On being ecumenical

Today on YouTube I stumbled across a conversation between Francis Chan, Hank Hanegraaff (radio’s “The Bible Answer Man”), and KP Yohannan (now Metropolitan Yohan). Chan is a fairly famous conservative evangelical pastor, Hanegraaff is a famous evangelical radio personality who converted to Easter Orthodoxy a number of years ago, and KP Yohannan is the founder of the mission organization Gospel for Asia and…well I’m not sure what to call him in terms of Christian affiliation. He’s a leader in a relatively new denomination, but I can’t figure out it if it’s evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or something else. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

Their conversation got me thinking again about being ecumenical in outlook. By “ecumenical” I mean the belief that the Christian church includes Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox—that all those branches of the church are brothers and sisters in Christ, we can work together across denominational lines, and that genuine faith is identified by confessing the risen Christ as Lord and, beyond that, that we all have the Creeds in common.

Not everyone thinks that way. I grew up in a home where Catholics weren’t considered true Christians and Pentecostals and other charismatics were also suspect. I have friends who still think that way about Catholics and Pentecostals. There is a narrow niche of Christianity, often related to the fundamentalism of the early 20th century, that in its extremes thinks the true faith and true doctrine and true understanding of scripture is found only in one denomination, or possibly even just one church or one preacher. These churches seem to have a habit of focussing on what’s wrong “out there” and naming heretical beliefs—which is to say, belief that is different from their own (which is technically not what heresy is)—and serious distrust of and unwillingness to work with others outside their fold. Often this kind of thinking seems to go along with a lot of disunity and what appears to be a significant lack of grace.

I gave that perspective up a long time ago. I believe I have many brothers and sisters across the denominational lines.

I can’t remember exactly what it was that led me down that road, but I can identify bits and pieces along the way. Learning the history of the church was a big one—many evangelicals have a very short and recent history of the church that doesn’t go back much further than 500 years, to their significant loss. The recognition that for certainly 1000 years, if not 1500 years, the church was fairly unified in its belief was helpful. Sure, there was division between east (Orthodox) and west (Roman Catholic) later on, but much was shared. The recognition that all three major branches of the church recognize and confess the ancient Creeds also helped. Developing an understanding of Catholic and Orthodox theology was another help, though I don’t know it well and even though I recognize there are some beliefs I don’t share with them—but these are Christians that confess Jesus as risen Lord!

The reality is that I can’t believe that God’s Spirit was absent from the church between the death of the last apostle and Martin Luther nailing his complaints to a church door some 1500 years later. If that was the case, we don’t have much hope for the last 500 years of the church either!

There is no pure church. I’m not sure there ever was one after the day of Pentecost. Paul’s letters in the New Testament make that clear! I may disagree profoundly on some things with my Catholic sisters and brothers, or for that matter my Pentecostal or Baptist sisters and brothers, but we together confess Christ and seek to follow him.

And so I continue to try to listen and learn from other Christian traditions and to have a bit of humility about correct doctrine. I’d like to think I’m fairly open minded, but sometimes it can be really difficult to allow others to disagree with something I’m passionate about. But it’s necessary. If this isn’t an oxymoron, I’m convinced that we need to have theological convictions and hold them loosely. Our grounding is in Christ, not a set of beliefs. Our hope is in Christ, not a theological perspective. Our salvation is in Christ, not a doctrinal statement.

Here’s a little sketch I drew of why I’m ecumenical. I don’t know if it will make sense to you, but it makes sense to me.

Loving God Looks Like Loving Your Neighbour

I’ve been pondering Jesus’ answer to the question of what the greatest commandment is (Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark 12:28-31). Here are a couple of thoughts relating to that:

Jesus says the greatest commandment is loving God “and the second is like it,” love your neighbour. The way things are phrased, it looks like the commands are ranked: to love God is number one and the command to love neighbour is number two. But I don’t think we can so easily separate or rank the two greatest commands, for a couple of reasons.

First, Jesus is asked which commandment (singular) of all the commandments is greatest. In his answer, Jesus actually gives two commands as the greatest command: love God and love your neighbour. In Matthew, Jesus says that all the law and prophets hang on both of these commandments; in Mark Jesus says, “There is no commandment greater than these.”

