Do you feel it?

Posted on March 30, 2008
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Today I visited an Assemblies of God church. I have been putting off visiting Pentecostal churches because I am always afraid I might accidentally wind up in some really creepy “spirit” filled situation. I freely consider my concern excessive, and in today’s events there was nothing “creepy.” Not to my sensitivities, anyway.

Immediately after the warm-up singining someone spoke stridently in some other language. After a pause someone in the front of the church then spoke along these lines; I’m not quoting verbatim, but I am trying to be as accurate as my memory allows.

“A heavy cloud is over [this area], wanting to rain. It’s just full of rain, wanting to pour down. Examine your lives, dig in the dirt of your lives and prepare yourselves to receive this holy rain. I will rain down on you and you will be filled with my holy rain.”

Again, this is not a qoute, but it conveys what was said: imagery of rain, a positive tenor and a sense of promised blessing, but nothing concrete and nothing provable. In contrast to the stridance of the first speaker, this person had a bit of heistancy, sometimes seeming to search for words. When this person was done someone else in the back spoke immediately, forcefully (again, not a direct quote):

“This is not just for you, but I will fill the whole [area]. I have heard the desperate cries of the people and I will respond, I will rain my holiness down on the whole [area] and I will rain down living water, and others will also be filled through you.”

Once before I was in a meeting like this, and on that occasion I missed that the second speaker was supposedly interpreting the “tongue” of the first. I thought people were just taking turns saying whatever they felt like saying. But if this second person is offering the interpretation of what the first said in the unintelligble (to English speakers) speech, then I would grant that the minimum requirements for speaking in tongues have been met. There were not a bunch of people jabbering at once, and the interpretation offered was intelligble to the assembly.

With the particular requirements met, I do not offer an authoritative rejection of this speaking, as I might if I felt something was clearly and demonstrably against the Bible or even had provoked a strong sense in my own spirit of an offense to the Spirit of God and harm to his children.

But as my own opinion, I do not believe the Spirit moved those people. I think they spoke from their own turbulent hopes, dreams, and yearnings, and in giving voice to what they hoped God might do they were not listening to what God actually said he would do. I think the speaking in tongues at Pentecost was the speaking of different human languages by a crowd of people, so that to all observers everybody except the two or three they understood was speaking nonsense. Summarizing Paul’s lengthy discourse on speaking in tongues, I understand that it can include speaking languages that perhaps nobody knows; and it could even be that what is spoken has no value except as a personal experience of the one who speaks. This is not, by itself, some great evil. Rather than fretting about the strangeness of speaking in tongues, we ought to be concerned with what the effect is; and if it is nothing more than to promote vague yet enticing suggestions that God might be about to work, it is not accomplishing anything productive.

Even though I have little use for the speaking in tongues demonstrated on this day, that is not what will keep me from going back. More than anything else, the preacher’s practice of instructing everyone in the audience to turn to one another and mouth such inanities as “I’m glad I came to church today” that will keep me away. The music was too loud, and I regard background vocalizations (not musical counterpoint, but the “Yes, Jesus” sort of accessorizing) about as poorly as speaking in tongues. The message was inconsequential. We were advised to be like #220 sandpaper, not like #160. There is nothing heretical about that, and it’s true that there are fellow Christians who will rub us the wrong way, it just isn’t what I think of when I talk about studying God’s word. So even if you took away those pupeteering requests from the pastor, there is nothing to bring me back to that service; but that’s what I cannot begin to put up with. It places the burden on you to either go along with saying and doing something that you might not actually feel or believe, or else to appear as the cold, arrogant, uncaring sort of person who makes themself unwelcome wherever they go. Thank you, no.

Later in the day, David, who had suggested I attend the church, called to ask me if I had gone and what I had thought (he is on bed rest presently). I told him it had the strengths and weaknesses I expected, and as I paused to try to improve my words he went along telling me that sometimes the Spirit is so thick there you can hardly stand and sometimes its so dry it seems dead. Then he suggested I keep on going and see if things didn’t improve.

On the one hand, it’s reasonable advice–that is, you will get a better understanding of a place by visiting more than once. Of course this advice is ignorant of the real root of my issues with the church, but that’s as expected. The other hand of the matter is that this is classic lead-in advice; if you don’t get it or don’t feel it, well, keep trying, it will come to you. Yes, that’s rather what I expect. When the Holy Spirit is really just human emotion run rampant, sometimes it does take a while to loosen yourself up enough to play along.

Good: Questions are asked

Posted on March 23, 2008
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It is always an encouraging sign when regular attendees are not afraid to ask questions, and even better when the attendees in general can respond to this question. May the questions people actually have be answered to the fullest ability of those present.

Of course, this never happens in “regular” sermons, to their own harm.

A handful of assorted truths

Posted on March 23, 2008
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Today I visited Cherry Baptist. I arrived early enough to attend the Sunday school, and upon arriving the first thing I was asked was “Which Sunday school do you want to go to? We have five.”

“I don’t care,” I said, “Any of them.”

