Can We Understand the World?

5 October 2021

Contemporary skepticism looks like this: God made a movie, and a theater to watch it in, and then an audience of people to watch the movie. And now the audience is starting to wonder: Can we really understand the movie?

See, we have been analyzing the movie, and we’ve discovered that the whole thing is a fraud! The pictures don’t even actually move — there’s just 24 still pictures every second, in rapid succession. I mean, seriously — the whole thing’s just a trick! How could it mean anything?

But all this is folly, of course. God made the world for us, and us for it. He is revealing Himself in the world, and He is good at what He does. Of course we can receive revelation.

Modern man has just forgotten how.

Primitive man knew how to see the meaning in the world. Everything was alive, everything was meaningful. For the ancient Hebrews, the heavens declared God’s glory. When Messiah delivers His people, the very trees will clap their hands.

Even in its corrupted, nature-worshipping form, the ancient worldview didn’t lose the meaning in the world. We talk about it as “animism,” the belief that every thing in the world also has an anima, a spirit. But primitive man doesn’t see the tree and the tree spirit as two separate things. He sees a single, metaphysically thick entity — a physical and spiritual tree.

Primitive man could see the meaning in the world, could follow the thread of the story. But primitive man could only see a single thread.

With Descartes and Galileo, Western man began to realize that the thread was 2-ply, a twine of matter and consciousness. They unwound the composite thread in order to better study matter alone. Thus astrology became astronomy, alchemy became chemistry, and so on. This was all to the good, and we got a whole lot of good from it — the whole technological world we live in.

Nobody wants to turn back the clock. We’re all very happy to have vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and Prime 2-day delivery, thank you very much.

The problem is not that we need to undo the work that was done over the past few centuries. The problem is the work we didn’t do. We unwound the two-ply thread of matter and consciousness, and examined one of the threads exhaustively…and then pretended that the other thread doesn’t matter. We have not carried out the parallel examination of consciousness.

We have come to a point where our study of matter is forcing us back to consciousness. Matter, it turns out, is not just a series of ever-smaller Lego bricks. The quantum world does not behave like Legos at all. We have tiny particles that behave differently depending on whether we’re looking at them.

Consciousness matters. Consciousness influences the activities of matter. And so we cannot proceed until we understand more about the consciousness of the people that are looking.


Sinning in All Directions

14 September 2021

In conversations about the church’s characteristic sins, I’ve noticed something really interesting. When I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against men, I inevitably get an earful of “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to women?” — the vibe being that the sins against men aren’t really even worth talking about compared to what the church routinely does to women. I’ve also noticed that when I talk about the church’s characteristic sins against women, a smaller but very vocal number of people — mostly single or divorced men — respond in the same fashion: “Are you kidding? Have you seen what the church does to men?”

For some reason we seem to have bought into the idea that the church has to be sinning against men OR women; it couldn’t possibly be doing both. What are we thinking?

What drives this dynamic is the neomarxist class warfare paradigm, which is so deeply entrenched in our culture that even Christians have trouble shaking it — even though, on paper at least, we definitely know better. The neomarxist paradigm provides a handy template for any situation where there’s oppression. If there is oppression against one class (in this case, one sex), then the other class is the “oppressor” class. One has to be on the bottom, and the other on the top; one good guy, one bad guy. It’s a very simplistic way to view the world, a template suited to old Lone Ranger serials for kids. Even in our fiction (say, Avengers: Civil War) we know better than that — to say nothing of the complexities of real life.

In the real world, any single human being is more than capable of sinning in all directions at once. The Church is made up of many, many such humans, and say what you will about her, she’s an able multitasker. She is certainly capable of sinning in all directions at once, and of sinning against multiple different classes in different ways that are specifically injurious to that group.

That has certainly happened, has it not? The Church has treated women, as women, infamously in certain readily identifiable ways. The Church has also treated men, as men, infamously in other readily identifiable ways. We need to repent for ALL of it, and we won’t grow, any of us, by trying to out-victim each other, by minimizing the sins against another group in order to get some attention for our own group.

And lest we forget…WE ARE THE CHURCH. There’s nowhere else to point the finger — it’s us, it’s our people. We are the household of God, and we need to get things in order. So let’s own our failures, repent, and find a better way together.


But Is It Mine To Take?

7 September 2021

“In Christ,” Paul writes to the church at Colosse, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Let’s scrape off the Sunday School language for a minute and ask what that means in the real world.  A “treasure” is something well worth having.  Biblically speaking, “wisdom” is skill — it can be skill at a trade, skill at interpersonal relationships, skill at anything.  “Knowledge” is understanding of facts, but biblically it also includes understanding and intimacy with the facts — grasping how they relate to one another.  So “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” means all the skills worth having and all the things worth knowing — and all of them are hidden in Christ.  Every last one.

So what are we to do when we find a pagan claiming that these particular treasures of wisdom and knowledge right here belong to his idols?

Refuse to believe him, of course.  But does that mean that the pagan really doesn’t have treasures of wisdom and knowledge, even though he thinks he does?  That will be the case sometimes,  but often enough he’s got the real thing, courtesy of common grace, and the devil is lying to him about where it came from.  After all, the Canaanites were not living in make-believe houses and harvesting pretend grapes to make imagined wine.  They had the real thing — all gifts from the loving hand of a gracious God, which the devil was only too happy to claim for his own, with the Canaanites’ complicity.

Faced with that situation, the task of God’s people is obvious enough — take those good things back, and return them to their lawful role in service to the Creator.  The devil is not Abraham, and he may not claim territory everywhere he leaves his cloven hoofprints.  It all belongs to Yahweh, every last bit, and we will be taking it back in Yahweh’s name.  This is as true in the New Covenant as it was under the Old: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ….”  

The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, and we look forward to a day when everybody knows it, and the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth like water covers the sea.  This is God’s will, and while we wait to see it come to full fruition, we pray for little pieces of it to invade here and now — “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

That’s the long view, the answer in principle.  However, just because the whole thing belongs to God does not mean we are fit to take it all back right this minute.  Abraham’s family wasn’t ready to inhabit the land during Abraham’s lifetime — hence the centuries-long delay.  Even at Kadesh Barnea, Israel wasn’t ready.  Still filled with fear, they believed the ten spies instead of Joshua and Caleb.  God told them that He would respect their wishes and give the land to their children instead, and then, predictably, they decided they would try to take it after all.  God warned them that He would not go with them, not now, but they tried anyway, and a bunch of them died in the attempt. 

When they finally went in with Joshua, even then God told them that He would drive out the peoples of the land gradually before them, lest the land be overgrown and overrun with wild beasts.  The conquest has its cataclysmic moments like the destruction of Jericho, but it is a process, and the process was always meant to be directed by divine guidance.  It’s God’s territory, and we have to retake it on His timetable, in His way.  

The question is not simply, “Is this God’s?”  The question is, “Is God giving this to me?”  “Is it mine to take?”

***

Prayer Exercise

  1. We all encounter enemy strongholds — in our own lives, in our communities, in the world we live in.  Where are some of the enemy strongholds that you encounter?
  2. God gives us His armor because He means for us to be active in warfare.  Is there a stronghold that God wants you to assault?  
  3. If God gives you a target, don’t assume He wants you to go charging up that hill immediately.  Ask how God wants you to go about it.

Everywhere He Left His Cloven Hoofprints

31 August 2021

When Israel came up from Egypt and went into the Promised Land, they took up residence in a land formerly owned by thoroughgoing pagans.  God’s people lived in houses built by pagans, cultivated fields cleared by pagans, and harvested orchards and vineyards planted by pagans.  Moreover, all these things were dedicated to pagan gods by the previous inhabitants, a fact which seems to have caused Israel no concern at all.

Israel was able to take all these ‘pagan’ things from their previous pagan owners with a clear conscience for the best of all possible reasons:  God told them to go and take the Land.  For some people, it seems odd that God didn’t have them raze everything and start over from scratch, so that they would owe absolutely nothing to the pagans who had held the territory before them.  God had other ideas.

That’s the way it works in the Kingdom of God.  As Solomon put it several centuries later, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the wealth of the sinner is stored up for the righteous” (Prov. 13:22).  That transfer of inheritance from the wicked Canaanites to righteous Israel came with strict instructions not to get caught up in the various abominations of the peoples of the land, especially their many idolatries.  In fact, although they were allowed to take over the fields, houses, cities and so on, there was one thing Israel was required to destroy absolutely: “You shall burn the carved images of their gods with fire; you shall not covet the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it for yourselves, lest you be snared by it, for it is an abomination to Yahweh your God, nor shall you bring an abomination into your house, lest you be doomed to destruction like it.  You shall utterly detest it and utterly abhor it, for it is an accursed thing” (Deut. 7:25-26).

Burn the idols; don’t even go through the ashes looking for the gold that melted off.  Don’t bring that junk into your house if you don’t want to be destroyed along with it.  It isn’t worth it — set it on fire and walk away.

In order to grasp the lesson here, we have to understand the nature of Canaanite religion.  In the ancient world, there was no separation between religion and the rest of life.  The hearths would be dedicated to the appropriate goddess; the potter’s shop would have been blessed in the name of the patron god of the trade; fertility rites were performed in the farmers’ fields every spring to guarantee a good harvest; every house, in fact, would have its household gods.  Yahweh did not tell Israel to destroy everything that had been consecrated in the name of some pagan deity — they would have had to destroy the very dirt under their feet!  Rather, He told them to destroy the idols themselves, and take everything else as a gift from Him.

What gave Yahweh the right to offer an Israelite family a house devoted to a pagan deity, as if it were His to give?  It really was His to give.  The very heavens and earth are His; there is nothing that He cannot give as a gift.  

In fact, the land was already theirs, because He had already given it to them in principle, centuries earlier.  More than four hundred years before, their father Abraham had walked through Canaan, and God told Him, “Everywhere the sole of your foot touches, I will give you and your descendants.”  The land belonged to Israel for the service of Yahweh, but in the intervening centuries pagans had taken up residence.  With the pagans came idols, and as Paul later told the Corinthians, “An idol is a demon.”  After Abraham, the devil walked the land, claiming it for his own everywhere he left his cloven hoofprints.

But he is the father of lies, and his claims of ownership were lies, too.

***

Discussion

  1. During their centuries-long task of retaking pagan territory, Israel failed often.  What were the temptations that troubled them?  How might those same temptations trouble us today?
  2. Do you think it’s really possible to take back “enemy territory” and remain faithful to God?
  3. If so, what areas do you see that are “enemy territory” and need to be taken back?  Is there a particular area that you feel called to retake?

Is Secular Safe?

24 August 2021

We have largely succeeded at sanitizing the public square of overt religious references, such that an American Christian can go about his daily life and not be assailed by assertions of Islamic faith, or reminders of religious Daoism, or Hindu deities. In this largely sanitized space lies a subtle temptation.

The temptation is to think that there is a “plain vanilla” way to engage life where one’s religion really doesn’t matter.  You can get the basics of life down, no matter what your religious thoughts might happen to be, and then add in your religion like a condiment on a hamburger.  Some people like ketchup; some people like cheese; in Australia they serve it with a slice of beet (for real!)  Takes all kinds….

This secular approach has a certain amount of street-level credibility.  You change the oil on a Camry the same way whether you’re an atheist, a Christian, or a Zoroastrian.  It’s not as if you turn the nut to the right if you’re Jewish and to the left if you’re Muslim, right?

That’s true as far as it goes, but we need to ask why Muslims and Jews both have to turn the nut the same way.  Why is it that everybody has to change the oil the same way no matter what religion they are?  Why is the world the same for everybody?

