On Sanctification, Personal Holiness, and Ecclesiastic Re-appropriation

  • David B. Doty © 2018

The greatest deterrent to sanctification (and irritant along the way) is the flesh.  We should be clear that by “the flesh,” we are not actually referring to our physical bodies but, like Paul, we are speaking of that attitude of self-determinism within us that rebels against God’s commands and leading.

For years, I have tried to be very sensitive to the Spirit and be obedient to God. That has meant leaving a lucrative business behind for the sake working with my wife to assure our marriage endured. It meant leaving a good job behind to return to my home state to be closer to my aging father. It has led to sacrificial lifestyle changes that required dramatic commitments. I really want to take credit for the willingness to act on these things but it in truth has been movements of divine grace. I know myself to much to selfish to think all this originated from within.

But obedience is not always about actions. It is more often about attitudes. I must confess, I have issues with authority figures. Not the good ones. I have had some great bosses along the way. But I have had some that were dehumanizing to the point of psychological abusiveness in their approach to their subordinates. My natural reaction has always been to push back. Oddly enough, I never seemed to gain much ground with them but always found myself miserable in those jobs. I have never allowed myself to compromise my pursuit of excellence in performance of my work but too often I awoke to dread the day ahead due to the angst of working in a disrespectful, and thereby, contentious environment.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians: Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. – Ephesians 6:5-8.

This, for me, is the hard place in the sanctifying process. I tell myself that I want to be holy but I cannot be with a rebellious attitude toward my bosses when they do not behave as I believe they should. I want to be treated well, and in many places, I have been. But for those who make what I think are unreasonable demands, I have a very low tolerance.

I believe the root of my rebelliousness was being raised by a very authoritarian mother. Unlike some of the issues my older siblings suffered through, I was, for the most part, a model child. I had some obvious faults but scared to death to get in any serious trouble. I desperately wanted my mother’s approval. But my rebellion manifested late in my high school years and exploded in college in drug abuse and sexual activity. I was determined, being out of my home environment, that I would live and do as I saw fit and as it pleased my flesh.

There are two biblical principles, inextricably linked which I must now address in my growth toward obedience to God, my growth in holiness, as I seek to subdue this enduring rebellious nature.

I wrote a book several years ago entitled Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission. It was, obviously, a study on the role of the marketplace in God’s created design, before Adam’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, then the role it plays in God’s mission of the redemption of all of creation. In that book, I included a subchapter, titled “On Justice and Righteousness,” as these two concerns are instrumental in reforming the marketplace through time to restore it to its original design and purpose.

Along the way, I posted that essay from the book on my web site. Since posting, it has been far and away the most read thing I have ever written, have now garnered nearly seven thousand views and growing in number every daily. The essay is a word study of the Old Testament terms most often translated as justice and righteousness, mishpat and tsadaq, respectively.

Two key points of the essay stand out. One, biblical justice is not easily reconciled to our common belief about the concept. Our tendency is to think of justice as someone getting their due, the Old Testament idea of an eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth. In effect, we think of justice as comeuppance. We even paraphrase it by calling it karma or saying “what goes around comes around.” Justice has an outcome focus. It is brought about by acts of righteousness.

The second point is what turns us on our heads. Righteousness, at least from the divine perspective (being explained through the biblical stories), requires an undue sacrifice on the part of the righteous party. If we think of justice from a human perspective, Jesus’ sacrifice was a demonstration of the most unjust events in human history. But God, being perfect and never-changing, cannot act unrighteously. Jesus’s self-sacrifice is the ultimate revelation of what divine righteousness looks like. He gave what he did not have to give – his life – for those of us who do not deserve it.

Jesus’ crucifixion was the foundation of all divinely redemptive movements toward the reconciliation of humanity to God and the restoration of creation to God’s design and purpose. And we, as Christ followers, have a role to play: We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:22.

How do these things connect? It is a principle I would call ecclesiastic re-appropriation. In effect, how the church works the works that glorify God (Matthew 5:16) as the light of the world that are integral to the process of redeeming the world, that is, reclaiming creation under the order of Christ’s reign.

Paul and Peter both wrote that we should not return evil for evil including our sufferings of injustice due to unrighteous masters. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. – Romans 12:17a. To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. – 1 Peter 3:8-9

The Israelites were even commanded to bless their captors when in exile. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. – Jeremiah 29:7.

Why would God ask us to submit to even unjust authority? This is a principle of displacement. Think of someone committing an evil act against you. You can retaliate in kind and that evil remains. But when we forgive, laying our offense at the foot of the Cross, that mite of evil is removed from the world, absorbed by grace, so to speak, and overcome by the love of God.

If we have a clear understanding of God’s redeeming grace and sound biblical eschatology, we can see that slowly but surely, evil is being removed from the world over the long term. Christ’s reign in the world is increasing by the growth of the Church and by the spiritual growth of each believer. This is obviously a very long term enterprise to reclaim and rebuild all of creation, but one empowered, initiated, and guaranteed to succeed entirely by the work of Christ.

