News from All Over

I apologize for the extended radio silence. I’ve been so caught up in anticipation of the wedding that I fell off the grid altogether. And of course by “the wedding” I mean the NBA playoffs and the NFL draft.

It seems I did hear something about some wedding taking place in one of those formerly great, formerly Christian countries back East. I wondered out loud on Twitter this morning if there were going to be any pranks at the royal wedding reception. For example, Prince Harry could do that thing where you challenge the groom to remove the garter from his bride’s leg, blindfolded, but silently replace the bride with a grandmother. Ribald hilarity ensues. The bonus in this case would be that the grandmother is the Queen of the British Empire.

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Flew to Denver and back yesterday. The city looked beautiful with clean, clear air affording great views of a fresh dusting of snow crowning the mountains to the west.

The purpose of my visit was to meet with the wonderful folks at Marilyn Hickey Ministries. It was my first opportunity to meet the ministry’s namesake and I was delighted to do so. Marilyn will be 80 years old on July first, but she possesses more energy, vitality and drive than many people half her age. She co-hosts a daily television broadcast and still travels the world teaching and praying for thousands. In fact, she is heading to China in a few weeks and is scheduled to do a series of meetings in Pakistan this fall and can’t wait to get back there. Yes, Pakistan.

I remember a good friend of mine passing me Marilyn Hickey cassette tapes back in the early ’80s. Those teachings became a key part of my spiritual journey. So you can imagine how delighted I was to meet her yesterday. And how gratifying it was to find her every bit as gracious, warm and real as I had imagined she would be.

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In the past I’ve linked to a wonderful site that features the letterhead/stationery of famous people, companies and creative enterprises (see here and here). I popped in this evening just to see what was new. Here are a couple of my favorite new additions to the impressive collection at Letterheady.com.

Here is Charles Schulz personal letterhead from 1958:

schulz

This is Gene Autry’s personal stationery (1949):

autry

And on a day in which British royalty is on the minds of many, here is the “mourning” stationery of Britain’s King Edward VIII (1936) who took the throne following the death of George V.

edward

By the way, you may recall that Edward didn’t reign long. He abdicated the throne in order to marry the already-twice-married American socialite Wallace Simpson. It was a royal wedding of a different sort.

Tragedy: The Mother of All Bad Theology–The Final Insult (err, Installment)

owie1

Let’s wind this up, shall we?

In the previous three posts (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) I have tried to lay the groundwork for a fresh way to think about what is widely called God’s “sovereignty.” I’m going to try to build on that foundation now, even though I’m strongly sympathetic to the comment made by regular reader “Ted” who, after the first post, wrote:

I’ve personally jettisoned the word “sovereign” from my theological vocabulary. It’s been misused so often and for so long that there is always the possibility of being misunderstood. It’s not even in the Bible, unless you happen to be reading a modern translation such as NIV or NLT that have added the word some 300 times.

The typical believer’s conception of God’s sovereignty lies somewhere between the powers displayed by Jim Carrey’s character in Bruce Almighty and Samantha Stevens on the old sitcom Bewitched.

But as I pointed out in the previous post, this view doesn’t account for Mankind’s God-granted freedom to choose, nor the self-limiting nature of God’s character in light of His legal grant of stewardship and dominion to Man. This creates that apparent paradox I mentioned before.

What’s more, those who believe that God is always getting His way and that every outcome has been predetermined by God, find themselves without much incentive to pray. (I’ll address this issue directly before I close.)

I believe the biblical path out of that paradox is to make a distinction between what I call God’s “Macro Sovereignty” and the concept of “Micro Sovereignty.” I’ll try to explain in fewer than 1,000 words.

The typical evangelical Christian on the street assumes God is behind every event in her day . . . That He is either the direct cause of the event or that He “allows” the event because it fits into His plan for her life. This is what I call “micro-sovereignty.”

This theology usually emerges after a tragedy. Well-intentioned believers offer it in the form of  comfort to themselves or others after something heartbreaking has happened:

“His ways are higher than our ways.”

“You just have to believe this happened for a reason.”

And my personal favorite:

“God wanted you to be able to minister to other people who have had this same horrific thing happen to them.”

Sound familiar? I trotted some version of these out myself on more than one occasion back in my younger days. Usually the recipient of this brand of comfort is too polite or grief-shocked to challenge that logic with something like:

“Hold on. So, God arranged for my kid to get hit by a drunk driver because He’s allowing other people’s kids to get hit by drunk drivers, too? But wait, He wouldn’t need me to minister to these grief-stricken parents if He didn’t “allow” those kids to be killed in the first place. Right? So… seriously… what the heck.”

There’s another logic problem confronted by holders of the micro-sovereignty paradigm: Why pray? Seriously.

If God is getting His preferred outcome at the micro level every second of every day, what is the point of praying? Why did Jesus, after the disciples requested a clinic in effective praying, instruct them to pray: “Father . . . May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”?

Why would Jesus repeatedly say, “Ask the Father . . .” “Whatever you ask the Father in my name . . .” “As what you will . . .”?

Some micro-sovereignty-ists have attempted to come up with an answer to that question. As I heard a preacher on the radio say a few months ago: “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes us.”

That sounds quite lofty and spiritual and profound when you first hear it. Then you think about the implications and it falls apart.

Of course, prayer doesn’t change God. That’s a red herring. The question is, does prayer change “things.”

This view is basically saying that prayer is the spiritual equivalent of running on a treadmill: You don’t actually get anywhere but it’s good for you.

An Alternative View

What if God’s sovereignty is the “macro” variety? What if God’s micro-sovereignty is limited . . .  by his grant of free will to Man; His delegation of legal stewardship rights and authority to Man; and most of all by his own righteousness and character.

As I suggested in the previous post, God is self-limited by His own character–His just-ness preventing Him from violating the spiritual legal structure upon which He framed the universe and placed Man within it.

Nevertheless, the Bible is clear that God is moving History (capital “H”) toward an end of His choosing. He has both foreknown and foreordained the way everything winds up. His intellect and power are so unimaginably vast that he can process the free choices of 6 billion human inhabitants, the effects of a fallen creation, and the activities of a rogue, outlaw enemy and still accomplish His plans and purposes in the earth and faithfully fulfill the promise of Romans 8:28 to every believer.

Adopting the paradigm I outlined above causes much of the paradoxical confusion and contradiction described in the previous three posts to evaporate. And it causes many previously mysterious passages of the Bible to suddenly make sense.

Why pray? Because God needs us to pray. Our asking God to move isn’t an empty or meaningless exercise. It opens legal windows through which He can move provision, power, and outcomes. It is the revelation behind Charles Wesley’s admission:

The longer I go in this faith, the more convinced I am that God does nothing except in response to believing prayer.

It is the revelation behind Jesus’ words in the Model Prayer: “Father…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The Cornerstone of our Faith

One of the most frequently repeated phrases in all of the Bible is this song of praise:
Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.
It first appears in I Chronicles 16:34. It reappears in various forms in I Chron. 16:41; II Chron. 5:13; Psalm 100:5; Psalm 107:1; Psalm 118:1; Psalm 118:29; and Psalm 136:1; Psalm 145:9; Jer. 33:11; and Nahum 1:7.
There is scarcely another phrase in all the Bible as frequently repeated as “The Lord is good.” Perhaps we should take note of that.
Faith and trust in the utter goodness of God is the cornerstone of a stable, mature faith. That means not wrongly laying the blame for tragedy, heartache and atrocity at His feet. On the contrary, the Father has paid a horrific price to patiently unfold a plan to undo Man’s mistake that unleashed all this heartache.
Which brings us back to the conundrum Martin Bashir asked Rob Bell–the one I referenced in the second installment of this series. Bashir challenged:
God is all powerful but doesn’t care about the people of Japan, and therefore they’re suffering. Or, He does care about the people of Japan, but is not all powerful. Which one is it?

If you’ve hung with me through all four of these marathon blog posts, I suspect you know how I would respond to that challenge. I would say,

“Mr. Bashir, your use of the term “all powerful” indicates you have a common but cartoonish conception of God’s latitude to act in a fallen, broken world. But I can assure you that He cares desperately about the Japanese people. There’s no message in the earthquake and no lesson in the tsunami.”

God delivered His message on a barren hillside outside of Jerusalem roughly 2,000 years ago. Those with ears to hear, hear it say,

“Oh give thank to the Lord, for He is good. And His mercies endure forever.”

Tragedy: The Mother of All Bad Theology–Part 3

hindenburg

In two ridiculously long previous posts, (Part 1 and Part 2) I’ve written about the way tragedies such as the tsunami in Japan tend to generate a corresponding tidal wave of arm-chair theologizing about God’s sovereignty.

I won’t re-trample the ground I’ve already covered other than to quote something I said in the previous post about most people’s conception of God’s sovereignty:

This Hollywood view of God as having unlimited freedom of action on the earth and in History–the belief that everything is happening just as God has ordained right down to the granular level of the child molestations that are almost certainly taking place in various places around the planet as I write these words–is shared by most American Christians who simply haven’t thought too deeply about these questions.

To hear many Christians talk about God’s sovereignty, you get the impression that Romans 8:28 contains a period after the word things, i.e., “And we know that God causes all things.”

Of course, there is no period there. The verse says, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” That’s something very different.

One of the unique characteristics of us humans is our capacity for cognitive dissonance–that is, the ability to hold two completely incompatible and conflicting beliefs simultaneously. Thus it shouldn’t surprise us to observe that most evangelical Christians will answer a robust “Yes” to both of the following questions:

Does God give humans free will . . . the ability to choose or reject God’s expressed will?

Does God’s “sovereignty” mean that “everything happens for a reason” and that God either causes or permits every event at every moment in every place on earth as part of His plan?

A little bit of logical thought will reveal that both propositions cannot possibly be true.

I’m convinced a flawed, simplistic view of God’s sovereignty is robbing believers of much of the motivation to pray and the ability to pray effectively. Even worse, it’s needlessly causing entire generations of people to dismiss Christianity’s message of a loving God who sent His Son to die for a sinful world. (See Martin Bashir’s question for Rob Bell in Part 1.)

I was a debater back in my college days and therefore know how to argue two different sides of a proposition. If pressed, I could easily cite scripture to support either one of the above questions.

On one hand, there are dozens Bible verses and stories that make explicit Man’s freedom to reject God’s will and go his own way. For example, Jesus Himself said:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. (Matthew 23:37)

On the other hand, many scriptures speak of God’s infinite power to produce His desired outcomes. He “declares the end before the beginning.” (Isaiah 46:10) Indeed, Paul devotes the entire ninth chapter of Romans–in the course of trying to help the church at Rome know how to think about the Jewish people–to declaring that God gets what He wants.

So which is it?

Yes.

I’m satisfied that a proper, biblical understanding of how things currently work in the universe can reconcile this seemingly irreconcilable dilemma. (And do so without requiring either cognitive dissonance or just throwing one’s hands up in the air and saying “It’s a paradox!”)

As I hinted in one of the previous posts, making sense of all this requires an understanding of three things:

1. Free Will (and God’s corresponding stewardship/dominion mandate to Man over Creation)

2. The Fall (of both Man and Creation)

3. God’s Self-Limiting Righteousness

It would take a book to completely unpack these three elements (and I may just write that book someday) but in short, the Genesis account shows us God delegating authority, rights and responsibilities to Man over the earth:

God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

This is a delegation of stewardship authority accompanied by a dominion mandate. This takes us to the second reality–The Fall–which subjected both Mankind and all of Nature to some pretty ugly effects. Since that day, lots of bad things have been happening on this planet. Many of those bad things are the product of evil choices made by fallen people. Other bad things are the result of a curse-wracked creation groaning for a form of redemption and restoration itself.

So why, after things got so horribly fouled up . . . God being God and all . . . did He not immediately jump in and hit the “Undo” button? Or the “Fix It” button? Or simply blow the whole thing up and start again? The answer lies in the third item on that list above–God’s Self-Limiting Righteousness.

God is holy, righteous and, above all, good. Given His character, He could not possibly create a universe built upon righteous law and principle and then toss all that aside when those laws got inconvenient. That’s something I’d do.

God, on the other hand, initiated a multi-thousand year plan to bring about the restoration and renewal of both Man and Nature (chronicled as the Bible’s “scarlet thread of redemption”.) It was a plan that scrupulously followed the rules and laws established before the very beginning. It was a brilliant plan that didn’t violate God’s delegation of authority and dominion to Man.

There’s an old Philisophy 101 brain teaser that asks, “Can God make a rock so big, He can’t move it?”

The truth is, nothing can limit God except his own character. God is self-limited by His goodness and just-ness. That is why there is no period after the word “things” in Romans 8:28. God does not “cause all things.” But He is so smart, so powerful, so unimaginably creative, that in spite of all the bad things put in motion by our choices, an outlaw enemy, and a fallen creation, God still “causes all things to work together” for our good. He’s that smart.

I had hoped to finish this saga with this post. But I have a little more to share. I want to put all of this together and apply it to how we, God’s people, should approach prayer and deal with heartache.

But that will have to wait, for I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.