Monday, December 31, 2007

On evil and Forrest Gump

I was pondering this morning the age old question of why God allows evil to exist. This question has been asked so often and by so many people that it has been given a name: Theodicy.

Theodicy is sometimes also referred to as "The problem of evil". I think it was G.K. Chesterton who asked why we don't just as well ruminate over "The problem of good": If God does not exist, why does good exist?

Probably the most cogent and concise explanation that I've ever read of why God allows evil to exist came from an article entitled "Theodicy and Evolution" by Karl Krienke, Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Seattle Pacific University.

In a nutshell, the answer to the question is: Love. This seems counter-intuitive at first. God allows evil to exist because of love? Yes. First we need to define evil. If we believe that God is completely good and loving then evil would be that which is contrary to God's nature and will. God could have made man and woman without the capacity to make choices contrary to His nature and will, but to do so would have been to create us, essentially, as automatons and not as humans. God would have been like the tragic character J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner, who builds automated toys to keep himself company. Or it would be like a man who loves a woman and wants to marry her and so slips her a drug that causes her to love him in return. It is a sham because her love is not given freely.

God's desire is for true, loving relationship with the people that He has made in His own image. In order for this to occur, people had to be given free will. Only if they could choose to reject God would it mean something if they chose to love God. Unfortunately, the choice to reject God and His ways results in evil.

This got me to thinking this morning about the film Forrest Gump. In the film, Forrest loves Jenny with a pure and unfailing love. He only sees the best in her and only desires the best for her. Jenny, on the other hand has been damaged by childhood abuse and leads a life of self-destruction. Throughout the story Forrest continuously reaches out to Jenny, but she keeps keeps running away, even though he is the only one who truly loves her and can give her what she really needs. Jenny lives in the fast lane while Forrest, by comparison, is dull and slow. Yet, although Forrest seems out of step, his life is marked by virtue and success.

I don't want to take the analogy much farther than that. God, unlike Forrest, is not developmentally disabled. Yet, like Forrest, God reaches out to us with a love that is pure and unfailing. We, like Jenny, are damaged by our own sin and the sin of others and run off in search of that which only God can truly provide.

In our mad quest to find fulfillment apart from God, we produce evil; often without intending to.

God is relentless in His pursuit of us, but in order for us to love Him honestly we must freely make the choice. Thomas Talbott, in his book The Inescapable Love of God, posits that, ultimately, everyone will be convinced to freely chose to love God. When we stand before Him and see Him as He truly is; without the blindness and madness of our sin getting in the way; we will give ourselves to Him of our own volition.

Then evil will be no more.

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." - Paul, 1st Corinthians 13:4-8

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us." - John, 1 John 4:7-12

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Quote of the Day

Dave posted a link at The Narrow Path to a great essay about Christmas which appeared in The Wittenburg Door.

I particularly liked this point:

"In the beginning, the church was a fellowship of men and women who centered their lives on the living Christ. They had a personal relationship with the Lord. It transformed them and the world around them.
Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy.
Later it moved to Rome, where it became an institution.
Next it moved to Europe, where it became a culture.
Finally it moved to the United States, where it became an enterprise.
We’ve got far too many churches and so few fellowships."
- Richard Halverson

Thursday, December 27, 2007


It was either Arthur Schopenhauer or Warren Zevon who said that the reason we love to buy books is because it gives us the illusion that we'll have time to read them. I love books but I constantly feel the pressure and guilt of having more books than time. I'm a sucker for Half Price Books, a chain of stores that specializes in used books.

I bought my wife a new Bible for Christmas (NRSV) which forced me to have to go to a few Christian bookstores. This is something I generally try to avoid due to the cynical reaction it causes me to have. But I visited a couple of Family Christian stores as well as one called Evangel and one called The Living Word. Predictably, the preponderance of floor space in these stores was devoted to "Jesus junk". The lesser portion of space that was given to books provided an abysmal selection. Lots of "5 Steps to..." and "7 Keys to..." and a hodge-podge of current "best-sellers" by Christian celebrities with varying degrees of orthodoxy such as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and T.D. Jakes.

N.T. Wright? Yeah, right.

What was really pathetic was the anemic selection of Bibles in these Christian book stores. I eventually found the perfect NRSV Bible for Carla... at Borders.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Natalis Sol Invictus ...uh, Christmas

Is Jesus really the "reason for the season"?

We all know that Jesus wasn't born on or near Christmas. There is also no record that the earliest Christians commemorated the birth of Christ.

In the first couple of centuries of the Christian church, December 25th was a Roman pagan holy day which celebrated the birth (natalis in Latin) of Deus Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun God. Mid-to-late December is the time of the Winter Solstice; the shortest (and therefore darkest) day of the year. At this time of year the Romans would celebrate that the Sun would soon begin to grow stronger and the days get longer again.

Roman coinage from the first few centuries A.D. often has depictions of Sol Invictus as a figure with a crown of flames. It is believed by many historians that the halos which appear later in depictions of Jesus and Mary have their origin in Sol's fiery crown.

It was the Roman Emperor Constantine who, in the 4th century, instituted a weekly day of rest called "dies Solis" aka "day of Sol" aka Sunday.

The cult of Sol Invictus was finally abolished, along with other pagan Roman religions, by the Christian Emperor Theodosius I in 390 A.D.

What does any of this have to do with Jesus? As the Roman empire shifted from paganism to Christianity, pagan practices (including holy days) were subverted, co-opted and redefined into Christian holy days. A great deal of syncretism (the fusion of different religions and practices) took place during this time. Many of the traditions and practices of Roman Catholicism (including some that were retained by Protestantism) have their roots in Roman paganism.

Among them, the birthday of Sol Invictus became the Mass of Christ's birth: Christmas.

So do I think, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, that we shouldn't celebrate Christmas? Nah, I don't care. It's as good a day as any. I just don't think we should get too worked up about it. Every day should be a celebration of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. There's nothing special about late December. He is the reason for every season.

Silent Worship

Currently, Carla and I don't "attend a church", per se. We have our Tuesday night Bible study at the jail, our every-other-Sunday Chapel service at the jail and our Friday night Bible study at Everett First Pres. After all of that, the thought of sitting in an audience listening to some guy give a sermon has very little appeal.

Yesterday though, we attended a Quaker church that we hadn't visited before. It was more of a "programmed" meeting which incorporated hymns and a brief sermon from the pastor (who is a woman, by the way). There was still plenty of opportunity for anyone in the meeting to speak and the meeting still concluded with a time of silent worship. It was a nice group of people. Here's their website.

There is something profound and deep and holy about a group of people sitting in a room together silently waiting and listening for God. The sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit is palpable.

I recall reading about a huge conference of churches that took place in Europe. I think it may have been one of the Lausanne conferences on world evangelism. Anyway, it brought people together from a wide variety of Christian denominations. Each morning a worship service would be conducted for all of the attendees, by the delegates of one of the denominations. So one morning it would be a Lutheran service, the next morning Baptist, etc. On one of the mornings the Quakers were asked to conduct the service. After a brief explanation of how Quakers worshipped, they led the entire conference into an hour of silent listening. Most of the conference attendees had never experienced silent worship before and were completely blown away. The hour of silence was considered the high-point of the conference. Imagine that.

If you're ever interested in trying it out, you can go to to find an "unprogrammed" Quaker meeting in your area. It's a worthwhile experience.

Carla and I may re-visit the Quaker church from yesterday again from time to time, since we have every other Sunday free. Additionally, I want to incorporate a time of silent worship into our Friday evening meetings.

I'm thinking we'll try doing 30 minutes of silent worship, followed by 30 minutes of musical worship, followed by an interactive Bible study. There is also always lots of prayer and room for ministry to personal needs. This strikes me as sort of a Quaker/Vineyard/House Church amalgamation.

If you're in the Everett, WA area, come join us. We meet in the library of Everett First Presbyterian church on Fridays at 6:45 pm.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Why I hate shopping.

No, I don't have a rewards card. No, I don't want to enroll in your program to receive a 10% discount. No, I do not want the extended warranty. No, you can't have my phone number. No, I do not want 90 days same as cash. No, I am not interested in applying for a credit card. And no, I will not let you check my receipt as I exit your store.

When did buying stuff get so complicated? Doing Christmas shopping this week really brought this to my attention. I almost felt like yelling in exasperation, "Here, just take my money and give me my frickin' merchandise!", but I know the poor people at the cash registers are just following corporate policy.

The thing that chaps my hide the most is the policy of some stores to post an employee at the door to check people's merchandise against their receipts as they exit. This is, in essence, saying to the customer, "We assume you are a thief until proven otherwise." I do not allow these stores to check my receipt (with the exception of Costco, because their receipt-checking policy is stated in the membership terms which I agreed to upon joining). Stores do not have any right whatsoever to inspect your receipt and/or the mechandise that you've paid for. At the moment you paid for the merchandise it became your property, as did the sales receipt that they handed you. If you wish to voluntarily submit to their request to inspect your property, that is your perogative. It is also your perogative to deny their request.

The receipt checker has as much legal right to inspect your receipt as you do to look at the contents of his or her wallet or purse. In other words, none. Private citizens are not required to allow other private citizens to detain and search them.

By the way, if a receipt checker were to block your egress from the store, it is tantamount to holding you against your will, which is a crime. It is called false imprisonment.

If a store actually does believe that you have shoplifted, and wants to detain you, they most follow a stringent set of rules to establish probable cause. First and foremost being that a store employee must have witnessed you shoplifting.

I've had some interesting interactions as a result of my refusal to submit to a receipt check. I try to be pleasant and when told "I need to see your receipt." simply smile, say "No, you cannot." and keep walking. I did have a manager of a Circuit City follow me into the parking lot once yelling at me that I was no longer welcome in their store. "No problem." I chuckled in reply. I've also been banned for life from Guitar Center a few times, yet strangely continue to shop there (and still don't allow them to see my receipt).

What's the harm in receipt checking? They're just trying to prevent shoplifting in order to keep their prices low. Perhaps, and I sympathize, but there are plenty of mechants who do not resort to such rude tactics to prevent loss. And I think in a free society we need to be very careful about not giving power and control over ourselves to entities who have no legal right or authority to take it. Corporations are quite happy to take whatever power and control over us that we allow them to.

Just say "No."

Ok, I'm beginning to rant. It must be PTSD: Post Traumatic Shopping Disorder.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Quote of the Day

"One of the underlying assumptions is that money from the offerings or tithe belongs to the church. But the Scriptures consistently teach that the offering is God's instrument of redistribution and that it belongs to the poor. Giving to the poor should not make its way into the budget; it is the budget. is not a coincidence that the first major organizational structure in the early church was created to assure order in the redistribution of resources to widows and orphans (Acts 6:1-6).

So historically, church offerings were part of God's economy of redistribution, and over 90 percent was to be given to the poor. We live in an age when we have nearly reversed what God set in place. An average of 85 percent of the church offering is used internally, primarily for staff and buildings and stuff to meet our own needs."

- Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution

Friday, December 21, 2007

Church Under the Bridge

I'm always fascinated to learn about creative ways to be the church. There are churches that meet in gothic cathedrals and crystal cathedrals and warehouse spaces and circus tents and pubs and coffee shops and homes. But one of the coolest church meetings I've heard of happens under a highway overpass in Waco, Texas.

The church is called, "Church Under the Bridge". It began 15 years ago when a Baylor University professor began hanging out and conducting Bible studies with a group of homeless men who slept under the I-35 overpass. Gradually, more homeless people began to attend the Bible studies, along with bikers, prostitutes, drug addicts, ex-cons and other marginalized people who would feel out of place in a typical church setting.

Today, Church Under the Bridge attracts people from various ethnic and socio-economic sectors, including college students, middle class and upper-middle class families and, of course, the original demographic. 200 or so of these people from different strata and race mingle together to worship Jesus and edify one-another in the open air underneath the overpass.

Here is a link to a story that appeared in Christianity Today about the church:
And here is a link to Church Under the Bridge's website:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jail Diary - Dave's time of crisis

I didn't want to go to jail last night. Our son has come home from college for Christmas and I really wanted to hang out with him. Plus, I just wasn't feeling very "spiritual". I've learned though that when I don't want to go, it's a good thing. It usually means God is going to do something extraordinary. It's those times when I don't want to go that I fall back on what my friend Jude always used to say about ministry, "Just show up."

So we went. Carla and I got to the jail, situated ourselves in the room where we have our Bible studies and waited for the inmates to arrive. Only one person came. Dave (not his real name) is a young guy who has been faithfully attending our Tuesday night Bible studies and Sunday chapels for a few months now. He is a sweet-natured, slightly goofy 20 year-old with longish hair, a beard and big brown eyes. Over the last few months we've watched Dave come out of his shell and interact more during our studies. We've also seen his excitement and interest in Jesus grow.

Dave is going to be released in a few days and will be taking a bus home to the small town where he comes from. We asked him how he was doing as his release day came closer, if his bus ticket was all squared away, etc.

We prayed and began our study of John 5:16-30 (we've been studying through the Gospel of John - even though the inmate population is constantly rotating, Carla and I just keep teaching on whatever comes up next in John). One of the interesting things about John 5:16-30 is the repeated use of the Greek word "krisis", which is where we get our word "crisis". In the Greek, it has roughly the same meaning as it does in English - an upheaval, a turning point (for better or worse), a critical juncture. I have heard that when the word "crisis" was translated into the Chinese written language, they combined the characters for "danger" and "opportunity". In the NIV, the word "krisis" is translated as "judgment" (v. 22), "condemned" (v. 24), "judgment" (v. 27), "condemned" (v. 29) and "judgment" (v. 30). Based on that, one can pretty clearly see a presupposition towards eternal judgment and condemnation on the part of the NIV translators.

In John 5:16-30 Jesus was speaking to the Jewish authorities. It was the Pharisees who placed their hope in resurrection, while the Sadducees did not. The Pharisees believed that only the righteous (meaning themselves) would be resurrected, while the Sadducees didn't believe in the resurrection at all. Jesus is telling them that the resurrection will occur, but that He will be the one who brings it about. Furthermore, some will be resurrected into life eternal but some will be resurrected into "crisis". That which is evil, sinful and of death must be seperated and destroyed. This reminds me of Paul's language in 1 Corinthians about those who will be saved, but "as though through a fire". Carla, Dave and I discussed what it might be like for those who have lived a life of evil-doing to find themselves resurrected and surrounded by pure light and love and goodness and truth. Ackward to say the least! "Crisis" seems to be a very good word for what that will be like. Yet, I believe that the purpose of the crisis will be to ultimately redeem and restore the person, though the experience may be excruciating. This reminds me of a speech I once saw given by a man who was horribly burned in an industrial accident. At one point in his story the man explained how one of the treatments at the burn unit of the hospital was to lower the patients into vats of purified water and have the nurses scrub off the dead skin, while the patients screamed in agony. It had to be done in order to prevent infection and save their lives. That which was dead had to be seperated in order to restore life. That seems to me a pretty good description of an extreme "crisis".

Of course, there was another "crisis" looming on the horizon for the Jewish authorities that Jesus was speaking to in John 5, namely the seige of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple that would occur in 70 A.D.

During our Bible study, Dave talked about how being arrested and sent to jail had been a crisis for him. He said that he would always look back upon this time as a turning point in his life. This was the first time he had been in serious trouble with the law. He had come from a broken home and had been kicked out of the house by his domineering father and step-mother when he was 15. Since that time he had moved around from friend's house to friend's house in the small town where he had grown up. He had "allowed himself to be tempted" and committed a serious but non-violent crime, which landed him in jail. During his time in jail he had read The Purpose Driven Life and become serious about following Jesus.

Dave had decided to try to make amends when he got home with the people that he had affected, including friends and family that he felt he had taken advantage of. Carla warned him that those closest to him might not be able to see the change ("a prophet is honored everywhere except in his home town") and to not be discouraged by that. She shared some other words of wisdom with him that were very direct and specific and could only have come through the Holy Spirit. In the Vineyard we learned to call this divine insight "words of knowledge". After Carla spoke Dave thanked her, as tears welled up in his eyes.

Dave told us that, as a child, he had always walked around staring at the ground. He had been so dominated and put down by his father that he didn't look up. Now he was looking up again. Rather than focusing on his shortcomings and sin he was focusing on Jesus and on following Jesus. He was looking up and looking forward.

As our time drew to a close Dave thanked us again and told us he was so grateful that we had had this special time together - just the three of us (and God). He said that we had been like "surrogate parents" to him while he had been in jail. Then he hugged us.

It stuck me, here was this 20 year old young man, not so very different from my 19 year old son that I had wanted to stay home and hang out with. Only Dave had been damaged and beaten down and abandoned and incarcerated by sin. It had led him to a crisis. And now he was being healed and restored and encouraged. Carla and I had been honored to see part of that process occur and now our hearts were broken for Dave and we knew we would continue to pray for him and wonder and worry about how he was doing after returning home.

When we arrived home from the jail I gave my son a hug and told him how much I loved him.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Movie of the Week: Checkpoint

This documentary contains no narrative or scripted dialog. It is simply a POV filming of interactions between Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers at various checkpoints. Yet I found it to be very engaging and profound. As I watched it I kept thinking about the Sermon on the Mount. See what you think...

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Ask the poor, they will tell you who the Christians are."
- Gandhi

The best campaign ad. Ever.

This is a Presidential campaign ad from Democrat Mike Gravel. I wish other politicians would emulate his example.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mall Outreach

Carla and I met right around this time of year, 22 years ago. We were both part of a very large Vineyard church in Denver. This church was blessed with a lot of musicians, who were constantly being matched up in various combinations for worship services, conferences and outreach events. Carla is a keyboardist/vocalist and I played bass.

One of the worship leaders at the church was Jude Del Hierro. Jude is probably best known for writing the song "More Love, More Power". He used to put together worship "teams" to play music at homeless shelters, prisons, etc. (in fact, I think he still does this). He also oversaw the "mall outreach" every Christmas. "Mall outreach" consisted of putting together a worship band to perform at various shopping malls. We would play Vineyard worship songs (which, back in the 80's were pretty cutting-edge) and interleave them with Christmas Carols. Christmas carols are hard to play, by the way! They have lots of chords and chord changes on nearly every beat. By contrast, Vineyard worship songs usually had only three or four chords which repeated over and over and over and over.

Anyway, both Carla and I had been tapped to do "mall outreach". It was during this time that we first began to speak to each other (we were both terribly shy!). Another musician on the team was a guitarist named John Toyne. Toyne was a great electric guitar player and had a wicked, dry sense of humor. He was known for cracking out acerbic one-liners with his sandpaper-like voice. Both Jude and Toyne were a few years older than me and I was slightly in awe of them.

The "mall outreach" that is most permanently fused into my memory is the time we played at Lakeside Mall in Denver. The worship band--drums, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, saxophone, keyboards, three or four vocalists--was crammed in a space between Santa's Workshop on one side and Frosty's Winter Wonderland on the other. We were in the midst of our set, playing a heartfelt Vineyard worship song, swaying with eyes closed, when I felt Toyne lean against me and cock his head next to my ear. "Hey", whispered a raspy voice, "Frosty melted for your sins."