Five Points on Calvinism

I wanted to share some thoughts on Calvinism and defense of it. This is topic that is often mentioned, but I wanted to put down a little more detailed description of my beliefs, and maybe something that can be discussed on top of these points. But first, let me clearly say that this is indeed a challenging topic that many have debated, and I hope to express some humility: I certainly don’t have the answers. However, I believe it is still worthwhile to think about and discuss with an attitude of humility. So here it is, my Five Points on Calvinism (sorry for the pun 🙂 ):

1. I consider myself a Calvinist. But I would also warn against Calvinism if it leads you towards fatalism or against the belief in free will and responsibility for your decisions. If you believe that predestination means that you have no agency or opportunity to shape the future, then reject predestination. The reality and truth that our will decides the future is a hundred times more important than any truth found in Calvinism. And any errors of Armianism or open theism is a hundred times less significant than the errors of fatalism.

And furthermore, if you have any tendency to believe that just because God sovereignly ordained past events, that they prove and demonstrate God’s pleasing will, what he desires, then run from Calvinism. There are countless evil situations, evil leaders appointed, and tragedies that have occurred that God has sovereignly allowed. Let us not think for a second that this even suggests that this means God is pleased by these tragedies and evil. If you are prone to look at events in the world or your life and accept them as good simply because “God is in control”, I would suggest reconsidering what God’s sovereignty means. If these two dimensions of God’s will are confusing, Calvinism is not worth the confusion.

I would also warn against middle ground fallacy here, and seeking a compromise in semi-Calvinist views. I think the most reasonable alternative to Calvinism really is open theism. From my perspective, “middle grounds” seem more like mix and matching different views of God in whatever way is convenient. It is equally pernicious when we freely define some things as unavoidably according to God’s will and others as outside of His will based on whatever we like and dislike.

2. It is my conviction to avoid using the term “reformed” to describe my beliefs in predestination and free will and instead use the term “Calvinism”. I believe it is disingenuous and historically inaccurate to use “reformed” to describe a specific understanding of predestination. The reformation was not primarily a movement for or against a position on free will, but is best summarized by the five “solas” of the reformation, a dissent against other elements that were being added to the notions of grace, faith, and salvation. The primary debates about predestination actually consisted of reformed theologians on both sides (Arminius was definitely reformed). Declaring one side as true “reformed” is an example of “no true scotsman” rhetoric, not only a logical fallacy, but a underhanded means of attributing falsehood to dissenters by exclusion.

This is shady rhetoric, but it also blurs the focus of what being reformed should really be about. It is not a commitment to a specific understanding of sovereignty. What being reformed means to me, and what I prize is a commitment to the five solas: salvation defined by scripture alone, received by faith alone, through grace alone, by Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. These are the fundamental ideas that shape my theology and life, apart from any debates on the nature of sovereignty.

I also recognize that “Calvinism” is also not a historically accurate term either. John Calvin certainly taught on many subjects, and distilling it down to beliefs on predestination is simplistic. But, at least this term is also widely known, and I would rather misrepresent one person than the entire reformed tradition.

So, back to Calvinism…

3. The question of the nature of God’s sovereignty is not only a theologic question, but deeply intersects with the philosophy of determinism, and how we define the meaning of free will. Free will is the process of how we come to make decisions in our life. According to libertarian free-will philosophy, free will is only free if it is not predetermined. However, I believe this is confusing our feelings and perception of free-will, the feeling or experience of free-will as being from external constraints in our decision-making. However, as a Calvinist, I believe that our decisions are actually the direct result of our (mostly) internal thoughts, feeling, and goals. Every action, decision in the world is either the result of existing causes, or it is not, and when something is not meaningful related to some cause, it is by definition, randomness. Every decision is primarily either the result of our meaningful decision-making deterministically driven by our characters, values, and desires, or it is primarily randomness, unmeaningful rolls of the dice, coming out of nothingness.

Philosophically, Calvinism is known as compatibilitism. If God gives us the desire for chocolate ice cream, is our free will violated when then go to an ice cream shop, and gladly choose chocolate ice cream? No! If God gives us a passion for dance, and knows we will use it, have we then lost our free will if we then joyously choose to dance? No, absolutely not! God’s sovereignty over a deterministic universe and our free-will are not incompatible concepts, rather they point to the fact that our free-will is our experience of who we are, determining our decisions.

I believe that Calvinism, properly understood, should in no way diminish the consequences of our actions, or the responsibility that we bear in our actions. If we point a gun at someone, the decision to pull the trigger will leave the victim every bit as alive or dead, and leaves with every bit as much responsibility for the action, regardless of whether God knew or ordained it ahead of time. If our free-will is compatible with God’s sovereignty, so are the consequences and responsibilities that go along with it.

Therefore, I believe that our free will is primarily meaningful and deterministic, not caprice and randomness. And my belief in Calvinist determinism is a belief that God is directing a meaningful world, not a random world of people making decisions out of nothing, without cause or meaning.

4. Of course, the nature of God’s sovereignty is indeed very much a theological question, and receives such attention because it is crucial to theodicy: how does suffering and evil exist, if God is good?

It is worth actually considering two aspects of this question. First, does evil originate from God? And second, why does he allow suffering to persist in this world?

The Arminian answer is to appeal to human’s free will as the source of evil, in order to vindicate God. To these questions, the suggested answer is that our free will is the origination of evil, and suffering persists because of our sinful actions.

I simply don’t find this to be a very compelling. This vindication of God sounds like a child declaring that it is not “his fault, it is the thrown ball that decided to arc downwards into her sisters head that is to blame”. If you set something in motion, knowing how it will (or likely will) result, I believe there is (at least, to some degree) a responsibility for the outcome.

