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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.

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Tacky title, eh? I don’t apologize. I had fun constructing it.

The other day someone asked me whether there were any scriptures I liked to go to when I was having problems. I gave the answer immediately and then explained, but I’m going to do the opposite here. I’m going to explain and then tell you the most helpful passage of scripture for me when life varies from irritating to frightening.

Well, I lied. I’ll give you part of the answer. There aren’t any “nice” passages of scripture that I use to give me comfort. In fact, when people quote those at me, I get annoyed. I already know them. If they were going to help me, they would have already.

What good does it do me to be reminded that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Send some of those annoying animals to market and pass the money on to me!

What good does it do me to be reminded that God heals all my diseases when I have a headache and stuffy head and can’t concentrate on my work? Heal my disease, and do it now!

Besides, it’s likely I can give you sound exegetical arguments for why those passages don’t apply to my situation.

It isn’t that I don’t believe in prayer, or God’s healing, or God’s provision. I can cite plenty of examples.

Counterexamples, too.

My father was healed in a manner I regard as miraculous. One day in 1971 he was told he would never work again, and would be dead in 10 years. Two weeks later, after he called for the elders of the church and they anointed him with oil and prayer, he was back at work, and was the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital, on call 24/7 for a year. He lived another 35+ years.

Then there was the time when a friend of his had a heart attack. Despite his prayers and his best efforts as a physician, he was unable to revive and stabilize the man. It was the longest and hardest he had ever worked on anyone. He didn’t want to give in. But the man still died.

A friend asked me to pray with him for $1500 to pay his mortgage so he wouldn’t lose his house. I did so gladly. The next day $1500 arrived in his mailbox.

My thoughts? Where is my rent money for my mobile home? I’m honestly not resentful that people have bigger houses. (I do sin through jealousy and resentment about other things, but I like my mobile home.) But I was having a hard time coming up with the rent at the same time as, apparently in answer to my prayer, my friend got his mortgage payment.

I was asked to go on a mission trip to do some teaching. I’d just gotten back from a month overseas, and had nothing with which to pay for a trip. I flippantly said, well, the Lord has to provide, because I’m tapped out, but I’ll go of God provides. Within the week the trip was paid for. As I was preparing to leave I found that I had no spending money. I figured I’d survive. God had, after all, provided the cost of the trip. A friend drove up in my driveway and said, “You’re going to need some spending money on your trip.” He handed me two $100 bills.

No, no negative “balance” story this time.

Sometimes I’m just whining and crying, but sometimes God doesn’t make it easy. God doesn’t intend to. What I never appreciate is a platitude I memorized a long time ago.

Yes, a passage of scripture can be a platitude under the right set of circumstances.

In scripture, one can balance great promises of good things with times of trouble, times that are ordained by God. We do ourselves and everyone else a disservice by reading the nice stuff and skipping over the bad.

In Sunday school, we hear the story of Peter being freed from prison (Acts 12:3ff). We rarely mention that this comes right after James is beheaded (Acts 12:1-2). We like Samuel and Kings and the message that if we do what is right, God will bless, but we’re less happy with Job, in which a person identified as righteous suffers substantially. Or we have Ecclesiastes 9:11 which seems to tell us that our efforts don’t matter, and instead of proposing an alternative of God’s will, says “time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

In fact, to some extent we are promised trouble, particularly persecution. Perhaps when life is going too well we should ask ourselves whether we are doing what we should!

The problem is one I’ve observed regarding Hallmark movies. The boy doesn’t always get the girl (or the girl the boy), your parents don’t always reconcile at the last minute, your business isn’t always rescued from bankruptcy by a helpful crusader, and no, your child doesn’t always get better. It’s nice to have a movie that says so, but it’s not always our experience.

I remember standing at Disney and listening to them singing about wishes coming true. I was standing there crying while everyone laughed, because I knew that my wish was not coming true. I was fighting that knowledge, but it was still there. My son was not going to be staying with us; he’d be going on to glory. I hated that song in that moment.

In our dealings with others, we need to be prepared to recognize the nature of life and not to say or to imply that God will always solve every problem immediately and according to our preferences.

So what do I find is the most encouraging passage?

Job 38.

Yes, that one.

You see, I know that I’m darkening counsel by words without knowledge. I know that I’m pretty ignorant. I know that God knows much more.

Infinitely more.

But what it also tells me is that while I’m thinking I’m alone, while I’m thinking there is nothing left, God is there. God doesn’t promise that you will not have troubles, but God does promise to be there. I can get that.

God’s promises are quite valuable, but like everything else they need to be taken in context—in the context of life, in the context of the passage of scripture, and in the context of the overall story.

