Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Chemical Sensitivities

A man I got to know over the past couple years suffers from a variety of chemical sensitivities, particularly those related to perfumes and other scents. When he is exposed to such chemicals for an extended period, as might occur in the workplace, for example, he can become quite ill — even to the point of becoming incapicitated. Such exposure is, quite frankly, toxic to him.

Now since perfume is not really a necessity for life, one would be inclined to think that a great deal of his predicament could be resolved by simple making the workplace in question a "scent-free" zone. That seems like "reasonable" accommodation. Indeed, that is what his employer did, officially.

The problem, however, is that there was a fair degree of non-compliance with the official policy by certain employees — employees who seemed to take reminders of the policy and the reasons for it as a personal effront. They, after all, experienced no toxic effects from any of these scents, but rather quite enjoyed them and found their presence of positive benefit to their own work experience and productivity. My friend, therefore, was just being petty about a matter of preference, and making them out to be villains — evil, even.

This situation, of course, made the workplace even more toxic. Now it was no longer merely chemically toxic to my friend, but also socially toxic. It was, in many ways, a good place for my friend to work, with many good people, but it had become hazardous to his health.

I saw parallels between the chemical sensitivities of my friend and some reactions I and my family members were experiencing to certain aspects of the ongoing church reality we were in the latter part of last year. Like the chemical sensitivities of my friend, these sensitivities arose in large part from prior life experiences which left us particularly vulnerable, although our reactions were not just sensitivities to what was present, but also sensitivities to what was absent. In any case, the sensitivities we had developed meant that the environment was not entirely healthy for us.

Now the fact that a particular environment is noticeably not healthy for someone who has developed particular sensitivities does not mean that the environment is uniformly bad or toxic for everyone. Actually, a church environment which is uniformly unhealthy for all who attend is probably an extremely rare phenomenon. (And I suspect that a church environment that is uniformly healthy for all might also be rare). Yet this seems to be incomprehensible to many people, who seem to automatically read a wholesale attack against the church into any suggestion that some may not find the environment helpful in some manner — church leaders may perhaps have become particularly sensitized to taking things far too personally. Just like the perfume wearers in my friend's workplace.

Three years ago, I started this blog as a place where I could "think out loud" openly about the things I was experiencing in this journey of faith, in and around the church. I talked about the challenge of hearing God's direction of when to stay and when to go. Ironically, this time it seemed necessary to avoid such openness, as I began to sense that that would simply add a kind of social toxicity to the other issues that we were experiencing as unhealthy. And perhaps doubly ironic was the fact that when we first joined with this particular church community two and half years ago, one of the things we found most notable was that here it seemed people could be free to be open about their struggles, disappointments and failings — even those involving their past experiences with "church". And now we were feeling that old guardedness — the sense of having to wear a mask over our true selves in order to coexist with others who also increasingly seemed to be much more guarded.

It's been over two months now since we left. A decision that was necessary for our ongoing spiritual health, but a decision made painful by having to leave a lot of good people who would never be in position to fully understand either why it was necessary or why it was painful. Because to be truly open about those matters was just going to rip apart what was still left of what was good there — if not for us, at least still for some, maybe even many.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Off to San Diego

Yvonne and I are off to San Diego tomorrow morning for the National Pastors' Retreat and Convention sponsored by Zondervan and Youth Specialties. We're both looking forward to hearing some of the speakers, like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Phyllis Tickle, as well as the Retreat led by Ruth Haley Barton.

Maybe when we're back I'll be in a space to start writing about the journey of the last 9 months or so, which has seen us move from church home, through toxic space, to a kind of homeless waiting period where we're sort of at home anywhere and nowhere.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

A Message from my Computer

From toothpastefordinner.com via on coffee

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

2007 Book List

These are the books I finished reading in 2007:

