Tuesday, June 25, 2013

June 23, 2013 Faith in the Modern Age: Faith in the Public Square

Acts 17:16-23

It is clearly an understatement to say that the public role of religion is changing, not only in our society, but throughout the entire world as well.  Thinking about that change was the impetus for this series of messages.  It was also from thinking about faith in general.  The older I get the more convinced I become of the centrality of faith to life.  But not religion.  I don’t know how you define religion, but I define religion as the manmade aspects of faith.  To me, faith is the love, trust, and love that defines our relationship with God.  Religion is the collection of rules, regulations, and dogmas that humanity constructs, and that can get in the way of faith, if that makes sense.  I think it is religion, not faith, that people reject most of the time.

As we continue that series, which I’ll complete next week, this morning we are studying Faith in the Public Square.  If you read the study guide, much of that material had to do with the relationship between church and state, which is the way we often think about how faith works in the public square.  This morning, though, I want to talk about the topic in a much broader sense.

First, I want to talk about a few of the methods by which faith is not working in the public square, and then talk about a few ways in which I believe that we, as followers of Jesus, must begin to engage the public square.

What is not working –

1.  Politicized/partisan faith.
My dad and I didn’t have many disagreements, but we had a pretty big difference of opinion on a particular political candidate.  My dad really liked this person but I was very suspicious.  My dad liked him because of the way the person used the language of faith, which is the reason why I was suspicious.  I was uncomfortable with the way the person mixed faith and politics.  While I did not doubt the sincerity of their faith, it was far too partisan for me, and struck me as someone who sought to use the political system to push their particular view of faith on others.

I believe faith has a lot to say about the politics of our world, and should have something to say about the politics of our world, but it is not effective when it seeks to impose a particular view of faith upon people.  Faith ought to serve as a conscience to our political system.  Faith ought to remind the powerful that they cannot forget the poor and the weak.  Faith ought to remind the powerful that they cannot build a structure that favors one group of people over other groups.  Faith ought to remind the powerful that everyone should be treated with fairness, justice, and equality.

For many centuries the church was very powerful politically and even militarily.  That power caused the church to lose a great sense of its call to love, its call to service, and its call to humility, I believe.
People have, by and large, rejected religion that wields power over people.

2.  Condemning, judgmental religion.
I cringe whenever I hear three words – Westboro Baptist Church.  I wish that small group of people did not receive so much attention.  I think they are a black eye on the church and what the church is called to be.

They are certainly an aberration, I believe, but there are still churches that seem to make it their mission to tell others how bad they are.  They love to sit in judgment of others.  They specialize in telling others what terrible sinners they are.

That’s not going to get much of an audience these days, and it shouldn’t, because that is not the message of Jesus.  Jesus could be harsh in what he had to say, but we must remember it was always in dealing with the powers of his day – both political and religious – that Jesus was critical.  Jesus was not judgmental in his dealings with every day people, and especially not when dealing with the so-called “sinners” of the day.

3.  Dysfunctional churches.
If you have been around churches for very long you’ve probably encountered dysfunctional faith.  There are churches so absorbed in drama and dysfunction that it is unlikely they will ever develop a sense of mission and purpose.

I visited a church while on vacation five or six years ago and you could feel the dysfunction.  From the time I got out of my car to the time I got back in my car no one could be bothered to speak to me.  I stood and waited for a greeter to hand me a program but they were too absorbed in a conversation about the problems of the church.  I finally found a program, found a seat, and noticed that every staff member listed on the program was an interim.  The interim pastor was giving his final message that day.  It was really uncomfortable, listening to him tell the church that he believed they were so dysfunctional there was no way forward for them. 
Who wants to go somewhere like that?

How do we function like Paul did, as he found common ground in his day and age?

1.  By helping people to connect with God.
I haven’t been to camp in a few years, and I’ll be at Wakon’Da Ho next week.  I’m looking forward to it, because I love being eaten alive by mosquitoes and getting very little sleep.

