Everyone knows God. Even smartie-pants teenage boys who walk around pretending to be atheists when they are fourteen-years-old. Growing up in the 70s, I had only seen the church from the outside of the stained glass windows. I thought all the people inside were victims of group hypnosis, an elaborate prank they had played on themselves. People had inherited a God from their culture and shaped it into their own image. They got together with other people who believed roughly the same thing and when the preacher counted to three and snapped his fingers they would all say AMEN and go home.
I thought it was like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes except in this version no one could even see the Emperor. All the religious people were victims of the hoax and I was gonna be the brave, honest young boy who dared to tell the truth, pointing out what everyone else already knew in their heart—there is no God.
I probably believed in God when I was very young, I don’t really remember, but I started calling myself an atheist at about fourteen years old. I talked about it a lot and kinda liked how flustered adults would get when they heard a young boy saying he thought God was a made-up fantasy creature. I enjoyed watching the vein pop out of their foreheads as they tried to hold on to their delusion—at least that’s how it looked to me.
Some of you have heard my story before but since tonight is the official Feast of St FrankMas, I thought it would be good to read a few excerpts from the Book of Frank that explain how I went from being a rank pagan living in the faithless darkness of Central Illinois, destined to join the Children of Corn to the marvelous light of following Jesus and realizing that it is actually the unbelievers who are hypnotized and asleep. The Book of Frank is actually titled Joyride, which I’m currently finishing a final read-through and will be published soon. The only thing that has taken me longer than writing this dang book is living the life I’m writing about.
This is from a chapter called “The Beginning of Faith and Meaning.”
I felt quite superior to all the poor hypnotized masses until I saw God. I don’t mean I saw a vision or that God appeared to me in the flesh, I simply looked up at the stars one night and suddenly could no longer sustain the belief God wasn’t there. I was fourteen years old and felt so small standing in my backyard. I could feel the grass, soft as velvet, under my feet, the dirt under the grass and the air between myself and the expanse of space. I could sense the microscopic universes making up each atom which in turn make up everything that is. It all seemed too interconnected to be random. I couldn’t convince myself, given enough time and space, a godless universe could end up generating me staring at the stars trying to not believe in a God who wasn’t there. How would we ever suspect that the universe was without meaning if it was actually without meaning? My drummer friend, Jerry, said the argument for God based on the complexity of reality is not a convincing argument. He once told me he often contemplates infinity when doing something simple like reaching for a glass of water. “But I don’t believe infinity ever contemplates me,” he said. I met Jerry when I was in college and this is the type of conversation we had. I often left those conversations wondering if some part of me had just come alive or if something inside me had just died because sometimes those two things feel the same.
After I saw God, or felt Him see me, I went back inside the house. My family was sitting around the TV watching HBO, a new and amazing thing in our world. Watching movies without commercials on our television set in the privacy of our living room was our new favorite thing to do. VCRs wouldn’t be around for several more years and the idea of R-rated movies, complete with swearing and nudity on our very own television set, was irresistible. I sat down and joined them for a few minutes.
I was still thinking about God so I got up and walked over to our bookcase. There was a set of Encyclopedias, a dictionary, a copy of “I’m Ok, You’re Ok,” and the Bible. None of these books had been read except possibly the dictionary for homework. I picked up the big, white Bible with a padded cover and gold trim, carried it back to the couch and sat down. I don’t know why my family had this Bible or where it had come from but we’d had it as long as I could remember. I cracked it open. If you open a big Bible to the center you could end up in a number of places but I landed in Psalms. What I found was amazing in light of what had just happened in the backyard:
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night-to-night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
I said, “Hey, listen to this…” and read the first part out loud to them: “Have you ever read the Bible?”
“Of course!” My mom said this as though the question was an insult. “Of course I’ve read the Bible.”
But she hadn’t read the Bible, not much of it anyway. No one in our house had. I took the big book upstairs to my bedroom and started in the beginning. I was going to get to know this God who wouldn’t allow me to not believe in Him. I started in the beginning: Genesis, the creation, Adam, Eve, one fascinating story after another about God and man. I got lost somewhere in Numbers or Leviticus and skipped ahead to the New Testament and its stories about Jesus.
The affection I had for superheroes made the Gospels instantly thrilling to me. Jesus was an awe inspiring character, from his amazing birth to the way he spoke. He healed the blind and deaf, the crippled and those tormented by demons. He sent demons into a bunch of pigs and the pigs ran off a cliff. He fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two small fish. He told stories that opened people’s imaginations and eyes to apprehend the very kingdom of Heaven. He read people’s minds, walked on water and passed through walls. I saw Jesus as the ultimate superhero, a true superhero.
