Monday, December 19, 2011

Jesus without strings: parsing the phrase (2)

This is a phrase I used a few days ago in my update on The Gathering's activities through 2011, and then initially described in simple terms in my first defining post. That first post identified with human expectations typically found in churches, which differ from the outline of Biblical morality and foundational beliefs which accompany the life of faith. Yet, I do believe that there are deeper issues of theology to be considered in the phrase "Jesus without strings."

In the tension of law and grace, or perhaps better described - in the void between law and lawlessness - there is a Jesus without strings.

Law is an outward force imposing not only definition, but impetus, persuasion, and even physical behavior modification techniques upon people. It is a subtle puppet master over us. The pull of a state law imposes fines, brings police action, and renders judgments when we transgress its defined lines of behavior. It is needed in a broken world, but as current events evidence, it is often oppressive. This is significantly different than grace.

Grace is an inward force. It is both an acceptance by God offered to us, and a power and understanding residing within us. Grace is not strings attached from the outside modifying behavior by threat of punishment, but a gentle action of volition. We connect to that which is good through love, and agreement with the activity of grace.

Grace is further empowering, because God is on the other side of the participatory equation. He gives power to accomplish the things we can not find the ability to complete on our own.

This agreement of love further cuts the strings of the law, because, as the apostle Paul describes it "against [love and the other fruit of the Spirit] there is no law." The love/grace combination stand as the void between law and disobedience or selfish rebellion.

Perhaps we have unfortunately positioned grace and law as opposites of one another in our theology. Whereas the opposite of law is probably unrestrained freedom or violent *anarchy. The love/grace combo stand in the space between law and its violation. Grace and law are in paralaxis to another. There is no place on the line accessing movement toward God where grace and law meet one another.

From an eschatological perspective: Jesus does not drag me toward salvation like a puppet being pulled toward a destination unwanted. I walk with Him in the direction of His deep desire. Grace is resistible (sorry Johnny C, I disagree with the L on your little flower). Paul speaks of this grace as having appeared to all men, and yet we do not all live in it. "For the grace of God which bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men." (Titus 2:11)

The very resistible nature of grace shows how unrelated to law it is. It is not an opposite of law. It is something totally other. Like trying to compare apples and nuclear weapons there are only dissimilarities. There are no similarities. They are something completely different from one another. Grace is sustenance for the hungry soul. It is picked as well as provided. It grows without our understanding the mechanics of its development. Law on the other hand brings a scorched earth perspective to obedience - obey or suffer the consequences. It is complicated as it attempts to head off all the creative activities of sin and selfishness. It is unbending and threatening. It is necessarily held together by human activity as we regulate the actions of one another to keep it working.

The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom as we imagine this world's kingdoms to be. It is not driven by force. It does not drag its subjects kicking and screaming through its gates. Jesus does not work me like a marionette to bring me into His kingdom. He is indeed, "Jesus without strings."

Grace being so significantly different than law has radical implications on church life and Christian leadership. Those who are understand those implications will also understand how it relates to the phrase "messy church," and how that phrase is a positive one. But, that's a whole other set of posts. (insert a smirk and a wink)

* I have purposely phrased this as "violent anarchy," because I view grace as a type of anarchy. It is something which law has no connection or necessary interaction with.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Jesus without strings: parsing the phrase

 I used the phrase "Jesus without strings" in my yearly update on the activities of the The Gathering, and it seemed appropriate to parse the phrase, and describe what I was thinking when I rather loosely released it.

"With strings attached" is a phrase used to describe an offer, which once presented does not come alone, but has hidden expectations or demands attached to it.

Christianity often appears to come with strings attached, and many people have felt that these strings were hidden strings. The message of the Gospel comes with the declaration of being a free offer: salvation by grace through faith. Then with a few days, weeks, maybe even years of attempting to follow the way of Jesus, there appear to be expectations from the community of that same faith which seem disconnected from a personal relationship with Christ.

Specific doctrinal points rise up as speed bumps in the road of faith. One is forced to agree with these points of belief or have a bumpy ride. When and how Jesus returns; whether we are "once saved always saved" or there is a possibility of walking away from Christ; doctrines of spiritual warfare and the activity of the devil; minute details concerning the sovereignty of God; or views of Heaven and Hell become major points upon which our ability to fellowship with one another is determined.

Political orientation often pulls hard to the left or to the right as an attached string, which appears to decide the depth of one's commitment as a follower of Christ. Those on the right (of American political thought) view those on the left as immoral or controlling. Those on the left view those on the right as equally immoral on different issues, or stupid. Somehow it suddenly appears that political affiliation, or special interest issues are critical to living a life of faith within many communities of faith.

Other strings have a moral force. Behavior modification is enforced and even things unrelated to basic Christian morality somehow become necessary to a life of faith. Don't wear this. Don't go here or there. Don't eat or drink this or that. Don't hang out with those kinds of people. The initial call of the Gospel turns into a community acceptance list, as once hidden strings begin to reveal themselves.

In saying this, I am not saying that there are not foundational important issues of faith. I am not saying that there are not political issues of concern to the heart of God, or that our behavior should not be modified by our faith. I am saying that doctrine, politics and behavior are not the path into our life in Christ, and should not be the primary points of maintaining a relationship with God and His people.

I also do not believe that person of Jesus attaches strings to us in the way a puppet master manages the actions of his marionettes. I admit, I have a fairly radical view of freedom, and very low view of determinism. Although there are points of our human experience which predetermine our position in life, our response to specific situations, or our ability to succeed, these are not by any means a micro-management of our behavior. They do not give evidence of a God who manipulates the minor details of life, or forces our hand to control our daily actions, choices, emotions and thought. The hand of God does not come with puppet master strings attached.

For me, my faith comes with a radical sense of freedom, and with that freedom great potential and - dare I say, with the possibility of being misunderstood as contradictory - personal responsibility.

Yet, this Christian faith, once understood at a simple level, should have no other strings attached. I yearn for such a faith in a local experience - one without strings attached.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Pastoral Response to the Occupy Movement

Tomorrow evening, my friends and I will go to Occupy Boston in Dewey Square. Our goal is to serve hot cocoa, and offer free dream interpretation* to the people who have been camping there for weeks. We have checked with them, and found that our visit will be welcomed, and should not be a problem with law enforcement - though Dennis is not worried about potential arrest - he likes adventure.

As far as OccupyWS goes: today is a day of action in New York. There is a live feed of arrests going on, and at this moment (10:00am) there are more than 20,000 people viewing the live feed of what is happening in New York. Today was a call for non-violent action and a show of solidarity after the recent eviction from Liberty Park a few days ago.

This movement doesn't seem to be going away, and driving them out of the parks across the nation hasn't seemed to end its momentum. There is a need for pastoral response, because this is worldwide now, and is on our doorsteps. My little city of Salem, MA (pop. 40,000) has a tiny but existing Occupy Salem group. Your city might well have one too.

Occupy Wall Street started as a call to bring economic justice to a corrupt system. The bankers have acted corruptly with the blind help of the government, and then get bailed out of financial trouble. Their debts are erased. They get bonuses. The small guy on Main Street keeps his debt. They are too big to fail. We are too small to be concerned about. Or so, the thinking goes with many of the people who are part of the protest happening with Occupy Wall Street.

On the flip side violence has been occurring - on both sides. Police brutality is being regularly broadcast on YouTube, and Occupy protesters have similarly been acting out. Of course, the problem is that all the police get accused of the wrong from a few bad actions, and all of the protesters are accused of being in the wrong because of a few trouble makers, who may not even be with them in many cases. This is a mess, but then righting the wrongs of a corrupt system almost always requires messy action.

