possibility and surrender

I met a friendly man today who, learning of my religiosity, asked me about my views on science and faith.  It was a good chat, not too long, and remained wonderfully amicable.

The man was, by global and local standards, wealthy, educated and articulate.  At least some of the time, such a demographic can tend to view the ‘God’ topic primarily as an interest, a curiosity; certainly not a matter of life and death.

During the conversation, I remember thinking, “Oh wow, the science-and-faith conversation.  Is this still a popular topic for people?  Usually it’s hell or homosexuality.”  I have no idea of his intentions, but very often many Christians feel like such conversations have little if anything to do with someone’s genuine interest in (or pursuit of) faith, and everything to do with some kind of justification of their unbelief.  The theological out-clauses are many: global suffering and evil, hypocrisy in the church, science and/or evolution, hell, homosexuality, ‘the Old Testament’, etc.

This leads me to another thought, which emerged from my reflections.  It is the reality that if an ultimate invisible and limitless being is real, then that kind of opens up literally anything and everything as being possible.  A ‘god’ could be very controlling and hands-on, more distant and deistic, or somewhere in the middle; evil, good, impatient, patient.  If people just start believing in ‘god’ willy nilly, well they might start believing just about anything about that ‘god’.  This ‘god’ might send 99.9999% of humans to hell, gays first of course, and save only the members of Westboro Baptist Church.  Or this ‘god’ might be the mamby pamby, everything-and-everyone-is-great, domesticated, flaccid (and frankly boring) deity… Anything is possible if there is a ‘god’!

The truth behind all this is precisely this: Yes, you and I don’t get to say what God is like.  God may have attributes we don’t find pleasant or popular in our time and culture.

This is where a little notion called surrender comes in.  This is where we stop trying to be more moral than God.  This is where we let go of all our controlling questions and submit to the reality of an Ultimate being, far stronger and higher than us.

The good news, literally, is that in the person and gospel of Jesus Christ, we don’t have to wonder – or fear! – what God might be like.  We have a Creator and Saviour who is radically committed to the creation, humans in particular.  So much so that this God is long-suffering and hell-bent on saving us, despite our almost continual rejection, rebellion, apathy and downright selfishness.

Anything is possible with God; and what a good possibility it is with the God we know through Jesus Christ.

on calvinism

Why a Blog about Calvinism?

Today I learned – much after the fact – that Derek Webb no longer identifies as a Christian.  This has some emotional significance for me, as I have been a follower of Caedmon’s Call (in which he played), and of his more recent solo musical projects.

Instead of discussing what it feels like to have a musical hero of yours lose his faith, I instead want to reflect here on Calvinism.  The video in which I learned this discusses – or rather proposes – a relationship between Calvinism and atheism.  Webb seems to be rejecting a thoroughly Calvinistic Christianity, as he understands it.

It is the understanding of Calvinism that I wish to dare to discuss below.  My aim is to avoid academic jargon and to express the gist of what Calvinism is about, and to do so in a way that expresses Calvinism in what I believe to be it’s best form, whilst also hoping to show extremes that can arise along the way.  I will use the long-established, and much-debated acronym T.U.L.I.P. as a framework.

What I hope to show is that, in its best form, Calvinism – like Scripture – aims to showcase the God of Grace as the ultimate agent at work in Salvation.  This aim can be expressed in ways that perhaps do not show the emphasis that Scripture also puts on human participation with God.  Likewise, rebuttals of Calvinism aim to recover a proper sense of human freedom and responsibility within God’s plan.  In so doing, perhaps God’s ultimate sovereignty can be obscured to lesser or greater degrees.  A simple, clear reading of Calvinism may be difficult, so wish me luck!

T – Total Depravity

The total depravity of humanity is about the devastating scope of the damage that Evil and Sin have done in humans.  Few would try to deny that humans have their defects, but the key idea here is seen in the word ‘total’.  Human failure goes all the way down, from head to toe.  This doctrine is a way of resisting the idea that there is a basic, perhaps hidden, part of us that is untouched and good.  And more to the point, that this part of us makes us worthy enough to deserve salvation, because God ‘owes’ it to us.

