Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A New Story? #5 - Creating With Clay

What's cooler than being cool?

"Ice cold!", answer Outkast.

What's better than perfect?

"Good", answers Brian McLaren, author of several books that irk Al Mohler.

"Jewish goodness...is far better than Greco-Roman perfection" asserts McLaren, who appears to be having a go at the Greco-Romans. One of the problems with the Greco-Roman narrative, as McLaren sees it, is that it leaves no room for other narratives. But has McLaren's narrative not just destroyed the Greco-Roman narrative, or at least claimed superiority over it? It surely has, which sounds suspiciously like an imperial, dare I say Roman, maneouver. I don't doubt that it's been pointed out before, but McLaren is merely creating a new "us/them" - the very thing he condemns in the previous chapter.

What the Greco-Roman narrative says to any other narrative that comes its way is "There ain't enough room in this town for the both of us, punk". Is the Greco-Roman narrative right? Is there only room for one sherrif (story) in town? Or can the history and future of the world have multiple overarching narratives? Consider a film like Crash. What is the overarching plot? Is there one, none, or several?

I wonder how McLaren would answer some of these questions, because he seems to say one thing yet do another.

But quibbles aside, his contrast between "perfect" and "good" is an interesting one. Both the six-line narrative and McLaren's lineless narrative begin with creation. The difference, as McLaren would put it, is that one act of creation begins a "state" whereas the other begins a "story". The state is perfect (it was created by a perfect God after all), but the story has room for improvement (and deterioration).

This, I think, is another place where the traditional re-telling of the Biblical story falls down. I'll sum up the myriad things I could say with this: Adam is not the end goal of our existence. Salvation does not consist of getting things back to the way they were before "the fall", because God has more in store for us than what he had for Adam. The creation of humanity was indeed a "very good" thing, but God's story will take humanity beyond Adam. God intended as much from the beginning.

Rather than a static, wound-up creation-product, we must allow for an "open" view of creation; a creation able to grow, able to groan, and able to be renewed by its Creator. Think of her as clay in a potter's hand, being spoiled by sin but being re-shaped by grace. The conventional telling of the Biblical story does not evoke this kind of Creator/creation relationship. Perhaps I'm guilty of a McLaren-esque caricature here, but it is easy to get the impression that God created the world, dusted off his hands after the fall, and then finally intervened through the life of Jesus.

C.S. Lewis says that the Incarnation -- God becoming man -- is the Grand Miracle. It is the event that makes sense out of all other events. But in our popular version of events, it is the event that is a total anomaly; the event that makes no sense whatsoever. We can affirm it, but we can scarcely believe it true; scarcely believe that God was actually pleased to undertake it. This disbelief springs not so much from reverance as from a lack of real, intimate knowledge of God. At root, our story is muddled, therefore our knowledge of God is muddled.

In order to unmuddle, do the existing acts of the six-line narrative simply need to be edited for content; do we need to actually add and cut some acts; or does the whole story need to be thrown on the ol' scrapheap with a fresh one emerging in its place?

McLaren proposed the latter, but so far he has simply edited the first line of the traditional story for content. He does hint at something more radical in one of the endnotes, and it is something I hope to get back to, because it is something that I had been thinking about myself and was very excited to read.

Sex (Talked About) On The Beach - Part 2

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.

- Henri Nouwen

This is by no means unrelated to the previous post. The will to power comes more easily, more naturally than the will to love. The former thus impinges on our "love lives", with promiscuous sex, prostitution and pornography the results.

Nouwen wrote the above quote in relation to Christian leadership. I wonder if those Christian leaders who have been caught up in sex scandals have had ministries of power rather than of love; ministries of controlling people rather than loving people?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sex (Talked About) On The Beach

Zoidberg - I'm confused, Fry. I'm feeling a strange new emotion I have never felt before. Is it love when you care for a female for reasons beyond mating?

Fry - Nope. Must be some weird, alien emotion

I was reading an article on the beach this afternoon with the headline, "A prostitute's life: 'Whether it hurts the woman or not, the men don't care'". According to the article, the prostitution racket has remained unaffected throughout the recession. Apparantly money can not only buy you love, but it can do so when there isn't much of either going 'round.

But this slightly risque blog post [reader be warned]* is not about prostitution...at least not explicitly. As I read the article, becoming more depressed with each passing sentence, a guy and a girl -- college aged -- walked by me. They were talking about her (I'm guessing) holiday in Europe/summer in America. The gist of it was that she was "scoring" some guy over there, someone she knew from Ireland. Her male friend (who clearly wished he was the aforementioned "some guy") asked if it was "just casual?", to which she didn't quite respond.

