Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?

Sailing into the sun - Lake Michigan, from Holland State Park (8/29/12)

Pourquoi y-a-t-il quelque chose plutôt que rien?

Why is there Something rather than Nothing?

This question became my own as an undergraduate philosophy major at Northern Illinois University. Philosopher Michael Gelven introduced me to The Question, via Martin Heidegger. I had just been converted from a weak deism and practical atheism (the same thing?) to Christian theism. Welcome to the Big Questions of life.

Jim Holt's book on this question, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, is both excellent and sad.  

It's excellent. Extremely well-written. Holt is a good scholar as he comes to grips with hard philosophical, theological, and scientific concepts. He really captures a representative, eclectic scholarly group. Big names are interviewed - Richard Swinburne, Adolph Grünbaum, David Deutsch, Andre Linde, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg, Roger Penrose, John Leslie, Derek Parfit, and the late John Updike. Wow!

Holt takes us on an intellectual and existential tour de cosmos. In reading his book I have again been captivated. The Big Question seems more important than ever. I think on such things and my soul feasts.

Holt's book ends in sadness. This is not all bad. He writes exquisitely about the death of his mother and the time he personally spent at her bedside, loving her with words and actions. I'm thankful he wrote about this. He writes of her last breath.

"I returned to the room to be alone with my mother’s body. Her eyes were still a little open, and her head was cocked to the right. I thought about what was going on in her brain, now that her heart had stopped and the blood had ceased to flow. Deprived of oxygen, the brain cells were frantically but vainly attempting to preserve their functioning until, with gathering speed, they chemically unraveled. Perhaps there had been a few seconds of guttering consciousness in my mother’s cortex before she vanished forever. I had just seen the infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness. The room had contained two selves; now it contained one." (p. 273)

Not according to me, or Richard Swinburne.

My mother's bones were musical. She moved, slightly and perceptibly, to music. She was grateful that her two sons played guitar and sang. A few days before she died I was with her in her room in the nursing home. It was bedtime. I brought my guitar to play for her. I played soft, beautiful, exquisite music on my guitar, in love and honor for her. She lay on the bed. She heard my guitar. I finger-styled with all the excellence I had. Suddenly a voice from the room next door shouted, "Shut that thing up!!!" I stopped playing for a moment. Then, with utmost softness, I played for her again. I wasn't going to deny her this pleasure and comfort.

A few days later I was in her apartment, and the call came that she was gone. Out of the foundational miracle of Somethingness grows the conviction that my mother had not now become "nothing." God created, in the beginning. The One who powerfully created and sustains all that is, is more than able to recreate and raise my mother on that Final Day. From nothing, nothing comes. Ex nihilo, nihil fit. Unless... God.

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

Saturday, July 30, 2016

God Morphs Us From Pride to Humility

I have read 1500+ spiritual journals of pastors and Christian leaders over a period of thirty-five years. And, I have been keeping a spiritual journal for just as long. One of my discoveries has been polarities of the spiritual life that eventually get expressed in the heart of anyone who has a deep praying life. These polarities indicate areas where God desires deep change.

Some of them are:
1. From Pride/Shame to Humility
2. From Control to Trust
3. From Rejection to Affirmation
4. From Evil to Good
5. From Fear to Faith
6. From Materialism to Simplicity
7. From Death to Life

I call these “ontological polarities.” Henri Nouwen calls them "movements of the Spirit."  These things are "ontological"; that is, they are universal, cross-cultural, cross-temporal, cross personal-developmental, and cross-gender. They operate within everyone on this planet whether past, present, and future. 

Regarding spiritual formation, the left side of the polarity indicates the kind spiritual world-conformity Romans 12:1-2 talks about. When God gets his hands on a person's heart in regard to, for example, the pride/humility dichotomy, the hard heart is changed to a soft “heart of flesh.”

There is a directionality of renewal and transformation that involves a change from some kind of spiritual death to spiritual life. This is a "from-to" movement of God's Spirit, operating on our spirit. For example, the Spirit morphs us from Pride/Shame to Humility.

From Pride/Shame to Humility

Humility is the foundational attitude of spiritual transformation. Pride is the enemy of all change. James 4:6 states: "God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble." Moses, the great leader, "was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3).

Our English word “humility” comes from the Latin humus, which means “earth” or “soil.” Our hearts must be like good soil to receive the things God wants to plant in us. Pride, on the other hand, is hardness. Hardness of the heart is the great barrier to spiritual change.

