Thursday, December 4, 2014

Personal Savior

Every now and then, Ill hear (or read) someone mocking the idea of Jesus as a “personal” Savior. “What – you think you own Jesus, or something, like Hes your personal Savior? When did you become such a narcissist?”

Sometimes, as Im well-aware, they know what the phrase means; any faux-confusion just gives them an excuse to ridicule. Still, you never know – a genuine desire to understand might lurk behind the mockery.

My facetious nature is at times tempted to reply: "Well, whats the alternative – an impersonal savior, who cant be known or experienced? Just some vague cosmic liver shiver … How’s that an improvement?”

But, just in case theres a legitimate question buried in there, I hereby bite my facetious tongue and submit the following: “Personal Savior” has a lot in common with another well-known phrase: born-again Christian. Both find their roots in the evangelical belief of “conversionism,” á la Bebbingtons Quadrilateral.

Conversionism simply means that nobody is born a Christian. Christian parents dont beget automatically Christian children. Going to church, earning attendance awards or Bible memorization ribbons, or attending 300+ high school youth retreats doesnt make you a believer. Being born in a supposedly “Christian nation” counts for – wait for it – diddly-squat.

Conversionism, in a nutshell: each individual must make a conscious decision to surrender to Jesus. He’s the Savior of the world, yes, but every individual in the world has a choice whether or not they'll follow Him. A literal “come to Jesus” moment.

In other words, its personal.

Of course, some of the same people who smirk at “personal savior” have been known to turn their noses up at conversionism in general. You may have heard, “We’re called to make disciples, not converts,” in a tone of voice that subliminally includes the addendum, “you gibbering theological moron.”

They’re aware that discipleship is always predicated by coming to faith in Jesus (conversion) in the first place. Unconverted people, typically, make poor disciples (some converts also make poor disciples, but thats a blog post for another time).

For example, after Peter preached his famous sermon on the Day of Pentecost, over 3000 people had personal “come to Jesus” moments and converted to faith in Christ. After converting, they embarked on the discipleship path and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).”

But the first step was making it personal with Jesus. Not relying on their Jewish heritage, synagogue attendance, or bar mitzvah, any more than we can rely on the country where we were born, the church we attend, or how many worship songs we know by heart.

With Jesus, it’s always personal.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Non-Hysterical Dialogue

“I’ve decided to stay out of those discussions, until I’m sure we can have a non-hysterical conversation.” 

A non-hysterical conversation ... When a friend casually uttered that phrase, I was immediately struck by its simple and profound wisdom. It’s increasingly difficult to have a good, old-fashioned conversation these days. Much more so, a debate.

I recall with fondness all the late-night theology scrums at Bible college. In a non-denominational school like Providence, my friends (and professors) represented a wide variety of theological views, and we enjoyed (a) spirited discussions and (b) the ability to go out for coffee the next day, because friendship and fellowship weren’t based on 100% theological congruence.

Conversations involving politics and/or religion have always been meme-worthy for their ability to devolve into polarized shout-downs. That was true when I was a kid, and it appears even more vociferous today, thanks to (anti)social media platforms that reduce meaningful dialogue to soundbites or less.

“Theology by zinger” is the predictable byproduct of a culture that prizes the ability to reduce complex ideas to a bumper sticker or tweet.

Casualties of the theological zinger approach include: nuance, context, comprehension, and friendship. We stop asking questions in order to understand, and focus instead on gathering ammunition for the ultimate zinger. Once zinger-ology corrupts the conversation,  you can’t even legitimately “agree to disagree.” 

Sigh ... We need a revolution of listening.

Conversation is an art form, as is respectful “help me understand” dialogue. Where the end goal isn’t gathering zinger ammo, but to understand and be understood.

“Agree to disagree” may still be the result, but in the context of healthy relationships, that’s still an improvement. And – dare I say – non-hysterical, zinger-free dialogue will look, sound, and feel a lot more Christ-like.

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:15–16).”

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Prophetic: A Primer

So, you want to pursue the gift of prophecy ... 

