Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Bookends of Suffering: Calvinsim and Prosperity Gospel

I am delving into the matter of suffering.  No one voluntarily enrolls in the School of Job.  We walk past its gate, hoping our name is not called to come in and sit down.  As soon as suffering invades our lives, we are not any different than our founding father of the human race, Adam.  We engage in blame.  Look how Adam and Eve responded to God's inquiry (He knew about them having eaten the fruit on the tree) and how they will not take personal responsibility for their actions:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen. 3:8-13)

Our need to blame is driven by a deep fear: the fear of exposure, a glaring light shining right into our shame.  It's not just the guilt we are feeling--guilt results from knowing that we have done something wrong.  Shame results from believing we are past redemption; no good; worthless and one big mistake.  No one wants to feel that way, so we submerge that shame under blaming someone or something, redirecting that glaring light elsewhere. 

Adam blamed God and Eve:  He gave Eve to him and she was the one handing him the fruit.  Eve, unwilling to stand in the light, blamed the serpent.

Nothing has really changed since that day when God shines His light into our lives and our lies, and we immediately redirect the attention elsewhere.  Adam blamed God.  We blame God.  We reason that because He is in charge of the universe, His hand must be involved in whatever takes place, whether good or bad.  In fact, we even created a theology that if examined carefully, have God aiding and abetting felonies on a truly horrendous scale and quite often.

I have had friends throughout the years who are Calvinists.  I am wary of adhering to any -ist or -ism with a human name in front of it as a theological lens, but I have enjoyed conversing with my friends who are -ists.  

Many years ago a pastor friend of mine loaned me a book on Calvinism, hoping I would see the light.  One sentence struck me like a thunderbolt: The author thanked God he was not born a Hottentot (the beleaguered South Africans whose lives were made miserable by European apartheid), implying that God had ordained him to be white and in control.  I was shocked.

Another friend said to me in all sincerity, speaking of her closet friend who had been raped when she was four, "So-and-so has had a hard time accepting that God had ordained her rape."  What?

So if God is in control, everything that occurs on this planet is ordained by Him.  Rape of children.  The Holocaust.  Name your 20th century genocide.  Serial killings.  The list goes on and one, and in their effort to acknowledge God's sovereignty, such believers step right into Adam's shoes,  placing God at the scene of the crime, and His complicity in it.

One day, I was invited by this friend to a play celebrating Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  The play consisted of Luther debating the Pope. (Not historical in fact, but oh well.)  Of course, the pastor as Luther got all the great lines, and the woman's son was the Pope, barely able to stand up under the machine-gun fire responses wrought by Luther. (Kind of an odd morality play to watch in this day and age.)  

After the play was over, as we booed the Pope and clapped for Luther (I refrained), the pastor asked the audience if we had any questions.  I asked him why Luther had descended into a virulent antisemitism in his later years, even to the point of suggesting that Jews should be locked inside their synagogues and burned.  He said that was a regrettable position that Luther had taken.  Hmmm. Later I approached him privately and asked him if he knew about the judensau on many Lutheran churches in Germany, and how there is a debate whether to leave them in tact to teach history, or remove them, due to their highly offensive nature.  He didn't now about them, and when I explained that carved into stone on these churches' wall is a Jew sucking milk from a pig's teat, he looked horrified.  

In this church's effort to celebrate the theology of Calvin and Luther, they had to sneak past history and human suffering very quickly, to get to the intellectually satisfying position that God is in control and ordains everything that happens to us. 

It is very comforting to say, "God willed this."  Or equally say, to the person who is reeling in a tragedy, "God ordained this."  On other words, the fear that our suffering has no meaning and that terrible things happen on this planet randomly, is an abhorrent idea to people who love God and want Him to be in control.  Their fear drives them to ascribe to God culpability for everything, even if it means having Him preside over the rape of a child.    

I am sure some of you will be offended at how much I have reduced Calvinism and Lutheranism. But theology in the seminary is not where the average person lives and breathes, and sweeping dogmatic statements implicating God in criminal behavior needs to be confronted. Yes, both reformers had some good insight into the Bible, but those who have inculcated their views into a daily way of seeing how God works has left me deeply saddened.