C.S. Lewis refers to pride as “the complete anti-god state of mind.” Francis Frangipane calls pride “the armor of darkness.”

Are you a humble person, or a proud person? One indicator is how you handle criticism. A humble person doesn’t mind being critiqued, even welcoming constructive criticism if it brings more truth. A proud person doesn’t need counsel. And pride’s evil twin, shame, fears criticism. (I view Pride and Shame as two sides of the same coin. Both are forms of self-obsession. The proud person thinks too much of their self; the shame-filled person thinks too little of themselves.)

Like the hidden pride of Isaiah, we need personal encounters with the Living God to see how undone and needy we are.

Thomas Kelly has written: "But what trinkets we have sought after in life, the pursuit of what petty trifles has wasted our years as we have ministered to the enhancement of our little selves. And what needless anguishes we have suffered because our little selves were defeated, were not flattered, were not cozened and petted.” (Kelly's A Testament of Devotion remains on my list of Top Ten Books Ever Read, in terms of influence.)

Humility, says Kelly, rests upon a holy blindedness, like the blindedness of him who looks steadily into the sun. “The God-blinded soul sees naught of self, naught of personal degradation or of personal eminence...”

Alan Nelson writes, “Growth in humility is a measure of our growth in the habit of the Godward-directed mind. And he only is near to God who is exceedingly humble." (Nelson's Broken In the Right Place is the best book on spiritual brokenness I've ever read.)

Thomas Merton writes:

"A humble man is not disturbed by praise since he is no longer concerned with himself. A man who is not humble cannot accept praise gracefully. One who has not yet learned humility becomes upset and disturbed by praise. He may even lose his patience when people praise him; he is irritated by the sense of his own unworthiness. And if he does not make a fuss about it, at least the things that have been said about him haunt him and obsess his mind. They torment him wherever he goes. At the other extreme is the man who has no humility at all and who devours praise, if he gets any, the way a dog gobbles a chunk of meat... The humble man receives praise the way a clean window takes the light of the sun. The truer and more intense the light is, the less you see of the glass. Humility is the surest sign of strength." (Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation is on my list of Top Ten Books Ever Written in terms of personal influence.)

James 4:6 states that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble. This is one of those great biblical either-or ideas which states that it’s not simply a bad thing to have a proud heart, it is an anti-God thing. If you are proud God is against you. My understanding of this is, where there is some area of the heart that is hard towards God, God stands in opposition to that area. 

No one is totally free from pride. The human heart has areas that have been conquered by God and are humble, and has areas of hardness that are not open to God. I can’t imagine a follower of Jesus claiming to be wholly, perfectly humble.

A.W. Tozer's prayer expresses the appropriate attitude: "O Christ, make me strong to overcome the desire to be wise and to be reputed wise by others as ignorant as myself. I turn from my wisdom as well as from my folly and flee to You, the wisdom of God and the power of God. Amen."

Humility is the necessary precondition for spiritual transformation.

Pride dies.

The soft heart prevails, allowing God to shape our spirits into greater Christlikeness. (See Galatians 4:19)

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

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Spiritual Formation - God Strips Away the False Self

(For my Spiritual Formation students at Payne Theological Seminary.)

Spiritual Formation - It Happens in the Depths of the Human Heart: Deconstruction of the False Self

John Piippo, Ph.D

The first five stages of relevant, authentic spiritual formation and transformation are:

1. The Need – recognition of how needy we are of personal, inner change.

2. The Gap – realization as a revelation of the holiness of Christ, and of the great gap between ourselves and Christ.

3. Recognition of the magnitude of the needed transformation. God wants to metamorph the human heart into Christlikeness. (Gal. 4:19; Rom. 12:1-2)

4. Only God can do this – realization that we cannot self-transform by our own striving and will power into Christlikeness.

5 . Therefore, consistently get into the presence of God. Abide in Christ. You cannot consistently dwell in Christ and remain unchanged.

Next we take note of where spiritual transformation takes place. This is the matter of the locus of authentic spiritual formation.

For the most part this is not an external “makeover,” but a heart-transformation. It will have external results, but this is essentially, as Dallas Willard has written, a matter of the “renovation of the heart.”

One biblical verse that gives a window into this is Proverbs 20:5: “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” God moves in the deep waters of the human heart. While our physical bodies waste away in this life, Paul says that our spirits are being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16) Spiritual formation is, therefore, a “day by day” thing. We are either green and growing, or dead (“ripe and rotting”).