This suggests to me that the phrase “the second is (like it)” does not denote rank or hierarchy, or that it’s just about similarity. The two commands are intimately related, they belong together. Jesus seems to be relating them together as the greatest commandment, rather than ranking them individually, meaning something like “there are two (not one) greatest commands, and the second one is love your neighbour,” or the “greatest command is love God and with it love your neighbour.”

Second, Jesus elsewhere says, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” In other words, when you love your neighbour, you love God.

Third, Paul seems to have understood the two commands in the way I suggest, because in Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14 he says that all the law and the prophets are summed up in one command: love your neighbour as yourself (without reference to loving God).

This all suggests to me that the command to love God and the command to love neighbour cannot be separated or ranked or placed in order of importance. If we love God, we will love our neighbour. In order to love God, we must love our neighbour. If we love our neighbour, we love God.

Something to consider as we ponder our priorities as followers of Jesus.

Information and understanding are not the same thing.

Another one I first posted to Facebook:

How to Read a Book was written in the 1940s and revised in the early 1970s. On the first page, it says this, which seems just as relevant today as it would have been then, and probably more so:

“…it may be seriously questioned whether the advent of modern communication media [television and radio…and today we would add social media and the internet] has much enhanced our understanding of the world in which we live.

“Perhaps we know more about the world than we used to, and in so far as knowledge is prerequisite to understanding, that is all to the good. But knowledge is not as much a prerequisite to understanding as is commonly supposed. We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.

“One of the reasons for this situation is that the very media we have mentioned are so designed as to make thinking seem unnecessary (though this is only an appearance). The packaging of intellectual positions and views is one of the most active enterprises of some of the best minds of our day. The viewer of television, the listener to radio, the reader of magazines, is presented with a whole complex of elements—all the way from ingenious rhetoric to carefully selected data and statistics—to make it easy for him to “make up his own mind” with the minimum of difficulty and effort. But the packaging is often done so effectively that the viewer, listener, or reader does not make up his own mind at all. Instead, he inserts a packaged opinion into his mind, somewhat like inserting a cassette into a cassette player. He then pushes a button and “plays back” the opinion whenever it seems appropriate to do so. He has performed acceptably without having had to think”.

~ from How to Read a Book: by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren

Let’s chill with the end times predictions

I wrote this for Facebook, but thought I’d leave it here for posterity.

Young children don’t often remember sermons, but just yesterday I was reminded of a sermon on Matthew 24 that Dr. Henry Budd, then president of Briercrest Bible College, preached in the  mid-to-late 1980s. I’m sure I wasn’t more than 9 or 10 years old, but that sermon has stuck with me all these years. 

I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household and community. In that context, there was lots of talk about the “end times” and the rapture and all the terrible things that would happen then, and it was much debated whether or not Christians would be snatched away from earth before or after all those terrible things happened. 

As a young boy I was terrified of the “end times” and everything associated with it. Any time references were made to signs of the times or Jesus’ imminent return, fear would well up in me. Later I even had nightmares about it.

What has stuck with me from that sermon over all these years is that, after reading the signs of the end times in Matthew 24 (“wars and rumours of wars”, nations rising against nations, “famines and earthquakes in various places”), Dr. Budd emphasized verse 8: “All these are the beginnings of birth pains.” And in verse 8 he emphasized that it was *the beginnings* of birth pains, meaning that the famines and wars were not a sign of the imminent end of all things, but simply an indication that history was moving along towards the return of Christ. 

I don’t remember if this was his point or not, but the idea that stuck with me was this: chill out about the end times in relation to world events. And a huge weight of terror was lifted off of me. 

Since then my theology has shifted away from fundamentalism and related end times theories, but I’ve carried his words with me. I’ve since then also learned some history and came to know that famines and wars and earthquakes and pandemics have occurred regularly and repeatedly since Jesus spoke these words nearly 2,000 years ago. I’ve come to know that many Christians throughout history have believed that the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in AD70 is when Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 were fulfilled. I’ve since discovered that the Bible is actually kind of sketchy on the specifics of “the end times” and that the point is not to make predictions based on world events, but perhaps—*at best*—that we should use world events as a reminder that Jesus did promise to return and that he would then make all things right and new, bringing healing, restoration, justice, and that in the meantime we’re invited to live as if that time of healing and justice has already come.