"Scoring" is an appropriate word, because all of this is indeed a game; a game we're born into and start playing at an increasingly early age. No one really has to teach us the rules or the strategy. It all just comes naturally. In fact the game only works when no one examines it or thinks about it critically, for do so might expose the game for what it really is.

It's a generalisation to be sure, but love is what each human being searches for, craves, holds most dearly. The problem, as illustrated by Fry in a most brilliant episode of Futurama, is that we have equated love with "scoring". Or perhaps we've simply decided that proper love doesn't really exist, so something less will have to do. Energy, time, and money are all put into getting this "something". Nightclubs stand as a modren symbol for the quest. As Charlie Brooker so bluntly puts it, many people will do the hard work of spending [earmuffs]

seven hours hopping about in a hellish, reverberating bunker in exchange for sharing 64 febrile, panting pelvic thrusts with someone who'll snore and dribble into your pillow till 11 o'clock in the morning, before waking up beside you with their hair in a mess, blinking like a dizzy cat and smelling vaguely like a ham baguette.

My criticism isn't of nightclubs, or of the people who "play the game". My criticism is of the game itself. It is rigged to leave all of its players miserable. We have all tasted of its misery to some degree, and the effects are not easily undone. Nor is the way of playing easily unlearned.

It may be obvious to most that prostitution is a severly corrupted and corrupting expression of love, but what about to the people involved? To the men who hand over the cash?

The notion of a mutually pleasurable, damage-free transaction -- as promoted by the industry and supporters of legislation -- sits wildly at odds with the reality of these engagements. Were it not for the wreckage they leave behind, the self-delusion of the average sex buyer would be laughable.

"Mutually pleasurable", "damage-free". My male friend on the beach might say "casual". The self-delusion does not end with the man who steps into a brothel for the first time. It is the default setting for all of us. We refuse to think, we refuse to criticise, we refuse to seek an alternative. Therefore we hurt...both ourselves and others.

[Spoiler altert]

Jimmy McNulty of The Wire represents the archtypal player of the game. He is in the process of a divorce because he cheated on his wife with a female colleague. He goes to bars, gets sufficiently drunk, and wakes up the next morning with a stranger drooling by his side. This is his life outside of police work. He then meets a classier woman (a political campaigns strategist) in a more unusual setting (a school opening day), but the relationship goes in the same direction all the others went: towards the bed. McNulty begins to sense that something is not quite right. He feels like little more than a "breathing machine" for his private parts, so he tries to make a real relationship out of this all too familiar one. His lady friend, however, is stuck in the old way, playing the game as it's meant to be played. In one of his wiser moments, McNulty gets out of his chair at a restaurant and walks away from the relationship, from the game, knowing he just can't play anymore.

Then comes one of The Wire's best scenes. McNulty knocks on the door of Beadie Russell, a single mother whom McNulty was previously interested in, but McNulty declined to consummate the interest when he probably could have. She answers the door, and McNulty starts articulating what has been going on inside his head for the past while, stumbling over his words not because of alcohol but because of something else. The scene is charged with emotion, as a rock bottom McNulty reflects on life up to this point: "It's like everything I poured into a glasss came out the bottom...and I just kept on pouring, like the thing had a whole in it..." Beadie asks him if he wants to come inside for a drink. "Not tonight" he says, but he tells her that he'd like to meet her kids.

[Spoiler over]

McNulty's self-analysis is true of most of us, if we would only stop and think for a while. We're pouring and pouring something into our lives that leaves us more and more empty. Why? Why don't we stop?

Walter Brueggemann says that a prophet's first task is to criticise. If anything is to change, criticism is necessary. But criticism is not the end. There must also be the envisioning of an alternative. It's all very well to criticise the thinking (or lack thereof) behind the conversation I heard on the beach, but what is the alternative to the dominant game? Does a Christian have anything to offer its participants besides sheer hypocrisy, distant judgements, and seemingly arbitrary commands like "No sex before marriage"? Do we have life...life to the full? A life where what we pour into it actuallly rises to the top rather than leeks out?

* I don't have delusions that Charismata has suddenly turned all edgey and controversial because I've used words like "pelvic" and "private parts" and an illustration from The Wire. But I am aware that I'll have some readers who won't want to read this. The warning is for them.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A New Story? #4 - How Should We Now Think?

What do you get when you mix the philosophy of ancient Greece with the power structure of ancient Rome?

(Can anyone think of a way to turn this into a joke?)

You get, according to Brian McLaren, the Greco-Roman narrative- which is the six-line narrative discussed already. McLaren's arguement is that we've read the Bible trough a Greco-Roman lens, though we've scarcely noticed it...just like we scarcely notice a window as we look through it. To sum up a few pages of writing, we've created a Biblical world akin to the world of Plato. It begins in a state of absolute perfection, it falls into the cave of illusion, and its rescue looks like an abondment of this storied world and a return to a state of immaterial bliss. The Roman influence is on our imperialist attitude when it comes to this story - we hold it to be the only story, and those whose lives stand outside of it are enemies to be either assimilated into our masses or destroyed.