And while defining evil’s as originating from our wills may provide some semantic separation from God in origination of evil, it is does very little to answer the second question. The reality is that the majority of suffering and pain we experience is not due to direct evil actions on the part of others, but rather natural forces like disease, natural disasters, etc. Excusing a small part of our suffering to free will is like providing a 25% discount on God’s evilness. He may not be terribly bad, He is just really bad. And arguing that these diseases and disasters are somehow the actions that God had to inflict as a result of our sin is like the child who argues that he had to hit his sister in the face, because she was saying bad things. This is constructing an arbitrary and unnecessary cause and effect. It strikes me as a pretty weak answer to these questions. Do we really want to strip God of sovereignty to the point that he is relatively impotent demi-god, losing most of his battles, for the sake of excusing himself? Does this realistically offer much assurance of future victory?

Rather than making excuses for and lessen God’s control of the world, I believe it is far more compelling to look towards transcendent purpose and meaning in the meta-narrative of this world. I find a compelling analogy in God as an author. An author isn’t evil because he has crafted a story with evil characters, these are part of what provide the contrast, the challenges, the twists for good to be displayed most vividly, for good to be victorious in a meaningful way.

The Biblical analogy of light and dark points to the value of contrast to bringing meaningful illumination. Indistinguishable light may be comforting, but does not fully and truly reveal the light source, and our show the beauty of colors against the backdrop. And this is meaningful in time as well, God’s progressive and gradual revelation brings greater significance and clarity to His righteousness.  In answering the question of why suffering persists, it is because of the beauty of contrasts, and gradual unfolding of His story.

Scriptures make no effort to obscure God’s role in ordaining and creating those that who are perpetrators of evil, and clearly indicates the purpose of showing the contrast of good and evil, to fully show His goodness. Paul (Rom 9:22-23) plainly says that He is made “vessels of wrath” to contrast against those that act merciful, which He “prepared beforehand” in order to make “known the riches of His glory.”

But how do we answer the first question, of the origination of evil? Does this mean we are claiming that God created evil? This would indeed be the case, and would be an unacceptable claim (Psalms 92:15, 1 John 1:5), except that this conclusion is actually based on a false assumption: that evil needed to be created to exist. But again, the scriptural analogy of light and dark is revelatory: darkness is not an actual entity that is created, it is the absence of light. And likewise, evil is really the absence of righteousness. In other words, God created a world, in which His righteousness is not fully and instantly revealed and applied. And because His righteousness has not entered every part of the world, the absence of righteousness, evil, is plainly visible and common. God didn’t create evil, he create a world that was not fully imbued with His righteousness, and the manifestation of this world lacking righteousness, is man acting evil. This doesn’t mean that evil isn’t an active and powerful force, it certainly is, but it is a force that consists of suppressing light, oppressing good, a force defined in the negative.

In short, rather than trying to vindicate God by trying to remove or lessen His role in precisely and exactly ordaining a world that has tragedy in it, I think we should see creation, in its current form, as a point in a path, the necessary and meaningful way for God to destroy evil with the progressive unfolding of His goodness and righteousness. While acknowledging this may feel uncomfortable, this is what scripture seems to teach.

5. As hotly debated as this topic is, from my observations, the behavioral implications seem pretty small (whereas beliefs like cessationism, dispensationalism, prosperity theology, and Zionism seem to have more substantial and observable negative implications). This is a key reason why I try to refrain from being dogmatic about this issue (and as mentioned earlier, would even push people away from my belief if it would cause fatalistic or other negative implications). However, that being said, I think there are a couple implications that I believe should result from Calvinism (although they certainly don’t always).

First, I believe that acknowledging others’ lives and decisions as inevitably affected and shaped by the numerous forces and experiences they have lived through, helps us to empathize with them. Ignoring this often results in looking at others, judging them by an isolated view of the “bad decisions they have made”. But this implicitly involves superimposing the expectations derived from the benefits of our own life experiences, education, and upbringings, than expecting the same outcome in others. A deeper view of how our decision making actually works brings us greater sympathy towards others.

Furthermore, a naive idea of others decision making as an equal isolated islands of free-will, allows us to free ourselves from any responsibility in our lives. But a fuller perspective of a deterministic world, with every life developing from many complex inputs, in a complex web of interactions, where we are all deeply intertwined, should cause us to recognize the ways that our interactions with others is significant and meaningful.

Again, it is easy to look at someone’s broken life, and blame them for their “bad decisions”. But along the way, did they grow up in a disadvantaged home, that we ignored? Was their education neglected in ways, that we could have helped out with? Did they go hungry, when we could have fed them or advocated for them? Those living with their poor decisions, certainly bear responsibility for their own decisions, but in a Calvinistic worldview, so do we, if we have neglected them.

Second, Calvinism brings focus on the glory of God as the highest and central goal of God and us, as followers. This stems from the fact that in a universe sovereignly and deterministically ordered by God, defining any smaller goal, any of the battles we try to win, as the ultimate goal is nonsensical, as God could simply end or win such battles instantly. Calvinism forces us to see that the only truly coherent overarching goal of God is one in which the struggles of humanity persist because the process of, and the way they are overcome, can be manifested, showing God’s glory.

