Thinking Out Loud

June 26, 2014

“That’s So Typical of Christians…”

I Like Your Christ - Gandhi

  • “I know what Dutch people are like”
  • “I know what left-handed people are like”
  • “I know what red-haired people are like”
  • “I know what people from Arkansas are like”
  • “I know what French people are like”
  • “I know what lawyers are like”
  • “I know what landlords are like”

No, you don’t; you know a few, not all.

  • “I know what Christians are like”

No, you don’t; you know a few, not all.

We are a community of the broken. We are fallen. We are flawed. So naturally you are going to see us at our worst as well as sometimes at our best. You’re going to see us not living up to the standard we should. You’re going to see us when we’re “moving toward the cross” and when we’re “moving away from the cross.”

Ideally, we are people of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness… Ideally, we are people of grace. Ideally, we reflect the character of the Christ we follow. That’s what we call “positional truth.” In terms of “practical truth,” we miss the mark, often by inches; often by miles. Just as suddenly, we sometimes get it right.

But we’re also not all the same. We have good days and bad days. We have people among us who are a real embarrassment to us, and people who truly model the life of Jesus in everything they do.

We are a community of faith. You don’t have to be “pure” to get in. You don’t have to “clean up real good” to join. It’s a “come as you are” party. And people do.

There’s no status, no seniority, no gender, no ethnicity; nobody can claim “spiritual dominance,” or “spiritual oneupsmanship” over any of the others. It’s as long and wide and deep as any cross-section of the broader society.

In fact, there’s no generic portrait of a Christ-follower that captures us all. There’s no homogeneity. There’s no ‘Mecca’ to which we must travel. No rites or rituals in which we must participate. No prescribed term of missions service we must all complete. No earthly head who speaks for all of us. No secret mantra we all recite.

There is respect for elders, yet sometimes “a little child will lead them,” and truths are spoken “out of the mouths of babes.” Younger brothers — even youngest brothers — are sometimes served by older brothers. Newcomers can make as viable a contribution as seasoned veterans. The next generation is free to reinvent the wheel. The generation after that is free to rediscover the ancient practices and classic disciplines.

It’s an upsidedown kingdom. An insideout kingdom. It’s a family. It’s “two or three gathered together” in a living room Bible study; it’s a multitude of people on a grassy hillside listening to a summer conference speaker. It’s elegant cathedrals and small country chapels. It’s quietness and solitude. It’s the making of a joyful noise with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

There’s the doctrine — what is believed. There’s the ethics — how that belief is lived out. There’s the experience — what happens to us when we believe the orthodoxy and live out the orthopraxy. There’s the ‘macro,’ big picture version of Christ-following; and there are people focused on the ‘micro’ issues, or a number of individual ‘micros.’

There are those who have locked in for life. There are those who will leave and then return. There are those who will drift away. There are those who will look in, but as one looking through a window from the outside.

Some will give tirelessly to this — in every waking hour. Some attend services at Christmas and Easter. Some give substantial parts of their income. Some give the minimum required to stay on a membership list. Some grew up with this faith. Others came as adults. Some nurture their children in their beliefs. Others feel their kids need to choose, to ‘take ownership’ of their concepts about God.

Personalities are factored in: While one person may be demonstrative about their faith, another might be reticent about their personal beliefs. Whereas one person might be given to an emotional, relational kind of worship; another might prefer a formal liturgy, a quiet, controlled worship environment.

So…

…do you still think you know what Christians are like?

I’m part of this, and I don’t. I just know that I’ve joined myself to a company of people who are trying to live a new life in a new way; a group of people who I otherwise would have nothing in common with.

Now, we have everything in common.

June 1, 2014

Should Christians Celebrate Birthdays?

Instead of including occasional devotional or teaching articles, as I once did when this blog started, I started Christianity 201 to force myself to either write or find something every day that involves Bible study or devotional material. A couple of days ago, I used the occasion of my birthday to discuss an issue which has come up a few times in the last few months.  Since we’re still busy sheep-sitting — we don’t actually watch the flock by night, though — I thought I’d include this here…

Over the last twelve months I have had discussions with two people who feel very strongly that we’re not to celebrate birthdays. There are some Christian groups that teach this, and membership in their group is dependent on agreeing to cease celebration of wedding anniversaries, birthdays and holidays. Much of this is based on a passage in Galatians:

8 Before you Gentiles knew God, you were slaves to so-called gods that do not even exist. 9 So now that you know God (or should I say, now that God knows you), why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world? 10 You are trying to earn favor with God by observing certain days or months or seasons or years. 11 I fear for you. Perhaps all my hard work with you was for nothing.
NLT – emphasis added

