Starting a small group

Jonny Carter and I met in early December to discuss a small group he was starting. He had felt called for some time to start a group focused on taking an intellectual approach to the Bible and Christianity, and he wanted to create an environment where it was OK to ask big or even dangerous questions and approach them seriously and academically. Excited about the idea, I also began to share my own concept for a small group; I thought that if Jonny was starting one, maybe I could too. As I told him about what I was thinking of doing, he encouraged me greatly and urged me to pursue it.

Our first meeting is this Saturday.

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God found my key

When I got to work yesterday, I discovered the key to my office was missing. I distinctly remembered putting it in my pocket, and I know I had transferred it from that pocket to my coat pocket, yet it wasn’t there. It must have fallen out at home, I reasoned, probably when I was taking something else from the pocket, so while I was embarrassed and frustrated, I wasn’t terribly worried. I knew I’d find it.

April couldn’t, though, despite looking on my behalf. And when I got home, it was in neither the office nor the bedroom. It wasn’t in the kitchen, where I had transferred the key to my coat, and it wasn’t in the stairwell or outside the back door where I had removed my other keys from the pocket to lock the door. With the rear floodlights on and a flashlight in hand, I walked to our rear gate and searched to no avail. I had also combed the yard, and as I began walking back to the door, I did so again.

Nearly there, I kicked something. It might have been a stick, but I knew immediately that it was my key, which I had stepped over with the first foot and yet somehow kicked with the second. Thank you God, I thought quite honestly. Even when I looked, knowing it was there, I didn’t see it, and it wasn’t until after a bit of sifting that the key turned up.

In ways large and small, God continually blesses me. Thank you, God, for finding my key and making today far easier (mentally and emotionally, at least) than yesterday.

It is good to be (a little) poor

It is good for a man to not have everything his heart desires. It is good for a man to want. Because if a man is so wealthy that he can buy whatever he wants on a whim, and so wealthy that he never wants for anything, then he may not confront that “want.” By being limited in wealth, a man will experience wanting, and in that experience he can confront it and ask, “Why do I want this? Why do I need it? Why is what I have insufficient?”

2 Philippians 4:11b-13

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

I cannot know what it is like to be a woman

One of my classes this semester is Women in Religious Traditions. We are studying world religions over the centuries and the role of women within those religions, how those religions addressed women, and the general androcentrism of pretty much every culture. As we talk about gender roles and how women are viewed as “other,” or entirely left out of texts, and in particular how women are now finding ways to interact with religions that have been traditionally somewhat misogynistic, I’ve realized that I will just never be able to understand some of this.

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A God in Stormy Seas

This morning at church we sang a song that really keyed in a mental image for me from a TED talk I watched a few weeks ago. Given the context of today’s sermon and everything I’ve been wrestling with over the last few months in regards to passion, purpose, and work, it all came together to be really powerful for me. Rather than write, trying and failing to communicate what I was thinking and feeling, I thought I’d record a video.

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Moving Away From The Middle

I’m finally reaching a conclusion on the subject of God’s alignment and what that means for me as a Christian. I’ve been thinking about this subject pretty consistently for three months now, and my views have changed quite a bit since I began.

When I began, I assumed the following setup for alignments, recognizing that the divisions and contrasts it set up don’t always work in the real world. Nevertheless, I felt this was relatively accurate and reasonable:

Alignment Axes

The more thought I devote to this topic, the less accurate this seems to be.

On Law and Chaos

The axis above sets the dichotomy of Law vs. Chaos. In the context of this series, it is assumed that Law = God’s Law. We’re talking about the Law built into creation by its creator, the law set forth in the Bible, and the law of God that will be made manifest with the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Opposing it is, presumably, Chaos: Satan and his followers, the devils and demons of hell, the antichrists and distractors of this world. Everything that seeks to displace worship from God and direct it to something else would serve Chaos, because it detracts from the Law. Veering from the Law to anything else creates chaos in the sense that it is unordered.