So, what do we as Christians do? These are my thoughts:

1) support justice - if it is on the part of the police I support justice. If it is on the part of the protesters I support justice. The problem now is that it is often on the side of both simultaneously, and thus we fall into a conundrum. Who do we support?

2) support the oppressed - God does, and so should we. The protesters are responding to the fact that the person on Main Street has been losing their shirts to the people on Wall Street. Could it be that public opinion and democracy (rule of the people - even though we are a modified democracy run through a federalist system) is calling the federal system into accountability? Could it be that we have been stolen from? Are our taxes going to things we don't approve of, thereby creating the same struggle which started our nation - taxation without representation? This is how people are beginning to feel. Whether we agree or not, we should stand with them in their concern, or find a way to minister with them in their fears.

3) support the right to speak up and take action - as long as violence is not the goal, our support should be behind honest public expression, in both public assembly and protest against injustice.

4) support truth - which means you will have to dig a little and have on open mind, because in a war of words everyone is saying they hold the truth, and the people you disagree with may have valid points you should hear.

5) This may not mean I have to set up my tent in Boston, Portland, New York or MyCity USA; but it does mean that we should seek to understand - even if we disagree. Our battles are not with this world. Sometimes the battle does go to the streets, like it did for the civil rights movement. Sometimes it does not. Where you stand in this movement attempting to create a non-violent worldwide protest is your decision. Coming to an unbiased desire to understand what is now becoming a worldwide movement is our necessary destiny as followers of the Prince of Peace.

Those are my thoughts. Probably will get me some flack, but then again we are not here to run away and hide, but to be salt and light. Sometimes both hurt a little - like salt to a cut on the lip, and bright light to eyes just waking up.

* As far as the dream interpretation: This is something we do in Salem, MA through the year, but especially for the tourists who come to Salem by the hundreds of thousands each October. We figure if was an ability and gift used by Daniel and Joseph that God is still capable of using His people to do it today.

Friday, November 11, 2011

11-11-11, and my thoughts on the date

Yesterday was my birthday. Today is a date people are excited about because the numbers all line up like planets from the edge of our solar system towards the sun, or ducks in a row in a carnival shooting game.

Many people are excited because they see it a a sign of a new beginning.

Here is what the numbers mean to me:

11-11-11 is the day after my birthday, so today just might be a new beginning. It is a new year for me, and the beginning of the "rest of my life" as my good friend Hope called it. Last night, Chris, who is one of the more prescient people I know (I made up a new word and called him a "premonator") said that he felt that this was going to be a year of...

Pause to mention: (and as I now glance at the clock on my computer it says 3:33)

...very good and new things. Melissa spoke a blessing to me, and said, "May this year be a year of surprising new adventures for you." Darn, she knows how to speak to my heart! She nailed my greatest hopes for the life of faith.

Now all those things speak of new and wonderful beginnings, just like the numbers do. So, I certainly hope that it all comes to pass. Especially as this new year following my birth-day initiates itself with these magical looking numbers - that would make a great story to write about next year.

Yet, being the skeptical follower of Jesus that I am, I do not give much credence to numerology. As Laura, one of my Witch friends said about the dating of the return of Christ, "That sounds like some of the goofy stuff we do." Even she acknowledged the superstitious nature of making numbers into some holy edict or premonition. That's a silly form of magic, like the daily horoscope in the newspaper.

On the other hand, it is possible that God can use numbers to capture our attention, but if we are looking for it like lonely souls running to a dating website (sorry, if that sounds too personal for some of you, I really am not meaning to meddle in your affairs, just making an illustration from life) then likely we will see things which God is not saying, and turn the numbers into superstitious magic.

So, for me this is what the 11-11-11 means today: It is the day after my birthday, and in that sense a new year for me. It is also November eleventh. Well, and that's about the depth I gather from it, but who knows maybe God is speaking something to me, but I am not going to hang all my hopes on 11-11-11.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Guest Post by John Morehead: Who are the Cultural Creatives, and why should Evangelicals Care?

In 2007 I was nearing the end of my seminary training in intercultural studies and I needed to complete my thesis. I had been working in new religions for many years, and studying in Utah it would have been natural for me to focus on something related to Mormonism. But I had, and have, diverse interests, and I wanted to do something different for my MA thesis, something related to my interests in religion and popular culture. Burning Man Festival, a festival and alternative cultural event held in Nevada each year, had been on my radar for some time, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for research and writing. It also gave me an opportunity to attend the event so as to have the experiences necessary to compliment my other research.

Readers might assume that many Evangelical stereotypes about Burning Man were confirmed in my participation in the festival. As one Evangelical website described the event:

The Burning Man is a no-holds-barred New Age “Woodstock” style festival, where neo-pagans, wiccans, transvestite entertainers, and back-slidden Christians go to trance, perform rituals, burn sacrifices to pagan gods and goddesses, dance in the nude, engage in sex, and otherwise “express” themselves and become one with Gaia.

My experience at Burning Man, and subsequent research revealed that this characterization is inaccurate and unfair. Indeed, something culturally and spiritually significant is taking place at Burning Man, and many other Transformational Festivals in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. And they involve a group of people that the church in the West needs to be aware of, engage, and even learn from: the Cultural Creatives.

Many of the participants at Burning Man come from a significant subculture known as the Cultural Creatives. This label is taken from the book of the same title by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (Three Rivers Press, 2001). Ray and Anderson argue that the Cultural Creatives represented “less than 5 percent of the population” in the 1960s, but that since that time they have grown steadily to “26 percent of the adults of the United States,” representing some 50 million people who “have made a comprehensive shift in their worldview, values, and way of life – their culture, in short.” These Cultural Creatives are expressed in two different segments, with the smaller Green group being “more secular and extroverted,” and the Core segment representing “the creative leading edge of the subculture” that includes “[a] huge proportion of published writers, artists, musicians, psychotherapists, environmentalists, feminists, alternative health care providers, and other professionals.” This second segment is more active than the first, and is “concerned about both social justice and the development of an inner life” with an emphasis on “self-actualization, and spirituality.”

The paragraphs above help us understand who the Cultural Creatives are, but for Evangelicals a more pressing question is one of relevancy: why should we care?

First, the Cultural Creatives represent a significant aspect of American and Western life. For those Evangelicals who recognize the need to be culturally aware, as well as relevant, the Cultural Creatives must be understood as an import part of contemporary culture.

Second, the presence of the Cultural Creatives has much to tell us about the nature of the spiritual quest in the Western world in the twenty-first century. In late modernity or postmodernity, there has been a shift in religious meaning-making outside of traditional religious institutions and new structures are being created. Evangelicals who believe the gospel has something meaningful to say within such new spiritual outlets will need to engage the Cultural Creatives.

Third, and perhaps most difficult for Evangelicals to hear, the Cultural Creatives have something to say back to the church in critique that can be constructive for those with ears to hear. If Burning Man Festival can be understood in part as the festive immolation of modernity and Christendom culture, then perhaps it might provide motivation for Evangelical churches to be critically self-reflective. As a result, we might experiment with new forms of community life, artistic expression that speak with renewed credibility, relevancy, and prophetic vision for those seeking new understandings of self, explorations of spirituality, and alternative community.

John W. Morehead is the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies. He blogs at Morehead’s Musings, and is the author of Burning Man Festival: A Life-Enhancing, Post-Christendom “Middle Way” (Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011).

