As A Hedge

Posted on June 26, 2014
Filed Under Elsewhere, Theological | Comments Off on As A Hedge

The blogs I admire most tend to have a strong element of personal transparency balancing the instructive or assertive elements. Bailey at My Holy Joy fits that preference. I admire the honesty of writing. It’s been especially interesting to observe the transformation of her perspective from stridently conservative to determinedly open and, lately, a bit of a reprise.

Several of Bailey’s recent posts deal with maintaining sexual ethics in a romantic relationship (I’ll link to only one, but there are others). I can relate to the feeling of looking for a better set of guidelines after experiencing a hard turn in a relationship. But I don’t think that’s really the best lesson to learn from failing to keep the ethics you believe in.

I can see two themes in Bailey’s recent writing. The one I’m pretty sure is meant to be primary is the idea that it doesn’t accomplish anything good to do things you feel are morally doubtful just because you can. Libertine is not liberty. You may find at some point that some standards you thought were good are definitely causing harm, either your own harm or another’s; but if you’re not really sure that they are wrong and can only say for certain that they are awkward, giving up on those standards for convenience will probably be a cause of regret. If that’s a fair interpretation of what Bailey’s getting at I’d agree with it.

The other theme I see mixed in is the idea that if only some rules were kept, sin and regret would be avoided. In a technical sense I suppose it can’t be argued that if you have a rule “Don’t do X,” and you do X and regret it, then keeping the rule would have avoided the regret. But people don’t transgress their own moral standards only as a philosophical experiment in Christian liberty. Bailey seems to have first decided that some of her standards were legalistic and chosen to disregard them; other people may never decide to reject the standard but still be drawn by desire beyond their boundaries. Other people do maintain those standards that we can easily point to (“do not touch“) but, while maintaining this purity of doing, speak evil and destructive words. Avoiding sin is not a matter of devoting yourself sufficiently to some standard of righteousness – God knows that whatever standard of righteousness you profess, you will compromise. Not one man will stand before God righteous in his own eyes, because the Lord of truth will reveal only one who is righteous – his own son.

In the New Covenant God revealed that the purpose of even his own law was not to prevent sin, but to make it manifest when it occurred. God has not willed that we be righteous by keeping law. When the stewards of the law of Moses found it hard to keep the added more rules as a buffer to help people never even come close to breaking the law, and it did not work. Thinking that you need to be more strictly devoted to your personal laws when  you are disappointed that you did not keep them is like thinking you need to be more diligent about washing your mirrors when you see that your face is dirty.

I think we are better learned if we find in our failure the evidence of our need for grace. What are we saying when we resolve to follow a better law so that we will need less grace? Aren’t we saying we resolve to need God less?

Not that we pursue sin with abandon because of grace. You cannot do this, for if you pursue sin you are not recognizing it or treating it as sin, and if sin is not so much sinful than it doesn’t require so much grace to forgive. We despise grace by either devoting ourselves to the law or to lawlessness.

I like how Rich Mullins wrote about regretting sin in his song “Growing Young.” His treatment sounds less like “I’m going to do better next time” and more like “I will sing of my forgiveness.”

A broken mind

Posted on May 13, 2014
Filed Under Elsewhere, Journeyman Chronicles, Mundane | Comments Off on A broken mind

I started living with my grandparents in autumn of 2002 when I began attending the nearby university. When I got there Grandpa was an independent man who could drive us down back country roads that would turn out in some small town where the Methodists were having a $6 supper. During the course of my college education Grandpa developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: unable to use the TV remote. Unable to drive. My brother came to provide around the clock care until, in 2009, Grandpa became unable (or unwilling, really) to live.

Alzheimer’s disease can progress fitfully, seeming to recede as the brain tries to adapt to its own impairment. You can hear from a person suffering from Alzheimer’s what it is like to lose your mind. With time and empathy and attention you might learn as much as my brother did. I provided some weekend relief for my brother in care-taking, and between his observations and my own I am convinced that you can be alive even if your brain doesn’t work. It is, after all, only an organ. You can be alive without an arm or a kidney. You can even be in some sense conscious and aware that your brain is not working.

So how do you give up on your own mind? If you were aware that you were losing your cognitive abilities, how do you reconcile to that truth? How much courage does it take to admit that some of what you “see” and “know” is false? When, in those earlier days when you sometimes are still right–when you are right more often than you are wrong–should you admit that your mind is flawed and you need someone else to think about every important action you could take? Now my mother’s father is also in mental decline, and we talk about what he ought to do. O physician, take your own dose! Would you today give up all your right to make decisions?

I am decades away from my struggle with Alzheimer’s, should it come to me in the way it is most known. But Alzheimer’s is not the only disease that wrecks your brain. Almost anything you do is directed by your brain, so almost anything can be affected by a malady of the brain. But the brain is an ocean, with layers and currents and moods and no real boundaries. Like the geyser of a broken derrick, the presence of pollution in the mind is easier to identify than it is to define. Here there is a problem; there, not; but so much of elsewhere there is a trace of corruption that is only apparent over time.

