A Parallel Revival

21 June 2018

I knew when God called me to go to massage therapy school that the experience was going to rock my world. I had grandiose visions of pouring a ton of extra time into my developing theology of the body before I started school, but life providentially interfered, as it so often does. I had to settle for making God a promise: “I will seek to give account of the experiences You give me. I will not ignore anything that happens, no matter how strange or how far off the map it might seem.” 

My friends, when you write God a blank check like that, He cashes it. This post lays out one of the lines of thought that came from the many, many off-the-map experiences God gave me in school and afterwards. 

God is willing to move for the healing of the world through those who are willing–including those who don’t yet recognize Him for who He is, and aren’t “members of the club,” as it were. We want God to move through the church people. He does, when they are willing. But there’s a lot more willing people out there, many of whom have never seen anything in the institutional church that they’d want to join. People who are called to healing, and know it, and the church doesn’t seem to them to be interested in or helpful for people who are trying to heal. I’m talking about the addiction counselors, AA sponsors, somatic psychotherapists, lightworkers…it’s a vast and tangled landscape, with a lot of evil and downright demonic things loose in it, but a lot of good, too. Some do their work from selfish ambition, and others from a sense of higher calling…in other words, not so different from the church, after all.

When God providentially allows some of His people to be squeezed out of the church institutions where they formerly found a comfortable home, we have no choice but to go out into the world. (Perhaps we ought to have been there already.) Called for the healing of the world, we seek the company of those similarly called, and we engage them as Jesus taught His followers to do: when you come into the house, say “Peace to this house,” and go from there. If a child of peace lives there, the peace of the Trinity rests on them through our blessing, and they recognize it as something special. I find these folks often have the sense to desire the good things God gave us, things the institutional church was all too ready to throw away without a second look.

Speaking of throwing us away, if those in the house are not children of peace, our peace will return to us (which is also how we find peace outside the institutional church.) Shake the dust and go. God will tend to them; we are called elsewhere.

Among the people of peace, wherever found, we thrive. Many times, they know things we don’t, things we refused to know because we couldn’t integrate the knowledge. In turn, we know the Name of the Higher Power they call on. We have a lot to share with one another, if we’re willing.

Now, for the past 40 years or so, we’ve seen the biggest revival in the history of the Church (notwithstanding the folks pretending it isn’t happening because the cost of admission is leaving your cessationism behind). It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and you can read more about it here if you like. For now, though, I want to draw a comparison to it.

If the trend I’m discussing here takes off the way I think it will, I expect to see a “parallel revival” on par with the current Pentecostal one. It may be some time before the exiles are willing to admit any real kinship with the institutional church, since that’s what we had to leave behind in order to participate. But as God continues to work on hearts both within and outside the institutions, I pray that He will free the insiders of their legalism, and the outsiders of their lawlessness, so that we can be one in the grace of Christ.

It’s a big dream, but I read the last couple chapters of Revelation before. I think this dream is on the way to the fulfillment of that one.

 

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Moana, Frozen, and Repentance

14 June 2018

Elsa is Moana’s polar opposite. (See what I did there?) Elsa has no real guidance or mentors to speak of, and she finds something in herself that she has no way of living with. First she denies what is obviously true about herself; then she denies her connection to her people. (It’s more than a little revealing that “Let It Go,” the iconic song from the film, comes from this point of near-murderous isolation in the story, and not from the later resolution. As a culture, we don’t identify with the resolution.)

When Elsa finally comes to terms with both the reality of who she is and her connections to her people, she finds rest — but she gets little help along the way. She has no grandmother, no sea looking out for her, no Yoda, no Jiminy Cricket, no Philektetes. The only person who believes in her is her sister Anna, and she’s separated from Anna for the critical portion of the story arc. Elsa has to figure it out all by herself.

As evangelicals, we tell ourselves that we are in Elsa’s position. It’s all new, and we have to figure it out for ourselves. But it isn’t true.

On the surface, Moana looks similar to Elsa: overcoming parental resistance to embrace her true identity and calling. But as it turns out, Moana’s calling is the same calling her people have shared for generations. Her father turned away; it is her job to turn back, and in that task she is assisted by her grandmother, her mother, mystical visions, and the very sea itself.

Her people have been long-distance seafarers from time out of mind. They turned from the path because the seas became too dangerous as a result of Maui’s theft. Her father continues the error by trying to turn her from the path too, but as the deadly consequences of Maui’s sin reach her home island, Moana’s people can no longer hide. It falls to Moana to heal the brokenness of her world and reclaim her lost heritage, and she does.

Herein lies a tricky business. “Move not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set.” “Honor thy father and mother.” In a perfect  world, those two commands would never be in conflict. But what if you are the child of the man who moved the ancient landmark? What if he’s your grandfather? Great-grandfather?

That is the evangelical dilemma. And Moana has a lesson to teach.


New Page

7 June 2018

Although I’ve been off the scene of the Free Grace movement for some time now, I remain Free Grace in key elements of my theology. As I’ve interacted widely with my brothers and sisters in the broader Church, I find that the best of the Free Grace tradition holds treasures in trust for the rest of the Body (and vice versa, of course).

In hopes of providing some starting points for those not familiar with the Free Grace traditions, I’ve put up a page of resources. You can find it here; feel free to offer suggestions or feedback.


Forgiving Sins

31 May 2018

I woke up a couple weeks ago with this sermon in my head, to be delivered after really good musical/liturgical worship. The Lord spurred me to send it on to someone, a person I don’t even really know; friend of a friend kind of thing, with a note that I don’t know who it’s for or what use it should be put to, but I’m giving it away for whatever God’s purposes may turn out to be. I hope it’s a benefit to that person, and for what it’s worth, I offer it to you as well.

I want to talk with you about what we’ve done here today, because I want you to see it with heaven’s eyes. When we gather like this, something special happens. And to see it as God sees it, we need to go back, all the way back to Genesis, because that’s where our story starts.

From the waters below the sky, He calls forth land and sea, and covers the land with plants. But it’s still empty.

Then on the fourth day, He takes the waters above the sky and fills the empty sky with sun, moon, and stars. The fifth day He fills the air with birds and the waters with fish. The sixth day, He fills the land with every kind of animal. And then, it’s time to sign the masterpiece.

How do you sign the painting when you just made the universe? It’s not like there’s a corner you can scribble your name in, right?
And so He made us from dust, and breathed spirit into us, His image, male and female together to bear His name in the world.

And you know the story. We blew it, and in the process we broke our relationships with each other and with God, and we broke the world, too. And the very first thing God tells us about that is, there’s a redeemer coming, a seed of the woman who will really be exactly like us—but victorious—and He will crush the serpent’s head.

Through the whole Hebrew Bible, this longing grows. Who is the redeemer? What will he be like? God reveals more and more, but it’s cryptic. Sometimes it says He will conquer and reign, and set everything right. Sometimes it says He will suffer and die. How can he do both? Late in those times, we learn about where He will be born, from the prophet Micah. We learn about when He will come, from Daniel.

And then…silence. There is no prophet among God’s people, for four hundred years.

The new beginning doesn’t look like much. Just a wild man calling people back to God. He doesn’t work with the Temple; instead he calls people out into the wilderness and baptizes them there, having them pass through water as Israel once did, because God is calling out a new people for Himself. He has no credentials, this wild man, and he says so himself. He’s just a voice crying out in the wilderness—but he is announcing the coming redeemer.

Then Jesus comes to the wild man. The wild man says “you should be baptizing me” but Jesus talks him into baptizing Him anyway, because Jesus is the foundation of the new people of God. When he comes up out of the water: The Spirit descends from heaven and rests on Him, and the Father speaks from heaven , “This is my beloved son; I am pleased with Him.”

That is what we are invited to join. We are invited to be a people the Spirit rests on, and our Father is pleased with us. What would it be worth, if we could earn something like that? But God is even more gracious than that.
Jesus goes to the cross, and there, He takes all our sin, all our shame, all the weight of every time we’ve failed to bear God’s name well. All of it is nailed to the cross and all of it dies with him, and is buried with him in the heart of the earth. When He comes out, He leaves it all behind, and so we are raised with Him, free from every weight that drags us down, and it’s all a gift. Jesus bought it for us.

And then, in the upper room just before He leaves, He breathes on His disciples and says two things to them“receive the Holy Spirit”. and “if you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain their sins, they are retained.” It’s a re-creation of humanity, implanting a new spirit in them, a spirit that can move in power for the healing of the world. He ascends to heaven, and on Pentecost the Spirit breaks out and begins to move in power among God’s people, and from that day to this one, He hasn’t stopped. That is what you experienced tonight, and I’m going to invite you to extend the experience a little further.
You are the new people that God is making. You bear His name in the world, and by the Spirit you carry the authority to remake and heal the world that He made. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.

All around us, people carry weights they don’t have to. There’s something they are, something they’ve done, that holds them back from the glorious freedom God designed us for. Some of us also struggle; the past still holds us back. It doesn’t have to, and tonight, I want you to do something about that, starting right in this room.

Turn to someone nearby you. If God gives you something to say in addition to this, then say what He gives you too. But I want you to be sure to say what God gave us all to say when He gave us His Spirit: Your sins are forgiven. Look each other in the eye and say it: I forgive your sins in Jesus’ name. You have the authority to do that.

Make sure nobody gets left out. The people who kinda slid into the corners of the room? Hunt them down. Make sure you get whoever’s hiding in the bathroom. Don’t forget the people down front. We need this too. Go now; I commission you in Jesus’ name, by the power of the Spirit: go do it!


Knowing Who You Trust

29 May 2018

This post is part of the May Synchroblog on the topic of hell. Scroll to the end for this month’s link list. 

I don’t really understand hell.

It has grown fashionable to doubt the existence of hell. I don’t. Scripture seems pretty plain about that. Oh yes, I know that no matter which verses I cite at this point, someone can point me to a thick stack of journal articles bristling with cutting-edge exegesis and theological thought, the sum of which is that there’s quite a bit of scholarly doubt. But I’ve known too many academics and read too many journal articles to be much impressed with scholarly doubt. (Yes, I know I’m not answering their arguments here. Some other time; this post isn’t about that.)

I believe in the resurrection of the dead — all of us — some to everlasting life, and others to damnation.

Of course, no reasonable observer of the Bible ever took the pop-culture caricature seriously — sinners being tortured endlessly by demons, that sort of thing. Neither the Bible nor the Church taught that hell was somehow an amusement park for demons at the expense of wayward humans. The traditional understanding is eternal conscious torment, variously interpreted as active punishment avenging a lifetime of wickedness and unbelief, or passive withdrawal of all grace, a la The Great Divorce.

Active punishment makes sense if you also believe limited atonement. On the other hand, if you believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world (as Scripture says), then on what grounds is there still punishment to be executed? Temporal discipline, as a means to redirect someone, sure. But eternal punishment to satisfy a death sentence that God Himself testified, in the resurrection, has already been carried out? I can’t make sense of that one.

I can make better sense of hell as a withdrawal of all grace. On the last day, when all our precious illusions have been shattered and we see, fully and finally, the grace of God, what then? Some of us have been pursuing that grace all our lives, and will draw near. Some, redeemed by that grace, will nonetheless shrink away in shame as its light reveals secrets we’ve tried to hide all our lives. The resulting purification will be a severe mercy.  And others, having spent their lives pretending that no such grace existed, suppressing the truth in their hearts — well, they’ll run with all their might in the other direction. Even though there’s literally nothing there. No relationship (that’s a reflection of the Trinity.) No joy. No trees or grass or chocolate cake or marbled steak or anything else that was a divine gift — and everything was a divine gift.

Under that understanding, Sartre was wrong. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is you, all by yourself, eternally removed from all that reminds you of God — and everything points to Him. So there you are, exponentially worse off than Gollum, tormented in your own skin because everything good hurts and everything ugly is all you have left. You are the worm and the rotting meat, the fire and what it consumes, and the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. In life, you failed to recognize the divine grace that kept you from that state; in death, you have no illusions about the extent of that grace, and have rejected it all.

If we grasp the depths of God’s grace to us, then we can grasp how thoroughly horrifying the complete withdrawal of divine grace would have to be.

I can at least kinda get my head around that. What messes me up at that point is the whole thing lasting forever. If I had a dog that was suffering that much in its own skin, with no chance of recovery, I’d put it down with no hesitation at all. I don’t get why God wouldn’t do the same.

But there’s a lot about God’s behavior that I just don’t get. In those gaps of understanding, we can either refuse to believe God until He explains it all, or we can trust. I choose to trust.

If you’ve never met God and recognized Who you were meeting, then that will sound like a cop-out. How can I believe in something like this, when I don’t understand it and it doesn’t make any sense? All I can say is, I understand where you’re coming from…but I’ve met Him. He is wiser than I’ll ever be, funnier than you’d think, cares deeply, and loves well. I know Who I’m trusting. Maybe one day, if you haven’t already, you will too.

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This post is part of the May Synchroblog, in which numerous bloggers around the world write about the same topic on the same day. Links to the other contributors are below. If you enjoyed my article, you may also enjoy reading what they have to say about the topic of hell.

 


Hermeneutical Repentance: An Open Letter To My Former Tribe

24 May 2018

I was reared in a conservative evangelical tradition that was heavy on strict grammatical-historical hermeneutics. I have repented of that school of thought in favor of following the examples set by the NT authors themselves.

Look, you know I love you, but there’s no point in mincing words here: you guys suck at reading narrative. I mean, it’s terrible. Either you reduce the story to a disconnected set of little morality tales for Sunday school kids, or you chop it up into however many dispensations or homogenize it all into two covenants (or both). At best, you think it’s there as a means to the end of teaching “doctrine,” by which you mean something like systematic theology. In practice, of course, many of you mostly ignore the narrative in favor of the church epistles, especially in your preaching. To be fair, you’re mostly pretty good at the church epistles. Straight-out didactic literature is your forte.

But look, the narrative is three quarters of the Bible. Paul says that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, and your hermeneutics courses are all a-flutter with warnings against “getting doctrine from narrative.” This means — it has to mean — that there’s something wrong with your hermeneutics. As long as you insist that your hermeneutics are fine, you’re going to continue to have the same problem, to wit: you don’t know how to read three quarters of the Bible. As soon as you contemplate some sort of hermeneutical repentance, though, you feel as though you’re about to throw open the door to every perversion and silliness that hermeneutical laxity has ever visited upon the Church. How can you proceed? How can you gain the ability to read the other three quarters of the Bible well without falling victim to the many traps and pitfalls that have snared so many of your unwary brethren?

I want to make an observation and propose a way forward. The observation: you’re scared. If your reason for avoiding narrative is that you don’t know how to avoid hermeneutical excesses, and your response to your lack of skill is to run away and hide in a church epistle…stop it. You can’t learn to swim by running from the water. God has not given us a spirit of fear.

