Steps Toward Recovery

2 November 2018

If we’re going to recover obedient healing ministry in the Church — healing that is biblically faithful, and actually works, then we’re going to have to give some thought to how we do this. What follows are some largely random reflections about doing it.

We aren’t going to get very far sitting on our collective butts thinking holy thoughts. Theory without practice is a disease, and too many of us have it. The only antidote is getting out there and trying things. See what happens in the world God actually made, not just what we think might happen if we actually, you know, did stuff.

We need to be active seekers and curators of experience. We need to try things, and we need to remember what happened — especially if it was something weird that we have no category for. The experiences that are way off the map — those are the ones that help us revise our maps. We aren’t going to learn much if we ignore the weird stuff.

We need to be biblically faithful. If Scripture gives us reason to expect something that is outside our experience (like, say, miraculous healing), then we need to lean into that. If Scripture tells us not to do something (like calling on other gods), we need to obey that.

At the same time, we need to pay careful attention to what the Bible does, and does not, say. Our deeply disobedient tradition will tend to protect itself by calling things “unbiblical” that are necessary and proper, but simply not attested in Scripture. Like, say, a particular tune for Psalm 23. There’s nothing biblical about assigning that particular tune to that particular psalm — but we have to use some tune, and if this one works, why not?

We need to pay attention to what we don’t know about first-century practice. The things that were obvious to them are opaque to us, because nobody ever wrote them down — things like order of service, specific details of church governmental structure, tunes for the Psalms, the exact technique for laying on hands, the selection of an oil for anointing, and so on — none of these things has been preserved for us in Scripture. But we have to do something.

We need to become masters of good and necessary consequence. If we are called to lay on hands, then we must lay hands in some manner. If we are called to anoint with oil, then we’re going to use some kind of oil. There’s nothing essentially biblical about resting a hand over the heart or using bergamot oil, but is there anything wrong with it?

We need to become masters of observation. If one manner of laying on hands has an effect that another manner does not, we should notice. If one oil has an effect that another does not, we should notice. Growing in skill means noticing these things, and doing what works better.

We need to pay attention to our whole family tree. Not every branch of the Church has been as disobedient in this area as we have been. We can learn from the experiences of other saints, widely separated from us in time, space, and ecclesiology — but united to us in Christ.

We have to be ruthlessly honest students of what works. An approach with an honorable pedigree may fail because (a) it just doesn’t work, (b) it requires skill or character we don’t have, (c) we misunderstood, or (d) some other reason we didn’t think of. But if it doesn’t work for us now, it doesn’t work for us now. We might revisit it later, with a better understanding. In the meantime, we’d better try something else.

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Recovering Obedience: How It Works

26 October 2018

Jesus healed people. He taught His disciples to heal people. He told them they would do greater works than He — and they did. The early Church was known for its ability to heal. The Church today is not. Something has changed, and not for the better.

Early on, we were obedient to what Jesus had trained us to do. Somewhere along the way, we lost that habit of obedience, and today, the people who lean into healing ministry are an anomaly in the church. We think they’re weird, and look on them with suspicion. We’ll talk some other time about how this deplorable state of affairs came about, but today, I want to look at fixing it. When disobedience has become the tradition, and obedience is weird…that’s pretty much the definition of worldliness. What does it take to reverse that?

I had never really engaged that question until about 10 years ago. I was still a few years away from my paradigm shift on healing ministry, but God challenged me in the area of worship — specifically, singing psalms. Now in the modern church we sometimes draw on a psalm as inspiration for a worship song, but we don’t really sing the Psalms. This is a serious problem, because the New Testament three times says we should. So I was challenged that — as a matter of simple Christian obedience — I needed to become a Psalm-singing person. But I had no resources, no tradition to draw on. My church just didn’t do that. No church I’d ever been part of did.

So for the first time in my life, as a seminary-trained pastor, I embarked on a quest to obey the Bible in a way that was entirely outside my tradition. It was going to be life-changing, in three ways.

  1. The practice of immersing myself in the Psalms absolutely transformed my relationship with God. I became able to speak with God with complete honesty. Worship became much sweeter. Where once prayer had been the weak point of my spiritual life, it became a place of strength.
  2. This was the first time I had seriously contemplated that my tradition might be content with disobedience to the Scriptures, and might be seriously resistant to becoming obedient. Once I experienced that resistance in the area of worship music, I began to wonder if there were other areas where we had allowed our disobedient tradition to trump the Bible. Turns out, there were….
  3. I learned valuable lessons about the process of recovering obedience in an area where I — and my people — had once been so thoroughly disobedient that we couldn’t even imagine what obedience would look like.

That third area is the one I want to focus on today. Let me briefly sketch what happened when I became a Psalm-singing Christian, and then I’ll pull some lessons out of that experience. In upcoming posts, I hope to look at how that experience might apply to recovering healing ministry.