Actually, I love it because of what it does – it connects people to God in a very powerful way.  People desire to be connected to God, not to a program, not to an institution, not to a belief system, not to a doctrine or a dogma, but to God. 

Sometimes churches forget that calling.  It’s great to connect people with one another, and it’s great to have programs and activities and that is part of our task as well, but we are called to connect people to God.  I certainly want to affirm my love for, and support of the church.  I feel as though I have been hard on churches in the course of this series.  It’s not that I enjoy finding fault with the church; it’s because of my love of the church that I feel the need to point out some areas where churches need to make some changes, and one of those is to remember that our calling is not simply to connect people to an institution, but to the living God.

2.  By talking with people.
I like the way Paul approached the people in Athens.  He didn’t go in with verbal guns blazing and telling them how wrong they were.  He didn’t organize a protest.  He didn’t yell at them.  He didn’t point his finger at them and launch into a judgmental tirade.  He didn’t insult them.  Instead, he found some common ground so he could strike up a dialogue.  He said, I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription:  To An Unknown God.  Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.

Paul could have strolled in there and said you bunch of pagans.  You are so ignorant in the way you worship.  Did you know you’re wrong?  But he didn’t.  Paul found a place of common ground and he talked to them.

We are losing the ability to talk to one another in world.  We are so dug into our positions, and our sides, and our views that we have developed parallel universes where we can all tune into what we want to hear and most of the dialogue taking place is little more than preaching to the choir and criticizing people on the other side. 

3.  Through service.
Faith is not about power.  Faith is not about lining everyone up with the exact same belief and Biblical interpretation.  Faith is about love, and the visible sign of that love is service.

Ironically, as our society has become so much more oriented toward the importance of service many churches have moved away from serving others, but it has been the influence of the gospel that has instilled in Americans the importance of service. If you have a child, or grandchild, applying to college you have most likely learned that those schools are looking for more than good grades and good test scores.  Those schools want to see that prospective students have engaged in service work.

The February after Hurricane Katrina I was in Waveland, Mississippi doing recovery work.  We stayed at a mission center established by a church in Mobile.  The church had been raising money to build a new sanctuary, and after the hurricane they made an amazing decision – they gave away the money.  They used the money to establish the mission station and to purchase supplies for people rebuilding their homes and businesses.  I don’t know how much money they gave away, but it was a significant amount.  Perhaps they needed to build an even bigger sanctuary, as a result of this great act of service.
As I have said before, I am very excited about the future of church.  I know that many people are anxious about the role of churches in our society, now and in the future, but I think we are in the beginning of a great work of God.  May it be so.

Monday, June 17, 2013

June 16, 2013 - Faith in the Modern Age: The Family in the Modern Age

Romans 8:14-16

We will conclude our series of messages on Faith in the Modern Age at the end of this month.  This morning, we are considering The Family in the Modern Age.
Everyone, I’m sure, recognizes these famous TV families –

I stopped with the Bundys because I don’t know who would be an example today, and because things go downhill with the Bundys.  The typical American family, as portrayed on television – and as in real life – is no longer typical or idealized.

I’m not sure families were ever as “normal” as they were portrayed on some of the classic TV shows, but I am sure that family life is much different today than a generation ago.

There are, certainly, many more pressures on today’s families.  Finances are certainly different.  When I was younger many families lived on one income.  There are not many families who can survive on one income today.  Time is a huge issue for families today.  There are so many opportunities – and responsibilities – that make claims on our time.  There are many who are caring for ageing family members.  Caring for a parent, or parents, as well as raising children, is very stressful.  And the world is a far more dangerous place since a generation ago.  You have to take so much more care these days to protect your kids.  And the structure of families has changed.  There are many more blended families today, and that can pose certain challenges.  Taken together, all of these pressures can place enormous stress on the relationships among family members.

This morning, as we talk about The Family in the Modern Age, I want us to consider family life from a different perspective.  For years, I’ve found that many congregations like to use the idea of family as a model for church life.  Many, many churches like to think of themselves as a family.

