Monday, November 28, 2011

Russian superstition vs Cultural rooted western paganism (funeral practices).

One of the good things about stepping outside of your own culture is that after a while it is easier to question your own culture. This past week I raised some mild concern for a couple of people when I mentioned that I am not planning to point out the errors of a particular Russian superstition to my neighbour.
For starters, what is a superstition? A superstition is basically a habit or a ritual rooted in ancient pagan beliefs. All cultures have them. Often Christians try to avoid practising them because we know that our faith should be in God, and we should not be motivated by fear. Superstitions are always rooted in fear. If we do not follow through on a superstition, there is a fear that the spirits will do something bad.

I was there when my neighbour's husband passed away. I was privileged to read the scriptures to the dying man and to pray with him and his wife moments before he died. I then witnessed a custom I had never heard of before, and so I was a little unprepared, but I came through it just fine. The widow wanted to cover the mirror in the bedroom where her husband had just died. I helped her do it. I wondered what it was for at first, and then quickly realised it was a superstition (other wise known as an old pagan practice). I did not correct her, I even helped her. Why? In the midst of her grief, it would have been a very insensitive thing to do otherwise. I even helped her, and firmly believe it was a way of showing her love, even though I disagree with the practice.

I have been asked by two people if I intend to explain to her how our culture does things, whether I will seek an opportunity within the next couple weeks to explain to her why the superstition is wrong. My answer to that question is no, for a number of reasons.

1) The orthodox church already calls the practice a sin. Nearly all Russians practice the custom though. According to my Russian teacher, all  Russians practice it. To point out to her something which she already knows to be a sin is superfluous and self-righteous.
The practice is carried out because people believe that the spirit of the deceased may get confused and go to the wrong world through the mirror and get stuck there, unable to return and go on to heaven.

2) The Russian (eastern orthodox- yet also rooted in paganism) practice of mourning is involved and quite long. There are prayers for the dead on the third, ninth and fortieth days; then at three, six, nine and twelve months. Mourning lasts for a year. To interrupt this practice of mourning is also insensitive. To say anything would have been as insensitive as telling someone in my own culture not to wear black to the funeral of a loved one.

3) The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, not me. My neighbour would already be aware that the practice is a sin. So planning a conversation would simply be more head knowledge and not actually assist the Holy Spirit in his job. I have learnt from past mistakes not to get in God's way. However, I will say that if the Holy Spirit prompted me to say something and opened up the opportunity, I most certainly would. But I don't intend to seek it out.

4) The practices of paganism are deeply intwined with the common practice of orthodoxy in Russia. So there is no use chopping off individual branches of an entrenched world view. Superstition being based in fear, can only be removed by God's love. "Perfect love casts out all fear." I like the way John the Baptist put it, "the axe must be put at the root of the tree." To address this one practice would be to cut off one branch or perhaps even just a twig, where hundreds of other practices still remain. Only a complete surrender to God's love will remove all of the fear that causes paganism in the first place. This is obviously the desired outcome.

5) Questioning the practice in Russian culture of covering mirrors upon death caused me to question my own culture. Why do we wear black at funerals? Most people would say it is to signify mourning. A quick point of comparison is that nobody at the funeral yesterday was wearing black. I have often felt that it is not necessary to wear black at a funeral and wondered why we do it.
Well it turns out, that as most things we do habitually in our culture, there is actually pagan roots to the practice.

What are these pagan roots?

The practice of wearing black at a funeral comes from the idea of wearing a disguise. People would wear black robes and hide their faces from the spirits. This was so that the spirit of the deceased would not get confused and enter the body of a living person, therefore preventing it from moving on to the next world. It was also believed that black would make them invisible to the spirits. Roman funerals were held at night for this reason. The practice of wearing black actually comes from Roman paganism, carried on to the Roman Catholic church, still found in protestant churches today.

Our practice of wearing black at funerals is to keep the spirit of the deceased from getting confused and not being able to move on to the afterlife. Sound familiar? It is exactly the same as the Russian practice of covering mirrors!

We far too quickly assume that our culture is more Christian than another. Western Christianity is in fact plagued by many practices that the Bible does not teach at all. The real challenge is to not assume that our culture is more godly, but to honestly seek what true godliness is, and seek to implement a biblical world view, which by definition is different from all others, including different from a Jewish world view.

"Funeral Customs"- Springdale Cemetery and Mausoleum. 
"Where did the tradition of wearing black at funerals come from?" - Big site of amazing facts.
"What is the origin of wearing black to funerals?" -
"Why is black the colour of mourning in the western world?" - Funtrivia (This source apparently traces back to "Websters Encyclopedia volume 19, page 116.")

Barna, George, & Viola, Frank, 2002, "Pagan Christianity: exploring the roots of our church practices", Tyndale House. 

(I must apologise for what seems like scant and flaky internet research on this topic. Being in Russia I am far from good resources, and often have to rely on the internet to do my research. On this occasion I was surprised how hard it was to find information. I have no doubt that anthropological texts would cover this topic with a much higher degree of academia, but unfortunately this is the best I can do. But four different sources, and one of them being a cemetery, lead me to be confident I have found the answer.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Does God have the right to judge?

I seem to walk that crazy path where I am capable of ticking off liberals, atheists and conservative evangelicals alike. I strive to know Jesus more in my life and to authentically walk the truth.

I have recently posted on a few topics that have some controversy in them. I would have though that some of my posts such as "detoxing from institutional church" or "the bible is far more oral than we think" would get some conservatives concerned. I am glad there have not been any arguments with such people, I am not really in the mood for an argument.

