Monday, November 30, 2009

Keener on Ehrman, Briefly

(Siam Paragon Mall, Bangkok)

Craig Keener, in his new The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, makes a brief statement about Bart Ehrman which is clarifying. Craig writes:

“One need not argue that the entire text of the Gospels as we have them is accurate; most scholars, in fact (including the most conservative ones), will agree with most of [Bart] Ehrman’s textual decisions (e.g., the inauthenticity of Mark 16:9-20 or John 7:53-8:11). Observing that most scholars have not been driven to agnosticism by these textual issues, one scholar suggests that Ehrman’s agnostic response to them reflects his rigidly conservative background; if the text is either completely or completely wrong, Ehrman’s skepticism is a logical conclusion. Most biblical scholars do not insist on such a forced choice, just as most historians would not.” (xxiii)

An Atheist Become a Jesus-Scholar

(Bangkok, on the Phrao Chaya river)

Craig Keener, in the Introduction to his new book The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, writes of his conversion from atheism to Christian theism, and how this affects his work as a Jesus-scholar. He writes:

“I began my interest in questions about religion and, to a much lesser extent, biblical perspectives from a position of extreme (though not totally close-minded) skepticism, as an atheist. As one who is now a Christian I approach the subject with an special interest I previously lacked, but an interest that I believe makes me more rather than less committed to investigating genuine historical information about Jesus. When I was an atheist I never imagined my life would take this turn, but I harbor no regrets that it has. Even when I was an atheist I valued pursuing truth, regardless of where it might lead.” (xxxv)

The Myth of Value-Free Hermeneutics

(In Bangkok)

I'm beginning to read Craig Keener's The Historical Jesus of the Gospels: Jesus in Historical Context. In the Introduction Craig makes some methodological points, such as this one: "no one is free from assumptions, and... the presuppositions of skeptics are no more value-free than those of believers." (xxxi)

I agree. Failure to recognize this is seen in fundamentalist hermeneutics as well as a skeptical fundamentalism that is often a reaction against one's fundamentalist Christian upbringing. The Jesus-skeptic who thinks he is unbiased is hermeneutically just as narrow-minded as the fundamentalist hermeneutic he criticizes. As one who was not discipled in such anachronistic ways I see "value-free" discussions as essentially misguided when it comes to interpretation theory.

I'm looking forward to getting into Craig's Jesus scholarship!

Redeemer Ministry School Winter Trimester Classes

Redeemer Ministry School

Winter Trimester Classes

  • T/Th, 9:30-11 - Worship II, Holly Benner
  • Tues, 5-7 - Prophecy, John Piippo & Josh Bentley
  • Teaching & Preaching, Wed., 9:30 - 1, John Piippo
  • Kingdom of God II (Healing & Deliverance), Fri., 9:30-1, Josh Bentley
The Winter Trimester begins Tuesday, Jan. 5.

If you are not a full-time student and want to take an RMS class, the cost for the Prophecy class is $75 - for books and materials.

All other classes are $240.

John 15:1-8

(Lake Erie pre-dawn, 11/29/09)

At Redeemer we are now moving slowly through John chapters 14-17. This coming Sunday morning I will preach on John 15:1-8 - the vine and the branches.

Keys to understanding what Jesus is saying here include:

  • the secret of how Jesus has said what he says and has done what he does, which is that he is "in" the Father
  • how we, then, are able to do the things Jesus has done, and even greater things, because the Father comes to make his home in us
  • the being of God as Triune; perichoresis as a good way to describe the Triune Godhead
  • the conditional truth-statements Jesus gives, such as: If you love me, you will obey my commands (in the same way as: "If it rains, the ground gets wet")
  • Thus: "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit"

No More Minarets in Switzerland

("Stop the Minarets" poster in Switzerland)

Watch this in Switzerland on the vote taken Sunday to ban future building of Islamic minarets. The London Times says: "Swiss voters defied their Government and clerics yesterday and approved a ban on building minarets — reflecting an alarming hostility to a rising Muslim minority."

Al-Jazeera reports:  Supporters of the ban say minarets represent the growth of an alien ideology and legal system that have no place in the Swiss democracy. "Forced marriages and other things like cemeteries separating the pure and impure - we don't have that in Switzerland, and we do not want to introduce it," Ulrich Schlueer, co-president of the Initiative Committee to ban minarets, said.

Just as some Christians have as a goal to "Christianize" a nation, so do Islamists desire to "Islamify" a nation and establish sharia law. There's going to be a battle over religious freedom in Switzerland, a land known for openness and tolerance.

The Times says, "The Swiss political world is worried at the prospects of a worldwide Muslim backlash of the kind that hit Denmark after a newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad."

The minaret is a powerful symbol when introduced into a Western country. A cross on top of a church building, on the other hand, is culturally harmless. It it should also be a sign of revolution, of a kingdom invading this world and turning it upside-down.

Why the Prince of This World Had No Hold on Jesus

(Sunrise over Lake Erie, Monroe, MI, 11/29/09)

In John 14:30-31 Jesus tells his followers that “the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.”

“The prince of this world” is kingdom-language. It’s two-kingdom theology. Jesus was a two-kingdom theologian. The kingdom-bifurcation goes like this: kingdom of God or kingdom of satan, kingdom of heaven or kingdom of earth; kingdom of light or kingdom of darkness. To Jesus, persons give allegiance to one of these two kingdoms. The Jesus-movement is a rescue mission to save (“sozo”) persons out of the kingdom of darkness and deliver them into the kingdom of light.

The real King is Jesus himself, and his kingdom is “not of this world.” It’s an upside-down kingdom that inverts the prevailing, oppressive social hierarchy. The word “sin” is defined in terms of these two kingdoms. “Sin” is essentially non-love for the real King, and thus rebellion against God. Every act of sin is an act of allegiance to the prince of this world; aka satan, our adversary.

When Jesus says that the prince of this world has no hold on him, the Greek words contain a double negative that literally reads, “This world’s ruler does not have anything on me at all.” This is legal language, prosecuting attorney accusatory-language. Jesus tells his disciples that he is “not guilty.” Of what? Of lovelessness and rebellion; viz., of sin. Satan’s non-claim on Jesus proves his love for the Father. Jesus’ thorough, total love for the Father results in him, in every detail, doing exactly as his Father commands. In Jesus the Son there is not one slight whiff of rebellion, not one moment of un-love. For this reason, and this reason alone, satan has no claim on Jesus. Jesus does not deserve the cross. But he goes to the cross out of perfect obedience to the Father, and out of his love for you and for me.

What about us? Does satan have any claim on you and on me? I think the answer is as follows. When we heart-claimed our allegiance to the Lamb, a “great exchange” was enacted by which we were transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. The result was, as Paul writes in Romans 6, that sin was no longer our master. Sin is no longer an internal force controlling us. Now Christ is the internal power in our lives. Sin is now an external power trying to defeat us. We belong to the realm of grace and no longer live in the realm of sin. Our power to defeat sin comes from the presence of Christ in our lives. We no longer belong to the prince of this world. We now belong to Christ. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. Father, Son, and Spirit have come to make their home in us. Romans 6:7 says that we are now freed from the slavery to sin that we once experienced.

Paul wonderfully spoke of “Christ in me, the hope of glory.” As songwriter Charlie Hall wrote, now “sin has lost its power, death has lost its sting.” (“Marvelous Light”)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Black Friday & A Phenomenology of Discontent

Thomas Merton writes:

"Why should I worry about losing a bodily life that I must inevitably lose anyway, as long as I possess a spiritual life and identity that cannot be lost against my desire? Why should I fear to cease to be what I am not when I have already become something of what I am? Why should I go to great labor to possess satisfactions that cannot last an hour, and which bring misery after them, when I already own God in His eternity of joy? It is the easiest thing in the world to possess this life and this joy; all you have to do is believe and love; and yet people waste their whole lives in appalling labor and difficulty and sacrifice to get things that make real life impossible." (New Seeds of Contemplation, 159-160)

Today, on Black Friday, Merton's words ring prophetically. Americans are consumers in a consumer culture that depends on human hearts that are miserable. Define 'miserable' as: 'discontented.' I now present to you a phenomenology of discontent.

