Saturday, November 30, 2013

Surprised by a Book

One of the great pleasures of my life is being surprised by a book. A friend recommended one to me and so I read it. I didn't expect much from this thin book by an Eastern Orthodox theologian. But, as I read it, I began to realize that, despite the short chapters, it was a dense and biblical analysis of the topic of same-sex attraction. The book is called Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections; written by Thomas Hopko. Not only does it deal with same-sex attraction, it has many helpful insights regarding sexuality and relationships in general. Chapter 15, on friendship, is worth the price of the book itself. The following quote is from that chapter.
People of predominantly or exclusively same-sex attractions and desires will know that they must work and pray to find and nourish deep, close, and lasting friendships with persons of their own sex with whom they have no erotic sexual relations. . . . Whatever the causes of a person's sexual feelings and desires, however, it remains a firm conviction of Orthodox Christianity that healthy and holy people always have friends of both sexes with whom they learn to love in all ways God commands human beings to love. Another firm conviction is that some of these spiritual friendships have to be older and wiser than they are.1
In one simple paragraph Hopko lays out a very helpful theology of spiritual friendship. It seems to me that he is saying something that is badly needed in our hyper-sexualized culture. It is important for each of us to have non-erotic friendships with both genders. Women in business lament that older, experienced men in the business world are hesitant to mentor women because of the optics (see Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In). Yet, these kind of mentoring relationships are just what many women need and there are too few women in senior leadership to mentor all of the women who wish to have such a relationship. Yes, men and women need to take proper precautions and define appropriate boundaries; but, there is tremendous value in friendships with those from the gender to which we are most strongly sexually attracted.

It seems to me that some church leaders who express a hyper-complementarian understanding of gender relationships would do well to have spiritual friendships with persons of the opposite sex. Some may need to change their thinking about the opposite sex and control their sexual feelings to a greater extent. The sexualization of most relationships that often occurs in the predominant culture of our time is an aberration. It does not need to be that way. In the same chapter, Hopko gives examples of significant spiritual friendships between persons of the opposite sex that were perfectly chaste and wonderfully healthy. There is something important for us to learn from such spiritual friendships. Like Hopko, I call on us to seek to live holy lives in which we are free to have healthy friendships with both men and women.

1. Hopko, Thomas. Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections. Ben Lomond: Conciliar Press, 2006, p. 69.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A Cautionary Tale

Charles Wesley, who lived from 1701 to 1788, was a clergyman and an early leader in the Methodist movement. As such, he was a significant leader, contributing greatly to the history of the evangelical church in the west. He was the youngest of three brothers, the other two being John Wesley and Samuel Wesley. The three of them were close and worked side-by-side in outdoor preaching, training of people for the work of the church, and training in spirituality. Charles also wrote over 6,000 hymns; many of them are still well-known today. He wrote "Christ the Lord is Risen Today," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing."

Charles was the son of a rector and, along with his brothers, followed this course and became a clergyman in the Church of England. During his training at Oxford, around 1727, Charles formed a prayer group with his fellow students, his brother John, and George Whitefield, another notable preacher of the day. The group was notable because of two features: methodical Bible study and encouragement toward holy living. They developed a very detailed system of study, discussion of the Bible, and disciplined lifestyle. Some continue to follow this structure today. Take a look at examples here and here. It was because of these methodical processes that the followers of the Wesleys came to be known as Methodists. The Wesleyan movement or Methodists would eventually break from the Church of England to become a separate denomination. John was convinced of the necessity of this split but Charles was not as certain.

What I find striking about the life of Charles Wesley is that, after many years of serving the church and following the methods of his own movement, he would say that he did not experience conversion to the faith of Jesus Christ until May 21, 1738. His brother, John, confesses to having had a similar experience just three days after his youngest brother. Charles had come to see his methods as legalistic. He felt he had missed out on the freedom of Christ in his attempts to structure his spiritual life around the Methodist techniques. Around the time of his conversion he wrote the words to one of his greatest hymns: "Amazing Love: And Can It Be." The lyrics (of the four most popular verses) are here below; note especially verse three.
Amazing Love: And Can It Be
(verse 1)
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood
Died He for me, who caused His pain
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

(verse 2)
He left His Father’s throne above
So free, so infinite His grace
Emptied Himself of all but love
And bled for Adam’s helpless race
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free
For O my God, it found out me!
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

(verse 3)
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light
My chains fell off, my heart was free
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God shouldst die for me?

