Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


December 2009

>Praying to a God who isn’t There

>I wanted to follow up on last week’s podcast “the three gods we pray to” because some of the feedback that I got said that I just wasn’t specific enough.

Listen to the POD here : EveryDay Link

Not wanting to use labels: One of the things that makes being specific difficult is that I am trying to stay away from using labels. In my effort to steer clear of the Argument Culture, I have tried to speak generically where possible and avoid over-categorization and divisions. Sometimes I just try and broadcast a progressive concept or put forward an innovative idea and sort of let people chew on it and let it soak and savour without being too specific or directive. And I like to do that…but this time I’ve been asked to be very specific because of the nature of what I’m putting forward. And I think that’s a good idea.

so I’m just going to spell it out in as clear an English as possible, then share with you why I think it is and finish up with some application.

Here it is: when we talk about God, we usually talk about the God of the Big 5 ( omnipotent, omniscient, omni-present, immuntable, impassable) we say that this God “knows the future” and “never changes”. It’s a pretty conservative view of God. And that would be fine… if that’s who we prayed to & how we behaved. But I don’t think that’s who we prayed to & doesn’t seem to me that we act like that God runs things.

Let me share with you where I think the problem is coming from and then I will get to the other gods.

The lens of history:
I believe that the disconnect is coming because we have a false view of history as if it were linear. When we as every day Protestant & Catholic Christians ( whether we are Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, mainline, charismatic, evangelical, Pentecostal or conservative) we try to look back to the cross – but we are not looking straight there. We look through several lenses.

Most of us are individuals. We are the results of enlightenment thinking and don’t see ourselves in the way that somebody born in 1600s — whether in North America or Western Europe or Africa or Asia — would’ve thought of themselves 400 years ago, even if they were our same race or lived on our same acre.

So if I just offer myself up here is an example, I am a male of European descent in North America trying to look back past the Industrial Revolution, Protestant Reformation and Renaissance. Trying to skip over the Middle Ages and the Crusades back to this event that I know as Christmas and read about in my Bible. I do this by skipping ( or assuming) the Greek philosophies that have impacted Christianity and its creeds and the writing of its scriptures. Then I try to wade through that Hebrew nature of this story without getting bogged down in it’s Jewishness by trying to read about this cosmic event in a universal way. Now by Universal I mean generic and that is where I fail.

Jesus didn’t do what he did in a generic way. He did not come to a generic place in a generic time and generically redeem us all. He came to a specific place in a specific time and that has been portrayed to me in a specific way and that has been handed down to me in a specific way. When I ignore all of that context, I may not be aware of what else is being reflected in my lenses if I don’t acknowledge that I look through lenses.

Last week one I was part of an online chat. It was a really good question about church leadership and it was just opened up for discussion. It was a good discussion. Then this guy comes on and says something like ‘here’s a novel idea: why don’t we look at what God said in the word’ and proceeded to be condescending and pushy and tell us all what we already knew about the Apostle Paul. It effectively brought the conversation to an end because how do you respond to that? It took so much energy for me not to reply and get into it. I wanted to say to this guy: dude I have so many problems with your opening sentence. First, I know that you mean well but when you say “word” you don’t mean it the same way that those who wrote it mean it. When Paul said “word” he wouldn’t have been talking about the same thing you’re talking about and now using as a heavy-handed precedent. Secondly when you say that “God said” you are ignoring authorial situation of the Scripture -please acknowledge that Paul or Luke or whoever you are quoting wrote in their own voice the things that they were inspired by God to write. They were not dummies being used by a ventriloquist god. Thirdly don’t act like there is one chapter in the New Testament that says ‘ here’s how to run a church’ & that is the final word on the issue. We piece this together from all whole bunch of snapshots about many different ways that churches were organized. There was not one church in the Bible. Lastly, even if that was the case (which it wasn’t) we don’t live in that world. We live in a world that has been deeply affected by what we read about in Scripture.

The very fact that we are having this conversation on the Internet in English should bring some humility to our perspective. Unfortunately it seems to do the exact opposite. It seems to make us more programed, more certain and more prescriptive unless we intentionally acknowledge it and account for it… our lenses can actually limit our view.

the Three Gods

So here is where I’m coming at this — I don’t believe in the Big 5 God. Not as it is configured in those 5. I don’t see that God in the Hebrew Scripture or the Gospels. I don’t imagine that God when I pray and I don’t see that God at work in the world.