I am always in the mood for a genuine conversation, with genuine questions and people who listen. I am also required to listen in such a conversation.

That is why I was quite disappointed with some of the comments I received this week in response to my post "Did God order genocide?" One of those people turned out to be my cousin, and we have been able to have a good chat afterwards. We are able to continue to respect each other. The other was from someone who is a complete stranger to me, named Ruth. Ruth does not make herself contactable either. Ruth said some things which were quite attacking, and because she does not know me at all, actually turn out to be quite untrue. For the record, Ruth I am sorry for my sarcasm when I said to you "Angry at God are you?"

Ruth challenged me to respond to the story of the Exodus. I didn't feel like an argument going round in circles and did not respond to the topic in the comments. I am happy to have a conversation on the topic if it remains civil and unemotional. This is sometimes hard to do in a textual context because writing can so often be confused with the wrong emotions.

Before touching on this topic briefly I want to say one very major point. Does God not have the right to judge? Abraham actually had a conversation with God on this very topic. Abraham said to God, "will not the judge of all the earth do what is right?" This was a brave question of Abraham and one which God actually allowed him to ask, and one which God answered.

God most definitely does have the right to judge. God is the judge of all the earth. No matter how we might feel about that, God does know all of our hearts and motivations and actions. What puzzles me is why people think God does not have the right to judge us. This point of view fails to recognise that we are created by God (no matter your views on the creation debate- there are actually many scientists who are highly credible in their fields of biology and astronomy who believe in creation).

There is a human pride that says, "I am my own master and God has no say in my life." Just to make this point clear, people who often hold this point of view go further in their thinking to say that God does not exist, so that they do not have to answer to him.

God is very concerned with suffering and evil in the world. There are actually many times when God has intervened. Often God chooses not to intervene for one of two reasons. When it comes to suffering, he wants us as people to learn how to respond to the suffering around us. Ultimately we have to live in this world, so we must learn how to treat each other lovingly. God allows us to choose to do the right thing. It is actually the guilt of humanity when we cause suffering to occur and do nothing about it.

The other time that God chooses not to intervene is when it comes to evil. Sometimes God judges, and sometimes God delays his judgement. There will always be judgement in the end of course. On the occasions that God delays his judgement, God is patiently waiting and giving people the chance to turn away from their evil. And there are always plenty of warnings for people to turn away from evil.

So God may choose to delay his judgement, but he always has the right to judge.

Back to the Egypt story and that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh was given many chances to stop treating the Hebrew slaves harshly and to release them from their slavery. At the start of the story Pharaoh nearly did let them go, but he chose to harden his heart against God. I am no Hebrew expert, but I have heard enough Hebrew scholars explain that there is no doubting that Pharaoh chose this himself. God later on hardened Pharaoh's heart further to make the difference between good and evil clear.

An important consideration is that of culture, nations and individualism. In the modern, western age we are very individualistic. We can not imagine nations that were not individualistic (the vast majority of nations and of history). There can be no doubt that all of Egypt were against the Hebrews. So when judgement fell on Egypt as a nation this is not a strange thing or even wrong. (Once again, God does have the right to judge.) Each of the plagues in Egypt was actually a victory over the 10 Egyptian gods. It was necessary to defeat each of the Egyptian gods- the god of the river, the god of frogs etc, so that people would understand their gods had been defeated and so they would give up their pride. (For the atheist that mocks at these gods, the vast majority of human history has and does believe in deities. Atheism is the minor exception.)

That is about all that I feel like saying on the Egypt topic right now. But the essence of my response to the skeptic who is angry at God for judging, is that God does have the right to judge. He delays it sometimes, so that we have the chance to turn away from evil, but judgement always occurs in the end.

God is the judge of all the world, but he is also a good and fair judge, loving and kind. But he can not allow evil and sin to be ignored and unchecked. Those who do not want to be judged may of course beg to differ on this. I am happy to allow God to judge me, because I have the best advocate there is in Jesus.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is God a fair judge? Did he or did he not order genocide?

I discovered an article that is well worth reading. It deals with the problem of "alleged genocide" in the bible. I'll try to make this post short since the insights and exegesis are not mine.

This is the article. If you have any sort of open mind at all, please take the time to read all the way through it. It is long, but very thorough and very well researched:

Genocide in the Bible, argument refuted.

The summary of it is something like this:

1) God gave the Canaanites many opportunities to repent.
These were-
a) The forty years following Israel's exodus from Egypt.
b) The 400 years from when Abraham's descendants left Canaan, coming up to the exodus.
The Canaanites were fully aware of the judgement of God on Egypt. In fact Rahab is a really good example of this. Rahab tells the Israelite spies that they have heard of God's judgement on Egypt, and that their hearts melted with fear at a God powerful enough to defeat Egypt (who were the most powerful in the world). Rahab chooses the side of Israel, and she and her family are spared.
Rahab is also a good example of someone who did repent.

2) There are other examples of judgement in the Old Testament. In each occasion there is a LOT of opportunity for repentance.
a) Before the flood in Noah's day there was 120 years given for people to repent. Noah and his family were spared. (I.e not all were destroyed.)
b) At Sodom and Gomorrah, the people were given 25 years to repent, through the righteous warnings of Lot. Lot and his family were spared.
c) At Nineveh, the people were warned of the coming destruction by the prophet Jonah, and the people of Nineveh DID repent. God spared ALL of them. He is just.

3) In the case of the Canaanites they have a long list of societal wide rampant sins:

a) Every kind of immoral sexual relationship thinkable was occurring, people having sex with their parents, siblings, aunties and uncles etc, etc. Rampant incest.
b) That wasn't enough for the Canaanites, they had to have sex with animals too.
c) They were also homosexual.
d) They had cultic prostitution in their temples.
e) They sacrificed their babies to their god Molech.
f) They were systematic in their violence towards other nations around them.

They were viewed even by the other nations around them as particularly evil.

4) As said earlier, the Canaanites were give a long period of warning to repent. Some of them (Rahab and her family) even did.

God's plan was to drive them from the land, to disperse their culture so that their wicked ways would cease. They were to be subsumed by the many nations around them. Some of the people did indeed leave before the Israelites arrived. It was the people who refused to leave, who refused to repent of their wicked practices that were to be destroyed. These were the stubborn and most wicked who stayed behind, not the entire Canaanite people.
God told the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites that stayed behind, that is who refused to give up their wicked ways. These people would have taught the Israelites wicked practices. This was God's reason for removing the last of the Canaanites left behind.

God is very clear to the Israelites to leave certain areas of the land alone for descendants of Esau and Lot. The goal was never complete annihilation. The Israelites were also not meant to hunt down Canaanites who had already left the land.

5) The best example of God's fair practice is that the same judgement he carried out on the Canaanites he later carried out on Israel. God detested the wicked practices of the Canaanites and he warned Israel not to behave that way. Over the generations Israel largely ignored the many prophets that God sent them to warn them away from their wicked practices of idol worship and baby sacrifices. The Israelites practised the same sin as the Canaanites. Israel suffered the same judgement, first the northern kingdom of Israel was attacked by the Assyrians and the remainder carried off into slavery. Later the southern kingdom of Judah was attacked by the Babylonians and the remainder carried off into slavery.

It was only through the painful judgement of deportation, and many being destroyed that the Jews learnt what it really meant to be a righteous people.


God never ordered the total destruction of the Canaanite nation, he ordered the destruction of the ones who had stayed behind. God's goal was for the Canaanite sin to be removed from the land so that Israel could grow into a righteous nation. When Israel did not do this, God also carried out a fair judgement on Israel. God treated all nations the same.

For any of us to say that the Canaanites did not deserve judgement is to say that (a) their sins were nothing and (b) God has no right to judge. God indeed does have a right to judge, he is always patient, he always calls on people to repent. Ultimately there are always some who are spared because they do repent.

It would also be wrong of us to say that our own nations will escape judgement if we do not cease our detestable practices. The rise of homosexuality, abortion and the approval of society towards these practices, sees us on a slippery slope in the same direction as Canaan and Israel. The Lord is patient, not willing that any of us should perish, and it is waiting as long as possible for us to come to repentance so that he would not have to destroy our nations. I really hope that our nations in the west do repent.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Conservative and Liberals: both in error in their approach to the Bible

*Disclaimer: I completely believe that all the words of the Bible are true and are the authoritative word of God.  (Having said all that, don't forget that Jesus IS the word.)

The Conservative Fundamentalist error:
- Scripture was written down by Moses in ~1400 b.c.
- All texts are to be understood in their very literal form.
- Any correspondence into this point of view is considered heresy.

The Liberal error:
- Most scripture in the Old Testament was written down after the exile, that is after 500 b.c. Some dates even get pushed as late as 140 b.c.
- Since scripture was written down so long after the events were purported to occur, they are really just texts that are made up to serve a political purpose.
- The texts can not be trusted as true, and have no bearing on the God of the universe.

I happen to believe that both of these positions are wrong. The two sides debate off against each other, throwing mud at each other thinking that the others side's agenda drives their scholarship. There is something significant though that is completely missing from the argument. Both sides of the argument are so embedded within a world view of literacy that they can not imagine another world view.

What do I mean by a world view of literacy? 
Let me give some parallel examples from the modern world. Try asking a 10 year old to imagine a world without the internet,  a 40 year old to imagine a world without the television, a 70 year old a world without radio, anybody you know a world without electricity or the car. Each of these people would find it hard to imagine such a concept. A time in the world when these things did not exist being before our lifetimes. There are still people around who speak of a different world so we can consider their claims with wide eyed wonder.

Consider a world without writing. Now such a concept is so much further removed than the birth of the car, electricity, radio, tv or the internet. In fact as we consider such a concept we only know of such a world from books and written records. None of us who comes from a world of literacy can easily imagine a world without writing. The world view of literacy so strongly pervades our thinking that some people draw the conclusion that the world is no older than 6000 years. Writing itself has its birth about 5000 years ago.

What is a world of orality?
The oral world is one where all knowledge is transferred to the next generation through the means of oral stories. Oral cultures have a strong structure to their stories. Their forms are secure and the stories do not get forgotten or lost. Oral languages use hundreds and thousands of elaborate word pictures to explain concepts. These word pictures link together easily in a chain. The story teller does not have to remember a string of hundreds of words, but rather a set of well known word pictures to tell a story.

What connection does the Bible have with orality?
Far more of the Bible is oral than we care to acknowledge. This means that many, many of the early stories were carried in oral form for centuries, even millennia. All of Genesis has its roots in early oral stories. Many of the stories right through the age up to King David are also oral stories. We from a literate world view need to be careful how we respond to this claim. We need to recognise that an oral text is not invalid in anyway. We need to realise that it carried great strength for the people who passed these stories on, more strength than it does for those of use who look the stories up in a book.

