Etsy Bans Spells – What are the bounds of tolerance?

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of driving in unfamiliar parts of town. This has led to much slow crawling down streets (with traffic backing up behind) while craning to read the street signs in time to make my turn. The experience is… unpleasant… to me. Couldn’t they make the signs just a little bigger?

Apparently not.

Still, street signs are useful things, because if they aren’t able to tell you where you should be going, they at least tell you where you are. Which, if I’m driving, is usually not the same place…

Now and again I come across something that seems like it’s a cultural street sign, something that seems to scream clearly, “This is where we are!!! Welcome to our culture!”

That was my experience when I read this article about the online marketplace Etsy banning spells. It paints a clear picture of the nature of Western tolerance and of the tacit agreements which must be made to live in our societies.[must]

The actual news content of the article is simple and unremarkable (if you’re not a spell vendor on Etsy). Etsy, which previously allowed the sale of spells and hexes, is now banning such sales on the site. It is the undercurrents of the article which are worth some time and reflection.

For example, consider the reasons for Etsy’s refusal to sell spells and hexes. Bluntly put, the reasons are that (a) spells don’t work[ver] and (b) spells don’t exist. The old site rules were that as long as you didn’t promise something worked and as long as you gave the client something real (something that existed) you could sell it:

“The witch explained that under Etsy’s previous rules, spells and hexes were allowed to be sold, as long as they fit two criteria: They didn’t guarantee results, and they produced something tangible. So you could sell a tarot reading as long as it came with, say, a digital download, or a candle that could be used for casting spells, as long as you didn’t guarantee that the spell would actually work.”

Recently, however, Etsy quietly adopted new guidelines that prohibit the sale of spells and hexes. According to its new rules, “any metaphysical service that promises or suggests it will effect a physical change (e.g., weight loss) or other outcome (e.g., love, revenge) is not allowed, even if it delivers a tangible item.” 

What is writing the trade rules here? What does Etsy appeal to? The pillars of scientific, secular philosophy, as endorsed by the general culture. Metaphysics doesn’t affect physics. Full stop. [phys] What does Etsy demand from its goods of sale? That they be physical and functional. In our culture, invisible things don’t exist[inv] and spells don’t work. If we believed in spells, we wouldn’t ban them. But we don’t believe in them, and we’re going to write our rule of life[rule] according to our philosophy, which is secular and ignores the spiritual world.

Admins in the forums insist that the sales of things like oils, incense, crystals and candles for use in spells are still okay, as long as they don’t claim any magical properties. For many witches, however, that’s not good enough. 

“The entire point of buying stones/herbs/oils is for their metaphysical effects in my community!,” wrote one vendor. “If I can’t list these correspondences, then why would any witch/pagan buy them from my shop? Witches and Pagans want to buy stones from people with knowledge about their magickal properties.” 

The big dog, the one writing the rules, is a secular worldview. For instance, look at the term “meta-physical community,” or even the sister term, “supernatural”. What self respecting witch or psychic would self-identify as a “meta-physicist?” This is not the language of these traditions! If they were free to use the language of their traditions in public, they would call themselves very differently. But they are conforming, using a foreign term as a gloss, an attempt to eke out some scrap of respectability in a scientific landscape. The big dog gets to eat. The other dogs snatch whatever scraps they can get, because the big dog is never particularly tolerant.

Tolerance is horribly shallow, because it doesn’t extend down to the realm of worldview. It can’t. Worldviews are pitiless and ruthless when they fight. Like the Highlander, there can be only one. We only have room for one in our lives – one set of core beliefs and assumptions – one set of things that are undeniably true. We don’t have the luxury of stopping life, yet we will tear ourselves apart trying to follow two guiding lights. We have to choose one way.

At the worldview level, we believe one thing and not another, and in this instance, the big dog dictating our practical doing (particularly, our selling) is secular and scientific. Our inner heart feeling or believing doesn’t have to conform (after all, we have freedom of religion, right?), but our doing must certainly be scientific. You can personally believe in spells, by all means. But our public rules of selling are built on a disbelief in spells. The big dog’s gotta eat.

Here we have a clear cut example of a general cultural worldview establishing dominance over and stomping on minority worldviews which challenge it. Tolerance doesn’t factor into a worldview fight. Where I grew up in Africa, people sell spells and blessings without blinking an eye, because there is a general level of belief in them. Culturally, there is no leverage or stomach to ban their public sale. The idea that they should be banned gets stomped out by the big dog of that culture, which has no particular concern for scientific verifiability.