God wants us to learn to obey authority, even when it is evil (though there are distinct times he would have us speak out or actively resist – responses that must be completely subordinated to the leading of the Holy Spirit in distinct circumstances) for by doing so, we overcome that evil, not by overt battle but by humility and grace.

Frankly, when it comes to my work, I am not there yet. This essay is in direct response to my own latest battle within myself, wrestling with either serving my flesh or serving God. I do not enjoy the angst, my joy and peace are undermined. As I learn to let it go, I can move closer to God, being remade another small step into the image of Christ, the ultimate sufferer of worldly injustice.

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Christians and Bribery

  • David B. Doty, Eden’s Bridge, Inc., February, 2017

Author’s note: This essay was prepared for inclusion in a Marathi language handbook (see photo at bottom) distributed to participants in Marketplace Ministry / Business as Mission seminars I presented in Aurangabad, Jalna, and Ahmednagar (Maharashtra State), India earlier this month. The essay was prompted by the fact that this question was prevalent in previous sessions and subsequent communications with indigenous business and pastoral leaders.

Though Christians are not “of this world,” we must live in it for now. Bribery is a difficult issue we must face in many parts of the world.

There are typically two approaches to bribery among Christian teachers, missionaries, and pastors in places where bribery is a common practice. The first approach considers bribery as an absolute wrong and never to be done. In part, this is sound thinking as Christians should 1) never demand or accept a bribe, and 2) should never offer a bribe for the purposes of serving injustice. If someone will be harmed by paying a bribe (either materially or physically) while we receive undue benefit, such as a judge wrongly ruling in our favor or a business person seeking advantage over a competitor, both parties in the transaction are clearly guilty of doing wrong.

The second view accepts bribery as a cultural norm and the way things get done. In this view, paying the bribe does not place guilt on the one paying the bribe as it serves extending justice. For example, if a Christian was trying to carry aid to an underground church in a country where such aid would be prohibited by the government, the bribe may be the only realistic means of getting that aid delivered. Another example would be the case of smuggling persecuted people out of a country where their departure would otherwise be prohibited. In these cases, the officials are being paid to “look the other way.” In such cases, disobeying human rule to obey God is a legitimate argument from Scripture for paying the bribe.

The first approach, to consider an absolute ban on paying bribes, would likely have been the practice of the Pharisees. They likely would have allowed neglect or abuse to continue rather than violate the Law. However, the Apostle Paul points out that this is to put the letter of the Law above the Spirit of the Law: But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. – Romans 7:6.

Jesus admonished the Pharisees because they failed to perceive higher and lower principles within the whole Law: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” – Matthew 23:23.

In paying bribes as a means to extend justice, the Cross comes into clear view where Jesus willingly paid an evil price for the sake of achieving a higher principled goal, the salvation of humankind.

The difficulty becomes, if we see paying a particular bribe as a lesser evil to gain a higher purpose, discerning such times appropriately. Praise God we can seek the counsel of the Holy Sprit in prayer, the Bible, and the advice of those in authority over us in the Church.

What does the Bible say about bribery and what we might infer by extrapolating the texts?

Here are some samples which address the main issues of bribery. Exodus 23:8 clearly and simply states “you shall not take a bribe.” Deuteronomy 10:17 says that God does not take bribes. Deuteronomy 16:19 and 27:25 focus on the power of a bribe to pervert justice. 2 Chronicles 19:7 also places the focus on taking a bribe. Psalm 15:5 is concerned with protecting justice, and Proverbs 17:8 draws a parallel between bribery and witchcraft.

Ecclesiastes 7:7 says that bribes corrupt the heart, in other words, driving participants more deeply into sin. Isaiah 1:23 equates taking bribes to thievery and in 5:23, again, we see the concern for protecting justice (rights). Isaiah 33:15 draws a comparison between unjust gain and taking bribes. In Micah 3:11, judges, princes, and prophets – all social and political leaders in the theocracy of ancient Israel – are all condemned for perverting justice in return for receiving money. Proverbs 29:4 tells us that taking bribes undermines the social, economic, and political stability of nations.

In these passages the clear concern in condemning bribery is that of corrupting justice. When two parties conspire, one demanding and one paying a bribe, to pervert justice (harming the innocent, oppressing the poor, or giving undue favor to the one paying the bribe) someone outside that transaction is being harmed. While Scripture always condemns accepting a bribe for any reason, it is also always wrong to pay a bribe that serves injustice.

But that is not as clear cut as it may appear because the one paying a bribe is harmed financially. This is where we must return to the issue of serving a higher purpose. There are times that not paying a bribe will allow a greater evil to continue or evil grow worse.

Let us consider war as an analogy. The Bible tells us not to “return evil for evil” – 1 Peter 3:9. Many will argue that we should not wage war. But a ruthless enemy can bring economic and social ruin, enslavement and lawlessness. These things hurt the most vulnerable the most. To allow such an enemy to take control is a great evil. But resistance to such an enemy may protect and preserve many, many lives and livelihoods. God grants civil governments the power to wage war on our behalf as a defense against growing evil. The evil of taking lives in resistance to evil power may well be the lesser of evils.

