Thinking Out Loud

November 14, 2014

Skepticism of Another Kind

So yesterday there were four of us, all male, in a room; two of whom I had never met before and one I had only met the week prior. He was the one who was holding the letter.

The letter was posted (that’s mailed for Americans) in the UK and urgently requested his aid in helping someone in Nigeria claim a $4,000,000 US inheritance. You know the pitch. The type of letter you get as an email perhaps as much as once a day.

Only this guy doesn’t have email. So they tracked down a mailing address for him. It was reminiscent of chain letters. He had never seen anything like this. Imagine never owning a computer and being unaware of the barrage of appeals that are sent out using this same scam.

“They should teach skepticism as a school subject;” I said; but then immediately regretted my choice of words. I thought of the various skeptic clubs and societies which scratch at the door of Christian faith; the people for whom doubting is a default response. Did I want to encourage more of that?

trust1We speak of healthy skepticism, but that implies an unhealthy counterpart. There is after all, a place for trust. I’m glad I never was required to do that team-building exercise where you lean backwards off a chair or table and trust your friends or coworkers to catch you. I don’t think I could commit fully.

“Don’t you trust us?” they would ask; and I would reply, “No, I don’t.”

There is also a place for faith.

If a constant stream of email solicitations leave you simply unwilling to trust, commit, or put faith in anything — let’s say anything other than yourself — you are to be pitied because it implies you can’t find anything good or trustworthy in the larger world.

The next action we take with our scam mail is to press the delete button, and at the urging of a 5th person who waded into the conversation, the letter’s recipient was told to shred it — the physical equivalent — and minutes later the sound of an office shredder was exactly what was heard.

I guess my proposed skepticism class would ultimate teach that it’s all about what you put your faith in. Knowing how to discern truth from lies. And knowing that sometimes it is indeed difficult to tell the difference.

 

October 27, 2014

Central Theme: The Cross

One of my strong beliefs is that instead of shutting down for the weekend, perhaps some blogs and websites should ramp it up a bit. For many people, the days off work are lonely and depressing. For several months awhile ago I actually ran extra posts on the weekend.

This week we ran what I thought was a fairly solid series of posts on Friday (parenting kids in the internet age), Saturday (a massive blogroll), and Sunday (one busy family’s activity log). But the rush to do all that left me crashing in terms of what to run on Monday morning. As I went through the archives, I found what you see below. When all the newsy stories, scandals, book releases, church statistics and leadership advice is done and dispensed with, this is what matters:

“I must die or get somebody to die for me. If the Bible doesn’t teach that it doesn’t teach anything.” ~ Dwight L. Moody
“The heaviest end of the cross lies ever on his shoulders. If he bids us carry a burden he carries it also.” ~ Charles Spurgeon
“Jesus now has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His cross.” ~ Thomas a Kempis
“In many respects I find an unresurrected Jesus easier to accept. Easter makes him dangerous. Because of Easter, I have to listen to his extravagant claims and can no longer pick and choose from his sayings. Moreover, Easter means he must be loose out there somewhere.” ~ Philip Yancey
“God proved his love on the cross. When Christ hung, bled and died it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.’” ~ Billy Graham

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.

January 1, 2014

Happy 2014 !

Filed under: Faith, Humor — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:25 am
Bruxy Cavey:

“We treat faith in our culture much like a painting that you hang on the wall. It’s something you go and look at. Look at my faith. Faith is a beautiful thing. But biblically faith is a connecting concept to connect you with something else. It’s not an end point destination that you stare at but it’s something you stare through. In other words, faith is more like a window that you install in a wall, not a painting you hang on a wall. It is something designed to help you see through the wall or whatever barrier is there to see … the outside of your particular world.” ~Bruxy Cavey, author of The End of Religion and Teaching Pastor of The Meeting House, a sixteen-site church in Ontario, Canada from the series Get Over Yourself, part six, December 13, 2009


“Do you know the people at #47?”
“Yeah, their kids play soccer on the teams my brother’s kids play on.”
“Have you ever talked to them?”
“Once or twice; they kinda keep to themselves.”
“Did you know they were Christians?”
“I know they go off to church every Sunday.”
“Ever ask them about it?”
“Yeah, one time; I said, ‘I see you go to church on Sundays.’”
“Did they tell you they were Christians?”
“They said they were Calvinists.”

August 6, 2013

The Holy Catholic Church

“…I believe…in the holy catholic church…”

…Wait a minute, the what?

Those words in the Apostles Creed have been a tripping point for both young and old Evangelicals. We even made a last minute modification in our worship slides on Sunday to avoid the terminology. At the blog Internet Monk, in a classic Michael Spencer re-post from 2006, we’re reminded that many Baptists solve the problem by simply dropping the creed altogether.

