Friday, July 31, 2015

Unveiled Praying

In 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 Paul writes: "Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."

To authentically pray is to turn toward the Lord with an unveiled mind, heart, and soul. As I pray, God wants to lift the veil over my face and into-me-see ("intimacy"). 

Thomas Merton comments: "The Spirit is given to me, the veil is removed from my heart, that I reflect "with open face" the glory of Christ. It would be easy to remain with one's heart veiled, and it is not by any wisdom of my own, but by God's gift, that it is unveiled."

God sees behind any barrier I erect between myself and him. 

I meet people who fear going to God because God will search them out and expose their imperfect inner selves. Imagine a doctor who knows you have a physical heart problem. You refuse to have him order an MRI because you are afraid he will discover that you have a heart problem.

Apparently God allows us the choice of living veiled or unveiled, even though he sees behind the veil. This is an act of his grace. He won't force himself upon us, but invites us to be voluntarily vulnerable. Just that thought makes me want to remove the veil over my heart when I come to God.

It's easy to remain veiled before God, but this makes life harder. In faking it before God I become an actor, and acting takes work. To live unveiled before God is freedom. Unveiled living is the gateway to the experience of God's love, mercy, and grace. It becomes the foundation for holy living. It is the portal to contemplation of God.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Our Concept of God Makes a Praying Difference

In Cape May, New Jersey
A year ago at Redeemer we preached through the biblical book of 1 John. At the heart of John's letter is his concern that some of his readers are walking in darkness, saying they have no sin when they really do, and thus deceiving themselves. John's redemptive strategy is to bring the concept of God's character as light, purity, and righteousness to center stage. What we think of God makes all the difference in our struggle against our inner corruption.

For some recent empirical research to back up this idea see "Sociologist: Concept of God impacts power of prayer, anxiety-related disorders." Prayer seems effective in combating psychological challenges, like relieving anxiety. The level of effectiveness is connected with the person's concept of God.

Baylor University sociologist Matt Bradshaw received a Templeton Grant and published his findings in the journal Sociology of Religion - "Prayer, Attachment to God, and Anxiety-Related Disorders Among U.S. Adults." 

"According to his study, people who prayed to a loving and supportive God whom they thought would be there to comfort and protect them in times of need were less likely to show symptoms of anxiety-related disorders — irrational worry, fear, self-consciousness, dread in social situations and obsessive-compulsive behavior — than those who prayed but did not expect God to comfort or protect them."

Perceived characteristics of God - such as loving, remote, or judgmental - affect the relationship between prayer and mental health.

For the praying person what we think of God makes a difference.

The Distinction Between a "Career" and a "Vocation"

Linda, in Tipp City, Ohio

Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor under FDR from 1933 to 1945, distinguished between a "career" and a "vocation." A vocation is a calling. For her, it was a calling from God. David Brooks writes:

"If you do it for God, you will never grow discouraged. A person with a deep vocation is not dependent on constant positive reinforcement. The job doesn’t have to pay off every month, or every year. The person thus called is performing a task because it is intrinsically good, not for what it produces." (Brooks, The Road to Character, Kindle Locations 970-972; emphasis mine.)

In one particular extended and difficult time of her life Perkins cultivated her vocational calling by spending much time in silence at a retreat center, eating simple meals, working in the gardens, and praying. She wrote:

“I have discovered the rule of silence is one of the most beautiful things in the world,” she wrote to a friend. “It preserves one from the temptation of the idle world, the fresh remark, the wisecrack, the angry challenge…. It is really quite remarkable what it does for one." (In Ib.)

Silence and prayer and simplicity before God nurtures and fuels one's vocation. With a calling comes a sense of "felt necessity," an "I must do this for a greater reason than my own happiness." Brooks writes:

"A person who embraces a calling doesn’t take a direct route to self-fulfillment. She is willing to surrender the things that are most dear, and by seeking to forget herself and submerge herself she finds a purpose that defines and fulfills herself. Such vocations almost always involve tasks that transcend a lifetime. They almost always involve throwing yourself into a historical process. They involve compensating for the brevity of life by finding membership in a historic commitment." (Kindle Locations 1014-1017)

Here Brooks quotes Reinhold Neibuhr:

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness." (Kindle Locations 1018-1022). 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