Biblically, this is a good thing. In fact, the apostle Paul encourages people to “eagerly desire” this gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:1). To seek the gift of prophecy – to strengthen, encourage and comfort others (1 Corinthians 14:3)is very commendable.

Ultimately, we all know that it’s the Holy Spirit who decides who gets which spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:7–11), but Paul also encourages us to seek God for the gift of prophecy.

But suppose we’re past the point of asking. We feel like we’ve been given the gift of prophecy. Perhaps God imparted a spiritual gift during a prayer time (without or without somebody laying hands on us for that purpose). However and whenever it happened, the gift of prophecy appears to be part of our spiritual tool kit.

So, now what? What’s a newbie prophetic person to do? What are our first steps?

1. Go to a Bible school.
1a. Preferably a non-charismatic one.
Yes, yes, I know – I’ve heard the jokes about cemetery seminary, and the conspiratorial warnings against getting “filled with man’s wisdom.” Sigh ... Frankly, that kind of thinking is a steaming pile of bovine by-products, if you catch my barnyard metaphor.

Here’s the thing: anybody claiming a prophetic gift these days always says “the Bible is our final authority,” and that prophetic words need to pass the Bible Sniff Test.

Fine, we get that. Well said.

Trouble is, everyone says that. And there are some bizarrely unbiblical things “prophesied” by people claiming to strain their prophetic words through a Biblical filter.

(After all, what else could they say? “Actually, we don’t give a rat’s patookus about the Bible. We have The Anointing – Huh.”)
So, don’t go to a “school of prophecy.” At least, not yet. Go to a Bible school that specializes in the Bible. Get a deeper understanding of Scripture first. Learn how to study the Bible. It could be a one-year commitment (e.g., Capernwray) or you could do a whole degree in Bible. Your choice. If neither is an option, at the very least read How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth by Pentecostal writer Gordon Fee.

A solid background in the Bible is the foundation that keeps your prophetic gift from becoming polluted by some of the wacky “mans wisdom” out there. It will give you a grid for evaluating the teachings of prophetic instructors, and also for wisely using the gift God has given you.

For the sake of your own spiritual growth, for the honing of your prophetic gift, and for the sake of those who will be receiving prophetic words from you: go to a Bible school first. You have many years of ministry ahead of you. Prepare yourself wisely.

“Do not quench the Spirit.Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22).”

Friday, May 9, 2014

Challenging the Writer

My trajectory as an author — and specifically, an author whose writings should reflect a growing Christ-likeness — traces back to my Providence College days, and a series of articles I’d written in the college paper.

My articles could be charitably described as “passionate.” In the parlance of greater blogdom, circa the turn of the 21st century, one could also justifiably call them “rants.” (Online ranting was considered a mark of “authenticity” back in the day.)

A fellow student sent a letter to the editor after I’d written five or six of my passionate, ranting, non-nuanced and generally caustic opinion pieces, and (choose one):

  1. Rang my bell,
  2. Left me gob-smacked,
  3. Slapped me up-side the head, or,
  4. Stopped me dead in my tracks and challenged me to reconsider my approach.

Said letter to the editor – published for everyone at Providence to read and ponder – was direct and well-crafted, an excellent example of concise communication. In short, he had no quarrel with my article content. However, he nailed my hide to the wall over my attitude and tone of writing voice.

As well he should have. I still have copies of those articles in a box, and in hindsights sober and objective clarity, my passionate writings sure sound like a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).

When I first read his letter, I immediately began crafting a biting rebuttal in my mind. Fortunately, it died a quick and merciful death. I was forced to confront the “why” behind my writing — and came to the belated conclusion that my acerbic approach was the total antithesis of what I’d hoped to accomplish.

Our psychology professor loved to tell us that, in any communication breakdown, the fault always lies with the sender, not the receiver. In my case, that meant, Message Intended Message Received.

I’m still passionate about what I write. I have zero desire to publish Christian books just for the sake of writing more Christian books. I hope I’ll always write from a place of passion and zeal.

And therein lies my greatest challenge: to write graciously of things that I’m passionate about.

