Embrace the Questions

asking questions

After church service Sunday, a 20-something guy told me that when he was 12 years old he asked his youth pastor a question: “Why does God allow children to suffer?”  

(The topic Sunday in our “S*&! Christians Say” series is a common answer to suffering: “Everything happens for a reason.” So we talked about suffering.)

Now really, who hasn’t asked the same question?  Or who has not at least thought the question?

The 12 year old  was shut down.  Put down.  “That’s a dangerous question,” he was told.  “Questions like that show a lack of faith.”  

That has been the experience of a lot of “churched-people” – which is why many of those people are now “de-churched.”

 Maybe it is still the experience of people today.  

Churches have a reputation of being a “no question” zone.  Yes, questions lead to:

…answers

…discovery

…mystery

…and trouble.  

Just ask my 20-something friend. He still remembered the experience of being shut down. Anyone who has dared to ask questions has likely been told one or all of these things:

“These questions show a lack of faith.”

“Questions are a slippery slope.”

“Just accept what I tell you as truth.”

What we hear is:

“Sit down and shut up and you’ll learn something!”

We walk away thinking, “Believing is so much easier before I started thinking.”  

I mean, really, we’re told to read our Bibles everyday.  So we do.  Immediately we are faced with two creation stories that don’t line up!  We write down the question: “Why is mankind  created after the animals in chapter one, but before them in chapter two.?”

We keep reading and meet a talking snake:

Write it down:  “A talking snake?  Really?  Is this history or some kind of fable?”

We go on in Genesis and  find a man looking for a mate among the animals.  

Ok,  that’s disturbing.  “What kind of “Find your date/mate” plan is this?”

We keep reading…We get to the famous children story, Noah and the Ark. We’re shocked in multiple ways.   First there is the horror of a God who, in a fit of rage, drowns babies and toddlers along with their parents.  

Write it down: “Is this ‘Biblical Parenting’?   God, The Heavenly Parent, gets so mad at his children that he kills them so he can start over with new kids.  Really?”  

More questions: 

“Why do parents decorate their newborns’ rooms with a ‘Noah and the Ark’ theme?  What’s so sweet about this story?”   I wonder if parents have even read it.

“I thought the animals went in two by two (Genesis 6:19)?  What’s up with Genesis 7:2-3 that says there were 7 of each pure species and two of each impure species?  Why the contradiction?”  

“And this was written before the Law.  How’d Noah know which animals were “clean” or “unclean”?

So we take our list of questions with us to church the next Sunday and hand them to our pastor or student leader. As they read the list, they start sweating. Mumbling something about having to go preach or something, they run away. 

What does it say about a religion when that religion is afraid of questions?  

Maybe it says we’re not much like our founder, Jesus.  He loved questions.  He asked a lot of them (someone actually counted and found 307 questions) and he answered a few of them. 

 Why?

Why did Jesus ask more questions than he answered?

What does that say about him?

What does it do to our understanding of spirituality that Jesus is more “The Question Man” than he is “The Answer Man”?

Maybe it says we’ve lost our childlike spirit which Jesus seems to insist we keep (Matthew 18:2-4).  Someone else counted and discovered that children ask 289 questions a day!

Peter Abelard (1079-1142), philosopher, theologian, poet, wrote, “The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth.”

There is no need to be threatened by questions.  Asking them or being asked. 

 I don’t know everything and I know I don’t know everything. I find value in reaching out, learning new things,  hearing new perspectives. My purpose is not to preach but to understand.  To listen, to love, to live like Christ and to ask questions of myself, of others, and of God.   

 

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“I Feel Good”

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The word on the street is that the church I pastor is “just a feel-good church.”  I guess that makes me “just a feel-good pastor.”  It wasn’t meant to be a compliment.  So, it’s OK for James Brown (I Feel Good) or Chuck Mangione (Feels So Good) or Three Dog Night or Flo-Rida (Good Feelin’) to “feel good” but it’s not good for people who go to church to “feel good?”  I don’t get it.

The fella who passed on to me the word he had heard had this commentary: “Who wants to feel good after going to church?”   The kind of church I want to be a part of is one that makes you feel terrible!”  I like that fella.

Why do we feel threatened by “feeling good?”  What is in our theology that equates “feeling good” with “being bad”?  How many of you who grew up in church grew up thinking,  “If it feels good, it’s probably sin.”  That’s Jack LaLanne thinking, not Jesus thinking.  Do you remember Jack LaLanne?  He’s the father of the modern fitness movement.  One of his nutrition rules was, “If it tastes good, spit it out.” I guess his rule worked well.  He lived til he was 96.  Jesus seemed, though, to turn conventional wisdom upside down.  Gain by losing. Lead by serving.  Receive by giving.

So, what’s Jesus thinking when it comes to “feel-good” churches?   We get a clue from the name we’ve given the 4 New Testament biographies of Jesus – the Gospels – which means “Good News.”  This story of Jesus is “good” news, not “bad” news.  When I hear good news I usually feel good.

The sermon preached by the angel to the shepherds “watching their flocks” on the night of Jesus’ birth was certainly a “feel good” sermon.  Do you remember this line? “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”  Good news results in great joy.

Listen to Jesus himself:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, becasue he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Luke 4:18-19

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”  Luke 4:43

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

People who “go off” on “feel-good churches” are implying that these churches are not teaching the truth because the truth is hard to swallow – it doesn’t feel good going down.

