Thursday, June 22, 2017

Lose Your Social Media and Gain Your Soul


Thomas Merton wrote: "I am glad to be marginal. The best thing I can do for the "world" is to stay out of it - in so far as one can." (A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals, K 5980-83)

Merton blended solitude and togetherness with people. Being with others can be challenging. Meaningful times in solitude are required to deepen our ability to love and be with others.

Being with ourselves is in ways more challenging than being with others. This is why many cover up their inner life with unceasing busyness. This is why Henri Nouwen referred to solitude as "the furnace of spiritual transformation."

Get alone with God. Be in community. Get alone with God. Be in community. Getting alone with God, habitually, makes us better when we are with others.

Few show us how to be alone with God. (Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation is brilliant on: be in solitude, be in conversation; be in solitude, be in conversation; and so, on and on.) We have not been taught how to be alone. Its value has not been demonstrated to us. Thus, we do not know how to be with others. American culture fails to train us for authentic community. 

How shall we do life together. Both Merton and Nouwen believed that authentic community is a function of aloneness with God. True God-aloneness morphs the heart into a community shape. Authentic community shapes our solitary times with God. And so, on and on, back and forth, there comes a dialectical movement that strengthens both self and community.

I find it encouraging that Merton never watched TV. I cannot say the same. But next week will be a welcome media void, as Linda and I will be at our annual summer conference. Why not try, as an experiment, life without social media, if only for a day, or a week? Merton did it for a lifetime. People traveled from all over the world to sit with him, be with him, and hear from him. And, to watch him listen.

Wisdom is different than information. Many are informed, few are deep and wise. You cannot gain wisdom by googling it. It's a different type than could be captured in a tweet. One needs a lifetime of aloneness with God, followed by community, in the dialectical movement. 

Merton was met by God as he met alone with God in stillness and in silence. This is the kind of Jesus-follower I need in my life; viz., someone who gains their soul by losing their cyberspace.

If this feels threatening, it's only because we are still trying to find our life and place in culture. We fear being left out, and unrecognized. These fears reveal who we really belong to.

You and I belong to a God who loves us so much that any of this world's acclaim is inglorious by comparison. This is a secure place.

This coming week I will spend much time in that secure, secret place, getting alone with God, and then being with others. I'll enter a private space, and then go public.

"All of humanity's problems stem from 
man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

Blaise Pascal
(Thank you B.A.)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Studying the Real Jesus


One of my former philosophy students asked:,"I am curious to understand what you mean when you say "The REAL Jesus." Could you tell me about it?"

Here's how I think about this.
  1. For forty-seven years I have been studying about Jesus of Nazareth. I engage in "historical Jesus" studies. In my PhD program I did a qualifying exam on ancient Christology. I wrote my dissertation on metaphor theory, and New Testament theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg's idea of "resurrection" as a metaphorical way to speak of an historical reality.
  2. As a "Christ-ian" and Jesus-follower, and as one who once cried out to Jesus to rescue me and got rescued, I've devoted my life to knowing about Christ, and knowing Christ.
  3. But the historical Jesus gets buried under the layers of culture. We have, e.g., an "American Jesus." I'm not interested in that, except as it tells me some things about our culture and religion. What little "Christian TV" I've watched in days past contains much misleading stuff on Jesus, like the "Prosperity Gospel Jesus," which, as far as I can tell, is nothing like the Jesus of, e.g., Matthew 25 (and elsewhere).
  4. I am interested in studies like my friend Craig Keener's The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Texts like this peel away layers of cultural accretion to expose the Jesus of history. I have a large stack of books devoted to doing this. For a good mini-book by a great New Testament scholar, see Richard Bauckham's  Jesus: A Very Short Introduction. For a longer read see Bauckham's wonderful, scholarly Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.  
  5. The "Real Jesus" is: 1) the Jesus who walked the earth in the early first century, was crucified, buried in a tomb, and was raised from the dead; and 2) the Messiah ("Christ") who now lives, within and without us.
  6. Strategy: 
    1. Slow cook in and meditate on the four Gospels. Keep a journal on what God says to you as you do this; 
    2. read New Testament scholars on Jesus. Just as anyone wanting to study brain surgery should read texts written by brain surgeons, in studying Jesus one should read the works of New Testament scholars who know the original languages, the socio-rhetorical environment of the time, and the socio-cultural environment of the time; and 
    3. abide in Christ (John 14-15-16), both individually and corporately. That is, live the life Jesus called you to live, as seen in John chapters 14-15-16.
Want to do Real Jesus studies? I suggest the following authors, texts, and websites. (Note: you can ignore Internet Jesus-debunkers who have never engaged in this kind of scholarship.)