(verse 4)
No condemnation now I dread
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine
Alive in Him, my living Head
And clothed in righteousness divine
Bold I approach the eternal throne
And claim the crown, through Christ my own
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou my God, shouldst die for me?
Words by Charles Wesley (1738), music by Thomas Campbell (1825)
Public Domain.
Verse three in particular shows the sense in which Wesley felt bound. He speaks of chains which fell off. He speaks of the amazing love which he sensed from God. The caution for our own lives may be obvious; yet, let me expand upon it for just a moment. Holiness, disciplined living, service for God, and methodical Bible reading are important aspects of our life in Christ. They must never take the place of a genuine relationship with the God of the universe, His Son who rescues us from sin, and the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

Shortly before he died, Charles Wesley sent for a Church of England rector and asked that he be buried in the church cemetery. He said to the rector, "Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England."1 His request was granted. His legacy of methods, although important to church history, was not as important to him as the unity of the church and freedom in the love and grace of God.


Friday, November 22, 2013

Fifty Years Ago

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis. Yes, it is also the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Aldous Huxley. The fact that all three died on the same day prompted the author Peter Kreeft to write a book entitled Between Heaven and Earth in which he discussed the conversation the three might have had in the "waiting room of heaven." On this anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis I will devote this blog post to a few lesser known quotes from Lewis.

Those who are not followers of Jesus may not agree with everything the man said. Yet, I daresay that most anyone will find his description of love, in The Four Loves, to be brilliant.
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. 
But of course he was not simply a great writer; anyone who has read C.S. Lewis' writings will know that he was a careful apologist for Christianity. He would not allow people to pretend they were Christians. In Mere Christianity he pointed out the depth of commitment required when one claims to have faith in Christ.
[To have Faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.
Yet Lewis was also careful to not put God in a box. When asked how one could help people encounter God, his answer is far from formulaic.
"You can’t lay down any pattern for God. There are many different ways of bringing people into his Kingdom, even some ways that I specially dislike! I have therefore learned to be cautious in my judgment."
“But we can block it in many ways. As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colors, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away."
“There is a character in one of my children’s stories named Aslan, who says, ‘I never tell anyone any story except his own.’ I cannot speak for the way God deals with others; I only know how he deals with me personally. Of course, we are to pray for spiritual awakening, and in various ways we can do something toward it. But we must remember that neither Paul nor Apollos gives the increase. As Charles Williams once said, ‘The altar must often be built in one place so that the fire may come down in another place.’"1
C.S. Lewis was a remarkable man and one of the most interesting people of the 20th century. Take some time to learn more about him as we honour his memory today.

1 Decision magazine, September 1963; © 1963 Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Avian Einsteins

You may already know of my interest in crows, jays, and other intelligent bird species. (If not, you can catch up by reading previous blog posts here and here.) Today I want to share with you another interesting study that suggests that crows have the ability to teach other crows to avoid dangerous human individuals. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle have performed a fascinating field study in urban Seattle. The "dangerous person" researchers put on "cave man" masks and then engaged in threatening behaviours with the crows of a certain area of the campus: they trapped, banded, and released the crows while wearing the "dangerous person" mask. Later when researchers walked about in the same area of the campus, wearing the "dangerous person" mask, crows scolded them from tree-tops and other safe distances. The crows did not react to other persons wearing different but similar masks. Their eye for detail made the scolding very specific. Both crows that had been "threatened" (trapped, banded, and released) and those that had not been threatened engaged in the scolding. This indicates that the crows are capable of communicating the danger of certain individuals to companion crows and family members. The researchers showed that it was not simply one type of mask that got a response from the crows by repeating the experiment in different regions using different masks for the "dangerous persons" and "safe persons."

This research suggests a couple of things. First, crows are intelligent enough to know a person who has done something scary to them. They recognize individual people and can tell us apart by facial recognition. Second, they can communicate information about individual people to each other. Even crows that had not been scared by certain individuals knew the particular face that belonged to a person who was a potential threat. This suggests that their communicative powers are better than we might have expected. Whatever the mechanisms, the communication methods are sufficient to communicate complex information about facial characteristics.

I am inspired by the intelligence of both the birds and the researchers. The researchers carefully designed their field research and were alert to test alternate theories. As the researchers readily admit, it is field research, as opposed to the controlled setting of a laboratory, and is therefore messy; but by not over-interpreting the results these investigators have contributed to the scientific knowledge base. The crows have once again shown themselves to be intelligent, protective, and communicative. This is another testimony to the glory of our God who created birds with intelligence. This inspires me to praise men, crows, and God.

"Crows Share Intelligence About Enemies;" and Science; June 30, 2011 (accessed 2013-11-17)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Filling Our Lives

As we approach the most commercialized, consumerist, season of the year, it is appropriate to pause and consider our values once again. Let's take a quick look at some of the messages given to us by the dominant culture at this time of year:

  • buying things will make you happy
  • if you buy one thing for someone else you can get a gift card to spend on yourself
  • entertainment systems are a necessity
  • big, high definition, entertainment systems will make your life better
  • buying enough things so that everyone can have their own is only fair
  • buying things that allow you to choose your own entertainment options will make you happier
  • your home is your sanctuary away from the problems of the world
  • stuff will make you sexy
  • sexy will sell anything
  • houses need to be big enough to keep all of your stuff.

If these are indeed some of the messages heard in the dominant culture (and certainly we could add more), let us ask ourselves, "How many actually make sense to us?" How many of the dominant messages of our culture have become part of our thought processes? Father Richard Rohr has said,
Most Christian 'believers' tend to echo the cultural prejudices and worldviews of the dominant group in their country, with only a minority revealing any real transformation of attitudes or consciousness. It has been true of slavery and racism, classism and consumerism, and issues of immigration and health care for the poor. From a religion based on a man who was always healing poor people and foreigners, it defies any logical analysis!1
To what is God calling us? How might we once again become a people who follow a man who healed poor people and foreigners?
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.
Romans 12:1-3 (New Living Translation).

1 Huffington Post, "Religion and Immigration: We Have Not Yet Begun to Love," October 18, 2011.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Daring Greatly

I do not know much about Theodore Roosevelt but these words of his resonate with me.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.1
I had breakfast this morning with a friend with whom I previously worked very hard. We were involved in an endeavor that was about risk and experiment; great joy and tremendous sorrow. It reminded me that I want to be one who is in the arena; even if it means I make mistakes and have failures. I want to spend myself in the worthiest of causes; even if I might fail while daring greatly. I have known both victory and defeat; I rejoice that I continue to learn from both.

1 Theodore Roosevelt, Citizen of the Republic Speech, April 23, 1910; (; also quoted in Daring Greatly by Brene Brown.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Changing the World

