God and then takes his knowledge back to them in loving correction.

Next Sunday we'll consider whether it's possible to do what Job set out to do, which is prove ourselves right to God. Is this honesty, self-righteousness, or maybe a bit of both?

NOTES: If you received the parish survey and stewardship letter, please respond by Sunday, Nov. 1, All Saints Day. Your commitment to our Stewardship Drive is greatly appreciated. Bon-Ton coupon books are still available from Alison Stone for $5 a book, all of which goes to All Saints. Pay by check made out to All Saints, marked "Bon-Ton" on the reference line.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

For your bookshelf: Robert Farrar Capon

Fr. Robert Farrar Capon, a retired Episcopal priest who lives outside New York City, might be the best Christian author you've never heard of. I think of him as the American C.S. Lewis. His theology is impeccable and his writing is always engaging and usually full of humor.

It's also memorable. In The Fingerprints of God, Capon opens with a dialogue between the persons of the Trinity. At one point the Holy Spirit says:
"I suggested an image of the Son hiding a box of chocolates in every person's house: the gift would be there whether they know it or not, like it or not, believe it or not. Maybe then they'd see that their faith doesn't do anything to get them the chocolates of forgiveness; it simply enables them to enjoy what they already have. If they don't trust the gift, of course, it won't mean a thing to them. But the chocolates will always be there. I was even willing to make them miraculous, just to keep the element of mystery in the mix: no matter how many pieces anyone ate, the box would always be full. I still think it would have been a good idea."

See what I mean? And all of his prose is just that memorable and thought-provoking.

Here's a 2004 interview with Capon that includes photos of many of his books. Most aren't in the library and they're hard to find in used book stores because, I think, they tend to be among people's "keepers". Enjoy the interview and let us know what you think:

Robert Farrar Capon interview

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Church news 10/7: "Job: the Battle for the Soul"

On Oct. 4 we began a four-part study of the Book of Job, regarded as the most profound and literary book of the Old Testament.

Fr. David pointed out that the Book of Job addresses life's hardest questions, like "Why do the innocent suffer?", "What is the basis of faith?", and "Should we give thanks only for blessings?"
Our reading comprised Job 1:1 and 2:1-10, which shows the first step in the testing of Job and the purification of his faith. The end point of Job's journey will be to know God personally and to understand the meaning of life, beyond simply believing in God for the blessings he was receiving.

"Satan evidently thinks Job has selfish motives for his faith," Fr. David explained. In his role as the accuser, Satan goes before God and says Job's faith won't stand up under pressure. "He believes that even the best of mankind will curse God if they are afflicted. So God allows Satan to work on Job, taking away everything but his life and his wife. Yet Job persists in his integrity -- having faith integrated into his values and thoughts."
We find Job, formerly a well-reputed and wealthy man (perhaps even the wealthiest man in the Land of Uz, later known as Edom) sitting on an ashheap, scraping boils that have appeared on his body, and contemplating the loss of all his property and the deaths of his children. Even his wife, who could have provided comfort, turns against him with a sarcastic comment about the uselessness of integrity, telling him to "curse God and die."
Job gently rebukes her, telling her she speaks like a foolish person. "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?"
That stops us in our tracks. We wonder why would ever allow evil to occur against those who believe in Him or why the innocent suffer. 
As the 19th Century theologian Octavius Winslow wrote:
Unmingled good is not the portion even of the saints of God. ...Unmingled good is reserved for heaven. There, all is pure unmixed bliss, deepening as the ocean flows on through eternity. But here the good and the evil in our history are wisely and happily combined: "Shall we receive good at the hands of God, and shall we not receive evil?" The origin and the source of all the disciplinary dealings of the believer are unfolded. They are not as from accident, but are from God.
Under the weight of sin and evil, "Even Jesus, at the place of the cross, cries out 'My God, why hast thou forsaken me?'" Fr. David pointed out. "But then He continues His trust in His Father and cries out, 'Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.'

 "Why can't we go along and believe and not be pushed so hard? Is suffering about a process of refinement and an education in cooperation with God through the removing of our blessings, or is suffering for some further purpose also? When we find the answers to these questions, as we will by walking with Job and examining our faith, we will find the deeper dimension to our faith and our lives."

NOTES: Lectors needed! The October/November schedule of readings is available outside the chapel each Sunday; please sign up for this most appreciated ministry. The Women's Book Group met on Tuesday night and chose Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Catching Fireflies by Patsy Clairmont as the two selections for December. Bon-Ton coupon booklets are still available -- $5 buys numerous high-value coupons to use Nov. 14 and the money goes 100% to All Saints. See Alison Stone for details.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thought for the day: Atheism, part 2

First of all, if you didn't read all the comments appended to the original iMonk article referenced in last week's post on atheism, try to find the time. The comments give a sobering window into just what the world expects from us in terms of being Christlike. Playing footsie with the world won't cut it. Being judgmental won't cut it. Being political and/or materialistic won't cut it. And being light on Biblical scholarship leaves us with nothing much to say by way of rebuttal.

As an example consider the recent "she said"/"he said" pairing of articles in the Wall Street Journal. Noted atheist Richard Dawkins vigorously makes the case for the irrelevance of God. God's defense is assigned to Karen Armstrong, a former nun and present popularizer of religion-in-general.

Dawkins says science makes any concept of God irrelevant. Armstrong's only counter is that we need a concept of God as a repository for our sense of wonder. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, correctly identifies the articles as simply a debate between two kinds of atheists, the abrasive kind and the "nice" kind.

So what do we say to atheists like Richard Dawkins who are smart and blunt? Call me naive but I don't see the difficulty in answering.

Dawkins's primary point about God is, "The temptation [to attribute the appearance of a design to actual design itself] is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable."

