Category Archives: understanding

Letter 54: Enthusiasm and Gnosticism

Back in the 1980’s, my parents were supporters of Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL ministries.  As a matter of fact we stayed at the Bakker’s Heritage USA site twice, enjoying the waterpark and attending tapings of the PTL Club.  I even appeared in one of the camera pans across the audience.  It seemed wonderful, magical, and just a little false.

It as built out in the middle of nowhere, and while there was a drought on, the managed to keep the waterpark going and water all of the plants at the facility.  It was a place humming with excitement, as there always was another project to build for, and of course to raise money for.  It struck my teenaged brain as odd that they never seemed to finish a project before launching into the next one.

It became easy to lampoon the Bakkers, especially once their ministry collapsed amid according irregularities and sordid tales of sex.  This is why I found the below article so fascinating, by placing them within the arc of the American religious experience, and our strong temptation to Gnosticism.

Most of this follows from the uniquely American solution the problem of competing religious faiths: privatization. By making religious truth a matter for individual conscience, we cut out a cause for civic strife, but we also placed the center of all knowledge within ourselves. We chose what was right and wrong. And this narrative structure has come to dominate American thinking about religion and ideas in general. We seek conversion, rejecting whatever surrounded us before, and making a definite commitment, preferably throwing off the “shackles” of the past.

The strong emphasis on a personal encounter with God, a core element of both Puritanism and Evangelicalism, grounded in a well of experience, is a powerful story.  But these all revolve around the self. Without a sense of sin and it’s effects, it is all too easy to name ourselves as the arbiter of God.  Spiritual growth becomes self improvement.  Unleash the power within.  Master the secrets and become like God.  The sin of Adam and Even becomes the fulfillment of the truth within.

“The heart is deceitful more than anything else, and it is disastrous. Who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9 (LEB)

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker: A Scandal of the Self

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Filed under authority, Christianity, false gospel, Gnosticism, Holy Spirit, Self Help, Spiritual Gifts, understanding

Letter 52: Christmas Is Scary

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
    foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
    they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
    and in their glory you shall boast.
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
    instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
    they shall have everlasting joy.

Isaiah 61:1-7 (ESV)

This was amongst the readings this year in our Advent devotional.  I’ve read it many times before, as part of our Christmas preparations.  This year, a phrase from verse two burst from the page.  In all my years of hearing or reading this passage, I had never seen it before: to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God.

This is not an aspect of the Christmas story I’m used to hearing.  It is hard, after all, picturing the traditional image of the Infant in the manger with the vengeance of God.  But it is there.  In fact, as we continued with our readings, I kept finding that undercurrent of danger popping up.  Do we know what we are proclaiming?

The one response that seems to have gripped everyone that first Christmas is fear.  No one comes away unscathed.

The Old Testament prophets looked upon the coming of a Messiah with hope, but also an acute awareness that God’s people had all to often blown it.  Messiah is an answer to prayer, as well as a rebuke.

Zechariah is struck dumb, which created no small problem for him as a priest.  (Luke 1:18-22)  Priests after all, were to represent the people before God, which required speaking words.  He could no longer serve, until he affirmed the instructions God had given him.  Mary, too, is troubled.  The world did not take kindly to unwed mothers, and she would have to endure the rigors of her pregnancy largely alone.  Her body is literally taken over by God, swelling day by day.  (Luke 1:29)

Joseph alone seems to have borne the news with something like equanimity, but of course the risks were pretty obvious.  He’s told to marry a woman suspiciously pregnant, and assume parentage over a child of dodgy origins, sacrificing his dreams and business for promise, one he will never see fulfilled.

The angels are terrifying.  Our romantic Victorian imagery doesn’t do them justice.  Why are they so scary?  What are we trying to hide with our iconography?

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) riffs on these theme, and reveals why Christmas is so scary.  God regards the poor and humble, and remembers his covenant with Israel. He scatters, He tears down, and lifts up, echoing Isaiah 40:4.  What is this describing but an earthquake?  The hungry are filled, but the well-to-do are sent away empty.  What if we are deemed rich?

That is the scary thing.  We do not know, and the coming Messiah promises to expose all things (Luke 2:35).  Paul speaks of God as a fire that will burn through our lives and deeds, stripping away the chaff with which we surround ourselves, laying bare our essence.

Traditionally, Advent was time for the Church to look ahead to the Second Coming, having just celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, even as it was looking back toward Christ’s First Coming.  I think they caught that sense of danger in his Coming, that God is out to judge both his friends and our enemies, even as He brings peace, hope and healing.  May we recover something of that this holiday season.

Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

The dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears;
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture,
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
high on thy eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
claim the kingdom for thine own.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Everlasting God, come down!

  • Charles Wesley

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Letter 50: With a Shine on Your Shoes

shoe-shine-

Last week, I decided to polish my shoes.  It has been a long time since I last did so, and it’s important to keep them polished.  They last longer that way.  It was one of the odd rituals of manhood instilled in me by my father.  I can remember helping him polish his shoes as a child.  He had a wooden shoe-shine box where he kept the supplies.  The handle doubled as a stand for the shoe.  Eventually as I kept my shoes longer, he showed me how to polish my own.

First, remove all visible dirt and debris with a soft brush, then apply the polish.  Wait a few minutes and then buff.  Repeat for additional shine.  For added protection and moisturizing, I learned to apply mink oil, which gave my shoes a glossy shine.  Once complete, take satisfaction in a job well done.

The message was clear, as a man, you take care of your possessions and your appearance.  Learn to sew buttons, darn socks, even hem trousers.  I have now owned the same pair of penny loafers for thirty years.  If you look closely, you’ll know that they’ve been re-soled and re-heeled, but that’s the only real sign of their age.

But it’s getting to be more of a challenge.  The last time I had my shoes worked on, I had to use a local dry-cleaner, as there are no cobblers in my area.  The same seems to apply to tailors.  Perhaps this is why people dress up so infrequently these days.  There is something about wearing a suit tailored to your frame.  Clothes off the rack have an element of shapelessness to them.  But then, we live in a shapeless age.

It may seem strange to you to find a reflection on something as prosaic as shoe polishing with all of the screaming headlines demanding our action and attention.  Perhaps, but I would submit that the discipline of keeping your shoes polished builds a frame of mind and character, badly needed.  We would all do well to take care of those things entrusted tour custody, to minimize waste, and to present ourselves at our best, not merely for our own sake, but as a measure of respect due to others.

He that is faithful in the least, he is also faithful in much: and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much. If then ye have not been faithful in the wicked riches, who will trust you in the true treasure? And if ye have not been faithful in another man’s goods, who shall give you that which is yours?”  Luke 16: 10-12 (Geneva)

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Letter 47: To L- What I Cannot Say Sunday

I am writing you now ahead of our meeting because I doubt I will get a chance to say much to you privately, and much of what I want to say will not fit the sort of things I expect will be said at that time.  You will hear much about faith, and God’s promises, and God’s power, and God’s love, but very little of His mystery.

I have no idea what it’s like to have your disease, nor do I know you well enough to guess what you might be thinking.  I do know suffering, however.  I have battled what I now know to be Depression for much of my life.  It can manifest itself as bouts of fear and anxiety, but mostly it is just a slow dripping faucet of inner gloom.  There have been times when the sense of pain has been overwhelming.  I would like to say that I prayed and it ended, but it didn’t.  This appears to be something I am going to have to live with, and some days I do better with it than others.

I believe God can and does heal, but not always.  Too many people I’ve prayed for have not gotten well for me to say otherwise.

When I was a teenager, a girl in your youth group was diagnosed with cancer.  We prayed, hard.  We prayed in tongues as well as in English.  Within the fashions of the time, we did everything we were supposed to do, and yet she died.  That has stayed with me all these years.  Nothing was said about it afterwards.  The church had put in all this effort and energy, and when it did not yield the desired results, we dropped it and walked away as if nothing had happened.

It doesn’t fit with our message.  We want success, and success is healing.  We are told to pray in faith, to pray in tongues, to pray out loud– as an aside, have you ever noticed that most guides to prayer get down to “How to Get What You Want From God”?  Jesus Himself tells us to pray constantly, to batter Heaven with our request.  Yet He also tells us there is no need for endless repetition, and that faith the size of a mustard seed will prevail.  I’m not sure which one applies.

This is not a new problem, of course.  When you get to your required philosophy course in college, and I hope you take one, you will learn that it goes by the name, “The Problem of Evil.”  “If God is all-powerful and all-good, why does evil occur?”  This is one of the central questions of the Job.  If you re-read it, you’ll notice God never answers Job’s question about why all of this happened to him.  Yet Job ends the book satisfied.  He has seen God, and that was enough.

We’re supposed to be cheerful and confident under such trying circumstances, but I want to assure you that it’s okay if you’re not.  I can even understand if you want to tell off God.  I have, on occasion.  He’s big enough to handle it.  It’s interesting that for all his complaints to God, God does not rebuke Job.  God does, however, rebuke Job’s friends for their efforts to defend God.  Take comfort from this in the trying times.

