Category Archives: Faith

Post-election thoughts: I’m disappointed.

My disappointment is not really in who was elected. We live in a democracy and the people have spoken. Now we can live with it for the next four years or so, just as we have done for all previous elections. We still live in an amazing country and most of us, when we boil it down, have little to complain about. I’m confident that it will stay that way. Sure, we may not like some of the changes that come our way, but do we need to fear? No. And yet that’s exactly what I see and hear.

I’ve been shocked with some of the stuff I’ve seen and heard in the course of this election campaign, both before and after the election. If there’s anything that brings fear to my heart (even though we shouldn’t fear!), it’s what I saw on social media during this election (yes, this is mostly about Facebook).

Two things in particular concern me. They have to do with the possibility civil dialogue and theological grounding.

1. Civil dialogue. I’m worried that we are losing (or have lost) our ability to have civil dialogue. Dialogue requires not just listening but also the effort to understand the other point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. It seems to me we did very little of either listening or empathizing during this election, at least if Facebook is any indication (it might be that it isn’t, but I doubt it).

When we engage in civil dialogue, we will discover that the “other” is rather a lot like we are, with similar foundational goals and fears and perceptions and weaknesses as we have, even if on the “issues” we disagree. And when we discover this, we discover that we are dealing with fellow human beings. With neighbours.

Instead, what I saw was a lot of plugged ears while screaming out personal points of view mixed with prejudice, mockery, and hatred.

2. Theological grounding. What didn’t come across my Facebook feed was anything that remotely suggested that what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ has any bearing on what we think are important election policies. (And I don’t think that the only faith-based issues are abortion—which none of the major parties are interested in addressing—or marriage.

Based on my feed the election was all about the economy, taxes,  and what is best for me personally, irrespective of my neighbours’ needs. (And also half-truths and lies about the politicians we didn’t like).

But where did Jesus’ teachings come into play? Where did God’s heart and character (love, grace, mercy, justice, forgiveness) come into play, not only in policy but in the conversation?

Christians are called to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, MIND, and strength. I feel like politics has a knack for turning all of those things off, not least the God-loving mind.

Solomon’s story is the story of all humanity.

One of the fun aspects of teaching is learning or noticing new things yourself, particularly when it happens unexpectedly in the middle of teaching. This year I started teaching the discipleship/confirmation material in my junior high Sunday school class (we call it “discipleship/confirmation” because for most of the kids in the class it’s not confirmation in the traditional sense, as they were not baptized as infants). We are working our way through the Old Testament and today we talked about wisdom, using Solomon’s story as the context, and I had one of those “ahah!” moments.

We began with Deuteronomy 17:14-20, in which God advises (or gives wisdom to) the future kings of Israel. (So it wasn’t unexpected when Israel asked for a king in 1 Samuel. Noted.) God basically said told Israel that their future king shouldn’t acquire too many horses (and don’t get them from Egypt), wives, or much wealth. Solomon, at one point the wisest of the wise, leaves the path of wisdom and breaks all three of those things exactly: he had many horses, some of them from Egypt; he had many wives; and he amassed so much wealth that silver was as common as stone in Israel.

As we were discussing this, and as I pointed out that Solomon did exactly what God said the king shouldn’t do, it suddenly dawned on me: money, sex, and power! Solomon fell prey to the classic three human vices: horses and chariots (power); wives (sex); and wealth (money). Seems the human struggle has been the same through all time. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but I didn’t make that connection until the middle of class.

Back in Deuteronomy, God also said that the future king of Israel should read the law every day of his life so that he would remain faithful to God. Obviously Solomon wasn’t doing this—if he had, he may not have fallen prey to the temptations of money, sex, and power and not turned away to other gods (which in his case seemed to be mostly because of sex, as it was his foreign wives drew him away).

Even the wisest among can leave the path of wisdom, if we aren’t rooted in the wisdom of God.

Solomon’s story isn’t unique. On some level it’s the story of all of us, of all humanity.

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.

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.

Infant baptism and the faith of parents.

I had a conversation today about baptism. The Evangelical Covenant Church as a denomination recognizes both infant baptism and adult baptism as legitimate baptisms. We leave it up to the parents to decide if they wish to dedicate or baptize their infant. While the ECC officially recognizes baptism as a sacrament, we have a wide embrace and welcome into fellowship those who have differing beliefs about baptism: that is, some may choose to not baptize infants because they don’t think that’s the right thing to do, and they, in turn, allow others to baptize their infants, and we happily worship and serve together. (There are some ongoing pastoral and theological tensions with the ECC position on baptism and they can be frustrating at times, though I have not yet had to wrestle with them beyond a theoretical level.)

The person I had a conversation with understood infant baptism and dedication to be the same thing, because they are both a choice of the child’s parents. This is a common understanding in evangelical circles: that unless one chooses to be baptized, how can the baptism have any significance? From this angle, baptism is an expression or confession of an individual’s faith. Baptism viewed as a sacrament, on the other hand—that is, as an visible sign of an invisible grace, or a movement of God’s grace in a person’s life (the official ECC position)—sees baptism as much as, if not more, an act of God as of the individual.

This can be a difficult hurdle to jump over for someone from a low-church, anti-infant baptism background. That’s the background I came from and it took some in-depth study of scripture for me to accept the ECC position on the subject. I realized that whether you emphasize believer’s baptism or infant baptism, you argue from scriptural silence. That is, scripture doesn’t say anything directly for or against infant baptism. There are hints and suggestions (for example, in Acts when households come to faith and are baptized), but we don’t explicitly read about infant baptisms. But then the church in Acts was very young and growing; everyone was a first generation Christian, but infants are (technically) baptized only when their parents are followers of Jesus. That is, baptized infants would be become second-generation Christians, which isn’t possible if there isn’t a first generation.

It occurred to me today, however, that there is something else to consider in this discussion. The difficulty for many evangelicals with infant baptism is that an infant cannot yet have faith of their own. It is the faith of the parents that motivates the baptism. This is a foreign concept in a Christian culture which values an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus above all else; faith and baptism can only be the choice of the one being baptized.

But there is scriptural precedence for the faith of someone else benefitting another. There is, for instance, the sense in which the faith(fulness) of Jesus is our salvation as much as, if not more than, our own faith. But I’m thinking particularly of the paralyzed man whose friends cut a hole in the roof of the house Jesus was in, lowering him down to Jesus. According to the gospel accounts, the man was healed not because of his own faith, but because of the faith of his friends (Luke 5:17-26; Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:3-12)! (I won’t go to 1 Corinthians 7:14, which is a little hairier a passage.) Initially this little detail—the man’s friends’ faith healing him—is surprising. But when you consider that we pray for others all the time and that those prayers, regardless of the others’ faith, are often answered affirmatively, it doesn’t seem so strange. And if these things aren’t strange, is it possible that the faith of a parent is connected the baptism of an infant?

We are a highly individualistic society and tend not to think in these sorts of communal terms, to the point that such a thing doesn’t even make sense to us. I imagine it made a lot more sense in the first century.

Trying to explain denominations to an 11-year-old is hard.

Tonight, after our all-ages small group, in which Lutherans and Catholics were mentioned, my 11-year-old daughter asked me, “Dad, what are Catholics and Lutherans and Covenant?” (By “Covenant” she means the Evangelical Covenant Church, which is our denomination.)

There really isn’t a simple way to answer that question, but I did my best. This was my off-the-cuff (but somewhat polished after the fact) answer:

Well, to start with, right now you have Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. In the beginning, after Jesus ascended, there was just The Church. Then, about a thousand years later, there was a disagreement in The Church about something they believed. So The Church split, East and West. In the East was the Orthodox Church, in the West was the Catholic Church.

About five hundred years after that, some people in the Catholic Church thought that there was too much corruption in it, that they were too concerned with power, so they wanted to clean it up from the inside. They came to be known as the Reformers. They wanted to clean it up on the inside, but the Catholic Church didn’t like that, so they left the Catholic church [or were kicked out] and they became what we know as Protestants, because they protested the bad things they saw in the Catholic Church.

[Now here is where it gets really complicated.]

So as Protestants you had Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans. You had Martin Luther, which is where “Lutherans” comes from, and the Reformed church, which was connected to John Calvin. Now there were some who didn’t think these reformers went far enough, and they were known as the “radical reformers”, out of which you get Mennonites and Baptists.

(“What does the Covenant have to do with this?”)

Well, we are connected to the Lutherans. In the 1800s there came what was known as “evangelicals.” They were people who were concerned with having a personal relationship with Jesus and reading their Bibles and telling people about Jesus. They were concerned that the other churches were too “formal” [I didn’t have a better word for “rote” or “state-oriented” or what have you].

So the Covenant comes out of the Lutheran and evangelical groups [I mentioned Pietists but didn’t explain them]. These days it doesn’t matter so much what denomination you are a part of. What matters is that you believe in Jesus and want to follow him. You can do that whether you are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.

This is all fairly simplistic, but I think it’s a pretty good distillation of the story. She seemed to understand, but I don’t know how much. All this protesting has made church history rather complicated!

Other than my ecumenical note at the end, which I’m sure some of you will have trouble with, what would you add or change (keeping in mind this is for an 11-year-old)?

Reciting the creed as counter-cultural act.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, says that reciting the creed—he means the Nicene Creed, but I think it works for the Apostles’ Creed or others as well—is a counter-cultural act. What is being done when the creed is recited:

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40)

That’s not to say that churches need to be counter-cultural for the sake of being counter-cultural. However, the gospel is itself counter-cultural and yet the church is often pro-cultural—and often subconsciously so—so to be consciously counter-cultural in our worship serves as a good reminder about where our allegiances lie.

Some people are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the creeds—say, the virgin birth—that they may be reluctant to recite it, thinking that doing so would lack integrity. Justo Gonzalez, writing about the Apostles’ Creed in The Apostles’ Creed for Today, has this to say in response:

…think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. (7)

To recite the creed with that in mind is also a counter-cultural act.

[Added: I’m reading up a bit on the ecumenical creeds of the church for a small group discussing the basics or essentials of faith. We don’t recite the creed (or at least we haven’t in my time) at our church and our denomination is “non-creedal” while still affirming the major ecumenical creeds, but these writers make a convincing case!]

Closed hands and self-reliance.

“Yet so many religious people are in bondage to their religion! They are like John Wesley in his post-graduate Oxford days in the Holy Club. He was the son of a clergyman and already a clergyman himself. He was orthodox in belief, religious in practice, upright in conduct and full of good works. He and his friends visited the inmates of the prisons and work-houses of Oxford. They took pity on the slum children of the city, providing them with food, clothing and education. They observed Saturday as the Sabbath as well as Sunday. They went to church and to Holy Communion. They gave alms, searched the Scriptures, fasted and prayed. But they were bound in the fetters of their own religion, for they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous, instead of putting their trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. A few years later, John Wesley (in his own words) came to ‘trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation’…” (John Stott, commenting on Galatians 4:1-11, in The Message of Galatians).

Yes indeed. Salvation through faith as nothing more than open hands and surrender.

The things Wesley and his friend did were all good and admirable and appropriate to do. It’s the motivation that’s the problem. All of those things should be a response to a salvation freely offered, an act of gratitude for God’s prior gift to us, rather than a “necessary” act to earn something from God.

Faith as surrender (and Garrison Keillor as theologian)

Several years ago I posted about Miroslav Volf’s definition of faith, which goes as follows:

Faith is not something we give to God. In that case, faith would be a work, and a silly kind of work because it would be work we do even though it doesn’t benefit anyone. But exactly the opposite is true. To have faith in God is to be “without works” before God (Romans 4:5). Faith is the way we as receivers relate appropriately to God as the giver. It is empty hands held open for God to fill.

On the way home from some care home services this evening, I listened to Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon” podcast from August 31, 2013. He concluded the week’s story with the following reflection:

“I used to think that faith… was sort of like a building block and you’d put all these blocks together and you’d build a house, sort of like the one the little pig built that the wolf could not blow down. And now I get older and I feel that faith is a matter of surrender, it’s a matter of just giving up and leaving that house and just walking out and experiencing the cold and the rain and doubt and confusion and trying to keep up your hope and some sense of gratitude. If you just keep up hope and gratitude maybe that’s… all you need…”

Not exactly the same thing as what Volf said, but then Keillor’s a storyteller first, theologian second. But open hands held open for God to fill and the notion of surrender to God run along the same lines. I like it.