Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Road to Redemption – Providence 1

    It was All Saints Day, November 1, 1755. In Lisbon, Portugal, considered one of the most Christian cities in the world, thousands of people packed the local churches. Then at 9:40am one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history (estimated to be between 8.5-9.0 on the Richter scale) hit the city. As the churches swayed people ran out into the streets only to be crushed by falling stones. Attempting to get away from the crashing buildings they rushed to the water front only to be met by three successive tsunamis. Finally as they ran from the tsunamis back into the city they were met by fire which ultimately consumed much of what was left of Lisbon. Estimates of deaths range from 10,000 – 100,000, making it one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes of all time. The questions which then confronted Christian Europe were: did God cause this to happen? Was this the Providence of God?

Providence is not a word that is commonly used in the modern American lexicon other than to refer to a town in Rhode Island or to a hospital system here in Southeast Michigan. I have no great theories on why we have allowed a term of such great Biblical and theological importance to go dormant, yet we have. Be that as it may we are going to resurrect it for a little while not only because it matters to "the church" but because it matters to us. I say that because, whether we realize it or not, we not only deal with the concept of providence on a regular basis, but we often struggle with it during some of the most difficult times of our lives (as did those who suffered in the Lisbon earthquake).

    Let's begin with a few simple definitions of providence from

  1. The foreseeing care and guidance of God or nature over the creatures of the earth
  2. God, especially when conceived as omnisciently directing the universe and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence
  3. A manifestation of divine care and direction

The issue at stake in these definitions as well as in any discussion of or struggle with Providence is that of how much power does God have and how does God use it. We wrestle with these issues every time we ask questions such as: "Why did God let this happen?" "How could God allow evil to exist?" "Why am I still here when I want to die?" "Why hasn't God answered my prayers?" We also make reference to Providence when we make statements such as: "It's all in God's hands." "God always has a purpose." "God's in control." "God will provide."

Over the millennia people of various religions, races and cultures have wrestled with these questions. They have wondered about their own freedom from or dependence on God or the gods. At times people have believed themselves to be completely independent of supernatural forces while at other times people have come to see themselves as no more than puppets of the gods/God. As we will see over the next few weeks Judaism and Christianity have expressed and held widely divergent views on the extent of God's Providence.

A final piece with which we must deal when speaking of Providence is the role that science has played in how we understand God's control or lack of it in human affairs. As science has developed its understanding of things such as genetics, evolution, geology (including the physics of plate tectonics and earthquakes) and brain chemistry and the social sciences have developed concepts which explain human interactions (both individually and corporately) humanity has the knowledge that allows it to see itself as completely independent of God. We see this in the rise of the New Atheism movement. Writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have led this movement which believes that religion, and in many ways, the concept of Providence should be exposed and done away with by rational arguments.

Though much of what I have articulated above is focused on how Providence and evil are linked we will see that Providence in the scriptures is a much broader concept.

The Road to Redemption: Spiritual Disciplines – Giving 3


    Having used our last two articles to look at giving in both the Old and New Testaments it is time to turn our attention to the ways in which giving is a spiritual discipline. Before we do, however, I want to offer a couple of thoughts about tithing. Tithing is the practice of giving 10% of one's income to the church and other helping organizations. Our examination of giving in the scriptures offered us a Biblical basis for tithing. However while I believe in tithing (it is something that Cindy and I practice) there is no hard and fast rule that one must tithe. It is a goal…toward which people are encouraged to work…as well as a benchmark beyond which some people are able to go. The other thing I want to offer is that tithing is a total of our giving to charities which serve the needs of those around us. While I would love to have everyone tithe to the church, the needs of the world around us are great…and any assistance we can give to those in need gives glory to God. Now, let's look at giving as a spiritual discipline.

    The first way in which giving acts as a spiritual discipline is that it orients us to God. The reality of our lives in the 21st Century is that we are pulled in multiple directions by our culture. As one speaker put it, we are pulled by the three "A"s; accumulation, appearance and achievement. When combined with the pull from the "F"s, family and friends it is a wonder that we can keep our wits about us at all. What giving offers us then is a reorientation of our hearts, minds and lives to God. By giving to the church we are practicing the imitation of God in Christ who gave his life for the world. Though we are never going to inoculate ourselves from the pull of the "A"s and the "F"s, by giving we realign our compass to true north, that is to the very heart of God in such a way that we are more intimately connected with God.

