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Teaching How to Experience God

Teaching How to Experience God

At my home church, Chumuckla Community Church, we’re going through the Experiencing God workbook. There will be 10 sermons, and then discussion groups. My wife Jody leads one right after church each Sunday, and I’m part of that. Doubtless someone will suggest that the book is somewhat more conservative than the theology I express on this blog. I’m delighted that this is the case. Later I’ll read something that’s more liberal and I’ll be delighted with that as well. I believe God is just as happy to talk to conservatives as to moderates and liberals.

The thing that bothers me about all teaching materials that deal with the experience of God’s presence, whether through listening to the Holy Spirit, expectation and exercising of spiritual gifts, or following God in any other way, is that it is often uncertain ground. In fact, I would suggest that if there isn’t an element of risk, you’re not really talking about experiencing God.

There are two basic approaches to trying to teach someone else to experience God. First, one can be prescriptive and define parameters. Second, one can be descriptive and open doors. In reality, of course, an individual’s approach will fall somewhere between, but there is usually a tendency one way or the other.

What I have found is that the most important thing any teacher can do regarding prayer, hearing from God, experiencing God, finding God’s will, or simply sensing God’s presence is ground clearing. Most people who want to hear from God or experience God aren’t simply looking for a formulaic approach they can follow. Rather, they’re usually facing barriers to the experience. Often these barriers are really good approaches they learned from someone else, but which do not work for them.

For example, my wife and I pray differently. Yes, we have times of prayer together, but when we’re each in our private time with God, we take a different approach. She likes music. I like music, but not when I’m praying. She’ll turn on the music and enjoy her time talking with (with, including listening) God. I start with scripture. I will select a passage and read without forcing the pace. I read very fast when that’s what I intend. In prayer time I read slowly and allow the words to direct me into communion. I will sometimes be directed to a different passage.

Jody’s prayer time would be really unfruitful if she used my method.  She’s likely to end up looking at scripture, but that will come as she hears from God in her prayer time. I, on the other hand, find music uplifting and energizing, and often use it to get myself charged for work on a day when I’m feeling slow. Right now I’m typing largely in silence. If I had gotten up unmotivated, I would likely have gone up to my office, turned on some music, and would have found myself getting ready to go.

It’s great to share your experiences. Just avoid telling someone, or leaving them with the impression, that your way is the one and only way to experience God. If you read the Bible stories, you’re going to find quite a variety: Abram just hears, as Abraham he later argues, Moses hears but might rather not at first, Gideon required a sign for each move, Balaam heard through a donkey (hard head there, I think), Jesus was in constant communion. There’s a valuable variety in scripture.

Experiencing God is great. Don’t be afraid of present experience. Beware of either letting someone place you in a straight-jacket, or of placing someone else in one. God’s way is past finding out. You and I haven’t gone that far!

(I’ve put some books I publish related to experiencing God into a collection on Check these out!)


On Refugees

On Refugees

And now for a short post. Here’s one of many links to the stories: Trump vows ‘new vetting’ to weed out Islamic radicals.

I try to avoid partisan politics on this blog, but on this issue I must be clear. I believe that we should be open to refugees even at very substantial risk to ourselves. I do not believe the current risk even approaches significant. I am totally opposed to the actions taken by the current administration on this issue. I would regard it as my duty to aid any refugee at any level of which I am capable.

When the Bible Story Shocks

When the Bible Story Shocks

I read Joshua 24, including Joshua’s farewell speech today. There are quite a number of texts in this chapter that are quoted regularly without any knowledge of their source or of the circumstances. One is Joshua 24:15 “… as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” Now there’s a pink elephant in the room, the genocide of the Canaanites, which is generally ignored. I will just point out that it cannot actually have happened quite that way, because the Canaanites survived in large numbers, as the book of Judges tells us. Yet there’s still the issue of the claim. That’s a shocking point in a story, but I’m going to ignore it today myself.

I’m interested in the fact that the call to faithfulness presented here, described as a torah, or instruction (v. 26, “written in the book of the torah of God”), is embedded in a story. Joshua goes way back to give us the shocking information that Abraham worshiped other gods. There is a much abbreviated presentation of the history that has brought the Israelites to this place.

But the use of story is also challenging. In the book of Jonah, God behaves in unprecedented ways. The book or Ruth presents a story that stands in contrast to specific instructions regarding the Moabites. While Daniel is commended for keeping to Torah, Esther appears to live without people realizing she’s a Jew.

