Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Machines in the Holy Ghost

November 14, 2017

This New Yorker article hypothesizes on whether one day human-like robots (though frankly, why need they be human-like, so long as they have artificial intelligence [AI] of some sort?) will be accepted as members in faith communities.  The author cites some interesting anecdotes from speculative Jewish and Muslim religious writers before moving on to a rather awkward and brief reinterpretation of Genesis 1 & 2.

The author chooses to utilize Kierkegaard’s definition of passion vs. proof as a means for discussing this question. Kierkegaard argues that faith is not a matter of intellect, or at least solely so.  It must needs involve something deeper, the uniquely human aspect of passion or desire, with faith the highest form and expression of such passion.  Kierkegaard was reacting against a philosophical tradition that held reason and rationality to be the highest aptitude and defining characteristic of humanity.  The author of the article sees Kierkegaard’s definition as a strong argument against the ability of an AI creation to have faith.

The references to Jewish and Muslim speculation on the ability of non-humans to be part of a faith community is interesting.  It reminded me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,  with the issue ultimately being less one of whether faith is possible to non-humans, but whether human community should belong to such creations or aberrations.

More problematic for me is the reinterpretation of Genesis 1 & 2.  The author asserts that Adam and Eve were designed to be learning machines.   But I would argue that both these terms are misleading and inaccurate, contextually.  Adam and Eve were capable of learning, but there is no insinuation that they did not possess, directly from their creator as part of being a creation, knowledge already – certainly enough knowledge to know how to respond appropriately when warned of something bad and dangerous.  And Adam and Eve were certainly not machines, but rather human beings.  Distinct in all of creation as bearers of the imago dei – the image of God.  Adam and Eve were not de facto fated to sin, either out of the necessity of learning or due to the inadequate ‘programming’ they received.  Were either of these to be the case, the issue of moral guilt before a righteous God, and therefore the need of salvation, would be eliminated.  Adam and Eve were created with the capability and the default mode of right relationship to God – they were proper creatures in every respect of the word.

Robots might gain consciousness and turn against their creators, but this would be the result of how we, as imperfect beings, created them imperfectly.  The Biblical account says something very different, and locates the source of the pain and misery and suffering that we inflict on one another and ourselves not in what we learned from God, but in the inevitable reality of being broken, improper creatures no longer in sync with anything or anyone else.

Just because a robot looks and acts human does not make it human.  Programmers and artists and engineers can gift a robot with many attributes to make it more acceptable as human companionship, but they cannot gift it with the spiritual essence.  The transmission of the imago dei is left to the realm of procreation rather than creation.  While the lines may become blurred as we dabble in the realms of human cloning, it is important to remember that God is both the creator of faith, and the creator of the spiritual apparatus – the soul – capable of receiving such faith.  Just because we can create something that looks like it is capable of faith does not mean that it is.


ANF – The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians

November 9, 2017

Hard to believe it’s been eight months since I last read through part of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (those writers that are post-Apostolic, but prior to the Council of Nicaea).

Polycarp lived from roughly 65AD to 155AD.  He is said by Irenaeus to be a disciple of St. John the Apostle and was in touch with others (not apostles) who had direct experience and knowledge of Jesus.  He served as the Bishop of Smyrna, tradition has it that St. John himself conferred this position to him) and was martyred.  Tradition is that he was sentenced to burn at the stake, but the fire would not burn him so he was stabbed to death.  His Epistle to the Philippians is his only surviving work, copied by Irenaeus.

This short letter commends the faith of the Philippians and exhorts them to continued faithfulness and perseverance.  He speaks very highly of St. Paul, and quotes or paraphrases from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as a majority of the Epistles.  He condemns what sounds like Docetism, and this might be the earliest reference to the heresy that claimed Jesus was not actually physical but rather purely spiritual and only appearing to be physical.  This heresy was undoubtedly influenced by Greek philosophy which held that only the spiritual could be perfect (and therefore divine), because matter is corruptible.

Polycarp (Greek for “much or abundant fruit”) references two early martyrs, Rufus and Zosimus, who have statues of themselves over St. Peter’s Square in Rome since the 18th century.  They are said to have died under Emperor Trajan’s persecution in 107 AD, martyred in the arena by wild animals.

He has instructions for leaders of congregations (presbyters) and laments for a former presbyter no longer in his position, perhaps due to some sort of sexual sin or failure to chastity with his wife.

Where Was God?

November 8, 2017

The news reports of the shooting in Sutherland Springs Texas Sunday morning are horrific.  People around the country and world are trying to deal with the ramifications of what happened.  Much time and energy is already being devoted to trying to understand why Devin Kelley at 26 years of age would be motivated to such terrible actions.  Debate is focused on his relationship to his estranged wife and his mother-in-law.  It won’t surprise me in the least if some sort of familial struggle is credited with motivating him to violence.  Whether such is the conclusion or not won’t bring back the dead, won’t turn back time, won’t heal hearts, and won’t answer the ultimate question often posed at times like this – where was God when this happened?

Certain people have already demonstrated their profound lack of understanding of the Christian faith and profound insensitivity to the suffering as they push their ideological agendas of gun control.  The debates will continue to rage.  Laws and rights will be enacted or repealed, but the basic question remains – where was God?

