Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

I’m sure you’ve heard as many theories offered as I have for what Jesus wrote in the dirt that day that drove away the accusers of a woman caught in adultery. One of the more popular beliefs is that Jesus began writing out specific sins of her accusers. I think there is a certain danger in reading into scripture what’s not there. Too much of it has already been meddled with thru the years from copy to copy. It seems many people struggle to grasp the simple humanity of Jesus and find it hard to believe he could have lived his life as a mere man.

Can you imagine all of the shrines, the denominations, the religious relics that would have been built around the drawing of Jesus in the sand had it only been recorded? I’m glad it was trampled on. Too much of religious tradition focuses on the “what” and not the “why.” I believe the intent and the spirit of what could be holy has been lost on making sure we get it just right. I think it was Rob Bell who suggested in his book Velvet Elvis that by writing in the dirt Jesus was simply “marking time.” It afforded time for cooler heads to prevail and simple words to disarm self-righteousness, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

“Marking time” is a good description for these hot Louisiana summer days. Aside from a few grueling road trips to Florida for work. Time is dragging on slowly and lazily with all of us around the house for a change. We’ve been “passing the time” reading, playing, watching movies, and picking vegetables from our garden. We’ve been tracking down old friends on the internet, and I’ve been doing much neglected work on my family tree searching for memories and discovering old stories.

I am keenly aware of what time it is, what time it has been. I know that these hot summer days are elusive as the sand, and fall will wash them out to sea for another year. I know that these footprints pressed into Florida sand by feet five years and counting were gone by morning. I know that in time I will be a name and dates on some one’s forgotten limb.

We hear too much of “wars and rumors of wars” these days. The powers that be have given us a new “hill on which to die,” yet another ideological struggle that spills every one’s blood but their own. These battles aren’t waged on mountains but on piles of sand, and the tide is coming. Life isn’t about being right. It’s about being together. So we wait… marking time, making memories together.

Ok, I read The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong in less than half a day. I couldn’t put it down. I think I’ll have to re-read parts of it again a few times just because they resonated with me so strongly. I still have a lot to think about based on what I read.

I think the closure of the book for me was the different ways in which to view faith, and how faith differs from belief. 1) For some faith is something you believe in, doctrines, mythology, or both. 2) For others faith is a conscious choice apart from ascertainable fact, and yet 3) for others faith is not what you believe or choose but rather what you do. I personally feel I’m vacillating somewhere between a choice and action. As a matter of fact, I just cannot drink the kool-aid anymore. So I’m struggling to choose faith despite the head-on collision with reason.

Karen’s illumination of modern Jewish and Muslim traditions really helped to illustrate how faith is an action even more than a belief. Neither she nor I am trying to say that Jews or Muslims do not believe, because certainly they have strong religious convictions. The way that I understand her point is that for Jews right action took precedent over right belief, although following the law was a means to right action. The end product of behavior was the final determinant of right religion. I also understood her to be saying that the Seven Pillars of Islam place emphasis on action over belief also. Something akin to Jesus saying where your treasure is your heart will be also. Not that belief doesn’t matter for Muslims but perhaps that belief will follow action in time. Far too long fundamentalist Christians have been trying to shove a semi load full of infallible doctrine down our throats that stand in direct contradiction to science and modernity.

I’m not sure that belief will come naturally later on down the road for all. I’m beginning to think that if your particular faith positively improves your interaction with others then it is noble, regardless of what differences we have in beliefs. Perhaps the greatest commandment is the only commandment that we should love God with all that we are and love our fellow man as we love ourselves. I’m beginning to see some light from the far end of this tunnel.

I’m humbled and appreciative of her observation:

“The best theologians and teachers have never been afraid to admit that in the last resort, there may be Nothing out there. That is why they spoke of a God who in some sense did not exist.”

I have realized in recent years that at the end of the day I might indeed be wrong and others be right. What a strange irony that in losing hope we may find a way forward. That in losing our life we indeed may find it at last.

