Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More on Prayer

"And Jesus told this parable to teach his disciples that they should always pray and never give up."

I was reading the Bible with a friend last night and we came across the story of Moses, Aaron and Hur on the mountain supporting the Israelites in their battle with the Amalekites. Staff up: Israel prevails, Staff down: Amalek prevails. Intriguing. Also the story of the death bed of Elisha. "You should have hit the ground five or six times, then you would have completely defeated the Arameans" Similarly intriguing.

Much mind effort has gone into explaining (perhaps explaining away) the necessity of intercessory prayer. We are at some pains to explain to ourselves that really after all, God is all powerful. What difference could anything that we could do have on him and his sovereign program or plan? And yet, strangely he calls us into this exercise that our minds have just led us to think futile. Does he really want to shackle himself to our inconstancy? And if we don't pray, does his will just not get done?

Well I don't know. I almost don't want to know. More and more as I pray I feel myself burn inside. I long for this thing called the kingdom of God, this thing of which I have no clear picture, just glimpses and inklings and oh-if-onlies. I long that people would be able to grasp who Jesus really is and start to pursue him en masse. I long for powerful revelation to break the voluntary blindness of my generation, so that people would be without excuse and would cease to have the option of hiding behind science because science itself would be superseded by the author of all mysteries revealing himself in power. Yeah.

Well, all I can say is I'm thankful God lets me in on his work through prayer. I hope my apathetic rationality is really wrong and my prayers mean something to the coming of the kingdom. I trust they do.

One more butchered song

Once again there's a catchy tune that has grated on me with its false message every time I've heard it. So here's my version. For my Wendy.

The light shines down the valley
The wind blows up the alley
Oh and I'm happy to be lying
With the one I married

We took the pains of learning
And found what we were yearning
Oh and I'm happy to be lying
With the one I married

Married is the way
To learn what there is to know
And we're glad we decided to wait
A lifetime's not enough
To know all the ways to go
Always more love
That we can make, yeah

So now I'm not so lonely
I'm with my one and only
Oh and I'm happy to be lying
With the one I married

Monday, September 26, 2011

Reversion to Form and a New Angle

Recently I had the opportunity to serve communion. In our church we often have it in the form of a 'station.' As part of a time where people freely move about -- in this case we actually had 'stations' all over the church for people to interact with -- people can come when they feel that it's time and receive the communion elements and a blessing. I actually don't know how many other churches do it this way and so that's why I include a description of it.

Anyhow, it was my responsibility to serve the 'wine' -- in this case, cranberry juice -- and, as it was on my heart to pray for new vision for everyone who came, that was my part of the blessing. I suppose the other feature of communion in our church that should be mentioned is that we don't really have a standardized set of things to say as we serve the bread and the 'wine.' Given this reality, I found myself reverting to form, and using the I Corinthians 11 passage just like they always did in the church I grew up in.

  • In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me." For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
 Sums it up pretty well, yes? Yes, except there was something else I wanted conveyed from the passage where Jesus says that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we have no part of him. Something along the lines of through taking communion, we are taking in Jesus himself into our whole selves and on the surface, the above remembrance seems a mere funerary pronouncement. But I used it anyway and it started to mean more than at first. The thing is, Jesus isn't dead, so remembering him is different than remembering anyone else. Yes, he died, and we remember his suffering on our behalf, but then we also remember that he's alive and right here with us while we take communion. From there we can go straight into receiving his essence, his presence, into every part of us, spirit, soul, body. Even our muscles can remember him.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Criticism

Criticism is like the ugly stepchild in our Christian practice. It's there but it's treated like it should never be there. For some it's like the ultimate sin against 'unity.' Some use it when necessary but feel guilty all the while. Some use it manifestly way too much and probably it's because of these that we are in a constant state of reaction to it -- "Well we don't want to be like so and so." But when something is obviously wrong, doesn't it need to be exposed? When we see some tendency that could, if followed to an extreme, hurt the whole group, must we not say so?

Where do we strike a balance? I completely understand the necessity for limiting a critical attitude toward our brothers and sisters and even leaders (I refuse to say especially leaders -- lots of people want to give them an eternally free ride) as they branch out and try new stuff with God. It really is possible to poison the atmosphere for everyone by coming in determined to find fault everywhere. But I've been there where criticism was completely outlawed. Just apply the right labels. "You're being divisive." "You're being soulish." "Come under the covering of the leaders." The result is as ugly as any situation where criticism runs rampant. Making criticism totally verboten creates a situation where people are truly sheep. And they mill around not being aware of what is unhealthy right in front of them until the whole show collapses and everyone wonders what went wrong. That can't be good either.

Rather than outlawing criticism completely, are any rules of the game we can bring to bear on the process of criticism so that it can have a positive effect instead of the effect that we fear -- that is, a general loss of focus on our Lord and the establishing of his kingdom on the earth and subsequently, that horrifying but observable state of having grieved away the Holy Spirit? Is there a way of making it OK to question practices and motives without shooting either the questioned or the questioner? Is it possible to be realistic, practical, objective and still loving? I mean without sober second thought, we run the risk of losing our integrity to the larger group and especially the leaders. Oh yes, the leaders. When things are great, the leader has the heady feeling of riding high. When things are not, the great thing is to keep up appearances so as to avoid criticism. Is this hypercritical? I think not. Leaders are human and subject to every human failing. If we don't watch for this kind of thing, we do damage to our own integrity, the integrity of the church and we don't help the leaders any either.

I think the bottom line is to remove fear, if possible, from the equation. Fear has the effect of turning everything into an attack. If the honest critic fears that reprisals will come his way for saying what he believes needs to be said, he will naturally come defensively. The atmosphere of the communication starts to feel vaguely warlike. Similarly leaders, and lets face it, they receive most of the criticism because what happens is usually credited to or blamed on them, need to reduce the amount that they fear criticism because that fear will filter the most kindly meant and well presented counter-opinion and turn it into an attack. The warlike feeling becomes noticeably less vague. In place of fear, we need mutual love and trust, which do not happen by chance and are earned over long association, after truly getting to know each other.

Yes, there are bitter people who simply delight in finding fault. Like so many other situations they ruin it for the rest of us. Every freedom can be soured and unhealthy until it is removed. But let's be careful about throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as the old saying goes. I get a bit nervous when very well meaning people want to outlaw criticism, or a critical spirit, or whatever. I understand what it is they don't want, simplistically put, a negative atmosphere, and I don't want it either. But still I cherish the right and responsibility to speak out, to raise issues, or such like, hoping desperately that I do it in love, because the alternative, passive silence, is equally unacceptable.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I signed up for a twitter account this week. Picked a bunch of people to follow and let's see how this goes. Don't really get the zen of twitter. I can't see myself updating everyone as to where I'm eating or any such. Tweeting like there's no tomorrow. You know who you are. Anyhow, I followed up on a friend I hadn't seen for a long time and found his blog, learning to pray. Good stuff. Sweetness and light, flowers and forests. Contemplative. Nice. I really think so. I also really think it's not for me.

You see, for me, there's a difference between living in God's presence and enjoying him as you experience glories of his handiwork, and praying. I've run into this personal dichotomy before. Some people want to make all of life 'worship,' but I'd rather preserve the specialty and sacredness of times of worship by calling the rest of life something else; maybe godliness, or something like that. Just don't downgrade the high times we can with God to dismal equality with the day to day grind by calling it all 'worship.' Unfashionable or not, that's how I look at it.

So, prayer. Prayer (for me) is an operation not a contemplation. Prayer is working together with God, possessed by his desires, feeling his passions, and calling for results -- here and now (or as close to now as his plan allows.) The Lord's Prayer knows nothing of contemplation at least not by any definition of the word I know. A group of focused requests, or even commands. No waiting in silence, no long dark night (teatime?) of the soul. Prayer is the pain of "how long oh Lord?" brought to the forefront of my consciousness. Right now. Prayer is that which will, I hope, be mixed with incense and coals from the altar and flung to earth to shake it to the core. THY KINGDOM COME! THY WILL BE DONE!

After that, I have no problem with resting in the sweetness and the light. But I don't call it prayer.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Vive la guerre...

I have made a self discovery that I want to share. I am at war. There are two selves in me, neither evil, but each intensely different. One (A) is a childlike dreamer, in love with all things otherworldly and spiritual, who starts to mist up and weep at the thought of the Lamb on the throne, the redemption of the Lost, the fulfilment of long held dreams and so on. The other (B) is a coldly evaluative sort whose passion is for truth, integrity, righteousness, rightness and just plain common sense. My wish for the outcome of the war is that somehow, if at all possible I might integrate the two selves into some sort of maturity or perfection that would be both, but I the outcome I fear above all is that one of these two selves would carry the day and I would be forever cast into one mold and not the other.

You see, I've seen people who have lost the war by losing one of the sides and I don't want to be like them. Dreamers, feelers, who don't care about structure and methodologies if only this moment can be right, and dry as dust sorts with their hearts seemingly blown right out of their chests have the same problem. They're both half dead. Just a different half.

ESP or the Resurrection? Maybe Both

Being at a geek conference (LinuxCon 2011 N. America) has once again rubbed my nose in the spiritual divide between atheists and Christians. Several speakers made allusions to the what they see as the superiority of 'evolution' over 'intelligent design' using the Linux development model as a sort of showcase of what they believe about the cosmos. A cosmos that must not under any circumstances, contain God. You see, we're scientific, we're superior and since God can not be demonstrated empirically, he's out. It's the same kind of thing one gets on dear old slashdot. How they love to pillory anyone that gives any room at all for God or the Bible in his worldview.

So what's the problem? How can I 'foolishly' cling to my beliefs in the face of a culture that clearly 'knows' them to be false? I was discussing this with my brother (also a long time member of geek culture) and presenting what I thought to be the main issue. Christians, in their pursuit and experience of God, allow for, and even value highly information not blessed so to speak by the scientific method. God is a person and just like your friend or worse, your significant other, is not to be treated like a science project. The information about persons is intuitively understood through time spent with the person, not experimenting on them. And how do we know we are spending time with God? Call it ESP if you like. I am aware of him, I feel a pull in my heart when I think of him, and language fails me when I try to describe how I know that he's here. I think that if atheists could include that kind of ESP in their worldview, they would soon know what I know.

My brother put forward a different view. He said that the fact of the resurrection, easily the most documented, and theologically significant miracle ever, is the key to the whole thing. There is so much implied by that event that I can't even begin to fathom here. But suffice it to say, that as N.T. Wright has been so ably teaching (try Surprised By Hope some time. A great read) the full bodily resurrection of our Lord as first fruits for everything that can be hoped for both for us and for the renewal of all creation, is that which fired up the first Christians and it ought to fire us up too. So, touché, brother. That may  be the thing to emphasize. Once the fact of the resurrection is accepted, The worldview has to change. But it could be a chicken and egg scenario. God bless all the atheists and agnostics, too, with revelation! (or ESP.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

I've recently experienced a rather diverse coalescence of thought. A number of questions and answers have come, seemingly from unrelated sources, and welded into a single multifaceted idea. What connection could Jill Bolte Taylor, Adolf Hitler, Isaac Asimov's Robots and Empire, the tower of Babel, and large groups church dynamics possibly have? Strange grouping, no? But it's been a mental process affected by all of the above.

Let's get old Adolf out of the way first. I find it distasteful still to even mention his name, but a friend of mine raised a question recently, that stuck in my mind and demanded some pondering. The question is as follows: "How could the Germans, a people known for their cold hard-headed realism, a culture generally intolerant of hysteria, a nation not known for being motivated by emotion at all, have so abandoned all that they were and fanatically followed Hitler?" The whole episode is bizarre when you look at it that way, isn't it? I leave the question there.

Recently I watched to the now popular video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor describing the life changing episode of going through a stroke and living in a 'nirvana' experience of functioning solely in the right hemisphere of her brain. She describes the sensation of losing a sense of definition of the typical boundary that is around all of us, that of her skin; the sensation of being huge, of being one with the life force of the universe, merely by dint of being cut off from her left hemisphere and having to experience everything in her right brain. The experience has changed her life. Her main focus, as I understand it from her talk, up to that time was to understand the brain so that she could understand and help her brother, who suffers from schizophrenia. Post crisis, what is most on her heart is to help the rest of the world experience what she did, without the stroke, obviously, because she now believes that if we could all get in touch with the peace, glory and sheer awesomeness of perception of living in the right side of the brain sometimes, the world would be a much better place.

Moving on to an episode from Robots and Empire. Giskard is a robot with telepathic abilities. In the service of his owner, Gladia, he has, at times, tentatively and cautiously, always within the bounds of the First Law of Robotics, made adjustments to the emotions of people around Gladia, to improve her chances of gaining their approval, to pave the way for her, and further her aims. He often finds this difficult, because, being constrained by the First Law, he can't simply run roughshod over peoples brains and leave them irreparably damaged, as would happen if he simply overrode their central intentions. And then one day for the first time, he is with Gladia as she addresses a large group of people altogether. He finds to his surprise that it's far easier to sway the group than ever it was to sway an individual. All he has to do is find one person who approves of what Gladia is saying, and strengthen that approval and suddenly the emotion spills over onto her neighbour, who joins in that approval, and the whole thing cascades throughout the group and reaches Gladia, who feeds back with greater and more inspired oratory... Well, you might wonder why I used a picture like this to depict what all successful orators, stage actors and performers already know about a crowd: if they are with you, and they stay with you, there's nothing you can't do. Well, I don't know why. It's a catalyst for what I came up with, and where I'm taking this post. It's a pretty good parable, all told.

For a moment let's go back to Dr. Jill and her experience of being far beyond the boundaries of her own skin. Now imagine that several hundreds of people around her were also having the same sensation, doesn't it make sense that their large selves would start to merge, and they would find themselves deeply connected with each other. Theorize further that some factor in the large group they are in is what facilitated the unconscious movement into right hemisphere awareness; something that caused a cascade into a blissful shared experience. It could be that the speaker or performer was a master at crowd dynamics. It could be something else. At any rate, let's look again at Dr. Jill after her experience. Even though her experience was in her right hemisphere, she is now driven by an extremely left hemisphere proposition -- she must share the experience because hopefully it will bring peace to many. Coming out of the experience, she, working through the left brain, framed it for herself and now she has been imprinted with a mission.

But think about the implications of this for people who have been unconsciously swept up into what I will now call communal exaltation, for whom the experience has been framed along pernicious lines like "you are the master race, you must rise up and rule the world, and rid it of Jews" and you might have an answer to the Hitler conundrum. Thousands of German youth, swept up in the promises and oratory, experience a bliss of unity and corporate identity, which are both, I put to you, right hemisphere perceptions, perceptions they've maybe never known before being from a very left-brained culture, or maybe never known at that level of intensity, and they will naturally credit it to the one who gave it to them. And he in turn leads them into his private insanity and imprints with his mission. "Hitler youth, you are MY youth!" (I shudder.)

But the result of the process doesn't have to be bad. What I'm describing is an amazing, built-in human capacity, not a failing from which to be warned away. You see, I've experienced this communal exaltation and imprinting before. I'm talking about wholehearted corporate worship of God in the company of fellow Christians in the presence of God's Spirit (the 'something else' I alluded to earlier,) which lifts all into if not Dr. Jill's nirvana, something akin to it, followed by inspired teaching, which frames the experience and imparts a sense of mission. I'm starting to believe that it's the answer to the question that recurs when things in church seem to lack vitality, "why gather at all?" We gather to worship corporately and connect with God at a deeper and higher level than we could on our own, and to be imprinted with his mission in a deeper way than we could have received it on our own.

And oh, what we couldn't do, the more of a deep, unified, corporate identity we achieved. Look at the Tower of Babel incident. God removing the very thing I'm talking about from a people because their 'mission' was not going to benefit them at all. It's like a parent locking the gun cabinet. We were just not ready for any such thing. But think of it. "Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." If we had that kind of unity in our churches... But there is another thing about the story that needs to be said. God shut the whole thing down through changing a left-hemisphere factor. Language. I didn't matter how much fellow feeling one family had for another. If they couldn't understand each other, they couldn't stay together. In the same way churches that have poor fundamentals, poor structure, even though they may provide a wonderful experience, will eventually lose people over left-brain concerns. Hey, we can't always blame the structure. Over-focus on the niceties of doctrine will also lock us into our left hemispheres and we'll never experience the oneness with each other that comes from oneness with God.

But the implications of viewing gathering in this way for those in the leader/facilitator role in the church are worth a look. First of all, we can recognize that it doesn't take much to sway a large group. God surely sees our spirits, our emotions, etc. in greater detail than the telepathic robot in the story. If he can find a few in the group to give themselves wholeheartedly to him, then a cascade can happen. Secondly, information by itself is not a sufficient goal for the preacher. Some of us have been in church all our lives and have a pretty good handle on the truth. But our imprinting with God's mission can diminish over time. That's the direction our teaching/preaching has to go. Thirdly, for those for whom crowd dynamics come easy, those who intuitively know how to cause the cascade every time, the caution is to avoid demagoguery. Personality cults have come and gone and left wreckage in their wake. It's a heady thing to receive the approval of many. Try desperately to frame the experience so that you are not what the people look to. You are not to be the focus of the imprinting. Lastly, this is just a blog post, an expression of a current thought process in my head. Maybe it will spark a such a process in your head too...