Christianity 201

August 31, 2017

The Story of Us

by Clarke Dixon

Now suppose you were to ask me to tell you about my marriage. I might say something like “well, it is my task to put out the garbage on a Sunday night ready for Monday morning, and Sandra’s tasks are to keep the pantry and fridge stocked, buy the clothes for the boys (yes, that includes me), take the lead on the medical concerns of our children, . . . well, pretty much everything but get the garbage out. Now of course I am exaggerating but I hope that you find it odd that a question about my marriage would end up with a list of duties and expectations. Yet we do this all the time with matters of faith. A question about our faith may well lead us to speak about our duties and expectations as a Christian. Or as I fear, many in trying to pass on the faith to the next generation will focus almost solely on passing on that list of duties and expectations. This can be described as the “it is good for you” kind of faith.

Problem is, the next generation normally has no problem coming up with a set of values and ethics on their own, especially with culture and society so eager to help. If that is all the Christian faith is about, then why bother, especially as Christian duties and expectations will seem quite a bit more bothersome than what might come up with ourselves. I needn’t tell you that many in the next generations (including my own) haven’t bothered.

The Psalmist in Psalm 78 has a heart for the coming generations and is eager to pass on the faith:

My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old— things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4 NIV)

We will want to notice right from the start that the Psalmist has a much bigger sense of faith than the duties and expectations. Yes, the Psalmist will go on to speak of God’s law as part of the “praiseworthy deeds” of the Lord, but there is something greater here than being grateful for a mere list of ethics. The Psalmist wants to pass on the knowledge of the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He wants to pass on, not just the rules of a religion, but better the knowledge of the living, interacting, and intervening God.

This of course assumes that the Psalmist knows the praiseworthy deeds, the might, and wonders of the Lord. If we are to be effective in passing the faith on to a new generation (and this is a key desire of mine within my own family!), step one is to be sure we know it and enjoy it well ourselves first!! Do you know the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord? Have you seen his power at work? Are you able to articulate the wonders he has done? Can you point to where these can be found in the Bible? Can you point to where these can be found in your own life story?

Furthermore, in the rest of the Psalm (and it is a long one, rather like some of my sermons!), the Psalmist tells us a story, or better, stories. These focus on God’s people, their rebellion, God’s covering them with grace and forgiveness, God’s drawing them forward with discipline and instruction, and finally God’s preparation for the future. The story ends with Israel’s final rebellion against God, his purposes being carried forward with Judah and King David. In fact the ending has kind of an ‘unfinished’ feel to it as one suspects the story will go on. And we know it does. But the thing for us to notice is this: the Psalmist in having a heart for the next generation, spends much of his time telling the stories of God’s relationship with God’s people, or the story of us. This is more like what you might expect to hear if you asked about my marriage. How we met. How we fell in love with each other. How we fell in love with our children. You don’t expect a list of duties and expectations, but the story of us. Can you articulate the story of God’s love for his creation and humanity?

Can you tell the story of how you fell in love with God? Will you? The story goes on . . .

Read more from Clarke Dixon at clarkedixon.wordpress.com

June 6, 2017

Seek Wisdom, Understanding, Insight

“My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.” Proverbs 2:1-5

Let’s bullet point the first part of the verse:

  • making your ear attentive to wisdom
  • inclining your heart to understanding
  • calling out for insight

The two payoffs are in the last part of the verse:

  • you will understand the fear of the Lord
  • find the knowledge of God.

How would you evaluate yourself in terms of these two criteria?

As you can imagine, on some days I read several devotions before selecting one to include here. This week I was reading a longer piece by a woman who moved from being a former Mormon to Evangelical Christianity. She described her Bible study method. You can click this link to see this section with illustrations (it makes more sense if you can see her examples):