“I’ll take you to the men’s,” said the attendent. This struck me as a good idea. I have a hard time coming up with four alternatives to “Men’s,” but if by conjecture there is also Women’s, Children’s, Teen’s, and Young Couples’ (again, I am guessing), Men’s would be the best fit. Except that I don’t agree with splitting the body of believers into little monocultures.

The leader of the men’s Sunday school had written on his white board, “Be holy, for I am holy,” so I anticipated a lesson on this theme. I am not entirely sure if that is what I got or not. We started with an admonishment to pray for people of all political affiliations (for the discussion before the meeting got underway was on various anti-Democrat matters), since neither Republican nor Democratic govermental philosophies could address the actual need for government that was a result of sin. Nominal reminders that Democrats are not necessarily satanic are to be expected, but I thought the observation that the governmental problem was sin was a bit more acute than average. If the implications of that were actually realized, interesting political discussions could ensue. I am pretty clear that this was a theological statement, though, seperate from the political reality, which was to vote Republican for Capitalism and Christianity.

Getting in to the actual lesson, mention was made of Leviticus, of the impossible standard of holiness, the substitutionary nature of sacrifice, and Christ’s sole sufficiency as a sacrifice to atone for our sins. Then it was stressed repeatedly that Christ was raised bodily, and that this was extremely necessary, and the quackery of the Mormons made the sacrifice of Jesus of no effect.

Here things become hard to recapitulate, because while stressing the importance of the bodily resurrection, the focus shifted to the spiritual regeneration that allows us to practice holiness where before we could not. At this point someone asked a question regarding the assurance of salvation when a Christian knows he has sinned, and although this was somewhat addressed it was not explained very thoroughly and was promptly reintroduced when the leader went into 1 John for a verse on how one who rightly says he is of God does not sin (something like 1 John 3:6–but not necessarily that particular verse). I have a hard time sitting by when people with questions are left with inadequate answers, so I pointed out 1 John 1:8 to try to offer some balance to the picture, but it is sad that I should have to do that in a room full of regular church attendees at Sunday school. The room seemed to be filled mainly with retired farmers, with the next generation a close second; it’s a demographic that has probably been going to the same church their whole lives, and the pastor was the son of the previous pastor. There has been ample opportunity for these concepts to be well established.

Most of the points stated were already well memorized by the majority. A mummer of correct answers greeted any of the leader’s rhetorical questions. But the leader of the Bible study, the second in command or lieutenant pastor, if you will, did not offer more than theological points. I found no major disagreement with anything he said, but could not detect any coherence of thought or theme behind the succession of points, all of which he delivered in impressive, lively speech. As mentioned, he correctly insisted on the importance of the bodily resurrection of Christ, but did nothing to explain its importance. Nobody mentioned 2 Corinthians 5, in the Sunday school or in the later sermon on a similar theme.

It was as if the ingredients for baking a cake were being presented, and all the ingredients were of unimpeachable quality; but lacking the appropriate mixture and heating, they made poor fare for enjoyment or growth. The same dissolution affected the principle sermon, where the head pastor delivered with even more impressive elocution, by turns sonorous and breathless, so that we might all feel divine shivers. But he failed to deliver any cogent development on his theme, of how Christ could endure the crucifixion, except for mentioning that it was for the “joy that was before him” and stressing the necessity of the bodily resurrection.

While in college a number of my peers mistakenly thought I knew everything because I frequently grasped the concept the teacher was presenting, understood and considered it, and then anticipated what the teacher was going to say by my comments. But this was not a matter of knowing beforehand the facts at the teacher’s disposal, as my colleagues supposed; this was understanding an idea presented. In the sermon at Cherry Baptist and in the Sunday school, I felt lost and disinterested, not because I could not understand what was said, but because I couldn’t understand why it was being said. It felt like wandering through a museum and staring stupidly at the displays, perfectly capable of reading the explanatory plaques but ignorant of the context of the display and the artifacts purpose and place in the larger society it came from.

It seems that the Protestants have simply reinvented Catholicism (and they, in their turn, Judaism), developing cathecisms and layers of certified experts to preserve and propagate knowledge of the truth, but lacking that living knowledge of God that grows organically from the seed planted in each person’s heart. The Baptists may have points of doctrine more sound than the other churches I went to, but if these doctrines are bricks, because they do not assemble them together, they have no stronger a wall then the other churches with their weaker “bricks.”

As churches today strive to increase their relevance and effectiveness with a multitude of demographically-targeted secondary programs, emphasizing smaller groups and more personal relationships, they still fail to provide what is missing, and propogate the deficiencies of having a few do all the teaching, thinking, and actual studious learning. The audience remains as bored and disinterested as one rightly is in viewing everlasting videos of someone else’s family, someone else’s life. Each of us needs to live a spiritual life of our own, and although comparing with and listening to others can help that, it can never replace it.

I think in this town and in this country all the places for spiritual food are serving chicken. Some are haute gormet and some are fast food, but they are all serving chicken, and after a while one has to wonder: Where’s the beef?