  • Home to Holly Springs
    Jan Karon
  • Justice in the Burbs
    Being the Hands of Jesus Wherever You Live
    Will & Lisa Samson
  • Divine Nobodies
    Shedding Religion to Find God (and the unlikely people who help you)
    Jim Palmer
  • His Dark Materials (series)
    Philip Pullman
  • Reforming the Doctrine of God
    F. LeRon Shults
  • Murder is Easy
    Agatha Christie
  • A Community Called Atonement
    Scot McKnight
  • a long way gone
    memoirs of a boy soldier
    Ishmael Beah
  • Gifts of the Desert
    The Forgotten Path of Christian Spirituality
    Kyriacos C. Markides
  • Women, Ministry and the Gospel
    Exploring New Paradigms
    Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen, ed.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
    J.K. Rowling
  • Lifesigns
    Intimacy, Fecundity and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective
    Henri J.M. Nouwen
  • Power Failure
    Christianity in the Culture of Technology
    Albert Borgmann
  • The Gospel According to Starbucks
    Leonard Sweet
  • Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief
    Dorothy Gilman
  • Who Killed Albus Dumbledore?
    What Really Happened in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince?
    John Granger, ed.
  • Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish
    Dorothy Gilman
  • The Conversion of the Imagination
    Paul as Interpreter of Israel's Scripture
    Richard B. Hays
  • Mrs. Pollifax on Safari
    Dorothy Gilman
  • The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax
    Dorothy Gilman
  • The Real Mary
    Why Evangelical Christians can Embrace the Mother of Jesus
    Scot McKnight
  • The Sacred Way
    Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life
    Tony Jones
  • finding naasicaa
    letters of hope in an age of anxiety
    Charles R. Ringma
  • Chasing Francis
    A Pilgrim's Tale
    Ian Morgan Cron
  • This Beautiful Mess
    Rick McKinley
  • The Ethical Imagination
    Journeys of the Human Spirit
    Margaret Somerville
  • Life in the Balance
    My Journey with Breast Cancer
    Dr. Marla Shapiro
  • Simply Christian
    Why Christianity Makes Sense
    N.T. Wright
  • Bono
    in conversation with
    Micha Assaya
  • The Way of the Heart
    Connecting with God through Prayer, Wisdom, and Silence
    Henri J.M. Nouwen

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Problem of the Good

F. LeRon Shultz has given me some new language to refer to a collection of problems we encounter all around us, "The Problem of the Good". In Reforming the Doctrine of God he writes:

Framing the issue simply as the "problem of evil" misses the broader biblical understanding of human and divine agency. Already in the story of the Garden of Eden, eating from the forbidden tree signifies the acquisition of "the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:17). The problem in Jesus' ministry is not merely the evils that threaten the poor but the goods (wealth, oppressive power) that seduce the rich. To those who had been crushed by the evils of social injustice, Jesus brought healing and wholeness. The resistance to divine agency in the ministry of Jesus was strongest among those who had the "goods" of earthly life. This means that Christian theology must also speak of "the problem of the good."

It seems to me that the "problem of the good" manifests itself in several ways. Early on, Moses warns of the problem of prosperity in Deuteronomy 8 — the danger that when we have lived in prosperity we will forget God who brought us out of the land of bondage. When one compares the vitality of the Christian church in the two-thirds world to that of the developed world, it is hard not to concur with Moses' warning about prosperity.

There is another problem that Joseph Ratzinger helped raise my awareness to, although it had been pushed much closer to the surface by numerous other writers, including Isaiah. At one point in his book Jesus of Nazareth, the current pope is examining the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, and notes that the entire prayer is in the plural: "Our Father, ... give us this day our daily bread ... " If we, together in community, pray for daily bread, and God gives that sufficient bread into the hands of a few, then He has fully answered our communal prayer. But if the few retain the good gift of God for themselves, then the intent of our communal prayer is not achieved. And as prosperous North Americans who have cupboards full, we may need to ask whether the good bread we have filled our stomachs and our cupboards with was not in fact the bread we were given to answer the prayer of our poor brothers.

So the "problem of the good" warns us who live in prosperity that not only must we guard against forgetting God, but even when we recognize our goods as coming from God and give Him heartfelt thanks, we are not finished. Rather we ought also to ask whether the prosperity we experience and thank God for is indeed our own to enjoy, or that which belongs to our poorer brother or sister.