Discontent is a dark mood rooted in a sense of lack. "Lack" equals the absence of a felt need. The stronger the lack, the greater the felt need, hence the greater striving to "possess" that which satisfies the felt need. One strives to acquire what one lacks, only to soon find that its contentment-power diminishes and is gone. Discontent returns. The felt need that is the sense of lack returns. Something else is neeed to bring contentment. We have here a rhythm of: discontent - striving - acquisition - discontent - striving - acquisition - discontent - ... and so on ad infinitum.

When I was about ten years old and Christmas was approaching, I saw an advertisement on TV for a mechanical bowling alley. It had a little mechanical man with a movable arm and open hand, into which you placed a small plastic bowling ball. It also had a mechanical pin-setter. You would hand-place the little plastic pins in the the holes, and then turn a crank to lower the pins in place at the end of the alley. A lever would pull the mechanical arm back, and upon release the ball would go down the alley into the pins. When I saw this I knew I wanted it for Christmas. My little heart also felt that, should I acquire this for myself, I would never lack for anything again in life. I mentioned this to my parents. They complied. Imagine my delight when, on Christmas Eve (which is when we opened our presents), before me was my heart's desire. I did notice, however, that the box the bowling alley was in seemed smaller than what I had seen on TV. Had there been some mistake? The pins were so feather-light that, when the mechanical pin-setter released them, they were prone to topple. The bowling ball was light as well, and at times would launch itself over the pins. It was phenomenally difficult to get the alley level so the ball, when it did roll down the alley, would make it to the pins. I was discontent. To make things worse my neighbor friend John had gotten a battery-powered pinball machine that I wanted. It turned out that, when he saw my bowling alley, he wished he'd gotten that instead of the pinball thing. We traded the day after Christmas. Mutual discontent set in. Longing returned.

If everyone who says they are a Jesus-follower actually "learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want" (Philippians 4:12), then Black Friday would be morphed into Good Friday, since all the striving that happens during the American folk-Christimas would be gone. Of course, should this actually happen, the entire American economy would be in ruins, since in America we must spend to keep the ship afloat. But, following Merton, real life would then be possible. Because deep, lasting things like family, friends, and joy are endangered by ad infinitum striving that grows out of a discontented spirit.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Flannery O.Connor

Thanks to our friend Will Peebles,  Steve Belkoff and I were, years ago, introduced to Flannery O'Connor. I can't speak for Steve, but I know I had a difficult time reading O'Connor. Will, however was familiar with her and is a very good teacher. What happened was that a world of Christian spirituality was opened up to me in a brilliant fictive way that nonfictive discourse cannot.

O'Connor was a genius. Terry Teachout's "Believing in Flannery O'Connor" sweeps me back to the 1980s whem Will, Steve, and I read, I think, everything O'Connor ever wrote. Every week I came away stunned by the Christ-haunted world she described. I hope one day to return to Wise Blood, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and The Violent Bear It Away, among many others. I think her work will have more to say to me now than back then, having been in ministry with people for the past 40 years. I sometimes wonder, "What the heck is going on in this crazy world, and what do I think I am doing in it." "Am I, are we, is the Church, making any real difference?" I think yes, and sometimes I am John the Baptist in prison sending out friends to ask Jesus if he is still the One.

To furrther explain. I teach logic in our local college. I love logic and try my best, at times, to think logically, to reason about life. But life, itself, is not logical. I'm talking Pascal-language, who said, "The heart has reasons, that reason cannot know." Amen. Sometimes things turn out well that logically should never have. And vice versa, with things turning out hellishly that were preceded by all of heaven's reasoning. O'Connor shows how Jesus-faith finds its way into our crazy world and latches on to people. We see the outrageously redemptive work of God who is able to take the bitterest lemon and squeeze out a lemon smoothie. The steel nets of logic cannot capture all of reality, and I suspect logic cannot capture the human heart which is, I think, what this whole mess is about anyway.

Now I think I'll go back and re-read about The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ in Wise Blood.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

C.S. Lewis on Heaven

(Green Lake, Wisconsin)

A few summers ago, at our conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin, our speaker was Dean Sherman of Youth With a Mission. At one point Dean was talking about life after death. He said, "I don't want heaven to have streets of gold. I want heaven to be like Green Lake." Me too. I'll take the beauty of God's creation over anything when it comes to thinking of heaven.

In the book of Revelation the heavenly city ius described in this way:

"The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass." (Rev. 21:18-21)

I have always taken this description as symbolic of something so phenomenal that words fall short. Re. this C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wrote:

"There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of 'Heaven' ridiculous by saying they do not want 'to spend eternity playing harps'. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

But That There Might Be Equality...

(Bridges, in Monroe)

John Berger writes: "The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing." (Keeping a Rendevous, 234) Richard Stearns cites this Berger quote in The Hole In Our Gospel (95).

I just got off this phone with a man named Lee, whom I have befriended here in Monroe. He now lives under a bridge. I'm taking him out for dinner tomorrow. His economic plight is so huge, and his struggles so systemic, that I feel overwhelmed by his situation. I have told him that there is a God and that this God loves him. It's a tough one for him to grasp.

In 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 Paul writes:

"Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little."

But that there might be equality. Lee and I are not equal, at least not economically and provisionally. Tomorrow morning I'll be shopping for the food I will prepare for our Thanksgiving meal. He, on the other hand, will be waking up under the bridge. Am I to be satisfied with this? I think not. I know Jesus is not.

Stearns quotes a speech by Jimmy Carter, where Carter says: "Tragically, in the industrialized world there is a terrible absence of understanding or concern about those who are enduring lives of despair and hopelessness. We have not yet made the commitment to share with others an appreciable part of our excessive wealth. This is a potentially rewarding burden that we should all be willing to assume." (In Stearns, 99)

One of my Jesus-friends, Jon, picked this man up today and spent some time with him. I know this because Jon called me and said, "There's someone here who wants to talk with you." It was Lee! I felt so grateful for Jon, and was glad to talk with Lee. Lee says he's leaving Monroe on Saturday for the east coast. Tomorrow may be the last day I see him.

Francis Beckwith On the Trinity

Baylor University Professor of Philosophy Francis Beckwith has a nice essay on the Trinity here.

Bangkok Journal

(Tree, in Bangkok)

Many thanks to Editor Deb Saul of the Monroe Evening News for editing and publishing parts of this journal in today's paper, and for placing it in its entirety on their website.


Nov. 12-19, 2009
John Piippo

November 12, 2009
9 AM.

Twenty-six hours from now I will step on Thai soil. It will be 11 P.M. Bangkok time. The temperature will be in the 80s, with the humidity in the 800s. I’m now thinking of the wall of humidity that greeted Linda and me and our two sons as we walked out of Singapore’s Changgi Airport in 1990, where I was on a 20-day teaching assignment.

I’m traveling with six friends from our church. This trip is part of a process that began for me in the summer of 2008, when I first heard Annie and Jeff Dieselberg speak at a conference I was part of hosting in Wisconsin. On one of those evenings Annie shared about their work in pulling women and young girls out of the sex trafficking industry in Bangkok and giving them jobs in their jewelry factory. There was (and still is) a waiting list of women who want out of a life of prostitution. Their business, called NightLight (, needed more building space. After hearing about their work, and seeing the fire and passion burning quietly and resolutely in Annie, I was undone. Here was a couple of very talented people who, as I saw it, left it all to give their lives to rescuing people out of deep bondage. I remember saying to anyone who would listen, “Jeff and Annie need another, larger building to house their factory! We have got to do something about this!”

The next evening I spoke before 500 people at the conference and shared my heart. “We must help NightLight acquire a building!” The response was huge. In the next three months we raised $1.3 million dollars and purchased not one, but two buildings in the red light district of downtown Bangkok. I’d been a pastor for many years and have never seen that kind of money come in so quickly for such a great cause. I now have the idea, and the faith, that if God is part of something that has to do with setting slaves free, the money will be there. I don’t ever want to lose this perspective.

