Jesus, Robots, and Aliens: Christianity and Science Fiction

Science fiction (and fantasy) often allow us to ask big questions about life and meaning by telling stories. In our June series, we’ll look at both classic and modern scifi, from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” to “Elysium.” We’ll deal with the ethics of genetic profiling in “Gattaca,” and challenge our assumptions about identity and consciousness with “I, Robot” and “Her.”

I’ve been looking forward to this series for more than a year. Come geek out with me as we tackle some challenging questions and watch awesome special effects!

June 1: Geek Culture and the Big Questions

June 8: Could We Change History? (Time Travel, Free Will, and Destiny)

June 15: Do Aliens have Human Rights? (Society and Moral Relativism)

June 22: Do Cyborgs Have Souls? (Identity, Consciousness, and Salvation)

June 29: Are We Alone in the Universe? (Meaning and Purpose)

Good News for ALL People

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We started Saint Junia with the goal of reaching people who have been hurt, burned, or turned off to church in the past. Church doctrines that exclude people because of their sexual orientation, class, gender, political leanings, ability, or past history keep folks from hearing the Good News that is for ALL people—that God has already acted decisively in Jesus to renew all things.

God doesn’t wait for us to have faith to act on our behalf, either. Jesus holds open the invitation to doubters and skeptics as well as believers to follow and grow in faith, not by checking our brains at the door but by using our reason to wrestle with God and transform the world. We don’t shy away from hard questions and difficult issues, but we engage scripture, tradition, reason, and experience in our quest to know God better.

It’s exciting to see this message catch on with people. We’ve been growing over the last seven months that we’ve been worshiping weekly together, and I look forward to where God is leading us next!

If you’d like to worship with Saint Junia, be our guest! We worship on Sundays at 4:30 PM in the gymnasium of Girls, Inc (click here for a map). Child care is provided. I hope to see you there!

(Click here for one of my favorite sermons, “Why God is a Feminist“)

Music and Listening

There was a great interview with local musicians St. Paul and the Broken Bones on WBHM, which you can listen to here. I’m sharing this with you for two reasons: First, I think some of the things Paul Janeway talks about—disappointment with God or the church, the importance of passion and faith in his life—will resonate with St. Junia folks. Second, I think it represents something important about our approach to music.

I knew early in the planning stages that I wanted something different for music at Saint Junia. People have strong opinions about the music they like, and we know what style of music vibrates our spiritual antennae. We often label churches based on their musical and worship style: gospel, contemporary, traditional, etc. I wanted to find a musical style that would resonate with as diverse a group as possible: jazz, blues, and gospel.

We also tend to classify songs as “religious” or “secular,” but the Bible makes no such distinction. Song of Songs is a love song. Ecclesiastes is a blues poem. Many Old Testament stories are ballads of struggle and betrayal. In many of these stories, God is hardly mentioned explicitly—but the authors have an implicit understanding of who God is and what God is up to. The fact that all of these are in the BIble shows that the people who wrote and compiled the Bible experienced God in every aspect of their lives, not just the explicitly “religious” parts.

For this same reason, I believe that “secular” music has a place in worship when it fits with the overall theme and gist of what we’re doing. This is why we’ve done songs like Pharell Williams’ “Happy” and Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Plenty of churches have used songs by U2, Mumford and Sons, or Marvin Gaye, which often have Christian themes or refer to the Bible.

I love it when we sing a traditional hymn or gospel tune and a “secular” song side-by-side in worship, because I believe that fits with our mission: being a witness to God both inside and outside of the church, naming the way God is already at work and pointing out the sin and grace we experience in everyday life. My prayer for the community of Saint Junia is that we would become light in the world, illuminating for others the surprising ways that God is at work in human life, both inside the church walls, and outside of them.

Current Series: The Seven Gospels

People often turn away from the church because they know in their hearts, or they discover through research, that the Jesus of the gospels is different than the Jesus they heard about from the church of their childhood. Surveys indicate that although people are less likely to identify themselves with any particular religious group these days, interest in Jesus is at an all-time high.