From The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong:

I remembered a Jesuit telling us once during a retreat that faith was not really an intellectual assent but an act of will. Christians could accept their essentially incredible tradition only by making a deliberate choice to believe. You could not prove or disprove these doctrines, but you could consciously decide to take them on trust. They might even turn out to be true. But somewhere along the line, I had given up. I could no longer summon up the emotional or spiritual energy to make that choice. I felt tired out, drained, and slightly repelled by it all. I was finished with God; and God – if he existed at all – had long ago finished with me.

For years faith for me was an “intellectual assent” held loosely together by the “infallibility” of scripture and a willful ignorance of an alternative. Once I stopped suppressing my questions and exposed myself to the world of possibilities, faith would have to be a choice made against the grain of reason or abandoned altogether. I’m standing now somewhere near the crossroads trying to find a middle ground between self-induced delusion and apostasy. Karen Armstrong has become a new found friend on this road to find the middle way.

We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.

“Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” William Wordsworth

The Town Talk published an article on Will Campbell in today’s paper written by Robin Miller. As a history minor in college with mostly Southern history under my belt, the name Will Campbell rang a bell. As I kept reading, I was awestruck. I love the gritty side of the South and have no greater fondness in my heart than I do for rebels, outlaws, and mystics. I share just a few lines from the article that described my experience in the church and my departure from pastoral ministry and hope they’ll entice you to read the article yourself.

Will, who after having pastored one Southern Baptist Church, gave it up forever — pastoring, not ministering.
“I resolved to be a Baptist minister of the South until the day I die, though never again a Southern Baptist preacher,” he has said. “For the first time, I knew there
was a difference. And what it was.”Still, meeting Will isn’t meeting a preacher at all. And he’s not what you’d call a writer of religion or Christian literature, but simply a writer.

“Beliefs are what people are hung up on,” he’ll say, “not ethics or morals.If you don’t believe a certain way, then the people in that religion will clean you out… A lot of those people will claim to be conservative. But they’re not. They’re just mean.”

Amen. It’s refreshing to find people to identify with and who share a common journey. I’ve already put a couple of his books on hold at the library and can’t wait to read them. Here’s to you, Will!

I feel the sand slipping between my fingers
the tide is rolling in
my castle will soon be gone
I watch the sun dipping slowlyWill you come again in the morning?

I wonder.
I hope.
I believe.

The moon hangs softly above
stars twinkle in twilight

Run your course. Shine. Shine brightly.
I will watch for the morning

Bay St. Louis, MS

I’m working down in Slidell for a few weeks and staying in Bay St. Louis, MS. I spent the day Monday driving down and listening to a few audiobooks I had, Book of Secrets by Deepak Chopra and Meditation for Optimum Health by Andrew Weil and Jon Kabat-Zinn. I was feeling pretty contemplative, and, though I was very tired, I wandered down to the shoreline just before sunset. I threw on a jacket and walked the beach listening to Enya on my iPod till the light faded away. If only everyday could end so sublimely.

“As proud children of science and reason, we have made ourselves the orphans of wisdom.” Deepak Chopra

I have been completely enthralled in this new audiobook I’m listening to, The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life by Deepak Chopra. I’m not even finished the first of three tapes, and I’m already read to listen to it again and take notes when I’m not driving. I’ll post more observations once I’ve had time to process it. This comes at good time for me in my journey. He outlines the premise of the book as unlocking the secrets to what truly fulfills us and makes us happy, which if we have not already discovered is not money, sex, relationships, careers, or pleasure. This dovetails with the Jim Carrey quote I shared a few days ago that, “Success is a really good thing to attain, so you can cross it off the list of things that will make you happy.” I’ve crossed enough things off my list by this point in life. I’d rather just figure this thing out and skip the vain pursuits.

