Thursday, October 23, 2008

At the Crack of Dawn

The environs were, in some ways, worlds apart from their usual and preferred meeting places, but then again, so was the time of day. They had barely sat down and ordered their food from the taciturn waitress when their usual lively dialogue began.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” the Younger exclaimed, laughing. “It’s 6:30 in the morning, and you’re already talking theology?”

The Elder paused in pouring a cup of coffee from the plastic carafe, eyebrows raised in feigned shock. “Why not? Are you suggesting you’re a shallow thinker until sometime after mid-day?”

The Younger rolled his eyes in dramatic yet silent rebuke. “Well, at least until after I’ve had some decent coffee, anyway,” he muttered darkly, “which doesn't seem likely at this fine culinary establishment.”

“Oh, hush,” chided the Elder as he filled his friend's mug. “Roadside diners are a taste of history.”

The Younger leaned forward. “Yeah, but is the food equally a taste of history?” He leaned back in his duct-tape-dependent chair. “Okay, so what early morning doctrinal mayhem do you have in mind?”

The Elder smiled as he stirred the tepid liquid in his coffee cup. “Well, don’t blame me—you’re the one who got the new job promotion with the crazy schedule. Being retired does give me a certain level of flexabilty, after all.”

Shifting his weight in the ancient chair, as the skies hinted vaguely at the possibility of sunrise, he continued, “Well, since we’re having such an early breakfast—again, in deference to your new work schedule—why don’t we have a chicken and egg discussion?”

“Which chicken and which egg?” countered the Younger, warming to the familiar rhythm of dialogue that they often enjoyed.

“Theo-chicken and theo-egg,” the Elder replied, managing to keep a straight face, although a hint of a smile teased at one corner of his mouth. “Specifically, which comes first—or dare I say, should come first—the chicken: orthodoxy, or the egg: orthopraxy?”

“Nice try, my friend,” the Younger replied with a knowing smile. “It’s early but not that early. The chicken and egg should be in tandem, and if you’ll pardon the alliteration, in tension. It’s more like having two rails under the train, really, instead of a chicken/egg distinction. The two really can’t—or shouldn’tbe separated.”

“True enough,” the Elder conceded, nodding. The Younger was a little surprised at how quickly that had gone, until he realized it was only a momentary pause as their waitress, slightly more relaxed and smelling strongly of a recent cigarette break, arrived with their breakfast specials.

“But if you had to pick a starting point,” the Elder continued, all business as the Younger prodded the contents of his plate with a wary fork, “Which would you choose? Knowing that they must be held in tension, still, is there a starting point?”

The Younger swallowed hard, whether from the slightly-congealed bit of bacon, or as a result of some quick deep reflection. “Well,” he began slowly, “you’re the one who is always on about the issues of justice and being an incarnational presence, so it seems odd that you’d want to pursue this line of thinking now. I mean, the lack of connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is one of your favorite pet peeves, isn’t it?”

The Elder nodded, smiling in agreement as he vigorously stirred the various elements on his plate into a mash before taking a mouthful. “And you, being a proper postmodern-influenced thinker, are also wondering if I’m having a flashback into binary oppositions a la Derrida, and perhaps raising the dark specter of foundationalism, as well. Well, Derrida isn’t God, and foundationalism, for all its modernistic flaws, cannot truly be called a doctrine of demons, eh?”

As the Younger remained silent, the Elder continued, raising his fork as if it were a baton, and he were a conductor. “But if we truly believe that this is all about Jesus’ story, and our part in it, doesn’t it make sense that we have a proper understanding of His Story, before we attempt to find our place in it?”

The Younger frowned as he did battle with the bacon on his plate, using the opportunity to do some thinking. “Well, I suspect you’re still going to insist on orthopraxy needing to be held as strongly as orthodoxy. And I guess if we are thinking chicken-and-egg, then starting with orthopraxy would mean that we were reinterpreting theology based on our actions.

“And in the extreme, we could run the risk of allowing our praxis to dictate what we believe more than theology or doctrine,” the Younger concluded. He lowered his fork, conceding defeat to the contents of his plate. “Honestly, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, in practice. Dry doctrinal theology doesn’t do much for anyone, as far as I can see.”

“Exactly, exactly!” the Elder exclaimed, punctuating his words with swift gestures of his fork. “And what keeps theology from becoming dry and doctrinal? Orthopraxy, plain and simple. Faith in action. St. James would be proud of us, eh?” He grinned. “And let’s be honest, using or allowing orthopraxy to dictate what we will believe is what we old-timers used to call proof-texting—making up your mind first, and then finding or making Scripture back it up.

“But at the same time, how do we know what praxis, what actions are truly what Jesus would have us do as we participate in the advancing Kingdom of God?”

