Que Será Christians

In my family, my parents liked to give each of their beloved children a “theme song.”  And so it was that, growing up, my sister was haunted by family members singing “Rocky Raccoon,” and I found myself treated to regular group-singings of Doris Day’s mid-century hit, “Que Será.”

I found myself thinking about that song this week as I contemplated this week’s installment of our “Ask Anything” sermon series on Predestination. For a lot of people, Predestination sounds an awful lot like the unsung 5th verse of that song—

When I was just a little child, I asked my pastor: where will I go?

Will it be heaven, will it be hell? God is the one who knows…

Que será, será whatever will be; the future’s not ours, you see.

Que será, será, what will be, will be.

A very informal poll of some of my colleagues in ministry across the denominations revealed that for most of them, predestination is an unsavory doctrine that the Episcopalians and Lutherans were quick to blame on us Presbyterians. Which is funny, because technically nearly all of the Protestant denominations affirm this doctrine. In the early years of the Reformation, Martin Luther spilled far more ink on the subject than John Calvin, and both of them were simply quoting another ancient thinker, Augustine, who was writing on the subject in the 5th Century. Nonetheless, it is a doctrine that has come to represent, and for some, even define, the DNA of the faith that we as Presbyterians share with the worldwide Reformed church.

So what is it? And why does it matter?

The basic idea behind predestination is this: it is a doctrine that speaks to the will and intention of God as the driving force behind human destiny.

To understand it, we need to consider some other, far more important, ideas about God.

  • The Sovereignty of God

The Westminster catechism states that “God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass.” The sovereignty of God affirms what we see in the Bible—that the God who created us is, in the words of St. Patrick, not just with us, but “before and behind us, in us, beneath and above us, at every side, with us when we lie down and when we rise up. In other words, there is nothing that can happen in this world that God doesn’t know about. Because God is sovereign.

  • Election

When we hear the word election, most of us tend to think of ballot boxes and political parties. We associate elections with choosing someone to be our leader.  The biblical doctrine of election is a similar idea, and it is directly related to the notion that God is sovereign.  The Doctrine of Election teaches that the initiative in matters of faith and human destiny is always God’s initiative. Our relationship with God isn’t like buying a car– we don’t go into the sacred supermarket and pick a God for ourselves.  Rather, our faith (and our beloved-ness in God’s eyes) is a gracious gift from start to vanish. It is undeserved, unearned, and unmerited. In originates in God, and finds a home within us.

Of course, this flies in the face of everything we have been taught in American culture. I grew up surrounded by people constantly telling me to “make something of myself” and affirming that “I could be anything” as long as I tried hard enough.  Well, according to the Bible, there is at least one thing that I can never do for myself, and that is deserve the grace I receive. Election reminds us that, at least where our faith is concerned, there are no bootstraps by which to pull ourselves up by. We are not masters of our own fate or captains of our own destiny. We cannot buy, or educate, or negotiate our way into salvation. Instead, “Twas grace that taught our hearts to fear, and grace our fears relieved.”bootstrap01-1

That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on how election works.  Basically, there are three major camps that seek to make sense of how God claims humanity:

  1. Universalism: all are included–none of us deserves it, but God chooses everyone, because God is love and God would never say no to one of God’s creations.
  2. Pelagianism: This approach to election attempts to affirm God’s action but makes it contingent upon our accepting the grace God offers us.  Which, when you think about it, sort of threatens the idea that God is sovereign, doesn’t it?
  3. Double predestination: some are included and some are excluded.

This is the view that Calvin took—and there are a few things we need to know about this.  First of all, this doctrine was the source of great discussion and argument in Calvin’s day.  Calvin observes in the beginning of his own discussion of it that “human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination very confusing and even dangerous” (3.21.1).  Why so dangerous? Because this doctrine has to do with the mind of God, and none of us, by virtue of our humanness, has full access to God’s mind.  We cannot probe its depths, nor can we make any definitive claims about it.  We can only look to Scripture.