You can easily see how a doctrine like this can be – and has been! – taken to extremes.  The doctrine itself aims at correcting the extreme of an overly positive view of human nature, and all corrections can become over-corrections.  Scripture often says two things that need to be held in tension, rather than having to choose between them.  On this topic, Scripture portrays human nature in both its positive and negative expressions.  One scholar described this picture of humans as being simultaneously “resplendent with glory and awash in shame”.

In my own experience, this doctrine is helpful to keep me humble.  And I have found that it is unhelpful or even dangerous to split myself too neatly into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts of myself.  As I see it, even the parts of myself I thought were ‘good’ are tainted by selfishness, insecurity and pride.  This doesn’t negate positive traits like intelligence, gifting or anything else, it just means that all of me, from head to toe, needs help from outside myself.  The good news of salvation is not about me being smart enough to sort myself out, but about God being loving enough.

U – Unconditional Election

The unconditional election of God’s people is trying to say two things at least: one, that God has ‘elected’ or ‘chosen’ people, and two, that this ‘election’ or ‘choice’ flows entirely from his own graceful, merciful and loving wisdom, rather than a choice that is based on some quality that those people had, or didn’t have.

The very notion of ‘choosing’ or ‘electing’ some people is unpopular as it implies that the rest are not chosen, and thus have no fair chance at becoming one of God’s people.  But the point being made here, and by Scripture as I understand it, is not that being chosen is to be contrasted with being ‘not chosen’, but rather that ‘election’ is to be contrasted with ‘selection’.  God’s choice is free.  It is free of influence from anything other than God’s own just, loving and gracious nature.  Thus ‘election’ is not ‘selection’, as though God’s choice amounts to a choosy selecting of the ‘best ones’.

There are Bible verses that seem to say two things here.  Some seem to show humans as choosing God, others depict God choosing humans.  Again, rather than choose one or the other, I think the point is that both dynamics are at work.  The point that Calvinism is making here – and it does square with Scripture as I understand it – is that God takes the initiative, not us.

L – Limited Atonement

The limited atonement of Christ is, again, focused on God as the active agent of salvation.  The Church here is pictured as a bride which Christ pursued and died for.  It is purposeful and intentional, rather than accidental or random.

Again, this has been taken to imply that God never cared to save people outside the Church, an idea that would not square with all of Scripture.  God’s desire is for all, and Christ’s sacrifice was ‘unlimited’ in the sense of being enough for all.  The language of ‘limited’ has to do with the specificity of those who end up benefiting from that sacrifice.

This is a point of doctrine that I think is best expressed at a very simple level.  Too much word-play seems to over-complicate the simplicity of what is being said here.  God took a people to be God’s very own, and this was ultimately accomplished through the atoning work of Christ.  It was purposeful, and not an accident.  God does not sit, nail-biting in heaven wondering who will partake of the salvation offered in Christ.

I – Irresistible Grace

The irresistible Grace of God is again focused on God as the active agent in salvation.  This doctrine resists the idea that some are good, humble or clever enough to figure out Grace, whilst others aren’t.  Rather, it is God who is seen here as casting a net of Grace, from which no human fish can escape.

Here and at other points, we must remember that we are talking about a God who is invisible!  We experience with all our senses all kinds of human activity: preaching, evangelism, discipleship.  But as with creation, the Scriptures point beyond what we see to an ultimate Lord whose Grace and Love enables and empowers it all.

Nothing in this doctrine, as I understand it, should conflict with our experience of human efforts appearing to result in human decisions for Christ, or with human choice appearing to choose against God and his forgiveness in Christ.

P – Perseverance of the Saints

The perseverance of the Saints is linked with Irresistible Grace, in that it is picturing God as both the author and finisher of salvation.  The idea being resisted here is of a God who gives us a nudge to get us going, and then abandons us to sort ourselves out the rest of the way.  Rather, God is purposeful and powerful, initiating and completing the work of Salvation.

The problem for many is that we know that some people do – at least apparently – start out in the faith only to drop out – at least apparently – later.  Again we are dealing with invisible realities here.  Only God knows God’s choice, and I would also add that only each individual knows their choice.  For me, this does not negate the reality of what we experience when someone – apparently – turns away from faith.  God is simply and lovingly pictured here as a Shepherd who maintains and keeps the sheep.

