Thursday, May 17, 2012

A short quote from John Newton (writer of "Amazing Grace")

"Whatever it be that makes us trust in ourselves that we are comparatively wise or good, so as to treat those with contempt who do not subscribe to our doctrines, or follow our party, is a proof and fruit of a self-righteous spirit. Self righteousness can feed upon doctrines, as well as upon works; and a man may have the heart of a Pharisee, while his head is stored with orthodox notions of the unworthiness of the creature and the riches of free grace. Yea, I would add, the best of men are not wholly free from this leaven; and therefore are too apt to be pleased with such representations as hold up our adversaries to ridicule, and by consequence flatter our own superior judgments. Controversies, for the most part, are so managed as to indulge rather than to repress this wrong disposition; and therefore, generally speaking, they are productive of little good. They provoke those whom they should convince, and puff up those whom they should edify."

I  had not realized that they had blogging in John Newtons time.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A few reflections on Acts 3

Oh, wow, has it been a long time since I've posted(2 and a half years).  I've got a couple of posts in draft stage, but they've never made it to published state.  Time to rectify that.

The following dates back to shortly after my last post.  A friend from church had asked me to look at the first few verses in Acts 3.  The following was the result:


John:
Last week you asked me to look at the first part of Acts 3 (Peter and John and the healing of the man born crippled).  Here's what I've come up with.

One thing I see is that when God wants to draw attention, He certainly knows how to do it.  Anyone else (other than this cripple) who was seen in the temple walking and jumping around probably would't have drawn much attention.  But this guy was probably something of a fixture around the temple.  Most of the people in the temple court had probably seen him regularly and knew his condition.  They'd probably given him money.  When he shows up jumping around the temple courts, they know who he is and know how amazing the sight is, and they know that this isn't a fake.

Through the whole situation, I'm seeing Peter as a man whose eyes are on Jesus.   He knows that he himself has nothing to offer except the authority to speak in Jesus name, and faith in that name.  And he does have faith, of a level that can only be God-given. It's one thing to speak in Jesus name and watch what happens.  It's another to speak and then grab the cripple by the hand and haul him up.

But the thing that gets my attention is Peter's response to the crowd.  He asks 2 questions:
  1. "Why are you amazed?" I can just see someone in the crowd respond "Peter - Duh! A man crippled from birth is walking around, jumping, and dancing like a monkey.  For most people, this falls pretty firmly in the 'Amazing' category". But for the man whose eyes are on Jesus, and who knows who Jesus is, this isn't amazing.  In Jesus presence, these things happen.

  2. "Why are you staring at us as if this man had been healed by our power or piety?" Peter's eyes are on Jesus, not on himself. He knows he doesn't have the power to heal, and after denying Jesus, he knows that he doesn't have any piety in and of himself. He knows who Jesus is, and he knows who he is, and between the two he knows which one really deserves attention.
I think most Christians have little problem with acknowledging that it's God's power, not ours, that heals and touches people.  What we have problems with is acknowledging that our piety has nothing to do with it. If God has us involved with healing or touching someone, we wouldn't mind a bit if it is seen as a reflection of our own spiritual growth or knowledge, our own 'piety'.  But for Peter, whose eyes are on Jesus, it's actually puzzling that people might perceive this event as reflecting well on his own piety.

As a man whose eyes are on Jesus, Peter then proceeds to point to Jesus, not himself, as the author of this healing.


An additional note:

If I'm right, and this man had been a 'fixture' in the temple for an extended period (which seems likely, given that 'the people recognized him'), then it's likely that he was there during Jesus' ministry, and Jesus didn't heal him during Jesus' earthly ministry.  You have to wonder if Jesus looked at him at some point and thought 'Friend, I'm not going to heal you today.  But your healing is going to play a big part in the start of building my Church'.  When God doesn't answer us today, sometimes He may be saving the answer for a time that will produce a bigger result than we expect.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Meekness

When Jesus says in the Beattitudes, "Blessed are the meek", most of us have problems making that practical. What in the world does it mean to be meek? The typical modern use of the term tends to imply a milquetoast, shy, and weak person, and that doesn't seem to be what Jesus is getting at. So what does the meekness that is blessed mean?

