Recently in Theology and Thought Category

The Bad Woman, Part 2

The account in John 8, of the woman caught in adultery, is one about which I have written before, not long ago. But I am drawn to this story like a moth to a flame, and I want to write more about it.

I have puzzled over this, wondering why I find the story so compelling. I have looked for things I may have in common with the woman. It's been an interesting search, with some dead ends: I am not a woman, for example, nor am I an adulterer, at least in the sense of a physical act. If we consider the life of my mind, however....

I had a conversation recently in which someone mentioned a person apparently being created for destruction. The person had died without evidence of a relationship with God, and the conclusion was that the person, though by all accounts a fine man, had been created for destruction and therefore never responded to the gospel.

I have heard this before, and have struggled with it every time.

A bad woman

I have written in the past about God looking at us and seeing only a "bad boy" or "bad girl." About God looking down from heaven and seeing no one worthy of love or acceptance as he shakes his head in disappointment.

I was thinking about this again recently, and remembered an account in the New Testament that is especially interesting in this regard. It's about the woman caught in adultery, recorded in John's gospel (8:1-11).

Uniquely Christian

Recently, I had the privilege of leading a conversation at a retreat for leaders of a business. My topic was vision and mission.

In the conversation, many questions arose, a few of them mine. One of them, which had been gnawing at me for some time, had to do with their business name, which contained the word "Christian."

My question was, "What is it about what you do that makes it 'Christian'? How is what you do different from some 'secular' competitor down the street? Or is calling yourself Christian merely a marketing tool?"

Camping ... in the wilderness?

Some years ago, in an Old Testament class, I decided to write a paper on a theology of wilderness. The professor asked me to explain my reasoning.

I decided to write, I said, because it seems to me that we spend a lot of our time in a wilderness. The place may be spiritual, mental, emotional or relational, but in some important aspect of our lives, we often feel lost. We're wandering who knows where. Perhaps you know what I'm talking about.

"It's obvious that God wants me in this business, and I'm going to put everything I have into it. After all, it's growing, so God is blessing it."

"I know we're going to move away from our friends and faith community, but I'm certain it's God's will, since he opened the door on such a good deal on a house and property in the country."

These are quotes from people who have explained to me why they were doing something that I thought was detrimental to their spiritual welfare. "The door is open, so it must be God's will that I walk through it."

"I thank God for the day he saved me from a life of sin and degradation, when I was five years old."

A little funny, right? My mother, however, with seven boys, might not have seen the humor. In fact, it's the actual testimony of a young man, given at a church.

While it's admittedly a little extreme - degradation at age five? - it reflects something of a concept of "salvation" that's very common in American churches. It's the "when I die I'm going to heaven but meanwhile just live like everyone else and hope heaven doesn't come too soon" syndrome. It's the idea that the focus of the gospel and our salvation is that some day we will go to "heaven," wherever and whatever that is. And there, we will ... do what? No idea. Our thinking doesn't go that far.

Is God with us...

Among the many fascinating events in scripture, I think often of the account in Exodus 33, where Moses is talking with God about God's presence with Israel. The issue is how people around them will know that Israel is really God's people. What sets them apart from all the rest? Here's part of the passage:

Then he said to Him, "If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here. For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?" (v. 15-16 NASB)

Christian? What's that?

The question of who is a Christian is a good one, I think. I have struggled long with it. In America, at least, the word is so broadly used as to be meaningless. I have had folks tell me that they were Christians, of course, because they weren't Jews or Muslims or any of the others, so what else would they be? Others say they attend church more or less regularly and are nice people who don't do nasty things, so they are Christians. Still others say they believe in Jesus, and therefore are Christians, though they are not part of a local church and their lives are unremarkable.

Science fiction made real

Do you ever wonder where heaven is? Not the sky kind of heaven, but the place where God lives. Where is it? We often speak of it being "up" there. Somewhere. But of course that's not possible, since "up" is different from any point on the globe. Many people say they expect to be with God when they die. But where is that and what does it look like? Hard to say, it seems.

