The Danger of Confusing Yourself with God

The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

-Exodus 17:2, NRSV, emphasis mine.

Notice what happens in this verse. The people quarrel with Moses, and Moses asks them why they’re testing God. Incidentally, when Moses complains to God about this, God gives Moses a commonsense answer: Give them water.

Moses in this story has a problem that is shared by a frightening number of American Christian leaders: confusing themselves with God. Not in the sense that they’re encountering God and becoming confused, which would be good, but in the sense that people are challenging them, and they think people are challenging God.

I could give oodles of examples, but I’m sure you’ve seen them too. The most recent example I’ve seen is this post from Owen Strachan on The Gospel Coalition. Responding to a line in a book by William Paul Young, author of The Shack, Strachan says,

Don’t miss this: The most popular Christian writer in our time labels the biblical God a “cosmic abuser.” Ancient false teaching returns.

No, Owen. Young didn’t label God a cosmic abuser. He labelled your ideas about God cosmic abuse. There is a critical difference between the two – and a painfully underappreciated one.


The most explicit example, I think, comes from a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his New Testament Letters class, Dr. Gagnon said (at least once, but I think it was more),

You can disagree with me on this, but if you do, know that you’re disagreeing with Paul, you’re disagreeing with Jesus, and you’re disagreeing with God.

I dropped his class soon after that.

I have a hard time learning from people who are 100% sure their opinions about God’s opinions are identical with God’s opinions. The anger makes it difficult to focus.


Some Christians have a painfully difficult time distinguishing God from their ideas about God. Many think the two are one and the same – that God is identical with what they think God is like. This leads to those same Christians assuming that an attack on what they think about God is identical with an attack on God.

On the contrary, many such “attacks” are not attacks on God at all. They are attacks on dangerous false ideas about God, and as such are defenses of God’s character, not attacks on it.

Let those with ears, hear.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

The lectionary passages for Ash Wednesday are about repentance, and for me as a recovering fundamentalist, especially reading Psalm 51, repentance is all about wallowing in guilt and what Brennan Manning called cultivating ingrown eyeballs, where you try to imagine all the ways you might have offended God and debate whether you’re sufficiently penitent.

I went to a thing called a Prayer Advance once, because Christians don’t retreat, they advance, get it? So at the Prayer Advance, they have this time called “Sweet Hour of Prayer” where you go off into the woods and work your way through this list of things that are… well, I’m pretty sure many of them aren’t actually sins.

“Am I really concerned about revival?” I used to be, back when the problem was other people.

“Am I willing to pay the price for personal revival?” I don’t know. What are personal revivals going for these days?

“Am I sinning the sin of prayerlessness?” Prayerlessness is a sin?

“Do I get angry?” Especially when I read lists like this.

“Have I paid all my debts to others?” You try owing the cost of a college education to Great Lakes Student Loan Servicing, Prayer Advance People.

“Is my home a testimony for Jesus?” Well, we do have that sign that says “No matter who you are, you’re welcome here,” so… yes?”

“Does my pastor KNOW that he can count on me?” Well, first, you misspelled “she,” and second, judging by her helpful reminder emails, I think she knows she can count on me when I reply.

You get the picture. You can’t read through that and take it seriously without starting to think, “You know, I kind of suck.” And that’s the point of it. It’s to make you feel bad so you come back to your home church with this testimony of how you repented and did a soul cleanse and you’re basically sinless. When I came back, I was pretty much perfect by fundamentalist standards for, oh, a good three days at least!


Now compare that to the Prayer of the Day for Ash Wednesday in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship:

Almighty God,
you despise nothing you have made
and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent.
Create in us new and contrite hearts,
that truly repenting of our sins,
and acknowledging our brokenness,
we may obtain from you, the God of all mercy,
full pardon and forgiveness;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Redeemer…

Full pardon and forgiveness. It’s not a list of “Did I do this or did I not,” you just own up to it, like we did tonight, and you are told that you obtain full pardon and forgiveness – no ifs, ands, or buts, no asterisks and no guilt required. We tell the truth and forgiveness is granted. God has no interest in sacrifices; God wants the truth, because killing an animal won’t set us free. I learned a few years ago that to get free of what holds us down or holds us back, we have to tell the truth.

Ash Wednesday, maybe more than any other day, is a day Christians set aside to tell the truth – the truth the Psalmist wrote about.


