Author Archives: Marc

In favour of simple and direct prayer (we don’t need to be heroes).

Dallas Willard on simple prayer, which I found very helpful:

“Prayer, like all of the practices into which Jesus leads by word and example, will be self-validating to all who will simply pray as he says [that is, the Lord's Prayer] and not give up. It is much harder to learn if we succumb to the temptation to engage in “heroic” efforts in prayer. This is important. Heroism, generally, is totally out of place in the spiritual life, until we grow to the point at which it would never be thought of as heroism anyway.

“There are, of course, people who pray heroically, and they are to be respected for what God has called them to… But that is a special calling and is for very few of us. To look to this calling as the ideal for our prayer life is only to assume a burden of uncalled-for guilt, and, quite surely, it is to choose an approach that will lead to abandoning prayer as a realistic…aspect of life in the kingdom. There will be heroic periods as they may be called for, but with no intention to be heroic. Always, we are simply children walking and talking with our Father at hand.

“…Prayer is never just asking, nor is it merely a matter of asking for what I want. God is not a cosmic butler or a fix-it man, and the aim of the universe is not to fulfill my desires and needs. On the other hand, I am to pray for what concerns me, and many people have found prayer impossible because they thought they should only pray for wonderful but remote needs they actually had little or no interest in or even knowledge of. 

“Prayer simply dies from efforts to pray about “good things” that honestly do not matter to us. The way to get to meaningful prayer for those good things is to start by praying for what we are truly interested in. The circle of our interests will inevitably grow in the largeness of God’s love.

“What prayer as asking presupposes is simply a personal…relationship between us and God, just as with a request of child to parent or friend to friend. It assumes that our natural concerns will be naturally expressed, and that God will hear our prayers for ourselves as well as for others. Once again, this is clear from the biblical practice of prayer. It is seen at its best in that greatest of all prayer books, Psalms.

Accordingly, I believe the most adequate description of prayer is simply, “Talking to God about what we are doing together.”

~ Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, pp. 241, 242, 243.

Three questions ‘ere I go.

Leaving for a two week holiday tomorrow in which I plan to spend a significant amount of time on the beach. I’m in between books and in the middle of a bunch of others and I can’t decide what I should bring along. “I’m just going to bring a box of books,” I told Dixie. I can’t seem to just pick a book and go with it. I need time to browse, flip through a couple of books, and let settle on settle on me, but I don’t have time for that now.

I’m actively reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, so that one will come along for sure. But I suspect that bringing a book about the Sermon on the Mount to the beach is something I will regret. I’ve got stacks next to my bed and indecision weighs heavy.

What about some of the books I’ve started but put aside for the time being: The Brothers Karamazov; Bury My Heart at Wounded KneeA Brief History of TeaA Thousand Splendid SunsBeyond Belfast: A 560-Mile Walk Across Northern Ireland on Sore Feet; The Grapes of Wrath; Wolf Willow (started it ages ago, couldn’t get past the fiction bits but want to get to the non-fiction); Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology.

Or maybe some new fiction or non-theology/Bible non-fiction, something to take my mind off the things that need doing: A Confederacy of DuncesLonesome DoveSuch is My BelovedRumpole for the DefenceAbout a BoyInto Thin AirQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop TalkingThe Neverending Story (which I started today to see if it would stick); perhaps another Wodehouse novel; perhaps I should start reading The Lord of the Rings again.

Or maybe it’s okay to walk that fuzzy line between work and play and read one of those theological/spiritual books I’ve been wanting to get into: Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us; A Thomas Merton ReaderChrist Plays in Ten Thousand PlacesIncarnation.

Or maybe I should just take Willard and find something else at that wonderful used bookstore in Penticton. I’ll probably do less reading than I think I will. Here it is 11:20. I’m fighting a cold and I should be sleeping, but these are important decisions.

Dixie loves packing, bless her heart. So my worries prior to our trips, outside of the cleaning and organizing that needs doing, are: do I have a book to read? do I have several changes of underwear? is my deodorant packed?

One way or another, I’ll have all three ‘ere we go.

I Am Haunted by Waters (Walking on Water, Part 3)

To borrow a line from A River Runs Through It: I am haunted by waters.

Specifically, I am haunted by the story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on water in Matthew 14. More than 6 years ago now I wrote a post pondering my negative reaction to John Ortberg’s book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, which is based entirely on Peter’s little episode. (Or more specifically, my negative reaction was to the first 30 pages of the book. I couldn’t read any further.) That turned out to be one of my most discussed musings: a long (for a blog) conversation about calling, growing as a Christian, trusting in God, and stepping out in faith. I look back at it as marking a watershed (heh-heh-heh) of sorts in my life. I had been in a personal rut, directionless, for about 6 years, but within a year of writing that post I began what some might call “stepping out of the boat,” according to the popular interpretation of that story.