An analogy might be to consider how a shift in goals affects our own behavior. First, imagine the goal of driving across the country to get to New York. This goal, wholeheartedly pursued, simply involves getting across the country as quickly as possible, with as little interruption as possible. Now imagine changing the goal to driving across for the purpose of writing a book about it. This second goal, while on the surface may look similar, is actually very different. Taking the time to make the trip significant and memorable, and doing the trip well, become the primary objectives, so that the journey can be fully appreciated. In other words, the “glory” of the trip, and how it can be shared, takes precedent over simply getting to the other shore. Having a higher, transcendent purpose overarching the goal of getting across America completely transforms our approach.

Likewise, pursuing God’s glory properly shapes our view of goals like evangelism, discipleship, church growth, social justice, and other pursuits as subordinate to the ultimate goal. And consequently how we do them, in a way that reflects God’s ways, is as important as the results of the subordinate goals.

To be clear, these implications of Calvinism are perspectives that I believe Calvinism should hopefully point people towards. However, in reality these perspectives can be shared by non-Calvinists as well, I simply think it is more of direct implication of Calvinism.

Regardless of how we attempt to understand and make sense of mysterious concepts of determinism and free-will, I do hope we can grow in our understanding of how deeply our lives are intertwined, and that we can more fully appreciate and enter in to God’s beautiful story of revealing His goodness, and make that our ultimate vision.

Theology of Evidence-Driven Research

I wanted to go through the exercise of attempting to develop a theology of my vocation. Several years ago, I read Darrow Miller’s book, Lifeworks, in which he challenged readers to do this, and since then I have wanted to jot down how that might look for me. My intent is not to write this to justify or self-congratulate my work, but rather I believe it is a worthwhile exercise to think through the principles that drive our work and different goals of that work, and as a result, hopefully, bring focus on the right goals and motives, and talk about the theology that shapes our work with you.

I believe one of the core concepts that undergirds the purpose of work is the creation/cultural mandate (Gen 1:26-28, 2:15): We are called to join God in the continuing project of creation, and furthering the work of creating and innovating for the sake of building a better world. We join God in every aspect of this mission, from technology, to health, to ecology, to economics, reflecting the heart of a creator God, who created a world of beauty and purpose, by continuing to build with beauty and purpose. My job is focused on the medical/health and technological pursuits of this mission.

There are different aspects of my work. I am a software developer, so I spend my work hours programming. However, I also work on software designed to accomplish something specific. I work for a company (Doctor Evidence) that does analysis of clinical medical studies for the purpose of evidence-based decisions. I thought it might be more interesting to focus on the theological principles that speak to and intersect with the goals of our industry and what our company (should) hope to achieve within this field (this post is not really focused on the technology I work on to accomplish those goals). Here is my attempt…

Research

An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Proverbs 18:15

The Bible repeatedly upholds the virtue of seeking truth. And this is and should be the driving force behind research, to understand, to gain knowledge, to discover the nature of reality, to uncover what we have not yet understood. I believe the pursuit of truth is not something we should presume to be easy, as if we can sit back and declare truth based on our own intellect. The pursuit of truth and understanding requires hard work and careful investigation. It involves thinking through questions and problems. It involves learning from the work of others, researching prior efforts, and building on that.

Evidence-Based Research

Taste and see that the LORD is good
Psalms 34:8

Research is the discipline, the starting point of seeking truth, but ultimately truth is about discovering reality, and determining if our ideas really match with reality. This means that we do not simply settle for ideas that sound good, but we seek to actually test those ideas against reality. We (not our company, but those we work with) run in experiments against the real world (with patients), to see if our ideas are really true or not. Evidence-based research and decision-making, means looking beyond our conclusions that may sound logical and good, and checking them against the hard-reality of experiments and studies. It means letting our decisions be based on real data, rather than just our intuitions or even logic. A genuine pursuit of truth begins with humility: we may be wrong, so let us test our idea.

Seek to Disseminate Information

But seek the welfare of the city
Jeremiah 29:7

Knowledge, just for our its own sake, puffs up (1 Cor 8:11), but when knowledge, that is valuable for others, is sought and shared for the sake of others, this is following in the path of love for those around us. When we do research, and share our discoveries, we can, God willing, seek truth not for our own pride, but for the benefit and welfare of our society. It is exciting to be in a place where we can help reveal things that will actually help the sick and hurting around us!

In capitalist society, many jobs offer compensation in proportion to their benefits that they can bring to their customers. However, research can be unique in that may bring a fair compensation from a paying customer, but that same knowledge can then be limitlessly and freely shared with others who may benefit as well. In other words, research brings benefits to society that vastly outweigh the natural compensation that markets may offer the researcher. It is my hope that our research/analysis can and will do that.

This actually intersects with our technology practices as well. As software engineers on our team, when we write individual software components that we believe could be of value to and reused by others, we try to open source these components, make them freely available for others to use. This often does require extra effort; for software components to be reusable, we have to put extra time into make sure they are well-documented and tested for others to be able to efficiently use them. However, I believe this pursuit is something of value, in seeking the welfare of our community of software developers, aside from our efforts in medicine.

Ruthlessly Counter Biases (randomized and blinded trials)

The heart is deceitful above all else.
Jeremiah 17:9
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age,
let him become a fool that he may become wise.

1 Corinthians 3:18

Humility in our pursuit of knowledge should drive the next principle as well. We recognize that even in earnest pursuits of knowledge through research and experiments, that we are still prone to biases, and that confounding variables can still skew data. We must relentlessly look for and seek to work against biases in our research.

In our industry, that means that the preferred approach to studying treatments is through randomized control trials, an experiment where have researchers have intentionally limited themselves from their own selections biasing experiments. Through randomization, researchers eliminate sources of biases by handcuffing themselves from any designs that would introduce additional confounding factors.