I would suggest something else.  Instead of family as a model for the church, I would suggest the church as a model for the family, which is a very different way of looking at both church and family.

Why this way of considering the church and the family?

First, family is not a Biblical model for the church, and I think this is for good reason. 
As great an image as family can often be, I’m not sure I want my family to be the model for any church.  And I’m not sure I want your family for a model either.  And that’s not to say anything bad about your family or mine; I simply don’t think anyone’s family is a proper image for a congregation, because it was never meant to be so.

The family is a closed circle, that is, some people are in the family, in the circle, and some people are not.  A family can grow larger through biological additions – and sometimes through marriage (I say sometimes because not everyone feels welcomed into a family after a marriage) – but not everyone becomes a part of the family.  If you consider me family, I need to talk to you about some tuition bills you can help me to pay.  I just heard the circle close, didn’t I? 

We treat people like family, we say, but subconsciously churches can become a closed circle.  Countless churches describe themselves in the following way – we are so friendly.  In fact, we are just like family here.  Except that some of the family may not talk to you or welcome you into the family.  And in some places you will hear people say if you didn’t grow up there you are always an outsider, so it’s not much of a family.

Churches ought to be welcoming, certainly, but the goal is not to treat everyone like a member of the family.  The goal for a church is to remind each person that they are a child of God, that they are loved by God, that they are called to love themselves and to love others, and they are called to use their God-given gifts to work for the building of God’s kingdom.

That’s a very different purpose from simply being like a family, isn’t it?  This means that,

Second, being like a family doesn’t necessarily move a congregation outward towards other people. 
If family is the image of the church, then the purpose of the church becomes simply to serve its families, and that’s what a lot of churches do.  The minister becomes a chaplain to look after the members of the family.  The activities and work of the church revolves around providing something to do for the family members.  The image of family leads a congregation to do things simply for its members, which turns it inwards, and when you turn inward you begin down a road that leads to decline, to failure of purpose, and eventually the death of the mission to which the church is called.

A church should certainly love, encourage, and minister to its families, but the church does not exist to serve the family; the church exits to serve God and does so be continually reaching out in love and grace to others.

Third, the church is an open circle, welcoming all people into its care and community.
Our Scripture reading tells us something very radical about he church – the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

That is an incredibly radical statement, because it removes the barriers among humanity – all barriers.  Paul uses the word adoption.  My mother was adopted.  I told her story in my message on Mother’s Day of 2010, and some of you may remember it.  I won’t retell the entire story this morning, but simply say that if she had not been adopted I am convinced she would never have survived.  I am literally alive because of the love and kindness of someone who adopted my mother, who, along with her siblings, had been abandoned by their father.  That’s a pretty big deal to me.  My father was nine years old when his father died.  One of my great regrets is that I never asked my dad what it was like to be nine years old and your father passed away.  He never talked about it, and I never asked him about it.  I sure wish I had.  But his father’s family didn’t like his mother, and after the death of his father, his father’s family tried to take him and his brother and sister away from his mother.  That’s a lot for a nine year old to have to experience, isn’t it?

Paul says we are God’s children, every one of us adopted by him.  Human families have their issues.  Human families may sometimes hurt and even abandon, but not God.  If you tell someone the church is like a family and their family suffers from a lot of dysfunction, it’s probably not going to make a positive impression upon them.

Fourth, the church is about the focus of mission.
When I was younger I spent a lot of the summers at church camp.  Like many of you, church camp was an incredibly important and influential experience for me.

Our camp director was Bob Mack.  Bob preached my ordination sermon and was tremendously influential on my life.  One day at camp, as we took a break from work on building a new chapel, he told me the story of how he came to faith.  For some reason, I had assumed he grew up in faith but he had not at all.  I’ve known people who have experienced quite a life change when they came to faith, but wow, Bob had an unbelievable change.  When he told me of his life prior to faith I just couldn’t square it with the person I knew.  It was a complete 180, total life change.