The article is lengthy, and I know some of you won’t wade through it. But if you desire, especially if you’ve always wondered about that phrase, the link is here. For the record, “catholic” in this sense means “universal.”

Here’s how the article wraps up:

…We need a generous catholicity.” Not a competition where the winner plays the role of the brat, but a humble and sincere attempt to see Christ in his church, and not just in ours. It will not hurt us to say that Christ’s church is larger than our own, or to act like it.

  • We differ on Baptism. Can we agree that Baptism belongs to Christ, and is not dispensed by the church?
  • We differ on matters such as “eternal security” and speaking in tongues. Can we agree that the Holy Spirit manifests himself in his church according to his good pleasure, and not only within the bounds of our preferences (or nice theological conclusions?)
  • We differ on church government. Can we agree that Christ is the head of the church?
  • We differ on how we profess our faith. Can we agree that we receive a brother in Jesus name’ and not our own?
  • We differ on the Lord’s Table. Can we agree that all of us read the same texts with the same passion to be connected to Christ through that table, and that even if we cannot share it together, we can agree that it is our table, and the table where our elder brother seats us all in places of honor?

We differ on much and always will. Can we agree that we are all…all of us…the church catholic? The one, holy, apostolic, blood-bought, inheritance of Jesus? That we are all the fruit of his incarnation and suffering, and that our divisions do not divide Christ (I Corinthians 1:13), but only ourselves from our family?

Looking for an alternative? You could do a lot worse than this one, which I found at this site.

We believe in Jesus Christ the Lord,

* Who was promised to the people of Israel,
* Who came in flesh to dwell among us,
* Who announced the coming of the rule of God,
* Who gathered disciples and taught them,
* Who died on the cross to free us from sin,
* Who rose from the dead to give us life and hope,
* Who reigns in heaven at the right hand of God,
* Who comes to Judge and bring justice to victory.

We believe in God His Father,

* Who raised Him from the dead,
* Who created and sustains the universe,
* Who acts to deliver His people in times of need,
* Who desires all men everywhere to be saved,
* Who rules over the destinies of men and nations,
* Who continues to love men even when they reject Him.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

* Who is the form of God present in the church,
* Who moves men to faith and obedience,
* Who is the guarantee of our deliverance,
* Who leads us to find God’s will in the Word,
* Who assists those whom He renews in prayer,
* Who guides us in discernment,
* Who impels us to act together.

We believe God has made us His people,

* To invite others to follow Christ,
* To encourage one another to deeper commitment,
* To proclaim forgiveness of sins and hope,
* To reconcile men to God through word and deed,
* To bear witness to the power of love over hate,
* To proclaim Jesus the Lord over all,
* To meet the daily tasks of life with purpose,
* To suffer joyfully for the cause of right,
* To the ends of the earth,
* To the end of the age,
* To the praise of His glory.

Amen.

This item first appeared here in August 2010

July 16, 2013

Bad News / Good News for American Evangelicals

If it bleeds it leads.

So goes the adage among newspaper and television reporters when constructing the front page or the evening newscast. We tend to become more engaged by bad news stories, and for statisticians who manufacture and sell reports on everything from the consumption of soup or soap or the latest revelations of sexual trends among youth, shock sells.

The Great Evangelical RecessionThe book The Great Evangelical Recession (Baker Books, January 2013) by reporter-turned-pastor John S. Dickerson is this type of shocker. Forget the thrillers in the Christian bookstore fiction section, this book is far scarier.  The full title is The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors that will Crash the American Church…and How to Prepare. The book describes the challenges that the Evangelical church faces over the next few years. It’s a message that Canadians have been hearing recently through the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Hemorrhaging Faith report, which I covered in this article; and Americans made aware of via a recent Pew Research Forum report which I discussed here.

The book is arranged in twelve chapters, six deal with isolating the particular urgent challenges faced by Evangelicals, and six offer hope and direction, but offered in the shadow of that same urgency.

Of the six issues there are two that I gravitated to in reading the book this weekend. The first has to do with the longstanding suspicion among many that the number of Evangelicals in the United States is grossly inflated. The author, no stranger to interpreting statistics — is more comfortable pegging the numbers at 7% or 22 million. Toward the end he states that while these numbers will be disappointing to some, there is a lot that may be accomplished by 22 million people.

The second issue concerns the financial health of churches and parachurch organizations. With each successive generation, people are becoming more stingy. Worse for local churches, is the tendency among the younger generations to prefer supporting parachurch ministries over local assemblies.

We often tie the drop in giving to the drop in the economy. But a larger undercurrent is also at play. The generation that gives almost half of total donations began passing away about three years ago. Nearly one thousand of them are called home every day. Their funerals and memorials are quietly held every morning, afternoon and evening in rural churches and metropolitan chapels across the country. Nobody seems to be noticing.