My own approach to this was to use what I believe is a Brainstorming technique: if you're having trouble defining or grasping a word, ask "What is its opposite?". For me that had an immediate answer - the opposite of meekness is arrogance. And the essence of arrogance seems to me to be that it ignores legitimate boundaries. Arrogance takes what it wants, whether there are legitimate obstacles in its way or not. It assumes rights or authority it does not have, ignores legitimate authorities who would oppose it, and ignores the rights of others when those rights get in the way of what it wants.

Well, if the essence of arrogance is that it ignores legitimate boundaries, it seems likely that the essence of meekness is that it instead respects them. This is a definition (or at least description) that I can get hold of. The meek person can be strong, even bold and assertive, but it stops when it comes up to a legitimate boundary or restriction. It allows its strength to be limited by legitimate laws, rules, or authorities. I've heard meekness defined as 'strength under control', but it seems to me that that is mere self-control(to what degree self-control can really be considered 'mere'. We could use seeing lots more self-control). A meek person allows himself to be controlled by legitimate outside authorities, not just by himself.

Make no mistake, even this kind of meekness seems 'weak' to the arrogant. The failure to take what you want, regardless of rules is regarded by the arrogant as a character failure and a sign of weakness. You can expect to have some people still regard you as weak when practicing this kind of of meekess. But their disdain is not itself a legitimate restriction, and shouldn't be regarded as one.

You've probably noted the heavy usage of the term 'legitimate' in the above. The meek won't necessarily allow themselves to be limited by restrictions that aren't valid, though they are free to allow that and beyond ("if someone wants to take your coat, give him your shirt also") or to go beyond legitimate restrictions ("if someone forces you to go a mile, go with him two". But they are also free to ignore restrictions that are not legitimate or to require others to respect legitimate restrictions (see Paul in Acts 16:37)

And this type of meekness seems to me to make the Beatitude understandable. Jesus says of the meek, not that they will acquire the earth, nor that they would conquer the earth (that would be more what the arrogant aim for), but that they will inherit the earth. The earth is handed over to them by someone else. And I suspect that it's handed over to them simply because they can be trusted with it. They won't take it as an indication of authority beyond what they actually have, they won't abuse it, they won't use it selfishly. They will not go beyond proper boundaries in using it, and they therefore can be trusted with it. The arrogant may think the earth is going to be theirs, but God controls the earth, and will ultimately give it to those He knows can be trusted with it (and it will probably drive the arrogant crazy!)

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Listening and Exegesis

Internet Monk has a post on how even conservative, inerrancy-believing preachers often end up preaching from Song of Solomon as though it was a manual on marriage and sex. The problem isn't that what they're teaching on the latter is wrong, it's that it's not what Song of Solomon is actually getting at. It's not good exegesis. I can identify somewhat with this, having heard more than one sermon where my internal response was "what you're teaching is fine, it just doesn't say that in the passage you're preaching from".

Actually, I think he's hearing in a scenario where it's much more obvious something that goes on with a lot of scripture. Even the intent to be correct theologically can be a distraction at times. E.g. I've begun to find myself getting irritated at the way if a passage contains terms like 'elect' or 'predestination', you can almost be sure the person 'exegeting' it will end up hammering on one side or the other of the Calvinist vs Arminian argument. But sometimes what is being talked about in the passage has nothing to do with that argument, and if you insist on looking at it from the perspective of that argument, you're going to miss what's being said. For example, what Paul's trying to get across in Rom 8:28-30 is the same whether you look at it from a Calvinist or an Arminian viewpoint. I get the impression, though, that few people actually follow Paul's logic in this passage, either because they stop at verse 28 ('God works all things for good'), or because the term 'predestination' in verse 29 puts them into Calvinist vs Arminian mode. (I guess this means I need at some point to post what I think that logic is).

