Archive for the ‘Books’ category

Fantasy and Reality—for men

January 6, 2010

…that is, “especially for men.” Why especially for men? Because women have a lock on reality and men don’t? No, because

  1. I’m not a woman; and
  2. I’ve been looking at Mike Erre’s Why GUYS Need God, which has some really important things to say on this topic.

If you haven’t seen the book, the back cover has this provacative note:

Why, after years of being
told otherwise, do we still
chase after bigger paychecks,
better homes, and cuter women
to define us as men?

Why does the church often
seem so fake and irrelevant
to guys?

So here’s a little about fantasy:

Reality bites. … God, the universe, other people, traffic, disease, death, love, risk, pain, and depression all refuse to bend to my will….

And I suppose this simple truth is what fuels a bewildering (and in some cases bizarre) array of options for escape from reality.

… If reality disappoints us, we can find substitutes at the click of a mouse. Video games gobble up countless hours of youth, lust engulfs healthy sexual desire, and the anonymity of cyberspace creates the illusion of community and friendship without the real demands of true intimacy. Wherever reality falls short, fantasy promises a quick and painless escape.

Fantasy also exists in the church. Instead of engaging in real discussions about the pressing issues and concerns that confront men today, we often accept a caricature of masculinity that bears little resemblance to the portraits we find in Scripture. Instead of anger, we learn about serenity. Instead of ambition, meekness….

Erre, pp.27-28

As long as we pretend (“No, I’m not angry [dammit!]” for example), we never confront our weaknesses, and we never have to face -gulp- growth!

The Bible has a phrase for this sort of pretending; here’s what John says about it.

If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:6-9 (NIV)

To make progress, to be purified from sin and unrighteousness–in short, to grow–we need to face the truth, to face reality.

Reality has both good and bad news, like “modern” gospel presentations from the BGEA or the Navs always say: The bad news is that we are weak and easily distracted. We are not the men we’d like to be, or the men we’d like others to think we are. Even worse, as Erre says, “God is the one who led us into this mess.” We can’t blame the media or the feminist movement or Hollywood (or Bollywood for that matter either).

The good news for us, as it was when we were sinners, is that God will lead us out of this mess (Erre, back cover).

It’s really part of the same gospel: we were foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, spending our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another, and God by his mercy saved us. That’s the gospel, right?

But wait — there’s a lot more! Paul goes on to tell us about the Holy Spirit who makes us heirs. This is the same Holy Spirit that Jesus promised, who would lead us into all truth (i.e., reality). And as the passage above says, the way we get purified, the way we grow, is by accepting and acknowledging reality and confessing our weaknesses, not by escaping and pretending.

May the Spirit of the Lord help us to do so!


What Is Worship?

August 30, 2009

Is “worship” more than singing and praying on Sunday mornings? According to Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven® Life, it encompasses everything we do that’s aligned with what God wants us to do. I think Rev. Warren is correct, though practically, I often think of worship as what happens for about an hour on Sunday morning.

Along comes Mark Labberton with his 2007 book, The Dangerous Act of Worship–subtitled “Living God’s Call to Justice”–as a corrective to my thinking. Rev. Labberton points out that if we worship God, if we say we live our lives according to his will, then our values must be aligned with his. And that means paying more attention to justice–social justice, not just criminal justice–than many of us (myself included) tend to.

What would that look like? Here are some things that come to mind for me; I don’t know what it might be for you.

  • Feeding the hungry and healing the sick as in Matthew 25:31-46: when I see someone begging for food or money on the street (at a traffic signal for example), should I be prepared to give them something? Not money, but some ready-to-eat nourishment?
  • Do justice, as Amos 5:23-24 or Micah 6:8; does this mean I should donate “extra” money to International Justice Mission (I’m not a lawyer myself) or other organizations, rather than spending it on luxuries?

Well, it’s about at this point where mutterings are heard from the congregation: “The preacher’s left off preachin’ and gone clear into meddlin’.”

But I think part of Rev. Labberton’s point is that worship should change our lives; it’s not just an activity that we indulge in every now and then.

[G]et rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

True or False? The Bible is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

July 23, 2009

Well, that depends on the question it’s answering. If the question is, “What is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice?” then it’s absolutely true.

But if the question is, “What is the Bible?” then I’ll say that “final authority in all matters…” is somewhat deficient.

“What is that supposed to mean?” you say? Well, in the typical American home, who is the final authority in matters pertaining to the kitchen? Probably Mama. But if someone asks, “Who is Mama?” then I hope the answer isn’t “The final authority in matters pertaining to the kitchen”; that is far too narrow a definition of who Mama is.

Regarding the Bible, then “final authority…” is far too narrow. I’m indebted to Scot McKnight for this insight from The Blue Parakeet: looking at Psalm 119 (or Psalm 19 for that matter), we see a lot of different words describing the Bible: sweeter than honey, desirable like gold, giving joy to the heart; the writer talks about rejoicing and delight, being revived and strengthened by God’s word, and so on. This is not about a legal textbook!

Jeremiah says (in chapter 15 I think) that God’s words were the “joy and rejoicing of mine heart” and Paul says in 2 Timothy 3 that the Scriptures equip us “for every good work.”

Come to think of it, “final authority” isn’t the first thing that comes to my mind about the Bible, either. To the question “Why do you read the Bible?” my answer is “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and this book tells me about him.” Or maybe, “So that I can think more like he does” or something like that.

I heard some decades ago that the Bible is “God’s love letter to us” but it didn’t strike me that way until one day when I was thinking about Genesis 1. What a loving God we have, who wanted to tell us that we were made in his image, that we were made to rule! The good news begins not in Matthew 1 but in Genesis 1, as I’ve written earlier.

So what is the Bible? A record of God’s interactions with humanity; a love letter to us; the living and active word of God; a source of joy and delight; a help to us in becoming like Jesus. And yes, it is also the final authority in all matters of faith and practice.

But my weekly catch statistics are down 40%

April 20, 2009

In an unrecorded conversation at the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the Apostle Peter is heard saying, “Jesus Christ is risen, but my 401(k) weekly catch is down 40%, and I don’t know what it’ll be like next quarter.”

That conversation wasn’t recorded, of course, because it never happened. Not with Peter, not at the Sea of Galilee, and not in the 1st century, anyway. But many conversations like it did take place in North America over the past year, with other disciples. And of course they were talking 401(k) accounts, not fishing.

What’s up with that? How is it that we can worry about our 401(k) accounts when our finances are the envy of 90% of the world when our eternal destiny is already secured? (And if you’re reading this, you probably are in the richest 10% of the world’s population)

Well, it’s easy to worry. Some Sunday sermons give the impression that because Christ is risen, anxiety is silly. Uh, hold on a sec, they’re right. But that doesn’t make it easy to stop worrying! As I’ve written before, a biblical command is given when it’s something that doesn’t come to us naturally. In other words, when Paul tells us not to worry about anything (Philippians 4:6), he commands this because worrying is natural and it’s hard to stop it. By the way, the same Paul also wrote 2 Corinthians 11:28, which in the NRSV reads, “And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (The NIV reads “concern” there and “Do not be anxious” in Philippians; the King James uses “care” and “careful” respectively — in the original language (i.e., Greek) the passages use basically the same words.)

So it’s easy to do the wrong thing (e.g., worry) even though it’s silly; it’s hard to do the right thing (pray, and be free from concern) even though it’s wise. Besides our natural folly, it’s not entirely stupid (or as I sometimes write at the office, “stooopid”) to consider what to do about a declining 401(k) account. What we must do is find the balance, to be prudent without being anxious — to enjoy God’s good gifts but not to clutch them.

In the run-up to last year’s general elections in the U.S., John Piper wrote that Christians should vote as though they were not — a great explanation of how 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 applies to modern life.

Merton also wrote on this, over a half-century ago.

It gives great glory to God for a person to live in this world using and appreciating the good things of life without care, without anxiety, and without inordinate passion. In order to know and love God through His gifts, we have to use them as if we used them not (I Corinthians 7:31)–and yet we have to use them. For to use things as if we used them not means to use them without selfishness, without fear, without afterthought, and with perfect gratitude and confidence and love of God.

Merton, No Man Is an Island (1955), p.100

Preach it, brother! But such is the issue: use them, enjoy them, be thankful… but without anxiety or fear or selfishness &c.

The good news is: Easter, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, makes it possible for us to actually carry out that command! May we know the incomparably great power for us who believe… like the working of his mighty strength which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead (Ephesians 1:18-20). Think of it! Incomparable power to make this possible — like the power that raised Christ from the dead. He did that, so he can certainly do this too. To which I have to say, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”

Transformed, or just informed?

March 15, 2009

At home, we recently started reading The Enneagram by Rohr and Ebert, and I got stuck before even getting to page 1. Here was the first speed bump:

All the Christian churches are being forced to an inevitable, honest, and somewhat humiliating conclusion. The vast majority of Christian ministry has been concerned with “churching” people into symbolic, restful, and usually ethnic belonging systems rather than any real spiritual transformation into the mystery of God.

page xv

Ouch! That hurts… largely because it’s true (the second sentence I mean, not the first–and more’s the pity). This guy has been a priest for over 30 years. He doesn’t let up, either: “Much of what is called Christianity has more to do with disguising the ego behind the screen of religion and culture than any real movement toward a God beyond the small self…” (p. xvi) Then he quotes Thomas Merton:

Their “faith” is little more than a permanent evasion of reality–a compromise with life. In order to avoid admitting the uncomfortable truth that they no longer have any real need for God or any vital faith in him, they conform to the outward conduct of others like themselves. And these “believers” cling together, offering one another an apparent justification for lives that are essentially the same as the lives of their materialistic neighbours whose horizons are purely those of the world and its transient values.

ibid., from Merton, The Living Bread (New York, 1956), xxii

Sobering words, these, reflecting a reality confirmed by reports from Barna and others. We so-called “christians” get divorced at rates similar to the surrounding culture, we have similar rates of absentee fathers, marital infidelity, ostentatious car ownership and so on.

What does this mean? Is the Holy Spirit sleeping in our modern or post-modern age? Is Christianity a sham? Are the promises of Jesus just pie in the sky?

Absolutely not. Rather, many of us attend church as a sort of social convention; we change (some of) our habits but we haven’t changed our identity. Rohr again:

What we have done for centuries in the West is give people new moral and doctrinal teaching without rearranging their mythic worldview. It does not work. It leads nowhere new–or nowhere truly old for that matter. It creates legalists, ritualists, minimalists, and literalists….

Rohr, op. cit., p. xix

I resemble this remark! I’ve written before that I sometimes think “What’s the action plan?” — that is, I’m looking for something to do rather than someone to becomeor become like (that is, Jesus).

At this point I must confess that had I read the above twenty years ago, I would not understand it. Let me offer a picture. It’s as if I go through life as a series of bus rides; I can take the “J” (as in Jesus) bus or the “M” (as in materialistic — philosophically materialist I mean, not necessarily the obsessed-with-acquisition, shop-till-you-drop kind of materialist) bus. What many of us do is take the “J” bus more often than we did before, but we still take an “M” bus quite often. And in either case, we’re still getting on and off the bus when we feel like it.

What we need to do, what I need to do, is form a new picture of myself. Rather than continuing to be the same autonomous person making different choices than before, what I must do instead is see myself as a part of Christ–a cell in a living organism if you will, as opposed to being a wind-up toy soldier on a dusty old shelf. Whether the toy soldier points to the east or west, it’s still a toy soldier that will be destroyed when the house burns (as this world inevitably will).

It’s as if the Kingdom of God were an organism (the church being called the “Body of Christ” for a reason) and we were cells in it, members of that body.

So perhaps what Rohr is saying here (and what I’m seeing here) is not anything new, but something very old:

  • Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
    Romans 12:4-5
  • Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?
    from 1 Corinthians 6:15
  • Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
    Ephesians 4:25
  • After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church– for we are members of his body.
    Ephesians 5:29-30
  • Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
    Colossians 3:15-16

I’ve read these verses, and verses like them, many many times. Many of us, we who went through Rick Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose” (based on his book, The Purpose Driven Life ) even memorized Romans 12:5 (highlighted above in yellow). But do you or I sincerely view ourselves as being members of Christ? I’ll admit that I mostly don’t!

Now I’ll happily tell you that Jesus is in charge, and I actually do believe that “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs the steps” (Proverbs 16:9). And I absolutely do not claim to be the captain of my soul — Lieutenant (j.g.) maybe. Sometimes I even believe that Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20, Colossians 1:27).

But I don’t think of myself as an arm or hand (or a toenail or earlobe for that matter). This is something I need to think more about, and pray more about.

Not giving up anything for Lent

February 28, 2009

Occasionally, as this morning, I open Merton’s No Man Is an Island. I can only read a little — a few paragraphs or a few pages at most — lest my head explode. His chapter on Asceticism and Sacrifice seems particularly apt now at the start of Lent. A few of his remarks and my reactions:

  • If my soul silences my flesh by an act of violence, my flesh will take revenge on the soul, secretly infecting it with a spirit of revenge (p.96).
      Indeed. Like many zealous young Christians, I went through a short period, a long time ago, when I woke very early to pray. I’m not sure it was such a good idea. Why did I do it? Perhaps I was inspired by some old saints who did that. But they did that as a result of growth in their lives. They’d gotten to a point in their lives where they hungered so much for that communion with God early in the morning that they took that step. I, on the other hand, just did it because it seemed like a cool thing to do. Did I do it to brag to my friends about how early I was up in the morning praying? I hope not, but I can’t tell you today for sure that I didn’t.
  • There is only one true asceticism: that which is guided not by our own spirit but by the Spirit of God (p.96)…. Our self-denial is sterile and absurd if we practice it for the wrong reasons or, worse still, without any valid reason at all (p.101).
      This is the reason I’m not giving up anything for Lent: I don’t have a sense from God that there’s any particular thing that he wants me to. NPR had a piece a few years ago about giving up this or that for Lent. A young man talked about giving up candy or something but not having seen any results from it; he wondered if what he ought to do instead is something positive and active: adding service and charity to hsi life, rather than subtracting beer or facebook from it (paraphrasing liberally).
  • The only sacrifice He accepts is the purity of our love. Any renunciation that helps us to love God more is good and useful. (p.107)
      Perhaps I wrote or spoke too soon. Have I some habit that distracts me from loving God? Crossword puzzles perhaps, or the Jumble®? H’m…
  • The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. (p.109)
      Modern life certainly does seem geared that way. By its emphasis on “productivity,” the mechanism of modern life wordlessly declares what’s valuable, and says we don’t have “enough” of it. (I put “productivity” in quotes because the things we try to optimize “productivity” of aren’t intrinsically worthwhile: lines of non-comment source statements, stock portfolio valuation, “efficiency” — in contrast with the image of productivity shown at right.)
  • Bodily agitation… is an enemy to the spirit. And by agitation I do not necessarily mean exercise or movement. There is all the difference in the world between agitation and work. (p.109)
      The Proverbs tell us that a heart at peace gives life to the body, but passion rots the bones (the NIV has “envy”). Not that we should strive to have passionless lives, or to remove ourselves from anything we might like to have, but I think Merton is telling us that when we are agitated, our bodies are distracting our spirit from what the latter should attend to. I think we’ve all experienced both situations implied here — working hard (but being at peace) and sitting still (while being agitated inside). No prize for guessing which is healthier.

So what is the secret? How do we remain at peace with the world pressing around us? Quit reading the paper? Stop watching the news? Turn off the cell phone and the email?

That’s probably good to do sometimes — as Jesus sometimes did. On the other hand, we probably don’t want to completely withdraw either; Jesus prayed for his disciples (John 17:15-17) — including us, John 17:20-21: My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.

So we need to retreat sometimes, but we’re not to withdraw entirely. I’m sure community is important, too, but that’s for another post.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

October 26, 2008

Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest and polymath whose books covered the waterfront from anthropology and paleontology to philosophy and theology. He was born in 1881 in France and died in 1955 in New York City. He also, to my delight in view of this earlier post on the Kingdom of Heaven as organism, held a view of the church as organism, which he elaborated at length in some of his books, including especially The Phenomenon of Man.

Although the evangelical protestants take most of the lumps for their opposition to evolution in the U.S., it’s worth pointing out as a historical note that The Phenomenon of Man was published posthumously because the Catholic church found its evolutionary theory heretical at the time it was finished (in the 1930s).

I’m going to quote directly from the Wikipedia article on the book here:

Teilhard views evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity. From the cell to the thinking animal, a process of psychical concentration leads to greater consciousness. The emergence of Homo Sapiens marked the beginning of a new age. Reflection, the power acquired by consciousness to turn in upon itself, raises humankind to a new sphere. Borrowing Julian Huxley’s expression, Teilhard describes humankind as evolution becoming conscious of itself.

Eventually, trade and the transmission of ideas increased. Traditions became organized and a collective memory was developed. Knowledge accumulated and was transmitted down the ages. This led to a further augmentation of consciousness and to the emergence of a thinking layer that enveloped the earth. Teilhard called the new layer the “noosphere” (from the Greek “nous,” meaning mind). Evolution is therefore constructing, with all minds joined together, mind.

The development of science and technology caused an expansion of the human sphere of influence, allowing a person to be simultaneously present in every corner of the world. Humanity has thus become cosmopolitan, stretching a single organized membrane over the Earth. Teilhard described this process as a “gigantic psychobiological operation, a sort of mega-synthesis, the “super-arrangement” to which all the thinking elements of the earth find themselves today individually and collectively subject.” The rapid expansion of the noosphere requires a new domain of psychical expansion, which “is staring us in the face if we would only raise our heads to look at it.”

Remember, this was written about 60 years before the Internet was widely available. This is quite a vision.

Teilhard de Chardin should be credited for his implicit grasp of the applicability of evolutionary theory to religion, and especially to Christian doctrines of salvation. I’m grateful to David Sloan Wilson for mentioning him in Evolution for Everyone.