  1. Write down the date at the top of the page. Simple step, but it will help you see what days you studied (or didn’t) and how your understanding progresses over the coming weeks and months.
  2. Write the chapter(s) you’re in and/or the topic you’re focusing on.  If you haven’t been reading regularly and need help getting started, there are reading plans on www.biblehub.com.  I highly recommend the fantastic app Read Scripture www.readscripture.org put out by Francis Chan and The Bible Project.  It has given me a hunger for the scriptures that I never had before using it.  I must note here that its important to be flexible.  Don’t be totally stuck on chronological reading.  I read chronologically sometimes and other times I feel like there’s a specific topic I want to study.  Sometimes I have no impression at all and those are the best times because then God tells me what to study.  Which brings me to the next step…
  3. Pray before you begin your study.  A week ago, I was feeling so scattered and had no idea what to read.  I had been in the Old Testament in the Read Scripture app but didn’t feel like that’s where I was supposed to study that day.  I prayed a heartfelt prayer and asked God to calm my mind and show me what He wanted me to focus on.  Almost instantly, he answered by putting five distinct topics in my mind.  I wrote them in my notebook with blank lines underneath.  I felt like each one of these topics deserved a dedicated study so each day this week I have spent searching for references containing these topics.  Sometimes I do a simple word search inside one of the bible apps I use, other times I Google a phrase and find entire pages full of references dealing with that topic. I write down the ones that seem to stand out to me and once I have them all jotted down I read and ponder them.  Sometimes, I’ll feel like one of the references deserves another day of dedicated study so I’ll write it down on a the next blank page in my notebook.  By doing this God has already started to outline my future study sessions for me.
  4. Write down “random” thoughts, phrases and cross references you come across as you’re reading.  They’re not random at all.  Once you write it down you can keep going and not worry you’ll forget about it later.   God will reveal many side topics that are related to the one you’re focused on.  I find it important to follow a chapter or set of verses through or I would be constantly distracted by all the ideas coming in my mind.  Once I started jotting thoughts down and moving along I have felt amazed that I never run out of topics to study.  Here’s an example of some thoughts I had when skimming through Romans 12 that I plan to study in depth once I’m done finding scriptures related to the five topics God gave me.  I felt impressed to write out the entire verse and as I did, I noticed a few key words that might be important to study so I underlined them. A few questions came to mind so I jotted them down.  Normally I would’ve wanted to go research those questions right away which would’ve totally gotten me off track.  There’s nothing wrong with being all over the place in the Bible, because the fact you’re reading is great, but having a game plan will help your study connect to your spirit and will improve your relationship with God.  May sound simple for some of you but for someone with a busy mind, it is a game changer.

But then I was really struck by her section on “Deliberation.”

Deliberation is defined as “long and careful consideration”.  I would add “prayerful”.  The most important thing here is to be prayerful and to talk with God about what you’re studying, to listen to how He wants you to understand it and what meaning it has for your current situation.  Without deliberation, we are only reading to be reading, not to gain understanding.  Keep going back to what you write down and see what else God wants you to notice about what you’ve been studying.  The five topics God gave me last week are very specific to me personally and to what’s been on my mind.  A couple of them I recognized right away as answers to my prayer asking Him what I was lacking.  He hasn’t revealed yet how the other topics relate but as I keep going deeper into them I am positive I will understand what He’s teaching me.

In so many ways, this deliberate study is growing my relationship with my Father.  I am learning to hear Him better, I am learning to trust Him more as he shows me He is very aware of my specific needs, and I am finding greater joy in His word.  These are all things I had prayed for numerous times.  The answer to all of them was to spend more time in study and prayer.

Although it’s not on the same level as our opening scripture, let’s unpack the payoffs listed in the above paragraph:

  • I am learning to hear Him better,
  • I am learning to trust Him more
  • He shows me He is very aware of my specific needs
  • I am finding greater joy in His word.

How would you evaluate yourself by these four criteria?

 

 

 

 

June 10, 2016

Supernatural? Not Really

God's CreationThis article is from an article at Mystery of Faith, a site we haven’t visited before. Click the link below to read at source.

Why Christians Should Not Speak of the Supernatural

Christians believe in a Triune God who created the cosmos, and who stands in some way outside of it, or beyond it. To call God ‘holy’ is to acknowledge that God is completely ‘other’ than anything else. He is not simply separated from created things by degree but in kind. The Creator is not on the same spectrum as the creation; He is on His own spectrum. This is all summed up in the Hebrew and Christian confession that God is ‘holy‘.

But to confess this ‘otherness‘ of God is not to speak of God as ‘supernatural‘. {TWEET THIS} Webster’s defines the supernatural in two ways: ‘of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil’; or, ‘as departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature, or attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit).’ So, yes, in one sense God is supernatural; His existence is ‘beyond the visible order of the observable universe’. But the language of ‘natural‘ and ‘supernatural‘ leans on a framework which divides the ‘natural‘ world from the ‘supernatural‘ world, a view which emerged during the Enlightenment, particularly when Sir Isaac Newton, outlined his mathematical principles of natural philosophy out of the conviction that there is a deep created order to the world, and to name these laws was to glorify God.

Ironically, these principles were used to effectively relegate God ‘upstairs’ and humans ‘downstairs’. Deism, the formal name for this view, accepted that the order in creation owed its origins to a creator, but that like any good invention, it did not require its inventor to keep running. Deism eventually led to post-Enlightenment rationalism, which rejected miracles both in Scripture and in contemporary life. After all, why would a God make rules only to suspend them whenever He liked? Why set the world up like a great clock only to move the hands at a whim? And if interventions were needed to correct the mechanism, how good was its design to begin with? (Voltaire, Spinoza and Hume are examples of a few philosophers whose skepticism led to a ‘de-miraclizing’ of the New Testament.) In one sense, it was Newton’s faith-driven science that led to the rejection of faith in the West.