Most RCTs go further and are “double-blind” experiments, where not only are the patients randomized, but they are “blind” to which treatment they are receiving (an intervention or placebo), and even the researchers that are assessing the outcomes are “blind” to which patients are receiving treatments, to further prevent biases.

Of course, there are still many ways biases can be introduced (like reporting bias). One of our goals with our software is to help identify when and where factors like funding or study design may introduce biases so we can know where to focus on eliminating them. There is much work still to be done.

Meta Analysis

In an abundance of counselors there is safety.
Proverbs 11:14
And I went…in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.
Gal 2:2

As honest, careful, and earnest as our research and efforts may be, we are still finite in our ability to measure, assess, and determine reality. Scriptures wisely instruct us that the pursuit of truth is a collective effort. And this is certainly the case in the world medical research. Any given study may be useful, but there is much more insight that can be gained by a looking at as many studies that address a question as possible. By looking at numerous studies, and combining their results, we can evaluate questions and create recommendations that are far more robust, less prone to any individual bias, and more reliable than any single researcher or study could provide.

Helping to create this type of analysis of numerous studies, or “meta-analysis” is one of the principal goals of our software that we build. Furthermore, our goal is to facilitate continuous meta-analysis, create an analysis that can easily be updated and re-executed as new studies are performed and become available.

Transparency

For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed
that will not be known or brought out into the open.

Luke 8:17

Finally, the pursuit of knowledge and truth is something that should be done with transparency. If we simply claim to have done a good job with research and analysis, but fail to show others how we came to our conclusions, we are not showing our claims as verifiable. Any honest effort at showing new claims must be done in such a way that others can examine and critique the claims, and how we arrived at them. This is something we should, and hopefully do pursue in all our work, clearly showing every step, and every calculation that we made to arrive at our results, so they can be examined and verified by others.

Again, my intent with this is not pride or vindication in what we are doing. Examining our goals, from a Biblical standpoint, should help sharpen my aspirations as an engineer, and be a reminder of where I can improve my efforts. And hopefully this is an encouragement to others to look at the goals and efforts you make a work, and how they can align with God’s mission.

Nikki’s 2015 Book Reviews

Since Kris posted about the books he read or skimmed this last year I thought I’d do the same. I do love reading and so don’t count books if I’ve just skimmed or not finished them. 🙂

Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach–I heard about this book on NPR over a year ago and thought it sounded interesting. What a delightful surprise it turned out to be! For what could have been a very grizzly and uncomfortable topic, the author perfectly balances humor with the somberness to keep the reader interested without being disgusted. She is careful to not come across as calloused.
I learned so much about the history of human interaction with death and cadavers. Many, many of the advances we benefit from today are somehow connected to research done with bodies donated to science.
I would recommend this book with some reservation. Anyone who is squeamish might find some of the research described as overwhelming. However, anyone with a fascination with science or the human body will love this book. It’s a fast and informative read, entertaining while you learn something.

How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill–Years and years ago this book was recommended by an instructor during a Perspectives class. I think if I were to title this book I would have gone with: Why Civilization Fell and How the Irish Saved It. A large portion of the book is spent explaining the condition and mentality of the Roman Empire just before it fell. It’s not a pretty or flattering picture. What was once great, refined and outward focused became trivial and perversely inward focused. The civilized world stood to lose nearly all its advances, most of which were recorded in writing, were it not for their savage, uneducated, heathen neighbors, the Irish…and the life-long service of a few extraordinary individuals.
This is a great, great read. It’s a little dry in places but worth pushing through.There’s much to be learned from this book, not just about our history, but also our future.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo–This summer while we tore out and remodeled our kitchen I spent a lot of hours in the garage stripping, sanding, and painting cupboards. During that time I listened to Les Miserables read aloud. I knew the story and already loved it but I was surprised at just how much I loved this book. Hugo’s observations about humanity, poverty, and inequality feel like they could have been written yesterday, not over 150 years ago.
I will confess that I don’t know if I could have finished this book had I actually been reading and not listening to it. There are many, many passages and whole chapter even that discuss French politics which went way over my head. There are many references to French individuals, locations, and even events that were obviously significant at the time Hugo wrote this but that I didn’t understand.
However the classic story of poverty, crime, corruption, grace, sacrifice, forgiveness, and redemption is so beautifully portrayed that it is well worth struggling through the difficult parts. No wonder this book is a classic.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin–Twelve year old Suzanne has lost her best friend and is trying to make sense of a senseless death. To add to this trauma, her last encounter with her friend was terrible, certainly not the last way you want to relate with anyone you love.
This is a quick read–written at a middle school level-but that does not detract from the beauty of this well written story. Kids (and adults) will be able to relate to Suzanne’s grieving process as she tried to find a way to make sense of this death. Suzanne may have mild autism. At any rate she is a very concrete thinker; she likes numbers and lists. Yet she has these strong emotions that she cannot ignore or reason away…but she has no idea what to do with them. I think most of us can relate to that feeling. As the reader we get to join her, see her thought process, while all those in her life are shut out and worried about her.
This is a wonderful story about growing up, people changing, feeling awkward and like everything is wrong with you (who hasn’t felt this way!) and ultimately about grieving and regrets. This will be a book my kids will read when they reach that weird preteen age.