Second of all, we have to understand that this was a doctrine intended to comfort the afflicted and persecuted church. This is a hard thing for those of us who enjoy the privilege of worshipping without fear of losing our home, or our church being burned, or our lives being forfeit. But for early Reformed Christians, who saw their brothers and sister martyred and murdered all over Europe, it was a way of making sense of the carnage and suffering that followed their decision to follow Jesus in this way. It was something to cling to: God choose me.  God loves me.  I am not suffering for nothing.  But there was just one tiny problem: time went on and reformed Christians stopped being martyred, their perspective on this doctrine changed. You know how, when you are a kid, you might have a favorite blanket, or a soft, stuffed rabbit, something that brings you comfort, that you hold to help you go to sleep at night? Well how many of you have noticed that those same objects of comfort can, in an instant, become a weapon against a sibling? I know for myself, and I know in my home, that there is a fine line between a blanket as a blanket and a blanket as a hammer. Well that pretty much sums up this doctrine: Some Christians stopped seeing this doctrine as a blanket, and started using it as a hammer against other people.bbe1738a6187d68058f02ffeb6160113

Finally, I think it is important to point out that even John Calvin found this doctrine difficult to accept at times.  He wasn’t particularly fond of the notion that God might “give to some what he denies to others” (Institutes 3.21.1)  However, as a reformed thinker, Calvin privileged the Bible as the source of information and wisdom about God, and when he looked to the Bible, he saw both evidence of God’s mercy and of God’s judgement.  For him, this was evidence that God must have the freedom to choose.  However, he framed this theology in the context of the salvation of God.  At the end of the day, predestination had everything to do with the gift of God’s grace received in Christ.

In all of this talk about God’s sovereignty, and God’s election, perhaps it has occurred to you that there may be a problem, and that is this:  I don’t know about you, but I look around me, and it is hard to ignore the evidence that people seem pretty free in many of the decisions that they make.how do we reconcile human freedom with the sovereignty of God? How do we affirm that God is all powerful and the ultimate author and arbiter, while also affirming the importance of Human decisions?

And here is the truth that we would probably rather not hear: we are less free than we like to think. There is a lot of research being done these days exploring the line between nature and nurture, and it turns out that much more of our lives than we might like to admit depend upon things we have no control over: where we were born, the wealth and education level of our parents, our race. And so much of our experiences and our perspectives, it turns out, are shaped by forces beyond our control: DNA researchers point to epigenetics or the way our genes are expressed, sociologists point to community cultures, psychologists explore the realities of persistent bias. All these and more play an incalculable role in the way we see the world and the way that other people see us. We may be the land of the free, but what is freedom, really?

Now, the Bible affirms the importance of human freedom—on the edge of the promised land, Joshua calls the people to choose whom they will serve. In our scripture this morning, God does not direct, nor can he prevent, David’s choice to commit adultery with another man’s wife. The truth is that we are “called to make significant faith choices that grow out of the character and moral fiber of our lives. We make a choice to follow Jesus. But our choice is secondary to the decision that God has already made in Christ to love us and call us to service.” We love, says 1 John, because God first loved us.

At the end of the day, I wonder if perhaps the doctrine of predestination can help us understand the paradox of both our freedom and our lack of it.  Because, at the end of the day, predestination affirms the notion that, while we may not be free, in God we find freedom from the constraints of the world. In God we discover that all of the things that limit or define us in contemporary culture are wiped away. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither woman or man, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”s-1

In Presbyterian theology, this comes down to the notion of “freedom within constraints.” Have any of you ever gone to a restaurant and they handed you the menu and there were about 2 thousand options? And the freedom to choose anything—it turns out that it is difficult to make any choice at all. A menu with only 5 options turns out to provide the most freedom of all—we are able to make the choice that works for us, and enjoy our meal. The doctrine of predestination just takes a few options off our menu, constrains us with the “sovereignty of God” and the knowledge that God’s choosing us came first. Within that framework, we are more free than ever to follow Christ.

But what about other faiths? So often predestination quickly moves from being about us to being about “them,” the other who doesn’t worship God like we do.  Helpfully, our reformed heritage has some pointers for the usefulness of this doctrine in addressing the Other.  In his classic Christian Doctrine, Shirley Guthrie offers these three guiding principles:

  • God’s Love: just because some people don’t live as thought God loves them doesn’t mean we can decide that God has written them off. We ought to remember that we know something about them that they do not: that God loves them too.
  • God’s Judgment: we must acknowledge that as long as there are forces out there which oppose God, there must be love expressed as judgment against them. But that does not give us license to judge others. God alone is judge.
  • Our Responsibility: we need to share what we know without judgment. Not so that they will love God if they believe and obey, but because God already loves them.