And the one truth that we as humans, and to be honest, probably mostly me, probably don’t like to think about the most is that we are going to die.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

My friend Emiola is a slam poet, and he wrote one, I think it was called “I hope you die empty,” about hoping none of us makes it to the graveyard with lives still partly unlived, talent unspent, dreams unspoken, love unshared.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Every time I walk through a graveyard, I look at the tombstones. Barring unusual circumstances, besides the love we share with others, that’s what most of us will leave behind: A tombstone with an epitaph, maybe, our name, two dates, and a hyphen between them.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

There’s a show on Netflix called No Tomorrow, about a guy named Xavier who’s sure the world is ending in 8 months and twelve days. Xavier has stopped doing the things that he thinks don’t matter and is busy filling out his “Apocalist,” a list of things he wants to do before the world ends and he dies.


Maybe part of the point of Ash Wednesday is to help us do that – to help us stop doing the things that don’t matter, the things that drain our lives away, things that do nothing for ourselves, or God, or others.

Life is too short not to love our neighbors as ourselves.

People who are going to die don’t have time to wallow in pride.

Who has energy to waste on hypocrisy?

We whose days are numbered have no time for false judgments or uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors or prejudice or contempt, and yet we insist on using our brief time on earth to do just those things.

Impatience is ultimately a desire to hurry our lives to their conclusions, to make the hyphen, the dash between the day we were born and the day we will die even smaller than it already will be. Besides, according to a new study, patience helps you live longer.

Ash Wednesday isn’t about guilt. Repentance isn’t about guilt. Lent, at its best, isn’t about guilt. Maybe even the Prayer Advance’s “Sweet Hour of Prayer” isn’t about guilt.

…No, I’m pretty sure that’s about guilt.

But Ash Wednesday and Repentance and Lent… that’s about life. It’s about shaking off those things that keep us half-alive.

So as we move from the word to the table, let’s pause and think about some of the things that are holding us back, and consider what we might disentangle ourselves from, at least for the next forty days.

Because life is too short for that shit.

How to Choose Life

Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Photo Credit: Kristen Schell

So there were these ancient Jews living in captivity. I don’t know how many there were, or what their names were, but let’s say there were two (there were probably more) and call them Rachel and Eli.

Like most people in unhappy situations, Rachel and Eli had questions – questions like “How did this happen,” “How can I fix it,” and “How can I keep this from happening again?” And like most people with those questions, they started digging through their history looking for clues.

They would have found that their ancestors worshiped a lot of idols, and read about King David and Solomon, who worshiped the God Rachel and Eli worshiped, Yahweh. They would have found that King Rehoboam made some bad decisions and split the kingdom, and his servant Jeroboam, who took the Northern half of the Kingdom, made some worse decisions and set up two golden calves for worship.

Then in 721 BCE, the Assyrians captured Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. Worship Yahweh, Rachel and Eli would have concluded, you get David and Solomon. Worship other gods, you get captured by Assyrians. Continue reading

Book Review: The Remnant

I grew up on Left Behind, among lots of other books. One of my uncles found out I was an avid reader and made it his business to send me books. That’s how I ended up in a Walmart one night just before midnight when one of the books was coming out. I had finished it by the next afternoon. Nothing was more disappointing than when, at the end of Glorious Appearing, Jesus finally returned – and quoted Paul. I thought after 2,000 years he might have developed some new material. Gosh.

Then I took a class on the book of Revelation at Huntington University, where I discovered, to my disappointment, that the theology in the Left Behind series was complete nonsense. In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright called Left Behind “pseudotheological fiction.”

After I watched Left Behind II: Tribulation Force in the light of that class, it seemed Tim LaHaye must have acquired his theology of the end times by tacking a few chapters of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation to a wall and throwing darts at them to determine the attributes of the Anti-Christ.

The Remnant…Which is why I was delighted to find in my inbox an invitation to read and review a book by Monte Wolverton called The Remnant, a title it shares with Left Behind book 10. I trust the people who sent me the offer, so I knew it was going to be decent. Plus, I needed a little more fiction in my life.

Wolverton’s The Remnant is not about the rapture, though. Not even a little bit. Like the Left Behind books, however, The Remnant is about a post-apocalyptic world. In this one, though, Jesus didn’t come back. The world has ended because of World War III and been rebuilt without religion, as much as possible.

The prologue is set in Tunisia in 2063. The second sentence of The Remnant reads this way: “In the year 2062, a cataclysmic global war prompted the World Federation to ban all religion.” The banning process is cartoonish. While I was reading it, I kept telling myself, “Willing suspension of disbelief. Willing suspension of disbelief. Just let it happen.”

In chapter 1, we are introduced to Grant Cochrin, his wife Dana, and their son and daughter Tadd and Lissa. Also featured are Sara Davenport, Owen Fenbert and Bryan Hantwick. To be honest, I got them mixed up sometimes.

