Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Luther weighs in

This is relevant to the recent train of thought on this blog, so I share it here:

What happens when people who claim the name "Christian" try to find biblical backing for their own opinions?  Luther weighed in on this in 1526, in his writing Against the Fanatics:

"This is what all factious spirits do: they first concoct an opinion.  If it pleases them, they then attempt to force the Scriptures to agree with it.  But whoever derives the right faith from the words will believe like this: ... God grant that as long as I have the words, I will not seek to speculate any further; what he says, I will keep.  Thus the believer envelops himself in the Word, will not let himself be turned aside from it, and is also thereby sustained."

So today, we see all kinds of ways in which people begin with their own opinions and then go looking for Scripture to back them up.  And they will in most cases find some way to use the Bible to back up their opinion.  But the wise person will start with Scripture, and grow to understand its message more and more, and thus build understanding and insight that comes from Scripture, not from human understanding.  Luther pegs the truth when he says that if we do not let ourselves be turned aside from the Word, we will be "thereby sustained."

Monday, August 27, 2012


So let's review the last few blog posts.  There will be a test.

1. Our cultural assumptions are consistently built on a foundation of rationalistic humanism.  Not to say that we are all rational beings; far from it.  But when push comes to shove, we believe in the power of our own minds to make sense of the world, and we believe that "good" is defined by what's good for human beings.

2. Jesus did not operate according to these assumptions.  He was neither rationalist nor humanist.

3. Jesus did not argue for the existence of God; he lived, proclaimed, taught, enacted the kingdom of God, or perhaps more accurately (though he did not choose this term) the kingship of God.  Jesus operated as if God is absolutely sovereign.

4. The core of Jesus' mission and message, the core of the kingdom of God, the answer to the question "What is Jesus all about?" is simply love.  Well, not simply love as we define love, but love as Jesus defines it.  Biblically our definition of love and Jesus' definition are worlds apart.

5. This kind of perspective, that God is completely sovereign and I am called to live not according to what makes sense to me, but according to what he says is true, is an incredible challenge.  Those who would follow Jesus are required at some point along the journey to submit to this perspective, to this way of life.  We held up Dietrich Bonhoeffer as one whose words point in this direction -- that in order to know God, we must know only God.

6. The republic of the United States of America was founded not on rationalistic humanist principles, though they played a part, but rather on a shared sense of reality, a shared "worldview" if you will.  However, our worldview has shifted and we are culturally adrift on a sea where the winds blow in all directions at once and personal opinion has become the ultimate tyranny.

For those who have been following these posts, understand that these are not random assertions; rather, we are taking our time getting at a complex argument about how those who follow Jesus in this culture are called both out of the world's perspectives and back into the world with Jesus' perspective.

More coming soon.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The tyranny of opinion

I wish I could blame this post on the fact that we're in an election year.  However, there are two problems with that idea.  First, in this American democracy, nearly every year is some kind of an election year.  Second, the problem I'm about to describe -- or maybe attack -- is not by any means limited to election issues or election years.

My problem is this:

We seem to have decided that people's opinions Matter.  Not just that it's significant what you think, so your parents / spouse / siblings / friends ought to ask you from time to time "What do you think about that?" and then listen politely while you share your important opinion.  I'm all for that, as anyone who's asked me "What do you think about that?" can testify.

My problem is that we think people's opinions Matter in a larger scale.  We think that opinion polls are newsworthy.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words (in my opinion) here's an example, just lifted from the website:

This kind of thing -- which you can see on any news site, any time of day or night, because these opinion polls are EVERYWHERE -- leads to a variety of disturbing questions.

1. Does a news story being read by more people make it more important?
2. Has this practice taken the responsibility for judging newsworthiness away from the reporter / publisher and handed it to the reading public?
3. Does a story being unpopular make it less important?
4. Does my preference of one of the UK's royal princes make any difference to anyone but me?
5. If I actually view the results of such an inane poll, what does that say about me?
6. So What?

The problem with all this is that it is an indicator of a much larger assumption that lies near the core of our troubles as a society. The problem is that we have adopted the "majority rules" mentality that is one cornerstone -- not the only cornerstone, or even the most important -- of our democracy.

Here's what I mean.  Revolutions used to be messy, violent things.  To take over a country you had to come in with a dedicated, fight-to-the-death group of idealistic guerrillas and fight a bloody war with the Evil Dictator.  All this fuss and bother is no longer necessary.  If the majority opinion rules, then all one has to do to take over the country is change the majority opinion and get people to vote your regime into power.

Think I'm joking?

Most of us assume that such a thing could never happen.  We assume that people have more common sense than that.  We assume that there is a reservoir of commonly held belief at the core of our society that keeps us from adopting weird ideas and voting for stupid things.