The actual stories present a much more complex picture of God related to his people and God’s people in their activities, ethics, and theology. The story of Samson in Judges is one of those surprises. We can dress it up for Sunday School as a servant of the Lord carrying out his mission for his people with miraculous support, but it really reads like someone who couldn’t ditch the stupid and kept stumbling into ways to kill Philistines, the enemies of Israel. He ends up kill a few thousand while committing suicide.

I believe that theology is easy, but life is hard. Yes, we can debate theology all day, and it’s pretty near impossible to understand the trinity. A pastor friend of mine told me that with the trinity, if you think you understand it you probably don’t. But face it, as much as we enjoy debating theology, mistakes in the classroom have little impact.

When they get into real life, however, theological ideas can end up healing the sick or burning people at the stake. And everything in between. That’s the value, I believe, in reading stories and placing all our theology in real life as much as we can.

It’s not that there’s no truth. It’s not that there’s no right or wrong. It’s just that life manages to scramble our hopes of always having a clear knowledge of it. That’s why we need to exercise our faculties so we can tell.

And when we read stories, and live our lives, we need to go deeper than just finding the moral. If you find just one moral of a story, you probably haven’t thought of it enough. If you learned just one thing from an experience, spend some more time thinking about it.

Life is hard. Theology can help you.

But only if you hone your theology in real life.

(Image credit: Adobe Stock [105521664]. I have licensed this image, but it is NOT public domain.)

When I Dream of Christian Unity

When I Dream of Christian Unity

Everybody, well almost, says they want Christian unity. It’s one of those Sunday School answers. It’s like saying, “Everybody who loves Jesus raise your hand” in a Sunday School class.

But when you raise your hand for Christian unity, what do you mean? What is your vision?

I’ve been thinking of this as I hear various people talk, and asking myself what I would hope for. We can easily be just as disunited about unity as we are about anything else!

It seems to me that there are several possible aspects of unity, and not all of them necessarily work together.

  • Unity of spirit, i.e., we tend to respond in similar ways to similar issues. We may have somewhat different viewpoints, but we get along. Actual unified beliefs may be clearly defined, or they may just be a general set of feelings.
  • Unity of doctrine, where we all accept the same statement of beliefs.
  • Unity of organization, in which we all fall under one umbrella.

I’m sure I could come up with more if I spent time. I might also distinguish any sort of unity as inward or outward looking. Inward looking unity unites us (as we define us) against them, while outward looking unity unites us because we can thus better serve both us and them. These are kind of polar opposites, and most actual cases would fall variously between.

When talking about Christian unity, however, we also have to consider what it is we are uniting. This might fall under unity of doctrine, but it could also be classified as unity of culture. We can end up calling for unity of all conservative evangelicals, just plain evangelicals, liberals/progressives, charismatics, pentecostals, etc., because in our minds that is what “Christian” is. I’ve encountered people who sought the unity of everyone who believes in Jesus. After all, believing in Jesus, they tell me, is all that matters. But when you drill down, they mean very specific things by “believing in Jesus,” such as believing in Jesus in the sense of penal substitutionary atonement.

I say all this to suggest that we do need to think, and hopefully think clearly, about what we mean when we call for unity.

I like the use of metaphors in discussing this, and two metaphors came to my mind as I thought about writing this post. First, dancing. You might think of a dance school or even a dance conference or gathering of some sort. The way I see this is that there are a myriad of things that are called dance, and one person might even think what someone else does isn’t really dancing. At a school or a large gathering, you will likely have a variety of styles, from individual displays to large groups. You’ll find different styles of choreography. Everybody dances, as they see it. There’s a structure and an organization, but the boundaries are blurred as some creative people break the rules. As long as nobody gets violent, everyone can have fun.

Missouri River Sunset – Credit:

Second, I see a river. The river has tributaries, currents, eddies, changes of channel over time, turns, blockages, and may even, as it arrives at the sea, divide into a river delta. A water molecule may take many different roads along the river path, but in general, the water gets to the sea.

These two metaphors speak two me of common purpose and destination, with intervening differences. They also save me, I think, from going to far in defining someone else’s unity. (I want you to feel the internal contraction is assigning ownership of unity to a person, of a unity of different unities.) You can be a middle of the river water molecule or one who tries all the currents and eddies or spends time in quiet pools near the shore as the river meanders along. You can be in the contests for the traditional dances, or out playing with styles that are seeking recognition. You might get dipped out of the river and used for someone’s shower or bath, or even to flush a toilet before you get back to the river. Gotta love mixing those metaphors, or at least stirring them.