Anyway, the world is divided up into three areas:

  1. Safe Zones, cities where moral atheists live protected  by drones and zappers from anyone and anything dangerous.
  2. Work camps for anyone religious, where we find our heroes.
  3. The Wilderness, which is mysterious, unknown, and lawless.

Our little group isn’t particularly persecuted. They live in crappy one-bedroom apartments, and they can’t leave the camp, but they’re otherwise generally well-taken-care-of. They work long hours, apparently doing some kind of manual labor.

The book opens as they escape their work camp, under cover of darkness, in danger of being zapped to death by Federation drones. They leave because they are looking for a faith community they’ve heard exists somewhere in the Wilderness. Continue reading

Breitbart and Fox News Perpetuated a Trump Lie

I read something yesterday that freaked me out. Like a lot.

But first, you need to know two things:

  1. The women’s march on Washington was bigger than Trump’s inauguration.
  2. Obama’s inaugurations were both bigger than Trump’s.

This has been substantiated by numbers from the Washington Metro. Politifact has links to tweets from the Metro about the numbers of riders on the individual days about 2/3 of the way down this article. (Politifact rated White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that “That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period” as “pants on fire.”)

Fox News posted an AP fact-check article about the claim that Trump was wrong about the crowd size. They said, “THE FACTS: Trump is wrong,” and followed up with the evidence linked above.

Here’s a video. (It zooms in at the end when Trump starts speaking).

Review the evidence. Take as long as you need. Do your own research; use google. Article after article confirms that Trump did not have the biggest crowds. Not even close.

Done? Good.

Because this is the part where Fox News and Breitbart (and God knows who else) perpetuated Trump’s lies. Breitbart is infinitely worse. Like “Dear God I wish their readers were being lied to by Fox News instead” worse.
Continue reading

The Superior Losers

I was privileged to preach this sermon on January 22, 2017, at Waverly Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Audio:

Transcript (ish):

Our scripture comes from I Corinthians 1:9-18.

God is faithful; by whom you were called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The word of the Lord.

“I want you all to be in agreement.” This scripture comes to us after a weekend that showed more painfully than many that our country, and even the church, could not be more visibly divided.

Franklin Graham, the son of famous evangelist Billy Graham, spent the last few days celebrating the inauguration of our new president.

Famous Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber marched in the women’s march in Denver, my wife Kristen marched in DC, and I marched in Pittsburgh.

So what does it mean for Paul to say he wants all the Corinthian Christians to be in agreement? Does he want Stepford Christians, who all smile politely and agree with each other on literally everything? Granted, that would be kinda nice, but the entire history of the church is opposite of that.

So is Paul being unrealistic here? Or is there something more going on? Continue reading

Hymns & Verses Corrected; Homophobia Restored

Those liberals are always saying there are only six or seven anti-gay verses in the Bible, but they’re wrong.

I was digging through the Fundamentalist’s Hymnbook the other day and discovered that some of our modern liberal Bible translations seem to have erased words and phrases from some of the more popular Bible verses and hymns.

I present some samples from the correct and original 1610 edition (before the 1611 KJV came along and corrupted it).


John 3:16

For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life, unless they’re gay, in which case they shall surely perish.

Amazing Grace

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was gay, but now am straight,
Was wrong, but now am right.

John 3:17

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him, except for LGBTQ people, whom God did send the Son into the world to condemn. [Emphasis from the original Hebrew]

Romans 11:32

For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all, except for transgendered people, who are abominations. Continue reading

Reflections from the Gay Christian Network Conference

Last weekend, I was privileged to attend the Gay Christian Network Conference. It was a very moving experience. Here are some of my takeaways.

Worship

Worship at GCN was… unexpected.

I used to attend services with GCN-like worship, with the band on the stage and the lights and the projected song lyrics written in this century. I was that person who would cry and raise his hands and the whole thing.

But as I grew more progressive, I found that churches that worshiped in the style I enjoyed were often paired with horrible theology and sermons that made me not particularly want to be a Christian.

Since then, I have gotten used to more formalized liturgies and hymns and organs and pianos and the Presbyterian liturgy, but there’s still a part of me that wishes for drum kits and guitars and maybe one song by Chris Tomlin, even though I know – I know – I’m going to walk out of that service furious.

So I walked into the first session and was immediately thrown off-balance. GCN had the modern worship style I liked without the horrible-theology-that-made-me-immediately-angry rest of the service that often goes along with it.

I’ve been looking for that worship service for the past three and a half years, and there it was – but only for one weekend. Continue reading

Herod Wishes You a Merry Christmas

Our scripture this morning comes from Matthew chapter 2, verses, 13-23.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,

“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.

There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The word of the Lord.

The war on Christmas is apparently a thing. Herod started it. Seriously, how paranoid do you have to be to commit infanticide “just in case.”

