Friday, September 29, 2006

Four Gods

My good friend Andy Wall, who preaches for the Conejo Valley congregation in Thousand Oaks, CA, alerted me to a new poll published in USA Today (“View of God Can Predict Values, Politics,” Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today, 9/12/06) and recommended I write about it. I asked him for a sermon idea too but he declined.

The poll was written and analyzed by sociologists from Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and conducted by Gallup. Rather than asking some of the standard religious questions typical of polls over the last thirty years (“Do you believe in God?” “Are you a Protestant, Catholic or Jew?”), the questions were much more specific and included queries about how people viewed God’s personality and the nature of his engagement with the world. From the answers to these questions the Baylor sociologists were able to distinguish four distinct views among Americans of God’s personality and engagement in human affairs, which researchers labeled and which can be described as follows: The Authoritarian God (31% of Americans) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to “throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on the unfaithful or ungodly.”
The Benevolent God (23%) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible but is primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible. The Critical God (16%) has his judgmental eye on the world but doesn’t intervene, either to punish or to comfort. The Distant God (24%) is not a personal being but a “cosmic force” that launched the world, and then left it spinning on its own.

This is particularly intriguing for researchers because these views of God proved to be significant sign posts for peoples’ values and behavior. As Baylor’s Christopher Bader puts it, “You learn more about peoples’ moral and political behavior if you know their image of God than almost any other measure. It turns out to be more powerful a predictor of social and political views than the usual markers of church attendance or belief in the Bible.” So, for instance, people who believe in an “Authoritarian God” tend to want an active, Christian-values-based government and are politically conservative. Those who believe in a “Benevolent God” are more inclined than the other three to say that caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person. In other words, asking not whether you believe in God but what kind of God you believe in is the far more fruitful question.

This intrigues me as a preacher and as a Christ-follower. Obviously the four views aren’t mutually exclusive, and yet my guess is that all of us find ourselves gravitating to a particular one. What happens to us in life affects the way we view God, and the way we view God affects how we live our life. I am presently in a forum in which Christians share their “spiritual journey story.” It is fascinating to hear how people who grew up in the same faith tradition (churches of Christ) formed different views of God and how that affected their decisions and life path. I am wondering if all our focus on behavior isn’t putting the cart ahead of the horse. “Tell me how you see God” is the operative question.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I spent the first three days of this week in Abilene at the A.C.U. Bible Lectures. I joke a lot about “beautiful Abilene” but this time the weather in fact was gorgeous and the town actually came close to being attractive! This was the first time the lectures were held in September, with the students on campus, and it was definitely an improvement over previous February lectures involving rain, snow, ice, or otherwise bleak winter weather.

I spoke as part of a panel discussion on the practice of “Lectio Divina,” which is an ancient practice of meditative/contemplative scripture reading that emphasizes stillness and “listening” for the voice of God. The four panelists were given a scripture (John 20:19-23) to focus on for the month leading up to the lectures, to talk about that experience with the audience, and then to lead the audience in the practice of lectio divina to help them experience what it is about.

I will tell you that the month of practicing lectio divina was a real challenge for me. You can imagine how hard it is to find the time and the will to “be still” for a period each day; I was not nearly as consistent as I would have liked. And yet I came to deeply appreciate the power of this kind of spiritual exercise. As I told the class, it is one of the few tangible ways we have in our multi-tasked and frenetic world to “establish a beachhead” of silence for the purpose of listening for God’s voice. Reading a short scripture aloud slowly three times (as is generally prescribed), ruminating on it, praying over it, and then listening for God’s voice is a marked contrast, and a healthy one, to our usual pace of living.

The Lectureship as a whole was terrific, excellent in every way, with all kinds of special venues (my favorite was a coffee house symposium on the music and spirituality of Johnny Cash). But I have to say, and I mean this sincerely, that the highlight of my three days on campus was my encounters with West Houston students. It was such a pleasure to run into, or be approached by, these smart, bright-eyed, sincere, friendly, sharp young people. Over the three days I had brief conversations with Emma Pierce, Julie and Katie Eichelberger, Megan Holland, Brad Fulfer, Caleb Gunter, Brian Leppla, Angela Dennis, Kelsey Confer, and Tyler Dickey. How ironic it is that in the course of “life at West Houston” I often don’t have much interaction with our teenagers, yet on a college campus three hundred miles away we enjoyed these friendly personal encounters. It is customary, and a bit trite, for an “older generation” to express worry about or disappointment with “the next generation.” My experience with our teenagers, and indeed with the college students I taught at Pepperdine and observed at A.C.U., fills me with confidence and even admiration. The future is bright for these young people and because of these young people. I take my hat off to you, West Houston parents, for the good job you are doing. And let me say to the ten young folks above that it was great to see you.