Part of the problem (and at this point, I'll admit that I'm possibly dropping into my own agenda, as this is an issue I've seen God make an emphasis in my life) is that the vast majority of people just don't listen very well (and exegesis is essentially (or ought to be) good listening formalized). Generally, we listen, not to accurately understand what the other person is trying to get across, but to gauge how the other person's words fit into our own mental framework. Good listening requires acknowledging that the other person may be working from a different mental framework, viewpoint, or background than ours. A good listener may very well disagree with that other framework or viewpoint, or regard it as invalid, but will agree to understand that that is where the other person is coming from. Good listening requires learning to recognize the clues that indicate that there are framework, viewpoint, background or terminological differences between the speaker and the listener, and taking it into consideration (which at times includes recognizing that you don't yet understand what the speaker is trying to get across). And Good listening is, alas, in short supply.

If you haven't picked up the above good listening skills, I wonder if you're really prepared to do good exegesis of scripture. If you can't listen to people, particularly people who have significant differences from you, how prepared are you to listen to the God who tells us "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways". Develop these skills now with people from whom you can get feedback, so you can figure out where your listening skills tend to go wrong and correct it (and my experience is that developing good listening skills generally starts with making lots of mistakes and figuring out where you went wrong. It's also how you figure out how to detect the clues that tell you there are differences between how you and the speaker see things). When exegeting scripture, you don't have that kind of feedback available.

C. S. Lewis suggested a pre-ordination exam testing a candidate's ability to translate the theology he's learned into ordinary language. I'd suggest that in order to be able to do that, one of the earliest courses in seminary should be a class on developing good listening skills. This should be a prerequisite to theology classes, but note that these skills are also going to be very valuable for things like counseling.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bulverism

If you've noticed many of my comments in other blogs (particularly if you came here via such a comment), you've probably seen me referring to Bulverism. I thought it might be good to post something about it here.

C. S. Lewis, back in the 1940's, noticed a particular tactic of argument that was so pervasive that he felt he had to give it a name. He called it Bulverism(it is also called the genetic fallacy). Lewis defines Bulverism as "instead of trying to prove your opponent wrong, you assume he is wrong, and give an explanation of how he got that way." Bulverism essentially amounts to dismissing an opponent's arguments because you can imagine some irrational motivation for them believing as they do. As Lewis put it, "Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs". Seems to me that the latter phrase comes pretty close to describing present-day politics

Don't imagine, though, that Bulverism is confined to one political party. Conservatives bulverise the liberals about as much as liberals bulverise conservatives (though I'll admit that some on the left seem to have turned Bulverism into something of an art form. E.g. 'Homophobia' is, essentially, a one-word Bulverism). That's essentially the problem - everyone ends up pointing fingers at the alleged motivations of their opposition instead of actually arguing on the merits.

It can be amusing to see those claiming to be speaking as scientists using Bulverism (and they do), as Bulverism essentially is hypothesizing a motivation for your opponents reasonings, assuming without examination that that hypothesis is true, and proceeding to dismiss your opponent's reasoning on that basis. This is about as far from the scientific method as you can get.

Bulverism is attractive because it gets around the tedious, difficult process of having to understand your opponents arguments, figure out where they're wrong, and proceed to demonstrate those errors logically (followed by your opponent doing the same to you). All that's required is a bit of imagination and the willingness to risk slandering(or libelling) your opponent.

As far as I can see, the pervasiveness of Bulverism has increased since the 1940's, to the point where it is almost taken for granted. The opposition isn't just wrong, they haven't merely made mistakes in reasoning, they must have gotten there due to some nefarious motivation. And once the imagined connection between 'wrong beliefs' and 'bad motivations' is assumed, disagreement becomes intensely personal. If being incorrect implies evil motivations, if mere disagreement with someone implies that you think their motivations are bad or wrong, people are going to resent disagreement. The end result is that, instead of arguing about "who's right?", we end up arguing about "Who's righteous?".

