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Dear Atheist

“I have never seen much point in getting heavy with stupid people or Jesus freaks, just as long as they don’t bother me. In a world as weird and cruel as this one we have made for ourselves, I figure anybody who can find peace and personal happiness without ripping off somebody else deserves to be left alone… And I have learned to live, as it were, with the idea that I will never find peace and happiness, either. But as long as I know there’s a pretty good chance I can get my hands on either one of them every once in a while, I do the best I can between high spots.” — Hunter S. Thompson

“Don’t you love Jesus?’ Well, I thought an’ I thought an’ finally I says, ‘No, I don’t know nobody name’ Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people.”  — John Steinbeck

There is something really appealing about discarding religion. What, after all, is the point of orienting your life, limiting your choices, around a fairy tale? And what could it be but a fairy tale, all this talk of gods and heaven? Haven’t people spun a thousand deities to explain the inexplicable? A god for blazing comets, for the rare and creepy eclipse, a god for messy birth and haunting death and crack of lightning? You could sit up late night after night, drive yourself mad with The Big Questions, prod into suffering and origins and eternal destiny, and not answer any of it to your satisfaction.

Or you could flip a switch, turn it off. Live, instead, for today, for pleasures that can be physically felt and successes that can be financially measured. Love the people you love and be done with the ones you don’t. Be practical. Be down to earth. Be free.

But the questions still nag, if you are a thinking sort of person. How did we get here and where are we going? What tripped the trigger that ignited the Big Bang, and how can biology explain laughter, or love? So once in a while, maybe after a few glasses of wine or when the power goes out, you ponder. You pull out the biographies of great people and consider what pushed them, what claims they made of Truth and Beauty.

Maybe, like Holden Caulfield, you wish, just sometimes, that you could pray.

“I felt like praying or something, when I was in bed, but I couldn’t do it. I can’t always pray when I feel like it. In the first place, I’m sort of an atheist. I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible.”  — J.D. Salinger

It’s tough to pray when you’re pretty sure nobody’s listening. But if nobody is listening, if we’re floating in the void? Then it’s hard to sleep at all.

So maybe your thoughts turn to that rare handful of people who claimed a corner on truth, claimed to know the ways of God. What did they really know? There’s Buddha, Mohammed, Moses with his burning bush. There’s even a handful of nutjobs who thought they were God. Take Jesus. What can you make of him?

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.” — Napoléon Bonaparte

“If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?” — Kurt Vonnegut

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” — C.S. Lewis

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 8.49.31 PMYou’d like to say with Vonnegut that it doesn’t really matter whether he was divine, but  if he wasn’t, then he’s nuts, and if he was, well, then you’d have to deal with that. So you play with the idea. If God did come down to walk among us, what would that look like? What would you expect? Probably some pomp and circumstance, right? Some bling, mind-bending miracles? And you’d look for wisdom, of course, for justice, for kindness. The world wouldn’t just keep spinning, oblivious, would it? Wouldn’t there be judgment and power and Kingdom Come?

Jesus? Well, you can see the wisdom, the kindness, and if tales are true, a sprinkling of miracles. But no power to speak of. No grand entrance. Kind of a lowly fellow for a god.

“The world takes us to a silver screen on which flickering images of passion and romance play, and as we watch, the world says, “This is love.” God takes us to the foot of a tree on which a naked and bloodied man hangs and says, “This is love.”  — Joshua Harris

“I want neither a terrorist spirituality that keeps me in a perpetual state of fright about being in right relationship with my heavenly Father nor a sappy spirituality that portrays God as such a benign teddy bear that there is no aberrant behavior or desire of mine that he will not condone. I want a relationship with the Abba of Jesus, who is infinitely compassionate with my brokenness and at the same time an awesome, incomprehensible, and unwieldy Mystery.” — Brennan Manning

If Jesus was a god, if he was God Himself, he certainly had a strange way of showing it. No big shazam. No thunderbolts of doom. And you have to admit, that kind of love, if that’s what it was, is almost incomprehensible. From creator to crucified? From all-powerful to penniless? The whole story is epic and haunting and strange.

In point of fact, you don’t like to think about it, and if the power would just come back on, you’d watch Netflix instead. But sometimes you wonder.

einstein-albert-classroom-blackboard-professor“I couldn’t get Him out of my head. Still can’t. I spent three solid days thinking about Him. The more He bothered me, the less I could forget Him. And the more I learned about Him, the less I wanted to leave Him.” — Yann Martel

“I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene….No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.” — Albert Einstein

There’s something appealing about that man, something that all the other morally upright and mystical people just don’t have. You don’t get the sense that he’d rather hang out on a mountaintop all day, unhinged from reality. You don’t get the sense that if he could he’d smite his enemies and laugh like a lunatic. If there is a God, holding power that loosely? Inviting worship without compelling it? Well, that’s the kind of god you’d like to have.

