...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Where is God?

The death toll from the latest Indonesian earthquake, an 8.7 on the Richter scale, has been revised down to 400 or 500. While I certainly am not trying to minimize the destruction caused by this quake, which is significant in the affected areas, nor am I trying to demean the suffering of the families who lost a loved one, I can't help but see the irony. When the December 26th earthquake and tsunami hit, there were many who cried "where was God?" as if the massive devastation were proof against his existence or benevolence. And now, when in the same region another oceanic quake causes no tsunami and the death toll is less than 1% of the 12/26 event, we hear none of those cries, no damning of God or belief in him. Is it because there is the tacit assumption that, this time anyways, God was paying attention? That the (relatively) tiny death toll and localized destruction is this time proof in favor of God's presence? Or is it simply that a truly God-condemning threshold of suffering & death was not achieved? What hypocrisy! If suffering is proof against God, then any suffering, no matter how small or geographically restricted, should suffice. I find the lack of atheistic crowing rather insulting to those who are suffering as a result of this latest quake - apparently their pain isn't significant enough to merit comment.


Progressive Christianity on Pomomusings

Adam has done it again - made a couple of posts stirring up controversy and debate; Progressive Christianity: Vol 1 and Progressive Christianity: Vol 2. The posts are based on the first 2 points (of 8) on what it means to be a "progressive christian" from the Center for Progressive Christianity. Adam is planning similar examinations of the remaining points. The 2 points in question are:

By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians who…

1. Have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus;

2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us;

The points were originally written thusly:

1. Proclaim Jesus Christ as our Gate to the realm of God

2. Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the gateway to God's realm

Obvious theological problems aside - and there are clearly quite a few - the exchanges in the comments section are what trouble me. In the first post, Adam says "I want to be open to new theology...new ideas...newness, freedom, openness, all of things [sic] seem important to me." I have previously posed a question to Adam about how we should think about theology. In his mind, theology is nothing but "God-talk" and is communally shaped - it has no definable or objective connection to the reality of God. Keeping that definition in mind, why wouldn't he want to be open to "new theology"? Such theology could only come from a big, group conversation that would create warm bonds of friendship and fellowship. A commenter, correctly in my opinion, links Adam's desire for newness with both a desire to distance himself from those dour, judgmental “old” Christians and our consumer culture:

I think ["new"] is really just code for, 'Hey, I am not like those others (read: lesser) over there. I am a cool Christian. I am a trendier, sexier, sleeker model of what you have seen before.'

It also seems really silly to call ourselves 'a new kind of Christian' because of our consumer culture. We always want 'new' things. Look at how we treat cars, toys, spouses, and friends. We almost always associate "new" with 'better.' Why do we have to pimp ourselves with terms like "new." Any church that claims to be 'new' just seems to desperately need to be consumed.

I like that - "seems to desperately need to be consumed." If, as this poster suggests, the desire for newness is driven by external opinions then it is absolutely based on the “desperate need to be consumed.” Validation can only come by being tasted and favorably compared to older vintages. This is, to me, a damning critique of Adam’s position – it bases the validity and worthiness of our theology & praxis on whether or not the world likes it and will consume it. It is a model driven, not by the Spirit, but by good branding and marketing. Inexplicably, though, the commenter goes on to say:

I think it would be a much more honest church that just allowed itself to be defined by those who were affected by the community of faith. How do they see us? How would they define us? Who do they say we are?

What is the logic of allowing the church to be defined by anything other than her Head? It would certainly be a more contextually responsive church that asked these questions, but even for those who desire no change to the core theological & ecclesiological formulation, the manner in which those questions are asked can lead to subtle cracks in our understanding of being the church. If “they” see us or define us differently than we see or define ourselves, who is wrong and how do we correct that? But, of course, even that question is wrong – we are defined by the Spirit, and with that the question is thrown into instant clarity. How the world sees us can be a useful measuring stick in determining whether nor not we’re being faithful to the Gospel (sidebar), but its view cannot and should not define us as the Church.
The second post is equally troublesome. I give you the first half of the comment from Sibeal:

Ekapa -- Try rethinking Kingdom as kin-dom, to remove the idea of a hierarchy (go with Reign of Christ if you need a substitute for King of Kings). Substitute kin-dom during the Lord's Prayer and it will make a difference in your thinking (along with debt/debtors). The idea being, of course, that Jesus came to bring us together has Brothers and Sisters in Christ -- as a Family, not as a political structure... as a family that takes care of each other through good times, through hard times, in differences and agreement, etc.

DENNIS: Oh king, eh, very nice. An' how'd you get that, eh? By exploitin' the workers -- by 'angin' on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic an' social differences in our society!
WOMAN: I didn't know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.
DENNIS: You're fooling yourself. We're living in a dictatorship. A self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working classes--
…WOMAN: We don't have a lord.
DENNIS: I told you. We're an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take it in turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.
DENNIS: But all the decision of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.
ARTHUR: Yes, I see.
DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs,--
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: --but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more--
ARTHUR: Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!
WOMAN: Order, eh -- who does he think he is?
ARTHUR: I am your king!
…WOMAN: Well, 'ow did you become king then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, [angels sing] her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. [singing stops] That is why I am your king!
DENNIS: Listen -- strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: Well you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin' I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me they'd put me away!
ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up!
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I'm being repressed!
ARTHUR: Bloody peasant!
DENNIS: Oh, what a give away. Did you hear that, did you here that, eh? That's what I'm on about -- did you see him repressing me, you saw it didn't you?