But there is yet another aspect of the "problem of the good" that afflicts us — an aspect that arises in the context of our pursuit of the good, even our pursuit of the good on behalf of the other. How often have we tried to do good to another — to express our love or support, perhaps — but the means we choose to do that good do not deliver the desired result — our actions or words, understood in the context of the other's personal history and pain, bring pain rather than comfort, discouragement rather than support, anger rather than peace. And yet our intent was to do good and our actions, too, in another context, were good.

This problem of our pursuit of the good arises particularly in the context of church leadership. Many good things, good aspirations, become problematic without our notice. Our pursuit of "excellence", for example, can exclude from service many whom God has placed in our midst for our mutual growth and encouragement, not to mention those for whom service would have been the means for their own healing or salvation — people we exclude because they or their skills do not yet measure up to our ideal of "excellence". Our employment of the best current thinking on strategic planning, or vision casting, or leadership dynamics, or whatever valuable skill or technique we choose to use in our pursuit of the good can so easily blind us to the gifts that God has placed among us in our community — gifts that thus go unutilized, or worse, are suppressed and damaged.

Jesus pointed this problem of the good out to the scribes and teachers of the law. For all their study of God's word, and their application of it to the lives of the people, the end result was not the good they sought. Rather Jesus' evaluation was that they had merely laid on the people crushing burdens, and had not lifted a finger to ease the load. We see this too in our churches today, and on the blogosphere — people who are so intent on pursuing the good of biblical study and solid doctrine that they place crushing burdens on the weak and refuse to help lift the load — even to the extent of railing against any who would try to ease the burden of this poor, burdens sinners.

I, and others, have written elsewhere of the dangers of allowing our vision of the good to become our supreme objective, indeed our God. In Life Together Bonhoeffer writes of how "God hates visionary men", because in their pursuit of their vision of what Christian community ought to be, they actually destroy the community that God has called together. Gordon MacDonald wrote recently in an ill-titled piece The Dangers of Missionalism of the dangers of a belief that our worth as persons is derived from the accomplishment of some great work, some great good.

A worst case scenario from a generation ago might be Jim Jones and his horrific ending in Guyana. The mission became all-consuming, and it turned dark. Not only did the leader go down, but most of his followers self-destructed, too.

Time and time again we see the ill-fated effects of the pursuit of the good, by pastors, by elders, by church members, by denominations and denominational leaders, by people of all sorts within the church (and without). So much so that one current DMin student is doing her dissertation on the experience of individuals who have encountered significant stress, grief and pain as a result of church leaders' pursuit of the good, as they understood it.

But perhaps the biggest problem we encounter with this whole matter comes when we fail to understand that we are working with the "problem of the good", categorize it instead as the "problem of evil", and end up demonizing those whose actions have brought us pain, grief, distress and oppression. Because then we ourselves end up becoming the "evil" against which we fight — ourselves becoming the perpetrators of violence, cruelty and oppression.

The problem of the good is a big problem indeed.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Divine Nobodies

The current online issue of Next-Wave features a reprinted excerpt of a book by Jim Palmer entitled Divine Nobodies: Waffle House Theology. It served as a good antidote to The Church of Celebrity.

For that matter, so did Len Hjalmarson's recent post on The Kingdom Prayer. I particularly appreciated the closing paragraph:

In this world direct assault tends to perpetuate injustice. As a result, the Kingdom of God works in a way that seems foolish to the wise: where we expect power, the kingdom path often leads through weakness. The Son of God dies the death of a criminal, and wins a great victory. Between the times God’s kingdom rule is expressed in weakness and humility.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

The Church of Celebrity

Some time ago I audited a course on the theology of film. Tonight a particular clip that was played in that course came back to mind — the opening voice-over by Susan Sarandon to the movie Bull Durham: "I believe in the Church of Baseball."

I think I was in a church like that this morning (or rather, yesterday morning now, I suppose). Not of baseball specifically, but sports definitely. And not of sport in its widest sense, just the celebrity sense. And while sport celebrity certainly dominated the liturgy, there were numerous spots given to celebrities from music and other pop-culture spheres. One of the curious features of this church was that as numerous as the quotations and illustrations from various celebrities were, far more time and emphasis was placed on establishing the bona fide celebrity credentials of the individual than was spent on the actual quotation or specific illustration.