In fact, I would say that if you pray and expect anything to change your probably not praying to the Big 5 God but more of a free will god. Even people I know who will passionately defend this classic view of God as sovereign and transcendent and unchangeable, pray in ways that, at least to me, seem inconsistent with the classic conservative view of God. Praying to the Big 5 God is in order to get your self in line with what is already written in the stars.

Praying to the God of free will is, I think, what most people are comfortable with or at least practice. No matter what they say in their doctrinal statement or theology debates, it all kind of sounds the same when we pray. I get to pray with people from different denominations and in different settings. It seems to me that in the free flow prayer that Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Calvinists, Arminians and just about everyone else — no matter how they say that they differ — only once in a while does someone pray something that I can’t say ‘ amen’ to. I have found this when praying with Europeans, people from former Soviet countries, Africans, those from various countries in Asia and Canadians. I think that we all (mostly) pray to God #2: The God of Free Will.

Since I don’t believe in the Big 5 God, who do I pray to? I pray to the one that is intimately involved in the process. The one who is present in spirit. The one who works through us and with us and on us and for us.

Let me give you an example. If I hear about the atrocious living conditions in Haiti or the water and the mosquito problems that foster malaria in Africa and my heart is burdened for this. I pray about it. Maybe God calls me to go and be a part of the solution. Maybe God calls me to send money to someone who is on the ground working there. And that’s how God works. But the top soil doesn’t come back to Haiti because I pray in my multi-million dollar church building. The wells in Africa aren’t made clean because I pray at the mens’ breakfast at Starbucks. Children don’t suddenly develop resistance to malaria or AIDS because I pray from the comfort of my living room. That is not how God works. God is in the process of someone going. When that person goes -God is at work.

We don’t ask for topsoil to fall out of heaven onto Haiti. We don’t pray that tomorrow morning they are going to wake up and all of the trees will have magically regrown overnight. We know that’s not how it works.
And when we want to send someone money, whether for ministry or out of simple generosity, we send it to someone we know. Because God works in relationship. It’s not like a name pops in your head, and as you’re writing the check to this person you’ve never met their address comes to you. Then you fill out the envelope put a stamp on it and drop money in the mail to someone that you do not know if they exist or if the addresses right (and just say ‘I have faith’).

God lays it on our heart to give to people we know… brings their situation to mind… brings their face to our memory. We hear a story and are moved.

If someone in our congregation has an extended sickness and we pray for them, but no one calls them or visit them or writes them a note… once they recover and they come back church and we ‘oh we were praying for you- that you would be cared for and ministered to’. You see where I am going here… they are ministered to when we go over and cared for when we care for them. In that sense, we are the answer to our own prayer. That is how God works! It how it is designed and how it works best.

Look, I am not saying that we are answer to every prayer or that the answer is found ‘within’ or something like that. All I am asking for is that we be honest… that is how god really works: through us. I believe in the transcendent. I believe in the mystical. I believe that God’s Spirit is present among us and at work through us. That God is intimately involved in the process of unfolding history. I do not believe in the puppet master that manipulates by pulling the strings behind the scenes. I do not believe in the God who wrote the script ahead of time and is now just sitting back watching the play unfold on the stage of history. Who shows up on a stage once in while to move the set around but for the most part just wound up the clock and let history play out.

I do not believe that the future exists. I think that what ever we have that looks that way is really divine prophetic promise of participation. Put that together with God’s intimate knowledge of the creatures and the creation and you have a divine perspective we don’t have access to except through revelation. But this Big 5 God is a hybrid between some elements out of Scripture, some out of early Greek philosophy (mostly Platonic) and the evolution of church history (mostly Aristotelian).

That’s why I think it would be far better for us to pray to God who is present with us by spirit. Who is in fact with us here in the moment. And who is making available all of the resources that we need to bring about this will that God has an invested interested in.

If you want to stick with praying to God #2 and saying that the future is an elaborate series of possibilities and that God is the God of all of those possibilities that’s fine. I can go with that. As long as we acknowledge how things really work. Regardless of how the Hebrews pictured it, regardless of how it was portrayed in the early apostolic age, we need to talk about how the world really works for us here now.