What is your vision of unity?

High View of the Sacraments or Not?

High View of the Sacraments or Not?

I want to briefly reflect on the sacraments. This is not so much a general theological reflection as a personal comment, expressing my own position on this. As I said a couple of days ago regarding hearing the voice of God, in a spiritual movement there is much listening, much hearing, and much creativity. Structure comes in to resolve this chaos into a tighter community, but structure also often works to kill it. Thus we have a closed canon. None of us can be spiritual in a New Testament sense precisely because we have a New Testament, or even more precisely because we have a New Testament regarded in this manner. Both structure and freedom (even chaos) have value in community, but they also are at war with one another.

Herold Weiss, in his book Meditations on According to John, makes this comment (p. 152):

The sacraments were established toward the end of the first century when Christianity was becoming institutionalized and starting to create official channels through which the Holy Spirit could flow under ecclesiastical control.…

This is structure fighting the chaos that results when people listen to God for themselves, or think they are doing so. God’s presence when two or three are gathered is a nice thing, but the organized church much prefers that God’s presence be manifested in groups of two or three hundred, or perhaps thousand, led by an ordained minister, supported by an adequate staff. Breaking out the bread and wine at lunch with a couple of friends, praying over it, sharing it (along with, say, a nice dish of pasta), and feeling the presence of Jesus is not sanctioned by church law.

In thinking about this I think I have a very high view of the sacraments in that I believe that Jesus is really present, that there is something different about communion or the Eucharist than about our common meals. Where I differ from the normal high view, I think, is that I don’t really think God cares that much about our church laws. If two or three friends shared their food and drink with the intention of truly inviting Christ to be present, I think he will be, regardless of ritual, ordination, or the structure in which it takes place. It can happen in a bar as you share beer and pretzels.

Indeed, if someone accepted Christ and a totally unordained person dips them under the water, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I think they have been buried with Christ and will come up in newness of life.

I suspect that the same actions in some of our buildings, performed by persons chosen and ordained for the purpose, sometimes fail to accomplish anything. People just get wet or take a morsel or bread or wine. It depends on the hearts, I think, which God truly sees, and I do not.

I’m not planning to go on a crusade of sacraments outside the church. The reason for this is not the success of the sacrament itself in mediating God’s presence. Rather, I think that God’s call is to community. I would ask the folks with beer and pretzels to find more people with whom they can share the presence of Christ. I would ask them to build bonds and form communities.

Contrary to the idea that the communion meal should remain separate from our secular meals, however, I believe God’s intent is that the communion meal take over from the secular, that more and more of our lives become sacred. We learn to distinguish, as Leviticus says, the holy from the common, but we do so not in order to segregate them, but in order to allow the holy to draw into itself the common until all is holy.

I believe that’s about as high a view of the sacraments as one can have.

Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1

Perfection and Maturity in Hebrews 6:1

Perfectionism is an interesting trait, and can be quite destructive. United Methodist pastors are still asked whether they are going on toward perfection, though I have found few who expressed great comfort with the required “yes” answer, and not a few who had their fingers crossed.

The line comes from Hebrews 6:1, and the more I study Hebrews, the less I see this in terms of attaining a moral standard. John Wesley himself made it clear that “Christian perfection” would be a gift of God, given by grace, and not an attainment (repeatedly stated in his compilation A Plain Account of Christian Perfection).

But what is the perfection to which a Christian should go on toward?

Before I look at that, let’s ask about the verb that is being rendered by “going on” here. This is almost universally translated actively, taking it as a middle voice. (Let me skip all the arguments about the middle voice here and just say that in this context, a middle does justify an active translation.) But it can also be taken as passive, and I think it should.

Let me quote David Allen:

…The verb may be construed in the middle voice in the sense of “to bring oneself forward,” but most likely it should be taken as passive, suggesting God as the one who moves the readers along to the desired goal. Christians are dependent upon God and his grace to enable them to press forward to maturity. (Hebrews, The New American Commentary, p. 400 [Nook Edition])

(I was helped to a decision on this in a discussion with Dr. David Alan Black, who should not be blamed for the rest of this post!)

This fits well with what I see as the message of Hebrews in general, which I summarize as “get on the right train and stay on it until it reaches its destination.” Human action is called for in the book of Hebrews, yet it is always action that is empowered by God, and not by us.

But the other side of this is what sort of perfection is involved. In learning we’re often told to go find the definition of a word in the dictionary and then we think we understand a passage we’re reading. For building language skill, that’s not a bad plan. But for coming to understand a relatively complex piece of theology, it leaves something to be desired.