In North America, the idea that magic is a thing simply has no traction, and the minority that do believe in it (as evidenced by their practice of it) can just shut up and go elsewhere. Elsewhere, the precise opposite is true. The point is that the sales can be either banned or unbanned, but they cannot be both. There is one common practice which all the dogs fight to establish; the big dog wins.

The freedom to establish other private marketplaces is retained (which is important), but I find it interesting that the practical freedom to do so (it’s harder than it used to be) gets squeezed out. The big dog allows your profession/confession… but actively denies your true belief and tries to crush it.

Recently I’ve been reading the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus makes the uncomfortable point that what we do is a more important battleground than what we profess. Sadly, our culture is happy to let us keep our profession as long as we give up our practice and action wherever worldview conflict arises. Even our culture realizes the truth of Jesus’ words – that it’s more important to control action than belief. Of course you can believe in spells, and legally, you can probably even sell them (for now).[leg] But you can’t sell them on Etsy.

There’s another signpost that’s also worth noting, one which doesn’t even require you to read the article – you just have to look at the pictures! The message is quite clear – witch-hunting is evil, as amply demonstrated by Salem and Disney’s Frollo. Religious intolerance is a clear and unforgivable sin.

The veneer of tolerance is important to our society, even if practical tolerance is quite impossible at the deepest levels (which matter most). As the story goes, moral condemnation or intolerance is quite improper (actually, it is hypocritical and evil) and no hint of it should be allowed. The crime that Etsy is being accused of here is of religious intolerance.

Within Etsy’s witch and metaphysical community, there are a few theories as to why Etsy would have adopted the change. One has to do with Etsy having gone public in April. Additionally, while the site focuses on selling handmade, unique goods, it has always been an easy place for resellers and counterfeiters to set up. Etsy is now facing a lawsuit from investors over items that possibly violate trademarks, and it’s possibly that the website has become more strict about just what can be sold.

While these theories are all sound, many metaphysical sellers believe that Etsy has a cultural bias against their goods. One forum user compared the sale of crystals that could be used in meditative rituals to the sale of a rosary or a cross. Both items represent spirituality, but neither make the claim that they will heal your ills or help you speak to God. 

If Etsy acts along secular principles, well, that’s understandable. But if it acts along religious ones, then that’s a different thing altogether. The one thing you can’t be is a witch-hunter.

What North American Christians face is a society whose laws grant freedom but whose general worldview is intent on crushing theirs. The right to exist is nice, but it’s a small comfort if you find yourself being eaten.

It’s remarkable to observe a public censure of evil behaviour occuring not because the behaviour is evil, but because it is spiritual. It’s also remarkable that, were it actually being censured for being evil, that censure itself would be judged evil.

This is a very difficult culture in which to maintain true spiritual belief, belief which manifests in action. In this particular instance, a piece of the internet has become more secular. This means fewer reminders of the spiritual nature of the world, lessened consciousness of the spiritual nature of the world, and probably less prayer. Basically, it means more work for every minority worldview, and more work for Christians.

In some respects, the corner of Secular and Tolerance is a nice looking neighborhood, but the uncomfortable truth is that the world is a spiritual place. To use foolish terms, metaphysics does affect physics, and particularly, metaphysics is going to haul the entire physical world before the judgement seat of Jesus Christ. Whether our map was upside down, or a wrong turn was taken, we have not arrived at the right place to be, and the place we have arrived at is not a safe place to be.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. By “must be made,” I mean that our culture demands them for the common good.
  2. or, perhaps, can’t be scientifically verified to work… The clear underlying assumption, though, is that they don’t work. If they were widely believed by the general culture to be effective, there would be no pushback on this point.  Rules are put in place to keep customers from being ripped off, and you don’t spend time making rules about things that obviously work.
  3. More specifically, “The belief that metaphysics affects physics is not a valid legal defense if you get sued.” If our legal system believed that metaphysics could affect physics, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But it doesn’t.
  4. Note, you can sell radiation therapy (probably not on Etsy, though) but only because we managed to verify it in a good scientific fashion. We know it’s a thing, and so we don’t feel nervous about selling it. But we know it’s a thing by scientific, secular rules, which is what matters.
  5. In this case, our rule of sale, which is a small sub-section of our rule of life.
  6. It could be, of course, that legally you already have no defense in selling them (like that bridge over there), and that Etsy understands this. I don’t know. But I would be very surprised if the general tone of the market, over time, did not put pressure on legislation to be reformed to match commonly accepted principles (which Etsy is doing its part in establishing).
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Kids in school

Living a Christian Life is a big job; in Canada, where I live, I think most people would look at you strangely (and perhaps with a little bit of pity) for trying. Jesus isn’t really popular here; he’s sort of like the kid it’s popular to hate on in school. Nobody really knows much about him because it’s not cool to be seen around him. People who know him well don’t really talk about him all that much when they’re with their other friends.