Ahh, that pesky hierarchical God – can’t he see we’re all on equal footing?
Can’t he see that “king” is an outdated and oppressive political tool? Shouldn’t he have used the infinitely more democratic “president” or even “prime minister”? Though perhaps even that is too repressive.

In both of Adam’s posts & their comments, there is a lot of talk about Christianity being a “man-made religion” and progressives wanting to get past the “man-made” rules that restrict freedom and personal conscience. This anthropocentric understanding of the faith is precisely the problem. If man’s role in the formation of the faith was more prominent than God’s, then obviously our theology, our churches, our morality, even our Bible, should be open to revision. If this is not the case, then monkeying around with these things is dangerous and wrong. The question really comes down to how we think about the church, and it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the pomergent understanding is deficient in many, many respects.


The Great Resurrection Debate

Sunday night was the Great Resurrection Debate between retired Episcopal Bishop John Sselby Spong and Dr. William Lane Craig. We started off with some technical problems and so missed the introduction by moderator David Aikman, but had everything sorted out in time for the actual debate.

Dr. Craig began the debate with a lengthy discussion of the facts surrounding the resurrection and the biblical accounts. According to Lane, scholars have dated the Gospel of Mark's original source to within 7 years of the crucifixion and Paul's account to within 5. The resurrection is also independently verified in the Gospel accounts, which used different original source materials, and in early church documents like the Acts of the Apostles. Other indicators that the resurrection was likely not invented:

1) there was no Jewish messianic expectation of a dying messiah
2) due to the manner of His death, Jesus would likely have been considered a heretic by Old Testament standards
3) the Old Testament does not speak of a resurrection prior to the eschaton
4) the huge changes in thought, theology and individual lives indicate something BIG happened to precipitate the shift

In Dr. Craig's opinion, no naturalistic theory explains all of these points, leaving an empty tomb as the only real possibility.

Bishop Spong started off on the wrong foot when he began describing his own upbringing in a "fundamentalist" church. He then quickly intermingled the terms "fundamentalists" and "evangelicals", showing a complete ignorance of the large differences between these two groups. Bishop Spong continued by stating that he rejected biblical literalism, and instead, views biblical language as poetic and mythic. He acknowledged that something did happen on Easter morning, or rather, that something happened as a result of Jesus' life & death, and called the resurrection both "myth and reality." However, it was not literal, but a "life-changing energy" and the changes it wrought in the lives of Jesus' followers point to the "reality of the resurrection experience." This experience - which he did not fully elaborate on at any point during the evening - is the source of the endeavor to explain the unlimited divine in limited human language. It is an effort capture the divine reality, and since our language is not up to the task, the biblical authors were forced into using "expansive language", which is how we wound up with the accounts of a physical resurrection though it did not actually occur this way. Spong continued in this vein - the accounts of earthquakes, darkness, the tearing of the curtain in the temple, etc - are all poetic attempts by "people so transformed by the power of the living God they had to invent human language" to express themselves. Bishop Spong then pointed out the variations in the resurrection accounts and disputed Dr. Craig's dating of the Gospels. Claiming much later dates (Mark in the 70's, Matthew in the 80's and Luke possibly as late as the 90's), Spong suggests that the true accounts of the earliest witnesses were distorted by those far removed from the actual events. He claims Paul's account of his vision of Jesus shows a non-physical apparition and claims the physical details "later added" by Matthew, Luke & John are false accretions. Spong ended his opening statement by claiming "we must open the Bible to scholarship...to new understandings." And that we shouldn't try to "twist 21st century minds into 1st century pretzels."

The rest of the debate focused on dating the sources, the genre of the Gospels and who had the greater scholarly support, with Spong claiming that Dr. Craig's "evangelical scholars have no standing in academia" and implied their scholarly opinions were the result of their faith. Ironically, he claimed the Jesus Seminar scholars, of whom he is a member, are not similarly biased by their atheistic or naturalisic assumptions. Overall, I think Dr. Craig came out on top, but could have done far better in rebutting Bishop Spong's arguments.

Take this argument, for instance. Spong bases his late dating of Mark, in part, on the Jesus' description of Himself as the "new temple." Spong claims the Apostles could not have conceived of Jesus as the new temple unless the old was already gone. Therefore, the Gospel had to be written (and the words put into Jesus' mouth) after the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. The problems with this argument, are to me anyways, fairly obvious. If you believe in a personal, omnipotent, omniscient God, then we need not take any naturalistic explanation of this particular passage seriously, for such a prediction is clearly within such a Being's capabilities. Spong's argument only makes sense from a materialistic/atheistic viewpoint, and belies his claims to believe in any kind of God, theistic or otherwise. Further, Spong claimed not that Jesus was the Son of God but was rather a exemplar of "living life fully, loving wastefully and being all you can be." Spong stated he wants to be a disciple of this Christ, not because His death & resurrection were salvific, but because this Christ shows us how to live fully, etc. But once again, we are confronted with a problem - if the Gospel accounts are midrash and largely fictional, as Spong himself claimed, then we have no way of knowing if Jesus actually lived fully, loved wastefully or lived to His full potential. All of that could be poetic exaggeration, if not outright fiction. Craig could have showed the incoherency of Spong's theological constructs by pointing out this contradiction.