What happens as we habitually live in God’s presence? What does the formation of our hearts look like? I have seen that one way God moves in the deep waters of our heart is to deconstruct negative aspects of the self. Especially the self-obsessive aspects of what Thomas Merton called the “false self,” and what Paul Tournier called our “persona.” This becomes the realization of Jesus’ stark, ascetic either-or: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24) Out of a daily abiding in Christ emerges a daily denial of self. This “denial involves, I suggest, negative, false aspects of the self.

As we take up the cross every day, the deconstruction of the self is an everyday thing. This is crucial, since every day the self will rise up and try to assert itself against the ways of God. But God desires to defeat our self-obsessiveness so we can experience renewal and transformation.

One way God does this is by calling us into times of solitude. This is why Henri Nouwen has called solitude “the furnace of spiritual transformation." If solitude is a "furnace," what gets burned away? The answer is: the negative aspects of the "self." Let's call this RESTORATION. 

Unless we daily practice self-denial, self-centered ideas will rise up against the ideas of God. Here are some of the negative aspects of the self I have discovered as I have allowed God much time to search me out.

1. Self-love

On the surface this seems obvious. But the self-love issue goes very deep. Self-love, writes Thomas Merton, "is the source of all boredom and all restlessness and all unquiet and all misery and all unhappiness - ultimately, it is hell." How much easier is it to love the self before loving others and living sacrificially in relationship to them. One British politician's actions were once described as "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his friends for his life." I discover in my heart a deep-rooted propensity to love “me” as my first priority.

As a young Christian I was counseled to keep my priorities as follows:

a. Love God first

b. Love others second

c. Love self

I have found that when I live this way the love I have for myself is healthy and godly. But as Merton said, while all this seems counterintuitive to the proud lover of self, in reality it’s all boredom and misery.

2. Self-hatred

The opposite of self-love is self-hatred. Sometimes, I think, thee two are the sides of the same coin. Self-hatred is as self-obsessively sinful as self-love; i.e., both are manifestations of self-obsessiveness.

Unfortunately, I have much personal experience in hating the self.  Merton writes: "How are we going to recover the ability to love ourselves and to love one another? The reason why we hate one another and fear one another is that we secretly, or openly, hate and fear our own selves. And we hate ourselves because the depths of our being are a chaos of frustration and spiritual misery. Lonely and helpless, we cannot be at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we cannot be at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God."

There is a simple and profound solution to self-hatred: Be at peace with God, and you will be at peace with self. Be at peace with self, and you will be at peace with others.

Love God, and you will love self. This will lead to a truly transforming experience where, instead of beating one’s self for faults and failures, we will rejoice in the greater purposes of God manifested in them. God knows how to draw glory even from our faults. Not to be downcast after committing a fault is one of the marks of true sanctity.

I would like this kind of sanctified life. It speaks to me of a life of radical freedom that issues forth from a deep life of dwelling in the presence of God.  

3. Self-pity

Self-pity is one of the more punishing kinds of self-obsession. Self-pity cannot coexist with spiritual formation. In one of my seminary classes I was talking about holding “pity parties” when a pastor named Samuel from Ghana asked, “What do you mean by “pity party?”” I said, “Samuel, the next time I hold one for myself I’ll invite you so you can see.” Unfortunately, I could write a book and call it How To Host Your Next Pity Party.

More than once the words have come into my mind, "Poor me! They are not treating me right - and after all I've done for them!" Personal deprivation and even mistreatment lead to the emotion of anger. In this regard Henri Nouwen asks, what else is anger but the response to the sense of being deprived? Much of my own anger comes from the fact that my self feels deprived. When one chooses to express this anger by hosting a pity party the self-obsession has begun.

I especially like the way the Russian author Leo Tolstoy described “Ivan Ilyich,” of whom it was said that “no one pitied Ivan the way he wished to be pitied.” Consider this description of Ilyich’s pitiful disease:

“What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and the only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result… The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position… [W]hat most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied. At certain moments after prolonged suffering he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied. He longed to be petted and comforted.”

When you hold a “pity party” and invite yourself and others to it, the focus is on you. It’s all about how you have been hurt, how you have been mistreated, and how you have been wronged. The ruling emotion of pity is bitterness. But one can’t be at the same time bitter and fulfilling the Great Commandment to love God with all your heart. Self-pity seems to be the opposite of heart-formation. Therefore self-pity needs to be denied, because it keeps us from being fulfilled in Jesus.