Everyone knows that Secularism is the kid who has all the connections and will get you to the right parties. And that’s great, because Secularism is a lot of fun to be around, especially when there’s plenty of money to make everything seem okay. Things are great just as long as no-one stops to ask the question whether things are the way they should be.

Everybody knows that there’s a way things should be and that they aren’t that way. The terrible quiet secret that everybody is running from is that we’re all lost; nobody knows how to get to the way things should be..

Secularism is a rich kid, though, and every week he’s promising to bring a solution to school, some great technical gizmo he ordered online, or some big master plan that he’s working on over the weekend. It’s going to solve all the problems.

But the solutions don’t come through. There’s always another epic party that weekend, or a ‘must-see’ film that manages to distract him, and somehow at school on Monday the solutions never seem to appear – or they do, but they’re that cheap plastic that kinda sorta does what it claims, but not really.

Jesus is a funny kid; not funny ‘ha-ha’ but funny in that other way. If you ever make eye contact with him you either have to turn away very quickly or you wind up looking at him for a very long time. And he doesn’t look away, either. He’s happy to look and smile at you for as long as you are willing to stare at him. If you stare too long, though, he’ll come up to you and start up a conversation.

I was sitting at lunch once when I caught Jesus’ eye and he came over to my table. But as I saw him coming I started to get nervous. When he came close, I looked around quick and muttered, “Sorry, I gotta go, I’m late.” and I left, leaving him standing there with his tray. I felt bad, after. Now that I know him a little better I understand that it was not only rude but a really stupid thing to do.

Posted in curios | Tagged | 2 Comments

Deep Thoughts, Deep Language

Many of my friends don’t speak English as a first language. Often when talking with them, I’m forced to think about what I’m saying, why I’m saying it that way, and where idiomatic speech comes from.

Any ESL teachers out there?

I’ve been thinking a lot (okay, a little) and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is such a thing as Deep Language.

Deep Language betrays Deep Culture – the hidden, unspoken ways of thinking and feeling that make a particular people group tick. I remember my father talking about the old, traditional vocabulary of an African people group – words not often known by the youth, dealing with ancient ritual and tradition, revealing the history of the people.

Deep Language signifies mastery. To master Deep Language is not an act of learning but of becoming, of stepping into a new culture and a new identity. When we know and intuitively use Deep Language, we are living differently. We have truly become.

The English phrase for me that is the the pinnacle of Deep Language, that represents this becoming most profoundly, is that wonderful (in the sense of wonder) and marvelous (in the sense of marvel) phrase, ‘to hock a loogie’.

Think about it.

It is the absolute embodiment of language that is lived. You will never find it in a textbook. Its etymology is an absolute mystery. The ‘hock’ is surely onomatopoeic, but the ‘loogie’… where does that come from? Some archaic or regional form of ‘boogie,’ which itself is a derivative term? Who even knows? How do you even explain it to someone who doesn’t already know?

Using ‘hock a loogie’ requires absolute cultural mastery.

Because it is almost never the correct or proper phrase, knowing when it should be used requires a deft social touch and an intuitive grasp of culture. In fact, finding those few and proper moments to bring it out of the arsenal (an idiom) is such a tricky task that we universally advise newcomers ‘just not to go there’ (another idiom). We give up entirely because it’s just. that. hard. and we don’t know how to teach it. It is Deep Language.

The fact that it is deep, however, does not make it insurmountable, and even though it is not easy to teach, that does not mean it should be lost. As we celebrate this cold and flu season, please take a moment to remember the newcomers among us. Reach out and usher someone into a new realm of cultural knowledge. Happy sniffling. Happy snuffling. Happy hocking.

Yes, I have a cold. And I am miserable. And I want to share this misery :-) Thank you for supporting my in my time of weakness.

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Groping after God

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’;[Acts 17:26-28]  (emphasis mine)

One of the annoying facts of life is that God is invisible. All of us who have cried out, “God, where are you? Why can’t I see you?” know this truth: the most important Reality is something – someone –  we can’t see. Crucially, life also holds drastic times when the ‘annoying fact’ becomes a desperate reality.