From the debate, it is clear why Spong has lost his prominence as a (heretical) public figure - his arguments just don't wash. Some were based on out-dated physics; he recounted an anecdote in which Carl Sagan told him that if Jesus had ascended at the speed of light, He would have not left our galaxy yet. Spong seems to think this argument proves the account is fictional, though he does not take into account the possibility of other dimensions - a necessity in string theory which is the next contender for a grand unified theory. Spong repeated several times that "people of the 21st century trip over 1st century language" or sentiments to that effect, however, a sizeable chunk of the American population are born-again, evangelical Christians who have no problem with this "1st century language." Further add to that orthodox Catholics & mainliners, not to mention Eastern Orthodox, and a huge percentage of 21st century folks buy that 1st century language with no ill effects. Spong's intellectual elitism has no grip because it is based on the phantom of the "disaffected modern believer" who just can't accept that something said 2000 years ago just might be relevant today. A majority of "21st century people" think otherwise.


Sunday discussion on Terri Schiavo

In all honesty, up until this weekend I had only kept the Terri Schiavo case in the periphery of my news awareness. The legal wranglings seemed interminable so I did not even try to stay up on the latest information. But then Friday came with the removal of the feeding tube and there was talk on Saturday of Congress getting involved in passing some emergency legislation. And I started thinking (whilst in the shower, a favored intellectual retreat) - "how many churches have talked about this or will talk about Terry Schiavo tomorrow?" I realized that it was possible that many churches would not, in fact, say nothing more than a prayer for Terri - nothing about the failings of the Florida courts, the reality of her condition or the larger issues at hand. I sincerely doubted that my church would, out of fear of offending someone and out of fear of violating the schedule. Since I doubted the parents would hear about it, I thought the kids needed too.

So that's what we talked about on Sunday morning, with some painfully unsurprising results. Initially, most of the kids thought she should be allowed to die but were not comfortable with this method (feeding tube removal) because it would be a slow, painful death. A few suggested that were she really "a vegetable", then she wouldn't feel it anyways. When I asked about the possibility of a painless euthanasia, all but a couple of kids thought she should be killed. All of them thought that if she had really said she didn't want to live like that, then it was really up to her. Her decision is what really mattered. Then I dropped the bomb: "Do you think God wants Terri Schiavo to die?" To avoid the careful word-wrangling capability present in every adolescent ("you didn't say I had to do it right now", "but I really did go to my friend's house - we were there for 5 minutes before we left" etc), I added a number of caveats to bring into the here and now. No one raised their hand. No one would admit to thinking that God would want her to die, especially not like that. As we discussed it, it became clear that about half of the kids thought that her (alleged) will trumped God's in this matter and the other half were completely bewildered by the idea that God may actually have a position on this kind of thing. I won't bore you with the further details of the discussion, but I can only say that for those of you who are parents - purposefully, intentionally, obviously talk about God's will in the specific realities of our world. Not just about refraining from sin and the practice of virtue in their schools and neighborhoods, but the big picture things, too. Talk about war, poverty, education, violence, media, abortion and the myriad other issues that present themselves. And then act on it. Show them faith in action in little AND big things, or they will be completely at a loss when confronted with the harsh nature of reality.


Structural weakness

2 weeks ago, we did the 30 Hour Famine which culminated with a time of communion and a wonderful potluck meal (see this post for more details). At that time, I reflected that it was this intense sense of unity & community that is, or at least should be, a distinctive characteristic of the church and I marvelled that in the year that I have been at this church, we have not experienced it at any other time. While I am sure that some of those in specific small groups or those who have participated in specific activities have indeed felt these peculiar ecclesial bonds, they are not regular parts of this church body. I think there are several reasons for this, encompassing several key areas - including, but not limited to; theology, worship & praxis, organizational structure and culture, both internal & external. I hope to take the time over the next few weeks to reflect on these different areas, to look for the weak spots and to find bridges, if not complete solutions. Of course, these aspects of church life are all intertwined - changing one would necessarily require changing others, possibly resulting in a cascade of transitions and evolutions. I will first turn to organizational structure & internal culture.

My church follows the seeker-sensitive worship model coupled with a corporate (ie, a business model) structure. We have a total of 5 pastoral staff persons; the senior pastor (SP), the executive pastor (EP), worship arts pastor (WP), youth pastor (YP or me) and a part-time children's pastor (CP). We also have a church planter (PL) and a full-time "office manager" (ie, secretary), as well as a few part-time people; janitorial services and infant child-care. It was also recently announced that because small groups are a high priority for us, we will be hiring a part-time small groups pastor, who will work 4 hours a week - a figure that struck me as extremely odd until I remembered we are in difficult financial straits.