I saw a quote on a sign today that did not mention the author, but I recognized it as a Gandhi quote. Coincidentally enough, I’ve ran across the same quote at least four times in the last two weeks. There must be a lesson in that in itself. I’ll leave you with it:

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Gandhi

I’ve just finished listening to The Gospel of Thomas: A New Perspective on Jesus’ Message an audiobook by Elaine Pagels who also wrote a book titled Beyond Belief. I admittedly know very little about “other gospels,” much less the Apocrypha books. Pagels says that “gnostic” has become a sort of slander that has befallen many other historical documents that have been rejected and misunderstood by the religious powers that be. It reminds me of the way fundamentalists label everything they disagree with as “liberal.”

I learned a lot not only about the Gospel of Thomas but about the other gospels as well and the way early Christians viewed Jesus. There was an interesting debate or dialogue taking place in the early church carried out in the oral tradition of masters teaching their disciples (followers). Interestingly enough there wasn’t a group of followers of John’s Gospel versus followers of Thomas’ Gospel. Both gospels were being read and discussed side by side, holding each in tension yet finding a common way between them. Both gospels are dated between 80-100 AD and present a different perspective from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, & Luke). I learned as much about the Gospel of John as I did about the Gospel of Thomas from this book.

There was a Q & A session at the end of her lecture, which is befitting to the overall message of Thomas that we must seek out knowledge and truth for ourselves versus John as the one who has written “that you may believe.” Someone asked about her book and its title, Beyond Belief, asking if that is what Thomas is about, that we are to move “beyond belief” onto something else. That’s an important question that I’ve been wrestling with. Is belief a beginning step on the journey. Do you grow out of it and mature into something else, or do you hold belief in tandem with maturity?

She gave an interesting illustration that Faith, i.e. belief, is like the Soil of the earth in which the seed is planted. Love is like the Sun that warms it. Hope is like the Water that nourishes it, and Insight is the Fruit, which is maturity. I found interesting that in that context belief isn’t something you outgrow but rather something that supports and upholds the rest. It strikes me that belief isn’t based upon scientific data and undeniable evidence but rather a decision of the will. I guess that’s why I’ve had such a difficult time with belief lately because I refuse to deny the questions I’ve had any longer. Belief will have to be a decision of the will despite my questions and not because they’re satisfied.

It also occured to me that so many “conservatives” who hang so tenaciously to belief, especially “right believing,” often don’t go to demonstrate love, they don’t offer real hope beyond the illusion of comfort that comes from agreeing with them, and certainly don’t offer any insight into the real probing hard questions of life and faith. Makes you wonder just what it is they really believe in. That’s one to chew on.

According to Dr. (Miceal) Ledwith, the single greatest obstacle to our evolution is the way our culture often views God – as a God sitting up somewhere “registering the scores on his laptop as to whether we perform according to his designs or whether we’re offending him, as it’s put, an absolutely outrageous idea. How could we offend God? How could it matter so much to him? How could it, above all, matter that he would find it so serious a situation that he could conform us to an eternity of suffering? These are bizarre ideas.”And they are bizarre ideas: that in this vast universe, where there are more galaxies than grains of sand in all the oceans, that in that vastness, a group of people – well, men actually – on a small planet got the exclusive franchise for the pearly gate arches of heaven. And every other being in the universe will spend an eternity of suffering in hell. It’s hard to imagine a more bizarre idea. And if that’s the sort of God you believe in, you just have to wonder: How does that affect your view of the world?What the Bleep Do We Know!? by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse, and Mark Vicente

I want to tell you how those concepts of God affected my worldview and how I demerged from it. I long ago recognized that my childhood view of God was distorted. I saw Him as a an old man with a flowing white beard and a quiver of lightning bolts waiting for me to screw up. I later came to know God as the Creator, as Sovereign, and as a Father. Nonetheless, my fear of failure and judgement continued to dominate my view of God and a perhaps even more distorted view of God developed. I believed that God loved us infinitely yet also convicted us and punished us into obedience with hell as the destination of all outsiders. As I continued to mature I became a quasi-theologian with a degree and vocation to match. I was trained to study and interpret the Bible for myself, and what I discovered did not line up with the worldview I was raised with. Even still I saw huge discrepancies between different parts of the Bible and between the Bible and everyday life.