Celebrity also seemed to me to be a key component of the principal text for the day — a quote attributed to Neil Young along the lines of getting yourself noticed in the biggest, widest circle possible and not settling simply for Moose Jaw. Ironically, the only scriptural reference was from Ecclesiastes — and of course the author's celebrity bona fides had to be established by virtue of his wealth and his 1000 wives — for whom "Celebrity" would certainly have been included within the ambit of all that was "vanity of vanities and chasing after the wind".

I can suppose that the speaker thought he was encouraging people to go out and make a difference in the lives of people. And indeed the closing movie clip from Pay it Forward could have really reinforced that message. But for me, the omnipresent underlying theme music of "Celebrity is Everything" just drowned everything out, and changed it all from "making the difference that you can" to "go big or go home".

Another irony, perhaps, lies in the fact that everywhere else God seems to be speaking into my heart and mind that trying to make a name for oneself is the perennial human sin problem. God has already made a name for me, a name that He alone knows now, but which He will reveal to me at the changing of the age. It is the name that God bestows by grace that is my true name, not that which I could make for myself. The irony lies precisely in this: reminders that it is God that is at work to bring about His Mission in the world, and we get to join in with Him like little kids following Dad around with their plastic lawnmowers actually encourage me to get out there with Him, working hard at whatever my hands find to do — but messages like that from the Church of Celebrity, cajoling me to get out of Moose Jaw and go for the gusto just leave me deeply depressed. And I don't think I am alone in that.

Two years ago, when I first became involved with this particular faith community, I found it tremendously refreshing that I did not have to put on a particular mask in order to be accepted and welcomed into the community. Today, however, I was keenly aware of how thoroughly that had changed — how much pain, uncertainty, and confusion lay hidden behind the masks of proper social behaviour all around me. And I was painfully aware that, no matter how much I needed these people, I simply have no more strength to put on the masks necessary to keep the connections up.

In short, I recognized that I felt profoundly homeless yet once again.

And in between I wonder, can the Church of Celebrity ever become the Church of Broken, Humble Servants once again?

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

America's Next Top Pastor

HT to the InternetMonk for this hilarious episode in reality TV:

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Interpreting the Story

The saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to the purely historical. Scripture is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up when someone "lives through" and "suffers through" the Sacred text.

Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI
Jesus of Nazareth

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Living in a Large Enough Story

About two weeks ago, I was listening to Dr. Marva Dawn's public lecture entitled Living in a Large Enough Story. The content of the lecture, but even moreso the title, seemed to resonate with a number of other sources that I was interacting with both before and after.

One such source was Irish philosopher Richard Kearney, who was interviewed in a three part CBC Radio Ideas broadcast entitled The God Who May Be. In one of the three parts, Kearney talked about the way the stories we, as a society or culture, tell ourselves shape and limit the reality we experience. One example was the stories about Irish self-identity — stories about the clear and unalterable differences between the British and the Irish races that had been told for centuries. The fact that these stories had no real basis in any scientifically observable reality did not stop them from creating and maintaining a reality of polarization in Northern Ireland. It was only after people began to tell stories of Irish self-identity rooted in the experience of the Irish expatriates around the world — who greatly outnumber the Irish in Ireland, but who still maintain fierce Irish pride identity even alongside other patriotic identity — that it began to be possible to conceive of a way in which the "two solitudes" could share power without either abandoning their own self-identity.

In effect then, the old stories were too small to permit a solution to "The Troubles" — such a solution required a much larger story, and indeed a story that enlarged the people shaped by that story.

Albert Borgmann, in his book Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology doesn't use the concept of story, but he does document the way in which our technologies have reshaped our reality, and generally in a reducing sort of way. Many things that once involved a whole community of people have now, through the wonders of technology, become things that can be enjoyed fully (?) entirely on one's own. Music, for example, once required the gathering of musicians and audience, can now be experienced in far greater quality and high fidelity on one's personal iPod. Indeed, I have been told that one of the latest "things" is for kids and young adults to get together at an iPod dance — where everyone get out and dances to their own iPod playlist. This strikes me as the ultimate in drawing a large crowd so that we can all be alone together.

