“Communal Sex: Or, Why Your Neighbor Has Any Business Asking You What You Did Last Night”

In contemporary society, sex is public–moms go on talk shows and confess to sleeping with their daughters’ boyfriends, Calvin Klein models expose their body parts in magazine ads. But if sex is public, it is not communal. Americans consider sex a fine topic of public disclosure but we insist that sex is also private, nobody’s business but mine and the person with whom I’m doing it. I can show you my midriff in public, and I can make out with my boyfriend on a park bench, but there is no communal grammar that allows you to talk to me about this body I am exposing in front of you. (Lauren Winner, Real Sex, p. 47)

It’s an interesting phenomenon, isn’t it? Keep your nose out of my bedroom, unless I choose to broadcast it on Dr. Phil. I can decide to tell the world about my sex life, but if you ask me about it out of genuine care or concern you have become the definition of foot-in-mouth disease. On the one hand, I can’t ask a close friend if all is well in his sex life without fear of faux pas. On the other hand, the very public fascination with the affair of General Petraeus has far exceeded is newsworthiness.

I wonder if our public fascination with sex stems in part from Read more of this post

Give Me a Sign!: The Will of God in the John Muir Woods

How do you know if you’re “in God’s will?” How do you know if the future you imagine for yourself is the future God wants for you? These and other questions stretched our minds and hearts as my wife and I visited Northern California this week. We spent four days each in the Bay Area and the Sacramento area trying to discern if and where God is calling us to plant a church in those regions. It was a delightful but exhausting process. We tried to discern our fit with a huge array of communities, tirelessly examined our motives for desiring (or not desiring) to plant in a particular city, read stories of calling in the Bible, and prayed. We prayed a lot. We wanted to hear from God.

On Friday, we took the day off to do just that. It was our Sabbath: our day of ceasing from the busyness of vocational discernment in order to pay more attention to God. Hiking through the John Muir Woods, we came upon Cathedral Grove. We entered in silence, staring up at redwoods taller than the sequoias, listening to the God who had planted them millennia before and was present among them now. By the time that section of woods was done, we had an unspoken agreement: our hike would continue like this for some time.

About 3 miles in, at a critical juncture in the trail, Steph shared something like “a word from the Lord” she had received. Most of the time we might dismiss it as mere insight, but we had been listening. She told me she had just been thinking how much she would have liked to have a map (better, a GPS) so we could know exactly where we were, where we were going, and how much distance we had left. Wouldn’t that be nice? But all we had was the trail in front of us and the memory of a sign pointing us in that direction. Right as she was thinking that, we approached the next sign: “←  Ben Johnson Trail.”  It struck her that God may be telling us that all we get sometimes are signs…not maps.

It strikes me that it’s possible to hope for an audible command from the Almighty in order to remove all ambiguity, so that we won’t have to trust in him going forward. In his grace, God hasn’t so far let us fall back on our spiritual GPS. We did not get a map of our church planting future on our trip to Northern California. But I am pleased to report that we did run into a couple signs along the way, and we’re excited to see what’s around the corner on the trail ahead.

Personal Growth: An Age of Self-Planting Trees

It’s been a while since I’ve posted on this blog, but since it’s summer now I think the time is ripe for a fresh start.  Something else ripe for a fresh start: my cilantro, basil, and spearmint (not to mention cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and summer squash). Yes, like many of you, my wife and I have started vegetable and herb gardens, and I am so excited to see some of those seeds turn into seedlings, and tiny sprouts turn into fruit bearing plants.

As I sauntered up the hill to water my garden this evening, as I bent down to examine the first yellow blossom on our cherry tomato plant, and as I spritzed the garden with that life-juice we call water, I couldn’t get this image out of my head:

Blessed is the one Read more of this post

Christianity and Pluralism (5): Christianity = Statement or Story?

In this final installment on how Christianity interacts with a pluralistic culture, I want to start with a story.

Many years ago, our human ancestors huddled around fires listening to shamans and elders telling narrative stories by which they made sense of their world and their lives in it. They told myths about the world’s origins, and about how they as peoples came to be….They recounted myths about fairies, spirits, gods, and powerful cosmic forces. By narrating such fictional stories, our ancestors recounted meaningful explanations of a world that was to them mysterious and dangerous….As primitives, telling such stories, myths, and legends was the only way they knew how to explain the world and contemplate how to live in it…

But all of that has changed. We moderns no longer have to huddle around fires telling fanciful myths about creations, floods, trials, conquests, and hoped-for paradises. Science, industry, rationality, and technology have dispelled the darkness and ignorance that once held the human race captive to its fanciful fables. Today, through progress, enlightenment, and cultural evolution, we now possess positive knowledge, scientific facts, rational analyses. We no longer need to be a people of ballads and legends, for we are a people of periodic tables, technical manuals, genetic maps, and computer codes….We have left behind myths and legends….Indeed, by struggling to break out of the fear and ignorance of our ancestral myth-making past into the clear daylight of rational, scientific knowledge, we have opened up for the human race a future of greater prosperity, longevity, and happiness.