    The second way in which giving acts as a spiritual discipline is that it reminds us that all we have is a gift of God and that gratitude is the appropriate response to God's generosity. In the movie "Finding Nemo" the seagulls are portrayed as flying around saying, "Mine, mine, mine." In a sense this is the way we as human beings often act. It is the "possession is nine-tenths of the law view;" that whatever I have acquired is mine and no one can tell me how to use it. By giving, we practice letting go of the attitude of "mine, mine, mine" and instead say to God, "Yours." This helps to set us free from the self-centeredness that infects humanity and replaces it with a conciseness that we are all the beneficiaries of God's good gifts of creation and community.

    The third way in which giving acts as a spiritual discipline is that it helps us set aside fear and deepen our trust in God. The interesting thing about Americans is that regardless of our income/assets, most of us feel insecure. A recent survey showed that among Americans with assets of between one and five million dollars only 28% felt financially secure. This sense of insecurity causes many people to hold on tightly to all that they have believing that if they give any of it away they will be at risk. By giving, we practice setting these fears aside and we discover that God is continually present with us, insuring that we have what we need (even if it is not always what we want).

    The final way in which giving acts as a spiritual discipline is that it connects us with other people. You and I live in a world which, even with all the social media around us, is becoming more and more disconnected. By giving we connect with others to work for a better world. We also connect with those whose lives are changed. A friend of mine who gave to and volunteered with an inner-city eye-care ministry in San Antonio once had a woman launch herself into his arms in a grocery store and say, "Because of you I can see." My friend had become part of a larger community of humanity than he ever thought possible. This is what we can do when we are willing to give of our resources. We can become more closely connected with our church, community and world.


The Road to Redemption - Spiritual Disciplines: Giving 2

    Our previous article offered an overview of giving in the Old Testament. We learned that there were five specific offerings which the people were to give to God, the Temple and the priests. These offerings (sacrifices) were intended to be means by which people gave thanks to God, sought God's forgiveness and supported the Temple and its priesthood. People were also supposed to give ten-percent of all that they had to God and to the work of the Temple. In addition, something that was not covered last week was that people were to be generous in terms of assisting the poor. We will now turn to the New Testament and examine its attitude toward giving.

    Money and how people deal with it is one of the main topics with which Jesus dealt during his ministry. In fact not only did Jesus talk about money more than anything else other than the Kingdom of God, but eleven out of thirty-nine of his parables were focused on money as well. In the Gospel of Luke one out of every seven verses is related to money. Why the focus on money? I believe Jesus spent so much time talking about money because in some ways money had become an idol for God's people. What I mean by this is that people put their ultimate trust in money/goods rather than in God. And because of this people forgot that money (as with every other possession) was a gift from God which was intended to be used the way God designated. In addition, Jesus implied that many persons who did give were doing so for the prestige it offered them rather than as a means of praising God.

    Let's look at some specific texts. One of the most famous of Jesus' teachings on giving occurs in Matthew 25:42-45 where he speaks of giving to the least of these. We were to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and look after the sick. While this text does not specifically mention money it is implied because Jesus was already living in a money-based economy (rather than a rural barter economy) and so all of the food, clothing and housing would have had to have been paid for with cash. Jesus tells his followers that they were to sell what they had, give it to the poor, and then come and follow him. (Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22) While I don't believe Jesus meant for his followers to actually sell all that they had, I believe it was a way of reminding them of what their priorities ought to be; Jesus and the Kingdom of God first, money second.

    The Apostle Paul was not quite as critical of having money. He was a small businessman who made tents for a living and understood that money was not evil in and of itself, though the love of it was (1 Timothy 6:10), but instead money was a medium of exchange which could be used well or used poorly. Proper uses of money included caring for family and relatives (1 Timothy 5:8); supporting the work of the church and its leaders (1 Corinthians 9:13-14; Galatians 6:6; Philippians 4:15-20); and the support of those in need (Romans 12:13, 20). Paul also offered a special reminder to the wealthy that they were to focus their lives on God while being generous in giving to others (1Timothy 17-19). Finally Paul believed that generosity in giving was a virtue to be cultivated. This comes to our attention in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 where he refers to the generosity of the Macedonian churches. Though the churches in Macedonia were small, poor and under great strain they gave far more than was expected to the relief fund for the church in Jerusalem. The Apostle even encourages people to set aside money every week in order that they have something to give to others and to the church. (1 Corinthians 16:2)

    Some of the most concrete demonstrations of giving are found in the Book of Acts. In Acts 2:44-45 we read, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds
to all, as any had need."
This sharing of all that the early church possessed is mentioned again in Acts 4:32. For the early church, the bottom line was that every person gave what they had to insure that no one did without what others needed. Giving in this way was one of the great draws of the early church; a community in which giving was at the heart of their life.