Though there is a great deal of talk about servant leadership and equality among the staff, the truth is that we operate on a CEO structure. All major decisions require the SP's approval and few are ever brought before the entire staff for discussion. In fact, there have been numerous occasions when a decision was made and generally announced to staff & congregation alike (the small groups pastor hiring decision being the most recent example). The problem, however, is really not that the SP occupies the central leadership role - he should. The problem is that there is absolutely no accountability; he does not answer to anyone. We have no general church board and as of right now, we have only one non-staff elder (the other 2 are the SP and the EP) who, while being a wonderful godly person, is a perennial yes-man. The SP's decisions are never challenged or questioned and from what I have seen, there is very little discussion over any given issue. The SP comes to his conclusion and the other 2 get on board. This means we have a very top-heavy leadership structure and one that is terribly in-grown. No one asks hard questions about the way we do our services, the way we spend & account for our money, the way the SP or the EP spend their time, the amount of involvement the SP has with non-church related activities or whether we are failing in regards to discipleship and spiritual formation.

Now you may ask why I don't ask those questions and it is a reasonable inquiry. However, I would point you to my recent end-of-year evaluation. For this evaluation we were given a 2-sided sheet with a variety of questions about our personal walk, successes, failures, areas to improve, etc. One question was "if you were the SP, how would you run this church differently?" I discussed my answer at length with the PL because he and I share many of the same concerns. My answer to that question was 1) more intentional pastoral care, 2) more focus on small groups & discipleship programs and 3) more flexibility with the format/model. The first 2 were discussed in the evaluation without problem and to much agreement on all sides - they are aware of these deficiencies and want to improve these areas (thought little ever seems to actually be accomplished). The third, however, was sharply questioned - What exactly did I mean? I had planned to say something about more biblical preaching and less secular music in the service, but was immediately on guard from the instant hostility my rather innocuous answer caused. This was made all the more clear in the meetings I had over the parent-problems a couple of months ago. In the follow-up with the SP, EP and the elder, it was seized upon that I had said in passing that I do not get much from a seeker-sensitive service. Which is true and I know few mature Christians who actually do - the music is banal & sickeningly comfortable and the message is normally therapeutic with a Gospel presentation at least every other week. In short, they get old. I proffered this answer, though far, far more diplomatically. Their reply made it clear that they considered the model sacrosanct and beyond question or improvement. It apparently enjoys a nearly canonical status and will only be changed in the immediate aftermath of the Rapture and/or a nuclear holocaust. Some disparaging comments were made about "those who want to change things" and it was suggested that if I were one of them, I'd best be careful of the door's return swing on my way out.

In those meetings, it was further emphasized that I was the hired-gun for youth ministry. In my previous experiences in the corporate world, we had vendors who came in to specific tasks and only those tasks. Regardless of the personal relationship that might develop with an individual vendor, they were not on the team and there was always that wall of separation. Quite frankly, that wall exists here. Neither I, nor the WP nor the PL (both older gentlemen, mature in the faith and with years of experience in and out of ministry), are even being considered for inclusion on the elder board and are certainly not a part of the inner planning sanctum. We are all vendors, myself especially. The church plant is part of the SP's strategic vision for this church and the WP is directly involved with the Sunday morning show, so the loss of either of them would be much harder to cover & replace. I, on the other hand, am out of sight with the youth group and there are volunteers who can handle my job should I quit or be fired.

Structurally, then, my church is a closed, business-model-driven organization. The upper eschalons of planning & strategic vision are closed to all but a select few and those on the outside are not truly part of this body. This, of course, stifles the openness and fidelity required to experience bonds of true fellowship. If I am afraid to open my mouth to speak about the problems I see because it is clear that my input is not welcome and my job is not secure, then I cannot help but hold back. That element of fear will poison all of my interactions here and prevent true friendships from developing with either the staff or members of the congregation who are unaware of these things. In short, it isolates me and my wife, and if this is true of me, then there must be others who feel the same way. There must be others who feel as though their service and ministry are neither important nor valued, and whose input is given a polite smile & nod before being quickly forgotten. Or worse, filed under "those who want to change things."


Salt and light?

An interesting, if uncomfortable article from the Christian Science Monitor, showing how some evangelical Christians are answering the question of "is America a Christian nation?" The answer: it was, isn't now, but should be. Here are a few quotes from the piece:

In material given to conference attendees, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, Coral Ridge pastor wrote: "As the vice-regents of God, we are to bring His truth and His will to bear on every sphere of our world and our society. We are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government ... our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors - in short, over every aspect and institution of human society."

Lest we think this "dominion & influence" is a theocratic government

Kennedy is not in the theocratic camp, says John Aman, Coral Ridge spokesman.


the Rev. Dr. Kennedy regularly calls the US a Christian nation that should be governed by Christians.

Read the piece for yourself. Only 900 attended the conference, but it is clear that Kennedy has a whole lot of influence - I've heard a few reverently hushed "Dr. Kennedy said..." in the circles at my church to not be blind to his reach. But if the exercise of this "dominion & influence" is being salt & light, shouldn't those advocating for it be just a tad bit more aware of how this strikes the people to be salted & lit?