There is someone without whose constant sustaining, we would fall into dust… and we can’t see him. He keeps gravity going and electrons spinning… and we can’t see him. He is right beside us, and yet we pay less attention to him than to our coffee tables, our socks , our walls and every other physical object we interact with, treating as unquestionably real and obviously present.

But, by his decision, God is invisible to us. And yet… we need him, and so we grope for him.

We are the groping blind, feeling our way for God. If only we could touch him! If only we could see him! As much as anything else, it is this reaching out, this groping that describes our lives. We want to know the truth. We want to know what is real. Why is God hiding from us?

Samson, the Israelite judge and military hero, knew what groping was. Once colossally strong, he was reduced to helplessness by his own foolishness, pride and disobedience. His enemies captured him and gouged his eyes out. Blind and stripped of all his power, he stood in derision in their temple, feeling about, groping around for the temple pillars.

He wanted to feel the dusty pillars under his palms – the solid stone that gave him assurance. His hands told him the truth. He was in a hostile land, a sideshow in a foreign temple, surrounded by a enemy crowd whom he could only hear. But his hands told the truth. The pillars were real, they were there, and if God gave him strength, he could bring them down.

Isaac, the father of Jacob, also knew what groping was, because he was also blind. His devious wife and his conniving son Jacob tricked him, taking advantage of his blindness – his weakness – to steal a blessing from him. When Jacob approached Isaac, pretending to be his older brother Esau, Isaac groped. He needed his hands to tell him the truth, to grasp the hairy arms thrust before him. He had to feel what he could not see.

When we can’t see, we grope. And who can see God?

As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them,

“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see.” [Luke 24:36–39]

There was a moment when God was felt. Jesus brought his wounds forward and invited his disciples to feel the wounds of God, suffered on their behalf. The wounds were flesh and blood and after centuries of groping, hands could finally feel what no hand had ever felt before.

The Greek word for this is pselaphao. It is the word used[lxx] for Isaac, for Samson, the word spoken by Paul for the whole world, the invitation from Jesus… it means to feel about for, to handle, to grope after, to touch… to know with our hands in the middle of our blindness.

It is the word that John uses when he tries to tell people of that stunning moment, that moment when he and his friends experienced what all people in history have been longing for:

That which was from the beginning,
which we have heard,
which we have seen with our eyes,
which we looked upon
and have touched with our hands,
concerning the word of life – [1 John 1:1]

John’s witness, what he wants to tell us, is that that moment was real. It actually happened. It wasn’t a dream or a myth or a hallucination. Flesh met on flesh and neurons fired and God was felt in the flesh. It was a hallmark of human history because God had been felt. John knew with his hands.[hands]

So for all those moments when I’m tempted to think God is distant or removed – or not observing my behaviour – I have to remember: I may not have felt him… but John did. God was groped after – and found.

And I do feel. I feel the satisfaction of his Holy Spirit. I hear him inspiring my thoughts… when I ask. What I feel is not always complete, or overwhelming (although sometimes it is), but I do feel. It is the condition of my life to grope after God… but I have found him – or rather, he has found me. Sometimes I forget him, sometimes I ignore him, but he is still with me.

I am reminded that one of these days, I am going to see what I can’t see now. God was touched before, and he will be seen again. One day I will get to touch him.

God is not far away from me now, and if my physical eyes and hands are just that – physical and finite – then I’m going to have to wait a bit. The fact that I can’t see or run through walls just makes me human. Some days I feel more like the blind Samson or Isaac than I do like John. But the fact that I am human means I struggle and grope in the middle of my limitations, and so I give thanks to God for John and his witness.

God has been felt.

Amen.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Ac 17:26–28 (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).
  2. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, Lk 24:36–39 (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).
  3. Used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint, or LXX. It is used only four times in the NT.
  4. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, 1 Jn 1:1 (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001).
  5. … and his ears, and his eyes. John knew in every way it can be known. It just couldn’t have been more proven to him.
Posted in thehumancondition, theology | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thinking Kingdom

The other day I ran across this fascinating piece from BBC Magazine, and it brought a couple thoughts into focus for me in new ways. The article is a discussion of the Islamic idea of a caliphate, or unified state. The author of the piece, writing from a secular viewpoint, struggles to come to grips with the idea of a religious state, and why anyone would try and establish one.

The article puts me in, shall we say, a curious position. On the one hand, I live in a beautiful, peaceful, prosperous nation characterized in part by high levels of secularism, horrible moral decay, increasing loneliness and materialism. On the other hand, there is a religious state performing atrocities on the other side of the world.[relig]

Let’s just say I look at the glass houses on both sides of the ocean and question “Why are we throwing stones again?” And then I look at the shambles of my own endeavours and think, “It’s time for me be quiet.”

But I want to talk about this article, because there’s some interesting stuff here.  Take for example, the idea of the caliphate.

“Why do so many Muslims subscribe to this apparently unrealisable dream? The answer lies in the caliphate’s history.

“The Arabic khalifa means a representative or successor, and in the Koran it is linked to the idea of just government – Adam, and then David and Solomon, are each said to be God’s khalifa on earth.”

Does this sound familiar?[fam] I find it ironic that what is sought after – just government – is a common goal that no one can figure out how to get to. After all, isn’t that the charge leveled against ISIS by Western parties? That their governance is not just – that it murders children, abuses women, turns people from their homes, oppresses innocents and breaches the sovereignty of nations?[just] It’s the devil’s hand at work.

Of course, let’s not probe too carefully at the moral fabric our own society and the fruits of our own governance, which leaves us largely to do what is right in our own eyes.[rhet] Doing your own thing regardless of social or governmental pressure is the North American way, at least since the 1960s. The bedrooms of our nations have been off limits to any manner of societal/institutional pressure for quite some time. How’s that working for us?

Just ask anyone how much they enjoyed their parents’ divorce. Ask any disillusioned young adult how much they enjoy the idea that a non-committal relationship is the best that they can hope for. (Actually, don’t ask. We don’t like to talk about this stuff much. For whatever reason, it has to stay under the carpet.)[rhet1]

People half a world away look at our society and say things like “Boko Haram – Western learning is forbidden, [because it’s the devil’s hand at work]”. Of course, when they call us the devil, it’s just because they’re crazy and the devil made them say it, right?

So where does the devil live? Here, or there? In thinking about this question, I’m indebted to my friend Mark, who pointed me to this article from Al Jazeera – a sobering read. Where does the devil live, again? There’s a relatively straightforward theological answer to this question[ans]… but we don’t like it. I don’t like it.

So… I find it interesting that we’re all looking for just government[lie], but have arrived at opposing conclusions to how it is established. What works? (One of the interesting observations of the article was that logistically, a Single World Leader model has challenges, because he just gets too busy and needs to delegate :-) )

This is a tricky spot to be. The question of “How do we get there?” is pretty much the whole arena of disagreement, and yet questions of “Whose method is more evil?” or “Where does the devil spend more time?” are deceptive and themselves diabolical distractions. We have to reframe. A child’s life can destroyed by a divorce just as surely as by a knife, and there’s one destroyer equally familiar with both.[distract]

There is one kingdom that offers a path to just government. However, its citizens are required to die, hate their lives, not love the world and become slaves to righteousness – which constitutes blasphemy on both sides of the pond. Until we renew our thinking to accept that there’s only one kingdom that will push out the devil (wherever he may be found), we will keep on building our own kingdoms and getting our own results.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I have an intense personal frustration with the prevalent myth that religion is the source of violence and war. It’s just so… wrong. It ignores the question of evil entirely, that men and women chronically kill, steal and abuse for money, power, acceptance and countless other reasons, regardless of religious profession. And the belief system that gets blamed for this, is (bizarrely) the one that suggests you will be judged and held accountable for all your intents and actions by an impartial judge who loves your victim as much as he loves you.
  2. The Greek word “Christ” is a translation of the Jewish word “Messiah”. The word itself means “Anointed One”, and is understood to refer to a Jewish king (chosen by God and representing him – this is shown by an anointing of oil).

    This king, being a descendent of David (and, paradoxically, his Lord), will establish righteousness and justice over the whole earth. He will break all the rebellious nations and judge all the wicked, subjecting all who rebel. God will place everything under his feet.

    (I was reading Bruce Waltke recently – he observes that the Psalm most quoted by Jesus and the Apostles is Psalm 110. How often do *I* read that one?) One really big deal in Israel’s theology is that they were hauled off into exile… and this king never seemed to appear.

