Friday, November 30, 2007


Jonathan Edwards was a prominent 18th century Calvinist minister. He is probably best remembered for a sermon entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.

Here is an excerpt:

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.”

It is reported that as Edwards preached his sermon, people would moan and cry out and hold on to the pillars of the church buildings because they thought the ground was going to open up and swallow them.

Edwards reflected a common view about God and God’s attitude towards sin. It’s sometimes called the “Juridical” or “Court Room” view and it goes back to around 300 A.D. to Tertullian and Augustine. But it really took hold in medieval times. The Juridical view says that human beings are, by nature, inherently evil and separated from God. Sin is willful rebellion against God and the penalty for rebellion is Hell. Worse, we are all born as rebels – sinners - and so are condemned to Hell the moment we’re born (the implication being that even babies who die go to Hell). According to this view, because of our sin, we are separated from God – He can’t stand to be around us. God is the judge in the courtroom who hands out punishment for our sin. Jesus is our advocate, who takes God’s wrath and punishment upon Himself on our behalf (sort of a “good cop/bad cop” scenario).

The juridical view reflects the cultures that it came out of, which had a low view of mankind. It also displays a strong Gnostic influence. Gnosticism grew out of Platonic dualism. In a nutshell, Gnostics believed that the material world (including mankind) was inherently evil, while the spiritual world was inherently good. Gnostic teachings were a constant problem for early Christians and many of the extant writings of early Church fathers are arguments against Gnosticism. Unfortunately, many of the early Church fathers, Augustine for example, had previously been pagan philosophers and so imported certain ideas (such as Platonic dualism) into their Christian teachings.

Much of Christianity though takes a different view about sin from the juridical one. I think the Bible too, tells a different story (or at least maybe a much more complex story). Let’s look at the first place in the Bible that sin is mentioned. It’s also the scene of the first murder in the Bible.

Genesis 4:1-16

v. 1-2

What do we know about these two brothers so far?
Which one appears to be more important/more favored?

“Cain” means “gotten” or “made”, as in “I made him”. Cain also means “to make things” or “to get things”. When Eve gave birth to Cain, she proclaimed “Look what I got!” or "Look what I made!" Reminds me of the scene in the movie City Slickers where Billy Crystal proclaims, "I made a cow!"

“Abel” means “vapor” or “breath”, as in “temporary” or “almost

Cain seems to be preferred. Abel seems unimportant. Culturally, Cain is the firstborn. More is said about Cain than about Abel. I think this story is really about God’s relationship with Cain.

v. 3-5

Why did God prefer Abel’s offering over Cain’s?

Take a look at Genesis 3:17-19:

"To Adam He [God] said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,'

"Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are and to dust you will return."

Cain’s offering came from his toil. Maybe his name is a clue here. Is he trying to make something happen? Is Cain trying to work really hard to get God to like him and bless him? Cain is working with something that God has cursed. I think what we see here with Cain is the roots of religion – trying to earn God’s acceptance by our hard work Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses; Mormonism; in fact almost all religions do this. People outside of Christianity call Christianity a religion, but people inside Christianity know that it is a relationship. We can't earn anything. Everything we have is given to us. After all, if we could earn it, we would want to take credit for it.

God rejects Cain’s efforts and accepts Abel’s offering. Abel is the lesser. Abel is the underdog. Listen to what God says about underdogs:

“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him.” - 1 Cor 1:26-28

In the Cain & Abel story, God accepts the offering of the weak one over the offering of the strong one.

It occurs to me; when I minister in the jail, I’m interacting with people who have lost most of their rights and power. In jail, they are weak and the system is strong. It seems that this puts them in a special position with God. The Bible says that God chooses the weaker ones. Jesus said, “I haven’t come to save the healthy (the strong), but the sick (the weak).” I’m not making light of the crime that got them into jail, or the necessity to pay the penalty for that crime, I’m just saying, being stripped of everything puts one in a very receptive position.

Back to Genesis:

v. 5-7

Why is Cain angry?

Maybe when you see yourself as the special one; the chosen one, its difficult when someone you think is weaker or less deserving gets the glory. Maybe Cain is jealous or maybe he feels he’s been dealt with unjustly.

Anger is Cain’s weakness. It is the sin he’s particularly vulnerable to. Look what happens next. While Cain is in the midst of his sin, God comes to him. How does God deal with Cain? “Repent ye sinner!”? No, God comes to Cain like a counselor or a doctor. God differentiates between the sin and the person. God is coaching Cain to make choices that won’t give sin power over him. God is in Cain’s corner – he’s cheering Cain on – he’s for Cain. Can you see the affection God has for Cain?