Bob began to work for a man who had a great faith.  He also had several daughters.  Bob asked him one day, why didn’t you tell me you had daughters?  The man said because I didn’t want you anywhere near my daughters!  And he had very good reasons to feel that way about Bob.  But Bob began to change from being around this man, and a miracle happened in his life, as he came to faith.  He also married one of his daughters.  Through that relationship Bob was introduced to his wife, but also to a great purpose in life.

There was a mission to that family that was about more than their own lives.  As the people of God we are to be pointing to something greater than ourselves, and that is to God.  The purpose of the church is its God-given mission to go forth and love and serve others.  That is a high purpose, and our focus.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Faith in the Modern Age: Why Go to Church in the Modern Age?

I Corinthians 12:12-14

One of my predecessors here at First Christian – Jim Collins – was here to speak a few years ago.  You may remember that he had copies of his book, Always A Wedding.  Jim had, at that time, officiated at about 2,500 weddings over the course of his ministry.  That’s an incredible number of weddings.

I think I will call my book Always A Meeting.  I spend a lot of times in meetings.  A meeting I attended a while back was interesting for a question that arose.  It was a meeting of some clergy, and as we talked about church and the challenges facing churches today, one person said do we give people a compelling reason to come to church?  Do we tell them why it’s important, or do we just assume they’ll continue to show up even as they wonder why it’s important to do so?

Those are interesting questions.  And they are important questions.  Do we give people a compelling reason to come to church?  Do we simply assume they will continue to show up in worship without being given a reason to do so?  Perhaps there are people who come to church looking for a reason why they should attend.

Earlier in this series (which I will complete at the end of this month) I offered a two-part message about The Church in the Modern Age.  That message was mostly about changes needed in churches; this message is about the important, foundational question of why should we attend church?

When I am thinking about my message, it’s always interesting how certain things capture my attention.  I guess because a certain topic is on my mind I will notice something I might not otherwise notice.  As an example, as I was thinking about this message I happened to notice a copy of the Atlantic magazine.  I noticed it because of an article written by Larry Taunton.  The title of the article is Listening to Young Atheists:  Lessons for A Stronger Christianity (you can read the article here - http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/). 

To be honest, I’m kind of tired of reading articles about the rise of unbelief, but this one was really fascinating.  What Larry and his organization – the Fixed Point Foundation – did was talk to college age atheists from around the country.  They simply wanted to hear their stories to see what moved people to give up their faith.  While almost all of them referred to the process of making a decision based on rationality and reason, Taunton and his group found there was almost always a deeper, more emotional reason for their choice.  Sadly, the choice was often related to the churches in which they were raised.  Some of them were not given a compelling reason to be a part of the church, or they never saw a good reason.

I begin with the assumption that a person who is a follower of Jesus is a part of the church.  I know that not all are active or attend, and I don’t condemn them when they are not.  I understand why people give up on the church, because there have been times when I’ve considered it myself.  There have been a few times when I really thought about it (does it surprise you to hear a minister say such a thing?)  I got a pretty good lesson in the kinds of things that can go on with churches as I was growing up.  I listened as my mom and dad complained and would practically grind their teeth after a difficult board meeting or contentious gathering at church.  I saw how people could act in very non-Christ like ways.  I’ve been in churches where there seemed to be little connection to the ministry of Jesus.  I’ve been in churches that seemed to be on their deathbed.

But in spite of all the negatives I’ve seen and experienced, and despite the fact that some people see today’s church as outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant, I’m not going anywhere, and I’d like to give you a few reasons why –

1.  I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and the church is his body to which I am called.
I received a call recently from a friend who was looking for a church recommendation.  They knew someone new to Shelby County and told me the family’s denominational background and asked for suggestions.  I naturally thought, how about ours?  My friend said, well, do you think your church would be too liberal for them?  Is your church liberal or conservative?  Is it formal or informal?  Is it traditional worship or contemporary?  Are we expressive or reserved?  I said yes.