First off, I’d like to point out the crassness of such a question that implies that a God of love of mercy would or should protect a certain minimum threshold of people from violence and evil, but isn’t necessarily held culpable for smaller-scale atrocities.  Why is this question asked when dozens are killed but not one or two?  Is there a categorical difference between the evil of dozens slain in Christian worship and a husband abusing his wife, or a mother neglecting her child, or a neighbor stealing, or a stranger shooting an irritating driver on the freeway?  Is one more evil than the other, or are they all the same evil affecting varying numbers of people?

As a Christian I decry the evil in all of these situations and incidents.  Whatever psychological motivations can be detected or inferred, I know that the deeper underlying issue is the sin that is in all of us.  Sometimes that sin drives people to violence or cruelty in actions.  Other times it prompts them to violence or cruelty with what they say.  Other times, perhaps most of the time, it prompts people to violence or cruelty only in their thoughts and feelings.  But Jesus makes it clear in his teachings in Matthew 5:21-30 that sin is sin is sin, whether it affects one person or one thousand, whether it works itself out in murder or adultery or remains locked in our thoughts and feelings.

So the evil of Mr. Kelley’s murderous rampage is terrible in scope, but no more morally reprehensible – by Biblical standards – than the evil I hold in my heart for the person who cuts me off in traffic.  We as a society must deem certain offenses greater than others.  But the moral guilt of the thought, word, or deed is identical before God.

If we doubted God’s power or presence any time an act of evil was engaged in – even just outwardly manifested evil in word or deed – there wouldn’t be a lot of room left for God to be active at any given moment.  It’s only because certain moments and actions are highlighted for their scale that this question surfaces with us.  But if it’s valid to ask this question for a massacre, it’s valid to ask it for a case of child abuse, or a case of sexual assault, or a case of theft.  Where is a loving, omniscient and all-powerful God when evil occurs?

Biblically, God is where He always has been, always is, and has promised to always be.

God the Father who created all things in Genesis 1 & 2 continues to sustain them still today.  He hasn’t simply wound the clock and nipped out for a nap or a bite to eat.  The fact that Sutherland Springs and the rest of the cosmos as we know it and are accustomed to experience it existed at all on Sunday morning is evidence of God the Father’s divine care and mercy and power.  It was that power that the parishioners gathered to profess and celebrate before they were cruelly shot to death.  Their deaths do not invalidate the reality that they professed when they still had breath.  God the Father/Creator was present and accounted for.

God the Son was present in the forgiveness that was hopefully requested and received in Confession and Absolution.  The sacrifice of God the Son on the cross 2000 years ago, his miraculous resurrection three days later, his ascension to heaven with promises to return just a few short weeks later, none of these realities are altered by what happened in Texas this past weekend.  The forgiveness his death opened up to us through faith in his resurrection was there for every person in that church.  It was there for Mr. Kelley as well, inviting him to repent his evil intentions prior to carrying them out, and even promising forgiveness with his repentance as he lay wounded and preparing to kill himself in his car.  I don’t know whether he accepted that invitation in his final seconds, though I pray he did.  In which case he would have found a God far more gracious and merciful and forgiving than Mr. Kelley had just shown himself to be behind the muzzle of his gun.  That is the kind of gracious and merciful God such a man needs, the kind of God I need if I am to truly trust his promise of grace and forgiveness.  It was the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God that the people of that congregation gathered to profess and celebrate as truth before the bullets ushered them into eternity.  The bullets don’t alter that truth in silencing those particular faithful.  God the Son/Redeemer was present and accounted for.

God the Holy Spirit, who had worked faith in the hearts of those parishioners and spurred them to worship that morning to celebrate the good gifts of God was present.  This is the work of God the Holy Spirit in creation, turning hearts to faith, leading people towards repentance and the acceptance of forgiveness, enlightening through the Word of God, and the existence of that small congregation was proof of the Holy Spirit’s power and presence.  I pray that the Holy Spirit’s work of healing, forgiveness, and peace will be powerfully felt and demonstrated and received by those who lost loved ones, family, friends.  The assault rifle did not dispel the Holy Spirit’s presence or purpose.  God the Holy Spirit/Sanctifier was present and accounted for.

God was fully present.  And God did not intervene to miraculously protect his people in Sutherland Springs.  Could He have?  Of course, and the Bible as well as history is chock full of people who credit God with protecting them and delivering them from bodily harm and danger.  But God told Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that sin brings death.  And while God has a plan to save us from the evil of our sin and has revealed that plan in his Son’s death and resurrection, He has never promised us carte blanche immunity to the effects of our own sin or the sin of those around us.  In fact, He has told us that we will suffer.  We will die.  And He has shown us that our hope is not in avoiding these things but coming through them.

The God in Sutherland Springs Sunday morning is also the God at Calvary 2000 years ago.  The God who did not rescue his own Son from the evil and murderous intentions of humanity, but rather absorbed that hatred and misunderstanding and evil into the wounds of his Son, into the blood that poured from his body, into his very death and burial.  God the Father – through the incarnation of God the Son – knows the suffering that sin causes.  The pain of losing a loved one.  The agony of watching evil at work.  But rather than simply promising to help us avoid these things for the span of a few decades, God the Father clued Eve into the fact that his plan was nothing short than the undoing of sin from the inside out.  To the redemption of creation – inasmuch as creation would accept such redemption.