With me are (Monroe area residents) Dan Boylan, Joe LaRoy, Ferl Bomia, John Standifer, Lyndon Feller, and Matt Dean. Five other men from Colorado and Kansas will join us in Bangkok. This crew will spend a week renovating the two buildings and preparing them for NightLight to use. We’ve also raised an additional $30,000 toward this project for paint, clean-up, etc.

I am now thinking back to a year ago when our church sent Dan and Joe to Bangkok to evaluate the buildings, and how happy I was when they returned back to Monroe with blueprints and a game plan. Scheduled to be in Bangkok for a week, they were there for three weeks. While we all had Thanksgiving in Monroe, they celebrated it with Jeff and Annie in Bangkok. What happened was that 5,000 Thai protestors took over the Bangkok Airport and cut off Thailand from the rest of the world. Thousands of foreigners were stranded. The existing government got overthrown, the airport opened, and Joe and Dan were on the first flight out. I felt responsible for these two friends of mine. What a relief it was to greet them at Detroit Metro as they walked through the doors of the International Terminal! I told them that on this trip, for their safety, I personally will not allow there to be any coup-attempts in Thailand.

November 12
1 PM (West Coast Time)

We’re on our connecting flight from Seattle to Tokyo. Some of the Japanese passengers are wearing surgical masks to protect them from the swine flu. We’ll be on this plane for 11 hours. I’ve done the U.S. – Tokyo flight before, and I for me the thrill of such a long flight is gone.

I’ve brought along Siddharth Kara’s book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Its extremely well-written, very sad, and at times it makes me want to morph into Liam Neeson and gun-sling my way into the dark hellish brothels of Bangkok and set these little girls free!

November 13, 2009
11 PM

Jeff Dieselberg of NightLight picked all seven of us up at Bangkok Airport and stuffed us, plus our luggage, into his station wagon. I did not think this was possible, or even very nice to do, but have pictures to prove that we did it. On our way to our hotel we drove through two red light districts and saw a lot of young girls working in prostitution. Our hotel is in an area where there are 20,000 prostitutes in a one-square-mile area. These girls and women are mostly from Southeast Asia, Japan, China, and places in Europe like Uzbekistan. Just last night Annie Dieselberg and some of her NightLight women were helping a young “Uzbeki” woman escape from a life of prostitution. It looks like a success. I love hearing stories like this!

As we pulled into our hotel at 1 A.M. Jeff pointed to a “business” across the street and told the seven of us, “Don’t go into that place.” I know I won’t. But as I walked past it I couldn’t help thinking about who was in there and what they were doing.

Just over thirty hours ago I was in our church parking lot in Monroe kissing Linda good-bye. Now I can’t wait to shower and stretch out in a bed after all that time in the miserly airplane seats. I am thankful to be in Bangkok. I believe this trip is going to change me in some deep and important ways.

November 14, 2009
4 PM

I slept three hours last night. Jeff Dieselberg scheduled a meeting this morning at 7:30. What could he have been thinking! I found out that he did this to help us break our jet lag. We are on the other side of the planet and 12 hours ahead of Monroe time. Jeff has instructed us to stay up as late as possible so as to better acclimate to Bangkok time. Personally, I’d like to lay down right now and sleep for ten hours. But I’m not going to.

Early this morning I left our hotel and took a walk. The smell of incense burning at the innumerable folk-Buddhist shrines filled the Bangkok air. The traffic is so thick and crazy that I now promise to never again complain about the congestion on Telegraph between Meijer and Wal-Mart again.

What an incredible first day this has already been for me! In just half a day I have seen and done a lot of things one doesn’t do or see everyday in Monroe. I have… 1) seen many Buddhist temples and Hindu statues and religious symbols; 2) seen the influence of Islam, which is now Thailand’s fastest growing religion; 3) eaten a very spicy Tom Yum soup; 4) had a cup of Siam coffee; 5) experienced a tropical rain-forest-type deluge; 6) bought an umbrella off the street for $3; 7) went to Bangkok’s version of Lowe’s where our team purchased paint and supplies for the building renovations; 8) found out that the Bangkok Airport is spending a hundred thousand dollars to move a pair of huge demon-statues out of the airport because they believe they are the cause of low sales in the airport stores; 9) saw a long series of angel-statues that protect the airport and learned that “Bangkok” is called, by Thai people, the “city of angels”; 10) took an early morning walk and saw the many street food-vendors cooking all kinds of meats and vegetables using spices that smelled delicious; 11) figured out that 33 baht = one dollar; 12) saw a lot of slums and beggars; and 13) was solicited many times by women. I conclude that Bangkok is in some ways different than Monroe.

This afternoon I saw something that made me sick. I saw a man who looked to be my age or older (60) with his aging arms wrapped around two skinny teen-aged Asian girls. This made me feel weird and angry and sad and sick. Then I saw an old man walking towards me embracing a little Asian girl. I could hardly look at these men. And the girls’ faces were empty, vacant, soul-less. I need to remember that this is why our Monroe team is here; namely, to assist NightLight-Bangkok in their efforts to rescue women who, mostly out of their extreme poverty, resort to selling their bodies to lonely men who travel from afar to pay for their services. Seeing these men with these girls makes me want to be a billionaire who could purchase even more buildings to employ more girls who want to leave the sex industry.

I can’t handle these men. I find them to be pathetic. Right now I feel internally conflicted. As a follower of Jesus I am well aware that God loves these men as much as he loves these young girls, and as much as he loves me. Yet what these men have become sickens me. I feel certain God does not love what they are doing, and also feel certain that God loves them in spite of what they are doing. How can I be expected to feel compassion for them? I now feel amazed that Jesus could authentically pray, regarding his persecutors, “Father forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.” This is why the song is called “amazing” grace. It’s radical and revolutionary and other-worldly to me. I’m asking for more of that kind of not-of-this-world love. I don’t want it as some religious theory; I need it as an experiential reality. God, will you use this time in Bangkok to morph my unloving heart into the kind of heart you have for even women in prostitution and lonely men who are sex addicts?

November 15

I saw a man with no legs crawling like a snake on the streets of Bangkok today. I’m in Bangkok because seven of us have come from Monroe to help a business called NightLight Bangkok that employs women who want to leave a life of prostitution ( We’re renovating a building for their jewelry-making business, so they can employ more women. We’ve had a long day, and we just ended it by walking to McDonald’s for a late night snack.

Here’s some of what I saw and did and thought today, including more about the snake man below.

The heat and humidity was intense this morning as we had breakfast in our hotel and then walked to the worship service at Evangelical Church of Bangkok. This church is made up of people from all over the world who live and work in Bangkok. Today was Youth Sunday, and a teen worship team did songs we were all familiar with. They were loud and energetic and did a good job. I loved the worship!

Afterwards we went to a restaurant in a very upscale hotel where I had the best Thai food I have ever eaten. The thought came to me: here I am in Thailand eating incredible peanut-cashew chicken. Could it get any better than this? Only if my wife Linda were here with me!

We then went to the Thai Christian service supported by NightLight. More about that and the snake man below.

In between the afternoon church service and late night McDonald’s I spent time walking on the jam-packed sidewalks of downtown Bangkok. Street vendors arrive early in the morning and spend their entire day working the tourists for money. Looking at them, I am certain they make very little. Most of them are there from 8 AM until almost midnight. Some even bring TVs and watch them right there on the street. Food is always being prepared and the smells are incredible. There’s the dicing and slicing of vegetable and meats (mostly chicken), and simmering Thai sauces made from peppers and peanuts and coconut. It’s a culinary world of pastries and soups and satay. Street vendors hawk everything from t-shirts to jewelry, shoes, fake Rolexes, knives, brass knuckles, lights, swords, backpacks, food, and pornography. I saw a little 4-year-old girl behind a table selling porn. Her mom was with her. Our hearts went out to this child. What kind of future can she possibly have with this kind of beginning?