Are we liberal?  Yes.  Are we conservative?  Yes.  Are we in the middle?  Yes.  Are we outgoing?  Yes.  Are we restrained?  Yes.  We’re all these things, and more, because we are a combination of all those things, and that, I believe is a good thing.  You see, church is not about finding a group of people who represent the same exact slice of society with whom you relate, but being a part of the body of Christ, which reflects all the facets of humanity, and we wrap it all under the banner of the great confession of faith made by Peter when Jesus asked who do you say that I am? 

As Disciples, we are very familiar with Peter’s great confession of faith – You are the Christ, the son of the living God (Matthew 16:13, Mark 8:27 and Luke 9:18).

Paul, in today’s Scripture reading, writes about the body of Christ, to which we are called.  To me, there is something greatly compelling about being part of something that is eternal, something that is beyond our own lives, something that existed long before us, and will long outlive us.

There is nothing else like the church, and for all its faults and shortcomings, I believe we are called to be part of this great, universal, and timeless body because means we are part of Jesus, and that really, really does mean something.

2.  Faith is not practiced in isolation.
We live in a highly individualistic society, but faith is not something that works in isolation.  By its very nature, faith compels us to be involved in the lives of other people, both in offering support and receiving support.  The foundation of the Christian faith – love – is not something that can be practiced apart from other people.  Jesus commands that we are not only to love God, but that we are to love others as well (Matthew 22:37-40).  Such a command is a reminder that we are created to be in community with others.

You can, certainly, find community elsewhere, but not like the church, I believe, because in the church you get the next reason –

3.  Where else do you hear the message of the Gospel?
Well, you can hear it on the radio, TV, and the internet, but that’s not quite the same as experiencing it in person.  Simply put, where else are you going to hear the message of loving your enemies?  I don’t hear that message outside of church.  Do you?  The gospel challenges me in ways that no other person, organization, or place will challenge me, and that tells me something very important about the church – I need to be here for that challenge.

The truth is that the church has a very unique message, and we are in need of hearing it on a regular basis.

C. S. Lewis wrote, When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit. (http://touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=02-04-019-f#ixzz2VRsTsWTo)
That reminds me that –

4.  I can’t do faith on my own.
I’ve spent some time on golf courses and lakes and have felt close to God there.  Well, perhaps on the lake but not on the golf course; God seems to abandon me there.  What I mostly feel in those places is an appreciation for God and his creation, which is important, but not the same as worship.  It’s also not likely that anyone at the lake or the golf course will tell you what you need to hear, except that maybe you should give up golf.

In the summer of 1978 my older brother was in Israel on an archeological dig.  At the time he owned an MG convertible.  Since he was gone the entire summer he left it in my care.  I was living in northeast Tennessee that summer, near the campus of the college I was attending.  It was a great car to drive in the summer.  A little convertible with a stick shift on the floor, it was a lot of fun.

The gas gauge on the car did not work, but I would set the odometer and watch it closely.  Most of the time.  A friend and I, on a great summer day, were riding in the car up a mountain road when I suddenly heard a loud ticking.  I remembered my brother telling me that just before the car ran out of gas the fuel pump would tick loudly.  We quickly sputtered to a halt.

Fortunately, the car did not have power steering or power brakes, so we could coast.  It was very easy to turn the car around and start coasting back down the mountain.  We coasted a long way, and with the top down and the breeze blowing it was a good ride.

As we coasted to the bottom of the mountain there was a little gas station at the bottom.  We coasted into the gravel parking lot and right up to the gas pumps.  I hopped out of the car and went in to pay for some gas.  Sitting outside the door was one of the locals, leaning back in a chair with his hat pulled down low.  As I walked by he looked up and said, I believe that’s the quietest running car I’ve ever heard.  I didn’t want to admit to running out of gas so I said, yes sir, she sure does run quiet!  