All this to say, in an echo of my memory of Dr. Budd’s point more than 30 years ago: let’s chill out about the end times predictions in relation to the pandemic and other world events. Christians await the return of Christ, yes. But haven’t enough wrong predictions been made throughout history based on some world event or catastrophe for us to learn our lesson about this? It’s not enough to say, “Maybe this time we’ll be right.” People will stop listening to what we have to say, if they haven’t already. It’s much more important for us to announce, “He is risen! Jesus is Lord!” in word and deed than it is for us to “Oooo!” and “Aaaah!” at every significant world event as if *this* time we actually know. 

Maybe I’m wrong. But I wouldn’t know that until after the fact anyway.

I’m in love with a fantasy.

“You’re in love with a fantasy.”

“I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.”

“The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.”

(dialogue from the film Midnight in Paris)

Midnight in Paris may be Woody Allen’s last great movie, and it’s one of my favourite films of all time. I relate a lot to the main character, Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson (who, as far as I’m concerned, is the perfect actor to play the Woody Allen part for younger characters). Gil is an aspiring novelist who thinks the best time and place is Paris in the 20s.

Here’s a clip of some dialogue between his fiancée (Inez) and two friends (Paul and Carol), after his fiancée starts to tell them about the novel Gil is writing. The lead character works in a nostalgia shop.

Here’s a thirty second clip:

Here’s the dialogue:

CAROL: What’s a nostalgia shop?

PAUL: Not one of those stores that sells Shirley Temple dolls and old radios? I never know who buys that stuff – who’d want it.

FIANCÉE (pointedly): People who live in the past. Who think their lives would have been happier if they lived in an earlier time.

PAUL: And just what era would you have preferred to live in. . . ?

FIANCÉE (teasing Gil): Paris in the twenties—in the rain, when the rain wasn’t acid rain.

PAUL: I see. And no global warming, no TV or suicide bombing, nuclear weapons, drug cartels.

CAROL: The usual menu of clichéd horror stories.

PAUL: Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present.

FIANCÉE: He’s a romantic. Gil would be just fine living in a perpetual state of denial.

PAUL: The name for this fallacy is called, “Golden Age Thinking.” The erroneous notion that a different time period was better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those who find coping with the present too difficult.

I’m not sure if I’m entirely a Golden Age Thinker, but I’ve certainly used Gil’s exact words in my own life: “I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.” I long for an elusive simpler time. Earlier in the film Gil’s fiancée tells him that he’s “in love with a fantasy.” And the film is about Gil figuring this out.

It’s a really fun film: it’s set in modern-day Paris, but, through mysterious circumstances, every night at midnight in a certain spot in the city, Gil gets picked up by a chauffeured vintage car, which takes him to hobnob with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, and a host of other famous artists (most of whose names I don’t recognize) in 1920s Paris. [SPOILER ALERT!] There he falls in love with a beautiful young Parisienne of the time, whom he later discovers wishes she lived during La Belle Epoque—Paris in the 1890s—because her decade—Gil’s favourite—is boring.

Eventually Gil realizes that “The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying,” which is a lesson I’m still learning. I think I can’t quite accept the fact that the present—beautiful, difficult, depressing, hopeful as it is—is all I have, as odd as that may sound.

Which is why Gordon T. Smith stung with some of his words in his book Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. In a chapter about vocational holiness (“Called to Do Good Work”), he writes,

We are called to be present to our circumstances, our world—to be agents of peace and justice in the world as it actually is rather than as we wish it were. This means we turn not only from pretense (wishing we were someone else or acting as though we are someone else) but also from wishful thinking and illusion regarding our circumstances.

This means that we do not live emotionally in a previous time. We have no patience with “the good old days.” They are long gone. We discern in light of what is actually the case today. This also means we do not engage in wishful thinking. In other words, we do not dwell on what we wish were true but on what is actually true.

We live in the world as it presents itself—no nostalgia, no pining for an earlier golden age. We are not waiting around for good fortune to suddenly and finally hit us. We stop investing emotional energy in the “what-if’s,” and we get on with it.