Is this fair commentary by McLaren?

The man with the square lenses wants us to see not with Greco-Roman eyes but with the eyes of a Jew. We are not to look "backwards" at Jesus through Aquinas, Augustine, Calvin etc. Instead, we are to look "forwards" at Jesus, through Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah etc. Only in this thoroughly Jewish story does Jesus make sense; not as the Messiah who would re-enforce Israel's national pride, but as the promised, faithful Israelite who would bring blessing to all the nations of the earth, thus fulfilling Israel's call.

Whatever else about McLaren, he is surely right on this. The six-line narrative as it is popularly described leaves no place for Israel. Jesus appears in it like a bolt of lightening rather than as the climax of Israel's (and therefore the world's) story.

(At this point it would be immoral of me not to mention Chris Wright's book Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament.)

Nevertheless, I do wonder - just how "Jewish" are we supposed to think? Paul's address on Mars Hill has been happy hunting ground for emerging/emergent types over the years, but here it seems to work against Mr Emergent's argument. Paul didn't spend his energy trying to get Greeks to see Jesus through Jewish eyes. He created a way for them to see Jesus through Greek eyes.

Some of the questions that arise out of this story are: How paradigmatic are we to view Paul's sermon in Athens? How much was such a way of communicating the Christian story part of his methodology? And if it played a significant part, how should Christian theology look in 21st century Ireland? Greco-Roman? Jewish? Irish!?

The forwards, Jewish way of looking at Jesus is certainly in harmony with Scripture, but is it the only helpful way to look at him? The people of God do not now have to live under Jewish law, but do they have to think like Jews?

I don't know any of the answers to these questions, so I'm going to stop writing now. Please weigh in with any insights.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A New Story? #3 - More Than Belief

Eden, fall, condemnation, salvation, heaven and hell - the six-line narrative that Brian McLaren presents as both conventional and dubious Christian theology. He has many questions, two of which stand out: Is this story morally believable, and is it found in the Bible?

McLaren's answer to both is 'No'.

Where McLaren is mistaken is that you can "find" this story in the Bible. Eden is there. There is the first case of disobedience; the "original sin". There is humanity living in emnity with God. There is the salvation found in Jesus Christ. There is a heaven and there is a hell. The six-line narrative can be formed...if you want it. Is it morally believable, however? Is it, in other words, the kind of story we'd expect the God revealed in Jesus to weave?

I agree with McLaren's 'No' on this...kind of. I think the six-line narrative, as it would be expressed by Joe Church, is inherently human-centric and does an injustice to the character of God. Of course every shorthand (or longhand) version of this epic drama will fall short of doing its chief protagonist justice, but if an overarching story of Scripture exists, I think it has to be about God; the six-line narrative, for the most part, isn't.

McLaren and I part ways as he paints a caricature of specific beliefs held within this narrative, creating the god Theos as a foil for the real God Elohim. According to McLaren, six-line-narrativists (trust me, it will catch on) believe that we are saved and perfected so that Theos can love us again. I don't know anyone who actually believes that, so saying things like this is a waste of ink. But what McLaren may be getting at -- though it goes unsaid -- is one of the narrative's symptoms as I see it: The doctrine contained within is good and sound, but it doesn't quite seem to fit with the big picture, and thus our belief and our experience come into conflict (cognitive dissonance?). For example, we assert that we are loved by God even as we live in wilful rejection of him, but the big picture doesn't portray this kind of God from beginning to end (his love seems to happen somewhere toward the end), so assertion struggles to become experience. Many lives, including my own, deeply struggle to dwell in the love of God.

Unlike McLaren, I don't think there is anything necessarily unbiblical about the six-line narrative. I'm just not fully convinced that it is a helpful depiction of the Bible's story. Perhaps it merely needs to be tweaked? McLaren aims not at a tweaking, however, but at a ripping up and rebuilding. If I thought the the six-line narrative compelled me to believe in the Theos McLaren describes then I'd be by his side with a sledge hammer in hand, but McLaren's deliberately provocative argument makes it almost impossible for me to follow his footsteps. I have always held to a version of the six lines, but Theos is not the God it has lead me to believe in.

Nevertheless, story is always about more than belief and teaching. It involves the emotions, the shared experience. The story of creation, fall, condemnation, salvation, heaven and hell does not emphasize just what Scripture is: a love story between Creator and creatures. Each of the six words does not evoke all that should be evoked. There is no doubt that instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (never a good idea...trust me), some of the words need to be reclaimed after years of abuse. The Christian language needs to be relearned if our story -- whatever it is -- is to have any impact on us at all.