The Road to Redemption – Spiritual Disciplines: Giving 1

The Road to Redemption – Spiritual Disciplines: Giving 1

    "They are always asking for money." This is one of the most frequent complaints lodged against churches by members and non-members alike. I am not sure if churches would be convicted of this trespass in a spiritual court of law, but since perception is powerful we will take some time to examine the Biblical history of asking/giving and "giving" as a spiritual discipline.

    We begin in Genesis, in which we find several stories involving giving. The first is that of Cain and Able (Genesis 4:1-16) where the twins each bring an offering to God. Cain brought to God "an offering of the fruit of the ground" while Able brought to God "of the firstlings of his flock." A second offering story in Genesis involves Abraham and his encounter with the Melchizedek, priest of the God most high. (Genesis 14:17-20) In this story Melchizedek blesses Abraham and Abraham offers up ten percent (a tithe) of all that he has to the priest.

    Giving becomes formalized throughout the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah contains the Law of Moses which calls for five different types of offerings for five different purposes. These offerings centered on worship and sacrifice. Just a note, sacrifices and offerings were never meant to "buy" God's favor or "make" God do something. They were instead meaningful acts of thanksgiving, praise or confession as well as support for the Temple and its priests.

    The first type of offering was a Burnt Offering. The burnt offering consisted of a male animal (bull, lamb, goat, pigeon or turtle dove…based on the wealth of the giver) which was to be completely burned up on the altar. None of it was to be eaten. The animal was to be perfect (without blemish…in other words one's best and not a left-over). The individual would lay his/her hands upon the animal's head understanding that this animal was standing in (as an atonement for sin or dedication of one's life) for the person making the offering.

    The second type of offering was a Meal Offering. Israelites were to bring cereal or vegetable offerings in addition to animal offerings. The second chapter of Leviticus describes four kinds of cereal offerings. They were to be cooked with oil and salt but no honey (go figure). These offerings were brought to the priest who would cast a small amount into the fire and eat the rest. Meal Offerings were a way of demonstrating generosity in response to God's generosity.

    The third type of offering is a Sin Offering. This offering was intended to take care of (expiate) any unintentional failures or weaknesses in one's relationship with God. The offering was dependent upon one's station in life. The High Priest offered a bull, leaders offered a male goat and ordinary Israelites offered a female animal, and the poor offered a small amount of grain.

    The fourth type of offering was a Peace Offering. The Peace offering was one that was shared between God, the priests and the people. An animal was sacrificed and then was eaten by priest and people. This was an offering of thanksgiving and praise…as well as a community building exercise.

    The fifth and final type of offering was the trespass offering. This offering was similar to the sin offering but it consisted of money. It was offered as repentance for any fraud which was unintentional. The sacrifice was to be equal to the value stolen, along with a 20% gift to the priests and to the one cheated.

    Finally there was the tithe (giving of a tenth). In Leviticus 27:30-33 Moses tells the people that one tenth of all they had produced (crops and animals) was to be given to God. This command was echoed by King Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 31:4-5) when he ordered the people to tithe to the Temple and the priesthood. The response of the people was overwhelming in that they gave of all that they had. I hope this explains why we ask for "tithes and offerings" on Sunday morning…because in the scriptures there are both (though you can leave the bulls and goats at home).


The Road to Redemption: Spiritual Disciplines – Being in Community 3

    This article will first be published on September 11, 2013, the twelfth anniversary of the attacks on our nation by a small group of terrorists. While the immediate response to the attack was to draw all Americans together in community, it was not long before it began to tear our nation apart. What I mean by that is that many of our citizens began to look suspiciously at any citizen who appeared to of Middle Easter origin. People refused to fly with women in hijabs or Sikhs in their traditional turbans. Entire communities rose up against the legal building of mosques or Islamic centers, claiming that they would be breeding grounds for terrorists. This fear and its accompanying rhetoric then extended beyond those of Middle Eastern background to anyone who did not look "American" enough. The challenge that is still before us is to continue working toward building community in which all human beings are valued for their innate worth as children of God.