Before the Younger could reply, the Elder answered his own question. “Theology Proper: the study of God. We need a chastened epistomology, yes—I’d be the first to breathe a sigh of relief to see it—but we still need epistomology. We need to know how and why we believe a thing to be true. And that means the theo-chicken of theology does come first. Our understanding of the Kingdom, our understanding of the words and works of Jesus, our understanding of our participation in His Mission—all flows out of our theology. Our praxis-eggs are completely, absolutely necessary—but I don’t believe they come first. Not for a second.”

The Elder glanced around, setting his fork-baton carefully back onto the table, belatedly realizing how animated he'd become. “Guess I got carried away with the chicken and egg metaphor, didn’t I?” he observed sheepishly. Several nearby diners subtly shifted their chairs to create some distance.

“I’m tempted to make some kind of Dr. Seuss-inspired wisecrack right about now.” The Younger smiled. “But I’d be afraid of mixing metaphors.”

And then, as both noticed that the sun had risen and time had flown, they quickly settled the bill and prepared to leave. “One last thing,” said the Younger, as he shrugged into his jacket. “Next time, I’ll pick the restaurant, agreed?”

The Elder spread his arms, nodding in acquiescence. “Can I pick the time?” he dead-panned as they headed into the street.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Possum of Discernment

This is a prophetic picture. The unfortunate creature is the Possum of Discernment and the nefarious line-painting executioner that prematurely and unceremoniously crushed out its life and dignity would be any revival machine with the words “judge not” painted in big red letters on its side.

The reason why discernment could be pictured as an (o)possum came to me while listening to a very balanced speech last week about how to process Bentley & the BAM-lets (not to be confused with Bennie & the Jets).

During his sermon, the pastor made the following insightful observation:
“Those of you with the gift of discernment have actually felt like you’re on the wrong side of the fence.

“I believe that God is calling you to refine things and to speak out, but when there’s a wave of excitement going through the room, the last thing you want to do is go—Excuse me, I gotta concern about what’s going on here.

“What you (think you) want to do is just sit down, and shut up, and maybe it would be best—you know—if you just went to another church because you don’t fit in here.”
The pastor was doing his best to value and encourage those with discernment gifts to exercise them even when it’s not the most popular thing to do. And that’s when I thought of the Possum of Discernment.

And why the Possum of Discernment often feels like—and ends up as—Revival Roadkill.

The wave of excitement” often feels more like a thundering tsunami than a slight surge in the surf. And people with genuine gifts of discernment, coupled with some depth of biblical understanding and theology, often just get worn out/worn down by these kind of reactions:
  • You’re resisting/quenching the Spirit.
  • You have a religious spirit (or its variant: Don’t be such a Pharisee).
  • Judge not, lest ye be judged (sometimes accompanied by “thus saith the Lord”).
  • Unity is where God commands the blessing, but you’re sowing division.
  • God often offends the mind to reveal the heart (which, being translated, means “Don’t you get it? Your brain’s in the way. Turn it off.”).
  • The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.
  • Have you ever repented of going to Bible college/seminary and getting filled up with man’s wisdom? (Not quite as common, but I was asked this once in all seriousness by a fellow pastor.)
And under the weight of being routinely and repeatedly marinated in these kind of reactions, many with the gift of discernment withdraw and functionally become Possums of Discernment: they sit down, keep quiet, and hope for the best. Which inevitably leads to becoming the Revival Roadkill pictured above.

A book that was tremendously helpful to me was The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse. I’ve loaned out my copy numerous times, and have no idea who had it last. Highly recommended.

The book includes a chapter on the all-important question: “Should I stay or should I go” (cue The Clash). I can’t recall the whole check-list that was included in the chapter, but I recall clearly the one line that helped me immensely: “If you came for the first time today, knowing what you now know, would you join [this ministry]? If the answer is a clear NO, why are you staying?”

One thing is for sure: being a Possum of Discernment is to choose passivity, and passive people are the doormat that everyone scrapes their books on. Either decide to stay and ring the four-alarm fire-bell long and loud, or decide that the better part of valor means heeding the advice of Prophet Gump: “Run, Forest! Run!”

Passivity = Possum = Roadkill.

Monday, May 12, 2008

BAM! (thunk...)

I’ve been getting a few emails about the “revival” in Lakeland Florida, under the auspices of Todd “Bam Bam” Bentley, wondering what my thoughts were on all of it.

A four-way email conversation between myself and some of my blogging friends has resulted in an impromptu synchro-blog: Brother Maynard (But Is It Revival?), Bill Kinnon (Good Grief, Charlie Brown), and Kingdom Grace (Healing Revival).


I am not a guru on this matter. Yes, I wrote a book about this kind of stuff, but that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to pass judgment fairly, impartially, and omnisciently on all things Bentley.

With that disclaimer in place, here’s a few thoughts anyways:

Q: Is the Holy Spirit actually at work in these meetings?