I had tea with two friends who, when they were each 24 years old, read the book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger  (about five years ago for each of them). I commented that I had also read that book when I was about 24 years old (about seven years after it was published). I thought about my life and wondered how I had done living out the principles of the book in the 29 years that have followed. I realized that I never really understood the principles until I worked at practising them in my own stumbling ways. I decided I still needed to put much more into practise. The three of us had been at an event at which Ron Sider and Shane Claiborne spoke. Ron Sider was speaking out against consumerism before consumerism became a dirty word. You might say that "he was active, when activism wasn't cool." Because of people like Ron Sider, Mother Theresa, and Shane Claiborne, North Americans do know that it is not acceptable to horde our wealth while the poor are oppressed and hungry. These prophets have spoken of and modeled for us the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. They have reshaped evangelical opinions on poverty and wealth. Sider says,
We need to make some dramatic, concrete moves to escape the materialism that seeps into our minds via diabolically clever and incessant advertising. We have been brainwashed to believe that bigger houses, more prosperous businesses, and more sophisticated gadgets are the way to joy and fulfillment. As a result, we are caught in an absurd, materialistic spiral. The more we make, the more we think we need in order to live decently and respectably. Somehow we have to break this cycle because it makes us sin against our needy brothers and sisters and, therefore, against our Lord. And it also destroys us. Sharing with others is the way to real joy. - Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
"Sharing with others is the way to real joy." Do I really believe that all of the time? How much of myself am I willing to share with others? Shane Claiborne reminds us that we must know those for whom we advocate and serve.
And I think that's what our world is desperately in need of - lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about. - The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical
I thought about how I have been reading about these things and attempting to live them out for many years. I find I am in agreement with these words of Claiborne. “Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.”

Friday, November 1, 2013

Piety and Science

One of the purposes of a blog of this nature is to point people to writers whom readers might otherwise miss. I have previously noted an article entitled, "Why Conservative Christian Piety Should Animate Evangelical Engagement with Science’s Sticky Subjects." Today, I want to highlight a few of the main points within this article.

The article suggests that some Christians view an anti-science stance as part of their serious Christian piety; the stance against science being a kind of badge of honour for the holiest of people. That is, if one is truly in tune with God and guided by the Holy Spirit, that person will avoid scientific study so as not to influence their relationship with God. Christopher M. Hays instead says that we need people with deep Christian piety who will also study the difficult issues of science. We need scientists and science enthusiasts filled with a deep love for God who will help all of God's people navigate through science and how it relates to our theology. Hays refers to this as a matter of trust. Can we trust God enough to believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired the "composition and compilation" of the Bible and believe that it still has spiritual nourishment for us while also trusting that God is revealing himself to us through creation. I would add that God is also revealing himself through the methods of science. He is the author of the systems of cause and effect and experimentation and observation. Both the systems and the results bear witness to the nature of an orderly and logical God of justice, grace, and generosity.

Piety is devotion to God. It is about trusting God in all aspects of life. It is about putting our trust in him above our trust in our own abilities to conceptualize God. The God who is creator and sustainer of our universe is certainly difficult to grasp and we are all too prone to simplifying our image of God. Peter Enns, in a post specifically dealing with the science of evolution and its relationship to faith says,
It may be that evolution, and the challenges it presents, will remind us that we are called to trust God, which means we may need to restructure and even abandon the ‘god’ that we have created in our own image. Working through the implications of evolution may remind Christians that trusting God’s goodness is a daily decision, a spiritually fulfilling act of recommitment to surrender to God no matter what.
I need this reminder to trust God. I must trust God more than I trust the words of men and women; and I must trust God more than I trust theological constructs. Piety (trust in and devotion to God) means that I can engage theology and science while trusting the God who gave us minds that can think through difficult concepts.

The article by Christopher Hays also reminds us of a time honoured way in which men and women have understood the truth of God. He speaks of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that "articulates how God’s truth is revealed through Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience (with special deference to Scripture as the “base” of the Quadrilateral)." Whether in the study of theology or in the study of science, these four factors must guide our understanding. All truth is God's truth.

I find myself agreeing with Hays when he points out his own agreement with the words of Amos Yong.
Those who are led by the Spirit can therefore pursue the life of the mind, even the scientific vocation, and in this way also bring their own questions, perspectives, and curiosities to their scientific endeavors.… [P]ursuit of the Spirit-filled life can be part and parcel of the modern scientific task.
I want to be one who is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led; I also want to be one who engages in the scientific process and one who communicates the wonders of what is being discovered in the realm of science. This is part of the great challenge to which I am called. As Hays says,

. . . grappling with the Big Bang and abiogenesis can express precisely the sorts of piety that should animate Christian evangelicals. For the sake of the lost and for the sake of our own struggling parishioners we have an obligation to sort out a faithful understanding of modern science.
 The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4.