All of us are called to such a time as this. None of us are ahead of our times, and no one is born too late and able to complain that the opportunity passed us by. Rather, we are each invited to respond to the call of God for this day.

(Gordon T. Smith, Called to Be Saints, 104-105)

Eugene Peterson, addressing pastors in Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, has much the same thing to say as Smith, but he says it much more succinctly: my work is “these people, at this time, under these conditions” (p. 131).

I have some maturing to do I guess. As we all do. But it’s not maturing I particularly want to do, even though it would make the difficulties of today that much more bearable. I think Gil’s realization that “the present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying” is in many respects a very Christian perspective. We recognize that we live in a broken world, and all is not well, even as we hope that eventually it will be.

I’m reminded of something I quoted in a post almost twelve years ago:

Our creation story does not call us to roam through life in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, that is the very thing from which we are saved. Our story portrays the great journey of God into his limited and needy creation.

Biblical hope is found when Christians hear the gospel and take their place in the great processions of the body of Christ. The proclamation of that hope is that in communing with Christ we discover all the grace we need to live joyful but limited lives. For in communing with God we encounter the mystery of his presence with us.

(M. Craig Barnes, Yearning: Living Between How It Is & How It Ought To Be, p. 21)

Wishful thinking, the grass is greener, “Golden Age Thinking”. . . none of these things actually make things better. In fact, they probably make them worse.

Here is the moment of realization for Gil, which his Parisienne love (Adriana) does not understand, but is a lesson worth remembering. They’ve jumped from the 1920s to the 1890s, and Adriana wants to stay in the 1890s, Le Belle Epoque:

Because if you stay here and this becomes your present, sooner or later you’ll imagine another time was really the golden time. . . The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.

. . .if I’m ever going to write anything worthwhile I’ve got to get rid of my illusions and that I’d be happier in the past is one of them.

(dialogue from Midnight in Paris)

Or, if I’m ever going to be a better pastor, or if I’m ever going to live a worthwhile life I’ve got to get rid of the illusion that I’d be happier in the past.

When novel readings aren’t.

I had a brief conversation a while ago with someone who thinks it’s more difficult to speak about the Bible in straightforward ways these days. It seems to no longer say what it says; if I say, “This passage means this,” there’s often someone who will say, “It looks like it says this, but what it actually means is this.” And I agree; it does seem to take more work to talk about the Bible these days.

While I imagine sometimes people do say “it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means” simply to try to find ways/excuses around passages they don’t like, and that’s not good, in many cases there are good reasons for the shift towards a different reading of the text. Some of them are pretty commonly known: questions of cultural differences, genre, dealing with an ancient text and related expectations, and so on. But there are other factors to consider as well.

1 – Sometimes seemingly new ways of reading scripture are actually correctives to relatively recent innovations in reading scripture. A “new” interpretation may actually reflect a more ancient understanding of a passage. What we’re used to or were brought up with may, quite naturally, seem like the normal understanding of the Bible, but may in fact be the new reading. Slightly different but related is the idea that previous generations and especially the ancient church—not to mention different branches of the church, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church—have read the Bible in very different ways than some modern ways of reading.

Example: dispensationalism and rapture theology (think Left Behind series), are relatively modern ideas (late 19th century). I don’t think the majority of prior generations of Christians would have read the Bible in this way, but today it seems to be the majority view of the conservative evangelical church in North America. And so correctives come along (e.g. N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope) which may seem new or novel, but actually reflect scripture and the history of the church’s interpretation more faithfully. How conservative evangelicals tend to read Genesis 1 is another example.

2 – New readings may also reflect the realization (or remembrance) that our experience and reason play a part in interpreting scripture. If the Bible says that rocks are soft, but I experience the hardness of a rock falling on my toe, then I have a conundrum. But the problem isn’t with my experience of the rock, nor is the problem actually with the Bible—the problem is in how I read and interpret the Bible, or perhaps what I understand the Bible to be. I may need to read it differently. Obviously the Bible doesn’t say rocks are soft! My point is simply that sometimes we impose things on the text that the text itself doesn’t allow or ask for, and so there are correctives made.

