Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Only Legacy Worth Leaving



"I'm an atheist. But I want to leave a legacy. I want my life to leave an impression, an impact, on others after I die."

That's what one of my young philosophy students told me after class.

I said to her, "You won't."

I won't either. On neither theism nor atheism will personal legacies be made.

When you die the world will not stand up and take notice. The event of your expiration will be unattended, except for a few people who will be the equivalent of, perhaps, a hundred grains of sand on the entire Pacific coast shoreline. Out of those hundred grains of sand, most will quickly leave your memory behind as they discuss the fried chicken and potato salad at your funeral luncheon.

What about your family? If you were married and your marriage was a good one, your surviving spouse will grieve your loss. The better your marriage was, the easier they will move on without you. 

If your marriage was lousy, they will lie awake at night filled with the bitterness of unfinished business, words of love never said, pain inflicted and suffered and unhealed. At times they may wish they could forget you, but they cannot, and the thought occasionally comes to them that they wasted years being married to you.

The same for the children. Before he died, my father told me he loved me, and he blessed me with these words, "John, you've done well." My father's blessing helped me go on without him. I think of him, and my mother, occasionally and unpredictably, and feel thankful for the life and care they gave me. But I have moved on without them, which is what every good parent wants for their children.

"But what if I become Michael Jackson? Then, surely, I will be remembered?"

Well... you won't become Michael Jackson. But if you should achieve such fame, you won't be remembered personally. Your music will be revived, and a small group of people will pay to see your your memorabilia. But people will not remember you precisely because they did not know you. And, in this case, you may not have even known you. In your death, you can rest assured that, even if your post-mortem star briefly shines bright, it's glory will fade. When is the last time you thought about Michael Jackson the person? Who he was? What he thought? You have other things to think about, right?

There is one difference between theism and atheism worth noting. I explained it to my student in this way.

Several years ago I was the speaker at a conference for military chaplains. It was held at a retreat center on the Atlantic shoreline. It was winter, and during a long break I walked north on the beach for a mile. I don't often get to see the ocean, and it was my delight to take this walk. It was bitter cold. There was a strong wind blowing, and the waves were surfable.

No one else walked the beach that day, so when I turned back to the south I saw that the footprints I had made were fast-disappearing, and finally gone. "That," I thought, "is how my life shall be." 

So much for any personal legacy. But for the theist, the point of my life was never to be the point of life. If, through my life, the footprints of God imprint others, then I could not be more pleased.

I'm certain every atheist is not obsessed with leaving their mark on the world. But, sans God, that's all they have. And that will be microscopic, and come to nothing (cf. the final heat death of the universe, if there is no God who intervenes.).

I like what Thomas Merton wrote, in closing his autobiography The Seven-Storey Mountain. He writes:

"And when you have been praised a little and loved a little, I will take away all your gifts and all your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing, a dead thing, a rejection. And in that day you shall begin to possess the solitude you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth."

That is something my soul can rest in.

Monday, January 30, 2023

To Love Is to Suffer Together; to Suffer Together is to Love

(Maple leaf from my driveway)

One of the harder things I've had to do was put our dog So-fee down. She developed a urinary tract blockage, which was untreatable. I hated the day we brought her to the vet and said good-bye.

We suffered that day. We suffered much, because we loved much. Those that love suffer in a certain way. Their suffering is not polluted by unresolved issues, uncertain love, and bitterness.  

Life is a series of gains and losses. For Linda and I, the losing part includes our parents, our son David, Linda's sister Vicki, and several greatly loved relatives and friends.

Greatly loved.

When a person does not love, their suffering is impure. The closer you are to someone spiritually and emotionally, the more you feel with them. This is why those who love others weep when others weep, and rejoice when others rejoice. 

This past August Linda and I celebrated forty-nine years together. We rejoiced, because we love each other! Over the years we have laughed, and suffered, together. She enters into my pain and joy, and I enter into hers. Love embraces both the struggle and the victory.

This produces a bountiful fruit of love that is exemplified in Christ. In love, Jesus suffered. In suffering, Jesus loved. If this isn't happening, then it's less than love.

Will Hernandez tells us about Henri Nouwen's understanding of suffering love. Hernandez writes:

"Much can be said about the aphorism that the one who loves much suffers much. For to surrender to love is akin to risking, to letting go of one’s proclivity to control, thereby opening oneself to vulnerable living, and consequently inviting the real prospect of suffering. It is equally accurate to say that only one who has known the experience of deep suffering can freely love and give love with true abandon. If suffering happens to be the consequence of true love, then that same love also becomes the fruit of real suffering. [Henri] Nouwen, from his own experience, reminds you and me: “Yes, as you love deeply the ground of your heart will be broken more and more, but you will rejoice in the abundance of the fruit it will bear” (IVL:60)." (Will Hernandez, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension, Kindle Locations 238-242)


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Saturday, January 28, 2023

We Attend Church Every Sunday

 


Linda and I, for 51 years, have gathered on Sunday mornings with our church family. 

Every Sunday.

Yes, we are pastors. But we don't attend church because we are pastors. We are pastors because we attend church. My calling to be a pastor emerged from my immersion in my church family. As did Linda's.

Whatever good there may be in our lives, it is hugely indebted to our involvement in our church families.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

As a Pastor, I Invite Questioning

 

                                                                        (Monroe, MI)

(Adapted from my book Deconstructing Progressive Christianity.)

One complaint progressive Christians have is that they were never allowed to question beliefs about God, and other biblical matters. One thing we see when progressives chat on social media is bitterness about their former churches, and how oppressive the pastors and leaders were. Sadly, some of that is true. 

For me, as a philosopher [PhD, Northwestern U., 1986], I invite questioning. Imagine 50+ years of meeting with people who  want to ask questions about Christian beliefs, such as the existence and nature of God. I never turn them down. 

Philosophy is the discipline that demands questioning. Of everything. Of the meta-issues (do I exist; metaethical matters; epistemological obstacles; how do words refer; etc.) 

We philosophers are trained to evaluate, and not to affirm, until the evaluation is sufficient. So, I question many things, including progressive Christianity. I am skeptical about the metanarrative progressive Christianity offers me. I read Richard Rohr and John Shelby Spong and Brian McLaren and Rachel Held Evans and Marcus Borg and you-name-them, and I question them. I question the postmodern claim that we cannot know objective truths, which would mean, we can’t know about God. (And which devalues science.) 

Progressive Christians who love questioning should rejoice that I am doing this! (p. 77)


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Sin

 

                                                     (Redeemer, on a snowy morning.)

Whatever happened to "sin?" 

I am told some churches rarely, if ever, talk about sin. Why not? Because people will be turned off by it.

 Other churches talk about sin. I do. Of course! The entire biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, will turn into one big smiley emoji if we eliminate sin from the story. The story will be lost in its entirety if sin is eliminated. Because then, there's no need for a Messiah, a Savior.

If you use the word “sin” in public some people will look at you like you are some kind of medieval religious crazy person. Like: "Jimmy sinned a few days ago." Say that and you'll get accused of being "judgmental."

 I find all this ignorant, and troubling.

 “Sin” is a word. Which REFERS to something real

 

·                      “Sin” is a word that refers to behaviors and actions that create alienation and isolation.

·                     “Sin” is a word that refers to choices and non-choices that cause emotions of anger and vengeance and sadness and bitterness and bring tears and loss and grief and cries for justice and so on and on and on…

·                     If sin wasn’t about something very real and very dangerous and very alienating, half the movies that are made would not be made, and many of this world's tweets would be meaningless.

·                     “Sin” is a big-time reality word. There are not a lot of things more real than the reality of “sin."

·                     The English word “sin” is just an ancient word that refers to a reality that is still with us. And within us, if anyone should care to self-examine.

·                     Everyone does it. Everyone has it. If you don't have it, then you can start throwing stones at the rest of us.

·                     "Sin" is one biblical concept that is easily empirically verifiable.

G. K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, wrote:

 Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin – a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. . . .

Sin is only meaningful if it has a reference point. The reality of sin evokes the question, "in reference to what?"

"Sin" falls short of something. Sin doesn't measure up. If there's no reference point, then moral outrage is absurd, and "sin" doesn't exist. Think about this.

Moral outrage is everywhere. Moral outrage is currently (but who cares) politically correct. Moral outrage makes no sense if sin (wrongdoing; evil; heinous acts; etc.) does not exist.

Everyone - me and you and you-know-who - has screwed up, and landed short of the Reference Point. (On atheism, there is no Reference Point. Philosopher James Spiegel states how difficult it is for the noetic framework of atheism to discuss evil. "The very notion of “evil” presupposes a standard for goodness which atheism cannot provide. Any notion of evil or, for that matter, how things ought to be, whether morally or in terms of natural events, must rely on some standard or ideal that transcends the physical world. Only some form of supernaturalism, such as theism, can supply this. So to the extent that atheists acknowledge the reality of evil, they depart from their own commitment to naturalism." (The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief)

We need to talk more about this, not less.

There always has been, and still is, a huge SIN PROBLEM in the world.

Churches should lead the way in this discussion.

And, BTW, "sin" and "death" were the enemies Jesus came to defeat. How foolish for churches not to let seekers in on this open secret.  


Sunday, January 22, 2023

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Breaking Free from Institutional Measures of Success

(Ladybug, in my home office)


Dallas Willard's interview on measuring spiritual growth among Jesus-followers is prophetic and subversive (the two often go together!). Many churches, he says, measure the wrong things, "like attendance and giving, but we should be looking at more fundamental things like anger, contempt, honesty, and the degree to which people are under the thumb of their lusts."

Why don't churches measure spiritual effectiveness by these things? Because these qualities are "not worth bragging about." "We'd rather focus on institutional measures of success."

People in today's American churches are suffering, especially pastors and their families, because "much of North America and Europe has bought into a version of Christianity that does not include life in the kingdom of God as a disciple of Jesus Christ. They are trying to work a system that doesn't work. Without transformation within the church, pastors are the ones who get beat up. That is why there is a constant flood of them out of the pastorate. But they are not the only ones. New people are entering the church, but a lot are also leaving. Disappointed Christians fill the landscape because we've not taken discipleship seriously."

Churches, and Jesus-followers, must change their definition of "success." 

"They need to have a vision of success rooted in spiritual terms, determined by the vitality of a pastor's own spiritual life and his capacity to pass that on to others. When pastors don't have rich spiritual lives with Christ, they become victimized by other models of success—models conveyed to them by their training, by their experience in the church, or just by our culture. They begin to think their job is managing a set of ministry activities and success is about getting more people to engage those activities. Pastors, and those they lead, need to be set free from that belief."


Thursday, January 19, 2023

Real Followers of Jesus Are Peacemakers

                                                              (Redeemer sanctuary)

If you are in conflict with another brother or sister in Christ, this should not sit right with you. You should be troubled by this. If you are a follower of Jesus, you must do something about it.

You will not have peace with God if you are not working towards peace with others. The very peace Jesus promises to all who abide in him is not only for you. It is for the community of Jesus-followers you are in.

Henri Nouwen, in his beautiful book The Road to Peace, writes:

"In his farewell discourse Jesus said to his apostles, "Peace I leave to you, my peace I give to you; a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you" (John 14:27). When we want to make peace we first of all have to move away from the dwelling places of those who hate peace and enter into the house of him who offers us his peace. This entering into a new dwelling place is what prayer is all about." (9)

A peacemaker dwells, not in the house of fear and war, but in the house of peace. In Christ, there is peace. As I abide in Christ he gives me his peace, a peace that is different from this world's peace. I connect with him who is our peace. (Ephesians 2:14) How?

By praying. Praying is a main way of connecting to God. Have an actual praying life and receive the peace of God, as Jesus promised. "A peacemaker," writes Nouwen, "prays."

He continues: "Prayer is the beginning and the end, the source and the fruit, the core and the content, the basis and the goal for all peacemaking. I say this without apology, because it allows me to go straight to the heart of the matter, which is that peace is a divine gift, a gift we receive in prayer." (9, emphasis mine)

In some church communities the people do something called "passing the peace." They turn to people next to them, and say, "The peace of the Lord be with you." The peace of God is something for others. You have been freely given God's peace. So, freely give it away. Which means, make peace with others.

Jesus didn't give us the Beatitudes so we could posterize them. (Matthew 5) Real followers of Jesus live these things out. Division doesn't sit right with them. 

This is hard work. It is out of our comfort zones. Nearly everything Jesus calls us to do is out of our comfort zones. This is why peace-lovers are many, but peacemakers are few. 

If you follow Jesus, you will wage peace. You will then experience the blessing and favor of God, imparted like anointing oil, over you.

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

Psalm 133:1-3



Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Cast Your Distractions on Him

 

                                             (Me, Warren Dunes State Park (Michigan))

Distraction.

That, according to Richard Foster, is the primary spiritual problem in our day. "The Internet culture is only a surface issue. Our problem is something far more fundamental. This deeper, more basic issue can be summed up in one word: distraction." (Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, Kindle Locations 709-710)The inability to focus. Difficulty in attending to just one thing. The tweeting soul. This has always been with us. Foster writes: "People were distracted long before it [the Internet] came along. Blaise Pascal observed, "The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." (Ib., 710-711)

People's minds have always wandered. Arguably, today they wander more than ever. We live in a culture of distraction, a world whose economy is sustained by distractedness. To un-attend is the norm. 

This is changing the nature of interpersonal relationships for the worse. And, it affects the God-relationship. Single-mindedness, the ability to attend to one thing over a sustained period of time, is needed to succeed at anything (except multi-tasking). If one wanted to overcome this, how could it be done? Foster writes: 

"The first counsel I would give regarding a wandering mind is for us to be easy on ourselves. We did not develop a noisy heart overnight, and it will take time and patience for us to learn a single-hearted concentration." (Kindle Locations 716-717) He quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

"The first thing to remember is not to get impatient with yourself. Do not cramp yourself in despair at the wandering of your thoughts. Just sit down each day and wait patiently. If your thoughts keep running away, do not attempt to restrict them. It is no bother to let them run on to their destination; then, however, take up the place or the person to whom they have strayed into your prayers. In this way you will find yourself back at the text, and the minutes of such digressions will not be wasted and will not trouble you." (In Ib., Kindle Locations 717-721)

Learn about your own inner chaos. Identify it. My suggestion is: when your mind wanders, note where it wanders to. I have found that the mind always wanders to something like a burden. When you identify the burden, give it over to God. 1 Peter 5:7 says, "Cast your burdens on him, for he cares for you."

Discern if a particular distraction is from God. Foster writes: "If one particular matter seems to be repeatedly intruding into our meditation, we may want to ask of the Lord if the intrusion has something to teach us. That is, we befriend the intruder by making it the object of our meditation." (Kindle Locations 725-726)

Find ways "to crucify the spirit of distraction." (Kindle Location 727) Try fasting for periods of time from electronic media. Turn off your cell phone and survive without it. [How badly do you want single-mindedness?] 

Remember that people don't need you as much as you think they do. Constant connectedness with many people increases inner chaos. Foster writes: "I would suggest a fast from all our Internet gadgetry for one hour a day, one day a week, one week a year. See if that helps to calm the internal distraction." (Kindle Locations 728-729)

Find a place free from distractions, and pray. Dialogue with God. Listen, and speak. Learn the Relationship. Get away from the to-do list and be with God. Live life with your doing flowing from your being with God.

Ahhh... to calm the inner distraction...  To learn simply being with Almighty God...  To receive and respond to God's earth-shattering presence...  To be in love with your Maker... 

Francois Fenelon wrote, "God does not cease speaking, but the noise of the creatures without, and of our passion within, deafens us, and stops our hearing. We must silence every creature, we must silence ourselves, to hear in the deep hush of the whole soul, the ineffable voice of the spouse. We must bend the ear, because it is a gentle and delicate voice, only heard by those who no longer hear anything else." Oh, may you, may I, hear nothing else." (In Ib., Kindle Locations 765-767)

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Power of Repetition in Worship



I remember when Linda and I watched "The Lego Movie." We enjoyed it. And, it left a mark on my soul. I found myself humming "Everything is AWESOME!!!" I have the song in my head right now. (Most recently, because we now have two grandchildren, "I Am a Gummy Bear" loops through my mind.)

This is about neuroplasticity. J. P. Moreland writes:

"Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to form new brain grooves (i.e., new patterns of synaptic connections) and undergo a change of structure. The brain is not stuck in a static, unchanging structure. In fact, through repeated habit-forming practices of different ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, one can reshape one's brain in a healthy direction. But this reshaping requires three things: practice, practice, practice! Practice doesn't make perfect; it makes permanent." (Moreland, Finding Quiet.)

That is the power of repetition

Be careful of what you repeat over and over again, because it will get inside you and want to stay. BTW, in my college philosophy classes my teaching method is all about getting students to memorize via repetition the correct answers over and over and over again.

Over the years I occasionally hear some Westernized linear-thinking Christian mock the repetitive worship found in a Pentecostal church like mine. But the ancient Hebrews were tribal, and tribal worship is repetitive. "Worship," writes Calvin College philosophy professor James K.A. Smith, "is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition." (Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Kindle Location 1256)

N.T. Wright, in his "Everyone" commentary on 1 John 2:3-5, states: 

"[S]ometimes, in some traditions at least, the things we sing in church are deliberately repetitive. We use them quite differently: as a way of meditation, of stopping on one point and mulling it over, of allowing something which is very deep and important to make more of an impact on us than if we just said or sung it once and passed on. Quite different traditions find this helpful: the TaizĂ© movement in France, for instance, uses some haunting brief songs or chants; but you find the same thing in many branches of the modern charismatic movement, where repetition is an essential part of worship. True, some people find these tedious, and want to get back to old-fashioned hymns as quickly as possible. This may be partly a matter of personality. But it may also be that such people are unwilling to allow the truth of which the poem speaks to get quite so close to them. Repetition can touch, deep down inside us, parts that other, ‘safer’ kinds of hymn cannot reach, or do not very often."
- N.T. Wright, The Early Christian Letters for Everyone, p. 139

Repetitive worship is not "mindless," but mind-shaping.

Repeat (meditate on) the truths of God and be transformed.

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Monday, January 16, 2023

Grief - Some Resources

(Sterling State Park - Lake Erie)

(I am re-posting this for some friends.)

Here are some posts I have written about grief and loss

Grieving the Loss of a Child






A Worldview Shapes How We Grieve



BOOKS

A Grace Disguised, by Jerry Sittser

Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis

I'll Hold You in Heaven, by Jack Hayford




ON THE WEB

My friend Don Follis is a Vineyard pastor to pastors. His website is here



The Real Source of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Social Activism



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(With one of my Payne Theological Seminary classes)


(To understand this more deeply, I recommend two books by King scholar Lewis Baldwin: Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr.; and Revives My Soul Again: The Spirituality of Martin Luther King Jr.
My working bibliography on African-American Christianity is HERE.
I'll teach my Spiritual Formation class at Payne Seminary Feb. 28-March3.)
In George Orwell's book 1984 the main character, Winston Smith, has the job of eliminating politically unwanted ideas, documents, and words, by throwing them down a "memory hole." To rewrite history is to forget history. To do this is "Orwellian."

Sadly, we will see Orwellian unthinking in today's celebration of Dr. King's birthday. The true sources of his social activism, which were spiritual, are largely forgotten.


As our nation pauses to honor Dr. King, we celebrate his great civil and political influence. But we will hear little of his own understanding of the source of that influence.
The fire burning deep in King’s soul was his relationship with God, fanned by his constant prayer life. Few scholars have attended to this, says King scholar Lewis Baldwin of Vanderbilt University, in his book Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King. Our secular media has thrown King's spiritual life down the Orwellian memory hole. 

I remember reading, for the first time, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I knew King was a Christian, but his spiritual life was never talked about in the media. We saw film and photos of King praying in the city streets, but were not told how much this meant to him. His “Letter” greatly moved me.

I saw that King was an intellectual, a brilliant writer, and most importantly, a fundamentally spiritual being. The social activism of Martin Luther King, Jr., was a function of a life grounded in God and prayer, which he defined as “conversing with God.”

Prayer was more than a theory or some religious thing for King. King had an actual praying life. He saw praying as necessary for changing his own life and the prevailing culture. King never separated moral responsibility from a deep personal spirituality and piety. Prayer, for King, was conversation with God.

Once King received a phone call at midnight from a racist who called him a “n-------,” threatened to kill him, and “blow up” his home This deeply disturbed him. He discovered that all the intellectual things he learned in the university and seminary could not help him overcome this. 

King turned to God in prayer, and had a face-to-face encounter with what was, in the tradition of his forebears, called a “Waymaker.” This God-encounter exposed his fears, insecurities, and vulnerablities. He found comfort as an “inner voice” spoke to him, reminding him that he was not alone, commanding him to stand up for righteousness, justice, and truth, and assuring him that “lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”

It is important to understand King’s position on spiritual things if we want to grasp his societal accomplishments. King, who earned a PhD at Boston University, knew that intellectual accomplishments were not enough to transform self and society. God was needed, and prayer was able to “invoke the supernatural.” Baldwin writes that “King taught the people of Montgomery that the weapon of prayer was ultimately more powerful and effective than any gun or bomb.”

King told students that, if you don’t have a deep life of prayer, you have no business preaching to others. King saw himself as essentially involved in a spiritual movement, not simply a secular struggle for equal rights, social justice, and peace.

“King,” writes Baldwin, “was effective because his praying and preaching were effective. True leadership in his case made prayer and preaching indispensable.”
King knew, existentially, that real, true prayer involves “a profound surrender of the self to God, not prayer rooted in self-pride, self-righteousness, and self-centeredness.” That becomes the kind of relationship with God that can transform the fabric of reality.

The real source of King’s influence was his soul-receptivity to the powerful, transforming influence of God. 

Rev. John Piippo, PhD
Co-Pastor, Redeemer Fellowship Church
Monroe, MI
Adjunct Professor, Payne Theological Seminary, 2010-2017 (African Methodist Episcopal)
johnpiippo@msn.com 
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