When the Class Is Over

It's Sunday morning and our Spiritual Formation class is over. All the activity and worship and spiritual and mental intake...  it's in the past. What will I do now? The answer: what I am always doing

Which is:

  1. I will abide in Jesus tonight and tomorrow and the next day. I'll continue to be a branch connected to Jesus the Vine. Seminary classes are not what I am attached to. The same Jesus that spoke to you and me over the past few days will not stop speaking just because we're not at the seminary. I have great hope and expectation tonight and tomorrow and the next day. The God-encounter is a daily thing for me, varying, of course, in its clarity and intensity. But it's all real. 
  2. I will saturate myself in Scripture. God meets me in Scripture. I am more Scripture-focused than I have ever been in all my Jesus-days. I study it and meditate on it. I ingest it and, by God's Spirit, it gets into me. I'll just keep doing this. I do not need a class to do this.
  3. I will listen for God's voice, speaking to me. When God speaks to me this week I'll write it down in my spiritual journal. God has much to tell me, tonight and tomorrow and the next day. God is not thinking, "John's no longer at the spiritual formation class so I won't speak to him in his own home and community." I think like this: today...  could be the day where God speaks to me in such ways that my life gets more transformed into a greater Christlikeness. I'm not predicting this. I also won't be shocked if it happens when I'm not at the class (which was a very good one, BTW, with a beautiful group of students and the presence of God showing up in all of us).
  4. I will obey when the Spirit directs. I'm not going to claim absolute, perfect obedience. I am not God's perfect servant, as Jesus was. But I do obey God, and find it a delight, even if only sometimes ex post facto. We are God's servants; therefore transform us, O God, into greater servanthood.
Thank God for inspiring classes, the God-intent of each one being daily, inspirational, Jesus-loving and Jesus-following and life more abundantly. (John 10:10) Thank God for a seminary (Payne) that sees the importance of spiritual formation. And thank God that Jesus is with me today even though I'm not at the seminary. 

It's all about abiding in him, being connected to him, and being where he wants me to be. God Himself is a very good course instructor. His classes are free (except that it will cost you everything).  

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Consumer Church Is an Antichrist Church

I was a Eugene Peterson fan before he translated the Bible into The Message. In his book The Jesus Way: Conversations on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way Peterson writes about the Real Jesus, and the distinction between the Real Jesus and the American Jesus. Peterson is correct about this. He is one of God's prophets for such a time as this. 

  • “The ways Jesus goes about loving and saving the world are personal…; …The ways employed in our North American culture are conspicuously impersonal.”
  • In churches today “the vocabulary of numbers is preferred over names…” That is, a "number" is an impersonal abstract object; a person is flesh-blood-and spirit real.
  • “Jesus is an alternative to the dominant ways of the world, not a supplement to them.” That is, the Real Jesus cannot and will not be used to build kingdoms alternative to his kingdom.
  • “The North American church at present is conspicuous for replacing the Jesus way with the American way.”
  • In America “we are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches?… [T]his is the best and most effective way for gathering large and prosperous congregations. Americans lead the world in showing how to do it. There is only one thing wrong: this is not the way in which… we become less and Jesus becomes more.” The American consumer mentality runs so deep that many churches unreflectively replicate it.
  • Is this bad? Peterson writes: “A consumer church is an antichrist church.... “We can’t gather a God-fearing, God-worshiping congregation by cultivating a consumer-pleasing, commodity-oriented congregation.”
  • “North American Christians are conspicuous for going along with whatever culture decides is charismatic, successful, influential - whatever gets things done, whatever can gather a crowd of followers - hardly noticing that these ways and means are at odds with the clearly marked way that Jesus walked and called us to follow.” To verify this simply read the four Gospels and use them as a lens through which to evaluate American churches. American churches are often (largely?) dictated to by American culture. Here is where "relevant" becomes a bad idea.
  • “Jesus’ metaphor, kingdom of God, defines the world in which we live. We live in a world where Christ is King. If Christ is King, everything, quite literally, everything, every thing and every one, has to be re-imagined, re-configured, re-oriented to a way of life that consists in an obedient following of Jesus.”
  • “The ways and means promoted and practiced in the world are a systematic attempt to substitute human sovereignty for God’s rule. The world as such has no interest in following the crucified King.”
  • “Once we start paying attention to Jesus’ ways, it doesn’t take us long to realize that following Jesus is radically different from following anyone else.”