Bribes occur when one party possesses power (authority) that is unavailable to the other party. Either the first party demands a bribe or the second party offers a bribe to motivate the first to act on their authority. The one with power can withhold justice or threaten to perform an injustice or the one offering a bribe may do so with the intent of perverting justice. In both cases, bribery is grossly sinful. However, a bribe may be paid to ensure or restore justice. Here then the burden of sin falls on the person in the power position. This may well be taken an instance in which Peter commends us to submit even to unrighteous authority (unjust masters, 1 Peter 2:18).

Some examples of where the one paying a bribe might not sin would be in making payment to government officials or to utility workers to ensure the timely completion of their duties and tasks. The Bible does not condemn those who paid tribute to conquering kings (a form of bribe to appease aggressors).

It goes without saying that bribes should never have to happen. But there are times, especially as concerns the spread of the Gospel and our service to those in suffering, when we may rest assured that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20). And we can pray that as the Gospel spreads around the world that laws and social morals against bribery will strengthen.

In the end, we must be very careful about paying bribes but there may be times, with proper discernment, that to pay a bribe may be the godly thing to do.

Seminar handbook

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Why the Church Should Go into Business

God saw one thing in creation that was not good: Adam was alone. Other than my own ponderings, I have never read or heard why. But God’s response rectified the situation by creating a co-worker for Adam. Most theologians, preachers, and laity would point to Eve being created as Adam’s wife for the production of future generations but that is not how she is first introduced.

In effect, God created a market economy by introducing the division of labor so Adam (and Eve) could prosper together. That is, they could help each other by specializing in their work and thereby increasing the “wealth,” or creature comforts, of their existence by exchanging the fruits of their individual efforts. That increased comfort was to be a sign of God’s blessing, evidence of his grace.

Another little noted reality, which I had to point out to scholars working on a biblical theology of work, is that God did not command Adam to work: God created Adam to work. Read the text again. Commands to work in the Bible come only after Adam’s fall from grace as corrective instruction to overcome the influence of sin.

Vocation first, then trade, or exchange, are central to the original order and intention of creation. We often hear that work is inherently dignifying, giving a person the ability to contribute to their own support. What we miss is that their work contributes to the economic vitality of the whole world. We are, in the parlance of drudgery, simply cogs in the machine. But that perspective is exactly what the world would have us embrace over against God’s intention that we would find personal fulfillment by taking part in the economic health and betterment of all, from our households and co-workers at hand, to the farthest reaches of our tightly globalized economies.

Unfortunately, the Church has moved far away from business as being a “worldly” pursuit taking greed and abuse as the hallmarks of commerce. Should we likewise take infidelity and beatings as the hallmarks of marriage? Obviously, we answer “no” to the latter because we understand that sin has corrupted this “original” institution of God. We should embrace the marketplace just as we do marriage, bringing the redemptive grace of God to bear in the workplace and in trade.

The Church has embraced the concept of charity, that is, of giving through funds, services, and goods. That is right and good. But, though God saw a shortcoming in Adam’s existence he did not simply make it easier for Adam to thrive in Eden by directly providing everything for him. Rather, he gave him a job and created a market place, a more indirect facilitation for blessing.

So, how does this support the idea that the Church should go into business? Well, in many ways, the Church is already in business. We often think of the Church in predominantly institutional terms. But the Church is all of God’s people and the vast majority of its members enter the marketplace on a daily basis. Hence, in significant ways, the Church is already in, and doing, business, by working diligently, by applying the integrity of Christian ethic, and even in positions of empowering leadership.

The results include providing jobs and incomes, facilitating giving, and creating opportunity for growth economics to bless the lives of even more of the global poor, wresting them from the throes of poverty. And there is a significance here that can be easily missed.

When we survey the global scene, we are confronted by a myriad of hardships and striving. We have domestic racial divides and global political and religious conflicts. Interestingly, if we boil them down, nearly all are rooted in economic deprivation or strivings after economic power. Sex trafficking exists because 1) there is a market for sex (meaning people are willing to pay for it) and 2) there are unscrupulous people greedy enough to abuse others (typically the economically vulnerable) to make money.

Most religious conflicts are rooted in power struggles for influence and economic influence is most powerful of all as it affords the one with wealth to wield increasing legal and military strength. Hence we find struggles between ancient religions as they fight for cultural control and seek to extend their reach taking unto themselves more and more power via economic and political strength. No one would be aggressive in war if not for the ability to fund their supply chains and weaponry.

My point is, as we survey the Bible, we will find that there are two main ingredients at work in the devastations of humankind. First is alienation from God. The second is human autonomy due to that alienation. Because we fear deprivation, because we do not know or trust God to provide for and protect us, we hoard wealth and we fight one another. Our alienation from God reaps alienation from our own (human) race.
Why should the Church go into business? Because exchange, based in godly values, overcomes evil. Globalization has cut the rate of global poverty in half in the last twenty years. Trade mitigates strife between nations as trading partners realize the debilitating and economically draining impact of war. Jobs reduce crime in poverty stricken areas. Where more people have access to gainful employment, they are less inclined to steal to feed their families. Where education is understood to be a key element to a healthy economy, jobs proliferate and businesses thrive. Where economic provision reaches the furthest down the economic ladder, shalom, the overall well-being of society-at-large, grows.