My beef with the popular interpretation remained, however. Two years ago, I came across a different though equally, if not more, plausible interpretation of the passage, one in which Peter’s actions aren’t commended as a model for all Christians to follow.

I hadn’t thought about it at all since then, but as it happened, the speaker at this weekend’s family camp used that passage in one of his sessions. He was preaching a series on trust and his take on this passage was again along the lines of the popular stepping-out-in-faith reading. My response was again negative, though to a much lower degree. Perhaps this will mark another watershed in my life, but this time my response is more along the lines of how we interpret this passage.

Let me say this first: I’m not questioning the speaker or his motives or his overall message. I believe that we need to trust in God fully for everything. That is what faith is. I believe that sometimes we are called to do difficult things and when that happens we need to “step out in faith,” but that this could mean anything from sharing the Gospel with a friend, repairing a broken relationship, making Kingdom choices rather than cultural choices, moving to the inner-city to work with the poor, or selling everything and moving to the jungles of South America. Some are called to what from the world’s perspective are “great things”, but I believe that we are all called to something specific and, when it comes down to it, things greater still in the Kingdom of God: to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

My concern with the popular reading of Peter walking on water is a general concern about how we read scripture. In the case of Peter walking on water, there are several dangers I see which could be applied to our interpretation of any passage of scripture.

One is that we interpret how we’ve always interpreted it. I value the tradition of the church—that is, the wisdom of the Christian witnesses who have gone before—and so I want to be careful not to argue for innovative readings of scripture for no reason other than innovation. What I intend to say is that whenever we read scripture, we need to read with fresh eyes and open ears. We may have misinterpreted it previously, we have missed a detail or an important contextual element, or the Spirit may simply have something different to tell us about the passage.

A fine example of this happening to me was Matthew 24:36-41. That’s the passage where Jesus talks about what it will be like when he returns: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” This is where I assume the Left Behind book series gets its name; I imagine this was also the inspiration for Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” The popular interpretation among conservative evangelicals, and the assumption behind both the books and Norman’s song, is that those in the passage who are “taken” are taken to be with Jesus and the ones who are “left” are unbelievers who, depending on your eschatology, will either have to suffer through the Great Tribulation or suffer some other terrible fate from which the believer is spared. But when you look at the context of Jesus’ words, you notice that he says that his return will be like the days of Noah in which “the flood came and took them all away.” In other words, it seems that Jesus intended a meaning reverse to the popular reading: those left behind are the children of God; those taken are unbelievers. When it comes down to it, it’s a rather minor point (though it may have repercussions for our eschatology), but it was an eye-opener for me in terms of needing to read scripture with an eye for the details and context. We need to be attentive rather than lazy readers (I continue to struggle with lazy reading).

When we look at the details of Jesus and Peter walking on water, we see this: Jesus walks out to the disciples on the lake; they are afraid; Jesus reassures them by identifying himself; Peter says, “If it’s you, let me come to you”; Jesus calls him; Peter walks on water; Peter becomes afraid and starts sinking; Jesus calls Peter one of “little faith” and wonders why he doubted; Jesus and Peter join the others in the boat. These things we know for sure. In addition—and I think this is important—we note that Jesus does not challenge the other disciples for staying in the boat. From the looks of things, they weren’t all meant to walk on water.

We don’t know whether Jesus intended for Peter to walk on water or if he was just responding to his request. We don’t know to what Jesus was referring when he asks Peter why he doubted: did Jesus mean to ask why Peter doubted his ability (through Jesus) to walk on water or why he doubted Jesus’ self-identification or maybe both.

The problem I see with the popular interpretation of this passage is that it makes much of Peter’s getting out and walking on water, but makes little, if anything, of his doubt. In addition, the popular reading tends to project a negative image on the rest of the disciples (who did not get out of the boat) which the text in no way calls for.

