Tuesday, November 22, 2011

True Religion

True religion, the taking care of widows and orphans sort, is the only way to win over a jaded skeptic. Here's a quote from Thomas Cahill's book, Desire of the Everlasting Hills:
Through the history of the West since the time of Jesus, there has remained just enough of the substance of the original Gospel, a residuum, for it to be passed, as it were, from hand to hand and used, like stock, to strengthen, flavor, and invigorate new movements that have succeeded again and again – if only for a time – in producing alteri Christi, men and women in danger of crucifixion. It has also produced, repeatedly and in the oddest circumstances, the loving-kindness of the first Christians. Malcolm Muggeridge, the supremely secular British curmudgeon, who cast a cold eye over so many contemporary efforts and enterprises, was brought up short while visiting an Indian leprosarium run by the Missionaries of Charity, the sisters founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He had always imagined secular humanism to be the ideal worldview but realized, while strolling through this facility, built with love for those whom no one wanted, that no merely humanist vision can take account of lepers, let alone take care of them. To offer humane treatment to humanity’s outcasts, to overcome their lifetime experience of petty human cruelties, requires more than mere humanity. Humanists, he realized with the force of sudden insight, do not run leprosariums.
But it is also true that the West could never have realized some of its most cherished values without the process of secularization. The separation of church and state was achieved in the teeth of virulent Christian opposition, as was free speech, universal suffrage, tolerance, and many other values we would not be without. That these values flow from the subterranean river of authentic Christian tradition points up, once more, the paradoxical validity of the distinctions Jesus made between the religious establishment and true religious spirit.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Impulse and Guilt

There are two human behaviors/emotions that fascinate me: impulse and guilt.  They are at such opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, yet often the later follows the former.

Impulse seems an almost animal quality; by definition it is virtually thoughtless. Sometimes we just get the urge to do something. Often it is to satisfy some particular appetite. But sometimes our impulses seem to have no rhyme or reason whatsoever. "Why did I do that?" we often ask ourselves. And the truth is, there is probably no answer to that question; we just did it - there was no reason. It makes me wonder, why do we have them? Especially the ones that aren't connected to any particular human need (hunger, sex, etc.), why are they there? What purpose do they serve? And why do we find impulses so hard to resist? Do we all have some form of obsessive compulsive disorder?

On the other end of the emotional/behavioral spectrum is guilt. Guilt is both highly rational - we think through what we did, and the implications of those actions; but it is also highly emotional - we feel sorrow or regret. As far as I know, this is a peculiarly human trait. I don't believe animals feel guilt. An intelligent animal, like a dog, will certainly display submission behavior when caught doing something prohibited, but it doesn't really feel bad about digging up your rose bush. It doesn't consider how much you enjoyed those roses, or how much you'll miss them. That tail between the leg just means it knows from the tone of your voice that it's going to get swatted with the newspaper. That's just Pavlovian response. It's been conditioned.

But we've also been conditioned, haven't we? As children we were punished when we did wrong, and like the dog, we developed a sort of reflexive, "Oh no, I'm in trouble" feeling. So to a degree our guilt is learned. But mature guilt also involves empathy. We actually consider how our wrong may have hurt someone else, and we feel bad about it. We put ourselves in that person's place, and feel what they feel. That's something Fido can't do.

I don't think we ever get rid of the conditioned, reflexive guilt. The rational, empathetic side of guilt is just layered over it, making the feeling more complex. But I wonder when that transition from mere conditioned guilt to more complicated, rational guilt takes place? I'm sure some psychologist has figured this out by now, but it was something I was wondering about this morning.

My 19 month old son likes to sit in my lap when I'm working on the computer. Most of the time I don't mind, especially considering I don't get good cuddles as much as his mom does. But here lately he has started having this impulse to put his hands on the computer - slamming his hand down on the keyboard. After repeated warnings, I had to start giving him a spanking when he did it. For the most part, that stopped the behavior. But those impulses are so hard to resist... This morning, he was sitting in my lap while I was checking email, when all of the sudden, he reached his hand out and touched one of the keys. Without me saying a word, he pulled back his hand looked up at me and started crying. It was the first time I've seen him register guilt. I feel sure it was the more reflexive, conditioned variety, but still, the emotion was there. The look on his face said it all - he had no idea why he just did that. I just gave him a hug. I told him, "It's ok son, I know exactly how you feel." Welcome to the human race...

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Kingdom of God: Changing the Way We Share the Gospel

Most of my readers know that for the past three years we have been involved in a grand experiment to plant a church in a secular environment. It's been a very humbling experience. It's also been a great learning experience. The basic conclusion that we've come to is that if Christians hope to make an impact in an increasingly secular Western culture, we're going to have to do a few things differently. And one change that must happen is the recovery of the message of the Kingdom of God.

If you read through the gospels, you can't help but notice that Jesus is constantly talking about the Kingdom of God (synonymous in Matthew with the Kingdom of Heaven). It is the central unifying point in all of Jesus' teachings. Most of his parables begin or end with something like "...and this is how it is in the Kingdom of God." At the end of his time on earth, it is clear that Jesus expected that his disciples would carry on this message of the Kingdom - he specifically commanded them to go out into the world and spread his teachings. Given that, it is strange how little you hear Christians speak about the Kingdom of God. It seems we have lost a key scriptural emphasis. There are some historical reasons for this loss - particularly the blending of Christianity and European civilization into a single socio-religious system that we call Christendom. But that's another post for another time. Right now I'm not so concerned about why this has happened, but what the effects are.

With the loss of the emphasis on the Kingdom of God, there is the obscuring of the meaning of much of Jesus and the apostles' teachings. Without an emphasis on the Kingdom of God we often overlook many key features in the New Testament writings in particular, and the general trajectory of much of the Old Testament. This can lead to a partial, or sometimes complete, loss of meaning to many scriptural texts. But perhaps the most devastating effect of not having a Kingdom emphasis is the loss of a clear call to action. The Kingdom of God encapsulates not only an understanding of who God is and what he is doing in the world, but also a call to action for those who call themselves his children. 

Below I have a six point introduction to the Kingdom of God that I've been sharing with my secular friends. I've given it formally in a talk, but I've also been working it informally into conversations about Christianity, spirituality, social justice, or any other subject to which it pertains. My goal with these six points is to both make clear what I'm about, what my hopes are, and what I'm working for in my life, and also to clear up common misconceptions my secular friends have about Christianity. I'm especially concerned about making the distinction between the church as an institution and the church as those who are committed to following the life and teachings of Jesus and the apostles - there are far too many negative things about "Christian" institutions in the news these days not to make that distinction. 

For those familiar with Christian theology, you'll probably notice a few points (even some important ones) that are missing from my six points. This is because my goal is not to give some sort of abbreviated systematic theology, but rather an outline of my belief system that flows from ideas to actions. If you enrolled in a freshman level class at your local university, you wouldn't be expected to complete PhD level homework, and we shouldn't expect people that have little or no familiarity with our beliefs to take in every aspect immediately. I'm hoping that this is a good start. If you have any thoughts on my points, I'd love to hear them. This is a work in progress that I'm tweaking as I go.

This is a call to action.

1. The Kingdom of God is not an institution, a religion, or a culture.

It’s not Protestant or Catholic, it doesn't belong to any particular church, or for that matter, any particular religion. It is God’s will being done on Earth as it is in heaven, just as we hear Jesus pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Whenever and wherever we see God’s will being done, we see people participating, at least in part, in that coming kingdom. That can happen within institutions, but it is not bound to them, and can certainly happen outside of their confines. The Kingdom of God was the message of Jesus, so we tend to associate it with Christianity, but those two things are not synonymous. Neither Christianity nor Western culture which is associated with it, is synonymous with being a disciple of Jesus. Sometimes people will actually have to go against Christianity or Western culture to stay true to the message of Jesus. This is true whether talking about the Crusades of the medieval era, or the out of control consumerism of our modern culture.

2. The Kingdom of God is a movement. Its purpose is to rescue humanity (from ourselves) and heal all of creation.

It’s aim is to spread peace and justice (e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4, Matt. 5:43-48). It also is a movement of morality. Everybody wants justice and peace these days (or at least they talk like they do), but no one wants morality. No one wants to change their personal behavior, no one wants to be corrected when they've done something wrong, or to be held to higher standards. But without personal morality, there can never be peace and justice in society. A society is simply the character of the individuals that make up that society writ large. You can’t have a healthy society if it’s made up of unhealthy individuals. They’re just two sides of the same coin. When Jesus teaches on peace and justice, in the same breath he teaches on self-control, in areas like sexual desire, or anger, or pride. There’s a recognition in the life and teachings of Jesus that you can’t transform the world if you don’t transform the individual. That transformation must start with the self - myself and yourself.

3. The Kingdom of God starts small, looks insignificant, and often moves and develops in unseen ways.

Jesus once told a parable that said that his kingdom was like a tiny seed that would eventually grow into a great tree. He said his kingdom would spread silently and invisibly the way that a small clump of yeast can work its way through a huge batch of dough. He lived this. Many of Jesus' followers hoped that he would defeat the Roman empire's occupation of Israel, but Jesus never raised an army or sought political power. He did however spread a message and way of life that would eventually chip away at the very foundations of that empire. The changes that the Kingdom of God brings happen one person, one family, and one community at a time. It does not require political, economic, or military power. It is more powerful than all of those things combined. Given time, it will subvert the abuse in such systems and break them the way the roots of a tree will gradually split open even the largest of rocks.

4. The Kingdom of God requires commitment.

The Kingdom of God is about changing the world. And to be a part of that change, even in a small way, requires a steadfast commitment. No one ever accomplished anything worth accomplishing, without committing to it first. You can’t scale Mount Everest on a whim. If you want to accomplish something beyond mere existence, if you want to make an impact in the world, it will only come through the giving of time, and energy, and blood, sweat, and tears. And you will not be up to the challenge unless you first commit to "hanging in there" through the tough times that will surely come. I've been trying to participate in this movement for several years now, and I have to constantly shake off fear, discouragement, weariness, and apathy, and recommit myself again and again to doing the hard work of changing – starting with myself (with God’s help), so that I can help those around me change themselves (with God’s help), so that, together, we can join with God in changing the world.

5. The Kingdom of God is under the leadership of Christ.

A movement can’t survive without a leader. Those that knew him best, came to see Jesus as the most remarkable person to ever walk the earth. But not just that, they saw him as more than a person. In him they found the very wisdom of God breathed into flesh and blood. Jesus is the only one qualified to lead a movement of this magnitude. While he may not walk among us as he did those early disciples, his teachings live on in the scriptures, and his Spirit lives on in those communities of people who have decided to take up his challenge to follow him with their lives. To follow Jesus is to become his disciple. Disciple just means “learner;" Jesus calls us to learn from him what it truly means to be human - to be what God created us to be.

6. Those who want to join the Kingdom of God movement should pledge allegiance to Christ.

The way the earliest followers of Jesus did this was through the ancient ceremony of baptism. In baptism a person would be dunked under water and then pulled back up. The Apostle Paul symbolically compared baptism to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. In a sense, that’s what happens to you when you become a follower of Christ. You commit to dying to your old selfish, self-centered life, and you begin a new life devoted to spreading the Kingdom of God under the leadership of Jesus Christ. When you commit to following Jesus, it means you follow him unto death, even if it leads to persecution from those powers in this world who have a vested interest in the keeping the status quo.

If this sounds like something you want to be a part of then you should seriously consider taking the plunge and accepting the challenge. I can tell you personally, that it was the best decision I ever made.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kingdom of God

Update, Oct. 25: I haven't forgotten about the blog, we've just been without reliable internet the past few weeks. Hopefully the problem will be corrected in the next couple of days.

I'm sorry I haven't had more time to devote to the blog lately. It's been very busy the past couple of weeks. Hopefully I'll have some time next week to sit down and type up a proper post. On Sunday, I discussed the nature of the Kingdom of God in a six point manifesto. Here's my six points - I plan to write up a post fleshing out these ideas soon:

The Nature of the Kingdom of God

  1. The KOG is not an institution, a religion, or a culture.
  2. The KOG is a movement. Its purpose is to rescue humanity (from ourselves) and heal all of creation.
  3. The KOG starts small, looks insignificant, and often moves and develops in unseen ways.
  4. The KOG requires commitment.
  5. The KOG is under the leadership of Christ.
  6. Those who want to join the KOG movement should pledge allegiance to Christ.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Failed Prophet?

Here's our latest Food For Thought article:

Your Kingdom Come…

Things will get better when God’s will is done on Earth as it is in Heaven. That is the promise of the Christian scriptures. Jesus message was intended to usher in a new era for humanity characterized by peace and justice. Unfortunately, two-thousand years later, the world still looks like a pretty awful place. Some people, looking at the state of the world, question whether Jesus was a failed prophet. But the real question is whether people have actually followed Jesus’ teachings of loving their neighbors as themselves, or forgiving others, or caring about their enemies? From looking at the daily news, the answer to this question must be a resounding NO. This raises another question - what if everyone did follow Jesus’ teachings? What would the world look like? Would it not be something very close to the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke of? If so, is the problem that Jesus was a failed prophet or that we are a failed people?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Broken World

I've got a couple of ideas I'm wanting to write about, but haven't gotten around to them just yet. Until then, here's my article from the paper this week:

A Broken World

We human beings have a tendency to be selfish creatures that pursue our own agendas without considering the needs of others. This creates all manner of dysfunction and suffering in the world. As a species, our behavior is creating major problems. There is no quick fix to these problems. Politicians sitting around talking about policy won’t fix things. A rich philanthropist can’t just throw enough money into charity organizations to make the problems go away. The only way this world will ever get better is if we start the hard work of changing ourselves.

There are resources for this change in the most surprising of places. For two thousand years Jesus’ teachings have been a light to those seeking a better path in life, and yet our modern culture is in danger of losing those teachings altogether. In Australia especially, Christianity may very well become an extinct religion over the next few decades. And it’s unlikely that other religions will fill the gap due to their even smaller numbers. At that point we will have no one to guide our way other than the politicians and multi-national corporations. When that happens, do you think our problems will get better or worse?

Friday, September 2, 2011


My coworker, Jason, and I have been writing short little articles to advertise our Sunday outreach, Food for Thought. We try to share something, in 200 words or less, that will provoke some curiosity from the community. I thought I would post the last couple that we put in.

God’s Not

If God existed, what would God look like?  Perhaps none of us really knows, but at the very least we can probably guess what God would not look like.  If God is the most powerful being in the universe it seems unlikely that he/she would look like the petty gods of ancient mythology.  Such gods reflect the worst qualities in human nature -- envy, deceitfulness, etc. 

Likewise, a cold impersonal god seems an unlikely representation of God since it would mean that a house cat has more personality than the being that spun stars and made life and love possible.  Both options seem unlikely. 

If we were looking for the true God we would expect to find a being that is both personal and universal at the same time -- able to both love us and suffer with us, yet without human pettiness.

Science and Faith

Can science and Christianity enjoy each other’s company?

Imagine if Jesus and Darwin sat down to enjoy a cup of tea. If Jesus put the kettle in the refrigerator instead of on the stove, Darwin would think him strange. This is because he knows scientifically that it’s not wishful thinking that heats the water, but burning gas or electricity. And if Darwin pours the water onto Jesus’ head - to test his reaction - it won’t improve the friendship. Neither party can set traps for one another if they expect to be friends. Relationships have to be experienced through mutual trust.

Science is an amazing tool for learning about the natural world. And the Christian story gives us a lens through which we can understand spiritual realities. Without a lens or framework to explain the spiritual, we only know the mechanisms science reveals to us. We don’t know whether the universe is all about love or all about survival, all random chance or completely determined. Yet with a spiritual lens, we have both a moral vision and the motivation to live in it - to love our enemies, to admit when we’re wrong, and to forgive others.