I believe that the God of Calvin and Luther died in the second world war. Between Auschwitz and Hiroshima that concept of God died. That God is dead and even if he* did exist like that before World War II, he sure hasn’t been at work in the world since then. Even if he did exist, and I don’t think he did, he isn’t around now.

That isn’t to say that God isn’t around. God is alive and well. God is here with us now. It’s just that conception of God passed away in the gas chambers and in the nuclear fallout. The world will never be the same. And if we keep using these old pictures of God when we debate and when we pray I fear that those of us who call ourselves people of faith – the ones who still actually take time to pray- we may not be participating in the world the way it actually works. Which may be why we cling to antiquated fantasies about what a different world would look like and then hope that God ejects our soul out of here and evacuates the planet because we don’t want to go through the hard process of bringing about that preferable future and seen the kingdom, and earth as it is in heaven.

It’s a conversation I want to have. I want to talk about how the world really works. Who we actually think God to be. Make sure that our prayer both lines up with that conception of God and prepares us for the process of participating in the world as it actually is. That to me is what the brand-new day is all about. We live in a world that has “come of age”. I think it’s time to grow up and mature our faith for a world that is radically changing in our day.

and since I don’t believe in the second coming or the end times in the classic sense **
– I think that we will have plenty of time to do this.
But more than that, I think that it IS time to do this.

* I use ‘He’ for God when talking about the Big 5 God.
** I believe that the book of Revelation was directed to the events of the first 3 centuries and specifically Rome. It was probably fulfilled in the sense that it was intended by about 312 or 353 CE]


>3 Gods we Pray to

>Since I am just getting started over here on Blogger – I thought that I would transfer over one blog a day from my site. If I do one a day, I can get them lined up.

I have had the privilege that I get to hear a lot of people talk about prayer. Whether it is at seminars, in small groups or one on one I have over the last 15 years been able to survey countless people in the area of prayer.

It is my observation, as I listen to these different perspectives and experiences, that it almost seems as if there are three different gods that you can pray to.

So I’ve looked into it. It turns out there are actually three different gods that people pray to. Well, more like three different conceptions of God that people pray to.

This doesn’t bother me at all. I get it. We each conceptualize and participate in our religious community, our unique expression and with our individual experience. This is bound to produce multiple manifestations and allusions to this transcendent being or greater reality or central axis of life.

What is somewhat concerning to me is how jumbled, muddled and incoherent the mixing and amalgamating seems to be. I’m concerned that we may be approaching this with a thoughtless or careless approach. So what I would like to do is take a look at each of the three gods — or conceptions of God — individually. Then talk about how one would pray to each one of these unique constructs and address why it is potentially not helpful to mix and match gods with approaches.

The first God is the classic god.
This God is transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent and all the other things we want A divine being to be. When we talk about this God we say ‘ He know the future’, and ‘God is in control’ or (if you prefer) Everything Happens for a reason ’.

The second God let’s us have free will. This is a God who somehow let’s us be flawed human beings and somehow still maintains the ability to be God. We don’t know how – it’s a mystery.This is the god of possibilities. Somehow… this God has scripted the future. He has outlined a ‘perfect will’ and somehow planned for every subsequent contingency with a ‘less than perfect will’ or acceptable will. This is a God that has accounted for everything.

Whereas the first god has ‘seen’ the future or ‘knows’ the future, this second god has scripted a preferred future – it is not necessarily going to come about exactly in the way it was designed… but this god is still able to salvage what was desired in the midst of our human frailty, fallenness and failure. (3 F words you hear all the time in with this God).

The third God can be called Emanuel – God with us.
This is a picture of God who is here… in the midst of us. This is the God of the process. Who is amongst us in the midst of the moment. This is the God of presence and incarnation.

These are three different concepts of God. They are three different constructs or conceptions. We may have gotten used to mixing them or jumping between them as needed, but they are definitely three different pictures of God that come from three different stories in three different eras.

And when it comes to prayer, the differences really come to the surface!

For instance: if you believe in God #1
, since he has seen the future, you pray that he might clue you in as to what the future might be so that you can get ready. Praying to this God is trusting in what is Predestined or fated. You can’t change the stars but it is comforting to know that this God knows and is in control.

If, you believe in God #2, you are praying to the God who has scripted the future so you are hoping that that He tells you what he wants from you so that you don’t miss his perfect will. You ask this God to change things. Since this God is powerful and in charge of the future, but has somehow allowed us free will.. we ask for direction, do the best we can, we have faith and we turn over the rest.

Praying to God #3 is a little different.
In the world of this God, there is no future. I don’t want to get into all the technicalities of Einstein, meta-physics and cosmology but – just trust me there is no such thing as the future with this God. It does not exist. and what we think of as Prophecy is actually the Providential promise of God’s participation and an intimate knowledge of our creaturely propensities. Praying to God #3 is not to be clued in or not to miss the way, but is to be available in the moment to what God is doing among us.

This is Emanuel – God with us. This is God who is among us and when we pray to this God we are creating the future. The future is created by us participating with God’s will – which is neither like a movie that God has seen or a script that God has written. It is a plot that is currently unfolding. It is determined by our actions and participation.

You may be listening and think ‘you are making too many delineations and categories’. And I might agree with you… if it were not for the fact that when I hear people talk about God, it sounds one way – and then when they pray & it sounds an entirely different way – when we act, we behave as if god is a third way.

People talk as if God is all-powerful and all-knowing and all..everything. Then they pray that they ask this God to heal this person, change this circumstance and bless what they are doing. Which is fine if you believe in free will – but then , let’s stop talking about God as in the way the the early Greek philosophers did and get rid of all the omni-scient omni-potent and omni-present, unmovable and unchangeable talk. (5 Biggies)

I don’t believe this Greek God Theos. I believe in the God of the Hebrew narrative. This is a god who regrets, changes minds and enters in. This is the god who is here with us now! Emanuel – god with us. Not a god who was incarnate one time on the first Christmas but a God is who incarnate in his people every Christmas – every day between Christmases.

We talk as if with God things are set. Fate is written, God is in control and everything happens for a reason.

Then we pray to a God who compensates for our our free will and fallen nature by asking for things to change and bend to the ways things are and the way that we are.

We talk about about God in one way and then pray to God in a second way.

And if those were the only two options… that would be one thing.

But I actually conceive of God in a different way (a third way). This is isn’t about whether the future has been seen or scripted but about being here in the moment. This is about being the person who is available now.

Praying to god #1,
for whom the future is set, is to be clued in so that we are prepared for what is coming.

Praying to god #2, who accounts for our free will, is so that we don’t miss the script and he can adjust things that don’t bring about his greatest good.

Praying to God #3 (for whom the future is not a vision or script but a possibility) is an exercise in availability – to create them and participate in things as they are becoming.

For some people, the formulations of the Dutch in 1700s really work. The all-knowing God is in control and you can trust him. Pray that you may know his will.

For others, who believe in Free Will, prayer is a powerful influence to ask the Father for his will to come on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Others of us who struggle with the thoughts of the early Greeks and superstitions of the centuries past wonder if if isn’t time readjust the way that we talk and think about God. But most of all – we want to make sure that we pray in ways that are consistent with our formulations of God.

There is no sense in talking about God one way, praying to god another and then hoping for the outcome of another.

If this was a mystery or a paradox – that would be one thing. But there is no sense in trying to cover over ancient concepts of god with modern practices and then hoping for fantastic future results.

There are mysteries in the universe. There are paradoxes to explore. But what we are dealing with is a simple incongruence between conceptions of god from different eras and inceptions.

If we talk about God in one way – Pray to God another and then behave in yet another… the incongruence will eventually catch up with us.
In fact, I think that it has for many people and this is why some have given up and gone a different way. Others have become disgruntled and bitter. Others have stuck with but are a little bit bored and disinterested.

This is obviously a huge concept and a massive conversation – I just wanted to introduce the idea that they way talk about God and the way the pray and the way that we live may be 3 totally different ways.

and I am not sure that is working so great for us.

We will obviously return to this in the New Year –

May the God of peace guard your heart and mind as we travel the road together.

If you want to listen to the Podcast instead of read this : PODCAST LINK

>Did that Elephant say Merry Christmas?

>I thought it would be fun to share one of the Christmas messages I preached on the podcast.
[PODcast Here]

In case anyone wanted to chat about it, I have put a short set of bullet points here.

  • Trying to explain our holiday celebrations to someone from outer space or from a foreign land who had never seen them might be tricky. To get from a poor family having a baby a long time ago to our massive shopping sprees and gift exchanges might take a while.
  • Consumerism is one of the elephants of Christmas. It’s that giant presence in the room that’s just easier to ignore than to acknowledge and address.
  • The “Happy Holidays” versus “Merry Christmas” controversy exposes another elephant. The fact that this whole holiday is centered around the gift of love and humility makes it tough to sell when it gets entangled with cultural constructs and political realities.

  • The Gospel of Matthew has two things that none of the other Gospels in our Bible have. One is the slaughter of the innocents where King Herod (King of the Jews) tries to murder all boys under two years of age in the region. The second is Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt. It is clear that Matthew includes these because he is trying to tell us a distinct type of story: an Exodus story. He includes images and allusions to portray Herod as a Pharaoh character and then connect with this to Egypt in a way that makes it impossible to miss. ( There are many other devices that Matthew uses to construct his gospel in a way that mirrors the Pentateuch.)
  • These two elements from Matthew’s Gospel reveal biggest of the elephants of Christmas. The Christmas story is couched in, set in a context of, violence. When we ‘Hallmark’ this holiday we sometimes sanitize it and sterilize it to the point that it is unrecognizable from the Gospel accounts.
  • Let’s be honest, as these two Jewish young people flee to Egypt to become illegal aliens, foreigners in a land that holds deep cultural implications for their people, the idea of people saying ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘ Happy Holidays’ seems pretty irrelevant.
  • In fact I think that this exposes two things. The first is that the “Merry Christmas” controversy is not about this at all but about something else entirely. The second is that we are disconnected from the violence of that first Christmas.

  • When the angels say “Peace on Earth – goodwill toward mankind” it might have seemed redundant to those that first heard it. The region already had a Peace : Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome was enforced this way — you obey the rules and there will be peace. If Jesus came as the Prince of Peace he comes into the context of the Pax Roman and provides a different kind of Peace.
  • We miss this point because we are disconnected from the context of that original Christmas. when the Magi say to Herod “we’re looking for the one born King of the Jews” they are speaking to the one appointed by Rome ‘King of the Jews’. this would have been a subversive sentence. “ Peace on the earth” would have been a subversive sentiments to the Peace of Rome – saying that it wasn’t good enough. Many Christians don’t know that the phrase “Jesus is Lord” is a mirror to a very popular saying in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ. people in every direction from the place Jesus was born would have said “ Cesar is Lord”. So when Jesus’ followers would have said that he was Lord they were in an act of subversion saying that Caesar isn’t Lord.
  • The Christmas story is couched in violence and is violence to the ways and powers of this world. It still is today. The Christmas story says to the structures and institutions of this world ‘ you don’t get to stay this way’. The peace that you provide commerce through violence and submission and victory and is not a real peace. when we sanitize, sanctify and sterilize the Christmas story we lose this part of it.

  • Revelation 12 is the Christmas story as seen from heaven. It is distilled to us through a genre of literature known as Apocalyptic. It is the Christmas story nonetheless.
  • You never see Christmas cards of the image of a pregnant woman lying on her back with a dragon perched between her legs ready to eat the baby as it comes out. I’ve never seen a Christmas card carrying the image of the slaughter of innocents or of a terrified couple fleeing into the wilderness running for their life.

  • The Christmas carol “Oh Holy Night” is probably my favorite. I especially like the big notes of the chorus: Fall on your knees! Oh hear the Angels voices! Oh night divine Oh night when Christ was born! Oh night divine… and mostly I’m just hoping that I’ll be able to hit that big note at the end. Mostly I don’t. But it’s such a climactic moment in that song that after it’s over afraid I’d miss the next chorus because I’m thinking about how I can never hit that note outside the shower!
  • It’s a shame because that next verse is amazing. And in the context of what we are talking about — the violence of the first Christmas And the subversive nature of the story– it makes a lot more sense.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! Then ever, ever praise we,
His power and glory ever more proclaim!

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