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I think that’s why new research about newly “discovered” gospels gets so much press, and why popular authors can still write bestsellers about Jesus. People have a sense that they haven’t gotten the full picture.

I’ve been looking forward to this series for weeks, because we’re going to take a close look at the different pictures of Jesus each gospel paints for us. We’ve already examined how the gospels are different from each other. Now we’re going to dig into each one. If you’ve wanted to know more about the Bible, this is a great place to dive in!

Ash Wednesday Drive-Thru Service

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Most of the stories of Jesus in the gospels didn’t happen in a building—they happened in the streets and marketplaces. So we’re taking the ashes on the road! If you’d like to kick off lent with the imposition of ashes and a time of prayer, but can’t get up in time to come to a morning service, you can meet Dave in the parking lot of the Crestwood Shopping Center between 6:30 AM and 9:00 AM.

Doing Justice: Armchair Activism

The phrase “social justice” scares a lot of people, because they imagine it means protesting or getting arrested (like these two Methodist bishops this weekend). While sometimes following Jesus means taking up a cross and suffering persecution, the fact is that most justice work is much more mundane.

The good news is that it’s actually easy to be a witness to God’s kingdom rule by simply speaking up. There are couple of ways you can take steps to do justice work right now.

First, educate yourself. There are some local and national issues that need your attention right now. (More on this below.)

Second, join or begin the conversation. You can sign petitions or use social media to keep yourself updated and spread the word. You can talk with your friends and family about the issues that are important to you.

Third, contact your legislators. You can find your Alabama legislator using this link. You’ll need your zip+4 code, which you can get here.

People are often nervous about calling their legislators, thinking they’ll have to argue about something. But the fact is, your state senators and representatives are lonely and would love a phone call. Seriously, they do not often hear from their constituents—if they receive a dozen phone calls about an issue, it’s unusual. The other major voices in Montgomery are big-money lobbyists—and you’re all that stands between them and the people they want to exploit. So pick up the phone and call!

Here are some pressing issues in our state and city right now:

You should know about the effort in Birmingham to create a Land Bank. Here are news articles from Al.com and WBHM on what a land bank is designed to do. Here is a petition you can sign about it.

You should know about efforts in our state to reform title loan lending. Here is a petition you can sign about it as well.

There are a host of other ways you can do justice in ways that directly touch your everyday life, in whatever area you are passionate about: bike advocacy, transportation reform, environmental justice, LGBTQ advocacy, racial and ethnic justice, immigration reform… wherever you see a difference between reality and God’s desired shalom (peace with justice) for the world.

If you’ve already done the three steps above, the next step is to put feet to your faith and actually organize with others. As our church grows and reaches more people, we will be expanding our justice work (along with our compassion work) in our community.

Finally, remember to pray: “Your kingdom come, Lord, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As I said this past Sunday, we pray this prayer not because we passively accept everything that happens as God’s will, but because we know the world is not yet as God wills it. You are part of that Kingdom work.

Thanks for all you do!

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The Five Areas of Discipleship

There are a lot of different ways we can talk about how one follows the Way of Jesus, but my favorite is this one.

Jesus says that there are two Great Commandments: Love God, and love our neighbors. But we love not only as individuals (showing devotion and serving others), but also as a church as a whole (worshiping in a community and doing justice in society).

So, small groups have often talked about making a covenant to pursue these four areas, often called “works of piety” and “works of mercy,” loving God and loving neighbors.

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But there is a fifth area that often gets neglected among mainline Protestant churches: witness. Evangelism, which literally means “spreading the Good News,” touches all four of those areas.

The word “witness” means both observing and telling. In worship, we both observe what God is doing among us and tell about it. In devotion, we draw our attention to what God is teaching us and how God is growing us; we look for answers to prayer. In service and justice, we both tell the story of God’s liberating love and live it out by helping others. All of that stuff is “witness.” Adding this fifth area reminds us of the importance of learning to talk about the grace we see active in our lives and the world around us. We are not just telling the Good News—we’re being the Good News.