  3. Ironically, it’s not hard to see similar charges being laid against North American society on issues such as abortion, glamour magazines, corporate behaviour and the like… But of course it is monstrous to compare our government with theirs, because ours is just and theirs isn’t.
  4. See what beautiful rhetoric I use :-)  This phrase has a particular meaning found in the book of Judges. It means that people have lost touch with the knowledge and fear of the LORD and, as a consequence, unspeakable things are happening.
  5. See what beautiful rhetoric I use :-) Unspeakable things are happening. Observe the… ah… ‘careful’ treatment the media are giving the Jian Ghomeshi story. The allegations involved are so perverted and shameful that they cannot be discussed in public, even by the CBC, which, as my sister observes, has never embraced prudery.
  6. Eph 2:1-10
  7. This is a lie. We all partially want just government, but we mostly want our own government, one that indulges our own selfishness and pride. Evil is like this. We do want good things, but sadly we all want evil things more. Welcome to being human. John 3:19-21, 1 John 1:15-17 and James 4:1-3 are handy for shining light here.
  8. In Christian theology, these questions are barely sensical. Do we really want to engage in a giant measuring match of righteousness? Scripture addresses this kind of attitude and activity, quite unfavourably…
Posted in inthenews, thehumancondition, theology | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

What does it mean to have faith?

… welcome to a question I’ve been mulling over (struggling with?) for a while now. If anyone has any light to shine or stories to share, I’m all ears. I’d really like some feedback on this one…

There’s something that has always confused (bothered? disturbed?) me about how Christians talk about “believing” in Jesus. I’ve been wrestling with what it means to “believe” something for, oh, probably about ten years by now. But… it’s foggy in my mind, and I need help with it.

On the one hand, it’s never seemed quite right to me for ‘belief’ to mean “just professing something”… but, then again, it’s never seemed quite right for ‘belief’ to mean “100% doubt-free”. Otherwise, that means that if you have any doubt ever, you don’t believe.[want] But, doesn’t having faith, or believing, mean not doubting by definition?

If you pushed me to come down one way or the other, I think I would have to say that the belief that Jesus asks us for is absolute knowledge that he is Lord over all that is, the maker of all things and the judge of all men. Jesus wants us to take him as seriously as – nomore seriously than – the food we eat and the walls we walk around and the illnesses and deaths we face.

Of course, if I have this absolute knowledge, it means there’s just no room for any kind of fear, anxiety or rebellion… or any kind of garbage behaviour. Since I have all these in spades, what does it say about my belief? Can I rightly live in peace, knowing my belief falls as far short as it does?

One piece in the puzzle is that, if I reduce ‘belief’ to mentally agreeing with something, I can get away with both believing in Jesus and feeling afraid and rebellious all the time. After all, there’s no reasonable expectation that mental agreement with something should extend to my emotional life.[4] After all, isn’t faith letting your mind agree to something when you don’t feel like it?

This is tough like a rubber cookie.  The more I chew, the more my jaw hurts, but it still. won’t. crumble.

One way I’ve been trying to make sense of this is through the Old Testament. It seems to have a different perspective on the question of belief.

Reading the Old Testament, it makes sense that, while Jesus, Paul and others talk about ‘believing’, what they mean extends far, far beyond mental agreement. They are Hebrews, and what they are talking about has as much to do with faith and faithfulness as it does anything else. The Old Testament talks about faithfulness a lot, mostly with respect to God.

When the Old Testament talks about God as faithful it presents God as being unchangeable. Being dependable… established… trustworthy… stable… solid… always there. To be faithful, one must be not only gracious in character, but also established and permanent. Faithful things – large rocks… oak trees… God… are not easily blown over or moved because they have permanence and solidity.

To be a faithful person, then, means to demonstrate that same tenacity with regards to God – permanent belief regardless of circumstance.

Faith then becomes constant, repeated, obedience. Faith is faithful action – action that takes place because of belief. Those who are saved are those who, in the lives they live, demonstrate this faith. It doesn’t matter whether they lived before Abraham, (Abel? Enoch? Noah?) before Moses (Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Joseph?), before Jesus (David?) or at any time after (Paul?).

In this picture of faith, faith is rightly measured over a long period of time (a life!), and it doesn’t make sense to measure faith in just a moment. We may act faithfully within a moment, but if faith has an enduring quality, then faith can only be fully demonstrated through endurance. And… at the end, after the full distance, we will be judged.

In my mind there is a picture of a criminal, hanging in agony next to Jesus. He cries out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Is his faith false just because he is about to die? No! If he were given another day to live, would he spend it with Jesus? Yes… he would. Jesus looks at him and says, “You will spend your next day with me in Paradise.” It is not the length of time that proves his faith but rather the quality of it. Long or short is not the question. Enduring quality is the question, and if it is built in a single moment, its enduring quality is true nonetheless.

Now I take this picture of what it means to be faithful, what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ… my thinking changes.

It means that, for better or for worse, a single moment of belief does not necessarily constitute faith.

One disturbing thought is that even those who have really believed can fall away – if faith is enduring, then what does not endure is not real faith, even if there were moments or times of genuine belief. I am torn on this thought. If I reject it, it becomes very difficult to make sense of passages like 2 Peter 2:17-22[pet] or Philippians 3:8-16[phil], which seem quite clear in their intent. It also seems to clarify Hebrews 10 and the entire book of James. I would love to whitewash these passages and say, “They never really believed to begin with”, but these passages don’t seem to be saying that. They seem to be saying that there are those who both believed and fell away.

Scripture is quite clear that we are saved by our faith and judged according to our works.[sort]The faith that saves us is a faithful life lived out – which is rightly assessed when our lives are finished. This leaves us, like Paul, striving for the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We are running to finish the race we started and receive our reward. We are aware of the fact that if we don’t keep running, we will not finish , and so, we keep our eyes on God Who is Our Strength and who will carry us, with power beyond ourselves, to the end… if we act in faith and submit to him.

Of course, this thinking doesn’t really explain a “moment of salvation” or assurance of salvation well at all. But then a “moment of salvation” doesn’t really address some of the Scriptures listed above.

I am attracted to this thinking because it makes sense of how doubt can co-exist with faith in a real person’s life. It doesn’t have problems with the truth that, in every race, we can take steps back as well as forward. There are moments of doubt as well as moments of faith, and in the same way that a single moment of belief does not justify everything, a single moment of doubt does not wipe away everything.

Like I said, I’m really struggling on this one. Thoughts?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Of course, what I want more than anything is for there to be a place of no doubt whatsoever… and for me to be there.
  2. I know two plus two equals four, regardless of feeling. Most of the time.
  3. 17 These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. 18 For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. 19 They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves[a] of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. 20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” —ESV
  4. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

    12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. —ESV

  5. Sort this one out!!
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Confessions of a Gospel Tract Writer

Eat your heart out, Jack Chick.

A friend gave me a gospel tract the other day. We were at church; he was showing me some of the Christian materials he was using. He held the tract out for my perusal and I glanced over it. It was a pretty standard gospel tract with a simple gospel message, a sinner’s prayer, and a selection of well known verses. It seemed a little funny to me, though, and I allowed myself a little smile. Of course, the tract ought to be familiar to me – I wrote it.

About a year earlier, our church had held out an evangelism evening and I’d put together a one page reference to help a prayer counselor lead someone through the gospel.

My friend apparently had stumbled across a copy of this and taken it to a local mission organization, who had slapped a picture with a caption on the front (“There is more mercy in God than there are sins in us”) and a copy of the apostles creed on the back and voila! One Gospel tract.

I was now a proud tract author.

My first act as a published author was to cringe at the glaring typo on Step 6 of “The Simple Gospel”. The second was to frown at how jargony and cliched the language of the tract was. I had never asked where these gospel tracts came from or how they got written… but I guess now I know. They come from unsuspecting seminary students.

But most of all, I was greatly encouraged… which is the entire point of this post. I didn’t even know that I had written a tract, and yet here it was before me. A little thing I did had grown into a bigger thing and I realized that what we do can be important, even if we can’t see how or why. Of course, I wish I had written a perfect document with better language and no typos, but it was an encouragement to think that maybe, just maybe, the time I spent laying out God’s message in a simple, readable format might touch someone, somewhere, somehow.

This means, of course, that I have to be prudent in choosing when to mock gospel tracts and their authors. Oh, well. I guess fame has its costs. Thanks be to God.

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Andy Gullahorn

I am drowning in Real Life Busyness right now and all my wonderful blogdreams are not materializing. But I thought I’d throw something nice up.

I just found out about Andy Gullahorn – a tremendous songwriter. Maybe I like him so much because other (more famous) people sing his songs and he seems so humble about it. Maybe because his songs are great. How can you not love a songwriter who adapts Walt Wangerin Jr.?

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Please Michael, No

You did not just say that…

“I have nothing against her and in fact I’m very fond of my first wife,” he said, “but we should have ended that marriage eight or 10 years earlier”.

“It took me too long to realise that if you go to a marriage counsellor to resolve problems, it’s in his interest to keep the marriage going.”

The mind boggles at such a statement.

That marriage counselling racket, trying to resolve marital problems and keep people together… How dare they?

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The Beast – Part IV

I’m trying out a little game I thought up. The game is to retell a fairy tale or children’s story while omitting one of the major characters. In this one, beauty goes missing. Part IPart II. Part III. Part V comes next Sunday.

