Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tool Belts, Guitar Picks & Writer's Cramp

You can always spot the writers who got their start pre-digital. We are drawn - like the proverbial moth to a flame - to images of old typewriters.

And suddenly, I am poised to begin my fifth year since that cold and fateful day when I dared to utter the words: "I am a writer."

For me, the year 2015 could be summed up by three words: writing, music, and construction (not necessarily in that order).

Strapping on my tool-belt repeatedly during this year, working with/for my good friend John Baker, has been a great deal of fun, a rewarding (and challenging) learning curve, and very helpful in making ends meet. 

Added bonus: the prayer times & spiritual conversations while perched  30+ feet in the air in an "articulating boom lift".

Yup, this one.

The gaps between construction gigs were my creative writing opportunities, whether here at this blog or ThinkTheology, writing sci-fi novels, or serving on an editorial team for the late Bill Jackson's History of the Christian Church (Vol. 2). I have long been a fan of his Quest for the Radical Middle, and I was honoured and slightly fan-boyish when Bill asked for my input. (He reciprocated by writing some nice things about me in the foreward to the book.)

Musically, 2015 was also a full year, performing with the J.S. Garcia Band during festival season, and my most regular gig, a band known as Feet First (promo video). Playing bass for a variety of worship leaders at our local church is always a highlight as well, both musically and spiritually.

KGF Christmas: McAlpines on either side
December also included a fatherly thrill: joining my son Caleb & his church team for Kelowna Gospel Fellowship's annual Christmas in the City concert at the Kelowna Community Theatre (video).

And next month, the new Norm Strauss Band will begin rehearsals as well.

2015 also saw Wendy & I reconnect with our Vineyard roots, casting our lot in with the local Vineyard church re-planting project, affectionately known as "K-Vine" among the regulars.

Predictions for 2016? Well, I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but - Lord willing - I hope to invest my time in the following:
  • Publish three (3) books by this time next year. Two sci-fi novels to complete the Tracker trilogy, and the return of the Younger & the Elder in a book on Galatians
  • Continue to make music with some extremely gifted musicians, which is as much fun (and hard work) as writing
  • Strap on the tool-belt whenever the phone rings and there's a Baker on the other end of the line
  • Assist in whatever ways Wendy & I can to support the church re-plant that we are a part of (and continue to enjoy the friendships & community we have there)
  • Stay loose, 'cuz things never go exactly as planned. :)
Just for the record, I don't actually have writer's cramp, nor do I play bass with a pick. I just thought it made for a catchy title for this post.

See y'all next year!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Theological Fish-Slapping

And now for something completely different.

Many times over the years, I've been amazed at how people belittle theology and theologians. At times, they are treated with the kind of contempt usually reserved for Dastardly Pastors.

Theology occurs when ANYONE opens their mouth and an opinion about God falls out. Theology is always happening, if God is the topic.

But let's be honest: there are people who make theology really unpleasant. Not because theology is inherently unpleasant. Just them.

With that in mind, I am now going to attempt a blog post about theology that combines the dubious springboards of Monty Python's Fish-Slapping Dance and Bill Engvall's Here's Your Sign. (Please watch the videos, or else nothing that follows will seem wondrous -- that's a Charles Dickens quote. Part of it, anyway.)

Based on the wisdom found in these videos, perhaps we could establish a bit of a baseline for people who like to flaunt their theological understanding even when the situation doesn't call for a full PhD download. We could then say something like "here's your theo-sign", and then smack them - in Christian love, of course - with a large, smelly, dead fish.

We've all met people who brandish their theological degrees like a bully billy club. You know the type:
  • they have an arsenal of handy sound-byte quotes that begin with "Barth/Calvin/Bonhoeffer says..."
  • they shut down the conversation if you aren't proficient in the original languages of Hebrew & Greek (and by 'Greek', they mean koine, you gibbering plebian)
  • any simple faith-question generates a deluge of buzzwords about genre, authorial intent, and interpretive method that makes the questioner sorry they asked
  • by the end of any discussion, the topic might remain as muddy as ever, but their Yoda-like expertise will be firmly established
I agree with Bill Engvall: if these people wore a sign, you would simply avoid engaging them, whether in person or online. Why waste your time and risk losing some of your sanctification? Pearls before swine, as it were (Matthew 7:6).

But they're Christians. So, like it or not, they're part of our family. Dang.

They need to be discipled, just like the rest of us. Now it's getting complicated.

A good, wet slap in the face with a smelly fish might be the only thing that gets through to them, but it's hard to imagine that was what Jesus meant when He said to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39).

I guess the onus is on us. Love them, have grace for them, pray for them.

