Friday, October 24, 2014

The Dunamis Power of God Nonsense

Ever heard a rousing sermon on the dunamis power of God? The dynamite power of God? Romans 1:16 is often read; I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the dynamite of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. The sermon unfolds as it does due to our English word dynamite being etymologically derived from the Greek word dunamis/dynamis. The idea has always bothered me as dynamite was invented about one thousand eight hundred and sixty seven years after the Apostle Paul wrote the passage. With this in mind it is pretty unlikely that Paul meant power in the sense of dynamite, you know, explosion, tearing things down, blowing things up, gouging holes, blasting things over etc.

D.A. Carson calls this process of determining meaning to be the exegetical fallacy of semantic anachronism. In other words, of using a late meaning of a word (1867 years later) to determine an earlier meaning. Here the problem is two-fold though. We've semantic anachronism combined with the fallacy that a words meaning can be accurately found in its root meaning. Good stuff guys.

Does it matter though? After all a sermon talking about the explosive power of God, the ability for God to turn up and turn over and blow situations up to his glory, isn't that kind of OK? Especially in relation to evil empire (yep RATM reference there).

Of course it matters. We have to let the text speak on its own terms.

For Paul, strength is found in weakness. The power of the gospel is that life is found in death. He could be ashamed of it; it is unimpressive, back-to-front, up-side-down, counter culture, foolishness and so on. He's not ashamed though because there is power in the gospel. Not to tear down and destroy but to mend and heal and reconcile and restore and redeem and make new. It's power, but it is unlike the military might and power of the Roman Empire - it is very un-dynamite like!

It also matters because if you throw together a handful of misunderstood passages to do with the power of God and signs and wonders etc  - let's say this passage plus the old "greater things than these you'll do" and also "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" - you end up with some distorted theology of what and how exactly God is going to work in your life. No too much of an issue on a good day but in the midst of a crisis, with your back against the wall, when you are desperate for God to show up, when you need a miracle of some sort; if things don't unfold like you expected or wanted them to, it is all too easy to end up in a crisis of faith. Not because God let you down but because your bad theology has let you down and left you disappointed. Bad theology always does that.

So yeah, I think it matters.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Future Evolutions of Pentecostalism

I had the opportunity yesterday to share a few thoughts (15 minutes worth) in regards to how I might imagine or envision future evolutions of pentecostalism. The presentation was to a wonderful and passionate group of Pentecostal pastors and leaders from around New Zealand.  On the off chance you might be interested here are my thoughts. My thinking here is focused on pentecostalism in a 21st Century postmodern Western context. 

The Pentecostal church was birthed of the Spirit, there is no doubt of this, at least not among Pentecostals. Its historical roots trace back to The Day of Pentecost some 2000 years ago and its modern roots to Azusa Street 1906. While appreciated by many as an exciting move of God for the dawning of a new century, perhaps the beginnings even of an 'end time' revival, others were not so convinced. Pentecostals have thus been labelled many things over the years; chandelier swingers, holy rollers, fruit loops, and of course, a cult. During the charismatic renewal of the 70's it continued to be a movement that many were suspicious of. In fact, it was only two weeks ago that Pope Francis publically apologised for the persecution of Christianity's Pentecostal Movement by the Catholic Church.

Appreciating this it is not surprising that the Pentecostal Church, in good Protestant tradition, quickly found itself as something of a protest movement on the fringes of the wider Christian church. Certainly not mainline, and even within the evangelical world something of an enigma. It lived on the margins as its own thing. Very quickly it recognised itself as an 'experiential' movement. If one imagines the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of theological reflection, the Pentecostal church has certainly camped out in the experience sector of the quadrant. Tradition, reason and scripture are often considered after thoughts. At times, the Pentecostal church has even defined itself against these things. Traditions are viewed as dead religion, engagement with 'secular' science an unnecessary sideline distraction. And theological training? Well that just confuses promising young pastors and plants within them seeds of doubt or dissent. After all, the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Go and live it, what more could you want?

