Signs and Guidance

Signs and Guidance

Last night in our Tuesday night group we discussed signs and guidance. How does one get and follow the right guidance from God?

We were reading the Matthew 2:1-12, and following my gospel parallels, I suggested a parallel reading of Luke 2:8-20, which we did. You have various signs, a report of scriptural interpretation, dreams, and angels between the two stories. There are some remarkable parallels of content, along with some substantial differences, fitted to the message of each gospel writer.

But being a person who likes to set off discussion I asked about our individual ability to hear from God. How would we feel about the various means of receiving a message from God? How would we discern whether a message really was from God.

Pretty much everyone had experienced the twin claims about hardships. On the one hand people will claim that you’re obviously getting close to something big, and the devil is trying to prevent you from getting there. On the other, there are those who would say that if you’re on the right path, things will be easy, so you should correct course.

The same sign seems to mean two different things.

We mentioned some responses at the time to the fire at Notre Dame cathedral. Any lover of art and architecture can hardly help but be saddened by that fire. Yet it immediately has become a “sign” for many things.

At Energion, we’re releasing a book titled Ditch the Building on May 17. It’s available for pre-order now. It’s definitely not connected. But in some people’s minds, it could be. The fire has been seen as a sign of the times, of disasters to come for our planet. It’s been seen as a sort of judgment on dead religion. My Facebook feed is littered with lessons being learned with varying degrees of actual connection. Well, really very little connection.

As I said in my book When People Speak for God, the last person who has to hear from God is you.

No matter whether you are listening to a new idea, a message someone claims to have received directly from God, or the interpretation of a passage of scripture, your individual mind, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is the final filter to separate sense from nonsense. The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you. Even the firmest believer in the detailed accuracy of the text of scripture will realize that many interpretations of that scripture are nonsense.

… This is the other end of the telephone cord. Inspiration is not just about God. It is about how God communicates with human beings. Thus it is not just about God’s perfection; it is also about humanity’s imperfection. It is not just about God’s infinite perspective; it is also about humanity’s finite capacity to understand.

The human mind is probably the most neglected part of God’s creation….

Henry Neufeld, When People Speak for God, 4.
What Is the Most Frightening Verse?

What Is the Most Frightening Verse?

Pete Enns writes about what he believes is the most frightening verse in the Bible. His post is well worth reading. His verse should be frightening.

He cites 1 John 4:7-8:

Loved ones, let’s love one another, for love is from God. Everyone who loves has been born from God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

1 John 4:7-8 (my translation)

People often deride “love preachers,” because the message of love is regarded as weak. And there are love preachers whose love is actually weak. But divine love is a very difficult topic, because divine love leads to giving of oneself for others. If that’s easy, you’re probably not doing it right.

Here’s the hard part for me: Loving the person who doesn’t seem to believe in love.

  • The religious person
  • The judgmental person
  • The hateful person
  • The purposefully ignorant person
  • The shallow person
  • The person who thinks my love preaching is weak!

In preaching that we need to love people who are addicted to some substance, or are homeless, are poor, or in some way different (faith, race, nationality, sexuality, etc) it is easy to break into condemnation of those who don’t agree and will not join me in loving my people list.

The people I list need our love as much as, or more than, the others. We do not expect condemnation to help people who are struggling with addiction, for example. Indeed, I don’t believe condemnation helps at all. I have to remember my many imperfections and realize that I also am not helped by condemnation.

The challenge, I think, is to love those who hate, to treat respectfully those who are disrespectful. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” I suspect it might be a good strategy.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org)

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

Measuring the Wrong Thing in the Wrong Way

A few years ago I heard a story about a Methodist District Superintendent who was visiting a church in his district. The church was conducting an afternoon training event. At the height of this event, the superintendent asks the pastor of the church how many people he thought were in attendance. The pastor looked around and replied, “About 400.” The superintendent said, “Oh, how many does this sanctuary seat?” “250,” responded the pastor, unperturbed.

It makes a great joke, backing up the phrase “clergy estimate,” but it also illustrates a problem that we have with the church. We have a fixation on numbers, and we’re often not quite sure what numbers we’re fixated on. We’re reasonably sure, however, that these numbers are supposed to be large.

Thus the clergy estimate. Let’s make it look like we’re doing well, because the appearance of doing well is all-important. What gets lost in the discussion and the paperwork is just what those numbers mean.

I wrote a post about the characteristics of a living church back in 2006, and I don’t see any reason to change anything I wrote then. What I’m looking at here is our tendency to measure. The health of a living church that I noted back then is not that easy to measure.