These are the things those people in Texas gathered to hear, affirm, take strength and hope in for the coming week.  Those are the very things they needed to have on their hearts and minds when brutal violence changed their worship.  It did indeed change their worship, but it didn’t end it.  Those who died continue their worship in heaven, in the presence of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And those who are left behind are called to continue their worship as well, assured that their worship is in unity with, at one with the worship of their beloved family and friends who now worship in heaven.  This is what Christian worship is – the most obvious point at which the veil between heaven and earth is thinnest, where our praise unites with the praise of the faithful in heaven until that promised day of our Lord’s return, a theme that traditionally occupies the last three weeks of the liturgical church year and start this Sunday.

Others have already pointed out that the seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer – deliver us from evil – is a prayer not only for temporal safety but that the Lord would ultimately maintain us in the faith against the temptations within ourselves, in the world around us, and from our enemy Satan, so that we might (in God’s perfect timing) enter through death into eternal life and eternity with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.  God did that Sunday morning, in spite of whatever hateful and spiteful intentions Mr. Kelley may have intended.

So we should continue to pray.  I don’t put much stock in sending thoughts out to those affected, but I trust with all my heart and soul in the efficacy and beauty and importance of prayer.  At all times, and in all places and situations, not simply those that are of a sufficiently horrible nature to grab headline status.

What Is Your Authority?

October 30, 2017

Sunday night at Happy Hour we had our first full-blown, nearly fully-inclusive theological discussion.  What began as questions from one young man about our denominational practice regarding ordaining women (we don’t) erupted into a much larger discussion with a great deal of heated emotions.  I was struck by numerous things in this encounter.

Firstly, I was amazed at the unanimity of rejection of or concern about our denomination’s stance in this regard, and my personal support of it.  I know that many of the folks at Happy Hour come from different denominational backgrounds but I don’t know the details.  There was really only one person joining my defense of this practice, and he’s relatively new to the faith in some regards.  All the others, most of whom I suspect would classify themselves as strong Christians, and nearly all of whom are recently graduated from a prestigious private Christian university, were uniformly opposed to the non-ordination of women despite it being the near-universal norm of Christian practice up until the late 20th century.  It’s interesting that they could so easily dismiss a nearly universal practice that has endured for almost two millenia, that they were so completely certain that the viewpoints that have evolved in the last 60 years in some quarters of Christianity and more particularly in secular culture must be correct!

I attempted to distinguish between equality as culture and feminism have defined it (functionally, based on what women and men do) and how Scripture defines it (as a matter of who we are in the fact that we are created by God – an existential equality separate and prior to whatever it is we happen to do).  But this argument was mostly rejected – functional equality was definitely the preferred or assumed correct way of defining equality.

Secondly, I was surprised at the vocalization of personal experience as the ultimate arbitrator of theological belief and practice.  The discussion was far less about what the Bible says on the topic and far more related to the emotional assertions of people that regardless of what the Bible says, personal experience somehow demands the ordination of women as part and parcel with women’s equality.  Another young man talked about his reading of Scripture as important, but inasmuch as it was validated by his personal experiences and which, he intimated, could be actually superseded by those experiences.

I articulated that Scripture is my personal, final authority and arbitrator of reality.  Scripture is what should norm and condition and interpret my personal experience, not the other way around.  This led to some inquiry later on as to how I could be certain of Scripture’s authority.  Why would I trust this book so completely?  On what basis could I be certain of divine inspiration?  Others seemed to find it difficult to believe that I could believe that the Bible should function so completely and authoritatively.  Obviously, I’m sinful and don’t perfectly conform to what Scripture says.  But to the best of my ability, I trust what Scripture says and trust that when there is a conflict between what I want and what Scripture tells me, Scripture is right even if I disobey it.

Others wanted to know how I would personally apply this theology to my family and my daughter.  Would I tell her that she couldn’t be ordained because she was a girl, while I could encourage my boys to be ordained if they so desired?  There seemed to be the assumption that whatever I held to be true personally would change if it impacted my daughter.  My response was that if she expressed such a desire to me I would want to sit down with her to find out why, and then to talk about what the Bible has to say on this matter.  I would want to engage not just the views of my denomination and historic Christianity as a whole, but also the more recent views and exegesis of the pertinent passages (1 Timothy 2:10-15).  I’m aware that there are some compelling arguments to treat Paul’s words here as we treat his admonishments about women wearing hats to church in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.  We’d talk through this together.

At the end of the day if my daughter was still convinced that the Holy Spirit was calling her to the pastoral ministry, and if she had a defensible way of dealing with the Scripture passages that have traditionally been interpreted as forbidding this, my response would not be to try and change my denomination’s stance on the issue!  Rather, I would encourage her to consider ordination through an alternate polity where women are permitted to be pastors.  It seemed genuinely surprising to some of the folks last night that I would not change my view on the matter or attempt to try and change my polity’s view on the matter just because it was my daughter who was personally involved.

One of the participants talked about the Church’s duties to improve and correct and right the wrongs with the world in anticipation of our Lord’s return.  She had great difficulty with the concept that Christ would return and everything would instantly change, and seemed far more comfortable with the idea of gradual improvement and sanctification so that when Christ returned, at least some of the change would already be accomplished.  She was insistent that it was the Church’s duty to lead the charge towards this.  Slavery was brought up as an example.  And she threatened that there were more than a few people who would be insulted and affronted by Paul’s words in Colossians or Philemon and elsewhere because he doesn’t outright condemn slavery and call for Christians to abolish it.