The particular denomination I came out of taught that the Bible was infallible, inspired, and inerrant and could not be questioned. That’s a problem because while the Bible speaks of the Divine it does so through the lips, hands, and lives of humans whose stories were recorded by humans and later debated over and arranged into a collection of books to communicate a particular theological worldview. Everything that did not match criteria consistent with that worldview was not included. Simply put, the Bible did not descend from a cloud on Mt. Sinai to Broadman & Holman Publishers.

When you don’t hold that every jot and tittle are inerrant and study the Bible for what it is, the way it is, using various angles of approach, you come away with a very different worldview from the one I was raised with. When you honestly contemplate the vastness of time and space and the beauty and order of the world and ourselves, you come away with a very different perspective of who God may be and who we are. I’m not sure what I believe about God anymore or if I believe at all. Some days I don’t believe, then other days I have an awareness that God is, even though I don’t understand Him. I am closer now to what Einstein called “a cosmic religious feeling,” a sense of connectedness and unity with all of life.

Writing now from that perspective, I don’t understand how it is possible to offend a God such as this. At some point in the last five years, I lost my belief in hell as a place or destination. Although some people have caused such immeasurable human suffering, it seems such a place should be established just for them. In the last two to three years I’ve also lost my sense of “conviction,” my concept of “sin,” judgement, and retribution. My evangelical friends would say that I’ve “fallen away” and have lost all spiritual sensitivity to “sin.” Maybe they’re right, but I sure feel better without the 800 lb. gorilla on my back telling me how bad I am all day long. I live in wonder and awe in appreciation, trying to stretch my imagination and learn new things all the time. That to me seems much more in keeping with being a child of the divine.

People have to make that choice for themselves. Most people are happy with their life the way it is. Most people are happy with watching television and having a 9 to 5 job. Not to say that they are happy with it, but they are hypnotized into thinking that’s normal. The person who has another urge inside of them that they’re clearly interested in something else, all they need is a little bit of knowledge, and if they accept that knowledge as a possibility and if they embrace that knowledge over and over again, sooner or later, they’ll begin to apply that knowledge.

Now for some people it may take five minutes, and for other people to take that first step may take an enormous amount of effort because they have to weigh that first step against everything they know, and everything they know is attached to the way their life is presently, all their agreements, all their relationships. And to take that first step means that they have to evaluate what it’s going to look like by taking this step against what they know, and there’s that battle between those two elements. But once we give ourselves permission to move outside the box, there’s a definite sense of relief and definite sense of joy.

Dr. Joe Dispenza, What the Bleep Do We Know!? by William Arntz, Betsy Chase, and Mark Vicente

A lot of wisdom can be found in fiction, if you read the right authors. My love of Robert James Waller has taken me to his non-fictional collection of essays called Old Songs In a New Cafe. My respect and love of his work grows with every page I read. Two of his essays, “Slow Waltz for Georgia Ann” and “The Turning of Fifty” are priceless treasures of love and wisdom. I want to share one such nugget from the latter:

When you feel yourself starting to become whole, it’s all right to accept positions of power, but not before then. The overriding problem with our country, and our world in general, is that we are, in large part, managed by incompetents. Most of these are men who have spent their lives seeking power rather than themselves.

My contempt for politicians has grown to new heights in recent years with none exempt. When I read such a statement about “men who have spent their lives seeking power rather than themselves,” I cannot help but think of the names Bush, Kerry, Kennedy, Clinton, and so on. I think no better candidates have been found as examples of T.S. Elliot’s “Hollow Men.” Yet for all their foolishness, we endure them. We reward them. We praise them. We elect them again and again.

Can we find those who have spent their lives seeking themselves to serve? An exceptionally poignant article by Thomas Sowell appeared in most of the nation’s papers yesterday entitled, “The Washington Meat Grinder,” in which he says:

This country needs to be able to draw on its best people from every walk of life and from every part of the political spectrum. But the nation is not going to get them if going to Washington means seeing the honorable reputation of a lifetime dragged through the mud just because someone disagrees with you on a political issue…

Washington has become a political meat grinder where character assassination is standard procedure. Clever and glib people say “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.” But the far larger question is whether the country can afford to repel people who are desperately needed but who may have too much self-respect to let political pygmies smear their character.