I have two friends who suffer from health issues that many of us would consider overwhelming. Both of them, to the contrary, see God working through their situation. Their prayer is not for healing, but for God to use them in the situation they’re in. I would imagine they would be happy if God decided to heal them at some point, but that is not their focus in life.

They have the promise that God will be with them no matter what the problem.

That is a message I can truly appreciate and appropriate.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

A Grasshopper on the Circle of the Earth

Isaiah 40:22 speaks of God sitting on the circle of the earth and the inhabitants are as grasshoppers.

There is an interesting twist on idolatry that I think happens very frequently, and it makes a problem for people in understanding and accepting the doctrine that we, as humans, cannot do good of ourselves.

Normally we think of idolatry as setting something other than God up for worship. We sometimes don’t think of the way that we can do this to people. Many of the problems of Christianity today stem from Christian leaders who have been placed on a pedestal from which they were certain to fall.

There are also those leaders who expect to be seen on a pedestal. They believe in the doctrine of total depravity, i.e., the total depravity of other people. While they might affirm it of themselves, they really believe they are above the swarming hoard.

In their own eyes they are not, to quote Isaiah, grasshoppers. But from God’s perspective, they are.

God’s view equalizes us and puts us in our place. We are not independently powerful beings. We are not God, or somehow God’s rivals. Yet God loves us. But when this is used as a weapon to put people down, when it is spoken from above, down to lesser mortals, it is a sure sign that the speaker is setting him or herself up as an idol.

When you see that, don’t bow down.

Beware grasshoppers seated pretentiously above the earth!

A Morbid and Boring Christianity

A Morbid and Boring Christianity

The quote above comes from chapter 1 of S. J. Hill’s book, What’s God Really Like?, and I’d like to spend some time with this, looking at it from different angles. The first angle is one of worship.

I was in a church committee meeting some years back where a room full of people were discussing young people and the worship service of the church. The question under consideration was why young people weren’t attending our worship services.

After about 45 minutes of (fruitless, in my opinion) discussion, I asked the question: Might we instead discuss whether we can think of any reasons why the young people would attend our worship service?

I, and every other person in that meeting, attend church out of ingrained habit. We have done it for years, it’s what we do, and come Sunday morning, come hell, high water, or several feet of snow, we’re going to find a church service and attend it.

I don’t mean that that’s the only reason I go to church, but it is something I tend to do. If I don’t like one worship service, I’m going to attend another.

But many people, oddly enough (!), require a reason to get up on Sunday morning and go to church. They want to accomplish something.

At this point some of my friends start talking about “dumbing down” the worship service, or want something “relevant.” The tone indicates that “relevant” is some sort of weak effort to replace “real worship” which will involve actual pain and require grit and determination.

“I barely stayed awake through that service,” says the parishioner, looking and sounding holy. Going through a boring worship service is a test of our commitment to God.

Well, perhaps not.

As I read passages like 1 Corinthians 14, I see the word “edify,” which is just a churchy sounding word for “build up” or something similar. The worship services at Corinth sound a bit chaotic, and, well, interesting. Paul encouraged them toward order, but in the end, if you apply all his rules, you still have something very different from what we do today.

Our problem with 1 Corinthians 14 is that we try to apply the solution without having the same problem. We put a straight-jacket on a corpse. The corpse, in case you missed it, is our time of worship.

Now a morbid, boring, and unattractive Christianity is not just about the worship service, but I think we might start there. You see, I think all those complaints about young people wanting relevant service are just whining. Whining because the young people don’t like what we did all our lives.

But if you look at the state of Christianity in America today, I think you’ll see evidence that was we did all our lives—and I’m talking to my generation (I’m 61)—hasn’t worked all that well. Perhaps we need worship that is actually relevant.

Relevant in several ways:

  1. In expressing our relationship with God. (Subtext here — we might need to have a relationship with God and not just a set of theological reflections.)
  2. In preparing us for actual service. (We tend to use the word “ministry” a lot. I think that allows us to separate ourselves from the word. How about “every member serving others” instead of “every member in ministry”?
  3. In help us to build our relationship to God.
  4. In helping us learn to relate to one another. (Hint: sitting in pews listening to a preacher, then heading out to beat the Baptists [or whoever] to lunch doesn’t build your relationships with other people.)
  5. In encouraging us in our lives as they are in this world.
  6. In helping us realize that “worship” doesn’t occur in a “service,” nor does it follow an “order of service,” but is a lifestyle. In fact, it is our lives (Romans 12:1-2).
  7. In helping us learn new and useful things.