St. Hesychios wrote:
“Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart. In this way, predatory and murderous thoughts are marked down as they approach and what they say and do is noted; and as we can see in what specious and deluding form the demons are trying to deceive the intellect. If we are conscientious in this, we can gain much experience and knowledge of spiritual warfare.”

What St. Hesychios is saying is that we need to track the thoughts coming into our head. A jealous thought, for example, if allowed in and left to fester, can plant a seed which can grow into anger and then hatred and then murder. As followers of Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit to instruct us and point out dangerous thoughts, and we have His power to overcome, but we also have to train ourselves to take authority over the sin that crouches at the doorway of our heart.

God knows that if Cain allows the anger to have a place in his heart, it will take root and the end result will be Abel’s murder and Cain’s banishment. God doesn’t want either to happen, but it’s ultimately Cain’s decision. How can God let bad things happen? Because of love, which requires free-will. God created us to have authentic relationship with Him. But true, authentic relationship must be based on free-will. Someone can’t honestly love you if it’s forced or commanded – it must be given freely. So in order to have a true, loving relationship with us, God gave us the freedom to reject Him.

Unlike Jonathan Edwards, with his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, I believe that God is for us. We are created in God’s image, and that makes us good and valuable. But we’re also weak and broken and we sin – we miss the mark. The word translated as “sin” in the Bible actually means “to miss the mark” (picture an archer shooting at a target but the arrow falls short).

Sin is our failure to be what God created us to be.

Did you know that almost all religions and philosophies and social sciences (such as psychiatry) agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with the human condition; that humans are not as they should be? Each religion, philosophy, social science offers an idea of what the problem is and proposes a solution, but they all agree that something is wrong.

The Bible, of course, calls that something “sin”.

It’s a common teaching in Christianity to say that the essence of sin is pride and selfishness, but I don’t think that covers it. In some cases that's true, but oftentimes people sin because they hate themselves and think they’re worthless. I think the real root of sin is that we don’t trust God and we distance ourselves from Him. We don’t trust that He’s really good and that He really loves us and wants good things for us. But God reaches out to us, not to hold us over the fires of Hell, but to lead us closer to Him. And when we trust Him we find our reason for existence and our purpose in life, and that brings peace.

God created us to have relationship with Him. He wants us to be with Him. He wants us to trust Him. Jesus said He came to show us what the Father is like. And what did Jesus say? Follow me, learn from me, trust me. What was Jesus like?

Back to Genesis:

v. 8-9

Cain has committed pre-meditated murder. In most states, Cain would receive the death penalty for what he has done. What makes Cain’s crime even worse is that Abel was not just an innocent man, he was a righteous man. But even after the murder, God remains open to Cain. In fact, who initiates the conversation here? God goes to Cain and invites Cain to interact. Cain tries to cover up what he’s done, which is a pretty common response (David did the same thing when he conspired to have Uriel murdered to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba).

Sin begets more sin.

Have you ever experienced anything like this? Have to been about to sin, or in the midst of sin or just sinned and God comes to you? Sometimes it's in a very subtle way, such as distracting or interrupting us when we were about to do something bad. Sometimes its doing something really kind for us when we’ve been really bad and know we don’t deserve it. I think God comes to us often, but often we don’t recognize Him.


What is God like in the story of Cain? Is He angry? Is He a God of wrath?

It seems that as Cain’s actions got worse and worse, God was more and more present. Romans 5:20 says “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” The deeper we are in sin, the more we need God. And He is there, if we'll let Him in.

Cain still suffered the consequences of his actions. He was sentenced to banishment for his crime, but notice that when God describes Cain’s curse to him, its more like a natural result than a punishment from God. In fact, God puts a mark of protection on Cain.

The story ends with Cain going away from the presence of God (not with God turning His back on Cain). Cain still belongs to God, even though he has distanced himself from God. God is still watching over Cain. Another problem with sin is that it makes us want to get away from God – to hide, to deny. But God wants us and loves us, even though we miss the mark.

God treats sin like a sickness that has infected the whole world. He coaches us and cheers for us to overcome it; to make right choices. He is right there with us in the midst of the struggle.

Another factor about sin--our failure to be what God intends for us to be--is that it is compounded by the fact that our world is saturated by sin due to the choices of individuals past and present. All of the choices and actions of individuals interact with one-another and reverberate across generations, to create entire systems and structures of sin. Sin has a ripple effect. It has a halflife, like radiation. The moment we are born we are immersed into sin, which limits even further our ability to make fully free choices and act authentically towards God and one- another. We are born into sin. As a result, we stumble through life lost and blind. I don’t believe God is about punishing us for it so much as He's about saving us from it. This is where Jesus comes in. He is the light of the world. He is the way and the truth. As we follow Him, He heals us. He shows us who we really are – the focus of God's eternal love. He teaches us to trust. He shows us the way through this sin-soaked world. And when we stumble and fall and miss the mark, He’s right there with us, just as He was with Cain.

This essay was heavily influenced by two books (besides, of course the Bible):
Missing the Mark, by Mark Biddle
Reading the Bible with the Damned, by Bob Ekblad

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Quote of the day

"And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love."

- William Blake

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I've joined a gym. God help me. The rates were very reasonable, it's nearby, the hype-factor was low and--here's what cinched it--when my wife and I took the tour there were lots of old people working out. I also have a "personal trainer". His name is Theo (I kid you not). He seems to enjoy inflicting pain, or rather, watching me inflict pain upon myself. "How you doin'? Ok? Good, then let's just bump this up another ten pounds."

I joined the gym for all the typical "I'm 45 and it's only going to get worse from here" reasons, but especially because I've gotten fat. I don't understand how it has happened, but I look like my friend's dads looked when I was in high school (and I swore I would never grow up to look like that!).

A year ago or so I was talking to a friend who is a Nutritionist (or Dietician... what's the difference?) and poured out my frustration about my expanding middle. "It's not like I sit around pounding down Ho-Ho's and Bugles.", I said. "I actually eat less than my wife (who weighs 110 pounds)." "Hmmm... What kind of exercise do you do?", my Nutritionist/Dietician friend asked. "Exercise?" "Duh!", she sensitively blurted out, "you can't lose the fat if you don't exercise."

This was a new concept to me. I've always been healthy, I like to walk, but I've never actually exercised before. I've since learned that being a physically healthy person entails both exercise and good nutrition.

There is a spiritual lesson in all of this. Western Christianity is all about nutrition. We have a cornucopia of books, teachings, sermons, conferences and "life-changing seminars" arrayed before us like the buffet table on a cruise ship. We have good, solid hearty food from N.T. Wright and we have the TBN junk food table. We have come to believe that following Jesus means consuming information. Our churches are shaped like auditoriums, designed for the performance of ministry by the professional ministers, while we spectators take it all in (and take notes).

Following Jesus is not about acquiring and consuming information though. It's about following Jesus. That means action! Exercise! The twefth step of AA (I think the church could learn a lot from AA) is this: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." My friends in AA have told me that it's when an alcoholic takes responsibility to help other alcoholics that their growth and healing really begins to occur.

I used to wait and pray for God to reveal my ministry to me. Then one day someone told me, "Why don't you just go to where God is already working and join in?" "Where would that be?", I asked. "Wherever there are hurting and marginalized people." I never expected to be doing jail ministry. I don't like jails. But that was the thing before me where there were hurting people. Now I love it.

The encouraging thing about getting off our butts, putting down the Benny Hinn Ho-ho's and exercising our faith is that we have a great personal trainer. His name is Theo.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Report from the Pastoral Search Committee

[This one's been circulating around for a while on the Internet... - DC]

We do not have a happy report to give. We’ve not been able to find a suitable candidate for this church, though we do have one promising prospect. We appreciate all of the suggestions from the church members, and we've followed up each one with interviews or calling at least three references. The following is our confidential report on the present candidates.

Adam: Good man but problems with his wife. Also one reference told of how his wife and he enjoy walking nude in the woods.

Noah: Former pastorate of 120 years with no converts. Prone to unrealistic building projects.

Abraham: Though the references reported wife-swapping, the facts seem to show he never slept with another man's wife, but did offer to share his own wife with another man.

Joseph: A big thinker, but a braggart. Believes in dream-interpreting. Has a prison record.

Moses: A modest and meek man, but a poor communicator (even stutters at times). Known to lose his temper and act rashly. There are rumors that he left an earlier ministry over a murder charge.

David: Seemed to be the most promising candidate of all until we discovered he was a "peeping Tom" and had and affair with his neighbor's wife.

Solomon: Great preacher but our parsonage would never hold all those wives.

Elijah: Prone to depression -- collapses under pressure.

Elisha: Reported to have lived with a widow while at his former church.

Hosea: A tender and loving pastor but our people could never handle his wife's occupation.

Deborah: Female.

Jeremiah: Emotionally unstable, alarmist and negative. Always seems to be lamenting things. Reported to have taken a long trip to bury his underwear on the bank of foreign river.

Isaiah: On the fringe? Claims to have seen angels in church. Has trouble with his language.

Jonah: Claims he refused God's call into ministry until he was forced to obey by getting swallowed up by a fish. He told us the fish later spit him out on the shore near here. We hung up.

Amos: Too backward and unpolished. With some seminary training he might have promise. Has a hang-up against wealthy people. Might fit in better in a poor congregation.

John: Says he is a Baptist, but definitely doesn't dress like one. Has slept in the outdoors for months on end, has a weird diet, and provokes denominational leaders.

Peter: Too blue-collar. Has a bad temper. Even known to curse. Had a big run-in with Paul in Antioch. Aggressive, but a loose cannon.

Paul: Powerful, CEO-type leader and fascinating preacher. Short on tact, however. Unforgiving with younger ministers. Can be harsh and has been known to preach all night.

Timothy: Too young.

Jesus: Has had popular times. Once grew his church to 5000 but managed to offend them all and his church dwindled down to twelve people. Seldom stays in one place very long. And, of course, he's single.

Judas: His references are solid. A steady plodder. Conservative. Good connections. Knows how to handle money. We're inviting him to preach this Sunday. Real possibilities here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Quote of the Day

[I don't entirely agree with old Soren here, but found his statement to be very provocative and worthy of reflection. Do I use scholarly theological pursuits as an excuse for not engaging more in the nitty-gritty of following Jesus? Hmmm...]

"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. 'My God,' you will say, 'if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?' Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."

- Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Movie of the Week: The Wrong Jesus

I never get tired of this one! This is a parody on how some church youth groups seem to portray Jesus:

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Doin' the Stuff

I was speaking to a friend the other day, whom I hadn't spoken to in a while. He asked if Carla and I had found a church yet, after having moved. "No," I admitted, "we haven't yet." I left out that we have somewhat ambivalent feelings about churches (in the traditional sense of the word) and haven't really been looking. He went on to tell me about a church in our neighborhood that he thought we might like. "They are very active in jail ministry and feeding the poor and addiction recovery and outreach to the neighborhood and run a half-way house, etc., etc.", he told me. "Sounds like they're doin' the stuff.", I replied. He chuckled, "I guess so."

His background isn't Vineyard, so he probably hasn't heard the term "doin' the stuff" before. Back when I was in the Vineyard, especially in the halcyon days of the '80's, "doin' the stuff" referred to exercising the gifts of the Holy Spirit: Praying for the sick, casting out demons, having "words of knowledge" and prophetic words, speaking in tongues, etc.

The Vineyard still has a website called and there is a tribute website to John Wimber--the late iconic leader of the Vineyard movement--called

I grew disillusioned about "doin' the stuff", in the Vineyard sense of the term. Although we spoke about the poor and marginalized, in reality most of the "stuff" was "done" inside the church walls to and by the same middle-class Christians, week after week after week.

Over time, I began to wonder, why weren't see seeing the types of miracles that we read about in our Bibles? Sure, there were plenty of "inner healings" (which are a beautiful thing) and the occasional leg lengthening, but nothing verifiably miraculous. Of course, miracles themselves aren't the point. John Wimber used to warn about "seeking the hand of God, rather than the heart of God". Still, the "stuff" we were "doing" seemed, frankly, kind of lame.

I began to realize something about the miracles in the Bible, especially in the New Testament: They typically occurred in a "missionary" setting. They occurred when the Gospel of Jesus' Lordship was being proclaimed. They occurred in conflict settings; outside of the church walls. They occurred in the midst of people who really needed them.

We had pasteurized and homogenized and packaged and safeguarded "the stuff" and relegated it to the prayer room after Sunday service.

I've come to realize that "the stuff" isn't the charismata itself. "The stuff" is when we to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and release to the oppressed. That's the meat and potatoes. Healings, exorcisms, prophetic words and whatnot are just the gravy that goes on top.

It hadn't really occurred to me until I blurted it out to my friend, but my definition of what "doin' the stuff" means has changed.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Exciting News!

Our ministry at the county jail is a revolving door. We get to spend a few weeks or months with people, and then they're released and we lose touch. Over and over inmates have expressed to us how they wish they could continue studying the Bible with us after they're released.

