05 May 2021

Changing the church: How Luther and Erasmus would turn that corner (BB5)


People change. Generally slow. A discrepancy can develop between what one feels at home at and the inner transformation that most people undergo in their lives. That inner change is an inevitable consequence of growing up and getting older. The resulting inner major and minor conflicts demand a response in which an adjustment usually takes place, one that overcomes the distance and establishes new connections in heart and min; one is able to travel on albeit in a new and fresh realisation and definition of reality. However, this process does not stop and one can reach a point where possible bridging options are exhausted. Then a more radical action is needed to achieve a new normal. Both sides of a conflict have a certain degree of elongation and differences in thinking and practices can be reconciled to a certain extent.

Everything and everyone has a breaking point and when Billy arrived at that point where the differences proved irreconcilable, it was his choice to leave the church. His "problem" was not with God, the Bible, or the phenomenon called Church, but more with the institutionalized ideas and practices related to these and often seemed immovable.

At first, Billy was bitter and disillusioned and especially resented, blaming the church and the people in it. Having given himself time to think about his own place in the process - which was difficult enough because man seems to be inclined to point to external factors - he realized that it was not entirely fair to blame his environment for a process of change that took place mainly in his inner life.

Billie shared his acquired insights with me and asked what my thoughts were on this. This is what I had to offer to Billy:

Together with the personal development process that a person undergoes, everything about us is constantly evolving. It is therefore inevitable that we regularly recalibrate our position vis-à-vis all these external forces and reassess our position. An example from history: Martin Luther and Erasmus were contemporaries and both members of the same institution church. In that church too many things were outright wrong (in light of what they discovered and learned from their study of the Bible) and both men came to the conclusion that the system had to be overhauled, changed, or even obliterated. Luther opted for secession and played an important role in (only partially) shedding the tyrannical yoke of the Catholic Church. He left the church with big gestures and bold words. His part in the reformation is of world-changing order. The fact that this new movement soon institutionalized is a different story, but historically the transition from movement to institute turns out to be a tough reality.

Erasmus remained faithful to the church (though the church would question his faithfulness). He believed that change is best achieved with patience and through the written (and printed) word. In his days Erasmus was the most important, most well-known, and popular "influencer". In his "praise of folly" - a then unique, accessible and generally acceptable, ironic style - he denounces abuses in the church and society and managed to persuade many (to this day) to "recalibrate" one's own position vis-à-vis the world, power and the church (the two were pretty much synonymous in his days).  The church, of course, wasn't too happy with him. His contribution to the current worldview(s) reaches far and deep into the fibers of many cultures. 

What I am saying here is that it may be right to draw a line in the sand, as Luther did, with the result that a new institute was established that had to learn to co-exist with that other institution which, to this day goes hand in hand with ample bloodshed.

In my opinion, Erasmus's path is a sympathetic path and more effective in the long run and therefore recommended. In choosing that route, one sticks to the basics - that what connects and unites me with the other - and critically constructively calling out the noise in systems around us. The effect is not always immediate, but in the long run, this critical-constructive approach works from the depth of reality to its width.

Of course, there are irreconcilable breaking points that leaves a person only one choice and that is to walk away from the system. For me personally, that would be the central place Christ (and the Cross) takes in God’s big story. I know, it's just a few words and that there’s a world behind them. What worries me and what I want to watch out for is when noise starts to disrupt and obscure that central place of Christ. That is what tends to happen when the church as a movement of God becomes an institution of man. Therefore the Church must always be on the move.

This is the fifth and last blog in a series of five about Billy Bobsleigh leaving the church.

1. How Billy Bobsleigh got burned
2. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 1: God
3. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 2: The Bible
4. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 3: The church 
5. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 4: Billy

25 April 2021

The church playing balls (BB4)

The church

The local billiards club, of which Billy had been a member for years, had a problem. In Billy’s humble opinion, and most club members concurred. Every year since its inception near 1782, the problem has been on the agenda. Apparently, they failed to solve the problem. The balls weren't the problem. They had been around since the genesis of this indoor 'ball game on a table' and, for obvious reasons, couldn’t and shouldn’t be touched. The fact that different offshoots of the basic game had emerged overtime was not the problem either.

No, the problem was the survival of the club where aging and predictability were identified as central culprits. Of course, the board was held responsible. Sometimes, younger aspiring members checked out the club but often called it quits after a couple of nights and joined the local racketball club instead. Women were also allowed to participate there, you see, to name but one reason.

At the most recent members' meeting, some club members had filed a motion. The board should step down and make way for the younger guard who had to clean things up and innovate. Some of those younger members held a degree in innovation, so the future would be in good hands with them.  The predictability of the annual internal competition also had to be addressed as it seemed that always the same persons ended up with the grand victory.

At intermission, a club member had said softly spoken the word "boring" in his elbow and this was overheard by some of the members, resulting in a tense silence but was quickly washed away with another round of pints.

Arriving home that night, Billy did some deep thinking and it dawned on him that with the ball game on a table there is not that many alternative routes to take with  the basic stick (cue), green cloth (they'd  tried blue which remarkably caused a resurgence but that - both the cloth and the resurgence - had faded quickly), some balls and, of course, people.

No, if he was honest, and he was trying to be, it wasn't so much the game but his own role and place in the bigger story that he needed to look at. So, Billy concluded, I should not so much blame the club (although some of the recriminations and concerns are quite justified and should continue to on the agenda) but carefully look at what I can do to constructively keep the game alive and moving.

The parallel with the church, which he had now left, suddenly dawned on him, and Billy quietly wondered if he might not have pointed too much at the church in the process that led to him leaving the church,  and too little at himself. He gave himself seven days to think about it and possible come to some resolve and conclusions....

Of all the ways in which to engage in the enterprise of church, this has to be the most absurd – this haphazard collection of people who somehow get assembled into pews on Sundays, half-heartedly sing a few songs most of them don’t like, tune in and out of a sermon according to the state of their digestion and the preacher’s decibels, awkward in their commitments and jerky in their prayers. But the people in these pews are also people who suffer deeply and find God in their suffering. These are men and women who make love commitments, are faithful to them through trial and temptation, and bear fruits of righteousness, spirit-fruits that bless the people around them…

.. But these are mixed in with the others and are, more often than not, indistinguishable from them. I can find, biblically, no other form of church.  

Eugene Petersen, Under the unpredictable plant 23-4.

This is the fourth blog in a series of five about Billy Bobsleigh leaving the church.

1. How Billy Bobsleigh got burned
2. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 1: God
3. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 2: The Bible
4. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 3: The church 
5. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 4: Billy (next blog)

Images: Pixabay
Church: https://pixabay.com/nl/vectors/huis-icon-silhouet-kruis-304072/
Balls: https://pixabay.com/nl/vectors/ballen-cue-game-biljart-vrije-tijd-34909/
Table: https://pixabay.com/nl/vectors/tafel-biljart-zwembad-sport-game-311027/

18 April 2021

In real life conservative, rigid, and liberal Bible readers are pretty fluid in their application of it

The Bible

Billy had been struggling for a long while with the status and authority of the Bible. Himself prone and taking a liking to science, he’d observed that not few fellow believers seemed to oppose anything reeking of research and defended their often rigid attitude by stating that everything we can and want to know about anything can be found in the Bible. All else out there is either from the devil or at least debatable and should be mistrusted. In addition, it seemed to Billy that believers are quite good at finding texts that are promoted to their personal favorites, and/or texts that say what they want or prefer to hear. He couldn't make heads or tails of it.
I have yet to find out whether this helped Billy at all, but here's what I wrote to him:

Sola Scriptura vs. Fluidum Scriptura

When around 1520 the yoke of the Catholic Church was shed through the process of what we know as the Reformation, foundations for that reformed, protestant faith had to be articulated and established into a system. One of those foundations was "Sola Scriptura" (there are four other sola’s); the idea that the Bible is the only authority for faith and Christian faith practice; the Bible is complete, authoritative, and true.

In the first centuries A.D., scholars and church officials were trying to make up their minds about which book should or shouldn’t be part of what became known as the canon of the Bible. That discussion was concluded around the fifth century and the canon, or yardstick, was a fact. That canon was then tied together with a firm ribbon around this consolidated package and the text from 2 Timothy 3:16 had to be seen as the signature of God among the whole, and sealing the deal: "Every scripture is 'God-inspired' and is therefore useful for teaching, for rebutting errors, for the improvement of morals, and for the education of a righteous life..." (2 Timothy 3:16).

It was assumed that this canon was composed by God's hand and its content accurate to double digits after the comma. However, the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox saw a larger hand of God and included ten additional books in their canon. So, in fact, the canon was only semi-resolved unless one decides that the Catholics and Eastern-Orthodox blokes are all heretics and dead wrong.

Now the idea of Sola Scriptura is quite embedded in the Protestant bloodlines, but in practice Sola Scriptura often has to compete with traditions and the personal experience of faith. That’s called ‘Prima Scriptura’; traditions and experiences are authoritative as long as they Scripture proofed. In practice, that test turns out to be rather fluid. One example: Protestantism has made a significant contribution to developing, maintaining and even Scripture proofing the idea of (open) market forces where profit is the guiding principle and in which as a result the “have-nots” such as orphans, widows, and other marginal groups have to settle for a place under the market stall at the discretion of profit-hungry market stall owners (and their shareholders), the “haves”.

What the Bible has to say about inequality is cunningly massaged away and skillfully maneuvered towards the sewers. 'Scriptura Fluidum' would therefore be a more accurate summary of how the Bible is interpreted. Trying to make heads and tails of it requires a body but that body has been filtered out by the market theologians.

The essence of the Bible

What if there wasn't a Bible? Could there be a sense of God, even if that were nothing more than a realization, or assumption that there is "something more"? I assume for a moment that the answer to this question is 'yes'. Then we have to start shaping and describing that idea. Most people are somewhere in the continuum where on the one hand we find the "there is nothing" group on the one hand and on the other hand the group that provides you with “an accurate and detailed description of God” with its exclusive statements, claim, and even a willingness to give their lives for it and, of course, take the lives of others.

With the Bible, we have a collection of 66 books that together form the great story of God. A story that has a beginning and an end and in which Christ is the centerpiece. In that story, we read how, in order to live a flourishing life, we as human beings are to relate to God, each other, and the earth. However, man's ears are bent elsewhere, resulting in an ever-increasing alienation from God, the other, and the earth. This is a prominent theme throughout the Bible. The solution can also be found in that same Bible, but it seems that the price tag that comes with that solution is too dear to many. To stop "taking" seems too big of an ask.

This, in some very broad brushstrokes, is what the Bible Is about.

What it's essentially not

Disputes, discord, rifts, and exclusive group forming are almost always the results of approaching, interpreting, and applying the Bible for what it is not:

  • A scientific textbook (although it has crucial things to say about the origin of the planet, the cosmos, and man)
  • A book on history (although it contributes a lot to it and this contribution is massive).
  • A biology textbook (although it does contribute very valid ideas about biology).
  • A math book (there’s a bit of numerology in it, that’s undeniable).
  • A textbook on economics (although it makes a fundamental contribution to ideas about establishing a flourishing economy in which the well-being of all is leading).
  • A cookbook (although it does contribute to ideas about diets).
  • .....

When one elevates one of the many topics on which the Bible can constructively contribute to the conversation about the essence of things, but claims this as the only authoritative contribution, two things happen:

1. One will no longer be considered a serious interlocutor and will not be able to contribute to that conversation in a constructive way.