So perhaps I prefer a small church? Smaller churches have certain opportunities for community and for ministry that larger churches might not. Smaller churches are sometimes perceived as more faithful, more orthodox in their Christian beliefs.

No, not really. My problem is with our measurements of success. I won’t link to the site, but today I saw posts for ebooks that would tell you how to reach the visitors who come to your Easter service and get them to come back to church.

Inadequately impressed by the resurrection? There’s a program for that!

The same site offers to provide you insight into strategic hires to help grow your church. If you follow the directions and hire the right people, your church will grow. You can sell your church service just like laundry soap or hamburgers.

There are those who will say I’m being unfair. Good business practices are good for a church. Yes, good business practices in finance and management are important for an organization. But is a well-oiled, well-running, constantly expanding machine a sign of a spiritually healthy church?

I’m going to suggest that basing our thinking on numbers is just wrong. I hear this often in comparing various movements in Christianity. We’re losing members because of too liberal, too conservative, or just too dry of theological positions. We’re gaining members because we’re preaching “truth,” however that is defined by the speaker.

Challenge one of these claims by pointing to increasing numbers in groups not on the approved group list (an amorphous thing that changes with the individual), and you’ll hear the counter that Christians shouldn’t follow the crowd, that numbers don’t mean everything, and the way to destruction is wide and straight!

It’s very like my theme picture. We’re measuring things with the wrong tool, in the wrong units. We don’t know where we’re going, but if lots of us get there, we think it’s (probably) a good thing.

The question is this: Are we growing in grace? Are we a healthy community?

Or perhaps more precisely, are we a community at all?

Once we’ve taken that step, we can ask the next question. But once we’re functioning as a real community, we might not really need to ask the question at all. We’ll be too busy being a healthy church to take time to measure the health.

Accuracy of Predictions

Accuracy of Predictions

There’s very little checking done of the accuracy of the prediction of pundits, which is a major reason I avoid even hearing what they have to say.

One exception to this rule is Nate Silver and his crew at FiveThirtyEight.com. They’ve just published an analysis of as many of their predictions as possible. It’s worth reading, just for the demonstration of doing an analysis in the first place.

I suspect most readers/viewers of the news find probability hard to understand, and pundits generally don’t do that. People generally don’t want to hear probabilities; they’d prefer certainty. I have not done one, but I suspect a survey would show that people prefer a certain answer to an accurate-but-uncertain one.

So I like the headline: When We Say 70 Percent, It Really Means 70 Percent. Well, actually 71%. The things they gave a probability of 70% to happened 71% of the time. Not all percentages matched that accuracy, but it’s overall quite good.

More importantly, it tends to demonstrate the nature of prediction and the value of having evaluations. This makes me tend away from TV and radio as news sources and toward written sources in which I can check the sources. And, of course, toward written articles that actually cite sources.

Note: Check my source for this article!

Discerning Manifestations: A Quick Transitional Note

Discerning Manifestations: A Quick Transitional Note

In a previous post I discussed how I see the question of whether a doctrine or behavior is Christ-centered and whether it acknowledges Jesus as Lord can determine whether such action is right or wrong for the Christian.

I also noted that I suspected my answer was going to be unsatisfying to many. The reason is similar to problems with the slogan “What would Jesus do?”. If you can imagine Jesus wiping out a nest of your enemies with high explosives, possibly because he drove out the money changers, then you might easily be able to justify your own very violent behavior. Is that an accurate assessment of what Jesus would actually do?

I have rarely encountered someone who believed that practice in worship, or a “manifestation of the Spirit” was something that would anger God. No, they believe, or claim to believe, these are good things.

As I start to discuss this, I simply want to note that there are examples of very bizarre behavior commanded or condoned by God in scripture. Ezekiel, for example, would likely be less than welcome in our modern churches. At the same time I think it is relevant to ask if God would be likely to call someone to do the things Ezekiel did in our modern context.

I will not produce a checklist. I don’t believe one exists. I believe one has to look beyond the external to see whether God is at work. I would also suggest that we all need to be very careful about judging things that might seem odd to us. The problem is that “odd” can be defined by culture and age among many other things.

Physical manifestations are also easy to fake. I would suggest care, and a great deal of withholding judgment. I think Matthew 7:15-20 is a key passage. We’ll know by the fruit. A key to this test is that we may have to wait some time before we can actually inspect the fruit.

Oh, and look up post hoc ergo propter hoc among the logical fallacies when discussing fruit!