So that’s how I came to faith. The universe met me in the backyard, told me there was a God and called me by name. Then I found out His name was Jesus. I know it sounds a little crazy—why would the God of the universe pay attention to some stupid kid in central Illinois? I figure if the universe is infinite and ever expanding then any point within it is as much the center as any other. Which means I am as much the center of the universe as anyone else. And so are you.
Everyone knows God. Everyone, no matter who they are, where they are, or what language they speak knows that there is a God and He is the Creator. Turn to Psalm 19 if you have a Bible to look at, and let’s walk through it line by line. Verse one…
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
What is the “Glory of God?” It’s one of those phrases that sounds like it means something but when you think about it, it kinda loses its meaning. Like when you say a word too many times and suddenly it seems like you’ve never heard the word before and gets strange. “Glory of God.” “Glory.” “Glory” sounds a lot like “gory.” “Glory days.” “Old Glory.” “Glory, glory, hallelujah!”
When I hear “Glory of God” it sounds sparkly to me. Shiny. In Hebrew the word “Glory” is “Ka-vode” (kabowd) which is sometimes translated as “honor.” Ka-vode is actually a lot like the way we use the word “heavy” — like when we are super impressed with something and say, “Whoa! That was heavy!” It means “heaviness” but is always used figuratively.
So, the “Glory of God” is His “heaviness” His abundance, riches, splendor, His dignity and reputation. Like precious gold and jewels He is beautiful, substantial, heavy, worth more than anything else. The heavens make it clear to us that God is awesome. Make sense? Heavy man! Next line…
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
The translation we heard earlier said it like this, “They speak without a sound or word; There is no language where their voice is not heard.” I love that, and seems to be much closer to what the Psalm is actually trying to communicate. By the way, as a side note, I like to use as many translations as possible when I’m trying to figure out what a text is actually saying. The Psalms were originally written in Hebrew which is a very concise language, it uses very few words to say things—probably easier to carve books on tablets of stone that way— in fact there are only four Hebrew words making up that entire paragraph. Four. The translation I read, the ESV, used twenty-five words to say the same thing in English. Pretty heavy, huh?
So creation tells mankind about the Glory of God without any words at all, and there is no language where it is not heard. Everyone hears it.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
This must have been written on a hot day. The kind of day that can only be enjoyed if you can find some shade. I totally get this. My pasty-white skin starts to burn in about thirteen seconds of direct exposure. This is a really important concept that is easy to miss in the poetry of the Psalm. The heavens tell us about the Glory of God, but they tell us in a way that we can understand without being undone. Without being burned by the direct glory. We need a tent for the Sun in order to enjoy its splendor. And every day of our life God has given us this marvelous light-show, from the rising of the sun to the going down of the sunset. Nothing can hide from its heat—not even in the shade of the tent. Everyone knows there is a God.
Now the Psalm turns from the general revelation of God by creation to the specific revelation of His Word. His law. Law. Law sounds like such a harsh and cruel word but as we read through this next section, let’s keep in mind two important things. First the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is the Logos, The Word. Second, He taught us that the Law is perfectly summarized and understood as “love.” Love for God and love for people. When you hear “law” put it in the context of “how to love.”
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
Law, testimony, precepts, commandments, fear and rules are perfect, clarifying, joyful, pure, gives our life meaning and purpose, endures forever and is altogether righteous. Life has no meaning or direction outside of His Word and His Law—specifically as we find these thing in Jesus. Remember, every time we see the word “LORD” in all capitals it is talking about Jesus. Jesus is LORD.
Living our lives as though there is no God is like driving our cars as though there are no roads, or signs, other cars, or speed limits. Blindfolded. It might be fun for a short time.
Now the Psalmist gets back to the concept of “Glory” and weightiness, comparing earthly riches to God’s Word and Law.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
More than wealth and good food—More to be desired than millions of dollars in the bank or an endless supply of Yardhouse Mac and Cheese—God’s Law is perfect and sweet, showing us how to love Him and love others. When we live our lives according to this true standard things go well for us. Keeping the law becomes its own reward. Which sounds nice and all, but the problem is we fail, don’t we? The next part deals with what happens when we fall short of God’s perfect standard and we sin against Him and fail the people we are supposed to love.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
I love that. “Hidden faults,” the sinful, shameful things we do that we’re not even aware of. In Jesus we are forgiven even from the things we didn’t know we did. That’s good news because we keep pretty busy dealing with the ones that are not hidden.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
The “presumptuous sins” are the sins we are more than aware of. We did them on purpose with full knowledge, we’ll probably do them again, and if we keep doing them, this verse says they will have control over us. This is powerful language. If we insist on continuing in unrepentant sin we give very dark powers command over us. This is because if we repeat a sin it’s no longer a mistake, it’s a decision. Thankfully, if we repent and turn away from these presumptuous sins, then we have this promise:
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Glory to God indeed! Thanks to the Word of God who became flesh and died in our place we are forgiven of all our sin. The sins we are unaware of and all the terrible things we do on purpose.