I know I am using stereotypes and caricatures but the genius of a caricature is not its exaggeration but rather the truth that the exaggeration is built on. While the Spirit birthed Pentecost, it's these kind of caricatures that have created the ever evolving culture of pentecostalism. I'm not old enough to remember 100 years worth of cultural variation, but my memory bank does include; hankie twirling, some sort of a 'Pentecostal' two step, special use of the Old King James for prophesy or prayer, action songs (something about going to the enemies camp), open microphones, visions from the North, the South, the East, and the West, modesty blankets and of course, who could forget late night attempts to map, find and expel territorial demons, (an activity that I am convinced would be a hit with today's postmodern youth).

There is more to it of course than these amusing characteristics. Our embracing of the work of the Spirit and gifts of the Spirit is to be celebrated whole heartedly. That we believe everyone and anyone can be used by God is a strength in our bow. However the Pentecostal experience and pentecostalism are not the same thing. It would be a mistake to equate Pentecost with today's pentecostalism; a contemporary church, a positive vibe or atmosphere, charismatic personalities in leadership, triumphalism, special events, altercalls, conferences or album recordings. These things all have their place but none in themselves are the actual Pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit's infilling. An infilling for empowered living in the world as God's people bearing witness to Jesus and evidenced by inspired speech and inspired deeds. (Here I steal a phrase from a well regarded Assemblies of God New Testament Scholar).

My Pentecostal movement has always prided itself on its Pentecostal distinctive. When filling in the current credentials application form, you more or less fill in your name and address, and then you are asked when you were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke with other tongues. The other questions are secondary. Are you a criminal, a member of a sect or secret organisation, theologically trained? Perhaps the answers here don't matter. You studied as a Buddhist monk for 12 years did you? Hmmm. Not to worry you were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke in other tongues on the 12th of June! We'll sign you up and give you a Missionary Credential, you'd be brilliant in Chiang Mai. Approved! While I joke, the joke does highlight that in this instance we rightly understand the Pentecostal distinctive as empowerment for life and ministry as opposed to a particular doctrine or some current particular from of cultural pentecostalism.

I say all of this in order to suggest four ideas we should consider embracing as 21st Century Pentecostals that might help us craft our way forward into a better future. In the past they've not been ideas we've championed all that much, and in fact, they may even offend stereotypical pentecostalism. This need not be a concern though as they do not in any way impinge on what it means to be Pentecostal.

1. We should embrace a complex faith as well as a simple faith.
2. We should embrace the hard work of formal theological training for ministry as well as God's call to ministry.
3. We should embrace the different insights, wisdom and perspectives of other professions and other tribes within the Christian church as well as the more likeminded relational 'networks' that are currently popular.
4. We should embrace some of the established rhythms, prayers and reflections of the traditional church as well as the guiding, leading and free blowing wind of the Spirit.

The Pentecostal movement no longer exists on the fringes of Christendom. We're no longer a protest movement needing to define ourselves against the 'other.' Roughly 25% of Christians around the world are Pentecostal, about 300 million of us. With so many of us, a new willingness to embrace Christian traditions, reason and scripture (the other already mentioned categories of The Wesleyan Theological Quadrilateral) will not result in the loss of any Pentecostal distinctive. I feel it would lead to the discovery of a complex faith, a deep faith suited to the complexities of the 21st Century world we live in.

In the New Testament those filled with the Spirit of God were likened to drunkards. Pentecostals drunk on the Spirit of God, caught up in a new era of the Spirit, the water had been turned into wine! The best red wine is known for its complexity, never its simplicity. Different elements come together in perfect harmony. Perhaps 21st Century pentecostalism is an opportunity to see Pentecostal experience join forces with tradition, reason and scripture in a manner where they come together balancing and enhancing each other; a complex Shiraz. The simplicity of our faith is important. But so is complexity.