According to a wikipedia article, "Dawkins does not claim to disprove God with absolute certainty. Instead, he suggests as a general principle that simpler explanations are preferable (see Occam's razor), and that an omniscient and omnipotent God must be extremely complex. As such, he argues that the theory of a universe without a God is preferable to the theory of a universe with a God."

The problem with Dawkins isn't the respectible scientific outlook quoted above. It's where he goes from there, making theatrical blanket statements like "Evolution is the creator of life," and "God is not dead. He was never alive in the first place." Bold talk from someone who admits he can't, with certainty, disprove God. I guess you could say he has a form of faith.

So let me take a stab at what I would say to someone like Dawkins:

1.) If you have a concern about who/what created an eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Creator, then you'll understand my concern about science's lack of an identified first cause for either matter or life.

2.) Evolution diversified life, but there is no evidence to assert that evolution "created" life. There is, however, plenty of evidence that life only comes from life. If everything came from, say, a hydrogen atom, then you must be making an argument for spontaneous generation, a belief science relieved both Aristotelians and Christians of a long time ago.

3.) While there's a ton of evidence for interspecies evolution, the evidence gets more sparse as one moves up the classification ladder. Even looking at interorder evolution (order Primates), the new fossil "Ardi" gives us hominid ancestors for humans a million years older than "Lucy", still walking upright, still climbing trees carefully, still recognizably human-ish, with no chimpy missing link yet in sight. And that's why the Theory of Evolution cannot yet evolve into the Law of Evolution. Intellectual honesty demands you to admit that there are just as many gaps in your own knowledge as there are in my knowledge as a Bible-believing Christian.

4.) Please stop setting up the strawman argument that most Christians believe the earth is only 10,000 years old. Bishop Ussher had a great idea when he counted the generations in the Bible. However, he failed to take into consideration unnumbered unrecorded generations. Read here for a good study into Bible time.

Bottom line, I'll remain nonjudgmental, Mr. Dawkins, and trust you to do the same.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Thought for the Day: Atheism

iMonk posted an interesting essay regarding the popularity of atheism among young people, and the trend of abandoning Christianity for atheism. He points out that the typical young atheist is not an atheist because he or she was convinced by the philosophical arguments of prominent atheists. Rather, atheism is simply easier. iMonk believes that the hyperbolic claims of most evangelical churches, combined with the lack of witness in the typical Christian's life have made Christianity appear to be overly complicated, disappointing, and hypocritical.

"Vast numbers of people aren’t asking for philosophy. They are asking what will let them live a life uncomplicated by lies, manipulation and constant calls to prefer ignorance to what seems obvious."

Hmm. This inspires some serious self-contemplation.

Take a look at the original post:

Church news 9/29: "Offering prayers of faith"

James had a lot to say about prayers of faith, and the September 27 sermon focused on the "who" and "how" of praying in faith.

Fr. David challenged us to avoid being "chicken Christians" when it comes to things like praying for healing. If the early Church practiced this kind of praying as a regular part of their life with God, why shouldn't we?

Citing the Baptist theologian John Piper, Fr. David pointed out three roles for Christians in their prayer life as recorded in James 5.

1.) Verse 13 says: "Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray." So first, if a Christian is afflicted in some way, he or she should first pray for his or her needs, coming to the Lord humbly in faith and with confession. (Note also the second part of the verse: "Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise." We can think of this as a kind of heavenly health insurance since we know "a cheerful heart is a good medicine." [Proverbs 17:22])

2.) In verse 14 James offers a second role for praying Christians: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him... and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up." The elders are people of faith and leadership, sometimes in a formalized position within a congregation but not necessarily. They come together as a focus for prayer -- "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20) -- they anoint the sick person with oil, but they aren't healers. James makes it plain that the Lord heals and the Lord forgives.

3.) But what of Christians who aren't elders? Are they limited to praying only for their own needs? No! In verse 16 James says further: "...confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you might be healed." An interesting aspect of this is that, while praying for another you might be healed yourself, even when you don't realize you need it.

So we're to pray for ourselves personally, we're to call for the elders and accept their prayer intercession on our behalf, and we're to pray as a faith community for the needs of our family, friends and neighbors. And what will happen when we do?

James says, "The prayer of a righteous man (a person made right with God through faith) has great power in its effects," recounting Elijah's prayers that stopped rain for three and a half years and then started it again. "Great power" over the elements and great power over our lives is part of the promise for persons who are filled with faith and who are in deep communion with the Lord. How can we pray like this? Fr. David pointed to Jesus' teaching about prayers of faith in Mark 11:23-24:
"Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be thou taken up and cast into the sea'; and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it shall be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."

Prayers of faith are first of all in concert with the will of God ("...not my will, but thine, be done", Luke 22:42). Second, they are prayed with no doubt in God nor in the power of God to answer. "There might be questions in your mind; we're human and so we question," Fr. David said, "but we need to keep in mind that our questions don't limit what God is able to do." Faith in our hearts and souls move us with confidence beyond the doubts in our minds.

Third, prayers of faith are prayed with trust in God, trusting that He is hearing us and understands the situation far better than we ever can, having made us. We are to 'trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight' (Prov. 3:5). Fourth, prayers of faith are centered in Christ with a focus that causes us to strive forward unto Him (Phil. 3:12-14), bringing us near to the "beatific vision" we are promised on the day when we will see Him face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).

May we make this kind of praying -offering prayers of faith- a priority in our lives!

Notes: Following the service, Alison Stone gave an informative presentation on Sunday School, including how the congregation can support the Sunday School program.

The Bon-Ton Community Day coupon books are now available; the Community Day sale is Nov. 14. Each $5 book includes numerous coupons including one for $10 off a single item and others for up to 30% off. The entire price of the book accrues to All Saints, along with added funds based on the number of books sold.