Sunday, November 30, 2008

Giving to God

I once had to do a homiletics assignment on 2 Corinthians 9:6-8 and I ended up getting reprimanded for titling it “God doesn’t want your money”. Now I think I can make a fair case from Scripture that God has no interest in your money, but I’m not going to make that here. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against giving money to the church at all. Unfortunately the church has a bad reputation in this world that it’s only after your money. The sad part is it’s not hard to see why people would think that. When I was in college I attended a student church that basically had two sermons per service – one at offering time to convince you to give as much as possible and then the regular service. (Imagine my refreshment when I went from that to a church where the only secondary message was regarding communion!) However, while I don’t always agree with the methods some churches employ to get money (especially when it comes down to emotional blackmail – it’s tactics like those that make people end up feeling bitter and taken advantage of), I do understand the need. After all, buildings, utilities and cleaning supplies aren’t free and unless the pastor is a practicing breatharian, he and his family needs to eat. Besides, it would be very hypocritical to criticize Christians for supporting Christian ministries when just about every other group on the planet is doing the exact same thing! Methodists to Muslims, Agnostics to Alien worshipers, everyone (and I do mean everyone) gives money and support to organizations and causes they believe in (*cough* atheist bus campaign *cough*). My point is I fully support the notion of giving money to the church and I get why that is necessary. However things become a little muddier when it comes to the notion of giving to God. Believers are instructed to give by God repeatedly in the Bible after all. (Yes, I get how I seem to be contradicting myself really badly here but bear with me, I am actually going somewhere with this) This I believe is a source of much unhappiness and disappointment among believers. I don’t think the problem here is the fact that people give to God though, I think the problem is that people tend to give to the wrong God.

Some people give to the Crooked Official god. To them, giving to God is a lot like giving to a corrupt bureaucrat or traffic officer (my apologies to all honest traffic officers everywhere, its just that in SA, they kind of have a reputation for taking bribes to make tickets “go away”…) It’s basically like giving your offering as a bribe to God, saying “OK God, here is your money, now look the other way and let me do my thing here.” Of course that approach is doomed to failure since God is nothing like a corrupt bureaucrat and He has no interest in "getting off your back". In fact He can be pathologically caring when it comes to how you live your life. Isaiah 1:11-17 and 1 Samuel 15:22 makes it pretty clear – when you are living in sin, no amount of offerings are going to make God look the other way. God wants us to repent, not attempt to buy Him off.

Some people give to the Landlord god. The Landlord god is a relation to the Corrupt Bureaucrat god but the distinction here is that you don’t give your money so God can “forget about” your sins, rather it’s to pay God His "dues" so you can have the freedom to live your life the way you like it. Again, that doesn’t really work so well with God since it turns out he doesn’t want His “dues”, He actually wants to be involved with you and how you live. Jesus deals with this attitude specifically when He speaks to the Pharisees in Matthew 23:23 and accuses them of paying their tithes to the smallest amount – even on every pinch of their spice harvest – but neglecting to take care of the things that matter most to God. God clearly doesn’t give us the option of not being devoted to Him provided we pay our tithes in full. Instead He fully expects us to be faithful in both matters!

Then there is the Thug god. People give to the Thug god not because they want to but because they are afraid not to. I remember once sitting in a sermon about tithing and hearing the pastor explain how when you don’t give your tithes, you will end up losing that money anyway. Your car and your washing machine will break and your kids will get sick and all kinds of disasters will befall you when you neglect to give your full tithe. Now from this it wasn’t really clear whether he was suggesting that paying your tithes and giving offerings gets God to keep the devil away or whether he meant that God will come calling with a metaphorical baseball bat, but it sure made it seem like God was like those gangsters on TV who are always charging business owners “protection”. Maybe it’s just me, but something seems to be very off here. I don’t really see God extorting money out of people with fear and violence anywhere in the Bible.

Then there is the favourite of televangelists all over the world, the Slot Machine god. Not just any slot machine but a guaranteed jackpot slot machine! You give to the Slot Machine god simply as a means to make more money, a way to buy a blessing – enter tithe, pull the lever and out comes your hundred fold harvest of prosperity! Is that really the kind of attitude that God would appreciate? For one thing, it doesn't really work that way (unless you happen to be the guy taking up the offerings) and for another I think this is merely the “love of money” (AKA the “root of all evil”) just dressed up in religious garb and as such this approach is doomed to ultimately draw you away from God.

When you give to gods like these you are setting yourself up to be disappointed. Like I said right at the beginning, God doesn’t need your money at all. So why then does He ask you for it? Well there is that saying that goes “When the all-knowing God asks you a question, He’s not looking for information”. The idea is that when God asked a seemingly simple question, He isn’t trying to gather information, He wants you to realize something. I don’t think it’s such a stretch to say that when the God who owns the world and everything in it asks you to give something, it’s not because He needs it. I don’t think God needs or wants your money, in fact its pretty clear that as far as God is concerned, the whole matter of giving has nothing to do with your money. Maybe God asks because giving is important to us somehow. God isn’t after your money (and be grateful, for how would you stop Him from simply taking it if He was?) He is after the one thing He can never take by force – your heart. Maybe God asks us to give because giving is good for us. Maybe living for something outside of yourself, giving to something bigger than yourself is good for you and maybe that is why God asks it of you. I think that being miserly shrinks your world down and makes it ugly and small while being generous enlarges your world somehow. Maybe its just me but generous people - and I'm not simply talking money here - seem to be happier than those who aren't. Seems as if giving of your time, your energy and your resources, connects you and grounds you in a way nothing else can. Giving then is not really a matter of the wallet at all I think, its a matter of the heart, at least as far as God is concerned. That's why I believe the Bible when it talks about givers being blessed - some might just be a little disappointed to find that the blessing you get in return is not necessarily a rich financial reward.

Of course if you don't want to set yourself up for disappointment, it really helps if you actually give to the right God.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

For what we are about to receive...

I thought about starting this blog with a reference to Thanksgiving. It has all the elements I wanted to talk about - being grateful, giving thanks and eating - so it would have been perfect. Only problem is that since I'm not an American, I don't celebrate Thanksgiving. Unfortunately my pioneer ancestors decided to dive straight into the whole "taking the land and killing the natives" part and totally skipped the "first having a big meal with the natives" part (leading me to suspect that the Pilgrims were in fact Bond villains). I always felt a little cheated by that because I sure do love turkey and could have done with a holiday dedicated to eating it. But I digress...

I recently received radiation therapy and had to spend four days locked in a hospital room with no computer, radio or TV to distract me (and thanks to an embarrassing mishap with a drain, I also spent half of that without a phone...). Basically the only contact I had with the outside world was the plate of food that was rolled into my room 3 times a day and that got me thinking about the practice of saying grace before a meal. For some reason it is almost a reflex for me. I have been doing it for so long that I don't know if I could even eat anything without praying over it first. Even at times when my faith was low to the point of practical non-existence I still found myself praying before eating. There have been long periods in my life where the prayer before meals was the only prayer I said at all. Well during my time in the isolation ward I happened to be reading a book that had been sitting on my shelf for ages called "Jesus the Jewish Theologian". Now this is a fascinating book for anyone who is interested in getting back to the Judaic roots of the Christian faith and during this time the chapter on how giving thanks is a way of life for the Jewish people really spoke to me. I have noticed over time that when it came to saying grace before a meal, there tended to be two elements present no matter who prayed and no matter what language was used:

1. Asking God to bless the food, and
2. Asking God to make us grateful for it.

What really spoke to me as I learned more about the Judaic approach was that their prayers lacked both of those elements. Firstly, they never blessed the food, they blessed God. Our practice of blessing food is in fact rather removed from the Biblical perspective that the world and everything in it belongs to God and that He made it good. The need to bless food draws far more on the Hellenistic, gnostic idea that the physical world is tainted and not good. In the Jewish mindset it would pretty much be an insult to God to ask Him to bless something He allready declared "very good"! Instead, the Jewish prayer for bread goes:

"Blessed are thou o Lord, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth."

This is most likely the prayer that Jesus and the apostles used when the Bible talks about them saying a blessing before meals. I really liked that small prayer because it is a simple acknowledgment of God as our ultimate provider. Seems to me that the Biblical concept of saying grace sounded a lot less like:

"Bless this food to our use, and us to thy service and fill our hearts with grateful praise. Amen."

and a lot more like the doxology:

My favourite part here was that it didn't stop at saying thank you for bread. There was a similar prayer to say thank you for wine. In fact there was a short prayer of thanksgiving - called a Berakhot - for pretty much every part of life. It is believed that this is what Paul was referring to in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 when he wrote:

"Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

There was a Berakhot for pretty much everything - on receiving good news, bad news, when eating, drinking, smelling a fragrant plant, being in the presence of thunder, lightning, rainbows and comets, seeing a king, seeing a dwarf or a giant - the list goes on. There was even a prayer to bless God for the ability to urinate! (If you are really curious, it goes: "Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities. It is fully known before the throne of Thy glory that if one of them should be [improperly] opened or one of them closed it would be impossible for a man to stand before Thee" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 60b))

Now I'm not suggesting that as Christians we learn a new set of prayer to replaced the old set of prayers. But what really stood out for me here was how this practice fostered an attitude of continuous marvel, awe and wonder regarding the things we so easily take for granted. Which brings me to the second element of the traditional mealtime grace the very familiar "For what we are about to receive, make us truly grateful oh Lord" part. I have had a problem with that part for many years. Why should the responsibility for our gratitude be God's problem? It just never made sense to me. Plus you would not want God - or anyone really - to make you grateful. Think about it. If you truly want to be made grateful, here are two simple things I can suggest:
a) Go without food for a while. Nothing like a good fast to make you appreciate the goodness of even a piece of dry bread.
b) Not feeling up to a fast? OK, do it the third world way and eat nothing but the most basic food for a while. Try living from only bread or only rice or only porridge for a week. I can promise you from personal experience that it will make you truly grateful for the next piece of meat you eat!

I for one would rather not be made grateful, trust me, I have been there and its no fun at all. I would much rather try and foster an attitude of continuous gratitude and childlike wonder for the world I live in. After all, we get to enjoy it for such a short time, why not learn to appreciate it while we have it for the gift that it is?

So may you cherish every moment spent with the people you love and may you enjoy every good thing in this world whether it be food or drink, dancing or sleeping, nature or technology. Whatever stirs your heart, may you always be at least a little in awe of it and may you always remember what a gift it is to be able to enjoy it.

If all else fails, remember the Boom de yada!

[Sources: "Our father Abraham" by Dr MR Wilson and "Jesus the Jewish Theologian" by Dr BH Young. I recommend both very highly.]

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Prosperity vs Psalm 23

It’s no secret that I’m not a big fan of the Prosperity movement. Now I don’t wish to make sweeping generalizations and declare everyone in the movement evil. My dislike comes in various degrees – there are those in the movement who I think aren’t necessarily bad people – people like the Copeland’s and Joyce Meyer. I may not agree with a lot of what they teach but I still respect them. Then there are the people like Benny Hinn and Peter Popoff who I believe are just using the Gospel to make themselves rich – these people I don’t like or respect. Just to clarify, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with having things and money. I don’t believe everyone needs to be poor. I don’t believe preachers need to be paupers. I have no problem with giving money to the church – as long as it is clear what I’m giving to and where my money is going. I do have a problem with being told that I’m “supporting the Lord’s work” when all I’m really doing is helping make a car payment. On a Porsche.

But I have a confession to make, my dislike of the Prosperity movement is also due to a bad experience I had with it personally. Long, long ago when I first heard of the movement I was completely taken by it. I soaked up its teachings and I heartily supported it. Every testimony just spurred me on to delve deeper. So much so that I even decided to truly put it to the test. After finishing my studies, I had no source of income except for my savings and I decided to try living by “sowing and reaping” and to put the whole philosophy of “give and it will be given to you”, “you can never out give God” (the slogan list goes on but I will stop here) to the test. I gave, I tithed, I prayed, I confessed – I will save you the details but in short I did everything I ever heard recommended. Suffice it to say it didn’t end well for me. I found out the hard way that prosperity teachings work great, IF you happen to be a prosperity preacher! Not so much when you are not the one passing around the money bucket promising great returns to all who give generously! I quite literally gave myself into poverty and came within an inch of having to live on the street. In the end I had to do what both common sense and the Bible had been telling me all along (if only I cared to listen…): I got a job, worked for my money, learned to be content with what I had and how to live within my means. Good lesson, but an expensive one that cost me all my savings.

However, let me be clear that I am not bitter. I take full responsibility for my own stupidity and I’m not going to pretend that this is anyone’s fault but my own. It’s convenient to blame the prosperity movement and preachers for this but the truth is that what is really to blame is our innate willingness to believe that there is an easy way out – that we can get something for nothing (or next to nothing). Add to this our very human tendency to hear what we want to hear and mix in some select Bible verses and you have a very dangerous cocktail!

Now I can’t so much about basic human nature and there is little more I can do beyond posting my own misadventures in charismania as a cautionary tale (though I don’t really believe that to be very necessary since not that many in the movement will actually try to live the talk in the first place!). I would like to post just one good example to show how the Bible doesn’t always say what we would like to think it says. To prove my point I will use arguably the worlds best know and best loved Psalm, Psalm 23 – The Lord is my Shepherd. It serves as a fantastic example of a piece of scripture that doesn’t quite say what prosperity teachers think it says or would like it to say.

Psalm 23:2 “He makes me lie down in green pastures…”

When you hear “green pastures” what is the image that jumps to mind? Lush meadows? Waving fields of grass? Knee deep alfalfa? Something like this perhaps?

Sure it is. Well it was my mental picture anyway. So imagine my surprise when I learned it does not match the one David was describing in this Psalm at all. The green pasture David was describing looked more like this:

See our image may be one of fat, fluffy white sheep grazing the Irish countryside to their hearts content, but David didn’t come from that part of the world. We easily forget that the Israeli people were a desert people and David’s memories of his shepherding days would have looked far more like this:

The green pastures in Israeli wilderness actually look like rocky, barren hillsides. Scattered amidst the rocks are blades of grass. Where a drop of rain fell or dew collected beneath a rock, a little tuft of grass can sprout up. The job of the shepherd was to find these grassy places so that his sheep could have a few mouthfuls to eat at a time. Now this may not be a great image of prosperity but I find it to be a particularly beautiful image none the less. See the green pastures David spoke about gave enough for now and only the now. The afternoon’s green pasture was something the sheep would be led to in the afternoon. Tomorrows green pasture was something they would be taken to tomorrow. The sheep never landed in a place of lifelong luxury but the shepherd always made sure that they had all the food they needed to eat in the present. Isn’t this exactly how God supplied the Israelites when they wandered the desert? God supplied enough manna for one day every day. Also, doesn’t this absolutely reflect what Jesus, our Good Shepherd taught about the provision God gave? Did He not teach that in prayer we are to ask for our “daily bread” (Matt 6:11)? Did He not teach that we are not to worry about tomorrow and can rest in the knowledge that the God who takes care of us today will take care of us tomorrow (Matt 6:25-34)?

“…he leads me beside quiet waters”

OK so after that first refresher about desert life you probably don’t expect me to tell you that “quiet waters” look like this:

Crater lake USA - considered to be the clearest lake in the world

And you would be right. But here is a little factoid I was surprised to learn. The most frequent cause of death in the wilderness is not starvation, thirst, or heat exhaustion – its drowning! The nearby limestone mountains cannot absorb rainwater. The water runs into the desert, creating sudden and violent floods that fill the wadis—canyons that have been carved out by past floods. Effectively turning this:

Into this:

Within moments and without much warning. Anyone standing in the wadi when a flood comes will be swept away. Shortly after the flood, a wadi becomes dry again. Sometimes a bit of water from a previous flood will remain on the wadi floor, and these waters are attractive to the thirsty wilderness flocks. A wise shepherd knows that walking through a wadi can be dangerous because even on a clear sunny day, a flash flood may come without warning. They know where to find springs of water where the flocks can drink without the danger of a flash flood.

The metaphor here is incredibly rich isn’t it? For one thing it doesn’t warn against being thirsty or against drinking water but instead focuses on the place/source of the water. I mean we all thirst for things – careers, lifestyles, friends, love, the list goes on. This tells me that it’s not wrong to want/need things and it’s not wrong to get these things. The problem is not getting these thirsts satisfied, its getting them satisfied in the right place. If God our Shepherd seems to be steering us away from something we are sure we need then we can know that it is because he wants to supply that need in a safer way. Didn't Jesus clearly teach that God knows that we need things? Did He not teach that as a good Father, He would supply our needs with something good and wholesome, not something harmful (Matt 7:9-11; Luk 11:11-13)? This image of the “quiet waters” reminds me to quit acting like a spoiled child who believes that his parents are just trying to spoil his fun when they are in truth only trying to keep him out of harms way. If I truly believe what I say I do then I should trust that as a good Father, God knows what I really need (Matt 6:8).

Considering how immensely stupid I can be at times, its probably best that I don’t have the kind of Father that gives me everything I want when I want it!

[For most of this information I am heavily indebted to the “That the World may know” series by teacher and historian Ray van der Laan. If you are interested in learning even more from this amazing Psalm, you can read some short notes here. I recommend the entire series of videos very strongly to any Christian interested in stripping away the layers of western theology and thinking and actually hearing and seeing the Scriptures in the context the original audience received it. For interest sake it also happens to be the strange place in the universe where Focus on the Family and Rob Bell meet. (
I do so love juxtapose where I can find it!) Focus on the Family distributes the videos and Dr James Dobson personally endorses them and yet they also provide the source material for the very same teachings that Rob Bell gets labeled as a heretic for teaching! (For instance his controversial “Dust” video in the Nooma series draws almost word for word from one of the That the World may know faith lessons - yet you never see anyone attacking those!) ]

Monday, November 10, 2008

And they wonder why Atheists make fun of us...

As any of the 5 people who read this blog could tell you, I have a big issue with "charismaniac" behaviour. If you didn't spend much time in a Pentecostal/Charismatic church environment that may mean nothing to you. In short this is when Christians do some kind of symbolic act with "spiritual significance". Now I guess I shouldn't be too hard on people as usually this is all pretty harmless. Besides, I actually believe in the power of symbolism. My main peeve is that usually the term "something happened in the spirit" is just another way of saying "nothing happened, but we don't want to admit it". This could take many forms, a popular one is the "prayer walk" which is modelled after the Israelites walking around the walls of Jericho. Big difference of course is that after the Israelites obeyed God and did their symbolic act (here and everywhere else in the Bible), something actually happened. In the Charismatic movement it seems we kind of have the opposite going on - someone says that God says that everyone should do [insert symbolic act of faith] and then God will [insert miraculous action]. But then (in my experience - yours may be different and if so I would love to hear more) nothing happens. If at this point you think someone is going to admit that maybe they didn't quite hear God or that maybe they heard wrong you have obviously never been in a Charismatic Church before! No, at this point you will be told that, sure maybe nothing actually happened here BUT something sure changed in the spirit with the implication that at some point the spiritual change will manifest in the physical. In my experience it rarely does. In fact in my experience there seems to be a correlation between the bigness of the symbolic act and how spectacularly the promised change fails to happen.

A good example would be Benny Hinn's recent tour to South Africa. At one point a special blessing was announced by one of Hinn's co-preachers - for 2 minutes only, everyone who would sow a $1000 "seed" (because God put a special blessing on that number of course) would be blessed with MILLIONS if not MULTI-MILLIONS! Within 24 hours no less! To help with this, there were credit card machines at the ready and everything. A while later, some skeptical pastors who attended the meeting publicly asked in a major Sunday newspaper if anyone became a millionaire as promised. I would love to tell you what the response to that was but its a little hard to reproduce the sound of crickets chirping in text...

Yet now I have seen something that makes all of that seem perfectly sensible. Turns out that some Christians decided the best way to fix the economy would be to...

Pray and lay hands on a GOLDEN CALF????

Apparently, according to the participants:
“We are going to intercede at the site of the statue of the bull on Wall Street to ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the 'Lion's Market,' or God's control over the economic systems. While we do not have the full revelation of all this will entail, we do know that without intercession, economies will crumble.”
Are they freaking kidding?? I’m sorry, you can dress it up any way you want, its still God’s people praying in front of a golden calf!! Is this not the one story from the Bible everyone in the world knows about? Sure it is, you even find a similar picture in most children's Bibles and famous art, look its almost exactly the same:

Plus may I remind you that in Exodus 32 (first time this happened - apparently Christians don't read the Bible no more) the people of God weren't looking for a new God - the whole golden calf debacle was just because the people wanted a visual representation of the very God that led them out of Egypt!

When stuff like this happens, don't go whining when the Athiests make fun of Christians - we totally had it coming in this case!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Holy/Different: Honest

[I never really planned to make do any follow ups after the previous post on holiness but yet after writing it the vagueness of it all bothered me. I felt that I made a case that we should be more holy in a practical way but then stopped short of actually getting practical about it. I could already feel my retinas burning from the blinding flash of the obvious. So then here is one practical way I could think of. Agree, disagree, have a different opinion? - I would love to hear it. This is merely my attempt to make practical sense of a difficult subject. Also please note that I don't offer this as the entirety of the matter, rather I list this as just one small facet. ]

How honest would you say you are? Chances are, you aren't half as honest as you think. I say this not because I doubt your character (though technically I have no idea who you are, this being a public forum on the Internet and all but I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here!) but simply the information age has somehow managed to turn us all a little dishonest. We are just bombarded with so many factoids, soundbites, gossip, opinions, propaganda, statistics and disinformation that despite our best efforts to always tell the truth (again, benefit of the doubt) we all tend to spread some absolute nonsense at some point. Think you have been spared? Well if you have ever told someone about the "fact" that we all swallow about 8 spiders per year in our sleep, or that humans only use 10% of their brains, or that men think about sex every 7 seconds, or even passed on the time honored advice about the need to wait 30 minutes after eating before swimming - believe it or not, you lied! Ditto for pepper staying in your digestive tract for 7 years (it moves through and out like everything else including bubblegum mom!) or a ducks quack not giving an echo (the Mythbusters actually tested this one). The unfortunate truth of the information age is that the extreme amounts of misinformation we are fed makes liars of us all.

I know this useless trivia seems pretty insignificant and I completely agree. It really doesn't matter if you frequently quote a piece of info that apart from being useless is also completely false. The only reason I mention this at all is just to make the point that I don't have crazy and unrealistic ideas about honesty. I get it. We are human. We repeat things without fact checking, we gossip about things we really don't know much, we add on to stories, we round up our figures - of these things I'm pretty sure we are all guilty to some degree. Yet when it comes to being a Christian, these little transgressions of untruth become a little more serious. When someone as a Christian, starts spreading untruths about issues of faith and spirituality, then it becomes a lot less insignificant and a lot more problematic -even when this misinformation is shared as unintentionally and innocently as any other fake factoid. A silly statistic around the watercooler is harmless - an equally silly statistic used to make a point in a serious debate/sermon is not. Unfortunately, thanks to the Internet, Christians worldwide have a growing reputation for ignorance and utter dishonesty.

A term used rather often these days when referring to Christians is "Liars for Jesus". Sad thing is, that isn't as undeserved as we would like it to be. A very common - but extremely damaging - example of this is of course the horrible practice of quote mining. Now I would like to believe that most cases of this happens due to misinformation and ignorance on the part of the Christian - that it's usually just a case of someone repeating a piece of emailed trivia or some unfortunately fake factoid heard from the pulpit or read in a piece of literature - but that hardly makes the person using it look any better does it? Quote mining is a clear case of breaking the 9th commandment that no opponent in a debate would ever pass up the chance to mock. In fact quote mines can collapse pretty spectacularly as seen here. However as I pointed out right at the start, anyone can become a victim of bad information. It is nevertheless a disturbing trend to find that so much of what Christians quote falls under quote mining. You may be shocked to find that any time a Christian quotes a famous person (atheist especially) the quote is usually wrong and often misleading. It's for reasons like this that the quote mine project even exists! It's not limited to the evolution debate either - from philosophy and science to other faiths and cultures, there is quote after quote that is wrong, taken out of context or even completely fabricated. None of this makes Christianity look very good! There are a lot of high profile Christians telling big lies and in doing so they are making us all look dishonest. (Alas, these big lies spread throughout the Christian movement with as much ease as the little ones) Then there are the cases where I wouldn't feel comfortable calling someone a liar but the way they present the "facts" seems pretty dishonest none the less. I for instance would have a hard time reading any of Lee Strobel's "A case for..." books. He may be making some good points in there but the whole setup just seems dishonest from the get go. He sets himself up as a former skeptic/atheist/"evolutionist" who after thoroughly looking into the issues became a believer in Biblical inerrancy. Yet in every one of his works you see everything but skepticism and thoroughness - you just see someone having a one sided conversation with a group of "experts" hand picked to support the main premise completely. What happened to looking at all sides of the issue? Where is the skepticism? Where is the chance for rebuttal and dialogue? None of this seems honest to me at all! Mr Strobel's apologetics work is pretty mild next to some others though. Some Christians seem to have no problem with willfully and purposefully lying for the cause. From Ben Stein's deceitful movie Expelled to the blatant dishonesty put forward by Way of the Master in their videos to the endless examples of outright lies by creationists like Kent Hovind and Duane Gish, there is plenty for Christians to be ashamed about. Just recently a poster on Youtube held a competition for the "Golden Crocoduck" which awarded a prize to the person telling the biggest most obviously blatant lie in furtherance of the creationist cause - there were no shortage of nominations. In case you're wondering, it was won by none other than the great Kent Hovind and I have to agree - it takes some moxie to show the audience a slide that proves you are lying while you are lying to them!!

Don't even get me started on Kirk Cameron and his Crocoduck...

But that is enough ranting. This isn't a post about Christian dishonesty, this is about holiness. I do often feel as if I'm making accusations but not providing enough proof to back it up - hence the rant if you would be so kind as to forgive me for that. Bear with me thought there is actually a train of thought here. In my previous post I tried to explore the concept of "being holy" as "being different". So therefore with dishonesty becoming the disturbingly expected norm for Christians, one great and truly practical way for someone to be holy by being different would be to practice honesty. Even for those who disagree with my take on holiness as difference - those who prefer to think of it as being Godlike or obedient to the Bible - well, that changes nothing - after all, the Bible is pretty clear about the fact that the followers of God should be honest (Lev 19:11; Col 3:9 - to list but a few).

However, don't get me wrong. The reason I chose honesty is not to list just another nice sounding but impossibly hard way to be "holy". That is why I started this blogpost the way I did. I get that to be 100% truthful in all things at all time is well nigh impossible. It would certainly be inhuman. In fact it may not even always be wise or good. After all, should the midwives who hid the Israeli babies in the time of Moses have been more honest? Should Rahab have been more honest about hiding the spies? (Interesting article on that here) For another thing, honesty has gotten a bit of a bad reputation. People use honesty as an excuse to be cruel and hurtful sometimes. Seems like honesty only matters to certain people when they can use it as a defense against a charge of behaving like a total douchebag. Let me be clear, I don't mean honesty in any of those terms. I think that honesty is a very good, very practical way to practice holiness. Not as an impossible measure of perfection or an all purpose defense for being slanderous or mean but rather in the sense of being consistently reliable and trustworthy, especially as pertaining to the sharing of information.

The best part is, it's not even that hard to do. All it takes is the willingness to take a moment to think about the things you've heard. Sounds too amazing? Maybe it is. The great thing about the information age is that it is also easier than ever to check your facts. is a fantastic resource for checking up on the veracity of the rumours and factoids in your inbox, use it as much as you can, they have a wealth of articles there that are easy to search. Wikipedia (for all it's imperfections) is a great tool for quickly checking information. If you aren't a 100% convinced that the Wikipedia article is accurate, check out the bottom of the page - a good entry should have proper citations and links to more scholarly work allowing you to further investigate. (Here is a very good guide to verifying information found on the Internet by Johns Hopkins university if you want to become a more dedicated fact checker) Another easy way is to simply google what you heard - that may not always give you the truth BUT it will tell you who is really saying it. If it is true and real then you should be getting a lot of pages from the relevant authorities on the subject. If the only pages mentioning it are some fringe groups or conspiracy theorist bloggers then maybe you shouldn't be so quick to believe it. My point is, we have a choice when it comes to dealing with information. We can blindly pass things along the grapevine and be a part of a broken and dishonest system OR we can take (literally in most cases) a minute to just make sure that what we pass is actually the truth.

I also believe that a good thing to be honest about is the unknowns. Is it really so hard to say "I don't know" or "I don't understand that either"? Especially in spiritual matters, I would rather be honest and tell someone when I have the same doubts, uncertainties and fears that they have than to give them the glib, stock answer. You may just find that it makes a far bigger difference for someone to know that they aren't the only people in the world with questions.

So then, while I am by no means a Christian authority or any kind of authority on the subject of holiness, I do offer these things as practical advice. Check your facts. Don't be afraid to admit when you don't know, don't understand or when you have questions of your own. Don't round up your numbers, don't adjust your statistics - you probably aren't fooling anyone anyway. Will this alone make you holy? No, of course not. But I do believe it is a good start and what's more it is practical and within reach of everyone. It may be only a small step on the road of holiness but I do believe it's an important one.

[Edit: 18 Nov 2008]
I have done some thinking about this subject - why go from the subject of holiness to honesty? Well when I first wrote it my reasoning was as follows: Honesty was something we could all work on and what is more we could all work on it with ease and immediate success. That I have always felt was crucial when starting something new in your life, whether it was a diet or an exercise program or any type of difficult project - find that ONE thing you could do and get right. When you have that then the road forward becomes a lot easier. Any difficult quest becomes easier to start when you can start off with a victory after all. Now that I had a chance to think about it though I realize there is more to it than that, honesty is a better starting point than I thought. Maybe if you can start off with being a little more intentional about making sure you are being honest about what you tell people, after a while it will spread to other parts of your life. Maybe after a while you will want to start being more honest with God when you pray. Maybe after a while you will start wanting to be more honest with yourself and less comfortable with the easy excuses. Maybe after a while you want to start being honest about questions like "What am I really like?", "What do I really believe in?", "What do I think of myself?", "What do I truly believe about God?" Come to think of it, I find it hard to imagine a better first step on the road to being holy-different than simple honesty. I don't think its a journey you can begin in any other way.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


What does the term “holy” mean to you? Do you ever think about it? After all for any concept to have value, we need to have a firm grasp of what it means do we not? Unfortunately there is a disturbing trend among Christians to have a great many terms which – while we use them really often – remain foggy and rather undefined (at least in practical terms), rendering them pretty much pointless. My friend and fellow blogger TPluckyT has started a great series a while ago called GodQuest, chronicling his personal journey of making oft used Christianese terms like “finding God” and “having a personal relationship with God” more tangible and meaningful and that has inspired me to re-examine some of the words I might be using unthinkingly. For some – if not most – Christians, the word “holy” means something vague, maybe to do with being good or halo’s or angels and church. For others it refers to some kind of incredible standard of perfection that God expects from us yet only He can be. For most of us though it’s really hard to pin down exactly what it’s supposed to look like in our lives.

Now for this I don’t really blame the church. Anyone who regularly attends church must have at some point heard a sermon on holiness and there is a very high likelihood that somewhere during that service the preacher mentioned that the word “holy” in the original language literally means “set aside” or “set apart”. Yet due to perhaps a lot of mental clutter and preconceived ideas, this never really sunk in for me. Yet I found that when I managed to wipe away the vague notions and preconceived ideas about holiness and started thinking about it in terms of meaning “set apart” or “made to be different”, a lot of the Bible which previously made little sense started making perfect sense. For instance, so much of the Torah rules about food and dress and behavior just seems weird and pointless to our 21st century ears. But consider this, God chose to use a group of people – the Israelites – to be his messengers. For this reason He made them Holy and gave His Law to keep them that way. Now if you think of holiness as some kind of perfection, most of the dietary, clothing, sacrificial and behavioral laws make little to no sense! BUT – when you think of holy as being made different or set apart, it makes total sense. Eating different, living different, behaving different and dressing different doesn’t make you good or better or perfect or in any way superior but it certainly does set you apart and keeps you from assimilating and becoming just like everyone else. I think this provides a very practical explanation as to why despite countless banishments and millennia of cruel persecution the Jewish people have never been destroyed nor become lost in the sea of humanity – through all the ages they stayed apart, different, in a word: Holy.

While for many modern Christians a term like “holy” may be a vague, ethereal thing, in Biblical times “holy” meant something sensory and visceral. Holiness was something you could see and smell and hear and touch. This almost alien concept was first brought to my attention when I read CS Lewis’ book “Till we have faces”, which retold the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche and through it managed to explore some very Christian issues by using a completely pagan setting. Something that struck me was how the main character was always frightened by the high priest and the temple of their goddess because it smelled so holy. Put yourself in the shoes of any character in the Bible for a moment (especially in the Old Testament) and think about it for a moment. What would your sensory experience of holiness have been? Holiness smelled like blood and smoke and incense and burnt flesh, holiness sounded like loud music and sacrifices sensing their immanent death, holiness looked like death and rivers of blood flowing from an altar. Holiness could be dark and scary and intimidating. But maybe holiness could also look like family and community and smell like mom’s kosher cooking and sound like prayer and scripture being read together. Holiness could be frightening, holiness could be comforting, it could feel like pain and persecution or it could feel like home and belonging. My point is that holiness wasn’t vague and out there, holiness was something real, something you could see and live and something that could be embodied. As it happened there were some people called upon to take this embodiment to the next level – the Nazarites.

Nazarites (Hebrew nazir Elohim, "one separated to God") existed as living pictures of holiness. They had to stand out even among those already called to stand out. According to Numbers 6:1-21 there were 3 things that set them apart (made them holy in other words):
  1. Total abstinence from wine (not even grapes or raisins were allowed) or strong drink – considering that wine was like the coca-cola of the day, not drinking wine really made you different!
  2. Refraining from cutting your hair – we always associate this part with Samson, but take a moment to consider how different this would have made you. Everyone trimmed their hair, it just makes sense if you live in a hot desert environment! Someone with long wild hair would really have stood out a lot!
  3. Avoidance of contact with the dead – this included the bodies of your closest relatives and loved ones. Some commentators even suggest that this implied that Nazarites couldn’t eat meat.
Usually this was just a temporary thing, there is mention made in Scripture of only three who were Nazarites for life, Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist (Jdg 13:4,5; 1Sa 1:11; Luk 1:15). In its ordinary form, however, the Nazarite's vow lasted only thirty, and at most one hundred, days. But the point here is that these people didn’t so much live as “holy men” (or saints) the way we tend to think of today. Most Bible dictionaries would tell you that the Nazarite vow was about: “a life devoted to God and separated from all sin” (Eastons Bible Dictionary). But that doesn’t quite make sense does it? Nothing listed as requirements here actually constitute “sins”. After all there is nothing sinful about or wrong with drinking wine or cutting your hair or touching the body of your dead parent/child (or eating meat for that matter). Seems to me that the Nazarites didn’t so much live as examples of holiness (in other words “Live like this if you want to be holy”) but instead that they lived as reminders to be holy. They stood out a lot, to remind you that you aren’t supposed to look and be just like everyone else. They were walking billboards making the point that you weren’t supposed to be assimilated.

If you want proof you need not look further than one of the most famous Nazarites of them all – John the Baptist. When he preached he didn’t tell people that they needed to be more like him. He did however tell them to be different. For instance when tax collectors came to him and asked what they needed to do, he didn’t tell them to become vegetarian teetotalers in the desert. Instead he told them to be a different kind of tax collector, fair and honest (unlike the norm at the time). Likewise when soldiers asked what they needed to do he didn’t tell them to become long haired hippies who never came near dead things. Instead he told them to become a different kind of soldier – honest men, protectors instead of exploiters of the powerless.

See “holy” might mean “different”, but it does not mean different just for the sake of being different. If “holy” means “set apart” then the implication is that one is set apart for a reason. There is a greater purpose to “being holy” than simply “being good” or “being separated”. Being holy is about living in such a way that you remind the world around you that there is another, better way to live. Or as Joss Whedon put it:
“We live as though the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be”

So what does “being holy” mean to you? What does it mean to me? This is the 21st century after all and while the message of holiness must remain the same, what does that mean in a practical sense today? What kind of different are we supposed to be, as Christians and what should it look like? There are the obvious things of course – we should live moral and ethical lives – maybe today more than ever that is part of being “holy/different”. But should there be more? If so, what would that be? What does "holy" look, sound, taste and smell like to you?