3 – New readings also reflect the realization that with some things that we call “biblical” we’ve tended to proof text. For example, Paul says in one passage that women should be silent in churches, and historically we’ve stopped there, end of story—the Bible says it, I believe it. But these days we may be more honest about the fact that Paul also talks about women prophesying in church and women apostles, for example. And so we’ve had to adjust our reading and interpretation of scripture to reflect the realities within scripture itself.

These three overlap as well. And I’m sure there are others. This is the reality of being honest about scripture and tradition. “New” readings aren’t always to be dismissed as “liberal” or “revisionist” readings. Sometimes they restore or reset our understanding to more ancient and biblical views (which, I suppose, is to say, the more “conservative” view).

I always find it refreshing when I see the Bible in a new way based on something the Bible itself says—when scripture has something to say about itself.

Favourite books of Some of the books I read in 2019

2019 wasn’t a particularly profound year in terms of the books I completed. Some of my favourites of the year were re-reads. There were some good books, but for many I’ve already forgotten what they were about. I don’t know if that’s a reflection on the stresses of the year or if some of those books were, in the end, forgettable. But here are the highlights, such as they are, from the year, in order of reading. Turns out that often books have meaning to me for their “feel” and context as much as their content.

John Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. This was the first book I completed (started it Christmas 2018) this year and it may well have been the best. The book was a profound reminder that there is more to the text of Genesis 1–3 than our reading habits, preconceptions, traditions, cultural expectations, etc. lead us to think. Which may explain why I never get tired of exploring that particular part of the Bible. (I also read John Walton and Tremper Longman’s, The Lost World of the Flood, and was comparatively disappointed.)

Elizabeth Strout, Abide with Me. I loved the pace and feel of Strout’s book, Olive Kitteridge, which I read a number of years ago, and very much looked forward to this novel for this reason, in addition to the fact that the protagonist is a pastor. Some of that pace and feel (or mood) of Olive Kitteridge was present in Abide with Me. I think I liked it. I think.

Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Re-read. I think she says some thoughtful things in this book. I don’t remember. I like this book for its feel and pace. It exudes prairie, which is a good thing.

Billy Collins, The Rain in Portugal: Poems. It’s Billy Collins! Also, purchased at a discount at Tattered Covered Books in downtown Denver, Colorado, so it has some warm sentimental value.

John Le Carré, Call for the Dead. A fun read and, I believe, the novel that introduces the character George Smiley. It probably worked in this book’s favour that I read Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy not long before this one. That was also good, but significantly longer and more difficult to complete. But Call for the Dead had all the good things of Le Carré and George Smiley—cold, rainy London; lots of walking and talking; mystery and intrigue—but in at a fraction of the length of some of his other books.

Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Re-read. Wonderful story. Additionally wonderful because I look for a non-movie-tie-in edition in every bookstore I’m in (even though I think of the movie when I read it). It’s never in stock anywhere I go, so I took it as a sign that I should buy it when I found it on the shelf in a little bookshop in Estes Park, Colorado. Read it in a day or two in a cabin in the mountains high above Estes Park this summer.

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda. My brother urged me to read this. It is the tragic story of the relationship between eastern Canadian First Nations tribes, as well as between those tribes and a group of Jesuit missionaries. It was an absorbing read.

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. Fascinating and helpful argument for the existence of God. Not specifically the Judeo-Christian God, mind you, even though Hart is himself an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but helpful nonetheless. I would proffer this book over a more standard evangelical apologetics/arguments-for-the-existence-of-God book. That’s just a hunch, though, as I can’t say I’ve read a great deal of that flavour of Christian apologetics. This was a thought-provoking and challenging read.

David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. Reading two Hart books back-to-back within a month would have seemed impossible to me the month before I did that very thing. Hart is known as an exceedingly dense writer, whose books need to be read with a thesaurus in one’s other hand, but both of these books were engaging and readable. I read a very short book by Hart in seminary, and it was very difficult to understand. This CPAP machine I’ve been using must be helping my reading as well.

Opinions about this book tend not to be modest. Many people have expressed disappointed in it, though it’s not clear if that’s because his arguments are deficient or because here Hart turns his vitriol away from his usual target—New Atheists like Richard Dawkins—and points it at “infernalists” (Christians who hold to an eternal conscious torment view of hell). I do think that Hart tends to be a grumpy and cynical writer and wish he wouldn’t be (although sometimes it’s funny), but I didn’t take his vitriol personally. On the other hand are those who love the book and think it will be the one for “infernalists” to contend with for the coming years.

As for Hart, he says, both in the book and in interviews about it, that his argument is irrefutable. I’m not sure about that. But it is compelling, even convincing. But irrefutable? I doubt it.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin. A posthumous novel edited by his son Christopher from Tolkien’s vast collection of papers. It expands on a chapter in The Silmarillion, posthumously published in the 1970s. A beautiful story.

Michael Palin, Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time. Another book about the Franklin expedition—actually, it’s about several voyages of the ships Erebus and Terror, but it’s a publishable story mostly because of the Franklin tragedy. I don’t know why this story has fascinated me enough to read two books on it (Michael Palin as author helped), but something about 18th century explorers, ships, the craziness of being away from home and at sea for four years, and the mystery of the disappearance of these two ships and their crew is enough to keep me coming back.

Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. I always enjoy a simultaneously humorous and helpful look at writing. (See also Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves; don’t see Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, which could’ve been such, but isn’t.) But I am left wondering who’s rules—England’s or the US’s—I should be following when I write?

Are we losing our ability to see?

(For my one remaining reader: I wrote a post in July on the WordPress iPhone app. It was written when we were staying in a cabin north of Estes Park, Colorado. The cabin is 8200ft+ [~2500m] above sea level. The post was a riveting reflection on making a proper cup of tea in relation to boiling point at various altitudes. Alas, there was a problem with the app and the post is lost forever.)

There is quite a bit being written these days (if you’re looking in the right places) about how conversation is becoming a lost art in our society, particularly for younger generations. Conversation’s demise usually linked to increased use of smart technology and social media. I think there’s good reason to believe that we are losing our ability to speak with others. But today I wondered if we are—I should probably say, if I am—losing our ability to see as well.

I don’t mean this simply in the sense of not noticing our surroundings because we’re always on a device, though that’s part of it. I mean it in the sense of wondering if we’re training ourselves to glance, to glimpse, and then move on, without ever fully appreciating what we see.

In order to visit my family in British Columbia, we have to drive through the Rocky Mountains. I’m often frustrated when in our hurry to arrive at our destination we don’t (or aren’t able to) take the time to stop in the mountains to breathe deeply and really take in the amazing beauty of the mountains. We try to do this when we have time (though we could make time even if we feel that we don’t) with a walk along a river or a hike into the mountains, but even then we’re always moving and our final destination is always in mind. I can’t remember the last time I simply stood and observed and took in the beauty around me for more than a few seconds. I’m not sure I’ve ever done that.

What does traveling through the mountains have to do with this? Only this: I’m talking about taking time to see and take in. I was on Instagram at lunch today, where I follow a couple of accounts that post pictures of small-town and rural England. They post beautiful pictures of rolling countryside and quaint villages. I love these images, especially the ones of the countryside. But here’s what I do: I scroll, I glance at the photo, I double-tap to like, and I move on. I rarely really look or perhaps gaze at the image. I realize it’s only a picture, but there’s something significant about just scrolling past with only a brief sense of “that’s nice” and a feeling of appreciation, but rarely, if ever, actively appreciating the image with a longer look.

I see it in myself and others in the endless photo-taking and selfies when we’re at some beautiful spot—the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, the Great Plains, wherever it may be. We seem to spend more time looking at the world through our cameras than at the world itself. Years ago I gave up filming and photographing my children’s choirs and bands at school, because I didn’t want to keep watching these personal events through my camera (I leave the film work to Dixie now, who doesn’t mind.) I love photography and would like to pursue it more, but often it turns the world into something to be consumed by my camera and a rapid succession of stills, without actually making an attempt to simply appreciate the living, breathing, moving wonders of the world. I imagine photography should start with the appreciative gaze and only after that should I frame up the picture.

What am I losing in training my mind to glance and move on? What will this do to my understanding of the world around me, or even my sense of what’s real in an increasingly digitized world? What will this do to my sense of what it means to truly appreciate or even love something or someone?

I’m not sure I’ll ever think I’ve taken it in enough, whether it’s nature or a photograph, so maybe I’ll always be frustrated. But it can’t hurt to pursue the gaze, the meditation, and appreciating creation a bit more.