From what I understand, the war on Christmas got revived in recent years. There have been attacks on all fronts. Two years ago, it got so bad that Christian actor Kirk Cameron, best known for his role in Growing Pains and a whole slew of overly long sermons badly disguised as movies, produced an abomination called Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. It has 1.5 out of 10 stars on the Internet Movie Database, where it currently ranks at #2 on their list of the top 100 worst films of all time. It used to be #1, but apparently 2015’s Code Name: K.O.Z. was really, really bad. Anyway, I watched Saving Christmas so you don’t have to. I took that bullet for you. You’re welcome.

Kirk Cameron was worried because some Christians didn’t like Santa Claus, or thought candy canes, Christmas trees, and presents weren’t 100% all about Jesus, so he wasted an hour of my life trying to explain how setting up a pine tree in your house is definitely about Jesus because there were trees in Eden and Jesus died on a cross, which some Bible translations call… wait for it… a tree. Also, there’s a tree in the new Jerusalem in Revelation, so of course Christmas trees are all about Jesus.

That’s not a joke, he was serious.

Delighted that he had saved Christmas, Kirk Cameron engaged in a 10-minute dance party that I can never un-see.

During the movie, though, a few minor characters referenced the slightly-better-known “war on Christmas.” Apparently, in an attempt to be inclusive and recognize that (gasp!) not everyone is a Christian and celebrates Christmas, some stores started telling their employees to say “Happy Holidays,” and that apparently constituted a war. If you believe some of the recent commentary, Christmas is now winning the war on it, but I’m not so sure that’s the right war, or that Christmas is winning the right one.

That war on Christmas, too, appears to be failing. On December 15, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly declared that the “War on Christmas” was over and pronounced Christmas the winner because many stores that had stopped using the word “Christmas” re-introduced it.

Five days before Christmas day, my grandmother posted a video with the caption “People are losing their minds over Trump’s lack of political correctness saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘God Bless You.'”

I commented with a link to a video on Slate.com, a compilation of a bunch of times President Obama has also said “Merry Christmas,” without causing people to “lose their minds.”

But as Kristen and I were driving home from celebrating Christmas with her family, I kept hearing people in my NPR podcasts say “Happy Holidays” and I got to thinking: What does it mean for people to wish us a Merry Christmas? What does it mean for a president or president-elect of the United States, or a department store employee, to wish us a merry Christmas?

What does Christmas mean? Obviously, Christmas means the birth of Jesus Christ, as Linus wisely tells us in A Charlie Brown Christmas… but what does the birth of Christ mean? I’m in a Christology class in seminary where we’re spending a whole term exploring what that means. But more specifically, what’s the relationship between Christmas and government, between Christmas and stores, between Christmas, and power and money?

Let’s start with power. What does the birth of Christ mean to governments, or leaders of governments?

Who was the top government leader to become aware of the birth of Jesus? Well, Herod. How did Herod think Christmas related to him? Matthew does not leave much to the imagination. Matthew 2:3 says “When King Herod heard [about the birth of Jesus], he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Frightened. Herod’s fear led to innocent children being murdered, as the fear of the powerful so often does.

But why was Herod afraid? Why did he have the babes of Bethlehem killed? What was he afraid of?

Maybe it had something to do with the song Jesus’ mom Mary wrote, with its lyrics about God bringing down the powerful from their thrones. Continue reading

Fact Check: Religious Wars: Only 123 of 1763?

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A friend shared the image above from a Facebook page called WHY?Outreach. I thought the statistic was interesting, so I followed the links they cited for their claim in the caption text.

In one of them, an article at CARM, which I despise and link under protest, Robin Schumacher makes the following claim, which is cited verbatim in the meme:

An interesting source of truth on the matter is Philip and Axelrod’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars, which chronicles some 1,763 wars that have been waged over the course of human history. Of those wars, the authors categorize 123 as being religious in nature,2 which is an astonishingly low 6.98% of all wars. However, when one subtracts out those waged in the name of Islam (66), the percentage is cut by more than half to 3.23%.

Footnote 2 is a broken link, but it’s supposed to take readers to a Google Books preview of a book called The Irrational Atheist in which author Vox Day adds up “all the wars that the authors of the Encyclopedia of Wars saw fit to categorize as religious wars for one reason or another.” Day includes several caveats, like some wars being lumped together, but is generally satisfied with his work. At the risk of another dead link like the one suffered by CARM, I include a link to the book preview here.

The claims that (1) there have been 1,763 wars in human history, and (2) only 123 of them are a result of religious causes, appear explicitly nowhere in Encyclopedia of Wars. Those numbers were tallied up by Vox Day using data from Encyclopedia of Wars. Sort of. Continue reading