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Friday, December 30, 2005

speaking of god

A couple of blogs that I read have recently had discussions about Bible translations, and the different ways the translators handle the task of finding the right English word for the Hebrew or Greek text.

It got me thinking about the different words we use when speaking of God. It's not always easy to find the right words, because no human language is rich enough to adequately express who God is. No word or phrase can define God without giving a distorted image. So we often use paradoxical phrases: One God, three persons. Transcendent and immanent. God of justice and of grace. Christ is fully God and fully human. God is omnipotent but gives us free will.

It is only when we hold these seemingly contradictory ideas in tension that we begin to grasp the richness of God's nature. If we let one side of the equation dominate, not only will we get a skewed perception of God, but also we will run into problems talking with others about God -- especially if their perception is skewed in a different direction.

Marcus Borg, in The God We Never Knew, chose the word "panentheism" to describe his image of God. He uses the word in opposition to "supernatural theism," the belief he had grown up with, that God was somewhere "out there" but not "right here" involved in our lives. Borg makes a good point in rejecting the notion of a distant God, but perhaps the term "panentheism" (literally, "everything is in God" swings too far the other direction. God is not just "right here" but also beyond. Borg stresses in his book that he believes in a God who is both transcendent and immanent, but again this shows how difficult it is to find a word or phrase to capture the full picture.

Paul Tillich wrestled with this problem in his book Dynamics of Faith. After first defining faith as "ultimate concern," and then stating that only symbolic language can express the ultimate, Tillich says:

God is the fundamental symbol for what concerns us ultimately. Again it would be completely wrong to ask: So God is nothing more than a symbol? Because the next question has to be: A symbol for what? And then the answer would be: For God! God is symbol for God. This means that in the notion of God we must distinguish two elements: the element of ultimacy, which is a matter of immediate experience and not symbolic in itself, and the element of concreteness, which is taken from our ordinary experience and symbolically applied to God.

English was not Tillich's native language. Perhaps, though, his words would be just as obscure if it were. It's not an easy concept to define. Still, I think he makes an important point in distinguishing "two elements" in the "notion of God," which I understand (rightly or wrongly) to be 1) God as God, and 2) our limited understanding or limited vocabulary about God.

I've noticed this in conversations with my wife. She comes from a Baptist and non-denominational background, while I come from a United Methodist background (with a dollop of Lutheranism from college). Sometimes our vocabulary is so different that I wonder if we really belong to the same religion. But if we take the time to understand what each other is saying, we often find that we have the same core beliefs despite our outward differences.

In the end, it seems to me that that's what really matters when speaking of God. It's not about telling others that their language is wrong. It's getting to the core beliefs that are the source of the words. Often we may find that underneath there is more harmony than it appears from the surface.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

the empty boat

A Taoist parable:

If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty,
He would not be shouting, and not angry.

If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.

Friday, December 23, 2005

my worst christmas ever

It was the middle of December, 1978. I was in fourth grade. It may have been before school one morning, or at lunch, or as we were waiting for the bus to take us home, but some of my classmates started talking about what they would be getting for Christmas. Not speculating, but stating with confidence.

I had no idea what I was getting. I had made a list, but I had no guarantee that I would get what was on it. How could my classmates be so sure of what they were getting?

They explained to me that they had found where their parents hid their presents. For most, the hiding place was under the parents' bed.

I lived on a farm, and I knew there would be several opportunities when both my parents were out of the house. When the opportunity came, I went into their bedroom and peeked under the bed. Sure enough, there were the Christmas presents for me and my brother, wrapped in nothing but the manufacturer's original packaging. It was ridiculously easy. For once I knew exactly what I was going to get.

But somehow, the knowing in advance did not make for a better Christmas. Quite the opposite. It was my worst Christmas ever. All the excitement and wonder of tearing open a package and trying to guess what was inside, I had forfeit. Because I had known for several days what I was getting, I didn't even feel like the gifts were new any more. I tried to make an outward display of happiness, but inside I was numb. I hadn't anticipated this at all.

Sometimes it's better not to know.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

the tower of mammon

Based on a true story.

And they said to one another, "Let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a shopping mall, and a superstore, and let us pave all the ground, and let us make a name for ourselves, and accumulate vast sums of wealth, lest we become scattered across the earth."