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Adding “witness” also reminds us that both observing and telling are part of what we do as followers of the Way of Jesus. We name grace when we see it. We connect current events and our modern life stories to the stories of the Bible and our faith history. Witness is how we live our public and private life, the way we embody the gospel and speak it with our mouths. Witness is our existential relationship, our “way of being in the world.”

This is also why followers of Jesus need a church. Witness is part of how you live an authentic life in community. Most of us tend to favor one expression of faith: I can go off on a mountain and pray and feel spiritual in nature (devotion). I can serve others and feel good about the good work I’m doing (compassion). I can be an advocate or activist and hold right opinions (justice). I can raise my hands in worship and try to glide through life on a spiritual high (worship). I can even tell others about Jesus without knowing intimately what that grace looks like in my own life. Any of these areas isolated from the others can become toxic. But a church helps us balance them and bring them into focus. Witnessing means all of us, together, making worship, devotion, compassion, and justice an integral part of our identity.

The Art and Practice of Prayer

Merton once told me to quit trying so hard in prayer. He said: “How does an apple ripen? It just sits in the sun.” A small green apple cannot ripen in one night by tightening all its muscles, squinting its eyes and tightening its jaw in order to find itself the next morning miraculously large, red, ripe, and juicy beside its small green counterparts. Like the birth of a baby or the opening of a rose, the birth of the true self takes place in God’s time. We must wait for God, we must be awake; we must trust in his hidden action within us.

—from Merton’s Palace of Nowhere by James Finley

 

We begin a new series this week on prayer. We often talk about prayer as a petition made to a problem-solving God, a quick and miraculous fix to what ails us. But the most powerful work of prayer is subtle and deep, changing the pray-er, and eventually the world.

Join us this Sunday and experience the slow art and practice of prayer.

Why I’m Not Interested in the Creationism Debate

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There’s a lot of stuff on the interwebz today about the Bill Nye and Ken Ham creationism debate. I didn’t tune in, because I do not believe that creationism represents anything approaching good Biblical scholarship, and I didn’t have the emotional energy to be embarrassed for someone else.

I just wanted to share with y’all my brief take:

There are two creation stories in Genesis. The Bible doesn’t contradict evolution—it contradicts itself, if it’s forced to be used as a science textbook. But it’s a misuse of scripture. The Bible is a dialogue, not a monologue. It’s a library of diverse theological opinions directed toward the glory of one God.

If you’d like to go back and hear my sermon on Genesis 1, it’s here. The podcast from the Genesis 2 sermon is available here (sorry, no video).

Believing

There’s an odd verse in the resurrection story in John. After Mary Mags comes running back to the disciples with news that the corpse of Jesus is missing, Peter and the B.D. (Beloved Disciple) sprint to the tomb. They both look at the grave clothes lying there.

Here’s the verse that’s crazy: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:8-9).

Now, if you’re religious, and you’ve heard this story before, you probably didn’t notice anything unusual in the sentence. But here’s the crazy thing:

What did the other disciple, the B.D., actually believe?

Most people respond, “the resurrection,” but nobody has told them that Jesus has been raised. The author tells us in the very next sentence they didn’t understand the scriptures or that Jesus must be raised. There is no content, no X that the B.D. can believe in. All they know is that someone has taken the body. There is no gospel, no angelic announcement, no one telling them that Jesus is alive. But the B.D. believes.

We so often assume that “believing” means “agreeing that such-and-such must be true,” but what we get here is something that precedes even knowing what it is you’re supposed to believe. The B.D. just looks at some folded laundry and believes. Something in him clicks, and he can’t even put his finger on what it is yet.

We use “believe” in this way when we talk about believing in yourself, believing in someone else, believing in a vision. “Believe” in this context doesn’t mean accepting a statement as a fact—it means this desperate, hopeful something at the core of our existence.

We do not yet know where God is taking us, but we are embarked on the journey, following where God leads.The invitation to believe is not about blind faith, but about trusting the one who leads us.