Remember what happens when you assume things?

In the founding of the United States, our commonly held beliefs were encapsulated not in the Constitution -- that is the instrument of how we live together as a republic.  No, our commonly held beliefs were summed up more than any other place in the Declaration of Independence.  It was in this document that we summed up the evils of tyranny and our sacred belief in the equality of human beings.

Let's pause for a moment there.  In a comment reminiscent of The Emperor's New Clothes, a couple weeks ago in church I heard Dr. Vishal Mangalwadi point out that it is not at all "self-evident" that all people are created equal.  In fact, if you go with what is self-evident you'll come up with something much more akin to Darwinism.  People are not equally smart, or strong, or capable.  (If we're equal, why weren't you running in the Olympics a couple weeks ago?)

What the Declaration of Independence is saying is that we are of equal value and therefore deserve equal treatment under the law, hence equal rights.  This is not a self-evident fact.  Did you know that Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence did not say "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..."?  Instead Jefferson first wrote: "We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable, that all men are created equal and independent ..."  The word "sacred" is of course not at all like "self-evident" -- it states that this belief comes from the existence of God, deriving from his very nature.

Somewhere along the way, Jefferson was convinced -- some say by Benjamin Franklin, others by his own reflection, since the revision is in Jefferson's own handwriting -- to change the text to "self-evident."  It's a little like saying, "Look!  It's obvious!"  Trouble is, when a culture's assumptions change, what is obviously true changes as well.

Over time the Declaration of Independence and its assertions about what is "self-evident" came to be assumed, then taken for granted, then ignored.  As a republic we cut the anchor rope and now we are adrift, floating wherever the winds of public opinion take us.  It is a dangerous way to live.

Any group of revolutionaries, sufficiently motivated and armed, not with Kalashnikovs but with a good Public Relations apparatus, can, over time, turn the winds of public opinion.  If these Revolutionaries are able to hold their course over a few decades, their guerrilla cause will go from an aberration, to an alternative, to an equal option, to the dominant belief of the masses.

An ancient Roman philosopher once said, "A sailor without destination cannot tell fair wind from foul."  It is more true of us today than it has ever been.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Gathering and other news

One of the transitions in my life this summer is that I'm taking over primary pastoral leadership of Central's Sunday evening worship service, The Gathering (Sundays 6 pm in the sanctuary).  This task is increasingly becoming a great joy.  I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the worship tonight -- Nicole, Julie, and Ashley had a Dixie Chicks kind of sound going that was just amazing.  Then I got to teach, using some illustrations and ideas that have been rolling around in my head for a couple years, and several people were very engaged with that material.  It didn't hurt anything that I was teaching primarily on Colossians 2:20-3:17 which is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest texts in the entire Bible (next to, probably, John 21 and Romans 8, if I had to pick).

So I'm enjoying that.  Hopefully, by the way, I'll get some notes from that sermon turned into a useful blog post.  One of the fun-to-think-about dimensions of tonight's teaching is the interrelationship between body, soul, and spirit, and how we misunderstand the various parts of the soul, and thus set ourselves up to misunderstand the Bible in a major way.

Like I said, one of these days.

In other news, Central's staff is taking a very short retreat with our coach, Terry Walling.  Terry spoke today over lunch at Central and said some very helpful things to a group of about 50 people.  He'll be working with our program staff the next couple days to continue our process of moving from a program-oriented church to a people-oriented church.  That's a little oversimplified, but it gets the main idea across.

So prayers for the staff, for us to be sensitive to the Spirit and for Terry to be filled so he can equip us, would be much appreciated the next couple days!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Knowing only God

I'm thinking more about the Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote (from Ethics) in my last post to the effect that we can know God only if we know only God.  This is consistently one of the most challenging statements in my own faith.

We are taught from our very beginnings that we need to know the world directly.  As we grow we are taught to know right from wrong, good from evil.  Everything in our upbringing militates against knowing only God.

So if, at an older age (anything over about 3) we want to follow Jesus with our whole lives, we are in a quandary.  We hear his call to come and follow.  We read the stories of the first disciples who left their nets and we agonize with them through the stories of trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. Peter especially is a great role model in this because he so often gets it wrong, just like we do.

As we begin to mature in this business of following Jesus -- as we become more and more wholehearted in our dedication to him, acknowledging him as master and lord of all our lives -- we recognize the temptation to be sucked back into focus on the things of this world.  Over and over in his teachings Jesus exposes this for what it is.  Think, for example, of his parable of the sower, sometimes called the parable of the soils.  One of the soils that doesn't allow the seed to produce fruit is the seed that is already crowded with thorns.  Jesus describes these thorns as the cares, the pleasures, and the riches of this life.

