Hand on Bible

Texts for Fall/Summer 2014

(Note: text in parenthesis is the scheduled lectionary text)

Week Psalm OT NT Gospel
June 9(Trinity Sunday) 6-8 (8) (1:1-2:4a) Gen 1:1-2:4a, 4-12 (2 Cor 13:11-13) (Matt 28:16-20)
June 16(Proper 7) 86 (86:1-10, 16-17) Gen 13-21 (21:8-21) Romans 1:1-6:11 (6:1b-11) Matt 7:1 -10:39 (10:24-39)
June 23(Proper 8) 10-13 (13) Gen 22 (22:1-14) (Romans 6:12-23) Matt 10:40-11:15 (10:40-42)
June 30(Proper 9) 44-45 (45:10-17) Gen 23-24 (24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67) Romans 7(Romans 7:1-25a) Matt 11-12(11:16-19, 25-30)
July 7(Proper 10) (119:105-112) Gen 25 -26 (25:19-34) (Romans 8:1-11) Matt 13:1-23 (13:1-9, 18-23)
July 14(Proper 11) 139 (139:1-12, 23-24) Gen 27-28 (28:10-19a) (Romans 8:12-25) Matt 13:24-43 (13:24-30, 36-43)
July 21(Proper 12) 105 (105:1-11, 45b) Gen 29-30 (29:15-28) (Romans 8:26-39) Matt 13:31-58 (13:31-33, 41-52)
July 28(Proper 13) 17 (17:1-7, 15) Gen 31-33 (32:22-31) Romans 9(Romans 9:1-5) Matt 14:1-21 (14:13-21)
August 4(Proper 14) 105(105:1-6,16-22,45b) Gen 34-42 (37:1-4, 12-28) Romans 10(10:5-15) Matt 14:22-36 (14:22-33)
August 11(Proper 15) 133 (133) Gen 43-50 (45:1-15) Romans 11(11:1-2a, 29-32) Matt 15 (15:10-20, 21-28)
August 18(Proper 16) (124) Exodus 1-2 (1:8-2:10) (Romans 12:1-8) Matthew 16:1-20 (16:13-20)
August 25(Proper 17) 105 (105:1-6, 23-26, 45b) Exodus 3-11 (3:1-15) (Romans 12:9-21) (Matt 16:21-28)
September 1(Proper 18) 149 (149) Exodus 12-13 (12:1-14) Romans 13(13:8-14) Matt 17:1-18:20 (18:15-20)
September 8(Proper 19) 114 (114) Exodus 14-15 (14:19-31) Romans 14-16(14:1-12) Matt 17-18 (18:21-35)
September 15(Proper 20) 105 (105:1-6, 37-45) Exodus 16 (16:2-15) Philippians 1(1:21-30) Matt 19-20 (20:1-16)
September 22(Proper 21) 78 (78:1-4, 12-16) Exodus 17-19 (17:1-7) Philippians 2(2:1-13) Matt 21:1-32 (21:23-32)
September 29(Proper 22) 18-19 (19) Exodus 20-26 (20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20) Philippians 3(3:4b-14) (Matt 21:33-46)
October 6(Proper 23) 106 (106:1-6, 19-23) Exodus 27-32 (32:1-14) Philippians 4(4:1-9) (Matt 22:1-14)
October 13(Proper 24) 99 (99) Exodus 33 (33:12-23) I Thess 1(1:1-10) Matt 22:15-33 (22:15-22)
October 20(Proper 25) 90 (90:1-6, 13-17) Exodus 34-40 (34:1-12) (I Thess 2:1-8) (Matt 22:34-46)
October 27(Proper 26) 107 (107:1-7, 33-37) Joshua 1-12 (3:7-17) I Thess 2:9-20(2:9-13) Matt 23-24 (23:1-12)
November 3(Proper 27) 78 (78:1-7) Joshua 13-24 (24:1-3a, 14-25) I Thess 3-4(4:13-18) (Matt 25:1-13)
November 10(Proper 28) 123 (123) (Judges 4:1-7) I Thess 5(5:1-11) (Matt 25:14-30)
November 17(Reign of Christ) 100 (100) (Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24) (Eph 1:15-23) Matt 25:31-28:20 (25:31-46)