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Drawing Lines of Missional Engagement

I have spent a good deal of time the last 14 years hanging out with neo-Pagans of all sorts: Witches, Druids, Shamans, and others. They are my friends. This is not just some kind of engagement of an evangelical sort, but a deeper relationship of real friendships and respect.

As a Christian pastor this has required me to think about the depth of my interaction with other religious traditions.

The Apostle Paul wrote about handling the subject of being offered a meal when the food was offered to idols first. He navigated the tricky decision of remaining faithful to God, and not trying not to offend those who offered the meal. He seems to indicate that he would eat without reservation as long as it did not require allegiance to other gods, or appear to make others believe that he had given his allegiance over to other gods.

This has become my basic line of engagement with other religions. I will participate with them in activities which do not involve crossing a line of allegiance away from Jesus, or to another god or goddess. In this way, I can be involved with people of other religions without changing my own religion. Paul must have had to act this same way many times as he navigated ministry in the Roman Pagan world.

When you are with your friends who are involved with a spiritual path which is very much unlike your own, how do you respond to times when their religion is being practiced? Do you avoid those moments? Get involved? or simply watch from a distance? and where do you draw your lines of engagement?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Halloween in Salem Begins

Friday evening was Mayor's Night Out in downtown Salem. Participating stores and businesses became a part of it by passing out candy to hundreds of local children who were trick or treating.

Gregg and Jodi, Carlos, Joyce, Mark and Anthea from Cheltenham England, and Jeff from North Carolina were there to help.

The following two days we offered free Dream Interpretation, and a variety of Spiritual Counseling advice and help. Live music was provided on the stage we provide downtown each year.

Jeff estimated the number of people we ministered to on Saturday and Sunday at about 300 people. 14 people - from New York, Pennsylvania, the UK, Carolina, and those of us from Salem were here to reach out to people.

Many of them cried. Some of them expressed their interest in pursuing God more deeply, and many people were thankful for the encounters.

14 people - 300 people in encounters. That's pretty good numbers if we were into counting numbers, but our main interest is individuals being touched by God's gentle love.

3 more weekends to go, and it can only get better, busier and filled with God's grace. Please keep us in your prayers.

If you would like to help support this massive work which is sacrificially being accomplished by a small church in Salem, MA you can do so by donating at

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Our place at Burning Man - Wow. Three days of wow.

We arrived at the gates of Burning Man. Matt and Dennis rolled in the dust, just like all virgins are supposed to do. In fact they were dramatic and fabulous about it. We received our materials, which included maps and information about camps, villages, and events.

Hope started looking through the map of the city, and the location of the art installations. We did not yet know where our art installation would be located. We knew that we were going to be in that barren patch of the desert beyond the open mouth of the somewhat Pacman-looking Burning Man city layout called "deep playa." You can see a slightly heavier dark dot in the beginning of that open area. That is the temple. Everything beyond the temple is "deep playa."

Hope was hunting for our project: The Pillars of the Saints. She let out a little "whoop" if I remember right. We were in deep playa alright, but we were the first installation past the temple on the 12 o'clock line in deep playa.

If you have not been to Burning Man that doesn't mean anything to you. If you have, and if you have done an art installation it does mean something.

It means that we could not possibly have been placed in a better location for what we wanted to do.

When I am trying something for the first time, and it starts that well, I think to myself, "Who the heck am I to get blessed with such favor?" The Gang the Artery in Burning Man: Miss NIK, and Awesome Sauce, and Daniel, and Betty June: You rock. Thanks.

For the next three days I repeatedly was saying things to Hope, Scott, Dennis, and Matt like, "Wow..." (long pause) "I can't believe where they put us."

So, on the third day, the pillars were up, and had a great view of the temple on one side, and the empty desert of deep playa on the other - with great Sunrise views. Perfect for meditation pillars - almost seemed like God organized it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Pillars of the Saints Video

We had such a great time, and so many of the people who experienced the art installation were touched in a positive way. We built the meditation pillars with a 5th century Christian mystic Saint Simeon Stylites in mind. People came to meditate upon the pillars and share their experience by writing what they"heard" upon the walls.

Thanks to all our supporters who helped make this project come to life.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Looking for Tomorrow's Prophets in Today's Madmen - Burning Man 2011

"Yesterday's Madmen have become today's Prophets, Seers and Saints. Today's Madmen...?"

The quote remained unfinished upon the walls of the art installation. This was Burning Man, and the search for people who hear voices ought not to be considered a strange thing in this radical desert festival event of self-sufficiency and self-expression. But of course, even the mad create their own boxes of sanity.

Over the course of the week hundreds - no, I am sure thousands of people visited the site. They stood at the flame altar, they cast the things they felt compelled to surrender, they meditated upon the ten to twelve foot tall pillars, and they shared words which they "heard" by writing in holy graffiti upon the walls.

Some people might tell us that divine inspiration does not come in words. Others might view deity as something distant, unconcerned or perhaps even impersonal.

Caveat writes about his experience with the Pillars in an extremely fictionalized manner. (We know this, because we remember Caveat visiting with his mask.) He defines divinity as having the capacity of a capricious 2 year old, "It doesn’t care about prayers and poetry.  The only words it knows are “yes” and “no.”" Somehow Caveat sees this impersonal "it" divinity only using events like, "dreams and comets, in calls to action and faces suddenly appearing out of the darkness," but words are not part of the domain of the divine.

We thought otherwise, and provided a place for the Divine - God - The Spirit, to speak in words we can communicate with one another. It was a place for people to sit and listen - to sit and learn, to discover the simple things of life - the things we all need to be reminded of, and occasionally even the divine might explode upon us.

I suppose our view of God was larger - more personal, and allowed for dreams, and comets, and masks in the darkness to communicate as well as poetry and prayers. And so the walls were filled with words of a gracious expression - certainly more powerful than limited legalese of "yes" or "no."

We were looking to create an anthropological experiment by asking people who hear voices to do so in an un-moderated manner. Yet, we also believed that the Creator of the universe has the capacity to break into our little lives and speak in ways we can understand, and ways we can communicate to one another. Did this happen? We have hundreds of photos of the all the phrases written upon the walls, and we think it might have occurred. Naturally, that is how a group of five silly Jesus followers might think.

Of course, some of the words are personal expressions of catharsis. Some of the words are ideas people carry every day, but some of the words were too deep for words, and some were transformative and new thoughts to the hearers, and that's why we went to Burning Man with this concept. That's why we will go back next year as well.

But of course, Burning Man is a place where the search for a voice in the wilderness ought not be considered a strange thing. Well, at least not for most, but I say that with a caveat in mind. (wink)

Stories from Burning Man #1 - Jesus was lost, and I found him.

It sounds like a joke, but this is a moment when truth is stranger than fiction. I am told that I am one of those people for whom truth being stranger than fiction is a common event. That thought is both exciting and fearsome, and I am not sure what to do with it, because these things seem all very commonplace and normal to me.

Hope, Dennis (whose playa name should have been "Two Tents") and I arrived at the Pillars of the Saints to prepare ourselves for the coming of the afternoon visitors. It was a hot afternoon as most afternoons on the barren playa can be.

As we parked our bikes behind the pillars, I looked out into the deeper desert of "deep playa." Jesus was walking across the barren landscape carrying a cross. I shouted to Hope, "Look it's Jesus carrying a cross, let's go get a picture of him."

The three of us started out walking across the playa toward Jesus, but Jesus turned away, and was walking further into nothingness and away from us. So I hastened my pace and after a couple minutes caught up with him.