These are dangerous times indeed and the consequences of incompetence run amuck is grave, but perhaps Elliot is right,

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

I thought it would be wise to update my blog to give some background to a new direction my thoughts have taken as of late. My questions are growing by the day, but gladly I’m also discovering answers. I’m slipping closer daily to becoming a heretic I suppose, but I’m confident that at the end of the day there will be something of substance left. Personal peace is worth the sacrifice of popular approval.

Recent reading includes:
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach
Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller
A Thousand Country Roads, Robert James Waller
There’s No Such Place As Far Away, Richard Bach
Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, Richard Bach
A Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, Robert James Waller
Border Music, Robert James Waller
Stephen Hawking’s Universe: The Cosmos Explained, David Filkin and Stephen Hawking
One, Richard Bach
Biplane, Richard Bach
The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan
Leaving Church: A Memoir, Barbara Brown Taylor
Bridge Across Forever, Richard Bach

All come highly recommended. I’ll add further posts soon to try to tie all this together for you.

I’ve been reading Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein, which has fascinated me. The pursuit of the meaning of our existence seemed absurd to him. He thought the most beautiful experience we can have as human beings is the mysterious. If we lose our capacity to wonder, he said we are as good as dead. It was the experience of mystery that fostered religion, and only in that sense did he consider himself religious.

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

He talked about three motivations or stages of religion. First, there is a religion of fear. Gods are fashioned, served, and appeased to aleve our fears of hunger, sickness, death, etc., which also establishes a priestly caste to serve as mediators between the people and the gods they fear. Secondly, there is the God of Providence based upon a social or moral conception of God who protects, rewards, punishes, comforts, loves, and keeps the dead. He says that the scriptures illustrate the development of a religion of fear into moral religion.

Though rare he says there is another level of religious experience which he calls a “cosmic religious feeling” prompted in part by the futility of human desires and the wonder at the natural order revealed in nature and the world of thought. This feeling distinguishes the religious geniuses of all ages, which are often regarded as heretics. It “knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it.” He believed it is “the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.”

I feel like I’m in a rut of sorts, somewhere between a moral religion and a cosmic religious feeling. It depends on which day you ask me. Regardless of where we find ourselves, I hope that we never lose our capacity to wonder. I don’t believe it’s our calling as human beings to explain the Mystery but to embrace it.

These are my reflections on the first chapter of The Cost of Discipleship, “Costly Grace.”

Bonhoeffer’s argument for “costly grace” over “cheap grace” at first seems to contradict his attack upon the religious trappings of the church which overburden people and make genuine decisions for Christ difficult. He describes cheap grace as “the grace we bestow upon ourselves… it is the justification of sin without justification of the sinner… preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… grace without discipleship… grace without the cross.”

“By making this grace available on the cheapest and easiest terms” the Church may have Christianized a nation but at the expense of true discipleship. “We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition.” The call to follow Jesus fell silent.

The danger of cheap grace is that “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.” What I have come to understand is that he argues against religious prerequisites to receiving grace. That it is indeed the free gift of God that cannot be earned, bought, or bestowed by man, but he is also passionately attacking “grace as a license to sin,” that recipients of grace cannot rest content living just like the world. While the grace of God is free, it is a costly gift, and the receipt of such a gift makes us stewards of His grace. As those who have been forgiven so great a debt, we are under a holy obligation to follow after Christ, which we do at the cost of our very lives. In the end he says that the message of cheap grace has ruined more Christians than any commandment of works.

