What to Do With a Can of Worms

What should you do when you’ve opened a can of worms? The obvious answer is: go fishing. Of course, a can of worms doesn’t guarantee a fish dinner, but it offers possibilities.

What should you do when the can of worms is a biblical one? And certainly, there are some: Jesus, talking about hating father and mother; God, ordering the destruction of the indigenous people of Canaan; or Paul’s order that women be silent in the church are examples. When coming to these “can of worms” passages, one ought to go fishing – try the waters, and see what possibilities the passage offers. Valuable insights often emerge from the most difficult texts.

There are some things to keep in mind when handling one of these difficult and controversial passages. First, stay humble. These kinds of passages are the ones about which people tend to be most dogmatic, but they ought to be the ones about which people are least dogmatic. If you’re going to be unbending, be unbending about the resurrection of Jesus, not about women being silent in the church. The one is abundantly clear; the other is not.

Next, when people take a position contrary to your own, don’t impute an evil motive to them. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Yes, their interpretation may be wrong, but your attitude is certainly wrong, when you impugn their character. God will not judge you for an honest mistake in interpretation; a malicious attitude in a relationship is another matter altogether.

Next, go with your best understanding of the passage. Don’t condemn others over disputed passages, but don’t condemn yourself either by violating your conscience. I had a friend who divorced her repeatedly unfaithful husband when her kids were still young. I once told her, based on Matthew 5 and 19 and Mark 10, that I believed she was eligible to remarry. She disagreed. I still think I was right, but had I talked her into violating her conscience by remarrying, she, her kids, and her husband would have all paid the price.

Coming to your best understanding of a passage requires demanding work and careful thought. For example, the passage where the Apostle Paul tells women to be silent in the church follows a passage where he argues that women should cover their heads when praying or prophesying. So how can a woman pray and prophesy if she is remaining silent in the church?

Untangling a knotty issue like this is no small matter. It takes hard work to come to one’s best understanding of such passages. This work includes examining the passage in its biblical and historical context and comparing it to other passages that deal with the same subject. In this particular example, the apostle clearly knew women were speaking in church, praying and prophesying, and gave them directions for doing so. It therefore seems to me highly unlikely that he intended the prohibition he gave three chapters later to be absolute. And if the prohibition is not absolute, it must pertain to a particular issue or set of circumstances.

The scholar Ken Bailey suggested that set of circumstances might have to do with the fact that the early Christian’s meetings were segregated. Women sat in one area, men in another. In ancient cultures, as in multi-lingual Third World countries today, men were more likely to understand the trade language than were women. Some of the women spoke only the indigenous language or a kind of patois. Because they could not understand much of what was being said, they understandably lost interest in the meeting and began conversing. When that happened, the leader would ask them to be silent. When, after a while, the same thing happened, the leader would silence them again. Or a wife might call across the room to ask her husbands to explain what was being said, and the leader would interrupt, “Ask him when you get home.”

This brief survey obviously does not untangle the difficult passage on women in the church, but it does illustrate an approach that takes the text seriously, while thinking carefully, listening to others and remaining humble. If the reader does these things, then regardless of the conclusions he or she draws, the difficult text will have already had a positive impact.

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The Ala Carte Menu for Theological Consumption

Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr,. senior research fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary, once wrote: “As the Father rescues his people from the powers of darkness and resettles them inside the kingdom of his Son, they revel in his grace and sing about it in church. They take satisfaction in believing right doctrine and teach it in seminary. There they plan on going to heaven by and by and talk about it on tv. And, in the process, they experience some high-quality religious feelings.”

Plantinga’s tongue-in-cheek description of the Christian life is devastatingly accurate, at least in the postmodern West. The clash of kingdoms, the fate of worlds, the struggle of good and evil is largely missing from western thought. And on those occasions when the language is employed, it is mistakenly used as political rhetoric rather than viewed as historical reality.

The historic Christian gospel has shrunk from a message of universal relevance to one of individual opinion. This has happened in an atmosphere where faith has been increasingly privatized. The rugged individualism once associated with Protestantism (and now seen in Catholicism), has, as Greg Ogden writes, “torn the heart out of Christian community.” It has also placed the great doctrines of the faith on an ala carte menu for theological consumption.

How did we get here? Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney have written: “Large numbers of well-educated, middle-class youth defected from the churches in the late sixties and early seventies… Some joined new religious movements, others sought personal enlightenment … but most simply “dropped out.”

One consequence of this major social shift was, Professors Roof and McKinney argue, a “tendency toward highly individualized religious psychology … In this climate of expressive individualism, religion tends to become ‘privatized’ and more anchored in personal realms.” As a result, personal fulfillment has largely replaced faithful obedience as the aspiration of millions of religious people. And whatever gets in the way of personal fulfillment – whether biblical ethics regarding sex or biblical doctrines regarding the nature of Christ – is simply jettisoned.

Thus the increasing number of Christians who believe that premarital and extramarital sex are a legitimate expression of love between consenting adults. Thus, also, the ala carte approach to adopting a “credo” – “I’ll take the doctrine of the atonement, but I don’t want the exclusivity of Jesus. I’d love a double helping of grace, but I’ll pass on the doctrine of judgment; it’s a little too sharp for my taste.”

Salvation shrinks in an environment like this. It becomes not merely provincial, but private. As a result, salvation loses the social force it once possessed (“save yourself from this corrupt generation”) and becomes a matter of personal religious feelings and private hope for continued existence after death.

So the great revelation of God and the redemption he accomplished in Christ is placed on the theological dollar menu for consumption by a fast food religious culture. People choose from that menu as if it were an entirely private decision or, as is often said, “a personal matter.” As one might expect, one of the most popular items on the menu remains, as Plantinga deadpans, “some high-quality religious feelings,” and everyone’s favorite dessert is still life after death. Of course, in this case, no one wants their dessert first.

Interestingly, Jesus never offered “high-quality religious feelings,” nor did he urge people to pursue personal fulfillment or purchase a pass to life after death. Rather, he invited people to enter the kingdom of God, to deny themselves and follow him. He called people to a transforming faith in God that would fill them with a life so dynamic that mere physical death could never quench it.

This is what one nineteenth century writer called the “larger Christian life.” It is a life to which the twenty-first century desperately needs to be reintroduced.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 10/8/2017

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Lost and Found: The Joy of Losing Oneself

It was an iconic moment in sports history or, rather, an iconic eighteen seconds. It was the first round of the 1995 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. The Indiana Pacers were playing the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. With eighteen seconds left, the Pacers were down by six, and even their own coach assumed the game was over.

And then there was Reggie. Reggie Miller. He took an inbounds pass just inside the arc, stepped back and lofted a three-pointer – nothing but net. Reggie then stole the Knicks inbound pass, ran outside the arc and lofted a turn-around jumper – and suddenly the score was tied.

The Pacers fouled John Starks on the inbound pass. Starks, a great clutch player, missed both his free-throws. Patrick Ewing got the offensive board for the Knicks, but missed an eight-footer and – who else – Reggie Miller cleared the rebound and was fouled. He sank both free throws and won the game for the Pacers. He scored six points in less than six seconds, and eight points in less than nine seconds.

What was Reggie thinking about during those nine seconds? Was he worried? Was he feeling confident? Or was he planning his attack on his opponent like a chess master? He was almost certainly doing none of these things. He was scoring points, not thinking about scoring points. He was, as athletes put it, in the zone.

A person in the zone, whether a sports star, musician, soldier or teacher, is not thinking about what to do next. He or she is just doing it. In the zone, there is room to do incredible things, but there is no room to think about oneself. The self disappears for the duration of the time a person is in the zone – usually only for a matter of seconds, rarely for a couple of minutes. People lose themselves in the zone.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gave the reason for this disappearing person act in a TED talk he gave on being in the zone, or “flow,” as he calls it. He explained that our nervous system is incapable of processing more than 110 bits of information per second. It takes about 60 bits per second just to hear and process what another person is saying – which is why we can’t really listen to two people talking at once. When a person is using all 110 bits in concentrated form, he or she temporarily disappears.

While Reggie Miller was nailing threes and stealing passes and sinking free throws, he was using all the bits of information he was capable of processing. There was none left over to think about himself or tomorrow night’s game or next week’s cover of Sports Illustrated. For a few seconds, Reggie ceased to play basketball; he became basketball. He became one with the game.

It is in those moments, according to Csikszentmihalyi, that humans experience the greatest fulfillment. Isn’t it ironic? People are most fulfilled when they think least about themselves. This explains why using the 110 bits of information to secure oneself or one’s image is, even when successful, always so unsatisfying.

Entering the zone or flow is often associated with eastern religious practices. But Jesus understood human psychology and knew how best to find fulfillment. He told his students, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”

As always with Jesus, this is more than mere word play. It is not a religious platitude masquerading as wisdom. This is how life really works. Jesus understood it because he lived it. Living for oneself is a dead end. Selfishness is a bust. Only by losing oneself – the clamoring, insecure, grasping false self – can one ever hope to find the true self God has in mind.

Jesus invited people to lose themselves for him and his cause. That probably didn’t sound any more appealing then than it does now, and only a few people took him up on it. But those who did changed the world. They talked about experiencing oneness with Jesus and extolled it in terms of glory and joy. They lost themselves but found, as Jesus had promised, a life that exceeded anything they had ever known.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/30/2017

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A Simply Divine Game of Hide and Seek

If God exists, why has no one ever proved it to the satisfaction of all? Of course, most people have not needed proof – the vast majority have always believed in a God or gods. But if God really exists, shouldn’t it be possible to prove it to people who do require proof, to agnostics and atheists? Other disputed facts – that the earth is round, for example, or that germs cause disease – have been proved and the naysayers have been silenced. Why is that so difficult to do when it comes to God?

It is important for believers to acknowledge the reality of the difficulty, rather than just shout out proofs with ever-increasing volume. It is also important for atheists to admit that their arguments have failed to carry the day, and fall short of anything like conclusive proof.

One of the reasons irrefutable proof of God’s existence (or non-existence) is elusive is that God belongs to a different class of being than those with which we are familiar. Proving God’s existence is a different thing than proving the earth is round or germs communicate disease. He is not contained in our cosmos the way earths and germs are. Asking for proof of God’s existence is like asking a character in a novel to prove the existence of the novelist. She can look and look without finding any, unaware that she herself is the proof.

There is another reason why irrefutable proof is difficult: proving to his creatures that he exists is not one of God’s priorities. Proving that he exists does not bring God closer to realizing his purpose in creation, and could even frustrate it. Would God be satisfied because a person, perhaps grudgingly, admits his existence? No, not any more than a dad would be satisfied because his philosopher-student son said, “Old man, after long study I have been forced to conclude the reality of your existence!”

Nietzsche complained that an all-knowing and all-powerful god who did not make his creatures understand, but left them to linger in doubt, could not be a good God. But Nietzsche set the stage and arranged the props to serve his own storyline. Contrary to Nietzsche, there are legitimate reasons why a good God would not force his creatures out of their doubts against their will; when doing so would harm them and undermine the good plans God has for them.

If this is true, a God who hid himself might be both good and wise, which is precisely how St. Paul thought of God’s decision to remain hidden. He wrote, “In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom.”

A serious study of Scripture will lead to the conclusion that God values human freedom and stubbornly resists the violation of people’s free will. In practice, this must be a remarkably complicated procedure because God – for lack of a better way of putting it – is so big and humans are so small, there is a constant danger he will overwhelm them. Preserving human self-determination in the presence of God is like preserving a butterfly’s flight in a hurricane. Yet God has designed the world of matter and energy so ingeniously that he is able to do it.

To maintain human free will, God makes himself avoidable. He either hides us, as he did with Moses in the cleft of the rock, or he hides himself. When God comes to humanity, it is in a modest and remarkably resistible fashion: through a still, small voice; in the form of a baby; and, when that baby grows up, through parables people can receive or ignore, as they so choose.

God does this because free will is more than an arbitrary prerequisite to human fulfillment; it is integral to the entire process, from beginning to end. Nietzsche seemed to think a good God would, in humanity’s best interests, suspend human freewill. What he didn’t realize is that, were God to do so, humans would no longer be human. Were God to make himself unavoidable, as Scripture promises he will do someday, the process of human development would end immediately.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/23/2017

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A Little Exercise in Talking to Oneself

Please share in the comment section what advise you would give to your younger self – we’d appreciate hearing it.

In his 1972 short story, The Other, Jorge Luis Borges pictures himself in Cambridge, MA, sitting on a bench overlooking the Charles River. Someone sits on the other end of the bench whom be recognizes as his younger self. They strike up a conversation in which the older Borges reveals his identity, but the younger Borges insists they are in Geneva, overlooking the Rhone. They argue about whose experience is real: has the older Borges traveled through time or is the younger Borges simply dreaming?

It is classic Borges storytelling, including the writer’s own self-effacement and his adulation of the great writers and poets who influenced him. I have not read the story in years, but when I remembered it the other day it set me thinking: if I were sent back in time and met my younger self, what would I want him to know?

I wasn’t thinking of advice like, “Buy stock in Apple,” or “Trade in the Ford Taurus now; it’s going to blow a head gasket in six months.” I was thinking more about the life principles I wish I’d known then. Here are some of the things I might tell my younger self.

“Don’t make it your business to fix people’s problems.” As a pastor, I often made other people’s problems my own. I couldn’t be happy when someone in my congregation was miserable. But some people refused to make the changes that could free them from their misery. They imprisoned themselves in a cell of their own making, for which they had a key they would not use – and trapped me inside with them.

I would also tell my younger self: “What you become is far more important than what you accomplish.” People talk about resting on one’s laurels, but no one really does that; they rest on themselves – the self they have become. This explains why some people who have accomplished impressive feats, set sports records, or made billions, are so restless. They’ve done much but have become little. The most important thing you can give anyone – including God and yourself – is the person you become.

Next, I think I would tell my younger self, “What you love will have more impact on who you become than what you know.” People like to say that knowledge is power, and of course they are right. As such, knowledge is like the engines on a plane. It’s impossible to get off the ground without it. But love is like the pilot of the plane: it determines where all that power will take us – to the place of our dreams or into the side of a mountain.

Without knowledge, we won’t make good decisions, but without love we won’t know what decisions need to be made. This explains why St. Paul prayed for his friends: “…that your love might abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best…” We always know best what we love most. This includes God.

I would also tell my younger self, “Don’t worry so much about what people think of you. The fact is, they’re probably not thinking of you, but even if they are, their opinion of you is not what matters most.” I should have known this already. I once sat at a round table in one of those horrible, touchy-feely English classes that were so common in the seventies. Each of us had to say what we thought about the person sitting to our right, and I sat to the right of the girl who was voted “Best Legs” in our school. When her turn came, “Best Legs” answered simply: “I don’t think about him.”

What I didn’t know then is that worrying about what other people think can hinder one’s ability to trust God. Jesus asked people who lived for their reputations, “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?”

I’ll probably never meet myself sitting on a park bench in Cambridge or Geneva, but I now have an idea about what to say – just in case.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/16/2017

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It’s Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

Orthodox Christianity has, at least from the time of Augustine, upheld the doctrine of original sin. According to the church, the first man’s rebellion against his creator left all humanity guilty before God and damaged in their nature. When Adam trespassed and fell, humanity fell with him.

  1. K. Chesterton claimed the doctrine of original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” And it does not take a long string of philosophical arguments to prove it, since anyone “can see it in the street” (or, for that matter, in politics, corporations, media, factories, schools, homes – pretty much wherever one might choose to look).

The theologian Cornelius Plantinga looked in the street (and in politics, corporations, schools and homes) and remarked it’s “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be” (the title of his 2003 Christianity Today “Book of the Year”). The doctrine of original sin explains the dilemma of contemporary life.

The shame of past wars, the bloodshed of current wars and the threat of future wars – not the way it’s supposed to be. The arrogance of rulers, the corruption of national leaders, the danger of nuclear annihilation – not the way it is supposed to be. Corporate greed, price gouging, the disdain of the rich for the poor – not the way it is supposed to be.

In our own country, racial prejudice and class hatred is not the way it is supposed to be. The termination by abortion of nearly one out five pregnancies is not the way it’s supposed to be. Scammers using catastrophes like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to rob both donors and victims of crucial funds – it’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

But we don’t have to look at international politics or national controversies to see things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. We can see it in our own homes and churches. Recent findings suggest that 30 million Americans binge drink regularly. Families are being torn apart by alcohol, opioids, pornography addictions, and compulsive overspending. Divorce tears up almost one in every two American families. People are discontented with their spouses, their kids, their parents and themselves. Mental illness affects one out of four Americans, a rate far surpassing that of other nations. This is not the way it’s supposed to be.

But why? Why is it “not the way it’s supposed to be”? The church’s answer is: because of sin. According to the Bible, sin is an active force, which “seizes opportunities,” “rules,” “deceives,” and “kills.”

But sin is not a person, so how can it “do” things? Think of it this way: a computer program is not a person (though it was devised by a person), yet it can do things: it can change traffic lights from red to green, guide a precision surgical device, or launch a nuclear warhead. Likewise, sin is not a person, but it can do things – bad things.

Contemporary computing provides an analogy. In computer parlance, a “trojan horse” is a program that misrepresents itself to trick a user (victim) into installing it, since the program can’t install itself. So, programmers make the trojan horse to look good (useful, profitable, or enjoyable) to deceive the user. The hoodwinked user installs it, but it is the programmer who benefits.

This is very much like what happened in the Genesis story of humanity’s fall. Sin was misrepresented as useful, profitable, and enjoyable (the words in Genesis are “good,” “pleasing” and “desirable”) and, though Adam had been warned, he clicked the download button. Since that moment, nothing has been the way it’s supposed to be.

Humanity, which is not just individuals scattered through time and space, but one enormous, interconnected thing, stretching across space-time – a massive body with a hundred billion entangled parts – was infected. When Adam hit the download button, he didn’t merely install sin in himself but in all humanity, and sin spread through the entire network.

Because of his decision, sin is not just out there in the world but in here, in you and me. It is part of our programming, and the reason things (and people) are not the way they’re supposed to be.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/9/2017

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Avoid a Bandwagon Brand of Politics

I was recently asked, point-blank, if I was a liberal or a conservative. No one has ever asked me that question before – at least not directly. There have been times, however, when people have told me what I am: “Well, of course, you’d take that view! You’re a conservative.”

The funny thing is, I’ve heard the opposite as well: “I’m surprised to hear you say that, with your liberal views on immigration.” The same kind of thing has happened regarding my (or our church’s) theological position. Folks in mainline churches have warned people about our “fundamentalist ideology,” while real fundamentalists have suspected us of secretly harboring liberal views. What are you going to do?

When asked whether I was a political liberal or a political conservative, I found it hard to give a plain answer. It’s not that I wanted to equivocate: I know where I stand on many of the issues of the day, and I’m not at all afraid to talk about it. The difficulty was with the categories from which to choose.

On some issues, I would probably be grouped with political liberals. Immigration is one that comes to mind. I think our trifling response to the Syrian refugee crisis disgraceful. And though I believe we must secure our borders (I have no objection to the construction of a wall), I favor a liberal immigration policy. Further, even though I believe illegal aliens who are caught engaging in socially destructive and/or criminal behaviors should be promptly deported, I also favor a Reagan-style amnesty and path to citizenship for others.

On other issues – the size and role of government, for instance, abortion, gay marriage, constitutional law, and many more – I would probably be classified as a conservative. But the real problem I had in answering my friend’s straightforward question is that I don’t identify with either conservatives or liberals.

Asking me whether I am a conservative or a liberal is like asking a basketball player whether he plays offense or defense. Yes, I know there is a game called football in which almost all the players are on one side of the line or the other, offense of defense, but not both. I’m even interested in football. I have opinions about which teams are best. But I play basketball, not football, so the question of whether I’m on offense or defense can only be answered, “Yes.”

So with politics. I have opinions, and I am not ambivalent about them. I sometimes write my congressman and my state legislators to express them, or send a letter to the editor. But politics (at least in the modern sense of the word) is not my game. I have another, older and more fundamental commitment: an allegiance to the kingdom of God.

My political “hermeneutic” – the key by which I interpret current events and form opinions about the best actions to take – has nothing to do with what is liberal or what is conservative. Indeed, I consider such a hermeneutic to be dangerously misleading for a Christian. Nor does budget, race or gender serve as my political hermeneutic, as they often do for people these days. I take the positions I do because, to my mind, they most adequately represent God’s values and serve his purpose for the world.

I wrote, “to my mind,” just now because I realize that other people who operate from the same hermeneutic may come to different conclusions. Rather than condemning those conclusions out of hand as too liberal or too conservative, I want to examine them in the light of my biblical worldview. Perhaps they will challenge my conclusions (or, as is more likely, my assumptions) in ways that will hone and refine my commitment to God’s kingdom.

Should Christians renounce political involvement because neither party adequately represents them? Certainly not. Would that both parties were filled with Christians! The more of us involved in local and national politics the better, with this one caveat: our political involvement must not compete with our kingdom of God commitment, but grow out of it. A thoughtless, bandwagon brand of politics will neither help the nation nor serve God’s kingdom.

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