Hobby Lobby: Some Initial Notes

Just a few notes I have made as I have worked through the opinion tonight. In short, I think this is a big swing-and-miss for the Court. I am with Ginsburg’s dissent. Here’s why:

1. On Religious Liberty and Corporations. The Court disagrees with the Third Circuit’s observation that corporations don’t exercise religion because they don’t “pray, worship, observe sacraments, or take other religiously motivated actions…” 573 U.S. ___, slip op. at 18 (quoting 724 F.3d at 385). It dismisses the observation by asserting that corporations do nothing apart from the people that run them. But that only begs the question – what, exactly, is it that a corporation can do that is itself religious?  It can exercise rights of speech and economic rights, but in what sense can we say that a corporation can “exercise” religion at all? This is the troubling issue at the heart of the opinion.

2. On the Sincerity of Hobby Lobby. “…the Hahns and Greens have a sincere religious belief that life begins at conception. They therefore object on religious grounds to providing health insurance that covers methods of birth control that…may result in the destruction of an embryo.” (my emphasis) Slip op. at 32. I was disappointed that the government conceded the facts on this point so readily. It is far from clear that at least two of the birth control methods at issue were abortifacients. And it is hard to be “sincere” about a fact which one knows cannot be proven as true.

But my bigger problem here is that there is no effort to distinguish the sincerity of (a) the belief that life begins at conception (which is well and good enough) and the sincerity of (b) the objection “to providing health insurance that covers” possibly abortifacient birth control. Just because you sincerely believe in (a) doesn’t mean you pass the sincerity test for (b). Making dangerous implements available to people for responsible use (i.e., guns, cars, other drugs, etc.) doesn’t create a moral hazard just because they might be abused or misused for other purposes. And the fact that Hobby Lobby has admitted before the Court that it extended coverage for some of these methods of birth control before the ACA took effect would seemingly make it impossible for Hobby Lobby to establish that it is in the least bit sincere about (b) as a deeply held religious belief.

The problem, then, is that Hobby Lobby – to the extent it can hold a religious conviction at all – doesn’t and can’t possibly believe that that it is immoral to pay for insurance that might or might not be used to purchase a method of contraception that probably isn’t abortifacient, and which in turn might or might not cause a very early-term pregnancy to abort. Heck, they probably take bigger risks that someone will get killed when they send an employee to run an errand to another store across town.

I wish the government had argued what everyone already knows is the truth: this is a politically motivated move to discredit the ACA as a whole by asserting a trumped-up religious belief that buying insurance for an employee is somehow immoral.

(To be clear, my problem is with whether the facts support the sincerity of the stated belief, not whether it is objectively reasonable – the issue which the Court focuses on pp. 36-38.)

3. On Whether the ACA is the Least Restrictive Means to Accomplish the End. Here, Angels begin to perform brilliant versions of swan lake on the heads of pins. The Government, the Court says, can “assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue…” Slip op. at 41. It is hard for me to imagine how the alternative method suggested by the Court is in any way less morally reprehensible or attenuated than the first scenario.

4. On the “Limited” Nature of the Holding. “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests…” Slip op. at 46. Yeah. And good luck when that one comes along in a few months, guys.* You are going to find it is a nightmare trying to sort out where the ACA does and does not have a compelling interest. Ginsburg will get to this one later.

5. Ginsburg Dissent: “…commercial enterprises…can [now] opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Slip op. at 1. Exactly. Except she forgot to mention that the standard for sincerity is now ridiculously easy to satisfy (see # 2 above).

6. Ginsburg: “…the amendment in no way suggests that Congress meant to expand the class of entities qualified to mount religious accommodation claims…” Slip op. at 10.

7. Ginsburg: “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations.” Slip op. at 16.

8. Interesting from Ginsburg: “RFRA…distinguishes between ‘factual allegations that…beliefs are sincere’…and the ‘legal conclusion…that religious exercise substantially burdened.'” Slip op. at 22. In other words, the fact that you are sincere about your belief does not itself yield the legal result that are sufficiently burdened to justify applying the Act.

9. Ginsburg: “To recapitulate, the mandated…coverage enables women to avoid health problems unintended pregnancies may visit on them and their children. [citation omitted]. The coerage helps safeguard the health of women for whom pregnancy may be hazardous… [citation omitted]. And the mandate secures benefits wholly unrelated to pregnancy, preventing certain cancers, menstrual disorders, and pelvic pain.” Slip op. at 24.

10. And this, from Ginsburg: “…approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation [could violate] the “very risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.” Slip op. at 34. In other words, once the Court decides to start calling balls and strikes as to which mandates are applicable and which aren’t, they risk running afoul of the First Amendment. (And it will be interesting to see what happens when Muslims begin to make similar claims).

__________________

*Not being sexist. Tellingly, none of the women on the Court went with this one.

Ceremonial Knife

Abraham, Isaac, and Violence-Based Religion

Ceremonial KnifeToday, a brief reflection on one of today’s lectionary texts (Genesis 22):

Imagine that you are a priest in an ancient temple that ascribes to a one God/creator God theology. Imagine that your world is filled with other, pagan religious temples that, unlike your own faith, advocate the practice of human sacrifice. And imagine that – one day – someone comes up to you and asks: “Why doesn’t your faith practice human sacrifice? Don’t you know that the gods demand it?”

You know that your own faith shares a lot of stories with the other, pagan religions. There are all kinds of stories about humanity’s ancestors-in-faith that have been passed along orally from generation to generation. And you know that some of those stories have to do with a very ancient, very important Father who was named Abraham.

So, in response to that question about human sacrifice, you tell one of the stories of Abraham and his equally-well-known son, Isaac. This story begins with a god who demands a sacrifice, much like the pagan gods do (or so people are told). But the story ends with a twist. Instead of requiring Abraham to go through with the sacrifice, God commands him to stop and instead offer an animal sacrifice.

If you were to tell this story well, as it is told in the Bible, your story will contain a subtle shift in the way you use the name(s) of God. You start by regularly using a name for God that is sometimes more directly related to the pagan gods, but by the end of the story you are using a different name – one that is often associated with a different kind of God, perhaps one that is more concerned with justice and peace than with being appeased by sacrifice.

It turns out, you explain at the end of the story, that – even though God may have tested the loyalty of those in the past by asking for human sacrifice – this is not something that God truly desires. In reality, God does not require human blood as a show of loyalty or appeasement.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy!” the angel says at the end of the story.

Does this warning echo no further than the altar where Isaac was to be offered? Or is it intended to be heard through the centuries? Are we to understand that the creator/God is never one to require appeasement by violence? And if it is true that appeasement-by-violence is simply not the way of God, how might it change the way we think of the work of Jesus on the cross?

“All People” – A Reflection on Pentecost

Tomorrow, many churches – including mine – will be celebrating Pentecost, a day that I think is much too underrated/under celebrated within the Western church. To get a picture of why Pentecost is important, it helps to step back and look at the overall flow of the Christian calendar. It looks something like this:

Advent -> Christmas -> Lent -> Good Friday -> Easter -> Ascension Sunday -> Pentecost

Each of these observances point to an important marker in the development of the Christian faith. Advent begins with a longing for the presence of God among us. This leads to Christmas, in which the incarnation of God is observed, and then progressively “down” into Lent and Good Friday, where God suffers and dies among us.

At the point of Good Friday, we can say that God has fully entered into our humanity, having been born, having lived among us, and having died as a human being. He has, we can say, followed a path of descent – the way of suffering, death and decay – one which all of us know all too well.

But now the Christian story turns upwards, into an ascending pattern. That is to say, the story arc of Jesus ceases to be a story of descent and instead takes the shape of a redemptive arc. Unlike the rest of us, Jesus rises from the dead. He then ascends into heaven. But – even then – “ascension” doesn’t really complete the story.

The early Christian writings emphasize that, in ascending or “returning” to God, Jesus also became an integral part of the cosmos. Paul, for example, uses language that describes Jesus as in all things and through all things.