I know that there are Christians who have been and are offended by that.  Which was the point, I argued.  What God is after is not the transformation of our social units, but of our hearts.  I asked her to show me the passages where the Church is called to be the agent of social change.  This brought up an objection from someone else as to whether or not this was a fair use of Scripture.  Should Scripture be cited as the ultimate authority or not?  And even if it should, can it even be done because some people are prone to proof-texting and taking things out of context to support their positions?

She was aghast and at a loss at my request, as were others.  What did I mean, show them the Biblical passages?  I quickly offered that I might not be thinking clearly at the moment and would be happy to be proved wrong, but that the passages I could think of regarding moral behavior and sanctification are all aimed at the individual Christian or the Church – not at society or culture as a whole.  We are called to be transformed individually, which will obviously have an effect on the Church as a whole and then on culture and society around us.  But the idea that the Church should collude with culture or society on certain agendas on the basis that the Bible calls us to personal sanctification is a very large and dangerous leap.  We move from what the Bible says to ideas and assertions that are inspired by Scripture.  And whenever we move from what Scripture actually says to our ideas about what that ought to mean, we’re on very dangerous footing.

She left the conversation and our house shortly after this exchange.

I hope and pray she comes back next Sunday or before then with a list of Scripture verses.  I pray that she grapples with what I asked and said, and either comes back to correct me (which I will graciously and humbly accept), or begins to question some of the teachings she’s received.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t struggle for what is right.  But first and foremost – Biblically speaking – this is an matter of personal internal and external struggle.  I am called to change how I act and think and speak.  I am not called to change how others act or think or speak unless I can do so in love and unless they are professed followers of Christ as well that I am in relationship with (members of my congregation, for instance).

Yes, there are various exegetical dealings with Scripture, in which case a fair level of humility is required in these discussions.  To assume that you must be correct and that any question of your interpretation or application is erroneous is a dangerous state of mind, but it was a very common state of mind last night.

This is what I hoped would develop.  I just wasn’t expecting it at the end of a long day, and I wasn’t expecting it to be so emotionally charged.  But I want our gatherings to be a place where we can grapple with hard issues, where we can be challenged in our thinking and in our beliefs so that we are together better and stronger and more grounded in the faith.

But it isn’t necessarily a smooth process, I guess.

In the meantime, it shows me the glaring need for continued dialogue and teaching in the Church.  One gentlemen last night suggested at one point that we were too much the heirs of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in that we too heavily favor reason over emotion and experience.  But as I pointed out, that wasn’t the case in the discussion.  The discussion heavily and almost completely favored experience and emotion over an actual intellectual, philosophical, theological discourse!  This is what has happened since the mid-20th century, the moving away from rational discourse more and more towards emotion and experience as the authorities in our lives.

What this results in then is the increasing difficulty of talking with people and understanding people who disagree with us.  I expressed my disappointment with their school that after four years of very expensive and undoubtedly very high-quality education, a basic discussion could result in such anger and such emotion.  Not that there isn’t a time and a place for emotions, but that the discussion should move so quickly to that personal, experiential level without an adequate effort at understanding the rational and intellectual positions that each side was coming from.

If personal experience and emotion are the ultimate authority in our lives it truly becomes very difficult to engage in meaningful dialogue based on different perspectives.  Christianity has insisted from very early on that the Bible is to be the authority in our lives.  The Holy Spirit may well directly speak to us from time to time, but the only way we can know and trust His voice is by comparing what we hear to what God says in his Word.  At one point a young man sort of joked that this was an idolization of Scripture.  I suppose one might see it that way, but to me it’s a simple matter of what is my authority?  I can say God is, but if what I mean by that is only my personal emotions and experiences of this God, I’m in a very tenuous and unstable position at best.  How can I trust that God is directing me rather than a demon or my subconscious or chemical imbalances?  How can I ever hope to arbitrate between differing ideas about theology or practice if there isn’t an objective external authority to appeal to?  What do we make of 2 Timothy 3:16 and the assertion by St. Paul that all of Scripture is indeed useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness?  Ironic that on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Sola Scriptura appears to be just as opposed by some Christians as it was by then, even Christians who are themselves theological heirs of the Reformation.

Fortunately there was the opportunity to affirm mutual love and respect with almost everyone by the end of the evening.  I think others were a little shocked as well at the level of what had just occurred, but the general consensus is that it was a good thing.

It will be interesting to see what happens this coming Sunday, and who is there for it.





October 30, 2017

I am.

The last of our guests left five minutes ago.  As my wife prepares for bed I have to take a second to try and process, but there’s too much.  A wonderful mixture of familiar faces and one new one tonight.  And then a multi-hour discussion that spanned the authority of Scripture, the roles of men and women here and now in a fallen world in Christ, and the pain of feeling marginalized as a woman in a male dominated world.