And the LORD came down to see the city and the mall and the superstore and all the pavement, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do. Come, let us confuse their language, or they will combine all under one roof, and buy groceries and clothing and DVDs and auto parts, and get their hair cut, and do their banking, all in the very same building.

So the LORD confused their speech, and some said, "Happy Holidays," while other said, "Merry Christmas." But they continued building the shopping malls and the superstores, and paving all the ground, and they exported this culture abroad, across all the face of the earth.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

last minute christmas shopping

I've mentioned these before, but if you're still stuck looking for something for the person who has everything, Alternative Gifts International, World Vision, and the Heifer Project offer unique ideas. Give a goat in someone's name, and they will share your joy in providing for those who really need it.

A Greater Gift, Ten Thousand Villages, and Global Exchange provide a second kind of unique gifts. You can support the efforts of hard-working people struggling to overcome endemic poverty. Thanks to St. Phransus (Jonathon Norman) for that last link.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

remembering god

In my own case, I know that when I remember to talk to God, my life generally goes better. My own practice is to talk out loud, commonly in my car (which somebody has referred to as the modern equivalent of a monastic cell). On days I remember to do so, I usually feel more centered, more present, more open, more peaceful, and more appreciative. Yet I can so easily forget. When I go three or four days without "remembering" God (even though I might be thinking about God a lot, as when writing this book), my life has the opposite qualities: less centered, less present, less open, less peaceful, less appreciative. How I can know this and yet sometimes forget to pray remains a puzzle to me.

- Marcus Borg, The God We Never Knew

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

light bulb theology

This post was inspired by:

  1. Today's post at Monastic Mumblings, about balance between prayer, work, and rest
  2. A burned out light bulb

How Christians Change Light Bulbs
A Comparative Approach

How many Charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?
One to the change the bulb and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness.

How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?
None. God has predestined when the light will be on. Calvinists do not change light bulbs. They simply read the instructions and pray the light bulb will be one that has been chosen to be changed.

How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?

How many emergent church members does it take to change a light bulb?
None. They always use candles.

How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?
You can't force the bulb to change. It did not CHOOSE to be burned out, it was born that way. The bulb's status should not disqualify it from the ministry.

How many worship leaders who use guitars does it take to change a light bulb?
One. But soon all those around can warm up to its glowing.

How many fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?
The Bible says that Jesus Christ is the light of the world. If you're getting your light from any other source, it's a sin.

How many TV evangelists does it take to change a light bulb?
One. But for the message of light to continue, send in your donation today.

How many Amish does it take to change a light bulb?
What's a light bulb?

How many youth pastors does it take to change a light bulb?
Youth pastors aren't around long enough for a light bulb to burn out.

How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to change a light bulb?
This statement was issued: "We choose not to make a statement either in favor or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your journey you have found that a light bulb works for you, that is fine. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your light bulb (or light source, or non dark resource) and present it next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including but not limited to incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths of luminescence."

How many Southern Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?
One hundred and nine. Seven on the Light Bulb Task Force Sub-committee, who report to the 12 on the Light Bulb Task Force, appointed by the 15 on the Trustee Board. Their recommendation is reviewed by the Finance Committee Executive of 5, who place it on the agenda of the 18 member Finance Committee. If they approve, they bring a motion to the 27 member church Board, who appoint another 12 member Review Committee. If they recommend that the Church Board proceed, a resolution is brought to the Congregational Business Meeting. They appoint another member Review Committee. If their report to the next Congregational Business Meeting supports the changing of a light bulb, and the Congregation votes in favour, the responsibility to carry out the light bulb change is passed on to the Trustee Board, who in turn appoint a 7 member committee to find the best price in new light bulbs. Their recommendation of which hardware store has the best buy must then be reviewed by the 23 member Ethics Committee to make certain that this hardware store has no connection to Disneyland. They report back to the Trustee Board who then commissions the trustee in charge of the Janitor to ask him to make the change. By then the janitor discovers that one more light bulb has burned out.

How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?
This matter will have to be decided by the Judicial Council. Then, after they give their ruling, the real fight will begin. The General Board of Global Ministries will issue a position paper, as will the Council of Bishops, both with opposing views. The United Methodist Women will weigh in with a caution about the overcommercialization of light bulbs. Ultimately, this will be a topic of discussion at the next General Conference in 2008, where some will argue that the Book of Discipline's language on light bulbs is too restrictive and must be changed, while others will threaten to form a new denomination if the light bulb language is changed.