Referring to a Biblical passage, I lied and said, "Hi, my name is Simon, and the Romans sent me to carry your cross." He of course, was familiar with the Biblical reference - after all, he was Jesus, and he handed me his cross and said, "Oh, thank you, it's not too heavy is it?"

I walked and talked with Jesus. I confessed, "My name is not really Simon. It's Phil, and my friends and I created an art installation in honor of one of your saints - Simeon Stylites. We'd love to show it to you."

Jesus stopped. He looked me in the eyes, and said, "Are you Phil Wyman?"

"Uhm. Yes."

Jesus teared up. He said, "I've been looking for you. I was lost and couldn't find you."

And then Hope and Dennis finally arrived with cameras in hand.

Dennis took the cross from me, and we walked back to our art installation. Jesus meditated upon our pillars, and wrote something gentle and profound.

Jesus was kind enough to do an interview with us. Turns out he is really a bookseller from Canada, but that doesn't change the fact that Jesus was lost, and now he is found. I found him, and it turns out he was looking for me all along.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pastor visits Pagan Pride (again, and again, and again)

It is no secret that many of my friends are Pagans: Witches, Druids, Shaman and the like. This last weekend I skipped church because of them. Myself and three friends from church, and five more from other places joined me at the Eastern Massachusetts Pagan Pride Festival.

I taught a workshop, my friends interpreted dreams, and we made new and wonderful friends there. This is my 4th Pagan Pride event. I love the people, enjoy teaching there, enjoy helping others lead Dream Interpretation, and typically just revel in being places a Christian pastor is not expected to be.

During the closing ceremony I heard one person speak up in the ritual and say they hoped to encourage Christian-Pagan discussion. I wish I had seen who that was, because that has been a desire and activity of my own. It is time for the world's to meet and discover that God is making Himself present in all of our lives and working by the Spirit to touch us with His love. (Okay, I realize that I expressed that in the typical Christianese of a Patriarchal mindset - but hey, that's who I am. No apologies, no regrets on that one, and I am glad we can take one another exactly as we are.)

I taught a small group on the subject of Interpreting Spiritual Phenomena. There were a couple people who saw, spoke to, and regularly experienced ghosts, and we interpreted those experiences. In one case a girl had been haunted by a malevolent red-glowing eye at night in her room, and competing voices attempting to help her. As a group we spoke to her need to run to the place of safety, which is found in the gentleness of the God's Spirit.

Our team of interpreters, lead by John Harding, worked throughout the afternoon, and touched people's hearts in a significant way.

I know. A pastor going to Pagan events is weird. But, I am looking for weirdos who are willing to navigate this world, and work to generate a place of discussion for the Spirit of God to work between these worlds.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Burning Man Art: Pillars of the Saints story

A little more than three weeks ago myself, and four friends embarked on a missional adventure. We went to Burning Man to find God, and to see if he was actively participating in the event. I suppose in some sense we hoped to bring Him with us, but since God does not fit into a 12' tall shopping cart, and isn't likely to need a ride from Boston to Nevada, we just brought an art idea we thought He might be willing to work with.

This was my second Burning Man, and I was entering the project with Sophomoric innocence - thinking that I could make a difference in someone's experience at Burning Man. Now the rest of our team was in varying states of Burner experience: Dennis and Matt were virgins (Burning Man terminology for a first time participant - see their initiation process on Youtube), Scott was coming for his third year, and Hope was attending for the seventh time. This made Hope the matriarch of four crazy guys who are all older than she is, and she made sure we respected the brutal climate, and navigated the playa without feeling lost or overwhelmed, or getting dehydrated. Bear (aka John) joined us a little later in the week, and he kept us green, and brought needed supplies.

Our plan was to build three meditation pillars, a flame altar for releasing the things which hinder people from hearing the "Voice of Spirit", and sufficient wall space for people to write what they have heard upon the the walls.

Our original 17th century mission design had to be scrapped, because the pillars were redesigned for strength and for climbing from the inside, and no longer fit the motif. We also had raised enough money to do the project, but not to its full specifications, and so it did not have the columned entrance from the original design. But, as planned we built it to do what Burning Man is most famous for - burn it down to the ground at the end of the event.

The photo above is a wedding I performed at the installation early in the week. The Groom (Ryan) and The Bride (Rhonda) blessed our installation with their wedding vows, and we were greatly honored.

The art installation was really just a blank canvas. The true art is what people experienced and wrote upon the walls of the project. By the end of the week it was a well graffitied group of white walls and pillars.

The project was designed as an unmediated search for the "Voice of the Spirit." We were looking for people who hear voices, and asking them to share those voices with us.

Now before you start saying that we were looking for and wanting to exploit the insane, consider the fact that many of history's most famous people were "voice hearers." We entered the event with the assumption that Yesterday's madmen have become today's seers, and prophets, and saints; and that it was similarly likely that some of today's madmen will become tomorrow's seers, and prophets, and saints. Of course, not all voices people hear are beneficial, but we believed that many of those voices have the potential for transformation and good. As Christians, we came with the assumption that Spirit of God desires to speak to people today, just as the stories of the scriptures tell us happened then. This was the art we hoped God might ride on and whisper through.

Thousands came to experience the Pillars of the Saints, and left their marks upon the walls. They cried, they thanked us for being there, and many returned throughout the week.

I am still in the process of putting together the video describing the event, showing interviews with participants and responses from our team. These will be coming out in the next week or so. To all you who have helped make this come to pass - thanks. If bees have knees - then you are it. (I'm not sure how bees knees got to be of such high value either, but it sounds pretty darn good.)

Some theological thoughts as a post-script:

1. God does go to Burning Man. I traveled with the philosophical certainty (which is probably not an accurate phrase, but it is how it feels to me, so I will use it) in my heart, and the experience validated it further for me.

2. Allowing people to experience the spiritual realm in unmediated, undirected ways allows for an experience of truth and wisdom to occur, and it is not something we should be afraid of. But of course, as Christians we are often afraid that the devil might show up. I am not worried about this, because I already know he shows up - usually it is on a Sunday morning at church, or in the homes, hearts and minds of those who proclaim to follow God. Similarly, the Spirit of God shows up and speaks as well, and I am confident that His voice is wiser, kinder, and more compelling than all other voices.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Returned from Burning Man and back to blogging

Hi gang. I'm back.

I decided to place my posts on moderation while I spent the last three weeks traveling to Burning Man, building an art installation, and returning. Posts are no longer being moderated before being posted - that was just a way being able to easily tell what did or did not go on while I was away, without having to forage through emails, blog reports, and posts.

So, here I am ready to begin reporting on the Burning Man trip, and other adventures in faith. Stories and concepts coming soon. ;-) (That's a winky-face icon telling you that I am silly, and have kooky things to say. Hope says that "kooky" is my favorite word. It's probably true when it comes to adventures in faith.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Post deletion

I have decided to remove a previous post about derisory emails I received yesterday, because I have learned who the person emailing me was. The need for a public record no longer exists, and therefore I have hidden the post, and made it private.

For those of you who have responded - sorry that your kind and wise responses were necessarily deleted also, but thank you for chiming in with grace.

Pastor Phil :-)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spiritual Phenomenon and Religious Bias (Part 3 - seeing in lock-step)

Most of us know that there are forms of madness*, which cause the senses to feel, see, or hear things that appear to be religious phenomena. While I believe that mental disabilities and mental hyper-activities may cause some of these occurrences, I also believe there are legitimate spiritual phenomena, and that these phenomena are more common than much of Western civilization acknowledges.

Yet, I also believe that many otherwise sane people are experiencing things they believe are spiritual phenomena, and are not. These are intuitions, and sensations of "hearing" the voice of God, which are incorrect, and the reasons for these experiences can be many. Two broad and overly sweeping categories are listed here:

Individual thinking, bias and chemical responses

Some years ago I wrote a a short series of articles I entitled "Is it Adrenaline or is it God?" Our excitement over our own creativity, future plans, and personal preferences have the potential for giving us positive physical and emotional feelings which can be mistaken for the move of the Spirit of God. Similarly, negative responses rising from fears, strong dislike, or something as benign as personal preference creates measurable responses, and Christians have the propensity for taking these feelings (both physical and emotional) as evidence of an interaction with the Spirit of God.

During the First "Great Awakening" of religious revival in America (1734 - c. 1750) Jonathan Edwards who is credited for initiating the revival wrote a treatise on the subject of Religious Affections in which he outlined the nature of spiritual experiences and religious emotional states. Part 2 of the book highlights at length that religious affections in and of themselves are not a sign for good or for bad concerning the validity, the holiness, or the interaction of God in the process of spiritual experiences.

So it was, that long before the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements Christian leaders were concerned about the capacity for individuals to experience emotional states they believed were the evidence of God, and for these conditions to be either personally or perhaps even devilishly initiated.

This kind of deception, whether personally achieved by self satisfying biases or by demonic subtlety may be either minor and inconsequential to communal faith and peace, or deleterious and robust in its effects.

This is obviously a category of human experience highly subject to bouts of "madness." Having seen the news with tragic stories of people moved by voices in their heads, and/or confidence of God's will being behind their actions, society at large often wholly rejects all expressions of divine experience. Yet as Jonathan Edwards reminded us almost 300 years ago, religious affections do not give us evidence of the truth or the goodness of an experience.

The simple point is this: Individuals do mistake personal preference for spiritual phenomena. Yet, this fact does not negate all spiritual experiences.

Group think and bias

Based upon the same assumptions I hold (that God is able and willing to speak to humanity, and is actively doing so today), combined with the Biblical injunction that every word should be accepted at the mouth of 2 or 3 witnesses Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians are regularly verifying each other's spiritual experiences.

For years I have heard pastors talk about a coming great religious revival. People I know have set dates for this great revival, which was supposed to begin in Fill-in-the-blank-ville and eventually spread to fill the whole earth. Those dates have come and gone with greater frequency than dates set for the Rapture, or a daily change of underwear.

Strangely, those who challenged the dates were treated with disdain as though their lack of faith might somehow hinder God's will. Yet, when the dates have come and gone, no one held the leaders who declared these dates to any accountability. The same leaders have gone on to declare other dates, and the same people who followed their false declarations followed them into new and exciting promises of glory.

Jeremiah dealt with this same problem. He was a prophet of gloom, bearing sad tidings of coming trouble. He lived among people who relished hearing words of promise as we all tend to do. It appears that he was one of only a few declaring the words of impending war and trouble. The prophets around him declared good news and victory for Israel. (see Jeremiah 14)

Jeremiah's day was an example of group think driving the experience of the supernatural. False prophets had visions and dreams, and declared those experiences to be the voice of God.

Today, Christians follow leaders who pack together and agree with one another. They listen to the same teachings, and follow people with whom they agree the most. The leaders gather in similar groups of like minded thinkers. Some of them hold high-powered meetings, and others gather in special conclaves to discuss their theology. These gatherings carry some of the same dynamics of adrenaline surging excitement that comes with personal bias - only now it appears verified by a large group of people.

Is it any surprise that Christians have often had similar spiritual phenomena, come to similar conclusions, and then go on to set dates and make predictions which turn out to be false?

People who agree with one another, and are afraid to challenge the veracity of spiritual experiences are not good gauges of that which is true and that which is false. Their common hopes, their common fears, their common biases lead to a common group think, and common group satisfying validations of perceived spiritual phenomena.

The verification of 2 or 3 witnesses is meant to cover witnesses to a crime, or an issue before court, or accusations against an elder in the church. It is not meant to be an automatic verification of prophecy or any other spiritual phenomena. To allow it to become the high water benchmark of the validity of spiritual experience is to place followers into the precarious position of feeling compelled to jump on the bandwagon and shout, "Amen!" Once this occurs, unscrupulous individuals step forward to generate excitement, influence, and often money among those who faithfully, and sometimes stupidly are stumbling towards glory in search of a glimmer of hope.

All the while church groups appear to walk in lock-step validating the words of their leaders who declare they have experienced God in supernatural ways, and the world looks on in disbelief. Unfortunately, this is more common than we might imagine. Yet on the hopeful note: such false examples of group think driving and validating spiritual phenomena does not invalidate the possibility that God is still speaking today and that true spiritual phenomena are occurring. I am convinced they are occurring, but I am not convinced that we are capable interpreters of these experiences.

* as a fan (but to some degree an amateur critic) of Michel Foucault's book, The History of Madness I am using this rather outdated sounding and politically incorrect term purposely, but not derogatorily. I am not confident that all mental disabilities and mental hyper-activity fall under the medical model, which is eagerly attempting, and perhaps has fully succeeded in co-opting all forms of "madness" or "insanity" into categories of "mental illness."

Friday, August 05, 2011

Prophets of Hope, Prophets of Warning, Prophets of Phenomena

Spiritual phenomena occur - or at least we can be certain that many of us experience things which we consider to be radical experiences of interaction with the unseen world. This set of posts is not meant to be some kind of compendium of experiences and evidences of the validity of spiritual phenomena, rather this is simply a response to the fact that everyday people experience things they do not understand. These experiences come with communication, and this communication seems to come from another place than this world.

I admit to beginning with an assumption as previously stated that God is communicating with people, and desires to do so unbiasedly with all people. Those who know God are best positioned to be interpreters of those experiences, and this sets the people who know and understand God in a unique position - as prophets of spiritual phenomena.

It was Halloween. Actually, it was one of the days during the month-long Halloween season in Salem, MA. The Gathering had set up a tent for Free Dream Interpretation. A young man dressed in a black cape, carrying a tall staff was visiting Salem with a group of friends. He stopped to experience the booth, and I was monitoring the line. I ended up interpreting his dream that night. (The full story can be found in this post.)

What began as a mysterious and fearful dream, became a worldview changing experience of communication from an unseen realm. This young man began with the belief that everything in the spiritual realm was safe and good to experience, but his dream of black helicopters chasing him and his friends through the canyons of Red Rock, CO became a communication about the potential malignant capacities of unseen powers.

A dream was a warning for this young man. In my thinking the dream was clear and an obvious communication of warning. Yet, for this young man, his own worldview blocked his understanding of the meaning of the dream, and as I shared my interpretation of the dream his worldview changed in an instant - or as the scriptures might say - his "eyes were opened."

This is an example of those who know their God and His ways become interpreters of spiritual phenomena, and in doing so become prophets to their generation. In this case, I became a prophet of warning.

For seven or eight years we have been interpreting dreams in *Salem each October. Teams of our friends sit with people and interpret dreams filled promise and hope, and we begin with the premise that God desires to bless people and speak hope into their lives. We become prophets of hope for the dreamers.

Yet, people are coming not only with dreams, but with experiences of open visions, of personal miracles and healing. There are even moments when our interaction with the people who come to us become a moment of spiritual phenomenon.

Carlos Z sees visions of people in various settings, and these visions often end up as descriptors of their lives and the struggles they are facing. I have seen a number of people amazed at the accuracy of his visions. He is one of many who have become prophets of phenomena, and voices of the unseen God to the people of this world.

