More On Miracles (Q&R)

Yesterday I got a comment on blog post from 2 years ago. Since this subject comes up frequently, I thought it would be good to respond.

I hope you get some sort of update from comments posted on old posts.

Indeed I do! Thank you so much for taking the time to write in.

I’ve been trying to work through how I understand God working in the world and have felt pretty comfortable with saying that God doesn’t make things happen in this world. For me, that still allows for relational interaction with God but the one place that I am getting stumped on is miracles or even just praying for things that may be outside of personal introspection or transformation. I have never seen any miracles like the ones I’ve heard about by several very close people I know. When I say miracles I mean things like paralyzed people being healed and even people’s limbs growing back. I know it sounds crazy but I hear really sound people that I respect telling about how they have done these things. Now, I don’t want to discredit it just because I personally haven’t seen it. Then there are things like Jesus healing a blind man with mud and spit, was it psychosomatic? I don’t know how to approach these things.

The one thing I would say is that we have not taken the gospel stories about Jesus seriously enough. We look at them from a very mechanistic point of view: What was the product? What was the process? Can it be replicated? Are there measurable outcomes?
We get very focused on the byproduct or the outcome (healing) and miss the rich narrative and literary emphasis of the story itself. “Jesus healed a guy” I hear people say … “Yes but notice how and where” I want to respond.

The two things people often fail to notice is that:

  • It was almost never in the same way twice. That signals to me that healing is neither formulaic nor is it reproducible. Something was going on in those stories that is tailored to that person and that time. I love the gospel stories of Jesus’ healings … almost as much as I hate it when people try to make healing standard and ritualistic.
  • Those stories play a role in the gospels that they are found in. These accounts in John 9 and Mark 8 function in the narrative that both John and Mark give us. Synoptic studies are one of my favorite hobbies and one of the things you quickly learn is that those stories can not be lifted out of their gospel and simply cut & pasted into another gospel. The story is told a certain way and plays a unique role within the larger text.

The stories of Jesus’ healings don’t happen in a vacuum. That play a performative function with the gospel narrative and must be read within that context.

One of my first clues that this was true is that no one – even those of us who believe in healing – spit on the ground and put mud on people. Why? Because it is not a formula! Something unique was happening in that story and we all sort of secretly know that.

Just because Jesus walked on water doesn’t mean that you don’t need a boat!

The gospel stories about healing had to do with Jesus’ messianic claims and that is why the Bible is not a how-to play book or manual. The formulaic mentality around healing today is a disastrous byproduct of the Industrial Revolution … oddly the same era (thanks to Gutenberg) that allowed for mass-produced Bibles so that we can all read it for ourselves! But that is a different blog post.
The Secret Message of Jesus is the best book I have ever found for talking respectfully about the role that these healings play in their unique gospel accounts.

I have much more to say about this … but I need to get to your real question!

With this being said, if miraculous healing through prayer is possible (which I sort of hope is) my question would now be why does God only choose to heal some people and let others who are being prayed for suffer? Or why would we have to pray for certain sufferings to stop? Why isn’t it enough for a certain person to be suffering and need God’s healing? Do our prayers make God’s intervention possible in a way that he couldn’t do without? Let me know what you think and thanks for giving your time!

Let me begin by saying that you have perfectly asked the central questions of this difficult issue. This is why some people walk away from the subject all together and dismiss any accounts of modern-day healing. Even those of us who try to practice the way of Jesus and follow his example are often baffled and left either shaking our heads or shrugging our shoulders.

If God can heal and doesn’t …
If we have to be good enough …
or believe hard enough …
or pray long enough …
or pray good enough …
If this is in any way based on our merit … this seems like a problem.

On the other hand – if God can do something and doesn’t …
maybe it is for a larger purpose …
or maybe it is just ‘not yet’ …
or maybe we just look forward to our heavenly bodies on the other side …
or maybe God is really finicky.
These are all possibilities and actual things that I have heard people say.