Jesus with a wink and a glint in his eye

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Matthew 15:21-28, NIV

Not long ago I had a conversation with my oldest daughter about the above passage. In the course of our conversation I realized once again that interpretation of scripture does not begin after we’ve read a passage, but the reading of the passage is itself part of the act of interpretation. I touched on this a little bit in a previous post, but with this passage it became that much more clear to me.

My daughter’s concern with this passage was that Jesus seems to be indifferent to the plight of this woman’s daughter and then appears to speak downright insultingly to her. This is a common common response to this passage, I think. I have had those concerns myself.

My daughter and I talked about how Jesus’ mission really was first and foremost to the Jews, that ministry to the Gentiles (i.e., everyone else) was left to the apostles after Pentecost, though Jesus also alludes to this expansion of the kingdom. Still, Jesus nevertheless seems unreasonably rude to this woman.

So then we talked about why this passage troubles people: it’s mainly because it seems so inconsistent with how Jesus tends to speak to and deal with people. I can think of at least a couple of places in the Gospels where Jesus happily grants Gentile requests for healing without bringing up his mission to the Jews or making seemingly insulting comments. I suggested that because of this inconsistency in Jesus’ behaviour, perhaps we should consider that maybe we’re missing something in this passage or misreading it.

It’s interesting, for instance, that this Canaanite woman goes along with Jesus’ “insult” and has a comeback. That’s when it started dawning on me: what if this story is not about this woman or Jesus’ mission at all? What if this story is about the disciples and how they perceive things that are “unclean” or defile (which is what the passage before this is about)? What if it’s simply about faith?

In other words, what if Jesus isn’t insulting the woman? What if as he’s saying these things, he winks and smiles at the woman with a glint in his eye, but is really saying it to or for the benefit of his disciples? It might be that “dogs” was a Jewish insult and Jesus was challenging his disciples in their attitudes and the woman’s appearance simply presented an opportunity for Jesus to teach his disciples something. The woman, seeing Jesus’ wink and smile, would have been in on the “joke”—Jesus has invited her into this teaching moment.

This is conjecture, of course. We can’t be sure what Jesus’ tone or facial expression was. But my point is simply this: we tend to read scripture in a certain way; we assume a certain tone in the voices of the speakers. Jesus tends to be heard as a dead serious speaker, rarely, if ever, joking around. So our tendency when we read a passage like this is to imagine Jesus frowning, crossing his arms, and turning away from this woman. But that, too, is conjecture. We simply don’t know. And we simply shouldn’t assume—either way.

Adding tone and using our imagination is virtually unavoidable when reading scripture. But as we do so, we are already interpreting the passage without realizing it. So it is good to at least be aware of this, and beyond that, to try out different tones and inflection as we read and hear scripture. This is a good reason for the public reading of scripture or audio Bibles, to hear different voices speak scripture in different ways.

Does it matter how we live in creation?

One of my cousins sent a video of a sermon by John MacArthur to a group of us on Facebook (here’s the video of his sermon, but I just read the text). It’s a sermon about whether or not we should be concerned about climate change. I had some serious concerns about what MacArthur had to say, and not only theologically/scripturally. My cousin didn’t want to have a group debate about this issue (neither did I), but he welcomed a private message laying out some of my theological/scriptural concerns. I thought I would post it here as well (I don’t include the personal/introductory material and I’ve lightly revised it).

I disagree with MacArthur on several points, though I should probably give it a closer read before I speak definitively (I read through the text of the sermon rather than watch the 1-hour video). So I will just highlight a couple of things. 

But first I will say that I agree that the future is in God’s hands. He is in control. I agree with that. My concern is that we shouldn’t use that truth as an excuse for irresponsible stewardship of what God has given us.

It seems that our starting points—MacArthur’s and mine—lead us in different directions. (To keep things easy to follow, I’ll number the thoughts.)

1. MacArthur says that the earth and everything in it was created for human beings to do with as they please, apparently even if it means abusing and harming creation. Now as long as it is in fact ours, I suppose one could argue that we can do what we want with it (though I would question the wisdom of doing so if it could lead to harm in the future). But I’m not convinced that’s what the Genesis account tells us.