A: I don’t doubt it for a second.
But the “anointing,” presence, or power of the Spirit is never a rubber stamp of approval on the people being used by God. Quick examples: Samson (Judges 13-16), King Saul prophesying (naked!) in spite of himself, or Balaam being hired to curse the Israelites yet ended up prophesying blessing because of the Spirit’s intervention (Numbers 22-24).

As soon as we equate the manifest, powerful presence of the Spirit with approval of theology or even methodology, we’re already in trouble. Balaam’s donkey could give testimony to this.
Q: But what about all those healings—could they be true?

A: Some are probably real.
And probably a significant amount won’t be, but it will be hard to tell, because a lot of healing-claiming types will say they’re healed even when they aren’t. Their belief in the necessity of a “positive confession” means they have no choice but to say they’re healed, even if there’s precious little evidence of it. (Wendy, my sagacious wife, wonders where the line between “speaking in faith” and “bald-faced lying” might be.)

And, typically but regrettably, some reports of healing will be exaggerated, embellished, or simply proven later to be complete fabrications. I truly wish, as someone who does believe in the Spirit’s power to provide physical healing (and having witnessed some genuine healings myself), that this were not so, but unfortunately . . .
Q: Does Todd Bentley have wacky teachings that are of the incredulous forehead-slapping variety?

A: Do bears fart in the woods?
If you spend even a little time wandering through the bowels of Todd’s website (later sanitized to remove the most obviously outlandish posts; later still, the entire website has been deleted), you can easily find stuff (like partnering with angels of finance, or claiming that St. Paul told Todd during a visit to Paul’s cabin in the third heaven that the book of Hebrews was co-written by Paul and Abraham the Patriarch) that ranges from straining credulity to outright laughable. Don’t take my word for it—try reading some of Todd’s sermon transcripts. Not everything is bogus and “out there,” but there’s an abundance that is.
Q: Must I really cast my discernment under the wheels of the revival bus in order to receive what the Spirit may be genuinely doing down there?

A: Only if the Spirit has decided that the Book that He inspired is no longer relevant.

I’ve posted on the famous Bereans (Acts 17:11) before, but it should really be said here again:
  1. The Bereans were eager and teachable, not judgmental, critical, or nit-picky. They didn’t want to miss what God was doing (as this newcomer named Paul was telling it).

  2. The Bereans were NOT gullible and naively accepting anything that came their way. They kept the Bible as their source and grid for evaluating what they were hearing, regardless of any oratory skills Paul possessed or how many signs and wonders he may have performed in their midst.
So, I guess I could sum up with: don’t assume the worst of everything, but don’t let “revival fever” affect your brain. Don’t be paranoid, but don’t be gullible.

You will not quench the Spirit by checking things by the Book that the Spirit co-authored. Or, to quote a more reputable source than yours truly:

Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Familiarity, Contempt, and the Way of the Barkeep

“Ive missed this place!” the Younger exclaimed as they doffed their coats and shook the snow from their boots. “Not that the Rusty Parrot wasn’t, uh, an interesting place to hang out, but this place is still my favorite.”

The Elder sighed contentedly as they settled into the welcoming booth by the window. “Yes, although I must say that I prefer the outdoor patio. Not that I
m suggesting that we go there now,” he quickly amended, as the snow swirled by the windows. “But Ive always enjoyed the outside setting the most.”

The Younger glanced at the outdoor patio area, recalling the many times spent there the previous summer, and noting the now-barren trees and gathering drifts. “Yeah, I guess no matter how many other places we
ve been, this will always be my ‘home pub’—after all,” and his voice took on a mock radio announcer’s tone, “this is our historic and traditional meeting place for all things theological and ale-related.”

The Barkeep stopped by their table at that precisely appropriate moment, delivering their usual choices without them even having to order. “Home is where they know ye,” he quipped in his thick Irish brogue, almost under his breath, as if he were talking to himself, before retreating back to the bustling bar.

The Elder laughed, as they both took appreciative sips of their favorite brews. “There is something to be said for the familiar and traditional, isn’t there?”

Noting a subtle change in the Elder’s tone, the Younger fixed a more studious gaze on his friend. “Why do I get the idea that you’re not just talking about getting our beers hand-delivered by our crusty Irish Barkeep?”

“Because you’re observant and discerning,” the Elder replied, raising his glass in tribute. “Or possibly I’m pathetically transparent and clumsy when it comes to subtle segues.”

Taking another sip, he continued, “But now that we’ve crossed that line, let’s just dive in, eh?”

The Younger nodded, glancing briefly at the Barkeep as he continued serving those lining up at the bar. “So, let’s not just dive in. Let’s dive deep, if you’re feeling up to it.”

The Elder paused, drink half-way to his lips. “Oh, so now who’s lacking a certain sense of subtlety?”