This is the challenge of each of us who claim to know our God and have studied His ways, and claim to hear His voice: Can we envision ourselves as interpreters of the meaning behind spiritual phenomena? and consequently prophets of both hope and warning?

*This same ministry of dream interpretation and of spiritual blessings occurs each year at the Burning Man Festival. In three weeks we travel to spend a week as prophets of phenomena to the Burners on the Black Rock Playa.

You can follow this blog and receive updates by clicking the links to either the Google or Networked blogs links in the right hand column. Peace and Blessings to you.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Interpreters of Spiritual Experience

Spiritual experiences are rocking people's lives.

I know of a Neo-Pagan who had open vision of Jesus appearing in the middle of her living room on the cross. I sat for coffee with Fiona Horne, one of America's most famous Witches, as she retold her story of "the Christian God" speaking to her through a falcon. It landed on the ground in front of her, spread it's wings and spoke as man. Fiona retells this story in her book describing an event during the time she was filming "Mad, Mad House" for the Sci-Fi channel.

These are the kind of stories which rock your world and leave you grasping for footing, or reaching for answers.

Spiritual experiences are like clues to crime scene. They hint an answer, but remain mysterious without a fuller body of evidence, or a confession of a perpetrator. Spiritual experiences are like pieces of a puzzle. They are small glimpses of a larger, beautiful picture; but by themselves they are odd shaped pieces of color. They are like sign posts to a destination. They may give hints as to their ultimate meaning, or point the direction, but are not the actual destination.

The value of legitimate spiritual experience is great, as is a sign post on a long lonely stretch of road to a destination one has never before traveled. But, experiences are often few and far between, and this may be purposely so, as part of the plan of God.

There are people on earth who though they have not reached the ultimate destination on that path toward God, have seen more clearly ahead into the distances. Scripture gives us a clearer picture than our experiences often - if interpreted well, and those who know the scriptures, and know their God will see the path of spiritual growth and enlightenment more clearly than those who have only mystical experience to navigate by.

Believing that this is true it leads to me to believe that those who know the scriptures and know their God (the two are not necessarily connected) have the potential to become interpreters of the mysterious spiritual phenomena, which often confound people experiencing them today.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Spiritual Phenomenon and Religious Bias (Part 2)

Part 1 of this post makes the assumptions that God is willing and wanting to communicate with everyone, and that there are no special skills, or devotion standing in the way of God communicating with anyone. There appears to be need to devote oneself to a life of service to God, but He may at any time simply interact with us because He likes to do so. He is not biased in such a way as to choose one group of people over another to communicate to - or so it seems.

Now of course, I am taking into account that the Old Testament is a covenant with the Jewish people, yet even in this covenant, God gives miraculous dreams to Pharoah, and Nebuchadnezzar; and He speaks through Balaam and Balaam's ass (his donkey for those of you who are thinking something else.)

In saying this I am NOT saying that special devotion does not trigger a closer relationship with God. I believe that it does. Yet, I do believe that God has, does and will continue to make Himself known in a variety of phenomena to people in this world. Those people will come from a variety of backgrounds.

Therefore, I must be ready to acknowledge that there will be people who experience "weird" things, and that those weird things might in fact come from God. (I do believe that they might in fact come from somewhere else as well, but that is another post.) I also need to acknowledge that there will be people whom I would not expect to have spiritual phenomenon occurring in their lives. If I can not get past this point, then I will be carrying a bias unlike the bias of God.

The bias of God is toward you, toward me, and toward all people. He is concerned and wanting to touch all people. At least, my theology and my experiences tell me so. Experiences of some of my friends and the people we meet in Salem, MA and at Burning Man tell me this as well.

If my bias tells me that certain people are only mad, or only are hearing from the devil before I have heard them out I am sure that my bias is not God's bias, because His bias is for people and not against them. On the other hand, once I have heard them out there is an opportunity to decide the source of the spiritual encounter.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Spiritual Phenomenon and Religious Bias

My personal story of initiation into spiritual phenomenon taints my own views of the activity of the Spirit, and presses these views toward a more open interaction from God with humanity. Because I had what I believe are dramatic encounters with God prior to committing my life and my life's work to His purposes, I am convinced that God is acting in other people's lives in a similar manner.

This conviction is formed through a number of reasons:

Reason #1 - I am not special.

There is nothing which separates me from the rest of humanity. I am not special to God anymore than anyone else. I do not hold some special key to the Kingdom, nor do I have access to things unavailable to others. At least I certainly don't think so. The rest of humanity stands on even footing with myself, and are limping lamely together toward glory: some of us purposefully, some of us stubbornly, some of us ignorantly, some of us turning to flee it's fearsome brilliance, but all of us beginning with the same love of God hovering over us.

God is equally determined to express His love to you as He is to me, and I am convinced He is in the process of doing so regularly.

Reason #2 - I did not learn special skills to attain these phenomenal* spiritual experiences.

My experiences happened to me. I did not enter a state of meditation to attain them. I did not study for years to attain a spiritual skill making these experiences possible. I may have been a seeker of truth, but not any more so than many others. God came to me in my searching.

In believing I am not any more special to God than anyone else it levels the playing field and makes God accessible to everyone. By acknowledging the simple fact that it was not my own skills which brought about my experiences, but rather that it was God's loving pursuit of me, this also levels the playing field. A person does not need to be especially skilled in the arts of spiritual discipline to experience God. There is a loving God Who desires to make Himself known to all of us, and His desire is with equal passion toward all of us.

Reason #3 - I did not express special commitment.

My commitment to the God Who came to me did not precede the experiences, but rather followed them. He appears to have sought me out more intentionally than I sought Him. Because of this, I am convinced that the experience of (what I believe are) legitimate spiritual phenomena does not always come with disciplined pursuit, and intentionality. I believe there are times that misdirected pursuit somehow finds the mark of the Divine, because God steps in to make Himself known. This was my experience, and I believe that it is often true for many others.

These basic values I take away from my experiences with spiritual phenomena set the stage for my missiological praxis, and my response to a world of people who experience things which "Blow [their] mind." It is my hope that my views, which are a response from both scripture and experience give me a bias favoring all people, and not simply those who are of my tribe and committed to Christ in the same manner that I am. It is my hope to base my opinion about the spiritual experiences of others on the merit of the experience alone, and not on heritage, learning, a perceived special status with God, or stated commitment to Christianity.

Have you had experiences which have blown your mind?

* this word is used in the sense of being cognizable to the senses.

Friday, July 29, 2011

My Initiations into the Realm of Christian Phenomenon

The year was 1980. I was 21.

I was studying music at Palomar College in San Marcos, CA. Five students who went to the same Calvary Chapel church were in my five music classes. At least one in each class, but in one class all five of them were present. For a five month period we had been debating religious topics almost daily. For the most part they were not very good at debating, and seemed to think of debating as some kind of hardness toward God. (Perhaps Holland Davis was the exception to this.)

I had been brought up in the Christian Science Church as a child, so that was what I knew about Christianity. The late Walter Martin had summed up Christian Science well: it was like Grape Nuts - no grapes and no nuts, it is neither Christian nor science. It is in fact a mothering church to the New Age movement, and a strange amalgam of eastern religious views with the Bible. (Yet, I must say that I am grateful to my grandmother for taking me to her church when I was young. It was an introduction into believing that there was a God Who did supernatural things.)

At some point early in the first couple months of 1980 my five friends decided together that they would not talk to me any further about theological issues. They did not tell me this, they simply avoided talking to me. They had determined that I was becoming "more hardened" to the Gospel.