We live in a world of ever increasing complexity. We're offered more overarching stories from which to make sense of life than ever. At the same we're suspicious that there even is a true story from which to make sense of life. It is tempting to offer simple answers in a complex world, and they are often appreciated. However they run out of steam pretty quickly. More is required. Today's contemporary culture is rightly considered 'spiritual' but this is often wrongly equated to simply mean a desire for the 'supernatural' for an 'encounter' for an 'experience.' This is an important piece of the puzzle but it misses a 'spiritual' person's desire for a larger-than-their-life framework by which to make sense of life in its totality; the marvellous and the mundane. Issues such as life-after-death, sexuality, global suffering, wealth distribution, atonement theories, environmental ethics, failure, depression, loneliness and so all need to be addressed. Alter calls, album launches, anointing services, and alliterated sermons starting with 'a' - won't often meet this need.

This doesn't mean all Pastors need complete PhD's but we should seek to lift the bar across the board. Our Presbyterian friends complete a three year degree in theology and then a two year post-graduate internship before ordination. While the average pew dweller wants to be encouraged, inspired, loved and cared for, they also have deep questions, plaguing doubts and painful life experiences they'd like to reconcile with a God of love. Education, experience, gifting and calling all aid in this and should equally be championed. 

Suspicious of experts today's postmodern world is also inclined to give ear to a multiplicity of voices. They know it is impossible for one man up front to have all the answers. The Pentecostal church would do well to create space for voices other than a 'pastor' to speak into the life of the community; counsellors, psychologists, social-workers, nurses etc. This doesn't necessarily mean adding them to the preaching roster but it does mean allowing them to shape the culture, values, practices and methodologies of the local church. It might mean an invitation to speak to the church leadership team or preaching team or pastoral care team. Their perspectives and wisdom, at times critical and at times encouraging, would only make ministry within the Pentecostal church a more healthy and life giving reality. For example we've not always done well with issues to do with grief, loss or mental illness. These other voices would only make us stronger. The same could be argued for more ecumenical openness as well. There is wisdom, strength and insight to be gleaned from across the spectrum of the Christian church that stereotypical pentecostalism has dismissed. Imagine an Anglican Bishop speaking at a Pentecostal conference - in robes. We'll be sharing eternity with these brothers and sisters maybe we could share a stage every now and then, or at least a coffee. There is more going on in the Christian world than our own favoured networks or conferences.

The 'spiritual' person of our 21st Century postmodern Western world also has a deep hunger for an anchored life, for roots (to use a very American term). The modern world has systematically striped tradition from our lives, after all aren't traditions simply backwards looking habits of yesteryear? Society has moved on. No one opens doors for ladies, no one asks to be excused from the table, who even has dinner at the table these days? And yet traditions, when their meaning and significance are understood, add a richness to our lives. They remind us and refocus us on what is important when we are so often tempted to flick from one thing to another, never truly engaged. There is an alternative way to live in the world not tied to individualism or consumerism but anchored in the rhythms of Christ's life given for us. Christian rhythms of life, death, resurrection; the life of the cross, cruciform living. 

The traditions of the church, particularly the Christian calendar, slows us down and orientate our life with the life of Christ. Advent helps us to steer clear of the debt and stress of a materialistic Christmas and offers us hope. Christ came, Christ comes and Christ is coming again. Lent calls us into a season of prayer, of fasting, of repentance. It calls us to acknowledge that life is at times dark and difficult. We don't wallow in this but rather than always try to escape the storm we pause and we find that God is with us in the storm. Pentecostalism, so often committed to overzealous triumphalism, would be better for Lent. It is only 40 days. There's another 325 to be more than conquerors. More could be said.

Our 21st Century postmodern context is a complex one. When I think of future evolutions of pentecostalism I think of a Pentecostal church more equipped than ever to engage with the surrounding culture. A Pentecostal church overflowing with the new wine of the Spirit, blending experience, scripture, reason and tradition together; each aspect balancing and enhancing the others. I imagine a deep, intelligent, robust, informed, connected, anchored and empowered faith that overflows with the love of God, the life of Christ and fruit of the Spirit. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing

My friend Dr Shane Clifton (pictured in the photo below, you'll work out who he is) was left a c4/5 incomplete quadriplegic after a serious accident in October 2010. Shane was my Professor of Theology throughout the course of my Masters Degree and is a humble and genuine guy with an incredibly sharp mind and beautiful ability to write.

