Manifest Destiny

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

A Sermon by Trevor Bechtel on July 23, 2023

Good morning, 

Last Sunday at our worship in the park Jen lead us in a excellent service focused on some of the ways our beliefs might have changed. It was a rich morning for me. I enjoyed talking in a small group to Tim, Paul, and Joe about our question. Joe suggested that we might not be able to change our beliefs. At most we do make decisions about who we spend time with and that could affect our beliefs over time but that we don’t make those changes as individuals. Paul wasn’t sure about this. In sharing time Tyler talked about conversations he’d once had with a friend about the possibility that a bunch of people could just show up in a park and have that be church. I made the somewhat off hand comment that how talk about manifesting what we desire is a phrase that has more and more moved into popular conversation, and Michelle immediately followed up with the direct question, “To what extent do you believe we are able to manifest anything at all in the world? Is manifestation anything other than prayer? And if so, how is it different?” and so here we are. 

In my reflections this morning I want to directly address Michelle’s question and think about some of the ways that belief connects to action, and to our concrete lives. Sadly, this topic is definitely one of those topics that needs to start with some work defining terms. This problem is incidentally one of the biggest problems in our culture. Academics in general and philosophers in particular tend to spend time at the beginning of the documents they produce doing this. It makes their work difficult to understand, partly because its really boring, and partly because they sometimes create meanings for words that they might not have in our ordinary language.  But it’s also really necessary to have some clarity about the words that we use, and one of the favorite tactics of someone who wants to distort a conversation is to give a meaning to a new meaning to a word that it didn’t originally have. There is a lot of this happening in discussion of racism right now in our society. Critical Race Theory, Wokeness, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, are all vigorously attacked right now, but what is actually attacked is very rarely the same thing as what people who believe in those ideas actually think. Using language together is hard. Using language together across different groups is even harder, and probably sometimes impossible. One of the ways to do this is to be honest about what we are doing and to ask for patience from the people we are talking to. So here we are. 

Belief is an admittedly tricky word. In ordinary language it can mean many different things. I can say, I believe in you to encourage someone. I can say I believe that Joe Biden is a good president to show my confidence in his leadership. I can say I believe that green is the best colour, cats are better than dogs, and coffee is essential for a happy life to show my preferences and opinions. 

 I can say I believe in science which means that I trust the experimental method on one hand, and on the other that I trust other people to learn things about the world and communicate that to me. I can say I believe I will have a child, or sign a recording contract and get close to what we mean when we say we can manifest something in the world.  Neither of those things are likely for me at this point but I could work to make them happen, I could set them as concrete goals in my life, I could write them down as I’ve done here, I could let go of any resistance or limiting beliefs, I could engage the universe with energy that is aligned in such a way to make these things happen. This is the process the Oprah website uses to define manifestation. 

You can probably think of other ways that you’d be comfortable using the word belief. But a word with such a wide range of meaning isn’t the most useful when we are trying to get clarity on a difficult question. So it makes some sense to remove some of these meanings from a more focused definition of belief. I can say I believe in gravity it probably makes more sense with gravity and other things established by science to call them facts rather than beliefs. I can say I believe green is the best colour but I probably makes more sense to call that an opinion. I can say I believe in another person but it probably makes more sense to say I’m confident you can do this. I can say I believe I will sign a recording contract but it probably makes more sense to say that that is something I desire. 

There is probably not a better way for me to express my faith though than to say I believe in God, or I believe Jesus Christ is my savior, or I believe the Holy Spirit fills me with power. These statements have four characteristics that define them as belief for me. They are public, rational, confessional, and communal. Christians have always thought of their beliefs as public. Indeed, this was one of the crucial characteristics of belief in the early church when Christians were in competition with Greek mystery cults. Christians insisted their beliefs were public and open to anyone, not secret and belonging only to members or priests. Publicness has meant different things throughout history. For instance believing in adult baptism in the 16th century could get you killed so many believers hid their faith. We don’t exactly hide our beliefs now in the 21st century but I would be open to the argument that they aren’t exactly public anymore either since we typically just talk about them here on Sundays. We have gone from others caring too much about what we believe to other caring too little. But anyone can join us here on Sunday for free and we don’t change what we do based on who comes through the door so here we are. 

Belief is also rational. It’s not something that can be proved by experiment like science, but it’s also not a matter of taste or opinion. There is a logic to belief and inside Christianity ideas are connected to each other by this logic. Most importantly belief is not in competition with other rational approaches to the world. The idea that Jesus was resurrected, or that he healed the little girl in today’s scripture are not irrational ideas. Like very many things we can’t prove them scientifically and we can’t disprove them scientifically. Part of what Christians do when they say I believe in miracles is confess that God is in control of the universe and that God is bigger than universe. The technical way that theologians talk about this is to say that God does not compete with the universe. God is before and after, and above and below, and outside and inside of time and space. God is completely separate from the universe but also closer to us than we are to ourselves. God works through us and everything that we do is something done through God. Thomas Aquinas talks about this by saying all comes from God and all returns to God in the end. God is not limited by our ability but also not limited by our inability.  This is one way that we can say that we can manifest things in the world. When I pray for something, or seek to do something, part of what I am doing is asking that God’s will and my will come together to make something happen. When it does happen it is right to say that God has brought it about because everything that happens is brought about by God. It’s never entirely correct to say when I pray for something that I brought it about, but it’s along not entirely wrong. God does work through us, in our actions, in our thoughts, in our desires. The key here in a Christian perspective is to recognize that we are not in control, and there is no way for us to control God. But we do have the capacity to make things happen. The woman who grabs Jesus cloak both heals herself and is healed by Jesus. The story doesn’t make any sense without her initiative. When I want something to happen, and pray for it, and work for it, and align my life towards it, as Susan and I did when we sought to have a child in our early thirties, and it doesn’t happen, is it correct to say that God has rejected that, or that I didn’t try hard enough to manifest it in my life? This is a further tricky thing about belief. 

(I’d like to bring you into a curious thing about the writing process for this sermon at this point. I wrote these words seated comfortably in my front yard and the minute I finished typing “This is a further tricky thing about belief” I heard a lone but extended thunderclap behind me on an otherwise sunny afternoon. It is hard to continue writing your sermon after that happens, especially when you’ve chosen this welter of topics. So here we are) 

In any event, this further tricky thing about belief leads us to it’s third characteristic. Belief is confessional. Belief statements are not properly confident or cynical, but confessional, that is humble and vulnerable statements of praise. We can know some things about God such as believing that God not in competition with us or our universe, that God is beyond us, that God is in control, but we can’t know everything. We can ask for anything, and we can be grateful for what we are given, but we can’t control the outcome. And while we may certainly be in competition with each other, God’s lack of competition extends to us. God is no preferring the person who has children over the person who doesn’t. 

So the direct answer to Michelle’s question is that.

 We can manifest anything that God wants. 

We can ask for anything that we want. 

But we can’t control God’s will. 

We can’t manifest anything that we want. 

I recognize that there is something deeply unsatisfactory here. Some people get stuff and when they get it, it is from God, but we can’t blame God when we don’t get stuff. There are of course a bunch of other sermons to be given at this point about God’s justice, God’s preference for the poor and oppressed, and God’s solidarity with those who suffer. But this remains unsatisfactory to our sense. I still feel significant remorse that I wasn’t able to have children but as I’ve interrogated that over the years I’ve realized that the society I live in created an expectation that everyone has children which has made that loss much more acute. This is accentuated every time someone asks me if I have children. So here we are. Part of why this sermon is so unsatisfactory is because to this point I’ve only focused on the relationship between the individual and God. 

To this point I’ve mostly discussed this in terms of how an individual connects to God. But as our dissatisfaction reveals we don’t live alone in the world with God. And this brings us finally to the fourth characteristic of belief. It happens in community.  We don’t believe things on our own. Belief needs to happen in community. We don’t need to share all our beliefs but in Christianity belief is held in common. Our confidence in our belief can increase when we hold them in common with other people, but our need to be humble and vulnerable does not disappear in community. Community can still be wrong but community at its best can be a place where we learn together what it means to believe. And this is the other way that we can manifest what we want, but joining a community that also wants those things. So here we are. 

Categories: Sermons