Martin Luther’s departure from the monastery was “the worst blow the world had suffered since the days of early Christianity. The renunciation he made when he became a monk was child’s play compared with that which he had to make when he returned to the world.” Until that time the Christian life was believed only possible to the spiritual elite, but now Luther demonstrated that “the only way to follow Jesus was by living in the world.” He says that Luther learned that “grace had cost him his very life, and must continue to cost him the same price day by day.” The Reformation launched a revolution of believers who had been called to follow Christ in their everyday lives. Grace could no longer be separated from discipleship, as though it were optional. The most urgent problem in Bonhoeffer’s day as well as ours is “How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?”

The Cost of Discipleship is proving to be one of the toughest books I’ve read. I’m having to read each chapter four times just to process them. This is not the book you read in bed after midnight. It will give you a migraine. I don’t know if it’s because it was written in the 30’s or because it was translated from German, but it’s just tough to read at times. Generally, by the second time I read a chapter I understand what he is saying. The third time I read just to argue with him and myself about what he is saying. Finally, it starts to come together for me about the fourth walk through. The real reason I find the book so hard is that it challenges most everything I think I know about following Christ. If it were any other author, I’d dismiss parts of it and keep reading, but this is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While he is not infallible, his words are weighty enough that they demand to be wrestled with and worked out in my life.

I just got Dallas Willard’s book The Diving Conspiracy. I’m excited to start reading it after hearing what a friend of mine said about it, plus seeing it quoted so many times in blogs and books. I think it will be my bedtime reader. Bonhoeffer will be reserved for those moments when I’m alert and my brain cells are firing in synch. After hearing quite a few Einstein quotes and theories in a movie recently, I decided to get his book, Ideas and Opinions, which appears to cover a broad range of topics beyond science.

I watched Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando Bloom last night. It was an awesome movie about the fall of Jerusalem to the Muslims between the Second and Third Crusades. The movie helped to put the Middle East conflict in historical perspective and has great discussion starters about tolerance and diversity. I’m a history nut, but I thought it was an awesome movie. I stayed up till almost 2:00 a.m. reading 10 chapters of Church History covering the rise of Christendom in Europe, the medieval Church, and the crusades.

The library called this morning to say that my book(s) were ready to be picked up. I think there’s at least three. I like to multi-task my reading to keep it interesting. Life’s too short to be ignorant.

After reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer for a long time I finally decided to read The Cost of Discipleship for myself. I noticed that several emerging churches and the Northumbria Community cite his book as inspiration. I thought for my own benefit I would share some of my reflections.

The birth pains of change in the Church are worth the cost if the end result is “a richer understanding of the Scriptures” and “a more determined quest for Him who is the sole object of it all.” Bonhoeffer talks about the difficulty people have in making a “genuine decision for Christ” because the Message is “overlaid with so much human ballast – burdensome rules and regulations, false hopes and consolations… so overburdened with ideas and expressions which are hopelessly out of touch with the mental climate in which they live.” His words are so relevant that it is hard to believe that this book was written in 1937.

Bonhoeffer might as well be addressing modern-day fundamentalists when he describes the “Church’s concern to erect a spiritual tyranny over men, by dictating to them what must be believed and performed in order to be saved, and by presuming to enforce that belief and behaviour with the sanctions of temporal and eternal punishment.” He challenges us to cast off these man-made burdens and to receive the yoke of Christ which is easy.

I for one have often found myself struggling to live for Christ. Frankly, it’s not easy. It’s tough, but Bonhoeffer says one of the reasons we have found it so difficult is because of the weight of all the religious garbage that we have inherited, albeit unknowingly, “Only the man who follows the command of Jesus single-mindedly, and unrestingly lets his yoke rest upon him, finds his burden easy, and under its gentle pressure receives the power to persevere in the right way. The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light.” I think we still are trying to earn His love, rather than submit and receive it freely, so we resist Him and choose misery over joy. Bonhoeffer pleads with us, “may we be enabled to say ‘No’ to sin and ‘Yes’ to the sinner.” Perhaps that sinner is ourself.

I’ve been reading The Man Called Cash, the authorized biography of Johnny Cash by Steve Turner, and have been enjoying it immensely. I read that he was criticized for spending so much time with prisoners. He responded that he thought there were three different kinds of Christians: “there’s preaching Christians, church-playing Christians, and there’s practicing Christians. I’m trying very hard to be a practicing Christian.” May we all keep trying.