I picked up a cup of Starbuck’s and strolled the sultry, steamy streets. I like hot coffee even when it is blistering-hot outside (I think I got this from my parents). I saw a woman praying face down on the sidewalk. As I approached her she looked up at me. She is a leper. I know, because I have met and even held the hands of lepers when I was in India. This praying woman has no fingers or toes. These are the clear signs of leprosy, which is a disease that deadens the nerve endings so one’s extremities cannot feel. If you’re a leper and step on a nail or cut your finger you won’t know it because there’s no pain. This is not good, as infection will set in and fingers and toes will need to be amputated. I just walked right past her. But I could not go on because I felt God telling me to give her some money. She is praying to some God for provision, and here I am. God tells me, “John, you are my present answer to her prayer.” I go back to her, bend down, holding forth some money. She stretches out her fingerless hands with a look of gratitude. Then I stand up, and before me is another woman, a prostitute. who smiles and holds her hand out towards me. Here, in these two women, we have two outstretched hands; two requests for help. One of which is granted, the other denied. Both the granting and the denial, the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No,’ differ according to the kingdom we live in. But, as I see it, only in the kingdom Jesus talked about are both women loved.

In the early evening I went for another walk with Matt Dean and Jon Standifer, where we saw something I cannot get out of my mind. Here is the man who had no legs, crawling on the hyper-crowded filthy sidewalk of downtown Bangkok. He’s not on his knees; he’s low-crawling. Flat. His body was parallel with the pavement, inching along like a snake. Right arm stretched out, his reaching hand held a plastic cup. You could miss him or step on him if you failed to look down. If he makes three feet per minute I would be surprised. I cannot comprehend how it would feel to live like this. Where does he live? How does he get home? Does he have a friend? Does anybody care? I presume the majority of people do not, otherwise I would have not seen him dragging his face inch by inch across this hot, filth-stained sidewalk. (I later found out that this man did have the ability to sit up but apparently chose to crawl while begging.)

This afternoon I again saw my reason for living, my raison d’etre. We were at the Thai worship service, hosted by Jeff and Annie Dieselberg and the leaders of NightLight. Maybe forty people were there. Twenty were young women who had been working in prostitution who have now found God and have had their lives turned around. Now they work making beautiful jewelry for NightLight. When the worship team began playing the song “Here I Am to Worship” I could hardly contain myself. Here was I, worshiping with these ex-slaves who have now been set free. I then remembered that I am an ex-slave, too. “Light of the world, You came down into darkness; opened my eyes made me see.” For these women God came down into their dark world and rescued them. Tears of gratitude flowed from some of their eyes. This is the God I fell in love with many years ago whn I got rescued out of a life of drugs. There are people in Bangkok who care for the destitute! God, thank you for people like Jeff and Annie, and for NightLight. And, by the way, God, I want to spend my life doing things like this.

November 18, 2009

There are four Starbucks in eight city blocks on Sukhimvit Road in Bangkok where our hotel is. In between them thousands of people are moving in every direction, shopping, riding in tuk-tuks (small 4-passanger taxis), on motorcycles and scooters, in cars, with lots of pink taxis, buses, and food being cooked on the streets everywhere. There are countless street vendors, which is interesting since in Bangkok it is illegal to sell on the streets. Also interesting is the fact that it is against the law to engage in prostitution. Yet women in prostitution are, literally, everywhere in this part of the city. And the soliciting is, as our host Annie Dieselberg of NightLight says, “overt.” (see

It’s not as hot today as it has been (it’s still in the 80s), so our building renovation crew is taking advantage of the conditions. Paint is being coated in the walls of the building as I speak. On the first floor of the building there will be a coffee shop with live music in the evenings. Last night Ferl Bomia and I played live, in Bangkok, in the building’s storefront. The acoustics are really good, and there’s a large window looking on to the sidewalk where hundreds of people are walking by constantly.

A lot of people stopped to watch us play. The acoustics of this room were very good, so my guitar sounded rich and full and carried out onto the sidewalk. We did some worship songs, and I did some solo guitar work to attract people. One man, an American, walked into the building. He was holding a beer and asked if he could bring it in. He said, “I love live music!” He kept looking around saying “What’s this all about?” Finally he came up to me, put his camera screen so I could see it, and said, “This is my baby boy who was born here in Thailand three weeks ago.” I asked, “Can we pray for your little boy?” He said, “sure,” and had a very interesting look on his face that expressed some kind of wonderment. I prayed for this baby, and for this man. I wish you could have seen the look on his face afterwards. He was grateful, and I feel sure that he has not had that happen to him, if ever, before. As I talked with Jeff and Annie of NightLight this morning they both agreed that what happened when we did the music that night confirmed the vision they believe God has given them. This building will serve as, among other things, a drop-in place where good music and coffee will be provided, along with a God-alternative for anyone who wants to talk.

Last evening one of the NightLight volunteers, a young woman named Jessica who is from Canada, took the train from her home to the NightLight building. On the way the young woman next to her was talking. Emily struck up a conversation with her. This woman was from London and has been working in prostitution. Three weeks ago she found out she was pregnant. She was devasted. Now she was in Bangkok, on her way to Viet Nam, where she was going to have an abortion. Emily began talking with her and convinced her to come stay the night at the place where the NightLight volunteer women live. They began sharing with her. The woman said that, just the night before, as she was all alone, she prayed to God to help her and give her an answer to her problem. The NightLight women said, “God has heard your prayers!” She stayed at NightLight last evening. We all prayed for her. Jessica was crying as she was praying for her. Annie prayed and thanked God for His amazing answer to this woman’s prayers. When I awoke this morning and went to the NightLight worship service this woman was there. She has decided not to have her abortion. I am thrilled about this!

Thai women are submissive. There is a Thai saying that goes, “Having a daughter is like having a toilet in your front yard.” In Thai culture there is a hierarchizing of humanity. On the top of the social ladder are Buddhist monks and the king and his royal family. Men are higher up than women. In this folk Buddhist land a woman longs to be born into the next life as a man. A man would like to be born as a monk. The best would be to be born into the royal family. In this way folk Buddhism supports prostitution. If you are a woman and you believe you are a lower creature on the level of a toilet on the front yard, then you will come to feel that you deserve a life of being used by men. (See Siddharth Kara’s new book Sex Trafficking on this.)

With such things in mind I traveled with Jeff Dieselberg and Joe LaRoy for an afternoon at the two holiest Buddhist places in Thailand: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. How shall I describe these things? I have taught in Singapore and seen Buddhist temples before, and I have traveled and taught in India and seen Hindu shrines (the two are related, since Buddhism comes out of Hinduism). But I have never, ever, seen anything so ornate and humanly majestic as these two places. You can check them out on the internet to get an idea.

(As I’m typing in Starbuck’s an American man has been sitting at the table 5 feet away from me. A Thai girl in a provocative red dress comes in, he stands up, she comes to him. She is the prostitute he has ordered. They talk, these two total strangers (as it appears to me), seeming to be glad to see each other. Both will get what they want. Except that this young Thai girl does not really want to make a living this way. She may be from northeast Thailand, where Thai girls are daily trafficked to Bangkok. Most of the young girls I’ve seen walking with older American and European men have vacant looks on their faces. City of Monroe – if I could bring all these girls back to Monroe could we care for them and give them a life?)

Jeff, Joe, and I approached the Temple of the Emerald Buddha along with hundreds of other people waiting to get in. You take your shoes off and place them in one of the shoe racks. Cameras must be put away – no pictures, please. We go inside and sit on the tile floor. In front of us are heaps of golden Buddha statues and folk Buddhist symbols, all in gold, layered mountain-like towards the vaulted ceiling, upon which sits, in a glass-enclosed protective case, the Emerald Buddha. It’s about two feet high and carved out of jade. The atmosphere is silent. There are Thai people sitting, or bowing three times to the Buddha statue. There is a special area roped off for Buddhist monks. There are two of them, dressed in orange saffron robes. One is reading Buddhist scriptures as he prays. On the side wall there is a huge mosaic depicting all the events in the life of the original Buddha. It is instructive to note that very little of this has to do with actual Buddhism, but is a conglomeration of tales and stories and rituals that make up, not pure Buddhism, but folk Buddhism. This kind of Buddhism makes no sense in light of the original Buddha’s anti-materialist and even anti-matter teachings. Jeff tells me that, in this place, we are at the center of spiritual Thailand. This is the beating (or non-beating) spiritual heart of this culture that hierarchizes humanity and leaves women with no real hope for this life.

There are over 100 ultra-ornate Hindu-Buddhist buildings in this area that is surrounded by a solid white and beautiful twenty-foot-high wall. There are countless statues of beasts and demons and 5-headed snakes and part-men-part-animals and elephants (the elephant is sacred in Thailand). Just from a sheer human perspective it is awe-inspiring. Just as magnificent is the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It is 138 feet long and 45 feet high, covered in gold leaf. The face of this Buddha is meant to reflect the bliss of the passage to nirvana, which is the final escape from this material world.

Joe, Jeff, and I returned to Simkuvit Road by boat, and then train. I was not real anxious to get in this particular boat. It was thirty feet long, narrow, and powered by a 350-HP Chevy engine, to which was connected a propeller. I am not kidding you. This thing roared! I am wondering about the boat driver, and his emotional and mental stability, since I have just placed my life in his care. As we were on this boat speeding and hydroplaning along the canal that divides Bangkok I was thinking about the contrasts I was seeing. Here is a highly religious people seeking life’s meaning through many rituals and a statue of the Buddha, in the midst of which is a devaluing of women that reduces the poorest of them to selling their physical bodies to lonely men. What worth does a woman really have? Can a price be put on her? Here is where, for me, the life and words of Jesus are simply culturally revolutionary. He came into a similar culture, one where women were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. And he treated them like, well, a Thai would treat a monk; namely, with honor, dignity, and respect.

I’m shutting down my laptop, and going to the NightLight building where I am going to give some of the NightLight guitar players an hour or two of free guitar lessons. As I look out the window of Starbuck’s and here walks a man that has got to be seventy. He’s an Anglo. He walks, slight bent over. He’s holding hands with a Thai girl who look like she is all of fifteen. This, simply, cannot be right or good or human. And one day this, too, shall be made right.

November 19, 2009

I am home from an incredible week in Bangkok, We left our Bangkok hotel at 3 AM Thursday (3 PM Wed. EST). 25 hours later we touched down in Detroit. It’s good to be home with Linda and my son Josh!

I will be thinking about my trip for many days, and seeking God as to things he wants me to know and do. Here are some final thoughts, given from a reclining position in my bedroom at home, where jet lag is kicking in big-time.

On Wednesday I borrowed a guitar and taught an hour guitar lesson to a couple of Thai pastors and three women, two of whom were exploited in prostitution (given by myself, an ex-slave to drugs, alcohol, and sex). I cannot speak or understand Thai, and my guitar students cannot speak or understand English. Still I was able to communicate to them by demonstrating things on the guitar. These three women who have been rescued out of prostitution are now worship leaders in this Thai church. There were a few times during the lesson that I began to cry. One of them was when I taught them an alternative chordal way to play Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God.” They were all intrigued by what I was showing them. They wanted so much to learn this new way of playing their instruments. After showing them the chords I then played and sang the song. They began singing with me, in Thai. The guitar lesson had morphed into full-blown worship. I could have melted to the floor in tears and joy and worship. Part of what was going on inside of me was the remembrance of my own ongoing release from bondage and darkness. I’m a slave set free and being set free, worshiping with these two men-servants of Jesus and the three girls who may have been trafficked to Bangkok from Northeast Thailand. This was real worship in real community. Real Jesus-Community is not a fellowship of the “perfect” who then waste their God-time on earth judging the rest of us. Real Jesus-Community is a bunch of slobs, loved by God, redeemed and working out their salvation in fear and trembling, obedience and worship.

It was so much fun teaching them! They were so grateful. Throughout the time I could not get away from the idea that these three young women have been given a life they could never have dreamed of. Here they were, working for NightLight, and singing about Jesus. This is overwhelming to me.

When Joe LaRoy and I met with Annie Dieselberg, she told us a number of stories. Stories are important. Everyone has one. Stories communicate differently than do theories. For me the power of a story is my beluef that it is experience, and not theory, breeds conviction. Here’s a story. One girl NightLight pulled out of sex trafficking decided to leave the life of growing freedom in Jesus and return to prostitution. She went to Singapore to do this. When she got there Annie said she did not pass “Q.C.” I asked, “What’s “Q.C.?” “Quality control.” Annie said this girl was ready to be with 15 men a night. But she didn’t measure up physically and was sent back to Bangkok. (This same woman sold her baby a few years ago. NightLight worked to rescue and adopt the baby.) In the Kierkegaardian “crowd,” aka the Nietzschean “herd,” women are cattle for the pleasure of men. They are weighed, measured, quantified, marketed, used, spit out, and left for nothing, like the used-up women I saw this early Wednesday morning passed out on the sidewalks of Bangkok.

At times during my trip I felt sadness and even moments of grief and helplessness in the face of the in-your-face, overt sex industry in Bangkok. For example, I had heard about Bangkok’s “ladyboys,” and finally saw one on my last day there. Thai ladyboys [aka “katoeys”] dress and live as women. I researched the ladyboy-phenomenon and found the following. They undergo hormone replacement therapy, most have breast implants, and eventually have genital reassignment surgery done. They go to great lengths to conceal any tell-tale signs of masculinity, including surgery to reduce the size of the Adam’s apple and other medical procedures to shape their bodies more like those of women (jawbone, hips, buttocks) - even voice chord surgery. Ladyboys are integrated in and accepted by Thai society. Many of them become prostitutes. The most beautiful ones count among the highest paid sex workers in Thailand. Thais believe that being a ladyboy is the result of transgressions in past lives (the notion of Karma), and that ladyboys deserve pity rather than blame. Ladyboys often belong to lower social classes, and their suicide rate is significantly higher than that of any other segment of the Thai population.

Bangkok, like most huge cities I have been in, is a city of great contrasts. In Bangkok great wealth coexists with extreme poverty. The evening before we returned to Monroe I ate at one of the most opulent restaurants I have ever eaten in, where the waitresses stand at attention at your table holding cloth napkins and, together in sync, snap them open and place them on your lap. Throughout the meal they would come and inspect the table. If there was even one tiny crumb on the pure white tablecloth they would take a little metal tool and gather it up. Yet when you walk out the door of this gated restaurant you will see street beggars looking for a crumb of what you’ve got.

Twice I took the train to Siam Paragon Center, perhaps the most upscale shopping mall I have ever been in. The Siam area is the Bangkok version of New York City’s Times Square. I saw no street beggars or prostitution here. The whole place is sheer elegance. And, it’s all dressed up for Christmas. I found this sad, since among the many thousands of shoppers there might be a handful who know that Christmas contains the word “Christ.” Most Thais don’t have a clue about Jesus and his real, revolutionary message. My own observation is that most Americans don’t either. By the way, everything in this mall is in English. Siam Paragon Center is the American Dream become flesh and dwelling in Bangkok.

I think it’s time to wrap this up, so here are some additional bullet-points I am now remembering.