Is that what happens when you go to church?

This just barely touches on this question. I’d like to discuss it some more. S. J. Hill is definitely right about one thing: The way we think about God is going to impact everything. If we think of God as interesting, involved, and yes, cool, we will thing that interesting and exciting things are part of worshiping God. If we think God is vindictive, we’re going to look for the right set of rituals to appease him.

If we’ve really forgotten, as I think many of us have, to think about God seriously (serious and joyful are not contradictory!) at all, that’s also going to impact the way we worship.

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

Making Theology Accessible

Making Theology Accessible

One of my concerns as a publisher is making the material accessible to everyone who is interested. This means learning to communicate ideas about our faith and about God clearly and effectively. I am certainly not a master of this goal, but I believe it’s always worth pursuing.

One person who has mastered it, I think, is Dr. Bruce Epperly, and I recently recorded a series of short videos with him. I particularly asked about the presentation of process theology. Process theology is often looked on as obscure, a pursuit of academics and not of pastors and persons in the pews.

Some time ago I asked Bruce to produce an introductory book on process theology for Energion’s Topical Line Drives series. This means a presentation in about 12,000 words. Some friends told me this was impossible, but Bruce did it, and it has become one of our more popular books.

In any case, here is Bruce’s answer about accessibility of theology.

Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 12, and the Nature of Christian Community

Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 12, and the Nature of Christian Community

That’s a fairly ambitious title I gave myself, but the content is a bit less ambitious.

When I found that I’d be teaching from Philippians 2 in Sunday School, I commented that if someone couldn’t teach a class from Philippians 2:5-11, they should just give up teaching. That’s probably a bit harsh, but the passage is certainly teachable.

One key element, that we sometimes don’t emphasize in all the theology, is the fact that the expression of the mission of Jesus is made in the context of a call to Christian community.

Each one shouldn’t look after his or her own interests, but for one another’s interests.

Philippians 2:4 (my translation)

This is tied to the giving of/by Christ through verse 5, which tells us that our minds are to work like his, as we give for others. This is interesting as we see that he has given up much more than we could possibly possess in order to take action for our salvation.

It’s impossible for us to conceive of giving that much; certainly never to actually give it.

A similar call comes in John 15:12 “love one another as I have loved you.” This may sound easy to some, but only if you allow some weak definition of love to replace the one Jesus is using. This is on the way to the cross. “As I have loved you” is not simple.

Yet we find ourselves constantly unable to love those who are different from us in any way whatsoever.

One way to look at and classify a community is to look at the purpose of it’s ties, those things that make it a community that can be identified. A community can gather together and love (or care for, or commit themselves to) one another because they are afraid of the outside world and want to keep it out, or they can commit themselves to the same sorts of values in order to reach out and include the rest of the world.

“Circling the wagons,” is common in westerns. Heaven help the person inside the circle who thought that those outside might be open to peace! Such a person is a traitor, even if they don’t intend to act on their own, because they question the very basis for the circled wagons. They question the reason for this temporary community’s existence.

A medical or dental mission team displays quite the opposite reason. Far from desiring to protect themselves against those they meet in a foreign country, they want to serve. They are bound together by the intent to serve and through the mission they wish to carry out. In this case, the one who wants to reach out to more people is welcomed. The traitor would be one who harms the ability of the team (temporary community) to carry out their mission.

Real communities function between those two poles. One needs identity in order to be of any sort of service. In the command of Jesus, the disciples are to be identified by the way in which they love one another. That makes it clear who is in the community and what the community does.

Then we have the community reaching out to others. Is this love inside the community the mission of that community? Do they bring in more people to love?

If they are to follow the example of Jesus, that must be what they do, because that is what Jesus did. He came to people (all humanity) who did not find him all that attractive. They’d rather have revenge on their enemies than love them. They weren’t ready for Jesus. We aren’t ready for Jesus.

If the community that forms around his principles becomes inward looking, and spends its time defending itself as a privileged community of people who are more right in a theological or even an ethical sense, they will fail to actually emulate their Lord.

Romans 12 points to this when Paul calls for application of these principles to enemies (12:20), to persecutors (12:14), to those who do evil (12:17).

There is another side, the side where we lose our identity. If we become the enemy in order to love the enemy we may lose our ability to help. This is why Christian love is so hard and so rarely attained.

I read a comment recently that we can’t expect our children to love other people if we constantly tell them those other people are wrong. Perhaps. But Christian love calls on us to love the people even when they’re wrong, because we know that God loves us, even when we’re wrong.

This is our identity and our witness, defined by the one we call Lord.