(Featured image by J F from Pixabay)

Review: Kayla May and Kerry Sandell present Collected Stories

Review: Kayla May and Kerry Sandell present Collected Stories

I took the opportunity to see this play last Saturday night (March 30, 2019) as part of the SWAN (Support Women Artists Now) program coordinated by PenArts.

At first I didn’t intend a review, because I don’t have much business reviewing plays. My only experience was in high school. I don’t even watch movies or TV dramas that much. But then …

What I do know something about is writing, critiquing, editing, and publishing. More importantly, I know about holding a stage. It’s hard to do without all the extras. “Drama” and “special effects” become synonymous, and so we watch movies to see the next technical trick that will be included. It’s quite easy to lose the story amongst the many things that are there to make the story interesting.

Two people on a stage talking? How can one possibly watch that for going on two hours?

Well, you start with some exquisitely written dialogue. If you don’t know how hard that is, you’ve never actually tried to construct good dialogue, words that fit the character and project what you intend to about that person. This play provides the words. This isn’t a review of the text of the play, however, but of the performance. (Donald Margulies can manage on his own!)

I was there because I know Kayla May, and I was watching her more at first. It was amazing. She took on that character and had me believing the character in minutes. I was no longer seeing Kayla May. I don’t know how you do that. I deal mostly in the printed word. This is something different.

I don’t know Kerry Sandell, so I didn’t have to forget her to see her character, but this was not a one-sided performance. Both performances were outstanding, in my opinion. This is not because I can tell you what these two ladies did. I don’t have a clue. Rather, I can describe what happened. I knew the characters, empathized with them as writers, students, teachers, and people. I could see them change and adapt.

Perhaps here some background in writing helped, but I don’t think it was necessary. They were presented so that you could come to care about the story and what happened to them, even if you didn’t empathize with the insecurities, pretensions, frustrations, and victories of writers.

I went to this play expecting to appreciate it in a polite way. “Not precisely my cup of tea,” I’d say, “but you did whatever it was well.” By the end, however, I’d have to say, “Definitely my cup of tea.”

This is the sort of thing I’m hoping for when I watch a new movie: Good characters effectively portrayed; people you care about by the end of the drama. I don’t mean that all plays should have just two characters; rather, they should have meaningful, well-developed, well-portrayed characters.

Is that too much to ask?

Perhaps. On the other hand, you might find that what’s missing on your TV screen is available in the performances supported by a local arts society. I’m going to be thinking about that from now on.

Starting Leviticus

Starting Leviticus

I mentioned in my post about completing the study of Romans that our next book was Leviticus. This was by choice of the group, but it is surely driven somewhat by the number of references I have made to Leviticus.

While I experienced Leviticus as a child, going to a Christian school where we read—really read—the entire Bible, and memorized a great deal, it never really caught my attention.

Two factors combined to catch my attention:

  1. I changed my view of biblical inspiration
  2. I studied through Leviticus using the three volume commentary on it in the Anchor Bible series by Jacob Milgrom.

Studying with Milgrom

Here’s a key Milgrom quote, and this from a man who does not tend to speak in one-liners!

Theology is what Leviticus is all about. It pervades every chapter and almost every verse. It is not expressed in pronouncements but embedded in rituals.

Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Vol. 1, Anchor Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 42. (Link is to my review.)

One of the key lessons I learned in that book is that ritual matters. The way we worship both reflects and creates theology. When we go to church and listen to one person from the front do all the talking, that has an impact on how we see the Christian life, learning, discipleship.

I recall that I was once asked to speak at a church where, unknown to me, people felt they could delegate that task of prayer to the prayer warriors. The pastor who invited me knew I’d say something different.

I would like to say something similar about study to the church as a whole: You can’t leave your study to pastors or scholars. You need to get involved.

Bottom line here is that our ritual matters in many ways.

I asked a question in a previous post:

If God showed up on Sunday morning, would God enjoy what was going on?

Henry’s Threads, “A Morbid and Boring Christianity

I think it’s a good question. In terms of Leviticus, would it be a “pleasing odor?”

What’s God Really Like?

Inspiration in the Production of Scripture

The other element is my change was my view of inspiration. There is a single element that is critical. I came to regard the process of inspiration and transmission of scripture as a critical element in our understanding. I see scripture as a compendium of the experience of people with God. It is important to recognize both the divine and human element.

Out of that divine-human story, I see God working with people through scripture. In Leviticus, we see God as educator. Yes, we see the human report of what happened. I’m not trying here to debate details on how human and how divine scripture is; in fact, I think that’s the wrong question. What we’re looking for is the process behind what we have. We want to see God in action.