The Younger, Elder, and their supporting cast of characters in The Genesis Café, as well as the fictitious “Charismatics Anonymous” support group in Post-Charismatic, have been a great help to me in this regard. Creating characters who interact respectfully with each other is a powerful tool in meeting the communication challenge.

Salvation includes the assumption of ongoing, lifelong discipleship. In turn, discipleship includes the assumption that every area of our lives will come increasingly under Jesus’ Lordship. Personal morality, business ethics and practices, our approach to justice issues — everything is (and should be) impacted by the simple yet profound statement: “Jesus is Lord.”

That includes not only what we write about, but how we write it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Canadian Fable: #wearewinter

Once upon a time, Canada found itself in an existential funk, pondering endlessly about her national identity.

Compounding the problem was the imminent arrival of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and the pressure Canada was feeling from all of her sport-endowed citizens.

Suddenly, in a burst of revelatory inspiration, Canada had her eureka moment. She decided to embrace, proudly and defiantly, that season with which Canadians are by far the most familiar: winter.

And thus was the spirit of #wearewinter invoked by an unsuspecting nation.

But little did Canada realize what she had unleashed. For #wearewinter turned out to be the cruel and capricious sort.

Temperatures were colder, the cold lasted longer, and Canadians nation-wide tried to yell Uncle! But #wearewinter plugged its ears and pretended not to hear.

In a rare show of sportsmanship, even the local wolves pitched in and did what they could to ease the suffering of the Canadian people.

But #wearewinter said (in a weather sort of way): talk to the hand. 

As the frigid torment dragged on and on and on, Canadians began to ask themselves that age-old existential question: “Why am I here?

Laughing its cruel and frosty laugh, #wearewinter responded by pummeling Canadians even more harshly and heartlessly than before.

Fearing for their sanity and their frost-bitten extremities, some Canadians attempted to flee to Vancouver, if only for a weekend of respite. But the ever-vigilant and vindictive #wearewinter promptly buried the Coquihalla Highway under an avalanche, cutting off their escape route.

Panic-stricken, Canadians desperately sought to break the curse of the Abomination of Arctic Desolation, trying everything from what they mistakenly thought were sun dances,” to invoking the Benevolent Entities of the Internet. But alas, their piteous efforts were for naught ...

It was only when the Canadians triumphed and won the Gold Medal in Curling (men’s & women’s), and the coveted Gold Medal in Hockey (men’s & women’s) that the ice-cold malevolent power of #wearewinter was finally broken, whereupon Canadians coast-to-coast dealt the frosty and capricious entity its death blow. Repeatedly and with gleeful abandon.

Thus was Canada made free once more, to embrace with open arms the coming season of dandelion-picking in the scorching sun, heat exhaustion while mowing their lawns, and endless traffic jams in sweltering cars with dysfunctional A/C.

And then – oblivious to their peril – they will naively utter the fateful incantation: Cant wait for winter, eh?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Just Another Day in the Wilderness

A summer spent as a Re-Forestation Specialist—or tree-planter in the common tongue—yields many wonderful discoveries:

  • Getting back to nature (black flies, deer flies, hungry bears, and coyotes) 
  • Group dynamics after living in the bush for four months (think: Lord of the Flies) 
  •  Your own character (under adverse conditions, you may not be as nice a person as you thought you were) 
  • DEET: breakfast of champions
  • The daily fire-pit ritual: a cozy circle of steel-toed work-boots, lined up toes-in (cold steel boots + feet = pain like forty bears) 
  • Breaking a hole in the ice-covered lake to wash your hair (rinse and repeat – is that a joke?) 
  • 14-15 hours per day shalt thou work, six days a week, come sun, rain, or snow 

One fine morning – sunny with blue skies and high temperaturesI found myself staggering and dizzy in the midst of the planting zone, shovel in one hand, and a metal carrier with 100 baby trees in the other. The planting zone had been devastated by a forest fire some years earlier, causing it to resemble the surface of, say, Mars.

Dizzy? Staggering? Whatever for, you ask?