In other words, Jesus not only ascends, he transcends.

And it is only on Pentecost that the transcendence of Jesus is completed.

This aspect of the Christian faith is important because it marks the point in which the “story” of Advent/Christmas/Good Friday/Easter is passed on to us. Having paid us a short visit, Jesus does not, as he says in the Gospel of John, abandon us as orphans. Instead, he returns to us in the transcendent form of spirit.

This spirit, in turn, makes it possible for Jesus to be accessible to all people at all times.

On Pentecost Sunday, we remember this sermon that was preached by Peter. And in his sermon, Peter quotes from this passage that was written by a prophet named Joel. Here is what Peter says:

[T]his is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Notice the universal nature of the language in this poetry that Peter recites. God will pour out Holy spirit on all people. High and low. Male and female. Races and nations of all types.

Pentecost is important, because without it, we might end up concluding that – although the story of Jesus is very inspiring, and perhaps hopeful – there is nothing in the here and now for us, or for the rest of humanity.

I am always hesitant to talk about the problem of God in terms of accessibility. Some people like to use the theological language of “gulfs” and “gaps” and “separation.” But I don’t like that language.

God’s spirit is here and now among you, and me, and all people. That spirit simply needs to be recognized and embraced. As Paul would put it in his sermon to the philosophers in Athens, “He is not far from each of us.” Then, quoting a Greek poet, he says: “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

So I hope you will join me in the celebration of Pentecost tomorrow – recognizing the transcendent Christ and the nearness of the Spirit of God to all people.

On Spiritual Sight

The ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, on display at the Smithsonian (Photo by Chris Evans)

I had a chance today to speak at the weekly gathering of my faith community about the healing of a blind man in John 9. I talked about how some of the themes from The Wizard of Oz intersect with this story in interesting ways.

The Wizard of Oz is a story about Dorothy waking up – but not simply from an injury that she incurs as a result of a Kansas cyclone. She wakes up to the fact that her seemingly bland existence is filled with more than she originally believed. She becomes aware of the miracle of her own life and of the lives around her.

But The Wizard of Oz is also a story about a wizard who isn’t really a wizard. He is just a con man who relies on an elaborate system of steam and projectors and mirrors to create the illusion of power. He hides behind a curtain, hoping that he will never be found out.

This is also the story of John 9: a man who is blind in more ways than one comes to see the world differently, while a group of people trying to cling to the illusion of their own power refuse to see the same thing.

What does the blind man see? The same thing the writer of the story wants you to see: that God is present in Jesus making a new creation. This is the theme that drives the Gospel of John from the very first verse, which echos the theme of creation from Genesis 1. In John, Jesus’ miracles are signs that point to the work of God – present in the world – renewing and remaking everything that is fallen.

But the power brokers in this man’s community can’t tolerate this. They depend on a purity system, which labels some things as “holy” and some things as “impure” as a means of holding onto power. Jesus’ miracle disrupts their system because it dares to treat someone thought to be “sinful” (because he is blind) as clean and pure, and because he doesn’t need their blessing to do it.

Purity systems rely on the leaders’ assignment of shame and honor as a means of keeping people in line. The leaders will claim that they are merely assigning shame and honor as God would have them. But they aren’t. That is the illusion. That is also why the man’s parents – when they meet with the leaders – are afraid to say anything in their son’s support. But Jesus is creating shamelessness everywhere he goes – every time they turn around. (By the way, if you have been following the news this week, you have witnessed first hand the power of a purity/shaming system – which can cause large institutions to reverse their policies within a matter of hours).

The people who run the purity/shaming system can’t admit that God is working outside their system. So they institute a policy of denial. They keep calling meeting after meeting, hoping that they eventually get an outcome that supports their claim. They want to create an echo chamber where they can speak lies to each other and pretend those lies are true. (This, by the way, never happens in our day). They are going to refuse to see the thing that is perfectly obvious: God is here, at work, and not particularly concerned about who does and doesn’t fit in their purity systems.