The second, and possibly more insidious danger in how we read the text is hearing what we want to hear. I think this danger is possibly worse than the first one because it appeals to our emotions so much—we understandably like hearing positive, encouraging things, and we don’t like the resulting feelings to be questioned. We may continue interpret a passage a certain way simply because it’s a nice, encouraging sentiment, because we want it to mean that. What we want it to mean may even be a true sentiment, but it may not be the meaning of the verse or passage. Nobody likes a bubble-burster; nobody likes to have their bubbles burst. We may reject  a bubble burster’s attempted bursting by saying, “But my reading is also true, right, so…” as if the truth of an idea is itself enough to justify imposing on any old text. This is the problem with proof-texts or life-verses like Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”): it may be true about me in a general way (insofar as I fall into God’s redeeming work in history), but this verse is not about me or you, it’s about Israel first and foremost. So I can claim this verse as my hope for my part in God’s future for creation; I’m not sure it’s proper for me to claim it as God’s specific promise to me and my life as it relates to my career or family or retirement, as much as I would like it to mean that.

How does this apply to the popular reading of Jesus and Peter walking on water? The popular reading smacks a bit of a Christianized version the “American dream”: you can do great things through faith in Jesus, almost to the point of Jesus being the means to the end of doing great things. We like to hear the message that God has wonderful things in store for us and that we are destined for great things if only we would believe and act. While I am inclined to say that, with some reservations (e.g. those mentioned above in reference to the Jeremiah passage), that this is true, given what we know and what we don’t know about this passage I don’t think we can honestly say that this is what this story is about.

For one, the story survives if we take away Peter’s part of it, as the other gospels have done. One could say that Matthew included it for a purpose, but the knows and know-nots of the passage are such that it’s difficult to say what that purpose might be. So I’m inclined to think that we misplace our focus if we pay too much attention to Peter in this passage. I think the story calls us, not to walk on water, but to trust in Jesus, whether he wants to walk on water or stay in the boat. Jesus where our focus should rightly lie.

My other concern with this story and our superimposing the things we like or prefer on it is how we define “walking on water.” I think the tendency is to think of this as “doing great things” for God (at least on the surface) or otherwise. But there is no clear idea as to what such “great things” might be. Will we then come up with our own things? will we superimpose the American dream of wealth and happiness? I’m reminded of Jesus’ observation that the poor widows offering of a few coins was greater than the large offerings of the wealthy; I’m reminded of the Beatitudes: the great things of the world are not the great things of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus may well be calling you and/or me to “walk on water,” but I’m not convinced the story of Peter’s walking on water is intended to do this. Neither am I convinced that “walking on water” would be becoming the next Billy Graham or Mother Theresa any more than becoming a peacemaker in our communities or sincerely praying for our enemies and wishing them the good life.

And so ends today’s musings on scripture and Peter walking on water. You may wonder why I would waste so much time and energy talking about this passage. You may even think this is all done in resistance to the truth in this passage. You might be right. Time will tell. Part of this post is certainly “reactionary.” But I find great joy in this sort of thing: to go back to a passage like this one (or, say, Genesis 1), to really pay attention to it and wrestle with it again and again.

Narnia, memory, and heaven

I’ve only read The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the Lewis’ Narnia series (I started The Horse and His Boy, but never finished). What I have always found particularly fascinating is what I suppose you could call the questions of time and memory in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The kids stumble into Narnia and then spend at least a decade in Narnia, growing into royal adults, before accidentally stumbling back into the wardrobe as children once again.

I can’t recall: do they remember their time in Narnia? If so, what would it mean for a child who has experienced adulthood to once again become a child (but with adult memories)? Is this explored in later books in the series?

I started thinking about this because for some reason I was thinking about heaven (one of those streams-of-thought moments in which I can’t remember how I got from A to Z). From time to time I talk to our church’s youth about heaven and the Kingdom of God, emphasizing the notion that heaven isn’t out “there” somewhere (in space maybe? beyond the universe?), but in some sense all around us. N.T. Wright uses, I believe, the language of another “dimension” in which God rules (where his Kingdom exists and his will is done). At Christ’s return (and the descent of “heaven” to earth, cf. Revelation 21), it will be like a lifting of the veil between heaven and earth. This is helpful if uncomfortably science-fiction-y for some.

At the moment I’m wondering if Narnia is a helpful illustration of this as well (and perhaps Lewis meant it to be). To get to Narnia, the children don’t go more than a few footsteps through the wardrobe to get to Narnia. In a physical sense, Narnia is already where they are: stepping through the wardrobe was technically like stepping into the next room or through the outside wall of the house. They haven’t gone anywhere else than where they already were, other than into a different dimension which at the moment only they can see.

Is this a helpful or accurate way to describe the “location” of heaven? I don’t know. But it at least seems more accurate than the popular images and ideas of heaven “up there” somewhere.

Lucy

Dixie and I watched Luc Besson’s new film Lucy a couple of days ago.

The philosophical question behind it is interesting: what would humans be like if we used more of our brains? This question is based on the suggestion (which my oldest daughter tells me is false) that humans only use about 10% of their brain capacity.

Lucy addresses this question with the story of Lucy, who unwittingly and against her will finds herself involved with a Chinese drug ring, who surgically implants a bag of a powerful new drug in her stomach. The bag is unintentionally punctured and the high concentration of the drug entering her blood stream begins to “awaken” her brain to its full capacity.

Besson’s answer to this question is, unfortunately, the standard fare. In film, more of our brains for some reason always means what we (in our current state of minimal brain usage) would consider superpowers—telekinesis, telepathy, etc. I’ve never understood why such an assumption is made. I suppose it makes for a more “exciting” film, but what possible connection could there be between neural synapses and moving inanimate objects from a distance?

Even more curious, in Besson’s vision a human with increased brain usage becomes increasingly robotic. This gift—if it can be called that—is ultimately about gaining knowledge, even to the point of omniscience and a godlike status. At the same time, this “super”-human is almost completely without compassion. This new god-creature is only interested in passing on its vast newly-gained knowledge, even as people are dying violently around it.

Beyond the superpower clichés, the film lacks direction. It’s never clear exactly what Lucy is doing or why: is she saving the world? is she seeking vengeance for this unwanted gift of brains? or is it really unwanted? Who knows. There are interesting hints at a new stage of evolution/new creation, which have potential, but they are never explained or explored.

I found it to be quite a bleak vision. Perhaps that was the point. Or perhaps Besson simply needed an interesting plot-line to fuel some CGI fun. I’m not sure. I’d like to see a film in which increased brain power results in more compassion and a human simply becoming more human.

Doubt, unbelief and the community of believers.

“…two of the monks remarked in different ways that although Thomas did not believe in the resurrection of the Lord, he kept faithful to the community of the apostles. In that community the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his faith. I find this a very profound and consoling thought. In times of doubt or unbelief, the community can ‘carry you along,’ so to speak; it can even offer on your behalf what you yourself overlook, and can be the context in which you may recognize the Lord again.

“[the Abbot] remarked that Dydimus, the name of Thomas, means ‘twin,’ as the Gospel says, and that the fathers had commented that all of us are ‘two people,’ a doubting one and a believing one. We need the support and love of our brothers and sisters to prevent our doubting person from becoming dominant and destroying our capacity for belief.” (Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary, 56-7)

More from Tolkien’s letters.

Some more fun and interesting tid-bits from Tolkien’s letters:

From 1959, in response to a request from cat breeder to register a litter of Siamese kittens under names taken from The Lord of the RIngs:

I fear that to me Siamese cats belong to the fauna of Mordor, but you need not tell the cat breeder that. (300)

An example of something that has become quite clear in reading Tolkien’s letters. The man had a sense of humour.

On writing fiction specifically for children (including “appropriate” vocabulary, etc.), which Tolkien did not like (he regretted much of how he’d written at least the first half of The Hobbit):

I am not interested in the ‘child’ as such, modern or otherwise, and certainly have no intention of meeting him/her halfway, or a quarter of the way. It is a mistaken thing to do anyway, either useless (when applied to the stupid) or pernicious (when inflicted on the gifted). I have only once made the mistake of trying to do it, to my lasting regret, and (I am glad to say) with the disapproval of intelligent children: in the earlier part of The Hobbit. But I had not then given any serious thought to the matter: I had not freed myself from the contemporary delusions about ‘fairy-stories’ and children.

… I think that this writing down, flattening, Bible-in-basic-English attitude is responsible for the fact that so many older children and younger people have little respect and no love for words, and very limited vocabularies—and alas! little desire left (even when they had the gift which has been stultified) to refine or enlarge them. (309-10, 310-11)

Coffee culture

My blog has been so quiet these last few years. Such a shame. It occurs to me now that my recent trip to Ecuador would have been a wonderful opportunity for some posts and reflections. Having so little to do with this blog lately, I guess it just didn’t occur to me.

I’ve been watching Call the Midwife with Dixie. There was a moment in which the main character said something like, “I would love to have some Nescafé; all we have at our place is tea.” (Confession: I’m always a little surprised and disappointed when characters in English novels, movies, and TV shows opt for coffee over tea. I guess I’ve got some cultural prejudice.)

It occurred to me that we have some Nescafé in the cupboard (mom uses it to make half coffee/half hot chocolate). So I made myself a cup. (Fact: TV and advertising does influence us.) It wasn’t very good.

This relatively bad (though not undrinkable) cup of instant coffee reminded me of another fact that surprised me (due to, again, cultural prejudices). Ecuador borders on Colombia, which is, of course, known for its drug cartels. Also for its coffee. So it didn’t seem unreasonable to assume that the Ecuadorian people would be coffee connoisseurs.

Well! In fact, most people in Ecuador drink instant coffee! Can you believe it?

This memory, in turn, had me thinking about our coffee culture and how we define a “good” cup of coffee. We might be inclined to dismiss the notion of the Ecuadorians being coffee connoisseurs, because how could instant-coffee drinkers be? But who’s to say, really?

I think of my own journey into the coffee world. It begins as a toddler sipping the coffee dregs from my dad’s mug. It was pretty gross. My dad made strong coffee like a good European (“So strong that my spoon stands up in it”) and didn’t use sugar. Then in junior high I started drinking weak church coffee loaded with condensed milk and sugar. Then generic (and still weak) restaurant coffee. Then Tim Hortons double-doubles and my own drip coffee. Then Starbucks (which I still haven’t fully embraced: their beans are over-roasted or something) and my own preferred fair-trade coffees from smaller companies (Level Ground out of Victoria is my brand).

I liked all the coffees along the way, but I don’t think I can go back to generic coffees, except in social contexts where it’s offered to me. I will always prefer my own brew, and I am willing to say that one cup of coffee is better than another. But does that make my home-brewed cup objectively better than church coffee or generic/big-name brands? Isn’t it just a matter of taste, which is acquired? When we say Starbucks coffee is better than Tim Hortons (as Starbucks drinkers are inclined to do), aren’t we just talking about preference?

But if that’s the case, what am I to make of these professional coffee-tasters who roasters use to make sure each batch of beans will make the best coffee? Those guys seem have it down to a science, though an entirely nose and tastebud related one. Is that all just a farce?

How much of our notion of a good cup of coffee—and by “our” I mean coffee snobs who insist on Starbucks, artisan roasts, and/or fresh hand-milled grounds, rather than those who will happily brew coffee from a yellow no-name brand bag—is all advertising, “brainwashing”, and a dose of the myth of progress (i.e. every new discovery is inherently good and even better by virtue of being new)?

Tolkien on a film adaptation of Lord of the Rings.

I picked up The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien again last night (the blurb on the back says, “J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific letter writers.” How could they possibly know this?) and came across some interesting stuff regarding an American film adaptation that was in the works in the late 1950s. Tolkien was given a treatment of the film to read. His comments are scathing and more or less completely disapproving.

A few simple words stood out to me: “He [the film writer] has cut the parts of the story upon which its characteristic and peculiar tone principally depends, showing a preference for fights…”(271). As good as Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings were, I’ve always thought that they included far too much fighting, too many battle scenes. As I recall, in the books the details of battle are generally limited and implied. The films focus quite a bit on battle heroics (and in The Hobbit Jackson went to far as to make warrior-heroes out of character who had no business being such), but as I suspected, Tolkien would likely not have approved. (And on a personal note, I’ve always found those portions of the films to be the most dull.) I believe in The Hobbit we don’t really see any of the battle up close at all, but see everything from Bilbo’s vantage point away from the fray. I suspect we won’t get that from Jackson’s third Hobbit instalment. “Showing a preference for fights,” indeed.

Something else of note: the Black Riders’ signature ‘screams’ as heard in the films, are unnecessary. From the same letter: “The Black Riders do not scream but keep a more terrifying silence” (273).

Fans were miffed when they discovered that there would be no Scouring of the Shire in Jackson’s adaptation. It seems that was omitted from the 1950s proposal, too, but Jackson may have followed Tolkien’s advice in this case (I assume Jackson and his team would have read at least those letters that were relevant to making a film version):

[The writer] has cut out the end of the book, including Saruman’s proper death.In that case I can see no good reason for making him die. Saruman would never have committed suicide: to cling to life to its basest dregs is the way of the sort of person he had become. If [the writer] wants Saruman tidied up…Gandalf should say something to this effect: as Saruman collapses under the excommunication: “Since you will not come out and aid us, here in Orthanc you shall stay till you rot, Saruman. Let the Ents look to it!” (277)

This is, if memory serves, more or less what Jackson did.

Worship and the Psalms

“Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate emoting session, however ‘Christian,’ but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That’s what those great chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, are all about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent non-psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoiled child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.”

~ N. T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential, 6.