Closest to home, we see whole sectors of our metropolitan areas marginalized where business closures and job losses, coupled with poorly run educational institutions, ill preparing youth to take part in even their local economies, lead into a downward spiral of desperation. That desperation supports illicit trade in prostitution (including pornography) and drug trafficking, both of which lend themselves to organized crime and gang activity.

Churches have an opportunity to impact their broader communities but most cloister, either as havens of escape in desperate communities or havens of excuse in wealthier ones. Sadly, most clergy have no concept of the biblical or theological legitimacy of commerce as God’s plan for humankind. It is this ignorance, and feeble preaching that does not pierce the heart to “love one another” and bless the poor, that keeps the Church in the West divided racially and economically. It is this ignorance that makes the Church’s charitable works repetitive trips to the same well, drawing deeper and deeper until the waters must be parsed out sparingly rather than overflowing in abundance.

The Church has the resources, not just of funds but of intellect (reasoning capacity), intelligence (that is, information), experience, and time to change the world, to witness to the glory of God for all the world to see, simply by self-sacrificially reaching out to bless the poor by welcoming them into the “rest” of economic viability. That witness is specifically why the Church should go into business.

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On Evolution and Death before Adam’s Fall from Grace

Religious anti-evolution rhetoric poses a hollow argument against the development of God- consciousness in primates (as opposed to the spontaneous creation of full physically and spiritually complete humanity in Adam and Eve) by claiming that death came into the world through sin which did not exist before Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit. On the surface, the argument sounds good but there are some very simple, though subtle, problems that undermine the argument.

First, God told Adam that the very day he should eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he (Adam) would surely die. The Hebrew term for die is muth which is commonly understood to be physical death throughout the Old Testament so the doctrine of the introduction of physical death by this act of sin would appear to have at least one leg to stand on. The first problem is, if physical death had never occurred before Adam sinned, and obviously before God announced this particular penalty in Genesis 2:17, Adam would have had absolutely no understanding of the concept and God’s proclamation would have been meaningless without such a point of reference in Adam’s experience or knowledge. We have no indication whatsoever from the text that God supernaturally explained or infused a knowledge of death into Adam’s understanding.

The second problem is the bigger one and comes in God’s judgment in Genesis 3:14-24a. The direct result of Adam’s sin was numerous curses placed on Eve, Adam, and the ground, then Adam’s banishment from the Garden in 3:23. The problem is not explicit here but is implied if we take God’s original commandment in 2:17 to mean physical death (as an argument against physical death before the Fall). After he sinned, Adam did not die physically. If we adhere to a literal interpretation, that would mean 1) God lied and 2) the serpent was the purveyor of truth. But we know from the rest of Scripture and by the witness of the Holy Spirit that 1) God does not lie and 2) Lucifer misleads by means of deception.

The solution to this seeming inconsistency on God’s part is to realize that what made Adam and Eve human as divine image-bearers, was not their physicality, that is, we easily assume that our physical nature is not reflective of the image of God since God is Spirit and has no physical nature. What made them human was god-consciousness which allowed for communion with God. It is relatively easy to understand that I can have no overt relationship, and especially an intimate one, with someone or something of which I have no knowledge of its existence. When God breathed life into humanity, he breathed into a pre-existing body which was created before god-consciousness was possible, even according to the order of operations in the text itself in Genesis 2:7. In this sense, becoming a “living being” takes on a very different meaning than simply drawing breath of oxygen. It means drawing a different kind of vitality from the realized, inspired (or “in breathed”), notion of the divine.

When we speak of death, we most often think in physical terms but we do not consider the extended etymology of the term itself. The Hebrew term, muth, carries both a figurative and a literal sense. Adam did not die literally, that is, physically, from God’s judgment on his sin. Rather, Adam died figuratively, spiritually. As he was displaced literally from God’s presence in the Garden, he was also displaced figuratively from God’s presence spiritually, from intimate communion. We do not die in a literal sense when we sin but our sin separates us from communion with God because our unholiness cannot abide with the holiness of God.

If we die unrepentant and unforgiven in our sin, we ultimately suffer twice in the loss of physical communion with the world and our loved ones and also in the loss of spiritual communion with God. We can attest to humankind’s fallen nature and the struggles of life – according to the laborious nature of Adam’s work after the fall and even the resistance he meets in his enduring interactions with the rest of creation (the coming forth of the thorns and thistles from the accursed ground) – due to our spiritual isolation from God.

While our species likely evolved physically very much along the lines science suggests, god-consciousness was the spontaneous act of God’s grace – the infusion of divine breath – that made Adam, and us, aware of the reality of God and called into being response-abled humanity.

