Exploring the interplay between ortho-doxy (right belief) and ortho-praxy (right action)...

...and encouraging a life where these intertwined thoughts and deeds simply happen... by default.

28 December 2007

by-default is moving...

Blogger is great...

...but Wordpress is (in my opinion) a better blogging system... (no offense, Blogger!)

I've transferred everything to my new blog at:


I'll leave this one up for a while, but all my new posts will be over there.

Here's a screen-shot:




26 December 2007

the wright gift!

A rather HUGE thanks to my wife this year for definitely choosing the 'Wright' gift this Christmas...

(See pics below!)

Below: One happy husband. One Wright gift.

Below: One Wright-Wreading husband. One Wright gift. Two Wright manuscripts.

(Books: 'The Climax of the Covenant' and 'Hebrews for Everyone')

Cheers everyone!




21 December 2007

the 'science' of intelligent design

I must thrive on controversy or something. I've got posts on speaking in 'tongues', sexual ethics and now --if those weren't enough-- I'm posting on the evolution/creation debate... Sigh... Where to begin!!??

Where I've come from
Since I like honesty, I'll start with a very short (and therefore un-detailed) review of how I've thought in the past, and where I'm at now...

Growing up, I didn't think too much about evolutionary theory. I believed God created all things, and assumed that He did it like Genesis 1 & 2 said. Years later, the topic would become of greater importance to me. I listened to radio programmes, read a few books, looked at websites, etc., etc., and convinced myself that evolution could not be true. I happily enjoyed debating about it, and pointing to 'holes' in Darwinian theory... The title 'six-day young-earth creationist' would have been proudly worn by me, and any Christian who dared think that 'macro-evolution' could have happened would have gotten dis-approving looks from me.

More recently, however, I've taken a much more 'I have no idea' kind of approach to whether or not life as we know it has come about by way of Darwinian processes. My current view of Genesis 1 & 2, is that these chapters are not scientific explanatory reports, but rather theological poetic texts which were not written to explain exactly how creation 'happened', but rather to (beautifully, if you ask me!) contrast the Creator God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with all of the gods of the nations around them. I could go on, but that's enough for a 'very brief' review!

Why this post?
Firstly, I am still interested in such conversations; though at the same time, I'm saddened by the unhelpful ways they are sometimes carried out. Secondly, this interest and sadness have found me discussing such things with some atheists. As we discussed my last post (which was more of a philosophical suggestion concerning the value(s) which underlie ethics and morality) we eventually stumbled onto things to do with evolution. I thought that the conversation was too big to have there... More specifically, I wanted to discuss my thoughts on 'Intelligent Design' (I.D.).

'I.D.' scientific?
I.D. (which enters conversations about cosmology, abiogenesis and evolution) is called a lot of things by a lot of people. 'True science' by fundy young-earthers, and 'Religions' desperate attempt to attack real science' by others. Here are my thoughts, which --perhaps not surprisingly-- are located somewhere between these two...

The biggest criticism of I.D. is that it is not a testable theory. A big problem is that the evaluation of that statement is confused by various expressions of what I.D. is. If I.D. is a theory which makes suggestions about how the universe or complex organisms came to be, then it can only be 'tested' in a mental-experiment kind of way, which may prove quite useful to philosophers and logicians. On the other hand, it offers no empirically testable theories, so --in a very important sense-- it is not a theory at all, but rather an assertion.

Natural science, you see, is what natural science is. It seeks to explain things by natural causes, so you can see why a 'theory' about a super-natural 'designer' is no longer in the domain of natural science. Positing all day long about a designer leaves nothing to empirically test, and thus no way for natural science to even begin to do its thing. Therefore, the idea that the universe and/or complex organisms are designed is one of many ideas that can never be verified, tested or developed by natural science.

A confused mess
Now, having said that, there remains a great deal of value in critiquing Darwinian evolutionary theory - or any other theory for that matter! What I suspect is happening, however, is that the whole 'I.D.' movement --with it's implicit (sometimes explicit!!??) agenda to 'prove' the existence of the Designer-- actually ends up stifling and confusing what sometimes could be fruitful critique of Darwinian theory.

The comments on this article show how immaturely and impatiently the I.D. crowd react when scientists change their opinion on something. This does not encourage fruitful dialogue.

A new documentary by Ben Stein called 'Expelled' will highlight several controversial scenarios involving abuse or firing of scientists and instructors who subscribed to I.D. ideas. Debates rage about the legitimacy of the tenure denial of seemingly qualified astrophysicist Guillermo Gonzalez, or the dismissal of Caroline Crocker. (Two quick examples of firings that seem more justified (or at least to be expected?) are that of Kris Helphinstine and Nathaniel Abraham.)

An unfortunate example to me is the firing of Richard Sternberg for publishing an article by I.D. proponent Stephen Meyer. Sternberg himself finds I.D. flawed, but published Meyer's article because "evolutionary biologists are thinking about this. So I thought that by putting this on the table, there could be some reasoned discourse." Like all such situations, there is no doubt more to the story than the public will ever know, but the firing of Sternberg (himself neither an evangelical, young-earth creationist or even a theistic evolutionist!) seems to me extreme.

So What?
So, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most disappointing things about I.D. is that it has simply gone too far too often. It seems that because of the attempts to use it to 'prove' a God, they have created justified suspicion in the natural science community. What a shame. As far as I'm concerned, it's silly to think that natural science could ever 'prove' God.

The assertions that the universe looks ordered, fine-tuned or designed are assertions that I find compelling, but these assertions give natural science no counter-theory, no alternative-hypothesis, and no way to even begin to test for the implicitly suggested Orderer, Fine-Tuner and/or Designer.


10 December 2007

true love: stranger & friend

A very recent post had a moral bent, and the ensuing comment-discussion quickly observed that morals are based on values and eventually focussed on the question of what (if anything) underlies our values. In other words, are values grounded 'on' anything? Or, are they as free and changing as the various expressions of human cognition/thought? In this post, I want to try to explore this question further. Just one thing before I begin:

A request for discussion of this post:
I do not wish for this exploration and discussion to be hi-jacked by various statements (of any kind) about what 'the Bible says', and what that supposedly means. Do I think that the Bible has something to say in this exploration and discussion? Most certainly. But many assertions (both 'positive' and 'negative' ones - if I may put it like that) can derail the conversation before it leaves the station. My desire is not to have this conversation in the usual verse-quoting and scoffing fashion, but rather as thinking human beings - with whatever anthropology you bring to the table. And for Christian readers, it is my conviction (I believe C.S. Lewis once said something similar?) that if we can't discuss our beliefs in non-religious --or non-'bible'-- language, then we either don't actually believe those things or we are totally out of touch with the world. Now. Let's think together about this question.

First, we should observe that a conversation about absolute or universal principles, values and/or morals is really a conversation about what is called 'truth'. So we'll use that word here. Secondly, the discussion is often characterised by what I see to be a false choice between two views (including views that are closer to one or the other of these two):

  • The 1st view we will call 'absolutism'. This is the idea not only that there is absolute truth, but that we can and/or do fully know it.
  • The 2nd view we will call 'relativism'. This is the idea not only that there is no absolute truth, but that we couldn't and/or wouldn't know it even if there were.
'Accessing' Truth?
I suggest we have this false choice because (even though our beliefs may vary) our thinking and discussing is still largely shaped by Greek philosophical categories. More specifically, modern Westerners still think in terms of a dualist split between matter and spirit. Matter being the stuff that is less than important, and spirit being that which is most important. This directly affects how we still think about 'truth.' Popular culture still thinks of truth as unchanging, static, pure, 'up there', and needing to be 'accessed' and/or 'brought down' to us. [See diagram: I made it, isn't it neat? :) ]

What happens, then, is that the 'absolutists' not only claim total (or at least partial) 'access' to this body of 'truth', but also claim to know precisely how it is to be worked out in the context of daily life or a specific situation. Now, the 'relativist' would say that this 'truth' is not absolute, but that it changes depending on the context. Some relativists (many atheists?) would even say quite simply that there no 'up there' kind of 'truth', and that we've got nothing but 'context', which we respond to in various ways, resulting in various mental constructs which are held to be 'truth' for that person or culture.

Why do we have this false choice? Why this spectrum between absolutists and relativists with no seeming middle ground? Could there be a third way of seeing how 'Truth' works? If so, how might we understand (or even imagine?) such a thing?

A more 'down to earth' Truth?
Indeed, the English word 'truth' can represent various ideas for various people, and even one person might use it to mean slightly different things at times. Often, it's used in a kind of verifying way, with things that can in principle be verified: "Is it true that Dad is coming home early tonight?" Other times it's used for inquiry into less verifiable things: "Is it true that Macintosh computers are more sleek and stylish than PC's?" Other times the usage is to gain information that might be 'hidden' for various reasons: from "Did you eat the last slice of pie? Go on, tell me the truth!" to "Where were you last night? Tell me the truth!"