He has recently had a paper published that explores the dark side of prayer for healing. It is thought provoking and insightful and, to be honest, address a myriad of questions that many of Christians want to ask but may not feel they should (because it might be a lack of 'faith') in regards to miraculous healing that does and doesn't happen.

Here are three snippets. The link to his blog post is below and from there you can link to the full article. Please, find some time to read the whole article is an incredibly worthwhile read!

Indeed, Pentecostals have elevated the importance of miraculous healing to such an extent that it is inextricably bound to theories of the atonement and conceptions and practices of faith. There is, however, a dark side to this emphasis that is rarely acknowledged. This paper seeks to unmask the negative impact of pentecostal theologies and practices of healing upon people with permanent illnesses, injuries, and disabilities.

And this...

With this in view, my first premise is that supernatural healing is rare, and that Pentecostals almost never acknowledge this rarity. Of course it is difficult for me to prove a negation. I might argue on the basis of definition: that if divine healing is miraculous, then it must be rare (or it would not be a miracle). More significantly, my argument is grounded on the assertion that there is no substantive
evidence that many people with severe and permanent injuries and disabilities—in other words, those for which healing might unquestionably be considered supernatural—are supernaturally healed. And if this is so, it is possible to generalize and say that the same is likely to be true across the board. At this point I am making an appeal for honesty. It is one thing for the healing evangelist to excite the crowd attending a one-off event with assertions that supernatural healings are an everyday reality for people with faith, but a pastor who lives with her congregation week in, week out appreciates the fact that sickness is a part of life and permanent disability isn't set aside by the thrill of the moment.

And finally...

This only makes sense because life is difficult and messy, because we need hope, and because in one
way or another we are all disabled—some more obviously than others, and if not today than almost certainly tomorrow (or perhaps the day after). Creamer notes that to be human is to be subject to “embodied limits,” and that such limits need not be understood negatively but, rather, as “normal.” The concept of well-being recognizes the reality of our limits. So, rather than seeking to escape our finitude, it looks to individual and communal flourishing in the midst of our limitations.

Shane's blog post can be found here and from there links to the article in full. 

Thank you so much Shane!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Christian Man's Beard

We're working through a series at St Luke's at the moment called Everyday Spirituality. Here is a link to iTunes where you can subscribe to our Podcast and get a hold of the various messages. Sadly we're not going to have time to cover everyday spirituality and the beard at one of our Sunday gatherings so I thought I'd jot down a couple of thoughts here in an attempt to at least scratch the surface of this vast and important topic.  

In regards to everyday life, one of the challenges of authentic Christian living is to overcome artificial dualisms that compartmentalize a 'religious' life as separate from 'normal' life. With this in mind we must be careful that all spheres of daily living are seen as sacramental rather than simply instrumental or idolatrous. All of life is a gift from God, points to God and can be lived to the glory of God.

In no area of life is that perhaps more obvious than in regards to the Christian man's beard.

In some circles of Christendom great debates rage in regards to biblical manhood and biblical womanhood. What does it mean to be a Christian man or a Christian woman. All sorts of blog posts, books, sermons, conferences and seminars have attempted to address these issues. I won't even bother linking to them as a solid hermeneutical praxis that is cool headed, objective, exegetically sound and discerning will quickly conclude (at least in regards to biblical manhood) that the essence of Christian manhood is the beard. Full stop.  

Throughout the biblical cannon - though of course we only need to consider two isolated verse from Leviticus - we see that the honour of a man is his beard.

Leviticus 14:9
On the seventh day they must shave off all their hair; they must shave their head, their beard, their eyebrows and the rest of their hair. They must wash their clothes and bathe themselves with water, and they will be clean.

Leviticus 19:27
Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.