While the connection of technology to story may not seem obvious at first glance, a little reflection shows just how much the technological culture relies on stories to fuel its juggernaut — stories told in many styles but mostly in 30 seconds. The entire marketing industry has developed to tell stories which encourage us to become ever greater consumers of the fruits of the technological machine.

Ultimately though, these ubiquitous small stories are small not just because they are short. Actually, their principal smallness lies in the way they make up an overwhelming story that says to each of us, "Your basic meaning and purpose in life is simple: to be a consumer", and the longer we live in this story, the smaller we become as people — ultimately we become little more than just a cog in a big machine; a battery plugged into the Matrix to provide energy for the machine world, as it were — metaphorically, if not literally.

There are, to be sure, other collections of stories focussed on a different theme: stories that tell us that our value, our worth, is achieved by accomplishing some great task. Gordon MacDonald addressed this theme in a recent print issue of Leadership Journal, in an article entitled "The Dangers of Missionalism". Missionalism is what MacDonald calls adherence to this story theme, and considers it to be particularly a leader's disease. (I would have used "missionism" or "visionism" for what MacDonald proceeds to discuss, with "missionalism" left for a different sort of thing, but that wouldn't have fit that issue's theme of all things "Misional" nearly so well. Granted, that's a small quibble about an otherwise well-conceived and well-delivered article.) MacDonald calls this "ism" a disease, because it has the long term effect of crippling the leader's soul. Or to put it another way, that story is just too small to live in without being shrunken into something less.

Getting back to Marva Dawn, the Church has been called into being as part of a very large story, and for the purpose of inviting all comers to live in this large, and soul enlarging, story. This story has cosmic scope and room for all — in this story there really are no small parts, since our value is not achieved by making our own great name nor by being fodder for the machine, but as a gift freely given — a gift that is so much larger than what we are in the habit of articulating.

What is so astounding, therefore, is that my own experience with church is that so many seem to be so full of their own variants of the larger culture's small stories. In so many ways, the large and enlarging story that is ours by heritage and by calling has been neglected in favour of the little and belittling stories that we repeat to ourselves over and over, little realizing that while they may borrow Biblical, religious and churchy language, they really are more akin to the small stories of our surrounding culture — even, or perhaps especially, when they seem to most vehemently opposed to the surrounding culture. And the longer people live in these small churchy stories, the smaller they become.

I suppose it ought not be surprising that George Barna is finding so many people leaving "church" in order to seek after God. I know I seem to find the struggle against all these small stories to be becoming a much harder and more exhausting task. Perhaps it is the haunting call that glimpses of that large story are generating that make it so much harder to live in and around all the small stories, and particularly those of the churchy variety. And yet, I am convinced that it is not possible to live the Christ-following life, to live in God's large story, by oneself alone — to do so would ultimately end up being just a variant of The Truman Story in which I play in every scene — a frighteningly small story, to be sure.

So what to do? How do I do whatever is necessary to enter more fully into this large story? I already know many of the suggestions that would come from asking these questions into the crowd of church attenders and church leavers that are seeking their own answers, and find them to be too closely connected to the very small stories I'm struggling with. The only answer that I can find is to do what I can, knowing that it will not be enough in itself, and crying out like the psalmists of old, "O Lord, make haste to save me".

Lord, have mercy on your people, for your great Name's sake.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What a Week!

This past week began with a dead fridge and a counterfeited credit card, and ended with a lost cell-phone and a stalling car while making a left turn ahead of oncoming traffic. These items made for a rather interesting inclusial to the main body of the week – attending the Regent College Pastors' Conference in Vancouver.

Actually, our trials are light and momentary as compared to those of the residents of Vancouver's downtown eastside, where Joyce (Heron) Rees directs the relational ministry of Jacob's Well in Canada's poorest neighbourhood. And the inclusial really did highlight things that Joyce, Len Sweet and John Stackhouse all spoke of in some way or another – the announcement of the Good News of the Kingdom of God has to take place in the midst of actual life.

More than anything, the announcement of Good News points our attention to the fact that God is always at work – in our lives, and in the lives of those to whom we are to proclaim the Good News. What we need, more than anything, is the eyes to see the signs of God's presence and activity all around us. Far too often we have been too hung up on the idea that everything is up to us, that we walk into situations where God was already at work, and try to rely on our programs or techniques as if we had to bring God to the situation. How much better to be reminded of the first rule of the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.