That being said, a fresh look at the acts in the narrative may lead to more than semantics. It's been a little while since I read the next chapter in McLaren's book, so I'm interested to see what story he proposes. If my memory serves me correct, however, it's not actually that different to the six-line narrative as it is fleshed out by some Christians. We shall see.

A Recent Debate, A Sad Parable

Sometimes, Dutch homosexual Catholic priests know exactly what they're talking about:

"I have the impression that many of the debates within the Church around issues such as papacy, the ordination of women, the marriage of priests, homosexuality, birth control, abortion, and euthanasia take place primarily on a moral level. On that level, different parties battle about right or wrong. But that battle is often removed from the experience of God's first love which lies at the base of all human relationships. Words like right-wing, reactionary, conservative, liberal, and left-wing are used to describe people's opinions, and many discussions then seem more like political battles for power than spiritual searches for the truth.
Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance."

I read this in the wake of a recent debate between uberBaptist Al Mohler (above, rightwing) and some members of the BioLogos Foundation. You can find a summary of goings on here and here.

Sadly, this debate is a parable for the kind of discussions that Nouwen criticises. It reflects a battle for knowledge/power rather than a "spiritual search for the truth" rooted "in the experience of God's first love". I am guilty of such a posture myself. I want to have the best, most defendable moral and intellectual knowledge, and so easily forget Paul's warning:

...if I...understand...all knowledge...but have not love, I am nothing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A New Story? #2 - Questions

The line begins on the left-hand side of the page and works its way across. It drops straight down until eventually heading right again. Then comes a fork in the road. One prong goes directly up to the level where the line began, and then continues to the right indefinitely. The other way goes down - not straight down, but veering downwards, again indefinitely.

It looks like this (with explanatory words attached):

How did we get to this diagram?

McLaren begins his journey towards A New Kind of Christianity by tackling what he calls "The Narrative Question". "What is the Overarching Storyline of the Bible?" is the foundational question posed by McLaren. This question assumes the Bible to be telling a story, which is an assumption I share. At its heart, Scripture is not an instruction manual, though it does instruct. It's not a repository of doctrine, though it does teach. It's not a book of divine wisdom dropped out of the sky for our enlightenment, though it does contain wisdom and it can enlighten. Scripture is story -- God's story about...well...we'll get there in due course. But McLaren notes that,

To be a Christian...has required us to believe that the Bible presents one very specific storyline...

This storyline, which McLaren seeks to dismantle, is the one diagrammed above. It begins with perfection in Eden, it descends into a fallen world of sin, and then comes the divide - salvation which leads to eternity in heaven, or damnation which leads to eternity in hell.

Does that sound like the story of the Bible in a nutshell?

It does to me. Or at least it sounds like the story that I've been taught, which is a story that seems to be created by Scripture itself. But is this really the story Scripture tells? In the midst of some caricatures, McLaren makes a simple observation and asks a profound question:

Few of us acknowledge that this master-narrative starts with one category of things, good and blessed, and then ends up with two categories of things, good and blessed on the top line and evil and tormented on the bottom....Can we dare to wonder, given an ending that has more evil and suffering than the beginning, if it would have been better for this story never to have begun?

This is a heartfelt question that musn't be swept under the rug. A story depends on perspective. Ask Hitler to tell you about World War II and you might get a sob story about how he failed in his mission and now lives in permanent disgrace. Ask Eisenhower or Churchill the same question and you'll get a very different answer, though they are all talking about the same event(s). Can it be that most people's story -- if we take the above outline to be more or less true -- will turn out for the worst, with the few living to tell a tale with a happy ending? If the story the Bible weaves will largely end up with individual stories of anguish and defeat, why even begin to tell it?

Or perhaps we don't quite have our story straight. Maybe we have misread the Bible; misunderstood what the Storyteller was saying, about both himself and his purposes. Our lines might be going the right direction, but our insight into what they entail might be too narrow in some places and not narrow enough in others. Or, if McLaren is on to something, our lines may be missing the point entirely.

The following questions, asked by Daniel Kirk, are the reason why I am interested in what McLaren has to write, even if he is wrong:

Again the question comes to us how the gospel is actually good news for someone who has experienced nothing but injustice, whose life is defined quintessentially by her status as a victim. Is the gospel good news if it means that such a victim, upon death, will meet a judgment that makes her life of perpetual rape seem like paradise in comparison.

I am not about to abandon everything I once knew, but I do want to be open to a re-shaping of the biblical narrative as it springs from the character of the God who is over, above, and even in, the story: the God revealed to the world not primarily in words on a page, but in the person of Jesus.

A New Story? #1

Brian McLaren is not a heretic. He may be a liar, a pig, an idiot, a heretic, but he's not a porn star.