Grandpa dies of Alzheimer’s, but his father killed himself. The “Purdy temper” is moody with a cynical bent, given to depression and quick to conclude that all is vanity. Maybe that’s treatable, like heartburn, or high blood cholesterol. Maybe one little pill can fix up our warped minds. Maybe it is just Tylenol. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

You would think that’s a hopeful thought. It’s not. It’s terrifying.

Think of a happy day. Maybe it was a birthday party. Maybe a loved one came home after a long time away. Maybe you graduated, or were accepted into school, or maybe that was the day your wife said yes.

Think of an ordinary day. Last Tuesday, say, unless that was a special day. Think of some just plain ordinary day. I don’t know how you can think of an ordinary day because ordinary days are pretty much forgettable, but if today was an ordinary day just review it in your mind and hold it there.

Now bottle it up. In fact, squeeze it down to a pill.

Take your ordinary day experience – the feelings, the memories, the conversations – and put it into a pill. Would you take that pill?

Put that pill side by side with the happy day that you thought of earlier, in another pill. Put the happy pill right there by the ordinary pill. And now put an unhappy pill next to the other two.

Would you chose your truth? Is the truth even true if it is just something you choose? Which truth would you choose, if you could choose your own truth?

Let’s leave the question of dependency on mind-altering drugs out of it. If you can take a pill and change your perception of reality, is it even real? If you could take a pill when it was literally raining, and the sun would literally come out, is that real?

What if I offered you eye surgery: remove one of your eyes and I’ll replace it with one that can see colors you have never seen before – color no person has ever seen before. Maybe it’s real but maybe it’s a hoax. Would you agree? You’ll tell me that taking a pill isn’t the same as removing an eye, a pill is not a lobotomy. But then again an eye isn’t your brain. An eye is only your lens to the visible world. Your brain is the lens to the entire world. Once you start playing with the dial you can no longer talk about the “natural color,” as it were. Maybe you oversaturated red tones. Maybe you amped up the contrast. Maybe you did dial the colors in “right,” too, but who’s to say? Do even the “normal” people all see colors the same way?

To take a pill for your brain is to call yourself a liar. Not just an occasional liar but a habitual, pathological liar who simply can’t be trusted, but the person you are lying to is yourself.

It’s easy to say what to do if your brain disease is bad enough. If your Alzheimer’s disease is so bad that you actually can’t figure out how to start a car, it’s easy enough to say that someone else should drive you. It might not be a fun thing to say but the necessity is pretty clear. But what if you just missed a turn? Everybody does that. What if you just couldn’t find your way home for a bit? You made it eventually. I have never curled up in the tub screaming silently at the horror of existence. Indeed that is so far beyond my fits of melancholy that I have trouble conceiving of it as more than a fantasy. Surely under that great a strain the non-physical part of your mind just… explodes. Surely reality can’t include visions of nothing more than horror.

How do you know if your mind is broken when you live in a broken world?

Searching Together 2013

Posted on August 24, 2013
Filed Under Elsewhere, Theological | 1 Comment

I gave a speech I titled “Justice and the Gospel” at the Searching Together conference this year. Several people said I presented well or that I made a great point. It was an odd experience because I felt I wasn’t really making a point at all, just listing a bunch of depressing facts about some history recorded in the Bible. I thought of it as a kind of sequel, or maybe prequel, to my first Searching Together presentation, “All Creation Groans,” but when I actually went back to read that one I thought maybe I just repeated myself.

Other presentations were:

David Gay, “The New Covenant Ministry: The Basis and the Practice.”
David presented in two parts, the first and last sessions. This was the first conference he attended, and he said he wasn’t sure how he should present to our group. Later he said it was just as well that he went first, because after he saw the other presentations he would have felt so out of place he wouldn’t have been confident enough to present at all. David’s presentation was based on 2 Corinthians 3-4. Somehow it didn’t cross my mind to bring a Bible with me, and that may have made it harder for me to follow along. The theme I caught was David’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation, but in his second presentation he also brought in the idea of the watchman’s responsibility. I didn’t understand how he reconciled the two. I wasn’t the only one who struggled on that point, but the response to David’s presentation that everyone will remember was a complaint over a side-bar remark he made about God being glorified in the destruction of sinners.

Jim Putney objected to this idea, stating emphatically that “Love wins” and that in Christ “all” will be reconciled. The objection was presented disrespectfully, I thought, and it provoked a harsh reaction in turn from another member of the audience. The substance of David’s presentation did not get discussed.