Besides the logical problems with the common answers, another concern with the 'up there' or 'out there' concept is that it makes God distant and separated from us and our world, our reality.

The greatest gift

I found myself puzzling over a question that I thought was a simple one. "What is God's greatest gift to us?"

Easy, right?

Of course, the answer that most often pops immediately to mind is Jesus. But I don't think that's the best answer.

I have written before of the movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." I consider it one of the most profoundly thought-provoking films I have seen. In a compelling true story, it raises questions about the quality and purpose of life.

Lately, I have been thinking - again - about the basic question it raises: What constitutes a quality life? It's not an easy question, but it's one I think is worth consideration now and again.

Reading the story of numbers

It's been a while since I have written, and no doubt some have been sighing in relief, thinking "good thing." And some others have perhaps thought I should write more. Perhaps.

It's been a difficult time, and I have been uncertain what to write. But here I am. I am apparently incapable of keeping quiet for long.

Words or power: Talk is cheap

I recently saw a post on Facebook, asking why the modern American church seldom sees miracles. It's an interesting question, and I suspect asking ten people will bring ten different answers. But I want to add my voice to the "chorus," because I think the chorus is mostly wrong. I think scripture and history are pretty clear about this matter.

I used to know some folks who, upon encountering some evil thing or person, would begin repeating "in the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus," like some sort of mantra, something that would magically repel the devil.

I chose not to join in. I never saw much good come from their practice. Magic words don't work. Ask the seven sons of Sceva in Acts.

There is another form of the Magic Word Club, however, that is more pervasive, and more dangerous. These folks also believe there is some magical power in the name Jesus. But in this case, it's for salvation.

No mistakes? Really?

Have you ever been in one of those conversations about the Bible? You know, the kind where someone claims that the Bible is "without error"? I used to get into those, but have for some years found better things to do. Perhaps you're one of those "someones."

But it's not a bad question. Is the Bible inerrant? Is it trustworthy? Does it have mistakes?

Me? Forgive?

Did you ever read a portion of the Bible, maybe even something you have read many times before, and been stopped in your tracks by it? That happened to me this morning.

While waiting for my breakfast partner to arrive for our customary Sunday morning meeting, I was reading in my Spanish Bible, which makes me think a little differently. I was in John 20, a place I chose because, well, my Bible fell open there.

You might recall the passage. Jesus has risen from the dead, his followers are huddling together in fear behind locked doors, and Jesus just pops in among them. Apparently, he came through the wall or something. But that's for another conversation.

While reading through my Bible, I see places - many places - where God speaks to people: Adam, Moses, Abraham, Samuel, David, Paul and many more. In some cases, he was downright chatty, and there were some fascinating conversations between men and God.

And as I read, I think, "What's so special about these guys, that God talked to them? Were they better than I am?" I just can't see a fundamental difference between us. What sets them apart was that God in most cases called them to some exceptional task for him. They were not in some way intrinsically superior.

I can't count the times in my life I have cried out to God for forgiveness. A depressingly high number. I have lived with an awareness of the depth of my propensity toward sin, and I have sought to be set free from it.

Yet, I have never felt a sense of complete release. It's like God was saying to me, "Okay, I'll forgive you this time, but...." Perhaps you know what I'm talking about. I think it's because that's my tendency toward myself: Conditional forgiveness.

Thoughts on hard places

Do you know the song, "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries"? Well, it's not true. In fact, it's a flat-out lie.

I suspect many of you would look at life and the world around you and agree. For most of the people I know and see in my world, life is difficult, and it involves more pain than we want to think about. It's a long ways from just sitting around enjoying good, sweet fruit.

In hard times, especially the ones that seem to have no end, I sometimes wonder what part God plays in this mess. Is he even in it? Can these things really come from a loving, sovereign God, a part of his will?