Bosnia II

Another one of those days - feeling a need to write, but not really having anything significant to say. So what the heck, another Bosnia story. I do have to note on the last one, I talked about a city called Srpski Brod. A pre-war inhabitant of that same city reminded me that its proper name is actually Bosanski Brod. It was unofficially renamed after the war and most people in our area referred to it by its new name.

A few miles outside the city where we were stationed was a small town called Kotorsko. Pre-war it had been a predominantly Muslim town of well-to-do professionals with a population of a few thousand. The town sits on the side & top of a flat hill, overlooking the "highway" and a furniture factory on one side and farmland and more hills on the other. The town was devastated during the war; most of the homes had been hit with heavy weapons or burned and the centrally located mosque, not surprisingly given the nature of the conflict, was in total ruins. The only way you could tell the structure's former purpose was from the toppled minaret that lay in a grassy lawn next to the rubble. When we first got in-country - August 2000 - there were only a few pre-war residents living in Kotorsko, and they had only recently returned. During the war people fled into the zones controlled by their respective ethnic groups, leaving many, many homes empty. These empty homes, if they were still in relatively decent repair, were promptly inhabited by folks who had had to flee their own. The issue of returnees - people returning to their original homes and seeking to repossess them - is one of the hardest issues in post-war Bosnia. It requires the squatters to be removed from the house they have lived in for years and the process moves forward regardless of whether or not the squatters have a place to go. I understand the reason for this policy, but it does nothing to remove the tension.

Kotorsko was no different. Many Serb families had taken up residence in the (forcibly) abandoned homes, making Kotorsko their new home. Most held little hope of returning to their original properties - there are many parts of Bosnia that are still unsafe for returnees, but Kotorsko was not one of them. Thanks to a large grant from international agencies, large numbers of Muslims started returning to reclaim & rebuild their property in the spring. This pushed many of the Serb squatters out and left quite a few with nowhere to go. These Serbs were homeless, that is, until the city donated land adjacent to the furniture factory to those families who could not return to their pre-war homes. This land had originally belonged to the town of Kotorsko, but had been purchased by the city in 60's for a possible expansion of the factory. This seriously angered the returning Muslim families, even though the Serbs couldn't afford any building materials. The situation was made worse when the donated supplies started coming in; truckload after truckload of brick, cement, wood, shingles, wiring, pipes - everything necessary to build a home. While the Serb families were barely scraping enough together to buy a single course of cement blocks to build a single wall, the Muslim families were awash in materials.

Due to the escalating tensions, we made frequent stops in Kotorsko, talking to whomever we could and the security forces made almost daily patrols in the area as a show of force. One day, things came to a head. We were talking to a guy who had been one of the first returnees, whom we had met a few months back. We were at a in-the-process-of-being-refurbished restaurant, which was mostly just a grill and some plastic tables & chairs. A crowd started to slowly gather around us. We were aware of it, but the crowd appeared calm and was only listening to the conversation. After a while, though, an old, short, portly man approached us and asked to speak with us. We said yes, which was a mistake. This man was influential among the returnees, he was pissed and wasted no time launching into a tirade about the Serbs across the road. The crowd grew and became somewhat restive. We walked away from the restaurant moved into a square across the street. The crowd increased in size and volume as this man listed off the reasons the Serbs should not be there, why they should not be allowed to build their homes, how the land donation was illegal, how the land belonged to them, etc, etc. He produced documents, as did several other men in the crowd. It was at this point the full gravity of what was happening around me became apparent. Me and my unarmed interpreter had our back against a wall and were surrounded by 30 or so men, all very upset and wanting me to do something about it. After a few minutes, I realized I wasn't in any danger but the sheer hatred & animosity coming from this crowd was sobering. They were inventing reasons to stop the building - they had rifles, they had assault rifles, they had heavy weapons, they had a whole weapons cache in a small shack, the shack actually masked the entrance to an underground cache, and finally, the underground cache was actually a series of tunnels that ran under the town. We promised we would investigate this Viet-Cong-like series of tunnels, which seemed to satisfy them, and quickly exited stage right.

We did go talk to the Serb families and did poke around looking for this treasure trove of hardware, but found nothing. Nothing but poor families who would likely not be able to complete their new homes for several years. For the most part they did not begrudge the returnees the right to their homes or the donations that benefited them. They simply wanted to get on with their lives. The problem was with those who did not want the same - and I met people like that from every side; Croat, Muslim & Serb, who were not willing to let the past lay buried, to forgive the old hurts and move on. They held onto it and thrived off their hurt even as it poisoned them and robbed them of life & hope. As we move into Lent, I hope and pray that all of us will be able to bury the past and leave it dead, unable to corrupt & control our hearts and our future.



