God of the Ship of Theseus: A Thought Experiment for Church Identity

The other night I was gazing upon the city skyline, and I counted about a dozen different cranes rising over the buildings.

I started wondering: if every brick and every slat of every building in Boston were eventually replaced, would it still be Boston?

In philosophy, there is a similar thought experiment: “The Ship of Theseus.”

To explain the Ship of Theseus, I give you Marvel Comics’ final episode of the show WandaVision, where the superhero Vision is confronted with essentially a clone of himself. They are trying to figure out which is the true Vision, so they turn to the Ship of Theseus.

 

 

The Ship of Theseus in an artifact in a museum. Over time its planks of wood rot and are replaced with new planks. When no original plank remains, is it still the Ship of Theseus?

Secondly, if those removed planks are restored and reassembled, free of the rot, is that the Ship of Theseus?”

One of the two superheroes named Vision replies, “Neither is the true ship. Both are the true ship.”

This thought experiment applies to churches, too. The congregation I pastor is only a little bit over 50 years old, and we still have some of the original planks and bricks of the church. Not the building anymore, sadly, but the people!

50 more years from now, when this church has its 100th anniversary, and no original plank remains, will it still be South End Neighborhood Church?

Yes. South End Church 50 years ago, South End Church today, and South End Church 50 years into the future—it’s all the real South End Church, no matter how much the parts and the people change.

Our task, then, in the presence of God, is to ask and prayerfully discern: what makes us us? What are the consistent ties that bind us together, past, present, and future?

And if we’re a ship, where are we going? Where is God leading us?


I keep hearing commentators make a big deal (as they should) about how this is the Boston Celtics’ 22nd NBA Finals appearance. The first few times I heard that stat, it was jarring. There is literally nobody on the team for whom that statement is true. Even Al Horford, their veteran, hasn’t been to an NBA Finals before.

But of course the team has. And there is something in the ethos, the DNA, the blood of this organization that serves as a through line, making the Celtics still the Celtics, even though none of the same people from the last Finals-making team are there now.

Organizations and churches and cities—like the ship of Theseus—have a culture, what some refer to as a thisness.

Those of us who steward these organizations in the present moment have the great privilege of discerning together just what that culture is—what is worth preserving, and what is worth culling, all in favor of living out our deepest identity and calling.

 

Praying “Thanks in Advance”

“Thanks in advance” is a funny phrase.

“Thanks in advance” is what you say when you thank someone for something they haven’t done yet.

You: “Hey, here’s 10 bucks.”
Me: “Thanks; I’ll pay you back.”
You: “Okay, thanks in advance.”

Or, I might say to my spouse, “Honey, I have had A DAY. Thanks in advance for doing the dishes and putting the kids to bed while I watch random YouTube videos.”

Psalm 100:5 says, “For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

The Psalmist models a prayer that looks ahead with confidence, knowing that we will see God’s “steadfast love” and “faithfulness to all generations.”

For his love and faithfulness we can give thanks in advance, because their existence in the future is guaranteed.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” I guess a lot of it was in his head. We worry!

Another writer says that “Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance.”

If we spend time worrying about the future, why can’t we spend time giving God thanks for the future? If we let ourselves experience failure in advance, why not let ourselves experience something much more certain in advance, namely, God’s steadfast love and faithfulness?

Even Job can say with confidence, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).

Our prayers, then, can include the envisioned experience of God’s future faithfulness. So we can say with confidence, “Lord, thanks in advance!”

Fear No Evil or See No Evil? One Way to Preach a Textual Variant

Last week’s Hebrew Bible lectionary gave us the beautiful Zephaniah 3:14-20. There is an interesting variant in the Septuagint reading of verse 15.

Hebrew

לֹא־תִֽירְאִ֥י רָ֖ע עֽוֹד

= you will no longer fear evil

Greek

οὐκ ὄψῃ κακὰ οὐκέτι

= you will no longer see evil

The Hebrew verb for fear (יָרֵא) looks like the verb for see (רָאָה), especially in conjugation:

תִירְאִי

= you will fear

תִּרְאִי

= you will see

The only difference is the presence or absence of the vowel letter in the first syllable, which is superfluous for pronunciation anyway. Both words sound the same in Hebrew.