Which brings us to the irony that is presented at the end of the story: the blind see and those who claim to see are blind. For those who refuse to see, “their sin remains.” It was true then. It is still true today.

In John, sin is not a category of moral behavior. It is a refusal to recognize and participate in something that God is doing. Those who “sin” and are therefore subjecting themsevles to judgment, are the ones who refuse to get on the Love Train.

Peace.

Dance of Discernment, Part 2

In the book of Acts there is this story about a group of early Christian leaders. They came together to discuss some really important issues that had to do with the way non-Jewish Christians ought to behave. And after they finished their deliberations they wrote a letter.

There is a line in this letter that stands out to me every time I read it, because it turns on its head everything that I/we think we know about “discerning” God’s will.

Here is the letter:

The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that certain persons who have gone out from us, though with no instructions from us, have said things to disturb you and have unsettled your minds, we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For…

(Get ready. Here it comes.)

...it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…

Hold on. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit?

Not “the Holy Spirit told us”? Or “it was revealed to us that we should…”? Or “it is God’s will that”?

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit? What does that mean?

And not just to the Holy Spirit. It says it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.

So this counsel wasn’t just a group of people that were trying to adjust their divine antennas so they could receive the proper signal from a cosmic dictator. They were themselves participants in the decision about what would go into the letter.

This wasn’t a one-way process. It was much more than that. It was interactive. It was participative.

Human beings and this Spirit of God were interacting, and together they arrived at a course of action.

And when they made their decision, it wasn’t “this is the one and only way that things ought to and have to be.” It was simply that their solution seemed good.

Credit: Matt @ PEK (Wikimedia Commons)

The implications of this are staggering. In this new world where the Holy Spirit has broken out, there seems to be space for us to have a say, to play a role, in the process by which the world is unfolding. We are not merely drones implementing the will of God. We are co-creators that are working with God in bringing about that world. Discernment is about conversation.

That is my concept of the divine dance in action. To discern the Spirit of God we do not come in simply ready to respond to orders. We come in to ask, to plead, to give and take and – in the end – we are not looking for that one answer that is absolutely certain. We are just searching for that thing that seems right both in our spirits and in God’s spirit.

So the question is not “What is God’s plan for my life?” It is, “Does this plan seem good to me and to God’s spirit.”

Not: “Is this church the place I am supposed to be?” But: “Does this seem like the a good place for me when I am able to reflect on it in the presence of the Holy?”

Not: “What is God’s will for my next job?” But: “When I am in prayer, do these career choices seem like the right path?”

You are not necessarily waiting for a lightning bolt to strike. Remember, we can know when the Holy Spirit is present not only by visions and dramatic revelations, but also when we are in a place that produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control.  When you are guided by those experiences in making decisions, you are making a decision that seems good to you and to the Holy Spirit.

Prior Posts:

Review: Age of the Spirit

On “Spirit”

On “Holy Spirit”

– On the Two Paths to the Spirit

Dance of Discernment, Part 1

Ecclesiastes for Lent

First, full disclosure.

I used to attack Lent with a lot of enthusiasm. The 40 day fast from some important food or practice. The call to personal repentance. The anticipation of Holy Week. When it was new, I found it to be a really helpful discipline.

But over the years, I have become less and less enamored with Lent. Looking back, I can see that, like most American Christians, I had been trained to be a champion of moral self-flagellation, never passing up on an opportunity to remind myself about how I was doing everything wrong. Eventually, Lent became little more than a chance to turn up the heat on a year-round process. It was getting toxic.

I also have a touch of seasonal affective disorder, which means that during the darker and colder months of Winter I am already in a bit of an emotional and spiritual downward cycle. Lent always felt like it was piling on. And sometimes, it was a bit too much.

So at some point, I decided to go a little gentler on myself during Lent. It isn’t that I don’t observe it at all, but I’m not quite as aggressive in my approach to its disciplines as I used to be. I don’t have a formal “fast,” but I do try to pray and read and find other ways to observe the season on a daily basis.