The interesting thing about all of these usages is this: They have nothing at ALL to do with an 'up there' kind of truth. Instead of having to do with floating principles in the sky, all these usages have to do with real situations - real life, the real world. So, in case you need me to say it clearer, truth ain't 'up there'! So, at least concerning the existence of an 'up there' kind of truth, I am in agreement with many relativists.

But, I am not a moral relativist, nor do I believe that truth (wherever it is 'located' or whatever shape it is, etc.) is relative. So what does my picture of truth look like? Well, I don't plan on trying to 'describe' an idea as huge as 'truth' with a few sentences... that would be silly. But I do want to present one way of which I think truth can be 'known'.

Now, my use of the word 'known' warrants an entirely separate discussion about epistemology, but suffice it to say that I'm not talking about 'knowing the truth' like one knows that 2+2=4. Rather, I'm talking about something much like 'knowing' you've just said either something entirely inappropriate which you wish you could take back or something entirely appropriate which simply had to be said at exactly that moment...

Truth Transcending Tensions?
When I picture truth, I think of Love. What a shame that the word 'Love' can mean mere feelings, as the phrases 'falling in love' or 'I don't love you anymore' or 'I love creamy Jif peanut butter' would suggest. But the attitude, mentality or disposition of selfless, patient, tolerant, kind Love remains.

I discussed this a while back in another post, but I'll summarise here. Love resides in what might be called the 'tension' between 'self' and 'other'. Tom Wright (who is drawing on the thought of Bernard Lonergan) puts it this way: "the point about love - the epistemology which love generates - is that love both affirms the other-ness of the object [objectivity] while remaining in deep, rich and close subjective [subjectivity] relationship to it. Love transcends the objective-subjective divide."

I lov... um... well, I fully agree with that. :) Love transcends more than the objective-subjective divide, however. Life is just cram packed full of tensions which Love transcends. Male-female; Order-Chaos; Logic-Emotion and more.

True Love?
Just before closing this post, I want to say one more intentionally paradoxical thing about Love. I want to suggest that Love is (as the title of this post suggests) both the most foreign and the most familiar thing to us.

On one hand, it is familiar; we know what it looks like. We've seen it - if but for a passing moment. In living rooms, at coffee tables, through tears - both of joy and pain. Strangely, we know what Love looks like as much from its absence as from its fleeting presence. Like a beautiful garden that has been 'let go' and is now over-run with weeds and tall, unkempt grass, we 'know' what it's like to see Love fade away - just out of reach, just around the corner.

On the other hand, it is foreign - totally other. Hundreds of beds in a clothing factory providing a few hours of rest for hundreds of human bodies which will awaken the next day to produce thousands of garments underneath florescent light to be shipped across a body of water for other human bodies to purchase at 'everyday low prices' in various large retail buildings in other countries, underneath all-too-similar florescent light. Love is a pipe dream. A silly notion. All that matters here are dollars, cents, profit margins and stock dividends.

Yes, I am suggesting a contradiction. We know exactly what Love is, and yet we have no idea what Love is.

(I look forward to rationalising about such a wishy-washy thing!)


9 December 2007

truth hurts real good

What an inconvenience!

I mean, seriously. Doesn't it just stink that the thing that people need to hear most is what they enjoy hearing the least?

It's just the way we are, isn't it? We love people as long as they always tell us what we want to hear and smile at us a lot. Are these expectations of others healthy? Are they even based in reality?

I think not.

Truth is, we tend to keep people at a safe distance from us. None of us want to be alone and not have any friends, but very few people want a friend that cares enough to say the uncomfortable but true things that they need to hear. We like friends that only talk about things they KNOW we agree with. Rugby, TV shows, or maybe that person that both of you don't really like.

Maybe you love to talk to other people that are frustrated with Christians or the Church.

Or, maybe you love to talk about how other people just don't 'get it' as much as you do.

Maybe it's been a long time since you've had a discussion that wasn't comfortable.

Maybe that's why we struggle so much with conflict.

Maybe we have forgotten how to speak the truth in love.

Maybe we don't want to hear the truth about us.

Proverbs 15 (selected verses)
A fool despises his father's instruction, but he who receives reproof is prudent. v. 5
Harsh correction is for him who forsakes the way, and he who hates reproof will die. v. 10
A scoffer does not love one who reproves him, nor will he go to the wise. v. 12
The ear that hears the reproof of life will abide among the wise v.31
He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, but he who heeds reproof gets understanding. v.32

Be willing to be the BEARER or RECIPIENT of truth.
Strangely enough, sometimes those with the hardest message to hear are often the ones that care about you most.


22 November 2007

sexual identity remixed

I'm well aware of this topics' controversial nature. In fact, that's part of the reason I've been wanting to write about this for a while. What I do not want to do is quote verses or provide what I think 'the Bible says' about this issue. Of course, I do have a view on that, but that specific pathway into this topic has been almost ruined for all kinds of reasons, not least simplistic applications of various texts.

As with any other discussion, the use of words is key. At one extreme, the sheer number of terms being created ('pangender', 'omnisexuality' and 'heteronormativity' to name but a few) does not seem to help fruitful discussion, but at the other extreme, many can fail to appreciate the complexity of the issues being discussed. Because of this complexity, it would be easy to spend huge amounts of time trying to address everything that has ever been said about human sexuality. But, of course, that's the job of a lengthy dissertation or something. My hope is to fruitfully contribute to the conversation. Quite simply, I want to raise two concerns I have relating to human sexuality.

Just one thing before I get going. Much harm has been done in this area. For all variety of reasons, people have said things in ways that are careless, abusive, condescending and just plain hurtful. To say that only religious people have done this would of course be inaccurate. The issue is far more complex than that. It's not simply a matter of Christians 'versus' homosexuals, or whatever. It's fathers against daughters, communities splitting, families and relationships crumbling and various cultures defining and redefining themselves. Many people of all persuasions simply need to apologise for what they've said and done. That is a bigger concern than any that follow...

But, alas, the issue is important and simple answers to complex questions will not do. Now, finally, here are two concerns to consider...

Concern #1 - Sexuality needs guidance like all other human activity.
I still remember hearing her say it. The younger (20-ish) of two women was sharing her inner pondering as to her own 'sexuality', and the older (50-ish) woman assured her, '...whatever decision you come to will be the right one.' One would struggle to imagine a more relativistic statement.

Also, I read a brochure from an organisation seeking to support youth dealing with these issues. It shared the same assurance: "...whatever you are, it's a perfectly natural part of being you." I talked with a representative from this organisation, and politely asked if there were any sexual activities that they did not approve of. What advice, I asked, would they give to youth feeling that they most identified with things such as incest, pedophilia and beastiality (sex with animals)? The reply was that these were not supported, and that youth wishing to identify with these things would be 'referred to a counselor.' This, of course, means that this organisation is not as all-approving as their brochure would suggest.

Guidance, leadership and direction happens in all areas of life, but when it comes to sexuality (especially in rich, western affluent areas), for some reason the only tolerated thing to do is to throw up your hands and say, 'whatever you think...' Why is this?

Now, I've not mentioned any specific sexual behaviour(s) so far - I'm just raising the concern that this is an area which I think needs guidance. For example, while I've never heard anyone suggest that heterosexuality in and of itself is 'wrong', there are indeed examples of heterosexual actions which most would say was indeed wrong; incest, pornography, pedophilia, etc. While the basis against such things may vary (which is a key question), most would agree, I suspect, that we need some kind of 'guidance' here.

Three examples may be helpful here.
1. Infidelity
Men who are in a marriage (or committed partnership) with a woman will admit that women other than their wife or partner are still sexually attractive. But most (especially the wives or partners of these men!) would say this is one attraction which would be 'wrong' to follow through on!
2. Rape
If one objects that the first example is a result of 'the socially constructed idea of commitment', then consider this example. A man attracted to a woman who doesn't desire sex with him must also answer his desires with a firm 'No'.
3. Pedophilia
If one should still object on grounds that all sex between consenting parties is valid, then consider the next example. A man attracted to a consenting 13 year old girl must also control himself.

All three above examples, by the way, are between men and women, who have what I like to call 'genital compatibility', yet they show a need for personal restraint and self control - even in view of such 'compatibility'. Indeed, the bodily organs would function quite aptly; but the answer to these desires is still a firm 'No.'

Further, very few people would deny that at least some desired sexual actions could be - at least in principle - harmful, dangerous or wrong. Nobody would suggest that desire alone ensures that a given action is a good one. If we made the rest of our life decisions that way... well... we'd buy, eat, use and do whatever we wanted. We understand the need for restraint and self-control in other areas of life - why do we so often neglect this need with sexuality?

Concern #2 - Personal identity based on sexual desire/attraction is problematic.
When people identify themselves as a "_____"-sexual person, they are identifying with a sexual attraction, and that attraction obviously implies a desire to follow-through on that attraction. That's the thing about desire; it's not desire just to have a desire - it's desire to actually do something. When we don't follow through on our desires - we don't like it; we're not getting what we're desiring. It's quite simple, really.