I started reading a demythologized biography of St. Patrick the week of the patron Saint’s holiday and finished it today at the dentist’s office. I learned today that Hibernia is a variation of the native name for Ireland, so the green theme color of Hibernia National Bank must be a cultural statement and not a slight of hand to make you see cash. Somehow the brand transition to Capital One doesn’t quite have the same folk appeal, unless you count the Vikings’ prod, “What’s in your wallet?”

On a slightly more serious note I was drinking a wonderful Cabernet-Merlot blend from Washington State reading Proverbs and Ecclesiastes this evening when I found an awesome verse which I’ve also added to the top of my blog,

With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster,
I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life.
~ Ecclesiastes 2:3, The Message

How cool is that? You’ve got to love Solomon and Eugene Peterson, don’t you? They go together just like a Cab-Merlot. One final quote to share,

The words of the wise prod us to live well.
They’re like nails hammered home, holding life together.
They are given by God, the one Shepherd.
~ Ecclesiastes 12:11, The Message

My friend, Sim Church Planter, first introduced me to the name Gotthammer, which he explained was an obvious adaptation of “God’s hammer.” The origin of that expression fails me at the moment, but how succinctly this verse makes it clear. Words are powerful, even life changing. When crafted carefully they drive home the point and endure. Less any wordsmith become vain, we must not forget that truly wise words are gifts from God. We are but the hammer, albeit, a little hammer, that drives them home.

Let us thank Him for the words He gives.
Let us thank Him for the nails that hold life together.
Let us thank Him for the Word He gave.
Let us thank Him for the love that held Him there.
God make us a hammer in thy hand.

I’ve been reading through Frank Viola’s book Pagan Christianity at the urging of my friend, Sim Church Planter, and another reader who posted a comment on my blog entry discussing a Viola article. This book only provides historical support for the gut feeling I’ve had for years that something is terribly wrong with the way we do church.

Honestly, I stopped reading the book after reading the first two chapters and the last two. I’ll finish the middle some time later. The reason I stopped is not that I disagreed with Viola, but that I found myself screaming “so, now what?” I don’t need to spend days listening to someone tell me what I’ve already found to be true by experience. To Frank’s credit, he suggests reading his companion book Rethinking the Wineskin to learn about the practices of the first century church. Great marketing there, Frank… put the problem and the solution in two different books. Now, I’ve got to go nuts until I get the other one.

Seriously, his entire premise and the facts that support it raises serious questions and strong emotions for me. First, the emotions… I feel like a charlatan for propagating this stuff for years in the church as a pastor. I would march myself down to my former churches tomorrow morning, confess my deception, and beg for mercy, if only they wouldn’t have me committed or, worse, burned at the stake. My genuine remorse for deceiving the faithful is tempered by my anger for being personally hood-winked and sold a bill of goods since childhood.

Now, for some questions, beyond the obvious, “what do we do now?” Honestly, in a pursuit to be 1st century ecclesiological purists, aren’t we simply trading one tradition for another, albeit a simpler and much older one? Hijacking pagan rituals and customs is evident much earlier in scripture, i.e. David and the Zionist tradition or Abraham offering Isaac as a child sacrifice. Scripturally, the nature of the relationship between God and humanity evolved from pre-history until the time of Christ and the 1st century church. Who are we to say that it must cease to evolve to a deeper level? Do we not make the same misguided assumption that Solomon did in Ecclesiastes that what is has already been and there is nothing new under the sun?

I think there are values that should be gleaned and replicated from the 1st century church, but honestly, it is not a prototype for all time. God did not dispense His Spirit into a perfect vessel that only cracked several centuries later in Rome, nor did Christ choose the perfect spotless bride who only grew uglier with time. God chose cracked pots. Christ chose a prostitute for a bride, much the same as Hosea. We are what we are, and He loves us nonetheless.