This Season, my Lenten exercise is going to be public. I am going to work my way through Ecclesiastes, and reflect on it – more as devotional than academic study. My intention is to approach it more spontaneously (like lectio divina) than what you normally see in most of my posts. The plan is to get through the book by the start of Holy Week.

If you want to follow along, or join in, just Like the Theoprudence Facebook page or follow me on Twitter (@matteritchie). Hope to see you there.

I may also include some highlights in blog posts from time-to-time.

I’m thinking about using the hashtag #ecclentiastes. What do you think?

Daily Prayer for Lent

Daily Prayer for Lent
Credit: Alexandre Eggert/Gabriela Schmidt (creative commons 2.0)

I’m excited to announce a  new resources that I am adding, in addition to the Extended Lectionary. There are now two files that can be used to lead you through daily prayer during the lent season.

Both of the files are structured around the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer. However, I have adapted the prayers that are contained within the Office, together with some of the content, to create a more updated, fresh tone, with a heavy emphasis on contemplative practices and social justice.

If you are unfamiliar with the Daily Office, you should first download the guided prayer for Lent, which contains some preliminary material and several sidebars to help you understand the seven movements that are involved in the Daily Office. Once you are comfortable with the process, a more condensed and easily managed document is available. You should also download the condensed document if you are already comfortable praying the offices.

If you get a chance to use these documents, let me know. I would be interested in constructive feedback.

Dance of Discernment, Part 1

Spiritual discernment danceIn my original post on Phyllis Tickle’s The Age of the Spirit, I suggested that we ought to view the process of discernment of God’s spirit as a dance.  In the next two posts, I am going to explain what I mean by that in a little more detail.

(If you are interested in reading all of the posts in this series, you can also read about my concepts of spirit, Holy Spirit, and the relationship between the contemplative and the charismatic. Also, if you have been reading this blog for more than a year, you will probably recognize some themes I have already explored in this post. All I am doing here is recasting them in the context of Age of the Spirit.)

To get at my idea about dancing, lets talk about three things: glasses, billiard balls, and surprises.

About fifteen years ago, I decided to get a new pair of glasses. I had been going without glasses for several years, and my eyesight had deteriorated more than I imagined. I didn’t even realize it, but I had begun to make all kinds of false assumptions about what things looked like (trees, signs, etc.) because I couldn’t see them clearly. My imagination was filling in the gaps. When I put on my new lenses for the first time, I was amazed. Suddenly, the world around me changed. I noticed the shapes of fonts on faraway signs. I could make out the details of leaves in the trees above me. The words and pictures in the books I read seemed sharper and more vibrant.

Sometimes, when we have difficulty seeing things, we don’t need to be squinting and imagining what we might see in order to perceive the world correctly. We need to find a new pair of glasses.

This can also be a problem with the assumptions that we make  about God. We take on a worldview that we get from our parents or churches  – about who God is, or about how God acts – and that worldview forces us to make certain assumptions about the world around us. But if we change that worldview – by trying on a new set of lenses, so to speak – we may discover that some of the questions that we were previously asking no longer make any sense.

Now, for some examples. Here are four statements that I occasionally hear people ask about their relationship with God:

  • “I’m just trying to decide if this [church/small group/ministry/school] is where I’m supposed to be.”
  • “I don’t know if [my current boyfriend/girlfriend] is the person God intended for me.”
  • “After I found my new job, I came to see that getting laid off from the old job was part of God’s plan for me.”
  • “I think God wants me to major in business instead of art.”

All of these statements arise out of one particular set of lenses – one particular worldview. This worldview assumes that God has mapped out every detail of our lives, and that it is our role to determine what God has already determined should happen. It is as if God has been walking around a billiard table, taking a close, hard look at the arrangement of the balls on the table. And now God has decided how things should work – he has made his “shot” – and it is our job, as the balls on the table, to behave correctly. We ought to do what God determined ahead of time we should do.

However, as anyone who has ever attempted it will tell you, this can be a very difficult and stressful task. I have never known anyone who claimed to be attempting to determine what God wanted them to do in a particular circumstance where they were absolutely certain about it. And I have often noticed that, after people make a decision based on their beliefs about God’s will, they end up being disappointed with the result.

Perhaps, one of the reasons these situations so often disappoint is because we come into them making the wrong set of assumptions about how God creates our world and how God relates to us.

Which brings me to the idea of surprises.

When I’m talking about surprises here, I’m talking about good surprises. Not that puddle of oil you found under your car last week. Or that number at the bottom of your most recent electric bill. I’m talking about the time your spouse gave you something for Christmas that you never even imagined you wanted, but that was the perfect gift. Or that time your four year-old made a spontaneous crayon drawing of she and you holding hands. Or that time you were driving home late one afternoon, and the dusk suddenly lit up in 100 different shades of pink and orange.

Being surprised in this way is an essential part of our existence. It is part of what makes life joyful. Take away the all of the unexpected – create a world in which we know exactly what will happen and when it will happen today, and tomorrow, and the next day – and nothing becomes interesting, engaging, or even beautiful any longer. We are halfway to hell.

What kind of God would create a universe like that?

If the universe were nothing more than a completely predictable series of events, it becomes the equivalent of the child who puts on a finger puppet show for herself. When the show is nothing but what she expects, she eventually becomes bored with it and puts it away. It is impossible for her to love her show – or the puppets – in any meaningful way, because they doing nothing other than what she makes them do.

But there is at least one other set of lenses – another way of looking at the universe – that doesn’t require it to be an cosmic puppet show, with each of us serving as little more than paper dancing at the end of divine hands. This set of lenses has been called open theism because it posits that God created a universe full of possibilities ( one that is “open”) rather than empty of them (“closed”). An open universe can be surprising, even to God, because its complexities allow it to behave in ways that are unexpected (in other words, it has what scientists, theologians, and philosophers sometimes call emergent properties).

So when God enters into our lives and lives along side us, it is not simply a matter of God making a decision about one and only one thing that we ought to be doing, and then hoping that we are able to figure it out. Instead, God is sometimes watching us, waiting to see what decisions we make – God wants to see what we become. There are some decisions/paths that are wasteful or destructive or unwise, and we are warned about those in scripture. But there are hundreds of other possibilities that are open to us – ones that are beautiful and good and right. Which path we take – and how we go about it – that is the miracle of life, the wonder of creation.

But it is also not as if we are doing it alone. God is still there beside us – the Spirit living within us. What we decide and do is also connected to God’s identity and God’s creative work. We are partners with God in this effort.

In one of his books, C.S. Lewis described marriage as something like this: “It is more like a dance than a drill.”

I think the same is true of our relationship with God.

So when are discerning the Spirit with the assumption that it is all one-sided, that God is going to do all of the instructing, and we are just trying to figure out what God wants – when we think that what we want and what we find to be “good” has nothing do to with it – we may be starting out on a false direction.

What if, instead, we saw the process of discernment as a dance in which God leads, but in which our reactions and responses were equally important? Or what if God was more like a musician playing a piano or guitar, and it was our job to find our own, unique way to dance to the music?

When we begin to see discernment through those lenses, I think we are much closer to doing it well.

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A FOOTNOTE ON TWO OBJECTIONS TO OPEN THEISM:

If you don’t have any objections to open theism, there is no reason to read further. However, if you have some questions about it, I am going to briefly address two common complaints below.

First, some people object to open theism because it challenges God’s omniscience – that is, the belief in classical theology that God “knows all.” But in actuality, it gives God even more credit. According to open theism, God sees the potential for not only one future but for all possible futures. The surprise and beauty comes from experiencing the universe that actually evolves/develops out of those possibilities.

Some also object to open theism because it makes the future of the universe uncertain. How can God redeem people or the universe, some argue, if he doesn’t know how it is going to happen? But open theism does not contend that God has no control over the universe. God can, if God chooses, take control of any aspect of it at any time. So God can make a promise about something that God will do, and be confident that the promise can be fulfilled. Exactly how it is fulfilled, however, is in part up to us and how we respond to God. I don’t have the time to go into it at this point, but that is more or less how things work in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament.

You can read much more (and much more eloquent words) about open theism in Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible.

do justice. love kindness. live prudently.