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Dichotomy: Rigidity and Flexibility January 27, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Church, Fitness, Grace, Infinite, Lessons, Questions.
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Our God is a God that is comfortable with contradiction. Or at least what may appear to be contradiction from our earthly, 3-dimensional perspective. He is 100% just and 100% merciful. He is love but he hates sin. Christ told his disciples he would not be always with them, but he promised to always be with them.

Some of these dichotomies arise from the limits of the language and some from the limits of our human understanding. For some of them, we understand what is meant even if words fail us, but others remain a greater mystery. Rather than finding these contradictions of my faith frustrating, I find them reassuring. If it were easy and logical and completely comprehensible, it would be something a person could have made up, because we like things to be simple and plausible and easily explainable. The paradoxes and implausibilities that stretch my understanding as far as it can go and beyond are where I find the Divine in the religion that so often has a man-made structure around it.

God built a lot of paradoxes into this life, and we ourselves are paradoxes. We are God’s good creation, made to be like him but we are fallen sinners. We can be redeemed and restored and forgiven but we still will always sin.  Many of the problems in our lives occur from us partaking in things that God made to be good, but applying them in the wrong way or to the wrong extent.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the need to be both rigid and flexible. I’ve been trying to develop better habits as I look for a job, get in shape, and be more intentional about my relationship with God. I’ve noticed that when trying to form a new habit, particularly at the very beginning, you have to be very rigid in your application of it or it’s far too easy to let it go “just once” and then end up not doing it at all.

Exercise x amount every day, at the same time. Eat no desserts whatsoever. Clean one room of the house thoroughly every day. Once the habit is ingrained you can be a little more flexible – if you skip a day or have one cookie it’s fine because you know you will go right back to the good habit. In fact not only is flexibility okay, it’s vital for maintaining a good habit in anything and a good relationship with God.

You can pledge to read your Bible every day as soon as you as get up, just as you can make a promise to go to the gym every day after work. You can apply that rule without fail to your life and really see the results you want to see. But here’s the thing: it’s not going to happen every day. No matter how much of a priority you make reading the Bible every single morning at six am, there will be some days that it just will not work. The alarm won’t go off, you’ll have a sick kid, you’ll be travelling and have to catch a plane.

If your time with God (or any other habit you want to develop) is unbendingly fixed to a single set of parameters, it’s going to hit a circumstance that will make it break if it can’t bend. If you have such a rigid mindset that if you miss that appointment you miss your window for the day, then you will end up missing out on that time with him entirely. It’s better for me to work out at home in the evening if I can’t make it to the gym after work than to just give up on getting exercise all together. And it’s far better to make time with God later in the day than to just forget about it entirely, especially on a day where your routine has been broken – you probably need that time with with him even more than on a day where all is going normally.

So too, our faith itself requires rigidity and flexibility. We need to be firm and unyielding when it comes to believing that God loves us and will take care of us. But if our belief is tied to a specific set of circumstances, any change in those circumstances can lead us to doubt him. We need to be unwavering about following God’s will for our lives, but soft and malleable regarding what that looks like at different points of our life or we may find ourselves forcing our way down a path that we should have turned off long ago. We need to strong about what we believe about our faith (and about right and wrong), but give grace to others and be flexible (to a point) with them and allow for the fact that they may not interpret God’s Word the same way we do, as well allowing God room to change our minds and hearts if we are in the wrong about how we are seeing things.

It makes me think of yoga. To do yoga you need a certain amount of flexibility, and much of the point of yoga is to develop even more flexibility. But it also develops strength, and many of the positions require you to be very strong and to keep your muscles quite rigid in order to hold them. Following Christ is like that. We have to be strong in our faith, we have to be strict and disciplined about pursuing him. But we also need to be flexible about where he is leading us and allow him to change and grow our faith, otherwise we can end up following a Christ of our own making and going by our own wisdom, instead of his. If we are not flexible, we may miss the opportunities he has for us or the ways in which  he wants us to grow because we are so firmly set on what we think he wants from us.

Quote of the Day: 1/22/11 January 22, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Compassion, Forgiveness, Grace, Marriage, Quote of the Day.
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In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Psalm 103: A Song of Salvation January 17, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Compassion, Faith Journey, Grace, Growth, Healing, Heaven, Nature of God, Repentance, Salvation, Sin.
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David was a man who knew about God’s grace in an intensely real and personal way. What’s more astounding, is that he lived hundreds of years before Christ and yet possessed an understand of God’s salvation, grace, and redemption in a way that not only transcended the law-based religion of the time but also echoes through ages to speak relevantly to us today, almost 3,000 years later.

We like to think we have it all figured out, that as modern Christians we have a better perspective on Christ, on God, on salvation than previous generations, and certainly better than the primitive Jews of long ago. And yet we often reduce salvation down to a one-dimensional thing, a binary system. Are you in or out? Are you saved or not? Did you ask Jesus into your heart to forgive your sins? If yes, you get a check mark and get to go to heaven. If no, then a big red X and… well, you know.

Pray the prayer, get your free pass and you’re done. Sure, Christian growth is important, but salvation in our current terminology means just that moment when you say the magic words and receive your ticket for the bus to to the better place.

Don’t get me wrong, that moment when we turn to God for the first time and accept him into our hearts and ask him to forgive us is vital. But it’s not the end of salvation. It’s only the first step. This is what David knew that we forget. Salvation is a process. Once we allow God to work in us, we are continually being saved in a way which is never done, never finished or over or stagnant. Look:

Praise the LORD, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s

Psalm 103:2-5

This psalm, from beginning to end, is a song of praise to God for his salvation, his forgiveness of sins in an all-encompassing way. It is one of the most beautiful and sweeping descriptions of complete forgiveness and grace in all of scripture. And yet, David wanted us to know that God’s forgiveness was only the beginning, not the end, of our salvation. Salvation, in his views, was a process with several steps.

It start with forgiveness, because without that we can’t have access to he who is holy. It always has to start there. But then we move on to healing. Sins leave scars, whether your own sin or someone else’s sin against you. God offers to heal those wounds, and all our other diseases of the heart, be they addictions, or bitternesses, or disappointments.

Then he redeems (or delivers) us from the pit. This is the act of rescuing us from situations that we cannot hope to escape on our own. A pit may be one you’ve dug yourself with your own actions and mistakes, or it may be a situation that has been imposed on you from the outside. It may be a web of lies you’ve spun to hide your mistakes that is now coming unraveled, or a sudden crisis such as a medical emergency or the loss of a job over which you have no control. It can be spiritual, metaphorical, or quite literal. But it is something that we cannot climb out of on our own. We need to be rescued.

Once we are rescued, he “crowns us with love and compassion”. Only when we have been forgiven, healed, and rescued can we truly begin to take on the traits that God himself possesses: love, compassion, forgiveness, and extend them to others. Finally, he satisfies our desires (which are no longer the petty, materialistic desires of a sinful heart but godly desires) with himself, and he makes us new again. He renews us, returns our hearts to a state of youth and innocence, as they were before sin entered the world.

It’s a beautiful progression, and it’s one we will all likely repeat over and over again. This is not Six Steps to a Secure Salvation Experience. This is an endless process for our whole lives until we are finally perfected in him. No matter how mature we are, we will sin again. We will acquire new wounds, fall into new pits. One moment we may think we’re in a state of being totally cleansed and soaring like an eagle, and then something will happen. We’ll slip up. Someone will betray us. And we will tumble back down again, needing more salvation, more healing, more grace. Sometimes we may feel great on some of the counts, no open wounds or blatant sin, but be frustrated and unsatisfied in our desires because we’re not wanting what God wants for us.

This is what I love about God, about salvation. Although it is so simple to come to Christ and accept his salvation, it’s not just one and done. If we allow him to go beyond simple forgiveness, into grace and redemption, salvation becomes a never-ending, constantly unfolding journey that continually takes us deeper and deeper into the heart of God. And we in turn overflow with this kind of saving grace and spill over on others, to become agents of salvation and healing in those around us.

Quote of the Day – 1/1/11 January 1, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Grace, Music, Quote of the Day.
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Be like the bird that, passing on her flight awhile on boughs too slight, feels them give way beneath her, and yet sings, knowing that she hath wings.

Victor Hugo

Quote of the Day: December 29th December 29, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Grace, Healing, Prayer, Quote of the Day, Solitude.
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We enter into solitude first of all to meet our Lord and to be with Him and Him alone. Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we dare to show our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature. Solitude is a place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world.

Henri Nouwen

Spiritual Fitness December 13, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Attitude, Fitness, Grace, Growth, Lessons, Pain, Struggles, Suffering.
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I recently started a new exercise regimen. After several years of trying, and mostly failing, to get fit on my own I finally gave in and bought some exercise DVDs that would tell me what to do. I hate exercise videos, but I have noticed that I tend to lose focus on my own and have trouble figuring out what the best strategy is, and DVDs are significantly less expensive than a personal trainer. Although the individual workouts are short, they are intense and brutal. By day three I could barely get up off the couch because I was (and still am) so sore. My aching muscles have got me thinking about what physical fitness can teach about spiritual fitness.

The Bible is not short on comparisons of spiritual and physical training, and I’m beginning to see why. It’s a powerful metaphor, and frankly if you are not able to be disciplined with your body it is going to be hard to be disciplined in your spiritual life (I have this problem!). Although we would like to think we are above such things, our bodies do have a huge influence on our emotions, actions, and attitudes. Here are the things I’ve been thinking about in regards to physical training and spiritual growth.

1: You can’t be your own trainer.

Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always.
Psalm 105:4

This doesn’t mean that you can’t just go for a run, or pick up the Bible and read on your own and get some positive effects. But in both fitness and spiritual growth you can vastly benefit from the wisdom, guidance, and encouragement of others. I tend to approach Bible study and prayer the same way I approach exercise and many other areas of my life – haphazardly. I try things aimlessly. I page through Psalms. I do some arm exercises. I download a bunch of sermons to listen to and go for a long run one day, and then the next day I’m eating cheetoes and watching TV all evening.