Such is the story we moderns–huddled around our televisions and computer work stations–like to tell each other. This is the dominant narrative by which we make sense of our world and the purpose of our lives in it. (Moral, Believing Animals, 63-4) Read more of this post

Christianity and Pluralism (4): A Christian Agnostic

After the last three days of posts, you might get the sense that I think I know a whole lot more than I do. Well, that very well may be true. I guess only time will tell. But if you get the feeling that I think I know everything….I will respectfully disagree. (Bummer for me though.) In fact, an essential part of my belief in God is that he is incomprehensible. And if I can’t know everything about him, there’s sure to be more about this world I am quite ignorant about.

Lesslie Newbigin writes:

…it is essential to the integrity of our witness to this new reality [or the good news of Christianity] that we recognize that to be its witnesses does not mean to be the possessors of all truth. It means to be placed on the path by following which we are led toward the truth. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 12)

In the Christian tradition I come from, there is a huge emphasis on the fact (and I use that word intentionally, cf. yesterday’s post) that God is incomprehensible. We cannot wrap our mind around him. As much as I write about God on this blog, Read more of this post

Christianity and Pluralism (3): Easter and a Co-opted Christianity

Lesslie Newbigin, the inspiration for this series, has a great story about a time when he was a young Christian missionary in India. It really helped me to grasp this next topic. He recalls:

When I was a young missionary I used to spend one evening each week in the monastery of the Ramakrishna Mission in the town where I lived, sitting on the floor with the monks and studying with them the Upanishads and the Gospels. In the great hall of the monastery, as in all the premises of the Ramakrishna Mission, there is a gallery of portraits of the great religious teachers of humankind. Among them, of course, is a portrait of Jesus. Each year on Christmas Day worship was offered before this picture. Jesus was honored, worshipped, as one of the many manifestations of deity in the course of human history. To me, as a foreign missionary, it was obvious that this was not a step toward the conversion of India. It was the co-option of Jesus into the Hindu worldview. Jesus had become just one figure in the endless cycle of karma and samsara, the wheel of being in which we are all caught up. He had been domesticated into the Hindu worldview. That view remained unchallenged. (GPS, 3)

Every culture has a set of beliefs its members take for granted. Newbigin calls this its plausibility structure. Read more of this post

Christianity and Pluralism (2): Coercion and Corruption of the Christian Message

Yesterday, I suggested that while a pluralistic attitude toward religion (i.e. saying that all religions are equally in the dark about ultimate things) is admirably humble, it is also deeply flawed. It turns out that while the pluralist says, “No single religion or worldview can get to the whole truth. So we should all just reject authoritative dogma and accept each others’ positions,” they are, at the same time, contradicting all those religions (like Christianity, Islam, various forms of Buddhism, etc.) that do make claims to ultimate truth. In fact, what the pluralist is doing is exactly what they tell others not to do–they are saying that their worldview encompasses and explains all other worldviews.

So why make this mistake? Why pretend to be inclusive and intellectually humble when we are actually exalting our worldview above all of the world’s great religions? Read more of this post

Christianity and Pluralism (1): Groping the Elephant

Religious symbols from the top nine organised ...

“In a pluralist society such as ours, any confident statement of ultimate belief, any claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic. We have no reason to be frightened of this accusation.” (Lesslie Newbigin).

If you don’t believe anyone should impress their beliefs on anyone else, this week’s series is for you. If you do believe you should impress your beliefs on everyone else, this week’s series is for you. If you are simply curious about what it means for a Christian to tell someone about her faith in a culture that often tells us such an act is arrogant and unloving, this week’s series is for you. If Christians have been unloving to you when telling you about their faith, but you know that doesn’t rule out the whole religion, this week’s series is for you.

Starting today, I am going to write a series of five blogs derived from Lesslie Newbigin‘s book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. This won’t even come close to offering the full scope of his thought on the subject, but I hope it will give you a helpful starting point for thinking about how Christianity/Christians ought to think about themselves in a pluralist society.

I’ll start off with a charming little story, Read more of this post

Pride Keeps Us from Forgiving…Ourselves

Well, I guess I have to apologize for neglecting my blog lately. With my oral comprehensive exam (three panelists grilling you on anything you learned in seminary) and the aftermath of catching up, I have put it on the back-burner. For that I apologize to you, my faithful readers. The reality is I am probably more frustrated with myself for not posting than you are. After all, there is plenty of better stuff to read on the internet.

I guess apologizing is only appropriate since this post is about forgiveness. It’s even more appropriate since I have been beating myself up for not posting, and this post is about forgiving yourself.

When we fail to forgive ourselves, we often think that it has to do with low self-esteem, or shame, or something like that. But my pastor said something in his sermon yesterday that made me reconsider (or at least nuance) that position.

Paraphrasing Dallas Willard, Pastor David said that not forgiving yourself can actually be a form of….wait for it….

PRIDE Read more of this post

Tweeting or Eating?: What People Are Giving Up For Lent in 2012

A recent Christianity Today article shows the top 100 things people gave up for Lent this year according to their Twitter feed. Number one on the list: Twitter. But although about 23,000 people are giving up Twitter and Facebook according to the Twitter-sphere, when you break down the data by category the picture becomes much clearer. While the world continues to change, social media outlets keep expanding, and newly developed and destructive fascinations creep into our daily lives, almost 80,000 tweets this year said that its sender will give up something that people have been giving up for centuries:

Food. Read more of this post