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Posts Tagged ‘Blogging’

Opening This Thing Back Up

I took this blog offline a while ago.  Now it’s back on.  I’m not 100% sure whether I will actually start writing again or not, but at least you can read old posts if you want.

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I wrote a guest post on Tim’s blog, LDS & Evangelical Conversations. Go read it!

http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/for-this-purpose/

So while I don’t subscribe to the Mormon Plan of Salvation anymore (I don’t even use those terms), I do believe that God set the events of creation in motion with a specific end in sight. And while I don’t know how meticulous of a Providence I believe in, I am definitely not an Open Theist.

In any case, I’d like to talk about what “Heavenly Father’s plan” for mankind really is. So, with that in mind, my question is, what is the purpose of life, and how does your answer square with the Bible?

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The Not Even Once Club is a new children’s book by Wendy Nelson (who is married to Russell M. Nelson) about a group of kids who form a club where they pledge to never break the commandments, Not Even Once.

I think a book like that might be okay (if a little didactic) if it was a heartwarming story about kids with good intentions to do the right thing all the time but who inevitably fall short, because we all do, and learn a little something along the way about forgiveness, grace and the power of the cross.

But nope, it’s apparently just a story about choosing to never break the commandments and only hanging out with other kids who do, and it even comes with a certificate your kids can sign to join the club by pledging to never break the word of wisdom, lie, cheat, steal, do drugs, bully, dress immodestly, break the law of chastity or look at pornography. NOT EVEN ONCE.

There was a recent post about it over at Wheat and Tares but that post deals more with the psychological and sociological problems with making commitments like that, rather than the basic incompatibility of The Not Even Once Club with the gospel. (EDIT: there’s now a follow-up, cross-posted at Wheat and Tares and Rational Faiths that does address gospel issues more directly.)

The Bible is incredibly clear that we all sin, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because we are fallen people in a fallen world and heirs to a sinful nature, a promise to never break God’s commandments is a promise that we will invariably break. We are hard-coded to break God’s commandments, and we absolutely lack the power on our own to do anything about it. Personal perfection projects like the Not Even Once Club, whether we attempt them as little kids or as adults, get us off on the wrong foot from the very start. Are the kids in the Not Even Once Club really going to never break the “law of chastity,” not even once? What about when they hit puberty and their brains are flushed with hormones? They’re going to be able to never entertain lustful thoughts? Really?

How is the Not Even Once Club good news? “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can be part of the club!” “Good news, if you manage to never sin, you can go to heaven!” That’s not good news for sinners like you and me. That’s really bad news. I’ll admit that I haven’t read The Not Even Once Club, and I’d love to be wrong about it (by all means, tell me if I am!), but everything I have read about it and everything I know about Mormonism leads me to believe that the book is nothing less than a false gospel aimed at children. I am confident that Wendy Nelson has good intentions, but they’re not enough.

The Good News is that we don’t have to join the Not Even Once Club, because we get to join a far better club. Despite our corrupted natures and our inborn tendency to sin, we are declared to be in the right with God, right now, by virtue of Jesus Christ. Not because we managed to never sin (no matter who we are, that ship has always already sailed–we literally can’t help it), but because he did. Through God’s grace we are given the ability to respond to God’s grace and submit to the reign of Jesus. He makes us good. We don’t.

We don’t have to worry about qualifying for the Not Even Once Club because we get to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. I promise you it is way better.

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I go to Church to experience the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of the eucharist.

For Mormons, the sacrament is a covenantal rite: you take the bread and water as symbols, in rememberance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and in order to renew your baptismal covenant. It’s a sacred ordinance, but it is purely symbolic. Plenty of Mormon literature discusses the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation and why it is a false and apostate doctrine, but that’s it, really. As a result, for most of my life I didn’t have the slightest inkling that there was such a massive excluded middle between those two polar ends of the eucharistic doctrinal spectrum.