Next time I’ll treat you to a Starbucks if you’ll let me tell you about Johnny Cash. (9/24/06).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pressing God for Prosperity

I have been thinking about the foolishness of the cross of Christ, about which I will be preaching this week from I Corinthians 1. The apostle Paul declares that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25). Paul is speaking specifically about the “message of the cross,” that Christ’s death in this “shameful” and “lowly” way is actually God’s move to redeem humanity and unveil his kingdom reign. But there is a more general sense in which much of the life God prescribes seems “foolish” to the world, and much of the world’s “wisdom” God pronounces foolish.

Keep this in mind as we turn to the cover story of this week’s Time magazine, “Does God Want You to be Rich?” It examines the burgeoning “Prosperity Lite” movement among Pentecostal, evangelical and even mainline Protestant American churches (it is referred to as “Lite” because it refrains from some of the more hard-core “prosperity gospel” teaching of the “televangelist era” of the 1980’s). Many evangelicals are critical of, and embarrassed by, this movement, but its power is that it has just enough reasonability to be alluring. The hard-core prosperity gospel takes the form of a spiritual contract: if you do your part, God will do his. Period. If you’re not wealthy it’s because you’re not doing your part. Most Christians with half a brain and an ounce of judgment smell the rat in that supposition. The “Prosperity Lite” gospel, however, claims that God wants us to have “abundant life” (John 10:10) and this naturally (as the reasoning goes) pertains to those things that we hold dear: happy relationships, meaningful work, good health, and enough money to live a “good” life. See how reasonable that is? You’re not telling me that God DOESN’T want me to have those things, are you? They are the bedrock values we live by and vote for in America.


The problem with this theology, and the key to its insidiousness, is how quintessentially American it is. It sounds positively constitutional, as if Jesus in John 10:10 is talking about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Listen, I honor “the American dream.” It’s a great secular (which is not to say anti-religious) ideal. But let’s not hold God accountable to it by reading it into the Bible.

And this is the challenge of the Cross. It’s easy to see God’s wisdom over against obviously sinful and wrong philosophies in the world. But it gets real interesting when we put it up against what I would call “pleasing wisdom,” folksy aphorisms we have grown to accept such as “God helps those who help themselves,” (then why am I supposed to help people?) and “God wants you to be free from financial worries” (but what if financial worry is the only thing that will prod me to turn my attention to God?!).

As much as I would like the cross of Christ to confirm all the things I want out of life, it doesn’t. It actually challenges my “wisdom” in this regard. A good rule of thumb I have found is that if everybody wants it (financial prosperity, movie star looks, etc.) it’s probably not of God. That’s not to say it is against God’s will and purposes. But we blaspheme God when we enlist Him to justify it rather than submitting it to Him to winnow it.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Great and Glorious Thing

Every congregation I have been a member of since my baptism in 1983 has had its problems and foibles: DeGaulle Ave. in New Orleans, Memorial in Houston, University Ave. and then Westover Hills in Austin, Liberty St. in Trenton and Garretson Rd. in Bridgewater, NJ, New Milford in CT, Culver Palms in L.A., and yes, West Houston. Some had worse problems than others, and in three (as preacher) I was perhaps one of the problems! I have learned over twenty-three years that there are no ideal churches.

As I began a series today from First Corinthians I am struck by the apostle Paul’s thanksgiving for the church in Corinth. Now friends, this is a messed up church! There is open sexual immorality, people suing each other, two celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (one for the wealthy and one for the rest). They can’t agree what kind of meat is okay to eat; the worship assembly is a chaotic mess (you think singing new songs is exasperating? Try hearing multiple prophetic utterances at once!), and many don’t believe in the resurrection. But other than that it’s all good.

And yet here’s Paul in his greeting, telling them “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” and “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you.” (1:4, 6). Is Paul in denial? Is he trying to be reassuring? No, and yes. But Paul is also exhibiting the character of Christ, practicing what he preaches to the Philippians when he writes “Beloved, whatever is honorable, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” and “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (4:8-9).

Early in my preaching ministry I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book “Life Together.” The primary lesson that stuck with me was his admonition to preachers to “never be your congregation’s accuser before God” (that’s the way I remembered it anyway). In other words, advocate and intercede for your congregation before God instead of complaining about them to God. Recently I came across the context of this admonition, which speaks to all Christians, and is worth sharing with you.

“If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ. … What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God… The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. Christian community is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate” (p. 29-30).

Here’s the challenge: Strive for more, while giving thanks for what we have. So much in the church is “weak and trifling” compared to the ideal, yet God longs to take our feeble fellowship and leaven it with the redemptive and transforming work of his Spirit. Which is a great and glorious thing.