...the desires of my heart

Have you ever been puzzled by a scripture verse, wondering what it means, and if God is really true to his word? I mean, there seem to be cases where the Bible makes a promise or a statement of cause and effect, but it doesn't seem to work very well in life.

I have made a career of wondering and asking God what's up with this. One of my favorite hang-ups used to be from Psalm 37:4: "Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desires of your heart." You, too?

In my library, I have several books from the business world, mostly best-sellers. Generally, they are about how to achieve excellence in business. How to be the best.

I am not in the business world and have little interest in being there, but I believe there are principles that apply anywhere: business, life, and church. And that's my interest: How do we live and act with excellence, especially as followers of Jesus?

Success or...

Last night I was listening to someone pray, and was surprised at what I heard. The guy was praying about me, and he spoke of the blessing I have been, the lives that have been touched and the people who have grown through me.

Well. What do I do with that? Surely he can't be talking about the same person I see in the mirror every morning. I was taken aback, and I have no idea what he's talking about, or who or where these people are.

Accidentally unforgiven?

I was reading this morning in Matthew 12, about the "unforgiveable sin." It brought back a flood of memories, and some disturbing questions.

When I was a kid - and probably longer than I want to think about after that - I heard about and read about this sin, and I had no idea what it meant to "blaspheme" the Holy Spirit. But it was clear that anyone guilty of it was in a heap o' trouble, and I didn't want to go there.

I was recently in a conversation about the value of religion in general and Christianity in particular. It was an interesting discussion, and some good questions came up. One, in particular, I want to address here: Why does anyone need religion, and why, especially, should anyone become a Christian?

I'll begin with a caveat that this is a subjective response: I am talking about why it makes sense to me that religion is necessary, and that Christianity, for good reasons, some fairly objective and others quite personal, is not only the best choice, but the only good choice. Christianity is unique, and everything else fails careful examination. Also, I have made no attempt at some logical order or arrangement. I'm writing as things come to me.

A lesson from antiquity

When I ask people what is their favorite portion of scripture, I usually get an answer that has to do with individual salvation, such as John 3:16 or some other verse that reassures us of God's love for us.

When I am asked for my favorite, I have a hard time choosing. I love the interaction between God and Moses at the burning bush in Exodus, and I think the accounts of the conversations between Moses and God on Sinai are fascinating, sometimes very funny. Hard to pick just one.

There's a question that bothers me a lot. I have struggled with it for years. It's about sufficiency. It's about what I think is enough for my life to be satisfying, for me to say I have lived a life that has meant something. What's enough?

It's not as easy a question as I once thought. At one time, I would have answered that if I could only know God, to be in his presence and enjoy him, it would be enough. Nothing else would matter. After all, what more could I ask after that?

'I was robbed!'

Perhaps like many of you, I grew up in a white, middle-class, suburban American family. We were not really typical, but we did fit some of the mold. We attended a conservative, evangelical church, and I was shaped by that environment, as was our entire home life.

At our church, I learned "Christianity" as a set of truisms and principles to which I was expected to give mental assent. And as a result, I would, of course, live according to a certain standard of conduct: I would not drink, smoke, cuss or chew. Neither would I play cards or attend most movies. You perhaps know the routine. It was more a cultural than a spiritual thing.

The Joys of Secularism

I just listened to an interview with one Sam Harris, posted on the CNN website, about how "we" should ditch religion. Religion, he says is not a good tool for making moral decisions, and modern science works much better.

I also saw some comments on Facebook about this, about what a wonderfully clear thinker Harris is, and how more people should think like him. So I want to post some thoughts from a different perspective. Perhaps they will start a conversation.

Is it really good news?

Yesterday I attended one of the "12 Conversations in 12 Cities" leading up to the Lausanne meeting in October in Capetown, South Africa. The focus was the relationship between the church, the gospel and social justice. A panel of respected Christian thinkers and leaders interacted on some difficult questions, and it was a good and worthwhile time.