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Pink Floyd and Refracting Light: The Tension of Worldly Ego and Kingdom Unity

As I continue working through Georg A Reisch’s Pink Floyd and Philosophy, I find numerous themes relevant to the Kingdom of God as an emerging – already-but-not-yet – reality. That is, there are components of the Kingdom that have been and are being realized in the here-and-now while its culmination rests entirely in the future return of Christ.

One such theme is highlighted in the eighth chapter, “Roger Waters: Artist of the Absurd,” by Deena Weinstein, a professor of Sociology at DePaul. Weinstein analyzes Waters’ lyrical contemplations of the tension between the human desire for connection (i.e., unity) and the draw of autonomy. Water’s, in alignment with the Albert Camus’ existential frustrations, presuming an atheistic point of view, is reduced to only voicing the frustrations of that tension. That is, he is reduced to an absurd view of life (and therefore of expression) given the futility of trying to overcome a seemingly perfect balance between these two realities: those of alienation and ego.

Water’s ultimate futility is likely captured most succinctly in the bewildering and morale crippling fade at the end of “Time” (Dark Side of the Moon):

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English* way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

[Author: I would have to substitute “fallen human” here.]

Any real value to Water’s reflections are now made void, trailing off into the mind-numbing loss of coherency. Finding and offering no answers, there is nothing for this lost soul, still alone in trying to make connections while simultaneously clinging to individual personal identity, to wrap his mind around as a truly unifying factor in human experience. He is frustrated by his aloneness (“It is not good for the man to be alone.”) while creating the very walls of his own isolating and alienating prison. Unfortunately, having never seen over the walls, he does not realize that there is any reality outside them.

He is, so to speak, blinded by his own ego and will, simultaneously unwilling and, therefore unable, to trust in anything outside himself and his own ability to perceive truth (reality). This is the ultimate act of hubris because it disallows epistemic humility. Perhaps the artist would be better served to step back long enough to realize his frustration is not with externalities but with his own capacity which is far too limited to grasp “everything under the sun” in its completeness. On the other hand, I believe Water’s is honestly wrestling with his own internal discontinuities (which Weinstein points out) but still cannot see the necessity of making himself vulnerable to overcome the hurdles he cannot see over. He needs an external answer (God) but wrestles on, seeking the closing line to the last verse that still eludes him, his “something more to say,” for his own sake as much as for the listener.

Here then I would address the significance of his dilemma for the Church and, therefore, the mission of God (the mission Dei) and the advancement of the Kingdom of God. It is the very same blindness of the artist that cripples the Church in its pursuit of serving God. It is the blinding power of ego that voices belief yet continues to live (act) in unbelief.

This is the impact of Adam’s sin. Not that God could not have spontaneously changed Adam to “fix” his failure. He easily could have. What God did do however was to put Adam out of the Garden and curse the ground to harden the task of Adam’s existence. It would seem Adam, finding himself outside of God’s intimate grace (though still the recipient of his life-giving and sustaining grace), would have immediately humbled himself to re-enter the security, the shalom, of that former intimacy.

What Adam did, however, and everyone since (except Jesus), was to allow his circumstances to drown out the call of God to humble himself. Adam became autonomous and self-reliant. His sweat and toil were the products of his own desire to be like God outpacing the blessing of being with God. Adam chose disunity with the divine in hopes of making himself divine. In the aftermath of his sin (his disunifying choice and action), God chose to let Adam’s race experience that disunity in the hopes that the despair of autonomy (attempting to fulfill oneself and the inner re-calling to communion with the divine) would drive them to seek God’s fellowship once again. But that fellowship demands releasing one’s autonomy.

The disunity of the Church is a function of this same fear of vulnerability. We tend to trust our own theological evaluations and valuations of a long litany of doctrines more than we can bring ourselves to trust others. Our mistake lies in wanting to put our trust in the evaluations and valuations of others (and ourselves) before we place our trust in God. This is not unlike the dysfunctions of marriages. As the bride of Christ, we refuse to release ourselves entirely to the groom. We distrust because our ego disallows trusting God’s goodness to the point of overcoming the fear of vulnerability. “What if,” we ask subconsciously, God (my Groom) cannot fulfill all that I desire? What if God is not sufficient to meet all my needs?

This distrust then is misdirected to our peers who also suffer the same malady. Sadly, to even admit the malady makes us vulnerable and exacerbates our fear of being abused. Our wariness is directly a function of our lack of faith because, knowing history, we fear reliving it in our own experience.

Storm Thorgerson, heading the Hipgnosis graphic art group, was the creative mind behind several Pink Floyd album covers. The prism cover of Dark Side of the Moon is likely the most famous. The human desire for unity, represented by the singularity of white light, gives way to the spectrum of disunity in the refraction of that light into the bands of rainbow colors. The point behind the cover art is that autonomy leads to alienation in the recognition that we are different one from the next – red and green are forever opposites and cannot abide with one another.