2. It dilutes the essential story of the Bible that provides a solution to the major human issues.

This relatively compressed and at times indiscriminate overview is what I sent Billy. Billy has a short attention span and I’m afraid this might be too much text for him. My suspicion is that it's going to raise even more questions and won’t bring heads and tails that much closer. The main thing is that we keep looking for the body.

I'm waiting for a response from Billy.

This is the third blog in a series of five about Billy Bobsleigh leaving the church.

1. How Billy Bobsleigh got burned
2. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 1: God
3. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 2: The Bible
4. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn3: The church (next blog)
5. Possibly to blame for Bill's burn 4: Billy (next blog after the next...)

Photo: congerdesign  pixabay

11 April 2021

Billy Bobsleigh - pushing God through a funnel (BB2)


After Billy had made the decision to leave the church, which was a bit of a thing and much more than turning a page in his life’s story, it was time to seriously reflect. What was the problem and which players are to blame? The number of players Billy could think of (for the time being) was four. Maybe there would be some more later, but Billy didn't want to lose himself in a potential labyrinth of subsections and sub-subsections. He decided to start with the main departments of blame and how they relate to the Church:

God, the Bible, the Church, and - he had to acknowledge it for better or worse - Billy himself.

Billy had been on his faith journey long enough to learn that God cannot be mapped out.

All the described attributes and characteristics of God that we find in the Bible can only be depicted, or portrayed in ideas and words that we have at our disposal. The Bible, therefore, assigns to God human attributes. We call this anthropomorphisms: an abstract idea we put a label on or describe with words and feelings of something we are familiar with. The relativity and inadequacy of these words and images are underlined and emphasized in the infamous commandment not to whip up idols for ourselves: “You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea.  You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods” (Ex. 20:4-5).

Whatever picture of God we build-up, any of His traits depicted in any way, the  imminent danger is that it’s cast in bronze and pronounced “My God.” This short-changes God as He transcends all available bronze and imaginable pictures.

Billy was afraid to say it,  but briefly allowed the thought: "Could it be that Christians who marvel at a single aspect of God or persistently ride their hobbyhorse are guilty of idolatry?"

Nevertheless, we have nothing but the images and the words in our personal, linguistic and cultural databanks at our disposal. But God cannot be reduced to any single image or word. What about two words?

When Moses is appointed by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery, he wanted to know what to say when the Israelites asked him on whose authority he was acting. God’s answer speaks volumes, and ample volumes are written about it through history: “I am who I am. Say this to the people of Israel: I am has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14).  

Reflecting on this, Billy realized that his beef, built up over the years, wasn’t so much with God as a being but with the firmness with which believers and groups of believers claim to understand Him and by doing so created a caricature of God. And that’s what had bogged Billy down; the inability, or maybe even the unwillingness of many, to accept that irreconcilable contradictions are part of God's being. The God who throws punches out of Love and forgives out of that same Love as opposed to the same God who is Jealous and does not tolerate competition (two name but two characteristics). And, to be honest we’d rather hear a message on a loving God than a message on a jealous God. The church seems to favour leaning towards big words on love.  Attempts to trace this mysterious God back to a person who can be understood and thus explained will rather sooner than later result in sectarianism, exclusive claims, and a measurable faith in which the individual can tick the boxes of deserved affection and approval of God. And that of course, feels great; measuring is knowing...

The only slightly recognizable, tangible image of God is given to us in Christ: "..the visible image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). And in John 1:18 we read that "…he has revealed God to us." The centrality of Christ in the all-encompassing story of God is also the crux of that story. Only when Christ made his appearance something of that great story of God began to truly materialise: God out of the grey! 

Moses and the Israelites had to make do with two words. Those two words take on shape and content as the story unfolds. But that's a different story for the next time.

Next time:  Billy’s Bible

Image funnel: https://pixabay.com/nl/users/fumingli-3825280/

04 April 2021

Sunday Morning Mystery

The sea is too deep
The heaven's too high
I cannot swim
I cannot fly;
I must stay here. 
I must stay here
Here where I know
How I can know
Here where I know
What I can know. 