Lately I've been noticing how full our world is of cares, pleasures, and riches that distract us from Jesus.  If Bonhoeffer is right -- that we can know God only if we know only God -- this business of thorns has to be one of Satan's best strategies.  Whether it's worrying about my kids, enjoying the mindless entertainment of a sitcom, or getting embroiled in managing my resources, my mind is not on the things of Jesus.

When I know Jesus and him alone, I find myself first of all called away from all these things.  I'm called to let go of my worries about my children.  I'm called to step back from the world's entertainment.  I'm called to open my hands and not worry about either lack of finances or management of them.  This temporary hiatus, this temporary withdrawal feels a lot like irresponsibility.

But very quickly, knowing only Jesus calls me back to these relationships.  I'm called back to the relationships but my presence and my perspective has been transformed.  Instead of worrying about my children, I spend my time and energy praying for them and pondering how God is growing them and calling them into the world.  Instead of checking out in front of the tube, I see television programming with a heart that breaks for the brokenness of the world, that cringes at the cheap, shallow laughs that allow people to live in denial about their real needs.  Instead of worrying about my finances, I'm called back to my resources in the confidence that my heavenly Father knows all my needs and calls me to live generously, with open hands toward a needy world.

I begin to see Jesus present in every situation.  The life of knowing only God is NOT a life of monastic withdrawal from reality, but a life of single-minded engagement with the world because that is where I find God at work.

Knowing only God also takes away my need to weigh every option and every decision.  My only priority is to know God.  He handles the big issues, and I live in a relationship of trust, focused on him.

As you think about this kind of life, what attracts you?  What scares you?  To what extent have you experienced this single-mindedness in knowing only God?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rationalism and humanism, part 2: The theism of Jesus

In the current conversations in our culture, we use the word "theism" to mean a set of beliefs in which people acknowledge the existence of God.  This tepid definition leads to all kinds of interesting debates that create a lot of heat but don't generate much light.

So we get "atheists" who categorically deny the existence of any god, usually on rationalistic grounds.  Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others set themselves up as spokespeople to throw rocks at the world's religions because, as they see it, most of the world's evils have been created by misguided, delusional religious people who believe in a god, and this belief makes them do all kinds of irrational things.  The atheists that I have read seem to be advocating one simple thing:  All of us religious people should wake up and realize that we're deluded, disavow our belief in whatever god(s) we accept, and begin to operate strictly from a rationalistic point of view.  I recently waded through the majority of Christopher Hitchens' book, God is Not Great.  The ultra-rationalistic Hitchens spends chapter after chapter railing against the evils of religion, setting up row on row of straw men -- Christians, Hindus, Muslims -- and then knocks them over with the mighty wind of his rational wit.  It's painful to read someone so blinded by his own assumptions.

Matt Chandler has said that atheists have two firm doctrinal positions: 1) there is no God, and 2) I hate Him.

On the other hand, you have Christians who have been scarred in the decades of debates over creationism and evolution who, as a kind of under-the-radar tactic to change the argumentative playing field, espouse something called "theistic evolution" or, in its latest incarnation, "intelligent design."  The argument for these positions goes basically like this: "Science has proven the mechanism of evolution, and we accept, by and large, a scientific view of the universe.  But at its foundations, the universe still requires a Creator, an intelligent designer, a God, to make all this work.  It's just too complex to be random."  What these advocates of theistic evolution don't often communicate very well is this:  their assertion that the complexity of the universe requires a designer, a creator (which I believe is a plausible mathematical and scientific argument) does not by any means prove that this creator is in fact the Bible's God.  At best, these arguments -- properly the province of science, not religion -- "prove" that someone is driving the scientific processes we observe around us.  They cannot prove who is in the driver's seat.

The way we use the word "theism" in our cultural conversations, to imply the simple existence of or belief in a god of some kind, is pretty weak.  Yet in many circles, we assume that Christianity is the same as "believing in God."  I can't tell you how many conversations I've had where, when the topic turns to faith, I've heard people say, "Well, I believe in God."  And if I understand them correctly, what they're saying is that this simple assertion of belief -- this cognitive assent -- should settle the question of whether they have faith, whether they're a Christian, whether they should go to heaven when they die. (Because that, in our current cultural conversation, is what believing in God is all about.  Right?)

I suppose it's proper to use "theism" as a simple philosophical category to separate those who speculate that there is a god of some kind from those who speculate that there is not a god of some kind.  It's helpful to be able to put people in categories.  What irks me is when "theism" and "Christianity" get lumped together as if they were one and the same thing.

