The Woods, Part 1

woods1“Don’t go into the woods,” they said.

“There are things unspeakable that happen beyond the village wall.”

“I hear there are monsters,” another warned. “I’ve heard about how they’re waiting just inside the tree line to grab you and make you their dinner.”

“Oh, yes!” cried another, her eyes growing as big as saucers as she spoke (not really, but you know what I mean). “They have eyes that see in the dark and claws like razor blades. They will tear you apart slowly, drooling as they hear your screams. Then they will eat you and nothing will be left to show that you ever existed.”

The thought of this sent shivers down my spine. Not that I would be such a great feast, but I’d like to think I would at least be a tasty appetiser.

“Yes. yes! Beware of stepping off the narrow path,” whispered a tall, rather plain-looking woman whom I recognised as my schoolteacher. “Many have thought that there is nothing to lose, and these are the same who lost their lives to the terrible creatures of the woods.”

She continued: “The elders have a book in which they’ve written the names of all who have strayed from the one path to the river and have never returned . . .” (Her voice faded away as if she were channelling the spirit of one of the dear departed.)

Suddenly, as if she was snapping out of a trance, she turned and looked directly at me. “You knew Robert.” she stated, rather matter-of-factly..

Everyone knew Robert. He was the village clown-slash-idiot. Funniest guy I ever met. We used to love hanging around him. He was the life of the party because of his uncanny way of summing up every situation with the most hilarious comedic commentary. His jokes, though sometimes verging on the border of insults, had most of us in tears–and sometimes our sides ached for days.

“Yeah. Of course I knew Robert.”

“He went out into the woods one day . . . and  n e v e r   r e t u r n e d . . .”

True. We haven’t heard anything from Robert for around 5 years now. Once he went into the woods, a renewed fear became the norm in the village. There was debate over how this could have happened. Training was given in the used of swords, spears, and fighting skills. There was also a great ceremony about writing his name in The Book, and then the Town Crier went up and down the streets of the village, calling out a list of misdeeds of which the elders had declared Robert guilty: neglecting his family, turning his back on the goodness of his village, being enticed by a desire to know more than any mortal should know. The list went on, but it was all gobbledegook to me. His own family, while never ever recovering their former happiness, seemed to write him off and go on with their lives as if he had never existed.

“But what about the birds?” I asked. “They fly into the forest every day, and happily return the next day with full stomachs and cheery songs.”

“Of course they do,” an older woman called out from behind me. I turned. “They have a special spell cast over them and the monsters don’t harm them.”

“But what about the rabbits, the foxes, the deer . . .?”

“You’d better stop asking questions, sonny.” This time it was my Uncle Tony in his low, soothing–yet stamped-with years-of experience–voice. “We all want to know what happens outside our village wall, but that is a mystery that we must learn to live with. There are some things its best we don’t know. Surely the elders who have looked after us so well for the thousands of years would never want anything but the absolute best for us.”

Uncle Tony, although getting on in years, was sharp as a tack. Of anyone in the village, he was deemed to be the wisest and most revered. He had often spoken about the value of ‘staying with the family’ and being active in village life. He didn’t just talk about it, but he lived it every day. There was nobody who thought ill of this man. It was said his own son was one of those whose names were in The Book.

I nodded. More out of respect than out of a sense that I could agree with anything he was saying. After all, nobody–at least nobody in my memory–had ever really seen the elders. (There’s a story about the old baker who happened upon an elder about 70 years ago when he was delivering bread to the castle. Apparently he came back down the hill quite fearful and shaken and nothing he said after that ever seemed to make sense. Regardless, that was only hearsay, legend. Nobody made much of it.)

And so life in the village continued.

Every morning I watched the sun rise beyond the great woods and watched it cast its golden beams into the trees. I saw birds rise up out of the forest singing. I heard the sounds of animals greeting the dawn, and felt a growing sense of wanting to know what was beyond the village wall.

(To be continued)

Which Religion is True?

BuddhaFor many, this is a genuine question. It is not something that requires a pat, one word answer. “Christianity, of course!” say some. “Islam,” say others.

People have died because of either their answer to this question or their refusal to accept another’s answer as truth.

Brian McLaren not only gives insight into this (often contentious) question in his most recent book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? but has just put up a post about it on his blog. Here’s some of what he writes:

I appreciate logic as much as the next person. But I find your statement seems to be missing some pieces:

“either all religions are false or only one is true.”

I can imagine four options:
1. All religions are completely true.
2. All religions are completely false.
3. One religion is completely true and others are true wherever they agree with it.
4. All religions are partially true and partially false.

I find #1 impossible since different religions contain many contradictions. I find #2 unlikely and incredible. That leaves #3 and #4. A big problem with #3 is that you have to ask, “Whose version of which religion?” For example, if you want to claim Christianity is completely true, you have to ask, “Pope Urban II’s version of Catholicism?” or “Benny Hinn’s version of Pentecostalism?” or “C. S. Lewis’ version of Protestantism?” or “Leo Tolstoy’s version of Russian Orthodoxy?” or … you get the point.

I would be happy to say that God knows what is completely true … but I would reject any human’s claim that they or their religion knows God’s mind with perfect accuracy. That’s why, as a committed follower of Christ, I advocate
– humility of heart and mind,
– a childlike desire to learn,
– love for neighbor, stranger, outcast, and enemy,
– and a sincere hunger and thirst for justice,
because, as Paul said, “we know in part.”

Think on these thing.

(You can read the rest of Brian’s post here.)

The True Basis of Authority

Why is it that Mother Teresa could stand up before crowds of thousands and repeat simple New Testament phrases and seemingly pious clichés, and still blow people away?!

She didn’t say anything new: “Jesus loves you,” she assured us. “We’re all sons and daughters of God, and we have to love Jesus’ poor.” Yet people walked out renewed, transformed, and converted.

She wasn’t a priest or minister. She wasn’t well educated. Her authority came from her lifestyle, her solidarity with human suffering, and thus her pure goodness.

Loving servanthood and foundational surrender are the true basis for teaching authority in the Church, much more than title, vestment, role, or office. Such lives have the living authority of Jesus himself, and need no special ordination or public validation. Jesus says to Simon Peter that he, and we ourselves, must first “be sifted like wheat,” and only then are we in a position “to recover and in turn strengthen others” (Luke 22:31-32). Such undergoing is the seminary that finally matters and that changes others’ lives. It was Jesus’ essential and first “recovery program.”

Richard Rohr

Adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, pp. 384-385

Devotion to Truth

“Any truth elevated to a status above its purpose is, by definition, self-destructive and divisive. Truths will always serve us, but they can only take us so far and they are never arbitrary. Those truths we accept are those we accept precisely because they are most efficient at expressing the love that brings the Divine into presence with us. Otherwise, we are left with simple ideas which lack any power to move us.

“Our beliefs are permitted to change. It is the purpose and standard of our beliefs that must remain constant and to which we owe allegiance. It is not devotion to evil, but devotion to truth that has been present at every slipping of the Church.”

Irv Kaage

We Never Come to the Bible Alone

This excellent post from Jamie Arpin-Ricci speaks volumes about the way we view the Holy Bible. We need to be reminded of this fact every time we approach its pages: we never come to the Bible alone but with a congregation of many, many individuals.

BibleGrowing up in a rural, evangelical community, it was not uncommon for me to hear the idea that all we need in order to know God and His will is the Bible. If anyone of us wants to know the truth about God and understand His will, all we had to do was open up Scripture and study. The Holy Spirit was all the guide we needed. We were cautioned about commentaries — they might be helpful, but we should never substitute the “explicit truth of Scripture” for the opinions of others. In its worst expressions, this led to anti-academic sentiment (and even anti-intellectualism). While the heart of this bias was genuine and well intentioned, they were also misguided and misleading. The truth is that we never come to the Bible alone.

Let’s say you open to the New Testament and read Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. The fact is, your are reading it in a translation. Immediately you are not alone. The work and minds behind that translation required endless hours of study, scholarship, debate and more. It is, after all, only one of hundreds of translations available. Even if you decided to learn the language of the original text(s), you’d still have to rely on that same scholarship. Already the room is filled with countless others who are helping you read the text.