Yet during this same time I began to experience some dramatic phenomenon. The two most radical experiences are the ones I will relate here.

The Forehand of God

I was driving on Highway 78 coming into Escondido, CA minding my own business thinking about nothing in particular as I passed the Center City Parkway exit. Suddenly, I sensed (which is the only way to explain this because I did not see it, and I did not hear it) what seemed to be a large invisible hand moving towards me - it was moving from outside the truck window on the driver's side. As I sensed this hand moving towards me in a what seemed like a slow but solid motion,the invisible hand passed through the truck window and met my face. I felt a sensation - not painful, but like a slap nonetheless, and my head snapped sideways like I had been physically slapped. I was able to keep control of my little Ford Courier and stay on the road,but my body was shaking, my ears were ringing, and the word "God" popped into my head with a ping just like God speaking to Noah in Bill Cosby's comedy routine about building the ark.

I discovered the next day that the father one of my five friends was praying for me about that same time.

The Backhand of God

My little brother Rob had been attending church for a number of months with a friend of his. One Friday night he asked me if he and his friend could get a ride to concert in Escondido. I wasn't busy, and said yes. It turned out to be a church provided concert being held int he auditorium of a grade school. The Daniel Amos Band, a Christian Country-Rock Band was playing that night. (I only just discovered that they are still together and are touring this summer. Please read this touching story about the singer/songwriter Terry Taylor.)

My little brother asked me if I would join him at the show, and having nothing better to do (no girlfriend to hang with on a Friday, and not being a partier at that time) I decided I would check it out.

I don't remember the show very well, but one event during the show caught my attention. Sometime toward the second half of the show the bass player stepped up to the mic to say a few words. I do not remember a word he said, but that now oddly familiar invisible hand made itself "sense-able" (I certainly can not say it "appeared or was made "visible") to me again. This time I sensed it coming towards my face with that same ominously slow pace from my right side, when it had come fromthe left side previously.

Once again it reached my face, (and of course I did not duck! For heaven's sake! How does one avoid an invisible hand?) and the same painless, but firm slapping sensation snapped my head sideways.

Over the previous couple week's I had been struggling with the phrase "Jesus died for you." I had thought that perhaps it was like a friend who dove on a grenade in time of war to save his buddies, and died in the act, but because my five friends had been repeating "Jesus died for you" like some kind of mantra, I knew it had to be more significant than even a war time act of sacrifice. It was somehow central to the whole message of this Christianity they followed.

As this invisible hand met my face and snapped my head sideways, my body shook, my ears rang, and even while trying to pretend nothing had happened and doing a good job, because no one else noticed a thing (well, I don't think they did) the words "Jesus died for you" ran through my ears as if written over and over on a long narrow piece of ticker tape being shoved in one ear and pulled out the other.

There was no theological explanation with those words, and there I could not have related it in theological terms at that moment, but I now knew that Jesus had died in my place as a substitutionary sacrifice for my sins. I should have been the one dying, but he died in my place.

Two weeks later, after thinking hard about this experience and the words "Jesus died for you" I decided to make my life one of serving this Jesus Who had given everything for me.

My Introduction into the Realm of Supernatural Phenomenon

I am not sure that this would be called my initiation into the realm of supernatural phenomenon, but it was most certainly my initiation into the work of Christ in spiritual phenomenon, and has evidently been instrumental in the development of my own theology and praxis of faith.

Just as I have seen people in these days in which we live having divine experiences, I too was initiated into a realm of the supernatural my an experience neither sought, nor initiated my my own action.

I am aware that this story reads like something from the Book of Acts, or perhaps even from anthropological studies on the initiations of Mongolian Shaman or Native American Medicine Men, but it is my story and it forms some of the theology I hold in respect to the supernatural and God's work among the people of this world.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Divine Experience as a Growing Phenomenon?

My friend Chris told me a story of an experience hearing voices. Driving on the highway a voice told him to move from the left lane to the right lane. As he looked to his right other cars were in the right lane, and the the voice told him he had time to get over. After the cars passed he pulled into the right hand lane, and immediately blew a tire. Looking back on this experience he was not as much surprised that he heard a voice leading him to right lane and a safe place to have a tire blow-out, but he it blew his mind that he had responded simply and naturally to a voice in his head.

Perhaps where I live, and work (on the North Shore of Boston spending most of my time in Salem, MA) as well as what I do (pastor a church in Witchcity); this influences my experiences with other people over much. In 25 years of pastoring on both coasts of the United States, spending a great deal of time with people from many spiritual traditions and world-views, and traveling with some frequency to the UK, I have seen a increase of what appear to be other-worldly experiences in the lives of the people I know.

This circle of friends includes skeptics, Muslims, Pagans, Christians of conservative and liberal traditions, people of eclectic 'pick and choose' faith systems, Americans, Welsh, English, Native Americans, people from the Middle East and the Far East, politically conservative, politically liberal, socialists, capitalists, anarchists, artists, politicians, scientists, drunkards, drug addicts, sexually promiscuous, gay, straight, teetotalers, soccer moms, traditional "nuclear' families, soldiers, social justice activists, married, divorced, single, those who attend church, and many who feel betrayed by the church.

Strangely, in this wild mix of friends and acquaintances, it is almost in every circle that people are experiencing these "divine interactions" (if that is what we want to call them).

Glenn who has been with The Gathering a couple years now tells a story about sitting on the beach in Antigua at sunrise. Suddenly, a blinding light rose up not from the horizon, but from within him. He lost all sense of time - whether it was a second or a minute he didn't know, but in that flash a sense his own sinfulness followed by the great forgiveness of God were made evident to him.

Glenn was not a follower of Jesus at the time. He is today, and Glenn loves to study the Bible. This phenomenon was his transition to living a life in the spiritual pursuit of Christ.

Phenomenon like this dot the landscape of human experience. Some people like Glenn know what to do with their experiences. Others have these experiences and are confused by them, or are uncertain of their meaning. Others still choose to attribute no meaning to them, but merely chalk them up as a moment of touching the divine.

My limited experience with people from a fairly wide spectrum of religious, ethnic and lifestyle backgrounds leads me to believe that many people from many world-views are currently experiencing spiritual phenomenon, and they are not all sure how to interpret their experiences. This may not be happening more than at any other time in history, and I certainly have no evidence to support such a statement, but I would surmise it could be simply by the fact that the world's population is larger than any previous time.

I think the experience of these phenomenon has ramifications for Christianity, and I will follow this post up with some of those thoughts.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

An Exegesis of Experience?

Yesterday morning at the men's Bible study we talked about allegorical interpretations of scripture, and this led to me giving a short description of the difference between allowing the scripture to speak for itself, and reading things into the Bible. These are commonly called exegesis and eisegesis (respectively) in theological (well, and in most church) circles. Of course, this was discussed because the allegorical mode of Biblical interpretation lends itself to easily falling into excessive eisegesis - especially for the creative mind. Those who quickly connect scriptures and theological concepts together can weave interesting and complicated elements together and quickly justify their own peculiar beliefs. Yet, I can not help but wonder if the line of eisegesis and exegesis might merge into one another seamlessly and properly at times.

Certainly, for most of us, our theological bent is driven by a combination of influence of mentors and teachers, or personal experience combined by study. I most certainly fall into the latter category, most of my mentors had theological views different than my own, Some of them leaned Reformed/Calvinist, and others held Pre-Tribulational eschatology views, in one case a very influential mentor is from the Word of Faith camp - and I am none of these.

