I choose to live in a world where resurrection happens

I choose to live in a world where resurrection happens April 6, 2015
"Resurrection," Fady Habib, Flickr C.C.
“Resurrection,” Fady Habib, Flickr C.C.

During Lent this year, a Presbyterian minister named John Shuck posted on the Friendly Atheist blog about being a pastor despite the fact that he no longer believes in God. He shared that he doesn’t appreciate being told he’s not a Christian just because he doesn’t believe in God. In his view, God is a “symbol of myth-making and not credible as a supernatural being or force.” He views Christianity as a “culture” whose “artifacts” are “resources” to be used for the sake of “social justice, personal integrity and resilience, and building community.”

As I was reading his words, I wondered how many ministers out there are just playing along for the sake of “building community.” More convicting was the realization that too often I have lived as though I’m just playing around with cultural artifacts as a pastor. But the good news is that God keeps on throwing just enough mystery and coincidence into my life experiences that I could never deny his existence with any sincerity. That’s why I choose to live in a world where the man Jesus really was God and really did come back from the dead in a completely physical, scientific law-violating kind of way. I choose to live in a world where resurrection happens.

When I live in John Shuck’s world where religion is nothing more than a vehicle of human psychology to manipulate people into living out social justice and personal integrity, then all of the weight falls on me as a campus minister to deliver the goods. I have to be the salesman magician who gives incredibly inspiring speeches while also keeping things lighthearted enough that nobody gets offended. I have to be funny and charming while subtly making it clear that I’m completely down to earth and not trying at all so it doesn’t come across as creepy. I have to tell really good stories that don’t have any awkward details that might be off-putting to any possible constituency in the room. I have to watch all the right TV shows and figure out how to tie their episodes seamlessly into my sermon text.

I have to find the perfect images to make memes with so that my sermon series announcements will blow up on facebook and twitter and snapchat and yikyak and whatever new social media app that 37 year old campus ministers haven’t learned about yet. I have to schedule my events perfectly so that they don’t conflict with any festivals or social justice rallies or keg parties or sorority meetings or term papers or falling-outs with roommates. I have to figure out the perfect sweet spot in how aggressively I pursue people who have made the mistake of giving me their contact information.

If the whole thing is reducible to human psychology, I don’t stand a chance. I can’t compete with the bars, the gym, and yoga class. I can’t convince students to put aside the weekend homework they’ve procrastinated doing until Sunday evening to come out and sing songs, hear another twist to the story about how much God loves them, and receive a soggy, grape juice-stained piece of Hawaiian bread.

But there’s so much more going on than that. I’ve seen too many coincidences and too much serendipity for my religion to be reducible to human psychology. I’ve had too many conversations with students in which something from my past gave me the insight that I needed to say what was needed at the time. I’ve randomly run into too many students right after praying for them. I’ve had the Spirit “tell” me that I needed to go to particular locations where I found people who were wondering where they would find me. I’ve had homeless people share messages with me that spoke to situations they couldn’t possibly have known anything about.

Most recently I had a really cool inexplicable mystical moment on a trip our campus ministry group took to Dallas to visit the Missional Wisdom Foundation. On Palm Sunday afternoon, we spent some time at a Cistercian monastery close to the Dallas Fort Worth airport. I found a path where the monks had put out stations of the cross. When I’d walked back into the woods a bit, I came to a huge field. There I started praying and somehow I felt the presence of God in the wind that was blowing. I stretched out my hands to the side and the strangest thing happened. The branches of a nearby tree somehow wrapped themselves around my right ring and pinkie finger. For a moment, I was holding hands with a tree. It was completely bizarre. When I studied the branches in my hands a few minutes later, it was impossible to replicate what had happened. All I know is that I was overcome with a sense that God had been touching me through his creation.