In Leviticus 14 one is only to shave when unclean. One must spend some time isolated from the community and shave everything; head, beard, eyebrows and the rest of their hair... They will then be clean, everyone will know they had been unclean, but at least now they can set about growing their bearded awesomeness back and, in time, will be totally reincorporated into the life of the community. The beard is not something to be squandered, taken lightly or shaven. Only in times of reproach, or rebuke, or dishonour would a man remain clean shaven.

In Leviticus 19 we have an extended version of the Ten Commandments - pretty obvious here - don't shave. Honour the Lord your God, don't murder, and, don't shave! Grow and awesome beard.

Men were created in the image of God. Through puberty they gain the ability to be fruitful and multiply and to grow facial hair. These things all go together - for how is a man supposed to attract a wife without a beard!?!

Ultimately the Christian man's beard is sacramental in that it is symbolic or a reminder or indicative or iconic in the way it speaks to other facets of an honourable life lived to the glory of God. Three particular features must be considered; flavour & smell, shape, and also that the beard is intended to be iconic not instrumental or an idol.

Flavour and Smell:

As any Godly beard wearer knows, it is the nature of the beard to take on particular flavours and smells. At one point in my life I was poorly stewarding my beard. Everywhere I went there was a smell and I couldn't distinguish where it was coming from or what it was. Eventually I discovered it to be my poorly kept beard. Its odour was strong and offensive not subtle and inviting. It smelt like a week of meals and was musky and damp. Again, it was poor stewardship on my behalf which I quickly remedied.

A beard should, like a good Australian Shiraz or a Scottish Single Malt, be layered with subtlety and nuance. The first hints of flavour and smell will be feminine in character; the delightful floral smells of your wife's perfume lingering after a passionate kiss and also of her body wash, borrowed to give the beard and occasional clean. No Christian man actually owns their own soap.

Following on from these more feminine notes there will be more masculine notes. It will be slightly smoky, left over reminders of an occasionally smoked pipe or perhaps from the nightly lighting of the fire to warm the home in winter. It may even be from a few drops of Lagavulin absorbed into the moustache after a fine single malt has been enjoyed with other wonderful beared men of God. At the same time the beard will be salty. The sweat of a hard days labour or of physical exertion at the gym, running or playing sport will leave a salty residue. As will the sea spray of a wild ocean.

Finally the flavour and smell of the beard will give way to more pleasant and sweet reminders of daily life; bubble mixture from playing with the kids, coffee, dessert, a ripe orange, the cinnamon of homemade scrolls, bbq sauce.  

These flavours and smells found in the Christian man's beard are iconic reminders of one's life as a gift from God, of the down-to-earth joys of daily living, of hard work, of simple pleasures, of hearth and health, of wife and children. They compel one to give thanks and glory to God.


The shape of the Christian man's beard is also an important part of the integration of faith into an everyday spirituality. The beard will not to too well crafted and yet it will not be wild and scraggy. It will not be wispy nor close cropped, nor so long as to seem ignored. It will be carefully maintained as to reflect good stewardship but lacking in prideful manicuring. Ultimately this care for the Christian man's beard is a reminder of the responsibility one has before God to steward the gift of life. To steward one's gifts talents, resources, abilities, friendships, possessions before God as Lord and Saviour of all.

Too well manicured...

   Too wild...

 Just right...


It is essential to remember that the Christian man's beard is always intended to be iconic; it speaks to, reminds of, and is indicative of one's attempt to live faithfully as a Christ follower. It is not simply a means to an end; attract a wife, look amazing, ooze manliness. Yes, these things will happen but they must be not lead to pride. The beard is also not to become idolatrous. The beard itself is not to be worshipped or followed. The beard too can be a white-washed tomb if one does not live authentically, beneath the beard, the life Christ has called us to live.

Finally, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, if a husband and wife want to mutually abstain from sexual intimacy for a time of prayer, this is fine. Of course this would be the time to go clean shaven. At the conclusion of this brief season one would grow one's beard back and normally intimacy with one's spouse would resume.

That my friends is everyday spirituality and the beard.