The reason, I suggest, why basing personal identity on such desires or attractions is problematic is this: because we don't always get what we want. For example, imagine someone who's personal identity was based on a specific sexual desire (whatever that might be). Now, if that person is not able to have the specific sexual experience they desire, then they are not able to fully express themselves according to what their personal identity has been based on. A person who identifies their whole self based upon their sexual desires, who is not sexually active, is not actualised in their person-hood. They are only a "_____"-sexual person in theory, and not in reality (like a firefighter who never fights fires, or a seamstress who never sews). Again, I've said nothing about any specific kind of sexual activity being 'wrong'. My second concern is specifically about basing one's personal identity on desire or attraction.

A helpful chapter called 'Angels and Animals' in Rob Bell's book 'Sex God' highlights two extremes for understanding ones' sexual self or identity. For one extreme ('animals'), he cites the example of two movie stars who 'hooked up' (in spite of a marriage), who later said, 'We just couldn't help ourselves.' This is a case of seeing yourself as an animal with sexual 'animal instincts' which cannot be harnessed. The other extreme ('angels') is to reject one's sexuality altogether, perhaps even viewing it as bad or evil. The healthy middle between the two is when sex is protected, valued and respected.

Western culture inundates us with messages via advertising (billboards, magazines, commercials), movies and television programmes which all too often present sexuality as a 'no holds barred' arena. The more active you are, the better. Go out and have a good time, enjoy yourself; oh, and by the way, don't get caught - whether that means the sexual partner's spouse catching the two of you, the sexual partner getting pregnant or either of you getting 'caught' by a sexually transmitted infection/disease.

We need help. The human race, obviously, is kept going because of sex. It's a good thing. But used poorly, it can make families, communities (even nations?) unstable - and harm individuals along the way. There are big questions here, and simple answers just won't do any longer.


21 November 2007

Amos 5:18-7:17 (targum)

'Targum' (plural is 'targumim') is a literary genre in which parts of the Hebrew Bible are 'modernised' and/or re-interpreted for the current time (specifically, it means an Aramaic translation.). This genre has been around for at least 2000 years, because some of the writings from the 'Dead Sea Scrolls' consist of 'targumim' fragments. Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, in their book 'Colossians Remixed: Subverting The Empire' use this genre quite well - I think - to suggest how the message of certain parts of Paul's letter to the Colossians might be heard in modern, western culture.

Anyway, our church is almost finished teaching through the book of Amos, (I've just recently finished a course called 'Prophets in Context' by Tim Bulkeley at Carey Baptist College and his Amos commentary is - in my humble opinion! - the best fully-online commentary on this book.) and I recently preached on the text of 5:18 - 7:17. Here, for your enjoyment, discomfort (or both!?) is my 'targum' of this passage...


(Judgment against hollow worship - 5:18-27)

"You want Jesus to come back? Yeah right! You know when He comes, He's going to judge the wicked, don't you!!?? It's not going to be fun for you! God says, 'Nothing makes me sicker than your conferences. I want to vomit during your church services. Even though you offer your so-called 'worship' I couldn't care less! I don't listen to junk like that! Will you please just shut up already?? I don't want to be your boyfriend! I want you to be passionate about justice! I want you to live lives that are righteous! Hello? Did you organise music festivals, worship conferences and other such 'Christian' things? I'll make your 'Hill' songs into 'Valley' songs – for the 'god' that you are worshipping is the music god you've made for yourself!!! I'm going to make you completely and totally irrelevant and non influential in your own culture. No one will care AT ALL what you have to babble on about!

(Judment against excessive consumption - 6:1-14)
"You are so comfortable, so 'spiritual' and so 'successful'. You're RICH as well! Your
ridiculous obsession with video games, new clothing and entertainment and eating – YUCK!
Don't you care? Would you turn off your 'worship CD's' long enough to consider your out-right hypocrisy? This is why no one listens to what you say! Don't you get it!!?? It's not just the fundamentalist weirdo Christians who make a bad name for us, it's YOU – yes YOU – you hypocrite! The bach and your holiday home? I'll smash them to pieces! You've absolutely wrecked my project for justice and righteousness! Again, this is why Christians aren't listened to in Western Culture. The things you spend time and money on have more to do with the world's stupid notions of 'success' than MY values of simplicity and self-less-ness!

(The three 'visions' - 7:1-9)
God gave me three word-pictures. Check them out…

First, He showed me a timer counting down rapidly toward zero, and it was like the number of professing believers in New Zealand. I prayed to God, 'Please forgive us! There won't be any of us left!' He had mercy because of this and said, 'OK. This won't happen.'
Second, God showed me a Smith & Caughey's Christmas display –with Carols echoing 'God and sinners reconciled' -but next to it was a sexual advert objectifying men and women made in God's image! God said this was exactly like the mixed message that comfortable, affluent Christians are sending to the world, and therefore our influence will perish. I prayed, 'No! Please! We're weak!' He again had mercy…
Lastly, God showed me a funeral service. He asked me, 'What do you see?' I said, 'People weeping and mourning.' Then He said, 'See, I'm causing my people to weep and howl and mourn, because I am incensed at their hypocrisy! I will not stay silent. I will show them that their lack
of works means their faith is DEAD!!!'

(The brief encounter narrative - 7:10-17)
Now, the most 'spiritual' and 'successful' Christian in Auckland complained to his pastor, saying "This guy is preaching against us and we can't stand his muttering. He says we're missing the point of the Gospel." So he went to me and said, "Your so divisive! Spare us your theological musings! Save it for your dead spirit-less church! Don't quench what the Spirit is doing with us!" And I said, "Hey, I'm not saying anything that you need a Masters in Divinity to understand! I saw hypocrisy, and God compelled me to call it what it is. I cannot BUT speak! You say, 'Don't touch the Lord's anointed', therefore God says, 'You will be seen to be hypocrites by the entire world. Your self-serving hollow worship and your romanticised moment-spirituality will leave you dry, naked and poor! Your sons and daughters will reject the faith you've taught them because they will see how shallow it really is!' "


Do compare it with the original, and if you can/want to, do comment with thoughts (positive or negative) that come to mind!




12 November 2007

three paths

Being followers of Jesus means, of course, that we follow Him on His way, His path...

So what does the 'way' or 'path' of Jesus look like?

I want to describe three 'paths' that Jesus faced, which I also think life presents us with. Of course, I'm not suggesting that we will always have exactly 3 choices for every decision, but I think all of the choices we encounter in life can be boiled down into three 'directions', three 'ways', three 'paths'...

The setting...
Jesus was a 1st century Jew. Most or all Jews for about a century on either side of Jesus all were hoping and waiting for God to break into history and bring in the 'Age to Come', which would see God's true people vindicated, and God's enemies punished. A very important matter, then, was to ensure that you really were a true Jew! As many of you will know, there were different 'sects' of Judaism - different versions, if you will, of what it looked like to be a true Jew. Two of these sects, the Essenes and the Zealots, will be discussed here.

The first path - Attack
The first path Jesus could have taken was the path of Revolt. The Romans, with their burdensome taxation and meddling in Temple observance (and much more!), weren't simply disliked - they were despised; to the point of armed rebellion. Several revolts had happened before Jesus' day (not least the famous Maccabean revolts), and two happened afterward (70 & 135 AD). There were plenty of people so full of zeal that they were ready to use military might to help God overthrow the Romans. Though the 'Zealots' weren't an 'officially recognised' sect at Jesus' time, this path was most certainly alive and well! Jesus would have had little trouble attracting and leading an army like all the others before and after Him, and of course, many people were expecting the coming Messiah to be just the military figure they needed and wanted to lead this army. But this was not the path Jesus walked...

The second path - Escape
The next path Jesus could have taken was the path of Escape. Revolt wasn't the only reaction to the oppressive Roman occupation and rule - some wanted out. Particularly, the Essene sect (some think that the Essenes were the group responsible for the writings we know of as the Dead Sea Scrolls) took this path. They saw the sacred and pure system of worship, sacrifice and purification as having been corrupted by the Roman involvement, and therefore saw the entire thing as invalid and worthless. As far as they were concerned, being a true Jew meant maintaining purity above all costs. So, seeing Jerusalem as a corrupt, sinking ship, they jumped overboard, and headed out into the desert. Again - not the path Jesus walked...

The third path - Endure
The path Jesus took was the path that led Him to the cross. The cross stood as an ugly reminder of what anyone would get if they would dare try and revolt against Rome. Tom Wright has aptly pointed out that the Roman cross had been a symbol of the 'love of power', and Jesus turned it into a symbol of the 'power of love'. The cross was the strongest answer the Empire had for any who opposed it, and Jesus demonstrated the supremacy of love's power. This path - the path of endurance, the path of the cross - stands in stark contrast to the other two paths. To attack or revolt is to become like the oppressive enemy. It's trying to overcome evil with evil. To escape is to leave evil un-met, not confronted, not called to account. Both paths end in defeat. Only the path of love - enduring, sacrificial love - is victorious.