Over the next twelve years, this faithful and reliable generation will pass away. As they do, total giving will decrease by as much as half for typical evangelical ministries — nationally, regionally and locally. (p.82)

More specifically,

The older generation accounts for only 19 percent of our national church, but they give 46 percent of our donations. A combining of figures reveals that approximately 361,000 of these most generous Americans die every year, or 969 per day.  (p. 91)

And

Some optimists reason that as the younger generations age, they will become more generous. And certainly, some of them will. However, the Purdue study compares how today’s older folks gave when they were younger folks. It tells us that a 75-year-old giver today was, at age 35, far more generous than his 35-year-old counterpart today. (p. 93)

Perhaps it’s wrong on me to focus on the ‘money chapter’ especially in view of chapters that deal with the erosion of belief that accompanies the drop in church attendance. But in a book that takes its title from an economic event — recession — it seemed an appropriate section of the book to serve as example of what it is the church is facing in the long term unless some of these situations turn around.

Bradley Wright’s unofficial counterpoint to unChristian, titled Christians are Hate Filled Hypocrites, reviewed here, still must have dealt with enough potential negatives that his follow up had the more buoyant title Upside, reviewed here.  In John Dickerson’s case, the half empty glass and the half full glass are presented in a single volume. In a way, the first part of the book grabs us more, the frightful news story does indeed command the front page. But the second half — each chapter a response to the conditions described in the first — while more familiar to us, preach against a background of statistics that give their prescriptive advice much greater meaning.  Of those, I found the chapter on pursuing unity across denominational lines one of the most powerful.

The Great Evangelical Recession released in January in paperback at $14.99 US and is available from a Christian bookstore near you. Though the book deals exclusively with U.S. stats, I believe Canadians would benefit greatly from reading it as well. A review copy was provided by David C. Cook, Canada.

  • Watch a 6-minute interview with the author at Fox News

October 13, 2012

Weekend Link List

What you’re looking at is the actual default font size for this blog’s text.

I chose “Silver is the New Grey” as the theme for this blog because of the wide column but noticed immediately that the font size was too small for some readers. So… for the past 4 1/2 years, I’ve been taking 10-15 seconds before posting to manually insert the HTML tag <big> in front of each paragraph. It has given this blog it’s distinctive look and style.

However, a problem has arisen this week, and the HTML tag for enlarging the typeface won’t ‘stick.’  I’ve investigated some different themes, but because the entire history here is encoded for larger type, the end results end up looking HUGE.  Since this blog has operated for nearly five years on a capital outlay of $0.00, I’m reluctant to get a custom theme, but I am also reluctant to walk away from all the existing content.  So suggestions are welcomed.

  • On Sunday, Cross Point Church (Pete Wilson) hosted Bob Goff, the author of Love Does.  For the few minutes I watched it was absolutely amazing; a killer sermon. Here’s a link for it [wrong message is currently playing], and also a ten minute Q&A that was filmed for the Cross Point internet campus.  [Cross Point has a history of ‘losing’ sermon videos when they have guest speakers; they lost the Jon Acuff week entirely. So if they get it working we’ll add the link.]
  • No blogger — not one — does a consistent job of narration like author Karen Spears Zacharias, as seen in this story.
  • Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk proposes some rather interesting parallels between worship and sex.
  • More than one in twenty atheists and agnostics pray every day
  • In a world of online addiction where sexual ethics have been shattered, some resources to help face the problem.
  • An outraged pastor suggests that sending out or posting your ultrasound pictures is completely inappropriate.
  • The Very Worst Missionary is now back in the U.S. operating as The Very Worst Pastor’s Wife. (Catch her  as a guest today on Drew Marshall — see link under radio at right.)
  • Here’s another short film from Moving Works a Film-making ministry: Father of the Fatherless.
  • Well, here’s hoping you can read this in one font size or another…

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

July 5, 2012

The Paganization of Daniel Surrey: A Short Story

Ten years ago a fresh wave of new authors and speakers breezed through the Evangelical landscape. With the seeker-sensitive initiative now entrenched for two decades, the discussions about how to do church accelerated, along with a renewed look at what exactly constitutes a church.

Emerging, Emergent, Missional, Post-modern; words that might have been foreign-sounding in the ’90s became part of the broader discussion in the new century, and the movement was not just a crusade of words; there were changed lives to back up the new approach.

None of this was lost on Daniel Surrey. With just enough counter-cultural DNA to resonate with the new movement, Surrey was a deep thinker whose relationship with his conservative church had possibly always been fragile. While the new breed of writers and communicators may have been missed by those part of the Evangelical status quo, Surrey jumped in with both feet; attending the conferences, buying the books and downloading the audio teachings.

To know his past, it was quite a change. Daniel and his wife Bonnie had raised five children in the Sunday School, midweek kids ministry programs and finally the youth groups of their groups. They had been bus captains, ran the car washes and been chaperones on the junior high winter ski trip. Bonnie was part of the women’s ministry and Daniel had served two years on the church board and was a relief teacher for the largest adult Bible study class. You don’t do all that and then expect to simply go off the grid and drop off the radar.

Their church attendance record suddenly plummeted as they took in house church meetings, alternative worship events, and even did the backyard “we can worship God better in nature” thing during the summer months. As the fresh look at ecclesiology gained traction, it became increasingly easier to find people of like mind. They finally wrote a letter to the Evangelical church in which they had invested a quarter of a century and half their lives, and requested their names be removed from the membership rolls.

Since part of the missional ethos involves being incarnational, they quickly joined a number of community groups involving everything from woodworking to organic gardening to roots music. But their greatest personal investment was in the area of social justice projects. Anything that reached out to the marginalized was fair game, and they gave countless hours of their time to just about every charitable project going.

One particular project particularly energized them, to the point where Daniel eventually took on a leadership role. The housing projects in the south end, next to the coal-fired power plant were home to people who had no aspirations for living elsewhere. Abuse, addiction and chronic unemployment gave way to various types of health and financial problems, and also left the people in those projects as prey for unscrupulous landlords.

While the south end projects outreach had its beginnings with Christian people and church support; with Bonnie’s constant encouragement, Daniel was determined to expand the scope of the project, to the point where partnerships were formed with individuals and agencies from the broader community.

Soon, the work began to downplay its Christian origins and intentions.

With each passing day, something changed in Daniel Surrey. He met a lot of good people waging this battle for social justice, because when you’re giving help to people who are poor or disadvantaged, the people who tend to join in that fight are indeed good people. They are good because they are created in God’s image, and they reflect that nature in their desire to spread compassion and care.

Their beliefs, however, take a variety of forms. One can still serve in this type of environment, but it’s also true that a house is known by the company it keeps, and before too long, Daniel was being influenced more than he was influencing. His personal belief system at this point was more the product of syncretism than any one particular systematic theology. He had been absorbed into another world.

Which is where I last saw him, through a broadcast on the local community access television channel. He and Bonnie were there at the dedication of a new triplex to house three families, and several representatives of aboriginal spirituality were banging drums and passing some kind of large pipe, while a New Age Shaman conferred words meant to impart some measure of financial blessing and fertility — he mentioned fertility ten times even though all three families had children — to the homes’ new occupants.

And then they all shared a vegetarian potluck meal which centered around deep fried cauliflower, which may have offered some theoretical health benefits in its conception, but those benefits had been diminished by the degree of breading and deep frying. But before they ate, they paused for “a word of thanks” and Daniel Surrey, the former Evangelical Church board member began his “prayer” with an address to “the great spirit of the earth and sky and sun and moon,” at which point I completely tuned out whatever words folllowed.

And I listened to the drumming and watched the passing of the smoking pipe and thought, ‘The secularization of Daniel Surrey is now complete.’

The cable television reporter then did an interview with Daniel, where he talked about the amazing things that can happen when people lift themselves out of their own pain and peril and circumstances by self-will and determination, and my mouth formed the words, ‘You’ve come a long way, Daniel Surrey. A long way.’

May 25, 2012

Rachel Held Evans’ Monkey Town

I know it’s generally uncool for a blogger to review a book that’s two years old, but then again, I actually paid for my copy, so technically this isn’t a review review; whatever that means. I was more overcome with curiosity, having become a regular reader of Rachel’s blog.

Sometimes a great blogger does not a great book author make, but in this case — sorry, Rachel if this seems uncomplimentary — the book was far better than what I’m accustomed to reading each day in blogland. The thing that struck me was that the book was so readable; the first hundred pages flew by in a single sitting.

Rachel Held Evans’ title refers to growing up in the town that was the venue for the Scopes Monkey Trial, the trail concerning the teaching of evolution and creation in public schools that some Christians see as having been as pivotal as Roe v Wade. I’d love to say that it ends there, that Rachel isn’t personally a proponent of some kind of theistic evolution, but in fact, this is one of the issues she deals with.

And Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All The Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (Zondervan, paperback, June 2010) is definitely about raising the tough questions and allowing doubts to nurture somewhat without ending with a total abandonment of either God or some of the primary fundamentals of the conservative faith in which she was raised.  To that end, this is a book that will appeal to readers of authors like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren.

It’s also a ‘growing up Christian’ type of memoir, and as Rachel herself admits, to do something of that nature while still in one’s twenties, is a bit of daunting task. This book will certainly resonate with anyone in Rachel’s demographic, or who identifies with postmodern culture.

While the book is edgy, it didn’t stir up the hornets’ nest that her next book — A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband Master — is bound to when it releases in late October. (See an article on this subject here at TOL.)

In the meantime, you’ve got Rachel’s blog to enjoy if you’re looking for more.

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