The theism that we find in Jesus' words and actions is not the simple belief that God exists.  Interestingly enough, Jesus never argued for the existence of God.  Instead, Jesus talked about "the kingdom of God."  When you read the gospels -- if you haven't done that, why are you wasting your time on this blog? -- you find "the kingdom of God" running through Jesus' words and actions as a constant theme.  Take some time and ponder what Jesus was talking about.  As you look at what Jesus seemed to be saying and doing regarding God, you find that this phrase, "kingdom of God," is shorthand for a number of clear theological statements about who God is, what he is up to, and why it's important.  So "the kingdom of God" means, among other things:

  • God not only exists, but he is king.  He is the ruler of this kingdom.  Those who are in the kingdom -- under his rule -- have access to him and the fullness of life that he desires for his creation.  Those who reject God's sovereignty over themselves are outside the kingdom, cut off from the fullness of life God desires for his creation.
  • The kingdom of God is surprising.  It is not what we expect. In the words of Donald Kraybill, it is an "Upside-Down Kingdom."  The values of the kingdom run contrary to the rationalistic, humanistic systems we create.  Study what Jesus says about this kingdom and you begin to get a picture of a God whose values are diametrically opposed to the values we live by.
  • When a person discovers this kingdom, it draws them in.  Jesus repeatedly told stories about people who went out and sold everything they owned, gave up all their worldly treasures, abased themselves, lost their status and dignity, in order to participate in this kingdom.  
  • The kingdom of God is beyond our power.  It grows without our effort and it moves according to the presence and power of the God who reigns supreme in it.  It is not geographic -- it might be more appropriate to call it the "kingship" of God.  
  • The kingdom of God is not a set of rules to live by.  Rather, it is a relationship of abject slaves to their absolute sovereign.  (Yes, I know that's offensive language.  That's because you're a 21st century rationalistic humanist.)  

When we start reading the gospels, we generally read from our own perspective, from our own point of view.  So I read, "love your enemies" and set out to do so.  It's a hard standard, a challenging proposition, a difficult task.  But I can begin to work toward this goal.  The deeper I go, the more I try to do these things, though, the more frustrated I will become.  What does it mean that Jesus says I have to hate father and mother to follow him?  What does he mean that I will never find my life unless I lose it?  What does he mean when he says that apart from him, I have no life in me?

We do not start from a point of really getting what Jesus says.  Instead, we read and hear trying to make sense of these things.  As Jesus' words and actions frustrate us, we may begin to grow more and more able to see things from his perspective.

So when Jesus says that there are two commands at the top of the list -- love God, first, and love your neighbor, second -- I may read these things from a shallow level in which I say, "I will go to worship and sing songs to God about how much I love him; and I will find ways to care for the people around me."  These two goals fit nicely into rationalistic humanism, and I can work toward these goals and feel both challenged and smug.

But when I realize that truly loving a God who is absolutely sovereign over me might mean loving him when I lose my job, or my innocence, or my loved ones, I may find it hard to love him.  I may cry out against him, asking, "How could you do this to me?"  This is not the cry of an abject slave.

When Jesus says, "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect," I may become frustrated that God doesn't seem interested in grading on a curve.  I may point to all my goodness, all the neighbor-loving I've done, and cry out, "What about this good stuff I've done?"  That is not the cry of an abject slave.

When I try to make sense of what Jesus tells me, and I realize that Jesus isn't satisfied with my moral conduct; he doesn't agree that my family is highest priority; he refuses to respect my opinions or my experience; he isn't reasonable when it comes to my budget or my time management; at these times, I lash out against Jesus and these demands of absolute sovereignty.  I just want to have a little for myself -- a little time, a little money, a little satisfaction, a little credit.  This is not the attitude of an abject slave.

The slave's cry is, "Yes, sir."

When we gain some distance from our cultural context, we might begin to ask some difficult questions. For example, Jesus calls me to love God and love my neighbor.  What does it mean to love my neighbor?  Better yet, what is love?  Culturally we have enshrined love as the chief and highest value.  We say inane things like, "It's okay as long as you love each other."  Or, "Love is the most important -- any two people who love each other should be allowed to express that love."  But what is love?  Is it a warm feeling?  A commitment to an individual?  A sexual desire?  A craving?  How is love distinguished from happiness?  Is there any relationship between these two words?

Without an external frame of reference, we cannot define love.  So when Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, our first question as finite humans must be, "What does it mean to love?"  Left to ourselves we have no good answer, for (look around if you don't believe this to be true) all of our answers have demonstrated their shallowness, their bankruptcy.  In moral, personal, and romantic terms all our cultural definitions of love have failed over and over again.