Because there is some way of understanding the world that really does go all the way down, and everybody has to bend to it.  The question is, what is it?

When we secularize the public spaces in the name of “neutrality,” we are not in fact being neutral.  We are behaving as if physical reality is all there is, and religion is a fun idea you can layer on top of “real” reality if it helps you somehow.  We are acting as if that is the understanding of the world that goes all the way down.

But it isn’t.

Faced with a secular environment, whether it is in in a gym, a karate dojo, or as mundane a setting as a grocery store, American Christians feel as if there is nothing wrong.  We have forgotten the exhortation that Paul gave us: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”

We are Christians; we seek to live in such a way that every part of our lives is in submission to the Lordship of Christ.  We acknowledge no secular practice of anything at all.

***

Prayer Exercises

  1. It is easy for us to fall prey to a secular world-and-life view because expressions of it are all around us, and after a while we begin to believe it.  Ask God to reveal any areas of your life where you have begun to believe this lie.  Wait in silence to see what He will reveal to you.
  2. In any area that comes to your attention, confess the lie you have begun to believe, and ask God to show you the truth in that area of your life.  Wait to see what He will say to you, but also remain attentive over the coming weeks.  The answer may come in the form of a thought, an interaction with another person, an event, or something else.  Be willing to listen and see what God will do.
  3. Ask God to show you any strongholds in your own life, or in your community’s life, that need to be pulled down, any thoughts that need to be brought into subjection to Christ.

Cops AND Robbers

17 August 2021

When I was a kid back in the day, we used to play “cops and robbers.” One group would be the cops, and the other group would be the robbers. In the grown-up world, there’s — how to put this delicately? — a certain amount of overlap.

I’m not particularly interested here in the single officer that goes bad and pockets a bunch of cash from a drug bust, or some such. That needs to be dealt with, of course, but that’s just ordinary human sinfulness. The temptations come with the job; screen how you will, every now and again someone yeilds to the temptations. It’s the same in any profession.

It’s different when there’s a major incentive to sin built into the system. That’s not just ordinary temptation; that’s an extraordinary problem that calls for decisive action. Civil forfeiture is just such a problem, and it has got to go.

It’s important to grasp the difference between civil and criminal forfeiture. In criminal forfeiture, the accused — innocent until proven guilty — must first be convicted of a crime by a jury of his peers. After conviction, the prosecution can seek to confiscate the proceeds of the crime. That is holy and just and good; the criminal must not be allowed to profit from his crime.

Civil forfeiture is another matter altogether. In civil forfeiture, no conviction is necessary. The person isn’t accused of anything directly; the property itself is accused of being proceeds of a crime. Why accuse the property instead of the person, you ask? Because property is not innocent until proven guilty.

So the officer can make up a story in his head about where this particular car, wad of cash, etc. came from, and then confiscate it on the basis of the story in his head. He will write up an affidavit to justify his actions, and if the rightful owner wants his property back, he will have to prove that the officer’s story is wrong. Backwards, you say? Even illegal? Sure, it would be — if the officer were accusing the person of anything. People are innocent until proven guilty. People have to stand trial and be convicted. But in a legal maneuver worthy of the Pharisees, the accusation is technically against the property, not the person. Property is not innocent until proven guilty. The gold sanctifies the altar, as it were.

Civil forfeiture is a direct (and frankly, transparent) violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is illegal, which is an important observation for Christian resistance. That’s a discussion for another day, because there’s a prior concern: civil forfeiture is sin. Even if it were entirely legal under the laws of the land, it is a violation of the laws of God, specifically the Eighth Commandment. It is stealing, plain and simple.

The officer who initiates the forfeiture is a thief, taking that which does not belong to him, justifying his theft with a story he made up in his head. The property clerk who receives the stolen goods into his custody is committing the same crime that any fence commits. The chain of command that condones the officer’s actions and any judge who approves of it — thieves, the lot of them. The fact that their jurisdictions have conspired to pretend the theft is legal doesn’t make it right; it just implicates the voters in the theft as well.