What we are left with now are the remnants of warring worldviews– one which claims the belief in a supernatural, and one which argues against it on the basis of scientific discovery. It seems we are at an impasse. But I suggest it’s time to re-examine the very framework which divides reality in ‘natural’ and a ‘supernatural’ one.

Listen to how the Hebrew poets and prophets talked about the relationship between God and His world:

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. (Psalm 24:1-2)

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:5)

And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3)

God is holy AND His glory fills the earth! The Enlightenment taught us to see the world (and the phenomena in it) as either natural or supernatural. The Hebrews saw God as above and beyond His creation, and yet somehow also within it.

As it turns out, not only is this view of the world better theologically, it actually coheres with science, but a more a more up-to-date science. My supervisor, David Wilkinson, is a brilliant and Godly man who earned a double PhD in Astrophysics and Systematic Theology. A recent article captures his thoughts on miracles and science from his book on prayer:

Quantum theory tells us that the small-scale structure of the world is, in the words of Christian physicist John Polkinghorne, “radically random”: “By that he means it is unpredictable and nothing like a mechanical clock,” says Wilkinson. “It is a world that is unpicturable, uncertain, and in which the cause of events cannot be fully specified.”

So, suggests Wilkinson, there’s plenty of room for God to act, because the system isn’t closed at all. He can “push” electrons here and there and alter the course of events in the world without breaking any of the laws of nature. The problem is that too many theologians simply don’t know enough about physics and are stuck with out-of-date science. Quantum theory doesn’t answer all our questions, Wilkinson says cautiously, but it “may be one dimension of how God works in the world”.

Miracles are not God over-riding the laws of the universe, but rather God working within His world. {TWEET THIS}

Such a framework also challenges us to take a closer look at how the Holy Spirit works. If we view the Spirit’s work as over-riding the ‘natural’, then we will bristle at ‘natural’ explanations of ‘spiritual encounters’. This is where the subject comes closer to home for me and my research on how hope is experienced in congregational worship.

For example, the discovery that oxytocin—the chemical associated with the feeling of well-being—is released in the brain in group singing can be used as a ‘natural’ explanation for why we feel better after a time of ‘congregational worship’. An atheist may say there’s nothing ‘supernatural’ going on; it’s just chemicals in the brain. Christians who would argue it’s the ‘presence of God’ and therefore can’t have anything to do with chemicals in the brain are left to either deny the science or ignore it. And, worse, folks who can’t ignore the science are left to believe that faith is inherently contradictory to science.

But a brief bit of theological reflection on how the Spirit works can help. The hermeneutical key to understanding the Spirit’s operation in the New Testament is the Day of Pentecost. On this day, the Spirit enabled speech in various cultural languages so that people heard Christ being proclaimed in their own tongue. The Holy Spirit does not over-ride cultural norms; He inhabits them. {TWEET THIS}

In the above example of worship and oxytocin, why would the discovery that the brain gets a buzz from group singing automatically disprove the belief that the Spirit is at work in congregational worship? The two things would be mutually exclusive in Newton’s universe, but not in Polkinghorne’s. If there were a God who created us, desires relationship with us, and instructed us to gather to sing to Him, why wouldn’t He also have made our brains to respond to this with a chemical that reinforces this behavior and aids in our obedience? In other words, why can’t the Spirit work within the way we are made?

One more example connected to my research…

Congregational worship is, in a very real sense, a communal ritual. There are defined ways of acting and responding, whether the ‘script‘ is formal or informal. This serves not only to help everyone know how to participate, but also to reinforce the particular identity of that congregation. When sociologists/social anthropologists use the lens of ritual to study congregational worship, they discover things such as the realization that the qualities of an ‘emotionally expressive‘ service (like those in many Pentecostal or Charismatic churches) have features that are just as defined as those in ‘non-emotionally expressive‘ services (like those in many liturgical churches). Pentecostals and Charismatics have been, in my limited experience, uneasy with the suggestion that there is a script or pattern or ritual in their worship. If it’s the ‘anointing‘, it must be spontaneous or unique. But I suggest this is because we think the two things are antithetical: either the Spirit is working through the ‘anointing’, or we are responding to cultural norms and communal scripts. But just as miracles are instances of God working within His world, why can’t these experiences in worship be examples of the Spirit inhabiting our cultural and communal selves?

As long as we insist on seeing the world as split between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’, we will see the Holy Spirit as opposed to the ‘laws of science’ or ‘patterns of human behavior’.

I think instead of speaking of the ‘supernatural’, it’s time we recover the ancient confession that the holy God is filling His world with His glory. We are the people who believe in the incarnation– a God who became flesh. We affirm a story of the Holy Spirit filling people by inhabiting their ‘language’ and culture not by over-riding it.

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty. May the whole earth be filled with His glory.