Love lies at the heart of Christianity.  It is no wonder our culture struggles to know what it means to follow Jesus.  We are adrift when it comes to love; yet Jesus is the ultimate definition of love, according to the Bible.

And so the assumptions of our cultural context -- individualism, rationalism, humanism -- have gutted Christianity, removing Jesus' identity as "Lord" and promoting in its place Jesus' identity as "Savior."  It's about me and what I need.

When I realize my own status as an abject slave under an absolute sovereign, I begin to see that even my own perception, my own reasoning, my own understanding of the way things are, is suspect.

From 2000 until about 2010, I started reading Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer at least a dozen times.  Each time I would read the first page and stop cold.  (Finally in 2010 I began to read past the first page.)  The first page includes this quote:

"Man at his origin knows only one thing: God.  It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows other men, of things, and of himself.  He knows all things only in God, and God in all things ... he can know God only if he knows only God.  The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God."

This quote begins to get at what a radical departure Jesus requires.  Jesus does not call us to make sense of his stories or to understand him.  He doesn't call us to belief in the sense of cognitive assent, as in "I believe Jesus rose from the dead."  He calls us to the kind of single-minded existence that says I will know only God, through Jesus who reveals him.  As God sees fit, and only as God sees fit, I will come to know other things, other people, and even (maybe especially) myself.  This is why the Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Or that we should trust in the Lord with all our hearts and not lean on our own understanding.

Rationalism and humanism are problematic precisely because they both seek to make sense of the world in terms apart from knowing God through Jesus.

Let's stop there for a while.  There's lots more to be said about this.  Soon we'll begin to describe what biblical faith might look like in the 21st century, and how it applies to some of our cultural conversations.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Jesus was not a rationalistic humanist.

At the end of the  Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7) Jesus said that if someone hears his words and puts them into practice, that person is like a man who built a house on a solid foundation.  On the other hand, he said, the person who hears his words but does NOT put them into practice is like someone who built his house on sand.  When trouble comes, that house is not going to last.

Several different factors have led me to think about this text lately.  (This happens to be the text we chose for my dad's funeral, but that's beside the point.  Sort of.)  To sum up, I believe that the much vaunted "culture wars" we've heard so much about don't come down to red vs. blue states, Democrats vs. Republicans, or fiscal conservatives vs. social liberals.  In America's version of Western Civilization, at least, each of those seeming opposites is just an argument about where on the sand dune we should build the house.

Our current culture -- the culture that spans everything from "I Love Lucy" to Facebook, the Mall of America to, Jim Morrison to Justin Bieber, public kindergartens to the Harvard Law Review, my '92 Dodge Dakota to the Mars Curiosity rover -- is built on the foundation of rationalistic humanism.  Those two expensive words together mean, basically, that we believe 1) humans are in charge, and what's best for humans is what really matters, and 2) the human mind and its version of logic is what really makes useful sense of the universe.

Rationalistic humanism is taught as Fact in our public schools.  The assumptions of rationalistic humanism are not debated in Congress because both Republicans and Democrats (AND Libertarians AND Green Party advocates) share these same assumptions.  It is, to quote "The Matrix", the world that has been pulled over our eyes.  This is true simply because we don't know how to question our own deepest assumptions.

My daughter owns a book with an intriguing title that gets at the problem a little bit.  It's called, Do Fish Know They're Wet?  If all you've ever known is being underwater, how could you imagine anything different -- and therefore, how could you possibly understand that you're soaking wet?

Most of us are so saturated with rationalistic humanism that we cannot imagine anything else.  If we read or hear someone advocating a different approach to the world, we have one of two options.  We either a) filter what we hear through our understanding of rationalistic humanism, or b) reject what we hear because it sounds like gibberish.

For the Christian, this situation poses a special kind of problem.  Because -- and this is important -- Jesus was neither a rationalist nor a humanist.  Jesus was very logical, but he was not a rationalist, meaning he did not assume that the reasoning power of the human mind could make sense of the universe.  He was very concerned about human beings, but he was not a humanist.  That is to say, Jesus did not share the assumption that what was good in the eyes of humans truly defined the nature of Goodness.

Jesus was Jewish, and that makes him first and foremost a monotheist.  In other words, for Jesus the universe is defined by the existence of an all-supreme God.  Logic, the nature of good and evil, and everything else are defined by the existence and the nature of this one God.

Jesus was a monotheist, but that does not in itself define him.  There are plenty of monotheists out there today who are totally opposed to the ways of Jesus.  But you start to get the idea, I hope.  Jesus operated from a whole different set of assumptions, a whole different worldview, than that held by our current culture.  It takes a great deal of work to even begin to see life as Jesus saw it.  It's like if an algebra teacher gave Jesus a problem and said, "Solve for x" and Jesus said, "That gray tabby cat over there just caught a grasshopper."

