To an Unknown Socket

24 May 2019

Energy workers quickly discover that it’s a bad idea to try to heal someone on your own power. Not that it’s impossible — it’s truly amazing what a human spirit-to-spirit connection can accomplish, especially for someone who doesn’t get much of that — but it’s unwise. You have a finite supply of energy, and if you expend it into someone else, you leave yourself depleted, worn out, and vulnerable.

The solution is simple: don’t use your own energy. But you can’t just create energy ex nihilo. It has to come from somewhere. For me, that is not a problem. I live under an open heaven, with the unlimited resources of heaven available. (Dad often has His own ideas about what the person needs, but that’s fine. He told me to ask, and I’m asking. He always shows up.)

I have a number of spiritual-but-not-religious friends who link into “the universe” as their source for healing power. Sending your requests out into the universe addressed to “General Delivery” and hoping someone benevolent answers is, well…maybe not the best idea. Not everybody that might wander across that request is your friend. This is going through life dependent on the kindness of strangers. It is the equivalent of flying Ben Franklin’s kite in a thunderstorm. It is eating mystery meat from a random flyspecked cart in a south Asian market, and hoping your intestines can take it. It is plugging your extension cord into a random socket in a foreign country and hoping the voltage matches.

But sometimes, it comes out all right. And when it does, people thank “the universe,” which is like building an altar to the unknown socket.

I know what it feels like when God is at work, and I’ve felt Him at work through some of these people. He can suck up all the bandwidth and work through anybody He wants to. He did it with Saul. He did it with the witch at En Dor. He did it with Balaam. Heck, He did it with Balaam’s donkey. In my experience God moves through people you wouldn’t expect often, because He has exalted His word above His name.

I picture my friend standing by the massage table, one hand on me, and the other extended to the sky, holding up an extension cord and praying that it will plug into “the universe.” God reaches down, grabs the cord, and plugs it into Himself. Then He nudges a watching angel and winks.

“Don’t tell her,” He says. “She’s not ready to know yet.”

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Devouring the Grandchildren

21 May 2019

A doctrine is like a painting. It’s possible for it to be inaccurate–a landscape painter putting a lighthouse on the edge of the Grand Canyon, for example. On the other hand, even an accurate painting is not a perfect representation. You have to know what to pay attention to. You don’t criticize a painting of the Grand Canyon because the real Grand Canyon doesn’t have brush strokes on the rocks. You don’t look at a Monet and think, “Gee, that feller needed glasses.”

Likewise doctrine. An accurate doctrinal formulation will give you a correct impression of the acts of God that it is describing, but there will always be picky little details that aren’t exact representations. You gotta know how to look at the painting without picking at the brush strokes. The best way to do that is to experience the doctrine for yourself. Once you have firsthand knowledge of the ways of God that the doctrine describes, once you have incarnated the doctrine in practice, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. And as it happens, that was the point anyway. Doctrine is not there just to think about; it’s an aid to loving God and your neighbor. It’s meant to be lived.

When a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has himself experienced it, and seen it at work in the world, God’s people are greatly edified. This is often true even if the doctrinal formulation is…shall we say, a bit impressionistic. People usually still get the main point, and are blessed.

By contrast, when a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has not experienced it for himself at any depth, it is worse than useless: it is dead. The propositional content may be correct, but nonetheless, it is dead, and as all dead things do, it begins to rot, and provide a breeding ground for maggots.

The doctrine of divine election, for example, is indeed “an unspeakable comfort to godly persons,” as the Westminster divines put it—if it is expounded as Luther or Calvin expounded it. In them, as C. S. Lewis explains, the feeling is unspeakable, scarcely believable joy. It is the joy of the lover who has been chosen by his beloved, regardless of merit, despite all flaws, to have been loved and chosen! And to be assured that the choosing is irrevocable, irreversible! What joy!

Now, I believe that the doctrine of election as taught by Luther and Calvin is a bit impressionistic. Their formulation suffers from serious exegetical and theological flaws. But the experience of relationship with God that they were pointing to is real enough. Expounded with the joy and trust in God that Luther or Calvin had, even their flawed formulations can do quite a bit of good, and little enough harm.

On the other hand, when those same formulations are proclaimed in doubt, with some question as to whether one is chosen, it does incalculable harm. The result is a paranoid, frantic search for many tests or proofs that might allow someone to attain (at least theoretical) certainty—as required by the late New England Puritans, or in modern times by, say, a John MacArthur or a John Piper. The speaker is often himself somewhat unsure of his election, and the hearers pick up on his fear. They understand, at least unconsciously, that this is a terrifying doctrine, because they are hearing it from a terrified man. Soon enough, the terror comes to the surface, and the resulting view of God—petty, autocratic, using eternal human destinies as His personal plaything—is an awful slander, in Lewis’ words, “something not unlike devil worship.”

Now, Luther and Calvin could expound divine election with joy because they were chosen, and they knew it. Despite their propositional errors, their basic understanding of their relationship with God was correct. He did, in fact, love them and conspire to save them before the foundation of the world. When they believed, He did bring them into His family irrevocably, and give them life that would last forever. In all this they were entirely correct, and crucially, they did not just know these things by syllogism. They knew them by experience, by knowing God for themselves and hearing Him in their own souls. Thus fortified, they taught God’s love with joy. (As similarly joyful Reformed folk do to this day.)

But their formulations were somewhat in error, and as the generations ran on, the errors became apparent. The doctrine of election was not an unspeakable comfort; it was a terror to many tortured souls who did not know if they were chosen—indeed, many of them were taught that in this life, they could never know if they had been chosen. This doctrine, despite the joy of Luther and Calvin, devoured its great-grandchildren. This was a sign that something was wrong, and needed to be fixed.

Instead of revisiting their formulations to see what might have gone awry, too many Reformed folks have doubled down, willingly sacrificing their terrified children on the altar of their doctrinal rectitude. All the non-Calvinists reading this are no doubt nodding their heads and thinking, “Well, such are the dangers of erroneous doctrine.” Do you imagine yourself to be perfect? Do you think you got it all right, that there are no fuzzy little corners in your doctrine? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course there are—and so you have an opportunity to make the same mistake.

None of our doctrinal formulations–however correct–are immune to this danger. If ignorant and unstable people can twist even the Scriptures to their own destruction–and Peter says they can (2 Peter 3:16)–then how much more might they exaggerate the flaws of our all too fallible doctrinal formulations?

The cure–the only possible safeguard against dead, rotting doctrine–is to know God for ourselves, and not just from books. This is also the very definition of life: “to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”


What is energy work, anyway?

17 May 2019

Here’s what I know. In creational terms, you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. That’s what a human being is — a living soul. And a soul is made up of two things: dust and breath, brought together by God. “And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into His nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.”

  • What is meant by “dust?” The physical stuff, the literal dirt that returns to the dirt when we’re done with it.
  • What is meant by “breath?” The immaterial part, the spirit that returns to God who gave it, as Solomon once said.
  • And — most crucially — what is meant by “and?” . . .

That’s where we’re going to need to play the mystery card. The spirit and body interact in complex ways that we don’t really understand.

There’s a whole range of very subtle physical processes going on in the body. X-ray tomography shows that acupuncture points are structurally different from other points on the body. An electrical current travels faster down a meridian than between two randomly chosen control points the same distance apart…and slower than nerve conduction speed. There’s something else going on.

There are some very subtle, but actually physical, things going on that we’re just starting to understand. We’re just starting to even have the instrumentation to measure some of these things. So that’s the first thing that we mean by energy work – very subtle physical processes.

With respect to those physical processes, here’s my working hypothesis: just like every person has a skeletal system, a circulatory system, and a nervous system, every person has an energy system (or systems). Part of this is simply not that controversial (see Oschmann, 2nd ed.), but the useful models run far ahead of the science and make claims that, as yet, the science can’t really substantiate. But this stuff seems to work anyhow, so I’m using it.

But for me, subtle physical processes is not all I mean.

As Christians, we’re really good at understanding that the spirit relates to God. So far, so good. But spirit can interact with any other spirit, not just God. The first place our heads typically go with that is to realize that we can interact with demons. Which is true. But what about other people?

We can interact with other humans at a spiritual level. My spirit can touch your spirit. I don’t necessarily need to touch your body to do that. 

That’s the second thing I mean by energy work.

And — here’s the fun part — there’s not really a clear boundary between those two things. The spirit and the body interact in complex and hard-to-understand ways. I greatly envy people who have a governing theory for what they do. I don’t have one, having not yet encountered a model that I found persuasive enough to adopt wholesale.

In the meantime, it is my experience that I can achieve effects with my clients by manipulating the energy field that I cannot achieve without doing so. It is my experience that I can do these things while working in concert with God in prayer, giving God thanks. So — guided by Paul — I’m not concerned about meddling with something I shouldn’t. God seems to be blessing it.


Mystical Union: Aiming Right At ‘Em

14 May 2019

Several years back, I got myself in a pile of trouble for talking about mystical union with Christ. Folks in the tradition I grew up in were…resistant, to put it mildly.

With some further years and miles on me, I’m able to reflect on that discussion and see that not everyone was resistant for the same reasons. Best I can tell, there were about six different reasons people didn’t like me talking about mystical union with Christ.

The first reason is the associations the term “mystical” carries with various weird things. “Mystical,” like “intellectual assent” and “legalism,” is a theological cuss word in some circles, and this can be an issue. I expected to encounter this problem when I chose to use the word, but as I said at the time, I don’t believe there was a better choice. With additional years of reflection and considering the alternatives, I still don’t.

The second reason — and this actually surprised me, although it shouldn’t have — is the respectable pedigree that “mystical” has had throughout church history. Evangelical conservatives often harbor a deep contempt for the historical church, and anything the church fathers approved of is automatically suspect.

These first two classes of objectors are suffering from prejudices that need to be overcome. A kid named Fred might have bullied you in second grade, but that doesn’t make every guy named Fred a bully. The word “mystical” might be associated with some people and ideas that you find distasteful, but like the man said: “in understanding be men.” There are realities here the Bible talks about, and believers should talk about them too. Don’t refuse to join the conversation just because someone uses an adjective you don’t like.

A third reason some people object is that they simply don’t understand what I’m saying. For whatever reason, my way of explaining the truths of John 15, John 17, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11 and other passages simply doesn’t resonate with them. I suspect many of them haven’t lived these things for themselves, and like virgins hearing a conversation about sex, they simply can’t relate. But many of them, I’m sure, have the experience of walking with God, and for whatever reason, simply aren’t able to talk about this aspect of it.

Fourth, some people object because they don’t see how there can be good grounds for assurance of salvation in this way of understanding relationship with God. To them, all this talk of relationship just seems so slippery and messy. Assurance can’t be allowed to rest on a miasma of relationship talk; it needs a foundation of objectivity in order to remain solid and dependable. These folks are correctly wary of anything that endangers assurance, and in their minds that means all this business about mysticism and relationship has got to go.

The third and fourth classes of objectors are suffering from legitimate misunderstandings, and with them, I hope for the opportunity to have long conversations over meals and drinks. As we explore how they would describe their own life experience of walking with God and living out John 15, John 17, Galatians 2:20 and so on, I learn a lot about how other Christians talk, and we are able to explore ways of bridging between my language and theirs. Or if they’re struggling with the assurance side of things, we often talk about their experience and mine, and frequently find that our stories are not so very different. Again, at that point we will have room to explore how to talk about that and relate theology to it.

Finally, there are two groups of objectors who understand very well what I’m trying to say.

The fifth group is composed of people who also live the reality I’m seeking to talk about, but they believe I’ve made an unwise choice of terminology. Basically, we agree on (most of) the doctrine and the praxis; we just don’t yet have a common language for it. I suspect their stance is mostly a result of their theological training scaring them away from all things subjective, with the result that they can’t talk about the very real subjective elements of a relationship with God. These people are fun to talk with, and I do, often. They are fellow workers in the same field of endeavor, and I’m glad to be working alongside them.

The other group understands what I’m saying, and they hate it. They hear me saying that  a person can know his Bible inside and out, and “love” God the way John Hinckley “loved” Jodie Foster, the way Saul of Tarsus loved Yahweh. They understand that I’m saying if there is no acceptance of God personally and on His own terms, then they’re not  loving God; they’re stalking Him, and it will end in murder.

These people have invested themselves heavily in academic understanding of doctrinal principles because that’s what they wanted the Christian life to be about. They haven’t really come to know God as the One who loves them, with all the subjective experience that implies, and they don’t want to. They’re furious when I talk about real relationship with God, and no wonder–I was aiming right at ’em.


“…not even our church.”

10 May 2019

One weekend while I was in massage school, I took an introductory class in Polarity Therapy. Polarity is a big field of study, and we just scratched the surface of most aspects. We did come out with a series of basic energy balancing exercises we could use with clients, though.

The day after the class, I came home and found my wife in serious distress. It was certainly manifesting in physical and emotional discomfort, but there didn’t seem to be anything physical obviously wrong. I wondered if the Polarity balancing session might help. I am automatically suspicious of myself when I think that a new tool I just learned is exactly the thing for someone’s ailment. To a man with a shiny new hammer, everything looks like a nail, you know?

But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be just like God to give me the tool right before I need it? So I thought, “Well, if it doesn’t work, I’ll just try something else.”