“I want to hear more about your views on the five-fold gifts in Ephesians 4,” the Younger blurted, elbows on the table, suddenly all business. “You’ve mentioned that too many people ‘air-lift’ that passage to suit their own agendas, without taking the broader Scriptural context into consideration. You’ve got to admit, that’s a provocative statement.”

The Elder took another sip, collecting his thoughts. “Well, let’s just say that too many people look to that passage almost in isolation, and build scenarios which—even if unintentional—are power-based and hierarchical, which in my opinion does violence to what was intended.”

“Violence?” The Younger drew the single word out slowly, eyebrows raised.

“What if we took Philippians 2 as a thesis statement on, say, apostolic ministry,” the Elder continued, hearing but not acknowledging his friend’s comment. “You know, that famously quoted section about having the same attitude as Jesus, the Servant? The Servant who gave up His power and position in order to do His Father’s will. Would you say that’s only about His life, or is it a pattern for us to follow?”

The Younger was ready for this question, “Well, didn’t Paul start by saying that we were supposed to follow His example?” He paused for a moment, frowning into his pint, before continuing. “But wouldn’t that mean apostolic leaders were serving by just being apostles?”

The Elder beckoned to the Barkeep. “My good man, I think we should order some food—this is likely to be one of those nights.”

The Barkeep wiped his hands on a towel as he replied, “Two curry fries, coming up.”

The Elder turned his attention again to their conversation. “Yes, you could say that apostles were serving just by acting as apostles, but you’d still have to define what ‘serving’ as an apostle would look like. Why would we assume that their service meant having a ruling function? Too many people want to define ‘apostle’ as a position of power and recognition. What if we look to the words of the Master and the original disciples —who of course would later become ‘sent ones,’ which is the original meaning of the word apostle?”

The Younger caught on instantly. “Ah yes, your favorite leadership passage in Matthew, right? The one that says the rulers of the Gentiles ‘lord it over’ others but disciples of Jesus must never imitate that?”

The Elder nodded, smiling. “Do I repeat myself that often? Well, some things are worth saying as often as it takes, I guess. I’d like to suggest that genuine apostles don’t need to trumpet their status or try to get people to agree to be ‘under their authority.’ They just serve and people recognize their authority, based on character and not on their need to have people ‘submit’ to them. But if you want another potentially provocative statement, try this:

“Genuinely apostolic people might actually be held in contempt by those whose mindset is caught in an authority-based understanding and agenda.”

The Barkeep suddenly materialized at their table, two aromatic plates of curry fries in his hands. “Hey y’go, gents,” he said, placing the enticing dishes in front of each of them. “Curry fries like they serve in the Old Country. More ale?”

As they immediately nodded in affirmative, the Barkeep headed back to his bar to draw the ales. “Now, consider the ways of the Barkeep,” the Elder intoned, imitating his friend’s earlier approximation of a radio announcer. “He never asks or requires that we recognize his authority or that we ‘submit’ to his position. Yet would anybody in this place doubt—even for the briefest of seconds—whether he is fully in charge of this bar, and rightfully so?”

The Younger watched as ale swirled in their glasses. “No, I don’t think anybody could miss the King of Crusty.” He laughed and turned back to the Elder. “But I don’t think I follow you.”

The Elder chewed reflectively on his helping of curry fries. “Well, does the Barkeep serve everyone? Does he come alongside and find out what would best aid his patrons in ‘succeeding,’ and then give them what they need?”

Receiving an affirmative nod from the Younger, he continued, “The Barkeep works hard to serve his patrons—his ‘flock,’ if you will—and without his expertise and sense of business and social savvy, this place would utterly fail.”

The Younger concurred, chasing curry around his plate with the last of his fries. “I’d say the food just wouldn’t be the same. Man, I love pub grub! But how does what you’re saying fit with not recognizing or appreciating genuine apostolic ministry?”

The Elder leaned forward, adding emphasis to his words and tone. “So, we agree that the Barkeep is the authority in this place, who serves the people who come in here. Yet how many people would consider the Barkeep ‘beneath’ them socially, as if him being their servant puts him farther down the scale of worth?

“Would their familiarity with him and his work actually breed a certain level of contempt for his position of servant-hood? How many people do you think would clamor for a leadership position that might result in being taken for granted, or worse, held in contempt? And yet they would be missing true servant leadership completely.”

The Younger drew a deep breath, shaking his head with a smile. “Wow—you’ve just created a whole new metaphor for leadership: the Way of the Barkeep. What will that lead to, do you think?”

“A decent tip, maybe,” the Barkeep suggested, once again materializing out of nowhere, their second round of ale now ready.

“But that’s just me thinkin’ out loud,” he added over his shoulder as he threaded his way back to the bar. The place was getting quite full, and there was a great deal of serving to be done.