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Payne Theological Seminary - Spiritual Formation Class - July 2015

The End of Christianity In the Middle East?

A statue destroyed by ISIS last summer in a 13th-century church in Telskuf, Iraq. CreditPeter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Time

Today's nytimes has an excellent, thorough, sad essay by Eliza Griswold - "Is This the End of Christianity In the Middle East?

Because ISIS and other extremist groups are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with o help in sight.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Self-Imposed Half-Day of Silence

I spent several hours praying in this place in Kenya, looking at these tall trees
swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the wind.

Wyatt T. Walker, who was Martin Luther King's Chief of Staff, says the heart and soul of Martin Luther King lay in his self-imposed "Day of Silence." On those days King "abstained from the distractions of daily life, including the telephone, television, and radio. That day was spent in prayer and meditation and in developing a rigorous discipline of "think time," which he devoted to mapping strategies for the nonviolent campaigns he led." (In Lewis V. Baldwin, Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr., vii)

Eugene Peterson has written: "All speech that moves men was minted when some man's mind was poised and still." (Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, 30. And, BTW, I've read Contemplative Pastor three times, indicating how much it has spoken to me.)

For almost 40 years I've had a self-imposed half-day of silence. It's every Tuesday afternoon, for 3-6 hours. This is a "work day," not my "day off." My work, the work of a pastor, the work of a Jesus-follower, is to discern the work of God and meet with God to discover what I am to do. Authentic Jesus-following means that one's doing or business comes out of one's days of silence with God.

Just me and God. You and God. If we truly believed such meetings and encounters were possible we would cast everything aside and run to that secret place where God waits for us.

Science Has Its Limits

Moon over I-75

For Jesus-followers who are interested in the philosophy of science I recommend Del Ratzch's Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective. Even though it's 10+ years old it does a clear, excellent job in presenting the major issues.

Here's something from Ch. 6 - "The Limitations of Science: What Can It Not Tell Us?"

"One limitation of science is its inability to provide proof of its results. Although scientific theories are always less than absolutely certain, that limitation is not a limitation on the scope of science. But if any part of reality lies outside the boundaries imposed on science by its methods, that aprt of reality will be beyond the capacity of science; and if knowledge is artificially restricted to scientific knowledge, we will thus be sheltering ourselves and our beliefs from the relevant portions of reality." (92)

So what's one thing science cannot do? "To begin with, science cannot validate either scientific method or the presuppositions of that method." (93) Like: the uniformity of nature. The idea that nature is uniform is not a discovery of science, but rather is a presupposition employed by science. "Observations and data are interpreted in the light of that presupposition. That interpretive role is evidenced by the protected status the uniformity principle has." (93)

Like geometry, e.g., by which one cannot contruct proofs without axioms. From where come the axioms? "The axioms are not themselves results of the system. They are the pegs on which the system hangs and without which there would be no system at all." (93) It's the same with science. Science begins with some methodological presuppositions. These presuppositions are not discovered by science; they are not generated out of science itself.

If we are justified ("rational") in accepting science's foundational presuppositions, then those presuppositions must be justified by something other than science itself. If they are justifiable, then "there is some nonscientific, justifiable basis for accepting science." Ratzsch writes:

"This not only can science not validate its own foundations (implying that there are areas outside the competence of science), but if we do accept science, including its foundations, there must be some other sort of grounds for accepting at least some beliefs. This implies that science cannot be the only legitimate basis for believing something. Those who claim either that science is competent for dealing with all matters or that science is the only legitimate method for dealing with any matter are seriously confused." (93)

This kind of reasoning has the strong ring of a Reformed epistemology that argues for properly-basic-belief propositions as rationally held.

One Hour with Psalm 23 and God

In a few hours I will have the opening session in my Spiritual Formation class at Payne Theological Seminary. 17 Master's students are in the class.

After introductions I will send the students out to pray for an hour, using my Psalm 23 handout (see below). 

My class runs through Friday.

Green Lake Conference Center, Wisconsin

One Hour with Psalm 23 and God

Take ten minutes to go alone to a quiet place to meet with God. When I dismiss you go quietly – don’t talk with anyone.

Don’t take anything with you except for this piece of paper. Do not go to your room or car or office. Do not make a phone call or do any shopping. Do not do any “church work.”