Digression:  I am using past tense verbs to refer to Jesus, not because he is not around anymore -- he is -- but because the knowledge of Jesus' worldview and perspective and philosophy and foundation comes only from the New Testament.  So we have to use the past tense and analyze what Jesus said and did in the context of Judaism in the first century.  In this narrow sense, there truly is a legitimate quest for the historicity of Jesus.  NOTE: This interest in the historicity of Jesus is radically different from the agenda and the methods of the popularized "Jesus Seminar," if you're familiar with their work.

If we simply shellac Jesus over our present culture, we get all kinds of evil distortions, from the Aryan Jesus of the Nazis in the 1930's to the impotent "just love everybody" Jesus espoused today by liberal protestantism, and lots of heresies in between.  Too often -- far too often -- this kind of shellac job is exactly what Christians do with Jesus.  Got a problem?  Jesus is the answer.  Got a political agenda?  Let's see if Jesus fits into it.  Got questions about what you should do with your life?  Ask Jesus to help you choose the right option.  Got guilt?  Get Jesus to forgive you.

Trouble with all this is, we know Jesus as we are, not as he is.

Jesus stands clearly apart from and in tension with our culture.  Unless we are willing to leave the security of our own assumptions at least enough to start seeing things from his perspective, we have no hope of ever understanding what it means to follow him.

More on this later.

Change in the weather

Things have turned here in Minnesota.  The last six weeks were sweltering days -- hot, humid, and difficult to endure, at least for those of us who stay in Minnesota primarily due to the beautiful winters.

I'm sort of kidding about that, but not really.

The last week, however, the weather turned -- highs around 80 degrees, nights cool enough to wear flannel pajamas (still sleeping above the sheets, of course) and beautiful, beautiful mornings and evenings.

Maybe it's the weather change; I'm not sure.  At any rate, my mental state seems to have turned as well. A week ago I couldn't string together two worthwhile thoughts to save my life.  Now I have a list of topics to ponder that would fill many blog posts.  Hopefully I'll get to some of them very soon.

Tonight, however, I'm training some new pastorate leaders at Central, so I'm not going to delve into the philosophical and reflective just yet.  However, if you were not at Central on Sunday, I strongly encourage you to visit Central's website and listen to the sermon delivered by one of India's strongest intellectuals, Dr. Vishal Mangalwadi.  He spoke at all three morning services and did an amazing job.  Personally I'll be going back very soon to re-listen to the longest of the three, his 11 am sermon.  (Click here to be directed to that sermon.)  Dr. Mangalwadi is one of those speakers who says things and you go, "Wow ..." and realize that all your life, you've believed stuff that is mostly untrue.  Or at best partially true.

Please understand, I heard Dr. Mangalwadi speak three times on Sunday morning, and I will still be repeating the longest of his three sermons as soon as I can set aside some time.  His call for the church to stand up for truth is powerful, and well worth your time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Got Framework?

Sunday night I went to bed about 10 pm.  Then at 12:20 my alarm went off (I had planned this) and I got up and tuned into a ustream video feed so I got to participate, in some sense, in the landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars.  Some of my earliest memories are the televised Apollo moon landings, and I always feel a deep thrill when I see some experimental space achievement that seems impossible but comes off without a hitch.

But I started thinking about this Mars landing, and I pulled out a half finished post from a few weeks ago.  This idea doesn't want to leave me alone, so I share the older post, now finished (finally!) with you:

On the drive to work this morning, I came to a conclusion.

We, as a culture, are metaphorically lost in a giant swamp of knowledge.  If you've ever been lost in a swamp (and I have) you know that it is an overwhelming experience.  The swamp dominates every facet of your existence -- your breathing, your movement, your eyesight, your thoughts, your sense of touch and even taste becomes dominated by the swamp.  It is overwhelming precisely because there is no solid place to stand, no clear direction to move.

We are overwhelmed with knowledge.  The Higgs Boson has been found, more or less.  Caffeine prevents skin cancer, under certain conditions.  Saturn's moon, Titan, has underground reservoirs of liquid water.  Those are just a few of the tidbits that came across the news feed on my computer in the last couple weeks.  There were literally thousands more.

I'm not talking about simple information.  The amount of information available to humans has been overwhelming for hundreds of years, but we have dealt with the overload by finding ways to prioritize the information we take in.  We discount certain bits of information and pay attention to others.   Today, knowledge has grown beyond our capacity to organize or prioritize it, and so information overruns our senses and we are unable to limit the input.  Simply put, we know too much, and it has not helped us.

