Finding the holy in everyday life

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Finding Holy in the Suburbs

IVP – October 2018 – $16.00

How can we be holy when our lives are a mess?

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I doubt that any of us is today precisely where we thought we’d be when we were, say, eighteen. Our lives play out in ways we never thought they would.

Those who journey through life without succumbing to the vices that are so easy to cultivate, do so because they have paid at least some attention to the ways that Jesus stepped into a less-than-ideal situation and in so doing redeemed.

Regardless of where you live or whether you’re a man or a woman, what kind of car (or minivan you drive) Ashley Hales’s book can re-orient you in the midst of the less-than-ideal or, sometimes more dangerous, when you think you’re living the dream.

It’s availably for pre-order now and comes out in October

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A physical faith in a disembodied age

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Fishing the Lehigh River

We live in a disembodied age. Think about it. If you’re like me, most of your communication with others takes place by text or email. We may speak on the phone regularly, but many of us live miles from our closest friends and rarely have protracted face-to-face conversations. In fact, our common means of communication tend to assume that we are biological computers sharing discrete data packets with one another. This assumption is obviously false, but is it also detrimental to our flourishing?

I have recently started fishing the waters near my home in Bethlehem (PA). I had always envisioned fishing as an essentially passive activity. The popular perception is that fishing is essentially a form of outside napping. It’s not. In many ways fishing is very active both mentally and, to a lesser degree, physically. Every cast of the line you’re thinking about where to place the lure or the fly. Every time you reel you’re trying to mimic the action of the lure you’re using. You’re looking for evidence of trout activity. You get the idea.

In this regard, fishing is an awful lot like Christian spirituality. Fishing requires the alignment of our minds, our actions, and it requires a store of wisdom that comes through experience. Our Christian faith calls upon us to be Christians inwardly as well as outwardly. We are invited to a faith that embraces thinking and acting. And over a life of practicing the faith we find that we begin to have a sort of wisdom to offer others. It’s a wisdom that’s shaped by, among other things, our physical experiences and practices.

Christians have historically affirmed the goodness, if brokenness, of the created order. As a result the Christian faith has typically valued our physicality rather than running from it. Consider that the two most important signs and symbols of our faith involve the sprinkling of a child or convert with water, and the consecration and reception of bread and wine. These are tactile experiences that are central to our faith. 

I worry that my evangelical faith has not paid sufficient attention to physicality. Online campuses. Virtual communion. Symbol-less sanctuaries. Perhaps we’ve taken things further than we ought, or than what is helpful in our present moment.

When it had the choice the ancient church chose to affirm the value of images of God under the rubric that in the incarnation we have permission to represent Jesus as both truly God, and also a Palestinian jew. The second Council of Nicaea restored the practice of venerating icons to the universal church.

Of course, as a reformed Christian I am part of tradition that looks on iconography with a degree of skepticism. My own conviction is the Christian traditions should continue to “agree to disagree” and to do so charitably. I value icons for aesthetic rather than dogmatic reasons.

God has given us bodies, and God has placed us in a physical world. Any spirituality that fails to account for this essential truth is surely deficient.

 

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Does studying economics make you selfish?

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A fascinating discussion took place on Morning Edition just a few moments ago. Shankar Vedantum shared the results of a recent study that tries to determine whether there is a connection between the classic economics ideal of “rational self-interest” and generosity. If you want to listed to it, go here.

It turns out that listening to a lesson on self-interest corresponds to a 50% reduction in generosity.

Some subjects were given $20; other subjects were not given any money. Both were told that those with cash could make a single deal with the others, and that it was not subject to negotiation–it would be final.

Under these circumstances the average deal was close to a 50/50 split. On average the person with the cash gave the other person $8.50.

After listening to a lecture on self-interest that average amount was reduced to $4.50–an approximately 50% reduction. 

What’s the lesson?

Surely part of it is that we respond positively to expectations of what normal behavior is. 

Would a church where the pastor regularly talks about generosity as a normal part of discipleship be a more generous church?

What do you think? Tell me below in the comments.

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The Bible and America – Five Guiding Principles

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America is having problems with the Bible at the moment. Political liberals and conservatives seem to be cherry picking verses in order to justify their own assumptions.

In just over a week there have been marches against the inauguration of Donald Trump, for the rights of women, for the sanctity of human life, and against Trump’s order to halt immigration from several primarily Muslim countries.

The Bible was present in all of these protests in some way, shape or form.

What do we make of this? For one thing, it goes to show that the Christian faith remains a vital part of American culture. The faith we Americans collectively espouse is, as Ross Douthat has pointed out, largely a heretical blend of Christianity, individualism, and moralism. This isn’t anything particularly new. Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity pointed out how even in the early Republic, this uniquely American blend trumped the classical Calvinism that came across with the early settlers.

Here are five guiding principles about how to employ the Bible in addressing actions taken by the government of a nation-state.

  1. The Bible is the rule of faith and practice for the Christian church. It is not, strictly speaking, binding upon the civil magistrate.
  2. The Bible does, however, point to laws of nature that are beyond it. Those laws of nature are binding upon all people everywhere. They are discoverable by the use of reason guided by tradition. However, in our current context these laws will remain disputed.
  3. The purpose of the state is to punish the evildoer and to protect its citizenry. This may include limiting refugee resettlement and immigration.
  4. In extremis, the church may petition the civil magistrate by appealing to scripture and reason. Generally speaking, however, the church’s purpose is not to be conflated with that of the government. See Westminster Confession XXXI:iv.
  5. It is an abuse of Scripture to use it in such a way as to contort it to fit a preconceived political purpose. If you wish to make a political point, make it. I’d prefer that you not cherry pick scripture in order to do it.

All this isn’t to suggest that I am in favor of the draconian measures the Trump administration has enacted (which have been blocked, incidentally, in federal court). My point is that Christians must be cautious in how we handle the Bible and apply it to policies enacted by the secular state.

 

 

 

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Come, let us reason together

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Krin Vantatenhove has issued “An Open Love Letter to My Presbyterian Family” (read it here). Since I’m a member of the family, and since what Krin names in his post is something I’m observing too, I’d like to respond.

Krin’s central point is that the real fault line within the Presbyterian Church (USA) isn’t between those who support or oppose the redefinition of marriage or the ordination of non-celibate people who identify as homosexual. The fault line is between those who hold “orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine” and those for whom that expression of faith has become empty or irrelevant: “…there’s a far deeper, more organic challenge for our denomination. Many of its leaders at both the local and national level are no longer in synch with any semblance of orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine.” 

It’s important to note that just as this blog post expresses my opinion–and mine alone–Krin’s post expresses his opinion alone. He is no more a representative of our denomination than I am. What he is expressing–and what I agree with him on–is that the words we use in our corner of the Christian church mean very different things to different people. What he is describing is also far from uncommon in our church. In other words, he’s not describing the fringe left but some very respectable leaders in our churches and our denomination.

The progressive position is something that is rarely explicitly expressed. It’s typically hinted at or implied by things that pastors fail to say rather than what is actually stated, as he notes:

What I’m about to lovingly share is not something I’ve kept “in the closet” during my career. It has been a part of my teaching for years. Further, I base it on discussions with many elders and clergy – women and men I respect. And I know it is only one aspect of our national discernment process.

Krin refers to himself and many of his colleagues as “universalists,” for lack of a better term and goes on to say:

We have not abandoned Jesus’ teachings. We are not neglecting the Good News of grace. We have not given up our pursuits of peace and justice. But we acknowledge that our Christian tradition – stories we tell based on one set of scriptures – are not the sole pathway to God. We respect the sanctity of other faiths. We recognize that human minds can only approach God’s presence through limited faculties. The innate human desire to experience the Divine finds expression in a richness of myths and cultures. Humanity, not religion, is our focus…

From my point of view, I take Krin at his word when he states that he hasn’t abandoned things like “Jesus’ teaching,” “the Good News of grace” or “the pursuit of peace and justice.”

From my point of view he hasn’t abandoned them; he has allowed these concepts or beliefs to evolve beyond the scope of what is recognized as the classical Christianity expressed in our Creeds and Confessions.

He provides an example:

We might say, “[Assent to essential tenets], on many levels, but let’s discuss what we now believe about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, virgin birth, atonement, the literal resurrection, salvation, or the authority of scripture. Let’s discuss the meaning of ecclesiastical power in a denomination where only ‘pastors’ can currently administer sacraments.”

Without wishing to put words in another’s mouth, the claim to “sincerely receive and adopt” something “on many levels” is a warning sign. I’ve taken other vows–one’s to my wife–and I didn’t assent to them “on many levels,” which is typically code for some deviation from classic Christian belief. Instead, I simply said “I do.” I assented to these vows in a manner consistent with the received tradition of Christian marriage.

Our church allows ministers to “scruple” parts of our Confessions. A scruple is simply a stated point of departure from a doctrinal formulation. One might scruple the observation of the Lord’s Day believing that it’s fine to eat out after church.

The thing about scruples is, however, as Krin admits, pastors don’t typically scruple of their own accord despite the fact that our Book of Order places an affirmative duty on pastors to do just thatThey keep their non-traditional views to themselves, perhaps for a variety of reasons some of which are understandable.

The existence of such a broad range of views in a single organization means that it is incredibly difficult for that organization to have focus or to collaborate on common projects. He notes,

…Why are these scruples critical at this juncture in our history? Because many of our members, clergy, and national leaders seem more attuned theologically to a Unitarian or Quaker perspective. If this is true at a deeper, fundamental level, it will continue to cause conflict. There’s no way around it.

It’s true. When I was in campus ministry I was significantly more likely to partner with Catholic Campus Ministries than with either my own denominational ministry or one of the other mainline groups. The reason? A profound variance in essential belief.

I recall going to presbytery meetings (I was in North Carolina at the time) and being asked to share bright spots of ministry. To a person, every bright spot was some service project or another. We celebrated hikers’ ministry, renting out a fellowship hall to a church youth group, food banks, you name it. There wasn’t a single example of someone having a saving encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ and being converted. There wasn’t a single example even of a new Bible study or some new evangelistic discussion group. The reason we didn’t celebrate these thing is that for many of the people at that meeting the idea of a saving encounter with Jesus was a totally foreign concept. People don’t get saved in presbyterian churches–if you want that, try the baptists.

If we, as a denomination, are going to move forward then it is necessary that we have the integrity to name what we believe and to stop hiding behind ambiguous language. If you’re a universalist then be one, openly. If you believe in definite redemption–say so. Trust cannot exist where there is always some suspicion that we’re not telling the truth or that we’re playing games with our theology to suite the crowd we’re in front of.

In the words of our Lord, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Mt. 5:37).

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