In fitness, having a guide to help you find an effective routine that will get you where you want to go is invaluable – whether it’s a person, a guidebook, or a simple regimen. You can exercise all you want, but if you aren’t doing the right combination of things you may never reach your goal – or you may end up hurting yourself. In my case, having a clearly deranged woman with incredible abs telling me what to do each day and yelling encouragement helps me to stay on track because it removes the feeling of aimlessness that often prevents me from wanting to work out.

In your Christian walk, a mentor can help guide you in a similar way. But even Bible study guides and books can really get you to go deep into the Word and build those spiritual muscles, make you really think about things in a substantive way. That’s something all all the unfocused reading in the world will never achieve. A good preacher or teacher can also bring you God’s word in a way you have never thought about before, and help you to connect the dots on what he is trying to tell you.

However, the ultimate trainer is God himself. He is the one we need to surrender to, and he is the one with the plan for where he wants us to go and how we should be trained to get there. Bible studies and devotional plans are good things. But what will really make our faith muscles grow are the experiences and challenges that God puts us through to make us strong for the work that he has for us. Just like I show up and submit to the trainer on my DVD, doing what she says each day to build my strength and endurance, I need to “show up” with God and submit myself to his training, however difficult and painful it is at the time.

2: You can’t do it alone.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

This should be a no-brainer. Everyone needs partners to help them get in shape, to encourage them and build them up. We all need community on the spiritual journey too. People we can share our struggles with and open to, and who can keep us accountable in our lives. I’ve tried both fitness and the Christian walk without community and it does not work. Satan’s first tactic to prevent us from changing or from reaching our goals is to isolate us. Once that is accomplished it’s all to easy for us to succumb to thoughts like “I’ll do it tomorrow” or “why should I bother, it’s hopeless” and we practically implode in ourselves in very little time. God made us to live in community for a reason – we need each other. Not just in high, spiritual matters but in practical, everyday ways.

3: You have to do it every day.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Corinthians 9:24-27

Consistency. I’ve written any number of times about my struggles with this, and they haven’t gone away. But if you are going to train for a race, you have to do it every day. That doesn’t mean you have to (or even should) do the exact same thing every day. But you have to face each day – even rest days (because rest is a part of training) – as a day that you are preparing for the race, a day that is an important part of you reaching your fitness goal. What you do or don’t do, what you put in your body, the attitude you have – all of those things  are integral to how effectively you are able to train. You need to be thinking everyday “How is what I’m doing preparing me for this race, this goal?”

It’s the same with spiritual training. Not only should we be spending time in prayer, in praise, in the Word every day, but we should be looking at everything in our lives, all our experiences and challenges each day, for what they can teach us about God and how they can make us stronger spiritually and more like him. We should ask ourselves “What is God trying to teach me in this situation?”, “How can this experience grow me spiritually?”. and “What action here will bring me closer to being like Christ?”.

The spiritual walk is no more about church and devotions than fitness is about a 20-minute work out. It’s a constant, consistent, and pervasive practice that is required if you want to get results.

4: It’s going to hurt.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.
Hebrews 12:11-12

To build muscles you have to tear them a little bit, let them heal, and tear them a little bit more so that they grow back bigger and stronger. To build endurance you have to push yourself past the point where you think you can’t go any farther, again and again, until you find you can go farther. It’s going to hurt at the time, and it’s going to hurt even more the next day.

You can’t grow in your faith and trust in God if that faith is never stretched to its very limit and beyond. It has to break a little bit and grow anew if it’s going to be stronger. Every roadblock, frustration, and disappointment, though painful, is a chance for us to put our trust in God again and for him to come through for us in ways we can’t imagine yet.

They will hurt at the time. The hurt may linger. But each time we experience heartbreak or hopelessness and yet still keep clinging to God, the stronger our faith will become and the more able to weather the future storms of life. The more times we see God come through in a seemingly impossible situation, the more we will trust him in the future.

And in the same way that a good trainer will never push you beyond what your body can really bear, to the point of true injury, so our good God will never give us more to handle than he is able to save us from.

5: It’s always going to get harder.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-4

It feel like every time I get to the point in my training where I’m starting to feel good about things, feel like I’m able to handle the workouts, they suddenly get harder. So too in my spiritual life. As soon as I feel like I’ve really learned some lessons, things are flying along and I’m just happy and praising God, with everything finally under control – boom, all of a sudden there’s a big hill and I am doing everything I can just to keep it together. A tragedy hits, something stressful comes up in my work or my marriage, there’s a problem with a friend, and all of a sudden my hard-earned smooth sailing has turned into very choppy waters.

The thing about fitness is that if a workout is easy, that means it’s no longer effective. At best you might be maintaining, but you certainly aren’t making gains. If it’s easy for your muscles to handle, then it’s not growing them and not challenging you. A few workouts like that are fine, but if that’s all you do for a long period of time at best you will stagnate. More likely, you will start slipping backwards and losing ground.

If everything is going well in your life, and with your faith, then you aren’t really needing to use those spiritual muscles to stay in touch with God and to handle difficult situations. You pray less, because you don’t need anything. You don’t wrestle with doubt because you have no reason to doubt – everything is fine. You don’t have to work to give grace, because no one is giving you hard a time.

These times are a welcome respite for all of us, but if they continue for too long we lose our spiritual fitness. If a problem comes and we’re spiritually complacent and stagnated, we will have lost the resources to deal with it. Like a sucker punch coming out of nowhere, we will be totally incapacitated.

Just like a trainer keeps upping the difficulty and intensity of the workouts, so God keeps new challenges coming at us just as soon as we feel like we’ve mastered the old ones. He doesn’t want us to be satisfied with an imperfect relationship with him – we can always get better, always get closer to him and trust him more. Unlike physical fitness, to which there is a limit, our God is infinite and limitless. There is always more to learn, more to train for in the process of becoming like Christ.

6: It will change the rest of your life.

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:20-21

I’ve already talked about training not just being about the actual workout time but about a lifestyle of training and preparing and growing. But just as your whole live impacts your training, your training can impact the rest of your life. When I am not fit and not trying to be fit, my baseline health and attitude is not great.

But once I really start to get in shape, if I can get over the initial hump where I’m just tired and sore all of the time, my whole life starts to change. I have more energy, I sleep better, my moods are generally more positive. I start to crave better, healthier food because my body knows it can’t run on junk. I’m more productive at work and more relaxed at home. Thousands of little benefits that reinforce each other.

It’s the same in my spiritual life. When I am consistently spending time with God, turning to him when I am in trouble, being faithful in the areas of my life that I know I have trouble with, and seeking out good fellowship and teaching, my whole life completely changes. I am more loving and forgiving of others. Less judgmental. I work harder, even when I don’t really like what I’m doing. I am more compassionate and less self-centers. My attitude is better. I am grateful and often more cheerful. I am more able to be present to others and more open to what God is trying to teach to me. And all these benefits make me want to spend more time in spiritual training.

Coda

I find more and more as I work to change myself physically that I see spiritual parallels with all of my struggles and successes. And with my weaknesses. My physical  and spiritual failings mirror each other: My lack of consistency, self-control, and endurance are the same in both the physical and spiritual arenas. The main difference is that the consequences of these failings are literally visible in my physical body, while they can sometimes be easier to hide in my spiritual walk – at least to hide from other people.

While I certainly don’t think that someone who is not fit cannot have an awesome relationship with God, or that someone who is in peak physical condition automatically has an olympian’s spiritual walk (exercise, like anything else, can become an idol, obsession, or escape from God), I am definitely starting to believe that physical training can help me spiritually. Both in the ways that it can help me develop attributes for my faith which I am lacking, and how it can keep me in mind of the spiritual lessons God wants me to learn along the way.

But when all is said and done, it is important to keep sight of which kind of training is the more important one. Spiritual and physical training are not mutually exclusive, and are in fact often very complementary. But it’s important not to let my fitness goals overshadow my growth as a Christ-follower, for it is clear which of the two is of greater importance:

For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.  That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
1 Timothy 4:8-10

Around the Internet: Links for 8/5/10 August 5, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Church, Compassion, Finances, Gay rights, Grace, Gratitude, Human rights, Immigration, Politics, Religious Freedom, Sectarianism, Social Justice.
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Grace-full: A passionate essay on the predicament of undocumented immigrants and a plea to come together as Christians to work for fair and compassionate immigration reform (God’s Politics).

Practical: Five steps for married couples to get out of debt together. Indy and I are working on this one – we just killed the last of our long-standing credit card debt, and only have student loans left. It feels good to make any kind of progress though! (Christian Personal Finance)

Wise: Op-ed about the current practice of political campaigning from the pulpit, and how the recent uproar over Islam is really about Christians, not Muslims (New York Times).

Revelatory: Steven Furtick writes about defining grace as not just what sins God has saved you from, but what sins he has prevented you from. As a life-long (relatively) “good-girl” I have a lot to be grateful for (Steven Furtick).

Clever: Legal blogger reveals how Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling on Prop. 8 was more than just a simple legal decision. His team meticulously researched scientific facts and historic precedents to write an opinion that is difficult to assail on reason and brilliantly prepares the case for the Supreme Court (Jake Bowman)

A Word About Movies July 27, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Art, Grace, Movies, Parable, Personal, Stories, Truth.
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I love movies. And I love most kinds of movies: action, drama, comedy, documentary, musicals, even the (very) occasional chick-flick. And I have never been one of those Christians who says, “I don’t watch R-rated movies, period” or “I don’t watch anything with nudity”. Sorry, I just don’t care that much. My standard for movies is much more flexible, but often more elusive.

Because my standard for a movie is what I got out of it. If I cannot find any redeeming spiritual theme in a movie whatsoever, I probably will never watch it again. No matter how clean or otherwise innocuous it is, because it does nothing for my heart. If the level of crap I have to deal with to get to the redeeming message is too high, if it causes me spiritual damage or to sin in my heart or actions then it is likewise not going to get repeat viewing.

The problem with this standard is that I cannot apply it to anyone else. I cannot tell you whether a movie is good for you to watch because I am not you. I don’t have the same sensitivities or experiences or struggles you have. I find the Dark Knight to be a powerful story of good overcoming evil. My mom finds it deeply disturbing and it hurts her heart. I can only say whether or not my experience of the movie helped me grow personally, or brought me closer to God, or reminded me of a great truth. I can also tell you how many curse words or heads exploding or instances of drug use there were, but I won’t. There are other websites for that, and that doesn’t really interest me.

What interests me are stories. Jesus taught in parables because humans relate to stories more deeply than to any other way of presenting information. And what are movies but really expensive parables? They speak to us about how we relate to the world, to each other, and to God. If they aren’t telling me anything that is helpful for to me, or if they are actively causing me emotional or spiritual harm, then they are worse than worthless to me. But when I can watch a movie and see something I’ve read in the Bible or something I know about the nature of God or of life illustrated on screen, it helps me to hold on to it to remember it and apply it in my life. Because stories are so infinitely captivating and memorable, they touch our hearts and stick in our minds in ways few other things do.

I want to be clear about two things, however. Firstly, when I say I saw God in a movie or that it had a spiritual theme, I am not saying that it is a Christian movie or that the writers or directors were Christians. I am not saying everything in that movie is good, or even that everything about it fits with the Gospel. The ultimate resolution of the movie may not even be relevant or positive. I am saying that I saw a glimpse of truth, a glimpse of Jesus’ story and our story, in that movie. Maybe I saw Christ in a character’s role or a shadow of the Fall in an interaction. But don’t bend over backwards to make the entire plot fit in to this, because it probably won’t – it’s just a moment, a reminder of the ultimate truths in our lives. Some movies have lots of these moments, or are practically sermons in themselves. Some just have one or two moment, maybe just a line or a conversation that makes me say, “Wow, I see God in that.” But I’m not trying to make it basis for an entire theology or claim that the whole thing is perfect and godly.

The second thing is that just because I loved a movie or was able to tease out a spiritual lesson from it, I am not telling you to go see that movie*. I am using it to illustrate something I learned, because that is one of the ways God tends to speak to me. I may tell you that I find Fight Club to be an incredibly redemptive story that reminds me of the wildness of God and the consequences of focusing on the wrong things, of clinging to safety, and of letting your heart go dead. This does not mean that I think you should show it to your 3rd grade Sunday School class. It does not mean I think that looking at Helena Bonham Carter’s breasts is a pastime we should all take up. It just means that the story taught me something and I want to share it with you. You have to decide for yourself whether that movie is something that is good for you or bad for your spiritual walk. That is why God gives us discernment.

I’m going to start writing about movies that I love, that speak to me in this way. Not every movie I see, but the ones that really get me thinking about God and faith and relationships. I will probably start with Inception, since that is what I saw most recently and it really spoke to me on several levels. Just remember, I am not claiming that I am perfect, or that my interpretation of the story is perfect, or that the movie is perfect. Only that I got something out of it that I want to remember and to share. I leave off with the words of one of the great parable-tellers of the 20th Century:

“There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.”
Madeleine L’Engle

*Caveat: On a rare occasion I will actually tell you to go see a movie. It will usually be a childrens’ movie, probably by Pixar. If I ever meet anyone for whom Toy Story or Finding Nemo has caused them to sin, I will stop doing this.

Books I’m Coveting: July Edition July 21, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Art, Emergent Church, Grace, Heaven, Nature of God, Pain, Poverty, Universalism.
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So many books, so little time! I probably will not get a chance to read the majority of these anytime soon, but I thought I would make a little list of what’s piqued my interest lately and why.

First up is “If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person” by Phillip Gulley and James Mullholland. I have long been kind of an informal, closet Universalist. I have never truly believed that the loving God I know would actually condemn anyone to eternal punishment. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in hell of any kind, but I’ve always felt everyone would be redeemed in the end. But I’ve never explored this private belief in a theological vein, and I’m very interested to see what evidence they come up with to support universalism, as well as what kind of universalism they are promoting.

“Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church” by Kenda Creasy Dean argues that the faith that we are passing along to our young people is neither durable or sustainable. That we are teaching them a shallow, feel-good Christianity that does not hold up under the pressures and pain of the real worlds and does not provide a real hope for the future. I am interested in this both because I work with youth, and because I grew up in the church and my faith – just barely- held. I’ve love see what is the difference between those of us who stick with it and those who falter, and what we can do to change it.

“Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Right Questions” by Rachael Held Evans. A memoir of faith by a woman who grew up Dayton, TN, famous for the Scopes Monkey Trial regarding whether evolution can be taught in schools. Having a degree in Ecology and Evolution, I find anything to do with this fascinating (even if the trial itself was largely staged) and I’m interested to see what conclusions Evans comes to about faith in a “post-modern” world.

“Broke USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business” by Gary Rivlin is a journey in to the world of the American poor and the industry that feeds on them. Pawnshops, payday loans, check cashers, and rental centers all cater to those living paycheck to paycheck, ostensibly there to help when they fall behind but in reality just driving them further into debt and poverty and making it impossible to ever escape the cycle. One of Christ’s greatest commandments is to help the poor, but its hard to help without an understanding of the obstacles they are facing in our modern economy.

“Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife” by Lisa Miller is a history of the changing beliefs about the Judeo-Christian concept of heaven, from the earliest days of Judaism to the New Testament to popular culture. I really want to read this because I struggle with imagining heaven and am totally unsatisfied with any of the modern interpretations I’ve been given, from “endless church service” (boring) to “snowboarding with Jesus” (shallow). I’m curious about how our vision of heaven has changed through the centuries and what things besides Scripture have influenced it.

“American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon” by Stephen Prothero addresses the way various groups have co-opted and remade the image of Jesus to suit their own purposes over the years. This is something that has always been done to Jesus, but I think America is particularly and uniquely adept at it. And I have always wondered how we managed to get from poor, Middle-Eastern itinerant rabbi with a definite communist streak to a white middle class Republican.

“A New Kind Of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith” by Brian McLaren, is the closest thing one is likely to get to a manifesto for the Emergent Church. Part of the problem is the beliefs of the Emergent Church are difficult to codify because that’s what makes them Emergent, and if they have a leader (or more like founding father) at all, it’s McLaren. I’ve long felt like I identified with the Emergent Church in many areas of the faith, but haven’t really spent much time investigating it. I want to read this book to try and understand the basic of what they are preaching and whether it has merit to it.

In the same vein, “Why We’re Not Emergent (by Two Guys Who Should Be)” by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck attempt to deconstruct the Emergent movement, despite being its target demographic (generally young, hip, postmodern and engaged in social justice issues like poverty and descrimination). They argue that the Emergent movement is about more than it seems on the surface and is actual a dangerous form of heresy. While I do have reservations about some of the fundamentals of the Emergent church, I’m not sure I trust the guy who wrote this book to tell me them. Still, both sides of the issue deserve attention, so its worth a read.

“Drops Like Stars: A Few Thoughts on Creativity and Suffering” by Rob Bell, author of “Velvet Elvis” (and yes, another Emergent Church superstar). This book didn’t get as much positive attention as his previous ones, but I find the relationship between pain and art intriguing and would like to see how he handles it. I should probably have put “Velvet Elvis” or “Sex God” up instead, as I have not actually read either one, but the title of this one draws me more so I would prefer to start here if I can.

Sadly I am in no position to order nine books this afternoon and spend a week reading them all without stopping! Some of these I may never get to. But right now I can start with one off the list and see where that takes me. Which one of these titles would you choose?

Taking the Bible seriously – but not necessarily literally. June 15, 2010

Posted by orualundone in Belief, Education, Fears, Grace, Heresy, History, Love, Questions, The Bible, Truth.
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I have issues with the Bible. There, I said it. And not just little issues, but big, fat, hairy issues with warts, which sometimes leave me wondering where I actually fit within Christianity. The Bible is a dangerous book. It has the power to bring people to freedom and wholeness in Christ or to completely drive them away. Literal readings of the Bible have led to everything from labeling the idea that earth is not at the center of the universe and Newton’s basic laws of motion as heresy, to the justification for slavery/racism and the oppression of women, to the horrors of the Crusades and the persecution of the Jews. And while we’ve moved past much of that, the same type of literal interpretation is still used today in many mainstream churches to keep women out of pastoral leadership and to condemn homosexuality. I think there is nothing more perilous than a strict, literal, and un-informed reading of the Bible (in fact, while I’m no gnostic, a small part of me wishes sincerely that no one was allowed near the rest of the Bible until they had read all of the words of Christ and burned them into their hearts).

This kind of thinking is a particular problem when you were raised to believe not just that the Bible is the word of God, but that it is the inerrant, infallible Word of God meant to be taken 100% literally (even the stuff that seems to contradict the other stuff), handed down without change through the centuries and that the words mean the exact same thing to an American living in the 21st century as they did to an Israelite wandering in the desert in 1000 BC or a Greek convert in 70 AD. And of course nothing was ever mistranslated or misunderstood, at least not by us. Maybe by some of those other denominations. And well, okay, previous generations got it wrong about some things. But we have it totally right.

Unfortunately I don’t buy it. Even more unfortunately, since I was raised to believe if you didn’t buy it then you weren’t really a Christian and were probably going to hell, every time I start to think like that I feel really, really uncomfortable. As though if I dare whisper that thought to any Christian that I know I will be, if not summarily cast out of the church, then at least given a stern talking to and not allowed to be left alone with the children.

The problem is the Bible was compiled from many documents and sources, written and copied and re-written by many people, over a span of more than a thousand years. Many of the authors were writing about events which took place centuries before they were born, and were relying on oral histories and other records as their source material. The Bible was then compiled over many more decades (in fact is wasn’t until several hundred years after the birth of Christ that the Bible as a document existed in anything like its present form and Christian denominations today still disagree about which books should be included).

These various documents that make up the book we call the Bible all have different purposes and functions. Some are oral histories passed down from time immemorial (and often bear a striking resemblance to the mythology of other nearby cultures) until they were eventually written down and some are basic histories of the Jewish nation. Some are laws given to a specific people at a specific time and some are over-arching principles for God’s people. There are letters, there is parable, there is prophecy, there is allegory, there is poetry, and there is advice.

And frankly there are things that are just downright disturbing. There is a lot of violence, rape, murder, revenge, theft, and worse – many times not condemned in the way that we would condemn those actions today. Some are even apparently ordered by God (with a seeming complete disregard for any people other than His chosen ones), a God who at times seems frighteningly different than Christ in the gospels or the God in the New Testament that Paul and John write of so tenderly.

And yet we tend to treat the Bible as all the same – all equally factual, equally applicable, equally relevant to everything in our modern world. Even though there is no evidence at all that this is how God meant for the Bible to be read. We pick and choose verses from history and poem, from prophecy and epistle helter-skelter and apply them to our lives and to others, often without regard to even the context of the rest of the chapter, much less the cultural and historical context, the type of book it is found in, or who the words were originally addressing. And yet parts of the Bible are so vastly different from each other it is sometimes hard to believe they could possibly belong in the same volume.

In fact the only thread that seems to truly connect all the disparate elements of the Bible is Christ. Whatever else the purpose, every part of it serves a function to point to Him. The Old Testament recounts the history of the human race as a whole, the origin and history the Jewish nation Christ came from, the stories of the members of His genealogy, the reasons His coming was needed, the ways in which this coming was prefigured, and the relationship of man with God before He came. The Gospels recount His time on Earth, what He said and did. And the rest of the New Testament is our attempt to figure out how we should live in light of his coming and what will happen when He comes again.

Christ is at the center of it. Without Christ the Bible has no purpose and no meaning, and there is no way to make sense of it  without Him. The Bible as a whole may contain the words of God, but Jesus is the Word of God. That is made very clear; He is the Word of God made flesh and made whole. And Jesus says that if we know Him, then we know the Father. Therefore any teaching in the Bible that does not make sense in light of Christ, His actions and his words, is not something we should be following – either it is not meant for us to take as a rule, or it has been mistranslated/misinterpreted, or we do not have the tools to fully understand the original meaning.

But then how to we know what is what? This is where study comes in. Now I am not saying at all that one can’t sit down and read the Bible in English in the present day and get the basic message of God’s love and salvation out of it. I am simply saying that in order to fully grasp the significance and proper meaning of many parts of it, knowledge of the prevailing culture, the history of the people it is addressed to, the original language, and the intent of the writer is vital.

For those just beginning, start with the words, actions, and attitudes of Christ and be aware that anything that seems to contradict these may require further investigation. Because the danger comes when a person reads a verse that may or may not be meant to apply to us after the coming of Christ or may or may not be translated in a way that preserves the original meaning and uses it as a basis for action or legalism while disregarding completely whether this literalistic interpretation makes sense in light of Jesus’ ministry or commands. That has happened all too often in the past and continues to happen today, many times with tragic results.

Many people do not like this idea, they feel that we should be able to crack open our NIVs, read straight through, and understand everything. I get that. The idea that some knowledge is reserved for special people is something that goes against the very fabric of Christianity and has been rejected since its inception. And in fact, the essential Gospel itself is easy to understand, applicable and relevant to anyone, anywhere, at any time. But the Bible as a whole is a deeply complex and varied book. Different parts are directed to different people groups at different times, and thus have different bearings upon us today.

I am also not saying only certain people are privileged to have this knowledge and I certainly don’t think that proficiency in ancient Jewish culture or the Hebrew language is required either for salvation, acceptance, or communion with God. But if you want to understand and properly apply the rest of Bible and the context of Christ’s coming more fully then study is required.

Asserting that you can read an English translation of a document written in a different culture, using several different languages and immediately understand all the implications is like someone from ancient Israel learning English, with no knowledge of American culture or history, and thinking they would be able to understand all the jokes in the Simpsons. They might be able to grasp the basic plot line, but it wouldn’t be funny and probably would end up leading to a lot of very serious misunderstandings.

I am just starting to fully grasp this myself, and truly beginning to study the Bible and its history and context. I am only now really starting to look critically at the interpretations that others have given me over the years and that I, too often, have just accepted without any kind of deep thought or research. When I come to something that doesn’t seem to make sense to me with what I know about the nature of God, I tend to just kind of push it aside and move on,  instead of trying to learn more about why it is there and what it is supposed to mean to me.

For example: although many of the offenses listed for the people of Israel in the book of Leviticus are referred to as “abominations”, we do not consider them to be wrong for us as Christians or things we have to worry about (particularly the ones regarding food and wearing certain clothes). But why? I have been told Leviticus is considered to be a Holiness Code, something which is given to a certain group of people at a certain time and applicable only to them, for the purposes of setting them apart from others around them. Okay, but how do we know this? Abomination sounds pretty bad. Like the worst thing I can think of, will land you in hell kind of bad. We think of that word as interchangeable with words like “sin”, “wickedness”, and “evil”.

But the Hebrew (and later the Greek) word that is translated as “abomination” and used for many of the laws in Leviticus actually is closer to meaning a religious taboo. It is not something that no one ever should do because it is inherently wrong; it is something that these people at this time should not do – culturally unacceptable, in a similar way to a woman wearing trousers in the 18th century. There is another Hebrew word (and a correlating one in Greek) that translates as sin or wickedness which refers to something which is always bad no matter who is doing it when, and this word is consciously not used in this part of the law, although it is used for other things. But reading the Bible without knowing this – well, abomination and sinful and wicked all sound like the same things to me!

Just this little bit of knowledge, of two words of Hebrew and two words of Greek, completely transformed how I understand large sections of the Old Testament that I previously didn’t know what to do with and honestly preferred to avoid. And building on this knowledge with more knowledge of words and culture and history, I will be able to better understand sections of the New Testament that refer to similar things, and thus better understand how I am to live and act, what is important and what is not. Our understanding can only be as good as the words we have to describe it with. If the words aren’t adequate, then the understanding will be lacking.

And of course, if we are really honest then we know that hardly anyone, even the most conservative American Christian, reads the Bible 100% literally. Only a few people cling to the idea that the Earth is physically only 6000 years old. Most realize the laws about religious purity given to the ancient Jews are not needful for us today (although that is made pretty clear in the New Testament anyway). It’s a very fringe belief to preach biblical support for racism or slavery, and only a tiny percentage of Christians would make a fuss about women wearing pants or cutting their hair. We all pick and choose, to some extent are all realists about what Jesus said was important and what is not. But we also all get hung up on issues where we have picked a specific verse which seems to forbid or require something, and then try to apply it to the whole of our lives and everyone else’s without perhaps putting it in proper perspective.

I cannot believe that every bit of the Bible (and which version of the Bible?) was literally dictated word for word by God as something we should follow to the letter, believe literally and absolutely without room for interpretation or change. The authors of the Bible were human. They had prejudices, they had limitations, they were only able to understand things within the limits of their cultural background and only able to express them within the limits of their language. We are no different ourselves. This doesn’t mean God wasn’t able to use them, to allow them to express and record deeper truths than they themselves may have realized. But at the same time we need to remember that they were also writing very human histories and records and prayers and rules for themselves and for the people of the time.

I do believe the Bible as a whole is a holy book and that every part of it is useful for teaching and instruction, and that God has given it to us for a reason. We can learn something from every part of it – the only question is what God wants us to learn as opposed to what we think we are to learn or what we might think other people need to learn. Some people try to use the Bible as all things, the only book anyone ever needs – religious scripture, law, textbook, sex manual, prophetic verse, inspiration, and financial guide. But I believe it is something greater: it is the story of His love affair with the human race and His redemptive plan for all of creation. And while the Bible may have a lot (some brilliantly applicable, maybe some not) to say on those other topics, that story is the only thing that cannot be found in any other book.

I am a scientist. I do not believe in a literal 6-day creation, or the Garden of Eden as described in Genesis, or even that we were literally hand-molded out of dust into the physical image of God. But I love and treasure the creation account in the Bible because it teaches me the greater truth. That God made the world, that He made us, that He made all things and is the Creator-God. That He created the universe and the world with an order to it. That He created us to be like Him and to be one with Him, and that we fell into sin and will never be able to reach a perfect state of union with Him without His grace. And that He loves us enough to continue to relentlessly pursue us across the centuries, despite all the horrible things we’ve done and ways we’ve rejected His love, as a species and individually. This is the story of our creation and salvation plan, however you read the actual timeline.

Science can give me answers about the physical processes involved, the timespan, the laws of nature. But nothing else can give me the core truth of His creation of us and love for us. And that truth is so much more precious to me this way than if I were forced to deny all my God-given senses and intelligence, and all the historical and physical evidence that exists in order to align my brain with the word-for-word account. For me that way lies only fear and resentment, and a small, rigid faith that can be easily broken by the discovery of anything that goes against the most literal of readings.

We should revere the Bible, but we should also work to understand what it is and what it isn’t. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with my point of view on this. If so, I do hope that there are at least a few things we can agree on: That God is Love. That the blood of Jesus offers redemption to us all. That, as Jesus said, ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ ; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” is the whole of of the law and the prophets and everything else is just details. That the good news of God’s love and Christ’s death and resurrection is equally available and understandable to everyone no matter their education or age or intelligence or background. And that the words, actions, and attitudes of Christ should be our ultimate test of what we should follow and how we should live. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re a liberal scholar or a Biblical literalist, that is all that matters.