     We begin building this kind of community by connecting ourselves with God who created all of us and who loved the world enough to send the only Son into the world in order to save it. Connecting with God comes through an ever deepening life of prayer and meditation, and regular attendance in worship (we have covered both prayer and worship earlier in this series). These actions attune our lives to God and God's desires for us. They also allow us to respond to God in thoughts, words, songs and actions. While these practices may seem somewhat awkward to many of us because we may never have practiced them, over time they can become an important and meaningful part of our lives.

    We continue building community by developing caring relationships within the body of Christ. We can do this through interacting with others before and after worship, being part of a Bible study, Dinners for Eight or covenant group (you can find out more about these in First Things), coming to church events, assisting with our All Abilities Inclusion Ministry, or volunteering for one of the various mission activities in which the church engages. These activities allow us to come to know one another on a deeper level than would otherwise be possible through a Sunday morning greeting. By so doing we can share our hopes, joys and sorrows in such a way that we are bound together as authentic community.

    Community occurs not only within the walls and activities of our church but it is built within the community. Part of our tradition as Presbyterians is that we are to be engaged in the wider community. We have founded colleges, universities, community assistance programs and have been engaged in the political process. We do so because we believe that God calls us to be making a positive difference in the world around us. Thus part of being in community is to connect and work with those who are striving to bring about meaningful change in our world. This can be done by engaging in Interfaith work, volunteering or sitting on the boards of helping organizations, tutoring at Alcott Elementary School or in any number of other ways.

    Being in Community continues with building community internationally. While the problems facing our world often appear overwhelming there are simply ways in which we can build a closer knit community. One of my favorites organizations (and there are many, many others) is KIVA ( KIVA allows individuals to make loans (as small as $25) to farmers, small entrepreneurs or homeowners all over the world. As the loans are repaid (they have a 99% repayment rate) you have the opportunity to loan the repayment to others. In this way it is possible to be in community with people across the globe in an ongoing fashion.

     Finally being in community means taking care of the world in which we live. Whether this looks like being active in environmental organizations, participating in River Rouge cleanups, recycling Styrofoam here at the church or going green at home, we can be in community with God's creation of which we are a part.


The Road to Redemption: Spiritual Disciplines – Being in Community 2

    In our last article we examined the concept of community in the Old Testament. What we discovered was that community is an integral part of God's creation in that human beings are in community not only with one another but with God and the creation itself. In other words we are all related. The issue then is how does this relatedness lend itself to becoming a spiritual discipline? The answer is that being in community becomes a spiritual discipline by living appropriately with God, neighbor and creation. In some sense then, being in community, as we will see, is a cumulative discipline. It is developed by putting many of the other spiritual disciplines into practice.

Scripture tells us that the first step in practicing being in community begins with God's people deepening their relationship with God. This is initiated by the people proclaiming that they will love the Lord their God with all of their heart, soul, and strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5/Luke 10:27) This proclamation does not negate love of others. It is a reminder that being in community is built upon the foundation of loving God first. The community then engages in the other God-orienting spiritual disciplines such as worship, prayer, fasting, Sabbath and meditation. Each of these practices deepens the community's connection with God.

The second step scripture offers us as a means of practicing being in community focuses on deepening our relationship with neighbor. In some ways this second step may be the most difficult because it demands that people love their neighbor as themselves. (Leviticus 19:18; Luke 22:39) This concept is especially prominent in the Law of Moses (God's rules for appropriate living) as found in the Book of Deuteronomy. This Book includes regulations that require care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the blind, the stranger and the sojourner. The Law requires that people act honestly, speak the truth and even protect slaves who have escaped from their masters. Justice is not to be perverted through bribes and even the king is bound by the law.

Jesus continued this call to being in community by loving neighbor in both actions and words. Examples of Jesus loving neighbor included healing the woman with the flow of blood (Luke 8:43-48) and ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) as well as forgiving those who crucified him (Luke 22:34). Each of these actions allowed individuals to be restored to being in community with God and others. Examples of Jesus encouraging loving neighbor through his words included the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) and his call to serve the "least of these" (Matthew 25:31-46). In some ways Jesus' entire ministry was a demonstration of loving those neighbors who had been excluded from community in order that they might be reconnected with God and others.