This is my favorite Psalm. Not only because it’s the one God used to call me to faith, although that would be reason enough. It’s also a powerful and complete picture of the Gospel. God exists, we all know this, He is awesome and full of glory, He gives us His word so that we can know how to live a meaningful life, we fail Him in ways that we are not even aware of as well as on purpose, and He forgives us completely.
It ends with this beautiful well known verse:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
I asked the question a couple of weeks ago, “if we were to start a new church from scratch, and we started over by looking at God’s Word and following Jesus, what would that church look like?” That’s exactly what we’re doing and we’ve been having a great time trying to figure that out here at NewChurch.
I started working on a website for us the other day. I’ve seen a lot of bad church websites, I’ve even been responsible for a couple of them over the years. There’s so many ways to get it wrong. They can be so churchy and full of insider language that it looks like gibberish to the uninitiated. It can be so sincere and filled with fluff that grown men are rendered nauseous. Some websites are too hipster, most are too boring, too many are ugly and in some way an embarrassment to the entire Kingdom of God by their mere existence. And yet I bravely venture into world wide weirdness. Even with my eyes wide open. Confident that God will forgive me for the sins that I am unaware of.
Anyway, I was working on the homepage for the New NewChurch website and I wanted to have a cool tagline. Something strong, unique to us, not cheesy, and true. You know, the same thing all the other millions of churches have already tried to do in those websites I was just talking about. I also wanted it to be something that could be understood by people who are not already well versed in Churchianity and Christianese.
I prayed about it and I came up with a simple phrase that I think actually works.
Worship God. Love People.
Pretty simple but that’s what I think we’re here to do. Worship God and love people. The heavens declare the Glory the God and we want to join in and sing along, we also want to invite as many people to join us singing as we are able. “Glory be to God on high and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” When anyone asks what NewChurch is all about tell them this, “Worship GOD. Love People.”
To wrap this up I’m going to read another section from my book. This is from the last few paragraphs of the final chapter called “A Beginning in Every End”:
I’ve been following Jesus since I was fourteen, since He found me in the backyard looking up at the stars. It hasn’t always been the prettiest route though some of it was beautiful, and it probably wasn’t the shortest way, either. He’s led me through difficult things and I’m sure there is plenty of hard road ahead. There is one final struggle before us all but we don’t have to be afraid.
Jesus didn’t say following Him would be a path around pain and suffering—He was famously tortured and murdered. He doesn’t lead us around difficult things but He will lead us through them. He said, “In this world, you are going to face trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Jesus is the only way through the pain that offers hope and meaning.
It can be hard to follow Jesus when the other followers do such terrible things. Christians can seem to be more about what they’re against than what they’re for, more about what they hate than what they love. The church is known for its disdain of people who are different than them. This seems backwards because we are supposed to be known by our love.
I’ve never heard anyone complain about Christians being too loving, have you? “They are so kind and gentle, I just can’t stand to be around them,” said no one ever.
I don’t like being identified with people who make following Jesus seem ridiculous, which is why for a long time I wouldn’t call myself a Christian. Who wants to be associated with a bunch of obnoxious, judgmental, narrow-minded people? Who wants to be identified with angry pastors, mean-spirited so called conservatives who spit platitudes about abortion at hurting people, with close-minded windbags who rant about homosexuals and gay marriage, with theological purists who throw their opinions and Bible verses at each other like smooth stones. I don’t want to be associated with these kind of Christians any more than I want to hang around my embarrassing uncle when he is drunk and picking fights at a party.
I want to follow Jesus but remain separate from His unpleasant followers. This is foolish because I can’t follow someone with millions of followers and pretend I’m not one of them. I refused to be identified with Christians because I thought they made Jesus look bad. They didn’t treat people with love and grace so I wasn’t going to treat them with love and grace.
I said, “I like Jesus, I just don’t care for His followers.” It was a long time before I realized I was talking about myself. I’m a Jesus follower and I’ve done a lot of ugly things. I’ve told you some of them in this book. We all need grace and forgiveness but we have to be willing to offer it to others once it has been given to us.
May we be a new church that gathers here on Saturday evenings to worship the God who created the heavens and the earth. May we hear from His Word so that we can know what He wants from us, so we can know how to love Him and how to love each other. So we can hear how He loves us and promises us forgiveness. May we rest in His forgiveness when we are unloving and fail Him, may we forgive ourselves as completely as He forgives us. And may we offer that same grace and mercy to the people of this community and anyone who trespasses against us.