But now, years after leaving Mormonism, I have discovered the middle, and it is absolutely amazing. I don’t buy that the bread and wine literally transform in my stomach into Jesus’s flesh and blood. But when I take the eucharist, I know that God’s presence is literally there in a unique, incarnational and mysterious way. And it blows my mind and makes me actively and impatiently look forward to it all week. I hunger and thirst for it.

I’m no theologian, so I couldn’t tell you the ins and outs of the doctrine, but what I can tell you is that when I understood that God was literally and uniquely present in that bread and wine, all the awkward and troublesome pieces of Christianity fell together for me. I knew it was what I was missing.

Like most liturgical Christian churches, the service at the church we attend is completely centered on communion. The eucharist is the climax of the liturgy. Everything else points to it or builds up to it. If you, like me, have spent your life in a sermon-focused (or talk-focused, whatever) worship tradition, you have no idea what a eucharist-centered liturgy is like. The sermon is nice, but I don’t go to church to for the sermon. I go to church to take communion. If the sermon winds up being a flop, that’s sad, but it’s really not that big of a deal. The sermon is only a small part of the worship. The real message is the bread and wine, and the unique presence of God in it. When we eat it and drink it, we eat and drink grace itself. It is a physical, tangible thing, and it is completely and utterly infused with Spirit. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t bother.

The other day I was chatting with Katie L, and I told her that I felt so strongly about the doctrine of real presence that I didn’t think I would even be willing to take communion at a church that taught that it was only a symbol. I surprised myself not only by saying that, but by really meaning it. It was like revelation.

My last serious attempt at Christianity as a post-Mormon, in 2008, was a frustrating and sadly dissatisfying experience. To put it simply, I was in it for new life, for transformation, for the experience of God, and it kept not happening. I got a lot out of the theology and the worship service, but on a personal spiritual level, I was waiting for something like a click in my head, something to happen that made me feel changed. I was waiting for Grace to so something, something I could feel. I felt like I should know when I was forgiven or when I was accepted as Jesus Christ’s, like I should feel something that would mark the transition from the old life to the new life.

But it kept not happening, and I didn’t know what was wrong. I wanted to become a Christian, but I didn’t know what to do to become a Christian. Or how to know when I had become one.

I know that there are a lot of Christians out there, especially Evangelical Protestants, who would say that all I had to do to be a Christian was to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Well, I tried that, but it didn’t feel any different. I prayed sincerely and told Jesus that I accepted him, that I wanted to follow Him, that I was His, and it just didn’t click. Nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different after praying than I did before, and I didn’t understand why.

So eventually I just lost interest. The transformation I wanted to happen wasn’t happening. As appealing as I thought church and Christianity were, Led Zeppelin gave me a heavier buzz than Jesus christ ever did. So I drifted away from Christianity. Explored other options. Looked for spirituality in unconventional places.

Here’s the thing though: while I was going to Church, praying, and grappling with scripture and theology, what I was not doing was anything that was sacramental. I didn’t get baptized. I didn’t take communion. I was waiting for something inward to happen first.

In Mormonism, the religious tradition I was raised in, the conversion process is neatly prescribed: you read the Book of Mormon, you pray to ask God if it’s true, you feel a “burning in the bosom” that tells you it’s true, you become a member of the church by being baptized, you are confirmed a member and you are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and then you take the sacrament (what they call communion) every week as a symbol of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice to renew your baptismal covenants.

The critical variable in the equation was that “burining in the bosom.” The expectation that you will be converted by a personal mystical experience–a click that makes you feel different–and then you respond to that mystical experience by ritually making and renewing covenants.

For better or worse, that is how I have approached religion ever since I left Mormonism, and that is how I approached Christianity in 2008: I read, I prayed, I worshipped, but nothing mystical ever happened. And I held back on making commitments or taking part in sacraments because I felt like that click should come first. That’s how I was raised: the click happens first, and you memorialize it with ritual second. The click is conversion. The click is how you know that things have changed, how you know you have been changed from a non-believer to a believer. And since the click never came, I I felt like it wasn’t taking. So I observed. I prayed along. I sang. I crossed my arms and let the priest bless me. But I never pursued baptism, and I never considered actually taking communion, because to me, sacraments were secondary. Sacraments were for people who already felt the click.

