Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Spirit and the fire

The Bible has a collection of images that it uses for the Holy Spirit -- and fire is one of the main ones. This fire is not a destructive fire, but a purifying fire, a holy fire. It is light in the darkness. It is the light that shines before men, the lamp on the lamp stand. It is the smolder that clings to the wick that is not snuffed out yet. It is the burning in the bosom as we hear the words of Christ. It is the flame that we fan. It is one way that faith passes from us to the next person -- that they feel the warmth, see the light, and are drawn. It is part of how we encourage each other, and part of why there is so much power in fellowship. In isolation, we are candles in the dark. Together, we are a bonfire.

In one of the Greek myths, man is denied fire -- it is reserved for the gods -- and the man who steals the power of fire is dealt a stern punishment. On Pentecost, God takes the fire of His own Spirit, and sends it down to man: The tongues of fire light on all the believers so that the young men will see visions, the old men will dream dreams, and on all -- both sons and daughters -- the spirit is poured out. God does not try to deny man the power of God: He pours it out on us, to lift us up, and restore us, and kindle the divine Spirit in us. God is a gracious God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The spirit and the water

So many things in the Bible are used as either symbols or sacraments -- we can save the "sacrament" discussion for another day. There are so many things in God's word that have layers of meaning added to them, beyond what is there on the surface. And one often-used is that the Holy Spirit is associated with water. To be sure, the Holy Spirit is also associated with other things, but water deserves its own look.

Water is pure: it is what we use to clean things. Water carries away dirt -- and then itself becomes pure again in the course of nature. Much like my footprints might spread dirt, water instead spreads cleanness and purity. Water is how things are renewed. Each Christian is called to baptism, and the water carries much of the meaning: we are washed and cleaned.

Water is one of the absolute necessities of life. The Bible speaks of a deer panting for the water, and of a tree planted by the waters that has no fear of drought. It talks about still waters and restoring the soul. It talks about rain that comes down from heaven and does not return without giving life and renewal to the earth. It talks about a river whose waters make glad the city of God. Time and again, the Word of God uses water to describe God's life-giving role.

The Book of Revelation is a vision, and a book of symbols. But that does not make it meaningless: it makes us need to reach out to see what those symbols mean. We have seen that when the Bible speaks of water, it speaks of cleansing, and renewal, and the source of life -- all worked in us through the Holy Spirit. It reminds us where we are to look for the source of that fountain:
And he showed me a pure river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Revelation 22:1)
The life of the world, and the cleansing of the world, flow like a river from the throne of God. That is the river in which we are baptized. That is the still water that restores the soul.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Good in human nature, continued

Are we good for a purpose in relation to others?

We don't necessarily like the idea of being good for something outside ourselves, good for a purpose. There is a risk of being viewed as tools. It is such a common human experience for one person to use another person; it dehumanizes both when this happens. There is bitterness in the accusation "they were just using us." Being useful carries the risk of exploitation.

Yet if we are not good for a purpose, the alternative is to be purposeless, or to have a purpose and be no good for it. We don't like the idea of being useful because we don't like the idea of being used; still, we don't like the idea of being useless any better. One of the best-loved Christian prayers is a prayer to be useful in a holy way, and begins: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." How can we be useful without being used? Is there way to serve without being demeaned by it, without becoming subservient?

As we start looking at usefulness, we should take a quick look back at our last conversation about how we are worthwhile in ourselves. Whenever we focus on our own goodness, we run the risk of self-adoration. We easily become greedy for recognition and praise. And if we allow ourselves to be corrupted even in a small way by self-worship, it creates a problem for how we see others. We can crave exaltation. It is a short step -- how often have we seen it taken? -- that people who self-worship begin to look down on others. (Most people are particularly good at one thing. And whatever that one thing may be, we generally come to see it as important.) The very thing that we see so clearly as wrong -- being seen only for how we serve someone else's ego or agenda -- is the very situation in which we put others, if we let our pride run its course. It is not good to be so impressed with ourselves. If we are not likewise impressed with other people, it is nothing but self-centeredness. We can think of infamous people who used others, but we often do the same thing on a smaller scale. In our daily lives, are we pursuing goodness, or pursuing recognition? A thirst for recognition can make every conversation turn back towards ourselves, every hobby somehow self-exalting. Even an act of service could be a chance to show off. And whenever that happens, the people we talk to are an audience, and we are using them for our own purposes. It's not a good purpose.

Let your light so shine

There is a purpose that does not exploit us or use us: there is a purpose that fulfills us. And fulfilling that purpose will serve and bless others without demeaning ourselves. We looked at the problem that we might be used for some agenda that is not our own, used in a way that robs us of who we really are, We looked at the opposite problem that we might use other people for our own agenda, and trample on who they really are. There is another option: we might work for a goal that is part of our own purpose -- so that we are not used. We might work for a goal that comes from our own desires and is part of our own nature: that is what I mean when I say there is a purpose that fulfills us. We might see others in a way that lifts up the other person, and recognizes them, or restores them.

"Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.". Our purpose shows us as a source of light but not as attention-seeking. We are called to give out our best for the benefit of others rather than to call attention to ourselves. The details vary by person: one will teach, another will encourage, another will garden or cook or paint or build homes. Any of those things could be done in a way that is a light for others (or in a way that seeks a spotlight for ourselves).

What does it take to see other people as they are, and not turn them into supporting characters in our own dreams? It takes humility. What does it take to be a light for them instead of for ourselves? It takes a generous and giving spirit: it comes from love.

Everyone has good things in them -- in general for simply being human, and each person individually in particular has their own distinct blend of abilities. The problem is that our best parts can easily become our worst parts depending on what we do with them. Whatever specific good is in us in particular, the more we use it to glorify ourselves, the less of a light it us for other people. The more we use it to lift up others, the more we sow light in the darkness.

If we see it as our purpose, and begin to do it on purpose, it is a powerful thing.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Good in human nature: Intro, and Part I

Over at Undivided Looking, Aron has been pondering original sin, and the question of good and evil in human nature. I've been considering that question -- both the thoughts over at his post, and an older one here in which many of you had chimed in on the comment thread, and had made some interesting observations.

It looks like, to get the whole picture, we'll have to consider

a) Are we intrinsically good in our nature (and what does that mean anyway?),
b) Are we good for a purpose in relation to others?
c) How do those pieces fit together?

Seriously, books have been written on those subjects ... and rather than try to cram a book into a blog post, I'll hit the highlights.

First, why break it down like that? If we ask, "Is something good?", we can either mean "Is it good for a purpose?" or "Is it good in itself?"* We don't always like the idea of being "good for a purpose" - it makes us sound like tools, and we've all met people whose only interest is in using us for some purpose of their own. Isn't there a possibility that we're simply good in our own right, without "purpose" coming into it with the need to be used or useful for some other agenda? So this post starts with the question whether we're good in our own right, "intrinsically good". (The next post on the topic is drafted; it was split out from this because it was becoming too long for a single reading. So next time picks up with the question of whether we're good for a purpose in relation to others, and looks at some connections that I find interesting in that light.)

Is human nature intrinsically good?

If we accept that creation is "very good in every way", at least in its unspoiled state, then there has to be a sense in which human nature, in that state, is intrinsically good. Thinking through examples of things that I consider good in themselves, apart from any use or purpose, I find myself considering things like the stars, the ocean, the forests, or (I live in a salt-marsh on a coast) the beauty of the bayou. I find myself thinking -- especially this time of year -- of wild flowers that brighten the fields and pathways, thicker and more numerous than stars, and displays of morning glories climbing every available post and tree so that I suspect the fabled hanging gardens of Babylon might have looked like that. Some things -- sunshine on the water, sunrise on the clouds -- are beautiful enough that human language has trouble describing them. We find ourselves reaching for a more profound, divine language: "There is no language where their voice is not heard."

Is human nature capable of drawing out reactions like that? It should be ... if we fit in with nature, it should be.

Why do those other things draw out that kind of reactions in us? I suspect it's because they remind us of God. To the extent that another thing reminds us of God, and is filled with the glory of God, it draws out that reaction. I think that's one reason why David's Psalm 19 has been such an enduring, often-quoted work for not just hundreds of years but for thousands of years at this point: he captured that wisp of thought and put it down, that thing that we sense when we view nature, and that a poet senses so acutely in watching human words fail at the same job: "The heavens declare the glory of God ... there is no speech or language where their voice is not heard."

I mentioned the hanging gardens of Babylon earlier. It was reckoned as one of the wonders of the ancient world. But here's the thing: it wasn't a wonder merely because it was ancient. It was a wonder because, with the help of man, nature surpassed even the normal wonder of nature. All of the ancient wonders of the world were instances where we could rightly look at man -- at human nature -- and experience wonder, where we could see that there is a sense in which we also reflect the glory of God.

But we're so fond of the thought of being good in ourselves -- of being intrinsically good, worthy of admiration -- that thought can corrupt us. The rest of nature is not so self-conscious. That self-reflection draws us into narcissism and idolatry, and threatens to undermine its own goodness.




* This conversation ties closely to the different basic ideas of ethics and what makes an action good.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

More Reasons Why Average Christians Take Theologians with a Grain of Salt

(This is on the same general topic as a previous post about why average Christians take theologians with a grain of salt.)  

Let me begin with a true story, though it is a couple of years old at this point: I had been reading the blog of a scholar in a Biblical studies program for roughly two years before I saw a comment that tipped me off that the man was, in fact, a Christian. Until then, despite reading each post on his blog, I couldn't tell whether he believed in God, or had any identification with Christ, by anything he had written on the topic of God or the Bible. I'd actually had the general impression that he was a non-Christian (after all, there are non-Christians who do Biblical studies) because of the way he talked about Christians. Apparently I was wrong ... 

What happens when an average Christian reads modern theologians? Whether reading their blogs or their books, it is easy to pick up a sense that they are puzzled why average people do not follow their scholarship more closely. They seem disappointed in the lack of interest. They often assume that people are uninterested in the things of God, or in the things of the mind. 

But consider the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is reckoned among the great theologians of the last century. In his most enduring work, he took the Bible seriously and based his agenda for study directly on Jesus' words. His scholarship was an act of study and wisdom; it was also an act of discipleship. For that reason it has been meaningful to generations of disciples. 

I suspect that, for every Christian who is actually disinterested in academic theology, there are probably two or three who are interested (or would be), but are themselves disappointed in the academics. Here are some of the reasons why: 

  • For not standing their ground, and for leaving the sheep defenseless - for fiddling around, if they'll pardon the pun, while Rome burns, and Constantinople, Wittenberg, Vienna, Canterbury, and the rest. Christianity is openly under attack in several quarters and notably within the academy. The person in the neighborhood church can observe that the academic theologians rarely take sides and, when they do, they frequently take the wrong one. 
  • For writing more about what Barth meant than what Jesus meant;
  • For following the times instead of following Jesus; 
  • For supposedly devoting their lives to teaching one Lord and one book, and making no visible effort to follow the one or approach the other as a student with something yet to learn -- for focusing on side points about their own agendas rather than the authors' points about faith, hope, and love, or trying to understand what Jesus was trying to tell us about the kingdom of heaven, or how best to proclaim it or engage the world with its blessing. 
  • For pursuing their job as if detached from the great commission, as if detached from discipleship. 
If the theologian is disappointed that the average Christian doesn't take theologians seriously, then the average Christian in turn is disappointed that the theologian shows no signs of taking Christ seriously.  By detaching themselves from discipleship and from the great commission, they detach themselves from Christian fellowship and from relevance to the communion of saints.

I once mentioned that it was a little disingenuous for the atheists in the Biblical studies departments to devote their lives to writing about a book that they have no intention of ever taking seriously. Yet it is a rare theologian whose earnestness about pursuing God's love and wisdom is visibly better than the atheists. The Bible is not a palette from which to dabble in colors to paint a picture of academic cleverness; it is not a means to impress people with scholarly acumen. There is not a scholar alive who can seriously expect to improve on the original material. The best of the Bible scholars realize that the Bible will far outlast them, and their most enduring works will be humble and devoted to the same goal of spreading hope, blessing, and good news, unashamed of the name of Jesus. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Lent 2015 - Anti-Malware Report

For a few years now, each Lent I have tried to scan my heart, mind, and soul for "viruses" as it were, like a computer's anti-virus software, to find spiritual issues and try to rid myself of them. As usual, my "Lent Anti-Virus" report is not a post in which I come off looking good; but the dose of humility doesn't do me any harm.

This year, I took a slightly different approach than the previous years. It seems to me that, when I react badly to something, there's usually a cause or a trigger. So one of my goals this Lent was, every time I found myself reacting badly to a situation in a way that I could recognize as unkind or unloving, I would make a point not to justify my reaction by blaming the person who wronged me -- and, yes, they may have genuinely wronged me -- but still my goal would be to track down why that particular situation made me struggle or fail at kindness. I wanted to determine what about that situation made it difficult for me, so I could look for a way to handle the situation better the next time it came up.

Here are some samples of things that triggered unkind/unloving reactions:


  • Someone suggested that I didn't know what I was talking about. My pride was so offended that I was tempted to go on a know-it-all binge in order to make it very clear that I was deserving of respect on that topic. I'm sure I've failed that temptation before. I expect that, if I ever go on a know-it-all binge, it was probably a trigger-reaction of that type. Sad to say, my pride came up more than once this Lent in relation to areas where I have professional or personal expertise. In addition to the temptation to go "know-it-all" in reaction to a perceived slight, there is also a more general temptation to one-upmanship that I'm trying to resist.
  • Someone had requested information about a topic which I then researched and prepared for her; she didn't come to receive it at the scheduled time, or contact me to let me know she couldn't make it. So my efforts were not only unrecognized but (it seemed at the time) wasted. In general, I probably resent when my efforts go unrecognized, unnoticed, or unvalued. Writing this, I wonder how often I fail to recognize the efforts of others. So noticing my own resentment here may help me "do unto others as I would have them do unto me". It could help spur me to pay more attention to other peoples' helpfulness. On a related note, it would be good for me to become skilled at the art of praise and encouragement, in order to be able to recognize other people properly. 
  • I found myself hesitating to recognize or acknowledge the good in someone who I believe, in general, does more harm than good. I know this hesitation is a fault that I have; I also know I'm not alone in it. But if we're preventing ourselves from noticing the good that other people are doing, then we may well wonder whether they're really doing more harm than good, or whether we just don't notice the good that they do. 
  • I struggle with even wanting to love a specific person who has done a great deal of harm to various people on a personal level, and is an active member of several groups that I have seen promote hatred and misinformation about their opponents. Here I tried to stop and recognize -- even if just within my own mind for now -- anything that person (as an individual) has achieved, endured, or overcome in her private life. If we're to love our neighbors, our enemies, everyone -- then that's a step. 
  • I rediscovered that I could work on my skills for confrontations and how to keep them civil. It's not really an optional skill set, for those of us who want to be able to remain gracious in all situations. At a crowded store, I did everybody's usual routine of carefully choosing a line where, yes, the "line open" light was on and the line was the most reasonable length I could find even though that was still long enough. I waited patiently til I got to the front of the line, only to have the checker flip off her light as I got to the front and say that this line is closed now, effectively sending me to the back of the line again in some other lane, after I had already spent considerable time waiting my turn. I'll give myself a mixed review on this one as I managed not to shout at the checker but shot her a disgusted look as I left, definitely angry. If I had managed to leave graciously that would be one thing. And I think that, even from the checker's point-of-view, it might have been kinder if I had stood my ground and said that the light was on when I got into the line, that I had waited my turn, that I had a small number of items and that I expected to be checked out. (It turned out to be a good thing that I thought through that situation and some ways to react better. It was scarcely a week later when roughly the same thing happened again at another store, and this time I was far better equipped to handle it calmly and graciously.) 

My basic premise is this: that when I have a noticeably bad reaction to something, that there is some kind of malware of the mind -- some character flaw -- behind my bad reaction. And that if I set a watch on my own reactions to catch the bad ones, then those bad spots will make themselves known. At that point, instead of justifying them, I can go after them with prayer, humility, or whatever else may be required. If it's a serious quest to love my neighbor in all circumstances, then I want to level out those rough places.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lent 2015 - By Our Love

For this year's Lent observance, I tried to increase my love by doing one of the following each day:

  • Getting to know one person better that day
  • Really listening to someone who wanted to talk
  • Starting a conversation with someone who seemed isolated
  • Considering things I admire in another person that day
  • Reading a Bible passage focused on praising God for being worthy of love
  • Reading a book that helps teach love and relationship skills (e.g. The Five Love Languages)

I found that, when it was my goal and observance and spiritual discipline to find a way to be loving, kind, encouraging, and supportive, that I found myself more alert for opportunities. I also became thoroughly embarrassed that it wasn't already my automatic way of interacting with people. How in the world, I wondered, could I have sought to be Jesus' disciple for so long, without having made a more serious effort to "Love each other" as he commanded? How many things have I sought to learn or master or accomplish in these years, without love being among them? I am hoping that all my life and relationships can be filled with love. I think, as Jesus' disciples, that is our spiritual discipline, and that is our call. "They will know we are Christians by our love."

As I've come to expect from my yearly Lenten observances, over the course of Lent there was some immediate good from having the practice at all. There was some growth for having kept at it for those weeks. And I hope there were also the beginnings of changed habits. Without doubt, there was also much cause for humility about where I am and whether I am really as devoted to that goal as is right.

I'm intending to schedule a post for mid-week this week about what I found on my "Lent Anti-Virus" watch this year, as I used a different tactic and it did pay off.