Jim Putney, “Rest in Christ”
Jim’s presentation was based on the image of passengers at rest while travelling in a train, and his experiences with his grandson. Jim related these to various passages regarding the Sabbath, to the effect that God has already made us Holy and we are now to rest in His work.

Vinny Oliveira, “Why Are We Here?”
Vinny’s presentation was mostly a recounting of his life’s story. Vinny went from a drug dependent life through several controlling cults. As I remarked later, you can always do worse than truthfully recounting your story, because the truth will always speak of God. Vinny’s story did not offer a model to be emulated, but rather evidence of God’s intervening mercy from hardship to hardship. It was, I think, the most hope-inspiring presentation of the conference.

Tom Atkinson, “The Believer’s Death to Sin in Romans 6 and 1 John 3”
Tom’s presentation is another where I might have benefited from having a text in front of me. My impression listening was that Tom was overstretching the meaning of regeneration and justification to a point where we would no longer have any continuing need of Christ. If the inward man is totally dead to sin, and only the fleshly man persists in sin, than we are already perfected and need no ongoing grace. I brought Tom’s much longer full text home to read later, because I wasn’t sure I was hearing what he meant.

Jon Zens, “Christ on Earth as Community”
Jon argued from John 13 – 17 that Pentecost should be considered the second coming of Christ (not excluding or replacing the traditional Second Coming, but interjected as a third, so to speak). This also seemed a bit overstretching a valid point. Jon used this to repeat his refrain that the separation of believers is a sin directly against Christ.

Jamal Jivanjee, “Loving Like God”
Jamal interwove a personal story into the account of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. It was a story I would not have credited if I heard it second-hand, so I won’t repeat it. In person it was a remarkable and unlikely tale that well illustrated Jamal’s point that God does not do his work within the lines or rules of what we expect.

Kat Huff, “One”
Kat spoke about the inclusion of male in female in one humanity and further argued that there were feminine aspects to God. Kat was careful to say that the feminine aspects did not replace or negate the male aspects of God traditionally acknowledged, but went on to point out the female gender of verbs applied to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament and some maternal images used at various places in scripture. Her conclusion was that because of these feminine traits we could not exclude women from functioning in the fellowship.

To me this was an invalid way to make a point so broad and vague as to defy simple agreement or disagreement. I thought the emphasis on “One” was dubious since God, on his own prerogative and before the fall of man, made two, male and female. I thought more could be said about God’s consistent choice to portray his people as female (the bride) alongside his own male, across scriptural imagery. I suggested as much, but poorly, and no useful discussion entailed.


I increasingly find the teaching presented in sessions at Searching Together unprofitable at best and misleading at worst; and yet I am always reminded that I do not go there for teaching, at least not in the usual didactic sense. Vinny commented on Jim’s outburst at David by saying, “Often, the problem isn’t the problem,” and suggesting that there was probably something other than just the words David spoke that was bothering Jim and fueled the vehemence of his response. Intellectually I agree with David much more than Jim on the controversy at hand, but I was struck by Vinny’s point. One did not have to agree with Jim to ask about the struggles that lead him to his position, and in asking and listening we can learn about the help people need beyond a lecture in doctrine. There are times when the issue does come down to doctrine, to a deliberate attempt to spread man-glorifying teaching and drive out the Christ-dependent gospel, but hastily “correcting” doctrine rarely does anyone any good.

Probably more than half of the people at the conference gave me some kind of compliment on my presentation. I like that, and I know it. I don’t want my evaluation of the worth of the conference to be a simple function of how well my talking is received. Overall my persistent feeling from the conference was that the comments I made were based on my social position within the Searching Together group. That is, I know that people who have heard me speak before consider me insightful; I know some of that attitude is conveyed, without words, to the group as a whole. I know I have “pull” with the key people that keep Searching Together, well, together. I only remember speaking up in the discussion twice, and both times it was with the intention to signal that I was “standing with” someone who had already spoken up. I was throwing my “weight” behind them.

I said so, too; and I also said more. In both cases I explained, briefly, the thinking behind my position–the theology, if I can use so big a word for such a short and casual statement. I don’t think I did anyone wrong, that I should regret per se. But I did feel that for my own part the shift in my attitude was important. I felt also insincere in my interactions with others because I regarded so many of them so lightly, as to whether they could say anything that I would benefit from hearing. In this I was shown wrong several times in the conference. People who I would not follow (which should be everyone) can still say things I think reveal truth. But again, the attitude that I adopt I think says a lot about whether I should go out of my way to appear at the conference once a year.




What does that word mean?

Posted on June 12, 2013
Filed Under Church Signs, Elsewhere | Comments Off on What does that word mean?

Alan Knox has put up a couple of good posts about what church is. In one he talks about the difficulty of describing the difference between a group of people who belong together versus a group of people who get together to do things. In the other, Alan describes the feeling of being part of a group that belongs together.

These two posts reflect my experience well.

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