Or so I assumed, but that thought process broke down once I actually thought about it. In observation of the world as I understand it, neither this assumption nor the axis above holds up.

Another way to define these two terms are as Order and Chaos, with God and the Law representing order. As I look at the world around me, both the physical and the spiritual, I can’t escape an important and undeniable fact: there is no such thing as chaos.

Satan and the angels that followed him were created by God as creatures of order. Even when the universe was formless, God was there representing order. God created everything from nothing, and that includes the angels, both those that follow him still and those that rebelled.

And the rebels don’t want to plunge the world into chaos, or so it seems to me. The object of Satan’s desire isn’t to destroy everything, but to turn worship from God to himself; failing that, he would turn worship from God to anything else. If you can’t win, deny your opponent victory. Satan wants order, he just wants his order and his law.

The setup of Dungeons & Dragons, which inspired the axes above, is that there are both devils and demons. One are the fallen angels and the other are primordial creatures of chaos that want to destroy the order of the gods and return the universe to how it was before. I’m not the type to claim that something doesn’t exist simply because I haven’t met it, but this concept of a demon seems entirely fictional to me. There might be servants of Satan set on destruction and chaos, but guiding them is a greater purpose. I don’t think the goal is eternal chaos.

Everything is ordered. From the tiniest atoms, molecules, electrons and neutrons, all the way up to governments and lungs and trees. In the movie SLC Punk there is a scene where the main character is discussing order vs. chaos with another character, and while the main character advocates anarchy as a natural structure, he is easily overcome by the logic of order. Even as a tree dies and decays, it returns into the earth to create new life. Even the process of decay has order to it.

Surely, there are constructs too large for us to see and understand, much like an ant can’t see the pattern of a tile floor upon which it moves, but our inability to perceive order doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In everything I can see, I see order. While it is conceivable that a pocket of chaos could exist within an ordered structure, it seems less likely that order could ever exist within chaos. What I mean is that, if there is a higher pattern, something larger than we can see, it must be ordered. If it were chaotic, our world would be chaotic. It must be ordered, for our world is ordered.

Even the “random” events people might point to, trying to prove that the world is not ordered, are easily explained. Order is undeniable.

So what does this mean for the axis above? In my mind, it rotates. But as it rotates, Chaos disappears, and Law aligns with Good. There is no Lawful vs. Chaotic because chaotic doesn’t exist. The entire line assumes Law. Even devils want order.

Then what of Neutral?

It seems natural to assume that Neutral continues to exist halfway between Good and Evil, but I’m not sure I accept that. On this matter, I am not entirely settled, but in examining the Bible and what I know of the world, Neutral as an ideal doesn’t work.

The issue here is God’s law and order. Within a world based upon that law, Neutrality is untenable. To clarify, holding to Neutrality as an ideal is to commit to balance. It is the Yin/Yang philosophy, which is that Good exists when everything is in balance–to move too far to one side or the other brings imbalance and subsequently Evil. Neutrality is not immorality or amorality, but it is a commitment to balance and justice.

Neutrality in this sense cannot exist within the Christian construct. Anything that detracts, distracts, or redirects from God is by definition evil. That word carries a lot of weight and baggage, so let me try and unpack this.

Picture a line, with Evil on the left and Good on the right. Each has an arrow and at the tip of the arrow is a point. Let us say that the point at the tip of the right arrow is the door to the Kingdom of God. At the tip of the left arrow is the throne of Satan and the proposed new order he represents.

The purest Good, the purest Law, and the purest Order are at the rightmost point. If someone is leaving the line at any point and going in a different direction, even if it is close to the rightmost point, even if it is only a millimeter off, it’s no good. That person has been distracted, and is likely distracting others as a result. They’re so close, but they miss the mark and do not enter the door.

Anything that is not God is against God, and therefore is evil. By definition and necessity, it is therefore separated and separate from God.

If someone is sitting on the line, not going one way or the other, they’re in the same situation. They are not going through the door, and subsequently reside in evil. There is no halfway point, no neutrality, no “good enough.”