Biblical languages students start by learning glosses for (a word or phrase seen as an equivalent), then learning that there are numerous possible glosses and that the lexicon provides such lists. After they have become skilled at this process, one hopes they will learn to work with definitions and semantic ranges for the words. But even at that stage, the tendency is to discover what a word means in scripture and then to force that meaning into the text.

I think that’s what is happening here. We see this verse as demanding that we continue the quest to attain a state of moral perfection. But in the book of Hebrews our task is to continue in Jesus, our High Priest. If we stay the course with Him, we will attain the promises. (I’m not going to reference everything here. Many of these are themes stated repeatedly and in different ways through the book.)

We might also consider the perfection of Jesus, who is “perfected” through suffering (Hebrews 2:10). Clearly, Jesus is not brought to a state of moral or ethical perfection. Rather, he is being perfected as a High Priest, acquainted with all our weaknesses (Hebrew 4:14-16) but also above us all in all ways (Hebrews 7:26-27), the perfect person to be the communicator or mediator between God and humanity. In this case we’re looking at a definition on the order of “totally suited to accomplish a particular mission.”

I might use this sense in recommending someone for a job. The “perfect” candidate is not one who is never going to make any mistakes, nor is he necessarily a person who is known never to engage in sexual misconduct off the job. Rather, that candidate is the person who is fully qualified to carry out the assigned tasks. It doesn’t mean he’s not wonderful in all those other ways; it’s just not the element in view.

Thus Jesus can be perfect and need perfecting all at the same time, and we see this developed from Hebrews 2-4. Hebrews 5:9, which immediately precedes our passage (I consider 5:11-14 as the first step in an argument that continues in 6:1. The chapter break separates this in a less than helpful manner.

So now we look at the state of the audience. They are stuck at basics and not ready to understand the discussion of Melchizedek which he wants to start. So having noted both the weakness and what strength would look like, he suggests that we lay aside the basics (the milk) and go on to the meat, whereupon he does precisely that.

“Let us be moved along toward perfection …” calls us away from basics and on to the meaning of this high priesthood. There is, I believe, a call to action and yes, to holiness, in moving on doctrinally, but the call here is to get past basic thinking and move on toward more mature thinking. Let your minds be perfected.

As I’ve commented before, students of Hebrews often divide the book into doctrinal presentations and exhortations. It’s not entirely wrong to differentiate, but I don’t believe these two elements are all that separated for him. The understanding of the Melchizedek priesthood of Christ is, in itself, a call to new action.

“Being carried on” or “being moved on” toward perfection is passive in form, but being carried by Christ is a rather active passivity, as we might deduce from Hebrews 11. Note how the preparation for solid food is through exercising one’s faculties.

Active passivity. Gracious working. It might just describe life “in Christ”!

(This post’s featured image is licensed from Adobe Stock, #115932220. It is not in the public domain.)


My Life and Educational Experiences for Bible Study

My Life and Educational Experiences for Bible Study

When I am introduced to speak or teach, mention will doubtless be made of my MA in Religion, concentrating in Biblical and Cognate Languages, though the correct degree name will be shortened, and the language skill usually exaggerated. In my mind, however, there are many things that have contributed to my study of the Bible. I’ve never encountered a biblical scholar who found this surprising, but sometimes non-academics are surprised.

I thought I’d list some of the key experiences, many of them not of my choice, which have nonetheless been critical in forming my thinking and informing my study.