This says nothing about the fact that you are reading the text through the lens of your place in history, culture, race, language, gender, age, education, experience, etc. Layer upon layer of bias, influence and context shapes how you read, what you understand as you read and how you respond to the implications of that understanding. As if that weren’t enough, even the people who were listening to Jesus’ words in the moments He spoke them often understood and responded to them differently. Even His closest friends and disciples got it wrong time and again. So, you see, no one comes to the Bible alone.

Read the rest of this post here.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

NarrowWayI remember when U2’s amazing song I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For first came out on the radio. It was mid-1987 and I was a new church-planting pastor in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, working under a rather strict, fundamentalist mission. It was my duty to inform my congregation of the errors of the secular world and how their chosen path leads to destruction and eternal condemnation, to warn them of the dangers of uncertainty and lead them to an strong and unwavering faith in The Truth of God’s Word (at least our version of it).

Imagine the internal conflict when i found a copy of the Joshua Tree album in our local Christian bookstore. I was disturbed. Here is a song–the second single from this album–that speaks of uncertainty, seeking but not finding . . . and we knew the answer was Jesus Christ and this is so crystal-clear in the Bible. Everything back then was black or white, fact or fiction. There was no middle ground.

And so I preached vehemently against the insidious faithlessness of the wide path and the indisputable certitude of those who walk in the narrow way (pardon the pun).

But what I failed to say and refused to admit was that I myself was searching. I had many unanswered questions, unspoken doubts, and shaken assumptions. I still hadn’t found what i was looking for.

Twenty-five years on and I am not at all embarrassed to say that I am still on a quest and will be until the end of my time here. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but I’m certainly relishing every step of this journey towards that awesome discovery.

I have climbed highest mountain
I have run through the fields
Only to be with you
Only to be with you

I have run
I have crawled
I have scaled these city walls
These city walls
Only to be with you

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I have kissed honey lips
Felt the healing in her fingertips
It burned like fire
This burning desire

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for
But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well yes I’m still running

You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…*

Here’s a clip from the Rattle & Hum DVD of a Gospel Choir version of this song. It will move you.

May your quest be honourable. May your questions shape you, challenge you and cause you to never stop seeking, growing and learning. May your faith in the one who carried the cross for you be only the beginning of a lifelong quest for meaning, truth and peace. May you be disturbed, confronted, and challenged every step of your journey, and may you never settle for the mediocrity of knowing it all.

_________

* Written by Adam Clayton, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson, Larry Mullen and Victor Reina.

Using Scriptures Maturely

BibleBasherI was first introduced to the term ‘Bible Basher’ as a child, going door-to-door with my pastor father. Even back then, the vast majority of doors were slammed in our face, often accompanied by swearing and use of this term. Perhaps it didn’t help that my dad always carried his leather-bound, gilt-edged, Scofield King James Bible under his arm.

I suppose this term, originated as a statement about a person who constantly uses the Bible to ‘bash’–hit–people over the head in a confrontational way. Today this is exemplified in our city by the infamous Rundle Mall street preachers who call down fire and brimstone every day with Bible in hand and signs that read ‘Turn or Burn.’

While I am at times ashamed of my past days as a Bible basher, I recognise that the motivation for doing so (like so many other deeds) was fear, shame, guilt, and a shallow understanding of the nature of God.

Richard Rohr says it so well:

When the Scriptures are used maturely, they proceed in this order:

  1. They confront us with a bigger picture than we are used to, “God’s kingdom” that has the potential to “deconstruct” our false and smaller kingdoms.
  2. They then have the power to convert us to an alternative worldview by proclamation, grace, and the sheer attraction of the good, the true, and the beautiful (not by shame, guilt, or fear which are low-level motivations, but which operate more quickly and so churches often resort to them).
  3. They then console us and bring deep healing as they “reconstruct” us in a new place with a new mind and heart.

(Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr, pp. 64-65)

May we choose to use the Holy Bible in a mature sensibility, to bring healing, restoration, compassion, justice and peace in our world as we find, in its words and message, God’s reign revealed.