There is no Neutral because there is no Law and Chaos. There is no alternate dichotomy. There is only Good and Evil. If you aren’t going through that narrow doorway, you are not serving Good.

But didn’t you think you were Lawful Neutral?

I did, and I began to consider God the same. My struggle has been to define God and, by doing so, to define myself. I want to know what God is so I might better understand what I must become. If God does X, I want to do X, but I didn’t know what X was. All I have are the stories and acts described in the Bible, which leave me confused on this point.

Lawful Neutral is the dedication to order and justice without regard to morality. As stated in the first entry of this series, it’s not immoral or amoral, but rather holds to a code rather than the ideal of Good.

As my thoughts progressed, I recognized that the code to which I must hold is God’s code. It is the Bible and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. If I am Lawful Neutral and my code is God’s code, then that means I am aligning myself to God. But that still left the question, what is God?

With the elimination of Chaos from consideration, and the subsequent elimination of Neutral as a tenable ideal, that leaves only Lawful by which I might define myself. I am not neutral in the sense that I am sitting in the middle of the line–I am actively pursuing God. I am pushing towards that point on the right. And with Lawful now aligned and defined with Good, that leaves only Good by which I might define myself.

God is Good all the time, and all the time God is Good. That is my guidance and definition. A commitment to the order and laws of God is a commitment to Good.

To put it another way, and to my mind a much more accurate way, I am Lawful, not Good. God is Good, for God is holy and mighty. I am not Good because the sin within me leads me astray and pulls me from that line. But while I am not Good, I am Lawful, and by making that my ideal and goal I draw nearer the Kingdom.

What about the definition of Lawful Good?

In the first essay, I hypothesized that God didn’t match with my understanding of Lawful Good. I asked the question, “If God is Lawful Good, then, how do we account for the suffering we see in the world?” I truly do believe that the suffering is part of that higher order, that grander pattern of which we are unaware.

I don’t intend it as a cop-out or a dodge. The issue is that we humans tend to fixate on ourselves and what we’re feeling. We forget that God exists outside of space and time, and we also forget that we were created to be eternal. Whether you believe in God or not, whether you’re Christian or not, you soul is eternal. This mortal coil, this diseased body, will pass after a time, but our spirit merely walks through a door. The question is: Will we walk through the door on the right, or the door on the left?

The question of whether we’re happy or content, hungry or fed, bleeding or hale, is all sec0ndary.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my job, where I ought to be in this life, and what I ought to be doing. I’m not always very happy at my job, and so I wonder if I should stay there. I wonder what God wants.

Several weeks ago while praying about it, it finally occurred to me that maybe what God wants isn’t for me to be happy. That isn’t to say God wants me to be unhappy, but maybe my happiness isn’t his primary consideration. Actually, let me put that another way: maybe I don’t know what will make me happy, and while I assume it’s one thing, it might actually be another. Let us consider the tried and true example of Mother Theresa. She lived in poverty, amongst disease and dirt, and her life was not one I particularly envy. Would we call her happy, or would she call herself that? I suppose she might, and that’s what I mean. Maybe God has a plan for me that is more important than what I think will make me happy, and my assumptions are somewhat irrelevant in that context.

(As an aside, I in no way mean to compare my work to that of Mother Theresa. In that sense, this is a rather poor analogy. It is also worth noting that since I came to this realization, about us not always having to feel happy, I have been far more content and happy at work.)

Maybe to serve God’s plan, we will have to suffer. The Bible talks about being crucified, and while we read that figuratively, it was very literal for the disciples of Jesus. What’s a little suffering if I get to walk through that narrow door? Maybe I’m going about this all wrong.

That’s what I was thinking, and so when I re-approach the concept of Lawful Good (which, having eliminated Chaos, might be better called just Good), I strike my concerns about suffering and compassion. God’s compassion is bigger than mine, and his view of suffering is wiser than mine. I look at a temporary hardship and consider it hard. God looks at it and considers it temporary.

In the face of eternity, it is hard to disagree.

How do we cling to that line and make it through the door?