For the Love by Jen Hatmaker–I loved Jen’s previous book, Se7en and had cautiously high hopes about this, her newest book. Yet I’m always a little wary of books that everyone raves about. How can something with any real substance appeal to the masses? Jaded, I know.
It took a little while for this book to convince me that it was worth the time. The first few chapters are entertaining and funny, but not much more than that. However, after about chapter five, I feel like Jen settled down into the meat of the book. The small talk is out of the way and now she can really share her heart. She is a gifted writer with really good insights for any Christ-follower, not just women and moms.
If you decide to read this book I suggest really choosing to invest some time and thought into it. Don’t just read it because everyone is talking about it or because she makes you laugh. She really is very funny and there is an appropriate time and place for that. But don’t miss the important things Jen has to say. She says some hard things and some really encouraging things. Don’t skip over these parts for the next funny section.
As a side note this book has the BEST recipe for Beef Bourguignon I’ve ever had.

Bread and Wine by Shauna Neiquist–This is 100% my kind of book. I’ve never read anything by Shauna but really loved her writing style. Each chapter is like a little vignette into her life, experiences, and what God is showing her. She shares some very hard experiences as well as the rewarding ones. I loved her heart for community, for authentic, real, equal relationships that challenge, encourage, and cause each of us to grow in Christ. She talks about the sweet times together over food, how that is where people relax, open up and are real. Good food feed our physical bodies while good relationships feed our soul and spirit. After reading her book I felt so encouraged to see my love of hospitality and good food no longer as a silly insignificant hobby but as a real gift that can minister to others. I’ve been challenged to open up my home more and be intentional about feeding both the body and soul.
As an added gift at the end of nearly every chapter she shares a beloved recipe. I always love a tried and true recipe.

Yes, Please by Amy Poehler–Parks and Rec is one of my favorite shows so I was excited when this book came out. I wanted to see how authentically funny Poehler is. Her book is entertaining but writing a book is not something that seems to easily flow for her. There are parts that are clever, witty, and insightful but this book is nowhere near as well written or entertaining as Tina Fey’s book.
I did really appreciate Poehler’s down to earth style. It’s clear that she has worked really hard to achieve her goals and she doesn’t seem to be blinded by the glitz and glam of fame. She remains one of my favorite comedians, even if is isn’t that great of a author.

The Seventh Child by Erik Valeur–I read this while on vacation and it’s a good thing because this book frustrated me and wasted my time. Maybe something was lost in translation for me. I feel like I missed out on something. The plot is excellent, a well thought-out web that drew me is. But that was part of the problem. I got restless with the length (600 pages!) and (I felt) needless telling and retelling of the same plot. I also found the many, many references to Fate and God tiresome. They felt cliche-ish and were more a distraction than an addition to the plot.
The author clearly loved Denmark and I assume those native or familiar with the towns and cities found the details descriptions enjoyable. I found them to be long and mostly meaningless, or like perhaps they were referring to a theme or allusion I should have understood but didn’t.
Finally, and again this may be a translation issue more than anything else, I found it confusing to have two major character have such similar names: Ole and Orla and then further confused by often only referring to them by nickname.
In conclusion, had this book been a mere 300 pages instead of double that I would have enjoyed it so much more.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed–This was made into a movie a couple years ago but I wanted to read the book before I saw it. I had high hopes for this book just because of the parts of the PCT that I’ve hiked. Many people have hiked the full length of the PCT before, she wasn’t the first to do it. But she may have been the first to do it with absolutely no prior hiking experience and very little preparation or research. Grief makes people do funny things, I get that, but her story is crazy to the point that it almost felt like she did these crazy things simply for a good story. She makes a series of bad choices that lead to more grief and regret and her solution is to go hike… for months. Even while hiking her choices were often unwise and could have gotten her hurt or placed her and others in danger. I found it interesting that her way of dealing with the grief in her life was so extreme and unhealthy (not the hiking part, hiking is good for you, but some of her other choices that came along with the hike weren’t so great), especially after I’d read The Thing About Jellyfish which was such a realistic, graceful look a grief.
Anyway I wouldn’t recommend the book, or the movie for that matter, they are both disappointing.

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling–I was never allowed to read these books growing up (they were banned from our household) but my daughter has mentioned them a few times. Several of her peers are reading them and  I am anticipating the day that she asks if she can read them too. So I thought I’d read through the series first and be prepared to answer that question.
I’ve read three of seven so far and, like everyone else, have found them to be entertaining and well written. I do plan to read all seven, mostly because they are fun reads. I don’t see a lot of dark allusions in the books that make me uncomfortable. The central theme is good verses evil and love and courage verses selfishness and hate. There are good lessons to be learned and there is a pretty clear picture throughout about how dark and powerful hate and the love of self can become. In general, these are good lessons. Yes, there’s magic, lots of it. But I guess it doesn’t bother me because I never feel like the book tries to sell it as real. It’s all very fictitious and as much as some of us would like to travel by broom or cast a spell on that annoying acquaintance, it is all very clearly just make believe.
Having said that, however, I will tell you that it will be quite a few years before Jennika will be allowed to read these books. The scary parts are scary and I while I won’t object to her reading them when she is able to handle that level of intensity, I certainly don’t think she, or most 8-year-olds, are ready to handle such heavy themes.

I think that’s the extent of it for 2015. I am excited about what’s on my reading list for 2016 and sharing it with you next year.

The Church and the Kingdom, Part 2

This is part 2 in a series on the way my understanding of certain term used in the bible and in Christianese has changed and how that has affected my faith. You can read the first part here. 
In the previous post, I looked at what I have been learning about the meaning and purpose of the Church and the Kingdom. I used to vaguely consider these simply other words for Christianity, but I have come to think of these as very distinct. The Church has the specific purpose of nurturing, training, and preparing people to follow Christ, and ultimately model the community that should arise from following Christ. The Kingdom is the actual actions of following Christ. In this post, I want to consider a few other terms, and how they relate.