As I said, the starting point was a relatively innocuous observation: three times in the New Testament, we are instructed that we ought to sing the psalms. It does not say that we should sing the biblical Psalms exclusively, but it clearly means we ought to sing at least the biblical Psalms. And as a leader in my commmunity, I had a responsibility to recover this obedience, first for myself, and then for the community I led. Which meant we were going to have to introduce Psalm-singing into our congregational worship. (To be clear, the Bible does not say we must sing Psalms in congregational worship, but since that is where Christians learn to sing, it was a matter of practical necessity. And anyway, it just makes sense — if we become a Psalm-singing people, then wouldn’t it be natural for us to sing the Psalms when we come together to sing?)

My first problem was, how do I even do that? When I open my Bible to the Psalms, nothing I see there suggests that I would sing them. There’s no music. The lyrics don’t look like lyrics, or have a rhythm to them. I could handle re-translating the Hebrew into something more like song lyrics…barely…but even if I could handle the lyrics, I’m not a songwriter. I clearly didn’t have the resources to do this all by myself. So I began to look around for help.

I found out that not all the branches of the Church had forsaken Psalm-singing. Some of the older traditions had retained a tradition of chanting the Psalms from very early times. It doesn’t sound anything like a song to modern ears, and I was certainly not going to be able to introduce it into congregational worship, but it was a start. Some other traditions recovered Psalm-singing during the Protestant Reformation: I discovered the Genevan Psalter, the Scots Free Church, and some others. Some of these traditions refused to use musical instruments. Some of them were committed to singing the Psalms exclusively. I disagreed with them on both of these points, but what they had to offer was still helpful. I didn’t need to agree with them on everything to profit from their obedience in an area where I had been disobedient.

I quickly discovered that I was not a good judge of what was going to work and what wasn’t. Some of what these other communities had to offer was a terrible fit for us — musically bad, poor translations, or just not singable. I mostly discovered what wouldn’t work by trying it. In the beginning, everything we did was clumsy. Let’s be honest — we were bad at this. Of course we were — we’ never done it before. We had to just keep going and trust that God would bless our faithfulness. He did, and we got better. Over time, we gained skill, and noticed that some things worked better than others — so we dumped what wasn’t working, and kept what was.

Over time, God blessed our faithfulness. God gave me access to some good musicians, and together we began to develop a corpus of singable work. We began to gain some strategies for consistently getting good music. One of the better ones was finding time-tested folk tunes, then translating Psalm lyrics to match the meter of the folk tune. We got some really good, really singable music that way. Over time, we began to be good judges (in advance) of what would work and what wouldn’t. We still don’t have the whole Psalter rendered in good poetry and good music (yet), but we have about a third of it in a form that’s poetically good, understandable, and singable. And we keep adding to the body of work.

Coming back to healing ministry, here are some lessons from the Psalm-singing experience that I expect to apply:

  1. I can’t do this all myself. I don’t know what I’m doing. My whole tradition doesn’t know what it’s doing.
  2. Our first attempts at obedience are going to be bad. (And some of them have been!) We will be clumsy and unskilled and ineffective. But God will be kind to us, and we will get better with practice.
  3. It’s not enough to cover myself with a verse and say I’m being obedient; it has to actually work. In the beginning I will be a terrible judge of what will work, so I’m just going to have to try different things and see. But I need to pay attention to the results.
  4. “It’s not working” is not a reason to give up. We can’t get more effective at something we’re not even trying. We keep going, and trust God to reward our obedience with increased skill and discernment. I’m not going to pray, “God, please show me how to be awesome at this, and then I will start trying to obey.” I’m going to pray, “God, I’m trying as best I can to be obedient. Please bless my honest attempts and guide me into more skillful obedience.”
  5. Not every branch of the Church’s family tree will be as sterile as mine in this area. Other Christians will have retained or rediscovered obedience, and they will have things that can help me. Those Christians will have their own areas of disobedience, misunderstanding, legalism, and so on. But I don’t have to agree with them on everything to profit from their obedience in this area.
  6. Not all the resources I need will be inside the Church. Folk culture tends to preserve things that work, even in areas where the Church isn’t really paying any attention.

There are probably some other lessons in there, too, but these are the ones that occur to me right now.


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.


Touched by an Angel

10 May 2018

In Daniel 10, we read a fascinating account of spiritual ministry. Daniel has mourned for His people and prayed for three weeks. At the end of the three weeks, an angelic being confronts him in a vision (the other men with him were terrified, but saw nothing).

As the angel began to speak, Daniel lost all strength and fell on his face to the ground. The angel touched him the first time, which made him tremble. The angel explained his presence there, and why he had been delayed for three weeks. All this while, Daniel is on his face, trembling, unable to speak.

