On Bricks and Sermons

I’ve always been into Legos. Ever since I can remember, I loved getting Lego sets for my birthday and Christmas. I had so much fun following the directions and constructing a new toy to play with. My imagination ran wild with all the adventures I could have with it. But, inevitably, I would deconstruct whatever I built and throw the pieces into a large bin with all the other pieces I’d accumulated.

The vast majority of my time spent with Legos consisted of creating new projects. Whether it was a space ship (I’d say this was 90% of what I built), a house, or a landscape, I was building something new. And this was the process I always went through – and still go through – when building something new:

  1. Dig through my entire Lego collection, setting aside every single piece I might want to use
  2. Build whatever I wanted from the pieces I had set aside
  3. Put the unused pieces in with the rest of my collection.

On any given project, no matter how large or small, I would only end up using – at most – 30% of all the pieces I originally set aside. When collecting those pieces, my imagination would go crazy with all the ideas I had… “I could use this piece if I wanted to make a kitchen-type room,” “What about this piece? Yeah, it could be a wing or something…,” “Every spaceship needs a grate over the mechanical segments,” and so-on.  In the end, however, the majority of my ideas would be scrapped.

I remember one time I was building a single-seater space ship (of course). I spent about an hour or so collecting all the parts I thought I could use. I probably had around 500 pieces in all by the end of it. My original idea kept changing, and the next hour was used for building exactly what I wanted. In fact, every time I think back to that project, I wish I wouldn’t have torn it apart because the set turned out perfectly.

All-in-all, it was only comprised of 100 pieces.  But man…. I loved that ship. It was just right!

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Being trained in ministry is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that my focus for being a pastor is more narrow, allowing me to better determine how to best used my time and energy in serving others. It also helped me in structuring sermons (probably my most consistent form of ministering to people).

But ministry training is also a curse. Probably the worst thing for a preacher to go through is listening to another preacher, because we have been trained in message preparation; Biblical hermeneutics, public speaking, presentation structure, ancient culture and language, and Christian theology. To be perfectly frank, one of my greatest struggles is attending other churches. It’s almost inevitable that something the preacher/speaker says is going to put me off; an anachronism, proof-texting, misappropriation of a text, exegetical fallacies, or something as silly as “the gain on his mic is set way too high.”  All of that is stuff I can look past, to a point, but I’ve noticed a larger issue that is happening in a lot of churches….

I typically develop a message the same way that I build with Legos: I start with a general idea, and then gather up all the pieces that I feel fit the best. I’ll jot down a story idea, point to other parts of the Bible, maybe a piece of philosophy or language, add in some backstory, a rabbit trail or two if it doesn’t distract from the message, and anything else that pops in my head.  Once that’s done, I strip everything down to what’s necessary to convey the truth of that Sunday’s Scripture reading.  Overall, I’d say that my weekly sermon is about 30% of what I’ve played with during preparation.

I can only imagine what my sermons would be like if I tried to add every “great idea” I had in preparation. I would have so many anecdotes, fluff information, and side-notes that the message would be way too long and convoluted, and ultimately people would leave thinking, “wait… what was the message?”  That’s what I see happening in a lot of churches, and even in people’s personal lives.

I’m not sure where it comes from, but there’s a growing atmosphere that consists of “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are nice; but what else?” Perhaps we’ve stumbled into it, or maybe it’s a response to people who don’t think the Gospel is dense enough, or it could be that we keep trying to outdo ourselves in our presentation. Whatever it is, I rarely meet people (outside of my local community, because our pastors are pretty awesome) who confront the Word on a regular basis. They confront exciting, emotional music; they watch a well-produced movie or a sketch at church; but the Word must have been left in the Pastor’s study.

It’s sad to admit that when I read a ‘Christian’ book, watch a Christian movie, or see a televangelist, I resign myself to the fact that I’m not going to encounter the Word; I’m going to encounter an abstract painting – just enough color and texture to be interesting, but contorted to the point of being indistinguishable.

There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with the Gospel, because it’s been buried beneath a lot of “great ideas.” We dress it up, do some color correction, add cool effects, inject a bunch of memes to make it ‘relevant,’ and before too long Christ is left on the periphery of the real focus: a variety show.

Now, I’m not shouting “Heresy!” toward preachers, teachers, or speakers. If people are coming to know the Lord, I’m not going to heavily discount the work of a lot of churches out there. My point is this: Is the forgiveness of sins enough for us?  Is sanctification satisfying? Is resurrection, and life eternal, worthy of reflection?

Or do we even know what those mean anymore?

Maybe we threw them back into the bin, in favor of something else we want the Gospel to be.

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On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

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Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.