4. Self-hiding/kosmeo

Being a fake or a phony requires a self-willful act of transformation into a false presence before others. One erects a false persona and hides behind it. Here is a façade of renewal and transformation that may or may not fool others. In this regard God has told me, "John, you do not need to pretend to be what you are not.” God told me this because, sadly, I have postured and performed before others. For example, I have raised the banner of my meager accomplishments before others and hid behind them.

We are not to be “cosmetic” Christians. Self-hiding is untruth. One definition of the Greek word for “truth" is "unhiddenness." Truth is that which is out in the open and can thus be seen. To walk in truth requires an appropriate transparency. This is important because, spiritually, God is a God of truth, works in truth, and rejoices in truth.

What people need from Christian leaders is not another performance, but a sense of God’s real presence. God’s presence can only be mediated through authentic Christian leaders. Christian leaders are to be role models of authenticity. We can even reveal failures and flaws and confess sins before others since what others need is not us, but God Himself.

5. Self-justification

To be haunted and consumed by what others think of us is self-obsessive. Any Christian leader will receive criticism. Not all of it will be kind. There have been times when I’ve gone to prayer and my mind has wandered to someone else thinks of me. It is then that, like Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall, I reflexively begin to defend myself. I argue, in my mind, against my imaginary accuser. I mentally present myself as superior and construct a wall of justification and defense.

My own experience is that this sort of self-justification never feels renewing and transforming. And what arrogance to assume these people are thinking about me. The truth is that we would worry less about what other people think of us if we would realize how little they do.

Thomas Merton writes that God wants to free us from defending our own selves. He says: "A humble man can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them. For a humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, even of himself, since perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God, before Whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle."

Self-justification is the enemy of spiritual formation precisely because transformation requires more than an occasional admittance of personal guilt and failure. A “perfect person” could never experience spiritual formation.

6. Self-righteousness

Biblically, any righteousness we have is to be found in Christ. “Righteousness” is “imputed” or “credited” to us on the basis of what Christ has done on the cross. Therefore it seems ludicrous to posture oneself, pharisaically, as morally and spiritually superior to others.

As foolish as this is I confess to having done it and to feeling stung by the Holy Spirit’s conviction of my sin. In the past I have, sadly, mocked certain Christian leaders on the basis of their ministry style and personal appearance. God has broken me of this, and pointed out that He has not appointed me the judge of all that is right and wrong when it comes to other Christian leaders. Yet the deep thing that wants to do this is still to some degree within me. At least God has pointed it out to me and my prayer is that God would remove it entirely from my heart.

I hate it when others are self-righteous towards me. I need to hate it more that I can be self-righteous towards others. The correct spiritual posture for spiritual formation is humility and the look into the mirror.

7. Self-will

Here is the unfortunate idea that I don't need help from anyone. I can help myself, thank you. Here is the Christian leader who, like a lone cowboy in a Clint Eastwood western, rides into town to help others but doesn’t need any assistance himself. Here is, I think, one of the most spiritually dangerous ideas we can model for others. This is because the ideal shifts from trusting in the Lord to trusting in self.

Scripture tells us that, in order to “build the house,” God must do it. Otherwise we labor in vain. Richard Foster refers to this mentality as “will worship.” Are you impressed with the accomplishments of human will power? If what we mostly see in God’s church are the results of great human will power and awesome human creativity persons will eventually get the message that the church can be built by persons without God.

God wants to break self-will in us. Historian Michael Grant writes that, to Martin Luther, it seemed that God and Satan are "locked in a struggle to mount the same horse: the human will." Self-will deludes us into believing we can renew and transform ourselves. Thus it is preventive of real spiritual renewal and transformation.

8. Self-centeredness

I believe that self-centeredness can be distinguished from self-love and pride. A self-centered person makes choices in light of their effect on the self. For example, my son Josh and I went to the river park to feed the seagulls and saw a gull that had no beak. Our other-centered hearts went out to this disabled creature. We tried to throw bread to it. We felt sorry for it. But 20 gulls were also there. Every time we threw a crumb, the gulls made straight for it, pushing and shoving, and gobbling it down. Gulls are monomaniacs" who think of only one thing which is: their self. The gull with no beak got no bread.

Thomas Merton wrote, "To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell." Not a lot of godly renewal and transformation happens on the doorstep of hell. Simply put, to experience what God wants for us in these areas our world needs to revolve around Him, and not ourselves.

9. Self-seriousness

One quality of those Christian leaders who have influenced me is the ability to easily laugh at themselves. Those who have mentored me either personally or from afar have not taken themselves with ultimate seriousness. The people we minister to need to take God seriously, not us. Otherwise, when we die, what will they be left with? It’s instructive to note that an hour after our funeral service people will be talking about the fried chicken and potato salad, and not us. We will quickly become a forgotten thing as people get on with their lives.

Henri Nouwen expresses it this way: "The fact that I get so easily upset because of a disappointment, so easily angered because of a slight criticism, and so easily depressed because of a slight rejection, shows that Your love does not yet fill me. What does a small - or even a great - failure mean, when I know that You are with me in all my sorrows and turmoil?"

And Nouwen further adds: "I am constantly surprised at how hard it is for me to deal with the little rejections that people inflict on each other day by day... When I swallow these rejections, I get quickly depressed and lonely; then I am in danger of being resentful and even vengeful. But it is such an institutional problem that I can hardly imagine that I can ever be without it. ...Maybe all these small rejections are reminders that I am a traveler on the way to a sacred place where God holds me in the palm of his hand. Maybe I do have to become a little more indifferent towards all these ups and downs, ins and outs, of personal relationships and learn to rest more deeply in him who knows and loves me more than I know and love myself."

2 Corinthians 4:16 says, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day."

Thomas Merton said, "I think the chief reason why we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously. Joy can only be real if it is based on truth, and since the fall of Adam all man's life is shot through with falsehood and illusion. That is why… Bernard [of Clairvaux] is right in leading us back to joy by the love of truth. His starting-point is the truth of our own insignificance in comparison with God. To penetrate the truth of how utterly unimportant we are is the only thing that can set us free to enjoy true happiness."

A spiritual secret to not “losing heart” and day by day inward renewal is to acknowledge how “utterly unimportant we are.” But are we not very important to God? Of course! But the more serious we are about living daily in the presence of God the less we’ll need to take our own self so seriously. I have found this to be freedom.

A few other false aspects of the false self that God wants to free us from include:

10. Self-attention (vs. "Secret" service

Some Christians have a real need to be liked, praised, or respected, and that's one of the motivations for why they serve. We need "a spirituality... which helps us to distinguish service from our need to be liked, praised, or respected."

- Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder, p. 30.

11. Self-inflation (vs. Glorification of God)

"The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust. God is all our joy and in him our dust can become splendor."

- Merton, The Sign of Jonas, in TYTM, p. 27.

12. Self-ignorance (vs. "Search me O God, and know my heart")

"He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas."

- Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 164.

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

Unmasking the False Self

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” 

2 Cor 3: 18

My backyard

Spiritual formation, Jesus-style, is about heart-morphing into Christlikeness (Galatians 4:19). Every Jesus-follower has "Christ in them, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1). The apostle Paul speaks of this "mystery" as a great treasure to be discovered and sought out, again and again. Every day of our lives is a day of potential discovery as we experience the riches of Christ in us.

Henri Nouwen writes of this reality in The Inner Voice of Love:

"What a gracious provision is ours to access in our present journey! Truly, we can be conformed to Christ— from glory to glory— until that day at the consummation of all things, when we can wholly reclaim our true-self-in-Christ. Finally, when we come home to “glory,” we are guaranteed never to fall short of it again— ever! Until then, as we daily find ourselves immersed in the concurrent experience of our true self and our false self within, we face the reality of tension, fully cognizant that our “deepest, truest self is not yet home.”

Commenting on this Will Hernandez writes: "In fact, the first step to our ongoing process of homecoming demands this continual claiming of our true self and the unmasking of our false self. In Thomas Merton’s words, “To reach one’s ‘real self’ one must, in fact, be delivered from that illusory and ‘false self’ whom we have created.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34; quoted in Will Hernandez, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension, Kindle Locations 523-529)

Hernandez continues:

"Our true identity, therefore, is the one defined by God himself. So who are we according to God’s precise view of us? The bottom line is that we are creatures made in the image of our Creator, “valued, valuing, and valuable” beings whom God has loved and will continue to love from eternity to eternity. Indeed “we are the beloveds of God,” as Nouwen confidently declares repeatedly in almost all his speaking and writing. Unshakably, he understood Jesus’ true identity as God’s beloved Son (Matt. 3: 17) to be true of us as well and therefore something we can legitimately claim for ourselves. As John Mogabgab, Nouwen’s former teaching and research assistant at Yale, underscored, “This was for Henri the first truth about us, the truth beyond all biological, cultural, and psychological truths that accumulate around our identity.” (Hernandez, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension, Kindle Locations 533-541)

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

Self-Attention and Self-Abuse Cease to Exist When Honor/Shame Hierarchies Are Removed

Our backyard

(This is an idea in progress...)