With nothing to lose, I set up the massage table and got her on it. As always, I began with prayer (I don’t pray out loud if the client’s not up for that, but I always pray). I asked for God to take this time and restore her well-being, then I went to work. The entire sequence had taken about an hour in class. Doing it on my own, it took two, and it was anything but smooth. I had to keep consulting my routine sheet to see what to do next, and the techniques were unfamiliar, so I had to keep deciphering the notes I’d hastily scribbled in the margins to remind me how we’d done each thing in class. Not ideal. Kimberly later described it as “the most boring massage of my life” — Polarity bodywork is on-body, but barely touching for the most part.

But here’s the thing: God answered my prayers. It absolutely worked. When we finished the session, she was calm and collected. The distress — both physical and emotional — was just gone.

We later lay in bed together debriefing. I described what the session had been like for me — the continual reference to my notes interrupting the flow, the battle to keep myself grounded, but also the sensations of energy moving from place to place in her body, where it felt stagnant or blocked, the shifting patterns of heat and cool I felt as I worked with her, and so on. She described her experience, and what she had sensed as I did certain techniques during the session. At one point I was talking, somewhat excitedly, about how it all felt, when she interrupted me and said, “You realize, you can’t talk about this at church. Not even at our church.”

I said, “I know.”

And it was true. Our church (at the time) was probably, of all the churches in our town, the most open to various forms of weirdness in daily life. We strove to be “naturally supernatural,” and we really meant that. But I knew better than to think I could talk about energy work at church.

It was a defining moment for me. I agreed with God when I got into this that I was going to explore, submit to the process and the experiences that He led me into, and never allow myself to ignore something or pretend it didn’t happen just because I didn’t understand it. And I won’t. But at that moment I realized that my agreement with God meant I was going to have to carve out a niche somewhere outside the established American church. At least in the churches I knew, there was simply no place for what God was showing me.

Their loss. God’s doing a lot beyond the walls of the established church, and it’s good. So I’m gonna start talking about it.


Rachel Held Evans, Entered into Rest

7 May 2019

It will surprise no one to learn that I have never been a big Rachel Held Evans fan. We differ fundamentally and widely on many things, principally the authority of Scripture.  And yet, as so often happens in God’s family, I would from time to time happen upon something where we unexpectedly converged. Because of course we do. Like Father, like daughter. To a greater or lesser extent, sure. But that’s the journey we’re all on, isn’t it?

I don’t believe that journey will ever really be over; I suspect C. S. Lewis had it right in The Last Battle: “Come further up! Come further in!” Tonight as I write this, she is in Narnia, and we are still here: no matter how we differed a few days ago, she’s out ahead of us all, now. And good for her.

So on the occasion of her passing, I wish to offer a tribute to my sister. Her treatment of modesty made me rethink some things. Her reflections on Sabbath (and also here) were beautiful, and helped me renew my own commitment to accepting God’s rest regularly. Writing pieces like that is real work, and I’m grateful she did it.

She has now fully entered His rest. I look forward to meeting her there. I owe her a thank you.


Can You Spell “Church” without C-E-O?

7 May 2019

Leadership is an important field of study; I’ve seen a lot of damage done by unskilled, untrained leaders. Church leaders often try to borrow the “best thinking” on leadership from the business world. But it’s a mistake to assume that the business way of approaching things maps well onto the church. The wrong leadership training is sometimes worse than no training at all.

I’ll never forget attending a Christian leadership conference (nothing related to 3DM) in which the two main speakers–both CEO-style leaders of Big Important Churches that will remain nameless here–kicked off the first session by mocking the concept of shepherding, and distinguishing their kind of leadership as something else entirely. (My wife got up and left the conference early in that talk, correctly discerning that the conference would have little relevance for her.) The rest of the day was devoted to discussing their version of organizational leadership.

Now perhaps one can run a business empire without being a shepherd; I wouldn’t know. But biblically obedient churches are led by (a team of) elders, and every elder’s first job is “shepherd the flock of God.” These two church leaders spent a day teaching a type of leadership that has no place in a church, and a thousand or so overawed church leaders sat there and lapped it up.

What a tragedy for their churches.

Leadership works differently for Jesus followers; Jesus pointedly said so.

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Perhaps we should take Jesus seriously. A guy might know how to defend his budget against other executives’ resource grabs, how to take credit for success and make sure someone else gets stuck with the consequences of failure, how to fire half the production department to save the stock price–what makes us think he knows anything about how to lead a church?