“The irony is that while God doesn’t need us but still wants us, we desperately need God but don’t really want Him most of the time.” — Francis Chan

And so you swill that last bit of cabernet and stare into the fireplace. The godless life works fine, mostly, and no doubt you can do what you want when you want to. But it surely would be something to know real love. It would be nice to grapple with a truth that’s big enough for all of the questions you throw at it. And if there is an answer to all the hows and whys, it would be better to know than not to… wouldn’t it?

“I came to Him because I did not know which way to turn. I remained with Him because there is no other way I wish to turn. I came to Him longing for something I did not have. I remain with Him because I have something I will not trade. I came to Him as a stranger. I remain with Him in the most intimate of friendships. I came to Him unsure about the future. I remain with Him certain about my destiny. I came amid the thunderous cries of a culture that has 330 million deities. I remain with Him knowing that truth cannot be all-inclusive.” — Ravi Zacharias

“The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” — Timothy J. Keller

“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provoked you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life…” — John Paul II

“Turn around and believe that the good news that we are loved is better than we ever dared hope, and that to believe in that good news, to live out of it and toward it, to be in love with that good news, is of all glad things in this world the gladdest thing of all. Amen, and come Lord Jesus.” — Frederick Buechner

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Whom do you love?

For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-47, HCSB)

I’m hurt, and if I’m honest, I’m angry. Sad to say, there isn’t one without the other. When someone lets the sharp words fly, they slice me right off the vine. I’m not abiding any more, I’m cut off— from joy, from peace— shriveling, rotting, drying out. It’s so hard to choose the vine over the justified (in my mind) ugliness. Love? Love them? My lip curls, my heart hardens. I don’t want love. I want revenge.

But that’s not the way I see myself. I think of myself in kindly terms, as a noble-minded, sanctified child of God. Sanctimonious, more like. I’m the emperor with no clothes. I’m the pious Queen of Hearts. Off with her head! If I happen to glance in a mirror, I see a little girl hurt; I want to console, to coddle. It’s a fun house mirror, not true. A real mirror would show— I want to return evil for evil, painful blow for blow. I do not truly love.

Jesus’ prying questions expose a rancidness in my heart I’d rather not acknowledge. He knows, knows I am the one forgiven much but stingy with forgiveness in return. He knows that I need grace absolutely as much as the one who hurt me. After all, I sin against Him, but He gave up everything for me anyway.

Mother Teresa reportedly hung a poem on the wall of her Calcutta children’s home by a fellow named Kent Keith. The poem advises that although our motives may be questioned and our kindness rejected, we should do good, be honest, forgive, and love anyway.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 11.04.05 AM
By Manfredo Ferrari – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35010569

Hmm. Love is hard. Love anyway. Between me and God it’s clear, my heart is a long way from His kind of love.

You might say there are two kinds of people in the world. Those who love you, and those who do not, those who are like you, and those who are very different. One group is generous and gracious, the other often critical and mean-spirited. And yet, according to Jesus, there is only one way for us to respond, His way— with kindness, gentleness, and respect. In short, with love. As He says,

“You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:43-44, HCSB)

Jesus’ questions for His audience at the Sermon on the Mount pack so much insight that they easily expand to press on me half a dozen more.  Whom do I love, personally, practically, with word and deed? Only the lovable? Do I pride myself on the kindness I lavish on a lucky few? Do I think of myself as praiseworthy for the way I treat my husband, my children, my parents, or my friends? Do I expect a deeply felt thank-you-very-much when I spontaneously serve my household or my church?  Well, don’t look at me for reward, Jesus seems to say. To love those who love you is to meet the bare minimum standard.  It’s not extraordinary.Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.59.54 AM

What is extraordinary is to love the person who makes me most uncomfortable. The one who just yesterday insulted me, the one who’s hostile and rude. To love both the people who flat-out sin against me and the people who look like they would if they had the chance. To love my political enemies and the irritating ones who won’t leave me alone, the one who betrayed me or the one who lies like a rug. That guy, he’s the one I ought to serve. That’s the Jesus way.

Fine. It’s easy enough to structure my life so that I just don’t cross paths much with unkind or scornful folks— at least not in my free time. Surely the extent of what Jesus expects is civility when it’s unavoidable, right? It’s the Miss Manners gospel— be ye polite. Surely we don’t have to seek out difficult people, sit next to them, invite them over on our day off?  Right?