Other Terms

Within scriptures, the word “Christianity” is never actually used, and other forms, like “Christian” are only used a few times. There are instead several other words that are used that are applicable to our concept our “Christianity”, and I wanted to try to describe my understand of these distinct words and concepts.

The Believers

This is the most simple and straightforward description in scriptures for the collection of people that believe in and follow Christ. This is probably most analogous to what we mean when we say “Christians”.

The Way

“The Way” was the initial term that Christians used to describe their religion. This term obviously emphasized the teachings of Jesus as a distinctive “way” of living. In Acts, it is reported that they soon started to be called Christians by outsiders. The Christians didn’t seem to object to this, and as the early church increasingly understood and formulated the divinity of Christ and His centrality, the name seemes fitting, even though it was rarely mentioned in scriptures.

Brothers, Children of God

If you look up all the references to brothers and children of God, they seem to exclusively refer to believers. However, it can be easy to recognize the object of these terms, but miss the meaning. If we take these terms to be nothing more than a synonym or replacement for believers, this would seem to suggest that the Bible uses these words as a code word, to obscure the meaning, rather than using the clearer term “believer”. But of course these terms aren’t intended to be obscure, but rather add meaning. So while the object of these words is the believers, the descriptive meaning that these terms add to the reference to believers is to describe a familial, relational connection between believers with each other and with God (which builds our understanding of the Church and the Kingdom). When we see these terms we should recognize that scriptures is pointing us to a relational element (and not just a code word for believers).

Christianity

Again, the term “Christianity” doesn’t appear in scriptures, but I was comparing other words with it, so it seems worthwhile to try to define this as well. Being more colloquially originated, Christianity has come to mean more of the culture of Christians. Christians certainly do have their own sub-culture, with certain language characteristics (Christianese), worldview, ideologies, and traditions. However, not only does the term “Christianity” not really have a Biblical origination, but the sub-culture, like any other sub-culture is often a mix of perspectives and ways, some that are redemptive, and some that are in opposition to Christ’s teaching. Christianity, as a culture, needs to be transformed and redeemed by the Kingdom of God, just like every other culture.

OT Precedent

Perhaps another helpful way of distinguishing between the Kingdom and the Church is to look at their Old Testament precedence. For the Kingdom, the precedence is found in the theocratic kingdom represented by the Davidic line of Kings. The Davidic succession of Kings found its ultimate fulfillment in Christ as the ultimate King of the Kingdom. And their battles they waged, in their partial understanding (Col 1:25-27), are representative of the real battle that was to be revealed.

For the church, finding the precedence might seem a little harder. Conventantal theology sometimes is described as treating the church as a successor to Israel. While I definitely affirm conventantal theology (that there is no distinct spiritual category of people with obligated blessing based on ethnicity, Matt 3:9, which clearly contradicts dispensational teaching), the church as a successor isn’t quite precise. According to Romans 9:6-8, it is the believers, the children of God, that are the true heirs of Israel. It might also be tempting to compare the Church, or at least its ministers, to the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood. This is also misguided. The purpose of this priesthood was to act as a mediator between the people and God. The necessity of this function was decimated at the cross, when the veil was torn, and all believers were effectively made priests, with direct access to God. This also means that the associated rituals of the Aaronic priesthood, like animal sacrifices, a temple, and required tithes do not carry forward to the church.

However, finding the precedence of the church in the Old Testament is actually much easier than searching for metaphors. Why? Because the church is actually frequently referenced in the Old Testament. Now, of course, this may sound like a bizarre claim, as you probably have never seen the word “church” in the Old Testament. But, that is because you are reading an English Bible, and an artifact of English translation is the Hebrew equivalent word is traditionally not translated into “church”. However, the Hebrew word that is most equivalent to “church” or “ekklesia” is the Hebrew word “qahal”. And this Hebrew word for church (and it is varying forms, including a verb form) not only is mentioned in the OT, it occurs over a hundred times in the Old Testament (and even in the Septuagint, this is typically translated to Ekklesia, and occurs 80 times there). If you want to see the church in the Old Testament, just look for this word, which is typically translated more literally as “assembly”, “congregation”, or in verb form as “gather”. Now, I would certainly affirm that, thanks to Paul’s epistles, the church is much more fully developed in the NT, but it certainly is present and described in the OT.

What does this mean for us?

In response to my first post, a friend asked how (mis)understandings in these things work themselves out (for good or ill) today. This is a great question, and I don’t really have a complete answer. I wrote this post more to try to wrestle with the relationship and responsibility of these different aspects of God at work in His people. As a church leader, I feel it is important that I try to understand this. However, to take a rough stab at how a lack of distinction in these concepts might affect our thinking, I will offer this: I think we have tried a little too hard to make our virtuous efforts be tied to a Christian source. My assertion would be that when we pursue helping the poor, social justice, or evangelism, that there doesn’t need to be a church banner flying overhead, because the church isn’t and doesn’t need to claim direct responsibility. God will be glorified by these actions, (eventually), even if the immediate audience isn’t aware. This may diminish the church in one respect; in terms of our expectation of its direct capabilities. However, I think this (greatly) magnifies the Church in another respect. I like to characterize the role of the Church as a catalyst, and a catalyst can often trigger something that is orders of magnitude greater and larger than the catalyst itself. The Church has, can, and will continue to plant seeds of change that permeate and grow far beyond what the individuals themselves could ever accomplish. Through the Church is a thrilling and amazing potential! Lowly followers of Christ, by gathering to disciple and encourage, have triggered new patterns of living that have rippled through generations and have truly formed and shaped the world we live in today. We can and should legitimately hope to see our gatherings do the same today and tomorrow.