The reality is that it’s easy to coast through life.  We want to minimize our stressors, our expectations, our responsibilities – church is one place where you cannot cruise, because the Spirit of God will move in us and push us beyond our own comfort.  If I try to do faith on my own I always run out of gas, so to speak.

I have to admit there are times when I wish I could just live in my own little world and worry only about myself, but that is not an option when we are followers of Jesus.  There is no cruise control.  There is no “my own world.”

And that is why I go to church.

Monday, June 03, 2013

June 2, 2013 Faith in the Modern Age - Talking About God in the Modern Age

Job 13:1-15

We all know the old adage about whether you see a glass as half empty or half full.  Take a look at this glass of water and tell me if it is half full or half empty.  How many of you think it is half full?  How many think it is half empty?  I don’t think of it as either half full or half empty; I believe it is the wrong size glass.

What I’ve done in asking the question of half full or half empty is to tell you your options – answer A or answer B.  I didn’t just ask you a question – I set boundaries on how you would think about this glass of water.   I presented you with only two options, when, in fact, there were others, such as getting a different size glass.

I believe that dynamic shapes our thinking on a daily basis.  We are given, without realizing it, a set number of options when considering questions, and we are given boundaries on how we view the world and, even, how we think about God and talk about God.

As we continue our series of Faith in the Modern Age, this morning we come to the topic of Talking About God in the Modern Age.  In some ways, the way we talk about God has been determined for us.  We have inherited a list of options about the character of God and the way in which God works, and that can limit both our understanding of God and the ways in which he works.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the first round of tornadoes in Oklahoma.  After those tornadoes struck, there were people who insisted that God sent those storms as a punishment for the acts of some group of people or our country as a whole.  I believe that is both wrong and bad theology to make such a statement, and I believe that Scripture backs up my point.

This morning’s Scripture passage is an example of the kind of language about God that is rejected.  Our Scripture reading is from the book of Job.  The book of Job, you’ll remember, grapples with the idea of suffering, but not just the idea of suffering.  The book of Job also deals with the bad theology that people attach to suffering and also deals with the well meaning, but incorrect ways to talk about God.
Job was a very righteous man who suffered the loss of everything in his life.  Job had three friends who came to comfort him.  They were not much comfort.  Job’s friends believed he certainly must have done something wrong to cause God to inflict him with such a terrible loss.  But Job would have none of this.  Job protested that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and that he had done nothing to deserve his suffering.  Listen to what he has to say as he makes his case –

“My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it.
What you know, I also know; I am not inferior to you.
But I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.
You, however, smear me with lies; you are worthless physicians, all of you!
If only you would be altogether silent! For you, that would be wisdom.
Hear now my argument; listen to the pleas of my lips.
Will you speak wickedly on God’s behalf? Will you speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show him partiality? Will you argue the case for God?
Would it turn out well if he examined you?  Could you deceive him as you might deceive a mortal?
10 He would surely call you to account if you secretly showed partiality.
11 Would not his splendor terrify you?  Would not the dread of him fall on you?
12 Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay.
13 “Keep silent and let me speak; then let come to me what may.
14 Why do I put myself in jeopardy and take my life in my hands?
15 Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.

Wow.  Job really lays it on his friends, doesn’t he?  Some friends they were.  Surely, they were only trying to help, but their help wasn’t at all helpful.  That’s bad theology and a bad way to talk about God, I believe. 

I want to offer three suggestions this morning for how we should talk about God in our modern age, and I hope you will find them to be helpful.

1.  We shouldn’t tell people God is responsible for their suffering.
I think, sadly, that for many people, God has been made into a bully.  When we tell people God is anxious to punish them for their sins, God becomes a bully.

Jonathan Edwards was a well-known minister who lived during the 18th century.  He preached a famous sermon titled Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God, and that sermon set the template for a lot of sermons to follow, even to our day and time.  Jonathan Edwards, in that sermon, portrayed God as an angry, vengeful God who dangled sinners by a thread over the fires of hell, with a desire not to save but to condemn.  The study guide for today’s message has a couple of paragraphs that quote from that message, but here is a short bit - The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.

I feel better now, don’t you?  Does that message resonate with you?  It does not with me.  To be fair to Edwards, I should certainly say that we should appreciate his awareness of the things of which humanity is capable.  But Edwards also, unfortunately, is one responsible for giving us the idea that God not only inflicts suffering upon people, but he seems to enjoy doing so.

We shouldn’t make God into an ogre, one who is anxiously awaiting an opportunity to inflict suffering and harm upon us.

Why do tornadoes happen?  Because that is what the weather sometimes does.  That is a difficult and sometimes destructive reality.  But let us not lay at the feet of God a theology that says God inflicts such things upon people because he wants to punish them.

2.  We shouldn’t use language that God favors some people above others.
In too many cases, we have turned God into a partisan God, insinuating – or saying outright – that he loves those of us in the church more than others.

I was on my way to a meeting recently in another community and I passed a church that caught my eye.  It caught my eye because of the sign hanging on the front of the church, so I stopped and took this picture. 

I received some really strange looks from drivers who were passing by.  One driver almost came to a stop as he leaned forward and looked at me like what in the world are you doing?

Sinners welcome!  I know the message that church is seeking to communicate – they are, I assume, saying come on in, we’ll take anybody, even a sinner like you.  After all, we are all sinners.  We are all sinners, after all.  But I’m not sure people outside of the church will hear that message in the way it is intended, because people outside of the church have so often been treated as sinners while those inside the church have so often acted as though they are more righteous.  What they are hearing is probably something more along the lines of hey!  Get yourself in here, where we can tell you how you need to change your life, even if you don’t think you need to change, because we are the kind of people who know how you ought to be living and we think you are living the wrong way.

Why not use, instead of the word sinner, something like fellow child of God, or brother or sister.
I’ve seen churches that tell certain groups of people that until they became like them – like the church members – they weren’t welcome.  They drew a line of exclusion for some people, and those in the church were on the right side of the line and the others were on the wrong side of the line.

So I tend to think that sign may be more off-putting to people than it is welcoming.  It might have worked in an earlier time period, but in our present day, I think it’s not an effective way to talk about God, because people see it as communicating that we are better than you.

3.  God defined himself in Jesus.
If you want to know what God is like, look at the life of Jesus, as he is the expression of God. 

Far too often, people point to the wrong people and associate them with God.  They point out some flamboyant TV preacher and say that’s what represents God.  Or they point to the minister of a church, like me, and say that’s what represents God.  We all do in some way and, unfortunately, our shortcomings become a part of the mix, but I say if you really want to know God, look to Jesus.  Don’t look to someone on TV, don’t look at your elder or the person sitting next to you, or to someone here in the choir, or to me; look to Jesus.

Years ago I went to a Circuit City store to purchase a new computer.  I think it was my second computer, so this was a number of years ago.  My previous computer had a monochrome display and a flashing c:\ prompt on the screen.  Anyone here remember that age of computers?  The computer I was considering purchasing had a color monitor and the new technology of a CD drive.  The salesman was showing me this great new feature of a CD encyclopedia that included video clips.  This was cutting-edge technology at the time.  As the encyclopedia opened on the screen the salesman came to a screen with a televangelist, which pushed him into a rant.  Those guys are all a bunch of crooks and that’s why I’m not really into God.  I wanted to ignore his rant, but it finally got under my skin, and I responded that televangelists didn’t represent God.  If you want to know what God is like, I told him, look to Jesus.

And that is what I believe.  It’s easy to point to the failings of another person and accuse them of being a hypocrite and then wash your hands of faith.  Except that it’s not really fair, because we can’t expect another person to represent God.  I cannot adequately represent him, and neither can you or anyone else.  But Jesus does.  And that is what really matters, and who really matters.