Concluding Remarks

There are more than a few minefields to avoid in all this, but I suppose such is the way with any good idea.  T.U.L.I.P. is said to express the ‘doctrines of Grace’, and it is that active Grace of God, from the beginning to the end of Salvation, which these doctrines seek to give ultimate credit to.

Freedom is an essential aspect of God’s nature.  God is not ‘conditioned’ by anything outside of God.  Nothing outside of God makes God the way God is.  All of this is very logical and squares with Scripture.  The mystery of the God of the Bible, however, is that God is also relational, to the point where God takes flesh and unites to human nature in Christ, taking the form of a slave.  God permits us to describe divinity using our little human words.  Somehow, without ceasing to be free, God has eternally chosen to be the kind of God who is ‘both/and’: God is both the sole agent of salvation from start to finish, and yet God will not force salvation on anyone and requires – even at times pleads for – their participation in it.  There is something deeply ‘illogical’ about the Gospel.  The One who is by nature limitless, unconditioned and free, nonetheless chooses freely to operate in relation to humans in all of our weakness, sin, complicity, willfulness, indecision, and sputtering flights of kindness.  God has chosen for salvation to be completed through his divine hand, grasping on to little human hands that think they are grasping on to his.

Humans participate in salvation through believing, obedience, fellowship, worship and mission, but it is God and God alone who is the Saviour.  Without the Saviour, there would be no salvation which we could participate in.

crutches are useful

If you think you are well, then you won’t find much use in a crutch.

But if you have learned to understand your brokenness, then you will appreciate how immensely helpful – even indispensable! – they can be for your healing.

two paths

It is becoming apparent that there are two distinct paths, two very different ways of being in the world.

Sometimes, I can focus on what I do not have or something I feel should change.  I strive for and grasp at what I want or what I want to change.  I perhaps (or often) feel that I deserve the thing or conditions that I want.  I am entitled to them.

If I allow myself to, I can let my emotions devolve.  It can start with boredom, which is based on an assumption that I ought to be experiencing excitement.  It can then morph quickly into frustration, stress, resentment and anger.  The end of this progression is murderous rage, where I am cut off from myself, others and God.  The whole spectrum is that of being continually and increasingly pissed off.

Thank God, other times I focus on what I do have, and surrender the impulse to change that thing, circumstance or person.  This is the path of gratitude.  I see the things that I have as gifts, rather than possessions I’m entitled to.  I don’t expect to have much, and am grateful for having enough.  This is also the path of acceptance.  I don’t have to agree with everything or everyone, but I do need to accept things outside myself.

The emotions associated with this path are very different.  Peace, calmness, serenity, attentiveness, joy, contentment, freedom.  The end of this road is a growing relationship with God, others and self.  I am free to greet life as it is, accept difference, and free to help where I can.

world + flesh + devil

The world, the flesh and the devil.

These three entities have been said to be the three sources of sin and temptation for Christians.  That is to say that when we get it wrong, we can point to the influential lure of culture (the world), the weakness of natural desire (the flesh), and the overarching conspiracy of evil (the devil).

I say ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ because I don’t see these three as mutually exclusive.  When a person does something wrong – let’s say: gossip at work – they can point to a) the culture of gossip at their work or in the ‘world’ generally, b) their own tendencies to want to stay ‘in the know’ about what’s going around the workplace, and c) a trans-historic, trans-cultural, quasi-personal gravity gently and subtly pulling people away from healthy and honest communication.

If we neatly point to just one of these three, we open the door to a) victim-hood (“Poor me, it’s so hard to be good in this world/workplace…”), b) shame (“Why am I such a horrible gossip?”) or c) blame (“It was an outright spiritual attack…”).

Acknowledging all three can help us to appreciate afresh the need to stand apart from culture (Romans 12:1-2), the need to acknowledge our culpability for our actions (1 John 1:9), and to be on guard against the old serpent up to its typical schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).

good fear, guilt and shame

There are obvious reasons why fear, guilt and shame have a bad reputation inside and outside the Church.  There is really no need to illustrate this point, but…

Fear of judgment, rejection or punishment can be crippling.