Honestly, I don't know much about Brian McLaren. Back in my "Catholic" days of being a Christian -- when I used to let various authorities decide what was and wasn't true without any investigation or thought on my own part -- Brian McLaren was a known danger. He was even a step up from the dreaded Rob Bell, which is really saying something.

During the course of my journey towards enlightened bliss, however, I grew tired of the spoon feeding, the policing, the defending and protecting. The same people going after Brian McLaren were going after Tom Wright, and that's just not on! If Wright is a threat to the church then he is a much-needed threat, and his voice demands urgent hearing. But the powers that be would like a safe church, and so voices that attempt to shake her out of her comfort zone are to be screened, steralised, or just silenced. They're banned, 'cause the Regime don't like it, man.

If it sounds like I've simply replaced one group of popes with another (Wright), rest assured that I have not. But what I like in Wright and others (such as Daniel Kirk) is their approach - wrestling with the text of Scripture honestly, and letting it speak for itself to a community eager to hear. This is not to ignore tradition. But as Scot McKnight writes in The Blue Parakeet, we are best reading the Bible when we read it not through tradition but with it. There is a difference.

What's all this got to do with Brian McLaren? Well, I guess I felt it was time to read Brian McLaren for myself rather than letting the opinion of others also be my opinion. And why am I even writing about this? Well, I want to examine a couple of chapters at the beginning of McLaren's latest work, A New Kind of Christianity. These chapters have to do with the Christian story, the story of the Bible.

To sum up, McLaren says we have gotten it wrong.

Expect a conversation between McLaren and I (and perhaps even you?) over the next week or two.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Gladitorial Doctrine Ain't So Bad

Good works are the point.

To shorten that still more, love is the point.

Dr Daniel Kirk has a good piece on "works", exploring Revelation's stance on the doctrinal statement, "What we do in life echoes in eternity."

On what Kirk calls our "retreat to Paul for counter-testimony", one only has to look at Ephesians 2:10 to discover that in Paul we will find no easy way out of our vocation and destiny to love:

We are [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Imago Dei

What does it mean for humanity to be created in the image of God?

Peter Enns fleshes out an answer with a series of four short posts over at Science and the Sacred. They are well worth a read. Read them.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Friday, August 20, 2010

Too Holy

The incarnation -- God becoming flesh -- is seen as a means by which God reveals himself to us, or the method God used to save us. But the beauty of the incarnation goes beyond these things. That God would do such a thing is staggering; but that God would be pleased to do it, that God would be doing nothing more God-like than taking the form of human flesh -- this is mind-blowing.

The incarnation is not just a means of revelation -- the very act is revelation. Who are we talking about when we talk of "god"? We are talking about the kind of god who would be pleased to dwell amongst us as one of us.

My fear is that we've created a god who wouldn't dare do such a thing; who is too "holy" for such an endeavor.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Redemption is an Act of Creation"

There's an excellent post at Science and the Sacred by Pete Enns, an Old Testament scholar of high caliber. The contents of the post will fit nicely into tonight's Bible Study on Colossians 1:15-20. Prepare for some re-heats, class!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In The Gaps

Story, according to Robert McKee, is found in the gaps; the gaps between what we expect to happen and what actually transpires. If there is no gap, there is no story. If you go the checkout, pay for your items, receive the correct change, and walk out the door of the shop, there is no story to be found. Reality lined up with expectations, and the event is dull as dishwater. If, however, you go to the checkout, pay for your items, but are then informed by the checkout lady that the note you just handed over is a counterfeit, a gap is created and a story emerges.

The gospels (and indeed the gospel) make for great story because Jesus was constantly creating gaps in the lives of those around him. Think, for example, of the feeding of the 5,000.

It is evening time, and a large crowd is gathered to be with Jesus. The day is over, according to the disciples, and the crowds need to be sent away so that they can buy food in the villages. The disciples say as much to Jesus. Their expectation is for their Rabbi to agree; to say "Capital idea guys. Send the crowds on their way." But Jesus creates a gap:

They need not go away; you give them something to eat.

A scene, a story, emerges. The ball is back in the disciples court. What do they do now? Well, they inform Jesus of the harsh facts: "We have only five loaves and two fish." They have dealt with the initial gap, and now they expect Jesus to say "Oh, that's all you have? Never mind what I said, then. Send the crowds on their way." But Jesus creates a gap:

Bring them (the loaves and fish) to me.

The story gathers momentum. Why hasn't Jesus listened to the disciples' sensible words? What's he going to do now?

Jesus blesses the bread, breaks it, and gives it to the disciples for mass distribution. (The argument for Jesus the Communist gains weight). Surely now the disciples expect to run out of food rather quickly, but another gap is created. Food is given to all who are present, with twelve baskets left over.