Sadly, we tend to focus on how to overcome the refraction while remaining unwilling to make ourselves vulnerable to “being absorbed” into the unity in fear of losing our personal identity and the ability to fulfill ourselves by our own definition. If anything, our unity in Christ celebrates the fact that all those colors, all the uniqueness of individual identity, are present within the singularity and are what, in communion with the divine, ultimately reflect what is pure and holy – the perfect light, the fulfillment of God’s desire that all of God’s people be of one mind and Spirit.

The Bible consistently calls for us to humble ourselves before God. And we believe we do. But similar to the intertwining reality of loving God specifically by loving others as the fulfillment of “all the Law and prophets,” our humility before God must also entail recognizing our own limitations and ego in making ourselves vulnerable to others. There is no small risk involved in following Christ and more often than not that includes real world risks in our daily life.

In embracing those risks, we exercise faith, trusting God for outcomes above what we might expect of others or contrive in our own thinking and doing. God asks for us to “count the costs” which is nothing short of wholesale abandonment to self. But he also promises, as Kenneth Cain Kinghorn’s book title suggests, to make us fully human (Christ Can Make You Fully Human, Abingdon, 1979), the perfect fulfillment of self.

Faith, especially walked out in the community of the universal Church, in unity of Spirit and the calling to glorify God, risks looking absurd to an absurd world. But faith leads to a revelation of God’s glory both through and within us, and faith comes only by the sacrifice of the ego.

The true beauty of the pure Light is revealed imperfectly in the rainbow of refraction. There is much deeper beauty, a place of spiritual, emotional, even of temporal, shalom, within the singularity. Contemplatives and theologians through the ages have touched on it though no one has completely or adequately described it. St. Thomas Aquinas is attributed with stating:  “Everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.”

As Aquinas’ intimacy with and knowledge of God increased, he simply reached a point of being at a loss for words, even recognizing the inadequacy of all the words that had come before. His ego was crushed in the winepress of God’s refining love. Aquinas could see the beauty of the rainbow as a reflection of God’s image but now could see how the subtle alienations of the spectrum fell so far short of the purity and unity of the true Light.

Aquinas had nothing more to say but, unlike Roger Waters, his was a silence of stupefaction in the presence of God rather than hitting the limiting walls of his own construction. Life is not absurd. It only seems so to an ego rejecting the reality of God. Perhaps that is why Scripture tells us “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm14:1). To the proud fool, all is absurd. To the humble, all becomes Light.

 

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Pink Floyd and the Kingdom of God

Okay, I will admit that this essay has little to do with any direct connection between Pink Floyd and the Kingdom of God. However, sometimes the random rabbit trails we follow end up awakening some interesting thoughts.

I recently acquired a copy of Pink Floyd and Philosophy: Careful with that Axiom, Eugene! (Open Court Publishing, 2007), edited by George a Reisch, a graduate instructor at Northwestern University. The fourth essay in the book, “Pigs Training Dogs to Exploit Sheep: Animals as a Beast Fable Dystopia,” was written by Patrick Croskery, an Associate Professor in the Department of Religion & Philosophy at Ohio Northern University. This is some heady stuff!

Croskery draws parallels and discusses the similarities between Pink Floyd’s Animals and George Orwell’s 1984. As a Christian, endowed with the Holy Spirit, I cannot help but to “hear” God’s voice in relation to the subjects before me and reflecting on God’s take, so to speak, on those subjects.

What jumped out at me most was Croskery’s succinct capture of the three dominant forces at work in human culture: government, the marketplace, and community. He makes an excellent point that (what I consider) the “powers and principalities” within societies are always in tension. The government polices human behavior. The marketplace provides for human material well being. The community dictates moral direction.

Unfortunately, as Croskery points out, only the government and the marketplace have well-ordered power structures in place to exercise their will. The community, unless riled to strong unified action, like governmental overthrows or large-scale boycotts, gets pushed around a lot by the entrenched directors of the other two institutions for their own advantage. Communal moral authority tends to degrade as it slowly succumbs to the seemingly indomitable corruption of the power drive and elitism of government and the greed that too often fosters bottom line thinking at all (human) costs in business.

What struck me was that these three institutional structures emanate from the community of the Trinity, which predicates both governance and provision on communal moral authority. That community is founded in love, the essence of both Spirit (philosophic personality as inward, guiding motivation) and divine character (manifest behavioral personality as outward, action orientation). As 1 John 4:8 says: God is love.

Thus we can see the corrupting effect of sin in that social mores are subsumed (pushed away from divine order) and culture (and therefore all overarching institutions) suffers separation from God’s will, ways, and plan, driven by the overt entrenchment of human self-determination and self-interest.

As we participate in bringing God’s Kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, we must first take on the mind of Christ, that is, to accept and then act on a guiding philosophy of altruistic being. God does not relish material sacrifices for their own sake. He wants all people to function from a heart of justice which entails willing sacrifice as a manifestation of divine character (Proverbs 21:3; see also my essay “On Justice and Righteousness – mishpat & tsadaq” at http://wp.me/p1Z8Bv-3L).

Consider if government was not the realm of “halls of power” but truly administered as if the elected were “public servants,” serving the good of as many people as possible while risking their own displacement in the next election due to making decisions unpopular with power brokers from other social quarters. Or imagine business owners (even absentee stockholders) demanding and ensuring all workers received a living wage, compassion in discipline, and facilitation for re-training and finding new opportunities before layoffs occurred. Both sets of actors would need to see “the other” as more deserving of consideration than their own well-being, or at least in league with it. It would take overcoming risk aversion as an act of faith, trusting that God is faithful and that righteousness precedes prosperity, and accepting whatever form of reward (and outcome) God dictates.

The central problem is that such a system has never been adequately demonstrated nor have enough hearts been transformed by seeing such a model at work. Words are powerful for proclamation but deeds speak much more loudly. If the claims we make do not align with our own behavior, how can we justify our faith to any unbeliever? How can we portray the Kingdom of God as more attractive than the world as it is if our behavior endorses the current structures and distributions of wealth and power?

It is clear that Jesus suffered not just for our individual salvation but for the redemption of the world. That includes the reformation of meta-institutions toward reconciling human life with God’s heart and created order. George Orwell critiqued the emergent oligarchy of socialism after the Bolshevik revolution. Pink Floyd critiqued the same types of rule in the marketplace (“Welcome to the Machine”) that endorse riding  the “gravy train” and in Western educational systems (“Another Brick in the Wall”) that program students toward conformity that will keep the current governmental and economic structures in place.

The Church, as a single community, needs to critique both of these, but better by example than simply decrying the sins of the world in the public square. God’s mission in the world is to turn the existing power structures upside down such that public morality (a function of community) leads government and business rather than succumbing to them. Christians should be intentional in seeking influential roles in both institutions to re-order them toward the original order of creation (see Howard A. Snyder’s Salvation Means Creation Healed. Snyder’s book has a strong emphasis on environmental redemption but is clear that the doctrine justifying that focus is universal as it applies to every aspect of human life and experience, including the redemption of institutional roles).

This means Christian business leaders will need to take large risks in light of prevailing business philosophies, perhaps even running the risk of losing their businesses. But money is not the primary focus of business in God’s creation. The division of labor and exchange are anticipated in Eve’s introduction as helpmate, a co-worker, in the Garden of Eden. The self-interested drive for profit (i.e., toward self-preservation in distrust of God’s provision) was not on the horizon until after Adam’s Fall from grace.

This also means that elected and appointed officials will need to do “what is right,” pursuing an universal morality, applicable to all without demanding a theocratic (or otherwise overtly ideological) agenda (though “what is right” is guided by theological and ideological considerations). Such a pursuit is obviously a slippery slope given innumerable public views, ranging from the extremes of varied fundamental religious cults (whether Christian, Muslim, or otherwise) to the guilt-driven political correctness of godless humanism. But Christ suffered willingly for us all and made no promise that our ministry to the world would be any easier.

Outside the Garden, every man since Adam, save One, has operated to varying degrees as if he is alone in the universe. But Christ established his Kingdom on earth in his teaching ministry (by proclamation, Word) and obedience to the Cross (demonstration, deed). We are called to do likewise. Unfortunately, just as Jesus was tempted in the desert, Christians in positions of influence are faced with a myriad of temptations, most especially that of being conformed to the world in the form of pragmatism. To submit to practicality as the final answer in decision-making is having no faith in the character, promises, and leading of God. In both governance and business, Christians need to be adventurous and fearless risk takers, trusting God before others and even before our own assessment of surrounding circumstances.

Pink Floyd’s songwriters, especially Roger Waters, wrestled deeply with the major issues of the human condition – evil, alienation and isolation, power and greed, etc. The angst at the heart of the driving melodies and lyrics have been popularized as much by the sense of identification of listeners with the writers as the beauty of the music itself. Pink Floyd stands out as a strong representative of all the poetic philosophers who have emerged through the music industry of the last half century. Waters et al sadly offer no answers to the questions that so vex them. But they give new and very popular voice to a lost and dying world seeking, though ignorant of it, the Kingdom of God and the shalom it affords to all.

 

 

 

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Transitions and Transformation

After a five year hiatus, I have recently re-entered a marketplace vocation. Some readers will know that I have owned three businesses, all together spanning forty percent of my career life. I have never had a particular career plan thus my income history has been something of a roller coaster ride. But I have no complaints. I seemed to have done well enough generally to stay fed, clothed, and housed.

Many of the jobs I have had and the businesses I have started presented themselves along the way, almost arbitrarily it seems. My businesses occupied very different commercial spaces – technology, niche retail, and homeowner / small business services. My other jobs, starting at a very early age, have spanned nearly a dozen sectors, including public utilities, hospitality, media and communications, warehousing and distribution, entertainment, retail, manufacturing, academia, and others.

Across my career, I have worked as an engineer / CAD designer and cartographer, (not bad for an English lit major), a writer (now there’s that degree in action!), and in sales, management, production, planning, service, supervision, etc. ad nauseum. To say my career has been eclectic is undoubtedly an understatement. I have found the most satisfying work, however, where I was met with the most challenges. That would most significantly include the simultaneous wearing of innumerable hats as an entrepreneur and the two engineering positions that required learning new technologies and performing technical design work.