Listening, the basic question came to me: What, exactly, is the gospel? I think some of our problem is that we have failed to fully understand this term with all its implications. Some refer to a "social gospel" while others hold to a "spiritual gospel."

Options: Grow or die

I love the church. I have little patience with those who are anti-"organized religion," or even more, who claim to be Christians but choose to have nothing to do with a local congregation. They are disobedient children at best, spiritual whores at worst.

The church - the organized manifestation of the people of God - has problems. It is by no means perfect. But the same can be said about every alternative. It's universally true simply because the presence of people means the presence of problems. And this principle is further compounded because these particular people - the people of God - have an active enemy committed to their destruction.

A puzzlement

God is a God of justice. Therefore, how could he arbitrarily designate certain people as "created for destruction"?

Justice or mercy

God provided the means to satisfy his justice, so that he could exercise his mercy. That means was Jesus.

The Shack

Well, I finally did it. I finally got a copy of The Shack, and sat down to read it. When it comes to fiction, I am not on the cutting edge of things. But some folks have asked me to read it and respond. In fact, they asked me back when the book first came out, years ago. So, promptly answering the call of friendship, here it is.

I confess I am not much of a reader of fiction. It's not that I don't like it, but that I have so much other stuff to read, I just don't have time. But I was up to my eyeballs in the theology book I was reading, and needed something "light." So I picked up The Shack.

My first concern was that I would lose interest and not finish. That didn't happen. I read through it in less than 48 hours.

So was it Jesus...?

It's funny, the things you can find in scripture sometimes. Like last night, in a discussion centered on Jude, I was reading along in verse 5. Perhaps you know the place: "But I want to remind you, though you once knew this, that the Lord, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe."

Though I have read this passage many times, last night I first noticed that "Lord" is not in small caps. Significance?

Some Roman nuggets

For years, Paul's letter to the Romans has been a puzzle. Paul would never have passed a freshman composition course. It's hard to read his long, meandering sentences and follow his often convoluted thoughts. I suspect I'm not the only one with that sort of story about Paul, but I'm willing to cut him some slack. He is, after all, more than any other person, responsible for the shape of Christianity.

One of the portions that made me crazy was Chapter 5. There's so much to say about this chapter, it's hard to know where to begin. Let's start by talking about this idea of exulting in tribulations.

Life or death

"The choice before us isn't just whether or not to listen to our Scriptures and place our faith in [Jesus]. The choice is whether or not to have any meaning and fulfillment in our lives. That's why Moses told us, shortly before we entered the Promised Land, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

You are chosen. Will you heed the call?"

by Avi Snyder, writing in Issues, published by Jews for Jesus.

Jesus said we would always have poor people among us. In a broken world such as ours, it seems a fact of life. But should it be? Is it necessary that most of the world struggles simply to survive? That children die by thousands for lack of clean water? That "poor" in America equals "rich" in much of the world?

It's true, you know. There is appalling pain and hardship around the world. And the American church - the wealthiest church in history - is making only a small dent in the problem. This is not a good thing.

I can't begin to count the times I have heard or been in conversations about the Law. That's the Law of Moses, as in the Ten Commandments - and a lot more.

Some say the Law is no longer valid. But then others respond, "So, you mean it's okay to murder, steal and chase your neighbor's wife?" Well, no, comes the reply. Of course not.

Others say the Law is still in effect, and we are obligated to keep it. But then some respond, "So, you mean we're supposed go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices?" Well, no, is the reply. Of course not.

What life is good enough?

I know who I'm not, but who am I?

Periodically, I find myself wanting to watch a movie. Not just any movie. I'm not really a film buff, and don't watch many. But this is for a specific movie, a relatively old one that I originally thought had a pretty stupid story line. The movie is "The Kid," starring Bruce Willis. It's about a 40-year-old man meeting his 8-year-old self and learning who he really is.