What do you do with someone who consistently fails to meet expectations? Someone who is always upsetting our perceived reality? That the story of Jesus is improbable cannot be disputed. In fact, its very improbability is to be embraced by those who see it as the Story of the world. If Jesus were not an improbable human being, there would be no story at all, for story is found in the gaps.

Did Jesus himself experience gaps? Gaps in what he expected to happen and what actually occurred? Why or why not? I'll let you fill in that gap!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

An American Tail: That 20 Seconds

Within a day of landing on these shores I experienced American life in microcosm - pancakes for breakfast followed by ice-cream cake for lunch. This set the trend for the remainder of the 8 weeks - an 8 weeks that has left me needing new trousers for more than just aesthetic reasons.

My primary task during this internship was to lead the Adult Bible Study. When I hear the words "bible study" together I picture a homely setting with a few people gathered around discussing a passage of Scripture. The "leader" is simply a facilitator of discussion, perhaps even saying the least of anyone in the room. When I hear the word "Adult" I think...oh, never mind. Anyway, this was not that kind of Bible Study...and certainly not that kind either.

The set-up was more akin to a classroom. Roughly 40 chairs were placed in a small room in the church building, all pointing towards the whiteboard where my words of wisdom would be scribbled in that awful handwriting that has plagued me since I first picked up a pencil. I was, for all intents and purposes, a teacher...but without the paid summer holidays, of course. (ooh...burn!)

Fearing that this would be so, I had gone to the best teacher I know for some advice. He simply said this: "If you want to encourage people to learn, learn to encourage." This is what I've tried to do from week 1 to week 8. (I've also tried to steal as many of his thoughts as possible and pass them off as my own, but that's not important right now.)

It was my intention to go through the whole of Colossians (it is, after all, only four chapters long), but things did not work out quite that way. I averaged roughly 3 verses a week, trying to get not only at the heart of the letter, but at the heart of the Christian life in general. Words such as "hope" and "gospel" were almost given full classes to themselves, because our thinking can be so fuzzy even when it comes to these basics. Other words, such as "indeed" and "for", were not given such extensive treatment. (I was very selective, you know.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. I wasn't sure how that first class was going to go, but the same Spirit that was in Paul as he wrote this letter to the Colossians was and is still at work in bringing the words to life...or perhaps bringing us to life. I worked hard in preparing the lessons, but I knew my work would be in vain if God's presence wasn't present. Thankfully, it was.

The reality of teaching (from the Bible) is that almost all of what you say will be quickly forgotten. But in the midst of the soon-to-be-forgotten clutter of words, there may just be one sentence uttered that makes a real difference; that takes root and bears good fruit. Hours of preparation, an hour of teaching, is worth it for that 20 seconds. No question.

Next up - Senior's Chapel

Friday, August 13, 2010

An American Tail: God Carries A Shotgun

I used to think a "shotgun wedding" was one that happened really quickly into a relationship. If a couple met, dated, and decided to get married in the space of a couple of weeks/months, I chalked that up as a "shotgun wedding". Why was it called a "shotgun wedding"? "Because shotguns shoot things really quickly" was my answer.

I'm an idiot.

With that in mind, one could say that my visit to the States was a "shotgun internship" of sorts. We met, sent a couple of emails back and forth, and without really knowing what I was getting myself into I was a soon-to-be intern at First Assembly of God, Worcester, MA. Many question ensued, none of which I could answer:

- "What will you be doing?"

- "I don't quite know."

- "Where will you be staying?"

- "I'm not 100% sure."

- "Why aren't you wearing any pants?"

- "Good question."

Most of the 8 weeks that lay ahead were an enigma to me. There were, however, two things I did know. 1) I knew I'd be leading a Bible Study, though I didn't know what that would look like. 2) I knew I'd be singing hymns and doing some talks at a Senior's chapel, but again this information posed as many questions as answers.

But actually, I lie. There were three things that I knew, the third being the most crucial of all. It was that if God wanted me in Worcester, I'd be in Worcester (Is there any other reason to be in Worcester, it has to be asked?). I knew that if my pale Irish skin ended up in the land flowing with chocolate milk and Honey Dew donuts, it would be God's doing; I would be there as a result of God's calling, and therefore he would equip me for whatever lay ahead. This is not a common form of knowing -- certainly not for me, anyway -- but amidst the uncertainty of my shotgun internship it was exactly the kind of knowledge that I needed - deeper than information and tangible facts; more comforting than a schedule or a complete to-do list.

Tune in next time as the story continues...


“And after the fire, the sound of a low whisper.” – 1 Kings 19:12

The prophet Elijah had just seen a mighty work of God. He challenged the priests of Ba’al to a dual, and through YHWH's power, Elijah came out on top. His altar was lit with fire from the heavens, and everyone marveled at this incredible deed.