To me, the amusing thing about this (if such a state of affairs can be regarded as amusing) is that in my experience, the vast majority of people are actually extremely lousy at discerning other peoples motives. We regularly assume that other people's motives can always be reduced to one motive, when in fact we generally operate under the weight of multiple, often conflicting motives. We seem to ask "What would it take for me to do that/believe that?", and assume that that must be the other person's motivation, regardless of how different they are from us. We too easily assume our own ability to see into the hearts of others based on appearances, when in fact only God sees into our hearts. Not only is Bulverism intellectually lazy, it depends on an ability that only few come anywhere near having competency in. And this is what drives political discourse nowadays? You have to laugh, if only to keep from crying.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Practicality and the Second Greatest Commandment

A while back I made a post on the term "Neighbor" and the Second Greatest Commandment, but lately it has struck me just how practical God's choice of words is.

He could have taken a tack more like the modern "Love your fellow man" (or, if you have to be PC, "Love your fellow person". I suppose if we were living in the time of Star Trek, it would have to be something more like "Love your fellow sentient entity"). As good as that sounds, for practical purposes, you actually have to choose some subset of the human race to love, as you can't practically love every one of them. The question is, how do you choose that subset?

You could just choose your friends and the parts of your family that you like, but, common as that is, it's rather obviously not what God has in mind.

You could ratchet things up a bit, choose one or more "oppressed" or needy people groups and love them, and consider that this gives you leave to give short shrift to loving others, particularly those you consider to be the oppressors of your chosen people groups. Common as this also is, it also falls short of what God has in mind.

God commands us to love our Neighbor as ourselves. A neighbor is simply someone who comes near to you (who is in physical proximity to you, who is close enough for your actions to affect them). This is not just those who live near your house, this is those who come near to you all through your day. If someone comes near enough to you that what you do affects them, you're commanded to love them as yourself.

Basically, God has taken the choice of what subset of the human race to love right out of our hands. If they're nearby, you're commanded to love them.

The bureaucrat who messes up your life by forgetting to give you information is someone you're commanded to love as yourself.

The policeman who gives you an undeserved ticket is someone you're commanded to love as yourself.

The person who cuts in line in front of you is someone you're commanded to love as yourself.

The political speaker who opposes your views, who you've come out to protest is someone you're commanded to love as yourself (N.B. that means you don't shout them down to prevent them being heard).

The white supremacist who disses you for being black is someone you're commanded to love as yourself.

The school principal who suspends your kid for bringing a plastic soldier holding a plastic knife to school is someone you're commanded to love as yourself.

The spammer who litters all of your posts with spam comments is someone you're commanded to love as yourself.

I think you get the idea. If I haven't managed to hit you with the equivalent of Jesus using a Samaritan as the 'good guy', please feel free to add your own examples.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Contemporary foolishness

The wise man wants to act righteously, and and welcomes correction as an aid to doing it. He will defend his reputation against unfair attacks, but only after examining the criticism to see if there is anything to learn from it. For him, doing right trumps looking right.

The fool wants to look righteous and regards correction as an obstacle to that goal. Defending his reputation is the first priority, and only after he once again feels his reputation is secure will he, possibly, examine the criticism for validity. For him, looking right trumps doing right.
Starting off a post with a quote like that, I guess I should be attributing it to some wise sage, but I'm afraid it's just me. Take it as a restatement of ideas taken from Ps 15:4c, Pr 12:1,15, and 2 Cor 13:7, with a generous dose of C. S. Lewis's principle of First and Second Things. Basically, it's a result of noticing how much of modern life falls into the foolish pattern.

I've long noticed a pattern in both politics and business that I've come to characterize as "prioritizing PR over actual effectiveness". Primary effort is put into making yourself look effective, with only secondary effort put into actually doing your work effectively. This goes beyond being merely commonplace in politics; nowadays it seems like this is the primary operating tactic of the majority of political campaigns, and failing to run your campaign on this principle will actually draw criticism.

You also see it heavily when a politician or business has to deal with bad news of some kind. Too often, it seems that first priority is put on spinning it in the most positive (or at least 'least negative') sense, and only secondarily (if at all) is consideration given to fixing the problem that produced the bad news in the first place. At least as far as we can tell, that's what happens. Too often, it seems like any direct attempt by the public to actually determine if the announced fix is effective are blocked. Like Dorothy, we're told to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" - "only listen to what our PR department tells you about how we're fixing this problem".

And those of us who behind the scenes are involved in having to deal with fixing the problem can often tell you that decisions about how to fix the problem are often colored heavily by the "PR before effectiveness" principle. A 'solution' which makes a public splash about doing something about the problem will be given priority over a less public solution which has a better chance of actually being effective. Being "seen" to be trying to deal with the problem is considered more important than actually being effective at dealing with it.

Now, I'll admit that you can't totally ignore perception. As a business partner of mine is fond of saying: "If you do a technically good job of solving a customer's problem, but the customer perceives you as doing a bad job, then you've done a bad job." There is, however, a large gulf between paying attention to the effects of perception, and making control of perception your number one priority.

Contrast this attitude with Paul's in 2 Cor 13:7:
Now we pray to God that you do no wrong; not that we ourselves may appear approved, but that you may do what is right, even though we should appear unapproved.
For Paul, priority is given to effectiveness as an apostle, teacher, and discipler, even if the result is a bad perception of Paul's effectiveness. It's more important that he be effective in his calling, in producing disciples that do well, that do what's right, than that he appear in men's eyes to be doing well.

How easily do we fall into the foolish pattern, particularly if we're in leadership? How easy is it to make obtaining (or, worse, enforcing) a positive view of ourselves from others a high priority? And how easy is it to self-justify by claiming that we can't be effective unless people view us positively?

Fools are fools, in part, because the things they do are eventually self-defeating, and so it is here. As Lewis puts it "every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made". Prioritize PR over what you're actually supposed to be doing eventually results in losing the good PR you were seeking. People generally eventually see through the pretense. Better to be humble, admit your limitations and faults, and put your effort into being as effective as you can than to put your effort into painting a picture of PR perfection and eventually be found to come up short.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The truth doesn't set you free

Those who know me may be a bit surprised at the title of this post. "Hold on, Oloryn, it says right there in scripture:"

and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32 NASB)

"How can you say, in the face of Jesus own words, that the truth doesn't set you free?"

There's a problem with that very popular quote. Note the first word: "and". The quote is the last part of the statement, and so only conveys part of the story.

So, what's the "rest of the story"?

Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, "If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine;" (John 8:31 NASB)

This is the primary condition for what follows: you have to be abiding in His word, which makes you a true disciple. If you're not fulfilling that condition, the rest of the passage doesn't apply to you. Actually, unless you're fulfilling that condition, knowing the truth may be iffy. Note the sequence: You abide in His word, which makes you a true disciple. This results in knowing the truth, which results in being made free.

Note also that believing in Jesus by itself doesn't qualify. Let's widen the context a bit, and pay attention to that 'therefore'. As a result of Jesus words in a discussion with the Pharisees (see verses 12-29), many Jews came to believe in Him. At this point, Jesus turns to those believers and makes the statement we've studied above. Jesus wasn't satisfied with their coming to belief. He wanted them to go on into freedom (and they don't even realize they need to be made free - see the following verses). If believing was sufficient, He wouldn't have made the statement.

Note that I'm not saying that this is a prerequisite for salvation. Salvation is by grace though faith in Christ alone (Eph 2:8 et al), but Jesus isn't satisfied for us to come into salvation and just sit there - He wants to take us on into freedom, and that takes an abiding-in-His-word discipleship relationship with Him.

And I wonder if not fully understanding this is part of what produces problems among my fellow theological conservatives. We tend to focus on truth, and we're right to do so, as we live in a culture that largely denies that truth even exists. But in focusing on defending truth, we tend to forget that truth by itself doesn't set free. Truth only sets free in a context of a true discipleship relationship with Christ, and the pursuit and defense of truth doesn't by itself produce that relationship. The pursuit of a discipleship relationship with Jesus has to take priority over the pursuit of truth. This doesn't mean the two are contradictory, this means that without that priority our own pride at being truth-pursuers and truth-holders will hinder the discipleship relationship and damage our witness.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Predestined to what?