All of this is a very long way of saying that I will be praying for your healing Sunday, as I have been for some time, but I will also be praying that He will strengthen you, and open you up to His mystery.

From your work in television, you know that the characters on screen are to carry on unaware that there is a soundstage enveloping them.  They are in the moment of their story, and the goings on outside of that are hidden from them.  So it is with us.

God means to build saints, and there is a whole story going on to achieve this that lies just outside our vision.  Much of it will make little sense until we reach our journey’s end.  We have Christ as our Guide and token, He who died to rise again and prepare a place for us where there shall be no more tears and no more night.

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Letter 45: Cupcakes and Wide Phylactories

Yesterday was my wife’s birthday, and I took it upon myself to bake her birthday cupcakes.  I like to bake, and I have even begun to venture into the world of baking from scratch.  But that applies only to things I am quite familiar with, bread and cookies.  From long experience with packaged mixes, I know roughly what I want, and what to look for.  But cakes remain a terra incognita of sorts, and so I entrust myself to the wisdom and industrial science of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines.

But it was not merely a boxed mix.  It appealed to our higher aspirations.  It contained special frosting mix and a genuine icing bag to use in frosting the cupcakes.  My efforts at laying on frosting have been less than successful, but armed with such tools and directions, I had hopes that I, too, could create a confection worthy of the finest bake shops.

My efforts yielded some perfectly ordinary cupcakes.  It took me until my fourth cupcake to apply the frosting so that it completely covered the cupcake with one go.  In the end, some did not get frosting at all, but I had my one cupcake to properly decorate and present to my wife replete with candles.  I was pretty pleased with how it turned out, because I wanted to do something nice for her.  Before I brought it in to her, I took a picture.

And therein lies the trouble.  I wanted to post the picture to Facebook, that repository of the odd effects of our lives.  So in part, my motivation for posting the photograph was to show how we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, sharing a bit of our loves with family and friends.  But I wanted something too.

At first, I was going to introduce the picture apologizing that it was not on par with the work of a cousin who is a professional baker.  That would shift the focus from celebrating my wife’s birthday to the cupcake.  Worse, it would make the present of the cupcake to be less than what it was.  No, I could not say that, so off those words went into the ether.

But I could not let go of the desire for people to admire my cupcake, and, by implication, me.  So I tried another tack, attempting to describe my labors as producing something worthy of my wife.  Again, this subtly shifted the focus.   “Please look at my cupcake, and sing my praises for making it.”  A voice cleared in my head.  This would not do.  The focus and the point must be about my wife.  So I simply wrote, “Happy Birthday Dear,” and left it at that.

All of this took little more than a minute in the privacy of my mind.  It seems somewhat contradictory sharing it here, as if trying to draw attention to my virtue.  But I do offer this because I really wanted people to tell me what a wonderful cupcake I had made.  It speaks of the vanity that is in us all, sometimes masquerading as a sense of emptiness that needs filling, and brings me to the point I want to make.

In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul tells us, “Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. That is why God has now lifted him so high, and has given him the name beyond all names, so that at the name of Jesus “every knee shall bow”, whether in Heaven or earth or under the earth. And that is why, in the end, “every tongue shall confess” that Jesus Christ” is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phillips, emphasis mine)

I’m wondering if that is what is meant by “carrying our cross.”  It wasn’t so much that Jesus suffered, though He certainly did.  It is more a sense of forgetting of self, not, as I often do, because of a sense of self-negation and an earnest desire for approval.  Rather, Jesus so thoroughly full of Himself, and understood Himself completely, that there was no need to pay attention to Himself in that way.  The usual ups and downs that so assail us in no way changed who He was.  Secure in that, He could, and did, do anything, and underwent the slings of outrageous fortune in no way changed the fact that Jesus was God, even if no one else chose to recognize Him as such.

As we close out the year, this episode brought to mind that I should work on cultivating that same sense of self-forgetfulness.  That no one will have to ask if the cupcake was good, because the focus is on the recipient, where it belongs.

st-augustine-reading

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Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

The tyranny of hyper-spirituality our church culture had foisted on us set us up for disappointment because it held up religious experiences as the means of God’s grace, rather than the finished work of the cross.

Source: Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

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The Helmholtz Resonance

Oh Lord, how true. I get so caught up on whether I am full or not. I am empty, and compared to You, always empty. Fill me, flow through me…..

The Jagged Word

By Ross Engel

It should be no surprise to you, our intrepid readers, that the authors here at Jagged Word do occasionally enjoy beverages that come out of bottles. Water, Wine, Whiskey, Beer. If it can be bottled, we tend to like it. And it is safe to say that we all have our favorites—our go to beverages of choice.

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