•got very tired of flying (the thrill is gone), and wondered how I could make money by inventing more comfortable seats to fly in
•read Siddharth Kara’s phenomenal Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery
•cried as I, an ex-slave, stood worshiping with all these ex-slaves who have been set free, given jobs making jewelry at NightLight, and are finding who God is and that he loves them
•saw a gazillion old, lonely white men looking for someone who will talk with them and love them and have sex with them
•felt the mixed emotions of hatred and sadness towards these men
•saw the empty stares of tiny girls who make a meager living by having as many as 15 men a night
•walked the red light district early in the morning to see red-lipsticked girls sleeping on the cement, as well as red-lipsticked girls looking for someone else to have sex with, as well as having some proposition me
•saw great wealth cohabit with extreme poverty
•smelled Bangkok, as food is always being cooked on the streets, 24/7
•met so many beautiful, hospitable Thai people
•fell in love with fruit smoothies
•watched, in admiration, as Jeff Dieselberg led his Jesus 101 class in Thai to 10 NightLight girls
•felt proud of our team of men who paid their own ways to come work for a week renovating one of NightLight’s buildings
•heard fresh stories of women being rescued out of prositution
•found out how many bahts make a buck
•saw NightLight’s jewelry-making business up close and was extremely impressed
•spent every day in heat that approached one hundred degrees with comparable humidity
•got spoken to by God about so many things that it’s going to take me awhile to process all of it
•got especially spoken to by God
•read Richard Stearns’s phenomenal The Hole In Our Gospel: What Does God expect of Us? (Note: if you are a Jesus-follower and have not read this book, stop what you are doing right now, go get this book, turn it on low, and slow-cook in it...)
•saw, up close and personal, the real distinctions between pure Buddhism and folk Buddhism..., which made me think of the distinctions between Real Jesus-following and folk-Christianity
•had delicious iced coffees and watermelon shakes
•found out that the Yul Brenner movie “The King and I” is forbidden in Thailand because of its protrayal of the king
•refused to eat at McDonald’s - I ingested a lot of phenomenal Thai food. On occasion I found myself thinking, “I am now eating real Thai food in Thailand!”
•saw many street beggars and gave to some of them
•sweated a lot
•played guitar in the NightLight storefront on Soi 4 (Street 4) in the red light district

November 20, 2009

I fell asleep at 3 AM and woke up at 1 PM today! It’s 50 degrees outside, about half of what it was every day in Bangkok. I’m sitting in our upstairs room that functions as my office and home, overlooking Munson Park. From the view from this room I see the skateboard park. Five skateboarders wearing t-shirts are working on their skills. It’s going to take time to process my Bangkok experience. I was already impressed with Jeff and Annie Dieselberg’s work through NightLight. I return even more impressed. In Jeff and Annie and their staff I saw many true Jesus-followers who have left the American Dream far behind to follow the Real Jesus.

I am so thankful for the men from Monroe who sacrificed time and money to invest in something that has significance (because significance, not success, is what’s really important). As for me personally, I feel closer to Jesus than I did a week ago. I think I see more of what’s at stake. And I feel more convinced than ever that Jesus’ message of his beautiful kingdom is the answer to all that aches inside of us.

There is one more scene that sticks in my mind. We stayed in a newly renovated hotel that had a nice, bright, clean restaurant. One morning I came down for breakfast and saw a middle-aged man sitting at a table with a little Thai girl. In the background music was playing. The song was Andrea Bocelli’s beautiful “Time to Say Good-bye.” I felt then, as I feel now writing this, something deep inside me that was like a cry for these two people that extended to all of humanity, in all of our loneliness and searching. Beneath the surface of every person there are mysteries so deep they remain unknown to us. Thomas Merton once wrote, “who can swear that his intentions are pure, even down to the subconscious depths of his will, where ancient selfish motives move comfortably like forgotten sea monsters in waters where they are never seen!” Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding can draw them out.” What we especially need today are not people who have more quantitative knowledge; we need deeper people. We need people whose hearts have been themselves so searched-put by God that God can use them to rescue others, like this lonely man and the little girl who is “with” him. God, I’d like to be that person and bring others along with me.

Theravada Buddhism Promotes Female Inferiority & Is a Factor in the Sexual Exploitation of Women in Thailand

(In the compund of the Grand Palace, Thailand)

Siddharth Kara, in Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, argues that Theravada Buddhism promotes female inferiority and thus is a crucial factor "in the evolution of the sexual exploitation of women, as a business, in Thailand." (173) Why?

Ninety percent of Thai citizens are Theravada Buddhists. (173) Theravada Buddhism is much stricter than Mahayana Buddhism, and relegates the achievement of nirvana to monks only, and not to lay people, and especially not to women. "A Theravada Buddhist must first ascend to the level of monk before nirvana is possible." (173)

For Theravada Buddhists, "the world ascribes to a struct hierarchy, ranked by karma." (173) "Karma" is the consequence of a persons actions and intentions, a weighing of good deeds against bad deeds. "Positive or moral actions acfrue positive karma, and negative or immoral actions accrue negative karma. At the end of life, the sum of these two results carries an imbalance." (173) The level of being one is reborn into is a consequence of one's karma. Kara writes: "Positive [karmic] residue leds up the ontological hierarchy; negative residue leads down." (173-174)

In Theravada Buddhism the hierarchy of rebirth indicates either spiritual advancement or spiritual demotion. The Theravada Buddhist hierarchy, on earth, is:

  • The king
  • The monastic life (monks)
  • The wealthy
  • Men
  • Women
  • The crippled
  • The destitute
  • Animals
"Manifestations of wealth and power are evidence of the accumulation of positive karmic merit in past lives, wheras manifestations of poverty, disease, female gender, or slavery are evidence of past negative deeds. In this way, Thai people reconcile themselves to inequality, and the only way for the downtrodden to be reborn into better shoes is to abide their position dutifully and to accrue positive karma, even if that position entails slavery." (174)

Kara quotes a Thai woman who told him, "In Thailand, the best thing a man can do is become a monk, [and] the best thing a woman can do is be reborn a man." (174) Kara quotes three traditional Thai proverbs:

  • "To have a daughter is like having a toilet in your front yard."
  • A woman is only worthy when she has a husband."
  • "Women are buffaloes, Men are humans." (172-173)
Kara states that, "While such beliefs are more entrenched in rural Thailand than in Bangkok, the culture of female inferiority nevertheless pervades the capital... Women are spiritually and civically inferior in Thailand, and this subordination has been most keemly (and not accidentally) manifested through centuries of systematized sexualy exploitation by men, within the country's longstnading and well-developed prostitution industry." (174)

Arguably, a similiar kind of social stratification (ontological hierarchy) occurs in every culture. The same kind of hierarchy was in place in the first-century Jewish world in which Jesus lived. New Testament scholar Joel Green, commenting on Luke 1:46-55, shows the hierarchy Mary lived in and out of which her song came. It is (Green, 60):
  • The ruler
  • The governing class
  • Retainers and priests
  • Merchants
  • Artisans
  • Peasants (such as, e.g., shepherds)
  • The unclean and degraded
  • The expendables
Women, generally, are on the low end of this hierarchy. Rarely do they function in the roles of ruler, governor, priest, or merchant. Primarily a woman's role in first-century Judaism was to bear children. (Green, 61) The barrenness of Elizabeth, for example, caused her to suffer disgrace among her people, thus giving her "low status honor." (Green, 61) Of Mary Green writes: "It is as if she were an orphan: no family background is provided; she is betrothed to Joseph but as such has not entered into his house or in herited his status. Yet, she is favored by God (Luke 1:28, 30), though for no apparent reason other than God's gracious choice. Like Elizabeth, in this social world, Mary undergoes a startling transposition of status." (Green, 61)

When Mary, in amazement, sings "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant," we enter into the alternative world of the "upside-down Kingdom of God." We have, from God, a great "status reversal"; the Great Reversal. God comes for the lowly, the rich and proud of this world will be brought down ("humbled"), and the hungry and lowly will be exalted and blessed.

Personally, I have seen Jesus-followers in Thailand and in my community of Monroe who ignore the prevailing ontological hierarchy and "descend into greatness" as defined by God. Surely this is good news for all, and is especially felt by this world's many who rank at the bottom of the social pecking order.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Church of the Redeemed Women

(Morning worship with NightLight Bangkok)

In Bangkok I took an hour to give five Thai Jesus-followers a guitar lesson. My students consisted of two men who pastor the Thai congregation I visited, and three women, two of whom have been rescued out of prostitution and are worship leaders. There were a few times during the lesson that I almost began crying. One of them was when I taught them an alternative chordal way to play Chris Tomlin's "How Great Is Our God." They were all intrigued by what I was showing them. They wanted so much to learn this new way of playing their instruments.

After showing them the chords I then played and sang the song. They began singing with me, in Thai. The guitar lesson had morphed into full-blown worship. I could have melted to the floor in tears and joy and worship. Part of what was going on inside of me was the remembrance of my own ongoing release from bondage and darkness. I'm a slave set free and being set free, worshiping with these two men-servants of Jesus and the three newly redeemed girls who (probably) had been trafficked to Bangkok from Northeast Thailand. This was real worship in real community. Real Jesus-Community is not a fellowship of the "perfect" who then waste their God-time on earth judging the rest of us. Real Jesus-Community is a bunch of slobs, loved by God, redeemed and working out their salvation in fear and trembling, obedience and worship.