After a long time of prayer, plus lots of encouragement from friends, inmates and the chaplain we work with at the jail, we finally got off our duff (metaphorically speaking) and did something about it. Today we had a meeting with the leadership of Everett First Presbyterian church. They were genuinely excited about what we're doing and have graciously agreed to give us the use of a room on Friday nights so that we can continue our Bible studies with those who are released from the jail (and anyone else who shows up). Everett First Pres is a block away from the jail in downtown Everett.

The chaplains at the jail are going to get the word out to the inmates.

This is very exciting! Please pray that people will find their way to us and that God will bless our little endeavor.

Quaker Videos

I came across an interesting collection of videos on Youtube, which were produced by a group of Quakers in Watford, England. The videos consist of Quakers (in the same community, yet with with various viewpoints) discussing what Quakerism means to them. One thing that really stood out to me was their humility and honesty. At one point, one of the people being interviewed said, "Quakerism is the final retreat of the Christian refugee." You can watch the videos by clicking here.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

It's a U2charist!

My eye was caught recently by the big neon sign of a Lutheran church near my home announcing that they are going to have a "U2charist".

A U2charist is a Eucharist service accompanied by U2 music, with an emphasis on eliminating poverty. Apparently it was first done in an Episcopal church (those wacky Episcopalians!) but now U2charists are popping up all over. There is even a wikipedia article about the phenomenon:

I think I'll visit Trinity Lutheran on the 18th and see what a U2charist is like. OK, I admit, I just like saying "U2charist".

U2charist, U2charist, U2charist.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Jail Diary

Today started out as a bad day. Carla awoke with a severe migraine. I didn’t have any particular physical ailment but found myself in a funk. Do you ever have one of those days when you’re just in a lousy mood for no reason and ready to lash out at whoever gets in your way? That’s how I felt. Worse, we were scheduled to do a chapel service at the jail this afternoon.

I asked Carla if she wanted to stay home and rest while I went to the jail, but she said she wanted to be there.

We’ve been going through John’s Gospel with the inmates. Last week it was the story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Today we were at the point where Jesus goes ballistic at the Temple; overturning tables and setting sacrificial animals loose. I had a nice little teaching all prepared but then this morning I felt the Holy Spirit telling me to teach on Divine Wrath instead and to use Isaiah 1 as the text. Great, I’m in a crappy mood, Carla has a migraine and God is changing my lesson on me.

We got to the jail and set up for chapel in the dayroom. We arranged the chairs in a circle. One inmate was there. Oh well. “Let’s just worship the Lord for a little while”, I said, picking up my guitar. As we began to play, more inmates arrived.

The worship seemed to just take off. It was great. Carla has an amazing gift, which has been referred to as “prophetic singing”. If she feels moved during worship, she’ll sing these amazing prayers, or prophetic words, or words of encouragement while I vamp on the chords to the song. This isn’t something we plan, it just happens when it happens. Today it was happening big time! We were all blessed and the tangible presence of the Lord was in the room.

After a few songs, we began our Bible study, which tends to be very interactive. I explained that God’s wrath is an aspect of His love. I told them how God hates sin because of how it harms us and his wrath is intended to discipline and restore us. I likened it to the times I had to spank my son as a child. I did not like it but knew it had to be done for his sake. To not have disciplined him would have been far worse. The inmates were tracking right along (they know a thing or two about punishment).

I explained a bit about God’s covenant with Israel and how he wanted them to reflect Him to the nations around them, but they kept committing injustices and idolatries. We read Isaiah 1 and saw God’s frustration at their sin, His determination to punish them and His commitment to restore them. There were lots of nodding heads, whispers of “wow” and “whew” as we went through the entire chapter together.

Then I realized God had set us up perfectly to jump into where we had left off in John. We saw the wrath of Jesus in the Temple because of how worship had been turned into a racket of profit and control.

By now we were almost out of time and it seemed like we had just begun. We prayed together and the service was dismissed. Carla turned to me. “Guess what”, she said. “My headache is gone!”

My friend Jude has a saying regarding ministry: “Just show up.” He’s right. If we’re just willing to be there, God will do the rest. Even if we’re sick, or tired, or in a shitty mood, or guilty of sin, or under-qualified. If we just show up, He will too and He’ll take what little we have to offer and multiply it. He’ll make something beautiful out of our weakness. Last week we had studied the story in John of Jesus turning water into wine. Today we saw it happen.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Movie of the Week

This is an amazing BBC documentary, made a couple of years ago, on life for Palestinians in Gaza. It is entitled The Killing Zone.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Quote of the Day

"I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”

Tony Campolo