“A long time ago, a prince lived in the castle. He was an only child, and his parents spoiled him badly when he was young. He grew up thinking of no-one but himself, and whatever he did was only for his own pleasure.

“There was no one to correct him. The king and queen died when he was still a young man, and he was left alone to rule in the castle.

The soldier made an unhappy little sound. None of this seemed relevant to the town. The priest ignored him and went on.

“One night there was a terrible storm, with howling winds and biting rain and a black, black sky. In the middle of the storm, an old woman showed up at the door of the castle, seeking a place to escape the wind and rain.

“The prince, angered by the interruption, turned the old woman away. She begged and pleaded for him to have mercy, but his heart was hard and he would not listen. Finally, she turned away and went back into the storm. The prince went to bed and thought no more of it.

“In the middle of the night, the prince was woken by a crashing sound. He came down from his chamber and found that the castle door was flung wide open, the wind and the rain gusting in. The prince was furious at being woken in the middle of the night and upset at the rain coming in. At the very moment that he moved to close the door, however, a great flash of lightening struck, right on his  doorstep.

The soldier sat up. A prince, killed in an accident? This was worth paying attention to. A lordless town which others might want to claim? That could lead to burnt cottages and a fleeing population.

“The prince was flung backward on the ground, momentarily blinded by the flash. As he sat up…

The soldier sighed.

“… he saw a shining lady standing in the doorway. ‘I am a great fairy,’ she said.”

The soldier let loose a snort of disgust. A fairytale.

“But you’re a priest,” he said, “you don’t believe in that stuff.”

“Well, that depends on what you mean by ‘believe in’, and by ‘that’ and by ‘stuff'” the priest murmured, almost to himself. “Do you want to hear the story, or not?”

The soldier was not at all sure he wanted to waste his time on a fairytale, but as there was not much else he could do, he merely grumbled a bit and was quiet.

“‘I am a great fairy.” the lady said. ‘This very night, I came to you for shelter, and you refused. It was not a great thing, and yet when I begged you for mercy and for compassion, you thought only of your own self and your own comfort.’ This confused the prince. He was so self-centred that he had already forgotten that there had been an old woman earlier that same night.

“‘Only a beast thinks of nothing but itself and of its own welfare’ declared the fairy. ‘A beast you are, and a beast you shall be, until you can learn to love someone outside yourself.’

“The prince felt a horrible energy come all over him. It made him shudder and writhe against his own will; he looked down at his hands and saw that they were not hands, but paws. The prince screamed, but it was not a scream. It was a screeching howl. When he looked back up, the fairy was gone… and he was left a terrifying beast.”

The soldier, in spite of himself, was captivated.

“And?” he said.

The priest shrugged. “He became a beast.” he said. “That is the story as they tell it here.”

“But only until he could learn to love someone other than himself, ” the soldier argued. “How did he come to turn back into a human?”

“Turn back? What makes you think he turned back into a human?”

“But…”

The soldier struggled. It seemed that the prince must turn back into a human again, however it might happen. The thought of a man turned beast forever bothered him. It wasn’t right, somehow.

Then he realized he was upsetting himself over a fairy tale.

“It’s all nonsense,” he said, and as he did, another thought struck him.

“This castle,” he said. “It is deserted?”

“None of the townsfolk dare go there, ” said the priest. “I’ve never been there myself, though it’s not far from here, just up the road to the north. Is it deserted? The townsfolk say that the beast lives there.”

The soldier was thinking. Obviously there was no lord. If the townsfolk were frightened to go, then it must be deserted.

“I see, I see.” And then, casually, “Much banditry around here? Brigands, highwaymen?”

“No, not around here. Sometimes they come. They never stay for long.” The priest was looking intently at the soldier again. It made the soldier most uncomfortable; the round face was vibrant, it seemed so full of life and energy that when it looked with intent, the soldier was overwhelmed by the sheer force of it. The soldier looked away.

“You’re not thinking of going there?” The priest’s voice had a warning tone rather than a fearful one. “I wouldn’t recommend that. It’s not a good idea.”

The soldier thought that it was a very good idea. A deserted castle and the townspeople kept away by superstition, no robbers to take over the place… There could be anything there. Locked storerooms filled with… he would just have to go and see. Just up the northern road,  eh?

His little voices were speaking now, reminding him of ghostly footsteps. The soldier ignored them. Footsteps, indeed. Here was a silly superstitious town with a foolish fat priest who spent his time peddling fairy tales. There could be gold in this, maybe even something better. He glanced in the corner where his musket and boots rested. They had carried him through far worse places than an empty castle.

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