- author(s) unknown

Sunday, December 11, 2005


My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of
his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call
me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of
their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

Luke 1:46-55

This passage is sometimes known as the Magnificat, from the first word in the Latin translation. According to Luke's gospel, this is what Mary said when she visited her relative Elizabeth, while both of them were pregnant.

The song begins so joyfully that its subversive message is often overlooked. We want to rejoice in our savior who is merciful, who has done great things for us. We might be less thrilled with one who has "scattered the proud" and "brought down the powerful." We may be comforted by a Christ who has "filled the hungry with good things," but we might not want a savior who has "sent the rich away empty," especially those of us who live in wealthy nations.

God's values are not our values. Jesus did not come to make our lives easier or more comfortable, but to turn our world upside down. That's not the message we usually hear at Christmas time. We hear about the God who became flesh in order to save us. We hear how Herod was threatened by this news, but we don't hear the logical extension: The kingdom of God is a threat to all human authorities. In an age in which 1/3 of the global population calls themselves Christian, including many rulers of nations, including most of the richest people on the earth, we don't want a God whose desire is to turn the social order upside down.

Ultimately, though, it's not about what we want. God's justice is far superior to human injustice. The baby who was born to redeem the world was also born to inaugurate the kingdom of God "on earth, as it is in heaven." If that means overturning everything we think we have achieved, so be it.

Herod was so afraid of this child that he preferred to have the baby killed rather than to take the chance of losing his power. Years later the high priest Caiaphas would pursue the same strategy, with more success.

This child whose birth we celebrate when we sing, "Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes," is the same Jesus who would later say to the religious leaders, "The prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of you."

Frankly, I'd rather have the Jesus who preached about love, who healed the sick and the blind, who said his mission was to bring good news to the poor. I'm not so excited about the Jesus who warned his disciples that following his teachings might turn their own families against them. The thing is, it's the same Jesus.

It's been said that Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Sitting here at my desk in my warm house, typing away at my computer after filling my belly, I'm not so sure I want to hear those words.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

theological worldview

So my theology is emergent or postmodern. That explains a lot. For several years I've described myself as "liberal" because I often question traditional interpretations and practices. But I've never really felt comfortable with liberal theology either.

I've heard about emergent/postmodern Christianity, but have not bothered to research it too much. I think, now, that I should probably continue to not research it further, lest I embrace it too fully and lose touch with the historical church.

It helps, though, to know that I'm not just a lone wayward soul who struggles to connect with the church culture. No, I'm a postmodern soul who struggles to connect with the church culture. :-0

You scored as Emergent/Postmodern. You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.



Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan


Classical Liberal




Neo orthodox


Modern Liberal


Roman Catholic


Reformed Evangelical




What's your theological worldview?
created with

Saturday, December 03, 2005


When evangelist Tony Campolo is invited to be a guest preacher at suburban churches, he often begins his sermons with these words:

I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit in church than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."

There's too much truth in his words. How has western Christianity reached the point where a vulgarity is a cause for more concern than the death of a child?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

the night i met god

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1985. I was a junior in high school. That school year had started off as a very good year for me. I was one of the top runners on the cross country team, and I finally got my first girlfriend. In early November, both the relationship and the cross country season ended. By Thanksgiving I was feeling about as lonely as I ever had.

That Sunday evening, at the end of the long weekend, while I was reading a book for my English class, I felt a tightness in my chest, and I started having trouble breathing. I felt dizzy. I've had respiratory allergies most of my life, and this was probably related to that condition. If so, it was by far the worst attack I've ever had.

I don't remember the next few minutes. I had been sitting in a chair on one side of my bedroom, but the next thing I remember I was lying in my bed on the other side of the room, slowly getting my breath back. I remember thinking, my life is worthless, and I whispered a prayer, "God, if you can hear me, just let me die."

What happened instead was that I slowly became aware that someone else was in my room. I couldn't see anyone, but I could sense a presence. The intensity of the presence began to grow, until it was so overwhelming that I was aware of nothing else, not even myself. I knew I was in the presence of God. I don't think the English language even contains the words to describe the sensation.

My life has never been the same since. Things didn't turn around immediately, but I started on a journey that has led me places I never would have imagined.

Tonight is the 20th anniversary of that experience, and the memory is still as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday.