Friday, May 29, 2009

Convicted Civility

Listening to Heard on Campus (available through iTunes) this week, the concept of convicted civility was mentioned to characterize the way in which committed Christians are supposed to view people of other faiths or no faith. As part of a discussion about Christian cross-denominational engagement of culture, the idea in such dialogue is not to abandon – or to ask others to abandon – the central tenets of yours or their faith. Rather, Christians are encouraged to own their faith and yet engage in dialogue with others without condemning or castigating others.

It seems convicted civility is an excellent way to characterize the way Christians are called to engage non-Christians in discussions of faith, culture, and policy. This stands in stark contrast to some “calls to arms” we often hear from folks that often demonstrate textual knowledge but precious little understanding of the Faith as we are called to live it. While it is true that we can find such street corner haranguing in Scripture – Jonah comes to mind. But before we too quickly seize on Jonah as an example of this type of preaching, let us remember that Jonah had an attitude problem that needed correcting. Rather than Jonah being an example of God’s preferred approach to spreading His word, the story ends with a reminder of God’s care and concern for all people.

As an alternative model, we can consider Paul’s interaction with the Athenians. As we have the story, Paul does not stand in the middle of the Areopagus and condemn the Athenians. No, rather he engages them where they are – using aspects of their religious traditions as entrĂ©es to spiritual discussions. Paul does not abandon his understanding of the faith, but he engages non-believers on their terms and where they are.

Convicted civility also seems to be line with the character suggested by the lists of gifts of the Spirit we find in Scripture. Especially germane are goodness, patience, humility, and kindness. People we are told are generally attracted to good people, and relationships formed with good people are stronger than those based on intellectual arguments and fear-based theological premises.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Passing Her Up

We have just returned from Pepperdine where one of the treats is the few thousand folks singing a capella in the fieldhouse at the evening keynote. The fieldhouse at Pepperdine is a standard college gym with wooden bleachers on two sides and a wide main floor. During the evening events, it is common for folks to come in at various times between the hour-long pre-keynote singing session, or during the keynote hour, while the crowd continues to sing much like a church service. It was during this period of singing that a few middle-aged and older women came in, and having decided where they were going to sit, turned into the bleachers below me and headed up.

One of these ladies had some not inconsiderable trouble with one of her legs - it just didn't seem to want to lift her foot over the next higher bleacher level. Her foot would hit the seat and she would resort to climbing the bleachers on all fours. It didn't take her long to reach my fourth or fifth-level and I reached out my hand to help steady her. She grabbed hold, seemingly appreciatively, and continued to wrestle that foot further up. I was able to help her to the next level, and when my arm had reached its limit, another hand came from above me, took her arm, and helped her further. And then another, and another until she reached her friends. All of this seemed spontaneous, as though helping this lady was the most natural thing for this now cooperating organism of multiple people. It seemed and still does seem that we could not have not helped her with her climb.

It seems that this is exactly the sort of organism into which the church is called to transform. What might happen if we simply instinctively reached out to help each other with our climbs, passing one another and being passed up closer to our God? All too often we are too busy or too disinterested or too distracted to help one another. Sometimes we want to question whether someone needs our help and ever so slightly our defenses come up to keep us from being taken advantage of; of being made the patsy. This kind of living that remains unaware or uninterested in the troubles of others keeps us from simply and beautifully reacting as one for the sake of one.

Do you instinctively reach out to help others or do you question their legitimate need? What might your world look like if we could lose the tendency to protect self and simply aid others?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Rejoicing Over the Defeat of the Egyptians

I have come to enjoy APM's Speaking of Faith series. Here's another little gem from another of their podcasts...

We all know the story of the Exodus, the crossing of the split-apart Red Sea on dry ground. The climax of that story comes when the Egyptian Army is engulfed and destroyed by the sea being released to collapse back upon itself.

There is apparently a Midrashic story that says at the moment the Egyptian army was engulfed and it was clearly to be destroyed, that the angels in Heaven began singing and praising God for His deliverance of Israel. But God, instead of letting the praise continue, held up His hand and stopped the angels' singing.

Why would He do that? The reason, given in the Midrash, is that God does not want rejoicing when creatures, made by His hands and at His command, suffer as did the Egyptians. I don't know if the Midrash says God sorrowed over their deaths, but He did not rejoice over it. God's value, God's care for the Creation is not diminished by the Creation's faults.

I find it interesting and somewhat arresting that we find this story in a Jewish relgious corpus. But it isn't a unique concept for the Jewish people. I have previously brought a very moving prayer to your attention, written by Holocaust survivor, that seeks blessings on enemies because of the good that came of the horror he suffered. You can find that prayer here:

This reminds me of a story in Winner's book about one of her friend's fathers. When asked what was the most important thing in life, his response was "to learn forgiveness" (or something like that - I don't have the book in front of me). Winner says that she had asked many people this same question and all had had to think, and then when answering would say two or more different things as though they wern't sure. Contrastingly, this man answered immediately and definitively - learning to forgive was the most important thing in the world.

From where did this notion of his come? How did he come to pick this virtue, and how had he come to own it so surely? The same way that prayer writer did; this man too, was a Holocaust survivor. Perhaps for his own sanity, perhaps because he had to, perhaps because he had come to know God through the suffering of the Holocaust, he had come to realize the same truth.

In forgiving - in real forgiving - it seems there is no room for rejoicing over your foe's defeat. There is only room for forgiveness.

How are you doing with that?

If you haven't yet found Speaking of Faith, their podcasts are available through iTunes. Highly recommended.

Rumi's Reminder

Listiening to a Speaking of Faith podcast on Rumi, the following story was told:

There is a statement in the Quran that goes something like this: "I have given you the reminder, and I will protect it." Spoken by God, this statement is routinely applied to the Quran itself. God has given us the Quran, and He will protect the Quran. One day, Rumi was sitting with his students/friends, and he recited this standard interpretation of the Quran statement. Then he said, while that is all well and good, there is another way to understand the phrase. The Reminder in Rumi's version is the desire to know God. 

In Rumi's thinking apparently, there is no Original Sin, but rather a humanity that forgets who they and God are. Rumi's explanation of this Quranic passage addresses that theological point by tying together our forgetfulness, and God's implanting in us a drive, an urge that He will ensure remains, to remember.

Hebrew Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God, and Orthodox theology tells us that we are indeed made in that image, that character, and that our journey is to develop that image into the very likeness of God. That image results in there being something inside us, however small and unintelligble, that drives us to find God. Thomas Merton has said that we are on a journey "to a place we've never been."

Rumi would remind us - and he is correct in this - that God has placed in us the reminder, and we long to remember.

Saturday, May 02, 2009


My wife and I were lying in bed the other night when she commented that the brightness of the moon coming through the window was a wonderful Spring event and provided a pleasant calming effect at bedtime. As the window through which the light was coming was on my side of the bed, I observed that it wasn’t the moon, but a neighbor’s security light that was casting the radiance across our floor. At that, my wife said, “then close the blind; it’s too bright and will keep me awake.”

There’s a saying in my profession and shared by many others that asserts “perception is reality.” There are even people who specialize in perception management. This is the idea that what others think about you becomes true in their minds, and we are able to modify their behaviors toward us by adjusting the perceptions they have of us.

My wife’s mood and attitude changed solely on the basis of her perception of the source of the light. For the few minutes that the light was caused by a Spring moon, she enjoyed it and would have been content to sleep contentedly with the warm moonlight bathing us. When she realized the light was caused by a cold, stark, security light, the light immediately became an intrusion and a hindrance to peaceful slumber. One moment it was peaceful; the next it was almost jarring.

The light though hadn’t changed; it had always been caused by the neighbor’s security light. The only thing that did change was the perception of it, illustrating that there is some truth in the saying that perception is reality as far as it defines our acceptance of and interaction with our surroundings.

This same phenomenon is true regarding Christian understandings of God. If we read Scripture, or if we are trained to see God as an aloof taskmaster who has created arbitrary hoops through which we are expected to jump in order to gain His acceptance, we align our religious thinking along those lines. Christian life becomes essentially a test to see if we can determine the correct rules, adhere to them, and convert others to the same rules. Worship activities become central because the rules for them can be measured and objectively assessed. We can even convert others to our understanding of the rules and correct behaviors we tease from Scripture.

If we see God rather as a loving, giving God; if we understand Scripture as a narrative unfolding of God, we might perceive God as a compassionate God who wants us with Him. As a result, we develop an understanding of reality that is quite different from the one we have just discussed. We see a God that isn’t wrapped up in finite rules, issuing test scenarios that we must negotiate correctly. We see a God whose compassion and intimate knowledge of us causes Him to accept us with our faults and with our wrong or immature understandings of Him and ourselves. Worship activities become almost a secondary response to such a God, following the reality of changed lives and transformed hearts. Our relationships with others become characterized by understanding and acceptance more than attempts to define and enforce divine rules.

As a result of this last perception of God, we are freed to join in God’s compassionate love for, and nurturing acceptance of ourselves and others. Only when we understand God as One who accepts us with our faults can we accept ourselves with those same faults. When we can, we no longer need to hide them or pretend we don’t have any failings. It is only after we have learned this about ourselves that we can most fully enter the lives of others and accept them where they are. Only then can we introduce them to a God that is loving rather than demanding. Only then can we pass to others a perception of God that is similarly freeing and life-giving.

However we perceive God, He does not change. Just as the light outside the window didn’t change, our changing perceptions of it created its own reality. We can to a large degree shape our own reality based on our perception of God and what He is up to. That perceived reality will color our views of ourselves, others, and our calling.

How’s your perception?

Comment on Perception

The following is (most of) a comment I received in response to the last post on Perception. I expected that the expression of the concept in such an open manner would cause some folks to think that reality is whatever I happen to think it is at the moment, I elected to post my comments without explanatory notes. Well, one of my friends from another site makes that very observation. That's a good thing because it prompts me to address some of the limits of perception in response to his comment. Below in standard font are his comments, and in italics are my responses. This gentleman is kind and knowledgeable in Scripture; I have no reason to question his faith, salvation, or commitment to God or Scripture. It is apparent though, that we do see things a bit differently perhaps. Of course, regular readers of this blog won't find that surprising. 

“It appears that your "perception" of God and scripture is no different than many others. It may be different in wording or actual commitment levels but that is your interpretation of the Word. 

It almost appears as if you are saying that God accepts you, no matter how you live your life. Kind of the old, God loves me as I am, thing. However, that is a dangerous approach to spiritual truth when it come to Gods will for our lives. Not to mention that it is very difficult to support this view of Christianity with scripture.” 

I’m glad that you included that “almost,” because that is an accurate reflection of what I believe. It is that you can almost live your life however you want and God will accept you. We might posit that there are two kinds of sinners – those that did bad stuff before they were saved and now no longer do, and those that did bad stuff before they were saved and yet still do bad stuff. For the purposes of this discussion, it does not matter the relative severity of these behaviors; the answer remains the same – God will accept you if you attempt to follow Him. We all get things wrong and we all do things on purpose that are not in line with God-character. If I expect God to accept me, I must allow Him to accept you.

I do not believe it is difficult at all to support in Scripture. I would point first of all to 1 John, where we are told that we aren’t supposed to sin, but if we do, the blood of Christ covers us. Without getting into the background of 1 John, or a discussion of Gnosticism, that truth does support that there is really very little you can do to remove yourself from the acceptance of God.

That does not mean there is nothing you can do to separate yourself from God, but there are precious few things indeed.

“I appreciate people who are intelligent. I really do. I can't imagine having to live this life with people who can't participate in an intellectual conversation. I have tried. It doesn't work. I said all of that to set the stage for what I am about to say... You and I have mixed it up a couple of times on the [Deleted by HR to protect the guilty]. I have seen instances when "retranslation" of the bible is the only correct way to do things. I think some people are too smart for their own good.”

I try not to “retranslate” for grins and giggles, but rather extrapolate and interpret specific passages in light of the whole of Scripture and its description of God. I believe it is vitally important that we understand God (that is what we are called to) and then interpret Scripture in light of that understanding. I admit this must be a reflexive undertaking – read Scripture first, see the picture, and then re-read Scripture in light of that picture. It is true that I shy away from dogmatic applications of seemingly absolute passages. I shy away from them because they generally do not fit the rest of Scripture – or in many cases the context of the passages themselves.

“I do not know if I will ever understand how you, and others like you, reconcile your beliefs with scripture. God does love us and accept us as we are, but we are meant to change our life as we grow as a Christian. Knowledge is a wonderful thing. But it can be a two edged sword as well. Saying we believe in God isn't good enough. There actually has to be evidence of it in our lives.”

Oddly enough, it seems that we agree on this one. I whole-heartedly agree that simple knowledge isn’t enough. The expectation is that we evidence changed – no, transformed – lives. We are called to become like Christ, the fullness of God. That is precisely the reason I try to find God rather than distinct rules in Scripture. God is up to something broader than giving us a written code.

“There is actual sacrifice involved when we accept Christ as our savior. We should die to ourselves. We are not the same. It is not our life to live. We were redeemed with a price. That price was our Lord and Savior being beaten, humiliated, nailed to a cross, and His side pierced. He was killed for me and you. He earned and paid for our life. 

Your approach to life as a Christian, although it is very comforting, is completely wrong. Of course, that is just my opinion.” 

Since we agree to a large extent, I’m not sure how I can be completely wrong – assuming there is some correctness in your view. Perhaps we are both completely wrong, or maybe we simply have different emphases in our view of God. Maybe we’re both a bit right and a bit wrong.

“I have concern when reading your open dislike of accountability in the scriptures when it comes to marriage and homosexuality among others. Your opinion of abortion leaves some questions as well.”

I suspect that is because these are emotional trigger topics, and that I express myself differently than you. Perhaps I understand the question being asked differently. Maybe I see the solution to be based more on understanding God and the realities of existence, more so than on finding the applicable rule. I admit that sometimes I perceive the implications of Scripture differently than the more common view would allow, but I believe my understanding to be in line with Scripture.

That however, is not to say that I devalue Scripture, or that I don’t believe we are called to higher levels of existence and behavior. I try though, to live in that higher plain with the view that I see God has demonstrated time and again. That view is one that acknowledges that you and I are imperfect and will continue to be; that we do not understand God entirely; that despite our beliefs that we have it “right,” we probably don’t. The view of God in Scripture is one that does accept those who seek to follow Him, as they are. He then calls them to an imperfect, but transforming/transformed life that will itself be punctuated by failures.

Those that are separated from God are those who push Him away; those that have no love for the Light, who seek to further Darkness. Others, who seek after God even imperfectly (to greater or lesser degrees) are nurtured and accepted by God. I hope and believe that about me and I must hope and believe that about you. As a result, I must also hope and believe that about others even if they do stuff that I think is incompatible with Christian living.

Finally, I don’t have an open dislike of accountability. I do however find that God usually turns out to have a bit more grace and mercy than He does wrath. I simply try to extend that same grace and mercy to others and at the same time try to comport myself to what I understand to be the higher standard.

I believe my friend, that you and I are much closer than you perceive.


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