So the Greek “see” for “fear” is easy to appreciate. But which one to preach? In this case, whenever I quoted the passage in my sermon, I was using my own translation. Since both readings seem equally plausible to me, I decided to present the Greek variant as expounding on the Hebrew, not replacing it (so to speak).

The single line became:

You will no longer fear any evil. You won’t even see evil.

This is many more words than are in the Hebrew text, but I think both the Hebrew “fear” and the Greek “see” so well capture the essence of the passage, that it was worth quoting both. It’s as if God is saying through Zephaniah (if we combine the readings)—not only will you not fear evil, you won’t even have to see it… because it won’t exist.

Lord, haste the day!

Delta: What Changes, What Doesn’t

My former love of mathematics came in handy the other day.

I was in a clergy meeting, and we were talking about the delta variant of the coronavirus. And I remembered using the “delta” sign in math equations. It’s a triangle: ∆. Whenever you’re taking the delta of something, you’re finding the difference, or the amount of change.

So the delta between 5 and 3 is 5 – 3, or two. ∆x (“delta x”) is the change of a variable, x.

Delta is change. It’s difference.

As I came out of this math flashback, I spoke up in this clergy meeting, talking about how the delta variant, this change in the trend of coronavirus cases, surely means a change—again—for how we do church, for how we are the church. It’s like “Delta Church” now.

This felt like a deep insight, until I said it out loud, when I saw a bunch of other pastors staring back at me on Zoom, as if to say, “Uh, yeah, Pastor Abram. We already knew that delta means change.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What we don’t know is what kind of changes this new wave of coronavirus cases may require from us. More patience, for sure. More trust, yes. More caution? You bet. A vaccine booster, even after you’ve had two shots? Yes, that, too. A vaccine as soon as it’s available, if you’re younger? Yes, please.

Delta is all about change. It’s about things being different. And here we finally thought things were done being different, with the cases dropping a few months ago and vaccinations on the rise. It seems we’re back into an unclear present. And it’s hard to keep perspective, when we don’t even know where we are anymore!

Changeless

Enter Joshua.

At end of the book of Joshua, Israel’s great leader sees the end of his life approaching.

He leads the people of Israel in a covenant renewal at Shechem in Joshua 24. Joshua seems to sense that, as faithful as this group of people wants to be, they are only a generation away from abandoning the LORD.

So before he leads them in a declaration of trust in God, in the uncertain present moment, he has them look back.

They reflect on God’s faithfulness in the past, to remind themselves that God is a faithful God, not just in the past, but also in the present, and that God will be faithful in the future. God provided for the people in the past. He’s going to do it again today, and he’ll do it again tomorrow!

Think about your own life—whatever kind of moment you’re in, however uncertain you feel, however scared this new delta variant has you, whatever the rest of your life feels like right now… think about your past, and how God has been present to you. Think about how God has healed you, how God has provided for you, how God has shown up to you.

Joshua walks through this important act of remembering with his people.

He recaps the history of this people in the presence of all the leaders and judges and officials and tribes. He begins with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, then goes on to Moses, Aaron, and how God parted the Red Sea and brought the Israelites out of slavery from Egypt. All praise be to our liberating God! Other nations fought Israel, but through God they prevailed. God says through Joshua in verse 13, “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

In other words: I, the LORD, gave you what you have.

Even so, Joshua presents the people with a choice, in verse 15: “But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.”

Will a faithful, loving, generous God in the past be enough for God’s people today, and well into tomorrow?

Yes, God gave us water from the rock, but… can he do it again? Yeah, God has literally defied the laws of physics to save us, but… what if he forgets how to do it again? Sure, God has done miracles in our past, made a way where there is now way, but what if God gets stuck this time?

It’s not going to happen. There is no delta with God. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” God is good… not some of the time, not off and on, but God is good… all the time!

That doesn’t mean God is unmoved by our challenges. He weeps with those who weep, and he knows what it’s like to be tempted, to suffer. God knows what it feels like to be swept up by a storm at sea, or surrounded by contagious sickness.

But there is no delta with God, no change. No such thing as a God who is here today but gone tomorrow. With God, it’s not just faithfulness and provision up to a certain point. God is who God is yesterday, today, and forever.

Joshua leads the way in recommitting to this changeless God: “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Mater the Tow Truck

In an uncertain moment, in a season of drought, or in-between-ness, it can be tempting to say, “Well, everything is kind of on hold right now, so there’s nothing we can do. Let’s wait till things resolve, and get back to it then.”

As a pastor—the pastor of a church living through almost two years of transition now, as the pastor of a church without a meeting space, without a church office, and at the mercy of the elements for if we can meet in person or not—I confess that this temptation is real for me, too. It’s the temptation to say, “Let’s just survive and get through this so we can go back to being the church, for real.”

But we are the body of Jesus Christ in the city of Boston right now. Do we need a building to be the body? In some ways, yeah, it really helps! Do we need to be able to attend large gatherings without masks and be back to where we were two years ago, before any of these changes came? That would be awesome! I would love that.

But that’s not our reality. Reality has changed.

Who we are in Christ Jesus has not changed.

We are still the congregation, the people, God has called us to be.

The same God who has led us “where (we’ve) been” is going ahead of us into a future we cannot see. This future is crystal clear to God. Muddy for us, totally in focus for God.

Consider Mater the Tow Truck, from Pixar’s Cars movie. Mater declares himself to be, among other things, “the world’s best backwards driver.”

He shows the race car Lightning McQueen his skills. He uses his rear-view mirrors to look behind him and quickly drive backwards through town and over various obstacles. To an amazed Lightning McQueen, Mater says, “Don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”

“Don’t need to know where I’m going, just need to know where I’ve been.”

And that’s a good thing, because, ask me what I know about the present? Ask me what I know about next week or next month? Shrug of the shoulders.

But that doesn’t mean we’re on hold. God’s Spirit is living and active among us, and we get to be the body of Christ in the city right now in a world where everybody else is feeling anxious about all of the delta changes ahead. Do we know where we’re going? We’ll still make plans, but no, we don’t really know where we’re going. But do we know where we’ve been, how God has walked with us? You bet!

What if this tough, in-between time is vital work God is doing in is right now to shape us into the church he needs us to be for the future?

What if our building-less summer and fall means we’re an even more public witness to the city, as we worship in full view of the public at the park?

What if we were like Joshua, and led the way in helping our friends, families, and neighbors remember a good God who has always been faithful? What if we said to others, I believe that this loving and generous God is not going to give up now!

What if our faith and trust in God, even in this “delta” season, inspired others to trust God, too?

Friends, let’s say with Joshua, loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear, “But as for (us) and (our) household, we will serve the LORD!”

I adapted the above from a sermon I recently preached.

“All shall be well”… Really??

This is the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 21:5-19 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

There are few things in life that we want to believe more than this:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

Those lines come from Julian of Norwich in the 14th-century. It’s not her talking: it’s Jesus, as he has appeared to her in a vision.

Her vision is not cheap hope that crumbles at the first sign of pain or difficulty. It’s in the context of acknowledging the pain and sin in the world that Jesus says to Julian:

All shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

But do you know what her response was to these powerful words of comfort?

Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?

“HOW could all things be well?”

The disciples were about to ask that question.

What about the disciples?

But first… they couldn’t help but admire this beautiful temple they worshiped in. They gawked at “the splendor of its stonework and memorial gifts,” Luke says (The Message).

The lectionary will circle back eventually to the story just before this passage—the poor widow with her two copper coins. She takes the standard of tithing 10% and multiplies that by 10, giving everything she has.

And somehow all the disciples want to talk about is who’s in the temple’s Platinum Donor’s Club. Hey, I know that guy! I talked to that family once! They’re a big deal around here!

They’re spiraling, and Jesus disrupts it: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

It’s all going down, Jesus says, every… last… stone.

The disciples must get scared, because they snap out of their donor admiring, and ask, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

Jesus gives four:

ONE. Fake Jesuses. Verse 8: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.”

TWO. Wars and revolutions. Verse 9: “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

THREE. Natural disasters. Verse 11: “There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

The FOURTH sign is personal: being persecuted by others and betrayed by your own family. Verses 12, 16-17, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

But then Jesus says, “… not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls” (18-19).

And, remarkably, Jesus says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (v. 13, NRSV). “This will result in your being witnesses to them” (NIV).

The disciples, apart from being scared, must have also been confused.

One commentary quite helpfully says, “The lack of chronological order in Jesus’ statements helps to discourage any attempts to work out in advance a timetable of events.”

The disciples couldn’t work out a timetable. They couldn’t know when their end was near; they could only know that God would be present with them no matter what happened and when.

What about us?

And that’s true for disciples of Jesus today, too.

Some scholars think this passage had both immediate fulfillment—the destruction of the temple, the persecution of the disciples, and a fulfillment that is yet to come—the so-called end times.

But just as the disciples couldn’t figure a timeline from Jesus’s words, neither can we. God doesn’t promise us we’ll know when the end is near. Elsewhere Jesus talks about the second coming as unexpected, so watch and wait for it. We’ll practice this watching and waiting in Advent.

So we hear this foretelling of wars and natural disasters, and we ask, “Surely it couldn’t get any worse than it is now? Surely this is it?”

It can get worse. Probably will.

It’s comical how many people have been so certain that the world would end on such-and-such a date.

And then, inevitably, when it doesn’t end, “Ah! I found an error in my calculations. It’ll be six months from now.”

This reality is perhaps best presented—and skewered—by the TV show Parks and Recreation. There’s a group in that show called “The Reasonabilists,” who are anything but what their name suggests. The Reasonabilists are an end-time cult that is waiting for Zorp the Surveyor to destroy the world.

Who is Zorp, you ask? A Parks & Rec fansite describes him as a “28-foot-tall lizard-god savior.” But the salvation he brought was a little different—he was to come to earth and melt everyone’s faces off with his “volcano mouth.”

Well, Zorp’s predicted time comes and goes, and the cult leader has to re-figure the numbers, only to stay up all night for the next time Zorp will come melt their faces off and thereby save the world.

Our temptation is more subtle… with every new war and every massive natural disaster, with every self-proclaimed Savior and persecution of Christians, we could begin to live in the same kind of fear the disciples surely feel.

But Jesus’s point is exactly the opposite.

No matter when such a time is, and no matter what it looks like, and now matter how bad it gets, the same God who accompanied the disciples—even to their deaths—promises to accompany us—even to our deaths.

Even in the scenario that verses 16 and 17 describe… even should your own family come to hate you, “Not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” They can take your body, but not your soul. No one can take God’s love away from you. So make up your minds, Jesus says, not to worry beforehand! (v. 14)

Paul picked up on this in Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Here’s a question to consider. You might give it some thought and prayer this week. When you walk into a difficult situation, what do you carry with you?

When you initiate a hard conversation, what do you have? When you face into a challenge you’d rather ignore, what resources do you have to face it? Maybe your family wouldn’t betray you to the death, but maybe you have to face some family dysfunction this Thanksgiving and Christmas.

What do you carry with you into all that?

However you answer that, we all have the promise of at least this resource: the words and wisdom of God. The words and wisdom of God.

Verse 15, spoken first to the disciples and surely extended to us in our time of need, has Jesus saying, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Those words, that wisdom… they come from the Holy Spirit, whom God has sent to dwell in the hearts of all who follow Jesus.

Well, indeed

I said that Julian of Norwich had replied to God, “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”

That question feels right at home with this passage. It’s the kind of question the disciples would ask Jesus. It’s the kind of question WE want to ask Jesus when we hear something like this. Or when we just go about living our lives and watching the world around us. “How could all things be well,” O Lord?

Even after a vision of Jesus saying, “All shall be well,” that was what Julian asked—and a bunch of other questions like it.

And then, she got a response. She writes:

And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this fashion: I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see that yourself, that all things will be well.

This is the same emphasis the Isaiah passage (65:17-18) gives us.

Behold, I will create / new heavens and a new earth. / The former things will not be remembered, / nor will they come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever / in what I will create, / for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight / and its people a joy.

I will create and all things shall be made new, God says. Not just because of some vague optimism that things just have to get better. “All shall be well” because our living and powerful God makes it so.

The 19th century poet Oscar Wilde is said to have taken Julian of Norwich’s lines—“All shall be well / And all shall be well / And all manner of thing shall be well”—he is said to have taken these lines and added to them:

And if it isn’t well, then it’s still not the end.

What God(s) Were the Pharisee and Tax Collector Praying to?

This post is the concluding portion of the sermon I preached Sunday, with Luke 18:9-14 (read it here) as the Gospel lectionary text.

Did you notice the Pharisee and the tax collector both start their prayer the same way? “God….”

They use the same word, the same way of addressing God, but you get the impression they are praying to two very different Gods.

We wonder: who must the Pharisee think God is, to be praying his way? And what does the tax collector think about the God to whom he prays?

Also, how does our own image of God shape our prayers?

For the Pharisee, there’s very little introspection. He’s critical of others and not himself. He mentions God, but it’s really only a quick appetizer before he can get to the main dish that is his own righteousness.

Maybe it’s as simple as: he’s just arrogant. His religiosity has gotten the best of him.

But imagine for a moment that the Pharisee is being sincere in his prayer. Sincerely wrong, yes, but what if he really means what he’s praying?

What kind of God would he have to have in mind to be praying like this?

It would be a God who just can’t stand all the ways we terrible humans mess everything up all the time.

It would be a God who LOVES when we get it right, and loves us more when we get it right more often.

It would be a God who doesn’t need a relational connection with us—just for us to check certain things off the list, and that’s enough.

It would be a God who wants us to jockey for position—who wants us to outdo each other in religious practices and spiritual disciplines, in fasting and giving and serving.

Then when we pray, if this is who God is, we’re just reporting back to our judge on all that we’ve done, desperately trying to find our place in God’s system of punishment and rewards.

The God of this Pharisee also seems to be a God who wants people to do it on their own. Because as the Pharisee is contrasting himself with others and listing his achievements, not once does he say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Not once does he ask, “God please help me as I fast… increase my generosity so I can give cheerfully.” Never does he invite God into his faith practice.

What kind of God is that?

Maybe one we’ve believed in, from time to time. Maybe that’s a God we’ve prayed to.

Who we believe God is will shape how we pray. And that means that we can listen to our own prayers, dig a little deeper, and ask ourselves, “Who do I really believe God is?”

The French thinker Montaigne was right on the money when he said, “Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”

By contrast, who is the God the tax collector believes in?

It’s a God who listens.

It’s a God you can approach—even from far off—no matter what evil you’ve done.

A God you can confess to, and who will hear you, and will forgive you.

The tax collector believes first and foremost in a God who is merciful.

This is a God to whom you can tell the blunt truth about yourself. You can talk to God about your sin, bring it right into God’s presence.

1 John 1 says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

The tax collector believes in a God who receives us when we confess, arms open, just as the father did the prodigal son.

We don’t have to read our spiritual résumé to God. We don’t have to put other people down when we pray, to elevate ourselves. In fact, God’s presence calls for our humility. Prayer is not first about us, after all. Prayer is first about God.

God is so full of mercy, so ready to forgive—as the tax collector knew—that we simply can enter in, as we are, and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The tax collector is a model for us, not only in how to pray, but in how to think about God.

Of course, if we overheard the Pharisee’s prayer in real time, we’d be faced with a particularly cruel irony. We’d have to be careful not to say, “Lord, thank you that I am not like THAT arrogant Pharisee. Thank you, God, that I know who you are.”

Thomas Merton wrote:

There is something of this worm in the hearts of all religious [people]. As soon as they have done something which they know to be good in the eyes of God, they tend to take its reality to themselves and to make it their own. They tend to destroy their virtues by claiming them for themselves and clothing their own private illusion of themselves with values that belong to God.

New Seeds of Contemplation

In the end, the Pharisee’s idea of God and idea of himself were really not that different. He was so good, so giving, so upright, he didn’t even need God! He was basically his own God.

The tax collector knew he couldn’t survive another day without God’s mercy.

And whether we realize it or not—insulated as our lives can be—none of us can truly live another day without God’s mercy.

We need it, we crave it, we have to have it now, Lord Jesus, because we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy.