28 January 2006

Pillar of fire

So last night, I was praying night prayer, or Compline, in my bedroom. (The link is to some short Celtic Complines from the Northumbria Community in England, but I also pray using various versions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer as well as other prayer books, especially Celtic ones). This is an on-again, off-again habit I've had which I recently resumed following advice from my Discipleship Group leader, Carl. It's been a good thing in my life, so thanks, Carl.

Anyway, it was late at night, and Tina was already asleep, and I lit a stick of incense and a candle (as is my habit) and started to pray Compline. I want to talk a little more about the candle. I had one of those little glass candle holders that's made for a votive candle and is about the size of a small juice glass. It's green. I didn't have any votive candles, so what I put in it was what they call a "tea light", which is one of those little, short, round candles in a little metal cup, about the same diameter as a votive candle but less than an inch tall. I used a regular match from a matchbook to light it, and only after lighting the incense with the same match, so by the time I lit the candle, I came pretty close to burning my fingers. Accordingly, I dropped the match into the little candle glass, where it lit the wick of the tea light in a satisfactory manner.

If you're still reading, I'm surprised. Why in the name of all that's holy am I going into excruciating detail on the lighting of a candle? Well, I'll tell you why. Because somehow, that particular chain of events led to this: right in the middle of a period of silence, while I was trying to meditate, I heard a "Whoosh! Crackle, snap, pop!" I opened my eyes and looked up, and my little tea light candle flame had become a full-on pillar of fire. I'm not kidding. Flames were shooting up more then a foot above the top of the little green glass, then dancing left and right, then subsiding a bit, maybe even sinking below the lip of the glass, then, "Whoosh! Snap, crackle, pop!" and up we go again, twisting and dancing and reaching for the ceiling. This kept up for a good five or ten minutes! I sat there just enraptured at the beauty of it. Then a voice boomed, "I AM WHAT I AM!" No, now I'm kidding. :-)

It occurred to me to wonder whether the glass (which was sitting at eye-level) was going to explode and send shards of itself hurtling into my face, but I decided that to follow that line of thinking would be ungrateful. So I just sat there watching and listening and enjoying it until, several minutes later, it slowly subsided and died, the tea light completely used up.

Now, I don't assign any particular significance, spiritual or otherwise, to this event. But I must say it was pretty freakin' cool!!! And I'm grateful to have experienced it. So I'm going to light another tea light in the same little green glass and pray Compline again tonight before I go to sleep. If I see any winged beasts with four different faces, I'll let you know.

25 January 2006

2 Chronicles 8

Well, after a pleasant romp through the epistles of John and the letter to the Ephesians, my daily Bible study book is back in the books of Chronicles. Today's study, on 2 Chronicles chapter 8, has me raising my eyebrow. The last time I posted on a difficult passage from Chronicles, it was the occasion for quite an invigorating discussion. So, here we go. Let's see what happens.

OK, I assume you've read the chapter by now. It's only 16 verses - no biggie. I don't know what you think of it - pretty boring stuff, perhaps - but my study guide zeroed in on two things: Solomon's sin in subjecting non-Israelites to oppressive slave labor, and Solomon's sin of polygamy.

My reaction to these emphases is: whatever happened to the "plain sense of scripture"? Try as I might, I can't detect the slightest hint of disapproval of either of these things in the Biblical narrative. This chapter is a list of Solomon's great accomplishments. How does one get the idea that these are presented as "sin"? Granted, my commentator is correct (from our modern point of view) in pointing out that this oppressive slavery was contrary to the spirit of the Exodus. But my reading of the text is that this point was lost on the Chronicler. I read it as, "Yeah! Solomon conquered Hamath-zobah! Solomon kept the Amorites and Hittites under his thumb! Go Solomon!" And granted, Solomon's son Rehoboam is portrayed as a fool (which he clearly was) a few chapters later when he says to his people, "You thought Dad was bad? You don't know the meaning of bad!!" But here, I don't read any judgment of Solomon's actions. Nor is there judgment of his polygamy. It's just a fact. Solomon built a country home for his Egyptian wife because somebody (Solomon? His wife? The priests?) was uncomfortable with her pagan proximity to where the Ark of the Covenant had been. Sounds prudent, but it's not judged - or if there is a hint of judgment, it's because of her paganness, not his polygamy.

So my commentator springboards from this to an exhortation to safeguard Biblical morality against the "onslaught on Christian values" in today's culture. But what is Biblical morality? To read a passage like this as condemning things like slavery and polygamy is, it seems to me, to impose our concept of morality on the Bible, not to read and listen to what the Bible says. Now, I'm certainly not arguing that slavery and polygamy are good - that's not my point at all - but I am asking: who and what are we serving when we so blatantly make the Bible say what we want it to say? We all do this - it's unavoidable; we're humans and whether we like it or not we see things through our ego-lenses. But I don't know. Am I crazy, or is this kind of Biblical interpretation at best powerful self-delusion and at worst outright deceit? And either way, how can it possibly help us serve God and others?

Anyway, I give you a topic. Discuss. :-)

22 January 2006

A stake in the sand

Ignore my idle speculations about theodicy. My friend Mike knows what he's talking about. Please go to his blog for wisdom from real life. And while you're there, say a prayer for him and his family. God, please love and comfort them.

19 January 2006

Church model quiz

I like this one! Thanks, Sonja!
You scored as Servant Model. Your model of the church is Servant. The mission of the church is to serve others, to challenge unjust structures, and to live the preferential option for the poor. This model could be complemented by other models that focus more on the unique person of Jesus Christ.

Servant Model


Sacrament model


Mystical Communion Model


Herald Model


Institutional Model


What is your model of the church? [Dulles]
created with QuizFarm.com

17 January 2006

Why are Christians so ignorant?

That's a very good question. I don't know the answer, but I do know that (at the moment) if you type it into Google without surrouding quotes, this blog is the second hit from the top. Hah! This rocks! Does this mean that I'm the second-most-ignorant Christian on the web? :-D

(Many thanks for the anonymous web surfer who clicked through to my blog from that Google search. I wonder if I shed any light on your question?)

14 January 2006

Theodicy and grace

One of the classic problems in theology (and faith in general) has the technical name "theodicy". In a nutshell, here's the problem: if God is so flippin' good and so flippin' powerful, why is there so much innocent suffering? Human free will may partially explain it, but what about the terrible disasters of the year past? The tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes don't have anything to do with human free will, unless you subscribe to the somewhat crackpot idea that Adam and Eve's sin (aka "The Fall") screwed up the natural world too. Well, just because it occurred to me, I throw out an equally crackpot idea: what if the creation, the natural world, also has something like free will?

I'm not suggesting that nature is sentient, just that perhaps God is, generally speaking, as hands-off with nature as God is with our own human free will. That is, God is no more likely to prevent Hurricane Katrina than God is to possess the mind of a murderer and force him not to kill. Maybe even for the same reasons, not that I claim to understand them fully.

I don't think this is a new idea, and although it is a conscious acknowledgement of the wisdom of Deists like my friend Jan, I'm definitely not going as far as Deists go in claiming that God never takes an active role in creation. (Jesus is of course the most extreme counterexample to that.) But there is a term for God taking an active role in creation: miracle. Nobody thinks miracles are common. We live in a universe in which the innocent often suffer. If this is a just universe, that justice does not operate using the dynamics of physical or emotional joy and suffering.

I used to believe in karma, but I don't any more. There is cause and effect, but it's not moral. When causes and conditions dictate that something nasty will happen and cause suffering, it usually will cause suffering, regardless of the moral history of those affected. When it doesn't, it's a miracle. It's grace. We're not entitled to miracles, any more than we're entitled to have God step in and take over our wills when we're about to do something stupid or evil. When they happen, we should praise God, but miracles don't happen every day.

I don't know if this is helpful, and I realize I'm presenting a pat, static theory again. But it was on my mind, so I throw it out there.

13 January 2006


This post was partly inspired by my friend Israel's post here, and also by a post in a Yahoo Group from my friend P3T3, in which he argued for the relative importance of "the means" over "the ends". And the little picture to the left is of a painting called "Either Or, Both And" by Cynthia Tom, which I've used without her permission because I really like it and she doesn't have any copyright info on her web site. Click it for a bigger version. Cynthia, if you'd like me to remove the image, please let me know.

So here's the situation. In this blog, and in the comment sections of blogs belonging to friends, acquaintances, and strangers, I have a tendency to prattle on about theological topics. Many of you have, no doubt, noted this about me.

Due to certain aspects of my personality (if you choose to call them "defects", I won't argue with you), I also have a tendency to want to figure things out. No, not just that - I tend to want to draw some mental lines and boxes, construct some mental structures that I find appealing, wordsmith some nice language around it, and act like I've figured something out. Because that makes me feel better. Because that satisfies my need to reduce something complex and make it controllable. Because when I can control it, it's not threatening. All this is a particularly dangerous personality trait for someone who's theologically inclined. Because when the thing I'm trying to reduce and control is the gospel, then I'm in the land of some very grave sin indeed.

To balance this, I've been blessed with a group of blogging friends and acquaintances who help to hold me accountable when I take a trip to that dark land. They are frequently quick to point out when I seem to have something a bit too figured out, when my carefully constructed theory is leaving out something important. (Actually, I think we all do this for each other. Also, I've noticed - or I think I have - that when I go really far down this road, my friends tend to signal my complete departure into koo-koo-land by utterly ignoring me. I may be wrong about that, but if I'm not - I get it!) :-)

Anyway, what I wanted to do in this post is to present some "both/ands" that I feel I mustn't ever leave out when I'm talking about God and the gospel and the Church. I'm doing this mainly as a corrective for myself, but also as a road map for my corrective friends, and finally as an invitation to add some more to the list. So here are some items that I think are "both/ands" when thinking and talking about God and the gospel. Conceptual constructs that leave out (or greatly minimize) one side of these or the other are, to my mind, reductionist and incomplete. And I realize that by laying this stuff out so neatly like this, I'm only doing it again. Three years as a Buddhist didn't lead me to let go of my love of neat little well-constructed concepts, and probably nothing will.

now AND later: the Kingdom of God and eternal life, two concepts that were central to Jesus' thought, are both about this present time and place, and about "eschatological" or "end-related" things - both this life and the end of this life; both this time and the end of time.

individual AND community: the individual's personal calling, mission, walk with God, etc. is important, and these things are also important at every level of community.

church AND world: the church of Christ exists to love and serve God's people both inside itself and outside itself.

Truth AND truth: absolute Truth and relative, "customized" truth.

Mission AND mission: both the overall, glorious "Mission of God" and "Mission of the Church" and each person and community's individual missional vocation.

being AND doing AND saying: but chief among these (I would say) is being. Being, doing, and saying witness, love, compassion, etc.

ends AND means: where we're going and how we get there are both important, though on balance I agree with P3T3 that the means are probably more important.

truth AND love: we can't sacrifice either one and also live lives worthy of the calling to which we've been called.

So friends, please add to this list if you want to, and also consider yourselves officially requested to whap me upside the head with the rubber chicken of healthy self-doubt if the stuff I write seems to lean so hard toward one side of those tensions that it leaves the other side out. Thanks in advance!

10 January 2006

Missional Church characteristics

People sometimes ask me, "What does this mean, this 'Missional Church' thing you speak of?" (I'm not kidding; they really do!) More often, I think, they nod politely and wonder briefly what the hell I was talking about.

Larry Chouinard has started a list of bullet-points which are easy and quick to read and may be an aid to understanding:


Thanks to the inimitable TallSkinnyKiwi for the link.

08 January 2006

And now for something completely different...

Tina just found the following story, printed in my handwriting on a couple of notebook sheets stuffed into a book. I don't have a clear memory of writing it, but I think I wrote it by Tina's bedside when she was in the hospital for quite a while after surgery and demanded I write something to entertain her. It's the sort of thing that must be shared with the whole world. It's unbelievably silly, and not the least bit theological. Please note that this story has absolutely nothing to do with the hilarious Big Bunny web cartoons by Amy Winfrey, and I'm pretty sure it predates them by a few years, but those are funnier than this so check them out too. So here, without further ado, is:

The Tale of Big Bunny and Morty Mouse

Big Bunny sat on a tree stump and looked out over the forest floor. He was happy. All of the animals of the forest knew him. They knew he was big and tough. They knew that they should stay out of his way, or he'd chase them and kick them with his strong hind feet.

Sally Squirrel ran by, carrying a nut to her home.

"Hey, Sally!" called Big Bunny, "give me that nut." Big Bunny wasn't really that fond of nuts, but he very much liked being Big. Sally took one look at Big Bunny and ran off as fast as she could, carrying her nut. Her family was hungry!

"Hey!" shouted Big Bunny, "you come back here!" Big leapt off the tree stump and hopped after Sally as fast as he could. Sally ran fast, but Big Bunny was faster. He knocked Sally over, and he started to kick at her with his big hind feet. "Here, you big bully!" Sally said, and ran away.

Big took the nut and tossed it into a stream. He didn't really want it. He just liked being Big. Big Bunny hopped off down the woodland trail, humming a tune.

A little later, Big came upon Morty Mouse, nestled up in a cozy little nest he'd made and taking a nap. Big cuffed Morty in the side of the head. "Wake up, you!" said Big Bunny. "That's a nice little nest you've got there. I'd like to have it for myself."

"My little nest isn't big enough for you, Big Bunny!" squeaked Morty Mouse. "I don't care," said Big Bunny. "I want it anyway." "No!" said Morty. Big Bunny kicked Morty with his big hind foot, knocking him out of the next. Morty went running off.

Big Bunny decided that Morty Mouse needed to be tought a lesson. And there was no point in staying here. He couldn't fit in Morty's little nest, anyway. So Big went hopping off after Morty at top speed.

Morty was a fast little mouse. He led Big Bunny on a wild chase! He led Big Bunny over hill and over Dale and over Chip. ("Hey! Watch it!" shouted Chip.) Morty led Big Bunny to a different part of the forest, where the trees were bigger.

Morty Mouse led Big Bunny right to the home of Wilma Wolf. Wilma heard the noise of the animals running quickly toward her home, and came outside to see what was the matter. Morty saw Wilma, and ran straight between her feet. Big Bunny was so excited by the chase that he didn't see Wilma at first. When he did, he was too big to run between her feet like Morty did. Big Bunny ran "smack!" into Wilma Wolf.

"My, my!" said Wilma. "What a plump, juicy, Big Bunny we have here!" With that, Wilma Wolf ate Big Bunny right up.

Morty Mouse laughed and laughed.

02 January 2006

Holiday fun and worship

Just some quick hits about cool things I did in the last couple of weeks:
  • Tina and I spent the five days before Christmas with my Mom and Dad and brother Sean at my parents' house near Charlotte. We had a wonderful time - family fun, card games, and lots and lots and lots and lots of food! :-)
  • On Christmas Eve, Tina and I worshiped with the community of the Church of the Beloved, an absolutely wonderful "emerging" Episcopal church. The music was great - mostly alt rock arrangements of Christmas carols straight out of the Episcopal Hymnal 1982. The worship was Spirit-filled, exuberent, inclusive of kids and a cool experience for young people - and yet, in its basic form, it was a Rite II Eucharist right from the Book of Common Prayer. Although in many ways it was more "contemporary Anglican" than "emerging", it gave me great home that "emerging" and "Episcopal" can go together - gloriously! And it put me in a wonderfully worshipful and expectant mood for Christmas Eve. Tina and I sang carols at the top of our voices all the way home!
  • This past Friday evening, my friend Israel and I attended one in series of Friday night prayer vigils at Langley Hill Friends Meeting for their member Tom Fox and the other members of the Christian Peacemakers Team who were abducted in Iraq and have been missing for more than a month. They're doing those every Friday night from 7 PM to 7 AM. We only stayed for the initial program from 7 to 9 - a traditional Quaker meeting combined with a discussion of, in this case, Roman Catholic "just war" theory, and followed by fellowship. They are looking for folks interested in peacemaking from a variety of faith traditions to join in these discussions/vigils, which will continue every Friday until the prisoners are released. The insights during the meeting were truly thoughtful, faithful, and thought-provoking. If you're in the area, drop by next Friday evening; I probably will.
  • On Saturday, Tina and I drove up to south Jersey (near Philly) for a New Year's Eve party at a local Japanese restaurant with our friends Phil, Beth, Peri, and Sally. All you can eat (and make) sushi, all you can drink sake (and a lot of other beverage choices), the very challenging sake drinking game, and lots of boisterous karaoke (both porn and non-porn). Yoshi, our host, was gracious and hilarious. I'm told that my top-of-my-lungs, William-Shatneresque rendition of "Sunny" will live on on the memory of friends and strangers alike for years to come. "Now I feel...TEN FEET TALL!" :-D
  • Today Tina and I and our dog Machig decided to go for a hike in the cold rain. We started out on the Fairfax Connector trail, then left it, then found it again, and I said "this way is bound to take us back to our car!" For some reason, Tina listened to me, and we ended up hiking about six miles, only three miles of it in something one might properly call "daylight", much of it along the edges of winding roads with no shoulders and fast-moving traffic in the dark wearing dark clothes with a dog. And it never stopped raining. Adventure! Excitement! A Jedi craves not these things. Then we went home, took baths, and ate Chinese food.
And that's just about all the news from chez Croghan-Driskell at the moment. Happy New Year, everybody!