Rebecca Goldstein's "36 Arguments" Begins With a Whimper

Rebecca Goldstein's forthcoming 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction starts with a whimper. Her argument #1 is "The Cosmological Argument." She fails to consider what is, arguably, the strongest version of the cosmological argument; viz., the kalam cosmological argument for God's existence. The kalam argument obviates the criticism that postulating God as the cause of the universe still leaves us with the question of who or what caused God. The kalam argument does not state that "everything that exists has a cause" but that "everything that begins to exist has a cause." If God's exisenc is necessary (i.e., God did not begin to exist), then her Flaw #1 below does not apply. Her Flaw #2 is irrelevant if, on the kalam argument, we understand "cause" broadly as an explanatory reason for any event X that begins to exist. As regards Goldstein's "Comment" it is true that an underlying question for all forms of the cosmological argument is the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" But her quote from  Sydney Morgenbesser, while cute, is irrelevant to the discussion. The real question has to do with science's desire to explain events that begin to exist; such as, e.g., wanting to explain design in nature by means of natural selection. Since our universe did begin to exist (it has an age, and whatever has an age has a beginning; plus the idea that if our unvierse did not begin to exist then it has always existed, which is incoherent) the kalam argument intends to give a possible and plausible answer to the question "What caused the universe to exist?, and not, fundamentally, "Why is there something than nothing?"

Goldstein's formulation of the fine-tuning argument is weak and seems to not comprehend strong versions of this argument and their use of inference to the best explanation.

Goldstein's statement of the argument for the existence of God from consciousness betrays a lack of familiarity with, e.g., the strong, sophisticated presentation of J.P. Moreland's Consciousness and the Existence of God. Moreland, e.g., handles the panpsychism objection. Also, his formlation of the argument is far simpler and clearer than Goldstein's 13-step presentation. Anyone wishing to argue against the argument from consciousness must, primarily, engage Moreland's work.

Goldstein's presentation of the moral argument for God's existence is unfamiliar with William Lane Craig's stronger version of the argument. Her Flaw #1, using Plato's famous Euthyphro Dilemma, has been addressed by Craig and, e.g., philosopher Robert Adams's modified divine command theory.

Goldstein seems more philosophically sophisticated than Richard Dawkins. But if she is going to give serious objections to theistic arguments she needs to be familiar with and address current formulations of those arguments.

Here, from and her coming book, is Argument #1, as she presents it and objects to it.

1. The Cosmological Argument

1. Everything that exists must have a cause.

2. The universe must have a cause (from 1).

3. Nothing can be the cause of itself.

4. The universe cannot be the cause of itself (from 3).

5. Something outside the universe must have caused the universe (from 2 & 4).

6. God is the only thing that is outside of the universe.

7. God caused the universe (from 5 & 6).

8. God exists.

FLAW 1: can be crudely put: Who caused God? The Cosmological Argument is a prime example of the Fallacy of Passing the Buck: invoking God to solve some problem, but then leaving unanswered that very same problem when applied to God himself. The proponent of the Cosmological Argument must admit a contradiction to either his first premise — and say that though God exists, he doesn't have a cause — or else a contradiction to his third premise — and say that God is self-caused. Either way, the theist is saying that his premises have at least one exception, but is not explaining why God must be the unique exception, otherwise than asserting his unique mystery (the Fallacy of Using One Mystery To Pseudo-Explain Another). Once you admit of exceptions, you can ask why the universe itself, which is also unique, can't be the exception. The universe itself can either exist without a cause, or else can be self-caused . Since the buck has to stop somewhere, why not with the universe?

FLAW 2: The notion of "cause" is by no means clear, but our best definition is a relation that holds between events that are connected by physical laws. Knocking the vase off the table caused it to crash to the floor; smoking three packs a day caused his lung cancer. To apply this concept to the universe itself is to misuse the concept of cause, extending it into a realm in which we have no idea how to use it. This line of skeptical reasoning, based on the incoherent demands we make of the concept of cause, was developed by David Hume.

COMMENT: The Cosmological Argument, like the Argument from the Big Bang, and The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe, are expressions of our cosmic befuddlement at the question: why is there something rather than nothing? The late philosopher Sydney Morgenbesser had a classic response to this question: "And if there were nothing? You'd still be complaining!"

Saturday, November 21, 2009

When Things Become Precious To Us...

(Siam Paragon Mall, Bangkok, perhaps the most opulent-upscale mall I have ever been in, and just two train stops from Bangkok's red-light district)

When things have become precious to us...

... things like...

  • our possesions
  • our work
  • our status
  • our positions
  • even our friends and families
... we really don't want to let go of them, and...

...they can become idols that compete with God in our lives.

(Richard Stearns, The Hole In Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?, 42)

The Boring World of Faux-Christian TV

(I took this picture of a marquee across from Bangkok's Siam Paragon Center - now playing, the Thai "Superhit" "Boring Love.")

(Quotes are from Richard Stearns, The Hole In Our Gospel: What Does Jesus Expect of Us?)

Anyone who actually reads and meditates on the four Gospels and follows the Real Jesus (= the historical Jesus we read about in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) will experience serious cognitive dissonance if they watch "Christian TV." We don't usually see the real thing on TV because the Real Jesus does not sell very well. On the other hand "Jesus as the Great Blessing-Butler In the Sky" sells well. The premise is: If you give money to TV preachers who sell this Jesus to you, then this faux-Christ will bless you big time.

Boring. Because faux-love is boring. The idea that "Jesus will love and bless you if you send in some money and bless me" is not real because it is not sacrificial, but rather self-beneficial. It's a ridiculous sub-human thing under the guise of love, and is being marketed under the name of Jesus all over the world, and especially here in America, from where it is being exported to other countries.

John MacArthur is correct when he says: "The true Gospel is a call to self-denial. It is not a call to self-fulfillment." (25) Slow down here and think of all the "Christianity" that seduces people by preaching the false gospel of self-fulfillment. But in fact the gospel of self-fulfillment is another form of the gospel of bondage. Remember the upside-down Kingdom of God that Jesus preached here. The REAL THING is not about acquiring, but about deaccumulating. It's all about less, not more. Here Richards Stearns warns us not to equate "success" with God's approval. (28)

Many, many years ago I was asked to play a set of music to open up the group "The Second Chapter of Acts." Linda and arrived, my guitar in hand, with a bunch of friends who had come to hear me and Second Chapter play. There was going to be a few thousand people there. I was excited, and nervous. I was greeted at the door by the person who had put together this concert. He was saddened to tell me that Buck Herring, Second Chapter's manager and husband of singer Annie Herring, had asked that there be no opening act that evening. I felt let down.

Nonetheless we went in and enjoyed an evening of great music and a worshipful atmosphere. Linda and I always loved the beautiful, stratospheric voice of Matthew Ward. Near the end of the concert Buck Herring stepped onto the stage. I will never forget his "altar call." Basically it was: 1) Jesus died on a cross to forgive your sins; and 2) you can give all to him because he has given all to you. Buck told the people, "This is not for anyone who just wants to 'get saved' and then go on with their lives as if nothing happened. Jesus is looking for people who will sacrifice all for the sake of his call." (Remember that The Herrings and Keith Green were best of friends...)

Uh-huh. That's it. Jesus requires absolute surrender. Richard Stearns writes, "To be a disciple means forsaking everything to follow Jesus, unconditionally, putting our lives in his hands." (39)

Friday, November 20, 2009

If You Are Reading This, Then You Are Rich


The silly and heretical "prosperity gospel" (an oxymoron if there ever was one) tells us that God wants to "prosper us" in the sense of making us rich. Or, making us richer. For the "prosperity advocate" the cry "More, Lord!" has to do with money and things.