I suggest that this pattern is applicable in all of life. One of the most obvious examples is that of a marriage. When conflict arises (and it will!), you can (a) try to 'win' by attacking; (b) decide not to deal with it by escaping; or (c) walk the hard, difficult, patient path of working it out. This applies for the tiniest and the hugest of problems.

Like other things, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so have a think about it, and see if this pattern isn't relevant to your life. And of course, I never said that love was easy or convenient or 'fun', but the path of enduring love is the path that brings life, reconciliation and healing.


26 October 2007

buddhist monk delivered by the cross?

A buddhist monk recently escaped from the ongoing fiasco in Burma/Myanmar. He escaped police by climbing a brick wall, hiding out for weeks with minimal resources. To disguise himself, he dyed his hair blonde, donned a sarong, reading glasses, a light-blue cap... and a crucifix.

Some Christians might be offended by this 'use' of a 'christian' symbol. I for one, am thrilled that Ashin Kovida, the 24 year old monk, was able to get out alive, and all the more pleased that a simple necklace could aid his escape.

It will be interesting to see if Christian fundies complain. I hope not.


5 October 2007

Derek Lind on You Tube

Derek Lind is a truly gifted song-writer and good friend.

I count it a privilege to have met and befriended him.

He just plain 'gets it'. Life, Politics, Religion - the whole shooting match.

Here's one of his songs off of you tube...

Derek Lind - 'Nothing Looks The Same'


21 September 2007

harder than it looks...

I've got a quick thought to share...

It's easy to distance ourselves from people like Hitler and Stalin. We can't imagine such horrible evils. I mean really, what was the rest of the world doing, right? Why didn't someone stop him sooner? I guess they just stood by and said, 'Who are we to say otherwise?'

While I'm sure it's not a one-for-one analogy, many would say that the large number of modern abortions is comparable to the genocide of those days, and that the same thing is happening today, and still, the world stands by and says, 'Who are we to say otherwise?'

Now, abortion is a huge issue and I'm not going to take the time to offer a well-nuanced and carefully phrased view, but what if this was actually the case?

One of the small, behind the scenes things that helped bring an end to the regimes all those years ago was people using their voice to let the world know about what was really happening, not what they wanted you to think was happening. (go out right now and watch the movie 'Sophie Scholl' - it's incredible!)

My point is, they didn't start by physically going in with guns blazing. Some had to make the difficult but necessary decision to not act then and there, but to wait and tell others that could make a bigger, more permanent difference.

What if abortion is a modern-day genocide?

Well, if it is, I think something needs to be done. But what? Try and get the law changed? Use brute political force? Fund Christian political lobby groups?

I think that's not the wisest way. I think we've got to face the fact that the abortion issue, as horrible as it is, is only a part of a much more foundational issue - toxic and destructive human sexual values and practices...

Changing laws won't last. It won't help. We've got to do the difficult work of influencing people. Now. With grace and truth.

That's my quick thought...



15 September 2007

trusting the bible?

The other night, I went to a lecture by John Shelby Spong, an Anglican Bishop and popular author.

The title of Spong's lecture was this: 'The Bible is not the solution - it's the problem.'


In one point I agreed with, he criticised those that pick their most favourite verses here and there from the Bible; but then he did precisely that in his lecture - except the verses he picked here and there were his least favourite...

I would like to suggest what I see as a spectrum concerning views of the Bible. At one end, you have Spong's view on scripture, and at the other end you have various teachers of what I like to call 'biblianity'. It may not be a perfect analogy, because I think the issue is more complex and multi-faceted than a simple spectrum can show, but it may be helpful.

What I'm talking about here, has to do with what I think are false choices being presented everywhere you look. The obvious example being the false choice between worshiping the Bible (hailing it as pure, un-defiled and able to do your laundry) on one hand, and on the other hand treating it as a 'sinful' thing, perhaps useful for gleaning a few nice sentiments or putting under a short leg of a table.

I don't want to use the phrase, 'middle ground', as that conjures up images of compromise, but there is certainly a third option other than those two.

Directly or indirectly, we're talking about the Bible's trustworthiness. Can we trust the Bible? Spong would not hesitate to say, 'Not at all.' Most Christians would say, 'Yes.' Now, I agree with the latter, but I want to comment on what this 'trusting the Bible' might look like...

The problem is the vagueness of the question - 'Can we trust the Bible?' A better question is, 'What can we trust the Bible for?' To forgive my sins? As a flotation device? I certainly trust the Bible, but what do we mean by this?

-I don't trust the Bible to cook my food.
-I do trust the Bible to tell how to eat responsibly.
-I don't trust the Bible to teach me how to play guitar.
-I do trust the Bible to tell that music is a gift from God.
-I don't trust the Bible to explain dark matter in the universe.
-I do trust the Bible to tell that the heavens declare His glory.
-I don't trust the Bible to explain micro-evolution and macro-evolution.
-I do trust the Bible to tell that God is the creator of all things.
-I don't trust the Bible to make my website look cool.
-I do trust the Bible to say when to turn off the computer and sit face-to-face with others.
-I don't trust the Bible to fix my car.
-I do trust the Bible to tell us walking might often be a better option for many reasons.
-I don't trust the Bible to contain secret codes that the Bible itself says nothing at all about.
-I do trust the Bible to tell us about life.
-I don't trust the Bible to be a spooky magic trick kind of book.
-I do trust the Bible to be a down-to-earth real kind of book.
-I don't trust the Bible to provide convenient proof-texts to randomly affix to life.
-I do trust the Bible to provide wisdom and orientation to all of life.

The Bible that Spong hates is the same Bible of biblianity. It is a Bible that was handed down on a cloud, leather-bound and ready for quoting-battles. Ready to be chopped up into bits and stuck 'on billboards and backs of cars' (from the lyrics of Derek Webb). Ready to be defended by 'deep-sea-fishing' (term from Hank Hannegraaf) code-finding methods. Ready to be worshipped.

I don't love that Bible of biblianity. I love the actual Bible. I can trust it. Not to answer any silly question I wish to ask of it, but to answer the most important questions.


13 September 2007

mary elizabeth toalson cottingham

My grandma passed away early this morning.

She lived in Columbia, Missouri, with my aunt Mary Jane, which is about a 3 hours drive from where I grew up in Bolivar. We probably went up to see them a couple times a year, and I always enjoyed grandma.

There are two memories of her that I will always cherish:

1. She had this really... well... unique way of greeting you. (this was when I was young - and shorter than her!) She would hug you really tightly and press her teeth -- yes, her teeth! -- against the top of your head - hair and all! It was the strangest thing AND the most endearing at the same time! :)

2. Much later, after she had one of her strokes (and when she could still for the most part recognise who you were), I went up by myself to visit. I brought my guitar and we all sang some hymns together. My favourite song that we did was 'Trust and Obey.' The chorus goes: "Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus - than to trust and obey."

The reason it was my favourite song was not the theology of the song or whatever. It was the experience of singing it with my grandma, and seeing the smile on her face. And most of all, the fact that it didn't matter at ALL that she wasn't articulating all of the words too well. I remember her sort of singing, "Trust and obey, for is no other way ...(mumbling)... Jesus - ...mm... trust and obey."

Priceless moment.

Where is my grandma now? That depends on how you define what a human being is, and how you interpret reality.

Some 'spiritual' religions would say that her 'soul' has finally been 'freed' from it's prison-like cage, and is now able to perhaps be re-incarnated into another body, or in other religions re-join the 'oneness' of the universe. I talked to a Hare Krishna guy the other week that said that the state that the soul is in when it leaves the body is the state it will stay in afterward. Therefore, the goal is to get your soul in a 'good' state before you die, I guess...

Some versions of Christianity (not completely unlike the 'spiritual' religions) would say that her 'soul' went either to 'heaven' or to 'hell', depending on whether she had signed on with the correct religious group. The goal for some of these people is first to ensure that they are in the correct group, and second to get everyone else in their group. Choose carefully, I guess...

The atheists/naturalists would say that my grandma, like all humans, was only made up of atoms, chemicals and elements, and that her body will simply decompose. They would say that the best thing to do is remember her. Well, lucky for me, I've got good memories! Unlucky for those whose deceased family weren't so nice... I guess you try to forget them...

I can't make sense of the 'spiritual' worldview where your 'immortal soul' floats around somewhere and perhaps does something interesting every once and a while for the rest of eternity. A soul without a body seems to me like software with no CPU (central processing unit) - a set of strings with no guitar - words with nobody to say them. I'm very nervous about this sharp distinction between soul and body.

I also can't make sense of the worldview that says reality is only material. I can't make the logic work that the universe of matter and ideas caused itself into being. I'm not interested in hiding from scientific discoveries or trying to prove God from what science has not discovered yet. I think every discovery science makes simply shows how interesting and bewildering God's universe is.

I also can't make sense of the obsession of some Christians with trying to ensure that you've got the right group, the right list of beliefs, the right day of the week, the right rules and regulations. It seems ironic how consistently each type of group assumes that their group is the right one. And wasn't this kind of assumption about being the right group precisely the kind of thing John the Baptist (not to mention Jesus) warned against when he said, "Don't say to yourselves 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones!"

It does, however, make sense to me that the universe, reality - Life; is the result, intention and action of a Creator. It makes sense to me that a good Creator would create a creation that was not mechanistic, predictable and tied-down, but rather a creation that was alive, teeming with chance and possibility - a free creation full of danger, mystery, beauty and grandmas that press their teeth against your head.

It makes sense to me that human beings are just as dangerous and free as the rest of the universe. It makes sense to me that human beings are more than atoms and particles. It makes sense to me that a soul and a body would be so over-lapping and intertwined, you wouldn't know where one stopped and the other began.

It makes sense to me that these heart/soul/mind/body/spirit/strength interwoven realities called human beings would be God's primary means of caring for each other and creation. It makes sense to me that the Creator would have a plan to renew all things. It makes sense that a Creator would re-create things at the end of the story.

It makes sense to me that my grandma is not merely decomposed forever. It makes sense that her 'soul' is not flying laps around Jupiter. It makes sense that my grandma is somewhere between now and the end of the story. It makes sense that the finer details of the end of the story are not things I've got advanced information on. It makes sense that we'll all be surprised.

It makes sense, to me at least, that I'll be able to feel teeth on my head again some day.


10 September 2007

new look for by-default

OK, this has been due for a while now. I've finally put a little time/effort into the look of my blog.

It's not anything incredible, but hopefully gives my blog a bit more personality instead of looking like ump-teen trillion other blogs... :)




22 August 2007

chatting with atheists

I've recently been chatting with a couple of atheists, Ian and Ken.

They're really nice guys, and I'm not just saying that to be P.C., either.

If you're a Christian (or any kind of theist, for that matter!), I whole-heartedly recommend dialogue with atheists. We Christians are guilty of saying many things that simply don't make sense, and dialogue with atheists can really help sharpen (and therefore strengthen) your beliefs. Here are a few things you'll want to do when talking to them (or anyone else as well!).

Use words carefully.
When conversations get past a certain point, you quickly realize that many words mean slightly (or very!) different things to different people. Words like 'objective', 'reality', 'supernatural', 'miracle', 'authority', etc., can be very, very slippery. Use them carefully (or don't use them at all!), and press their use of them as well.

Be willing to be sharpened.
There are many complaints of atheists that are very valid. Christians need to be open to learning, re-thinking, re-shaping their ideas. I dare say God would want us to do this! There are a lot of things that a lot of Christians say or teach or write in books, etc., that is really embarrassing, and quite often, one simply needs to agree with the complaint of the atheist and perhaps share the 'better' position that clears up the distortion that they are complaining about.

Focus on the topic of materiality.
I've learned that one of the most vital beliefs of atheists is that reality is only material. Press them on this, but don't make the mistake of claiming 'objectivity' in this area. Logic, reason, emotion, art, etc. - these areas are difficult to explain for materialists.

Highlight the logical absurdity of the Big Bang.
The Big Bang theory posits that the universe results from a Singularity - a non-dimensional point under massive atomic pressure. This non-dimensional point existed in nowhere, because there was nowhere for it to be, and it existed at no time, because there was no time in which it could be. In short; where there is no time and no where, no thing happens, and no thing exists.

Don't scientifically argue creation from the Bible.
Genesis (or any other place in the Bible) is not a scientific text. It is a theological one. Whatever you think you know about the age of the earth, carbon-dating or evolution (micro or macro), please don't bring the Bible into these conversations. It's like wiping your nose with an anvil.

Don't argue for the existence of God using some experience you had.
You will be quickly told that your experience is subjective and therefore not valid for evidence. Don't bother.

Press them on the word 'science'.
The Latin root for 'knowledge' is 'scienta'. Science, therefore, is a general term about 'knowledge'. Press them to specify what KIND of knowledge they are referring to. They will want to give supremacy to physical science, but remind them that this is only one kind of 'knowing'.

I could go on, but that should do for now.

Happy chatting!



26 July 2007

as iron sharpens iron, so one thesis sharpens another

I love logic. It just makes sense!

I want to share with you a method that will save the world. Well, not really, but it's really cool.

Basically, this method consists of the principles behind the Scientific Method. Call it what you will, but it applies to ANY topic - Theology, Philosophy, Physics, Geology, Sociology - ANY topic.

It has to do with making sense of 'things' that we observe in reality (whatever 'things' you may be 'observing' in 'reality'). People have different ways of interpreting and explaining what they observe in reality. The so-called 'law of non-contradiction' (which is about as basic as it gets with logic!) says that two contradicting statements about the exact same thing cannot both be equally accurate.

Anyway, you start with an observation of a 'thing', then when you explain this 'thing' to someone you do so by means of a statement - your 'ideas' about it - your 'thesis' (or hypothesis, if you like). A diagram of this would look like this...

Now, the problem with an idea or 'thesis' all by itself is that it could be wrong. Sure, it could be right as well, but you'll never know unless you contrast it with another one. It is really unfortunate that many people never even make this first step. They simply hold on to their precious thesis and never test it to see how strong it is. You need to test your 'thesis' against other ones! The diagram enlarges to show the 2-way dialogue with another 'thesis'...

This is wonderful when this actually happens. It could be a simple mis-understanding between friends. "Oh, I see. I thought you meant 'x', but now that you've explained it, I realise you actually meant 'y'! I'm no longer upset anymore!" Of course, this could play out in an endless number of scenarios. Either the 'thesis' or the 'anti-thesis' could become (or appear to become) more correct or less correct.

What happens (if an agreement or 'middle ground' is reached) now, is that something emerges from the conversation. This 'something' is one of a few things: a) it is the original 'thesis' (only now stronger - having been contrasted with another one), b) it is the 'anti-thesis' (having been shown to be stronger than the 'thesis') or c) a mixture of the two - a syn-thesis! This looks like this...

What happens here, is that this stronger idea - this syn-thesis - becomes the NEW 'original' thesis! Which makes our diagram look like this...

At this point, what do we do with all theses (plural of 'thesis)? Remember? We test them against other ones! This is no different here. The NEW, stronger thesis needs to seek yet another 'anti-thesis'.

This is called learning. I hope it is clear that this is an on-going process!

I think we actually can make real progress, but also think we need to remember that as we 'advance' our theses, we may look back and observe that what we thought was an 'advance' in the past was actually a step backward (and yes, even this observation itself could later be seen to be 'wrong' - and so on 'ad infinitum'!).

Two 'theses' in dialogue is a wonderful thing, but it is even better to have 3 or more! The 'synthesis' you emerge with will be all the more stronger! (This is often referred to as the process of 'peer review' - and it's a wonderful thing.)

There are difficulties, too, which we will need patience for. Too many voices in one 'conversation', means that it will simply take longer for each thesis to have its say. It could well be that a mixture of 'smaller conversations' and 'larger ones' could be a great thing, because each would have its own strengths and weaknesses/hindrances.

Another hurdle come because this process has been going on quite naturally for some time now, and in many, many different fields - theology, sociology, etc. It seems that after a time, there can be 'patterns' that emerge. Details that were originally hotly debated are given less and less time and often assumed to be valid in later conversations. This can be antithetical to the process of this method, as the whole point of it is, of course, to expose ALL of a thesis to criticism.

As I suggested earlier, patience is necessary! But we must be about this business of dialogue with other theses! We must grow. We must learn. To not dialogue is to fail to 'advance' at all (whether or not they are real or 'illusory' advances!) To not even attempt to advance is to slip backward.

"Iron makes iron sharp; so a man makes sharp his friend." Proverbs 27:17 (BBE)


20 July 2007

science, faith and the process of Q&A

Science has produced some very interesting theories about reality...

I ask that those partial to the field of science hear me out before crucifying me, but I think there is a reality that we must all put up with, whether we are holders of Ph D's in physics or at the level of simple observation – namely the reality that science (like essentially every other field) is limited by our level of observation.

For example, as is commonly known, we know of many ancient suggestions about reality that have long-since been proven to be... well... silly. The sky has been thought to be a solid 'dome', with the stars being seen to be holes in the dome. The earth was, of course, thought to be flat, or perhaps a square-ish thing held up by four elephants. Advanced scientific opinion suggested that the earth was the centre of the universe, with the sun and other planets revolving around it.

More perspective had led us to better suggestions of reality. This is, after all, a foundational principle of the scientific method. I'm very much a fan of science, myself, so I hardly mean to devalue the great field of science, but simply want to demonstrate the (for lack of a better term) 'fallibility' of science.

Telescopes and Microscopes

As our telescopes and microscopes have gotten stronger, we've been able to have precisely what we've needed to arrive at progressively better theories of reality. But it's an interesting consideration that, for example, as our microscopes have taken us further and further into the detail of our universe, to the atomic level and beyond, more and more questions have arisen! I think it would be fair to say that perhaps some old questions have been cleared up, and new questions have arisen about such things as the nature of matter itself (see, for example, theories such as that of 'quantum physics')!

Also, as our telescopes have grown stronger and taken us further and further away from our seemingly small solar system, you could say that the same result has occurred; some questions answered – other ones emerge (dark matter, black holes, habitable planetary probability, etc.). Considering how off we've been in the past, I often wonder how off we are now, and what embarrassing dogmatic theories we may hold now that may be either confirmed, challenged or de-bunked by later observation.

Almost There, Just Begun or a Bit of Both?

I'm a bit of a skeptic at heart, you could say. I just want to know why. The way I sometimes hear people talk about different theories of reality often makes me suspicious. Theories (including both evolutionary ones and 'intelligent design' ones) are often defended with statements like, “...well, no theory can really be proven, but science has all but proven this one.” Is this really the case?

Now, I'm not suggesting that scientific observation doesn't get us any closer to 'proving' anything, but I have a question about how close we really and truly are to proving such theories as the origin of the universe or life itself.

The “we've-basically-solved-it” way of speaking reflects this diagram, in which 'science' has thoroughly dealt with the major, large questions of reality, leaving us with only a few minor, small questions left...

In this model, theories (again both evolutionary or 'intelligent design' ones) are said to basically have it all explained, save (perhaps) a few minor details. I want to suggest that our pursuit of better theories of reality may not work like that at all. Again, I am not denying that scientific advancements are indeed advancements, I suggest a truer model may well be the reverse of the one shown above. I don't think we've leaped the big hurdles or explained the big questions at all.

In the same way as history gets foggier the further back you look, with science, the further you look (whether through a telescope of a microscope) into things, the harder the questions get. Actually, the fogginess of history spills into science as well. The things we are perhaps the most scientifically unsure of are the things that happened at the 'beginning' of it all; whether that be along the lines of string theory, big-bang theory, intelligent design theory or whatever. The more foundational the question, the harder the answer. This model would look like this...

This model is able to appreciate the genuine advancements of science, while at the same time not presuming that the only questions left are 'small' ones.

Science has taken us a long way, and no doubt will take us many great and needed places. But as it continues to take us places, let us both appreciate the work it has done and at the same time be aware of how truly difficult the big questions are.


25 June 2007

a perfect church

I think my church just may be perfect...


Well, of course, not 'perfect' in the sense that many mean!

Two things, quickly...

First, the pastors and deacons (who make up the church 'council') recently went on a prayer retreat together. We had times of discussion, corporate prayer, private prayer, walking, talking and singing during the day. Toward the end of the retreat, we all realised what a remarkable thing we had - unity. Not uniformity, but unity. We are all quite different people with quite different personalities and views on various things. But we experienced genuine unity in spite of these things. It was (and is) wonderful.

Second, a lady that has been attending for a while has recently become a member. In her interview with one of the leaders, she made the comment, 'I love this church. It's perfect.'

The leader tried to correct her, but had difficulty.


Now, I'm not saying we don't have flaws, and things we need to change at my church, but we have complete - perfect - unity... in Christ...

What a blessing!



18 June 2007

on 'spiritual gifts' (6-20-07)

I recently went to a Benny Hinn 'Holy Spirit Miracle Crusade'. (Yes, me.) I could, of course, share many thoughts about that, but I simply wanted to mention a flyer I recieved while waiting in the crowd/throng/line/queue/mob to get in... It was an advert for a local church. It had these words/phrases on it: 'signs & wonders', 'healing', 'anointed', 'miracles', 'fire', 'deliverance'... and my personal favourite... 'the gifts.'

Now, that's a bit of an extreme example, perhaps, compared with other views of 'spirituality', but I think it may reflect what happens when popular ideas/assumptions about 'spirituality' are taken to their eventual end point. Before addressing a few of the Scriptures which are relevant to the topic of 'spiritual gifts', I want to point out a key difference between the ways of thinking in our world and the world of the New Testament.

You see, we live after a period in history known as the 'Enlightenment', from which much of the world has inherited (among other things) a view of the world in which the 'natural' is sharply contrasted against the 'super-natural'.

In this view, things like grass growing, rain falling/evaporating, babies being born, working, eating, sleeping - in other words normal life - are quite simply natural. In the case of 'supernatural' things, these consist of things such as 'miracles', 'divine intervention', 'providence', etc. As the definition of 'supernatural' suggests, the world is bound by 'natural laws', so therefore a 'supernatural' agent/force/event has to break those 'natural laws'. This shows up in all kinds of ways, which I won't go into here to keep this short.

In contrast to todays popular post-Enlightenment view of the world, the 1st century Jewish view of the world (though there are, of course, differences about this and that) was not divided this way. The Jewish God was Lord over all the earth and heaven. Nothing happened or was done apart from His permission, providence and power.

This God was a God who was not detatched or distant from creation (like the deist version of 'god'), but rather, is passionately interested and personally present in it (however, not to the degree that creation itself is itself god', as in pantheistic worldviews). This God was not simply present when 'big' or 'miraculous' things 'happened', but was always present in His world; and in the case of 'miracles' or 'big' things, they were times at which God was present powerfully (and with purpose, I suggest; not simply pulling 'god-stunts').

This, I think, is how miracles are to be understood. Some, in their adverse reaction to what happens in some more 'lively' church contexts have suggested that 'miracles ceased' once the Bible was finished and/or when the last Apostle died. There is no warrant for such a view. No, not even 1 Cor. 13:10...

At any rate, we should be aware of how various views of the world affect our reading of Scripture (by the way, there is not one person who doesn't have any views/experiences/traditions/etc. that affect his/her reading of the Scriptures...) not least when we approach the topic of so-called 'spiritual gifts'.

One tendency in Christian circles is to start with an assumption that something is true, and then read that assumption into various Scriptural passages. We may, as a result, feel as though we have much more biblical support for a position than we actually do have. In my view, there are only 3 passages that could even possibly be about 'gifts', according to the popular understanding: Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.

Sadly, the 'gifts' in these passages are often 'lumped' together in order to arrive at 'Paul's doctrine of gifts' or something... as if he was at all interested in 'building' a systematic outline of 'things' God may or may not choose to 'give' you, and thought it best to provide this outline in 3 seperate letters and in obscure fashion. Even more sadly, many a weekend-conference has been developed to 'help' people 'discover' what 'gifts' they have and which ones they don't. (I need to say here that my thoughts here are following on from that of Mark Strom.)

These 3 passages have their own contexts, and ought not be 'lumped' together sloppily. The Romans 12 passage instructs on how each 'gift' is to be handled, which is (in context) to be in service of others! The 1 Corinthians 12 passage is (again, in context) seeking to undercut pride in the Corinthian community (the implications of Paul putting 'miracles' and 'helps' in the same 'list' is simply brilliant!), and again, the things listed here are not for the individual, but for the growth and edification of the community. The Ephesians 4 passage (within the context of unity, growth and maturity), is describing, not individual 'gifts', but roles within the body of Christ (again, these roles are for the service of others - to produce unity, growth and maturity).

Not only is each and every 'gift' featured in all these passages (have a look for yourself!) intended for service of others (not so you can have a nice, comfortable, individual private prayer experience or whatever...), I also have yet to see anything in Scripture that demands the common sharp distinction between 'natural abilities' (which you 'get at birth') and 'spiritual gifts' (which you 'get at conversion'). To show how I see things, let me use the 'mind' as an example.

You don't get a mind at conversion. What happens is this: the mind God gave you (and everyone!) at birth gets renewed by the Spirit of Christ. The mind that was formerly hostile to Christ now bows in allegiance. (Baptism may be a good metaphor, in that the mind (in a sense) 'dies' and 'rises anew'.)

This, I suggest, is precisely what happens with our so-called 'natural abilities' (which, in a sense, are not 'natural' at all!). Everything about us (bodies, minds, abilities, etc.) is God-given. The spiritual person sees themselves this way. Our whole, interconnected selves are spiritually tempered renewed and reborn by the Spirit of Christ - not so we can 'enjoy our gift' or be 'spiritually fulfilled', but to form us (heart, soul, mind and strength) into the likeness of Christ.


11 May 2007

of the spirit (5-11-07)

Thoughts and words about the Holy Spirit can go in many different directions. One can try to present their view by way of many different paths, and from many different angles - and I believe many of these paths/angles would be biblical...

To try and promote unity and clarity, I'd like to address a few ideas about spirit/spirituality/the holy spirit/etc., that I think need sharpening... Along the way, I hope the 'personality' of the Spirit will become more obvious...

Dualism must die...
Greek philosophers of old, looked at the world and decided that reality was split in two - the 'unseen', 'spiritual' realm; and the 'seen', 'physical' realm. The 'unseen' realm was perfect, pure and un-changing. The 'seen' realm was corrupt, faulty and change-able. The relationship between the spirit and matter, then was - no surprise - a strained one.