Guilt that is exaggerated, overly-negative or simply mistaken is paralyzing.

Shame, too, when it is insulting, degrading and merciless, can be dehumanizing.

But that’s just simply not all there is to Fear, Guilt and Shame.  They can be not only unavoidable feelings that one will eventually encounter in life, but even helpful and self-protective tools to help us grow.

Fear can be protective.  It can keep us from doing things that we know will harm others or ourselves.  The opposite of this protective fear is selfish carelessness.

Guilt can be honest.  It can reflect the willingness to admit we have done wrong and the need to set things right.  The opposite of this honest guilt is the excusing or hiding sin.

Shame can be empathetic.  It can connect our logical awareness of wrong-doing to a heart-level grief that together can motivate (through God’s grace) our work to amend our ways and undo the harm done as much as possible.  The opposite of this empathetic shame is a calloused, arrogant or narcissistic heart.

grace and human effort

At the heart of the Christian faith is a conviction that salvation is God’s doing.  God takes the initiative in establishing, maintaining and perfecting the relationship with all of creation, and humans in particular.  Without God, there would be no salvation.  Period.

This conviction has tended to be accompanied by an emphasis that downplays the importance of human effort.  Most of all, it seems that in order to defend Grace, some feel the need to oppose any prescriptive statements about what Christians ‘ought’ to do, particularly when those statements are a) specific, b) all-encompassing, or c) strong.

I’m not going to get into the broad issues of biblical theology despite how relevant they are here.  Instead I want to focus on the basic compatibility of Grace and human effort.  And none of the following has anything to do with being under the Jewish/Mosaic “Law” (i.e. keeping kosher, observing Sabbath, or males being circumcised).

Augustine perhaps said it best:  “Without God, we cannot.  Without us, God will not.” (Google it)

Like a loving parent whose love moves them to refrain from doing everything for their children, God seems to require our active participation in our growth.  “God will not” do things for us against our will.

This not only means we must participate with Grace, but also that being exhorted, instructed, urged, or encouraged to do specific things should be a normal part of our training and instruction in Christian community.  This happens through preaching, teaching, discipleship and mentoring.  We need to be told what we should be doing.

Trusting in Grace doesn’t mean resisting being told what to do.  Quite the contrary, actually.

Yes, it is possible (and too common, actually) that “telling people what to do” is done from a negative posture of power, ego and control that runs against the values of the Gospel.  But it is also possible (and more common than we may admit) that “telling people what to do” is resisted simply due to our pride and arrogance of not wanting to do what we should.

The Grace and Love of God is so overwhelming, beautiful and true that it should cast out all forms of fear, including the fear of being told what to do.

Being told what you are doing wrong and what you ought to do instead, can indeed be a “gift”, and expression of Grace.  It can be a very practical way that God offers the power, assistance and help toward the transformation, healing and growth that all disciples of Jesus should experience.

political Christianity

Let me open with an if/then statement.  If Christianity is anything more than B.I.B.L.E. (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), and I heartily believe it is, then it necessarily has to do with how the wholeness of life is played out in the here and now.  This means Christianity necessarily has a political component to it.  And here’s a yes/but statement.  Yes, there is vastly more to Christianity than politics, but it is not apolitical.

The sweeping Story of Scripture presents a Gospel that cannot be contained by any single political party, even a ‘Christian’ political party.  Indeed, the values and imperatives of Scripture cover pretty much the entire political spectrum.

The ‘right’ end of the spectrum will find its emphasis on personal responsibility affirmed and strengthened by Scripture.  Consider Proverbs 6:6-11 as motivation to as right-wing folk will say, “get off your rear and work as much as you can, and stop relying on the government.”

The left end of the political spectrum, with its convictions about basic rights and freedoms, will find just as much support from Scripture; from the golden rule of treating your neighbour as yourself, through to the more sharp and radical command to love your enemies.  Everything from social welfare, ecological preservation and non-violent pacifism have direct links to Scripture.