[WARNING: Whiny rant forthcoming] Sometimes I just really and truly dislike my job. It feels like I have so many hoops to jump through, so many differing expectations from parents, staff & kids, I don't think I'll ever get close to fulfilling them. And if I tried, I'd have no time to be with my wife or for myself. We had a satellite seminar yesterday - I'll give you 3 guesses on what it was about. Yup, leadership. One of the speakers said many pastors lack a good definition of success and instead rely on busy-ness as the measuring stick. Its the, "if I'm busy, I must be doing something right" mentality. To wit, my senior pastor has approximately 80 hours on his schedule this week - which is more than a typical week, but he usually puts in at least a few hours on days that are ostensibly supposed to be "off." Guess what? I don't. And I won't. My wife works full-time; I steadfastly refuse to sacrifice the one day off a week we have together for some stupid meeting or activity if it can possibly be avoided. But I have the feeling, when I hand in my little time card, that his schedule is the standard by which mine is judged. Not the content or quality of my teaching on Sunday mornings, nor the relationship I have with the kids - but whether or not I go to enough games or have enough appointments with kids during the week. Pah!

Countries I have visited...

Via Pensate Omnia. I technically haven't been to North Korea, but I was on the DMZ and saw their guard posts and heard their propaganda loudspeakers. Heck, I even saw a group of NK soldiers playing soccer. Its about as close as anyone is likely to get, so I'm putting it in.

create your own visited country map


Como se what?

My wife's new job brings her into constant contact with germy little kids, so we've been fighting a running battle with whatever bug is "hot" right now. So, feeling listless and a bit foggy-headed yesterday thanks to some new enemy to stave off, I forewent my normal day-off morning at Border's and sat at home. Watching tv mostly, which I honestly do consider a complete waste of time, though you do find some interesting demographic clues in the commercials. Apparently, the primary audiences of the "People's Court" type judge/legal-dispute shows are the elderly with mobility problems and young women planning their nuptials; I saw at least a dozen adds each for electric wheelchairs and wedding dresses. I flipped around a lot and ended up watching John Hagee for 20 or so minutes on TBN. He was presenting his "exciting new prophecy series" which prophetically included support for President Bush & his policies, decrying our dependence on foreign oil, more than a fair amount of fire & brimstone threats of hell-fire and the Rapture. At one point, Mr. Hagee described the legions of deceased saints standing ready in heaven to wage the final battle depicted in Revelations. Apparently as a measure of encouragement to his audience, he said (as best I can recall) those very same saints were watching them & "this program" right now, wanting the audience to live for Christ in expectation of the end. Wait...what? They're watching us right now? They are in the presence of Christ, aware of what we're doing and wanting to encourage us? If that isn't an argument for the classical understanding of the "communion of the saints" and precisely the reason the traditional church seeks their intercession, I don't know what is. In most of the debates I've seen or participated in, those opposed to the traditional understanding have made claims to no explicit biblical warrant for either the practice or the ability of the departed to "hear" our prayers, suggesting they are completely unaware of what's happening down here. Obviously John Hagee isn't advocating that anyone seek the intercession of the saints, but hearing this from him was just, well, weird.


Conversion & Salvation

The last few weeks have been punctuated by several things that have gotten me thinking about salvation - what is it? when does it happen? can we lose it? how should we talk about it? [Caveat: This is kind of a thinking-out-loud post and not a well-reasoned argument.]

The first happened in a staff meeting a couple of weeks ago. We are working through 2 Timothy, and we came upon verses 2:11-13:

It is a trustworthy statement:
For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him / If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.

My senior pastor introduced what was, to me at least, a novel interpretation of verse 12. Basically, he suggested that there are 2 levels of people in heaven - those who endured and those who did not. The former reign in splendor with Christ, whereas the others are those outside weeping & gnashing their teeth, as Jesus frequently talked about, but are still in heaven. In support of this interpretation, the SP referenced 1 Corinthians 3:15:

If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

Those whose work is destroyed apparently did not endure, and thus cannot reign but are still in heaven. Of course, Revelations 21:4 belies this approach - how can their be weeping & gnashing of teeth in heaven if God will "wipe away every tear and...there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain..."? (I did not bring this up in the meeting in an effort to wisely pick my battles - the man has an MDiv from Dallas Theological, ain't no way I'm changing his mind.) He, and a few other people on staff, believe in OSAS - once saved always saved. Once you've put your faith in Christ, you are set and nothing can change that status. I understand the appeal of that position; it does bring a lot of comfort & security to people who are inevitably going to make mistakes and be concerned about their eternal fate. But it is precisely verses like 2 Timothy 2:12 that make me doubt OSAS. Given the biblical language about being co-heirs of Christ, not reigning sounds an awful lot like not being saved at all. The latter part of verse 12 is also problematic; if we deny Him, He also will deny us. Given that these couplets are likely part of a hymn, or possibly a baptismal formula, we cannot take this denial to refer to mankind in general. Moreso when we consider that the other 3 couplets are obviously referring to believers. No, it seems possibly that by failing to endure or by denying Christ, we can forfeit our salvation. Bring Hebrews 6:4-8 and Paul's language in 1 Corinthians 9:27 (if the Apostle Paul fears the possibility of his own disqualification, shouldn't we?) into the mix and the possibility seems even clearer. (Our debate did touch on Hebrews 6, but I need not go into any depth - the OSAS contingent contended that those described were never saved to begin with, whereas I and others thought the language did not really permit that reading.)