Which leaves us with one question:  what about us? Predestination frees us from the notion that we can earn salvation, or find confirmation of our saved-ness in ourselves. We can instead spend our lives wrapped in the blanket of grace that we have received in Christ Jesus as a gift. You know Linus from Peanuts? We can, like Linus choose to bring our grace blankets into community with others, because we know that sometimes, blankets are best shared—and when you are willing to share your blanket, you are building community. Finally, this blanket marks us—we have become those called to take our grace blankets out into the world. We aren’t in some special club—our blankets are markers of exclusivity. They are instead an invitation for all. They are a reminder that we have been chosen to serve. And we are chosen not instead of but for the sake of the world.

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Reading Calvin and the Rule of Love

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This month, I will be preaching and teaching on questions that have come from the pews–we are calling it the “Ask Me Anything” sermon series, and so far the questions I have received have proven quite interesting.  Initially, I had conceived of this as an opportunity for folks to ask questions about our faith and praxis.  What has been interesting to me, however, is that the questions have been theological. Turns out that the folks in the pews sincerely want to know: what does it mean that we do this, and not that?  What does it mean when we talk about this faith claim?

Inevitably, I have been turning to the reformed tradition and heritage of which the Presbyterian Church is a part as I have explored the questions that have been raised.  Truthfully, I often do not take the time to go back to our Book of Confessions or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, but if this series is any indication, I believe I may have to make a better practice of it.  For it has be thoroughly enjoyable to explore the family tree of our faith.

Now, if you had told me in seminary that I would gladly spend my afternoons reading through John Calvin, I might have looked at you askance.  Back in seminary, the Institutes was one in a long line of required reading that generally fell into the “historical” section of my list.  I was far more interested in reading contemporary theological works by Brueggeman, Cavanaugh, Yoder and Gustafson.

Perhaps I have grown in my appreciation for my own tradition, but as I sit with Calvin this time around, I find myself pleasantly immersed in his approach to interpreting the tradition.  I am enjoying exploring what he has to say, wrestling with the implications of his theology, but more often than not, I find myself nodding along in agreement.  And occasionally, I find myself surprised by just how contemporary he sounds.

Take this little nugget, for example, which I came across in Book 3, on the section on prayer:

Love will be the best judge of what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe. (4.10.30)

UnknownIn this particular instance, Calvin is speaking of love as a guide in our decisions respecting church government and worship.  He argues that we need church constitutions, that they provide a necessary good.  However, discipline and tradition do not exist for the sake if themselves.  Rather, we ought to understand them as tools, aids on our journey towards our ultimate end of union with Christ. And according to Calvin, this means that sometimes we must be willing to leave behind traditions and practices that get in the way of our calling to love.

Let me just pause at this moment and reflect that Calvin sounds awfully modern here.  For how often have we heard “love” thrown about in the contemporary church as the answer to nearly every problem?  How often do we encounter criticisms of our tradition and its heritage which include the claim that the reformed church, and calvinism in particular, was rigid and cold, even cynical? And how often have Christians accused one another of mis-using love, of ignoring scripture about judgement and condemnation because the love of Christ sounds easier?

And yet here is Calvin intoning about love being our guide.  Here is our spiritual forefather reminding us that our practice and our government ought to be ruled by love.  That love may challenge us to change, to evolve, to move in new directions that are unfamiliar and perhaps even intimidating.  But, he reminds us, we will do it not because it is popular, or on-trend, or culturally acceptable.  We will do it because it has its root in love.

And that, friends, is why I will continue to read a 500-year old tome of theology. Because it turns out that sometimes you need to hear the wisdom of those who came before you. Sometimes you need to be reminded that the struggle of the church has deep roots, and that those who came before you have truth to share. And you will be better for pausing to hear it.

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A blog about (not) blogging, and other experiences that take my breath away

I posted the following to presbymergent‘s website and it should, pending review, show up sometime over the course of the next week.  I spent a little time working on it, so I didn’t quite have the time to write something for here this week, so I thought I would post it here as well.  Enjoy!

 

For all of my twittering, facebooking, g-mailing, blogging and blackberrying, and so forth, the truth is that I most often find myself in sacred space, in the presence of God Himself, when I dare to put that all away, step away from my techno-centered routines, and simply be.  At the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I most often see God when I stop texting and start looking around at the world God made with the eyes God blessed me with, tasting the air on my tongue and taking in the world around me rather than confining my experience of the world to that which appears on a small, digital screen.

           

* * * * *

 

Most recently, it has been the reality of the summer—a warm breeze picking through the branches and leaves of the live oaks, the whirring of bugs and beetles high above me, the taste of honeysuckle and thyme in the air—that has brought me back to myself.  There isn’t much cell phone service worth using on the streets near my parent’s northern California home, so I have been forced to set down my phone and amuse myself with my surroundings instead, packing away the email, facebook, or catch-up calls that are so often a feature of my more urban hiking adventures in Philadelphia.  As I walk down the dusty trail that lines highway 130, my ears prick to the gentle rustle of oleander and wild turkey, and I find myself reeling with the recognition that I am a part of something bigger than myself, that the signs of life around me are small reminders of something deeper and grander than anything I could imagine, something that could so easily go unnoticed and then suddenly bowl me over in a instant of blazing clarity. 

            When John Calvin wrote of the glory of and specialness of creation, I heard what he was saying.  And I recognized myself in his remark that we too often fail to see the beauty that is before us.  Every once in a while, however, a thin space, as the Celts called it, opens before our eyes, and the truth of the world and God’s presence in it is clear to us.  As Calvin would put it, we find that in God we are given spectacles to see the sacred quality of all things, which hide in plain sight before me.

            So what are the things that stun me back to the recognition of the Sacred?  There is no pattern that I can discern, no perfect formula for figuring it out.  While I am often bowled over by that which is natural, I also find that God can strip me of my ignorance of the sacred around me in the most mundane or even complicated of circumstances.  I see it in the pattern of a quilt made by my own hands and a well-written poem, or even in the midst of the fray as much as the beauty of a mountain range.  And I could argue that it takes practice to see the sacred with more clarity, and yet even that isn’t always the case.  I have learned that the world will surprise my fuzzy eyes into focus as shockingly when I am looking for the sacred as it will when I am doing everything but.

            Ultimately, these moments of recognition are both a mystery and a gift, for like God they are beyond my ability to grasp them, and filled with grace and wisdom.  They surpass knowledge and understanding and are filled with Truth.  They bring me closer to God, to myself, and to my fellow inhabitants on this great, sacred sphere that we call home.  For that, I am thankful.

What does your Calvin Look Like?

The NYTimes posted an article this week about Mark Driscoll and his church, Mar’s Hill, which they conveniently entitled, “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?”  Actually, the article is just as much about Calvinism as it is about Driscoll, in particular what the author calls “New Calvinism.”  She writes of Driscoll:

What is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.

Now, maybe it is just me and I am misreading, but I was surprised to find this author writing of the “resurrection” of Calvinism.  As a Presbyterian, I was pretty sure Calvin was alive and well in my own reformed tradition, which traces its roots back to Calvin and the church in Geneva.  

Turns out there is this movement that folks are calling “New Calvinism,” which is described in the article as a fight against a “limp-wristed Jesus” that has been coopted by the feminists.  Driscoll apparently rails against the mainstream church, which he says

has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”

Hmm.  Interesting.  But he goes further than this, decrying the “feminization” of Jesus (Apparently there are just too many pictures of Jesus cuddling babies and lambs).  Jesus is supposed to be manly, a warrior, blah blah blah.

Nevermind that Calvin himself devoted a great deal of his Institutes to admonishing Christians against forming an image of God, or Christ for that matter.  Any image, he warned, becomes an idol that stands between you and the true God.  It becomes a crutch, a thing to worship in lieu of the God who is a mystery beyond the reach of our minds.  As another theologian, I believe Barth, said, the minute you think you have fully conceived of God, it is in that moment that you have truly lost sight of God.

But I digress.  The article goes on to make assumptions about Calvin, everything from painting this “new Calvinism” as the only Calvinism to re-asserting the mostly false myth of Calvin that he was directly responsible for the deaths of his detractors.  The author writes,  “John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness.”  Now I can’t speak with certainty as to the dinner party incident, but if I had to guess, the heretic she is referring to Michael Servetus, whom Calvin likely wanted to see dead.  However, he never ordered the death of this theologian–Calvin was not a political authority in Geneva, and did not have the power to make such decisions.  Maybe I am parsing hairs, but I hate to see Calvin’s history distorted.

 

Furthermore, the author makes the jump to claiming that questioning authority is equal to sinning.  Describing Driscoll’s leadership style, she goes to lengths to show that Driscoll is a power-hungry religious authority.  She describes incidents in Mars Hill’s past in which Driscoll dealt severely with those who disagreed with him.  In reference to such incidents, she writes of Driscoll:

“They are sinning through questioning,” Driscoll preached. John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself.

Again…. Calvin himself questioned authory.  That is what the reformation was all about.  I don’t understand therefore how these sorts of claims can be thrown out in a NYTimes article as though they were commonly held fact.  

So I guess we get the picture by now that I take issue with this reading of Calvin.  Ultimately it seems more like a rush job on Driscoll’s church and theology more than anything else, but it is the case that Calvin seems to get caught in the crossfire.  Just because us Presbyterians aren’t constantly screaching about spiders on the edge of a precipice or eternal damnation, doesn’t mean that providence and Calvinism are passe.  Just because we don’t ascribe to a manly Jesus doesn’t make us wimpy.  False dichotomy, duh!

So yea, I am a bit peeved.  A bit discouraged.  A bit frustrated that my own Calvinist heritage can be so easily distorted.  Ultimately, however, I give it to God, trusting that God is working through and in all this, helping push us (gently or otherwise) past our assumptions about who God is and is not and towards a more holistic and healthy understanding of the mysterium tremendum.

Peace be with you

OH Calvin…

I had an epiphany today…. I was goofin’ off on my guitar playing Colbie Caillat and loving her lyrics… and suddenly I realized something.  I think, in all sincerity, that if Calvin were alive today he would write mellow surfer guitar music like Colbie Caillat– or at least he would like it alot.

And this is how I got here–  I was thinking about Calvin, and how in Book 1 of the Institutes he goes into detail about how beautiful this world is, and how God’s imprint is everywhere, from the mountains to our very own toenails, and how the problem is that we are so dull that we don’t even see it.  And how we mistake things of our own invention (what Barth calls images of ourselves) for God, and end up not only missing God but worshipping idols in God’s place and often in God’s name.

And then I was playing Colbie’s “Realize”, which if you have heard the song, the voice of the song is someone who believes that if the audience could only realize what they realized then everything would be perfect, and I found myself thinking not of a romantic love interest (sorry alex!) but rather of Calvin and his writings on knowledge of God and self.  And then I started tinkering with the lyrics, and found that it took little to no effort to make a song about a love interest into a song that pretty closely mirrors the spirit (if not the letter) of Calvin’s theology on the beauty of God which surrounds us.

SO anyways…thats my thought for the day.  I am debating whether to work this into a sermon… but we shall see.  it might be too much for my very New England Presbyterian church… but then again, perhaps I should give them more credit.

Whadda Whadda Week….

If you didn’t guess from the title, it’s been a “week.”  Not only has my time been consistently filled with various obligations, but my mind has been filled persistently with all sorts of things that are troubling me.  For instance, this week we read the section on Predestination and Election in the Institutes for class, which has disrupted my formerly warm and fuzzy feelings about Calvin and left me with the beginnings of either bitterness and/or frustration toward the man.  Maybe it is just me, but I find little that is comforting in the doctrine.  I can see why it was comforting to those to whom it was initially written, but even knowing that I cannot spare the doctrine from my sense that for all it is comforting it is problematic.  Perhaps it is my context, but all I know about New Testament scholarship and historical Jesus and source criticism makes me wary of the confidence with which Calvin approaches the issue.  Never mind the fact that the doctrine seems tangentially important at best.  Ultimately, I guess I wish that, like many other things, Calvin had been content to leave things that are ultimately in the jurisdiction of God and God alone to God rather than setting what amounts to a easily misinterpreted and often hurtful doctrine on paper.  Next up is providence, so I have little hope it will get much better.

Other than that, I just have a lot coming up in my life.  I am preaching this Sunday and on Thursday, and the things I am thinking about preaching will require some finesse.  So I am troubled by the prospect of figuring out how to preach what is in my heart and what I see in Scripture this year as we come to Palm Sunday with grace and love.  We shall see how it goes, I guess.

And the last thing–I am waiting to hear on a job opportunity for the summer that I have been praying and praying and praying would work out…. hopefully I will hear in the next day or so, but it is leaving me a bit antsy as I wait for the word back.

Grace and peace, I guess is what I need these days.  Grace and peace.