Some of our knowledge is helpful in the short term.  We know how to do amazing medical procedures that help individuals survive conditions that a generation ago would have been fatal.  So we keep people alive longer.  But as far as those lives having meaning and depth, we are lost.

The problem is not actually the amount we know.  Rather, the problem is that we have discarded the frameworks that help us organize and prioritize our knowledge.  Gradually the flood of new information, new knowledge, has made our old systems and priorities seem antique and outmoded.

For example:

A century ago, a farmer spent most of his time focused on farming.  He dealt with cows, horses, machinery, crops, weather, and such.  At times he might read a newspaper to get a sense of the larger world.  He interacted with a few neighbors to keep up on community happenings, and he might even have been involved with the church, school board or local government as a way to interact with his community.  There were many, many things he heard or saw that he simply chose to ignore because he didn't have time or energy to pay attention to them.  The circle of his influence encompassed his farm and his local community.  If he paid attention to world events, it was most often because they directly impacted his own life in some way.  (Think, for example, of those who paid attention to news from France in World War One because they knew some of "our boys" who were over there in the trenches.)  The circle of his interest was not much bigger than the circle of his influence.

Today, we take in information and knowledge from many, many spheres.  Those of you who don't read the news much might be feeling a bit smug here, but you're reading this blog, aren't you?  You watch TV shows or listen to the radio or take in information from dozens of sources.  The circle of our interest has gotten so much larger than the circle of our influence.  We are so out of balance in this way that we begin to feel overwhelmed.  Lost.  Up to our hips in swamp water, feet stuck in the muck.  There's no solid place to stand, no way to move forward.

We need a way to prioritize, a way to distinguish what's important and what's not.

This is one of the primary benefits of faith, and specifically of Christian faith.  Our culture operates currently on the assumption that knowledge is good, and so more knowledge must be better.   Nobody's talking about how to limit our intake of new knowledge.  We have GPS devices that tell us where to go, tablets that connect us to the world of media and information, telephones that can access nearly any tidbit of information at the touch of a fingertip.  Our access to information is nearly unlimited.

I am not advocating limiting our knowledge.  Rather, we need a framework to help us make sense of it, to prioritize what we know.

NASA's Curiosity rover just landed on Mars in a spectacular feat of technological daring.  But what does that mean, if anything, for you and me?  Is it important?

Many readers will be familiar with Jesus' story about the soils.  A farmer went out to plant his seed, Jesus said, and he scattered seed on four different kinds of soil.  One type mentioned by Jesus is the soil that is already inhabited by thorns.  Asked later to explain the story, Jesus compared the thorny soil to people who, when they hear God's word, allow it to be choked out by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life.  The seed of God's word -- by far the most important thing to land in these lives -- has no opportunity to mature and bear fruit because it is choked out by other things.

How do you decide what is most important?  How do you decide when to drop everything and make time for something?  How do you decide what activities must fit into your day no matter what it costs?  It's not much different to ask, how do you decide what bits of information are important enough to focus on?  Is it that TV show?   Maybe the Olympics?  Family time?  That novel you can't put down?  Extra information you have to process in order to get ahead at work?

This is an important question.  A framework provides just what the frame of a house provides -- a way to make all that sheetrock and subflooring and linoleum and paint usable.  Without the frame, a house is just a pile of construction materials.  Without a mental and spiritual framework, all our information is just a big pile of trivia.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The ministry of email

Recently I've been enjoying the ministry of email.  Seems like I've been pulled into a number of significant conversations via email correspondence about ministry, about significant relationship matters, and especially about theology.  One example: I recently received some pointed questions in my Inbox from a person who was looking at the world and chewing hard on what he was seeing.  My response (below) is not a coherent thought but rather a set of conversational responses that may give you things to ponder today!  I've altered what follows only slightly to protect my correspondent's identity:

You ask many great questions here, and I’m not going to try to take them logically, but maybe just ramble a bit.  Then if it’s helpful, I would love to continue the conversation, because I’m quite sure that my ramblings will not address all your questions!

I have struggled off an on for years with what you describe, the whole “news junkie” thing. Especially after 9/11/2001 I often have a sense of anxiety — sometimes pretty minor, other times more urgent — about knowing what’s on the news, wondering if something horrible has happened.  And I recognize that most often this is an unhealthy obsession.  So from time to time I fast from the news, just because I know that bad things will happen, but God is still in charge.  So I try to turn off the media and “be still” in order to know him as God in a deeper way.

