Tag Archives: What’s the Least I Can Believe

online book group: finishing up What’s the Least I Can Believe…(chapters 19, 20, 21)

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(about the timing–so sorry! Apparently my inability to remember to push “attach” also extends to an inability to change posts from “draft” to “publish” sometimes. 😦 So…I’ve wrapped up three into one, since it’s the end of summer and time for us to finish this book and move into new things!)

The Holy Spirit

It’s true, mainline protestants often have a difficult time with the Holy Spirit. She’s the least nail-down-able of the three persons of the Trinity, the most elusive and mysterious, and sometimes the most uncomfortable. We’re pretty comfortable with God the Creator or Father or Mother. We’re even pretty comfortable with God the Son, both as an eternal being and as a human being. But when we get into this Spirit business, we start getting all shifty-eyed and nervous. Who is the Holy Spirit? What’s her role in the Trinity and in our lives? How come she’s not obvious like Jesus?

Well…the word “spirit” in Hebrew is ruach and it means breath, wind, or spirit. It’s a feminine noun, so use of “she” is perfectly appropriate. The Spirit can also be called the breath of God or the wind of God. In the first creation story (Genesis 1), a wind from God blows over the waters…in the second creation story (Genesis 2) and in Ezekiel 37 (for example) the breath of God is what turns a body from lifeless bones and dust into a living being–God’s breath is the animating force in creation. In the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit is seen as a dove. In the Pentecost story (Acts 2) the Spirit is visible in fire and audible in wind and in many languages. All of these are good images. The salient point here is that the Spirit of God is moving, active, within and between and around us, animating the creation and giving life. The Spirit leads (after Jesus’ baptism he’s led into the wilderness by the Spirit), empowers (Pentecost, other stories in Acts), and other such active verbs that are about our living a faithful life.

The Trinity is a complex doctrine that basically attempts to explain how we know God. The author gives an example of a person in different roles–mother, doctor, friend, etc. That analogy sort of works, and sort of doesn’t. The thing about the Trinity is that God is not wearing a mask or something, is not acting a part. All the aspects of God are present in all the other aspects. We may see one more prominently than another, but there is no separating the persons of the Trinity, and there’s nothing hiding behind a costume or a role. I like to use the image of AquaFresh toothpaste. Three colors, working together…all of them are toothpaste on their own, but they can never be separated into three separate streaks either. They’re distinct yet inseparable.

The Kingdom of God, as Jesus says, “is among you” or “here” or “near.” When we pray “Thy Kingdom come,” hopefully we mean it! We don’t mean “bring us to your kingdom when we die” we mean “bring your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.” This is not about life after death, it’s about making the kingdom of God visible even here, even now.

What did you think of the discussion of Isaiah 65 as an explanation of Kingdom-of-God things? The author says that because of the description of God’s kingdom in this chapter (combined, of course, with Jesus’ insistence that the kingdom of God is among us), health insurance, prenatal care, Medicare, social security, fair mortgage rates, affordable housing, affordable healthy food, minimum wage, employee benefits, child nutrition, education, peacemaking–these are kingdom issues and therefore need to be addressed by people who choose to live in the kingdom of God. What are your thoughts?

The most important words in this chapter are “for those with eyes to see….” It’s possible to look at the world and see despair. Or just everyday average work. Or the kingdom of God breaking through. Which do you choose to see?

Do we believe in getting saved?

Well…yes and no. Yes, in that God’s saving grace has been at work since before the dawn of time and will continue to be at work long after we cease to walk the earth. Yes, in that God’s grace transforms lives of individuals and communities, and that grace saves us. No, in the sense that we have to do anything to earn it or receive it. Grace is a gift given to all–our choice is not even to receive it (one of the tenets of Reformed theology is “Irresistable Grace”), but to recognize it. Again, for those with eyes to see, grace is all around and within us. We can choose not to see, which will change the way we respond but will not change our status as recipients of grace.

This is one of the major differences between our theological tradition as Presbyterians and other traditions, even those that seem awfully close to us (like Methodists!). What do you think of this understanding of grace and salvation?

The most important part:

Christianity is not a set of doctrines. It is not a list of 10 things we have to believe.

Christianity is a way of life. It is about following Jesus, listening for God’s call, and living responsively with the Holy Spirit.

We often talk about other religions being different because they demand more in terms of how life is lived–Judaism has rules, Islam has 5 times a day prayer and more rules, etc. They are a way of living, not just a set of beliefs. The thing is: that’s what Christianity is too. In the post-enlightenment period it has become a way of thinking, but that’s not what it really means to follow Jesus. To be a disciple of the risen Lord is to live life in a different way.

So…how will you live as a disciple of Jesus, in the kingdom of God, today? tomorrow? going forward?

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online book group: What’s the Least I Can Believe, chapters 17 and 18

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Chapter 17: Resurrection Hope

“Hope” is a word we toss around regularly, using it to mean anything from “want” to “wish” to “plan” to “idea”…but what is Hope? And how do we get it, and what do we Hope for?

Someone told me one time to stop using “hope” when what I meant was “wish” or “want” because I was devaluing our real hope–hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. While I still use the word hope a lot, I often think about this admonition. What do you think about it?

Our hope, as Christians, is in God, made known to us in Christ, and sealed by the Spirit. What exactly we hope for…probably varies person by person! Some hope for life after death, some hope for life before death, some hope for something vague and some for something specific. How do we know the difference between Hope and Wish?

Using the framework the author sets up in this chapter, Hope is something that saves our lives day by day, just like the box with the angel picture in Castaway. Hope gives us vision for the future, the will to go on, the ability to move forward into God’s kingdom. And our hope is IN Christ–wrapped up like a present, both fulfilled and yet springing eternal. We have hope because God is doing a new thing, with life springing out of death. The resurrection of Christ is our best symbol of hope–that death is not the end of God’s story, but that God’s own hope for the world is still taking shape.

A friend of mine asks on Facebook every day: “what is saving your life today?” She gets answers ranging from “sunshine” to “cheetos” to “baby giggles” to “church”…What might your answer be?

Chapter 18: Is the Church still relevant?

I confess that this is one of my least favorite questions. Part of me just wants to say “really? relevant? what IS relevant? Who gets to decide?” and the other part of me wants to shout “of course we are!” while also shouting “we’ve never been relevant, and that’s the point!”

So we’ll start with the question: Do you think the church is relevant? Why or why not? What does “relevant” mean to you?

The author’s assertion that “nothing mattered more” to Jesus than establishing the church is, at best, far-fetched. The gospel evidence, in my opinion, is that Jesus’ main issue was the Kingdom of God–its nearness and our ability to see and live in it. The kingdom of God and the church are not necessarily synonymous terms, however much we might like to think that. The teaching, healing, and feeding outweighs the “church” in Jesus’ ministry by about 150x. However, I will concede that Jesus was interested in gathering a community of followers who would then go out and participate in the kingdom of God. Community was an important aspect of Jesus’ life and teaching and healing, and not to be overlooked. In that sense, it’s true that church was his objective…but in the sense that we generally think of “church,” not so much.

What is a church?

It’s not a building.

It’s not just a group of people who come to a building on Sunday morning, or Sunday and Wednesday, or who run youth groups and confirmation classes and weddings and funerals and potlucks and talent shows.

The church is the Body of Christ, the incarnation of God in the here and now, the people who follow Jesus and live Kingdom lives.

This may or may not include talent shows.

It definitely DOES include participating in God’s mission, which Jesus’ reveals to include such activities as: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable, challenging unjust systems, changing the way things are done so that no one falls through the cracks, building diverse communities, caring for one another regardless of our socio-economic status/race/creed/gender/health, and living lives marked by Good News instead of the bad news our world is already so full of.

It is true that it is impossible to be a Christian without Church–in that, the author is right on. There are no hermits in the gospels, no one who professes faith but stays away from the community of disciples. The book of Acts shows us the first gatherings of the church as a community–from the moment of Pentecost the community was already not optional. Just as you can’t have one grit or one grain of bread or one molecule of juice, we are gathered together to be the body of Christ, and no one can do it alone.

What do you think “church” means? What does it mean to you? How has your Christian life been helped or hindered by the Christian community? How has the church helped (or not) you maintain hope?

online book group: What’s the Least I Can Believe, chapter 16

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Chapter 16: Jesus’ Death–what about suffering?

This is one of the hardest topics of life, let alone faith. The fact of suffering always seems so irreconcilable with the idea of God. If God is love, and God is all powerful, then why do such bad things happen? Why do people die young, get horrible debilitating diseases, suffer abuse and disaster and horror? Sometimes the answer is of human origin–we do things that bring consequences for ourselves and others. Sometimes the answer is more elusive–in the natural processes of the earth and the mystery of God’s creation.

What we do know is that God is found in the midst of suffering. Not that God causes suffering, not that God takes away suffering, not that God asks us to suffer in order to become more holy. But that God is THERE.

There’s a crucial distinction to be made here. We do NOT believe that suffering is redemptive. Suffering in and of itself does not redeem us, does not make us more holy, and is not required in order to be a better Christian. But we DO believe that God can redeem suffering–God comes alongside us and knows our every depth. In the crucifixion we see God suffering the depths of human pain and despair, and we know that there is hope on the other side even if we cannot see or feel it.

And this is where I have a disagreement with the author of this book. I would not say that the cross is the center of our faith–I would say that the empty tomb is at the center of our faith. We are Easter people, not Good Friday people. We do not live forever in the shadow of torture and death. Crucifixion is what we humans do to people who live every day most fully with God. Resurrection is what happens when God finishes the story.

What did you think of this chapter? Where have you experienced God’s presence in suffering? Have you ever experienced God redeeming a bad situation? How do you live as part of an Easter People?

online book group: What’s the Least I Can Believe, chapter 15

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Chapter 15: Jesus’ Example–What Brings Fulfillment?

In many ways this chapter is very similar to the one about priorities. The stories in particular are built on a familiar refrain. Working to death, to the detriment of relationships and family, in order to have the good life. Then “they realized that their possessions had not enriched them but enslaved them.”

The twist comes in that we make the change from simply recognizing our priorities to acting on them–the author makes the move to say that a rewarding life comes through serving others, as Jesus did. Jesus says he came not to serve but to be served, and asked us to do likewise.

So the question of this chapter is not what our priorities are (the first question), but what will help us have a meaningful and fulfilled experience of life. The examples (Millard Fuller, Jimmy Carter) are great illustrations of the more dramatic expressions of serving others–giving up wealth and grandeur and possessions, moving from the Oval Office to cleaning the bathrooms at church, founding and working for (respectively) Habitat for Humanity.

Most of us are not prepared to make such drastic changes in our lives (though I kinda love the way Jimmy Carter’s church has a rota where every family takes a turn as the janitor or the grass-mower once every other month!). If we are ready to do something like that, great. If not, the first step toward being the servants God calls us to be is to see every aspect of our lives through the lens of God’s mission. Jesus came to earth–the Word of God in flesh–to carry out God’s mission and vision. We, as the body of Christ, are also to work in that same mission. The fancy words for this are “to participate in the missio dei” (the mission of God).

How are you participating in God’s mission? How are you serving others in your job? How are you serving God in your relationships? How are you working for God’s kingdom when you are at home, when you are commuting, when you are at work, when you are at play?

The advice Dr. Green (from the TV show ER) gave his daughter rings true, and follows closely the teachings of Jesus. “Be generous. Be generous with your time. Be generous with your love. Be generous with your life. Be generous.”

How can you be generous with your time this week? with your love? with your life?

online book group: What’s the Least I Can Believe, chapter 14

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Chapter 14: Jesus’ Work…Where is God?

My favorite part of this chapter is the story at the end, where the woman couldn’t get into her car and the man who helped her had just been released from prison after serving time for stealing cars, and her response is to shout “Thank you, God, for sending me a professional!” I laughed out loud.

The topic of this chapter is less about “Where” God is than about “HOW” God works. Does God work by pulling puppet strings, manipulating the universe until it’s just-so, scurrying around behind the scenes making sure all the pieces fit the way God wants? Or does God work through the creation–or, more specifically, through people?

I think we all know this is not an either/or question. God is not limited in how God CAN work, only in how God CHOOSES to work. And since we would need to be God in order to understand the hows and whys of all that, part of me wants to just shout “it’s not all that black and white–it’s a mystery!” and leave it at that. But I know people have real questions about this. Where can we see God? Where is God when bad things happen? How does God work in a world that seems so filled with badness?

One of my constant refrains in children’s sermons is that we can see God wherever we look–in our neighbor, in our friends, in our parents, in our siblings (shocking though that may be!), even in ourselves. Whenever someone follows God’s will, you can see God at work in them. This is one of the reasons I don’t like to sing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise…in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” The idea that God is inaccessible to our eyes is foreign to incarnational theology. Sure, we don’t know the fullness of God, we can’t see whether God the Creator has a physical form or what it might look like, but we can certainly see God.

The idea of incarnational theology is simple: God became flesh, and lives/works/moves through flesh even now. We are temples of the Holy Spirit, made in the image of God, so we can be vehicles through which God works and is seen.

The chapter gives dozens of examples, from people volunteering after a disaster to people doing their jobs well with their focus on God. All the examples are great, and we could provide dozens more from our own congregation. But what I’m really interested in today is a two-fold question:

1. Where do you see God at work around you? In your daily life, where’s God?

2. How are you a vehicle for God’s work? How are you, in your daily life, continuing Jesus’ mission?