Is that perhaps arrogant? I don’t believe so. I believe God has left God’s imprint all over creation, and very much in the way in which God’s chosen people were developed and prepared. Looking at this process is even more critical than connecting dots between specific scriptures.

Things I Won’t Be Doing

In focusing on the way ritual expresses theology and develops worshipers, there are two things I will not be emphasizing.

First, I will not be looking for the minor ties between specific scripture prophecies and New Testament events. While I accept predictive prophecy in principle, in practice I find that the detailed interpretation of a prediction/fulfillment is rarely necessary to learn the lessons expressed.

Second, I will not be doing a detailed symbolic connection between elements of the ritual. Those sorts of things (and the resulting debates) are available elsewhere.

I will be focusing on the expression of theology through ritual and the relationship of that ritual to forming God’s people. I hope to learn something about discipleship and instruction/nurture through this book.

(Featured image credit: Adobe Stock #158382143. Licensed, not public domain.)

What Does It Mean to Call Jesus Lord

What Does It Mean to Call Jesus Lord

A commentator noted that I was not all that helpful in my post yesterday, since I hadn’t made any effort to say just what it would mean to have Jesus as the center of a doctrine, nor what it means to call Jesus Lord. In response, I obviously had to create a new, more ambitious title!

As a first note, in moving forward, I think it would be helpful to read an earlier post that I wrote about community: Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 12, and the Nature of Christian Community. The question this raises goes beyond what was asked to look at just why we care.

In other words, let’s say I find a doctrine “not Christian.” What does that mean for my actions? For the most part, it makes a difference largely to whether I keep it in my personal theology. In dealing with others, the question is one of what we should debate.

As an example, I am quite willing to discuss creation and evolution as a matter of Christian doctrine. What do we believe about God as creator that is an essential part of our Christian theology? Here I would distinguish something that might make that doctrine not Christian at all, as in a believe in a creator other than God. This might take some mind twisting work with definitions to accomplish, since the word “God” tends to follow the concept “creator” around in dialog, but something that drastic would result in me saying, “That’s not a Christian doctrine.”

Let me note carefully that I would not be saying the person holding it was not a good person. That’s a whole other discussion tied up with quite different theological questions.

What is more likely is that I will identify differences as not relevant to whether the doctrine is Christian or not. In the case of creation, while the issue of whether there was a real Adam is significant (though often solved in various ways), the issue of the length of a Genesis day, or whether the length is even relevant, is not. I can still believe in Jesus while not believing in 24 hour days.

This doesn’t mean that there cannot be debates about which view of the details is correct. It simply puts those issues on a lower level.

To get past this point and use “Jesus is Lord” as a testing point for an application of doctrine requires a great deal more thinking. I’m not going to provide any of my own answers to this today, but I will simply warn you of this: You are unlikely to be satisfied, at least if you like simple and clear answers that let you classify worship experiences and activities as “of the Holy Spirit” or “not of the Holy Spirit.” Part of my view of what “Jesus is Lord” means tends to deny such simple answers. I’ll discuss that in a future post.

The reason I referenced my article on community is this: I believe the church is to be a community, and so one way of phrasing the test would be: Does this tend to build community, and is it the right kind of community?

This past Tuesday night we ended up discussing this same issue, referring back to Isaiah 42:6:

I, YHWH, have called you in righteousness.
I have taken you by the hand and kept you.
I have placed you as a covenant to people,
a light to the nations.

Now this was written to the Jews when they were in exile in Babylon, and was part of promising their return. I believe, however, that it says something about how God works in general. God blesses, not so that the person(s) blessed can be special, but rather so that they can be a blessing. The blessing is not meant to stop here, wherever “here” may be.

Christians often think this is a New Testament concept, but it is very old. You can find it in Genesis 12:2, said to Abraham. The New Testament is remarkable in its lack of newness. This is an established way in which God works.

So this points to the type of community the church is to be. We form and strengthen community so that we can bless those who are outside. We are not the community of those who are more right, or more in favor with God, or better behaved. We are a community of God’s grace, and we’re not even special as recipients of God’s grace, we are rather sharers of God’s grace. If you want to be special, superior to others, God’s kingdom is likely not your best place.

I will expand on this later in a future post. Right now, let me simply say that announcing that “Jesus is Lord,” so that you can immediately afterward gloat about your superiority to someone else, you likely have not truly proclaimed Jesus as truly Lord.