But wait!  There's more.  John Piper has identified prosperity gospel as American Christianity's biggest import and is very upset by that.  He feels that it misrepresents the Gospel and when this theology fails, people will move away from God altogether.  I respect him for that.  (Yes, I know he is a Calvinist.  I can still learn from him, even if I disagree with his theological lens.)  The Third World is awash in prosperity gospel preachers, and its appeal is understandable.  The fear your life is ordained, with all of its pain and suffering, is not very appealing, especially when the future looks as bleak as the present.  God's ordaining of your suffering may give it meaning, yes, but in the long run, such a life has little hope in it.  So, what is the answer to suffering?  Instead of placing the responsibility on God, prosperity gospel teachers teach that you haven't yet applied the Laws of Prosperity!  Your suffering comes from your ignorance and now, all you must do is exert your faith and access God's wealth.  Of course, the best way is to tithe money into such a church and God will multiply it over and over for you!  You just need to exert your faith, BOOM! Wealth, health and a prosperous life are yours!

So, according to this theology, your faith is the antidote for suffering.  God ordains, in this theology, a life blessed beyond measure, especially in the material realm, where we live.  So hunger, disease, poverty and suffering are just a big cosmic misunderstanding, and once enlightened, heaven comes down to earth via our faith! 

You may be thinking at this point, Wow, Rhonda, isn't this a bit unfair?  Boiling down a response to suffering as believing either God ordained it or we have the power to change it with our faith--isn't that being a bit reductive? 

No.  I don't think so.  The American church is replete in prosperity theology and our megachurches are awash in its teaching, in some form or another. Many of the Calvinists I have talked to see their theology as a way to strike back at the prosperity gospel, by putting God back on His sovereign throne.  They eagerly want to pull down what they see is presumption parading as faith and toss it in the trash heap.  They agree that God wants our faith, but ultimately, even if we have all the faith in the world, if our child is sick and is going to die, because God wills it, our faith will not have any impact.  The Calvinists revile this faith in faith way of thinking, and the prosperity types don't want a God that doesn't want the best for them in this world, not just in the world to come. 

In this time we are going through, with Covid-19 on the rampage (despite our overwhelming desire to bring back the normal, by not wearing masks and sitting in church) we are faced directly with suffering and we want to cope with it.  Meaninglessness only lasts so long; no one wants to sit and their cosmic lunch alone.  For us to endure suffering in life, we want a meaningful explanation, one that gives us hope and encourages us to face another day.  

I am hoping as we explore suffering, to offer a model that was inspired by a scene in the series, Band of Brothers.  

One of the soldiers, who has driven ahead of the company, is rushing back to tell the sergeant that he needs to come and see something.  The sergeant wants to know what the soldier has seen, but the soldier just can't seem to explain it.  The company pulls up to a barbed wire fence, where gaunt, skeletal men slowly come up to the fence, in stripped uniforms.  The sergeant wants to know what's going on; one of the soldiers, who speaks German, is trying desperately piece together what the inmates are telling him.  More and more people gather and the stench of the camp invades the senses of the soldiers.  They have no idea what they have found, for this is no Geneva Convention guided POW camp; something is horribly wrong, and the Americans who have arrived are completely dumbfounded as to what they are seeing.

We know.  We want to reach in and tell the soldiers this is the real war that Hitler wanted: the utter elimination of the Jewish people.  The D-Day invasion, of which these soldiers have been a part, was only part of the war effort.  But as one soldier realizes, who earlier had been complaining about why they have been fighting so hard, this is why:  to stop this unspeakable evil.  He gets it and at the end, so do we.  This was truly a crusade to stop not just a war but the wholesale slaughter of humanity.

Now, the model that I will be exploring is one of our planet as being one big war zone, with unspeakable evil occurring daily.  The planet was invaded by an evil when Adam and Eve handed it over to the enemy, who had promised them so much and who then gave them a legacy of evil and destruction.  His job, from the moment Adam and Eve took that apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, instead from the Tree of Life (God's wisdom and ways) was to "steal, kill and destroy." (John 10:10)

Jesus stepped into this war zone to retake the planet, one soul at a time.  Suffering is an intrinsic part of war zones.  We will examine how suffering is part of this planet, pure and simple, and the hope is in Jesus and how we follow Him through the chaos.  