There’s an awkward pause while I wait for an encouraging answer. It never comes. The only answer I hear is the patiently repeated question,

What are you doing out of the ordinary?

Extraordinary love starts when I quit licking my wounds and pray for my adversary. What might she need? What could I give?

As it turns out, loving unlovable people is kinda freeing— it flips my attitude on its head, replaces my grievances with something closer to joy. Who knew? Forgiving, service-oriented, beyond-the-ordinary love isn’t just powerful for the recipient and the watching world. It’s powerfully healing and life-giving for me, too.

In a sermon (“Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957), Martin Luther King, Jr. said, Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.54.50 AM“I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom.” Even the most recalcitrant? Maybe Mr. King was thinking about angry Alabamans with their angry, snarling dogs, but I suspect when Jesus issued the challenge, He was thinking, too, about the likes of me.

If you love those who love you…

Whom do I love, anyway? Whom will I love on today?

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The Radical Questions of Christ

So Jesus had a knack for asking questions that threw people a little off-balance.  Questions that provoke anger, exposing his enemies, questions that stick in a person’s head and poke, like irritants introduced to an oyster.  Eventually, over time, maybe that irritant will produce a pearl.

As many smart people have observed, Jesus asked way more questions (over 300) than he specifically answered (fewer than a dozen), often, in fact, answering a question with a question.  Yeah, annoying.  But I can just imagine Him grinning as His disciples sputtered, unperturbed as He flummoxed folks.  Jesus had a knack for leaving people dumbfounded.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ questions this week, questions that I brush past to give a Sunday school answer, but could, if I let them, do a number on me.  Among many others, He asked:

  • Why are you so afraid? (Matthew 8:26)
  • What are you seeking? (John 1:38)
  • Do you want to get well? (John 5:6)
  • Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)

Wow, right to the point, Jesus.  Couldn’t you be a little more, well, tactful?  But He’s never one for the Hallmark card.  And by grilling us so thoroughly, He gives us plenty of food for thought.

Do you ever wish God spoke to you more directly?  Perhaps He is more inclined now, as He was then, to ask questions rather than give answers.  What if we let Him ask?  What if we put some thought into our answers?  I’m thinking for a season I’m going to ponder the question marks He left behind, let them speak to me today.  I’m guessing I’m not going to like them all, but maybe they have the power to change me, bit by bit.

Here’s a sample.  Which ones speak to you?

  1. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:46-47)
  2. Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:27, Luke 12:25)
  3. Why do you worry about clothes? (Matthew 6:28)
  4. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
  5. Why are you so afraid? (Matthew 8:26)
  6. Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? (Matthew 9:4)  Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? (Luke 5:22)
  7. Do you believe that I am able to do this? (Matthew 9:28)
  8. To what can I compare this generation? (Matthew 11:16)
  9. Why did you doubt? (Matthew 14:31)
  10. Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3)
  11. Who do people say the Son of Man is? (Matthew 16:13)  Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15)  What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he? (Matthew 22:42)
  12. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26)
  13. How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matthew 17:17)
  14. Why do you ask me about what is good? (Matthew 19:17)  Why do you call me good? (Mark 10:18)
  15. What is it you want? (Matthew 20:21)  What do you want me to do for you? (Matthew 20:32, Mark 10:51)
  16. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink? (Matthew 20:22) Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me? (John 18:11)
  17. How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:33)
  18. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
  19. Why are you thinking these things? (Mark 2:8)
  20. Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? (Mark 4:21)
  21. Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith? (Mark 4:40)  Where is your faith? (Luke 8:25)  When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)
  22. What is your name? (Mark 5:9, Luke 8:30)
  23. Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? (Mark 7:18)
  24. Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? Do you still not understand? (Mark 8:17-21)
  25. [To a blind man] Do you see anything? (Mark 8:23)
  26. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? (Mark 9:12)  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory? (Luke 24:26)
  27. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? (Mark 9:50, Luke 14:34)
  28. Are you asleep?  Could you not keep watch for one hour? (Mark 14:37)  Why are you sleeping?  (Luke 22:46)
  29. Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:46)
  30. Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? (Luke 10:36)
  31. Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? (Luke 11:40)
  32. Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? (Luke 12:57)
  33. Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? (Luke 14:31)
  34. Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? (Luke 15:4, Matthew 18:12)
  35. Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? (Luke 15:8)
  36. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? (Luke 16:11)
  37. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? (Luke 18:7)
  38. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? (Luke 22:27)
  39. Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? (Luke 24:38)
  40. What are you seeking? (John 1:38)
  41. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:12)
  42. Do you want to get well? (John 5:6)
  43. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God? (John 5:44)
  44. If you do not believe Moses’ writings how will you believe me? (John 5:47)
  45. Does this offend you? (John 6:61)
  46. You do not want to leave too, do you? (John 6:67)
  47. Have I not chosen you? (John 6:70)
  48. Why is my language not clear to you? (John 8:43)
  49. Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? (John 8:46)
  50. Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (John 10:36)
  51. Do you believe this? (John 11:26)
  52. Do you understand what I have done for you? (John 13:12)
  53. Don’t you know me, even after I have been among you such a long time? (John 14:9)
  54. Who is it you want? (John 18:4,7)
  55. Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me? (John 18:34)
  56. Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for? (John 20:15)
  57. Do you love me? (John 21:17)
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I don’t know the answers…