It was also good to be reminded that the Old, Old Story includes God's first commission to the human beings made in His Image: Be fruitful, multiply, fill and care for the earth, and take responsibility for its well-being in all things. Caring for the earth and caring for the poor are part of God's work for all human beings, and cannot be exempted from His work of redemption and restoration to which He calls Christ-followers in particular.

All told, it was a very good week.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Harry Potter and the Missing Scripture Lesson

When I went to pre-order the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Amazon produced its list of "what other people who bought this book also bought". So I succumbed and bought the John Granger edited book Who Killed Albus Dumbledore? What Really Happened in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince? It was an interesting read – all the various chapters were originally written as articles in HP cyber fandom.

What really struck me was just how detailed and energetic the HP fandom rank and file are in their scouring of the HP canon for information to help understand this alternate world known as the Potterverse. Numerous everyday people are comparing parallel passages, debating which language is "literal" and which also "symbolic" and looking for hints of what is yet to come in the back story. Just how will the creator of this world bring it to a conclusion? At what cost, and to whom, will the world finally be put to rights?

These people are excited to study and understand this world that they get to inhabit for awhile.

Christians also believe in another world – a world revealed in the canon of writings produced by its creator; a world called the Kingdom. It too operates according to different rules than the everyday world we inhabit. Actually our text tells us that this Kingdom world is the "real" world, and that our everyday world is truly the artificial, humanly constructed world. And that the creator of this other world has made it infinitely richer and more glorious than our everyday existence.

Given this belief, you would expect that the energy expended to dig into the back story, scouring the canon for information to understand the way this Kingdom world works, and what is coming next, would greatly exceed the efforts expended by HP fandom. Or I, at least, would so expect it.

Yet it has seemed to me that this is not the case. It has seemed to me that within the evangelical tradition of which I have been a part – a tradition labelled "word-centered" by Richard Foster in his material on the various traditions of the Christian faith – has been becoming ever less and less interested in the founding and shaping texts – what HPer's would call the canon. And I am certainly not alone in this observation. The internetmonk has made a similar observation in his post The Strange Case of the Missing Scripture Lessons, and points to other posts on the same observation.

Why this is happening, I do not know. I have some suspicions, but charity demands that I not elevate them to probabilities without stronger evidence. But it concerns me. I wonder about the long-term effects this trend will have on our churches, on the faith of the gathered people, and ultimately on our broader society. I wonder how God will respond. I wonder at what point He begins to repeat His words from Jeremiah 2:

"The heavens are shocked at such a thing and shrink back in horror and dismay," says the Lord. "For my people have done two evil things: They have abandoned me — the fountain of living water. And they have dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water at all!"

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Monday, April 02, 2007

High and Lifted Up

Last Sunday we sang a familiar chorus, whose words are these:

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.
I want to see You —
to see You high and lifted up
shining in the light of Your glory.
pour out Your power and love
as we sing Holy, Holy, Holy

It struck me as we were singing that when Jesus speaks of being "lifted up", he generally is refering to his death on the cross. That thought made the song seem a little odd — not heretically so, as sometimes happens to me, but more along the lines of thinking it likely neither the lyricist nor the performing musicians would be comfortable with that reading of the song.

Well, on Wednesday morning I was listening to Darrell Johnson's summer school course on the gospel of John, and he was discussing the Palm Sunday text in John 12 where some Greeks come to Philip saying, "We would see Jesus". Darrell made the point that he doubted these Greeks were asking simply for Philip to point out which in the crowd was Jesus, nor were they merely asking for a chance at an autograph or photo-op. Rather, they really wanted to know what made him tick, what was the core of what he was about. Which, I presume, is the same desire expressed in the opening lines of the song we sang.

Jesus's response is a bit curious. In the past, it has struck me a somewhat as if Jesus were blowing these Greeks off — "Sorry, I've no time left for you. Much too busy. Goodbye." But what if his answer is straight to their desire, and really focussed on the core of what he is about? This is what he says:

"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name."

Then a voice came from heaven: "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered,

"This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

Jesus, who only does what he sees the Father do, summarizes his purpose and intent as manifesting the glory of the Father by falling into the earth and dying. The Father's name, nature and character will be glorified principally by Jesus' death on the cross. In other words, it is precisely when Jesus is "high and lifted up" on the cross — in weakness, pain, and humiliation — that he most completely shines "in the light of [the Father's] glory".

This is a staggering thought to reflect up this Holy Week, and particularly on Good Friday.

Staggering, and also terrifying, because Jesus seems to expect his followers to adopt a similar approach to life — to glorify him and the Father in the same self-giving fashion. Perhaps, we won't really want to "sing Holy, Holy, Holy" when we truly see Jesus — or if we do, it will be to a much different melody than the light-hearted, wistful tune we sang on Sunday.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Connecting the Dots — Too Much or Too Little?

If it didn't happen so often, it would be surprising the way things I encounter from quite different places seem to tie together.

For instance, I'm reading Richard B. Hays The Conversion of the Imagination which is about the way Paul uses, interprets and re-interprets scripture. One of the notable things is that Paul seems to expect his correspondents to know the scriptures quite well — well enough to pick up his references, quotes and allusions. Considering the number of Gentiles to which he writes, it's a bit surprising. Obviously, Paul expected the Gentile Christians to have become well versed in scripture, even though it wasn't their background at all. Unlike Paul, however, many of the gurus of our current time suggest that such an expectation is unrealistic — it's one thing to expect people who grew up in the church (i.e. analogous to Jewish Christians) to follow references to scripture, but you can't expect new believers to learn that stuff. So the Bible becomes harder and harder to find in so many of our worship gatherings — intentionally so.

Quinn Fox contrasts that approach to Starbucks, who've made an art form out of getting their customers to learn a whole new vocabulary and culture.

Perhaps we ask too little of people, not too much. I wonder. So does Nathan Colquhoun in his post on TheOoze. Except instead of contrasting the church with Starbucks, Nathan compares it to Playboy.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

God in Thin Places

In his book, Simply Christian, N.T. Wright describes three ways of seeing the relationship between the realm of heaven (or the divine) and the realm of earth. The pantheist seems them as the same realm, and the deist seems them as totally separate and distant from each other. The Christian viewpoint, Wright contends, is to see the two realms as distinct, but near — overlapping and interlocking. It is in these thin places where heaven and earth interconnect — where the realm of heaven actually breaks into the realm of earth — that God is known to us.

Scripture is full of such places, beginning of course with the Garden, where God walks and talks with the adam creatures He has made as His image, until they break the relationship and push the realms apart. But throughout Genesis we see God continuing to break through in thin places: talking with Abram, at the stone at Bethel where Jacob sees the ladder between heaven and earth, and again when Jacob wrestles with God and is renamed Israel. Exodus, too, is full of thin places: the burning bush, the pillar of cloud and fire, and most of all the Tabernacle upon which the shekinah glory rests. And throughout the First Testament, the tabernacle and its successor, the temple, are the most prominent of thin places — where God meets with His people.

The Second Testament relates the good news that God is not satisfied with meeting with His people in only isolated thin places, but has invaded the realm of earth Himself. Jesus becomes the ultimate thin place — the place where God is known most fully and completely — replacing the temple, and expanding it beyond imagining. All of us who are "in Christ" have become living stones of this new ultimate temple — the Body of Christ — and with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, the thin places proliferate, until we see the final culmination of the New Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven, where the entire city — indeed the entire earth — is awash in the presence of God, dwelling among His people, "as the waters cover the sea".

Dear Lord, You indeed are the God who has made Yourself known to me in numerous thin places: at the Communion Table, during the public reading of the Bible, in the communal liturgies of the church, in songs of worship, in the deep assurance of Your upholding strength in the face of pain and uncertain health, in the ongoing love of a good woman, in stories of grace, of death and resurrection.

Open my eyes that I may see the thin places all around, where your presence fairly shouts to those who can hear, where every bush is ablaze with the Glory of God. And transform my heart and my life that I too may be, in some small measure, a thin place — a place where Your presence is seen by those around me.

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