We covered immense theological and emotional terrain.  Tempers flared.  Tears flowed.  Many stood and listened without actively engaging.  By and large people hung into the discussion, but not everyone could or would.  My prayer at the end of the night, as I articulated to one of our recent regulars, is that Satan not be allowed to drive wedges and discord through theological wrestling.  That the relationships that have been built and the community that has formed over the last year and a half would not simply endure, but strengthen and deepen and thrive.  If we can’t struggle with the Word of God as it applies to our lives here and now, what hope is there for any reality of Christian community?  And if this can’t be a place where people can bare their hearts and know that even when they don’t hear what they want to hear they are still loved, then it doesn’t really have a purpose at all.

I think things will be OK.  For most of us at the very least.  For all of us I pray.  And in the meantime, sleep.


October 23, 2017

I frequently lament – and testily disagree with – our Church culture (maybe it’s yours too?) that stresses and exalts youth and young people.  It struck me that in some ways it’s like only wanting to talk about Jesus as a baby.  Youth, the future, it’s so beautiful and innocent.  It’s also not very challenging.  It doesn’t demand that you do what it wants, the way it wants.  It demands accommodations, but leaves  us in large part in control of things.

Jesus didn’t stay a baby and it’s interesting we know so little about his youth.  We are led to move beyond the wistful hopefulness of gazing at a helpless baby and impossibly young parents, to being challenged to discipleship by a fully-grown Lord and Savior.  It’s easy to simply focus on Christmas and disregard Lent and Easter.  Many Christians do exactly this, and it’s undoubtedly as ill-fitting and misguided as trying to orient a congregation to lure in young people who will stay and propagate and continue the congregational life.

Last night we had another great Happy Hour.  Several new people in the mix.  A musician from our congregation, laboring to hash out a jazzed-up version of A Mighty Fortress on saxophone with an acoustic guitarist.  A potential love-interest for one of our regulars.  A couple from our congregation who visited once a long time ago but, despite their own work with college-aged people for years – have insisted that they’re “too old” to come and hang out.

I got to have conversation with a couple of the guys.  One talking about his relationship status (or lack thereof).  Another curious about the fascination with Christian community that has driven my wife and I all our lives together.

We have a strange and I suspect unusual dynamic on Sunday nights.  Our house has become home to these dozen or so people.  They don’t worry about knocking or ringing the door bell.  They come right in and know they’re welcome.  They bring their friends, roommates, co-workers, and potential love interests.  They add their gifts of food and beverages to the mix and find their seat at the table to join in the next round of whatever game is being played, or wander out back to talk by candlelight, or find a seat off to the side waiting to see who wanders over for quieter discourse.

While my wife and I are well-acquainted with college and young adult ministry, the last time we were actively involved in it we were a lot closer to their age.  Now we’re not.  We’re more like parents.  But sufficiently different.  Different enough that they feel comfortable to be – at least as I imagine it – themselves.  Who they are right now, with these people, in this stage of life.  They don’t have to adopt or fall back into the familiar roles and rituals of being son or daughter at home.  They’re just Derek or Kenny or Brooke at our house.  They can be the adults they are becoming with adults who don’t have preconceived notions or hopes about who those adults should be.  It’s a different conversational dynamic, a different dynamic of identity.

They often talk about how much they value not just being around my wife and I as people their parent’s age, but how they also enjoy hanging out with our kids as adopted, much younger siblings.  And they also have voiced how they appreciate having others who are even older attending and hanging out.  Gleaning perspectives and insights from those who are much further down the path of life than the rest of us.

I wonder how many opportunities and options there are for this sort of dynamic.  Without the power dynamics inherent at work or school.  Just people of different ages and backgrounds gathering together with the understanding that everyone there wants to be there, and wants good things for themselves and the others.  A place where the peace of God the Holy Spirit in Christ flows underneath us like an underground river that occasional surfaces in song or theological discourse.  Something we all at one level or another float along on or dip our feet and toes into, even though our doctrinal understandings might be more fluid than the Holy Spirit himself.

It reminds my wife and I of L’Abri, which has served as an inspirational lighthouse of sorts as we seek to navigate the sometimes treacherous coastlines of Christian community in various incarnations.  I still draw great insights from reading Francis Shaeffer’s works (book review soon to come).  I don’t know if our following along side his footsteps will ever develop into anything quite so formal as his teaching and lecture sessions, I believe that God the Holy Spirit is at work in our informal Sunday evenings, and pray for the guidance as to where to place our next footsteps, trusting that however that might look, it will continue to advocate for multigenerational interactions that convey the faith and refresh it regularly.  In doing so I pray we faithfully follow from the manger to the cross to the empty tomb to the Day of our Lord’s return!


Holding the Line

October 21, 2017

Thanks to Blake for sharing this timely and helpful article on the value of Christian sexual ethics as opposed to the sexual licentiousness our culture has adopted not only as inevitable but actually admirable.

If sex is the unspoken possibility any time two people of any gender are in contact with each other, the possibility for problems to arise is incredibly high.  Only in the movies and on TV is unrestrained sexual indulgence something wonderful and easy – free of the fear of STDs, unexpected pregnancy and emotional entanglement.  To sexualize every potential encounter and relationship in our lives is unhealthy not just to those who want to act on that possibility, but those who don’t want to, but have to be on guard all the same.

