Friday, December 31, 2010

On Prophets

A couple of evenings ago I was approached on the street by a pair of Mormon missionaries. They were nice young men and we had a very enjoyable chat. One of the points they stressed was the idea that once again God has raised up a prophet (meaning Joseph Smith and his successors). They asked me what I thought about this, and here is the gist of how I responded:

The model of the New Testament church was of small interconnected communities called ekklesia, wherein each person (male and female) had the opportunity to function, for the building up of the community. In knowing one another--worshiping and sharing life together--people's tendencies, abilities, shortcomings and spiritual gifts were recognized and known. Paul's lists of body gifts in Eph 4:11-13 and 1 Cor 12:27-30 are assumed to occur within the context of interactive community. When Paul writes to the ekkesias in Rome he expresses his desire to be with them so that he can encourage them with his spiritual gifts and, in turn, that he will be encouraged by theirs (Rom 1:11-12). There is a noticeable lack of hierarchy in Paul's view of the functioning of these spiritual gifts. Instead there is egalitarianism and interdependence.

I have known real life prophets. It is because I have known them first as friends and fellow worshipers of Christ that I could recognize and trust their prophetic gifting. I could also recognize when they were forcing it and speaking their own mind. Our gifts are intended to function within community--not only for the benefit of the community, but because each of us needs the checks and balances of faithful friends to keep us from going off the deep end.

The problem with prophets comes when they are not known by and accountable to an ekklesia community. Self-proclaimed (or organizationally-proclaimed) prophets come into town claiming to speak for God. This was a problem that the early church was beginning to struggle with as it expanded, as evidenced by the guidelines about prophets provided in the Didache ( -- See chapters 11 & 13).

In my view, the first test of a prophet is this: Do I know them? Are they a part of my community? If not, are they known and in community and accountable to others whom I personally know and trust? If not, I'll pass. God is not miserly with His spiritual gifts to His body. He gives them freely. Within a community of Jesus followers who are open to receiving and sharing His gifts, there will not be a shortage of prophets or anything else.

Additionally, the presence of prophets in our midst does not negate or diminish our ability--nay, our responsibility--to hear directly from God and follow accordingly. As the author of 1 John wrote, "As for you, the anointing you received from Him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as His anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit--just as it has taught you, remain in Him." (2:27)

A statement from Quaker author Lewis Benson is germane to this point: "The objective Word which is addressed directly to man by God is the distinguishing feature of all Hebrew religion. With the coming of Christ this knowledge of the divine Word is no longer mediated through a few uniquely chosen prophets but comes through the living Christ who is inwardly available to all men. This continuously spoken authoritative Word becomes the great organizing principle of a new type of community: the Church of Christ."

This brings us to a fundamental difference in viewpoint between myself and the Mormons (or some Charismatic Christian groups) regarding Apostles & Prophets. The difference is between thinking in terms of "Office" vs. "Gift". "Office" implies position. Position implies hierarchy. Hierarchy implies succession. For the purpose of illustration, let's assume that you work at a job where you have a supervisor. Your supervisor is both a person and a position (or office). If the person who is your supervisor leaves the company, the position/office will likely remain in place and be filled by a different person. That new person's authority over you comes by way of occupying the position/office. This is a similar approach towards Apostles and Prophets taken by the Mormon church and some Charismatic Christian groups.

By contrast, my understanding of apostles and prophets is that they are not offices, but rather gifts given by God--through people--for the edification of the ekklesia. "Gift" implies function, rather than position. A functional orientation--rather than a positional one--implies a lack of hierarchy and certainly a lack of succession. If God is giving the gifts directly to men and women why would He need the mechanisms of succession or transference from one person to another?

The gifts listed by Paul in Eph 4:11-13 and 1 Cor 12:4-28 have to do with the function of the ekklesia (what we have come to call "church"). An ekklesia in the first century was not a hierarchical organization, but rather a gathering of believers mutually edifying one another with their spiritual gifts.

The picture Paul paints in 1 Cor 12 of a functioning ekklesia is decidedly non-hierarchical:

"Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, "Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, "Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body," it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be?

But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; or again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the ekklesia, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way."

What makes gifts "greater" in Paul's mind? Their ability to edify the body.

As Paul explains in a more abbreviated way in Eph 4:7-16 (I'm skipping verses 9 & 10 for the sake of brevity):
"But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, "WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN." And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love."

In the Quaker meeting within which I worship, as well as in house churches I've been a part of, we have recognized that everyone seems to have certain "clusters" of gifts in varying mixtures and degrees of prominence. Anyone is free to function in their gifts when the ekklesia meets--for the edification of the body--so long as they are led by God to do so. Through the expression of these various gifts, we see the body of Christ formed in our midst.

