Friday, November 2, 2012

God's Saying the Same Old Thing?

I missed the church service when the notice for an upcoming course was distributed, but a neighbor -- whom I love to bits -- kindly brought it over. She and her husband, in their seventh and eighth decades of life, have watched sadly as the village church declines. They are devout and long to see the church as it once was. They long to see young people flocking back to the church as they have always known it. They pray. They believe.

Looking at the notice, I could tell this course would come from a very different perspective than mine. But aren't I striving for Equipoise here?  So I decided I would go just to listen, to see what these other folks are really saying. "Don't bother," said Dear Husband, "I can tell you already, from the notice, what it's about. You just need to decode it." Here's the meeting notice:
The Listening to God Course Nov 1st, 8th, 15th, and 22nd -- 7:30 p.m. 
Have you ever wondered what people mean when they say "I heard God say" or "I felt God told me"? If so then you may be interested in attending a course set over 4 weeks. This is one of a number of courses available and offered to support the renewing of the Christian church in this country. It is founded on the teaching of Jesus, that God loves, accepts and forgives us when we ask in His name. This country is facing many developing problems. We believe that God is calling out to us in UK to return to him, and that the Holy Spirit is moving amongst the people in this land.The "Listening to God course" covers the following:
  • We have a God who speaks. Are we listening?
  • How does God Speak?
  • What hinders or helps our ability to listen? 
  • What happens next? 
  • Speaking out what God has said.
The course runs over 4 weekday eveinings and is delivered in an informal style with a mix of worship, teaching, story, discussion and prayer. It is interactive in a gentle and inclusive way. It is led and guided by the Holy Sprit, and there is time set apart to know His presence. 
Revd Keith Powell is Rector in Othery, is the Diocesan renewal advisor and has a prophetic, healing, and teaching ministry. Revd Nigel Rawlinson is a doctor, in self-supporting minstry and has a teaching, healing and evangelistic ministry. Both are members of the Bath and Wells Diocesan Renewal Group, committed to the encouragement of others in the Power of the Spirit and to the Glory of God. This course is open to everyone from any parish and any denomination. For more information please call...

DH predicted the meeting would be a charismatic thing, calling us to renew charismatic practices -- songs out of a certain hymn book, hands raised in praise during the singing, prayers made up on the spot, maybe a little speaking in tongues, righteous MMMmmmmm'ing and trembling hands thrown in, and pews thrown out for good measure.

Armed with these and other prejudices, we set out for the meeting. As it turned out, there was a bit of righteous Mmmm'ing, especially when prayers called on renewal of this troubled nation by the Holy Spirit. But by and large, the session was not wildly charismatic. The hymns were unfamiliar to me but had the standard lyrics... "My God's Great and He's more powerful than all those others..."

One thing that didn't sink in beforehand was that the presenters were the diocesan experts on church renewal. These are the guys who are supposed to reboot the church--handle the "Wicked Problem" of a dying church-- the problem my dear neighbor prays so much about; a problem I care a lot about, think a lot about, and am pretty sure requires different thinking, innovation, and the application of all human gifts -- adding to ancient knowledge and wisdom the latest discoveries and tools emerging from science, psychology, and economics, in hopes of gaining insight into the new forces, ideas, and cultural and social phenomena that touch our lives -- for better and for worse -- in 2012.

But we definitely didn't get anything different. It was the same, tired old evangelical message, expressed in the same old religionspeak. They basically just want to get people back to the Church-centered Church, circa 1900, I would guess. A large part of the evening consisted of the two Anglican priests' testimonies on how God had spoken to them.

Not too astonishingly, the Good Lord had told one or the other of them--very much to their surprise and inconvenience--that they should confess Jesus was their saviour, go to church, go to a home group, host a home group, become a church warden, come forward for an altar call, quit their job, leave their farm, take medical odd-jobs to pay the bills if necessary, become Anglican priests, and tell people the Good News.

They did start their preaching at the beginning of the Bible (as Rob Bell recommends) -- but only to point out that "God Speaks" numerous times in the first 22 verses of the Bible--proof that we have a God who speaks! They preached that there are three significant voices in our heads -- God's, our own, and the Devil's. But fortunately, we're given the gift of discernment, they said.