Having children heightens this fascination, and makes it much more painful.  As a father I want to protect my children.  There have been many specific instances when they’ve been sick or hurt or endangered, and that’s hard to face.  Yet when I step back from my father mentality and think about my own life, or think in more general terms, I realize that if I could protect them perfectly from every danger, it wouldn’t be healthy for me or for them.  They need danger, they need pain, they need suffering in order to mature and grow into all they can be.  My girls are 17 and 20 now and I can see in each of their lives how my failure to protect them has been used over and over by God to help them grow beyond what I could have imagined.

The specific question of those three children in Wisconsin, of course, goes far beyond this.  That’s the kind of news story you read or see and it turns your stomach because there is no justice, no redemption, at least in this life, for those children.  The first thought is that I sincerely hope — and believe — that God brings some kind of redemption to situations like this one in the next life.  I think there’s some justification for thinking this way as a Christian.  For example, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) Jesus tells a story that seems to imply some measure of recompense for the injustices of this life.

But a more helpful way for me to face horrors like this one is to see how Jesus dealt with gross injustice in Luke 13.  There he is asked about some people who were killed by Pontius Pilate as they were offering their sacrifices in the temple — the one safe place, at least in Jewish thought, in the world.   Jesus says, “Do you think they deserved that?  No.”  Then he goes on, not to explain why it happened, but rather to say, “Pay attention — this is your wake up call.  Repent and get right with God.”  Some commentators say he’s confronting the Jewish hatred for the Roman occupiers and saying, “Follow me and my way of love for neighbors, even for oppressors, instead of hoping for a war that will throw off the Romans.”  In any case, Jesus then follows up with another example, this time a seemingly random event in which a tower fell on a bunch of people.  Jesus says, in effect, don’t try to make sense of this random tragedy by believing these people deserved what they got.  Instead, use this tragedy as an incentive to get your own life right with God.

So Jesus deals with these questions of the justice of God in a fairly unsatisfying way, at least on the surface.  He says, yes, tragedies and evil happen.  So make sure you’re right with God, because life is dangerous and unpredictable.

Jesus also teaches us to pray.  Luke 11 is one good example of where  Jesus instructs his followers about prayer.  He encourages, even commands, us to ask God for what we need.  He promises that God doesn’t give us evil things in answer to our prayers, but rather that God gives good gifts.  We are to pray in confidence, not in the fact that our prayers are going to control God, but rather that our prayers align us with the love and mercy of a God who is trustworthy and dependable.  Prayer doesn’t guarantee our security, but rather it submits us to God’s sovereignty.

A little over two years ago when a blood vessel burst in my head, I spent about three weeks acutely aware that I could have a recurrence any time, and any secondary bleed would likely be fatal.  Several times I thought the counter on my life clock was down to minutes or even seconds.  (Some of those stories are pretty funny in retrospect!)  One verse I came back to again and again as I prayed — and I prayed a lot, not for my own safety and recovery, but just to know God in the middle of this challenging situation — was Psalm 116:15, which says “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”  I took this to mean, not that God wouldn’t allow me to die, but rather that if my death was in his plans, if in his sovereignty he allowed me to die, that he would count my death precious and use it for his good purposes.  I’ve been reading a lot lately of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life — the Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.   Bonhoeffer had a deep sense that his life was following exactly the path that God had ordained for him.  I believe that Bonhoeffer would have said both that prayer changes our circumstances, as there seem to be certain things God does not do without our prayer (this is an amazing mystery), but also that prayer changes us as we learn more and more to submit ourselves to God.

So I don’t believe we just pray for ourselves to be changed.  As a seminary professor of mine said once, sometimes we pray in anger against the way things are, telling God in effect, “Why are you allowing this?  I know you better than this!”  So we rail against injustice and ask God to change things and pray against the devil and his attempts to destroy God’s good work.

Another Bible passage you might find helpful in all these thoughts is Romans chapter 8.  I have gone through this chapter so many times, and it’s so dense and rich and full of a deeper sense of who God is and what he is up to and how we fit into that work.

Like you, I reject the idea of having things “both ways” -- the idea that we claim special rescue for ourselves but don’t take seriously when others go through tragedy.  We somehow want to let God off the hook.  The Bible doesn’t do this.  Isaiah 45, for example, places the responsibility for tragedy squarely on God’s shoulders, and I think we have to take that seriously.  There is also the reality that our rebellion against God has consequences not only for ourselves, but for innocent third parties who suffer because of our choices.  So we also suffer because of the evil choices of others.  God does not will these things, I think, but he does promise to use them to bring about greater good (see Romans 8:28, for example).

My final thought:  I wonder if God is using your wrestling with these things to pull you in to a deeper understanding of him, and a deeper relationship with him?  That seems like the kind of thing he does.

Thanks again — I hope these ruminations are helpful, and I look forward to any response you have!