Shadow and light

Posted on March 19, 2008
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One of the most frequent concerns addressed in advertising for new construction or renovation is the abundance of natural light. Large windows are ubiquitously advertised and unquestioningly desired. While natural light is good for your health and aesthetically pleasing, some questions should be asked about the large-window craze.

The first question to ask is why we feel the need for great large windows. Presumptively, it feels dark. But is it dark? Or what causes the sensation of darkness? Every day at work in the morning I’m supposed to update a series of numbers on a large whiteboard. If I don’t get them all done before the meeting begins, I finish up in the second half of the meeting when they turn on a projector and turn off the lights. As I am standing there writing on the board someone flips the switch, and it becomes too dark to write. Yet it brightens back up, without anyone turning on any lights; my eyes adjust to a new threshold of ambient light, and it no longer seems too dark to write.

That example is a little trite. We all know about our eyes adjusting to darkness. But similar effects apply in more nuanced situations. In my apartment kitchen, there’s a window and door with a glass pane on the same wall. When I first arrived, I felt that the side of the kitchen where I put my table was hopelessly dark, and I figured I would probably have to buy a lamp, even though there was a set of florescent bulbs installed in the ceiling, or do something else to relieve the darkness. I planned to hang a mirror on the wall, a larger mirror I picked up for free; but it desperately needed to be refinished and I procrastinated at that.

It happened that before I got around to addressing the darkness of that corner, I got a curtain for the glass in the door for privacy’s sake. After that I did not feel the need for lighting the table end of the room so much. I did not notice any dramatic difference, but the sense of gloom on that side of the room abated.

There are two possible effects at work. First, the curtain diffuses the light, scattering it into the room in more directions than it would stream in through clear glass. Second, by dimming and diffusing the sunlight as it enters the room, it reduces the impact of the direct sunlight and lowers the threshold of lightness, like turning off the lights in the meeting, so that the somewhat dimmer side of the room does not contrast as sharply with the light beaming in from outside. Opening up the blinds over the window somewhat negates this effect, letting stark daylight into the far end of the room (although with the door still shaded and with greater space between the extremes of light, the contrast is not as severe as it was). Thus, while I occasionally open the blinds to enjoy a full blast of daylight, keeping all the windows at least partly shaded gives a brighter overall feeling to the room. The light does not simply seem brighter; I always know that there is brighter light being obscured. But sharp, strong light creates a sense of urgency, where diffused light allows more relaxation and does not make you feel like you must choose between being in the light and in the dark.

The house I grew up in was built long before wiring was common, and retrofitted with an outlet per room. Lighting was in short supply. Also, with a steadily rising number of kids, none of whom respected the niceties of things, lampshades fell victim to intentional and collateral damage. So we wound up with a lot of bare bulbs trying desperately to light rooms by their own strength. Over the years wiring was upgraded and added, so higher wattage bulbs were used and gradually more were available for service. Yet I’ve noticed that no matter how many watts of illumination there are, you can still feel like the room is too dark. I think that’s not really darkness per se, but the harshness of the light. In fact, when some of those stick-on LEDs were purchased to light a dark corner, people complained they were too harsh and made the area feel darker.

The psychology of light and dark goes beyond the actual amount of light, beyond even contrasting levels of light. I have noticed that I feel the need for light more urgently when there is clutter, while dimness is more acceptable when things are neat. A bunch of clutter under strong light looks like work in progress, while a bunch of clutter in the dark looks like forgotten junk. So simply shining brighter light on something that needs to be taken care of may help us feel like something is being done about it.

Another thing to consider before building a glass wall is what you are going to do on the interior side of the wall. I am always going to want more window space in my living room than in my bedroom, yet I like a window even in the bathroom where privacy is a top priority. The size and proportions of a room will affect the size of the appropriate windows. But there are some things I think are extreme no matter what room of the house you are considering. There’s a style of “log” house that makes one gable-end wall of the house nearly all glass, right up to the peak. I don’t want that much glass in any room of my house. In the lobby of a public building such glazed vistas may find their place, but I want my house to feel like a home and to have a protective presence around me. When I want to be wide open to the outdoors, I’ll go outdoors. That’s another thing I think feeds the craze for plenteous glass. We are spending more and more time indoors, in front of electronic devices and surrounded by air that’s neither too cold nor too hot, and we find ourselves lacking in exposure to the outdoors. But windows don’t really remedy that. To enjoy nature you need to be out in it, simply observing it through glass is not a whole lot better than watching the nature channel on TV. Attempting to compensate for a secluded life by putting in big windows I think is a antidote without lasting effect.

Personal preference will still play a role in how much glass is satisfactory. I think, though, that many of the people who want “lots of natural light” in their homes will find the bedroom better served by modestly sized windows on two or three walls rather than a wall of glass; or they may find that generous light in the living room and kitchen leaves them perfectly happy with fewer and smaller windows in their bedroom. Contrast and context are extremely important in our appreciation of light, and without adapting to these variables we can find ourselves going from “too dark and claustrophobic” to “overexposed and out of place” without attaining the sense of comfort we were looking for.

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