Now, for a way forward. It’s simple in concept, sufficiently rich to cover the variety of problems you’ll have to face along the way, and as a bonus, it starts in your old stomping grounds — the church epistles. Even there, however, you’re going to have to face hermeneutical repentance. You’ve missed some pretty obvious stuff. The authors of the church epistles had none of your reluctance about drawing doctrine from narrative. For example, you somehow fail to notice that Paul derives his doctrine of justification by faith in Romans 4 from the narrative accounts of Abraham and David — the very thing you warn your students not to do. Nor is that circumstance unique — the authors of the epistles overwhelmingly draw their doctrine from the biblical narratives. Peter does it. Hebrews certainly does it. James does it. Know why? Because they’re following Jesus–He did it too.

The authors of the epistles may not have left you a hermeneutics manual, but they certainly did leave you with an enormous set of examples. Start with Romans 4, and work your way out from there. What other examples can you identify? How might you follow the example set forth for you?

Of course I realize that there will be differences of opinion, excesses, and all that. Sure. But if you’re not willing to get out there and make some mistakes, you’ll never get anywhere. You’ve gotta learn somehow.

Or you could keep being bad at reading three quarters of the Bible….


The Real History of Modern Yoga

17 May 2018

As we engage the subject of Christian physicality, we will unavoidably run into the question of mind-body practices, and what Christians may and may not participate in. In my experience, yoga is one of the first practices people ask about. Pro-yoga marketers, various Hindu sects, and yoga’s Christian despisers all aggressively promote the idea that yoga is an ancient Hindu practice. In fact, this is not true at all, as I will explain below. For further information, read Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, and N. E. Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, or take a look at a recent BBC article

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What you get in a yoga class at your local fitness club is not an ancient Hindu practice at all. That is a myth, created in the early 20th century by Indian nationalists and anti-colonialists. In order to understand how the myth grew so popular, we have to grasp a little of what it’s like to live in a colonized nation. When the British colonized India, they brought vastly superior technology — railroads, steam engines, telegraph, better ships, firearms, and so on. India developed a desperate desire to “catch up” with the Western powers, to modernize. Indians began to dress and talk like Westerners, go to college, learn engineering and other technical disciplines, and so on. All that was Western became synonymous with progress, and all that was Indian became synonymous with backwardness. Now that’ll give you a serious inferiority complex, and people can’t live like that for an extended period of time. Eventually the undiscriminating worship of all things Western provoked a backlash, and there was a great desire to point out the ways in which Indian culture was superior and had something to offer to the West.

Part of what the West had brought to India was the physical culture movement, very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Observers from both cultures noticed that in general, Indians were physically weak by comparison with their Western counterparts. Indian reformers set out to change that through physical exercise. They were aided in the effort by the YMCA, which had branches throughout India and taught a variety of physical disciplines like Pilates, Swedish Vital Gymnastics and other physical culture regimens popular at that time in the West.

At that time, “yoga” was understood to be one of the six orthodox paths to enlightenment in Hinduism, and usually had little if anything to do with physical posture. “Yoga” literally means “yoking” and referred to yoking one’s own consciousness to the divine. There were numerous yoga practices — the yoga of good deeds (karma yoga), the yoga of devotion (bhakti yoga), the yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga), etc. Some of the meditation traditions included instructions to take a certain posture for meditation to achieve certain ends — one text, the Geranda Samhita, has 30 or so postures which are alleged to help attain certain benefits. On the other hand, other forms of yoga taught nothing to do with postures. Popular yogi and lecturer Vivekananda, for example, denounced teachers of postures as hucksters and carnival performers.

In short, modern postural yoga — what happens in a Bally’s yoga class, where you might move through dozens of postures over the course of an hour-long session — does not seem to have much documentable precedent as a religious exercise in classical Hinduism. It was created, and recently — mostly by Krishnamacharya in Mysore. While he never traveled to the U.S. and few people have heard of him, his students K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa), B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Indra Devi and T. K. V. Desikachar (Viniyoga) are almost entirely responsible for the popularity of what we now call “yoga” in the West. Even the relatively few yoga lineages that do not begin with Krishnamacharya are certainly influenced by his legacy.

While modern postural yoga has little precedent in classical Hinduism, it does have some precursors in indigenous Indian practices. To find the precursors, we have to leave Hindu meditation behind and look to India’s wrestling tradition. India has a long tradition of producing superb wrestlers, and in texts that describe their training we see some indigenous exercises along that line, including the danda exercises — sophisticated pushup variations — that Krishnamacharya brought into his yoga program as the now-ubiquitous “sun salutation.” Similar exercises are preserved in Kalaripayyat, the indigenous martial art of Kerala in southern India. Swedish Vital Gymnastics and the other regimens of the western physical culture movement are also ancestors of modern postural yoga.

Of course, this sort of exercise is actually pretty common through world culture. From the wresting conditioning of the Persian Zurkaneh to the whip and saber exercises of the Cossacks to the neigong exercises of the Chinese to the djurus, lankas and kembaggan of the Indonesian Pentjak-Silat players, exercise sequences that work the whole body evenly and promote coordination, whole-body looseness and balance are found around the world. The routines look somewhat different from culture to culture, but they’re all designed to do the same thing: cultivate a relaxed, supple body that moves gracefully, freely and strongly through its whole range of motion. (As a Christian, that’s a goal I can get behind. I believe God made the body to do exactly that.)

But back to yoga. What happened to produce the yoga class down at Bally’s? In early 20th-century India, the anticolonial backlash was well under way. Reformers were seeking ways to bring India up to par with the Western nations, and at the same time proclaim the benefits of things that were uniquely Indian. Working as just such a reformer, Krishnamacharya gathered up various exercises from European physical culture movements, combined them with British army exercises, classical Indian wrestling exercises and meditation postures from old texts, and dubbed the result “yoga.” A few others did the same.

By calling their practices “yoga” and linking them to a liberal helping of Hindu religion and philosophy, they were seeking to market their physical culture programs as uniquely Indian and suitably ancient. Because they could point at a few old texts that teach some sort of posture practice — the Geranda Samhita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and so on — they had enough historical cover to give their efforts a patina of respectability, and they were working in an environment where everybody wanted to believe that it was true. The result of this melange of European exercises, physical culture ethos, meditation postures and Hindu philosophy is what contemporary academics call Modern Postural Yoga. It was spread through the YMCAs and other channels, and became fairly popular in India.

Meanwhile in the West, the physical culture movement all but died. (Classical Pilates — originally known as Controlology — is virtually the only modern-day survivor of the Western physical culture movement.) What remained of the physical culture movement transformed into the fitness industry, and great emphasis was placed on simplicity and isolated movements. Exercises requiring careful attention and complex coordination fell by the wayside in favor of simple exercises like bicep curls, leg extensions and lat pulls.

Yoga (especially in its philosophical, non-physical forms) had been slowly trickling into the West, but the physical exercise that we mean when we say “yoga” today didn’t really begin to be popular here until the 1960s. (Indra Devi was promoting yoga here long before that, and taught such luminaries as Greta Garbo and Marylin Monroe, but teachers were rare in those days, and yoga was still virtually unknown.) By the 60s, modern yoga had been incubating in India for decades, and we had long since forgotten our own roots in the physical culture movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In keeping with the way modern postural yoga had been marketed in India, the yoga gurus of the 60s and 70s marketed yoga here as an ancient Hindu practice of health and spirituality, and Americans bought it.

Over time, Americans who had no interest in Hinduism saw the physical benefits of this kind of gymnastic exercise, requiring careful attention and complex coordination. It improved balance, mental focus, coordination and concentration, helped people relax, improved posture, and much more. These folks recognized that there was a market for this kind of exercise, quite apart from the Hinduism, and began to promote it simply as good exercise. Which it is. This is where the yoga class at your local fitness club comes from.

Now a Christian comes along, looks at that class at Bally’s, and says, “We had Christian aerobics back in the 80s. Why can’t we have Christian yoga now?” Good question.