I was totally and completely wrong. The sacraments are the click. I was waiting for something to happen in a vague and inward way that was being offerent to me right up at the front of the church in a literal and physical way. I was praying for Jesus Christ’s presence to enter into me without realizing that Jesus Christ’s table was set liberally with his presence right before my eyes and I was invited to eat and drink my fill, but I kept saying no.

Jesus Christ, the bread and water of life, is offered to me every week, and I am welcome to it.

That’s why I go to church. Well, one of the reasons, I guess.

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The Mormon Second Article of Faith says “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” This understanding of personal accountability for sin is a rejection of the idea of original sin. On its face, it seems incredibly just. Why should we be held accountable for someone else’s misdeeds? Mormons are proud of this doctrine. And while I have not taken a thorough survey of worldwide Christians on the subject, I imagine that the understanding of sin and the Fall that are wrapped up in this Article of Faith are in no way unique to Mormonism.

This understanding of the Fall says that through Adam and Eve’s transgression, humanity became not corrupt but corruptible. This belief holds that we inherit from Adam and Eve only the capacity to sin. As free agents, we are able to choose between sin and not-sin. This is very important: just as we have the capacity to be sinful, we also theoretically have the capacity to be sinless, but as a practical matter, each of us individually fails to do so. The fact that we all inevitably choose to transgress is forseeable and predictable, but really, at the end of the day your sins are nobody’s fault but your own, and the consequences of your sins are justly earned by you and you alone. You could choose not to sin, but you do not. If you simply exercised enough self-discipline, you would be sinless. Thus, your eligibility for heaven is a product of the quantity of sins you have committed. If you have committed more sins than zero, you are ineligible for heaven and in need of salvation. If you have committed zero sins, you are eligible for heaven. Your guilt is your own; you have nobody to blame but yourself.

That’s important. Think about that. Consider its magnitude. You have free agency, and you have personally and individually chosen to sin. Consequently, you are ineligible for heaven unless you, personally and individually, are able to erase the stain of your sin or find a way to get someone else to erase it for you. Because you have chosen to commit a quantity of sin that is greater than zero (whether it is a finite or infinite quantity is, for the purposes of this discussion, irrelevant), you are in need of a quantity of atonement that is greater than zero. The scales must be balanced.

This is a harsh rule, but certainly holding me accountable for the sins I committed is more fair than holding me accountable for the sins someone else committed, right?

Except, that’s not what original sin is all about at all.

I shouldn’t have to sell you Aura Salve to convince you that we are a fallen race living in a fallen world. Just look around at, oh, the entire sum of human history. We are broken and dysfunctional on an individual, cultural, national, and even global level. We hurt each other. We exploit each other. We destroy our environment. We hurt ourselves. We destroy ourselves. We are slaves to our habits, our appetites and our addictions. We are sick. Sure, we manage to do some good things too, but rarely without some destructive fallout somewhere, usually with a lot of it, and the fact that we are able to callously ignore so much of the fallout is even more evidence of our sickness. We are broken. We are fallen.

Through the Fall of Adam and Eve, we have inherited a broken nature. A sin nature. That’s original sin. We are heirs to brokenness. The idea that if we just exercised our free agency correctly we could choose to live sinless lives is a ridiculous and self-destructive notion. We are broken because we have a broken nature. Yes, we are autonomous moral agents, hypothetically capable of making any decision. For that to really play out in practical terms would require a kind of neutral contextual baseline that does not exist. We are not blank slates of pure will born into blank slate world. To an incredibly great extent, the way we are able to exercise our free agency is limited by our circumstances. By our environment. By culture, situation and upbringing. We are invariably the product of our situation, and our situation is a fallen world, and here is the rub: ours is a fallen world for which we, individually, are not responsible.