Two things are evident here:

  • Paul sees the keeping of special days — and it’s the Old Covenant feast days he has partly in view — as going back or reverting to a series of rituals they had been freed from.
  • The Galatians were doing this to try to please God. They were adding to what Christ’s death and resurrection had made no longer necessary. They were wanting the structure of religion with it’s dos and don’ts.
  • Others of Paul’s converts may have come from pagan religions which each had their own feast days. Old habits die hard. Imagine if you had a family tradition that had been practiced for generations that was suddenly stripped away. These pagan feasts day were incompatible with Christian faith and could not be retained in a Christ-following life.

Happy BirthdayBut clearly, Paul is not speaking of wishing someone a happy birthday. In celebrating my birthday, I trust that my family had these aims:

  • I’m not being venerated. Their purpose isn’t sacred. Their actions are not sacramental. Some people argue that we can’t separate life into the sacred and the secular, but some things we do are merely perfunctory, like getting dressed, brushing our teeth, checking the mail, etc. A birthday serves no spiritual purpose.
  • Recognizing and celebrating the encouragement that someone’s life brings you is scriptural. Over and over we are told to encourage one another, to build one another up. A sincere expression of thanks and appreciation — personal, not what the greeting card writer came up with — should really be an everyday occurrence, not a yearly thing; but we we do need prompting to do this.
  • We are reminded of the passing of time. Our lives are “but a breath;” we are “here today and gone tomorrow.” We live sometimes in the “myth of continuity;” believing that things will always be as they are, but in fact, age will eventually catch up with us, it will happen quickly or when we are not looking. It’s good to be reminded of the fragility of life. That may seem to make a birthday bittersweet, but as you get older, it really is.
  • It’s not wrong to buy people things. We are to be good stewards of the resources that God gave us. Going to a dollar store to buy something that will be broken a week later is not wise stewardship. (Perhaps the earth’s resources should never have been used to manufacture the item in the first place.) But there are things people both need and desire, and having an excuse at least provides a context to nudge someone to acquire something that might be beneficial to their hobbies and interests, but that they might hesitate to purchase for themselves.
  • Children need to identify and celebrate friendships. If you can do a birthday party without excluding anyone, and at the same time not incurring great expense, it’s nice for kids to gather their friends around them. You can also do a party where instead of gifts, people make a contribution to a charity of the child’s choice. (Try Compassion International, Partners International, Christian Blind Mission, etc.)

Some of the same people also do not believe in celebrating Christmas or Easter. While this needs to be the subject of a different discussion, my short answer would be that our family does not celebrate Christmas or Easter, we recognize and stand in awe of incarnation and atonement.

I don’t like birthdays. The thought of another year passing scares me, but only because I realize that there are things I have wanted to accomplish that have not happened, and in fact may not happen. But I don’t want to over-spiritualize this and make it seem that I am being pious or devout by asking my family to skip this year’s birthday observance. We should never let tastes and preferences appear to be deeply spiritual principles.

Including birthdays and anniversaries in the “special days” category Paul is referring to here is to miss the context of the passage, and really amounts to poor Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics).

January 27, 2014

Google Doesn’t Lie, Does It?

This just in: People think Mormons are hot!  But they also think Buddah is fat, which somehow seems politically incorrect.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a former writer for Christianity Today who now lends her talents to Religion News Service. As a religion writer you’d think she’d know better than to play the Google game; the one where you type in a key word to see how Google auto-completes it. Or would she? Perhaps she trusts her reporter’s instincts that Google doesn’t lie, and that the commonly asked search criteria reflect both the perception and the reality of how religious groups are viewed.  So here’s what she posted on Twitter last night:

Why is…

Christianity: important?
Islam: so strict?
Hinduism: polytheistic?
Buddhism: important?
Catholicism: important?
Mainline Protestantism: declining?
Evangelicalism: on the rise?
Pentecostalism: so popular?
Jesus: white?
Muhammad: called the seal of the prophets?
Hare Krisha: a cult?
Buddha: fat?

Why are…

Baptists: in the south?
Methodists: liberal?
Presbyterians: called the frozen chosen?
Episcopalians: rich?
Evangelicals: turning Catholic?
Atheists: so angry?
Jehovah’s Witnesses: so nice?
Mormons: so hot?

Evangelicals are turning Catholic? That’s news to me. Unfortunately for you, what follows is merely a screenshot, you’ll have to do the search yourself. I did both the regular web search, and a separate one using Google Blog Search. And finally, I’m ashamed to say, I did a Google Images search for “hot Mormons” and “hot Mormon.”

I don’t want to talk about it.

Why Are Evangelicals Turning Catholic

March 22, 2013

Anglicans Install, if you will, Their Pope

“I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God, to travel with you in his service together.”

~ The Most Rev. Justin Welby
from the ceremony at Canterbury Cathedral
as reported at Religion News Service (RNS)

We have an Archbishop.

It didn’t garner nearly as much television time worldwide as last week’s coverage of the new Roman Catholic Pope. Not even close. But yesterday the worldwide Anglican communion installed their new leader Justin Welby, who has chosen the name Justin Welby. He is the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Christian Post wasted no time delving into what someone recently called “the pelvic issues” raising the g-word within the first paragraph of the story, and no, g in this case does not stand for God. Of course, some argue neither does the Anglican Church or its American Episcopal counterpart.

To many, this issue is the face of Christianity. No wonder the church is dwindling numerically.

Timing is everything, and this event occurred in the shadow of last week’s Papal election and miraculously Pope Francis’ name surfaced in this story. “Pope Francis, the newly elected leader of the Roman Catholic Church, sent his well wishes to Welby, expressing his hopes that they can maintain good relations.”

It’s probably the closest thing to anything “religious” the story had to offer.

Meanwhile, an Associated Press story mentioned the honored guests, what Welby wore and something about the choir that sang, but the story was equally dominated by the homosexual backdrop to the denomination’s continuing journey.

Can anyone provide a balanced look at what happened yesterday?

Yes, Religion News Service (RNS) strikes a balance between the pageantry of yesterday’s installation service, the relationship between the church of England and the government of England, and the gender issues the new leader will face. If you only click one link here, click that one. 

 

February 19, 2013

Ben Witherington’s Seven Papal Suggestions

I considered this for the link list, but decided it was truly worth a re-blog. You can read it at source at Ben Witherington III’s blog Bible and Culture.  (If you want your comment to be seen by the author, leave it at the source blog, not here.)

I was caught totally off guard. When was the last time a Pope stopped poping while still wearing his Papal slippers? The answer is almost six hundred years ago. No wonder I didn’t realize this could even happen. On further review, shock turned to understanding. A Pope who was PUP (physically unable to perform the job) decided it was time to step down, and hopefully let younger healthier folks do the job. One of the great problems of course with electing Popes is that it has tended to be based on seniority and experience. And this in turn means that old folks who already have their AARP status become Popes. But frankly the job of Pope is too demanding even just physically for almost any 75-85 year old person, and it became so for Pope Benedict.

Benedict, as we now know, had had a pacemaker inserted into his heart recently. He was tired, worn out. I am not referring to world-weariness or even the weariness that comes from fighting things like the scandal of pederasty again and again in the church. I have no say whatsoever over who should be the next Pope, but if I did here is what I would use as criteria:

1) Pick someone over 50 but under 65 for a change. We need a younger person with fresh ideas not to mention someone in the peak of physical health.

2) If you can find someone who is as good and critical a thinker and theolog as Pope Benedict, by all means pick that person;

3) Pick someone who is not so wed to Catholic traditions that have not been part of ex cathedra pronouncements that he would tend to avoid some serious changes— like for example the option of a priest to be married if he did not have the gift of celibacy. This in itself would probably reduce the danger of pederasty considerably.

4) Pick someone who is prepared to continue the ecumenical discussions with Evangelical Protestants, working towards more concordats on faith and praxis.

5) Pick someone who is prepared to continue the process of weeding out superstitious practices and inessential ideas. For example, the recent dropping of the expectation that a good Catholic ought to believe in limbo is a good thing. In short, a more Biblically focused faith, and one less steeped in traditions that do not comport with the Bible (for example Jesus’ descent to the dead) would be a welcome development.

6) Pick a Pope more concerned with protecting his sheep than his shepherds when crisis arises, especially when the crisis is caused by the behavior of the shepherds themselves. Continue to set up accountability structures to protect the young, the innocent, the naive, the poor, and so on.

7) Pick a Pope from somewhere other than Europe. It would be nice to have a North American one for once, considering that English both on the Internet and off of it is the lingua franca of an increasingly global community, society, market.

September 25, 2012

A Response to the COEXIST Poster

source: Stand to Reason (STR) Blog

UPDATE (Dec. 4, 2012) As noted in a comment below, if you want to know more about the origin of this graphic visit contradictmovement.org

September 10, 2012

Learning More About Other Faiths

For Christian publishers, any kind of reference book can be a tough sell, and the sub-category of “world religions” isn’t likely to produce a chart-topper anytime soon.  So I always appreciate it when authors and publishers go out of their way to produce helpful material in a form that is more accessible to the average person.

Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day (Bethany House paperback) is one such title, and the “15 minutes” in question is probably more like ten minutes for most of us, if that.  For someone like myself — eternally doomed to confuse Hinduism and Buddhism — books that provide a refresher course like this are always needful, and Garry R. Morgan, who teaches missions at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota even provides a bonus “extra minute” with an always interesting sidebar.

The book has 40 chapters and covers 24 distinct religious groups, with five sharing parts of two chapters, and others having multiple chapters.  (Christianity  5; Islam 6; Folk and Aboriginal religions, Buddhism and Hinduism 3 each; Judaism 2.)

Sometimes there are similarities between other faiths and our own.  Here’s a paragraph from the book with parallels added:

…Conservative Judaism leaves to each congregation whether or not they will accept a female rabbi (sounds familiar, my denomination is wrestling with this right now). The person who actually leads the synagogue services, however, is the cantor, or hazzan (in other words, the worship leader or worship team is in charge of the service). Large congregations seek a cantor who not only sings but will also compose original music. Usually the cantor is also responsible for coaching young people in Hebrew as they prepare for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah (in other words he doubles as the youth pastor).   (Okay I stretched that a bit, but not much.) 

Or this paragraph about Islam,

Islamic beliefs and practices are based on the Qur’an, the Sunna and the Haddith. The Quar’an is held to be sacred scripture… Many questions about faith and practice arouse after Muhammad’s death, so Muslims asked those who had known the prophet and were still alive what he said or did in various situations. These were eventually written down and collected into the Sunna (or Sunnah) meaning “Traditions.”  Although not considered a holy book like the Qur’an, in daily life the Sunna is moved more frequently. (Which reminded me of what some view as a concern that although we have the gospels, in many of our churches, the majority of New Testament sermons are based on what Paul wrote, not the words of Jesus.)

The book is also ever dealing with the question of which groups deserve a chapter and which are simply mentioned in the context of a larger body, which bears on the question, what constitutes what the larger group would consider a “cult” and at what point do these subset groups become a religion in their own right. (Or if you want to go for the pun, in their own rite.)

Books like this are tough to write because, while this one will mostly be sold through Christian bookstore and online channels, there is always the possibility (and for the publishers, the hope) that the title will appear on the shelves of mass retailers like Barnes and Noble in the U.S. or Chapters/Indigo in Canada; which means you don’t know that a member of that group won’t flip through a copy to see how they’re represented.

And I wondered if there was something of this behind a sentence that appears early on,

At the publisher’s request, this book intends to be descriptive rather than evaluative or polemic.

so I contacted the author at Northwestern. Garry Morgan was gracious enough to write back:

Garry R. Morgan

…They encouraged me to not hide my own faith, but to just describe what the various religions believe and practice, without an overtly evangelistic “here’s how you share the Gospel with a ….” section.

Even in my World Religions courses at Northwestern College, where all the students are professing Christians, I strive to be fair and accurate in describing the religious beliefs of others (I tell my students my goal is to teach in such a way that a follower of the religion sitting in the classroom would agree with my description, even if they disagreed with my assessment). So, I don’t think the book would have been substantially different without that request. Had I assumed an all-Christian readership, I might have added suggestions for appropriate responses to the various religions (e.g. “You can’t love your Muslim/Hindu/etc. neighbor and fear them at the same time.”). I did find it challenging at times to use vocabulary or phrasing that non-Christians would understand (it’s surprising how ingrown one can become teaching in a Christian environment). I think keeping the potential non-Christian reader in mind helped sharpen my writing.

Certainly the problem of becoming ‘ingrown’ is behind the need for this book. While I learned a lot reading this — including reading some chapters twice — and especially enjoyed the sidebars at the end of each entry, I lamented the absence of a concluding chapter to bookend the very helpful introduction. In a way, Garry Morgan provided the missing element to me in his note, and I offer it here alongside my recommendation of this title:

I do believe the Christian faith is truly unique. I think that comes out in the first chapter on Christianity in the book. My hope is that non-Christian readers would do their own evaluation and come to the same conclusion, and that Christians (who I assume will be the vast majority of readers) would have a resource for better understanding what others believe in today’s increasingly globalized society.

A copy of Understanding World Religions was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Graf-Martin a book promotion and publicity agency that comes alongside publishers and authors to increase visibility for key titles in Canada. 

Quoted sections page 60 and page 69.  The book is 174 pages and retails for $12.99 U.S.

Other books in this series include, Understanding Theology in 15 Minutes a Day and Understanding Your Bible in 15 Minutes a Day both by Daryl Aaron.

September 9, 2012

USAToday Scales Back Religion Coverage

At a time when other media outlets are stepping up coverage of religion-based or religion-influenced stories, USAToday, which led the way in this area for several years, is scaling back. Cathy Lynn Grossman reports at the soon-to-be-discontinued blog, Faith and Reason*:

After four years of spirited conversation… Faith & Reason and its accompanying reader-led Faith & Reason Forum are shutting down.

USA TODAY is celebrating 30 years with a massive redesign of all publishing platforms…

…Several digital subject-area pages, including the online religion page, will vanish as stories are mainstreamed into News. If you read on a smartphone or tablet, you won’t notice any change. But if you read religion coverage at USATODAY.com on your laptop, these stories will be running in News, Nation and Politics, just as they already do in print…

But then this note:

…so many posted at the Faith & Reason Forum it became the most successful forum at USATODAY.com by a mile.

So why end it now?

I have been meaning however, to note here at some point how much the general media pages devoted to religion have been dominated by coverage of Roman Catholic people and events. Perhaps others have noted that as well, and it’s led to this decision. And the CNN Belief blog is often dominated by commentary instead of news, and one particular writer especially. There’s a place where I would have preferred to see the winds of change blow.

Faith and Reason at USAToday was very much appreciated.  Cathy, I tried to leave a comment only to find it had become a Facebook-members-only forum — perhaps that was not such a good idea — and since I’m not sure if you got it, here it is:  I’ve truly appreciated your insights and your perspective, and you’ve alerted me to many news stories I would have missed.  I’ll look forward to seeing your byline in other sections of USAToday.

*obviously this link may not last long

August 4, 2012

Ravi Zacharias Predictions Ring True

I’m currently in the middle of one of those extensive cleanups where you find all sort of things from the past, in this case Connection,  a 14-year old newsletter from Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto.

In the spring of 1998, author, speaker and Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias received an honorary doctorate from Tyndale, and the newsletter summarized his address on the front page:

Five Changes In This Century That Will Change the Future

  • the “God is Dead” movement, begun by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
  • religious pluralism
  • the power to inform through the visual
  • the loss of center for cultural molding
  • the shifting power to a youth culture

Zacharias then suggested that Christians need an apologetic that:

  • is seen and not just heard
  • is felt and not just argued
  • rescues the ends, not only the means

Today, 12 years into that new century we see:

  • the rise of militant atheism and a political correctness devoid of God
  • pluralism and demographics shifts in Western nations that will move to change laws, political structures and education systems
  • the power of screens, visual learning, info graphics; text has been reduced to bullet points or less
  • a fragmentation in media that means culture is shaped by a seemingly infinite number of influences
  • a world where, even in the modern church, 40 can be too old; though overall power hasn’t shifted to the young so much as to those who can think young, especially in their mastery of the new technologies

While we face challenges Ravi didn’t mention — particularly issues of gender and sexual orientation, the European economic tensions, political instability in the middle east — his words to the Christian university audience were certainly prophetic.

Read some of Ravi’s popular quotes here at C201 and learn more about his ministry at RZIM.

July 12, 2012

To My Skeptic Friend

Filed under: Religion — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:38 am

Dear __________,

Here’s an idea.

There’s nothing I can say or do today that will convince you that God exists, that the Bible can be trusted, or that Jesus has a legitimate claim to be God. But humor me for a moment.

All I’m asking today is that you begin with a God-exists hypothesis. Not the Bible. Not Jesus. Just that there is a God, in the more or less traditional way that’s understood.

Now then, ask all your questions, and frame your answers along the lines of the hypothesis. In other words, “Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world?” becomes, “If there is a God, why does he permit so much evil and suffering in the world?”

And so on.

What possible answers might you come up with to your various questions? Maybe some fairly crazy ones!

I’m not saying assume anything or commit to anything. I’m just saying take your toughest questions, your philosophical questions, your metaphysical questions, your ethical questions; and instead of framing them within a vacuum, frame them within the hypothesis.

Oh yeah, one more thing: For 48 hours. Do this for a couple of days, not a couple of minutes.

You might even want to say this — don’t think of it as a prayer, but more as a role play to get you in the right head space — “God, I don’t believe you exist, but for the next couple of days, I want to see how the world adds up if I were to believe you’re really out there.”

Think of this ‘let’s pretend’ game as meeting me halfway.

~Paul

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