What about literary criticism and scholarship claims that the Old Testament was written in the post exilic period?
Peter Enns in his essay for the BioLogos Foundation says that:

...the Pentateuch as we know it is the end product of a complex literary process—written, oral, or both—that did not come to a close until the exile (586-539 BC) and post exilic period...

There are many source texts for the early books of the Bible. I tend to think that originally many of them were oral texts. Through out the history of the people of Israel, many of these stories began to be written down at different times for different purposes. It is hard to determine exactly at what point various texts and stories were written down. This is largely because they were then put through a final editing stage around the time of the exile.

Consider the stories of the Kings. Each time the story closes the chapter on the reign of a king the editor writes:
As for the other events of Solomon’s reign—all he did and the wisdom he displayed—are they not written in the book of the annals of Solomon?  

This is because the writer(s) was working from source documents that recorded the activities of the king, called annals. These are very much like the notes kept in parliaments today. In Esther it talks about scribes, whose full time it was to write down everything that the king did. They had rooms full of documents. It would have been a massive task to put together texts like Kings and Chronicles. The writers basically sifted through the documents and included the highlights and lowlights (as the case may be).

So even if there is a late date of compilation of the old testament, this does not mean that the stories are not a lot older. It does not mean that they are not true.

The liberal error, based in a literacy dominated world view thinks that the stories only came into existence when they were written down. These are the seeds of disbelief. This error is a result of completely failing to understand the world view of orality and a long oral tradition.

The conservative error also thinks that the stories only came into existence when they were first written down. So they therefore must cling to a belief that a great prophet like Moses received the story from God and wrote it down in dictation style. This world view also completely fails to acknowledge the oral world view.

The liberals say "we know that the text was written at a date much later than the conservatives admit, therefore their claims are completely wrong". The fact is though, on one hand many stories are much older than conservatives admit (because they are oral), and on the other hand written down much later.

The controversy comes in most of all with the stories of creation. I have no doubt that these stories were oral tradition for millennia. This is easy to believe because there are many cultures around the world that also have creation stories. The striking thing is that there are many similarities in the other creation stories, from peoples who are removed from the middle east for many thousands of years.

Arguments are made from both the conservative and liberal side on how these stories should be interpreted. But when they are interpreted on an oral spectrum there is much that can be understood even in a scientific sense. I tend to think that the creation story of Genesis 1 says that everything was created from hydrogen. The word for hydrogen in the story is simply water. Read my earlier essay on this topic here.

The Old Testament is all about people interacting with God. Bono explains the purposes of the Old Testament very well:

I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery. The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that's why they're so relatable. But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend. When you're a child, you need clear directions and some strict rules. But with Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.

 This is an excerpt from the book "Bono on Bono: conversations with Michka Assayas". You can read a portion of the interview here.

It is God's nature to work through people. He therefore does this as much as possible, not as little as possible. The same is true with how the Bible came together. There are many more people involved with the development of the Bible than we will ever know. All of the oral stories come together from the people who were in the midst of the action movie. There is nowhere in scripture that actually says that Moses wrote down all of the pentateuch/ Torah. We are not required to believe this to be a follower of Jesus. But as I said earlier, this does not discount the stories as being holy scripture still.

It should not be surprising that the Old Testament did not come together in its entirety until the post exilic period, the Torah in its current form at a similar time. When the people in the Bible referred to the "law" they were likely referring to the actual legal documents found in Exodus and Leviticus. Deuteronomy repeats much of those two books anyway. It is only a later term of Jews to refer to the law as all of the first five books of the Bible. I had always thought it strange that Genesis would be referred to as the "law".

The New Testament did not come together in its entirety until the fourth century. This does not make it any less true. Conservative Bible scholars readily admit that the New Testament came together in stages. There was a growing and common understanding of what scripture was, but it was only finally defined in the Constantinian era. People in the first century saw "scripture" as all of the Old Testament. People in the pre-exilic period would have seen scripture as a lot smaller, a collection of some stories and some writings. In fact they may not have even seen them as scripture apart from the actual law itself (the legal documents of Exodus and Leviticus). The rest of the stories may very well have been viewed as simply history. (We still view history books today from more recent times as true.)

I would loathe to be labeled as a liberal in my faith for writing this. I very much hold to all of the precepts of God's creation and the gospel and Jesus' death and resurrection. Before some protestants begin to try labelling me as a liberal, please consider what Catholics or Orthodox people would say of protestants. As protestants we do not recognise the apocryphal books of the inter-testamental period as scripture, even though they are true. Catholics and Orthodox people could easily turn around and label us all liberal in the faith for picking and choosing what we consider scripture to be.

The very concept of scripture is connected to the fact that it is (a) preserved from ancient times and (b) is true. The Bible is full of God's interactions with people and people's interactions with God, it is true. It does not need to be subjected to the narrow world view of literacy that says people practically dictated it from God. The Bible firstly went through the filter of messy human lives before it ended up on the pages we have today. The Bible we have today is a result of the intersection in world history between oral and literal cultures.

*(I feel I need to start writing disclaimers these days, in case people misunderstand what I write or say.)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why did Jesus get baptised?

Why did Jesus need to be baptised?

Jesus never sinned. I have always been confused about why he decided to receive baptism. I thought that perhaps it was to simply give us an example so that we would follow. The point in the story where Jesus is baptised though is basically at the end of John's ministry. John the Baptist has baptised all the people in Judea and Jerusalem, and then Jesus is basically last. So it wasn't really as an example for the people in his day.