Handing them a sign and a solid fish-slap would be much easier, and probably more fun (giving in to our baser impulses usually is), but it probably won't qualify as the most spiritually mature, Christ-like response we could come up with.
Still, I'm curious (speaking hypothetically, of course): which fish would make the most gratifying sound? I'm leaning towards carp.
ps. That line about 'losing some of your sanctification'? Just a joke. Put down your lexicons; I was only kidding.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Unforgivable Sin (& how to avoid it)

My compadres over at ThinkTheology are currently writing a blog series entitled "Follow Me", working their way through the Gospel According to St. Mark.

And  -- wouldn't you know it? -- by the luck of draw (or so they tell me), I was asked to comment on Mark 3:20-30. You know, the passage that introduces us to the thorny question regarding the "unforgivable sin".

This is a fascinating piece of Scripture. People have been wrestling for years over what "blasphemy against the Spirit" means, and whether or not Joe Average or Jane Anybody, followers of Jesus, might have accidentally committed it.

Charlatans have wielded this section of Scripture like a war club, (ab)using it to threaten anyone who might dare to question the outlandish things they are teaching and doing.

As always, context -- not just the surrounding verses but the whole of Mark's gospel -- provides more than enough clues as to (a) what Jesus meant, and (b) to whom He was speaking.

At the beginning of this passage, we read that there are two groups of people upset with Jesus: His own family and the "teachers of the law". His family is mentioned first, but it is not until the next passage in the ThinkTheology series (Mark 3:31-35) that they actually show up and Jesus speaks to their concerns. Today's section of Scripture deals with the second group of the offended: the teachers of the law (we could also call them the Legalistic Lecturers, if alliteration appeals to you).

The background context to this chapter:
(a) Jesus had healed a man during the Sabbath, which resulted in the teachers of the law blowing their religious gaskets (and they were already looking for reasons to discredit Jesus anyway)
(b) Jesus had developed a tendency toward healing people and casting out "impure spirits" (demons) which inspired many people to put their faith in Him
And to make matters even worse (from the viewpoint of the legalists), 
(c) Jesus had just commissioned His disciples to preach, heal, and cast out demons as well. (Oh no! -- you can almost hear the echoes of the Legalistic Lecturers face-palming themselves into unconsciousness -- now it's going to spread even more!)
Of course, Jesus had been doing the same things ever since the beginning of His public ministry: preaching about the Kingdom (Mark 1:14-15), healing the sick (Mark 1:32-34), and casting out demons (Mark 1:21-28). And the Legalistic Lecturers had been hounding Jesus ever since He healed the paralytic and (gasp!) forgave his sins (Mark 2:2-7). They didn't like His teaching, or that the crowds were following after Him. They were constantly on the lookout for ways to entrap or discredit Jesus.
Note: Their hearts were completely hardened against Jesus. They would use whatever means necessary to stop Him. To say they were obsessed with His downfall would be an understatement of, shall we say... biblical proportions.
And so they came up with the accusation that Jesus' ministry was empowered by Satan himself. Strategically, they chose to use the name "Beelzebul", because it would remind people of Baal, the #1 idol which had historically plagued the Israelites in the Old Testament.
This was not an off-the-cuff slip of the tongue on the part of the Legalistic Lecturers. This was a cleverly worded denunciation of Jesus' miracles by claiming that He was possessed by the same evil spirits as Israel's enemies (some translations substitute Beelzebul with Satan, but the intent is the same).
Jesus then calls the teachers of the law over for a private chat, and gives them a Lecture of His own. He points out their ridiculous lack of logic in suggesting that Satan would intentionally undermine himself. (They were clearly grasping at straws by this point.)

Jesus also drops the not-so-subtle hint that it would take Someone much stronger than Satan to overcome him and "plunder his house" (take his goods). Jesus' miracles of healing and casting out demons -- in this chapter alone -- served as clear examples of how Satan's "house" was already being plundered, even before the Cross.

And finally, Jesus calls them on the carpet re: their campaign to discredit Him. They were playing with fire, and not just figuratively. For them to reject Jesus as the Messiah was bad enough, although the consequences were limited to themselves; trying to dissuade others from following Jesus by accusing Him of being demonically-empowered was inexcusable in the extreme, and punishable eternally.

So, to cut the chase about whether or not Joe Average or Jane Anybody -- sincerely trying to follow Jesus -- might accidentally commit the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, allow me to suggest the following checklist, based on today's passage:
  1. If you see people coming to faith in Jesus, and
  2. this causes you to become inexplicably enraged, and
  3. you obsessively spend most of your waking hours trying to find or invent a way to discredit Jesus, because
  4. you have decided that it's blasphemous for Jesus to forgive the sins of others, and therefore
  5. you work tirelessly to convince people who are interested in Jesus that He is actually working for Beelzebub, or Satan, or possibly Emperor Palpatine, then
  6. you might be guilty of the unforgivable sin.
Otherwise, just keep following Jesus.