I do believe, however, the highlight of my career life has been the years dedicated to theological education and writing, especially where it has spilled over into application through charitable work. We often downplay our volunteer efforts as outside our career picture but that work is the most rewarding especially as it matches up with the skills and experience we have developed professionally.

As eclectic as my career has been, including my theological education and self-led studies on a number of sociological, anthropological, and business topics, one can imagine that what has accumulated in my head (and my personal library) covers a broad range of material (though that cover in many areas is none too thick!). My interests seem to interact in a chicken and egg-like way: I enjoy the particulars of a myriad of subjects but I more enjoy the big picture and how all the parts of varied disciplines fit and work ecologically. For example, my most ambitious writing was on marketplace theology, two topics most people would not connect, at least not intuitively.

But most of all, I enjoy thinking (and praying) and now find myself reflecting on my latest career moves. After a five-year hiatus from wage earning (thank God my wife has had a really good job!) and sneaking up on retirement, I have sought to re-enter the marketplace to achieve some financial goals. But I hoped for a position that, again, presented some new challenges. In October of last year, almost by happenstance, I was hired by a family-owned manufacturing company where I was to learn how to operate two very expensive pieces of fabrication equipment – a CNC (computer numeric control) table and a plastics welder – and create CAD (computer-aided design) drawings.

I had never worked in a manufacturing setting as a machine operator and it had been nearly two decades since my last venture into CAD work. Beyond the challenges of the machines I was to learn, the CAD work has also pushed me over the threshold from two dimensional to three dimensional drawing. But all three functions are coming together in their own right and I am comfortable now that I can handle all three to a satisfactory degree.

The more interesting part, however, has been prayerfully reflecting on this career move, especially the last few days. I ask of the Lord, “Why this?” and “What can I learn in this situation as part of my spiritual journey?” and “What part do I have to play for the sake of others here?”

I have no delusions to finding pat or complete answers to these questions any time soon but a recent event, in light of other recent thoughts, put a finer edge on “seeing.” A friend, just a day or two ago, posted online a snapshot definition of holiness attributed to St. Augustine: “Holiness makes a person gentle, so they do not revel in controversy.”

If one has been a regular reader of my blog posts, they may have noticed a dramatic fall off in my productivity in the last few months. I have never been prolific in my blog postings (even postings on social media) but have written a fair number of essays along the way. But last summer, my trip to India had an unforeseen impact: I found myself with less to say.

I have wanted to write on a number of concerns, especially on the woeful decline of the American church, but find most online discussions and debates tiresome. My most painful reflection is that failure of the American church is due to the way the Gospel specifically and the Bible generally are handled so poorly, resulting in a form of religion without power.

We live in times, though likely no less so than of eras past, of great controversies – racial tensions, conflicts with Islam, economic upheaval and inequities, political divisions, social repression, and so on. I simply do not want to join in most conversations because I see that too many have already done so (especially Christians weighing in on the topic of American politics), effectively to little or no end.

As I have prayed, I have wondered why I suddenly seemed to have so little to say, or at least feel so little compulsion to say it. It would seem that each us has little more than a microscopic role to play, if any at all, and more often than not adding our voice to the din amounts to no more than a clanging cymbal. Perhaps our greatest roles are to intercede in prayer as Christ often did and piously manage no more than our own direct spheres of influence.

As I pondered these things, my friend’s post appeared and I wondered anew as Augustine’s sentiment immediately brought to mind St. Paul’s hortatory in 1 Thessalonians 4:11 “…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands…”

My career has been one of multiple professional re-inventions. My current job has inspired me to think ahead as to what I will do when I (technically) retire, or at least semi-retire, in a few years. I like working with my hands, making or fixing things, but I especially like the creative process of designing things. I am looking forward now and am starting as a hobbyist, to a new, though far less ambitious, new business designing, making, and selling my own creations.

I have a couple of friends in the community where I hope to retire who are of similar age and situation who I hope to entice to work with me, at least to some degree. I am looking forward to hours in my someday workshop, drawing, crafting, and chatting. I am ready for the quiet life.

Though I hope to continue to work on some outside projects, especially in Christian missions, I find myself less and less concerned about provision. I have chosen Psalm 23 to read daily this year as part of my devotional time. God has always been and shall ever remain a faithful and generous provider just as the first verses of that psalm affirm. Perhaps my workshop is to become both the green pastures and still waters of my future.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring. I may write more (or even less) than I have in the past few months but too often our writings are for little else than our own vainglory. I want to avoid that, though there within me still that desire for recognition. In any case, I want to be available for those God calls me to be available to and do everything I can to do as he guides. But I have a growing appreciation of the lifelong enjoyments I have found in just being productive and in spending time with those I love, both family and friend.

I am gratefully entering those years where sociological studies find we grow in contentment, even joyfulness. And I thank God for the opportunities to grow in being still that I might know him.

Shalom.

 

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