Let’s be clear: there are times when truth hurts.  As James Garfield said, “The truth will set you free but first it will make you miserable.”  For a bit more edgy version of this idea check out Gloria Steinem’s take: http://thinkexist.com/quotes/gloria_steinem/.  Jesus said some tough stuff- mostly to religious people.  In fact, here are the stats:  Going off on “sinners” – 0.  Going off on the “religious” – I can’t count that high.

“Pride, hypocrisy, insensitivity, judgmentalism, ”  are a few of the things in the Pharisees that Jesus called out.

I have concluded that it is not my job to make people feel good OR bad about where they are in their spiritual journey.  It is my job to show people Jesus and let Him, through the Holy Spirit, do what He does.

John said this about Jesus, “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).  Sometimes we’ll feel bad at church because we realize we’re not like Jesus.  But all the time we should feel good at church because we know that no matter what, Jesus loves us, He’s for us, and wants to express Himself through us.

That sounds good.  That is good.  That makes me feel good.

This I believe…

Another song from my Sunday School days went like this:

“I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.
I may never fly o’er the enemy, but I’M IN THE LORD’S ARMY!”

The song was always accompanied by lots of stomping on our part.  It felt like we were stomping on anyone who didn’t agree with us.   I’ve seen a lot of spiritual stompers.  I’ve been one myself.  Maybe still am at times.  I’m sure I’ve got some boots close by.

There’s a lot of stomping going on around the topic of the Bible.  I was in college and seminary during the Scripture wars.  Harold Lindsell picked a fight with plenty when he wrote Battle For the Bible. The book pitted a bunch of evangelicals against one another.   Some of the casualties of the war included godly, Christ-honoring, Bible-believing professors under whom I sat.

Back up the church bus!  How can they be casualties of Bible wars if they are Bible-believers?  Great question.  For spiritual stompers it’s not a matter of believing the Bible but a matter of believing certain things about the Bible. “You may be a Christ-follower, you may seek to let Christ express Himself through you, but if you don’t believe as I do about the Bible…” then stomp, stomp, stomp.  For instance:

Inerrancy – the belief that the Bible contains no mistakes.  The thinking goes like this: “God is perfect.  The Bible is God’s Word. Therefore the Bible is perfect.”  “Jesus, the living Word is sinless, so it is assumed that the written Word is sinless.”  (Does anyone see the danger in that thinking?) Back to Lindsell’s book: He says, “…the Bible is not a textbook on chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, or medicine…when it speaks on matters having to do with these or any other subjects, the Bible does not lie to us.  It does not contain any errors of any kind.”

Then we run into statements in the Bible that aren’t perfect.  I hate it when that happens.  Take this example: Mark 6:8, speaking of Jesus sending out His disciples, says, “He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff…”  The same account in Luke 9:3 and Matthew 10:10 has Jesus saying, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff..”  So, who got it right? Mark or Matthew and Luke?  Did Jesus tell his disciples to bring staffs or not?

This freaks some people out.   “All Scripture is God-breathed…” after all.  That means the Bible is always right.  It is, in fact, impossible for the Bible to be wrong about anything.  If it’s wrong about anything, well, it may be wrong about everything.  Yikes! Then what do we do?

So what does it mean to “believe the Bible,” “confess it’s true” when we are well aware that certain “facts” don’t fit?

First, questions are good.  I know, we’re not supposed to ask questions.  We’re supposed to provide answers to other people’s questions.  But, sorry, I have questions.  So did Origen.  Origen was a theologian and respected Bible interpreter in the 3rd century.  He read the war accounts of Joshua and couldn’t get a handle on them. “Why would God command His people to commit genocide?” he asked.  Others have asked the same thing.  His take on it?  He concluded that the conquest stories in Joshua are allegories of how we battle the temptations we face.  How would that fly in the church today?  No matter if you agree with Origen or not, you have to love the fact that he asked questions, that he wrestled with the texts and that he tried hard to apply the Bible to his life and world.

Second,  Literal or not?    Shouldn’t we read the Bible literally?  Sounds right, doesn’t it? Right but not simple.  Here are a couple of definitions of “literal:”
1. “It happened exactly this way.”  or,
2. “What the writer intended.”
So, for example, what does it mean to read Genesis 1 literally?  If you follow the first definition, Genesis 1 is a play-by-play description of how the world was created. If you follow the second definition, it could be a God-inspired meditation on the origins of the universe attesting to the creative power of God.

Tim Keller, who believes that Genesis 1 is a poem, says this: “The way to respect the authority of the Biblical writers is to take them as they want to be taken.  Sometimes they want to be taken literally, sometimes they don’t. We must listen to them, not impose our thinking and agenda on them.”

Third, accept the Bible for what it is. Some years ago the late Adrian Rogers, one of the architects of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, was asked for his definition of inerrancy.  He answered: “It means the Bible is truth without mixture of error historically, philosophically, scientifically and theologically.”  While I have huge respect for Dr. Rogers, he was making claims about the Bible that the Bible doesn’t make for itself.

The Bible does not claim to be inerrant. It does claim to be true.  “The entirety of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous judgments endures forever” Psalm 119:160.  “True” does not mean “inerrant”.  The Bible is 100% true, but that doesn’t necessitate that all of it has to be 100% scientific and historical “fact.”  To require the Bible to be “factual” in the areas of history, chronology, science,  is to impose on it a 21st century mindset that distorts it.

When you’re dealing with any book, you have to know what its purpose is or you won’t understand it correctly.  The main purpose of the Bible is found here:

“And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself…And He opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures.” Luke 24:27, 44-45

The purpose of the Bible is to point us to God’s final Word: Jesus.

Let’s take off and keep off our stomping boots and put on our sandals and walk with Jesus – the Living Word.