When you find your quiet place stay there for 60 minutes. Your purpose: To meet with God. The idea is: You need God in your life. You need God to speak to you, to minister to you, to direct you, to counsel you, to confront you, to empower you.

During this hour keep a spiritual journal. A spiritual journal is a record of God’s voice and activity in your life. During this time when God speaks to you or reveals Himself to you, write it down.

Use Psalm 23 for your meditation. Biblically, to meditate is to ponder something. Meditation is repetitive. Like a cow chewing its cud, the food God gives us is more easily assimilated to our heart. Your purpose in this is not to get “sermon material.” Your purpose is not to exegete Psalm 23. Instead, be exegeted yourself by the Holy Spirit.

If your mind wanders, write down where it wanders to. Your mind will not wander arbitrarily, but will always go to something like a burden, a hope, or a fear. I feel that one’s wandering mind is a barometer of one’s true spiritual condition.

After the hour return to our meeting place.

Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside quiet waters,
He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and love will follow me
All the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD

Monday, July 20, 2015

Be Transformed By the Renewing of Your Mind

 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be *transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Romans 12:2

*Transformed. Greek μεταμορφοῦσθε 
Change [meta] of form [morphe]

Thanks Val F for this!

Teaching at Payne Theological Seminary this Week

Linda and I are traveling to Dayton on this morning where I will be teaching my Spiritual Formation class to Payne Theological Seminary (A.M.E.) M.Div. students this week. Here are some photos of Payne and my students.

How to Pray Unceasingly

Glen Arbor, Michigan

Pray continually.

1 Thessalonians 5:17

The secret to "praying continually" is connectedness with Jesus. Out of the soil of intimate relationship "prayer without ceasing" grows.

This summer Linda and I have had some great vacation time. We rented a house in Grand Haven, and our sons and daughter-in-law were able to spend a few days with us. Linda and I we were together all the time. We shared experiences, talked about many things, and sometimes just sat together looking at the lake. We ate together, and talked as we ate. When you are with a person a lot you think about them a lot.

Intimate connection is the key to ongoingness. The unceasing, continual praying Paul experienced was not some arduous task-oriented duty. Unceasing praying does not come by trying harder. It flows out of connectedness. The more there is intimate abiding in Christ, the more one's praying becomes unceasing.

Frank Laubach put it this way.

“The task to which You have called me is as hard to accomplish as scaling Mount Everest, but You can accomplish it if I can keep my will attuned to Your will…. That is my task, to hold my will to the current of power, and let You sweep through endlessly.” (Quoted in Richard Foster, Prayer - 10th Anniversary Edition: Finding the Heart's True Home, pp. 125-126)

Connect often to Jesus. Ongoing conversation with God follows.

Unceasing praying is the fruit of intimate relationship. As relationship deepens conversation deepens. Richard Foster describes this as a growth process. (See Foster, Prayer, pp. 125-126.)  

Stage 1 - Outward discipline.

I choose to connect with Christ, in the act of praying.

For me this happened in 1977. I made a choice to pray a half hour a day. I did not do this to earn God's love. I chose this because of God's love for me

1. Those who love God talk with God.

2. I love God.

3. Therefore I talk with God.

Foster writes: "This is how we gain proficiency at anything. The accomplished pianist, who today spryly runs her hands up and down the keyboard, once had to agonize over the simplest scales. The same is true for us." Foster, Prayer, p. 126. See also Dallas Willard's beautiful The Spirit of the Disciplines.)

Choose this day whom you will talk with. As for me and my house, we will talk with God.

Stage 2 - The mind descends into the heart.

I woke this morning with a song in my heart. It's a song our worship team did yesterday morning as our church family gathered. These words are looping in my soul: When we arrive on eternity's shore, and death is just a memory and tears are no more... This song now flows like an unceasing river through my soul, over and over and over.

Foster says that prayer becomes "like a tune that we suddenly realize we have been humming all day long. Inward prayer bubbles forth at the oddest moments: in the midst of traffic, in the shower, in a crowded shopping mall. We begin to dream our prayer." (Ib.) 

We begin to think our prayers, in our hearts. "Our decisions become increasingly bathed in a loving rationality." This is hard to describe. It comes only to pray-ers. Foster writes:

"I do not quite have the words to explain it to you. We become, for example, more sensitive to the hurts and sufferings of others. We walk into a room and quickly know who is sad or lonely or dealing with a deep, inexpressible sorrow. In such a case we are able to slip over beside them and sit in silence, bringing comfort and understanding and healing, knowing that “deep calls to deep” (Ps. 42:7)." (Ib., 127)

For me, this comes as I practice praying. 

Stage 3 - Prayer permeates the whole personality.

Foster writes: "It becomes like our breath or our blood, which moves throughout the entire body. Prayer develops a deep rhythm inside us." (Ib., 127)

This is intimacy with Jesus, ongoingly. This is love, experientially. Praying-as-relationship becomes the air I breathe.

This is John 14-15-16 stuff, realized. The Father makes his home in us. We are one with God, unitively. (This is a relational union, not a metaphysical union of being.)

Praying becomes a life of cultivated closeness. Unceasingly.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Why X Wept

River, Wilberforce, Ohio

40 years ago X, a young girl in our campus ministry at Michigan State University, called Linda and I and said, "I want to meet with you. I have something I need to share."

Yes, we would love to meet with you. We set the meeting time and date.

X cancelled. She said, "I can't do this at this time."

X called again. We set a time to meet. X cancelled.

Finally we were able met with X. It took over an hour for her to get the courage to say, "A few years ago I had an abortion." She wept as she shared this. For a long time. Why?

Why did X weep? "Because I took the life of my child. He, or she, would be two years old. I think of her all the time."

Was X a murderer? Here's the definition of "murder" from Cornell University Law School.

"Murder occurs when one human being unlawfully kills another human being. 


At common law, murder was defined as killing another human being with malice aforethought. Malice aforethought is a legal term of art, that encompasses the following types of murder:
  • "Intent-to-kill murder"
  • "Grievous-bodily-harm murder" - Killing someone in an attack intended to cause them grievous bodily harm. For example, if a person fatally stabbed someone, even if she only intended to wound her victim, she could still be executed.
  • "Felony-murder" - Killing someone while in the process of committing a felony. Note that at common law, there were few felonies, and all carried the death penalty. For example, at common law, robbery was a felony. So if a robber accidentally killed someone during a robbery, the robber could be executed.
  • "Depraved heart murder" - Killing someone in a way that demonstrates a callous disregard for the value of human life. For example, if a person intentionally fires a gun into a crowded room, and someone dies, the person could be convicted of depraved heart murder.
These definitions are valuable because they inform subsequent reforms of American murder law."

Was X guilty of "intent-to-kill" murder, as well as "depraved heart murder?" X thought she was. X believed that her child was inside her body. X not only left the child unprotected, but gave a doctor permission to assault him.

X believed the aborted life form was her child. That is why X wept. And why many weep today. 

"It is the duty of each individual and of society operating through its laws to provide protection for each member of the society. This follows the basic homicide laws of the common law that society protects a member from assault and death. The protection shall extend from the beginning of each human being's life - acknowledged to be when the father's sperm fertilizes the mother's ovum - and throughout the natural continuum of that human being's life." (From here.)

If abortion is not homicide, then what's the big deal about it? For X this was a big deal. She gave a doctor permission to end the life of her child.

When X called us she had become a Jesus-follower. We told X there is no sin that God cannot and will not forgive. X knew this in her mind; we prayed that this truth would descend into her heart. It did. It has for me, too.

Before I became a Jesus-follower I made choices and engaged in things I came to deeply regret. How, I wondered, could I ever break free from a conscience that condemned me? The answer..., the only answer I know of..., is in the gracious, merciful forgiveness of God. Without this we are all screwed.

For X, our meeting was a great encounter with the love of Christ that covers all our sin. Note the word "our." Here we find a love that is high, deep, wide, and long.

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
- Ephesians 3:17-19

(Watch this to see a murderer experience forgiveness - Forgiveness is a Beautiful Thing.)

Growing Self-Recession as Progress in the Spiritual Life

Staircase, University of Michigan

One theme in my spiritual life over the summer has been the loss of self so as to gain Christ. God has told me "John, learn the joy of living in the background!"

It happened again to me recently at Redeemer, as we were worshiping. We were singing "From the Inside Out" and one of the lines talks about "the art of losing myself." I pulled out a 3X5 card and wrote the words down. This is it, the key to whatever Christ-effectiveness I shall have in this life.