It seems impossible after reading the section about neutrality. Even if we strive for Good, even if we live as good of lives as we are able and honestly aim for that rightmost point, we will fail. Our sin will pull us off target and we will miss the mark.

Give thanks that we are not saved by works alone. No, we cannot hold true to that line, and we cannot walk through that door under our own power. But Jesus forgives our sins and clothes us in his garments, such that he walks through the door and takes us with him.

Picture it as our starting point being the middle of the line, and we’re shooting for the right. We curve up or down, at times closer to the line and at times further, sometimes veering sharply away from the point and sometimes being almost on target. When we accept Jesus into our lives, when we make him our marksman, he sets his aright. No matter where we are on the chart, even if we were heading left, once we accept him we’re turned and aimed right into the Kingdom.

The matter of faith and works and how that all plays out is a topic for another essay–know that both are necessary, in a sense. But for us to be Good, even for us to be Lawful, we must be pursuing Christ, and we must likewise be pursued by him. We are incapable of doing it on our own.

God is Good

That about wraps up my thoughts. What do you think, here at the end? Have I missed something, or is there something more I ought to consider? Share in the comments below, and thanks for reading.

God as Divine Therapist?

From CNN:

Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

Check out the article and let me know what you think. Are parents watering down Christianity for the sake of their children’s self-esteem, or is it a natural progression of Christianity as people come to understand God better?

Comment below to share your thoughts!

If God knew humanity would rebel and sin, why did he create them?

You’ve probably considered this question before, and there are a lot of responses. There’s currently a discussion on Reddit about it, and I just had a new thought on the subject I wanted to share:

The point is often raised, “If God is omniscient, he knew from the beginning that we would fail, sin, and have to go to hell. So why did he create us? Why bother with all this, if God already knew we were screwed?

Why create us to be imperfect and capable of sin? Why not just make us good? Why did God set us up for failure?”

Common replies bring up free will, potential for redemption, Calvanism vs. Armenianism, etc. etc.

Today I had a new thought:

The question ignores an important point, namely that we haven’t all failed. It’s usually asked in a tone of, “Why did God create us just to destroy us?” but the truth is that God isn’t destroying all of us. He sacrificed his son so we would all have a shot at redemption, and some of us have taken that. There are millions of people who follow God, have repented of their sin, and entered into a fellowship with him. It isn’t all failure and doom and gloom, and it has never been all failure and doom and gloom. Even when Elijah thought he was the only one left who was loyal to God, there were still seven thousand people that Elijah didn’t know about.

It sometimes seems as if God has set us up for failure, but that’s just not the case. He gave us the opportunity to win, to succeed despite the machinations of Satan, and a lot of people do. God gave us a way to have free will and live in harmony with him.

I just found that to be cool when it hit me. What do you think of the original question? Do you have other responses you’ve heard or thought of?

A Room in God’s House

I’ve had an image in my head for a while that as we do good work in this life, our reward in heaven grows proportionally. These sorts of allegories are used in sermons sometimes, where the rich man gets to heaven and has a shack while the humble man who gave everything away has a fabulous mansion. As for me, I don’t really want either.

At some point in our lives, we may have heard the phrase “If you’re going to live in my house, you’re going to live by my rules!” I’m pretty sure I had it directed at me when I was younger, and I’ve certainly heard it on TV. That’s what I want, though: to live in God’s house, under His rule. I don’t want a mansion, or even my own shack where I live alone. I want a room in God’s house.

Just thinking about it fills me with excitement; the whole idea seems cool to me. A room, or a small suite, where I have a bed and a desk, maybe a wardrobe with some things. Living right in the middle of the Kingdom of God, in the same building as Jesus. I picture living in the British palace, or living in one of the palaces of the fantasy fiction books I read, and get all fluttery and excited.

Better is one day in Your court
Better is one day in Your house
Better is one day in Your court
Than a thousand elsewhere

-Song by I’m-not-sure-who, adapted from Psalm 84:10

Heaven’s going to be so cool, you guys 😀