This is one of the things we have church discipline for, and in jurisdictions where civil forfeiture is going on, churches should be exercising it.

For further information, read Policing for Profit.


Dust and Breath: A Sermon

20 April 2021

Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.


Nee vs. Kuyper

6 April 2021

Once upon a time, Watchman Nee wrote a little book called The Latent Power of the Soul in which he allowed that various paranormal things are possible for the human soul, but all of them are off limits for a Christian. The argument goes that these ‘soulish’ powers are verboten to Christians because we are intended to draw our power from the Spirit.

This has curb appeal for a lot of people, but on closer examination, it’s pious-sounding nonsense. The nonsense is easy enough to see if we apply the same argument consistently to all such ‘soulish’ powers. You are not allowed to go to the gym and lift weights, or practice doing complex math problems in your head, or learn to tell when someone is lying to you, because you are supposed to derive your power from the Holy Spirit. 

The nonsense is easy enough to see there. Of course it’s okay to do all these things. Your job is to take all the abilities you develop and bring them into subjection to Christ.

And that’s the underlying problem with Nee’s view: he brackets out certain admittedly natural human abilities, and then says we are not allowed to bring those abilities into subjection to Christ. Abraham Kuyper articulated a better approach: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

So when we’re talking about intuition, specialized powers of minute observation, subtle palpation, manual manipulation, or whatever else, why approach the matter any differently?

“How do we know that these things are even real?” someone will want to know. That is a great question. We should be interested to sift the true from the false.

We may not approach that examination with the bias of, say, a James Randi or a Richard Dawkins. We know something they do not: the materialists are wrong, from top to bottom. The world is not what they say it is. Angels are real. Demons are real. Humans are both body and spirit. God reigns over it all. It is silly for a Christian to approach reality as if all spiritual claims are automatically bunk.

We know better. And whatever human abilities are real, are designed by God to serve Christ’s glory under the direction of the Spirit. Just like physical strength. 


Forgiveness is HARD

23 March 2021

I had occasion to preach at Faith Community Littleton this past Sunday. When I teach people how to make disciples, I tell them I’m from the “open a vein” school of discipleship: we don’t teach in the abstract, we invite people into our own struggles and let them see God at work in real time. Well, this was an “open a vein” sermon. It may be the least polished thing I’ve ever preached.


Dodging the Ditch

6 October 2020

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about generosity. She was sorting through the tension between our finitude and God’s call to do things that are frequently beyond us, and had run into conflict with another believer about how to approach such things. It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, but we’ll save that for another day. Today I want to go a level up and look at a general trend in arguments about philosophy of ministry.

In anything we do, there’s more than one way to screw it up. In generosity ministry, there’s such a thing as stinginess on the one hand, and toxic charity on the other. (Sometimes our service to others is more about how it makes us feel than it is about actually helping the others in question.) There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.

Very often, our conflicts in philosophy of ministry happen thus:

  • Person A has already been in the ditch on the left side of the road, and he’s never gonna let that happen again.
  • Person B has already been in the ditch on the right side of the road, and is determined never to repeat his mistake.

Put them together, and hey, whaddaya know — a fight breaks out.

It’s easy enough for each to damn the other for steering toward a ditch, and then go their separate ways. That’s tragic, because their stickiest difference is actually the reason God put them together to start with. God means for them to honor each other and listen to each other, so they will balance each other out. If they can do that, they stay on the (narrow) road between the ditches.

As a pastor’s kid and lifelong minister, I’ve seen this play out many times over many different issues. Partnerships regularly fall apart over exactly the issues where they could benefit each other most…and then the resulting ‘independent’ ministries fall apart for lack of balance.

This to say: the unity of the Body actually matters. We are impoverished — and as a result, the world around us is impoverished — when we won’t live up to it.