This would only be something of an academic debate for me if not for the kid accepting Christ at the 30 Hour Famine. If salvation is not granular, that is, solely determined by a single event or moment in time, what am I supposed to make of this boy's move towards Christ? And, perhaps more importantly, what am I supposed to tell him? Would it be more appropriate to speak of his conversion rather than his "being saved"? What is the relationship between conversion & salvation? If salvation is not granular, and in fact has to be "worked out", then it must be a future event and not something we possess right now. We may possess the assurance of it, so long as we continue on this path, but we can't really own it in the present. Thus conversion is what we experience now and salvation comes later. I know this is what the early church believed, which is one reason why martyrdom was so willingly accepted - to deny Christ in order to escape death would be to forfeit heaven itself.

What are the practical effects & implications of these doctrines? Process-salvation would seem to put a high emphasis on moral excellence, but always runs the risk of straying into a works-based mentality about salvation. This is an obvious wrong, and as we saw with the Pharisees, inevitably leads to legalism and arrogance. Can we find a comfortable balance - truly realizing that is only God who saves, but that we have a part to play? If we can, how do we maintain it? To me, OSAS seems to allow for a high degree of moral laxity. If am saved no matter what I do or say, what is there really to prevent me from doing or saying anything I want? For someone who "got saved" in high school, there is little motivation to work for moral excellence for the rest of their life - there is a carrot but no stick. The standard line is to question whether or not such a person was ever saved to begin with, but had you asked that individual at that time in their life, they would have undoubtedly professed a real and heartfelt faith. How are we, and more importantly, how are they to know whether or not it is real? It seems just as dependent on future conduct as process-salvation. See this from one of John Piper's sermons:

But if, over the next ten or twenty years, John Piper begins to cool off spiritually and lose interest in spiritual things and become more fascinated with making money and writing Christless books; and I buy the lie that a new wife would be exhilarating and that the children can fend for themselves and that the church of Christ is a drag and that the incarnation is a myth and that there is one life to live so let us eat drink and be merry -- if that happens, then know that the truth is this: John Piper was mightily deceived in the first fifty years of his life. His faith was an alien vestige of his father's joy. His fidelity to his wife was a temporary passion and compliance with social pressure; his fatherhood the outworking of natural instincts. His preaching was driven by the love of words and crowds. His writing was a love affair with fame. And his praying was the deepest delusion of all -- an attempt to get God to supply the resources of his vanity.

And yet, were you to ask him right now if he was saved, he would say "yes" despite the fact that he may yet fall away and all his work & ministry have been nothing more than "vanity." So it seems even with OSAS there is a need to live a godly life in order to be sure of your salvation. Thus, they seem to really be the same doctrine except that OSAS might give people false hope to some degree. It seems to me that it would be better to be honest about the possibility of losing one's salvation rather than giving someone comfort with a side of false-hope. But deep down, I want OSAS to be true. I don't want to have to scare the pants off of a kid who is brand new to his faith, especially in light of this generation's almost complete unwillingness to struggle or experience discomfort. Will he simply throw up his hands and walk away because it sounds too hard? I know his response shouldn't determine the content of my teaching on this, but it is very hard to sacrifice someone to be right.


Oh, what a glorious day!

For years I have been hearing about that email scam involving Nigeria, a huge sum of money in some dead guy's account and a request for a bank account number - you know the deal. Personally, I don't think I ever actually received that email - a fact I count as a serious wrong. Why is my email address not worthy of such fraudulent request? Is my bank account not good enough to be pilfered? But today, I have finally achieved the status I so richly deserv and have received the bank-account-dead-guy-huge-sum-of-money email. It is, however, based out of Hong Kong and not Nigeria, but I figure such things have to change with the times. Here, in full, is the text of the email:

MR. Qin Wang

I am Mr. Qin Wang, credit officer of Hang Seng Bank Ltd; I have an urgent
and very confidential business proposition for you.
I honestly apologize and hope I do not cause you much embarrassment by
contacting you through this means for a transaction of this magnitude, but
this is due to confidentiality and prompt access reposed on this medium,
sorry my English is not very good.
[It actually seems quite good to me.] Furthermore, due to this issue on my
hands now, it became necessary for me to seek your assistance, and it is
imperative for me to know your opinion.
On June 6,2000, a Saudi Oil consultant/contractor with the Chinese
Petroleum and Chemical Corporation Mr. Waliladi Maudi made a numbered time
(Fixed) Deposit for twelve calendar months, valued at US$12,500,000.00
(Twelve Million-Five Hundred Thousand Dollars) in my branch. Upon maturity,
I sent a routine notification to his forwarding address but got no reply.
After a month, we sent a reminder and finally we discovered from his contract
employers, the Hong Kong Petroleum and Chemical Corporation that
Mr. Waliladi Maudi died from an automobile accident. On further investigation,
I found out that he died without making a WILL and all attempts to trace
his next of kin were fruitless.