Lately (when I'm not being annoyed at the way the mere presence in a passage of terms such as 'predestined', 'elect', or 'chosen' often causes people to launch into their favorite theory of Calvinism vs Arminianism, which tends to distract from the task of actually paying attention to what the passage says....ahem, anyhow....), I've been noticing how often scriptural mentions of predestination seem to 'point' predestination, not at justification per se, but at things which seem more like sanctification. The whole Calvinist vs Arminian wrangle tends to go on in terms relating predestination to salvation (by which, largely, we mean justification and forgiveness of sins, the basic 'fire insurance' aspect of the Gospel), yet it seems to me that I keep running across scriptures that seem to tie predestination to things that fall better into the general 'sanctification' side of things.

This first caught my attention in 1 Pet 1:1-2, but the passage that has been getting my attention lately is Romans 8:29-30. This is, of course, the followup to the oft-quoted Romans 8:28: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose." For some reason, we like to stop right there. It does make it easy to imagine that the good and the purpose referred to are our own personal comfort and prosperity (whatever happened to "in the world you have tribulation"?).

But Paul goes on to describe the good and the purpose he's talking about: "For whom He foreknew, " (just to irritate my Calvinist readers, I will pause to note that the logic of this passage does have this particular predestination dependent on foreknowledge) "He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren". This is the purpose Paul is speaking of - that God might have many sons (and daughters) conformed to the image, character, and holiness of Jesus. Predestination here is not first or primarily directed at the 'fire insurance' aspects of the gospel, but towards our being made like Jesus.

Having purposed and predestined this for us, God then followed up with the things necessary to bring it about: "and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified, and whom He justified, these He also glorified." And this brings an interesting perspective. We rejoice (and rightly so) in having been called into salvation. We rejoice in having been justified and saved from hell. We rejoice in our coming glorification. And yet, in a sense, these things are side issues; they're baggage necessary to bring about the primary goal. These things are the caboose - the engine is God making a holy people, conformed to the image of His Son.

In Ephesians 1:18, Paul prays that we might know "what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints". That's an interesting turn of phrase - not what we're getting as an inheritance from God (our typical perspective), but what God is getting as an inheritance - us. Surely this is part of it - a people made holy and like Jesus. This is the riches God has purposed. How much are we letting Him work it in us today?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Anxiety and Servanthood, Part 1

As I've indicated before, I tend to look out for therefores (and therefore equivalents) when reading scripture. They give us an chance to check out if our logic and God's logic are the same. Especially, I watch out for oft-quoted verses that begin with a therefore (or the equivalent). It's unfortunately not that unusual, and the fact that we start the quote with the 'therefore' indicates that we're starting in the middle, and leaving off the reason for what follows. It's at that point likely that we're missing part of the message.

One such place is Matthew 6:25:

For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing?


'For this reason'? For what reason? For that you need to go back one verse:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other; or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.


Now this is a little scary. If 'You cannot serve God and mammon' logically leads to "don't be anxious about even such mundane, everyday concerns as food, drink, and clothing", it would seem to follow that worrying about such things constitutes serving mammon. And serving mammon will keep you from serving God.

Note that this isn't a question of God arbitrarily deciding that if you serve mammon, He won't let you serve Him. It's not 'You may not serve both God and mammon', as though God was laying down a (hopefully waivable) entrance requirement for the Serving God Club. It's 'You cannot serve both God and mammon'. The thing jest ain't possible. If you're serving mammon, you don't have the ability to serve God, no matter how much you may want to. Which means "Don't be anxious about food, drink, and clothing" isn't some high (and, to many of us, irritating) spiritual ideal attainable only by the most advanced Christian. It's informing us of a basic practical fact: worrying about where your food, drink and clothing will come from will rob you of the ability to serve God. If you want to serve God, you will have to deal with this.