The Generic Benevolent Deity

I don’t currently lead a congregation. Instead, I am now a perpetual visitor with a wide circuit of diverse congregations, from various denominations, with whom I occasionally worship. As I visit from church to church, I often wonder not just if we are saying the wrong things about God, but if we are saying anything at all about God, or to God, that is actually Christian. Too often, our worship seems to be focused on a Generic Benevolent Deity, not on the God of the Bible, of the apostolic church, of the ancient creeds or of the great Christian liturgies of the past.

The Generic Benevolent Deity loves us and accepts us. We can feel its presence. It helps us have positive emotional experiences. It leads us into fulfilling lives. It blesses us inside and out. It protects us and guides us. It helps us love our neighbors and make the world a better place.

As a Christian, I believe in a God who does all these things. The Christian God, however, is not just humanity’s universal spiritual benefactor. He is not a god of many names and many paths. He’s not a generic god at all.

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The Coincidence of Ascension Day and the National Day of Prayer

Yesterday marked both the Christian observance of Ascension Day and the civic observance of the National Day of Prayer.

The latter is a function of American civil religion which dates to 1952. The current practice of observing the National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of May dates to 1988. The text of the president’s politically inclusive 2016 proclamation is here.

For Christians, the Feast of the Ascension is the infinitely more important of the two observances. Based on the chronology in the Book of Acts, it comes 40 days after Easter and commemorates Christ ascension to the right hand of God.

Christ’s ascension is central to the apostolic Christian faith, yet Ascension Day is the most underappreciated festival of the Christian year. The orthodox Christians who confess the Apostles and Nicene creeds affirm “He ascended into heaven.” There, as the creed reminds us, “he is seated at the right hand of the Father.” There he reigns as the Lord of heaven and earth and the head of his church. From there he pours out the Holy Spirit. There he sits in power until he comes again in glory to restore all creation. There the church meets him by faith in its prayer, worship and fellowship. There he joins us at the Eucharistic table as both priest and sacrifice as the veil between heaven and earth is pulled away.

Surely Christ’s exaltation to the right hand of God has something to say about how Christians understand and practice prayer.

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No Orthodoxy without the Parousia

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. – The Nicene Creed

With the words of the Nicene or Apostles‘ creeds, the church confesses its faith in Jesus Christ, God’s son, our Lord, who was crucified and buried, but who rose again and ascended into heaven. And then we confess our belief that he will will come again “to judge the living and the dead.” We go on to confess our belief in the future resurrection and the life of the age to come.

Christ’s coming in glory to reign openly, establish justice and transform all creation is a core element of the orthodox Christian faith.

The word which Matthew, Paul, James, Peter and John all use to describe Jesus’ coming is parousia, or “presence.” At several points in the New Testament, we see that the delay in Jesus’ parousia was a problem – or maybe you would want to call it an issue – with which the early church had to grapple.

If Jesus’ delayed return was a problem for the first generation of Christians, it must surely be a problem for us. Except that it’s not, not really. We’re still waiting for Jesus’ return (well, some of us are), but I’d wager that Jesus’ delay doesn’t bother most Christians – at least western Christians – in the way that it bothered the early church.

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Four C’s of Salvation

1 Thessalonians 1:1–10

Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessalonica is generally considered to be the oldest document in the New Testament. It is usually dated around the year 50 CE, or 17-20 years after Jesus’ resurrection. It is the earliest written witness, then, of what the Christian faith meant for the Gentiles who first heard it preached in the Greco-Roman world.

As I looked at the text of 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, the material coalesced for me around four words: comprehension, conviction, conversion and commission. Now I would not ordinarily organize the text around four alliterative points. “Points” are not generally my thing; I think a narrative approach is generally preferable. However, as a worked with the text, these four words kept coming back to me as a way to describe how the church in Thessalonica received the apostle Paul’s’ preaching of the gospel.


The first thing that strikes me is that Paul’s message included specific assertions about who God is and what God did.

The “living and true God” (1:9) is “the Father” (1:1, 1:3). By implication, all other deities are “idols” that Paul condemns in 1:9.

Furthermore, Jesus is the “Christ” (1:1, 1:3) [or “messiah” or “anointed one”]. He is “the Lord” (1:1, 1:3) and God’s “son” (1:10), whom God raised from the dead (1:10). In the future, Jesus will come again from heaven to save “us” [the church, whom Paul addresses] from the wrath to come [presumably on those who still cling to idols] (1:10).

So Paul proclaimed a faith that encompassed God the Father, and Jesus Christ, his Son, the Lord, who died, who rose from the dead, and who will come again when God judges the world.

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