The Leadership Imperative

Last night was our house church meeting. It's a night I normally look forward to, but this time the events of the evening left me deeply disturbed. What happened raised in my mind questions of what things characterize Christians. How are Christians - the people of God - different?

There was some discussion about living as a Christian - mostly things Christians do not do. And it's evident, I think, that socially and personally destructive practices should have no place in the life of God's people.

But I have been concerned that "Christians" very often define themselves by what they do not do, or do not believe. The world sees Christians as people who are against everything fun, interesting, or pleasurable. Christians often come across as colorless, bland and boring people who have little or nothing positive to say about anything.

If you died right now...?

If you died right now, would you go to heaven?

Have you ever heard that question? Ever asked it? When I was growing up in a wound-very-tight fundamentalist church, that question was at the heart of "witnessing." It was at the heart of "the gospel." We were expected to ask The Question of people we encountered. Few of us did that, but that's another matter.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting question. If I died right now, what would happen to me? What happens to anyone at the end of this life? Is our ultimate destination heaven? Hell? Neither? Does the Bible care? Should we?

A "Spirit-ual" Puzzle

I've been reading N.T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope. It's a fascinating read, about heaven, resurrection and the mission of the church. The premise is that we can't understand the mission or purpose of the church - that's you and me - without understanding heaven and resurrection. And of course, heaven and resurrection can't be addressed without considering the book of Revelation, one of the most fascinating of biblical books. Some years back, I read Eugene Peterson's Reversed Thunder, the best book I have read on Revelation.

So Bishop Wright got me thinking about Revelation again, and I decided to read it once more. It's not going smoothly. Even in the first chapter, I get hung up on things I have read many times, but that now make me stop and say, "What does that mean, anyway?"

Jesus likes me! Really!

If there was ever a question with a predictable answer - at least among Christians - here it is: "Does God love me?" Of course He does. God loves everyone, doesn't He? I mean, we all know there's only one acceptable answer to the question. Even if we don't really believe the answer.

A more interesting question might be, "Does God like me?" That, as they say, is "a whole 'nother matter."

As I have asked people these two questions, invariably they answer, without hesitation, yes, God loves me. But very often, when I ask the second question, they get a distant look, sort of a sad expression, and shaking their head, they say, "No, I don't think so."

In my last two posts, I have written, first, about the powerless church, a church that is increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly secularized America. Then, I wrote of the first step in renewing the church, bringing it to life, the first step in becoming a credible factor in society: reclaiming the gospel.

But there's another question - a big one - as yet unanswered: How does all this happen? How does the church reclaim the gospel - the whole, biblical, life-transforming gospel? And how does the church go from being "just words" to living out life-transforming power? How do we move from being an irrelevant subculture of more-or-less nice people to a community of radically committed followers and representatives of Jesus?

I think there are two major factors: our concept of God, and leadership.

Friday, I had a pleasant evening, with dinner at a small Mediterranean place near our home, followed by a movie, Evan Almighty. The dinner was passably good, but the movie, to my surprise, touched me deeply, and has had me thinking ever since.

The story is about a guy, Evan, who is out to change the world, and who gets elected to Congress on that platform. His life is radically rearranged when God takes his "change the world" talk seriously, and gives him a job to do: build an ark.

What a week!

Good Friday, the worst/best Friday ever.

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:17-20).

What does this passage mean? I don't think it's all that obvious.

To live or to die

I was listening to a sermon Sunday, and suddenly the phrase "grain of wheat" struck me and wouldn't go away. I have been struggling with the adjustment from employment to retirement. It's the hardest adjustment I have ever faced. Going from a lifetime of challenging jobs, supervising people, solving problems, having a purpose and goal every day, to...what?

Now nobody cares if I get up in the morning. Nobody cares how I spend my day. And from my perspective, the matter of my own significance is undecided. I want to be significant. I want my life to matter, to make a difference. It's too hard not to have something important as the outcome.

Reality or imagination?