Rev Keith shared a poem about Adam and Eve blaming one another and discounting the voice of God. For him, this was not one of several "creation myths" in the Bible. This was the way it really is. Adam, Eve, the Devil... who is still at work in the world, subtle and sneaky. Mmmmmmmmm. (We were quite surprised to hear that there could actually be such a crafty devil left in the universe, given that the praise hymns we sang claimed an all-powerful God and King of Glory.)

At one point Rev Keith said "God calls us to be ourselves ... as we are... as he finds us." But the only examples that they gave of God's calling were their own. Evidently, Keith and Nigel have discerned that the way God speaks is by planting an idea in your head that you should pursue churchy things. Maybe they were just delivering the message that they thought the mostly-elderly audience of mostly evangelicals would understand and find inspiring. I do think my neighbor would have liked it. The concept of God's speaking to humans in the familiar way is comfortably straightforward to these priests -- and probably the other members of the audience. You just need to have a heart-to-heart conversation with God, Keith advised.

But as one who cannot claim to know with any certainty the sound of God's voice or what his will is for me (much less anyone else), the presentation was superficial, nothing new, and unresponsive to any of the profound challenges to being a person of faith in 2012. DH found the presentation simplistic to the point of condescension. The clincher was a skit the two vicars performed as "Jesus" and "a Traveller" laden with his life's baggage (good and bad), unsure of where he was going. Jesus told him he was on the easy route to Death. But if Traveller gave up his baggage and let Jesus be his guide and be responsible for everything needed for life's journey, he would carry it all and take him on the road to everlasting life. Cute dramatization of a metaphore. But how does it actually translate into real life?

DH was also quite grumpy that the course-- billed as an interactive discussion, and despite the speakers' avowed desire for dialogue, didn't really include any. The speakers were preachin' to the choir. I sort of expected that.

Revs Keith and Nigel evidently don't see a need to start with very basic questions like, "How do you know it's God speaking in the first place, and not just your own thoughts?" Or, "If God has this specific plan for us and is going to nag and boss us around, why did he bother giving us free will?" Or, "if God gives different messages to two people, how do you know which He really means?" Or, "if God is still speaking, why does the Anglican Church claim a 'closed canon'?" Revs Keith and Nigel -- and the sympathetic audience they attracted -- somehow have no trouble "hearing God." And they know confidently that His message is the standard evangelical revival stuff.

 It seems a particular waste that Nigel, the doctor, is not drawing on one of the great gifts in his life -- namely his medical education. Was God not speaking to him in that? Doesn't the way the brain works have some bearing on how God does (or doesn't) speak to us? Doesn't his medical training give him provocation to explore how objectivity and science challenge our understanding of religion today?

Maybe I'm wrong. Perhaps Revs Nigel and Keith will get around to these and other basic questions in the three remaining classes. Having given this extended introduction of themselves, perhaps the weeks ahead will afford time for genuine discussion and permit them to address their subject in greater depth, detail, and with novel insight.

But sadly, if this is what the renewal experts have to offer, I don't think there's much hope for the church. There's no "new" in this renewal. It's more like the library book you're "renewing" for the umpteenth time. You do that for books you really love -- or maybe have misplaced but don't yet want to admit are gone.
Update: One of the things Evangelicals insist God says when He -- and the Bible -- speak to them is that human life begins at conception, and therefore all abortion is murder. Thus I was quite interested to read this article which documents that this reading of the Bible -- this version of what God's saying when he speaks -- is less than 30 years old, i.e. younger than the McDonald's Happy Meal!

Update #2: Another example of a conservative evangelical, Pat Robertson, mis-hearing a message from God:
In January of this year, televangelist Pat Robertson informed his “700 Club” audience that God had revealed the results of the 2012 election to him in a vision, implying broadly at the time that the Almighty was less than pleased with President Barack Obama. According to Right Wing Watch, Robertson recanted on Wednesday, responding to a viewer question about his false prediction, saying he “missed” God’s message about the election result.
“So many of us miss God, I won’t get into great detail about elections but I sure did miss it, I thought I heard from God, I thought I had heard clearly from God, what happened? What intervenes? Why?” Robertson said. “You ask God, how did I miss it? Well, we all do and I’ve had a lot of practice.”

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