Theistic philosopher Roger Scruton, in The Soul of the World, writes:

"If there is anything that could be called progress in the religious history of mankind, it resides in the gradual preference for the self over the other as the primary sacrificial victim. It is precisely in this that the Christian religion rests its moral claim." (Scruton, 2)

I pick up my journal. I'm looking for what God told me a few weeks ago. "Be content to stay in the background. Prepare for how I will use you in the end."

This is good, because a sign of progress in spiritual formation is growing self-recession. God is gifting me with a ministry of absence.

In the spiritual life smaller is better. I'm praying for this.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Holy Ghost Reborn" Premiere Tour - At Redeemer in Monroe, Aug. 29

Holy Ghost Reborn

Darren Wilson will be at Redeemer Sat. night, August 29, premiering his new movie "Holy Ghost Reborn."

For more details go HERE.

There Are No 'Ifs' in God's Love

The core experience of Jesus, the moment that sustained him through his brief life on earth, happened at his baptism. Heaven was opened, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove, and the voice of the Father said: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The knowledge that he was loved by the One who matters most was, for Jesus, the primal spiritual fact.

You, too, are God's deeply loved one. God loves you. This forms your core identity. You are God's beloved daughter, God's beloved son. You are God's child, and God loves his kids. As you embrace God's love and follow after him, this love turns from a theoretical thing to an experiential reality. You can know, viscerally, that you are greatly loved by God.

The nature of this enduring, unfailing love can be expressed like this: "God does not say, 'I love you if...' There are no 'ifs' in God's heart. God's love for us does not depend on what we do or say, on our looks or intelligence, on our success or popularity." (Henri Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, 68) 

God's love is not conditional.

A conditional statement is an "if... then" sentence. Most human "love" is conditional. Recently I received an anonymous note from a woman in my church which broke my heart. It was a prayer request, and read: "Please pray for me. My husband thinks I am too fat." It seems her husband would only love her if...  "If you lose more weight then I will love you." How sad. How un-Christlike.

God's love is not like that. His love for you is not dependent on your performance or your appearance or your stuff. As this great, central biblical truth descends from your mind into your heart and becomes your core identity and reality you will find yourself sustained through all of life's incomplete relationships.

There are no 'ifs' in God's love.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Difference Between 'Deciders' and 'Disciples'

Green Lake Conference Center, Wisconsin

I am reading Richard Stearns's challenging and truthful Unfinished: Believing Is Only the Beginning. I could just quote the whole book and paste it here.

I can only take it in little pieces at a time. For me it's like reading Jesus's sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). Go slow, take it bit by bit, and chew... and eventually swallow.

Stearns refers to Scot McKnight's distinction between a "disciple" and a "decider": “Most of evangelism today focuses on getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.” The point is: Jesus called us to be disciples and make disciples, not just be deciders.

Stearns spells out the differences:
  • Deciders just believe the right things; disciples seek to do the right things. 
  • Disciples are dedicated to learning their Master’s truths so they can imitate their Master’s life. 
  • Disciples seek to embrace their Master’s mission and serve their Master’s purposes. 
  • Disciples try to plan their entire lives around Jesus’ teaching and commands. 
  • Deciders have their own plans for their lives and invite Jesus to bless them. 

Stearns writes:

"Jesus had some harsh things to say about deciders. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6: 46) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matt. 7: 21– 23) Deciders are like those in Jesus’ parable of the sower who “hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4: 18– 19). Deciders have repeated the sinner’s prayer and have simply said “I do” or “I will” to the Master’s invitation. But merely saying the sinner’s prayer no more leads to a life-changing relationship with Christ than simply saying “I do” leads to a long, successful marriage. (Stearns, Unfinished, pp. 58-59)

If the gospel just requires someone to make a decision, then the Great Commission is about making more deciders, not disciples— it’s about selling more fire insurance policies. Here would be a mistranslation of Matthew 28:

“Therefore go and make deciders of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them that obeying everything I have commanded you is optional. And surely this fire insurance policy will remain in force always, even to the very end of the age.”

If that's what Jesus said, then we can dismiss disciple-making. "We can accept Jesus as Savior, but we don’t have to accept him as Lord."

