Friday, July 31, 2009

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I just finished reading several blogs that had unrelated posts but some common points. One had a discussion of the generations of his family. All of his brothers and sisters attended Church (all but two Lutheran). Jumping down the next generation, he listed 10 Lutherans, 14 miscellaneous other Churches, and 10 who do not attend. All grew up in faithful church going homes. One explained that they were "deeply spiritual but just did not attend church." He wondered what caused this disconnect and it grieved him deeply.

Another post described criticisms of the ordinary church with its out dated music, fake piety, plastic friendliness, and moralisms from the pulpit -- all suggesting that church was dull, boring, and irrelevant so why wouldn't people stop attending. But the writer insisted he was deeply spiritual.

Another mentioned the wisdom of C. S. Lewis. When people stop believing in God, it is not that they believe in nothing -- they believe in everything. Lewis is right on here. The quest for a spirituality without a formal understanding of God, a book of God's Words, and a gathering of God's people is not an abandonment of belief in general. It is instead the willingness to define everything as spiritual, to make every activity spiritual, and to substitute personal authority for any external authority like Scripture or Church.

Close encounters of the third kind -- that is what this kind of spirituality becomes. The divine becomes like the fragmentary, momentary, undefined, and misunderstood but compelling glimpse of the aliens in the movie. Experiences did not translate well so each was pretty much alone until the end when a light from above drew them in and they were transported from here to there.

We have people all around us whose spiritual lives are grounded on nothing but their own feelings, interpretations, ideas, and momentary glimpses of what they define as the divine (nothing organized enough or narrow enough or clear enough to be called "God"). Spirituality becomes like the uncertain experiences of something from beyond ("did you feel that? Did you get that?" etc). It does not help that some of the churches have such a fleeting experience of God that they too urge people to "feel the presence" or "can you feel what God is doing today?"

In contrast to that some liturgical and sacramental churches focus on the things that are done in such a way that God becomes the victim of mechanics. Hold your hands this way, repeat the magic words, and God has to do what we say.

For Lutherans God is not under the thumb of my interpretation, of my feelings, or of my will. God comes to us within His Church, in the places where He has attached Himself (Word and Sacraments), with the power to keep His promises and accomplish His purpose (forgiveness, life and salvation). God does not live within our minds as words whose meaning can change. God does not live within our feelings as that burn hot or cold. God does not live within us as wisdom subject to our approval. God lives within us as the Word planted in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, working not in some magical reality but in the concrete of the Gospel spoken, water that washes, bread and wine that is eaten and drunk.

God is not a close encounter of the third kind but the constant presence of the Savior who is always with us, who will not abandon us, whose grace is sufficient for all we face, whose mercy is the most important constant in our changing lives, whose forgiveness is bigger than every and all sin combined, whose life stronger than death is resident in us even though we wear mortal frames, who loves us as individuals but loves us enough to connect us to those who are our brothers and sisters through the font and faith. We don't move through life trying to experience glimpses of God here and there. We have our eyes opened and the scales of unbelief peeled away by the Spirit so that we see God everywhere but we access Him and His grace in the places where He has attached Himself -- His Word, His Water, His Table...

Perhaps the worst thing we can do is forget where God is, where our lives in His grace are grounded and make Christ equal to our reason and experience when He is the authority over our reason and He is the experience through which we see everything else.

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