Being prudent, wise, aware – these are all good and admirable traits that have been highlighted and honored in cultures around the world and throughout history.  But now they are decried as restrictive and unnecessary and unwanted.  We should be free to indulge ourselves in any way we desire, to any extent we desire, without any worry about consequences of any kind.  Such a demand might be appropriate to a utopian society, but in case people haven’t looked outside the window recently (or into their own hearts), we don’t live in a utopian society.  Not by a long shot.

I wish my kids didn’t have to worry about predatory sexual behavior as they enter their teen years and adulthood.  And by predatory I don’t mean illegal, but rather the predatory assumption being drilled into both girls and boys that sex is wonderful and good and fine wherever and whenever and pretty much with whomever you like, so long as you both agree.  Whatever agree means.  It seems clear that agreement will only mean agreement if you still agree after the fact, which of course often is not the case for a variety of reasons.  It’s easy to read coercion or intimidation backwards into a situation once you’ve decided you’re not happy with the decisions you made.

So my kids are entering a world where sex will be assumed or expected with and from them as they begin dating.  My sons will face this as well as my daughter.  We’ve  taught them the inappropriateness and danger of this, provided rational explanations for why it isn’t a healthy way to live, both for themselves and those they meet.  We’ve tried to model and describe a Biblical sexual ethic that holds sexuality to be far more valuable than our society pretends to think it is.  But they’re still going to encounter those expectations.  As such, they’re going to have to conduct themselves in such a way as to enable them to live consistently with their morals and beliefs.  Part of this means being modest – both my sons and my daughter – and there’s no harm in that.  It only makes sense in a sinful world where things get misinterpreted all too easily.

People may want to laugh off Biblical sexual morality as antiquated and outdated, but compared to the massive harm inflicted on people in an open sexual culture, antiquated and outdated should start looking better than it has in a long time.

Me Too…in Other Ways

October 17, 2017

I thought this was a great essay by Mayim Bialik.  While I doubt she and I agree on many things, I very much appreciate her mature evaluation of the irresponsible behavior of both men and (potentially) women.  Of course, she has been excoriated for this from many women who view her conservative treatment of a woman’s role in all of this as a betrayal of feminist insistence that women never, ever have absolutely any responsibility in a situation of sexual inappropriateness.

Bialik’s essay in no way gives a pass to men to sexually harass women.  But she does acknowledge that women have a role to play in this issue as well, which of course is a forbidden aspect of discussion.  Should women have to worry about being assaulted or harassed?  No, they shouldn’t.  We all know that in our hearts.  But they do.  And we recognize that there are good reasons for this, and that occasions for worry happen quite a bit.  Regardless of whether a woman conforms to societal notions of beauty or sexuality.  Despite whether she dresses conservatively or provocatively.  Regardless of whether she chooses to drink excessively or otherwise compromise her faculties or not.

In other words, there are no foolproof ways to assure a woman will never be harassed or assaulted.  Or to assure that a woman will never feel harassed, even if no such harassment was intended.  This is part of sin playing out in our world.  A sin that runs deep…all the way back to Genesis 3:16 and the preview of the battle of the sexes that has ensued ever since.  Woman and man struggle for control over each other.  What history has shown is that women have traditionally fared worse in this struggle – at least by the standards of wealth and power and public office.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t active combatants, or that they haven’t learned how to win in other ways.

The reality is that we relate to one another, both people we want to relate to and people we aren’t even aware of.  We relate to them in how we carry ourselves, present ourselves, how we speak and groom ourselves, what we wear, and all of the other subtle and not-so-subtle body and image languages we use.  Pretending that this is not the case is irresponsible and dishonest.  Most everyone takes at least some effort to put themselves together in a way they want other people to view them, and at least anecdotally, women put more time and more care into this than men.

How we prepare ourselves says things to other people.  Bialik understands this.  Admitting this is not giving an excuse to those who act inappropriately.  But admitting does recognize that at some times, some women are complicit.  Show business has long been an environment where this is tacitly understood (similar to politics, oddly enough).  The outrage over Harvey Weinstein has the benefit of a specific target, someone who can personally be held accountable and punished.  But it isn’t as though Weinstein invented the casting couch.  He perpetuated it.  And as much as it might offend some women, I’ll go a step further to suggest that he perpetuated it – like those before him and contemporaneous with him and those who come after him – with the help of some women.

Not all, to be certain.  But in the recognition that some people have been hurt and harmed, it is easy to try and oversimplify things and in so doing, ignore underlying truths and realities that might otherwise be helpful or necessary to bring about change.  Systematic behavior relies on a lot of things.  Systematically abusing other people presumes often times that abuse is not just tolerated, but rather sought out.  That it isn’t always abuse.  That some are participants, not victims.

The last big example of this was the famous taped comment of Donald Trump about some of his interactions with certain women.  He was taped – probably without his knowledge – and the tape was released before the election last year to try and destroy his chances of winning the presidency.  That effort failed, much to the surprise of Hillary Clinton and many other people.  How was it that such patently offensive language would not cause every voter (or at least every female voter) to repudiate Trump?