  1. Bible memorization. As a preteen and early teenager I attended a small private school where we memorized substantial Bible passages. By substantial I mean that we memorized Psalm 119, all 176 verses, Genesis 1 & 2, many Psalms, Luke 2, and so forth. We also memorized scatterings of texts on various topics. This memorization, which I certainly would not have accomplished if it had not been required, has nonetheless stuck with me and helps me see the broader picture. I don’t have to go read Isaiah 53 or 58, because I memorized them, and though I could not repeat them in the KJV (which we used), I still have a fair idea what’s there.
  2. Bible survey. At the same school we were required to memorize titles for most of the chapters (we covered the Psalms by knowing what chapters were in the five books). Along with memorizing, this again helped me with an overview, and made it much easier to find content that I need. I still surprise people by pointing them to a book and range of chapters even when I’m not sure of the specific verse they’re looking for. Further, we had workbooks which asked questions about the text of the entire Bible. These were not thought questions, but content questions. I think it’s unfortunate that people who teach critical and independent thinking often forget that having the facts at hand is useful in thinking, and those who teach the facts often forget that facts strewn about the landscape are not so helpful unless they are critically examined and ordered. Sometimes “Bible study” turns into a simple recitation of opinions, in part because students are so unaccustomed to reading the text and making their own judgment regarding the meaning.
  3. History and historiography. There is an obvious benefit to knowing biblical history and related ancient history. I think some study of other history–any other history–is of great value as well. One of the problems we have with studying the Bible both “seriously and faithfully” is that we make up special methods for studying it as opposed to other texts. We also make up rules for studying biblical history which might not be accepted elsewhere. There’s no substitute for actually reading and studying some good texts on history unrelated to the Bible.
  4. Sociology. I hated my undergraduate sociology, but I’ve come to value that area of study, though I still consider the one undergraduate course I took to have been seriously deficient. People are people, and studying how people behave and respond helps me read Bible stories more faithfully.
  5. And yes, language. Learning to read the biblical languages is valuable in many ways, including being able to spot nuances in the way things are expressed more easily. One of the most important things I learned, however, was how complex the process of translation can be. When you are first learning to read another language (and often for much longer), you are really mentally translating the text into your native language. It can be a struggle and should give you a great appreciation for those who translate on a professional basis. It’s so much easier to criticize scattered renderings where you have a strong opinion than it is to produce a quality translation of a substantial portion of the source text.
  6. English, my native language. The process of understanding an ancient text and then expressing it in modern terms will tax your knowledge of and fluency in your native tongue. Many times I have been trying to express something from the Greek or Hebrew text and have stumbled for lack of a good English expression. Many really bad ideas in biblical studies have resulted from this, such as claims that “English can’t really express this idea.” The real issue is can you use your native language creatively.
  7. Church life. I don’t think you’ll understand the Bible unless you’ve experienced church. I don’t mean that church is such a good representation of what’s in the Bible. Usually not so much. But a great deal of the Bible story is about people trying to form and maintain communities, and if you haven’t actually tried, you may not understand them. I hate church politics, but at the same time church politics is a necessary thing. Politics is what happens when people try to act together. You can do it well or poorly, morally or immorally, but you will have to do it.
  8. Experiencing family. I have nothing against folks who are single, and I remained single until I was 42, and then married and acquired a family all at once. When I was single I was always of the opinion that raising children was likely more difficult than I could imagine. I was right! But again, understanding people who thought of themselves as God’s family is easier after experiencing the parent side of being a family as well as the child side.

There are other things that have helped, but I hope I have made the point that there are many things other than languages, and indeed many things other than academic study that help one understand. These other elements are even more important if one wants to teach. Being able to clearly express a set of ideas involves not only knowing those ideas well, but also knowing the medium of expression (language, art, etc.) and the audience well. The hermit professor, sitting like Simeon Stylites atop an ivory tower, has little impact on the world around.

But further, I suspect not one reader of this post does not have one or more of the experiences I listed, or perhaps others I have not. That means that the person without the degree in biblical languages also has a contribution to make. We ought all be prepared to listen and learn.

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Salvation

Perspectives on Paul: Introducing Salvation

We’re going to start our look at Paul’s soteriology by reading Galatians 2:15-3:18 and looking at Bruce Epperly’s fourth lesson in Galatians: A Participatory Study Guide, “The Dynamics of Grace.” Here’s a quote:

Three key words are present in Galatians – grace, justification, and faith. Put simply, grace is God’s love embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ is victorious over sin and liberates us to live freely through God’s Spirit. Grace can’t be earned, but is God’s loving gift for all who have gone astray. Earning God’s love by following the law ends up separating us from the grace of God. God gives us everything, but we want to justify ourselves as if the cross and resurrection never occurred. We can’t nullify God’s grace by our dependence on Jewish law; but we can diminish our experience of grace. (p. 34)

Tonight I’m going to talk about some views of what salvation is, what we are saved from, what we are saved to, and how this is accomplished.

In Memory of John Sailhamer

In Memory of John Sailhamer

I never met Dr. John Sailhamer, but I appreciate scholars who propose and support theories that are substantially out of the ordinary. I don’t mean crazy, just creative and risky. I found out recently that he has passed away.

In celebration of his life I’d like to link to my review of his book, Genesis Unbound. At the time I reviewed it, it was unfortunately out of print and I’m glad to see that a new edition was published in 2011. I’m showing a link to it at the left of this post.

This is among the books that I strongly recommend that anyone involved in debated issues of creation or with an interest in it should read.