John's baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, so this is still confusing. For the rest of us, we need to be forgiven of our sin. So what does baptism mean for us? For the rest of us it means a physical act of repentance. What is repentance? A decision to not sin in life. For those of us who have sinned in life (everyone except Jesus) this decision means leaving behind a sinful life, but also walking into a sinless life (of course we still struggle to be sinless). Think about it for a moment though- baptism is a covenant with God to live a sin free life. Jesus was able to make such a covenant. By getting baptised he was saying to the world "I am going on record to declare that I am living and will continue to live a sin free life before God, I covenant myself to be sin free." God's response to Jesus covenanting himself is immediate, "You are my son, who I love very much and I am very pleased with you."

Jesus covenanted himself to a sin free life. This is definitely an example, but it was a pre-requisite for his starting up the kingdom, his coronation if you like.

That's what baptism is for us, a covenant to be sin free before God and as such it is actually repentance in action. As such I can not see how a believer would not choose to take this physical step of making a covenant with God. It is an essential step in obedience to following Jesus.

The kingdom of God is found in the doing

The kingdom of God is all about action. The gospel of Mark outlines this well.

* John the Baptist preaches repentance, that people should come to the river to be baptised. Action is required in response.

* Jesus comes to the river to be baptised, even when he does not need to be forgiven of sins. (But the state of sin free living is still required.) Jesus models action, he shows more than tells.

* Jesus calls people to get the kingdom started with him, to confess their sins and believe. But how were they to believe? Was it just a thought in the heart? Action was required. Belief came about by following Jesus. Simon, Andrew, James and John all decided to act in response and went with Jesus.

* Jesus cast out a demon from a man in the synagogue. The way had been prepared by repentance of sins and baptism in the Jordan, but Jesus then began to clean house. Jesus went through out the towns and villages of Galilee to all the synagogues casting out demons. This action of Jesus was the beginning of implementation of his Kingdom. Jesus also healed Simon's mother in law and the many people that came to Simon's house and later to Jesus' house in Capernaum. This action was also a demonstration of his kingdom.

I think there are some very telling stories about repentance in the gospels. One of my favourites is the story of the woman caught in adultery. As there is no one to stone her Jesus tells her to "go and sin no more". This is the action that is required from her to repent. Repentance is not actually the presence of a contrite heart. It is in the act of going away and not sinning that repentance is actually lived out. Baptism is also part of the physical action required to couple with repentance. Words are not enough. This is one of the reasons that formulaic prayers for becoming a Christian can be so hollow and mean so little. It is not the prayer that makes someone a Christian, it is the going away and not sinning and then the following of Jesus by affirmative action.

It is my opinion that little of the Kingdom of God exists in the landscape of the western institutional church. There is a formulaic teaching going around that people need to repent of their sins once, (because Jesus died for sins once and for all, there is a misconception that repentance is once and for all also) and that after this no real action is required. Christianity becomes a religion of words and good feelings, but no copying of Jesus' behaviour, the modelling that he gave to us.

It is impossible to build his temple (the one temple of all believers) in a place where the kingdom does not already exist. I know of very few places in my own experience where- continual confession of sins occurs, demons are cast out, the sick are healed, the poor fed, the lonely invited in. Most of the expression I have seen of Christianity is a hollow expression of ceremonies with little action followed up (these are not meant to be sweeping generalisations against the people I know who do these things, but they are usually no more than 5-10% of any congregation, sometimes less).

Building the church before building the kingdom is putting the cart before the horse. I do feel a little stuck as to doing this in my own life. But I also know that it is only when the kingdom is built that Jesus' true ekklesia will come to life.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What is the kingdom of God? (My church detox continues.)

My season of detox continues and I don't feel as sick as I did before. I still have the odd pang of guilt when Sunday rolls around, but even they are starting to subside.

One of my problems is that when ever I hear the word "church" or "pastor" I cringe a little. The word "church" just brings up images of being chained to the pew (metaphorically for me, but there were some convicts in early Australia who were literally chained!), and not being able to participate. The word pastor (I have sympathy for them) still brings up images of a person overworked by the system, unable to release people into what God has for them.

I really appreciate Frank Viola and all that he is doing for the organic (church) movement, but I do respectfully disagree with him that we need to use the word church. Frank Viola has been in the organic movement for more than 20 years now, so the word no longer carries connotations for him, he is able to use it as it should be. But unfortunately when nearly everyone else hears the word we all get it wrong. I personally want to let the word rest for a generation or so.

Wolfgang Simson was heard to joke (while publicly speaking in Australia) "It was brave of you to invite a non-Christian today to speak. Today I am an ex-Christian, I'm just a follower of Jesus now." Wolfgang Simson is a dedicated follower of Jesus, but he is brave enough to let go of the label Christian (that carries so many incorrect definitions in people's heads). So surely I can be brave enough to let go of the label "church".

Some interesting twitter feeds have been coming through this week. A story of a new house church* movement springing up in Ecuador caught my attention. Have a look at The M Blog here to begin reading the story. It's good to know God is doing good things in so many places around the world. I draw encouragement from such stories to keep moving forward in obedience and faith that we are on the right path and that the Lord will raise up an organic movement of disciples in our midst.

I have been asking the Lord to show me what his kingdom is, and that is a slow unfolding process. I would like to record my thoughts on what I am learning so far. I have begun to tell oral stories from the gospel of Mark. I love the gospel of Mark because it is so fast paced and suspenseful. Most times when people make a movie about Jesus they usually choose Matthew or Luke because they want to tell his whole life story. Mark doesn't do this, he just gets straight to the point. A movie of Mark would be an action film or a "supernatural thriller from the other side" (the other side than from which most supernatural thrillers come!).

I have it in my mind and heart to tell the whole story of Mark in one go. So far I have told four of the early stories and begun to fill in the gaps.

River Jordan

The first story starts out with the wild camel hair covered, locust eating prophet preaching in the desert. The prophet John the Baptist preaches "say sorry for your sins, get baptised in the river for the forgiveness of your sins." There's something in this story that I had never really paid attention to before. ALL of the people of Judea, all the country towns and villages and ALL of the people of Jerusalem came out to the Jordan River to be baptised for the forgiveness of their sins. That's something to imagine, that ALL of the people came out. There must have been some that didn't, surely. Well later we find out that many of the pharisees did not receive this baptism. And because they had not received John's baptism they were unable to receive God's kingdom. (Luke 7:30.)

John is preparing the way for the Lord. How? He is baptising people for the forgiveness of their sins. This prepares the way for Jesus, so Jesus can get on with bringing his kingdom. This means that Jesus could not bring his kingdom to those who had not repented and been baptised. All of Jesus' ministry is actually to people who had already been baptised for their sins. I'm sure it's true that some of these people later on decided not to participate in God's kingdom. But for now, they were all in.

After the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus he was led out into the desert for his forty days of spiritual battle with the devil. He won by the way. (An interesting footnote here, is that an Altai man in Siberia when telling his epic story of the gospel spent a lot of time on this part of the story, in fact more than the cross itself. For this man and his culture the battle in the desert was where things were won and decided, the cross was the payment of the bill so to speak.) But straight after that, Jesus is back again.

Lake Galilee

This time Jesus is at the Lake in Galilee. He is walking along. As he walks along he says to all those around him "Now is the time to get the kingdom started, say sorry for your sins and believe in the good news." Jesus did not need to tell people to get baptised, they had already done that. But confession of sins was still important. It seems confession of sins is an important part of receiving the kingdom and it's not just a one off event either. (Sometimes in evangelical Christianity it does become a one off event at the "point of salvation".) Jesus says this to everyone he sees. As he comes to Andrew and Simon they seem to respond to him, so he takes things further, "Come with me and I will show you how to catch people, not just fish." The same thing happens with James and John.

This is just the beginning of God's Kingdom though. The whole story of the gospels is wrapped up in Jesus showing and then teaching what the kingdom actually is. He doesn't spend a bunch of time showing what the church* is. (Not to say that the church* is unimportant, but that is more of a lesson for later. And really the church* is a collection of all God's people, who are already a part of the Kingdom. You simply can't have the true church* without the kingdom. Many have tried, and the result is a stale institutional church.)

Mark moves pretty quickly (a lot quicker than my blog!), and before you know it Jesus is casting out demons and healing the sick and telling people their sins are forgiven in front of legalistic know-it-alls. Jesus is demonstrating first of all what the kingdom looks like, he only bothers to unpack the teaching later on.

That's as far as I have got in my rediscovery of God's Kingdom. Hmmm, before I try to understand too much of the teaching perhaps I better get back out there and do some more of the doing, since that's how Jesus started things.

Now is the time to get the Kingdom started!

Church*- What is a good alternative for this word? There are probably many, mostly phrases, but that is the challenge of post-modernism, to bring clarity back to truth and definitions.

Ekklesia may be a good option, because it needs further unpacking.

A phrase that explains the concept would be something like "the people who belong to Christ in that town or city."

Monday, November 07, 2011

Have U2 already split up?

"There has been a lot of talk lately" to quote Bono from Sunday Bloody Sunday. There has indeed been a lot of talk lately, and while Bono is notorious for talking too much, I think it might be time to consider what he is saying as serious.
Recently I watched the BBC documentary, "From the Sky Down". Some liked the film, others did not. I thought it was a very well made piece, although it did not seem to tell the whole story well enough of the period in time when U2 "dreamed it all up again" in their making of Achtung Baby in 1990/91. One comment from the film felt noteworthy to me. The filmmaker described the concept of a rock band as similar to the anthropological concept of a clan. The members of U2 clanned together in their early days and were a clan for a long time. They spent nearly all of their time together and thought and acted as a unit. This clan like mentality helped them to forge a deep bond which has seen them stay together much longer than many bands in rock history.
It has often been said that one of U2's strengths is their longevity. They have now been together as a band for 35 years. Bono jokes that being in U2 is like being in the mafia or the priesthood, you can only leave in a coffin.
During U2's time many bands have come and gone. Recently I have reflected on this. Many of my favourite bands over the years have now split up (or sometimes more politely "finished up"). Each time a band does this I don't seem to have the same inspiration to listen to their music anymore. I also get equally annoyed when a singer leaves a band to launch a solo career. This is counted as disloyalty in my book. This is one of the reasons I have never really got into Sting.
There has been a pattern emerging in the age of post-modernism. So many bands I can think of have now split up. Sure some of them have reformed, but they are just cashing in on the reunion touring phase of their careers. Such a list includes: REM, The Police, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Audioslave, Rage Against the Machine, Silverchair, Oasis, Crowded House, Midnight Oil, Extreme, Delirious, Powderworks, The Cranberries... the list goes on.
Due to the decline in the number of bands producing music these days, I have noticed that my iTunes is feeling a bit dry, lacking in new material. I was shocked to realise that the only new material I have bought this year is from Coldplay, and before that from U2 in 2009. What a lonely world it would be with only Coldplay to listen to. I do love their music, but somehow for me it only seems to make sense in a musical landscape that has hope in it. U2 provide hope in the musical landscape. Coldplay can not exist without U2 (in my opinion). Is it any wonder that Coldplay have waited to release their new album during a silent period from U2? The same can be said of Snow Patrol (another band I do enjoy).

So, back to the rumours about U2 splitting up. Neil McCormick claims there is nothing to worry about:
    Fans worrying that Bono’s remarks suggest U2 are about to call it a day could not be more wrong. What he really wants to do, indeed what he feels he needs to do, is for U2 “to go away and create the album of their lives.”  -Is it time for U2 to call it a day?

Guggi, one of Bono's close friend begs to differ. Guggi says, "I get the impression that they're thinking, and thinking very seriously about it (breaking up)." -Unforgettable fire flickering out as U2 ponder end of the road.

Who to believe more? Neil McCormick may be a high school friend, but if his film "Killing Bono" is to be believed, they have not stayed close friends as adults. Guggi is a close friend of Bono's and as such could possibly be believed more.

The debate has been started by Bono. Bono has said things like:
"I just don't know what we are going to do next."
"Does the world really need another U2 album, there are enough of them out there right now."
Perhaps the most depressing comments that Bono has made can be found here:
Audio recording, found on the Globe and Mail.
Bono says, "perhaps it's time to go home and go to bed." Edge has a chuckle and says "and then come back with something great." Bono disagrees with him in response.

It is very possible that U2 (or Bono anyway) feel that they have achieved everything that they set out to do as a band (and then some more). They are so successful now, and after 35 years perhaps they feel that there is nothing left for them to do.

I dearly hope that they are able to find new inspiration and come back in a few years time with something great. But, I am actually starting to have my doubts. Something that Neil McCormick said got me thinking.
      Their fans may still like to believe that U2 live in Ireland and meet in the local pub or prayer meeting (hence the ludicrously inaccurate tax avoidance charge that keep being made against them). In fact, Bono lives mainly in New York now, The Edge in LA, Adam in London and only Larry remains a more or less full time resident of Dublin. They have all (apart from Adam) got wives and children who need time and attention. They have the kind of extreme wealth that ensures fabulous comfort. And Bono, their driving force, finds his time and energy much diluted by his sprawling range of extra-curricular interests and commitments, particularly political and charitable activities that inspire much antagonism in people who think a rock star should be in the business of making rock music.

I have always considered myself a dedicated fan of U2. But I'm not an Uber Fanatic. I have not and will not buy the Achtung Baby Deluxe 10 cd set for $400 or what ever price it is being sold at. But I do own every album, have been a fan since 1989, and have always seen the band live when ever I had a chance. But I confess, I was one of those fans that liked to believe they still lived in Dublin and regularly hung out at the Clarence Hotel. I was shocked, Neil McCormick burst my bubble when he told me that they live in four different cities in different parts of the world. Larry takes the prize for being the most down to earth, Adam was always a bit English anyway.

In "From the Sky Down" Bono remarked that when Edge got divorced it was the first cracks on their tight knit community, or the clan as the filmmaker put it. But with Neil McCormick's latest bombshell I now wonder how long it is since U2 already ceased to be a clan. I begin to think, "so what if they are still a band, they don't have that intense loyalty to one another that they once had."

Yes, U2 may come together to work againafter a year off, which I am sure they sorely need. But even when they do, will they have the same spark that they once had? It is the spark, "the whole being more than the sum of its parts" that has always made U2 so special. So if in the past they had managed to make 1+1+1+1=5 or even 10, now I fear that they are simply 1+1+1+1=4. They are no longer more than the sum of their parts if they live so far apart from each other. They are no longer a whole, just four individuals with a job.

Maybe U2 have already split up, maybe they are "separated" and now contemplating whether to get a divorce. I find this to be terribly depressing. I don't want to be stuck in a musical landscape with only Coldplay to listen to, and no genuine hope.

I am now taking a deep breath and holding it to see what the future holds.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Carbon pollution- my conspiracy theory

And now for my conspiracy theory. Before I drop my bomb shell, may I go on the record as saying I am an environmentalist and I do despise pollution. I do believe in clean energy and I do hope for a cleaner tomorrow.

Here's my bombshell. Global warming induced by carbon pollution is a croc!

That does not necessarily mean I do no think that climate change could be occurring. But let me leave that  argument for a little later. I am saying that I think the theory that says carbon and fossil fuels are causing the atmosphere to overheat, is a conspiracy.

Instead of stringing you along let me give my reason first and then attempt to back it up.

Here are some facts:
-Global oil supply will not last for ever. Pessimists say that oil supply is already in decline. Optimists say that the peak of oil production will come in 2020 or even a little later. After this point the amount of global oil supply will reach its peak for a season. Once its peak is reached there will be a decline. This is based upon a pattern that has occurred with all oil wells in the past. It is derived from a mathematical formula called the Hubbert Curve. At the point of this decline, the price of oil will begin to sky rocket and people will not be able to afford to drive their oil fuelled cars anymore. Then after that at some point the oil would run out altogether.

-The population of people driving cars in the world is exponentially increasing. This is only speeding up the imbalance between supply and demand when it comes to oil.

So the fact is, the world will run out of oil and people will not be able to run their cars anymore. Without some major long term structural changes to society, entire economies will cease to function as we have become ultra dependent on cars (not to mention the other purposes oil serves).

What is the solution to this problem?
The solution is to get people off an oil dependency on to other forms of energy. This is now so widely accepted that it seems a no-brainer. But it has taken decades of "education" to get people to hold this world view.
That oil is running out, I do not doubt. My theory however is that governments and oil companies of the world have known this fact for decades. In fact it has been known since Hubbert developed his curve in the 50s, and it was predicted that America would reach peak oil production in the late 60s, prompting the oil crisis of the 70s. That oil crisis of the 70s saw a major restructuring in the world- the rise of Arab Oil economies; the decision to make the US Dollar the currency of international trade; the decision to take gold out of the equation as a guarantee for the value of the US Dollar. And those decisions are the bedrock of the current financial crisis in the world.
So my conspiracy theory is that governments made a decision on a strategy to wean the world off oil. And the oil companies convinced the governments to time this strategy for when oil actually started to decline, so that they could still reap maximum profits before that.
The strategy decided upon was to convince the masses to stop using oil and to move to alternative energies. But how could they convince us? We are so car dependent that to simply stop using our cars is madness!!! madness I tell you!!  And why would we voluntarily want to just pay more for alternative energies without a good reason for doing so. Positive incentives never seem to work either on people. So negative incentives had to be found.
It is easier to convince the world that we are all doomed. It is easier to convince the world to stop using oil, because if we don't we will kill our grand children. Negative incentives such as global warming and carbon taxes are invented to convince people that we need to switch to alternative energies. It is a weak claim to say- "just stop using the oil, because you will breathe more cleanly" or "just stop driving the car and get out and walk or ride and enjoy the sunshine."
But with fear as a motivator we are all convinced that we need to do something good for our planet. We don't complain when prices sky rocket, we don't complain where burdensome taxes are placed on us, because it is for the good of the planet and our grandchildren.

So we have been given a different reason to switch to alternative energies than the real reason.

The truth: We need to switch to alternative energies because oil will eventually run out.
The reason people would not believe this truth: It sounds fanciful, distant, and alternative energies have been far more expensive in the short term than oil.

The lie: Oil is killing our planet. We need to switch to alternative energies to stop global warming.

Some incriminating facts that expose the conspiracy:
-Governments have discouraged and forbidden development of electric cars for decades in the past. It has only been in recent years that they are allowing development to go ahead, neatly timed for a transitional switch over as oil supply declines.

-The Australian and State governments are not overly interested in increasing public transport. I.e if they believed that burning oil was damaging to the environment they could take far more effective action in the short term to reduce car usage.

-Very little is being done to switch to alternative energies in Australia. While oil is in danger of running out, there is still plenty of coal to go around in Australia. Coal fired energy plants are increasing, not decreasing. The plants that burn uncleanly are not being cleaned up.

-A carbon tax is simply a method to provide negative incentive, to help people believe the lie that carbon is the killer.

-Al Gore is one of the canaries in the mine that expose the conspiracy. His film "An Inconvenient Truth" is very out dated now because the predictions in it are not even coming true. He is a trader in carbon credits. Carbon trading stands to become a major world wide commodity even by 2015. Mean while Al Gore has a large mansion with multiple cars, and is constantly flying around the world. His actions do not line up with someone who believes in carbon induced global warming.

-On a recent trip to Finland I saw some of the hypocrisy that exists within the European Union. The EU is supposed to be the most responsible when it comes to combating global warming. Petrol prices are extremely high ($2.20 a litre) in Europe, being heavy on the taxes.
Yet I noticed a couple of glaring inconsistencies. In Finland infant milk formula comes in ready serve packages of one litre or even single serve 250ml packages. This means a lot of extra packaging is required, than simply using powder. The Finns have the cleanest water in the world, so water should not be a problem. So much extra energy is spent on all of that unnecessary packaging.
Finland have recently eliminated sea/ surface mail as an option. All mail must now go by air. But as air travel burns so much more fossil fuels than land or sea travel this seems a ridiculous decision to make.

If Finland really believed in carbon induced global warming they would not allow seamail to be eliminated, nor would they allow such copious production of packaging.

Finland has thousands upon thousands of lakes. They have more fresh water than they could ever possibly use. Yet they clean and recycle ALL of their water that they use. They are constantly telling people to use water carefully. A lot of energy needs to be spent on cleaning all of that water.

What about climate change?
I think it is still too early to prove if our climate is completely changing. But there are certainly some signs that point in this direction. But some facts should be taken into account:

-The magnetic north pole is moving in one steady direction away from Canada towards Russia at a pace of 55km a year. At the rate it is going it appears to be on a course to flip. Nobody can really say what affect this could have on climate. What we do know is that the magnetic poles have flipped before. We have also had times of major climate change in the past, both warming and cooling of the planet (and they were never affected by carbon pollution).

-The sun is producing an increasing amount of solar flares. Solar flares always account for hotter weather on earth. The sun is the source of all energy on earth. The sun is also responsible for our basic weather of Summer and Winter, based on proximity to the sun. It should be no surprise if the sun is actually the biggest influence in climate change. The sun is far more powerful than any change we can effect as humans.

I do not deny climate change. I think it is affected by such factors as the movement of the magnetic north pole and increase in solar flares.
I do not think climate change is brought about by global warming, induced by carbon pollution.
We do need to move away from oil usage to alternative energies; but this is because oil will run out and because it's nice to breathe clean air.
Governments have been cooking up the global warming conspiracy for decades as a method of fear to convince us to transition to alternative energies, instead of us being caught in a crisis with no oil and no options.

I can't understand why people prefer to believe a lie and live in fear all their lives? There are far more positive reasons for change and we don't need to be held to ransom by controlling taxing governments.