"For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war: and in multitude of counsellors there is safety". (Prov. 24:6) We were designed and created to function within community. Although we have direct access to God through Jesus Christ and can be guided and instructed by the Holy Spirit, we still need one another. We are interdependent. This is why God gives a multitude of spiritual gifts to the ekklesia. Within the community of a functioning church, we complement each other, compensate for each other, provide wisdom and council for each other, edify each other, instruct each other, help each other discern what the Holy Spirit is saying, etc. No person is above this interdependence.

One last note about Prophets: Foretelling the future is a very small part of prophecy. Prophecy is God speaking to His gathered people. Sometimes it is encouragement, sometimes it is corrective, sometimes it is warning. In the instance of warning, sometimes God will reveal something that is going to occur. An example is Agabus' prophecy in Acts of an impending famine. The Old Testament prophets were typically issuing corrective prophecies that went along the lines of; "You are screwing up big-time (for example by allowing injustices to occur), if you don't change your behavior, this is what is going to happen..." In these cases the future events foretold were conditional upon how the Israelites responded to the prophesy.

When predictions of future events are included in prophetic pronouncements, the point isn't the prediction itself. The point is the word of correction, warning or encouragement spoken to a community--by God--through those in their midst that have been thusly gifted.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

War: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

From London's The Guardian newspaper: A dramatic surge in birth defects in Falluja, Iraq may be caused by "war contaminants" such as depleted uranium rounds used by U.S. forces. You can read the full article here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quakers and Sufis

"Move beyond any attachment to names.

Every war and every conflict between human beings
has happened because of some disagreement about names.

It’s such an unnecessary foolishness,
because just beyond the arguing
there’s a long table of companionship,
set and waiting for us to sit down.

What is praised is One,
so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.

All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.

Sunlight looks slightly different on this wall
than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities,
from a light,
and when we praise,
we pour them back in."

- Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century Sufi Poet

“There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath different names: it is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no form of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.” – John Woolman, 18th century Quaker preacher

“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion, and when death takes off the mask, they will know one another though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”
– William Penn, 17th century Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania

I am an autodidactic student of world religions. It interests me to learn how people in various times and places have dealt with the questions that seem to perpetually and univerally trouble mankind, such as: How do we explain evil and suffering? Why are we all painfully aware of our propensity to fall short of our own moral ideals? What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?

In the course of my studies, I've found intriguing parallels between Sufism and Quakerism. It strikes me that Sufis are to Islam what Quakers are to Christianity. Sufism and Quakerism are both based on the core idea that it is possible to directly and experientially encounter God. Both tend towards the inward and mystical. Both emphasize peace, equality, truth and simplicity. Both see God as loving, compassionate, merciful, gracious and present. Both are often viewed with suspicion or even contempt by guardians of "orthodoxy".

Of course, there are differences between Quakerism and Sufism as well. Each was born in a different place, time and culture and grew out of a different world religion.

Yet the affinities strike me as remarkable. I think it is a subject worthy of further investigation.

Some Muslims and observers see Sufism--or something like it--as the future of Islam. What if, likewise, Quakerism--or something like it--is the future of Christianity? Wouldn't it be interesting if Christianity and Islam, in the form of Quakerism and Sufism (or forms very similar) came to a point of seeing one-another as beloved siblings, travelling together on the same journey home?

I know I'm getting a bit pie-in-the-sky-I'd-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing here but imagine the implications if, someday, two-thirds of the world's population--the Christians and Muslims--found common ground in the Living Presence of the God of Love? I imagine too that there are similar sects with similar values within Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc. As someone once said, "It's like there are two layers to a religion. An outer (exoteric) layer, and an inner (esoteric) layer. The outer exoteric layer is the layer of the layman, the fundamentalist, the literal minded, the zealot, the man-on-the-street. The esoteric layer is the layer of the mystic." Mystics of various faiths seem to recognize one-another as kindred spirits.

What if the trajectory of mankind's history is towards unity within God's Presence? I find that narrative much more compelling--and indicative of the Father whom Jesus revealed--than the doom and gloom Armageddon narratives espoused by so many within both Christianity and Islam.

Is it possible for a Christian such as myself--who believes that Jesus is the Savior of the World--to entertain such ideas? Yes, as a matter of fact, it is.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Strands of intolerance

I'm going to pull together a few strands from my day yesterday to see if a pattern emerges...


Last night a friend was telling me about a confrontation she once had with a pastor. She was part of a Christian singing group that was to perform at said pastor's church, but he made a fuss about the hair length of some of the young men. This reminded me of a similar experience I once had, only the cause of offense was my earring. The pastor of a church where my band was to perform felt that my earring was a "corrupting influence" on the youth.


I watched a great documentary yesterday called 'Afghan Star'. It was released in 2009 and is about a TV program that was hugely popular in Afghanistan. The program, also called 'Afghan Star', was basically an American Idol ripoff. A third of the country--roughly 11 million people--tuned into it each week (this, in a country where people often have to power their television sets by connecting them to car batteries). The first season that Afghan Star (the show) ran, 2,000 men auditioned to sing on it. Only a handful of women auditioned, but 3 were selected to appear in the initial line-up, along with several men.

In a culture that not long before had banned all music and television, and which only allowed women outside if they were escorted and dressed head-to-toe in burqas, Afghan Star was really pushing boundaries. The religious leaders of the nation voiced concern.

As the show's season progressed and contestants were gradually eliminated, one young woman in particular became a focal point for controversy. She was fiesty and free-spirited. While most contestants--male and female--stood stock still while singing, this woman actually danced. Not the bump and grind of Western pop stars, mind you, just a little bit of an awkward shuffle. Many Afghani's--especially the very religious--were offended.

The young woman was eventually voted off the show (Afghan Star's audience voted during each episode via text messages--each week the lowest scoring contestants would be eliminated). When a contestant was voted off, they were allowed to perform a final "farewell" song. The young woman sang her last song and let it all out, dancing even more stridently and allowing her headcovering to fall to her shoulders, revealing her hair.

This was a national outrage. The young woman became an object of public scorn, fueled by the religious leaders. She received death threats and had to go into hiding. You'll have to watch the film yourself to find out the rest of the story.


As I was driving last night, listening to the BBC, a very interesting interview came on with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" (which, by the way, is a horribly misleading thing to call it). Rauf has long been a voice of moderation and inter-faith dialog, yet found himself the brunt of massive protests and a media storm because of his plans to establish an Islamic community center. During the interview, Rauf said the following:

"What we've learned from this experience is that the real battlefront is not between the West and the Muslim world or between Muslims and Jews or Muslims and Christians, etc.--as many people have framed the discourse. The real battlefront is between the moderates of all faith traditions and the radical extremists of all faith traditions."


How these strands all wove together to form a pattern in my mind was in seeing that the same mindset (or spirit, if you will) of religious intolerance was behind it all (although, the more I think about it, it is really cultural, gender and ethnic intolerance wrapped up and justified in religious language). Whether Christian pastors having "concerns" about hair length and earrings, or Muslim Imams denouncing harmless entertainment, or Christian Americans attempting to limit the First Amendment rights of Muslim Americans, it's all about people trying to make other people conform to their views on religion and morality. And yet, Jesus said "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." The log that blocks one's vision is caused when religious doctrine and dogma shape what we see, rather than love, compassion, mercy, lovingkindness and grace. When we let go of religiousity and fully receive God's love, compassion, mercy, lovingkindness and grace we can then see others with God's eyes--what a friend of mine calls "seeing people with soft eyes." We become much less preoccupied with changing, fixing or correcting people and more preoccupied with simply loving them for who they are and where they're at. It only happens when we realize that God loves us for who we are and where we're at.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Quaker Meeting

"Worship, according to the ancient practice of the Religious Society of Friends, is entirely without any human direction or supervision. A group of devout persons come together and sit down quietly with no prearrangement, each seeking to have an immediate sense of divine leading and to know at first hand the presence of the Living Christ. It is not wholly accurate to say that such a Meeting is held on the basis of Silence; it is more accurate to say that it is held on the basis of "Holy Obedience." Those who enter such a Meeting can harm it in two specific ways: first, by an advance determination to speak; and second, by an advance determination to keep silent. The only way in which a worshipper can help such a Meeting is by an advance determination to try to be responsive in listening to the still small voice and doing whatever may be commanded. Such a Meeting is always a high venture of Faith..." - (from "The People Called Quakers" by Elton Trueblood)

Saturday, December 18, 2010


"Of course the people don't want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship ... Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger." - Hermann Goering (Nazi Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe in WWII, during a speech at the Nuremberg Trails, where he was sentenced to death)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ideas for contemporary worship song titles:

1. Thank You Jesus, For Not Unfriending Me
2. We're on the Short Bus to Heaven *
3. When I Survey Our Wonderous Doctrinal Statement
4. How Relevant Thou Art
5. The Pseudo-Jewish Minor Key Song
6. Set Me on Fire then Rain Upon Me
7. I Sit in Awe of You and Raise my Hands (Figuratively Speaking)
8. Come, Let's Celebrate (But Not Get Carried Away)
9. This Song is Scripturally Inaccurate and Doctrinally Flawed but it Has a Great Melody so We'll Sing it Anyway
10. He Is God (and Probably Republican)
11. Come, Let Us Sit and Hear a Sermon
12. O For a Thousand Watts to Sing
13. The Trinity Song (Father, Son and Holy Bible)
14: We Are One in the Spirit, Except for Those People Over There

(*This one was created by our Monday night book group as our theme song)

Any other ideas?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Living from the Inside-Out

So much of the way that Christianity is practiced in our culture strikes me as seeking growth and maturity from the outside-in. If we attend that seminar or conference; if we acquire more information; if we read that book; listen to that teaching series; read the Bible more (maybe try to get through the whole thing in a year); get our doctrinal ducks in a row; pray more; go to church more; serve in the community more; tithe regularly; submit to the authority of our pastor, priest or denomination... As if the performance of these duties or the acquisition of these bits of knowledge will produce greater levels of spiritual maturity.

Many of these things, in and of themselves, are good (though often misused and abused). The problem is the order of the process. What I'm learning is that adding doctrinal data or doing "stuff" is not the route to spiritual maturity. Rather, adding and doing will come as natural by-products of spiritual maturity. In other words, as we grow in our faith, we are moved and guided to learn more, to study the Bible more, to serve more, to give more, etc., etc.

The priority then, is not to focus on the externals--adding and doing. These things will not bring us closer to God. The priority is to *first* come closer to God and then allow Him to direct what we do. This is the inside-out approach.

Quakers like to say that "there is that of God in everyone". What they mean is that God is at work deep inside of each one of us (no one is excluded). God has planted a seed (another common Quaker metaphor) deep inside each person. As that seed of God's active, in-dwelling presence is nurtured and begins to grow from within, its tendrils slowly reach out into all aspects of our lives and begin to bear fruit.

In his letter to the Galatians (particularly the 5th chapter), Paul urges us to "walk by the Spirit", to be "led by the Spirit", to "live by the Spirit" and to "keep in step with the Spirit". The result, Paul tells us, is that we will bear the "fruit of the Spirit", which is "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."

The Spirit is within. The effect is without.

William Penn stated it beautifully:

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for this purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men; but what they look for is in themselves, though not of themselves, but they overlook it. The voice is too still, the seed too small and the light shineth in darkness; they are abroad [outwardly focused] and so cannot divide the spoil [reap the reward]. But the woman that lost her silver found it at home, after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., truth, truth in the inward parts, so valuable in the sight of God...

Therefore, O friends, turn in, turn in, I beseech you...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Remember Pearl Harbor

Today is the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I grew up under the impression--based mostly upon movies--that this was an unprovoked, surprise attack. As an adult, I began studying World Wars I and II more closely, with a particular interest in trying to understand why they occurred. What I learned about the Pearl Harbor attack was that it was neither unexpected or unprovoked.

There was a history of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Japan that went back a decade or more prior to the attack. When Roosevelt moved the U.S. Pacific Fleet from the West coast of the U.S. and concentrated it far out into the Pacific at Hawaii (which was at that time a U.S. territory) it was perceived by the Japanese as a direct threat and provocation. Roosevelt knew that this would be the effect, having stated, "Sooner or later the Japanese will commit an overt act against the United States and the nation will be willing to enter the war." Roosevelt was following the recommendations of an intelligence document now called "The McCollum Memo" which was created a year prior to Pearl Harbor and outlined eight steps to thwart Japanese Imperial expansion in Asia by goading them into a war.

The movement and concentration of U.S. naval forces to Pearl Harbor was opposed by Admiral James O. Richardson, who was then Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. He was overruled by Roosevelt and relieved of his command. Admiral Nimitz was offered the command of the Pacific Fleet and turned it down, stating to his son (also an Admiral), "It is my guess that the Japanese are going to attack us in a surprise attack. There will be a revulsion in the country against all those in command at sea, and they will be replaced by people in positions of prominence ashore, and I want to be ashore, and not at sea, when that happens."

An attack by the Japanese was not only expected, it was provoked.

Pearl Harbor was a tragedy. 2,402 U.S. and 65 Japanese servicemen were killed. 68 civilians were killed (mostly by errant U.S. anti-aircraft fire). None of those who died (or the many who were injured and maimed) were privy to the geopolitical machinations of Hirohito, Roosevelt, Churchill, et al.

Even more tragic is that the attack on Pearl Harbor was used as a justification to escalate a global war which ultimately killed 60 million people, the majority of whom were civilians.

So, December 7th is a day to remember, but what we ought to remember is that war is stupid, futile and utterly evil and that men in high places will wager human lives (by the millions) for their grand geopolitical aspirations.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

I'm suddenly feeling all Christmassy!