That doesn’t make us any less broken and miserable. That doesn’t make us any more able to bear the presence of God. But what it does mean is that we are hurting enough as it is without needing to borrow pain. The belief that we are ineligible for heaven because of our particular, individual sins leaves us on a self-destructive treadmill of guilt and shame, because we are never gong to stop committing them. Even if we believe that forgiveness for specific sins is obtainable, it still means a lifetime of feeling like heaven is slipping through our grasp as, no matter how often we believe we can obtain forgiveness, we inevitably sin again. The result may very well be a lifetime of darkness, self-loathing, despair and moral exhaustion: evidence that the notion that righteousness is a matter of disciplined sinlessness, the Second Article of Faith itself, is itself a product of our fallen nature and this fallen world.

None of this is necessary at all. Compared to the enormity of our fallen world and our fallen nature, our particular, individual sins are really kind of petty.

Original sin is thus a profoundly merciful doctrine. It is a realistic doctrine. Yes, you sin. Yes, you choose to sin. But let’s be honest, you choose to sin because you are broken and you are broken because humanity is broken. You were born broken. You were born a slave to sin and darkness.

Jesus Christ wasn’t crucified to balance a cosmic ledger-book and pay off a debt you incurred by committing your specific sins so that you can get a priceless reward you don’t deserve. Jesus Christ was crucified to defeat sin itself and ransom you from the shackles of a fallen world, to work in you a transformation from brokenness to wholeness. Jesus Christ came to redeem you, not from your sins, but from the reason that you commit them–the brokenness that is at the heart of all the dysfunction and darkness in your life. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from your sinful nature. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from original sin.

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

Thank God.

(Author’s Note: This was originally cross-posted from Into the Hills.)

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Just saying. It seems like it’s a crappy blog platform with less functionality. What am I missing? What’s the point of Tumblr supposed to be? How is it more fun or more useful than something like Blogger or WordPress? Is there some big huge payoff to Tumblr that I don’t know about? Are there big Tumblr enthusiasts out there who think it’s just great? If so, why?

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So, at this point I am identifying as some kind of a quasi-transcendentalist vaguely-Hinduish esoterically-inclined green Christian. How I got there from paganism is not really the topic of this post, but I promise to post about it someday. Maybe.

The topic of this post if the trouble with finding a church home for my family, and the disappointment of modern liberal Mainline Christianity.

We have been going to a Presbyterian (PC(USA)) church for a couple of weeks, and I am increasingly feeling like it’s probably not going to work out. I haven’t passed a verdict yet, but so far I am seeing a lot of things that lead me to conclude that this church, like many other liberal Protestant churches, emphasizes social justice to the near-total exclusion of theology, personal righteousness, and spirituality.

And that is the heart of my conundrum. There simply appear to not be a lot of churches out there that are able to be theologically liberal without it reducing to merely politically liberal (and theologically nothing at all). I’m sure my more theologically conservative friends are going to insist that such a reduction is inevitable, that theological liberalism invariably leads to no theology at all. I dunno; they may be right, but I kind of think that’s a false dichotomy. I think that the reduction of theologically liberal churches to mere social justice clubs has a lot more to do with American culture wars and political polarization than it does about anything inherent about liberal theology. But either way, it’s immensely frustrating.

My notions of spirituality and theology may be offbeat, but they’re what I am focused on and interested in, not social justice. Make no mistake, I believe that Christianity can and should give rise to social gospel concerns and the desire to address the evils of our society. But if that’s all that’s going on at your church, I would suggest that you are putting the cart before the horse, and I suspect that if I look hard, I will see that your social gospel is motivated almost purely by political and cultural considerations, not by spiritual or theological ones. And thus I am not interested in going to your church at all, because it has nothing that interests me.

In many ways, I think I would be happier being a quiet heretic in an orthodox, theologically conservative church. Except that I don’t necessarily want my kids indoctrinated that way. And I’m not sure how well being a quiet heretic really works out in practice.

A related issue is the fact that right now we live in a large northern metropolitan area: most of my neighbors are Catholics, Jews, or nonreligious. There’s not the massive smorgasbord of Protestant churches to pick from that I grew up with in my Appalachian-upper-South hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. And while I would dearly love to move back to the South (sooner rather than later), this is where I am at the moment.

Going to church is important to me and to my family (for a lot of reasons–maybe a topic for another post that I can promise to write and then never deliver on?), so I’m not okay with just being religious-at-home. So that’s out, too.

One thing I am considering is whether I will find more satisfaction in a communion/eucharist-centered liturgical tradition. The homily may be about something ridiculously politically liberal, but the service is centered on the eucharist, the eucharist is the real message. Isn’t it? Or am I just cruising for more disappointment? Of course, this line of thinking points me once again in an Anglican direction, which is somewhat comforting. I wouldn’t mind finding a nice Episcopal parish to belong to.

On the other hand, I know that a thought-provoking sermon is essential for my beautiful and sexy wife–it’s basically what she wants to go to church for. And she’s not wild about lots of liturgy. so, Episcopalianism may not be the way to go after all. Where we would really like most to be is back at Cedar Ridge Community Church, but that’s a long drive for a Sunday morning. Cedar Ridge was far from my personally perfect, ideal church, but it was a pretty good place for us as a family. But that’s moot, because there doesn’t seem to be anything comparable around here. I’ve looked.

So there you go. I’m not really sure what to do. I feel like I and my family have pressing spiritual needs, but I am growing increasingly concerned that the right church for meeting those needs doesn’t exist anywhere nearby.

PS, here’s a good recent editorial about (sigh) the state of the Episcopal Church that addresses a lot of these issues.

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Over on Tim’s blog, a self-described Pentecostal showed up in an old comment thread, and (as is my habit) I asked him if he handles snakes. This was his response:

Uh . . . no. No Pentecostal did that until George W. Hensley started the practice in 1912, 12 years after Pentecostalism began. He was still a rather new convert and was praying in a mountain reading a passage in Mark when he received some weird revelation. Pentecostal denominations quickly labeled serpent handling as fanaticism and it has only ever been a feature of some churches in Appalachia. It is not a characteristic of Pentecostalism, neither now or in the past.

Why do you ask?

All I know about it is what I’ve read (having never encountered a serpent handler before). They believe, according to their interpretation of Mark 16:17-18 that serpent handling and drinking poison (some serpent handlers may also consume strychnine) are commanded in Scripture.

These activities will only take place when participants perceive the direct intervention of God. In other words, they wont do it unless “the anointing” is present. Deaths are explained by these people in the following ways: 1) the anointing was not present, 2) such deaths prove to outsiders that the snakes are poisonous and have not been defanged, 3) God wills their death.

I do hope you realize that the vast majority of Pentecostals are not serpent handlers. I would point out that people who assume that will be looked on as terribly ignorant and offensive by Pentecostals.

Now, I realize that the historical and organizational relationship between Appalachian snake-handlers and mainstream American Pentecostals is not even remotely similar to the relationship between fundamentalist polygamist Mormons and the mainstream Mormon Church, but Shane’s response may as well have been cut-and-pasted and searched-and-replaced from a mainstream Mormon’s reaction to being confronted about polygamy.

The only difference is that, as a bonus, Shane’s response also just drips with prejudice and snobbery towards Appalachian people.

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A new blog focused on Ares, called Aspis of Ares, is up as of last weekend, and I am excited about it and will be following along faithfully except that, as is the case with many Blogspot blogs that use OpenID for commenting, I basically am unable to leave comments from the machine I usually use (and weirdly I cannot leave them as “Kullervo,” either). So I thought I would reformulate my thoughts on Peripatetic Pete’s blog in general and the issue he raised in his first post and post it here myself as a full-fledged blog post of my own.