Jesus then reappears and invites Thomas to see and touch. Suddenly the new, giddying possibility appears before him: 

The sea has parted. Pharaoh's hosts –
Despair, and doubt, and fear, and pride -
No longer frighten us. We must
Cross over to the other side. 

The heaven bows down. With wounded hands
Our exiled God, our Lord of shame
Before us, living, breathing, stands;
The Word is near, and calls our name.

New knowing for the doubting mind,
New seeing out of blindness grows;
New trusting may the skeptic find
New hope through that which faith now knows. 

And with that, Thomas takes a deep breath, and brings history and faith together in a rush. ‘My Lord', he says,' and my God'.

Clip: On the meaning of Easter by Tom Wright

Tom Wright's parabolic story (from the Easter Oratorio) of how the apostle Thomas transcends from the type of knowing he had intended to use, and passes into a higher and richer one.

Tom Wright, Surpised by Hope. London, Society for promoting Christian knowledge, 2007, 81-2

Picture: Alleged burial tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem (Jan den Ouden)

28 March 2021

How Billy Bobsleigh got burned (BB1)

A case study

Billy Bobsleigh did the math for the fourth time. It just had to be wrong, or could it be that he indeed messed up his otherwise simple calculations? But again, after the fourth time, he ended up with the same product. Conflicting thoughts flashed through his mind and Billy noticed that it even affected his body. His heart rate had gone up and his hands felt clammy. If his calculations were accurate it would have consequences for how he had read the Bible in the past and for his future reading of it. Despondency started to envelop him and move his inner life. If he would allow these thoughts and questions, his foundations, firmly established and construed by his church, selected authors and peers would be shaken up without having any clue where did would leave him, or take him. Thus, Billy decided to settle the inner dispute by holding on to the choice to maintain his faith journey the way he was taught: follow the heart and not reason.

Three years later Billy realized he’d been unsuccessful in shaking off the conflict of the mores of church propagated and encouraged simple faith on the one hand, and his hunger for understanding and investigation on the other. On the contrary; compared with three years earlier the babbling brook of questions had grown into a storm in his mind and heart. Where can I go with my questions and observations without being burned off or demonized, Billy wondered. My pastor? That wasn’t self-evident since the pastor regularly propagated that we, Christians, believe that the Bible is literally true, one day is always one day and not a second longer, the earth cannot be older than about 7000 years and one doesn't qualify for heaven unless baptized.

So Billy decided to take it to his Bible Study group which was quite convenient since they just started to study Exodus where the mass migration of the Jews to the promised land captures the imagination and raises questions.

The evening didn’t proceed the way Billy had hoped but unfortunately as expected:

So we’re talking about 600.000 men over twenty years of age, not mentioning the women and children, plus a crowd of riffraff and large flocks and herds of livestock? Everyone checked their bibles and nodded enthusiastically: Yes, that’s what it says.

And the whole bunch walked through the sea where God miraculously had provided a dry path for them to cross, all in one night?

Again the group checked the facts and nodded encouraging: Go Billy, go!

Is it reasonable to assume that most of these men were married and had one or two children? A bit of thinking in the group since these assumptions were not literally written down in the Bible. All of the group agreed that this was quite plausible and safe to assume, albeit somewhat conservative.

So we’re talking about, let’s say, at least 2 million people plus a whole lot of cattle. If they would walk in groups of four in line and were keeping Corona prescribed distance from each other, how long a cue are we talking about?

One group member, who worked in IT, took less than 5 seconds to cough up the answer: 750 kilometres (466 miles) and added that in reality, it must have been a much longer cue because of the cattle and stuff.

And this whole group walked through the sea in one night?

This instantaneously turned into a cacophony of discussion, suggestions, and alternative readings, where the faces of some of the group members had turned purple, but was cut short by the leader and partly resolved by him when he proposed that we’re serving a God of miracles who in His wisdom and power was able to perform the whole operation in one night. He added, now with a pastoral and fatherly face and voice, that if we start questioning these type of incidents we’re venturing into dangerous territory with the authority of the Bible at stake. And nobody wants that he’d rhetorically resumed, articulating the assumed common feelings of everyone in the group.

In the final “pray for each other” order of the evening, three group-members prayed for Billy, asking God to keep Billy close to Himself and help Bill to maintain his childlike faith.

Two years later Billy left the church.

To be continued...

(Exodus 12-14)

22 March 2021

When crystal isn't clear anymore

The back rows. Left. Near the emergency exit. For two years this is where they could be found on Sunday morning. The exit lured but for a long time the urge to stay was stronger; you don’t just walk away from your past, your friends, your social circle, and your spiritual home. That takes more than being frustrated over superficial, circular, dogma perpetuating 30 to 40-minute monologue reflections of the orator. You can stand that for a while because there’s always the after church refreshments; an opportunity to meet and deepen the bond with friends.

No, it was more like the outcome of a long process of chewing on questions that, considering their already long spiritual distance traveled, were quickly labeled inappropriate, or even heretic by those that know. The odd times that they did dare to ask the questions led quite a few to doubt the sincerity of their walk with God; we need to pray for them…

The leaders of their faith community responded empathetically. Some felt that they needed to do something with it whereas others quickly reverted back to the old, trusted but paper-thin rhetoric: keep on trusting, take it to the Lord in prayer, you know God loves you and has His best in mind for you….

The inability, or was it unwillingness, of the leaders to really do something with it made them decide, after ample deliberation, to definitely walk through the door under the green sign and leave the church and continue their faith journey without the connection to their local church.

They felt liberated at first but also sort of naked when taking those first steps without anchor points or confession of faith that made them part of a larger family.

I haven’t done any research but know from my conversations with people that in Evangelical circles the group in the back rows near the emergency exit is large, growing, and cannot be ignored. One gets tired of the format (liturgy), the other has had it with the experience and ego-centered rhymes that sell thirteen a dozen. Again others feel that their newfound hobby with focus on a “part truth” doesn’t get enough air time, or tired of the apparent dogmatic certainties that keep the confession nicely contained and the faith journey measurable. Or one has come to the end of its rope with the yoke of promised deepening of the faith, provided that….

This is what it seems on the surface. Beneath it is a deeper layer of sincere yearning for a deeper think-through of existential questions, philosophical and theological foundations.

This think-through requires a willingness to let go of the established Reformed-, Evangelical-, Pentecostal-, Full gospel-, and other conceivable frameworks within the protestant family.

Contemporary faith communities don’t seem to have good ideas or practices to handle this. Perhaps there is the fear that letting go of frameworks could implicitly mean a complete abandoning of it. Or maybe because those at the back near the exit is a relatively small and insignificant group of troublemakers and leaders don’t want to alienate those that occupy the seats in the first rows and prefer their ego striking affirmation: “great sermon brother. It was deeeep!”

Call me an optimist but I do believe that it’s possible for existing faith communities to facilitate and accommodate this necessary think through. It needs leaders who don’t immediately bend out of shape when one or more sheep start nibbling at an established dogma and leaders that recognize and identify with the process that those left at the back are going through and wholeheartedly want and can participate in it.

It’s too simple to draw the conclusion that those who leave turn away from God. Often they don’t have beef with God but with the common denominator of the largest group that decided for them who God is and how it all works.

If even possible, God is not easy to grasp, except for those that believe that it’s all as clear as crystal. The conversation about God, Christ, the Bible, our existence, life, and what not more has to be perpetual, and continuously needs fresh oxygen blown into it. There should never be a final word spoken about it by man. And that doesn't sit well with those that keep on gazing at their delusional crystal.

The phenomenon I describe here has been well captured by Kathy Escobar in her book “Faith Shift” (isbn 9781601425430).

"Faith Shift is a must-read for every doubter, misfit, or dreamer who has ever felt alone in the church."