Loving neighbor was also a part of the life of the early church. In the Book of Acts (4:32-35) we read that the early church held everything in common in order that no one went without food or shelter. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome reminded his readers to be devoted to one another (12:10), honor one another above themselves (12:10), live in harmony with one another (12:16), build up one another (14:19), and accept one another (15:7). In I Corinthians (11:17 ff) Paul took the church to task for not sharing their food with one another.

Finally being in community includes caring for creation. We witness this first in Genesis (2:15) where Adam is placed in Eden in order to tend and care for it. The language used in this passage is focused on being a steward of the land. In Leviticus 25:3-5 God's people are told that they are to till the land for six years and then on the seventh year they are to give the land a Sabbath rest. In Revelation we read of God destroying those who destroyed the earth (11:18) and then creating a renewed heaven and earth on which people can live (Chapters 21-22). Though care for creation has not always been at the forefront of Protestant theology, it is an inherently Biblical concept.

The Road to Redemption: Spiritual Disciplines – Being in Community 1

    I realize that the idea of being in Community as a spiritual discipline might appear to be a bit of a stretch. Spiritual disciplines are supposed to be those endeavors that we undertake which will draw us closer to God. Disciplines such as prayer, service and Sabbath seem to fit the description of a spiritual discipline much better than does being in community. Even so, I believe that being in community is not only a spiritual discipline, but is a discipline which is desperately needed in the culture in which we live. First though let's begin with the basic understanding of community in scripture.

    The idea of community is rooted in creation itself. First, according to the Genesis account, human beings were not some "add-on" to creation, as if creation itself was simply a place for God to put people. Instead human beings were an integral part of the warp and woof of God's creative endeavors. What this means is that we are in "community" or connectedness with every living thing. Second, in the first creation account (Genesis 1), human beings are created as a two-some which tells us that human beings are intended to be linked together. In the second creation account (Genesis 2) the male is made first but it becomes apparent to God that the male is incomplete on his own (ain't that the truth). God then makes all sorts of animals to complete the male, but none suffices. It is not until God makes another human creature, the female, that the male is finished. Again then, scripture at its most basic level reminds us that we are created to be in community.

     The importance of community continues in each of the saga stories of Genesis 3-11. In the Cain and Able story we witness the horrific results of the breaking of community through murder. The image of connectedness is so powerful that the earth itself cries out in pain because of Able's death. In the Noah story we witness God saving representatives of the entire worldly community (Noah's family and the animals) by which God would begin to rebuild creation after human beings had broken community through violence. Finally, in the Tower of Babel story we witness what happens when community believes itself capable of living without a connection with God; they end up doing foolish things. Woven in and through these stories are genealogies which remind us that every generation is connected (in community) with the generations before and after it.

    Community becomes the focal point of the rest of Genesis as well. Once we have left the sagas of Genesis 3-11 we encounter Abram (who later becomes Abraham) and his family. Often we want to speak of Abram as if he was all by himself. We are told however that he was not alone. Though Abram was instructed by God to pick up stakes and go to the land to which God would lead him, the story understands that the community of Abram (Sara, Lot, slaves and animals) were to go as well. In a sense, Abram's family was the first cell in what was to become a multicellular organism called the saved people of God. We know this because in Genesis 12:2 God promises Abram that God will make Abram into a great nation (community); one of the purposes of which was to bless all the other families (communities) of the earth. This promise binds all families of the earth together into a single community of blessing.

    This sense of community is also found at the end of the scriptures in the Book of Revelation. Though Revelation is filled with terror, it is also filled with hope; hope which comes to fruition in renewed community. We first witness the creation of a renewed community in Revelation 7:4 when God places God's seal upon the 144,000 of Israel. This is followed (7:9ff) by a description of a limitless number of people from "every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" who are singing praises to God. These people represent God's new, redeemed community. Finally at the close of Revelation in Chapters 21 and 22 we read of the new heaven and earth in which humanity lives intimately with God and with a restored creation. This conclusion to the scriptures allows us to see the importance of community in that God will not rest until true community between God, humanity and creation is fully restored.