Sometimes I struggle with reality. Know what I mean? It's not that I'm hallucinating or anything like that. And I have never used mind-altering substances, even without inhaling. Yet I struggle. It's not that reality is hard to take, though the shape the world's in isn't very encouraging. The problem is in knowing what is reality: What's really real?

My problem is wondering if my idea of what it means to know God and follow Jesus is all just wishful thinking. Am I just off in Loonieland, all by myself?

God's silence revisited

Back in October, I posted an article about God's silence. I want to revisit the subject, because I think it's a badly misunderstood topic for most modern western Christians. Here's some of what I wrote originally:

"Where is God? I mean, if God is everywhere, as theologians teach, and if God loves me deeply and wants a relationship of intimacy with me, as theologians also teach, where is he? I talk, talk, talk to him, and he is ... where? He says nothing. The conversation is decidedly one-sided."

A while back I posted a piece on the question, "If all that is permitted to you in this life is to truly know God, is that enough?" The question came out of watching the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."I have struggled mightily with the question since.

I would like to say, of course, that knowing God is central in my life and there is nothing to compare with it. Of course my answer would be yes. But I had trouble saying it without feeling like I wasn't really being honest.

And yet, the longing of my heart is to truly know God and to serve him. What's the problem?

Is God done with me? Part 1

I had a conversation recently with a friend, someone who is very bright and is by any definition an achiever. My friend - a scientist - is now more than fully occupied with the non-science demands of raising a family. And my friend - while understanding the importance and privilege of shaping young lives - struggles with missing the mental challenges and the sense of fulfillment that comes from using a very good mind in one's chosen field.

I well understand the situation. As they say, "Been there, done that." And I don't like it. I struggle with it.

Knowing God and knowing we know

Knowing God is an interesting subject. So is knowing about God. But the two are clearly not the same. My guess is that a large majority of people who claim to know God would, on careful consideration, be found to know about God, but not to know God to any significant degree. And probably a large majority of self-identified Christians would say they do not "know" God. They would likely be correct.

Every now and then, something will come to my attention that I find somewhat startling. Often, these things prompt questions that some folks consider outrageous or worse, but that response doesn't bother me. After all, what's life without a little controversy now and then? Boring.

Here's what I noticed, and I wonder about the significance of it.

The silent God

Where is God? I mean, if God is everywhere, as theologians teach, and if God loves me deeply and wants a relationship of intimacy with me, as theologians also teach, where is he? I talk, talk, talk to him, and he is ... where? He says nothing. The conversation is decidedly one-sided.

What shall we do to be saved?

Is there such a thing as a saved Unitarian? I mean, can one not believe in the Trinity and be a follower of Jesus?

I just read - not for the first time - that among fundamental beliefs necessary to calling oneself a Christian is the teaching that God is trinitarian: One God existing in three coequal persons.

But I struggle with this. Everyone struggles with the Trinity, which is beyond difficult to understand completely, but I struggle with making it a requirement.

Loading tweets:

Follow us on Twitter!

  • Larry Baden said:
      Poonam, My apologies for the long delay in replying to your comments....
  • Poonam Rai said:
      I just wonder why the man with whom the woman was caught up in the ac...
  • Larry Baden said:
      Hello Johanes, I'm not certain I understand your comment, but it seem...
  • yohanes wonde said:
      hi LARRY BADEN i am fond in a big problem I belief am not in choice o...
  • Larry Baden said:
      George, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. As for your 'humor,' well......
  • Larry Baden said:
      Truth, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I especially like the last se...
  • Truth Told said:
      Looking into the account of the adulterous woman it is easy to see tha...
  • George Fowler said:
       Jesus said: “He who is without sin, cast the first stone”. A rock ca...
  • Martin Rudd said:
      Remember what our Lord and Saviour said. "Its not my will that any sho...
  • Thomas Hatfield said:
       I realize that a humain being has to make difficult decisions in ther...

home quodlibet journal theo blog sermons theology e-texts church history forum home