Because common sense understood what he was talking about.  Common sense understood that Trump was crudely describing the atmosphere of wealth and power and success that he has spent his whole life in.  The reality that there are always people (men and women, I have no doubt) willing to do whatever it takes to enter that atmosphere, to breathe deeply and permanently acclimate to it.  Some people work really hard to earn and accomplish things that bring wealth and power.  Others are willing to shortcut the process, relying on other assets and exchanges.  We call these people gold diggers.  Kanye rapped about them in 2005 but nobody took offense to him or to his rather explicit lyrics (and please be aware that the link above is to the lyrics to the song which are not exactly child-friendly, given the subject).  Why?  Because everyone understood what he was talking about.  When you’re a star, they let you do it.  You can do anything, Trump spoke.  I know somebody paying child support for one of his kids / His baby momma’s car and crib is bigger than his Kanye sings.    The implication is clear and everyone knows it when they aren’t ideologically blinded – not everyone is a victim.  Sometimes, everyone is guilty.  Is it crude?  Of course.  Does that make it any less true?  No.

Were voters commending or affirming the Donald and his comment and the reality he was expressing rather ineloquently?  Of course not.  But they also understood that he was describing a particular reality, however offensive and disgusting it might be.  And they understood as well that lots of people enter that reality knowingly, not as victims but as participants.  As combatants.

Is this right and proper?  That the rich and powerful should expect that there will be up-and-comers eager to sell what they have for what they might become?  Of course not.  But it is reality.  I’m not affirming that this is the way things should be, but I’m pretty sure this is always how things have been.  Which makes me skeptical about our attempts – however well-intentioned – to eliminate it.  As long as some have wealth and power and others don’t, there will always be willing participants on both sides of the equation, which means there will be unwilling victims on one side or the other of the equation.

What does all this have to do with Bialik and feminists and Weinstein?  The simple reality that how we present ourselves leads others to conclude things about us.  Those conclusions may not be correct, but they aren’t necessarily unreasonable conclusions, either.  This doesn’t justify abuse or harassment, but it can be a contributing factor to it -whether we like to admit that or not.  It isn’t always, but it sometimes can be.  For these reasons taking some time to consider how we present ourselves to others is worthwhile and appropriate.

What do you want people admiring you for – your body or your personality and other attributes?  If you don’t want to be confused with someone who is actively looking for a sexual relationship or encounter, why would you dress like that sort of person?  Bialik simply acknowledges the reality that clothing and appearance help communicate and we are responsible for thinking about the messages we send.  We can’t always be responsible for how those messages are received or acted upon, but we are responsible for thinking about what we are trying to say to the people who see us.  When we use this common sense, we may find that abuse and harassment decline not just in our own personal lives, but in the lives of others around us as men are reminded that women are not simply here for their own personal gratification, but ultimately as partners (Genesis 2:20, 23-25), which is what God intended from the beginning and, in Christ, will re-establish permanently one day.

As Genesis 2 shows, it isn’t ultimately what we wear that is the problem.  It is the sin within all of us.  The sin that takes the good bodies that God created and turns them into objects of shame and fear (Genesis 3:7, 10).  Which is why our efforts to eradicate sexual objectification, harassment, and abuse will fall short.  Not that we shouldn’t try, we just need to realize that the issue is sin, and runs a lot deeper than just retraining people how to speak and act.  Ultimately what Harvey Weinstein and all those like him needs most isn’t public humiliation or jail time or any other arbitrary punishment we might decide to inflict on them.  What they need most is salvation – the same thing every one of us needs.  Something we can’t get or create on our own, we can only accept it on the terms of and in the life and death and resurrection of one God-Man, Jesus.

That’s what our hope is – the transformation of ourselves and creation into the people we know we should be on the inside but are never capable of fully becoming.  Until that time, we need to be careful.  We need to think about the messages we send with our clothing and our behavior and all the other ways we communicate.  We need to work hard to keep ourselves from situations where we might exploit or be exploited.  We need the fig leaves and the animal skins here and now to protect us not just from one another but from ourselves as well.





Safe Space?

October 6, 2017

This morning I attended the mandatory initial training for folks hoping to get a program for the next ten weeks on the local state university public access AM radio station.  Not surprisingly, I was the oldest person there, which is kind of weird after nearly 15 years away from active campus ministry!

I was struck by a poster stuck in the window of the station office, declaring that this office and radio station was a safe space.  That really struck with me.

We hear a lot about safe spaces these days, whether you side with the concept or ridicule it to the secondary issue which is that we have always as human beings sought safe spaces.  But for a long, long time, those safe spaces were connected in one way or the other with the spiritual and religious.  The hunchback crying Sanctuary! in Victor Hugo’s famous novel is but one beautiful example of countless others spanning thousands of years.  God himself designated sanctuary cities for his people in the Old Testament.  Rather than being places of exception to the law, they were places where those accused of major crimes might flee in the hope of being announced innocent by the law and spared the retributive justice otherwise in force.   Even science fiction has availed itself of this concept.  In the questionable cult-classic movie Highlander and the myriad offshoots and sequels, the age-old process of might makes right is hindered only on sacred ground.  Only in a church could an immortal be safe from the predations of other immortals intent on becoming the only one left.

Is a church a safe space?  It isn’t to those who reject God and his mercy, who either embrace only his Law as a means for justification, or reject his Law in rebellion against him.  To the unrepentant the Church is not a safe space because there they will be confronted with their sin and their need for a Savior.  They will not be coddled or swaddled in false affirmations for the sake of niceness.  The Word of God is never safe to those who think they satisfy the demands of God’s Word or to those who reject or ignore repentance.

But the Church is the ultimate and only safe space for those who recognize their shortcomings, who are willing to deal as honestly as possible with the reality that they are broken and ugly inside, and that no matter how hard they try, they can never become the person that even their own moral standards – let alone God’s! – say they should be.  For the broken, the penitent, the hopeless, the Church is the only safe space this side of eternity.  Here they will hear about the love of God manifest in history and geography and culture in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  Here they will hear about how the innocent sacrifice of the God-Man makes forgiveness and grace available to them here and now.  Here they will hear that there is no sin that cannot be forgiven, cannot be washed clean if they are repentant and receive the death and resurrection of Jesus as their own.  Only in the Church is the means and assurance of salvation objective and changeless.  Only in the Church will God’s Word stand consistent and clear, not shifting with the tides of culture and preference.  Only the Church can announce and deliver the only true safety in this world – safety in the love and forgiveness and the hope and life promised to us in the Word of God and made palpable in his Sacraments.

Can a radio station be a safe space?  I can applaud the goal.  But I don’t think it can.  This particular station prides itself on being alternative.  But the very definition of alternative shifts and changes over time.  Sign on to a major record label after sweating blood in small venues for years?  Sorry, you’re no longer alternative enough (the station’s definition, not mine).  I can only imagine the number of groups over the past few decades that started out sufficient alternative and anti-establishment, but with the passage of time have been judged outdated or even mainstream.

We’ve already seen in other arenas how those that start out as part of a unified front can be cast off for not being alternative enough.  It’s all well and good to support women’s rights, for instance, but if you happen to also support Trump, you might no longer be welcomed, as Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama both stated in the past few weeks.   What is considered alternative or edgy or counter-cultural is prone to shift as culture itself shifts and changes.  Someone who might be championed today might be left in the dust tomorrow if it’s discovered that they somehow disagreed with others in the alternative realm about something or other.  Like any clique, loyalty and membership can be fickle, and the line between being edgy enough and too edgy can be difficult to discern.

The safety that the radio station office can offer is pretty limited.  Walk out the doors and you’re once again confronted by a big, bad world that doesn’t necessarily care about your feelings or your ideas or your aspirations.  It doesn’t care that you’re hip and edgy and cool, and will be happy to squash you or not.  The variables are myriad and uncontrollable.  You might be safe in the confines of the radio station office, but that safety disappears at the doorway, and even the safety offered within is transitory and solely at the discretion of the university administration or other Powers-That-Be.

The safety the Church offers doesn’t end at the door.  It’s not dependent on being surrounded by other people who think and act the same way you do.  It doesn’t require everyone else to set aside their perspectives in order for yours to be heard and respected.  The safety offered by the Church is the only real safety to be had in this world.  Nestled in the arms of the God who created us and loves us and is committed to making us holy and perfect.  A safety that isn’t dependent on being successful on the world’s terms or raging successfully (or unsuccessfully) against the machine.  A safety that acknowledges the inherent danger in every moment of our lives, from the unpredictable and uncontrollable world around us to the hatred of our immortal enemy, Satan.

It’s a safety not couched in the acceptance of the world but rather a looking forward to a world that is yet to be but is already starting to break into reality here and now by the grace of God.  A safety that is based not in ourselves but rather in the promises of the God who made us and died for us and works towards our perfection here and now and in eternity.

A radio station can be a lot of things to a lot of people.  But there can only ever be one truly safe space in this world, the space that the Son of God created through his disciples, and against which He promised the gates of hell would never prevail.  I’ll keep broadcasting that message as long as I can, whether I get a slot in the university radio station line-up or not.





Blaming God

October 5, 2017

Here’s a good post on the inevitable efforts of some Christians to explain why God would allow – or even actively cause – terrible things like the Las Vegas shooting.

This is nothing new – for Pat Robertson or for any number of other well-intentioned Christians who want to make sure that people are doing the right thing and repenting and changing their hearts.  As such, catastrophes are an opportunity to preach the vengeance and anger of God against sin.  Those catastrophes may be national or personal in scale, but it’s the same basic sermon.

Now this is a thoroughly Biblical sermon, to be sure.  There are plenty of places in Scripture where God discloses what He’s going to do and why He’s going to do it.  It isn’t that God can’t and won’t work through world events to draw people to repentance.  The problem is that the only time we can really know that this is what is going on is when He tells us.  If He doesn’t explicitly tell us, then we can’t explicitly claim that God caused or allowed such-and-such to happen for such-and-such a reason.  At least not in anything more than the vaguest of language.  God always desires that we should repent and draw near to his forgiveness and grace.  So at that level, I can explain my breakfast bagel and tea this morning in those terms.  Or my sleep during the night.  Or that bout of gas I had yesterday.

God is God and we are not.  This irks us and frustrates us and frightens us, but that’s the reality.  We are not going to have a perfect understanding of what God is going to do and why He is going to do it.  I’d tend to listen to Pat Robertson and other people’s explanations of these things more seriously if they were explaining it before it happened.  You know, like the prophets.  When God wanted people to connect the dots, He connected them for them.  Before, during, and afterwards.  To pop up on TV after the fact and declare God’s will and purpose in a particular event is not very convincing or compelling.  It shouldn’t be to those who don’t know God already, and it shouldn’t be for those who do.