Here is where I am on the issue: God is doing the best that God can do. I don’t believe that God is holding out or that God’s goodness will run out.

I have said before that I have become very comfortable with the possibility that the world as it exists is the best that God can do. I’m not saying that I believe that – just that I am open to that possibility.

  • What if God is doing all that God can do in the world right now?
  • What if God isn’t all-powerful but only very powerful?
  • Or that God’s power is a different kind of power?
  • What if God isn’t pretending or self-limiting?
  • What if God is giving all that God has to the moment?

Once you move on from an ‘interventionist’ notion of God the whole world looks different. The word ‘supernatural’ is one of the worst concessions that modern christians have made. I believe in miracles (outside the ordinary expected) and I remind folks that the Biblical formulation of ‘signs and wonders’ is not the same as ‘super-natural’. These phrases get all mashed together by those who have taught this way. We need to take the Gospel accounts seriously enough to slow down and reexamine our assumptions.

There is no such thing as ‘super-natural’.
God’s work is the most natural thing in the world.

I do not believe in a realm (the natural) that is without God. As a Christian, I believe that God’s work is the most natural thing in the world. I am unwilling to concede the natural-spiritual split and then leave less and less room for God as science is able to explain more and more. The church is foolish to accept the dualism (natural-supernatural) and then superintend only the spiritual part.

Thank you so much for writing in! It has been fun to revisit this concept. You may want to check out my post on Prayer and Poetry and Dealing with Demons as well.

Let me know your thoughts or any questions you have. This is a difficult topic but a very necessary conversation.

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In Defense of Prayer and Interiors

PrayWhile listening to the latest TNT episode with Two Friars and a Fool (TFAAF) on why we should never pray again, I kept thinking over and over to myself that this is such interesting stuff. Just asking the question ‘what is prayer?’ is so much fun. It’s really important stuff to think about, and I love how the guys from TFAAF are deconstructing prayer and asking what it does and how it actually functions in peoples lives. Too many folks just don’t think about this stuff. We should be the answer to our own prayers more often. I agree.

That being said, I’ve got to stick up for prayer and interiors a little bit here.

Now look, full disclosure, I haven’t read the book yet, just listened to the podcast, but I think I get what the TFAAF folks are attempting to do, and I’m all for it. Advocating for a more orthopractic shaped faith is fantastic! We shouldn’t wait around for our wishes to be granted by a magic genie in the sky. I personally love Earthy, radical, immanent, beatitude and justice focused theologies like those found in the Mennonite, Quaker, Franciscan and Liberal Protestant traditions of Christianity. But one common trap that we seemingly can’t avoid—no matter how hard we try—is that when we begin to emphasize one side of a binary, the other side is unfairly, and most times totally, denigrated. I say this because it’s too easily forgotten that with progress inevitably comes pathology. The two are intimately intertwined it seems, just like everything else in the universe I guess…

Which brings me to my two main points:

1) One’s understanding of reality—or what’s ultimately real—just means so much, doesn’t it?

2) Accordingly, if it’s a question of doing something concrete (action) vs. doing something not concrete (praying) that we’re dealing with here, we should at least recognize the presupposition: one thing is real and meaningful (the concrete) and the other thing doesn’t necessarily mean so much.

Not so surprisingly, I’m in agreement with process philosophers, like John Cobb, who argue that the boundary between the physical and mental worlds are much more fluid than many people suppose. I think one who outright dismisses certain types of prayer, such as confession or intercessory, are actually showing their metaphysical cards. If the world functions like a medieval clock, based entirely on pushes and pulls between material bodies, then great! Intercessory prayer is a bunch of mystical hog wash, and you are better off never praying again for one of those few and far between supernatural miracles.

But…

What if God is intimately connected and involved with nature? And what if everything we do (physically AND mentally) makes a difference to us, to the world, and to God?

Now things are interesting again.

I’m continually fascinated by one of the most beautiful insights explored by process-relational thought. It is the idea that our experience of one another is not only mediated by sensory cues. As John Cobb writes so succinctly, “We actually feel the feelings of others much as we feel the feelings of the cells in our own bodies. These relations are not limited to immediate proximity.” As Whitehead would say, we are constantly prehending other people all of the time. We are the observer as well and the observed.

John Cobb continues:

“Modern thinkers still resist the notion of “action at a distance.” But in fact the evidence for this in physics is now beyond dispute. There has long been evidence for this also with regard to human experience. That intercessory prayer can have an effect on someone who is not present does not violate the known facts.”

Cobb’s understanding of prayer is what I tend to hold on to. Namely, that the “function of prayer is opening ourselves to God’s gracious working in our lives and seeking to align our own intentions with God’s call to us.” I’ve written before about how the conscious choices we make really do affect the possibilities that become available to us in any given situation.

Further, in regard to what prayer is/could be, I also really like the idea that the stance of our entire life should be one of constant prayer which, coincidentally, I liken very much to Brother Lawrence’s very immanent Practice of the Presence of God.

Finally, In the interview one of the TFAAF guys mentioned that he tries to refrain from using the phrase ‘I’ll pray for you’ because he sees it as an unnecessary, and most times hollow, replacement for the phrase ‘I love you.’ I thought this was a really sweet sentiment and a great intentional exercise, one that I’ve practiced for a while myself. For me, though, I also substitute the phrase ‘I’m thinking of you’ quite often because, as Richard Lubbock poetically writes in his great essay, “every time we move, OR think, we disturb the whole universe.”

So yeah, I will probably keep praying…as well as thinking, learning, hearing, contemplating, feeling, seeing, sensing, intuiting, and taking account of things, because when we do these psychic or mental activities, we are really doing something (as opposed to doing nothing), and these things do indeed matter (pun intended).

Photo Credit: jharada

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A Prayer for Ukraine

News stories about places that you have been feel different from other news stories. Even a short visit can plant of seed of connection that feels like an invested interest when there is a crisis. caption

Several years ago I had the opportunity to go to the Ukraine.  I was teaching a class for a new seminary that was training people for ministry in Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia – as well as outlying regions beyond. As we drove out from Kiev, the director of the seminary told me that where the Seminary is located, Vorzel, has a long history of being considered a place of healing  for people with heart and liver problems as well as general bad health.

Starting in the 1950s, under the Soviet system, people were bused there from all over the region for healing.  Apparently, Soviet scientists who studied the area concluded that it was something about the combination of the pollinating trees that converged in the air. The director explained that decades of scientific tests have proven the healing benefits of the area over and over again.

I suggested to him that maybe this is why it was a good place to have a seminary! The idea of sending people out as ‘the Fragrance of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 2:15) to bring healing to the nations.  Revelation 22 looks forward to a city where trees have a significant role.

 “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (NIV)

My prayer life has changed a bit in the years since that trip to the Ukraine – but my heart still breaks to think about the pain, stress, fear, and violence happening in that region today.

Here is my prayer this morning. Would you please take a moment and join me in a prayer?

May there be peace for the children 
and for the trees,
healing for the nations. 
Amen

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Pastoring the Process

What a week! On top of interacting with concerns of Roger Olson and Tony Jones about process thought, I have received amazing emails, tweets, blog and Facebook comments.

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Here are the 4 biggest themes that emerged from those interactions.

 

How does Process affect your field of Practical Theology?

The first thing to understand that Practical Theology is kinda sociology with a theological lens. We use interviews, case studies & ethnographies (qualitative methods) to investigate how religion is lived out on the ground.

So a Practical Theologian does not need to subscribe to any particular school of thought per se. We do have to locate ourselves philosophically but no one approach is required.

Having said that … I am primarily concerned with pastoral theology and as a pastor, process theology has deeply impacted the way that I think, believe, lead and facilitate my interactions with the community of faith.

 

Doesn’t it seem weird to base so much on the philosophy of one guy in the 20th century?

Not exactly. Once you understand that all of christian history and specifically western theology is based and embedded with philosophy from day 1. If you don’t know how the Gospel of John or the Nicene Creed is laced with philosophical frameworks, this will be eye-opening to you.

Having said that, the philosophical approach that come from thinkers like Alfred North Whitehead is notable in a number a ways. It is naturalist (vs. empiricist) and it is advantageous in the areas of:

A) creation-care

B) give and take (symbiotic) relationship we have with the earth & the rest of creation

C) the realistic (not idealistic) way that things are after the industrial revolution

D) emergent thought and evolutionary history

When you put that all together, THEN add the fact that Whitehead had a Bible – what you end up with is an approach that is far more compatible with the way that the world actually works than anything we have inherited from centuries past.

 

Does it really matter?

100% Yes! Are you kidding me? When people question the nature of God’s power – why God doesn’t do the things that a god is supposed to do – when God, who could do anything if ‘he’ wanted to, doesn’t do them … both the world and the faith that we have inherited doesn’t make any sense.

Giving people both a permission to ask questions and a framework to process different approaches is a gift in the 21st century.

There is no school of thought that I have found more fruitful in engaging than process. Engaging biblical scholarship is a great starter. Asking big question about the nature of human violence (like memetic theory) is a catalyst. The pièce de résistance is found an alternative framework that not only asks different questions but allows for different answers.

 

Does it change how you pastor? 

Absolutely! If the nature of God’s power is not coercive but persuasive, then it affects everything.

  • The way you view administration
  • The way you counsel people
  • The way you preach
  • The way you recruit help
  • The way you pray
  • The way you empower & delegate
  • The way you do hospital visitation
  • The way you respond to criticism
  • The way discipleship is defined*
  • The way the community conceives of itself and participates
  • The way you perceive outsiders

I actually can not think of one aspect of church-life that is untouched  by this upgrade in operating-systems.

 

As you can tell, I am having a blast, so feel free to keep the conversation rolling! What else do we want to address? 

 

* In last night’s response “Is God Unique?” I made the case – based on the Advent podcast with John Cobb - that following Jesus in discipleship looks a little different. 

Jesus was as open to and as faithful to the will of God as Mother Theresa was to her calling, Francis of Assisi was to being Francis, maybe even Buddha was to be Buddha … That is not what makes Jesus unique.

WHAT makes Jesus unique is WHAT God called Jesus to. It is possible that all of these people were equally open & available to god as Jesus was. The difference is what God called Jesus to.

Jesus played a unique role in human history. No has ever – or will ever – play that role. What God did in Jesus has impacted all of humanity. Jesus is unique.

NOW having said that … the art of following Jesus is being open to and available to the presence of God the way that Jesus was open to available to the will of God is Jesus’ life.

Being like Jesus is not doing what Jesus did (walking on water) but being available to God the way the Jesus was available to God. This is discipleship.

 

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TNT: Doing Spiritual Stuff In The Real World w/ Barry Taylor

The title says it all: Doing Spiritual Stuff In The Real World w/ Barry Taylor.TNT

Barry Taylor.  On doing stuff.  Stuff we call ‘spiritual’.  In the real world.

 

This is a really interesting conversation with one of our favorite conversation partners. It was also the warm-up for our evening with Reza Aslan.

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We want to thank the Loft LA for hosting us and The Young Romans for providing great music for the evening.

Come to the homepage of HomeBrewedChristianity.com to leave us your comments and questions on the Speakpipe (click on the little microphone).

A video will soon be available for those who want to take in all of the 3-D goodness!

 

*** If you enjoy all the Homebrewed Christianity Podcasts then consider sending us a donation via paypal. We got bandwidth to buy & audiological goodness to dispense. We will also get a percentage of your Amazon purchase through this link OR you can send us a few and get us a pint!***


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The Problem With Prayer

As a pastor I get to talk with a lot of people. The issue of prayer comes up more often than any other topic. I think I understand why but when any pattern is this consistent it piques my attention and compels me to dig a little deeper.Dark-Clouds

The problem, of course, isn’t for those for whom prayer is an automatic and assumed activity–nor for those who see no point in it. The problem, and thus the need for conversation, resides in those who are thoughtfully attempting to address how exactly a real God really works in the world.

 To use a bowling analogy, there seems to be an illusive sweet spot we want to aim at between two proverbial gutters on either side.

 The gutter to the left is a mechanistic view that too easily degenerates into prescriptive and formulaic constructs. The universe is not a machine and is not fueled by an individual’s personal piety, sincerity of prayer, amount of prayer, particular words and phrases, or purity of beliefs/doctrine.

The problem with many popular approaches to prayer is exposed when prayer appears not to work because certain outcomes were not achieved or no tangible evidence was produced. The difficulty then is the amount of time and energy one needs to invest to explain why prayer doesn’t always work. The explanations always seem to fall into the same worn ruts  involving God’s sovereignty, will and power. In the end these will always fail because God, after all, is not a machine and faith is not the product of an assembly line or factory.

The gutter to the right might be called ‘cosmic coincidence’. One of the difficulties to being a person of faith is that it can be impossible to convince someone who wants to be cynical with enough persuasion as to disavow them of their skepticism. Somehow the concept of belief itself is elusive enough and just abstract enough to not provide the traction it takes to overcome the unqualified need for proof.

  It is the narrow ground between these two gutters that I am attempting to navigate. I want to throw out a theory and get your feedback on.

My theory is that both the beauty and the power of prayer–and subsequently God’s work in the world– resides in the fact that God’s power is a low-level signal  being broadcast in the world on a weak enough frequency that two things happen:

  1. the transmission is subtle enough that those who wish to tune it out are capable of doing so. God’s work is not so obvious or overpowering that one is accosted by its blatant effects and thus would have to be in denial not to see it. The work of God in his gentle,  subtle, hidden, elusive at times and, as Jack Caputo says ‘weak’.
  2. at the same time, however, the work of God in the world is just consistent enough as to allow some to codify it and become prescriptive as to the optimal way to pray. Prayer works just enough of the time for just enough of the population for people to come up with formulas as to its power and how to tap into that.

 

Prayer is like poetry in this sense. Neither is so predictable as to allow themselves to be reduced down to a formula that can be perfected with simple repetition.

but at the same time–both poetry and prayer carry enough consistency to allow for them to be thought of as persuasive.

 

This is the beauty of prayer for me. I am not praying to an interventionist God behind some supernatural veil asking for that Almighty but temperamental  being to puncture the membrane of the natural world and act in a coercive way.  The ancient images of God as warrior, puppet master or unseen mover don’t stand up to any level of scrutiny after the 20th century.

 We know then what prayer isn’t… So what is it?

 Prayer is the partnering of an open heart to participate with a God who is broadcasting a weak signal in the world  and which provides to every moment positive possibilities for every living thing  to bring about a greater good and beautiful flourishing. As we participate in those positive possibilities we open up greater and more abundant possibilities in subsequent moments. As we resist the potential opportunities provided in the weak signal, we close down and crush possibilities for more abundant flourishing and beauty down the road.

In this way we acknowledge that prayer has just enough going on within it that those who prefer the formulaic or even mechanistic approaches of the past will continue to have just enough data to remain insistent. We also acknowledge that prayer will continue to be just elusive enough that those who wish to tune out the signal that is being broadcast by the divine to feel justified in doing so.

Prayer is the poetry of Spirit.  It is not a math formula, a building blueprint, an assembly-line product or a battle plan. Nor is prayer a Christian form of meditation simply useful for aligning one’s heart and mind to the current running in the stream of the universe.

Prayer is a participation in an invitation to partnership that is being broadcast on a weak frequency in the world.

-Bo

________

I would love to hear your thoughts on this … I just have two requests: 

  1. Be careful using personal (private) experiences like speaking in tongues or being slain in the spirit as irrefutable evidence of the former ways of understanding that I am attempting to move us on from. 
  2. Don’t talk to me about miracles in S. America, Africa or Asia unless you are from those regions please. I will explain why I make this request in a post next week.  

 

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When God Is Too Powerful

A dear friend of mine is in her final semester of a psychology degree. Somehow Martin Buber came up. The  famous work  of the Jewish thinker  – “I and Thou” –  is such a powerful idea from the early 20th century that is resonates in both psychology and theology.

Keith Ward explains in God: a guide for the perplexed:

“The word ‘thou’ in English has a rather peculiar history. In the sixteenth century, when the English Book of Common Prayer was first pieced together, it was the second-person singular personal pronoun. Just as in German and French, and many other languages today, it was used to signify an especially close and intimate relationship with the person to whom you were speaking. For formal occasions, or to people one did not know well, ‘you’ was appropriate. But for members of family and close friends, the correct word to use was ‘thou’.” *

Then something very odd happened to the English language. Everyone simply became ‘you’. No one used ‘Thou’ anymore and it became a very fancy and antiquated way to reference someone.
The problem is that is was still used to refer to God (in the books used by the church) and so:

“before long people thought that ‘thou’ was a special word only to be used for God – God being presumably very archaic – connoting very special reverence and respect. So, whereas the writers of the first Elizabethan prayer book had wanted people to address God in a very intimate, almost informal way, most people who love the prayer book now seem to think that it is important to address God as ‘thou’, because only that gives God appropriate respect. Ironically, those who insist on addressing God as ‘thou’ are doing the very opposite of what the compilers of the prayer book wanted.”

Do you see what happened?  Any words that get attached to our conception of God end up getting co-opted, absorbed and hijack by our conception of God.

We try to use words, phrases, pictures and metaphors to re-present the transcendent divine … but those words, phrases and metaphors end up getting codified then solidified then idolized.
In this way, our imagination becomes an image … and eventually becomes an idol.

I have argued this same sort of thing in “God never changes … or does She?” when it comes to masculine pronouns for god vs. thinking of god as a man.Hand_ofGod2

Instead of understanding Jesus’ language as relational – that Jesus calling God
‘Abba’ (some say “Father” but I like John Cobb’s use of “Pappa”) as saying “I relate to God as one relates to a loving Father/Parent” , we codified and solidified that language and now God is ONLY allowed to be called ‘He’ in some circles. Our imagination is then limited by the image which has become an idol.

Jesus and Unicorns

I run into this same thing when it comes to christology. People often confuse the two approaches of ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ with two results of ‘high christology’ and ‘low christology’. This is true of general theology and views of scripture as well.

Those who are convinced that God needs to be as big, as powerful and as all-mighty as possible are often caught in the slightly awkward position of having to stick up for, defend and police the opinions of other on behalf of this almighty being.

So often in these conversations I want to say “ Just because your god could beat up my god doesn’t mean that your conception in is correct.” Look, if we are just going make bigger and badder things up and then call that “High” … then I want a Jesus who rides a unicorn – cries magic teardrops that become diamonds and never lets anyone get sick or die. THAT would be a higher christology.

Why Are You Doing That?

Normally I wouldn’t go after this topic in such a way, but I have noticed that in our ‘culture wars’ there is a disturbing trend. Really good people with really sincere faith will give themselves permission to behave in really aggressive and judgmental ways and when confronted will respond with either “God …” or “The Bible …”.
That is just one way in which I know that we have a problem. Insisting on calling God ‘He’ (or ‘King’ or ‘Father”)  is the other.

The way that we imagine – or image – God is so powerful, that the words and phrases that we use to describe our conception get pulled into an orbit which threatens to change their very meaning. The gravitational pull of our language about God is so strong that it will actually warp the words themselves.

May god grant us the kindness and humility to recognize that all of our god-language, signs and symbols are provisional at best and to treat other people kindly and graciously as we walk together in common humanity as I and Thou.

 

Suggested Reading: 

* Keith Ward . God (2013 edition): A Guide for the Perplexed (Kindle edition). $9.99

Elizabeth Johnson. She Who Is.  Used for under $10

 

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God Is Not Like Me

I grew up in a tradition that said I should be, as much as possible, like Jesus.  I get that – and I try to do so.

Yesterday at the Loft LA I had the privilege to say 3 things (among many others) about God:

  1. God is Black (from James Cone)
  2. She Who Is (from Elizabeth Johnson)
  3. God is a Fag ( from Bernard Brandon Scott)

It is interesting because I am none of these three things! I am not black, a women, or homosexual. It is interesting then to present these images of a God who is very much different than I am – even as we, as a community, are being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).  money_and_god

It is important that we acknowledge that God is not on the side of ‘the powers’ but of those in need of liberation – that it is equally as accurate and as inaccurate to call God ‘She’ and it is to call God ‘He’ – and that according to 2 Corinthians 5:21

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This is a topsy-turvey business.

Over the last 20 years of ministry I have noticed a somewhat unsettling trend that in order to be like God, I have had to move away from many of the natural strengths that ‘God gave me’.

  •  While I love to be at center stage in the spot light with a microphone – I am fascinated with the cell group, house church, and small group model of church. As a pentecostal, I am obsessed with how the Spirit of God is at work in the People of God.
  • While I am a big, hairy, muscular man – I am convinced that feminist theologian are right and that Christian history does not accurately reflect the will and mind of God for the world that God loves so much (John 3:16).
  • While I am white guy – I am writing my dissertation on ‘White Privilege’ and hoping to confront some of the systemic racism that will not do as we move into the 21st Century.

So while I attempt to be more like God, I am very aware that God is not all that much like me. 

This is an important distinction. As C.S. Lewis said in his poem “A footnote to all prayers”  (it references Pheidias who was  a legendary statue maker in the ancient world):

He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskilfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

When we pray, we by nature blaspheme – all of us. The reality is that language , by its nature, means that words are provisional. When the Hebrew Testament speaks of God as a ‘King’ or Martin Luther writes a hymn declaring “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” … these are analogies. They are metaphors. They are temporary place holders.

Anything that we say about God is (in the apophatic sense) both illustrative and, at the same time, not exactly all that accurate. We would do well to get used to saying :

“God is like X … and that, of course, is not exactly true.”

Philippians 2 is helpful at this point. The ‘Kenotic’ Move of Christ self-emptying and descending for the purpose of service, exhorts us to not hold onto anything too tightly (clinging/grasping) but to empty our certainty and expose all of our assumptions to that which is not natural to us. Not an easy task!

If we acknowledge, then, that all language is provisional… that it is just a accurate and as inaccurate to call God she or he… that any prayer is at some level blaspheming … and that I am called to be like God – though I know that God is not exactly like me … then I can begin a kenotic journey of recognizing God while releasing God from my pre-conceived notions.

This is the dynamic journey of faith: to recognize  the full moon and the new moon, the high tide and low tide, the Fall and the Spring, the ebb and the flow, the fall and the rise of all that I am familiar with and and all that I am ignorant about. That is what we talk about when we talk about God.

Rob Bell puts it this way:

When we talk about God, then, we’re talking about something very real and yet beyond our conventional means of analysis and description.

The Germans, interestingly enough, have a word for this: they call it grenzbegrifflich. Grenzbegrifflich describes that which is very real but is beyond analysis and description.

When I’m talking about God, I’m talking about your intuitive sense that reality at its deepest flows from the God who is grenzbegriff.

Bell, Rob (2013-03-12). What We Talk About When We Talk About God (Kindle Locations 767-772). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I would love your feedback and reflections.  

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Beauty, Bodies and Blunders

President Obama got in some hot water for a compliment he paid California Attorney General Kamala Harris. He said:

You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It’s true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years. [via The Los Angeles Times]

A remark like that is never going to go over well. It was just one sentence but we could talk for days about it!

I know that I am an odd bird in that I often see the silver lining in things that other people think are really bad – like taking the Lord’s name in vain. I like that people do it. It means that the name of God still carries some gravity. No one is cursing Thor when they smash their thumb with a hammer. No one is blaspheming Zeus when they get cut off in traffic. Anyway …

I was happy to see the outrage and level of outcry over the President’s remarks. I love when stuff like this happens outside the walls of the church and I think to myself “Ok, it’s not just us that are sensitive, reactive and protest-ant. Good, I was starting to worry”.

You have to forgive me. I come from a very muscular – testosterone – ‘Wild at Heart’ brand of Christianity. In the last decade I have migrated to a progressive – critical theory – ‘She Who Is’ brand of faith.

The thing that has been most difficult for me is to figure out what to do with the body. 

As a contextual theologian and an Ancient-Future practitioner, I am deeply concerned with issues of incarnation and embodiment of the gospel. Our faith can not be merely intellectual, super-natural or institutional. Our faith must embodied, or in-bodied and lived-out. 

I have figured out, through 6 years of blogging, how to talk with conservative, evangelical, and charismatic Christians about almost everything  related to faith and practice in ways that they can hear. The issues of sexuality remain the most illusive.

The problem seems to relate to a giant pot-hole in the road to understanding that is so treacherous it almost doesn’t leave enough room to move without careening into the pit of ‘natural design’.

What complicates matter all the more is that there is a serious ditch on the other side of the road – one that was dug by Augustine’s legacy  (I hate Augustine’s influence on church history) regarding the badness of the body, a specifically sexuality.

Here then is the issue: If I am talking about somebody and I’m listing all of that they bring to the table in areas of smarts, relationship, experience, and capacity … am I to act like they don’t have a flesh container? It asks me to act like they have no body.

Yes. That is what we want you to do.  Jonathan Chait at New York explains:

For those who don’t see the problem here, the degree to which women are judged by their appearance remains an important hurdle to gender equality in the workforce. Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse. It’s not a compliment. And for a president who has become a cultural model for many of his supporters in so many other ways, the example he’s setting here is disgraceful. [New York]

Even while I write this I can hear my more conservative Christian brothers saying “That is ridiculous! This is the sissy-fication of our culture.”  To which I can only reply,”Yes. It is the leveling of a historically unequal playing field.” obamakamala1_1365167806

I get why culturally, we don’t want the President even acknowledging her flesh container at all. We don’t want pastors commenting on congregant’s looks. I get it.

But as thinking christians, is anyone else worried about the implications for this kind of willful charade? Do we think that President Obama doesn’t see her? Are we under the impression that he doesn’t notice her beauty? Do we think that she, in her private moments, doesn’t want to be found attractive? Do we think that she doesn’t invest time and energy in her looks?

“It doesn’t matter! Just don’t say it. Not ever ever ever.”  And I get that. What I am asking about is the ramifications for the embodied practices of the life of faith. What we have learned from church history  (and reality TV)- from fundamentalist pastor’s daughters to celibate priests – is that repression of desires in one place (public) is bound to cause pressure which bubbles up some place else (private).

We have to break the ‘old boys network’ mentality. I get that. I am worried about the secondary effect of perpetuating a deadly dualism between body and mind/soul.

I clearly need help thinking this through. Anyone want to chime in on this? 

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Psychology, Equal Sign Profile Pics, and The Bible on Television

Howdy! This week, we welcomed Stephen Simpson, one of the heads of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, to the show to discuss the intersection of faith and psychology. Get used to Steve, because he’ll be back on the show for sure.

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Subscribe on iTunes!

Later, we talk about the worth in changing one’s profile picture to an equal sign, and the History Channel’s take on The Bible. Toward the end, we discuss Christian’s latest endeavor, a Bible study blog series that’s actually entertaining!

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