I think it unwise to lump all pagan practices into the category of evil influences, as compared to the spiritual utopia that is 1st century Christianity. Appreciation, respect, and adaptation of our pagan culture provides a bridge through which the incarnational life of Christ can flow from His church to the world. I am leery of “us versus them,” insider versus outsider, mentality. It has proved dangerous time after time, from the treatment of the first church in Jerusalem toward Gentile believers to the treatment of protestant churches in America toward blacks and homosexuals.

In light of what the 1st century church may have done right and what the 20th century church has done wrong, the question that emerging Christianity continues to ask is what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the 21st century? In other words, so, now what?

The New Year has been a great opportunity to go deeper in my faith. It has had a tremendous psychological benefit to start fresh with new practices to strengthen my faith. My friends and I have been discussing the three major emphases of the emerging church, as I understand them: Inward Journey (spiritual formation), Corporate Journey (community formation), and Outward Journey (missional action). While we have committed to meet weekly in a small group environment to further our pursuit of Biblical community, we are also trying to hold each other accountable for the Inward Journey. All of us may be utilizing different devotional practices, but we are all united in making time with God a priority in our daily lives.

For a couple months I have been enjoying the online daily prayer site, Sacred Space, provided by the Irish Jesuits. My only reservation is that it is very short. I have felt compelled to join the tradition of so many other Christ followers in Morning and Evening prayer. There is something about the rhythm of devotion that is very meaningful to me. This led me to research Celtic Spirituality more, hoping to find something akin to the Book of Common Prayer used by our Anglican and Episcopal brethren. I discovered Celtic Daily Prayer which is prayer and readings from the Northumbria Community.

The Northumbria Community is actually a dispersed community with Companions all over the United Kingdom as well as internationally. They describe their community as “a conscious attempt to find a practical modern expression of a new monasticism, which preserves an uncompromising allegiance to the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount.” They are united by three fundamental commitments. The first common commitment is taking vows of “availability and vulnerability” both to God and others. The second commitment is to their “Rule, ‘A Way for Living,’ which embraces a dogged fidelity to the Sermon on the Mount as an expression of Christian discipleship.” The third commitment is to pray the Daily Office.

The Daily Office is primarily marked by Morning and Evening Prayers, but they also include Midday Prayer and the Compline (bedtime) which are optional. I would spare you my inadequate description of the Daily Office and urge you to pray it for yourself for a day, a week, or a season, as a fresh approach to your own spiritual formation.

You may be wondering like myself, how a former Southern Baptist pastor came to a structured repetitious prayer life. For me my prayer life has never been disciplined. It has often been taken hostage by my feelings and the circumstances of the day. While my conversation with God has always been ongoing in whispers throughout the day, I have been craving a deeper walk with Him. These devotional practices predate our modern program Christianity by hundreds of years. Though I have been guilty of being dogmatic in my beliefs in the past, I am not so arrogant as to believe we all have it right and the saints of the ages had it all wrong. There is a measure of comfort and strength in walking down a well trodden path, when you know it leads to the garden.

I am not promoting anything to anyone, just sharing where I am in my own personal journey. Today is the first day since I received my copy of Celtic Daily Prayer that I have actually prayed the Daily Office completely from Morning to Midday to Evening to Compline. I want to encourage you to find whatever works for you. Whatever time using whatever tool that helps you to prioritize and realize your time spent with God. I share this old Celtic blessing as a prayer for you:

O God, make clear to us each road.
O God, make safe to us each step;
when we stumble, hold us;
when we fall, lift us up.
When we are hard-pressed with evil,
deliver us;
and bring us at last to Your glory.

Next Wave has a great interview with Neil Cole discussing the Organic Church. Cole’s recent book on the same subject is entitled Organic Church, Growing Faith Where Life Happens. He says you can’t buy a church or set it up using a cookie-cutter approach. Rather he emphasizes replicating DNA in communities where lostness is evident and Christ is needed. He also has some great points on church finances in the Organic Church as it relates to staffing and ministry resources.