I don’t understand why a tree would hold hands with me. But I’m choosing to live in a world where God actually makes things like that happen in order to touch us and let us know that we are safe in his arms. I refuse to say that every mystery of creation must submit to the laws of science and the common sense of reasonable people. I choose to believe that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead continues to move in our world in weird, unpredictable ways. I choose to believe that God is more than just “being” or some kind of vague love-energy-force that’s unobtrusive enough not to pose any conflict with physics. I believe that God is constantly plotting in our world in very real, tangible ways to build a kingdom of disciples.

When I live in the world where resurrection happens, I don’t have to be the anxious, desperate, wannabe salesman magician that I become when the world is sucked dry of all its divine mystery. I realize it makes me look nutty to have shared this story. It’s definitely not a good move if I’m supposed to be a mildly charming, uncreepy social justice and personal integrity promoter. But I’m going to hold onto that memory of the tree holding hands with me and pull it back out whenever my life feels impossible to remember that God has made things happen in my life that don’t make any sense at all just to show me that he loves me. Weird things are happening around us all the time. But we have to live in the world where resurrection happens before we start to notice them. I’m going to try to notice them more.

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  • David Bruggink

    I’ve been reading Spong lately, who’s almost as vehement in his denial of supernatural events as Dawkins. He’s a great author and, and some interviews I’ve seen suggest, also a warm and compassionate person. But I’m realizing more as I read him the critical difference between a Christianity with a literal resurrection and that without. Granted some theologians seem to find a way to make it work for them (eg Marcus Borg), and I’m sorry that society often labels them as heretics. But at the same time I can’t help being left utterly cold by a Christianity in which the gospel writers knowing used nothing but symbolic writing to describe not historical events but some kind of vague amorphous ungraspable truth.

    • Yeah I just can’t go there with Spong. Maybe he’s helpful to some people, but I need to believe in the supernatural intervention of God in our affairs.

    • Obscurely

      Yes, I haven’t been able to go all the way down Bishop Spong’s well-traveled road either. As a minister, it’s almost like I don’t want to eliminate the power of Mystery from faith (as Morgan says too), even if I don’t believe it myself? (agnostic here)

  • Martie

    Morgan, I was so moved by the image of the tree holding your hand, thank you for sharing that, awesome!!

    • Cool. Hope you’ve been well!

      • summers-lad

        “And the trees of the field shall clap their hands, and you’ll go out with joy!” (Isaiah 55:12)

  • Dwight Welch

    My own take which probably is in the Spong camp but hopefully can feed discussion http://approachingjustice.net/2015/04/08/god-cupcakes-and-naturalism/

  • charlesburchfield

    I think you discribe an alternative to being a personal integrity promoter.

    • Thanks.

      • charlesburchfield

        also i am most interested in your story of encounters w the holy spirit. Stories of cast out ppl like the homeless are very revealing. Jesus was one of those and he amplified & promoted thier faith as most blessed I think.

  • Obscurely

    Morgan, I am feeling you brother! … As a liberal parish minister, I struggle also with how literally to preach and teach the supernatural doctrines of faith — especially since I’m privately an agnostic. It didn’t take me many years in ordained ministry to decide I had to protect myself from a God who was — YES according to the Company line! — supposed to be active and sovereign in our world and yet wasn’t doing a very good job at explaining things like the tsunami that killed over 100,000 people a few years back. I mean, who would have been the wiser if God had just held those tectonic plates together?

    I’m not trying to raise the old “how can God be good if he lets evil happen” conundrum — that’s WAY above my pay grade! But I do try hard to find ways to keep doing this job because I AM convinced that the ethical content and moral emphases of Christian faith (and even some doctrine) is supremely important to transmit and promote in our post-modern world. I share your chagrin at coming off as a huckster for doing that — but aren’t the teachings of Jesus unique and important enough to abide that tag without having to drink the supernatural koolaid ourselves?

    • Thanks for sharing where you’re coming from. I guess I just have different personal spiritual needs. I’m not confident enough in myself to live a completely unsupernatural world where nobody is holding me up or working through me.

      • Obscurely

        As a pantheist I prefer to think God is both holding me up and working through me through other people — but ‘different strokes for different folks’!