Stick with me. 



Saturday, November 14, 2020

Enrolling in the School of Job

Why do people suffer?  This question has rang down the ages like a cry in the dark that will not stop.  Every generation, from Adam and Eve crying over their dead son, Abel, to the survivors of genocide, and everyone in between, have asked that question.  Sometimes, the heavens are silent, as if God wants us to leave a message and the time that we called, and He will get back to us.

It's a legitimate question with no easy answers.  But recently, I have been compelled to ask it and seek those answers.  In fact, it is that very question that drove me into the arms of Jesus.

When I was in the 8th grade, our teacher was on an exchange program with a teacher in Palo Alto, California.  I was living in Hawaii, having moved there a few years earlier from Los Angeles.  This new teacher wanted us to learn about the Holocaust.  This wasn't a new subject to me; my parents talked all the time about the atrocities of World War II.  The movie "Exodus" had a profound effect on them, and how Israel was the only safe place for the Jews.  They mentioned the tortures done to the Jews in the camps; it seemed as if they still couldn't believe something like that could happen on their generation's watch.  But it did and they discussed it with an impressionable young girl, who tried in her imagination to see what has gone on.

Then came this teacher with a movie.  Real images to replace the vague imaginings I had concocted; bodies in pits, closets with heads stacked inside; more pits, and more bodies.  Dismembered body parts, stacked up like cord wood.

This threw me into a deep quest to understand such a horrific event.  I read The Diary of Anne Frank, but that is comfortable history; people hiding, a girl falling in love.  There is no diary that describes what happened to her once she was arrested, deported in a train and died a painful death of typhus in a squalid camp.

I couldn't believe that the God of my Sunday School, and my 50's parents' faith of do the right thing and love America could possibly have overseen such an event without any intervention.  Where was America?  Where were my parents?  Where was God?

I then decided that there could be no God.  Yup.  I declared myself an atheist and had to eat my cosmic lunch alone.  But then it stuck me:  The people who perpetrated such horrors literally got away with murder.  If this earth and its justice system was it, then any kind of justice meted out was paltry in comparison to the enormity of the crime and the numbers of who were involved.

So, I made my way back to God.  Who is He?  Buddhism seemed a good choice, because in Hawaii, that religion is prevalent.  But a quiet individual, seated like a lotus with his eyes closed, seemed too far removed from the heads in the closet.

Then, I pursued Judaism.  I wanted to desperately understand why the Jews had been so mercilessly hunted down and killed.  The God of the Jews was familiar from my Sunday School days; my parents had long stopped going to church, but I remembered the lessons. So, I read every book in our school library about Judaism, Israel and Hitler.  

I desperately wanted to believe that God would comfort the broken lambs and punish the wolves.  What to do?

For a class project, I had to write a biography of a famous person.  A good friend of mine had been telling me about Jesus, and to read the New Testament.  In my wisdom, I declared that the New Testament had been written by Christians, so it was unreliable and biased.  Then came the movie, Jesus Christ Superstar.  Oh wow.  Music and a Jesus who railed against injustice was a potent mix to my searching heart.  Alright then: My biography project would be on Jesus Christ.  But no Bible as a source; I used many books from our school's library.  I wrote a long paper and made a poster of the highlights of His life.  

Now, I faced a conundrum:  I loved Judaism, but this Jew with the fire in his eyes and his call to stand up against evil was far too compelling to ignore.  One night, having laid a Star of David and a cross on my nightstand, I prayed that God would move the one He wanted me to follow.  The room filled with such a warmth and presence that I knew I had met God.  Personally.  Deeply.  I was forever changed.  

My heart's quest had been fulfilled.  I had met the One who had not forgotten this earth, its inhabitants, nor its evil.  He has not been a spectator, but as C.S. Lewis observed, He invaded this planet in the person of His Son, Who, like the troops on D-Day, has been taking back the planet from its evil empire one soul at a time.  

I have been on a quest ever since to reconcile the goodness of God with the immense evil on this planet.  Enroll with me in the School of Job to explore the nature of suffering.  I don't know exactly where we will go, but the Holy Spirit wants us to be bold adventurers and seek truth, no matter where it leads.  