Stearns calls this a dumbed-down gospel that is "quite comfortable with the status quo. It doesn’t make any demands on our lifestyle or behavior, and it lets us do whatever we want with our money; feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, or taking a stand against injustice in our world— all strictly optional. If only the disciples had understood this, they surely wouldn’t have had to give their lives for the cause. Why so radical? Selling cheap tickets to eternal life needn’t upset anyone. All they had to do was just simply say “I do.” Without real disciples the revolution dies.

There’s only one problem with this gospel.

It wasn’t the gospel Jesus preached.

And it lacks the power to change the world and win it for Christ.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Inference To the Best Explanation

The text I use to instruct my MCCC Logic students is The Power of Critical Thinking: Effective Reasoning About Ordinary and Extraordinary Claims, by Lewis Vaughn (Oxford). It is excellent, creative, colorful, contains many excellent and relevant explanations, and is clearly written. And, it contains a chapter on "Inference To the Best Explanation." This is the first logic text I have seen that explains this. 

Inference to the best explanation (IBE), also called abductive reasoning, is important for Christian theologians to understand. For example, Alister McGrath's new work on the fine-tuning argument for God's existence in his A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology depends on it. An understanding of inference as to the best explanation is helpful in adjudicating between competing metanarratives. (On abductive reasoning as IBE, see Atocha Aliseda, Abductive reasoning: logical investigations into discovery and explanation, pp. 134 ff.)

What, exactly, is IBE? Vaughn writes: "In inference to the best explanation, we reason from premises about a state of affairs to an explanation of that state of affairs. The premises are statements about observations or other evidence to be explained. The explanation is a claim about why the state of affairs is the way it is. The key question that this type of inference tries to answer is, What is the best explanation for the existence or nature of this state of affairs? The best explanation is the one most likely to be true, even though there is no guarantee of its truth as there is in deductive inference." (344)

Inference as to the best explanation has this pattern:

1. Phenomenon Q.
2. E provides the best explanation for Q.
3. Therefore, it is probable that E is true.

As an example of IBE in action I teach, in my Philosophy of Religion courses, Robin Collins's fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. Collins calls IBE "the prime principle of confirmation." This is: whenever we are considering two competing hypotheses, an observation counts as evidence in favor of the hypothesis under which the observation has the highest probability (or is the least improbable). For example, suppose I walk out in the hall after class and a hundred pennies are on the ground, spelling “John, call home now.”
The prime principle of confirmation (IBE) tells me that this did not happen by chance. Some causal agent probably did this. Therefore it is probable that this happened by design. The fine-tuning evidences are like this, only much more so. (For more see here.)

Vaughn writes: "Notice that an inference to the best explanation always goes "beyond the evidence" - it tries to explain facts but does so by positing a theory that is not derived entirely from those facts. It tries to understand the known by putting forth - through inference and imagination - a theoretical pattern that encompasses both the known and the unknown. It proposes a plausible pattern that expands our understanding. The fact that there are best explanations, of course, implies that not all explanations for a state of affairs are created equal." (344-345)


McGrath on Inference to the Best Explanation

Our backyard

For any Christian theist who is interested in the relationship (if any) between science and religion Alister McGrath's Science and Religion: A New Introduction is essential reading.

McGrath, who has a Ph.D in biochemistry and another Ph.D in theology, is big on "inference to the best explanation." (See also McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology.) In my MCCC logic text Lewis Vaughn has an entire chapter (uniquely so) dedicated to inference to the best explanation (IBE).

Here's McGrath on the increasing relevance of IBE as related to the fading approach to scientific verificationism as exemplied by, e.g., Richard Dawkins. McGrath writes:

"Recent years have seen a growing interest within the philosophy of science in the idea of“inference to the best explanation. ” This represents a decisive move away from older positivist understandings of the scientific method, still occasionally encountered in popular accounts of the relation of science and religion, which holds that science is able to – and therefore ought to  – offer evidentially and inferentially infallible evidence for its theories. This approach, found at many points in the writings of Richard Dawkins, is now realized to be deeply problematic. It is particularly important to note that scientific data are capable of being interpreted in many ways, each of which has evidential support. In contrast, positivism tended to argue that there was a single unambiguous interpretation of the evidence, which any right -minded observer would discover." (Science and Religion, 52)

Nice. And helpful.