Then an angel touched his lips, and he was able to speak. He told the angel that the vision he’s seen has so overwhelmed him that he’s unable to function. “Then again one having the likeness of a man touched me and strengthened me.” (Daniel 10:18)

Daniel tells the angel he’s been strengthened, and the angel begins to tell Daniel more about the future, which is found in Daniel 11.

For me, the point of interest here is how the angel (a “ministering spirit sent to minister to those who will inherit salvation,” as Hebrews puts it) ministered to Daniel. He touched him. This particular ministering spirit may or may not have even had a physical body (recall that those who were with Daniel couldn’t see the angel he saw). But this spirit being made contact with Daniel, and had a physical effect each time.

The first touch made Daniel tremble; the second touch on his mouth made him able to speak; the third strengthened him. I have seen touch have these effects, and I have directly administered two of the three.

So it was fun to see affirmation of what God has done through me in the Scriptures. Not that I had doubts — I take a “if you can’t believe the words, believe the works” approach to the surprising things God does — but it’s fun to see it in a verse. And useful, for the skeptics among us.


Corporeal Glory

3 May 2018

As I re-engage with this blog, I find myself wanting to give greater attention to anthropology and a practical focus on Christian physicality. This is the first of a number of planned posts on the subject.

Christian theology has had –- at best –- a very ambivalent relationship with the body over the centuries. When Nietszche sneered at “despisers of the body,” his arrow did not fly wide of the mark. What makes this so pathetic is that the ambivalence, and downright antipathy, are completely unjustifiable.

God made Adam and Eve (with bodies!), then looked back at all He had made and saw that it was “very good.” No exception clause for the bodies, I notice…

Of course, the historical comeback is that creation is all well and good, but that was before the Fall.  The dissenters have a point here, sort of.  After the Fall, the body is dead.  However, that fact, as important as it is, doesn’t seem to affect the inherent dignity of the body. When David praises God because he is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” he’s not talking about some prelapsarian state, but his own personal experience; when Solomon writes his Song, he takes a downright exuberant view of the pleasures of the flesh. (Ecclesiastes too: depressive commentators notwithstanding, the book is about how to enjoy earthly pleasures without worshiping — and thereby ruining — them.)

When we come to Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” All by itself, that single sentence goes a long way toward vindicating the body. In an instant, it sweeps away all gnostic and Platonic denigration of matter in general, and the body in particular.  Even better, the physical resurrection of Christ (as the prototype of our resurrection) carries the body, redeemed and perfected, into eternity. The closing chapters of the Bible describe the bright vision that God always intended for His creation: a perfected, corporeal humanity ruling a recreated, perfected earth as vassal kings under the King of Kings, in perfect harmony with God and each other.

That is not the end of history.  In many ways, it’s only the beginning.  Genesis 1:28-30 describes God’s design for the world He made.  Genesis 3 describes our rebellion against our design parameters.  Everything from Genesis 4 to Revelation 20 is about fixing that.  When it’s fixed, then — and only then — does human history begin to move in the direction that God set forth in Genesis 1.

Another way of putting it: Revelation 21-22 is “the end of the world,” but it is no more the end of history than Genesis 6-9.  As in the days of Noah, the existing world will perish, and the new world awaits.  As Noah and his family founded civilization as we know it today, so we — God’s elect — will join with Christ in founding the civilization of the world to come.  Obviously, the founding of it is only the beginning.

And it’s all gloriously corporeal.

A biblical view of history portrays the body as part and parcel of being human, every bit as bound up in human destiny as the soul and spirit. That viewoffers no shelter whatsoever to the notion that the body is a prison, or an impediment that will one day be cast aside for the purity of life as a disembodied spirit. Centuries of dyspeptic and flabby theologians have heaped abuse, insult, and degradation upon the body, and there’s just no excuse for it.

A slightly less demeaning, and more subtle, form of that error talks of the body as if it is the “earth suit” that the “real person” — i.e., the immaterial man — wears temporarily.  Proponents of this error will point to Paul’s reference to the mortal body as “this tent” in 2 Corinthians 5:4.  They should read the whole passage, in which Paul describes the disembodied state as nakedness, and makes it quite clear that his earnest desire is not to shed this body, but to be clothed with the resurrection body (which, by the way, is made of this one — see 1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

Operating on that foundation, the believer has every reason to regard the body as a gift to be enjoyed to the hilt; fallen and imperfect to be sure, but those problems are only temporary. God made our bodies to move, and to enjoy being moved well. The proper way to honor that gift is to move well, and eat well, and sleep well on luxuriant sheets with a ridiculously high thread count, and while we’re on the subject of things you do in bed [THIS PORTION CENSORED FOR THE SAKE OF CHILDREN AND PRESBYTERIANS] –and to enjoy it all!