Consider this absurd scenario. I'm now writing this on my laptop and I cry out to God, "Give me a laptop, Lord!" How odd, because I already have a laptop and am writing on it. Analogously, how odd for an American Christian to cry out for "prosperity" (in the sense of money and things) as they are prosperous already. What's going on here is simply gluttonous, like a person who has just eaten a 32-ounce steak and then burps, "More steak, Lord!"

Richard Stearns puts things this way. He writes that the good news is: "You're rich, we're rich, and the Church in America is rich." (215) Do you have a laptop? Most people in the world do not have a laptop. A whole lot of people cannot even read, not because they are stupid, but because they are denied an education. If you make more than $25,000 per year "you are wealthier than approximately 90 percent of the world's population!" (Ib.) Stearns asks us to "remember, of the 6.7 billion people on earth, almost half of them live on less than two dollars a day." (Ib.) How positively weird and gluttonous to be sitting in a coffee shop looking at one's laptop with a sense of impoverishment. Think of seeing some church on TV where people wearing nice clothes cry out for God to prosper them

But a lot of people with a cup of coffee and a laptop don't feel rich. So what's going on? Stearns says "if you don't feel rich, it's because you are comparing yourself to people who have more than you do - those living above even the 99th percentile of global wealth. It's also because we tend to gauge whether or not we are wealthy based on the things we don't have." (Ib., 215-216)

Yes, there are a lot of people in America who have a newer and bigger car than I have. While that's simply a fact, if this fact is accompanied by even a slight sense of lack, then I have a deep spiritual problem, since "93 percent of the world's people don't own a car." (Ib., 216) Stearns summarizes: "Our difficulty is that we see our American lifestyles as normative, when in fact they are grossly distorted compared to the rest of the world. We don't believe we are wealthy, so we don't see it as our responsibility to help the poor. We are deceived." (Ib., 216, emphasis mine, and emphasis on me as I am not in the place to write with the experience, compassion, and conviction Stearns writes with.)

Do you ever think about things like this? I am. What the heck is an American Christian like me to do with verses like 1 Timothy 6:17-19? Shall we cut them out of my Bible, as a younger Jim Wallis once wondered? (Ib., 23-24) That would create a great "hole in our Gospel." God, just what do You expect from us? Whatever else I do with those words of instruction from Paul to Timothy, I cannot waste my time in displays of creative rationalization that end with an appeal to pity on behalf of my own coffee-drinking laptop-surfing poor, deprived self.

I just returned from Bangkok. On the plane ride home I read Stearns's book. I don't quite know what to do with myself right now. I'm not panicking. I'm also not running. I take comfort in the fact that Stearns didn't know what to do, either, as he drove his Jaguar to church faithfully on Sundays and other days. Throughout his book Stearns confesses, "I feel so ashamed..."

I can choose to do better today. Follow God today. Then, trust God today. I can look at something like 1 Timothy 6:17-19 and use it to guide my next decision.

17Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

"Command those who are rich in this present world..." By the way, that's you and me.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bangkok Bullet-Reflections

(Me and my friend Joe LaRoy, riding in a Chevy-powered longtail boat through the canals of Bangkok)

I am home from an incredible week in Bangkok, We left our Bangkok hotel at 3 AM Thursday (3 PM Wed. EST). 25 hours later we touched down in Detroit. It's good to be home with Linda and Josh!

I kept a journal while there and sent large portions of it to the Monroe Evening News. The News is going to publish parts of it this Monday, and then link to my entire journal with photos I took. Go here:

I will be thinking about my trip for many days, and seeking God as to things he wants me to know and do. Here's a bullet-point review, given from a reclining position in my bedroom at home, 9 PM, where jet lag is kicking in big-time.

  • saw many true Jesus-followers who have left the American Dream far behind to follow the Real Jesus (which has nothing to do with the American Dream because that dream is way too small, among other things)
  • taught a couple of Thai pastors and three ex-prostitutes an hour guitar lesson (given by myself, an ex-slave to drugs, alcohol, and sex)
  • felt sadness and even moments of grief and helplessness in the face of the in-your-face, overt sex industry in Bangkok
  • ate a lot of phenomenal Thai food (I found myself thinking, "I am now eating real Thai food in Thailand!")
  • got very tired of flying (the thrill is gone)
  • wondered how I could make money by inventing more comfortable seats to fly in
  • saw people worshiping a statue made of jade at the spiritual center of Thailand
  • saw one very humongous Buddha (at the Temple of the Reclining Buddha)
  • prayed for a man and his baby while he was drinking a beer in Bangkok's red light district
  • visited the most ornate, upscale shopping mall I may ever have been in
  • read Siddharth Kara's phenomenal Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery
  • cried as I, an ex-slave, stood worshiping with all these ex-slaves who have been set free, given jobs making jewelery at NightLight, and are finding who God is and that he loves them
  • saw a gazillion old, lonely white men looking for someone who will talk with them and love them and have sex with them
  • felt the mixed emotions of hatred and sadness towards these men
  • saw the empty stares of tiny girls who make a meagre living by having as many as 15 men a night
  • walked the red light district early in the morning to see red-lipsticked girls sleeping on the cement, as well as red-lipsticked girls looking for someone else to have sex with, as well as having some proposition me
  • saw great wealth cohabit with extreme poverty
  • smelled Bangkok as food is always being cooked on the streets, 24/7
  • ate at one of the most opulent restaurants I have ever eaten in, where the waitresses come with a little metal tool to remove even just one crumb off the white tablecloth as we were eating
  • fell in love with fruit smoothies
  • bought a pair of  very weird sunglasses
  • watched, in admiration, as Jeff Dieselberg led his Jesus 101 class in Thai to 10 NightLight girls
  • felt proud of our team of men who paid their own ways to come work for a week renovating one of NightLight's buildings
  • heard fresh stories of women being rescued out of prositution
  • found out how many bahts makes a buck
  • saw NightLight's jewelry-making business up close and was extremely impressed
  • spent every day in heat that approached one hundred degrees with comparable humidity
  • got spoken to by God about so many things that it's going to take me awhile to process all of it
  • got especially spoken to by God
  • read Richard Stearns's phenomenal The Hole In Our Gospel: What Does God expect of Us? (Note: if you are a Jesus-follower and have not read this book, stop what you are doing right now, go get this book, turn it on low, and slow-cook in it...)
  • saw the 138-foot, gold-leafed statue of the reclining Buddha
  • saw, up close and personal, the real distnctions between pure Buddhism and folk Buddhism...
  • ...which made me think of the distinctions between Real Jesus-following and folk-Christianity
  • had delicious iced coffee
  • had a delicious watermelon shake
  • refused to eat at McDonald's
  • saw many street beggars and gave to some of them
  • sweated a lot
  • played guitar in the NightLight storefront on Soi 4 (Street 4) on the red light district
  • read about Bangkok's "ladyboys" and finally saw one on my last day there
On Thai ladyboys (aka "katoeys")

"Typically, katoeys dress and live as women. They undergo hormone replacement therapy, most have breast implants, and eventually have genital reassignment surgery done. They go to great lengths to conceal any tell-tale signs of masculinity, including surgery to reduce the size of the Adam's apple and other medical procedures to shape their bodies more like those of women (jawbone, hips, buttocks) - even voice chord surgery.

Katoeys are fully integrated in and accepted by Thai society, even on the countryside. Those who don't work in restaurants, bars and cabaret shows hold regular jobs like nurses, secretaries, beauticians, stylists, and some even become popular TV stars.

Many become prostitutes though; the most beautiful ones count among the highest paid sex workers in Thailand. It is believed that the acceptance they enjoy in society is due to the nature of the surrounding Buddhist culture, which places a high value on tolerance. Thais believe that being a katoey is the result of transgressions in past lives (the notion of Karma), and that katoeys deserve pity rather than blame. Sadly, legal recognition of katoeys is non-existent in Thailand. Even after genital reassignment surgery they are not allowed to change their legal sex. Katoeys often belong to lower social classes, and their suicide rate is significantly higher than that of any other segment of the Thai population. Still, many go on to make their mark."

I feel closer to Jesus than I did a week ago. I think I see more of what's at stake, and feel more convinced that Jesus' message of his beautiful kingdom is the answer to all that aches inside of us.