Pete says:

I decided to dedicate a blog for Ares for a number of reasons. First is that, even in modern circles of Polytheists (Hellenic or otherwise), Ares gets a bad rap, and I want to discuss Him and his dominion and why it is important we continue to acknowledge and sacrifice to Ares. Second, there’s not much information available for the worship of Ares, modern or ancient, so I want to share my findings, musings, and UPG regarding practice. Third, since modern worshipers are few and far between, and online groups can be active only sporadically, I wanted to gather as many resources for Ares’ worship into one place.

On the one hand, it seems to me like bloggers with a strong bent towards Ares have been coming out of the woodwork lately (at the very least there’s me, Wednesday, and now Ophiokhos), so maybe there’s a change in the air, or at least a trend towards some kind of increasingly vocal minority.

On the other hand, you only need to glance through the pagan internet to see that a lot of people out there are very uncomfortable with Ares, don’t know how to approach him at all, or want absolutely nothing to do with him. Whether they ignore Ares, hostilely disparage him, or try to subvert him into some kind of symbolic god of moral struggle in the service of their favorite liberal political agenda, they do him an incredible disservice.

My thoughts on the reasons for Ares’s unpopularity are themselves demonstrably unpopular (given the knee-jerk reaction people have had when I have posted them in the past), but here they are:

(1) I think that for most modern western people, we live lives that are so insulated from the reality of war that even thinking of it as a real thing it makes us extremely uncomfortable. Make no mistake: war is with us, it has always been with us, and there is no indication that it will ever not be with us. We put it out of our minds easily because war is not happening right here, right now, and at the risk of spouting cliches, we often fail to remember the hard wars that have been waged and are currently being waged to try to keep it that way. And while I think fighting to keep our homes safe and peaceful is virtuous and noble, when there is a massive imbalance, virtue slides back into its enemy. We are lazy, weak, and complacent, and we resent the people who fight our wars far away because they remind us that war is real. What we have done inadvertently is to create an artificial world-within-a-world where we do not face the proximity of war, and that means we are cut off from what is honestly a fundamental facet of the human experience. In doing so, we have actually become less human–what an irony in how we talk about the dehumanizing effects of war, when freedom from war also dehumanizes us!–and consequently, we have distanced ourselves from the gods that reflect those parts of humanity.

(2) Ares is not only a god of war, but a god of manhood and masculinity, a concept that is not popular either: in much of modern cultural discourse, manhood either denigrated, ridiculed, conflated with boyhood, or dismissed as an entirely optional social construct that can be cast aside as a dysfunctional and useless relic in a modern enightened world. Or worse, masculinity is re-defined by the self-help crowd into something emasculated and more socially accpetable. I think this pattern closely connected to my point above: we inhabit an artificial and (in the long term) unsustainable sociocultural bubble of gross prosperity and opulence, where masculinity, and the pursuits associated with masculinity, are not necessary for individual, family or community survival. As long as we play along with our cultural milieu, we don’t really have to be manly in order to survive and protect and provide for our wives and children. But again, it means cutting ourselves off from our own humanity: by creating this social dystopia, we have isolated ourselves from part of what makes us human, and consequently from the gods–including most particularly Ares–that reflect that part.

(3) Ares is a god of physical courage, and we are a culture of physical cowards. For probably a dozen different related reasons, we have collectively granted ourselves permission to be weak, and have done our best to steadily re-engineer the rules and rewards of our culture in order to reflect that. Physical courage is now seen as unnecessary risk-taking, because the default position for far too many people is total spinelessness. And Ares stands squarely against that position, for men and women.

That’s what I think at least. Through our successes, we have swung too far beyond peace, safety and prosperity into complacency, neurosis and decadence, and we are less human because of it. And Ares, a stark reminder of what we have done to ourselves, shames us. We reject Ares because we are ashamed. And by the gods, we should be.

Hail Ares! Hail the fearsome lord of war, stormer of cities, feasted by women, who rallies fighting men and leads them brazen-armed into battle! Hail the golden-helmed master of the hounds! I give you praise and honor!

(Also, check out my other recent post about what Ares is all about)

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