    • charlesburchfield

      yes! post modernism needs more fleshing out for me. I try to understand that institutions, technologies, the lifting up and worship of experts in their academic, military, political rationalized structures are exposed as scabs pulling away and revealing the festerings of unanswered questions of human survival. Does jesus really matter in the midst of change as we swallow this dregs of the last pitcher of koolaid?

      • Obscurely

        It isn’t so much Jesus that matters as his moral message …

        • Cardunculus

          I am not sure I agree. The moral messages contained in the Gospels are worthy of admiration, certainly, but their core principles are not all that different from those that can be found in other religious traditions (or, for that matter, from those of non-religious humanism). If that’s the main point of Christianity, why should we hold Jesus in higher regard than, say, Socrates or Laozi?

          Personally, what I find captivates me the most about Christianity – despite my many, many doubts and grumblings – is its claim that God himself, the ultimate origin and ground of all of reality, accepted to suffer with us and even more than many of us.

          This is not an answer to the problem of evil, in itself; but, it seems to me, it supports the claim that suffering is not incompatible with the fundamental goodness of reality and its origin far better than any theological argument about the nature of the Good and the properties of some suitably abstract and abstractly benevolent divinity.

          I do not think that I could ever worship, let alone love, any God that could not cry, that *did* not cry over us all.

          • Mmm… I like that.

          • Obscurely

            I’m thinking maybe Jesus would disagree with you about the primacy of his moral commandments? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

          • Cardunculus

            I am not sure if I get your point.

            I did not say that it is unimportant for a Christian to act morally; what I wrote is that, morality-wise, Christianity – despite being a very peculiar religion under other points of view – did not really say anything particularly novel.

            Its main moral teachings (e.g., one should love all fellow humans and try to help them, it is better to suffer injustices than to commit them, revenge is pointless and counterproductive, ritual should not be turned into a game of one-upmanship) were already well recognized by entirely different traditions: over these issues, it seems to me that pretty much all moral teachers of all world traditions (including non-religious Humanism) are in substantial agreement. Disagreements happen; but, it seems to me, they are more about *what the world is like* than about what would be the moral action to do in a given circumstance.

            The “good news” contained in the Gospels cannot possibly be their moral teachings, I believe; and this not because they are not good or it is not important to follow them, but rather because they are not new or unique to Christianity.

            EDIT: I just found a quote by Lewis (in “On Ethics”) which says precisely what I was trying to say, but better and more quickly (if perhaps a little more inflammatorily):

            “The idea (at least in its grossest and most popular form) that Christianity brought a new ethical code into the world is a grave error…..only serious ignorance of Jewish and Pagan culture would lead anyone to the conclusion that [Christian ethics] is a radically new thing…..Jesus uttered no comment which had not been anticipated by the Rabbis – few, indeed, which cannot be paralleled in classical, ancient Egyptian, Ninevite, Babylonian or Chinese texts.”

          • Kevin Osborne

            Jesus had no moral message, he had an engineering message. Follow my path out of this hell.

        • charlesburchfield

          I’m just thinking out loud now; jesus moral message is his example of resistance to rules of power structures that abuse, betray, abandon & makes us victims of our own human conditioning and nature. In a sense the things he asks us to become so we can do are impossible to sustain w/o the holy spirit which he promised to send.

  • Carlton Kelley

    It is more than disturbing to me that people believe certain views in our post modern world have more credence than the Gospel. And, what, pray tell, is wrong with the supernatural? Why do otherwise intelligent people believe their credibility hangs on rejecting this. In my view, it is simply another way to make ourselves – individual human beings – into God or, to use more secular terms, the center of the universe. It seems to me to abandon God is to abandon humanity and thus one’s self.

    • Jeff

      I can assure you that my lack of belief in any sort of god has absolutely nothing to do with any notion that I am any sort of god. Try again.

      • charlesburchfield

        but jeff! could you possibly be in denial?

  • Kevin Osborne

    Have you read “The Secret Life of Plants”? Interesting stuff.