Our crews supervisor, the previous afternoon, had driven our work van at speeds usually reserved for those fleeing in abject terror from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Logging roads are notoriously unpredictable, and when we hit ... something ... the back of the van lurched sharply up and then powerfully down. As the sole occupant of the very last seat, I was thrown against the roof (no seatbelts available in steerage the back row), and cracked my head on the exposed frame. As it turns out, the van’s framework was made of sterner stuff than, say, my skull.

A two-inch gash was my reward, and I'm reasonably sure I actually saw stars. Someones t-shirt was sacrificed to stem the bleeding. Tylenol helped me sleep that night in spite of a pack of coyotes doing laps around our coyote-proof nylon tents.

But the Morning After ... Have I mentioned deer flies? They have radar ability to scent blood like Ring Wraiths chasing Frodo through Mordor. So here I was, staggering and dizzy in the field, trying my best to ward off strafing runs from blood-crazed insectoid alien life forms.

After four months in the bush, I thought I was losing my mind.

And, just for fun, picture what it must’ve looked like: A dirty, sweaty 21-year-old in ripped and filthy clothing, in the middle of a burned-out lunar landscape, swinging a shovel over his head at tiny but murderous insect assailants.

To even the most casual observer, it probably looked like I’d already lost my mind.

And then it hit me, a revelation of almost biblical proportions: I wasnt a prisoner, held against my will. I could quit. Escape with my life and most of my sanity intact. Get my head examined (the two-inch gash, remember?). And so, still swatting deer flies away with my shovel, I began to hatch an escape plan.

  • Id have to hike a couple of miles back to our base camp for my personal gear. 
  • It was a further 15 miles (24km) from base camp to the nearest town. With my gear. 
  • My winter gear was still stored in yet another town, 60 miles north. Id have to get that, too.

An A-ha moment:  I remembered the additional van back at base camp, not in use because it needed repairing.

I informed my supervisor I was quitting, and hiked back to the base camp. My supervisor expressed a certain lack of confidence (to put it politely) in my ability to repair the van, but she under-estimated just how desperate I was to escape return to civilization.

As Id suspected, it was a carburetor problem, easily and quickly fixed. Shortly thereafter, I pulled into the nearest town, bought a bus ticket – buses come only once per day, so the pressure was on – asked the gas station attendant to watch my stuff, and drove north to get my winter gear.

A couple of hours later, I was back at the bus station/gas station/post office/general store, adding my winter gear (and guitar) to the pile the gas jockey was responsible to safeguard.

Before heading back into the bush, I filled the van with gas (seemed like the right thing to do), drove back up the logging roads, and parked it at the base camp.

And started walking.

Despite (a) my ambitious escape plan, (b) successful repair of the van, (c) bus ticket in my wallet, and (d) gear awaiting me in town, Reality began to rear its ugly head.

The once-per-day bus would arrive in about 45 minutes.

I was on foot, with at least fifteen miles (24km) to go.

Although it was still mid-afternoon, I’d probably have to spend the night sleeping in the bush. Pack-of-coyote memories from the previous night popped uninvited into my mind.

Prayer seemed like a good idea. I had no intention of returning to base camp, nor was I certain if my supervisor – repaired van with a full tank of gas notwithstanding – would even allow it. I had to face the truth: there was no way I could make it back into town in time.

I’d barely said amen, when I heard a loud engine approaching from behind. I glanced over my shoulder ... A pickup truck came bounding over the hill, raising a huge dust cloud as it careened down the logging road. As I was about to learn, a work crew from a nearby hydro-electric dam was knocking off early and heading into town for beers.

I stuck my thumb out in the time-honored tradition of Escaping Re-Forestation Specialists everywhere. They only had space for me in the cargo area, but as far as I was concerned, it looked like Elijahs Chariot of Fire.

The next thing I knew, I was dragging my gear to the side of the highway, just as the daily bus appeared over the hill.

I stretched out my dusty and aching body as best I could in the bus seat, swallowing a few additional Tylenol for my van-frame headache. Two thoughts came to mind:

And Im grateful for both.