But the fruit from this experience was not what Elijah expected. He envisioned all of Israel returning to the worship of the one true God, but when this didn’t transpire he became disillusioned…even suicidal.

So God called Elijah to Mount Sinai to teach him a lesson.

First there was a strong wind, but God was not in the wind. Next there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but God was not in the fire. Where was God?

God was heard in “the sound of a low whisper.”

Noise and clutter are everywhere. In this age of technology it seems there is no escaping the endless drone of sound and barrage of information that streams our way. Our church services can even adopt this way of life. We like the big productions, the loud bands, the fiery preaching, the mighty displays of God’s power. But if we are not careful, we may miss God by looking for him in all of these things; we may drown out His low whisper.

Sometimes our greatest spiritual act can simply be silence; the kind of silence that allows a whispering God to be heard. We must make a habit of this silence if we are to grow in our relationship with God and learn how to be a disciple of Jesus. The first task of discipleship is simple: Listen.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Legal Code

“The Sabbath was made for man…” – Mark 2:27

For some people, Sundays can be a burden rather than a blessing.

It can be a day filled with duties to perform, be it leading worship, operating the sound board, teaching in the kids meetings, or any number of other tasks. More than that, our Sundays can become defined by what we do. Our services revolve around our activities. We feel a burden of responsibility on our shoulders, as if we were made to maintain our Sabbath traditions.

Jesus teaches us a different way of being that runs against our usual habits.

Man was not made for the Sabbath. Man was not made to follow a strict legal code. The irony of the Pharisees is that in trying to ensure that nobody carried what was considered a “burden” on the Sabbath, they actually turned the Sabbath into a burden! It was a day that became defined by what you do or don’t do, and so failure to meet expectations was failure as a child of God.

Jesus confronts this way of thinking by re-enforcing the reality of the Sabbath as a blessing for people rather than a burden. When Sabbath rest is turned into a legal code, it kills. But when we remember that it is a day of blessing, a day of refreshment and refilling, it gives life.

Sunday is not a day we have to jump through hoops in order to please God. It is day – like every other day – when we are to encounter the grace of God. It is, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “an invitation to form a new kind of human community”: a community that trusts in the blessings and goodness of God, and not in its own efforts.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

So That We May Know

My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

- Psalm 131

God is a God who works and rests. Human beings work and rest because they are image bearers of this God. As such, our work and our rest are always done in relation to God. The rest that God wrote into creation is not a time of utter solitude, or a time to boast in the works of our own hands. As one writer puts it, God created Sabbath rest to teach us that

“The world relies on God’s promises and not on our efforts. The observance of Sabbath rest is a break with every effort to achieve, to secure ourselves, and to make the world into our image according to our purposes.”

In a world full of supposed self-sufficiency, Sabbath rest creates an opportunity for us to relate to the One who created us. Our rest is a sign of our trust in the goodness and sufficiency of God.

The psalmist portrays this rest as the rest of a weaned child with its mother. Such a child is not clamoring for food, anxious for the next meal. The weaned child is with its mother simply to enjoy the relationship and rest secure in the mother’s arms.

So it should be with us. Our rest is not primarily functional, but relational. We rest so that we may know.

“Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10

What Do You Say?

You're giving a series of talks on classical music. You begin with some of the basics, you lay the ground work, you examine some interesting pieces. And finally, the time comes to look at Mozart's Serenade for Winds. How do you do it justice? What do you say? Might it not be better to just let it speak for itself?

That's how I feel as I prepare to move into Colossians 1:15-20 in this quack Bible Class of mine. This early Christian poem/hymn is beautifully composed, every word carefully chosen, every phrase cosmic in size. This is Paul at his lyrical best.

I'm screwed.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sabbath Devotionals - A God Who Rests

As part of my church internship, I was asked to throw together roughly 15 devotionals dealing with the theme of "Sabbath Rest". I didn't have much time to work with, but over the next few posts I'll copy and paste some of what I came up with. They're short, pretty easy to follow (the target audience ranged from roughly age 8 to 80), and occasionally there's actually something worth reading in there too.


The word “Sabbath” doesn’t appear in the Bible until after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt (Ex. 16:23), but the reality of a Sabbath rest existed from the very beginning of time and space.

Look closely at the following verse:

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” – Gen. 2:2

Did you notice that? The first person to enjoy a Sabbath rest was the person of God himself! The Eternal One, the Creator, the Sustainer, the one who does not grow tired or weary – He took a break!

This was not the rest of someone who was worn out; someone who was beaten into the ground. On the seventh day God did not say to himself, “That’s it. I’m beat. I can’t create another thing”. Were Adam and Eve to come looking for God, they wouldn’t have found him napping on the sofa with an old episode of Columbo playing in the background.