Lately I’ve been wondering:  How does God speak?

How does God speak to you?  Does He speak the same way to everyone?  Did He speak the same way to everyone in days of old?  Is Scripture the only way God speaks?

How can God speak through Scripture when it’s not in front of us?  If we have committed Scripture to memory just a little bit wrong, can that create a problem?  If He speaks to us in other ways, how can we hear Him?  How can we discern what is God what is Not God?  How can Satan distort what we hear?  What’s the danger of saying, “God told me…”?

If God’s Word is living and active, can it have both a primary meaning for the original audience and many layers of meaning for new situations and generations?  How does the Bible intend itself to be used?

How do you approach the study of Scripture?  Systematically?  Scatter shot?  Have you ever been surprised by the relevance of a passage you came upon in a regularly scheduled reading plan?  Does God have sovereignty over the calendar?

If you hear no direct answer when you seek God’s will, guidance, or counsel, what does this mean?  Is He not listening?  Does He withhold an answer sometimes?  What should we do in that circumstance?  Is it disappointing when He is quiet?  Can we find an answer in His Word?

Is it better to keep asking under the theory that it is good to persevere, or to remain silent under the theory that He already heard and is firmly in control?  How does His silence present an opportunity for relationship?

What does it mean that Jesus is the Word?  The Word is a person?  What’s the role of the Holy Spirit in prayer?  How does He assist in decision-making?  How do you know?  Jesus said His sheep know His voice — what does it sound like?  Is it easily duplicated?  Is ear-tickling the tactic only of bad preachers, or also of devils?  Does God speak through our emotions, our minds, our circumstances, or in our ears?  Does He still use visions and dreams?  Is there anything that constrains God to use particular means in speaking to us?

If you felt like God did indeed impress something on you, would you take action immediately?  What if you don’t?  What if you do?  Does God ever say one thing at one time and then contradict Himself?  If God never contradicts Himself, why do we, over time, stray from what we believe He first said?  If God never contradicts Himself, how can Scripture be useful in approving what we feel we have heard?

Do you listen to the Lord?  Do you expect to hear Him?  Do you diligently keep a pen handy to write down what you hear?  Do you expect to hear Him on a range of topics, or only certain things?  How detailed is God?

Does He care what cereal I eat for breakfast?

Does He care what music I listen to, which route I take to arrive somewhere, or whether I speak to strangers at the grocery store, or are certain things outside His purview?  If He does care about these things, do I ask His opinion about them?  How do I tune my heart to hear Him?

If you knew that God would speak to you 100 times today but you would hear him only once or twice, how would you feel?  Is this the state of things?  If you believed that the Bible had specific things to say to your situation moment by moment, would you treat it differently? If God spoke to you every day for thirty thousand days, would there be paper enough to write it all down?

If He spoke to me just once, would I be all astonishment?

Have I paid attention to the ways the created world speaks, giving God glory?  How does the Bible unpack the redemptive analogies present in nature?  Does God continue to speak in metaphor through advancing knowledge of creation?  That is to say, is there more to hear?

How do different faith communities approach these questions?  What is there to learn from different camps?  How did heroes of the faith, theologians, and sages, understand these things from different angles?  Am I dogmatic about this?  Should I be?  How earnestly do I seek wisdom in hearing God?  Is there perhaps uncharted territory for me in listening to Him?

What might God have to say to me today?

From Annie Dillard, The Writing Life:  “Rebbe Shmelke of Nickolsburg, it was told, never really heard his teacher, the Maggid of Mezritch, finish a thought because as soon as the latter would say ‘and the Lord spoke,’ Shmelke would begin shouting in wonderment, ‘The Lord spoke, the Lord spoke,’ and continue shouting until he had to be carried from the room.”

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.