Genesis 1:26 says, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over [all the animals].” I’m just learning and thinking about this, so this isn’t completely developed and I can’t explain it fully here, but there is a sense in which we are given rule over creation precisely as God’s image bearers. In other words, there is a sense in which we are representatives of God in his creation; we steward his “property” on his behalf. In Genesis 2:15 it says God puts the man in the garden “to work it and take care of it.”

So I would say the earth isn’t ours. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). We are only caretakers. It belongs to God.

2. That, in turn, gives us a responsibility. And I do think we can mess it up very badly, even if I’m theologically sure that God won’t allow the human race to extinguish itself.

In fact, if you think about it, MacArthur’s claim that “we don’t have to worry because God will…” really only makes sense in the western context where we are so far (relatively) unaffected by the (potential?) changes in climate. It makes about as much sense as saying in church that “God will protect us from harm…” moments before terrorists barge in and shoot everyone—it certainly seemed true before the bullets started flying.

The world seems a safe place when we live in a country in which things seem fine and we have the wealth in place to offset and protect from any negative consequences. And yet there are wars and mass murders and epidemics and natural disasters. (What I mean is, God doesn’t always protect the human race from our foolish/evil/disobedient choices). I’m sure MacArthur recognizes the existence and problem of evil, but what he says in his sermon seems to ignore it.

3. MacArthur says that the bad things that do happen in creation are because of the curse, and by implication, therefore, they are God’s will. Creation, MacArthur says, would destroy itself if it human beings didn’t work it and rule it and subdue it. He doesn’t back this up with evidence, scriptural or otherwise, as far as I can tell. And it’s not entirely clear how he connects this with whether or not climate change is real (because there are few, if any, that I’m aware of that are actually suggesting we shouldn’t cultivate, explore, understand, or develop the earth—it’s just a question of how we go about it.)

But I note a couple of things:

First, when God addresses Adam after he has sinned, his words to Adam are, “Cursed is the ground because of you.” Now, I want to be careful to not read our modern issues back onto this ancient text more than the text allows, but I find it interesting that the curse on the ground is the result of human choice—that is, the problem with the ground is man’s fault. There’s some sense in which God doesn’t want it this way, but because of man’s choice, it is this way. God says what he created is good and he never takes that back, even with the curse.

But, second, even if what MacArthur says about the curse on the ground is true, the curse is not the way it is supposed to be. The whole story of redemption in the Bible is about undoing the curse. And, in fact, Paul teaches in Romans and other places that Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection has undone the curse—in Christ there is a new creation (1 Cor. 5:17).

So even if we grant MacArthur’s point, as Christians we should not be using the curse as an excuse for living as if the curse still applies. As Christians, we should live as if the curse has in fact been undone (because it has) in anticipation of the day when Jesus returns and makes all things new.

4. Finally, MacArthur brings up 2 Peter 3:10, which seems to suggest that in the end all of creation will be burned up. A pretty common approach among conservative Christians is to say, “It’ll all be destroyed in the end anyway, so why does it matter what we do to it? (Maybe our destruction of the earth will hasten the return of Jesus!)” I can’t remember if this was the approach MacArthur took in his sermon or not, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. 

There are a couple of things to point out here:

First, this passage isn’t as clear as this argument suggests. Yes, it uses language of heavens disappearing with a roar, etc., but there is a good argument that this is apocalyptic language to describe God’s judgment on the earth: everything will be exposed and laid bare before God (look at that verse in some more modern translations like NIV, NRSV, ESV, NLT). At the very least it seems clear that we should be careful not to be too literalistic about the image it presents. It may be more like metaphor.

Second, to say “It’s all going to be burned up anyway, so why does it matter what we do?” is a pretty consequential approach—that is, significant, with huge consequences—to take from a single verse in scripture (never mind the fact that the meaning isn’t as clear as some would like to think).

Finally, if MacArthur and others are right about what this passage means, it doesn’t follow that it’s our business as humans to make that happen, to destroy the earth on God’s behalf. Just because the owner of the house we’re watching plans to pull it down when he returns doesn’t mean that we can just go ahead and do it for him before he gets back! (Especially if what I said of humans as caretakers is correct.)

There are a number of other things he said that I think could at least use a little pushback, but I won’t do that here!