They would have found him enjoying the fruits of his completed creation, celebrating something that was as new for God as it was humanity. This verse in Genesis says that “God had finished the work he had been doing”. Having just created man and woman in his own image, God announced that his creation had gone from “good” to “very good”, and with that His work was complete. And with completion came that sweet rest; the rest of one who is at peace with himself and all else around him. According to an Old Testament scholar, this rest of God tells us that,

“God is not anxious about his creation but is at ease with the well-being of his rule.”

The reality of rest finds its origins – its genesis – in the God who is at ease. Rest is a vital part of His character, therefore it is in God alone that we as creatures can enjoy the true rest that the Creator has written in to creation.

“My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from Him.” – Psalm 62:1

With A Twist

I liken Hollister to that girl (or "Betty" as the kids are saying these days) who is attractive and knows it. She is super cool, super trendy, and knows she could have any guy she wants. Everything she does annoys you. Everything she stands for goes against all of your principles and values. Whenever you see her, you get all worked up and you tell yourself that she's not even that attractive to begin with.

And yet, and yet, you would give anything to be the guy she strings along. You would hate yourself just to be seen with her. You'd convince yourself that you're making a statement, or that you're teaching her a lesson, but really you're just an amateur in the game she excels in; a pawn to her chess master.

I had my third Hollister experience yesterday, but this one came with a twist. I went there with a guy who had previously told me that whenever he goes into a Hollister store he gets a job offer. I laughed it off, assuming he was exaggerating.

Sure enough, as we went to pay for his stuff, one of the models staff asked him if he worked in Hollister. When he said that he didn't, a job offer quickly followed. This is when we began to have some fun.

My friend said he had an associates degree, so he wondered if he could go straight for a managerial position. I told the girl not to trust his olive skin and stylish hair; beneath the outward beauty he's dead inside. I also told her that I'm Irish, and if they just have me standing in the doorway speaking with an Irish accent I could increase sales by at least 30%.

Then she actually offered me a job! She said I could work there for the summer. I told her that she was just making me a "sympathy offer" - you know, we don't want the ugly friend to feel bad.

Meanwhile, my olive skinned compadre was haggling for a discount, making promises of attending a job interview that he would never keep. His empty words actually worked, because they gave him 20% off of his purchase [!]. I had actually already bought my stuff, but I was tempted to return it and then just get Mr 20% to buy it for me. I wonder how that would have went down...?

Say what you like about Hollister, but they're doing everything within their power to get us out of this recession, and I for one salute them.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Movies

We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.

So says Robert McKee in his book Story. It's a book to help budding screenwriters hone the craft, but like the stone table in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it can be used for other purposes.

Buying and reading this book could also be the first concrete step towards me writing that movie on Paul. I have some ideas floating around in my head. Perhaps have an older Paul tell his story to a younger soul while under house arrest in Rome - something not unlike what happens in Amadeus.

There's also some stuff I want to avoid, like this being seen as a Christian movie - merely yet another bland vehicle for mentioning Jesus. How do you avoid that while grappling authentically with the life of Paul? I don't honestly know. I guess you could start by taking Robert McKee seriously - make the film be about a man "who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us": Paul the human being, driven by real human desires and motivations, experiencing a transformation of worldview and struggling to work out the implications with all sorts of opposition coming internally and externally.

I suppose what would both make this film relatable and set it apart is that most others make something god - money, a job, fame, love. This would be a film that simply makes God God.

Am I a fool to think such a film possible and enjoyable? Does anyone out there have some ideas, such as "Don't bother"?

Friday, August 6, 2010

My New Favourite Hymn

This Is My Father's World

This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world: He shines in all that’s fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

Sometimes We Just Have To Do Something Like This

Luke Wilson Wilbur

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Spiritual Context

A challenge to those who preach and teach:

The importance of "context" is well known when it comes to reading and interpreting the Scriptures faithfully and passing on that insight through the folly of preaching/teaching. The pillars of context are the historical, the literary, the theological/philosophical, and the sociological. But there is one that gets little attention - I'll call it the "spiritual context".

Consider the letter to the church in Colossae.

Paul says to these young Christians,

"...from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you."

This letter, this teaching, was written in the context of fervent prayer. The apostle Paul was writing to people he was in constant prayer for. All that he taught, all that he commanded, was based on the foundation of ceaseless communication with God. He would not have it otherwise.

How encouraging for these new Christians to read such a thing. How encouraging it is when someone tells us that they are praying for us.

There is a spiritual context to these epistles which is instructive for teaching today. It is as simple and as profound as prayer to God on behalf of those who are being taught. If someone wants to be a preacher/teacher, they ought to first be a pray-er.