The Jewish perspective saw reality differently. God was in 'heaven'; Humans were on 'earth'; yet God could still 'dwell with' His people and His creation. It wasn't just that spirit could mix with physical, but more that the two 'realms' were always mixing. It wasn't so much a question of if they mixed, but more how they mixed. In other words, the real question was which spirit was mixing in a given physical place/person?

In the Greek view, you assume a huge gap between the 'spiritual' and the 'physical'. So, you have to do all kinds of things (the right prayers, sacrifices, rituals) to make it 'just right' - right enough for the spirit to mix with the physical. That's a general picture, but it gives you the idea.

In the Jewish view, the two realms relate easily. In the Scriptures, there are many 'spirits' mentioned - some on the 'good' side (i.e. a 'spirit of wisdom', etc.), some on the 'evil' side (i.e. a 'spirit of jealousy', etc.). The entire world is 'bubbling' with spiritual potential.

The word 'supernatural' isn't very helpful at times...
You may not have thought of it this way before, but our understanding of the word 'supernatural' is, of course, only as good as our understanding of the word 'natural.' It seems odd - to me, at least - to say that God is the one who establishes the 'laws of nature' and then breaks them from time to time (and that is precisely how the 'supernatural' is defined).

We need to see the world differently, I think. The Scriptures don't give us a 'laws of nature' which God must violate in order to do something 'supernatural'. Instead, they give us a picture of a God who - as the powerful creator of all things - acts within His creation. It's not a question of when He is acting, but rather when He is not acting.

In this light, we need not call miracles 'supernatural', so to speak. Rather than see them as 'supernatural' events that 'happen', I think we should see them as powerful actions of the God who is Lord of Heaven and Earth. Remember, the Scriptures insist that God is always active within His good creation (yes, even after the tragic 'fall' in Genesis 3), and sometimes... just sometimes... He is active in miraculous and powerful ways that surprise and shock us.

Me, Myself and... Everyone else
Literally everything in our Western, affluent culture suggests that life is all about you getting what you want/'need'. It's ALL about the individual. I observe and sense much of the same trends in our all-too-individualistic perspective on spirituality. Much is said about 'me' having a great experience; 'my' spiritual gift; 'my' church; 'my' testimony; 'my' prayer life; etc. I love this quote:

"Despite what you might think from some excitement in the previous generation about new spiritual experiences, God doesn’t give people the Holy Spirit in order to let them enjoy the spiritual equivalent of a day at Disneyland." - Tom Wright, 'Simply Christian'

It's true. It's not about you. More specifically, it is about others. In the Scriptures and in my own (dare I use the word) experience, the Spirit moves powerfully in community; not in isolation from others. One of my favourite examples of this is when the Apostles got together to discuss 'what to do about those gosh darn Gentiles' in Acts 15 (it's often called 'the Jerusalem Council'). They get together; talk things over seriously; share perspectives - and emerge with a unified decision, saying 'It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit...'

When was the last time you heard any pastor/preacher/speaker talk like that? I wish we would hear much more of it. If the Apostles (who wrote the majority of the New Testament) were helped in their spiritual discernment processes by getting together and discussing things, then surely we will be!

But the point, of course, is not comparing us to the Apostles, but realising that the same Holy Spirit that guided them is the same Holy Spirit that will guide us - and I am suggesting that He (the Holy Spirit) can do so better in community than He can do in isolation. Am I limiting Him to meetings? Of course not! God is certainly personal and is able to do reveal Himself to us individually. But I insist that we all need to surround ourselves with other people to help us discern and decide; people who (with the Apostle Paul) can say, '...and I, too, think I have the Holy Spirit...'

Towards a better spiritual ethic...
I think unity and clarity will come when we are able to focus on the main and plain things of the Spirit. We must remember that the Holy Spirit is God. He is not an 'it'. He is not an impersonal 'force'. He is not a drug on which to get 'high' on. He is the Spirit of Jesus. He is the Spirit of God. His first and foremost task is to remake (and continue remaking) us into the likeness (character) of Jesus. All of us. Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength.

Call me crazy, un-biblical, un-spiritual or a stick in the mud, but I think this kind of spirituality has very little to do with what happens during a church service or in a prayer closet, and has almost everything to do with what happens outside those places. It may ruffle your Christian feathers, but I think God is more excited with lives of mercy and justice than moments of celebration...

Let's see all of our lives, all of our priorities, all of our choices, all of our time, all of our money, all of our relationships, all of our possessions, all of our everything - as spiritual. May we see the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, self-control...) in all these areas and more.


18 April 2007

tongues: another look (4-18-07)

Yes, this article is about the phenomenon known as 'speaking in tongues'...

The subject of 'tongues' is perhaps the most clouded of any biblical topic today.

In hope to honour God, the Scripture and Christian spirituality, I offer my current understanding of this issue.

'Tongues' in the book of Acts - The Gospel in ALL languages
The first 1 chronological occurrance of 'tongues' 2 in Scripture is at Pentecost in Acts 2.

Luke describes it as amazing and perplexing. "So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, 'Whatever could this mean?' " (2:12) The Apostles, who likely could only speak in the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek 'tongues' (languages), were speaking 'the wonderful works of God' (2:11) in the language of MANY different language groups present at Pentecost - Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus... (the list goes on in 2:9-11.)

They weren't speaking gibberish, and they weren't speaking unknown or 'heavenly' languages. The Spirit was miraculously giving them the ability (2:4) to speak 'the wonderful works of God' in many different, human, every-day languages. 3

I'm not sure if we understand how important the Hebrew language was to Jewish people (and still is!). 4 The idea of nation (as in, God's holy nation of Israel) was inseperable from the tongue (language) of that nation. The attitude of most Jews was that the other nations/tongues weren't God's chosen nations/tongues! What was going on at Pentecost was very significant! God was working outside the box! In short, the Gospel was going to go to the filthy, pagan, stinking, non-Hebrew-speaking Gentiles - at least the ones who had faith in Christ.

This was a big deal. Later, in the book of Acts, Peter receives a vision that (among other things) makes it clear that Gentiles were no longer to be shunned. "...You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nations. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean." (10:28 - and surrounding verses!)

Later on, after Paul is converted to the 'Way' of Christ, Luke records a specific occurance of Gentiles who received the Spirit upon hearing 'the word' (the Gospel). The Jewish people couldn't believe it. "...those of the circumcision who believed (Jewish believers in Christ) were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues (other languages) and magnify God." Acts 10:45-46

That's right. Gentiles recieving the Holy Spirit that 'those of the circumcision' thought was only for them! Gentiles magifying God in their filthy non-Hebrew language!

Again, these converts weren't speaking gibberish or unknown languages. The Apostles (possibly themselves knowing these 'other Gentile languages' - or at least enough of them to discern what was being said...) knew that God was being glorified. 5 Their 'astonishment' wasn't because of the speaking itself (as if it was something weird), but was rather because of their surprise that 'the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also' (which was VERY wierd for a pious Jew!).

I won't take the time to show all the verses in Acts about the 'door of faith' being opened to the Gentiles - there are too many of them! This new movement of God is actually one of the primary themes of the entire Book of Acts. Just read the book of Acts and look for this theme. It's obvious. (and I try not to use that word too often...)

'Tongues' in 1 Corinthians - 'It's not about you. It's about the body.'
If we are to read Pauls first letter to the Corinthians well, we need to understand why he wrote to them in the first place. We get some key clues from within the letter itself. The Corinthians were good examples of the Roman mindset and lifestyle. In the letter, we clearly see that the Corinthians were prideful about many things. For example, when Paul reminds them in 1:5 that their 'knowledge' and 'utterance' were inrichments 'in Him', we can safely assume that they needed to be reminded of that. You get the idea that they had forgotten this - or needed to be informed of it.

Paul doesn't waste any time in getting into rebuking the Corinthians for many things. We see that the Corinthians were quite proud of their 'wisdom', which Paul humbles them on. Paul points to his own 'foolish' preaching when he was with them and suggests that true 'wisdom' is found within this 'foolishness' (chapters 1 & 2). I would love to go on, but this article is about 'tongues'; so on to chapter 12 we must go.

The first mention of 'tongues' in chapter 12 is verse 10, which is within a series of activities that Paul is mentioning. "...to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues..." Two things feature here for me: 1) the word 'kinds' means that there are not just one type of 'tongue' but rather several/many 'kinds' - which would make sense if we see 'tongues' as languages. 2) 'Tongues' is here (and elsewhere) paired with the 'interpretation' of them - which again makes sense if they are foreign/Gentile/human languages.

After this, Paul takes about 15 verses to discuss the need for unity in the 'body' 6 and then the chapter ends with another series of roles/activities, and that not everyone has these roles/activities. The series seems divided into at least two: the 'appointed', numbered ones ("...first apostles, second prophets, third teachers...") and those 'after' that ("...miracles, then gifts of healings, helps administrations, varieties of tongues."). It seems interesting to note that the non-normative activities (miracles and healings) are grouped with the seemingly more normative ones (helps, administrations and the varieties of tongues). 7

Then comes Chapter 13. It begins with a literary pattern that is not mentioned often. Paul moves through various activities, giving a 'big' example followed by a 'lofty' example.

-Though I speak with the tongues of men ...and of angels
-though I have the gift of prophecy ...and understand all mysteries and all knowledge
-though I have all faith ...so that I could remove mountains
-though I bestow all my goods... ...give my body to be burned

I don't know anyone who claims to understand all mysteries and all knowledge; or to have removed mountains; or to have the 'gift' of giving their body to be burned, but strangely, I often hear people describe their 'gift of tongues' as a 'heavenly' or 'angelic' language based on this passage. I'm not sure that's what Paul's point is... The point, of course, is the supremacy of Love.

The only other place 'tongues' is mentioned in chapter 13 is when it is said that they will 'cease'. The next 2 verses seem to suggest that this will happen 'when that which is perfect (complete) has come'. I've heard this passage used to support the view that 'tongues, miracles, healings - and probably anything else non-normative - 'ceased' after the Bible was written, or after the Apostles died. That seems forced to me, to say the least. Verse 12 seems to suggest that the 'perfect' that will come is either Jesus Himself or the New Heaven/Earth (or both?). So I say with no hesitation, whatever 'tongues' are, they most certainly have not 'ceased'.

We have finally reached chapter 14 - THE 'tongues' chapter. 8 As we move through the chapter, keep in mind that the main goal for Paul is for the church to grow and be edified. Everyone agrees that people in this church were speaking in 'tongues' and some (many? all?) didn't understand what was being said.

This chapter is where the conversation about tongues takes many different directions. Words like 'spirit', 'mysteries', 'mind', 'understanding', and 'sign' are taken in wildly different ways. Indeed, it is a daunting task to try and sort through them all.

I offer the following statements from what I see in chapter 14 (with verses noted):

-the 'tongues' here are (as everywhere else) human languages/dialects. (14:10-11)
-Paul strongly suggests (demands?) that 'tongues' be interpreted for edification. (14:5, 13, 26-28)
-The speaker him/herself should try to interpret the 'tongues'. (14:5, 9, 13, 15?, 19?)
-Speaking/praying 'in(by) the Spirit' is simply to speak/pray truthful, godly, spirit-directed statements/prayers. ALL speaking/praying 'in(by) they Spirit is good for YOU (and God certainly understands you!), but Paul reminds the Corinthians that when 'in church (gathering)', they must seek to ensure that the speaking/praying is not only 'in(by) the Spirit', but also is understandable for others to be edified. (14:2, 4, 5, 9, 11, 13-17, 19) 9
-The Lord speaks to/through people of all languages (Isaiah 28:11 - quoted in 14:21), which is a 'sign' to unbelievers of God's character, but 'in the church', if everyone spoke with 'tongues' those unbelievers would have quite a different impression! (14:23)

Other things to consider: 1) Corinth was a multi-lingual city, having two sea-ports and being a large center for trading from all over the known world. Speaking and interpreting other languages would have been more than a little helpful! 2) The Greek language was the most widely spoken/written/known language. You were on safe ground using it. If you used another language, you risked not being understood. 3) The Greeks/Romans called the 'uncivilized' people on the edges of their Empire 'barbarians'. They didn't speak Greek.

I offer these further statements with these points in mind:

-A 'tongue'-speaker may indeed mean 'someone who isn't (at least for the moment) speaking Greek' (14:5, 13)
-Paul would have known many languages of the Greek/Roman world. (14:6, 10, 14, 18)
-If Paul prayed in a language other than Greek (which he probably knew best - other than Hebrew, perhaps), his prayer was indeed 'in(by) the Spirit', but praying in Greek was better for others - and even his own understanding of his prayer. (14:6, 11, 14-15)
-The frequency of the idea of 'edification' in chapter 14, and its ending suggest that the main point is for order, learning and instruction. Which probably means that there was dis-order, confusion and arguements present - and pride. (14:1, 12, 20, 31, 33, 37-40)

Today - Miracles, Experiences and Love
Let me be blunt. To suggest that God 'doesn't do miracles' today is not only dependent on shabby Bible interpretation, but is to deny the God of all power His power. Also, let me assert that my 'non-miraculous' reading of 'tongues' (excepting the Acts 2 occurrance) in NO way needs to be seen as 'de-miracle-izing' God.

God is holding the entire universe together, and without his power, not a single blade of grass would grow. The distinction between the so-called 'natural' and 'super-natural' is a post-Enlightmenment distinction, not a Biblical one. God caused and called nature itself into being - including the surprising and miraculous things that seem to defy nature. The Bible gives us no 'laws of nature' for which God must 'break' to do a miracle. He is God, and that... is the end of that.

Also, let me say that I fully believe God can and does give people TODAY miraculous language-speaking-abilities in similar fashion to the Acts 2 occurrance. But again, these are not private, heavenly languages, but languages of humans. Humans whom God wants to hear the Gospel of Christ. He is God. He is able to do anything consistent with His own nature.

I do not, however, believe everything I hear, nor everything I read, nor everything I see on T.V. Experience alone, while not to be ridiculed or devalued, is not the final say. Though God can and does heal physically, people at healing meetings full of adrenaline who can honestly 'feel' healed, all-too-often end up not being.

Sadly, people can 'feel', 'see' and 'hear' things that aren't real. I don't believe in the monster under the bed, but I nearly convinced myself as a kid that he was there. To put it another way, if you think you have to be baptised by immersion to be saved, you're probably going to be baptised by immersion. If you think you have to 'speak in tongues' to be saved or a 'full-on' believer, you're certainly more likely to give it a try.

It has to do with our expectations. Well-meaning and genuine believers in Jesus 10 who see and hear others in their faith community speaking in ecstatic 'gibberish' (I know of no better word to describe what is often seen/heard) are certainly more likely to do it themselves. In some church settings, the teaching is that this is an essential for true conversion - commonly with back-room 'training' sessions where people are 'taught' how. 11

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, much of the modern practise of 'speaking in tongues' seems to me to contradict the primary nature, character and personality of the Holy Spirit. 'Just let it flow', 'say whatever comes to mind', and 'start with a random syllable and get it going' don't fit at all with the pattern of experiences in Scripture.

When the Apostles (and I suggest us as well!) were filled with the Spirit, they spoke the Gospel with boldness. Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit as 'gentleness, patience, self-control', etc. Ultimately, the primary role/function of the Holy Spirit (who, by the way, is the Spirit of Jesus!), is to direct us to Jesus. To glorify Him, to re-make us into His image. To renew our hearts and minds according to the character of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit leads us not into our prayer closets (though we depend on Him mightily in prayer), but rather out into the world in loving and humble service of others. This is the kind of Spirituality that the world desperately needs.

As Christians, let us seek to major on the majors. To whisper where the Scripture whisper - and SHOUT where the Scripture shout! This is where we have true, un-shakable unity. In Christ and His death and resurrection. Let us share THIS love with the world.

1. Paul likely wrote the Corinthian Letters before Luke wrote the book of Acts, but I'm referring to the sequence of actual events, not the records/writings of them.
2. Actually, 'tongues' (as different human languages) is first mentioned in the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11, when God 'confounded' their 'tongues' (languages) - causing humanity to spread. It has been well said that Pentecost is the 'un-doing' of Babel. The Gospel (and God!) is not partial to any one language.
3. Which resulted in the representatives from the various places being able to take the Gospel of Christ back to where they lived! In other words, the 'tongues' in Acts 2 was for a reason.
4. Indeed, just the idea of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) was offensive to say the least for many Jews. For them, speaking Greek and reading Greek would inevitably lead to living a Greek lifestyle.
5. The text doesn't separate 'speaking with tongues' and 'magnifying God' as though they were two things. The speaking itself is magnifying God.
6. Actually, the verses before this (12:4-11) also speak of this unity. Read them and look for the words 'same Spirit'. This is the main point of chapter 12.
7. Again, the word 'varieties' demands that this is not referring to a single language (heavenly, etc.)
8. Actually, the chapter downplays the importance of 'tongues', and raises the importance of prophecy - so that the body may be edified. Read chapter 14 and look for the word 'edify', 'edifies' or 'edified'. See the main point?
9. For example, a Parthian person praying 'by the Spirit' in the Parthian tongue (in the midst of the church/gathering), would be 'giving thanks well', but others that didn't know the Parthian tongue would not be able to understand it, be edified by it, or know whether or not to say 'Amen' to it. (14:15-17)
10. Others have demonised moder-day 'tongue'-speakers (or claim they are doing so because of demons). I see absolutely NO reason or gounds to do this. My desire is to have unity in the essentials and seek clarity on the non-essentials.
11. On that note, I find it incredible the amount of detail given in many instructions for speaking in this manner. 99% of it doesn't even bother trying to tie it in with Scripture, and are rather built purely on the recent (less than 150 years) tradition of experience.