Even a controversial issue such as same-gender relationships finds the whole spectrum covered by Scripture.  Conservatives will find their convictions about sex, marriage and gender affirmed by passages which echo through in both the Old and New Testaments.  Progressives will find abundant biblical support for their passionate concern for the protection of the person-hood and identity of all regardless of any of their personal characteristics.

In addition to offering support all along the political spectrum, Scripture also offers subversion and opposition at all points as well.  To the arrogant ‘conservatives’ wanting to stone the woman caught in adultery, Jesus the ‘liberal’ steps in to defend her basic freedoms with non-condemning, patient love, whilst at the same time pointing a stinging finger at the hypocrisy of those who are more interested in shaming someone else for their sin than they are at humbly acknowledging their own.  To any and all at the progressive ‘left’ who slide into complacent and compromised affirmation of things that go against Scripture, Jesus represents someone who held to the authority of Scripture, even as he sought to direct people past erring traditional interpretations of it.  Jesus was not interested in building a theocracy to manipulate people into obedience, nor was there any ‘moving on’ from fundamental Jewish convictions to make the faith palatable.

In other words, the Gospel of Scripture is always big enough to offer both comfort and challenge to everyone.

shame and suicide

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the recent loss of loved television presenter Greg Boyed has raised again the topic of depression and suicide.  Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud” has high suicide rates, particularly for teens aged 15-19, where it is the highest.  Too many of us have loved ones that have brought this issue directly into our lives.  It is an urgent topic and healthy and honest thinking is therefore urgently needed.

I don’t think there is one single emotion or social dynamic at work behind suicide.  A unifying theme however, is quite simply the feeling – which can swell up fiercely and quickly – of wanting to be free of whatever toxic cocktail of pain one is facing.  I want to focus here on one type of pain, the pain of shame.

Many who take their own lives will have been overcome by shame.  Whether the shame is connected to past or recent behaviour or a sense of not measuring up personally to a perceived standard of personal worth, the sad reality is that too many people respond to shame by isolating and withdrawing from others.  Tragically, suicidal feelings themselves may be accompanied by shame, thus making it even harder to seek help and community.

I’ve been thinking about shame recently.  In summary, I think it is often treated simplistically.  Shame = bad.  I get the logic behind this.  But could it be that shame (and pain in general) is simply an unavoidable part of navigating life?  I’d even go so far as to say that there are times where we want people to feel shame for what they have done.  Just as healthy guilt (as opposed to unhealthy guilt) helps us recognize in our minds that we need to take responsibility for our actions, so also helpful shame (as opposed to harmful shame) happens when we not only think about the wrong we’ve done, but actually feel remorseful about it.  Healthy guilt plus empathy equals helpful shame.

What on earth does this have to do with suicide?  Well, I guess I’m wondering if one way to reduce unhelpful shame related to suicide and depression is to recognize and appreciate the role that shame can have as a normal, everyday and even healthy emotion.  This, I think, is what is intended by the slogan “It’s OK to not be OK.”  If there is no such thing as being “not OK”, if everything and everyone is expected to be in a constant state of “everything is awesome” then there is no more shame-inducing thing than the everyday reality of not feeling OK.

If we can reclaim that it is OK to feel shame, then maybe a few more people will feel less ashamed of their shame, their guilt, their suicidal feelings, and will maybe, just maybe, take steps toward, rather than away from, the help, support, and community that we all need.

why so angry

I know almost nothing about the two speakers booked-for-but-now-banned-from the Powerstation in Auckland.  What I do know is that a lot of people are angry about them, their message (whatever it is), and the prospect of them having a platform to share it.

All this anger actually piques my curiosity.  It makes me want to find them on YouTube and learn what they are about.  It doesn’t make me want to ignore them.  I wonder if the angry protesters realize this?

Agree with them or not, if you resist them with too violent of language (or venue-cancelling maneuvering?) you will make a victim out of them and effectively help create a platform for them.

Another thought is this.  My Dad always told me that in an argument, the one getting angry usually has the weaker position.  If these banned speakers have such bad ideas, shouldn’t it be easy to calmly (and succinctly) show where their logic goes astray?  The anger just makes you look defensive.