I therefore made further investigation and discovered that Mr. Waliladi Maudi
did not declare any kin or relations in all his official documents,
including his Bank Deposit paperwork in my Bank. This sum of
US$12,500,000.00 is still sitting in my Bank and the interest is being
rolled over with the principal sum at the end of each year. No one will
ever come forward to claim it. According to Laws of Hong Kong, at the
expiration of 5(five) years, the money will revert to the ownership of the
Hong Kong Government if nobody applies to claim the fund.
Consequently, my proposal is that I will like you as a foreigner to stand
in as the next of kin to Mr. Waliladi Maudi so that the fruits of this old
man's labour will not get into the hands of some corrupt government
officials. This is simple, I will like you to provide immediately your full
names and address so that the attorney will prepare the necessary documents
and affidavits that will put you in place as the next of kin.

We shall employ the services of an attorney for drafting and notarization
of the WILL and to obtain the necessary documents and letter of
probate /administration in your favour for the transfer. The money will be
paid into your account for us to share in the ratio of 65% for me and 30%
for you and 5% for Expenses Incurred in the course of the transaction.
There is no risk at all, as all the paperwork for this transaction will be
done by the attorney and with my position as the credit officer guarantees
the successful execution of this transaction. If you are really interested
in doing this business with me please reply immediately to this email
address, qin0wang@2netscape.net.
Upon your response, I shall then provide you with more details and relevant
documents that will help you understand the transaction.
Please send me your confidential telephone and fax numbers for easy
communication. You should observe utmost confidentiality, and rest assured
that this transaction would be most profitable for both of us
because I shall require your assistance to invest my share in your country.
Awaiting your urgent reply.

Thanks and regards.

Mr. Qin Wang

NB. You may reply to my email box, qin0wang2@netscape.net

Anyone want to go in on this with me?



The 30 Hour Famine has come and gone, as has my internet fast. I did pretty well with the latter - only slipped up a few times while I was looking for something work related; "I can skim one blog while that thing downloads, can't I?"

The 30HF also went well. Of the 26 kids who signed up, we had about 20 that actually came, which was a good turnout for my church. Friday night started out well, with some prayer, some time for the kids to do some private reflection and a good discussion about why we were doing the Famine. But then things moved towards chaos. The games Worldvision included in their 30HF packet ended up being a bunch of craziness and did not have any that could include kids with disabilities. I have 2 girls with problems. One, who signed up last week, does pretty well but is limited in her mobility. The other is on crutches after hip surgery and only called me the night before to let me know she was coming, which did not leave me any time to plan alternate games. By about 10pm, things were out of hand and the kids had really lost the focus of why we were there. So I popped in a movie and sat in sullen frustration hoping that Saturday would be better and wondering why I ever thought this would be a good idea. I prayed about it - a lot - but still had little hope things would be better.

And I was wrong. Saturday was excellent! We started fundraising in the morning and raised over $500 in our door-to-door blitz. We were all back at the church by noon-ish and I let the kids have some free-time. After an hour, they were all having a good time and were pretty laid back, so I let them have another hour instead of using any more of the Worldvision games. At 2, we played bunko, which all the kids got into. We cleaned up from 3-4, and at 4, one of the senior highers led some time in worship - though that was kind of a spur of the moment thing and we could have prepared better for it. After he was done, we celebrated communion and I gave a little homily about what it is, why we do it, the significance of Jesus as our Passover lamb and how we should approach it. Though I had probably not given it much thought before I became interested in Orthodoxy, I now believe only believers in Christ should partake in communion - how can someone who doesn't believe in what Jesus did on the cross faithfully "remember" that sacrifice? I'm not sure how my church stands on it, but I assume they are open to non-believers participating out of concern about alienating the "unchurched." Anyways, a junior high boy who had come with a friend came up with everyone else and took communion. I learned later that this boy was not previously a Christian and that his host-friend thought he may have accepted Christ - which I was overjoyed with! To go from Friday night, when I went to bed frustrated & upset, to a beautiful, reverential communion celebration where a kid may have come to faith in Christ - obviously God is faithful, even if I am not. But, this has made for some interesting thinking over the last couple of days, which I'll share in another post.

After communion, parents started arriving with their pot-luck meals and the kids were positively salivating waiting to get started. I had asked parents to RSVP with me so I would know how many were coming, but only a few did. We ended up having probably 10-12 sets of parents show up with all kinds of dishes, including some food we had ordered just to be on the safe side. I told the kids to eat slow at first, but they didn't listen. Its hard to explain, but all I can say is that with the families coming together and the way God turned things around from Friday night, it was just a joyous occasion. The fast/feast cycle of the traditional church honestly never made much sense to me. Until Saturday, that is. The fellowship, the laughter, the feeling of intense community - it was a wonderful, amazing time. This is what it means to be the church - to share struggles, pain, frustration, to celebrate Christ, coming together at His table, to thank God for his blessings and to offer it all back up to him in joyful praise. This is the experience that sustained the church in times of persecution, that drew people in even though they knew it could very well cost them their lives. And I want more of it; more for myself, more for these kids and more for this church-body. We have lost a true sense of ecclesia, of being the Body, and we desperately need to recover it.