This would be good for starters. 

And, of course, read the New Testament for your own self.

  • Begin with the 4 Gospels.
  • Read them as if for the very first time.
  • Take notes.
  • Pay attention.
  • See how and why the Real Jesus was either embraced or despised.
Needed: Old Testament background; Second Temple Judaism background

Scientists Reject Postmodernist Theory

No automatic alt text available.
Some beach on Lake Michigan, in West Michigan

When we were in East Lansing, as campus pastors at Michigan State University, our church was filled with scientists. Over the years I was privileged to do book studies and Bible studies with many of them. The dialogue we had deeply informed and enriched me.

One common thread was their reaction to the postmodern 

"Metaphysically, postmodernism is anti-realist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having  rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality. Having substituted social-linguistic constructs for that reality, postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity, conventionality, and incommensurability of those constructions." (Stephen Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, Kindle Location 292)

We cannot speak about a reality that exists independently of the human mind? No method can give us objective knowledge of that reality? (Especially, for postmodern theorists, the scientific method.) For a scientist this is absurd, since science is the study of objective reality (trees, viruses, planets, global warming, the physical brain, etc. etc.)

Theistic philosopher Dallas said:

"The early church did not get stuck in a Cartesian box. Aristotle thought there were a real world and a real mind that could know it. And that is what disappears. I have watched scientists listen to postmodernists and it is a constant display of thinly veiled disgust.” (Willard, Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard's Teaching on Faith and Formation, Kindle Locations 230-232)

The idea that there is not an objective reality outside of us, and that it can be studied and known, is absurd (even while taking into account how our experience of that reality is socially constructed).

(For an interesting and brave attempt to rescue postmodern ideas, and apply them to a Christian worldview, see James K. A. Smith, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? See esp. Ch. 2, "Nothing Outside the Text? Derrida, Deconstruction, and Scripture.")

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Good Leadership Is a Channel of Water Controlled by God (The Presence-Driven Church)

Squirrel, in my back yard

In the past week at Redeemer three different people felt led by God to do something that would involve our church family. One person was told to host a conference for women, another is to put togethere a mission project to help neeeeedy children, and the other is to facilitate a teaching presentation involving a guest speaker.

Each person shared their idea with me. Each idea sounded like a from-God thing. And each person will be the leader of the vision God gave them.

This is pretty much how things happen at Redeemer. Our people pray. Sometimes God calls them to do something. If it involves our church family, they share it with me. I become one of their support persons, cheering from the sidelines as they lead.

Advantages of doing leadership this way include:
  • the pastor doesn't have to recruit people to do something
  • the people experience God leading them to do something
  • the people grow in leadership
  • the people gain ownership over the God-given vision
This is leadership in a Presence-Driven Church. It is more exciting than top-down, hierarchical leadership. It's healthier, too. We are not striving to make some event happen. It's about hearing from God, and following. Then, watching God produce the results.

We see this in Proverbs 21:1:

Good leadership is a channel of water controlled by God;
he directs it to whatever ends he chooses.
(The Message)

Monday, June 19, 2017

Healing For Damaged Relationships

Image may contain: plant and outdoor
Spider web, in my back yard
Years ago a family came to me for help. The situation was seemingly impossible. The family members had hurt one another badly, and the damage seemed irreparable.

And complicated. A twisted, tangled, thorny mess held this family captive. They had no hope for healing the damaged relationships. This family was fragmented by a series of sinful choices. Some were heard saying, "We will never be a family again."

This is how things often appear from the inside. We've done damage, and been damaged, and nothing can fix us. No amount of money can buy what we need, no material thing can assuage our pain, no substance can cover over the scars.

I remember saying to one of the family members, "It seems there is no way out. That's what the enemy wants you to think. But actually, the way out is simple to understand." It's this.

1. Turn again to Jesus. (Read this, and this,)
2. Be accountable for your own failures. (Read this.)
3. Confess your sins to one another. 
4. Forgive one another. (Read this, or this, or this, or this.)
5. Get additional outside help with the healing process. (In the SE Michigan area go here, or here.)  

The goal is reconciliation and restoration of relationship. With the courage and humility to do 1-5, and with God's help, this family can come together again.

How to Produce Hell on Earth

No automatic alt text available.
Somewhere in Kenya

I rode my bike eight miles this morning. My bicycle is a philosophical machine. It uses my energy and converts it into silent motion. In the silence I feel the encompassing world.

When I ride my bike I notice more. I experience, I sense, things I would otherwise miss. The white cumulus clouds were beautiful this morning against the blue sky. I stopped on my ride and took some photos. At a few points I just stopped, and saw. These stopping points were like rests in a piece of classical music. Without the stops, things tend to blur.

To produce a hell on earth, simply accept the lie that your worth is the same as your busyness. Measure yourself by all that you accomplish, and then get to work and accomplish more so as to be pleasing in the sight of others. Buy into the myth that sound is more valuable than silence. Eliminate the rests from your existence and experience constant noise.

Thomas Merton writes:

"Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filing all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life's leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth." (Through the Year with Thomas Merton, p. 107)

Kill Performancism in Worship ("Oh Magnify My Face With Me")

Store, in Ann Arbor, Kerrytown district

My own belief is that fog machine, stage lighting, click tracking worship are signs of acquiescence to cultural decadence, out of a need to be relevant and cool, and make people happy. With that stroke of my theological brush I paint a broad canvas. I am certain there are exceptions (if, e.g., God says, "Pull out the fog machine for this coming Sunday,"; or God says, "I want this worship song to last exactly 5 minutes, 28 seconds."). But it is instructive to remember that the last thing the First Church (book of Acts) was interested in was being relevant.

This is not a judgment against individual churches. It's the kind of thing Matt Redman did when he got the attention of many of us in his song "Heart of Worship." As a musician myself, I know how easy it is to slip into a performer more than a worshiper. (If you have never read Matt's story behind "Heart of Worship" it's worth reading, as a call away from the Consumer Church.) 

We need new voices to call us to attention when it comes to worship. Jamie Brown echoes the same in "Are We Headed For a Crash? Reflections On the Current State of Evangelical Worship." 

Brown was at the recent National Worship Leader Conference. A common theme there was:

"Performancism. The worship leader as the performer. The congregation as the audience. The sanctuary as the concert hall. It really is a problem. It really is a thing. And we really can’t allow it to become the norm. Worship leaders, we must identify and kill performancism while we can."

That's the point, right? 

Brown suggests we can kill the Entertainment Church by doing the following.
  • Sing songs people know (or can learn easily).
  • Sing them in congregational keys.
  • Sing and celebrate the power, glory, and salvation of God.
  • Serve your congregation.
  • Saturate them with the word of God.
  • Get your face off the big screen (here’s why).
  • Use your original songs in extreme moderation (here’s why).
  • Err on the side of including as many people as possible in what’s going on.
  • Keep the lights up.
  • Stop talking so much.
  • Don’t let loops/lights/visuals become your outlet for creativity at the expense of the centrality of the gospel.
  • Point to Jesus.
  • Don’t draw attention to yourself.
  • Don’t sing songs with bad lyrics or weak theology.
  • Tailor your worship leading, and the songs you pick, to include the largest cross-section of your congregation that you can.
  • Lead pastorally.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Real Love is Nonpossessive (Escaping the Tyranny of Self-Rejection)

Lake Michigan sunset

Henri Nouwen believed the key moment of Jesus' life was the affirmation from the Father at the moment of Jesus' baptism: "This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased."

This was the core of Jesus' identity.

the same is your core identity. You are God's beloved son, or daughter. This comes down to the basic truth that God is love, and God loves you. 

The deep knowing of God's love frees us from a manipulating, false "love" in our relationships. We no longer love out of our own need to be liked and affirmed. We are free to love and give, with no expectation of being loved in return. This is real love. This is the love of God.

Nouwen believed that "friendship becomes a lot more freeing once we recognize the truth that we are deeply loved because then we are released to love others nonpossessively (IVL: 80)." (Will Hernandez, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension, Kindle Locations 823-824)

"Knowing and owning this truth of our belovedness helps us escape the tyranny of self-rejection that plagues many of us," (Ib.)

My recent book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Breathtaking Intellectual Shallowness of Our Culture Is Seen In Its Approval of Abortion

Image may contain: flower, plant and nature
I bought thee roses for Linda

It's 6 PM in Monroe. Tomorrow is Father's Day. I'll be preaching at Redeemer on "Empowering Men for Ministry." In addition, I, and our people, will pray for anyone who would like prayer for physical or emotional healing.

It's hot today, but there is a nice breeze blowing through the tall pine and cottonwood trees in our back yard.

I'm reading Princeton scholar Robert George's brilliant Conscience and Its Enemies. George, who also has taught at Harvard, is a voice of reason in a country of breathtaking intellectual and spiritual shallowness.

He is a Christian theist, as well. I just read this part about abortion. It's worth quoting in its entirety.

"What is centrally and decisively true about human embryos and fetuses is that they are living individuals of the species Homo sapiens—members of the human family—at early stages of their natural development. Each of us was once an embryo, just as each of us was once an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus. Each of us developed from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of our lives, and into adulthood, with his or her distinctness, unity, and identity fully intact. As modern embryology confirms beyond any possibility of doubt, we were never parts of our mothers; we were, from the beginning, complete, self-integrating organisms that developed to maturity by a gradual, gapless, and self-directed process. Our foundational principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being demands that all members of the human family be respected and protected irrespective not only of race, sex, and ethnicity but also of age, size, location, stage of development, and condition of dependency. To exclude anyone from the law’s protection is to treat him unjustly.
And so it seems to me that justice demands our resolute opposition to the killing of human embryos for biomedical research and to elective abortion. If we would do unto others as we would have them do unto us, then we will insist that law and public policy respect the lives of every member of the human family, including those at what the late Paul Ramsey called the edges of life—the unborn, the severely handicapped, the frail, the elderly."

- Kindle Locations 1468-1479

The Question American Culture Is Frightened Of

Image may contain: sky and outdoor
Downtown Monroe

My career teaching logic at the college level is finished. My final semester was this past winter. I will miss parts of it.

My favorite teaching point was this. I loved watching the students, as I said something every logic text affirms: A statement [proposition; belief] is a sentence that claims a certain state of affairs obtains.

Or, saying the same thing in a different way: A statement is a sentence that is either true or false.

And then adding: If a statement is true, it is true for everyone; if a statement is false, it is false for everyone.

This is not about "absolute truth" (which forms a kind of redundancy for me). It is simply about truth.

Many students are confused by this. Some resist it. Some think I am trying to slip something by them. Most don't know why they fell odd about it.

This describes our American culture: most people feel odd about truth, but don't know why. Media newsreaders get outraged, or at least have puzzled looks on their faces, when Christians  make truth claims. Yet, all the time, they make statements that express their beliefs, which beliefs are claimed to be either true or false. Like, e.g., Today is June 17, 2017. Or, Abraham Lincoln was America's sixteenth President. Or, Tomorrow is Father's Day. Or, June 17 is not America's Independence Day. Or, Today is Father's Day (which is false today, but will be true tomorrow).

Robert P. George (Princeton) writes that "to speak of truth frightens some people today. They evidently believe that people who claim to know the truth about anything—and especially about moral matters—are fundamentalists and potential totalitarians." (George, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, Kindle Locations 1462-1463)

But all the while these people who are frightened about claims to truth are themselves making countless claims to truth. George writes:

"As Amherst professor Hadley Arkes has patiently explained, those on the other side of the great debates over social issues such as abortion and marriage make truth claims—moral truth claims—all the time. They assert their positions with no less confidence and no more doubt than one finds in the advocacy of pro-lifers and defenders of conjugal marriage. They proclaim that women have a fundamental right to abortion. They maintain that “love makes a family” and make other strong and controversial moral claims." (Ib., Kindle Locations 1463-1467)

What's going on here? Surely George is correct in saying that "the question, then, is not whether there are truths about such things as the morality of abortion and the nature of marriage; the question in each case is, what is true?" Ib., (Kindle Locations 1467-1468)

That is the question American culture is frightened of,  cannot escape, is ignorant of, and refuses to address.

My two books are:

Leading the Presence-Driven Church (Aug/Sept 2017)