Because, ultimately, a genuine search will lead us back to the One who calls Himself, "Truth."

Will we answer the question of "Why do we suffer?" Maybe yes. Maybe no.  But I have found the one thing such a search brings is a deeper understanding of God, and our relationship to Him.  That alone is worth the journey.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Best Church Money Can Buy

Let's join Jeremiah in chapter 5 as God gives him an assignment: 

Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares.
If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.
Although they say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ still they are swearing falsely. (5:1-2)

Why Jerusalem?  It contained the megachurch of its day--the Temple--and it was the spiritual power center and focal point of the Jewish people.  It had it all, with lots of leaders who knew the Law and all its intricacies.  King David ruled from here. The spiritual leaders led.  The people followed.  But there was a serious problem.  Truth was not in operation, despite all the appearance to the contrary.  Jerusalem looked spiritual enough, with all the hustle and bustle of religious activity. Solomon spared no expense and this megachurch gave the Jewish people a tremendous sense of pride--after all, this was God's House.  It was alive and well.  Was it?  It was alive, but not well.  Jeremiah was asked to search for truth in His people.  The God argued that no one in His city was honest.  God saw into the people's hearts and despite outward religious behavior, they lacked honesty.  Honesty is integral to God's character; He cannot and will not lie.  Those who call upon His name must reflect His character. Jeremiah responds with a rhetorical question, and then makes an observation: 

Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?  You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction.  They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent.  I thought, 'These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God.' (5:3-4) 

He is mystified why, despite all of God's efforts to correct His people, they refuse to repent.  Jeremiah is giving them some latitude, based on their poverty. Solution?  Jeremiah will seek out those at the top and in doing so, confronts a terrible truth: 

So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God. But with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds. (5:5)

What "yoke" had been discarded?  What "bonds" had been cast away?  The leaders--with "one accord"--had thrown away truth.  Truth about what?  The prophet Micah put it succinctly: He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)  Those hallmarks of His people were missing.  Why?  Because the leaders had decided that truth had gotten in way of doing great things for God. They might have argued, The Temple is still standing, Jerusalem is still operational, so truth is not necessary to keep a society functioning.  People are being religious and we are still chosen, so let's do what is pragmatic, expedited and popular.  Truth is time-consuming to teach and follow; let's keep the greater good in mind, and if we have to cut corners to do so, well, hey, we are still doing big things for God.

At our core, we are still fallen beings.  Jesus will give us a new heart, but the old sin nature lurks predatorily under the surface.  Paul, in Romans 7, laments this very fact.  Even if we start out sincerely, with our born-anew heart, our prideful self, fed by the Big Time (bigger must be blessed) will eventually take over and destroy us.  God summarizes the Jerusalem leaders well: "for their rebellion is great, and their backslidings many." (5:6) This word "implies repeated apostasy." (NIV Study Bible).  This is not where people make a mistake here and there, or where their sinful nature has kicked in temporarily--it is a repeated departure from the truth, as revealed in God's Word and and as reiterated by His prophets. Reaction?
They have lied about the Lord; they said, 'He will do nothing!  No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine. The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them; so let what they say be done to them.' (5:12-13)
Truth was not being preached.  The consequences for disobedience to the Lord were not being taught.  The prophets were ignored.  Is the modern church in America any different?  Casting Crowns has really captured the modern church in their song, "Start Right Here:"   

We want our coffee in the lobby, we watch our worship on a screen
We got a rockstar preacher, who won't wake us from our dreams
We want out blessings in our pocket, we keep our missions overseas
But for the hurting in our cities, would we even cross the street?
Huh but we wanna see the heart set free and the tyrants kneel
The walls fall down and our land be healed, but church if we want to see a change 
in the world out there, it's got to start right here, it's got to start right now
Lord, I'm starting right here.  Lord, I'm starting right now...

America has the best churches money can buy. Yet we wonder why 2020 has been such a terrible year. 
'Among my people are the wicked, who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch people. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.  Their evil deeds have no limit; they do not seek justice.  They do not promote the case of the fatherless; they do not defend the just cause of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?'  declares the Lord. 'Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this? A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land:  The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?' (5:26-31) 

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