Since my theology is influenced most by my own study, I must be honest to admit that there is a high degree of personal experience which informs my theological views as well. In part because my own experiences with God have been so dramatic, and in part because my experiences with life have sometimes been the stuff tall tales are made of.

Here is where I wonder how eisegesis and exegesis might seamlessly meet one another to create one body of movement toward truth.

The Apostle Paul appears to have been excessively influenced by his dramatic experiences with Christ: along the Damascus Road, being caught up into the heavens in visions, and through a life of persecution. His reading of the Old Testament is most definitely influenced by his interactions with Christ, and his reading of the scriptures was therefore born from this experience in which God seems to have implanted truth into Paul. It was an exegesis of life and experience. This in turn seems to have influenced Paul's writings, and he then interprets the Old Testament anew in the light of his experiences.

I read the New Testament - especially the Gospels differently than I did 5 or 6 years ago. My experiences in life have helped me (or is it simply "caused me," without necessarily carrying a beneficial element?) to see some scripture in a different light.

Does God communicate truth through experience to us, and then open our eyes to see things we might have been previously blind to? If so, it seems then that He is working through an exegesis of experience, and then allowing us to take the lessons learned in our experience and find them in scripture.

If this is the case, God appears to be seamlessly, although dangerously interweaving exegesis and eisegesis together to form truth in us. I tremble under the thought of this being a mode of truth communication. To see it in the Apostles and Prophets is one thing. To see in ourselves is another, and this makes the interpretation of scripture all the more baffling - especially since I still hold to the belief that scripture is not of any "private interpretation."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Developing Cultures and The Presence of God

I made the comment a couple posts ago, that God goes to Burning Man. This was a simple observation in connection to the idea of a God Who is omni-present.

Now strangely, I have had a few Christians challenge the idea of going to Burning Man - as though participation in the event would somehow be opposed to the nature of the Gospel and God's Will. This is partly due to the exaggerations people believe about the event (note this Christwire spoof article, which highlights many of those exaggerations), partly due to the wildness of the event, but partly due to the fact that as Christians we often do not see God in developing cultures.

It is far too easy for us to see transitions in culture as enemies to tradition, and therefore also lacking God. If we truly believed that God was opposed to radical changes in culture, we might easily assume that God isn't going to be found at Burning Man - thus, God doesn't go there.

This mistake in logic is two-fold:

1) it assumes that God does not show up at places where sin occurs.
2) it assumes that developing cultures which have elements of licentiousness within them do not have expressions of the Gospel itself in their basic construction.

(I could add to the list of mistakes, but will not do so for simplicity's sake here.)

In response the first mistake: It almost seems silly to have to respond to it, but here we go. Everyone repeat with me, "Where sin abounded...." You do know the rest, correct? If not, please see Romans 5:20. We read that Jesus was a friend of drunks, prostitutes and sinners of all kinds. Yet somehow befriending people He befriended is wrong for us? Of course we do not sin in order to experience grace, yet where sin is grace shows up excessively. Doesn't the story of the woman caught in adultery teach us this?

In response to the second error: (There are too many negative responses to changing culture to fully cover this mistake in a quick post such as this, but here go a few thoughts.)

a) Change is a dynamic of life with God. Perhaps we should anticipate change in culture to have some elements of God built into it. The Reformation is a radical example of this. It was more than a theological revolution, it carried cultural changes as well.

b) because cultural revolution may have elements of excess it does not mean that everything within a developing culture is birthed out of selfishness, or a lust-drive. The radical acceptance, and the culture of "gifting" (neither buying nor selling, nor even bartering, but simply giving freely) is part of the culture of the week at Burning Man. If nothing else, this models the dynamics of grace better than anything I find in our capitalistic American culture today. Everyone pitches together to make art projects happen, to give food, and gifts and services of all sorts.

c) If we make the mistake of seeing nothing but the devil in a developing culture, we will make the same mistake that many missionaries have made in history. We will either lose the audience we hope to love, or we will change them so fundamentally that many of those changes will isolate them from their own culture, and harm them. In these times of radically changing culture it is necessary to find God in the developments. Seekers are looking for ways to find God and authenticity in cultural shift, and because of that God is there in the cracks between the shift.

d) believing that cultural change is wrong is tantamount to deifying our own culture. The Jesus I read about came to the culture of 1st century Israel and turned the culture of the religion upside down. His work was progressive enough to get Him falsely accused and executed. He was an iconoclast of His times, tearing down the idols of a culture which viewed itself as the culture of God.

This missional consideration is the philosophical background behind our art project Pillars of the Saints, which is a Burning Man art installation this year. It is our way of meeting God at Burning Man, and helping those who are seeking find what they are looking for. This is our last day for reaching our funding goal. You can help us reach that goal by visiting the Kickstarter fundraising site. Thanks.

Of course, this will necessarily lead to another post in which I look at God's position both outside of, and inside culture, because I do view God as transcendent to culture, and yet immanent and present within it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Salvation: from what?

Typically we (Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians) consider this issue of salvation as a deliverance from "the World, the Flesh and the Devil."

In this context "the world" is a reference to the a system of behavior, and authority running the program of history and being directed in some way by the devil, but also subjected to the problematic results of a curse put upon it after the Fall in Genesis 3.

Yet, Evangelical Christianity is more regularly considering the fact that the world is in need of being saved from not just the curse of the Fall, but of our poor use of it. So salvation is being viewed as encompassing the idea of Creation being saved from humanity, and our devastating impact upon it.

Then the idea of salvation as a deliverance from "the Flesh" is a clear denotating that Evangelical Christian theology views each and every human as needing to be saved from themselves. Slavoj Zizek (Lacanian-Marxist Theorist, atheist, and most popular of philosophers today) recently made the point that breaking the social barriers which create "untouchables" will not occur simply by elevating those untouchables to a position of "children of god" as many have been trying to do in India's caste system, but "the first step should rather be exactly the opposite one: to universalize their excremental status to the whole of humanity." (Living in the End Times pg. 23) He then references Martin Luther as an example of properly thinking through establishing an egalitarian ethic.

Before the promotion comes the demotion.

This is the heart of Evangelical soteriology. It is the core of the idea of repentance followed by acceptance by God and elevation to a noble status. This highlights the concept of being saved from ourselves. Yet it also places us in the tension of living between the sewage trenches and the palace. This is us being saved from ourselves.

Then the identification of an external enemy with malevolent designs enters the picture of this struggle of life and death. The world may be an external force, but it is stupid (unthinking, broken and failing in some kind of post-apocalyptic vision all around us.) We may at times be malevolent toward one another, and perhaps even toward ourselves, but salvation from self (the Flesh) is a far more difficult enemy to overcome, because as we typically discover in our struggles - we like Paul understand the tension of doing those things we don't want to do, and not doing those things we do want to do (Romans 7).

Yet, the third enemy, "the Devil", is an outside, personal, and malevolent force. That is how much of Christian theology views this part of the dynamic of salvation. We have an enemy and he has designs against us. Therefore we should be wary, and recognize that the World and the Flesh may at times become resources for the intelligent and malevolent designs of the Devil. He is trolling our lives, making accusations, and setting traps. Unlike the previous external unthinking, and internal forces this third purposely malevolent force appears to have no hope for salvation, and so there is no view of reciprocal evil being paid back to "the Devil" such as we find man in his destruction of the world. So it is, that in some way we are becoming like devils ourselves through activities which are like his own, and thus we need to be saved from him, and from becoming like him all at once.

This thing called salvation appears to have an all encompassing demand. There may nothing untouched from its reach into our lives.