When Jesus came he did away with cultural honor-shame hierarchies. You see this in Luke chapter 1. Mary sings her song of the unbelievable new realities her son is going to bring in. With Jesus it will be an upside-down world of inverted hierarchies. Eventually it will be seen as the abolition of hierarchies in the Pauline observation that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.

With this the gate is opened whereby subhumanity might enter into true humanity, where the false self might be exchanged for the true self. This is because self-adoration, self-hate, self-pity, self-centeredness, self-will, self-hiding, and self-ignorance all depend for their existence on the honor-shame hierarchy. All such punishing aspects of the false self are rooted in the comparative evaluation of the self as essentially against other subhuman selves. (One is always, simultaneously, "above" and "below" others.)

The honor-shame hierarchy excludes and never embraces. This is where questions like "Who is the greatest?" are asked, and people say "Thank God I am not like that other person." On the honor-shame hierarchy the "other" is essentially one's opponent.

But in the incarnation the Greatest became the Least so as to bestow kingdom status on all who come to him. (This, BTW, is the core idea behind James Cone's theology of the Christ as black.)


On the "reversal motif" in the song of Mary see R. John Vijayaraj, "Human Rights Concerns In the Lukan Infancy Narratives (Luke 1:5 - 2:52)."

On honor-shame hierarchies in New Testament times see Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke.

Of the four gospels Luke is the most socially concerned.

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Help Support a Pastor and His Church in Nepal

Sara Van Aken comes to Redeemer. She went with YWAM to Nepal in January 2015. A severe flood has hit Nepal, and Sara is leading the way in raising support for the pastor and church she worked with. Here's Sara's letter to me explaining the need. If you feel led to help the information is below. Thank you!

Tikapur, Nepal

            In January of 2015, I spent four weeks in Nepal on a team with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Two of those weeks were spent living in the village of Tikapur, a 16 hour bus ride from Katmandu. We served by constructing concrete outhouses in the backyards’ of six different homes, visiting house fellowships and sharing the gospel, and preached at four different churches in and surrounding the village.

            A couple days ago, the Pastor of the church we worked closely with contacted me with an urgent need. Almost the entire village has flooded and more than 30 homes have been damaged, leaving families without food or clothes and living in the local school. As soon as he told me what happened, I felt in my heart that I need to do something.

            God loves them and is faithful to those he loves, so I have created a GoFundMe account with the confidence that He will provide! If you feel led to contribute, you can do so by clicking the link provided below. Thank you for your generosity and faithfulness in this matter and I pray that God will bless you in abundance as well.

Love, Sara Van Aken

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Teaching at Payne Theological Seminaary this Week

I'm teaching Spiritual Formation at Payne Theological Seminary this week (A.M.E.). What a privilege and blessing it is for me to do this!

I teach two SF classes a year at Payne. This is my seventh year of teaching here. I've taught many talented followers of Jesus, and interacted with some great African American scholars.

I'm especially excited because I am now able to use my own book as one of the main texts(Praying). Next summer I hope to add my book (now writing it) on spiritual formation.

Linda is with me and we are staying at a great hotel in Dayton where she can relax, read, pray, and write in her spiritual journal while I teach.

My class runs from 9-5 each day.

It's a beautiful seventeen mile drive from our hotel to the seminary in Wilberforce. This is a very historic area, especially for black history. Payne is the oldest African American theological seminary in our nation. Wilberforce University is adjacent to Payne, and is the oldest African American university in America.

I really enjoyed class and my students today. God is doing great things this week at Payne!


1844 – The Ohio Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church met in Columbus October 18th to select a site and erect a Seminary and Manual Training School.

1856 – Wilberforce University was founded with an interest in providing religious education.

1891 – The Board of Trustees of Wilberforce University voted and approved the organization of a seminary to be named for Bishop Daniel A. Payne, who had interested the African Methodist Episcopal Church in a program of higher education.

1894 – Payne Theological Seminary was incorporated as an independent institution “for the purpose of promoting education, religion, and morality by the education of persons for the Christian ministry and missionaries for the redemption of Africa and other foreign lands.”

1954 – The Seminary took steps to raise its standards by promoting a program exclusively on a graduate level.

1956 – Payne Theological Seminary was admitted to membership in the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).

1995 – It became the fourth historically African American theological seminary to become fully accredited by the ATS.

2009 – The ATS Commission on Accrediting announced that Payne had been elevated to a ten-year accreditation cycle.  Payne’s next accreditation visit will be in 2018.

Location: Payne Theological Seminary is located at the corner of Wilberforce-Clifton Road and Coleman Road in Wilberforce, Ohio.  Wilberforce is approximately three miles northeast of Xenia, Ohio, and 18 miles east of Dayton, Ohio.  It is situated within driving distance of Dayton, Springfield, Cincinnati, and Columbus.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

If My People

Sunday morning worship at Redeemer

In Isaiah 19:23-25 we read:

23 In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. 24 In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. 25 The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.

In the Old Testament these three phrases - "my people," "my handiwork," and "my inheritance" - are usually only applied to Israel. Old Testament scholar John Goldingay writes: "If Assyria and Egypt can be called God's people, anyone can be so called, even Britain and the United States." (Goldingay, 1&2 Chronicles for Everyone, 95) 

Keep this in mind, and consider what is perhaps the most famous biblical Call to Prayer, found in 2 Chronicles 7:14:

14 if my people, who are called by my name,will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

We can apply this verse to our own land, following the above reasoning out of Isaiah 19. Goldingay writes: 
"If peoples want to claim the promise in 2 Chronicles 7, all they have to do is fulfill the same conditions as Israel."

To do this...

First, we have to "fall down." We have to humble ourselves. We have to assume the posture of a slave or suppliant before a king.

Second, we have to "plead." That's the literal meaning of the Hebrew word, which is usually translated as "pray." This is prayer as humble pleading before God our King. Goldingay says this is "not pleading for justice but for pardon, the kind of forgiveness only a king can grant, the pardon that ignores their deserving execution for their wrongdoing." (Ib.)

Third, this kind of prayer-appeal can only be made if we acknowledge any wrongdoing and turn from it. This is called "repentance." "Repentance is usually not a matter of feeling sorry but of changing what you do." (Ib.)

Finally, we have to "look to God's face." Not "seek" God's face like we are searching for something that is hidden. The word here means: turn and look at God. Goldingay writes: "The idea is of seeking from Yahweh the things that Yahweh alone can give - things such as a good harvest or insight about the future. When Yahweh's face smiles, these things from the face follow. God will soon note the corollary, that people must not be seeking the face of other gods." (Ib.)

In Western culture we usually go after good things by using our own abilities and minds. In 2 Chronicles we see a different viewpoint, which is: We are to get low, turn from any sin we are captivated by, and take the time to prayer-plead before our God. Then, and only then, will God "hear from heaven and heal the land."

Shall we do this together, now, in these days?

In my book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God I write about hearing and discerning the voice of God. 

Daniel Payne Heard God Speak to Him

Daniel Payne
Tomorrow morning Linda and I travel to Dayton, Ohio. I will be teaching my Spiritual Formation class at Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio.

A good portion of my class will be on hearing and discerning the voice of God so as to be leaders who are led by the Spirit of God. Daniel Payne himself heard from God. Tonight I'm home re-reading a biography of Daniel Payne, after whom Payne Seminary is named, and read this:

"Several weeks after his conversion, Payne received an “irresistible and divine” impression during an afternoon prayer. A voice spoke to him saying, “I have set thee apart to educate thyself in order that thou mayest be an educator of thy people.” Thus began Daniel Alexander Payne’s lifelong mission to improve the educational condition of his people." (Thabiti Anyabwile, The Faithful Preacher: Recapturing the Vision of Three Pioneering African-American Pastors, p. 76).

In my book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God I write about hearing and discerning the voice of God. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Jeff & Annie Dieselberg at Redeemer This Coming Sunday, July 24

Nightlight's coffee house in Bangkok
Jeff and Annie Dieselberg from Nightlight International in Bangkok will preach at Redeemer this coming Sunday, July 24. (10:30 AM)

Nightlight was quoted in yesterday's New York Times - "Thai Sex Industry Under Fire from Tourism Minister, Police." 


– Build trusting relationships through bar visits. Raise awareness about the risks of working in the sex trade and educate women about avaialble resources.
– Provide assistance and intervention through emergency shelter, rehabilitation/counseling, child-care and basic necessities to both national and international victims of trafficking and prostitution.
– Provide economic alternatives and leadership development through employment, job training and life skills training at NightLight Design, Co., Ltd.
– Offer educational opportunities while on the job and support continuing education through scholarship assistance.
– Intervene when children are solicited for prostitution. Work with guardians to protect at risk children.
– Introduce women and children to the love, mercy and healing power of Jesus Christ by giving them opportunities to grow strong in their faith and become influencers who impact their communities.
– Educate the public, including Thai and foreign, religious and secular, on the physical, psychological, legal and economic consequences of prostitution and trafficking. Encourage their involvement in advocacy and follow-up care.
– Equip and train leaders, visionaries and catalysts from around the world with resources and skills to combat trafficking and prostitution in their own communities.
– Set up global networks to assist in the repatriation of trafficking victims.
– Address the demand side of the sex industry through advocacy, outreach, counseling, referral, and intervention.

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

Dissatisfaction as Resulting from American Devotion to Accumulation

Green Lake, Wisconsin

Political economist Robert Skidelsky's and philosopher Edward Skidelsky wrote a killer book,  How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life. If you're a Jesus-follower and read this book the connections between the Skidelsky's analysis of American money hunger and the words of Jesus will be pop up all over the place like Pokemon..

Isn't every culture money hungry? The correct answer here is: no. There have been cultures where having more and more money is not the good life. American, the Skidelsky's claim, is the sad exception. They write:

"Aristotle’s vision of the good life may be parochial, but his assumption that there is a good life, and that money is merely a means to its enjoyment, has been shared by every great world civilization except our own." (P. 78) Read thei book and watch the Skidelsky's back this up.

World-historical civilizations followed, largely, Aristotle's idea that life has a telos, a purpose, an "end" beyond which there was not "more" to be sought after. This goes logically with the idea of a contentment, a satisfaction, a resting place in life that is to be enjoyed for its own sake. Relate this to the Christian idea that the telos of life is the love and enjoyment of God, in which the faithful find their rest. "Rest" here is not to be equated with apathy or lethargy or "doing nothing," but rather an active state of being that is no longer wasting its activity in the pursuit of "more."

The Skidelskys write: "it is our own devotion to accumulation as an end in itself that stands out as an anomaly, as something requiring explanation." (p. 78) We Americans are the wacked-out ones who inseminate other cultures with the seed of greed.

We are the restless, overworked culture. Compare American work hours with, e.g., European work hours to see how Europe is still indebted to Artistotle. Thus,

"work for the ancient Greeks was strictly a means to an end, so not even a contender for the title of good life. Only activities without extrinsic purpose— above all philosophy and politics, both conceived non-instrumentally— could make it onto the short list. These attitudes were to leave a long legacy, as we shall see." (p. 73)

This legacy was picked up in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas, who wrote: 

“The desire for material things as they are conducive to an end is natural to man. Therefore it is without fault to the extent that it is confined within the norms set by the nature of that end. Avarice exceeds these limits and is thereby sinful.” (Quoted in Ib., p. 79, from Aquinas's Summa Theologica)

In Aristotle, and Aquinas, and in Jesus and Paul, the idea of an "end" or "telos" is precisely not the sort of thing one would ever want "more of." But in a culture of no ends and limitless consumption such as ours there can never be "rest" and "enjoyment" and - note this carefully - "fulfillment." In this case the "desire for more" is the enemy of fulfillment. (Relate this to some Christians' cries for "More, Lord." Perhaps some of that is a manifestation of underlying American greed?)

This is a rich, beautiful, helpful, and troubling book that I was not able to put down. I'm doing some re-reading to deepen the insights.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Best Preaching Decision I Ever Made

Monroe County Courthouse
The best preaching decision I ever made was to preach through the biblical texts rather than preach thematically. For example, I preached (along with some associates) through the 4 Gospels chronologically over a period of 7 years. Currently I am in the midst of preaching through the Book of James, which will take three more months - verse-by-verse, holding tight to the context and the big picture.

I don't preach thematically, since every theme one could ever want eventually gets addressed in the vast, comprehensive biblical text.

One result is that we have a church growing in biblical literacy. And our people love it.

One of the church's great distinctives is the Bible. The Bible is our text. The Bible gives us our rich, deep metanarrative. Therefore I will preach it. 

Emphasize distinctives rather than try to be relevant. 

See also:

How I Prepare for a Sermon

My book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God will immerse you in the Christian theistic metanarrative.