Putting This All Together

If I were to try to weave these together, I think I would say this:
Believers are called to periodically come gather together, like a family, relationally and lovingly, to train, nurture, equip, encourage, and prepare each other for following Christ’s way, that we might live our lives (not only inside, but outside the church) obeying the ways of the Kingdom, showing the way, like a catalyst, for transformation (for all cultures including Christianity) to a new way of living. As we do this, and manifest the Kingdom of God, demonstrating compassionate, merciful, and just ways, we tear down the barriers between ourselves, and draw people to gather together in harmony, a delight to Christ, radiating as His bride, walking in ways that anticipate our future closer union and gathering as relational community with Him.

Naturally Artificial: The Interaction of Technology and Nature

In my previous post we explored the two components of the theology of creation and the importance of both. This is a continuation of that discussion (because Nikki said it was too long for one post)…

Nature as Revealing God

If we ignore the importance of nature as a revelation of God’s beauty, we can quickly turn to an exploitative approach to nature. If we treat nature as merely a resource, a source of extraction of goods, and fail to value the preservation of the beauty of creation. If agricultural or genetic engineering is coupled with species elimination, we have are ignoring God’s design of diversity in creation. Even within technology, we can be guided by the principles of God’s creation. When we engineer for homogeneity, we are not engineering according to God’s style. If we engineer without regard for sustainability, we are not follow God’s approach.

If we ignore God, the creator, it is quite reasonable to erroneously value nature for nothing more than its means of providing resources for humans. But acknowledging a creator demands that we put a value on nature as God’s artwork, something with a value worth preserving beyond just its utility to humanity. Those who worship God, should be those most invested in protecting and honoring God’s creation, yet Christians have acquired a reputation for having the least concern for our planet, our climate, and the creation that surrounds us.

Likewise, this concept is important for how we treat people. We live in a world where people tend to be assessed by what they can produce, their performance. Yet God’s creation reveals beauty that goes far beyond just resource production. The beauty of creation has so many facets and intricacies that no one can be truly appreciated if only seen for their function. Likewise as we approach others, we must look for beauty beyond just productivity. We must appreciate the beauty of diversity, of the uniqueness of individuals, the wide range of gifts that God has given people.

Delegated Creation

On the other hand if we ignore the important of the delegation of creation, it is easy to fall for the appeal to nature fallacy. And not only does the theology of creation teach us that the concept that God has called man to create and design, but the Bible also teaches that while nature may reveal God, nature itself is fallen (Rom 8:19-22), and natural instincts and the natural process of “natural selection” are ruthless, God has called man to step above these. I recently saw Monkey Kingdom, a great documentary of the life and society of monkeys. One thing was clear: monkeys are horrifyingly ruthless towards each other. They have brutal caste systems and the elites will hoard food and inflict horrible punishment on lower caste who attempt to break rank. The natural systems, societies, and structures of monkeys and man are broken and ruthless, God has called us to challenge these with a greater concept of society.

This has implications for how we assess (or can’t assess) ethics, organization, and morality as well. While God’s design reveals His purpose, the delegation and progression of creation means that we can not hold up an image of original creation as an infallible blueprint for morality. We can’t use Adam and Eve as a definition of proper moral living.

This also means we can’t assume that there are “natural” forms of economics or governance that are superior. There are no easy solutions from simple economic models or democratic structures, we are constantly challenged to think, innovate, and consider new ways of improving upon our systems. Simply letting things be is rarely the answer.

Appeal to nature fallacy can lead astray in everyday ways as well. Millions flock to “natural” foods, remedies, and other products that often lack any substantial verification of superiority, and are merely marketed on the basis of being more natural. The tremendous commercial success of organic products has largely been attributed to the appeal to nature, and fear of the artificial. Where these products help improve labor practices, increase species diversity, and reduce antibiotic resistance they are to be welcome and appreciated, but the intuitive superiority of their naturalness is easily overestimated. For many, this “naturalism” distortions may simply lead to extra spending, but for others, on the edge of development, where small improvements in agricultural efficiency can provide the opportunity to properly feed one’s family, advances in genetic engineering can be a matter of life and death, with thousands of lives at stake. Distorted perspectives may not have big consequences for us, but denying the opportunities of engineering, that God has given us, can really mean life or death for others.

If we are to properly respond to God’s design of delegated creation, it means that God has invited us into creation in every aspect. We can’t inconsistently assume that we can rightly engineer computer chips and attempt to actively influence people’s beliefs, while we ignore God’s invitation into creating that also extends to genetic engineering, sophisticated medical and pharmaceutical innovations as well.

Likewise, environmental protection is critical to helping to preserve the beauty of God’s creation, but excessive zeal is manifested in the attitude that any and all human interaction with nature and consumption of natural resources is negative and should be avoided. Shortly after Nikki and I were married, we had the opportunity to go to Switzerland. One of the things that I was very impressed by was not only the beauty of the mountains (of course!), but how the homes that dotted the hillsides actually accented and added to the beauty of the amazing mountain valleys. In the states it seems there is often either total take over of develop-able land, or complete protection. But in Switzerland, I was amazed at how thoughtful design can actually complement nature.

God intends for man to continue to invent, dream, innovate, and create with everything from electronics to genetics, while still being guided by the principles of creation: caring and providing for for others, while cherishing the principles of beauty, diversity and sustainability. Let us embrace both of these aspects of creation.

Adventures in Transition, Part 2

As I wrote previously, our faith family is in a time of major transition. It is both an exciting and scary adventure. It is also very insightful and as we move from one phase of this transition to another I feel like we have grown both individually and collectively. Just like an individual, a faith family should never stop growing or become stagnant. Change itself is uncomfortable and not something we will all voluntarily choose. I also don’t think that most of us voluntarily choose to settle into a rut. It is something that just happens over time. Things that you might have thought more about at one time become common, habitual and once in a while it is good to have things shaken up a little bit. While change isn’t comfortable, if we respond to it in the right way it can lead to healthy growth. And pardon me as rant for a moment, by growth I DO NOT mean people filling seats, which is probably the most common way to measure the growth of a church. What I have seen in our family is growth in spiritual maturity, in relationships, and in serving others. I’d much rather have this kind of growth than be part of a faith family that is big in attendance but shallow when it comes to the essentials of spiritual life. Rant over. 😉
Here are a few of the gems that I’ve observed in our faith family:

1.) A healthy faith family prays, lots. They pray both together and individually.  One of the best results of this transition for us is a campaign called “Take Fifteen” that encourages every person to commit 15 minutes each day to praying for our body. It’s an easy commitment and we were even given specific prayer requests so it was not hard to fill that time. I hope this continues even after this transition. Prayer is powerful! This isn’t rocket science but is always a good reminder.

2.) A healthy faith family communicates properly. Gossip can do terrible, terrible damage more quickly than I think most realize. When a complaint or rumor has come up rather than spread it to neighbors and close friends the party concerned has been encouraged to take these concerns directly to the leadership or individuals involved. It has meant a LOT of meetings but it has also meant a lot of misunderstandings cleared up and further hurt avoided. Again, not a novel idea but it’s so easy to fall into gossip if we aren’t careful.

3.) A healthy faith family is quick to forgive. As I mentioned in my last post people respond to change in different ways. This is bound to cause misunderstand and assumptions to be made. As people are learning to communicate properly they are also learning to be quick to forgive and quick to ask for forgiveness. This has been one of my favorite things to observe.

4.) A healthy faith family respects other points of views. In any group with more than, well, one person you are bound to have disagreements and conflicting points of view. When it comes to the non-deal breaking theological issues we have seen many views expressed in our faith family. I have appreciated the way that we as a group have respected each other. While we might not all agree, we still love and respect each other and really, we will not know the answers to some of these questions until we can ask God directly so why cause strife in a relationship about it?

5.) A healthy faith family encourages each individual to use their gifts to bless the whole. We all have different talents. Not all of us can play the guitar, preach a sermon, say an eloquent prayer, or lead a bible study. However cleaning the upstairs bathrooms, coordinating the speaking schedule, and keeping the driveway from icing over are all just as important and it has been wonderful to see so many step up and say, “I can help out by doing that.”

6.) A healthy faith family remembers who its true leader is. At the end of this transition we will have some new leadership but really, our true leader has never changed and this whole process has been such a good reminder of that. No one individual makes up the whole faith family or should ever be the face of it. We are all members with Christ as our head and he never changes.

Adventures in Transition, Part 1

A mentor and very wise woman I know has this phrase as her email signature line:

“From a distance it looks like an adventure … up close it is filled with challenges”

I think she may have even been the one who originally said it. Did I mention that she is very wise (and also doing some awesome things in the country of Uganda)? Anyway, I’ve thought of this saying often in the last three months as our faith family experiences some very big transitions. Typically I think that transition is fun and exciting, especially  when I am anticipating it. However when it’s out of the blue, forced upon me, it’s another story. This transition in our faith family was big and nothing short of a shock that left many people feeling hurt, abandoned and confused. To be honest I am very excited about where this will lead our community. I am excited about  the many opportunities to grow and experience a level of freedom we’ve not know for a very long time. From a distance it looks like a fun adventure….

…but up close, in the day to day interactions, it is filled with challenges. Relationships are messy and church is weird. It doesn’t function quite like a business or workplace nor does is it fully function as a family. Navigating the ins and outs of daily church decisions and relationships can be tricky. I’m sure this is true any time but it is magnified when there is a transition.

I am learning and seeing that people respond to change in different ways. Some people embrace the change and use it as a impetus to change lots of areas. They tend to think, since A is changing we might as well make changes to B and C as well. They may even change things not because they need to be changed but simply because they can be changed.  In this way they can create a feeling of security or control in an insecure time. Other people respond in pretty much the completely opposite way. Feeling shaken up by the changes they have experienced can lead them to cling tightly to all that is familiar.  Any new changes, even small ones, feel huge and uncomfortable. They resist change because the last change was hard and uncomfortable. They tend to think, why would we want to change anything else right now? By holding tight to everything that remains familiar they can create a feeling of security or control in an insecure time.

Now take all these people, who really both have the same end goal of feeling secure, and encourage them to be an active participant in this faith family. Ask them to contribute and use their gifts and insights, tell them to “get off the bench and into the game” and imagine what happens. Challenges. Lots of them.

Challenges are not bad. They are great opportunities to grow and learn. What is bad is when people in the first group see the people in the second group as sticks in the mud that they can’t work with. Or when people in the second group see the actions of those in the first group as reckless and disrespectful. What we need to see, what I’m trying desperate to remember during this time, is that we need each other. We balance each other out and together make a fuller, more accurate representation of Christ than we could ever do alone. Isn’t that our goal in the end, to look more like Christ?

So perhaps up close all we can see is a bunch of messy brush strokes that seem too dull and too conservative or too bright and just too much but hopefully from a distance we really are a beautiful and slightly unfocused image of Christ.